The Quest of the Silver Fleece by W. E. B. Du Bois - HTML preview
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The rain was sweeping down in great thick winding sheets. The wind screamed in the ancient Cresswell oaks and swirled across the swamp in loud, wild gusts. The waters roared and gurgled in the streams, and along the roadside. Then, when the wind fell murmuring away, the clouds grew blacker and blacker and rain in long slim columns fell straight from Heaven to earth digging itself into the land and throwing back the red mud in angry flashes.
So it rained for one long week, and so for seven endless days Bles watched it with leaden heart. He knew the Silver Fleece—his and Zora's—must be ruined. It was the first great sorrow of his life; it was not so much the loss of the cotton itself—but the fantasy, the hopes, the dreams built around it. If it failed, would not they fail? Was not this angry beating rain, this dull spiritless drizzle, this wild war of air and earth, but foretaste and prophecy of ruin and discouragement, of the utter futility of striving? But if his own despair was great his pain at the plight of Zora made it almost unbearable. He did not see her in these seven days. He pictured her huddled there in the swamp in the cheerless leaky cabin with worse than no companions. Ah! the swamp, the cruel swamp! It was a fearful place in the rain. Its oozing mud and fetid vapors, its clinging slimy draperies,— how they twined about the bones of its victims and chilled their hearts. Yet here his Zora,—his poor disappointed child—was imprisoned.
Child? He had always called her child—but now in the inward illumination of these dark days he knew her as neither child nor sister nor friend, but as the One Woman. The revelation of his love lighted and brightened slowly till it flamed like a sunrise over him and left him in burning wonder. He panted to know if she, too, knew, or knew and cared not, or cared and knew not. She was so strange and human a creature. To her all things meant something—nothing was aimless, nothing merely happened. Was this rain beating down and back her love for him, or had she never loved? He walked his room, gripping his hands, peering through the misty windows toward the swamp—rain, rain, rain, nothing but rain. The world was water veiled in mists.
Then of a sudden, at midday, the sun shot out, hot and still; no breath of air stirred; the sky was like blue steel; the earth steamed. Bles rushed to the edge of the swamp and stood there irresolute. Perhaps—if the water had but drained from the cotton!—it was so strong and tall! But, pshaw! Where was the use of imagining? The lagoon had been level with the dykes a week ago; and now? He could almost see the beautiful Silver Fleece, bedraggled, drowned, and rolling beneath the black lake of slime. He went back to his work, but early in the morning the thought of it lured him again. He must at least see the grave of his hope and Zora's, and out of it resurrect new love and strength.
Perhaps she, too, might be there, waiting, weeping. He started at the thought. He hurried forth sadly. The rain-drops were still dripping and gleaming from the trees, flashing back the heavy yellow sunlight. He splashed and stamped along, farther and farther onwarduntil he neared the rampart of the clearing, and put foot upon the tree-bridge. Then he looked down. The lagoon was dry. He stood a moment bewildered, then turned and rushed upon the island. A great sheet of dazzling sunlight swept the place, and beneath lay a mighty mass of olive green, thick, tall, wet, and willowy. The squares of cotton,
sharp-edged, heavy, were just about to burst to bolls! And underneath, the land lay carefully drained and black! For one long moment he paused, stupid, agape with utter amazement, then leaned dizzily against a tree.
The swamp, the eternal swamp, had been drained in its deepest fastness; but, how?— how? He gazed about, perplexed, astonished. What a field of cotton! what a marvellous field! But how had it been saved?
He skirted the island slowly, stopping near Zora's oak. Here lay the reading of the riddle: with infinite work and pain, some one had dug a canal from the lagoon to the creek, into which the former had drained by a long and crooked way, thus allowing it to empty directly. The canal went straight, a hundred yards through stubborn soil, and it was oozing now with slimy waters.
He sat down weak, bewildered, and one thought was uppermost—Zora! And with the thought came a low moan of pain. He wheeled and leapt toward the dripping shelter in the tree. There she lay—wet, bedraggled, motionless, gray-pallid beneath her dark-drawn skin, her burning eyes searching restlessly for some lost thing, her lips a-moaning.
In dumb despair he dropped beside her and gathered her in his arms. The earth staggered beneath him as he stumbled on; the mud splashed and sunlight glistened; he saw long snakes slithering across his path and fear-struck beasts fleeing before his coming. He paused for neither path nor way but went straight for the school, running in mighty strides, yet gently, listening to the moans that struck death upon his heart. Once he fell headlong, but with a great wrench held her from harm, and minded not the pain that shot through his ribs. The yellow sunshine beat fiercely around and upon him, as he stumbled into the highway, lurched across the mud-strewn road, and panted up the porch.
"Miss Smith—!" he gasped, and then—darkness.
The years of the days of her dying were ten. The boy that entered the darkness and the shadow of death emerged a man, a silent man and grave, working furiously and haunting, day and night, the little window above the door. At last, of one gray morning when the earth was stillest, they came and told him, "She will live!" And he went out under the stars, lifted his long arms and sobbed: "Curse me, O God, if I let me lose her again!" And God remembered this in after years.
The hope and dream of harvest was upon the land. The cotton crop was short and poor because of the great rain; but the sun had saved the best, and the price had soared. So the world was happy, and the face of the black-belt green and luxuriant with thickening flecks of the coming foam of the cotton.Up in the sick room Zora lay on the little white bed. The net and web of endless things had been crawling and creeping around her; she had struggled in dumb, speechless terror against some mighty grasping that strove for her life, with gnarled and creeping fingers; but now at last, weakly, she opened her eyes and questioned.
Bles, where was he? The Silver Fleece, how was it? The Sun, the Swamp? Then finding all well, she closed her eyes and slept. After some days they let her sit by the window, and she saw Bles pass, but drew back timidly when he looked; and he saw only the flutter of her gown, and waved.
At last there came a day when they let her walk down to the porch, and she felt the flickering of her strength again. Yet she looked different; her buxom comeliness was spiritualized; her face looked smaller, and her masses of hair, brought low about her ears, heightened her ghostly beauty; her skin was darkly transparent, and her eyes looked out from velvet veils of gloom. For a while she lay in her chair, in happy, dreamy pleasure at sun and bird and tree. Bles did not know yet that she was down; but soon he would come searching, for he came each hour, and she pressed her little hands against her breast to still the beating of her heart and the bursting wonder of her love.
Then suddenly a panic seized her. He must not find her here—not here; there was but one place in all the earth for them to meet, and that was yonder in the Silver Fleece. She rose with a fleeting glance, gathered the shawl round her, then gliding forward, wavering, tremulous, slipped across the road and into the swamp. The dark mystery of the Swamp swept over her; the place was hers. She had been born within its borders; within its borders she had lived and grown, and within its borders she had met her love. On she hurried until, sweeping down to the lagoon and the island, lo! the cotton lay before her! A great white foam was spread upon its brown and green; the whole field was waving and shivering in the sunlight. A low cry of pleasure burst from her lips; she forgot her weakness, and picking her way across the bridge, stood still amid the cotton that nestled about her shoulders, clasping it lovingly in her hands.
He heard that she was down-stairs and ran to meet her with beating heart. The chair was empty; but he knew. There was but one place then for these two souls to meet. Yet it was far, and he feared, and ran with startled eyes.
She stood on the island, ethereal, splendid, like some tall, dark, and gorgeous flower of the storied East. The green and white of the cotton billowed and foamed about her breasts; the red scarf burned upon her neck; the dark brown velvet of her skin pulsed warm and tremulous with the uprushing blood, and in the midnight depths of her great eyes flamed the mighty fires of long-concealed and new-born love.
He darted through the trees and paused, a tall man strongly but slimly made. He threw up his hands in the old way and hallooed; happily she crooned back a low mother-melody, and waited. He came down to her slowly, with fixed, hungry eyes, threading his way amid the Fleece. She did not move, but lifted both her dark hands, white with cotton; andthen, as he came, casting it suddenly to the winds, in tears and laughter she swayed and dropped quivering in his arms. And all the world was sunshine and peace.