The Quest of the Silver Fleece by W. E. B. Du Bois - HTML preview

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Twenty-two: Miss Caroline Wynn

 

Bles Alwyn was seated in the anteroom of Senator Smith's office in Washington. The Senator had not come in yet, and there were others waiting, too.

The young man sat in a corner, dreaming. Washington was his first great city, and it seemed a never-ending delight—the streets, the buildings, the crowds; the shops, and lights, and noise; the kaleidoscopic panorama of a world's doing, the myriad forms and faces, the talk and laughter of men. It was all wonderful magic to the country boy, and he stretched his arms and filled his lungs and cried: "Here I shall live!"

Especially was he attracted by his own people. They seemed transformed, revivified, changed. Some might be mistaken for field hands on a holiday—but not many. Others he did not recognize—they seemed strange and alien—sharper, quicker, and at once more overbearing and more unscrupulous.

There were yet others—and at the sight of these Bles stood straighter and breathed like a man. They were well dressed, and well appearing men and women, who walked upright and looked one in the eye, and seemed like persons of affairs and money. They had arrived—they were men—they filled his mind's ideal—he felt like going up to them and grasping their hands and saying, "At last, brother!" Ah, it was good to find one's dreams, walking in the light, in flesh and blood. Continually such thoughts were surging through his brain, and they were rioting through it again as he sat waiting in Senator Smith's office.

The Senator was late this morning; when he came in he glanced at the morning paper before looking over his mail and the list of his callers. "Do fools like the American people deserve salvation?" he sneered, holding off the headlines and glancing at them.

"'League Beats Trust.' ... 'Farmers of South Smash Effort to Bear Market ... Send Cotton to Twelve Cents ... Common People Triumph.'

"A man is induced to bite off his own nose and then to sing a pæan of victory. It's nauseating—senseless. There is no earthly use striving for such blockheads; they'd crucify any Saviour." Thus half consciously Senator Smith salved his conscience, while he extracted a certificate of deposit for fifty thousand dollars from his New York mail. He thrust it aside from his secretary's view and looked at his list as he rang the bell: there was Representative Todd, and somebody named Alwyn—nobody of importance. Easterly was due in a half-hour. He would get rid of Todd meantime.

"Poor Todd," he mused; "a lamb for the slaughter."

But he patiently listened to him plead for party support and influence for his bill to prohibit gambling in futures."I was warned that it was useless to see you, Senator Smith, but I would come. I believe in you. Frankly, there is a strong group of your old friends and followers forming against you; they met only last night, but I did not go. Won't you take a stand on some of these progressive matters—this bill, or the Child Labor movement, or Low Tariff legislation?"

Mr. Smith listened but shook his head.

"When the time comes," he announced deliberately, "I shall have something to say on several of these matters. At present I can only say that I cannot support this bill," and Mr. Todd was ushered out. He met Mr. Easterly coming in and greeted him effusively. He knew him only as a rich philanthropist, who had helped the Neighborhood Guild in Washington—one of Todd's hobbies.

Easterly greeted Smith quietly. "Got my letter?"

"Yes."

"Here are the three bills. You will go on the Finance Committee tomorrow; Sumdrich is chairman by courtesy, but you'll have the real power. Put the Child Labor Bill first, and we'll work the press. The Tariff will take most of the session, of course. We'll put the cotton inspection bill through in the last days of the session—see? I'm manoeuvring to get the Southern Congressmen into line.... Oh, one thing. Thompson says he's a little worried about the Negroes; says there's something more than froth in the talk of a bolt in the Northern Negro vote. We may have to give them a little extra money and a few more minor offices than usual. Talk with Thompson; the Negroes are sweet on you and he's going to be the new chairman of the campaign, you know. Ever met him?"

"Yes."

"Well—so long."

"Just a moment," the statesman stayed the financier.

"Todd just let fall something of a combination against us in Congress—know anything of it?"

"Not definitely; I heard some rumors. Better see if you can run it down. Well, I must hurry—good day."

While Bles Alwyn in the outer office was waiting and musing, a lady came in. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the curve of her gown, and as she seated herself beside him, the suggestion of a faint perfume. A vague resentment rose in him. Colored women would look as well as that, he argued, with the clothes and wealth and training. He paused, however, in his thought: he did not want them like the whites—so cold andformal and precise, without heart or marrow. He started up, for the secretary was speaking to him.

"Are you the—er—the man who had a letter to the Senator?"

"Yes, sir."

"Let me see it. Oh, yes—he will see you in a moment."

Bles was returning the letter to his pocket when he heard a voice almost at his ear. "I beg your pardon—"

He turned and started. It was the lady next to him, and she was colored! Not extremely colored, but undoubtedly colored, with waving black hair, light brown skin, and the fuller facial curving of the darker world. And yet Bles was surprised, for everything else about her—her voice, her bearing, the set of her gown, her gloves and shoes, the whole impression was—Bles hesitated for a word—well, "white."

"Yes—yes, ma'am," he stammered, becoming suddenly conscious that the lady had now a second time asked him if he was acquainted with Senator Smith. "That is, ma'am,"—why was he saying "ma'am," like a child or a servant?—"I know his sister and have a letter for him."

"Do you live in Washington?" she inquired.

"No—but I want to. I've been trying to get in as a clerk, and I haven't succeeded yet. That's what I'm going to see Senator Smith about."

"Have you had the civil-service examinations?"

"Yes. I made ninety-three in the examination for a treasury clerkship."

"And no appointment? I see—they are not partial to us there."

Bles was glad to hear her say "us." She continued after a pause:

"May I venture to ask a favor of you?"

"Certainly," he responded.

"My name is Wynn," lowering her voice slightly and leaning toward him. "There are so many ahead of me and I am in a hurry to get to my school; but I must see the Senator—couldn't I go in with you? I think I might be of service in this matter of the examination, and then perhaps I'd get a chance to say a word for myself."

"I'd be very glad to have you come," said Bles, cordially.

The secretary hesitated a little when the two started in, but Miss Wynn's air was so quietly assured that he yielded.

Senator Smith looked at the tall, straight black man with his smooth skin and frank eyes. And for a second time that morning a vision of his own youth dimmed his eyes. But he spoke coldly:

"Mr. Alwyn, I believe."

"Yes, sir."

"And—"

"My friend, Miss Wynn."

The Senator glanced at Miss Wynn and she bowed demurely. Then he turned to Alwyn. "Well, Mr. Alwyn, Washington is a bad place to start in the world."

Bles looked surprised and incredulous. He could conceive of no finer starting-place, but he said nothing.

"It is a grave," continued the Senator, "of ambitions and ideals. You would far better go back to Alabama"—pausing and looking at the young man keenly—"but you won't—you won't—not yet, at any rate." And Bles shook his head slowly.

"No—well, what can I do for you?"

"I want work—I'll do anything."

"No, you'll do one thing—be a clerk, and then if you have the right stuff in you you will throw up that job in a year and start again."

"I'd like at least to try it, sir."

"Well, I can't help you much there; that's in civil-service, and you must take the examination."

"I have, sir."

"So? Where, and what mark?"

"In the Treasury Department; I got a mark of ninety-three."

"What!—and no appointment?" The Senator was incredulous. "No, sir; not yet."

Here Miss Wynn interposed.

"You see, Senator," she said, "civil-service rules are not always impervious to race prejudice."

The Senator frowned.

"Do you mean to intimate that Mr. Alwyn's appointment is held up because he is colored?"

"I do."

"Well—well!" The Senator rang for a clerk. "Get me the Treasury on the telephone."

In a moment the bell rang.

"I want Mr. Cole. Is that you, Mr. Cole? Good-morning. Have you a young man named Alwyn on your eligible list? What? Yes?" A pause. "Indeed? Well, why has he no appointment? Of course, I know, he's a Negro. Yes, I desire it very much—thank you."

"You'll get an appointment to-morrow morning," and the Senator rose. "How is my sister?" he asked absently.

"She was looking worried, but hopeful of the new endowment when I left." The Senator held out his hand; Bles took it and then remembered.

"Oh, I beg pardon, but Miss Wynn wanted a word on another matter." The Senator turned to Miss Wynn.

"I am a school-teacher, Senator Smith, and like all the rest of us I am deeply interested in the appointment of the new school-board."

"But you know the district committee attends to those things," said the Senator hastily. "And then, too, I believe there is talk of abolishing the school-board and concentrating power in the hands of the superintendent."

"Precisely," said Miss Wynn. "And I came to tell you, Senator Smith, that the interests which are back of this attack upon the schools are no friends of yours." Miss Wynn extracted from her reticule a typewritten paper.

He took the paper and read it intently. Then he keenly scrutinized the young woman, and she steadily returned his regard.

"How am I to know this is true?"

"Follow it up and see."

He mused.

"Where did you get these facts?" he asked suddenly. She smiled.

"It is hardly necessary to say."

"And yet," he persisted, "if I were sure of its source I would know my ground better and—my obligation to you would be greater."

She laughed and glanced toward Alwyn. He had moved out of earshot and was waiting by the window.

"I am a teacher in the M Street High School," she said, "and we have some intelligent boys there who work their way through."

"Yes," said the Senator.

"Some," continued Miss Wynn, tapping her boot on the carpet, "some—wait on table." The Senator slowly put the paper in his pocket.

"And now," he said, "Miss Wynn, what can I do for you?" She looked at him.

"If Judge Haynes is reappointed to the school-board I shall probably continue to teach in the M Street High School," she said slowly.

The Senator made a memorandum and said:

"I shall not forget Miss Wynn—nor her friends." And he bowed, glancing at Alwyn.The woman contemplated Bles in momentary perplexity, then bowing in turn, left. Bles followed, debating just what he ought to say, how far he might venture to accompany her, what—but she easily settled it all.

"I thank you—good-bye," she said briefly at the door, and was gone. Bles did not know whether to feel relieved or provoked, or disappointed, and by way of compromise felt something of all three.

The next morning he received notice of his appointment to a clerkship in the Treasury Department, at a salary of nine hundred dollars. The sum seemed fabulous and he was in the seventh heaven. For many days the consciousness of wealth, the new duties, the street scenes, and the city life kept him more than busy. He planned to study, and arranged with a professor at Howard University to guide him. He bought an armful of books and a desk, and plunged desperately to work.

Gradually as he became used to the office routine, and in the hours when he was weary of study, he began to find time hanging a little heavily on his hands; indeed—although he would not acknowledge it—he was getting lonesome, homesick, amid the myriad men of a busy city. He argued to himself that this was absurd, and yet he knew that he was longing for human companionship. When he looked about him for fellowship he found himself in a strange dilemma: those black folk in whom he recognized the old sweet- tempered Negro traits, had also looser, uglier manners than he was accustomed to, from which he shrank. The upper classes of Negroes, on the other hand, he still observed from afar; they were strangers not only in acquaintance but because of a curious coldness and aloofness that made them cease to seem his own kind; they seemed almost at times like black white people—strangers in way and thought.

He tried to shake off this feeling but it clung, and at last in sheer desperation, he promised to go out of a night with a fellow clerk who rather boasted of the "people" he knew. He was soon tired of the strange company, and had turned to go home, when he met a newcomer in the doorway.

"Why, hello, Sam! Sam Stillings!" he exclaimed delightedly, and was soon grasping the hand of a slim, well-dressed man of perhaps thirty, with yellow face, curling hair, and shifting eyes.

"Well, of all things, Bles—er—ah—Mr. Alwyn! Thought you were hoeing cotton."

Bles laughed and continued shaking his head. He was foolishly glad to see the former Cresswell butler, whom he had known but slightly. His face brought back unuttered things that made his heart beat faster and a yearning surge within him.

"I thought you went to Chicago," cried Bles.

"I did, but goin' into politics—having entered the political field, I came here. And you graduated, I suppose, and all that?"

"No," Bless admitted a little sadly, as he told of his coming north, and of Senator Smith's influence. "But—but how are—all?"

Abruptly Sam hooked his arm into Alwyn's and pulled him with him down the street. Stillings was a type. Up from servility and menial service he was struggling to climb to money and power. He was shrewd, willing to stoop to anything in order to win. The very slights and humiliations of prejudice he turned to his advantage. When he learned all the particulars of Alwyn's visit to Senator Smith and his cordial reception he judged it best to keep in touch with this young man, and he forthwith invited Bles to accompany him the next night to the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church.

"You'll find the best people there," he said; "the aristocracy. The Treble Clef gives a concert, and everybody that's anybody will be there."

They met again the following evening and proceeded to the church. It was a simple but pleasant auditorium, nearly filled with well-dressed people. During the programme Bles applauded vociferously every number that pleased him, which is to say, every one—and stamped his feet, until he realized that he was attracting considerable attention to himself. Then the entertainment straightway lost all its charm; he grew painfully embarrassed, and for the remainder of the evening was awkwardly self-conscious. When all was over, the audience rose leisurely and stood in little knots and eddies, laughing and talking; many moved forward to say a word to the singers and players, Stillings stepped aside to a group of men, and Bles was left miserably alone. A man came to him, a white-faced man, with slightly curling close gray hair, and high-bred ascetic countenance.

"You are a stranger?" he asked pleasantly, and Bles liked him.

"Yes, sir," he answered, and they fell to talking. He discovered that this was the pastor of the church.

"Do you know no one in town?"

"One or two of my fellow clerks and Mr. Stillings. Oh, yes, I've met Miss Wynn."

"Why, here is Miss Wynn now."

Bles turned. She was right behind him, the centre of a group. She turned, slowly, and smiled.

"Oh!" she uttered twice, but with difference cadence. Then something like amusement lurked a moment in her eye, and she quietly presented Bles to her friends, while Stillings hovered unnoticed in the offing:

"Miss Jones—Mr. Alwyn of—" she paused a second—"Alabama. Miss Taylor—Mr. Alwyn—and," with a backward curving of her neck, "Mr. Teerswell," and so on. Mr. Teerswell was handsome and indolent, with indecision in his face and a cynical voice. Ina moment Bles felt the subtle antagonism of the group. He was an intruder. Mr. Teerswell nodded easily and turned away, continuing his conversation with the ladies.

But Miss Wynn was perverse and interrupted. "I saw you enjoyed the concert, Mr. Alwyn," she said, and one of the young ladies rippled audibly. Bles darkened painfully, realizing that these people must have been just behind him. But he answered frankly:

"Yes, I did immensely—I hope I didn't disturb you; you see, I'm not used to hearing such singing."

Mr. Teerswell, compelled to listen, laughed drily.

"Plantation melodies, I suppose, are more your specialty," he said with a slight cadence. "Yes," said Bles simply. A slight pause ensued.

Then came the surprise of the evening for Bles Alwyn. Even his inexperienced eye could discern that Miss Wynn was very popular, and that most of the men were rivals for her attentions.

"Mr. Alwyn," she said graciously, rising. "I'm going to trouble you to see me to my door; it's only a block. Good-night, all!" she called, but she bowed to Mr. Teerswell.

Miss Wynn placed her hand lightly on Bles's arm, and for a moment he paused. A thrill ran through him as he felt again the weight of a little hand and saw beside him the dark beautiful eyes of a girl. He felt again the warm quiver of her body. Then he awoke to the lighted church and the moving, well-dressed throng. The hand on his arm was not so small; but it was well-gloved, and somehow the fancy struck him that it was a cold hand and not always sympathetic in its touch.