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

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Twenty-nine: A Master Of Fate

 

"There is not the slightest doubt, Miss Wynn," Senator Smith was saying, "but that the schools of the District will be reorganized."

"And the Board of Education abolished?" she added.

"Yes. The power will be delegated to a single white superintendent." The vertical line in Caroline Wynn's forehead became pronounced. "Whose work is this, Senator?" she asked.

"Well, there are, of course, various parties back of the change: the 'outs,' the reformers, the whole tendency to concentrate responsibility, and so on. But, frankly, the deciding factor was the demand of the South."

"Is there anything in Washington that the South does not already own?" Senator Smith smiled thinly.

"Not much," drily; "but we own the South."

"And part of the price is putting the colored schools of the District in the hands of a Southern man and depriving us of all voice in their control?"

"Precisely, Miss Wynn. But you'd be surprised to know that it was the Negroes themselves who stirred the South to this demand."

"Not at all; you mean the colored newspapers, I presume."

"The same, with Teerswell's clever articles; then his partner Stillings worked the 'impudent Negro teacher' argument on Cresswell until Cresswell was wild to get the South in control of the schools."

"But what do Teerswell and Stillings want?"

"They want Bles Alwyn to make a fool of himself."

"That is a trifle cryptic," Miss Wynn mused. The Senator amplified."We are giving the South the Washington schools and killing the Education Bill in return for this support of some of our measures and their assent to Alwyn's appointment. You see I speak frankly."

"I can stand it, Senator."

"I believe you can. Well, now, if Alwyn should act unwisely and offend the South, somebody else stands in line for the appointment."

"As Treasurer?" she asked in surprise.

"Oh, no, they are too shrewd to ask that; it would offend their backers, or shall I say their tools, the Southerners. No, they ask only to be Register and Assistant Register of the Treasury. This is an office colored men have held for years, and it is quite ambitious enough for them; so Stillings assures Cresswell and his friends."

"I see," Miss Wynn slowly acknowledged. "But how do they hope to make Mr. Alwyn blunder?"

"Too easily, I fear—unless you are very careful. Alwyn has been working like a beaver for the National Education Bill. He's been in to see me several times, as you probably know. His heart is set on it. He regards its passage as a sort of vindication of his defence of the party."

"Yes."

"Now, the party has dropped the bill for good, and Alwyn doesn't like it. If he should attack the party—"

"But he wouldn't," cried Miss Wynn with a start that belied her conviction.

"Did you know that he is to be invited to make the principal address to the graduates of the colored high-school?"

"But," she objected. "They have selected Bishop Johnson; I—"

"I know you did," laughed the Senator, "but the Judge got orders from higher up."

"Shrewd Mr. Teerswell," remarked Miss Wynn, sagely.

"Shrewd Mr. Stillings," the Senator corrected; "but perhaps too shrewd. Suppose Mr. Alwyn should take this occasion to make a thorough defence of the party?"

"But—will he?"

"That's where you come in," Senator Smith pointed out, rising, "and the real reason of this interview. We're depending on you to pull the party out of an awkward hole," and he shook hands with his caller.

Miss Wynn walked slowly up Pennsylvania Avenue with a smile on her face.

"I did not give him the credit," she declared, repeating it; "I did not give him the credit. Here I was, playing an alluring game on the side, and my dear Tom transforms it into a struggle for bread and butter; for of course, if the Board of Education goes, I lose my place." She lifted her head and stared along the avenue.

A bitterness dawned in her eyes. The whole street was a living insult to her. Here she was, an American girl by birth and breeding, a daughter of citizens who had fought and bled and worked for a dozen generations on this soil; yet if she stepped into this hotel to rest, even with full purse, she would be politely refused accommodation. Should she attempt to go into this picture show she would be denied entrance. She was thirsty with the walk; but at yonder fountain the clerk would roughly refuse to serve her. It was lunch time; there was no place within a mile where she was allowed to eat. The revolt deepened within her. Beyond these known and definite discriminations lay the unknown and hovering. In yonder store nothing hindered the clerk from being exceptionally pert; on yonder street-car the conductor might reserve his politeness for white folk; this policeman's business was to keep black and brown people in their places. All this Caroline Wynn thought of, and then smiled.

This was the thing poor blind Bles was trying to attack by "appeals" for "justice." Nonsense! Does one "appeal" to the red-eyed beast that throttles him? No. He composes himself, looks death in the eye, and speaks softly, on the chance. Whereupon Miss Wynn composed herself, waved gayly at a passing acquaintance, and matched some ribbons in a department store. The clerk was new and anxious to sell.

Meantime her brain was busy. She had a hard task before her. Alwyn's absurd conscience and Quixotic ideas were difficult to cope with. After his last indiscreet talk she had ventured deftly to remonstrate, and she well remembered the conversation.

"Wasn't what I said true?" he had asked. "Perfectly. Is that an excuse for saying it?"

"The facts ought to be known."

"Yes, but ought you to tell them?"

"If not I, who?"

"Some one who is less useful elsewhere, and whom I like less."

"Carrie," he had been intensely earnest. "I want to do the best thing, but I'm puzzled. I wonder if I'm selling my birthright for six thousand dollars?"

"In case of doubt, do it."

"But there's the doubt: I may convert; I may open the eyes of the blind; I may start a crusade for Negro rights."

"Don't believe it; it's useless; we'll never get our rights in this land."

"You don't believe that!" he had ejaculated, shocked.

Well, she must begin again. As she had hoped, he was waiting for her when she reached home. She welcomed him cordially, made a little music for him, and served tea.

"Bles," she said, "the Opposition has been laying a pretty shrewd trap for you."

"What?" he asked absently.

"They are going to have you chosen as High School commencement orator."

"Me? Stuff!"

"You—and not stuff, but 'Education' will be your natural theme. Indeed, they have so engineered it that the party chiefs expect from you a defence of their dropping of the Educational Bill."

"What!"

"Yes, and probably your nomination will come before the speech and confirmation after." Bles walked the floor excitedly for a while and then sat down and smiled.

"It was a shrewd move," he said; "but I think I thank them for it."

"I don't. But still,

"''T is the sport to see the engineer hoist by his own petar.'"

Bles mused and she watched him covertly. Suddenly she leaned over.

"Moreover," she said, "about that same date I'm liable to lose my position as teacher."

He looked at her quickly, and she explained the coming revolution in school management.He did not discuss the matter, and she was equally reticent; but when he entered the doors of his lodging-place and, gathering his mail, slowly mounted the stairs, there came the battle of his life.

He knew it and he tried to wage it coolly and with method. He arrayed the arguments side by side: on this side lay success; the greatest office ever held by a Negro in America— greater than Douglass or Bruce or Lynch had held—a landmark, a living example and inspiration. A man owed the world success; there were plenty who could fail and stumble and give multiple excuses. Should he be one? He viewed the other side. What must he pay for success? Aye, face it boldly—what? Mechanically he searched for his mail and undid the latest number of the Colored American. He was sure the answer stood there in Teerswell's biting vulgar English. And there it was, with a cartoon:

HIS MASTER'S VOICE

Alwyn is Ordered to Eat His Words or Get Out

Watch Him Do It Gracefully

The Republican Leaders, etc.

He threw down his paper, and the hot blood sang in his ears. The sickening thought was that it was true. If he did make the speech demanded it would be like a dog obedient to his master's voice.

The cold sweat oozed on his face; throwing up the window, he drank in the Spring breeze, and stared at the city he once had thought so alluring. Somehow it looked like the swamp, only less beautiful; he stretched his arms and his lips breathed—"Zora!"

He turned hastily to his desk and looked at the other piece of mail—a single sealed note carefully written on heavy paper. He did not recognize the handwriting. Then his mind flew off again. What would they say if he failed to get the office? How they would silently hoot and jeer at the upstart who suddenly climbed so high and fell. And Carrie Wynn—poor Carrie, with her pride and position dragged down in his ruin: how would she take it? He writhed in soul. And yet, to be a man; to say calmly, "No"; to stand in that great audience and say, "My people first and last"; to take Carrie's hand and together face the world and struggle again to newer finer triumphs—all this would be very close to attainment of the ideal. He found himself staring at the little letter. Would she go? Would she, could she, lay aside her pride and cynicism, her dainty ways and little extravagances? An odd fancy came to him: perhaps the answer to the riddle lay sealed within the envelope he fingered.

He opened it. Within lay four lines of writing—no more—no address, no signature; simply the words:

"It matters now how strait the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll;

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul."

He stared at the lines. Eleven o'clock—twelve—one—chimed the deep-voiced clock without, before Alwyn went to bed.

Miss Wynn had kept a vigil almost as long. She knew that Bles had influential friends who had urged his preferment; it might be wise to enlist them. Before she fell asleep she had determined to have a talk with Mrs. Vanderpool. She had learned from Senator Smith that the lady took special interest in Alwyn.

Mrs. Vanderpool heard Miss Wynn's story next day with some inward dismay. Really the breadth and depth of intrigue in this city almost frightened her as she walked deeper into the mire. She had promised Zora that Bles should receive his reward on terms which would not wound his manhood. It seemed an easy, almost an obvious thing, to promise at the time. Yet here was this rather unusual young woman asking Mrs. Vanderpool to use her influence in making Alwyn bow to the yoke. She fenced for time.

"But I do not know Mr. Alwyn."

"I thought you did; you recommended him highly."

"I knew of him slightly in the South and I have watched his career here."

"It would be too bad to have that career spoiled now."

"But is it necessary? Suppose he should defend the Education Bill."

"And criticise the party?" asked Miss Wynn. "It would take strong influence to pull him through."

"And if that strong influence were found?" said Mrs. Vanderpool thoughtfully. "It would surely involve some other important concession to the South."

Mrs. Vanderpool looked up, and an interjection hovered on her lips. Was it possible that the price of Alwyn's manhood would be her husband's appointment to Paris? And if it were?

"I'll do what I can," she said graciously; "but I am afraid that will not be much."

Miss Wynn hesitated. She had not succeeded even in guessing the source of Mrs. Vanderpool's interest in Alwyn, and without that her appeal was but blind groping. She stopped on her way to the door to admire a bronze statuette and find time to think."You are interested in bronzes?" asked Mrs. Vanderpool. "Oh, no; I'm far too poor. But I've dabbled a bit in sculpture."

"Indeed?" Mrs. Vanderpool revealed a mild interest, and Miss Wynn was compelled to depart with little enlightenment.

On the way up town she concluded that there was but one chance of success: she must write Alwyn's speech. With characteristic decision she began her plans at once.

"What will you say in your speech?" she asked him that night as he rose to go.

He looked at her and she wavered slightly under his black eyes. The fight was becoming a little too desperate even for her steady nerves.

"You would not like me to act dishonestly, would you?" he asked.

"No," she involuntarily replied, regretting the word the moment she had uttered it. He gave her one of his rare sweet smiles, and, rising, before she realized his intent, he had kissed her hands and was gone.

She asked herself why she had been so foolish; and yet, somehow, sitting there alone in the firelight, she felt glad for once that she had risen above intrigue. Then she sighed and smiled, and began to plot anew. Teerswell dropped in later and brought his friend, Stillings. They found their hostess gay and entertaining.

Miss Wynn gathered books about her, and in the days of April and May she and Alwyn read up on education. He marvelled at the subtlety of her mind, and she at the relentlessness of his. They were very near each other during these days, and yet there was ever something between them: a vision to him of dark and pleading eyes that he constantly saw beside her cool, keen glance. And he to her was always two men: one man above men, whom she could respect but would not marry, and one man like all men, whom she would marry but could not respect. His devotion to an ideal which she thought so utterly unpractical, aroused keen curiosity and admiration. She was sure he would fail in the end, and she wanted him to fail; and somehow, somewhere back beyond herself, her better self longed to find herself defeated; to see this mind stand firm on principle, under circumstances where she believed men never stood. Deep within her she discovered at times a passionate longing to believe in somebody; yet she found herself bending every energy to pull this man down to the level of time-servers, and even as she failed, feeling something like contempt for his stubbornness.

The great day came. He had her notes, her suggestions, her hints, but she had no intimation of what he would finally say.

"Will you come to hear me?" he asked."No," she murmured.

"That is best," he said, and then he added slowly, "I would not like you ever to despise me."

She answered sharply: "I want to despise you!"

Did he understand? She was not sure. She was sorry she had said it; but she meant it fiercely. Then he left her, for it was already four in the afternoon and he spoke at eight.

In the morning she came down early, despite some dawdling over her toilet. She brought the morning paper into the dining-room and sat down with it, sipping her coffee. She leaned back and looked leisurely at the headings. There was nothing on the front page but a divorce, a revolution, and a new Trust. She took another sip of her coffee, and turned the page. There it was, "Colored High Schools Close—Vicious Attack on Republican Party by Negro Orator."

She laid the paper aside and slowly finished her coffee. A few minutes later she went to her desk and sat there so long that she started at hearing the clock strike nine.

The day passed. When she came home from school she bought an evening paper. She was not surprised to learn that the Senate had rejected Alwyn's nomination; that Samuel Stillings had been nominated and confirmed as Register of the Treasury, and that Mr. Tom Teerswell was to be his assistant. Also the bill reorganizing the school board had passed. She wrote two notes and posted them as she went out to walk.

When she reached home Stillings was there, and they talked earnestly. The bell rang violently. Teerswell rushed in.

"Well, Carrie!" he cried eagerly.

"Well, Tom," she responded, giving him a languid hand. Stillings rose and departed. Teerswell nodded and said:

"Well, what do you think of last night?"

"A great speech, I hear."

"A fool speech—that speech cost him, I calculate, between twenty-four and forty-eight thousand dollars."

"Possibly he's satisfied with his bargain."

"Possibly. Are you?"

"With his bargain?" quickly. "Yes."

"No," he pressed her, "with your bargain?"

"What bargain?" she parried.

"To marry him."

"Oh, no; that's off."

"Is it off?" cried Teerswell delightedly. "Good! It was foolish from the first—that black country—"

"Gently," Miss Wynn checked him. "I'm not yet over the habit."

"Come. See what I've bought. You know I have a salary now." He produced a ring with a small diamond cluster.

"How pretty!" she said, taking it and looking at it. Then she handed it back. He laughed gayly. "It's yours, Carrie. You're going to marry me."

She looked at him queerly.

"Am I? But I've got another ring already," she said. "Oh, send Alwyn's back."

"I have. This is still another." And uncovering her hand she showed a ring with a large and beautiful diamond.

He rose. "Whose is that?" he demanded apprehensively. "Mine—" her eyes met his.

"But who gave it to you?"

"Mr. Stillings," was the soft reply.

He stared at her helplessly. "I—I—don't understand!" he stammered. "Well, to be brief, I'm engaged to Mr. Stillings."

"What! To that flat-headed—"

"No," she coolly interrupted, "to the Register of the Treasury."

The man was too dumbfounded, too overwhelmed for coherent speech."But—but—come; why in God's name—will you throw yourself away on—on such a— you're joking—you—"

She motioned him to a chair. He obeyed like one in a trance.

"Now, Tom, be calm. When I was a baby I loved you, but that is long ago. Today, Tom, you're an insufferable cad and I—well, I'm too much like you to have two of us in the same family."

"But, Stillings!" he burst forth, almost in tears. "The snake—what is he?"

"Nearly as bad as you, I'll admit; but he has four thousand a year and sense enough to keep it. In truth, I need it; for, thanks to your political activity, my own position is gone."

"But he's a—a damned rascal!" Wounded self-conceit was now getting the upper hand. She laughed.

"I think he is. But he's such an exceptional rascal; he appeals to me. You know, Tom, we're all more or less rascally—except one."

"Except who?" he asked quickly. "Bles Alwyn."

"The fool!"

"Yes," she slowly agreed. "Bles Alwyn, the Fool—and the Man. But by grace of the Negro Problem, I cannot afford to marry a man—Hark! Some one is on the steps. I'm sure it's Bles. You'd better go now. Don't attempt to fight with him; he's very strong. Good-night."

Alwyn entered. He didn't notice Teerswell as he passed out. He went straight to Miss Wynn holding a crumpled note, and his voice faltered a little.

"Do you mean it?"

"Yes, Bles."

"Why?"

"Because I am selfish and—small."

"No, you are not. You want to be; but give it up, Carrie; it isn't worth the cost. Come, let's be honest and poor—and free."She regarded him a moment, searchingly, then a look half quizzical, half sorrowful came into her eyes. She put both her hands on his shoulders and said as she kissed his lips:

"Bles, almost thou persuadest me—to be a fool. Now go.”