The Quest of the Silver Fleece by W. E. B. Du Bois - HTML preview
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When Emma, Bertie's child, came home after a two years' course of study, she had passed from girlhood to young womanhood. She was white, and sandy-haired. She was not beautiful, and she appeared to be fragile; but she also looked sweet and good, with that peculiar innocence which peers out upon the world with calm, round eyes and sees no evil, but does methodically its simple, everyday work. Zora mothered her, Miss Smith found her plenty to do, and Bles thought her a good girl. But Mrs. Cresswell found her perfect, and began to scheme to marry her off. For Mary Cresswell, with the restlessness and unhappiness of an unemployed woman, was trying to atone for her former blunders.
Her humiliation after the episode at Cresswell Oaks had been complete. It seemed to her that the original cause of her whole life punishment lay in her persistent misunderstanding of the black people and their problem. Zora appeared to her in a new and glorified light—a vigorous, self-sacrificing woman. She knew that Zora had refused to marry Bles, and this again seemed fitting. Zora was not meant for marrying; she was a born leader, wedded to a great cause; she had long outgrown the boy and girl affection. She was the sort of woman she herself might have been if she had not married.
Alwyn, on the other hand, needed a wife; he was a great, virile boy, requiring a simple, affectionate mate. No sooner did she see Emma than she was sure that this was the ideal wife. She compared herself with Helen Cresswell. Helen was a contented wife and mother because she was fitted for the position, and happy in it; while she who had aimed so high had fallen piteously. From such a fate she would save Zora and Bles.
Emma's course in nurse-training had been simple and short and there was no resident physician; but Emma, in her unemotional way, was a born nurse and did much good among the sick in the neighborhood. Zora had a small log hospital erected with four white beds, a private room, and an office which was also Emma's bedroom. The new white physician in town, just fresh from school in Atlanta, became interested and helped with advice and suggestions.
Meantime John Taylor's troubles began to increase. Under the old political regime it had been an easy matter to avoid serious damage-suits for the accidents in the mill. Much child labor and the lack of protective devices made accidents painfully frequent. Taylor insisted that the chief cause was carelessness, while the mill hands alleged criminal neglect on his part. When the new labor officials took charge of the court and the break occurred between Colonel Cresswell and his son-in-law, Taylor found that several damage-suits were likely to cost him a considerable sum.
He determined not to let the bad feelings go too far, and when a particularly distressing accident to a little girl took place, he showed more than his usual interest and offered to care for her. The new young physician recommended Zora's infirmary as the only near place that offered a chance for the child's recovery."Take her out," Taylor promptly directed.
Zora was troubled when the child came. She knew the suspicious temper of the town whites. The very next day Taylor sent out a second case, a child who had been hurt some time before and was not recovering as she should. Under the care of the little hospital and the gentle nurse the children improved rapidly, and in two weeks were outdoors, playing with the little black children and even creeping into classrooms and listening. The grateful mothers came out twice a week at least; at first with suspicious aloofness, but gradually melting under Zora's tact until they sat and talked with her and told their troubles and struggles. Zora realized how human they were, and how like their problems were to hers. They and their children grew to love this busy, thoughtful woman, and Zora's fears were quieted.
The catastrophe came suddenly. The sheriff rode by, scowling and hunting for some poor black runaway, when he saw white children in the Negro school and white women, whom he knew were mill-hands, looking on. He was black with anger; turning he galloped back to town. A few hours later the young physician arrived hastily in a cab to take the women and children to town. He said something in a low tone to Zora and drove away, frowning.
Zora came quickly to the school and asked for Alwyn. He was in the barn and she hurried there.
"Bles," she said quietly, "it is reported that a Toomsville mob will burn the school tonight."
Bles stood motionless.
"I've been fearing it. The sheriff has been stirring up the worst elements in the town lately and the mills pay off tonight."
"Well," she said quietly, "we must prepare."
He looked at her, his face aglow with admiration. "You wonder-woman!" he exclaimed softly.
A moment they regarded each other. She saw the love in his eyes, and he saw rising in hers something that made his heart bound. But she turned quickly away.
"You must hurry, Bles; lives are at stake." And in another moment he thundered out of the barn on the black mare.
Along the pike he flew and up the plantation roads. Across broad fields and back again, over to the Barton pike and along the swamp. At every cabin he whispered a word, and left behind him grey faces and whispering children.His horse was reeking with sweat as he staggered again into the school-yard; but already the people were gathering, with frightened, anxious, desperate faces. Women with bundles and children, men with guns, tottering old folks, wide-eyed boys and girls. Up from the swamp land came the children crying and moaning. The sun was setting. The women and children hurried into the school building, closing the doors and windows. A moment Alwyn stood without and looked back. The world was peaceful. He could hear the whistle of birds and the sobbing of the breeze in the shadowing oaks. The sky was flashing to dull and purplish blue, and over all lay the twilight hush as though God did not care.
He threw back his head and clenched his hands. His soul groaned within him. "Heavenly Father, was man ever before set to such a task?" Fight? God! if he could but fight! If he could but let go the elemental passions that were leaping and gathering and burning in the eyes of yonder caged and desperate black men. But his hands were tied—manacled. One desperate struggle, a whirl of blood, and the whole world would rise to crush him and his people. The white operatore in yonder town had but to flash the news, "Negroes killing whites," to bring all the country, all the State, all the nation, to red vengeance. It mattered not what the provocation, what the desperate cause.
The door suddenly opened behind him and he wheeled around. "Zora!" he whispered.
"Bles," she answered softly, and they went silently in to their people.
All at once, from floor to roof, the whole school-house was lighted up, save a dark window here and there. Then some one slipped out into the darkness and soon watch-fire after watch-fire flickered and flamed in the night, and then burned vividly, sending up sparks and black smoke. Thus ringed with flaming silence, the school lay at the edge of the great, black swamp and waited. Owls hooted in the forest. Afar the shriek of the Montgomery train was heard across the night, mingling with the wail of a wakeful babe; and then redoubled silence. The men became restless, and Johnson began to edge away toward the lower hall. Alwyn was watching him when a faint noise came to him on the eastern breeze—a low, rumbling murmur. It died away, and rose again; then a distant gun-shot woke the echoes.
"They're coming!" he cried. Standing back in the shadow of a front window, he waited. Slowly, intermittently, the murmuring swelled, till it grew distinguishable as yelling, cursing, and singing, intermingled with the crash of pistol-shots. Far away a flame, as of a burning cabin, arose, and a wilder, louder yell greeted it. Now the tramp of footsteps could be heard, and clearer and thicker the grating and booming of voices, until suddenly, far up the pike, a black moving mass, with glitter and shout, swept into view. They came headlong, guided by pine-torches, which threw their white and haggard faces into wild distortion. Then as bonfire after bonfire met their gaze, they moved slowly and more slowly, and at last sent a volley of bullets at the fires. One bullet flew high and sang through a lighted window. Without a word, Uncle Isaac sank upon the floor and lay still.Silence and renewed murmuring ensued, and the sound of high voices in dispute. Then the mass divided into two wings and slowly encircled the fence of fire; starting noisily and confidently, and then going more slowly, quietly, warily, as the silence of the flame began to tell on their heated nerves.
Strained whispers arose. "Careful there!"
"Go on, damn ye!"
"There's some one by yon fire."
"No, there ain't."
"See the bushes move." Bang! bang! bang! "Who's that?"
"Let's rush through and fire the house."
"And leave a pa'cel of niggers behind to shoot your lights out? Not me."
"What the hell are you going to do?"
"I don't know yet."
"I wish I could see a nigger."
Stealthy steps were approaching, a glint of steel flashed behind the fire lights. Each band mistook the other for the armed Negroes, and the leaders yelled in vain; human power can not stay the dashing torrent of fear-inspired human panic. Whirling, the mob fled till it struck the road in two confused, surging masses. Then in quick frenzy, shots flew; three men threw up their hands and tumbled limply in the dust, while the main body rushed pellmell toward town.
At early dawn, when the men relaxed from the strain of the night's vigil, Alwyn briefly counselled them: "Hide your guns."
"Why?" blustered Rob. "Haven't I a right to have a gun?"
"Yes, you have, Rob; but don't be foolish—hide it. We've not heard the last of this." But Rob tossed his head belligerently.
In town, rumor spread like wildfire. A body of peaceful whites passing through the black settlement had been fired on from ambush, and six killed—no, three killed—no, one killed and two severely wounded.
"The thing mustn't stop here," shouted Sheriff Colton; "these niggers must have a lesson." And before nine next morning fully half the grown members of the same mob, now sworn in as deputies, rode with him to search the settlement. They tramped insolently through the school grounds, but there was no shred of evidence until they came to Rob's cabin and found his gun. They tied his hands behind him and marched him toward town.
But before the mob arrived the night before, Johnson feeling that his safety lay in informing the white folks, had crawled with his gun into the swamp. In the morning he peered out as the cavalcade approached, and not knowing what had happened, he recognized Colton, the sheriff, and signalled to him cautiously. In a moment a dozen men were on him, and he appealed and explained in vain—the gun was damning evidence. The voices of Rob's wife and children could be heard behind the two men as they were hurried along at a dog trot.
The town poured out to greet them—"The murderers! the murderers! Kill the niggers!" and they came on with a rush. The sheriff turned and disappeared in the rear. There was a great cloud of dust, a cry and a wild scramble, as the white and angry faces of men and boys gleamed a moment and faded.
A hundred or more shots rang out; then slowly and silently, the mass of women and men were sucked into the streets of the town, leaving but black eddies on the corners to throw backward glances toward the bare, towering pine where swung two red and awful things. The pale boy-face of one, with soft brown eyes glared up sightless to the sun; the dead, leathered bronze of the other was carved in piteous terror.