Read ZORA of The Quest of the Silver Fleece A Novel, free online book, by W. E. B. Du Bois, on ReadCentral.com.

Zora, child of the swamp, was a heathen hoyden of twelve wayward, untrained years. Slight, straight, strong, full-blooded, she had dreamed her life away in wilful wandering through her dark and sombre kingdom until she was one with it in all its moods; mischievous, secretive, brooding; full of great and awful visions, steeped body and soul in wood-lore. Her home was out of doors, the cabin of Elspeth her port of call for talking and eating. She had not known, she had scarcely seen, a child of her own age until Bles Alwyn had fled from her dancing in the night, and she had searched and found him sleeping in the misty morning light. It was to her a strange new thing to see a fellow of like years with herself, and she gripped him to her soul in wild interest and new curiosity. Yet this childish friendship was so new and incomprehensible a thing to her that she did not know how to express it. At first she pounced upon him in mirthful, almost impish glee, teasing and mocking and half scaring him, despite his fifteen years of young manhood.

“Yes, they is devils down yonder behind the swamp,” she would whisper, warningly, when, after the first meeting, he had crept back again and again, half fascinated, half amused to greet her; “I’se seen ’em, I’se heard ’em, ’cause my mammy is a witch.”

The boy would sit and watch her wonderingly as she lay curled along the low branch of the mighty oak, clinging with little curved limbs and flying fingers. Possessed by the spirit of her vision, she would chant, low-voiced, tremulous, mischievous:

“One night a devil come to me on blue fire out of a big red flower that grows in the south swamp; he was tall and big and strong as anything, and when he spoke the trees shook and the stars fell. Even mammy was afeared; and it takes a lot to make mammy afeared, ’cause she’s a witch and can conjure. He said, ’I’ll come when you die I’ll come when you die, and take the conjure off you,’ and then he went away on a big fire.”

“Shucks!” the boy would say, trying to express scornful disbelief when, in truth, he was awed and doubtful. Always he would glance involuntarily back along the path behind him. Then her low birdlike laughter would rise and ring through the trees.

So passed a year, and there came the time when her wayward teasing and the almost painful thrill of her tale-telling nettled him and drove him away. For long months he did not meet her, until one day he saw her deep eyes fixed longingly upon him from a thicket in the swamp. He went and greeted her. But she said no word, sitting nested among the greenwood with passionate, proud silence, until he had sued long for peace; then in sudden new friendship she had taken his hand and led him through the swamp, showing him all the beauty of her swamp-world great shadowy oaks and limpid pools, lone, naked trees and sweet flowers; the whispering and flitting of wild things, and the winging of furtive birds. She had dropped the impish mischief of her way, and up from beneath it rose a wistful, visionary tenderness; a mighty half-confessed, half-concealed, striving for unknown things. He seemed to have found a new friend.

And today, after he had taken Miss Taylor home and supped, he came out in the twilight under the new moon and whistled the tremulous note that always brought her.

“Why did you speak so to Miss Taylor?” he asked, reproachfully. She considered the matter a moment.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “You can’t never understand. I can see right through people. You can’t. You never had a witch for a mammy did you?”

“No.”

“Well, then, you see I have to take care of you and see things for you.”

“Zora,” he said thoughtfully, “you must learn to read.”

“What for?”

“So that you can read books and know lots of things.”

“Don’t white folks make books?”

“Yes most of the books.”

“Pooh! I knows more than they do now a heap more.”

“In some ways you do; but they know things that give them power and wealth and make them rule.”

“No, no. They don’t really rule; they just thinks they rule. They just got things heavy, dead things. We black folks is got the spirit. We’se lighter and cunninger; we fly right through them; we go and come again just as we wants to. Black folks is wonderful.”

He did not understand what she meant; but he knew what he wanted and he tried again.

“Even if white folks don’t know everything they know different things from us, and we ought to know what they know.”

This appealed to her somewhat.

“I don’t believe they know much,” she concluded; “but I’ll learn to read and just see.”

“It will be hard work,” he warned. But he had come prepared for acquiescence. He took a primer from his pocket and, lighting a match, showed her the alphabet.

“Learn those,” he said.

“What for?” she asked, looking at the letters disdainfully.

“Because that’s the way,” he said, as the light flared and went out.

“I don’t believe it,” she disputed, disappearing in the wood and returning with a pine-knot. They lighted it and its smoky flame threw wavering shadows about. She turned the leaves till she came to a picture which she studied intently.

“Is this about this?” she asked, pointing alternately to reading and picture.

“Yes. And if you learn ”

“Read it,” she commanded. He read the page.

“Again,” she said, making him point out each word. Then she read it after him, accurately, with more perfect expression. He stared at her. She took the book, and with a nod was gone.

It was Saturday and dark. She never asked Bles to her home to that mysterious black cabin in mid-swamp. He thought her ashamed of it, and delicately refrained from going. So tonight she slipped away, stopped and listened till she heard his footsteps on the pike, and then flew homeward. Presently the old black cabin loomed before her with its wide flapping door. The old woman was bending over the fire, stirring some savory mess, and a yellow girl with a white baby on one arm was placing dishes on a rickety wooden table when Zora suddenly and noiselessly entered the door.

“Come, is you? I ’lowed victuals would fetch you,” grumbled the hag.

But Zora deigned no answer. She walked placidly to the table, where she took up a handful of cold corn-bread and meat, and then went over and curled up by the fire.

Elspeth and the girl talked and laughed coarsely, and the night wore on.

By and by loud laughter and tramping came from the road a sound of numerous footsteps. Zora listened, leapt to her feet and started to the door. The old crone threw an epithet after her; but she flashed through the lighted doorway and was gone, followed by the oath and shouts from the approaching men. In the hut night fled with wild song and revel, and day dawned again. Out from some fastness of the wood crept Zora. She stopped and bathed in a pool, and combed her close-clung hair, then entered silently to breakfast.

Thus began in the dark swamp that primal battle with the Word. She hated it and despised it, but her pride was in arms and her one great life friendship in the balance. She fought her way with a dogged persistence that brought word after word of praise and interest from Bles. Then, once well begun, her busy, eager mind flew with a rapidity that startled; the stories especially she devoured tales of strange things and countries and men gripped her imagination and clung to her memory.

“Didn’t I tell you there was lots to learn?” he asked once.

“I knew it all,” she retorted; “every bit. I’se thought it all before; only the little things is different and I like the little, strange things.”

Spring ripened to summer. She was reading well and writing some.

“Zora,” he announced one morning under their forest oak, “you must go to school.”

She eyed him, surprised.

“Why?”

“You’ve found some things worth knowing in this world, haven’t you, Zora?”

“Yes,” she admitted.

“But there are more many, many more worlds on worlds of things you have not dreamed of.”

She stared at him, open-eyed, and a wonder crept upon her face battling with the old assurance. Then she looked down at her bare brown feet and torn gown.

“I’ve got a little money, Zora,” he said quickly.

But she lifted her head.

“I’ll earn mine,” she said.

“How?” he asked doubtfully.

“I’ll pick cotton.”

“Can you?”

“Course I can.”

“It’s hard work.”

She hesitated.

“I don’t like to work,” she mused. “You see, mammy’s pappy was a king’s son, and kings don’t work. I don’t work; mostly I dreams. But I can work, and I will for the wonder things and for you.”

So the summer yellowed and silvered into fall. All the vacation days Bles worked on the farm, and Zora read and dreamed and studied in the wood, until the land lay white with harvest. Then, without warning, she appeared in the cotton-field beside Bles, and picked.

It was hot, sore work. The sun blazed; her bent and untrained back pained, and the soft little hands bled. But no complaint passed her lips; her hands never wavered, and her eyes met his steadily and gravely. She bade him good-night, cheerily, and then stole away to the wood, crouching beneath the great oak, and biting back the groans that trembled on her lips. Often, she fell supperless to sleep, with two great tears creeping down her tired cheeks.

When school-time came there was not yet money enough, for cotton-picking was not far advanced. Yet Zora would take no money from Bles, and worked earnestly away.

Meantime there occurred to the boy the momentous question of clothes. Had Zora thought of them? He feared not. She knew little of clothes and cared less. So one day in town he dropped into Caldwell’s “Emporium” and glanced hesitantly at certain ready-made dresses. One caught his eye. It came from the great Easterly mills in New England and was red a vivid red. The glowing warmth of this cloth of cotton caught the eye of Bles, and he bought the gown for a dollar and a half.

He carried it to Zora in the wood, and unrolled it before her eyes that danced with glad tears. Of course, it was long and wide; but he fetched needle and thread and scissors, too. It was a full month after school had begun when they, together back in the swamp, shadowed by the foliage, began to fashion the wonderful garment. At the same time she laid ten dollars of her first hard-earned money in his hands.

“You can finish the first year with this money,” Bles assured her, delighted, “and then next year you must come in to board; because, you see, when you’re educated you won’t want to live in the swamp.”

“I wants to live here always.”

“But not at Elspeth’s.”

“No-o not there, not there.” And a troubled questioning trembled in her eyes, but brought no answering thought in his, for he was busy with his plans.

“Then, you see, Zora, if you stay here you’ll need a new house, and you’ll want to learn how to make it beautiful.”

“Yes, a beautiful, great castle here in the swamp,” she dreamed; “but,” and her face fell, “I can’t get money enough to board in; and I don’t want to board in I wants to be free.”

He looked at her, curled down so earnestly at her puzzling task, and a pity for the more than motherless child swept over him. He bent over her, nervously, eagerly, and she laid down her sewing and sat silent and passive with dark, burning eyes.

“Zora,” he said, “I want you to do all this for me.”

“I will, if you wants me to,” she said quietly, but with something in her voice that made him look half startled into her beautiful eyes and feel a queer flushing in his face. He stretched his hand out and taking hers held it lightly till she quivered and drew away, bending again over her sewing.

Then a nameless exaltation rose within his heart.

“Zora,” he whispered, “I’ve got a plan.”

“What is it?” she asked, still with bowed head.

“Listen, till I tell you of the Golden Fleece.”

Then she too heard the story of Jason. Breathless she listened, dropping her sewing and leaning forward, eager-eyed. Then her face clouded.

“Do you s’pose mammy’s the witch?” she asked dubiously.

“No; she wouldn’t give her own flesh and blood to help the thieving Jason.”

She looked at him searchingly.

“Yes, she would, too,” affirmed the girl, and then she paused, still intently watching him. She was troubled, and again a question eagerly hovered on her lips. But he continued:

“Then we must escape her,” he said gayly. “See! yonder lies the Silver Fleece spread across the brown back of the world; let’s get a bit of it, and hide it here in the swamp, and comb it, and tend it, and make it the beautifullest bit of all. Then we can sell it, and send you to school.”

She sat silently bent forward, turning the picture in her mind. Suddenly forgetting her trouble, she bubbled with laughter, and leaping up clapped her hands.

“And I knows just the place!” she cried eagerly, looking at him with a flash of the old teasing mischief “down in the heart of the swamp where dreams and devils lives.”

Up at the school-house Miss Taylor was musing. She had been invited to spend the summer with Mrs. Grey at Lake George, and such a summer! silken clothes and dainty food, motoring and golf, well-groomed men and elegant women. She would not have put it in just that way, but the vision came very close to spelling heaven to her mind. Not that she would come to it vacant-minded, but rather as a trained woman, starved for companionship and wanting something of the beauty and ease of life. She sat dreaming of it here with rows of dark faces before her, and the singsong wail of a little black reader with his head aslant and his patched kneepants.

The day was warm and languorous, and the last pale mist of the Silver Fleece peeped in at the windows. She tried to follow the third-reader lesson with her finger, but persistently off she went, dreaming, to some exquisite little parlor with its green and gold, the clink of dainty china and hum of low voices, and the blue lake in the window; she would glance up, the door would open softly and

Just here she did glance up, and all the school glanced with her. The drone of the reader hushed. The door opened softly, and upon the threshold stood Zora. Her small feet and slender ankles were black and bare; her dark, round, and broad-browed head and strangely beautiful face were poised almost defiantly, crowned with a misty mass of waveless hair, and lit by the velvet radiance of two wonderful eyes. And hanging from shoulder to ankle, in formless, clinging folds, blazed the scarlet gown.