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

Miss Caroline Wynn of Washington had little faith in the world and its people. Nor was this wholly her fault. The world had dealt cruelly with the young dreams and youthful ambitions of the girl; partly with its usual heartlessness, partly with that cynical and deadening reserve fund which it has today for its darker peoples. The girl had bitterly resented her experiences at first: she was brilliant and well-trained; she had a real talent for sculpture, and had studied considerably; she was sprung from at least three generations of respectable mulattoes, who had left a little competence which yielded her three or four hundred dollars a year. Furthermore, while not precisely pretty, she was good-looking and interesting, and she had acquired the marks and insignia of good breeding. Perhaps she wore her manners just a trifle consciously; perhaps she was a little morbid that she would fail of recognition as a lady. Nor was this unnatural: her brown skin invited a different assumption. Despite this almost unconscious mental aggressiveness, she was unusually presentable and always well-groomed and pleasant of speech. Yet she found nearly all careers closed to her. At first it seemed accidental, the luck of life. Then she attributed it to her sex; but at last she was sure that, beyond chance and womanhood, it was the colorline that was hemming her in. Once convinced of this, she let her imagination play and saw the line even where it did not exist.

With her bit of property and brilliant parts she had had many suitors but they had been refused one after another for reasons she could hardly have explained. For years now Tom Teerswell had been her escort. Whether or not Caroline Wynn would every marry him was a perennial subject of speculation among their friends and it usually ended in the verdict that she could not afford it that it was financially impossible.

Nevertheless, the two were usually seen in public together, and although she often showed her quiet mastery of the situation, seldom had she snubbed him so openly as at the Treble Clef concert.

Teerswell was furious and began to plot vengeance; but Miss Wynn was attracted by the personality of Bles Alwyn. Southern country Negroes were rare in her set, but here was a man of intelligence and keenness coupled with an amazing frankness and modesty, and perceptibly shadowed by sorrow. The combination was, so far as she had observed, both rare and temporary and she was disposed to watch it in this case purely as a matter of intellectual curiosity. At the door of her home, therefore, after a walk of unusual interest, she said:

“I’m going to have a few friends in next Tuesday night; won’t you come, Mr. Alwyn?” And Mr. Alwyn said that he would.

Next morning Miss Wynn rather repented her hasty invitation, but of course nothing could be done now. Nothing? Well, there was one thing; and she went to the telephone. A suggestion to Bles that he might profitably extend his acquaintance sent him to a certain tailor shop kept by a friend of hers; a word to the tailor guarded against the least suspicion of intrigue entering Bles’s head.

It turned out quite as Miss Wynn had designed; Mr. Grey, the tailor, gave Bles some points on dressing, and made him, Southern fashion, a frock-coat for dress wear that set off his fine figure. On the night of the gathering at Miss Wynn’s Bles dressed with care, hesitating long over a necktie, but at last choosing one which he had recently purchased and which pleased him particularly. He was prompt to the minute and was consequently the first guest; but Miss Wynn’s greeting was so quietly cordial that his embarrassment soon fled. She looked him over at leisure and sighed at his tie; otherwise he was thoroughly presentable according to the strictest Washington standard.

They sat down and talked of generalities. Then an idea occurring to her, she conducted the conversation by devious paths to ties and asked Alwyn if he had heard of the fad of collecting ties. He had not, and she showed him a sofa pillow.

“Your tie quite attracted me,” she said; “it would make just the dash of color I need in my new pillow.”

“You may have it and welcome. I’ll send ”

“Oh, no! A bird in the hand, you know. I’ll trade with you now for another I have.”

“Done!”

The exchange was soon made, Miss Wynn tying the new one herself and sticking a small carved pin in it. Bles slowly sat down again, and after a pause said, “Thank you.”

She looked up quickly, but he seemed quite serious and good-natured.

“You see,” he explained, “in the country we don’t know much about ties.”

The well-balanced Miss Wynn for a moment lost her aplomb, but only for a moment.

“We must all learn,” she replied with penetration, and so their friendship was established.

The company now began to gather, and soon the double parlor held an assemblage of twenty-five or thirty persons. They formed a picturesque group: conventional but graceful in dress; animated in movement; full of good-natured laughter, but quite un-American in the beautiful modulation of their speaking tones; chiefly noticeable, however, to a stranger, in the vast variety of color in skin, which imparted to the throng a piquant and unusual interest. Every color was here; from the dark brown of Alwyn, who was customarily accounted black, to the pale pink-white of Miss Jones, who could “pass for white” when she would, and found her greatest difficulties when she was trying to “pass” for black. Midway between these two extremes lay the sallow pastor of the church, the creamy Miss Williams, the golden yellow of Mr. Teerswell, the golden brown of Miss Johnson, and the velvet brown of Mr. Grey. The guest themselves did not notice this; they were used to asking one’s color as one asks of height and weight; it was simply an extra dimension in their world whereby to classify men.

Beyond this and their hair, there was little to distinguish them from a modern group of men and women. The speech was a softened English, purely and, on the whole, correctly spoken so much so that it seemed at first almost unfamiliar to Bles, and he experienced again the uncomfortable feeling of being among strangers. Then, too, he missed the loud but hearty good-nature of what he had always called “his people.” To be sure, a more experienced observer might have noted a lively, excitable tropical temperament set and cast in a cold Northern mould, and yet flashing fire now and then in a sudden anomalous out-bursting. But Bles missed this; he seemed to have slipped and lost his bearings, and the characteristics of his simple world were rolling curiously about. Here stood a black man with a white man’s voice, and yonder a white woman with a Negro’s musical cadences; and yet again, a brown girl with exactly Miss Cresswell’s air, and yonder, Miss Williams, with Zora’s wistful willfulness.

Bles was bewildered and silent, and his great undying sorrow sank on his heart with sickening hopeless weight. His hands got in the way and he found no natural nook in all those wide and tastefully furnished rooms. Once he discovered himself standing by a marble statue of a nude woman, and he edged away; then he stumbled over a rug and saved himself only to step on Miss Jones’s silken train. Miss Jones’s smile of pardon was wintry. When he did approach a group and listen, they seemed speaking of things foreign to him usually of people he did not know, their homes, their doings, their daughters and their fathers. They seemed to know people intimately who lived far away.

“You mean the Smiths of Boston?” asked Miss Jones.

“No, of Cleveland. They’re not related.”

“I heard that McGhee of St. Paul will be in the city next week with his daughter.”

“Yes, and the Bentleys of Chicago.”

Bles passed on. He was disappointed. He was full of things to say, of mighty matters to discuss; he felt like stopping these people and crying: “Ho! What of the morning? How goes the great battle for black men’s rights? I have came with messages from the host, to you who guard the mountain tops.”

Apparently they were not discussing or caring about “the Problem.” He grew disgusted and was edging toward the door when he encountered his hostess.

“Is all well with you, Mr. Alwyn?” she asked lightly.

“No, I’m not enjoying myself,” said Bles, truthfully.

“Delicious! And why not?”

He regarded her earnestly.

“There are so many things to talk about,” he said; “earnest things; things of importance. I I think when our people ” he hesitated. Our? was our right? But he went on: “When our people meet we ought to talk of our situation, and what to do and ”

Miss Wynn continued to smile.

“We’re all talking of it all the time,” she said.

He looked incredulous.

“Yes, we are,” she insisted. “We veil it a little, and laugh as lightly as we can; but there is only one thought in this room, and that’s grave and serious enough to suit even you, and quite your daily topic.”

“But I don’t understand.”

“Ah, there’s the rub. You haven’t learned our language yet. We don’t just blurt into the Negro Problem; that’s voted bad form. We leave that to our white friends. We saunter to it sideways, touch it delicately because” her face became a little graver “because, you see, it hurts.”

Bles stood thoughtful and abashed.

“I I think I understand,” he gravely said at last.

“Come here,” she said with a sudden turn, and they joined an absorbed group in the midst of a conversation.

“ Thinking of sending Jessie to Bryn Mawr,” Bles heard Miss Jones saying.

“Could she pass?”

“Oh, they might think her Spanish.”

“But it’s a snobbish place and she would have to give up all her friends.”

“Yes, Freddie could scarcely visit ” the rest was lost.

“Which, being interpreted,” whispered Miss Wynn, “means that Bryn Mawr draws the color line while we at times surmount it.”

They moved on to another group.

“ Splendid draughtsman,” a man was saying, “and passed at the head of the crowd; but, of course, he has no chance.”

“Why, it’s civil-service, isn’t it?”

“It is. But what of that? There was Watson ”

Miss Wynn did not pause. She whispered: “This is the tale of Civil Service Reform, and how this mighty government gets rid of black men who know too much.”

“But ” Bles tried to protest.

“Hush,” Miss Wynn commanded and they joined the group about the piano. Teerswell, who was speaking, affected not to notice them, and continued:

“ I tell you, it’s got to come. We must act independently and not be bought by a few offices.”

“That’s all well enough for you to talk, Teerswell; you have no wife and babies dependant on you. Why should we who have sacrifice the substance for the shadow?”

“You see, the Judge has got the substance,” laughed Teerswell. “Still I insist: divide and conquer.”

“Nonsense! Unite, and keep.”

Bles was puzzled.

“They’re talking of the coming campaign,” said Miss Wynn.

“What!” exclaimed Bles aloud. “You don’t mean that any one can advise a black man to vote the Democratic ticket?”

An elderly man turned to them.

“Thank you, sir,” he said; “that is just my attitude; I fought for my freedom. I know what slavery is; may I forget God when I vote for traitors and slave-holders.”

The discussion waxed warm and Miss Wynn turned away and sought Miss Jones.

“Come, my dear,” she said, “it’s ‘The Problem’ again.” They sauntered away toward a ring of laughter.

The discussion thus begun at Miss Wynn’s did not end there. It was on the eve of the great party conventions, and the next night Sam Stillings came around to get some crumbs from this assembly of the inner circle, into which Alwyn had been so unaccountably snatched, and outside of which, despite his endeavors, Stillings lingered and seemed destined to linger. But Stillings was a patient, resolute man beneath his deferential exterior, and he saw in Bles a stepping stone. So he began to drop in at his lodgings and tonight invited him to the Bethel Literary.

“What’s that?” asked Bles.

“A debating club oldest in the city; the best people all attend.”

Bles hesitated. He had half made up his mind that this was the proper time to call on Miss Wynn. He told Stillings so, and told him also of the evening and the discussion.

“Why, that’s the subject up tonight,” Stillings declared, “and Miss Wynn will be sure to be there. You can make your call later. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind taking me when you call.” Alwyn reached for his hat.

When they arrived, the basement of the great church was filling with a throng of men and women. Soon the officers and the speaker of the evening appeared. The president was a brown woman who spoke easily and well, and introduced the main speaker. He was a tall, thin, hatchet-faced black man, clean shaven and well dressed, a lawyer by profession. His theme was “The Democratic Party and the Negro.” His argument was cool, carefully reasoned, and plausible. He was evidently feeling for the sympathy of his audience, and while they were not enthusiastic, they warmed to him gradually and he certainly was strongly impressing them.

Bles was thinking. He sat in the back of the hall, tense, alert, nervous. As the speaker progressed a white man came in and sat down beside him. He was spectacled, with bushy eyebrows and a sleepy look. But he did not sleep. He was very observant.

“Who’s speaking?” he asked Bles, and Bles told him. Then he inquired about one or two other persons. Bles could not inform him, but Stillings could and did. Stillings seemed willing to devote considerable time to him.

Bles forgot the man. He was almost crouching for a spring, and no sooner had the speaker, with a really fine apostrophe to independence and reason in voting, sat down, than Bles was on his feet, walking forward. His form was commanding, his voice deep and musical, and his earnestness terribly evident. He hardly waited for recognition from the slightly astonished president, but fairly burst into speech.

“I am from Alabama,” he began earnestly, “and I know the Democratic Party.” Then he told of government and conditions in the Black Belt, of the lying, oppression, and helplessness of the sodden black masses; then, turning, he reminded them of the history of slavery. Finally, he pointed to Lincoln’s picture and to Sumner’s and mentioned other white friends.

“And, my brothers, they are not all dead yet. The gentleman spoke of Senator Smith and blamed and ridiculed him. I know Senator Smith but slightly, but I do know his sister well.”

Dropping to simple narrative, he told of Miss Smith and of his coming to school; and if his audience felt that great depth of emotion that welled beneath his quiet, almost hesitating, address, it was not simply because of what he did say, but because, too, of the unspoken story that lay too deep for words. He spoke for nearly an hour, and when he stopped, for a moment his hearers sighed and then sprang into a whirlwind of applause. They shouted, clapped, and waved while he sat in blank amazement, and was with difficulty forced to the rostrum to bow again and again. The spectacled white man leaned over to Stillings.

“Who is he?” he asked. Stillings told him. The man noted the name and went quietly out.

Miss Wynn sat lost in thought, and Teerswell beside her fumed. She was not easily moved, but that speech had moved her. If he could thus stir men and not be himself swayed, she mused, he would be invincible. But tonight he was moved as greatly as his hearers had been, and that was dangerous. If his intense belief happened to be popular, all right; but if not? She frowned. He was worth watching, she concluded; quite worth watching, and perhaps worth guiding.

When Alwyn accompanied her home that night, Miss Wynn set herself to know him better for she suspected that he might be a coming man. The best preliminary to her purpose was, she knew, to speak frankly of herself, and that she did. She told him of her youth and training, her ambitions, her disappointments. Quite unconsciously her cynicism crept to the fore, until in word and tone she had almost scoffed at many things that Alwyn held true and dear. The touch was too light, the meaning too elusive, for Alwyn to grasp always the point of attack; but somehow he got the distant impression that Miss Wynn had little faith in Truth and Goodness and Love. Vaguely shocked he grew so silent that she noticed it and concluded she had said too much. But he pursued the subject.

“Surely there must be many friends of our race willing to stand for the right and sacrifice for it?”

She laughed unpleasantly, almost mockingly.

“Where?”

“Well there’s Miss Smith.”

“She gets a salary, doesn’t she?”

“A very small one.”

“About as large as she could earn. North, I don’t doubt.”

“But the unselfish work she does the utter sacrifice?”

“Oh, well, we’ll omit Alabama, and admit the exception.”

“Well, here, in Washington there’s your friend, the Judge, who has befriended you so, as you admit.”

She laughed again.

“You remember our visit to Senator Smith?”

“Yes.”

“Well, it got the Judge his reappointment to the school board.”

“He deserved it, didn’t he?”

“I deserved it,” she said luxuriously, hugging her knee and smiling; “you see, his appointment meant mine.”

“Well, what of it didn’t ”

“Listen,” she cut in a little sharply. “Once a young brown girl, with boundless faith in white folks, went to a Judge’s office to ask for an appointment which she deserved. There was no one there. The benign old Judge with his saintly face and white hair suggested that she lay aside her wraps and spend the afternoon.”

Bles arose to his feet.

“What what did you do?” he asked.

“Sit down there’s a good boy.” I said: “’Judge, a friend is expecting me at two,’ it was then half-past one, ‘would I not best telephone?’”

“‘Step right into the booth,’ said the Judge, quite indulgently.” Miss Wynn leaned back, and Bles felt his heart sinking; but he said nothing. “And then,” she continued, “I telephoned the Judge’s wife that he was anxious to see her on a matter of urgent business; namely, my appointment.” She gazed reflectively out of the window. “You should have seen his face when I told him,” she concluded. “I was appointed.”

But Bles asked coldly:

“Why didn’t you have him arrested?”

“For what? And suppose I had?”

Bles threw out his arms helplessly.

“Oh! it isn’t as bad as that all over the world, is it?”

“It’s worse,” affirmed Miss Wynn, quietly positive.

“And you are still friendly with him?”

“What would you have? I use the world; I did not make it; I did not choose it. He is the world. Through him I earn my bread and butter. I have shown him his place. Shall I try in addition to reform? Shall I make him an enemy? I have neither time nor inclination. Shall I resign and beg, or go tilting at windmills? If he were the only one it would be different; but they’re all alike.” Her face grew hard. “Have I shocked you?” she said as they went toward the door.

“No,” he answered slowly. “But I still believe in the world.”

“You are young yet, my friend,” she lightly replied. “And besides, that good Miss Smith has gone and grafted a New England conscience on a tropical heart, and dear me! but it’s a gorgeous misfit. Good-bye come again.” She bowed him graciously out, and paused to take the mail from the box. There was, among many others, a letter from Senator Smith.