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

The people of Toomsville started in their beds and listened. A new song was rising on the air: a harsh, low, murmuring croon that shook the village ranged around its old square of dilapadated stores. It was not a song of joy; it was not a song of sorrow; it was not a song at all, perhaps, but a confused whizzing and murmuring, as of a thousand ill-tuned, busy voices. Some of the listeners wondered; but most of the town cried joyfully, “It’s the new cotton-mill!”

John Taylor’s head teemed with new schemes. The mill trust of the North was at last a fact. The small mills had not been able to buy cotton when it was low because Cresswell was cornering it in the name of the Farmers’ League; now that it was high they could not afford to, and many surrendered to the trust.

“Next thing,” wrote Taylor to Easterly, “is to reduce cost of production. Too much goes in wages. Gradually transfer mills South.”

Easterly argued that the labor was too unskilled in the South and that to send Northern spinners down would spread labor troubles. Taylor replied briefly: “Never fear; we’ll scare them with a vision of niggers in the mills!”

Colonel Cresswell was not so easily won over to the new scheme. In the first place he was angry because the school, which he had come to regard as on its last legs, somehow still continued to flourish. The ten-thousand-dollar mortgage had but three more years, and that would end all; but he had hoped for a crash even earlier. Instead of this, Miss Smith was cheerfully expanding the work, hiring new teachers, and especially she had brought to help her two young Negroes whom he suspected. Colonel Cresswell had prevented the Tolliver land sale, only to be inveigled himself into Zora’s scheme which now began to worry him. He must evict Zora’s tenants as soon as the crops were planted and harvested. There was nothing unjust about such a course, he argued, for Negroes anyway were too lazy and shiftless to buy the land. They would not, they could not, work without driving. All this he imparted to John Taylor, to which that gentleman listened carefully.

“H’m, I see,” he owned. “And I know the way out.”

“How?”

“A cotton mill in Toomsville.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“Bring in whites.”

“But I don’t want poor white trash; I’d sooner have niggers.”

“Now, see here,” argued Taylor, “you can’t have everything you want day’s gone by for aristocracy of old kind. You must have neighbors: choose, then, white or black. I say white.”

“But they’ll rule us out-vote us marry our daughters,” warmly objected the Colonel.

“Some of them may most of them won’t. A few of them with brains will help us rule the rest with money. We’ll plant cotton mills beside the cotton fields, use whites to keep niggers in their place, and the fear of niggers to keep the poorer whites in theirs.”

The Colonel looked thoughtful.

“There’s something in that,” he confessed after a while; “but it’s a mighty big experiment, and it may go awry.”

“Not with brains and money to guide it. And at any rate, we’ve got to try it; it’s the next logical step, and we must take it.”

“But in the meantime, I’m not going to give up good old methods; I’m going to set the sheriff behind these lazy niggers,” said the Colonel; “and I’m going to stop that school putting notions into their heads.”

In three short months the mill at Toomsville was open and its wheels whizzing to the boundless pride of the citizens.

“Our enterprise, sir!” they said to the strangers on the strength of the five thousand dollars locally invested.

Once it had vigor to sing, the song of the mill knew no resting; morning and evening, day and night it crooned its rhythmic tune; only during the daylight Sundays did its murmur die to a sibilant hiss. All the week its doors were filled with the coming and going of men and women and children: many men, more women, and greater and greater throngs of children. It seemed to devour children, sitting with its myriad eyes gleaming and its black maw open, drawing in the pale white mites, sucking their blood and spewing them out paler and ever paler. The face of the town began to change, showing a ragged tuberculous looking side with dingy homes in short and homely rows.

There came gradually a new consciousness to the town. Hitherto town and country had been ruled by a few great landlords but at the very first election, Colton, an unknown outsider, had beaten the regular candidate for sheriff by such a majority that the big property owners dared not count him out. They had, however, an earnest consultation with John Taylor.

“It’s just as I said,” growled Colonel Cresswell, “if you don’t watch out our whole plantation system will be ruined and we’ll be governed by this white trash from the hills.”

“There’s only one way,” sighed Caldwell, the merchant; “we’ve got to vote the niggers.”

John Taylor laughed. “Nonsense!” he spurned the suggestion. “You’re old-fashioned. Let the mill-hands have the offices. What good will it do?”

“What good! Why, they’ll do as they please with us.”

“Bosh! Don’t we own the mill? Can’t we keep wages where we like by threatening to bring in nigger labor?”

“No, you can’t, permanently,” Maxwell disputed, “for they sometime will call your bluff.”

“Let ’em call,” said Taylor, “and we’ll put niggers in the mills.”

“What!” ejaculated the landlords in chorus. Only Maxwell was silent. “And kill the plantation system?”

“Oh, maybe some time, of course. But not for years; not until you’ve made your pile. You don’t really expect to keep the darkies down forever, do you?”

“No, I don’t,” Maxwell slowly admitted. “This system can’t last always sometimes I think it can’t last long. It’s wrong, through and through. It’s built on ignorance, theft, and force, and I wish to God we had courage enough to overthrow it and take the consequences. I wish it was possible to be a Southerner and a Christian and an honest man, to treat niggers and dagoes and white trash like men, and be big enough to say, ‘To Hell with consequences!’”

Colonel Cresswell stared at his neighbor, speechless with bewilderment and outraged traditions. Such unbelievable heresy from a Northerner or a Negro would have been natural; but from a Southerner whose father had owned five hundred slaves it was incredible! The other landlords scarcely listened; they were dogged and impatient and they could suggest no remedy. They could only blame the mill for their troubles.

John Taylor left the conference blithely. “No,” he said to the committee from the new mill-workers’ union. “Can’t raise wages, gentlemen, and can’t lessen hours. Mill is just started and not yet paying expenses. You’re getting better wages than you ever got. If you don’t want to work, quit. There are plenty of others, white and black, who want your jobs.”

The mention of black people as competitors for wages was like a red rag to a bull. The laborers got together and at the next election they made a clean sweep, judge, sheriff, two members of the legislature, and the registrars of votes. Undoubtedly the following year they would capture Harry Cresswell’s seat in Congress.

The result was curious. From two sides, from landlord and white laborer, came renewed oppression of black men. The laborers found that their political power gave them little economic advantage as long as the threatening cloud of Negro competition loomed ahead. There was some talk of a strike, but Colton, the new sheriff, discouraged it.

“I tell you, boys, where the trouble lies: it’s the niggers. They live on nothing and take any kind of treatment, and they keep wages down. If you strike, they’ll get your jobs, sure. We’ll just have to grin and bear it a while, but get back at the darkies whenever you can. I’ll stick ’em into the chain-gang every chance I get.”

On the other hand, inspired by fright, the grip of the landlords on the black serfs closed with steadily increasing firmness. They saw one class rising from beneath them to power, and they tightened the chains on the other. Matters simmered on in this way, and the only party wholly satisfied with conditions was John Taylor and the few young Southerners who saw through his eyes. He was making money. The landlords, on the contrary, were losing power and prestige, and their farm labor, despite strenuous efforts, was drifting to town attracted by new and incidental work and higher wages. The mill-hands were more and more overworked and underpaid, and hated the Negroes for it in accordance with their leaders’ directions.

At the same time the oppressed blacks and scowling mill-hands could not help recurring again and again to the same inarticulate thought which no one was brave enough to voice. Once, however, it came out flatly. It was when Zora, crowding into the village courthouse to see if she could not help Aunt Rachel’s accused boy, found herself beside a gaunt, overworked white woman. The woman was struggling with a crippled child and Zora, turning, lifted him carefully for the weak mother, who thanked her half timidly. “That mill’s about killed him,” she said.

At this juncture the manacled boy was led into court, and the woman suddenly turned again to Zora.

“Durned if I don’t think these white slaves and black slaves had ought ter git together,” she declared.

“I think so, too,” Zora agreed.

Colonel Cresswell himself caught the conversation and it struck him with a certain dismay. Suppose such a conjunction should come to pass? He edged over to John Taylor and spoke to him; but Taylor, who had just successfully stopped a suit for damages to the injured boy, merely shrugged his shoulders.

“What’s this nigger charged with?” demanded the Judge when the first black boy was brought up before him.

“Breaking his labor contract.”

“Any witnesses?”

“I have the contract here,” announced the sheriff. “He refuses to work.”

“A year, or one hundred dollars.”

Colonel Cresswell paid his fine, and took him in charge.

“What’s the charge here?” said the Judge, pointing to Aunt Rachel’s boy.

“Attempt to kill a white man.”

“Any witnesses?”

“None except the victim.”

“And I,” said Zora, coming forward.

Both the sheriff and Colonel Cresswell stared at her. Of course, she was simply a black girl but she was an educated woman, who knew things about the Cresswell plantations that it was unnecessary to air in court. The newly elected Judge had not yet taken his seat, and Cresswell’s word was still law in the court. He whispered to the Judge.

“Case postponed,” said the Court.

The sheriff scowled.

“Wait till Jim gets on the bench,” he growled.

The white bystanders, however, did not seem enthusiastic and one man he was a Northern spinner spoke out plainly.

“It’s none o’ my business, of course. I’ve been fired and I’m damned glad of it. But see here: if you mutts think you’re going to beat these big blokes at their own game of cheating niggers you’re daffy. You take this from me: get together with the niggers and hold up this whole capitalist gang. If you don’t get the niggers first, they’ll use ’em as a club to throw you down. You hear me,” and he departed for the train.

Colton was suspicious. The sentiment of joining with the Negroes did not seem to arouse the bitter resentment he expected. There even came whispers to his ears that he had sold out to the landlords, and there was enough truth in the report to scare him. Thus to both parties came the uncomfortable spectre of the black men, and both sides went to work to lay the ghost.

Particularly was Colonel Cresswell stirred to action. He realized that in Bles and Zora he was dealing with a younger class of educated black folk, who were learning to fight with new weapons. They were, he was sure, as dissolute and weak as their parents, but they were shrewder and more aspiring. They must be crushed, and crushed quickly. To this end he had recourse to two sources of help Johnson and the whites in town.

Johnson was what Colonel Cresswell repeatedly called “a faithful nigger.” He was one of those constitutionally timid creatures into whom the servility of his fathers had sunk so deep that it had become second-nature. To him a white man was an archangel, while the Cresswells, his father’s masters, stood for God. He served them with dog-like faith, asking no reward, and for what he gave in reverence to them, he took back in contempt for his fellows “niggers!” He applied the epithet with more contempt than the Colonel himself could express. To the Negroes he was a “white folk’s nigger,” to be despised and feared.

To him Colonel Cresswell gave a few pregnant directions. Then he rode to town, and told Taylor again of his fears of a labor movement which would include whites and blacks. Taylor could not see any great danger.

“Of course,” he conceded, “they’ll eventually get together; their interests are identical. I’ll admit it’s our game to delay this as long possible.”

“It must be delayed forever, sir.”

“Can’t be,” was the terse response. “But even if they do ally themselves, our way is easy: separate the leaders, the talented, the pushers, of both races from their masses, and through them rule the rest by money.”

But Colonel Cresswell shook his head. “It’s precisely these leaders of the Negroes that we mush crush,” he insisted. Taylor looked puzzled.

“I thought it was the lazy, shiftless, and criminal Negroes, you feared?”

“Hang it, no! We can deal with them; we’ve got whips, chain-gangs, and mobs, if need be no, it’s the Negro who wants to climb up that we’ve got to beat to his knees.”

Taylor could not follow this reasoning. He believed in an aristocracy of talent alone, and secretly despised Colonel Cresswell’s pretensions of birth. If a man had ability and push Taylor was willing and anxious to open the way for him, even though he were black. The caste way of thinking in the South, both as applied to poor whites and to Negroes, he simply could not understand. The weak and the ignorant of all races he despised and had no patience with them. “But others a man’s a man, isn’t he?” he persisted. But Colonel Cresswell replied:

“No, never, if he’s black, and not always when he’s white,” and he stalked away.

Zora sensed fully the situation. She did not anticipate any immediate understanding with the laboring whites, but she knew that eventually it would be inevitable. Meantime the Negro must strengthen himself and bring to the alliance as much independent economic strength as possible. For the development of her plans she needed Bles Alwyn’s constant cooperation. He was business manager of the school and was doing well, but she wanted to point out to him the larger field. So long as she was uncertain of his attitude toward her, it was difficult to act; but now, since the flash of the imminent tragedy at Cresswell Oaks had cleared the air, with all its hurt a frank understanding had been made possible. The very next day Zora chose to show Bles over her new home and grounds, and to speak frankly to him. They looked at the land, examined the proposed farm sites, and viewed the living-room and dormitory in the house.

“You haven’t seen my den,” said Zora.

“No.”

“Miss Smith is in there now; she often hides there. Come.”

He went into the large central house and into the living-room, then out on the porch, beyond which lay the kitchen. But to the left, and at the end of the porch, was a small building. It was ceiled in dark yellow pine, with figured denim on the walls. A straight desk of rough hewn wood stood in the corner by the white-curtained window, and a couch and two large easy-chairs faced a tall narrow fireplace of uneven stone. A thick green rag-carpet covered the floor; a few pictures were on the walls a Madonna, a scene of mad careering horses, and some sad baby faces. The room was a unity; things fitted together as if they belonged together. It was restful and beautiful, from the cheerful pine blaze before which Miss Smith was sitting, to the square-paned window that let in the crimson rays of gathering night. All round the room, stopping only at the fireplace, ran low shelves of the same yellow pine, filled with books and magazines. He scanned curiously Plato’s Republic, Gorky’s “Comrades,” a Cyclopaedia of Agriculture, Balzac’s novels, Spencer’s “First Principles,” Tennyson’s Poems.

“This is my university,” Zora explained, smiling at his interested survey. They went out again and wandered down near the old lagoon.

“Now, Bles,” she began, “since we understand each other, can we not work together as good friends?” She spoke simply and frankly, without apparent effort, and talked on at length of her work and vision.

Somehow he could not understand. His mental attitude toward Zora had always been one of guidance, guardianship, and instruction. He had been judging and weighing her from on high, looking down upon her with thoughts of uplift and development. Always he had been holding her dark little hands to lead her out of the swamp of life, and always, when in senseless anger he had half forgotten and deserted her, this vision of elder brotherhood had still remained. Now this attitude was being revolutionized. She was proposing to him a plan of wide scope a bold regeneration of the land. It was a plan carefully studied out, long thought of and read about. He was asked to be co-worker nay, in a sense to be a follower, for he was ignorant of much.

He hesitated. Then all at once a sense of his utter unworthiness overwhelmed him. Who was he to stand and judge this unselfish woman? Who was he to falter when she called? A sense of his smallness and narrowness, of his priggish blindness, rose like a mockery in his soul. One thing alone held him back: he was not unwilling to be simply human, a learner and a follower; but would he as such ever command the love and respect of this new and inexplicable woman? Would not comradeship on the basis of the new friendship which she insisted on, be the death of love and thoughts of love?

Thus he hesitated, knowing that his duty lay clear. In her direst need he had deserted her. He had left her to go to destruction and expected that she would. By a superhuman miracle she had risen and seated herself above him. She was working; here was work to be done. He was asked to help; he would help. If it killed his old and new-born dream of love, well and good; it was his punishment.

Yet the sacrifice, the readjustment was hard; he grew to it gradually, inwardly revolting, feeling always a great longing to take this woman and make her nestle in his arms as she used to; catching himself again and again on the point of speaking to her and urging, yet ever again holding himself back and bowing in silent respect to the dignity of her life. Only now and then, when their eyes met suddenly or unthinkingly, a great kindling flash of flame seemed struggling behind showers of tears, until in a moment she smiled or spoke, and then the dropping veil left only the frank open glance, unwavering, soft, kind, but nothing more. Then Alwyn would go wearily away, vexed or disappointed, or merely sad, and both would turn to their work again.