“Miss Smith, I wants a penny pencil.”
“Miss Smith, is yo’ got a speller fo’ ten cents?”
“Miss Smith, mammy say please lemme come to school this week and she’ll sho’ pay Sata’day.”
Yet the little voices that summoned her back to earth were less clamorous than in other years, for the school was far from full, and Miss Smith observed the falling off with grave eyes. This condition was patently the result of the cotton corner and the subsequent manipulation. When cotton rose, the tenants had already sold their cotton; when cotton fell the landlords squeezed the rations and lowered the wages. When cotton rose again, up went the new Spring rent contracts. So it was that the bewildered black serf dawdled in listless inability to understand. The Cresswells in their new wealth, the Maxwells and Tollivers in the new pinch of poverty, stretched long arms to gather in the tenants and their children. Excuse after excuse came to the school.
“I can’t send the chilluns dis term, Miss Smith; dey has to work.”
“Mr. Cresswell won’t allow Will to go to school this term.”
“Mr. Tolliver done put Sam in the field.”
And so Miss Smith contemplated many empty desks.
Slowly a sort of fatal inaction seized her. The school went on; daily the dark little cloud of scholars rose up from hill and vale and settled in the white buildings; the hum of voices and the busy movements of industrious teachers filled the day; the office work went on methodically; but back of it all Miss Smith sat half hopeless. It cost five thousand a year to run the school, and this sum she raised with increasingly greater difficulty. Extra and heart-straining effort had been needed to raise the eight hundred dollars additional for interest money on the mortgage last year. Next year it might have to come out of the regular income and thus cut off two teachers. Beyond all this the raising of ten thousand dollars to satisfy the mortgage seemed simply impossible, and Miss Smith sat in fatal resignation, awaiting the coming day.
“It’s the Lord’s work. I’ve done what I could. I guess if He wants it to go on, He’ll find a way. And if He doesn’t—” She looked off across the swamp and was silent.
Then came Zora’s letter, simple and brief, but breathing youth and strength of purpose. Miss Smith seized upon it as an omen of salvation. In vain her shrewd New England reason asked: “What can a half-taught black girl do in this wilderness?” Her heart answered back: “What is impossible to youth and resolution?” Let the shabbiness increase; let the debts pile up; let the boarders complain and the teachers gossip—Zora was coming. And somehow she and Zora would find a way.
And Zora came just as the sun threw its last crimson through the black swamp; came and gathered the frail and white-haired woman in her arms; and they wept together. Long and low they talked, far into the soft Southern night; sitting shaded beneath the stars, while nearby blinked the drowsy lights of the girls’ dormitory. At last Miss Smith said, rising stiffly: