“Who’s that?” asked the Colonel shading his eyes.
“It’s Zora—the girl who went North with Mrs. Vanderpool,” Taylor enlightened him.
“Back, is she? Too trifling to stick to a job, and full of Northern nonsense,” growled the Colonel. “Even got a Northern walk—I thought for a moment she was a lady.”
Neither of the gentlemen ever dreamed how long, how hard, how heart-wringing was that walk from the gate up the winding way beneath their careless gaze. It was not the coming of the thoughtless, careless girl of five years ago who had marched a dozen times unthinking before the faces of white men. It was the approach of a woman who knew how the world treated women whom it respected; who knew that no such treatment would be thought of in her case: neither the bow, the lifted hat, nor even the conventional title of decency. Yet she must go on naturally and easily, boldly but circumspectly, and play a daring game with two powerful men.
“Can I speak with you a moment, Colonel?” she asked.
The Colonel did not stir or remove his cigar; he even injected a little gruffness into his tone.
“Well, what is it?”
Of course, she was not asked to sit, but she stood with her hands clasped loosely before her and her eyes half veiled.
“Colonel, I’ve got a thousand dollars.” She did not mention the other nine.
The Colonel sat up.
“Where did you get it?” he asked.
“Mrs. Vanderpool gave it to me to use in helping the colored people.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Well, that’s just what I came to see you about. You see, I might give it to the school, but I’ve been thinking that I’d like to buy some land for some of the tenants.”
“I’ve got no land to sell,” said the Colonel.
“I was thinking you might sell a bit of the swamp.”
Cresswell and Taylor glanced at each other and the Colonel re-lit his cigar.
“How much of it?” he asked finally.
“I don’t know; I thought perhaps two hundred acres.”
“Two hundred acres? Do you expect to buy that land for five dollars an acre?”
“Oh, no, sir. I thought it might cost as much as twenty-five dollars.”
“But you’ve only got a thousand dollars.”
“Yes, sir; I thought I might pay that down and then pay the rest from the crops.”
“Who’s going to work on the place?”
Zora named a number of the steadiest tenants to whom she had spoken.
“They owe me a lot of money,” said the Colonel.
“We’d try to pay that, too.”
Colonel Cresswell considered. There was absolutely no risk. The cost of the land, the back debts of the tenants—no possible crops could pay for them. Then there was the chance of getting the swamp cleared for almost nothing.
“How’s the school getting on?” he asked suddenly.
“Very poorly,” answered Zora sadly. “You know it’s mortgaged, and Miss Smith has had to use the mortgage money for yearly expenses.”