Bles handed it silently to Miss Taylor. Mary Taylor was beside herself with impatient anger—and anger intensified by a conviction of utter helplessness to cope with any strained or unusual situations between herself and these two.
“Alwyn,” she said sharply, “I shall report Zora for stealing. And you may report yourself to Miss Smith tonight for disrespect toward a teacher.”
The Cresswells, father and son, were at breakfast. The daughter was taking her coffee and rolls up stairs in bed.
“P’sh! I don’t like it!” declared Harry Cresswell, tossing the letter back to his father. “I tell you, it is a damned Yankee trick.”
He was a man of thirty-five, smooth and white, slight, well-bred and masterful. His father, St. John Cresswell, was sixty, white-haired, mustached and goateed; a stately, kindly old man with a temper and much family pride.
“Well, well,” he said, his air half preoccupied, half unconcerned, “I suppose so—and yet”—he read the letter again, aloud: “’Approaching you as one of the most influential landowners of Alabama, on a confidential matter’—h’m—h’m—’a combination of capital and power, such as this nation has never seen’—’cotton manufacturers and cotton growers.’ ... Well, well! Of course, I suppose there’s nothing in it. And yet, Harry, my boy, this cotton-growing business is getting in a pretty tight pinch. Unless relief comes somehow—well, we’ll just have to quit. We simply can’t keep the cost of cotton down to a remunerative figure with niggers getting scarcer and dearer. Every year I have to pinch ’em closer and closer. I had to pay Maxwell two hundred and fifty to get that old darky and his boys turned over to me, and one of the young ones has run away already.”
Harry lighted a cigarette.
“We must drive them more. You’re too easy, father; they understand that. By the way, what did that letter say about a ’sister’?”
“Says he’s got a sister over at the nigger school whom perhaps we know. I suppose he thinks we dine there occasionally.” The old man chuckled. “That reminds me, Elspeth is sending her girl there.”
“What’s that?” An angry gleam shot into the younger man’s eye.
“Yes. She announced this morning, pert as you please, that she couldn’t tote clothes any more—she had to study.”
“Damn it! This thing is going too far. We can’t keep a maid or a plough-boy on the place because of this devilish school. It’s going to ruin the whole labor system. We’ve been too mild and decent. I’m going to put my foot down right here. I’ll make Elspeth take that girl out of school if I have to horse-whip her, and I’ll warn the school against further interference with our tenants. Here, in less than a week, go two plough-hands—and now this girl.”
The old man smiled.