Portrait of Du Bois

Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today’s story is from W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois was a writer, scholar and activist who is known for co-founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and being one of the most prominent civil rights activists. He also was a sociologist who used data science to investigate the structure of society and the lives of black people, at a time when this was a revolutionary approach. Du Bois published scholarly papers, essays, novels, poetry, short stories and autobiographical writing. His works are still read and studied for their historical influence, literary merit and insights that are still applicable today. He was the editor of “The Crisis,” and through this had an enormous influence on black literature and culture. Under his leadership, “The Crisis” also reflected his ardent support of women’s suffrage.

Today’s short story is from “Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil.” Not one of Du Bois most celebrated works, “Darkwater” is a stunning collection of essays and fiction. The first of Du Bois’ autobiographical works, the essays are drawn from his life and consider various issues. They are interspersed with poetry and short stories. These works relate to the essays, tying together many of the work’s themes in elegant language and skilled metaphorical storytelling. The stories feature a cast of characters who engage with sometimes realistic, sometimes magical worlds. The stories are worth reading in their own right, but Du Bois’ skill as a writer becomes most clear when they are read in context.

The Princess of the Hither Isles

Her soul was beautiful, wherefore she kept it veiled in lightly-laced humility and fear, out of which peered anxiously and anon the white and blue and pale-gold of her face,-beautiful as daybreak or as the laughing of a child. She sat in the Hither Isles, well walled between the This and Now, upon a low and silver throne, and leaned upon its armposts, sadly looking upward toward the sun. Now the Hither Isles are flat and cold and swampy, with drear-drab light and all manner of slimy, creeping things, and piles of dirt and clouds of flying dust and sordid scraping and feeding and noise.

She hated them and ever as her hands and busy feet swept back the dust and slime her soul sat silver-throned, staring toward the great hill to the westward, which shone so brilliant-golden beneath the sunlight and above the sea.

The sea moaned and with it moaned the princess’ soul, for she was lonely,—very, very lonely, and full weary of the monotone of life. So she was glad to see a moving in Yonder Kingdom on the mountainside, where the sun shone warm, and when the king of Yonder Kingdom, silken in robe and golden-crowned and warded by his hound, walked down along the restless waters and sat beside the armpost of her throne, she wondered why she could not love him and fly with him up the shining mountain’s side, out of the dirt and dust that nested between the This and Now. She looked at him and tried to be glad, for he was bonny and good to look upon, this king of Yonder Kingdom,—tall and straight, thin-lipped and white and tawny. So, again, this last day, she strove to burn life into his singularly sodden clay,—to put his icy soul aflame wherewith to warm her own, to set his senses singing. Vacantly he heard her winged words, staring and curling his long mustaches with vast thoughtfulness. Then he said:

“We’ve found more gold in Yonder Kingdom.”

“Hell seize your gold!” blurted the princess.

“No,—it’s mine,” he maintained stolidly.

She raised her eyes. “It belongs,” she said, “to the Empire of the Sun.”

“Nay,—the Sun belongs to us,” said the king calmly as he glanced to where Yonder Kingdom blushed above the sea. She glanced, too, and a softness crept into her eyes.

“No, no,” she murmured as with hesitating pause she raised her eyes above the sea, above the hill, up into the sky where the sun hung silent and splendid. Its robes were heaven’s blue, lined and broidered in living flame, and its crown was one vast jewel, glistening in glittering glory that made the sun’s own face a blackness,—the blackness of utter light. With blinded, tear-filled eyes she peered into that formless black and burning face and sensed in its soft, sad gleam unfathomed understanding. With sudden, wild abandon she stretched her arms toward it appealing, beseeching, entreating, and lo!

“Niggers and dagoes,” said the king of Yonder Kingdom, glancing carelessly backward and lighting in his lips a carefully rolled wisp of fragrant tobacco. She looked back, too, but in half-wondering terror, for it seemed—

A beggar man was creeping across the swamp, shuffling through the dirt and slime. He was little and bald and black, rough-clothed, sodden with dirt, and bent with toil. Yet withal something she sensed about him and it seemed,—

The king of Yonder Kingdom lounged more comfortably beside the silver throne and let curl a tiny trail of light-blue smoke.

“I hate beggars,” he said, “especially brown and black ones.” And he then pointed at the beggar’s retinue and laughed,—an unpleasant laugh, welded of contempt and amusement. The princess looked and shrank on her throne. He, the beggar man, was—was what? But his retinue,—that squalid, sordid, parti-colored band of vacant, dull-faced filth and viciousness—was writhing over the land, and he and they seemed almost crouching underneath the scorpion lash of one tall skeleton, that looked like Death, and the twisted woman whom men called Pain. Yet they all walked as one.

The King of Yonder Kingdom laughed, but the princess shrank on her throne, and the king on seeing her thus took a gold-piece from out of his purse and tossed it carelessly to the passing throng. She watched it with fascinated eyes,—how it rose and sailed and whirled and struggled in the air, then seemed to burst, and upward flew its light and sheen and downward dropped its dross. She glanced at the king, but he was lighting a match. She watched the dross wallow in the slime, but the sunlight fell on the back of the beggar’s neck, and he turned his head.

The beggar passing afar turned his head and the princess straightened on her throne; he turned his head and she shivered forward on her silver seat; he looked upon her full and slow and suddenly she saw within that formless black and burning face the same soft, glad gleam of utter understanding, seen so many times before. She saw the suffering of endless years and endless love that softened it. She saw the burning passion of the sun and with it the cold, unbending duty-deeds of upper air. All she had seen and dreamed of seeing in the rising, blazing sun she saw now again and with it myriads more of human tenderness, of longing, and of love. So, then, she knew. She rose as to a dream come true, with solemn face and waiting eyes.

With her rose the king of Yonder Kingdom, almost eagerly.

“You’ll come?” he cried. “You’ll come and see my gold?” And then in sudden generosity, he added: “You’ll have a golden throne,-up there-when we marry.”

But she, looking up and on with radiant face, answered softly: “I come.”

So down and up and on they mounted,-the black beggar man and his cavalcade of Death and Pain, and then a space; and then a lone, black hound that nosed and whimpered as he ran, and then a space; and then the king of Yonder Kingdom in his robes, and then a space; and last the princess of the Hither Isles, with face set sunward and lovelight in her eyes.

And so they marched and struggled on and up through endless years and spaces and ever the black beggar looked back past death and pain toward the maid and ever the maid strove forward with lovelit eyes, but ever the great and silken shoulders of the king of Yonder Kingdom arose between the princess and the sun like a cloud of storms.

Now, finally, they neared unto the hillsides topmost shoulder and there most eagerly the king bent to the bowels of the earth and bared its golden entrails,-all green and gray and rusted-while the princess strained her pitiful eyes aloft to where the beggar, set ‘twixt Death and Pain, whirled his slim back against the glory of the setting sun and stood somber in his grave majesty, enhaloed and transfigured, outstretching his long arms, and around all heaven glittered jewels in a cloth of gold.

A while the princess stood and moaned in mad amaze, then with one wilful wrench she bared the white flowers of her breast and snatching forth her own red heart held it with one hand aloft while with the other she gathered close her robe and poised herself.

The king of Yonder Kingdom looked upward quickly, curiously, still fingering the earth, and saw the offer of her bleeding heart.

“It’s a Negro!” he growled darkly; “it may not be.”

The woman quivered.

“It’s a nigger!” he repeated fiercely. “It’s neither God nor man, but a nigger!”

The princess stepped forward.

The king grasped his sword and looked north and east; he raised his sword and looked south and west.

“I seek the sun,” the princess sang, and started into the west.

“Never!” cried the king of Yonder Kingdom, “for such were blasphemy and defilement and the making of all evil.”

So, raising his great sword he struck with all his might, and more. Down hissed the blow and it bit that little, white, heart-holding hand until it flew armless and disbodied up through the sunlit air. Down hissed the blow and it clove the whimpering hound until his last shriek shook the stars. Down hissed the blow and it rent the earth. It trembled, fell apart, and yawned to a chasm wide as earth from heaven, deep as hell, and empty, cold, and silent.

On yonder distant shore blazed the mighty Empire of the Sun in warm and blissful radiance, while on this side, in shadows cold and dark, gloomed the Hither Isles and the hill that once was golden, but now was green and slimy dross; all below was the sad and moaning sea, while between the Here and There flew the severed hand and dripped the bleeding heart.

Then up from the soul of the princess welled a cry of dark despair,—such a cry as only babe-raped mothers know and murdered loves. Poised on the crumbling edge of that great nothingness the princess hung, hungering with her eyes and straining her fainting ears against the awful splendor of the sky.

Out from the slime and shadows groped the king, thundering: “Back—don’t be a fool!”

But down through the thin ether thrilled the still and throbbing warmth of heaven’s sun, whispering “Leap!”

And the princess leapt.


You can find this story in “Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil” on Project Gutenberg. Find more information about Du Bois in his biography at The Poetry Foundation.

Join us tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!