ON the eastern edge of Hooker's Bend, drawn in a rough semicircle around the Big Hill, lies Niggertown. In all the half-moon there are perhaps not two upright buildings. The grimy cabins lean at crazy angles, some propped with poles, while others hold out against gravitation at a hazard.
Up and down its street flows the slow negro life of the village. Here children of all colors from black to cream fight and play; deep-chested negresses loiter to and fro, some on errands to the white section of the village on the other side of the hill, where they go to scrub or cook or wash or iron. Others go down to the public well with a bucket in each hand and one balanced on the head.
The public well itself lies at the southern end of this miserable street, just at a point where the drainage of the Big Hill collects. The rainfall runs down through Niggertown, under its sties, stables, and outdoor toilets, and the well supplies the negroes with water for cooking, washing, and drinking. Or, rather, what was once a well supplies this water, for it is a well no longer. Its top and curbing caved in long ago, and now there is simply a big hole in the soft, water-soaked clay, about fifteen feet wide, with water standing at the bottom.
Here come the unhurried colored women, who throw in their buckets, and with a dexterity that comes of long practice draw them out full of water. Black mothers shout at their children not to fall into this pit, and now and then, when a pig fails to come up for its evening slops, a black boy will go to the public well to see if perchance his porker has met misfortune there.
The inhabitants of Niggertown suffer from divers diseases; they develop strange ailments that no amount of physicking will overcome; young wives grow sickly from no apparent cause. Although only three or four hundred persons live in Niggertown, two or three negroes are always slowly dying of tuberculosis; winter brings pneumonia; summer, malaria. About once a year the state health officer visits Hooker's Bend and forces the white soda-water dispensers on the other side of the hill to sterilize their glasses in the name of the sovereign State of Tennessee.
The Siner home was a three-room shanty about midway in the semicircle. Peter Siner stood in the sunlight just outside the entrance, watching his old mother clean the bugs out of a tainted ham that she had bought for a pittance from some white housekeeper in the village. It had been too high for white people to eat. Old Caroline patiently tapped the honeycombed meat to scare out the last of the little green householders, and then she washed it in a solution of soda to freshen it up.
The sight of his bulky old mother working at the spoiled ham and of the negro women in the street moving to and from the infected well filled Peter Siner with its terrible pathos. Although he had seen these surroundings all of his life, he had a queer impression that he was looking upon them for the first time. During his boyhood he had accepted all this without question as the way the world was made. During his college days a criticism had arisen in his mind, but it came slowly, and was tempered by that tenderness every one feels for the spot called home. Now, as he stood looking at it, he wondered how human beings lived there at all. He wondered if Ida May used water from the Niggertown well.
He turned to ask old Caroline, but checked himself with a man's instinctive avoidance of mentioning his intimacies to his mother. At that moment, oddly enough, the old negress brought up the topic herself.
“Ida May wuz 'quirin' 'bout you las' night, Peter.”
A faint tingle filtered through Peter's throat and chest, but he asked casually enough what she had said.
“Didn' say; she wrote.”
Peter looked around, frankly astonished.
“Yeah; co'se she wrote.”
“What made her write?” a fantasy of Ida May dumb flickered before the mulatto.
“Why, Ida May's in Nashville.” Caroline looked at Peter. “She wrote to Cissie, astin' 'bout you. She ast is you as bright in yo' books as you is in yo' color.” The old negress gave a pleased abdominal chuckle as she admired her broad-shouldered brown son.
“But I saw Ida May standing on the wharf-boat the day I came home,” protested Peter, still bewildered.
“No you ain't. I reckon you seen Cissie. Dey looks kind o' like when you is fur off.”
“Cissie?” repeated Peter. Then he remembered a smaller sister of Ida May's, a little, squalling, yellow, wet-nosed nuisance that had annoyed his adolescence. So that little spoil-sport had grown up into the girl he had mistaken for Ida May. This fact increased his sense of strangeness—that sense of great change that had fallen on the village in his absence which formed the groundwork of all his renewed associations.
Peter's prolonged silence aroused certain suspicions in the old negress. She glanced at her son out of the tail of her eyes.
“Cissie Dildine is Tump Pack's gal,” she stated defensively, with the jealousy all mothers feel toward all sons.
A diversion in the shouts of the children up the mean street and a sudden furious barking of dogs drew Peter from the discussion. He looked up, and saw a negro girl of about fourteen coming down the curved street, with long, quick steps and an occasional glance over her shoulder.
From across the thoroughfare a small chocolate-colored woman, with her wool done in outstanding spikes, thrust her head out at the door and called:
“Whut's de matter, Ofeely?”
The girl lifted a high voice:
“Oh, Miss Nan, it's that constable goin' th'ugh the houses!” The girl veered across the street to the safety of the open door and one of her own sex.
“Good Lawd!” cried the spiked one in disgust, “ever', time a white pusson gits somp'n misplaced—” She moved to one side to allow the girl to enter, and continued staring up the street, with the whites of her eyes accented against her dark face, after the way of angry negroes.
Around the crescent the dogs were furious. They were Niggertown dogs, and the sight of a white man always drove them to a frenzy. Presently in the hullabaloo, Peter heard Dawson Bobbs's voice shouting:
“Aunt Mahaly, if you kain't call off this dawg, I'm shore goin' to kill him.”
Then an old woman's scolding broke in and complicated the mêlée. Presently Peter saw the bulky form of Dawson Bobbs come around the curve, moving methodically from cabin to cabin. He held some legal-looking papers in his hands, and Peter knew what the constable was doing. He was serving a blanket search-warrant on the whole black population of Hooker's Bend. At almost every cabin a dog ran out to blaspheme at the intruder, but a wave of the man's pistol sent them yelping under the floors again.
When the constable entered a house, Peter could hear him bumping and rattling among the furnishings, while the black householders stood outside the door and watched him disturb their housekeeping arrangements.
Presently Bobbs came angling across the street toward the Siner cabin. As he entered the rickety gate, old Caroline called out:
“Whut is you after, anyway, white man?”
Bobbs turned cold, truculent eyes on the old negress. “A turkey roaster,” he snapped. “Some o' you niggers stole Miss Lou Arkwright's turkey roaster.”
“Tukky roaster!” cried the old black woman, in great disgust. “Whut you s'pose us niggers is got to roast in a tukky roaster?”
The constable answered shortly that his business was to find the roaster, not what the negroes meant to put in it.
“I decla',” satirized old Caroline, savagely, “dish-heah Niggertown is a white man's pocket. Ever' time he misplace somp'n, he feel in his pocket to see ef it ain't thaiuh. Don'-chu turn over dat sody-water, white man! You know dey ain't no tukky roaster under dat sody-water. I 'cla' 'fo' Gawd, ef a white man wuz to eat a flapjack, an' it did n' give him de belly-ache, I 'cla' 'fo' Gawd he'd git out a search-wa'nt to see ef some nigger had n' stole dat flapjack goin' down his th'oat.”
“Mr. Bobbs has to do his work, Mother,” put in Peter. “I don't suppose he enjoys it any more than we do.”
“Den let 'im git out'n dis business an' git in anudder,” scolded the old woman. “Dis sho is a mighty po' business.”
The ponderous Mr. Bobbs finished with a practised thoroughness his inspection of the cabin, and then the inquisition proceeded down the street, around the crescent, and so out of sight and eventually out of hearing.
Old Caroline snapped her chair back beside her greasy table and sat down abruptly to her spoiled ham again.
“Dat make me mad,” she grumbled. “Ever' time a white pusson fail to lay dey han' on somp'n, dey comes an' turns over ever'thing in my house.” She paused a moment, closed her eyes in thought, and then mused aloud: “I wonder who is got Miss Arkwright's roaster.”
The commotion of the constable's passing died in his wake, and Niggertown resumed its careless existence. Dogs reappeared from under the cabins and stretched in the sunshine; black children came out of hiding and picked up their play; the frightened Ophelia came out of Nan's cabin across the street and went her way; a lanky negro youth in blue coat and pin-striped trousers appeared, coming down the squalid thoroughfare whistling the “Memphis Blues” with bird-like virtuosity. The lightness with which Niggertown accepted the moral side glance of a blanket search-warrant depressed Siner.
Caroline called her son to dinner, as the twelve-o'clock meal is called in Hooker's Bend, and so ended his meditation. The Harvard man went back into the kitchen and sat down at a rickety table covered with a red-checked oil-cloth. On it were spread the spoiled ham, a dish of poke salad, a corn pone, and a pot of weak coffee. A quaint old bowl held some brown sugar. The fat old negress made a slight, habitual settling movement in her chair that marked the end of her cooking and the beginning of her meal. Then she bent her grizzled, woolly head and mumbled off one of those queer old-fashioned graces which consist of a swift string of syllables without pauses between either words or sentences.
Peter sat watching his mother with a musing gaze. The kitchen was illuminated by a single small square window set high up from the floor. Now the disposition of its single ray of light over the dishes and the bowed head of the massive negress gave Peter one of those sharp, tender apprehensions of formal harmony that lie back of the genre in art. It stirred his emotion in an odd fashion. When old Caroline raised her head, she found her son staring with impersonal eyes not at herself, but at the whole room, including her. The old woman was perplexed and a little apprehensive.
“Why, son!” she ejaculated, “didn' you bow yo' haid while yo' mammy ast de grace?”
Peter was a little confused at his remissness. Then he leaned a little forward to explain the sudden glamour which for a moment had transfigured the interior of their kitchen. But even as he started to speak, he realized that what he meant to say would only confuse his mother; therefore he cast about mentally for some other explanation of his behavior, but found nothing at hand.
“I hope you ain't forgot yo' 'ligion up at de 'versity, son.”
“Oh, no, no, indeed, Mother, but just at that moment, just as you bowed your head, you know, it struck me that—that there is something noble in our race.” That was the best he could put it to her.
“Yes. You know,” he went on a little quickly, “sometimes I—I've thought my father must have been a noble man.”
The old negress became very still. She was not looking quite at her son, or yet precisely away from him.
“Uh—uh noble nigger,”—she gave her abdominal chuckle. “Why—yeah, I reckon yo' father wuz putty noble as—as niggers go.” She sat looking at her son, oddly, with a faint amusement in her gross black face, when a careful voice, a very careful voice, sounded in the outer room, gliding up politely on the syllables:
“Ahnt Carolin'! oh, Ahnt Carolin', may I enter?”
The old woman stirred.
“Da' 's Cissie, Peter. Go ast her in to de fambly-room.”
When Siner opened the door, the vague resemblance of the slender, creamy girl on the threshold to Ida May again struck him; but Cissie Dildine was younger, and her polished black hair lay straight on her pretty head, and was done in big, shining puffs over her ears in a way that Ida May's unruly curls would never have permitted. Her eyes were the most limpid brown Peter had ever seen, but her oval face was faintly unnatural from the use of negro face powder, which colored women insist on, and which gives their yellows and browns a barely perceptible greenish hue. Cissie wore a fluffy yellow dress some three shades deeper than the throat and the glimpse of bosom revealed at the neck.
The girl carried a big package in her arms, and now she manipulated this to put out a slender hand to Peter.
“This is Cissie Dildine, Mister Siner.” She smiled up at him. “I just came over to put my name down on your list. There was such a mob at the Benevolence Hall last night I couldn't get to you.”
The girl had a certain finical precision to her English that told Peter she had been away to some school, and had been taught to guard her grammar very carefully as she talked.
Peter helped her inside amid the handshake and said he would go fetch the list. As he turned, Cissie offered her bundle. “Here is something I thought might be a little treat for you and Ahnt Carolin'.” She paused, and then explained remotely, “Sometimes it is hard to get good things at the village market.”
Peter took the package, vaguely amused at Cissie's patronage of the Hooker's Bend market. It was an attitude instinctively assumed by every girl, white or black, who leaves the village and returns. The bundle was rather large and wrapped in newspapers. He carried it into the kitchen to his mother, and then returned with the list.
The sheet was greasy from the handling of black fingers. The girl spread it on the little center-table with a certain daintiness, seated herself, and held out her hand for Peter's pencil. She made rather a graceful study in cream and yellow as she leaned over the table and signed her name in a handwriting as perfect and as devoid of character as a copy-book. She began discussing the speech Peter had made at the Benevolence Hall.
“I don't know whether I am in favor of your project or not, Mr. Siner,” she said as she rose from the table.
“No?” Peter was surprised and amused at her attitude and at her precise voice.
“No, I'm rather inclined toward Mr. DuBois's theory of a literary culture than toward Mr. Washington's for a purely industrial training.”
Peter broke out laughing.
“For the love of Mike, Cissie, you talk like the instructor in Sociology B! And haven't we met before somewhere? This 'Mister Siner' stuff—”
The girl's face warmed under its faint, greenish powder.
“If I aren't careful with my language, Peter,” she said simply, “I'll be talking just as badly as I did before I went to the seminary. You know I never hear a proper sentence in Hooker's Bend except my own.”
A certain resignation in the girl's soft voice brought Peter a qualm for laughing at her. He laid an impulsive hand on her young shoulder.
“Well, that's true, certainly, but it won't always be like that, Cissie. More of us go off to school every year. I do hope my school here in Hooker's Bend will be of some real value. If I could just show our people how badly we fare here, how ill housed, and unsanitary—”
The girl pressed Peter's fingers with a woman's optimism for a man.
“You'll succeed, Peter, I know you will. Some day the name Siner will mean the same thing to coloured people as Tanner and Dunbar and Braithwaite do. Anyway, I've put my name down for ten dollars to help out.” She returned the pencil. “I'll have Tump Pack come around and pay you my subscription, Peter.”
“I'll watch out for Tump,” promised Peter in a lightening mood, “—and make him pay.”
“He'll do it.”
“I don't doubt it. You ought to have him under perfect control. I meant to tell you what a pretty frock you have on.”
The girl dimpled, and dropped him a little curtsy, half ironical and wholly graceful.
Peter was charmed.
“Now keep that way, Cissie, smiling and human, not so grammatical. I wish I had a brooch.”
“I'd give it to you. Your dress needs a brooch, an old gold brooch at the bosom, just a glint there to balance your eyes.”
Cissie flushed happily, and made the feminine movement of concealing the V-shaped opening at her throat.
“It's a pleasure to doll up for a man like you, Peter. You see a girl's good points—if she has any,” she tacked on demurely.
“Oh, just any man—”
“Don't think it! Don't think it!” waved down Cissie, humorously.
“But, Cissie, how is it possible—”
“Just blind.” Cissie rippled into a boarding-school laugh. “I could wear the whole rue del Opera here in Niggertown, and nobody would ever see it but you.”
Cissie was moving toward the door. Peter tried to detain her. He enjoyed the implication of Tump Pack's stupidity, in their badinage, but she would not stay. He was finally reduced to thanking her for her present, then stood guard as she tripped out into the grimy street. In the sunshine her glossy black hair and canary dress looked as trim and brilliant as the plumage of a chaffinch.
Peter Siner walked back into the kitchen with the fixed smile of a man who is thinking of a pretty girl. The black dowager in the kitchen received him in silence, with her thick lips pouted. When Peter observed it, he felt slightly amused at his mother's resentment.
“Well, you sho had a lot o' chatter over signin' a lil ole paper.”
“She signed for ten dollars,” said Peter, smiling.
“Huh! she'll never pay it.”
“Said Tump Pack would pay it.”
“Huh!” The old negress dropped the subject, and nodded at a huge double pan on the table. “Dat's whut she brung you.” She grunted disapprovingly.
“And it's for you, too, Mother.”
“Ya-as, I 'magine she brung somp'n fuh me.”
Peter walked across to the double pans, and saw they held a complete dinner—chicken, hot biscuits, cake, pickle, even ice-cream.
The sight of the food brought Peter a realization that he was keenly hungry. As a matter of fact, he had not eaten a palatable meal since he had been evicted from the white dining-car at Cairo, Illinois. Siner served his own and his mother's plate.
The old woman sniffed again.
“Seems to me lak you is mighty onobsarvin' fuh a nigger whut's been off to college.”
“Anything else?” Peter looked into the pans again.
“Ain't you see whut it's all in?”
“What it's in?”
“Yeah; whut it's in. You heared whut I said.”
“What is it in?”
“Why, it's in Miss Arkwright's tukky roaster, dat's whut it's in.” The old negress drove her point home with an acid accent.
Peter Siner was too loyal to his new friendship with Cissie Dildine to allow his mother's jealous suspicions to affect him; nevertheless the old woman's observations about the turkey roaster did prevent a complete and care-free enjoyment of the meal. Certainly there were other turkey roasters in Hooker's Bend than Mrs. Arkwright's. Cissie might very well own a roaster. It was absurd to think that Cissie, in the midst of her almost pathetic struggle to break away from the uncouthness of Niggertown, would stoop to—Even in his thoughts Peter avoided nominating the charge.
And then, somehow, his memory fished up the fact that years ago Ida May, according to village rumor, was “light-fingered.” At that time in Peter's life “light-fingeredness” carried with it no opprobrium whatever. It was simply a fact about Ida May, as were her sloe eyes and curling black hair. His reflections renewed his perpetual sense of queerness and strangeness that hall-marked every phase of Niggertown life since his return from the North.
Cissie Dildine's contribution tailed out the one hundred dollars that Peter needed, and after he had finished his meal, the mulatto set out across the Big Hill for the white section of the village, to complete his trade.
It was Peter's program to go to the Planter's Bank, pay down his hundred, and receive a deed from one Elias Tomwit, which the bank held in escrow. Two or three days before Peter had tried to borrow the initial hundred from the bank, but the cashier, Henry Hooker, after going into the transaction, had declined the loan, and therefore Siner had been forced to await a meeting of the Sons and Daughters of Benevolence. At this meeting the subscription had gone through promptly. The land the negroes purposed to purchase for an industrial school was a timbered tract tying southeast of Hooker's Bend on the head-waters of Ross Creek. A purchase price of eight hundred dollars had been agreed upon. The timber on the tract, sold on the stump, would bring almost that amount. It was Siner's plan to commandeer free labor in Niggertown, work off the timber, and have enough money to build the first unit of his school. A number of negro men already had subscribed a certain number of days' work in the timber. It was a modest and entirely practical program, and Peter felt set up over it.
The brown man turned briskly out into the hot afternoon sunshine, down the mean semicircular street, where piccaninnies were kicking up clouds of dust. He hurried through the dusty area, and presently turned off a by-path that led over the hill, through a glade of cedars, to the white village.
The glade was gloomy, but warm, for the shade of cedars somehow seems to hold heat. A carpet of needles hushed Siner's footfalls and spread a Sabbatical silence through the grove. The upward path was not smooth, but was broken with outcrops of the same reddish limestone that marks the whole stretch of the Tennessee River. Here and there in the grove were circles eight or ten feet in diameter, brushed perfectly clean of all needles and pebbles and twigs. These places were crap-shooters' circles, where black and white men squatted to shoot dice.
Under the big stones on the hillside, Peter knew, was cached illicit whisky, and at night the boot-leggers carried on a brisk trade among the gamblers. More than that, the glade on the Big Hill was used for still more demoralizing ends. It became a squalid grove of Ashtoreth; but now, in the autumn evening, all the petty obscenities of white and black sloughed away amid the religious implications of the dark-green aisles.
The sight of a white boy sitting on an outcrop of limestone with a strap of school-books dropped at his feet rather surprised Peter. The negro looked at the hobbledehoy for several seconds before he recognized in the lanky youth a little Arkwright boy whom he had known and played with in his pre-college days. Now there was such an exaggerated wistfulness in young Arkwright's attitude that Peter was amused.
“Hello, Sam,” he called. “What you doing out here?”
The Arkwright boy turned with a start.
“Aw, is that you, Siner?” Before the negro could reply, he added: “Was you on the Harvard football team, Siner? Guess the white fellers have a pretty gay time in Harvard, don't they, Siner? Geemenettie! but I git tired o' this dern town! D' reckon I could make the football team? Looks like I could if a nigger like you could, Siner.”
None of this juvenile outbreak of questions required answers. Peter stood looking at the hobbledehoy without smiling.
“Aren't you going to school?” he asked.
“Aw, hell!” he said self-consciously. “We got marched down to the protracted meetin' while ago—whole school did. My seat happened to be close to a window. When they all stood up to sing, I crawled out and skipped. Don't mention that, Siner.”
“When a fellow goes to college he don't git marched to preachin', does he, Siner?”
“I never did.”
“We-e-ll,” mused young Sam, doubtfully, “you're a nigger.”
“I never saw any white men marched in, either.”
“Oh, hell! I wish I was in college.”
“What are you sitting out here thinking about?” inquired Peter of the ingenuous youngster.
“Oh—football and—women and God and—how to stack cards. You think about ever'thing, in the woods. Damn it! I got to git out o' this little jay town. D' reckon I could git in the navy, Siner?”
“Don't see why you couldn't, Sam. Have you seen Tump Pack anywhere?”
“Yeah; on Hobbett's corner. Say, is Cissie Dildine at home?”
“I believe she is.”
“She cooks for us,” explained young Arkwright, “and Mammy wants her to come and git supper, too.”
The phrase “get supper, too,” referred to the custom in the white homes of Hooker's Bend of having only two meals cooked a day, breakfast and the twelve-o'clock dinner, with a hot supper optional with the mistress.
Peter nodded, and passed on up the path, leaving young Arkwright seated on the ledge of rock, a prey to all the boiling, erratic impulses of adolescence. The negro sensed some of the innumerable difficulties of this white boy's life, and once, as he walked on over the silent needles, he felt an impulse to turn back and talk to young Sam Arkwright, to sit down and try to explain to the youth what he could of this hazardous adventure called Life. But then, he reflected, very likely the boy would be offended at a serious talk from a negro. Also, he thought that young Arkwright, being white, was really not within the sphere of his ministry. He, Peter Siner, was a worker in the black world of the South. He was part of the black world which the white South was so meticulous to hide away, to keep out of sight and out of thought.
A certain vague sense of triumph trickled through some obscure corner of Peter's mind. It was so subtle that Peter himself would have been the first, in all good faith, to deny it and to affirm that all his motives were altruistic. Once he looked back through the cedars. He could still see the boy hunched over, chin in fist, staring at the mat of needles.
As Peter turned the brow of the Big Hill, he saw at its eastern foot the village church, a plain brick building with a decaying spire. Its side was perforated by four tall arched windows. Each was a memorial window of stained glass, which gave the building a black look from the outside. As Peter walked down the hill toward the church he heard the and somewhat nasal singing of uncultivated voices mingled with the snoring of a reed organ.
When he reached Main Street, Peter found the whole business portion virtually deserted. All the stores were closed, and in every show-window stood a printed notice that no business would be transacted between the hours of two and three o'clock in the afternoon during the two weeks of revival then in progress. Beside this notice stood another card, giving the minister's text for the current day. On this particular day it read:
GO YE INTO ALL THE WORLD
Come hear Rev. E.B. Blackwater's great
Missionary Address on
ELOQUENT, PROFOUND, HEART-SEARCHING.
ILLUSTRATED WITH SLIDES.
Half a dozen negroes lounged in the sunshine on Hobbett's corner as Peter came up. They were amusing themselves after the fashion of blacks, with mock fights, feints, sudden wrestlings. They would seize one another by the head and grind their knuckles into one another's wool. Occasionally, one would leap up and fall into one of those grotesque shuffles called “breakdowns.” It all held a certain rawness, an irrepressible juvenility.
As Peter came up, Tump Pack detached himself from the group and gave a pantomime of thrusting. He was clearly reproducing the action which had won for him his military medal. Then suddenly he fell down in the dust and writhed. He was mimicking with a ghastly realism the death-throes of his four victims. His audience howled with mirth at this dumb show of the bayonet-fight and of killing four men. Tump himself got up out of the dust with tears of laughter in his eyes. Peter caught the end of his sentence, “Sho put it to 'em, black boy. Fo' white men—”
His audience roared again, swayed around, and pounded one another in an excess of mirth.
Siner shouted from across the street two or three times before he caught Tump's attention. The ex-soldier looked around, sobered abruptly.
“Whut-chu want, nigger?” His inquiry was not over-cordial.
Peter nodded him across the street.
The heavily built black in khaki hesitated a moment, then started across the street with the dragging feet of a reluctant negro. Peter looked at him as he came up.
“What's the matter, Tump?” he asked playfully.
“Ain't nothin' matter wid me, nigger.”
Peter made a guess at Tump's surliness.
“Look here, are you puffed up because Cissie Dildine struck you for a ten?”
Tump's expression changed.
“Is she struck me fuh a ten?”
“Yes; on that school subscription.”
“Is dat whut you two niggers wuz a-talkin' 'bout over thaiuh in yo' house?”
“Exactly.” Peter showed the list, with Cissie's name on it. “She told me to collect from you.”
Tump brightened up.
“So dat wuz whut you two niggers wuz a-talkin' 'bout over at yo' house.” He ran a fist down into his khaki, and drew out three or four one-dollar bills and about a pint of small change. It was the usual crap-shooter's offering. The two negroes sat down on the ramshackle porch of an old jeweler's shop, and Tump began a complicated tally of ten dollars.
By the time he had his dimes, quarters, and nickels in separate stacks, services in the village church were finished, and the congregation came filing up the street. First came the school-children, running and chattering and swinging their books by the straps; then the business men of the hamlet, rather uncomfortable in coats and collars, hurrying back to their stores; finally came the women, surrounding the preacher.
Tump and Peter walked on up to the entrance of the Planter's Bank and there awaited Mr. Henry Hooker, the cashier. Presently a skinny man detached himself from the church crowd and came angling across the dirty street toward the bank. Mr. Hooker wore somewhat shabby clothes for a banker; in fact, he never could recover from certain personal habits formed during a penurious boyhood. He had a thin hatchet face which just at this moment was shining though from some inward glow. Although he was an unhandsome little man, his expression was that of one at peace with man and God and was pleasant to see. He had been so excited by the minister that he was constrained to say something even to two negroes. So as he unlocked the little one-story bank, he told Tump and Peter that he had been listening to a man who was truly a man of God. He said Blackwater could touch the hardest heart, and, sure enough, Mr. Hooker's rather popped and narrow-set eyes looked as though he had been crying.
All this encomium was given in a high, cracked voice as the cashier opened the door and turned the negroes into the bank. Tump, who stood with his hat off, listening to all the cashier had to say, said he thought so, too.
The shabby interior of the little bank, the shabby little banker, renewed that sense of disillusion that pervaded Peter's home-coming. In Boston the mulatto had done his slight banking business in a white marble structure with tellers of machine-like briskness and neatness.
Mr. Hooker strolled around into his grill-cage; when he was thoroughly ensconced he began business in his high voice:
“You came to see me about that land, Peter?”
“Sorry to tell you, Peter, you are not back in time to get the Tomwit place.”
Peter came out of his musing over the Boston banks with a sense of bewilderment.
“How's that? why, I bought that land—”
“But you paid nothing for your option, Siner.”
“I had a clear-cut understanding with Mr. Tomwit—”
Mr. Hooker smiled a smile that brought out sharp wrinkles around the thin nose on his thin face.
“You should have paid him an earnest, Siner, if you wanted to bind your trade. You colored folks are always stumbling over the law.”
Peter stared through the grating, not knowing what to do.
“I'll go see Mr. Tomwit,” he said, and started uncertainly for the door.
The cashier's falsetto stopped him:
“No use, Peter. Mr. Tomwit surprised me, too, but no use talking about it. I didn't like to see such an important thing as the education of our colored people held up, myself. I've been thinking about it.”
“Especially when I had made a fair square trade,” put in Peter, warmly.
“Exactly,” squeaked the cashier. “And rather than let your project be delayed, I'm going to offer you the old Dillihay place at exactly the same price, Peter—eight hundred.”
“The Dillihay place?”
“Yes; that's west of town; it's bigger by twenty acres than old man Tomwit's place.”
Peter considered the proposition.
“I'll have to carry this before the Sons and Daughters of Benevolence, Mr. Hooker.”
The cashier repeated the smile that bracketed his thin nose in wrinkles.
“That's with you, but you know what you say goes with the niggers here in town, and, besides, I won't promise how long I'll hold the Dillihay place. Real estate is brisk around here now. I didn't want to delay a good work on account of not having a location.” Mr. Hooker turned away to a big ledger on a breast-high desk, and apparently was about to settle himself to the endless routine of bank work.
Peter knew the Dillihay place well. It lacked the timber of the other tract; still, it was fairly desirable. He hesitated before the tarnished grill.
“What do you think about it, Tump?”
“You won't make a mistake in buying,” answered the high voice of Mr. Hooker at his ledger.
“I don' think you'll make no mistake in buyin', Peter,” repeated Tump's bass.
Peter turned back a little uncertainly, and asked how long it would take to fix the new deed. He had a notion of making a flying canvass of the officers of the Sons and Daughters in the interim. He was surprised to find that Mr. Hooker already had the deed and the notes ready to sign, in anticipation of Peter's desires. Here the banker brought out the set of papers.
“I'll take it,” decided Peter; “and if the lodge doesn't want it, I'll keep the place myself.”
“I like to deal with a man of decision,” piped the cashier, a wrinkled smile on his sharp face.
Peter pushed in his bag of collections, then Mr. Hooker signed the deed, and Peter signed the land notes. They exchanged the instruments. Peter received the crisp deed, bound in blue manuscript cover. It rattled unctuously. To Peter it was his first step toward a second Tuskegee.
The two negroes walked out of the Planter's Bank filled with a sense of well-doing. Tump Pack was openly proud of having been connected, even in a casual way, with the purchase. As he walked down the steps, he turned to Peter.
“Don' reckon nobody could git a deed off on you wid stoppers in it, does you?”
“We don't know any such word as 'stop,' Tump,” declared Peter, gaily.
For Peter was gay. The whole incident at the bank was beginning to please him. The meeting of a sudden difficulty, his quick decision—it held the quality of leadership. Napoleon had it.
The two colored men stepped briskly through the afternoon sunshine along the mean village street. Here and there in front of their doorways sat the merchants yawning and talking, or watching pigs root in the piles of waste.
In Peter's heart came a wonderful thought. He would make his industrial institution such a model of neatness that the whole village of Hooker's Bend would catch the spirit. The white people should see that something clean and uplifting could come out of Niggertown. The two races ought to live for a mutual benefit. It was a fine, generous thought. For some reason, just then, there flickered through Peter's mind a picture of the Arkwright boy sitting hunched over in the cedar glade, staring at the needles.
All this musing was brushed away by the sight of old Mr. Tomwit crossing the street from the east side to the livery-stable on the west. That human desire of wanting the person who has wronged you to know that you know your injury moved Peter to hurry his steps and to speak to the old gentleman.
Mr. Tomwit had been a Confederate cavalryman in the Civil War, and there was still a faint breeze and horsiness about him. He was a hammered-down old gentleman, with hair thin but still jet-black, a seamed, sunburned face, and a flattened nose. His voice was always a friendly roar. Now, when he saw Peter turning across the street to meet him, he halted and called out at once:
“Now Peter, I know what's the matter with you. I didn't do you right.”
Peter went closer, not caring to take the whole village into his confidence.
“How came you to turn down my proposition, Mr. Tomwit,” he asked, “after we had agreed and drawn up the papers?”
“We-e-ell, I had to do it, Peter,” explained the old man, loudly.
“Why, Mr. Tomwit?”
“A white neighbor wanted me to, Peter,” boomed the cavalryman.
“Who, Mr. Tomwit?”
“Henry Hooker talked me into it, Peter. It was a mean trick, Peter. I done you wrong.” He stood nodding his head and rubbing his flattened nose in an impersonal manner. “Yes, I done you wrong, Peter,” he acknowledged loudly, and looked frankly into Peter's eyes.
The negro was immensely surprised that Henry Hooker had done such a thing. A thought came that perhaps some other Henry Hooker had moved into town in his absence.
“You don't mean the cashier of the bank?”
Old Mr. Tomwit drew out a plug of Black Mule tobacco, set some gapped, discolored teeth into corner, nodded at Peter silently, at the same time utilizing the nod to tear off a large quid. He rolled this about with his tongue and after a few moments adjusted it so that he could speak.
“Yeah,” he proceeded in a muffled tone, “they ain't but one Henry Hooker; he is the one and only Henry. He said if I sold you my land, you'd put up a nigger school and bring in so many blackbirds you'd run me clean off my farm. He said it'd ruin the whole town, a nigger school would.”
Peter was astonished.
“Why, he didn't talk that way to me!”
“Natchelly, natchelly,” agreed the old cavalryman, dryly.—“Henry has a different way to talk to ever' man, Peter.”
“In fact,” proceeded Peter, “Mr. Hooker sold me the old Dillihay place in lieu of the deal I missed with you.”
Old Mr. Tomwit moved his quid in surprise.
“The hell he did!”
“That at least shows he doesn't think a negro school would ruin the value of his land. He owns farms all around the Dillihay place.”
Old Mr. Tomwit turned his quid over twice and spat thoughtfully.
“That your deed in your pocket?” With the air of a man certain of being obeyed he held out his hand for the blue manuscript cover protruding from the mulatto's pocket. Peter handed it over. The old gentleman unfolded the deed, then moved it carefully to and from his eyes until the typewriting was adjusted to his focus. He read it slowly, with a movement of his lips and a drooling of tobacco-juice. Finally he finished, remarked, “I be damned!” in a deliberate voice, returned the deed, and proceeded across the street to the livery-stable, which was fronted by an old mulberry-tree, with several chairs under it. In one of these chairs he would sit for the remainder of the day, making an occasional loud remark about the weather or the crops, and watching the horses pass in and out of the stable.
Siner had vaguely enjoyed old Mr. Tomwit's discomfiture over the deed, if it was discomfiture that had moved the old gentleman to his sententious profanity. But the negro did not understand Henry Hooker's action at all. The banker had abused his position of trust as holder of a deed in escrow snapping up the sale himself; then he had sold Peter the Dillihay place. It was a queer shift.
Tump Pack caught his principal's mood with that chameleon-like mental quality all negroes possess.
“Dat Henry Hooker,” criticized Tump, “allus was a lil ole dried-up snake in de grass.”
“He abused his position of trust,” said Peter, gloomily; “I must say, his motives seem very obscure to me.”
“Dat sho am a fine way to put hit,” said Tump, admiringly.
“Why do you suppose he bought in the Tomwit tract and sold me the Dillihay place?”
Asked for an opinion, Tump began twiddling military medal and corrugated the skin on his inch-high brow.
“Now you puts it to me lak dat, Peter,” he answered with importance, “I wonders ef dat gimlet-haided white man ain't put some stoppers in dat deed he guv you. He mout of.”
Such remarks as that from Tump always annoyed Peter. Tump's intellectual method was to talk sense just long enough to gain his companion's ear, and then produce something absurd and quash the tentative interest.
Siner turned away from him and said, “Piffle.”
Tump was defensive at once.
“'T ain't piffle, either! I's talkin' sense, nigger.”
Peter shrugged, and walked a little way in silence, but the soldier's nonsense stuck in his brain and worried him. Finally he turned, rather irritably.
“Stoppers—what do you mean by stoppers?”
Tump opened his jet eyes and their yellowish whites. “I means nigger-stoppers,” he reiterated, amazed in his turn.
“Negro-stoppers—” Peter began to laugh sardonically, and abruptly quit the conversation.
Such rank superiority irritated the soldier to the nth power.
“Look heah, black man, I knows I is right. Heah, lonme look at dat-aiuh, deed. Maybe I can find 'em. I knows I suttinly is right.”
Peter walked on, paying no attention to the request Until Tump caught his arm and drew him up short.
“Look heah, nigger,” said Tump, in a different tone, “I faded dad deed fuh ten iron men, an' I reckon I got a once-over comin' fuh my money.”
The soldier was plainly mobilized and ready to attack. To fight Tump, to fight any negro at all, would be Peter's undoing; it would forfeit the moral leadership he hoped to gain. Moreover, he had no valid grounds for a disagreement with Tump. He passed over the deed, and the two negroes moved on their way to Niggertown.
Tump trudged forward with eyes glued to paper, his face puckered in the unaccustomed labor of reading.
His thick lips moved at the individual letters, and constructed them bunglingly into syllables and words. He was trying to uncover the verbal camouflage by which the astute white brushed away all rights of all black men whatsoever.
To Peter there grew up something sadly comical in Tump's efforts. The big negro might well typify all the colored folk of the South, struggling in a web of law and custom they did not understand, misplacing their suspicions, befogged and fearful. A certain penitence for having been irritated at Tump softened Peter.
“That's all right, Tump; there's nothing to find.”
At that moment the soldier began to bob his head.
“Eh! eh! eh! W-wait a minute!” he stammered. “Whut dis? B'lieve I done foun' it! I sho is! Heah she am! Heah's dis nigger-stopper, jes lak I tol' you!” Tump marked a sentence in the guaranty of the deed with a rusty forefinger and looked up at Peter in mixed triumph and accusation.
Peter leaned over the deed, amused.
“Let's see your mare's nest.”
“Well, she 'fo' God is thaiuh, an' you sho let loose a hundud dollars uv our 'ciety's money, an' got nothin' fuh hit but a piece o' paper wid a nigger-stopper on hit!”
Tump's voice was so charged with contempt that Peter looked with a certain uneasiness at his find. He read this sentence switched into the guaranty of the indenture:
“Be it further understood and agreed that no negro, black man, Afro-American, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, or any person whatsoever of colored blood or lineage, shall enter upon, seize, hold, occupy, reside upon, till, cultivate, own or possess any part or parcel of said property, or garner, cut, or harvest therefrom, any of the usufruct, timber, or emblements thereof, but shall by these presents be estopped from so doing forever.”
Tump Pack drew a shaken, unhappy breath.
“Now, I reckon you see whut a nigger-stopper is.”
Peter stood in the sunshine, looking at the estoppel clause, his lips agape. Twice he read it over. It held something of the quality of those comprehensive curses that occur in the Old Testament. He moistened his lips and looked at Tump.
“Why that can't be legal.” His voice sounded empty and shallow.
“Legal! 'Fo' Gawd, nigger, whauh you been to school all dese yeahs, never to heah uv a nigger-stopper befo'!”
“But—but how can a stroke of the pen, a mere gesture, estop a whole class of American citizens forever?” cried Peter, with a rising voice. “Turn it around. Suppose they had put in a line that no white man should own that land. It—it's empty! I tell you, it's mere words!”
Tump cut into his diatribe: “No use talkin' lak dat. Our 'ciety thought you wuz a aidjucated nigger. We didn't think no white man could put nothin' over on you.”
“Education!” snapped Siner. “Education isn't supposed to keep you away from shysters!”
“Keep you away fum 'em!” cried Tump, in a scandalized voice. “'Fo' Gawd, nigger, you don' know nothin'! O' co'se a aidjucation ain't to keep you away fum shysters; hit's to mek you one 'uv 'em!”
Peter stood breathing irregularly, looking at his deed. A determination not to be cheated grew up and hardened in his nerves. With unsteady hands he refolded his deed and put it into his pocket, then he turned about and started back up the village street toward the bank.
Tump stared after him a moment and presently called out:
“Heah, nigger, whut you gwine do?” A moment later he repeated to his friend's back: “Look heah, nigger, I 'vise you ag'inst anything you's gwine do, less'n you's ready to pass in you' checks!” As Peter strode on he lifted his voice still higher: “Peter! Hey, Peter, I sho' 'vise you 'g'inst anything you's 'gwine do!”
A pulse throbbed in Siner's temples. The wrath of the cozened heated his body. His clothes felt hot. As he strode up the trash-piled street, the white merchants lolling in their doors began smiling. Presently a laugh broke out at one end of the street and was caught up here and there. It was the undying minstrel jest, the comedy of a black face. Dawson Bobbs leaned against the wide brick entrance of the livery-stable, his red face balled into shining convexities by a quizzical smile.
“Hey, Peter,” he drawled, winking at old Mr. Tomwit, “been investin' in real estate?” and broke into Homeric laughter.
As Peter passed on, the constable dropped casually in behind the brown man and followed him up to the bank.
To Peter Siner the walk up to the bank was an emotional confusion. He has a dim consciousness that voices said things to him along the way and that there was laughter. All this was drowned by desperate thoughts and futile plans to regain his lost money, flashing through his head. The cashier would exchange the money for the deed; he would enter suit and carry it to the Supreme Court; he would show the money had not been his, he had had no right to buy; he would beg the cashier. His head seemed to spin around and around.
He climbed the steps into the Planter's Bank and opened the screen-door. The cashier glanced up briefly, but continued busily at his ledger.
Peter walked shakenly to the barred window in the grill.
“Very busy now, Peter,” came the high voice.
“I want to know about this deed.”
The banker was nimbly setting down long rows of figures. “No time to explain deeds, Peter.”
“But—but there is a clause in this deed, Mr. Hooter, estopping colored persons from occupying the Dillihay place.”
“Precisely. What about it?” Mr. Hooker snapped out his inquiry and looked up suddenly, catching Peter full in the face with his narrow-set eyes. It was the equivalent of a blow.
“According to this, I—I can't establish a school on it.”
“Then what can I do with it?” cried Peter.
“Sell it. You have what lawyers call a cloud on the title. Sell it. I'll give you ten dollars for your right in it, just to clear up my title.”
A queer trembling seized Peter. The little banker turned to a fantastic caricature of a man. His hatchet face, close-set eyes, harsh, straight hair, and squeaky voice made him seem like some prickly, dried-up gnome a man sees in a fever.
At that moment the little wicket-door of the window opened under the pressure of Peter's shoulder. Inside on the desk, lay neat piles of bills of all denominations, ready to be placed in the vault. In a nervous tremor Peter dropped in his blue-covered deed and picked up a hundred-dollar bill.
“I—I won't trade,” he jibbered. “It—it wasn't my money. Here's your deed!” Peter was moving away. He felt a terrific impulse to run, but he walked.
The banker straightened abruptly. “Stop there, Peter!” he screeched.
At that moment Dawson Bobbs lounged in at the door, with his perpetual grin balling up his broad red face. He had a toothpick, in his mouth.
“'S matter?” he asked casually.
“Peter there,” said the banker, with a pale, sharp face, “doesn't want to stick to his trade. He is just walking off with one of my hundred- dollar bills.”
“Sick o' yo' deal, Peter?” inquired Bobbs, smiling and shifting the toothpick. He bit down on it. “Well, whut-chu want done, Henry?”
“Oh,” hesitated the cashier in a quandary, “nothing, I suppose. Siner was excited; you know how niggers are. We can't afford to send every nigger to the pen that breaks the law.” He stood studying Peter out of his close-set eyes. “Here's your deed, Peter.” He shoved it back under the grill. “And lemme give you a little friendly advice. I'd just run an ordinary nigger school if I was you. This higher education don't seem to make a nigger much smarter when he comes back than when he starts out.” A faint smile bracketed the thin nose.
Dawson Bobbs roared with sudden appreciation, took the bill from Peter's fingers, and pushed it back under the grill.
The cashier picked up the money, casually. He considered a moment, then reached for a long envelop. As he did so, the incident with Peter evidently passed from his mind, for his hatchet face lighted up as with some inward illumination.
“Bobbs,” he said warmly, “that was a great sermon Brother Blackwater preached. It made me want to help according as the Lord has blessed me. Couldn't you spare five dollars, Bobbs, to go along with this?”
The constable tried to laugh and wriggle away, but the cashier's gimlet eyes kept boring him, and eventually he fished out a five-dollar bill and handed it in. Mr. Hooker placed the two bills in the envelop, sealed it, and handed it to the constable.
“Jest drop that in the post-office as you go down the street, Bobbs,” he directed in his high voice.
Peter caught a glimpse of the type-written address. It was
Rev. Lemuel Hardiman,
- c/o United Missions,
- Katuako Post,
- Bahr el Ghazal,
- East Africa.
- Bahr el Ghazal,
- Katuako Post,