Birthright/Chapter III

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In the Siner Cabin.png

In the Siner cabin old Caroline Siner berated her boy

CHAPTER III


THE white population of Hooker's Bend was much amused and gratified at the outcome of the Hooker-Siner land deal. Every one agreed that the cashier's chicanery was a droll and highly original turn to give to a negro exclusion clause drawn into a deed. Then, too, it involved several legal points highly congenial to the Hooker's Bend intellect. Could the Sons and Daughters of Benevolence recover their hundred dollars? Could Henry Hooker force them to pay the remaining seven hundred? Could not Siner establish his school on the Dillihay place regardless of the clause, since the cashier would be estopped from obtaining an injunction by his own instrument?

As a matter of fact, the Sons and Daughters of Benevolence sent a committee to wait on Mr. Hooker to see what action he meant to take on the notes that paid for his spurious deed. This brought another harvest of rumors. Street gossip reported that Henry had compromised for this, that, and the other amount, that he would not compromise, that he had persuaded the fool niggers into signing still other instruments. Peter never knew the truth. He was not on the committee.

But high above the legal phase of interest lay the warming fact that Peter Siner, a negro graduate of Harvard, on his first tilt in Hooker's Bend affairs had ridden to a fall. This pleased even the village women, whose minds could not follow the subtle trickeries of legal disputation. The whole affair simply proved what the white village had known all along: you can't educate a nigger. Hooker's Bend warmed with pleasure that half of its population was ineducable.

White sentiment in Hooker's Bend reacted strongly on Niggertown. Peter Siner's prestige was no more. The cause of higher education for negroes took a mighty slump. Junius Gholston, a negro boy who had intended to go to Nashville to attend Fisk University, reconsidered the matter, packed away his good clothes, put on overalls, and shipped down the river as a roustabout instead.

In the Siner cabin old Caroline Siner berated her boy for his stupidity in ever trading with that low-down, twisting snake in the grass, Henry Hooker. She alternated this with floods of tears. Caroline had no sympathy for her offspring. She said she had thrown away years of self- sacrifice, years of washing, a thousand little comforts her money would have bought, all for nothing, for less than nothing, to ship a fool nigger up North and to ship him back.

Of all Niggertown, Caroline was the most unforgiving because Peter had wounded her in her pride. Every other negro in the village felt that genial satisfaction in a great man's downfall that is balm to small souls. But the old mother knew not this consolation. Peter was her proxy. It was she who had fallen.

The only person in Niggertown who continued amiable to Peter Siner was Cissie Dildine. The octoroon, perhaps, had other criteria by which to judge a man than his success or mishaps dealing with a pettifogger.

Two or three days after the catastrophe, Cissie made an excursion to the Siner cabin with a plate of cookies. Cissie was careful to place her visit on exactly a normal footing. She brought her little cakes in the role of one who saw no evil, spoke no evil, and heard no evil. But somehow Cissie's visit increased the old woman's wrath. She remained obstinately in the kitchen, and made remarks not only audible, but arresting, through the thin partition that separated it from the poor living-room.

Cissie was hardly inside when a voice stated that it hated to see a gal running after a man, trying to bait him with a lot of fum-diddles.

Cissie gave Peter a single wide-eyed glance, and then attempted to ignore the bodiless comment.

“Here are some cookies, Mr. Siner,” began the girl, rather nervously. “I thought you and Ahnt Carolin'—”

“Yeah, I 'magine dey's fuh me!” jeered the spectral voice.

“Might like them,” concluded the girl, with a little gasp.

“I suttinly don' want no light-fingered hussy ma'yin' my son,” proceeded the voice, “an' de whole Dildine fambly 'll bear watchin'.”

“Won't you have a seat?” asked Peter, exquisitely uncomfortable.

Cissie handed him her plate in confusion.

“Why, no, Mr. Siner,” she hastened on, in her careful grammar, “I just—ran over to—”

“To fling herse'f in a nigger's face 'cause he's been North and got made a fool uv,” boomed the hidden censor.

“I must go now,” gasped Cissie.

Peter made a harried gesture.

“Wait—wait till I get my hat.”

He put the plate down with a swift glance around for his hat. He found it, and strode to the door, following the girl. The two hurried out into the street, followed by indistinct strictures from the kitchen. Cissie breathed fast, with open lips. They moved rapidly along the semicircular street almost with a sense of flight. The heat of the early autumn sun stung them through their clothes. For some distance they walked in a nervous silence, then Cissie said:

“Your mother certainly hates me, Peter.”

“No,” said Peter, trying to soften the situation; “it's me; she's terribly hurt about—” he nodded toward the white section—“that business.”

Cissie opened her clear brown eyes.

“Your own mother turned against you!”

“Oh, she has a right to be,” began Peter, defensively. “I ought to have read that deed. It's amazing I didn't, but I—I really wasn't expecting a trick, Mr. Hooker seemed so—so sympathetic—” He came to a lame halt, staring at the dust through which they picked their way.

“Of course you weren't expecting tricks!” cried Cissie, warmly. “The whole thing shows you're a gentleman used to dealing with gentlemen. But of course these Hooker's Bend negroes will never see that!”

Peter, surprised and grateful, looked at Cissie. Her construction of the swindle was more flattering than any apology he had been able to frame for himself.

“Still, Cissie, I ought to have used the greatest care—”

“I'm not talking about what you 'ought,'” stated the octoroon, crisply; “I'm talking about what you are. When it comes to 'ought,' we colored people must get what we can, any way we can. We fight from the bottom.” The speech held a viperish quality which for a moment caught the brown man's attention; then he said:

“One thing is sure, I've lost my prestige, whatever it was worth.”

The girl nodded slowly.

“With the others you have, I suppose.”

Peter glanced at Cissie. The temptation was strong to give the conversation a personal turn, but he continued on the general topic:

“Well, perhaps it's just as well. My prestige was a bit too flamboyant, Cissie. All I had to do was to mention a plan. The Sons and Daughters didn't even discuss it. They put it right through. That wasn't healthy. Our whole system of society, all democracies are based on discussion. Our old Witenagemot—”

“But it wasn't our old Witenagemot,” said the girl.

“Well—no,” admitted the mulatto, “that's true.”

They moved along for some distance in silence, when the girl asked:

“What are you going to do now, Peter?”

“Teach, and keep working for that training-school,” stated Peter, almost belligerently. “You didn't expect a little thing like a hundred dollars to stop me, did you?”

“No-o-o,” conceded Cissie, with some reserve of judgment in her tone. Presently she added, “You could do a lot better up North, Peter.”

“For whom?”

“Why, yourself,” said the girl, a little surprised.

Siner nodded.

“I thought all that out before I came back here, Cissie. A friend of mine named Farquhar offered me a place with him up in Chicago,—a string of garages. You'd like Farquhar, Cissie. He's a materialist with an absolutely inexorable brain. He mechanizes the universe. I told him I couldn't take his offer. ‘It's like this,' I argued: 'if every negro with a little ability leaves the South, our people down there will never progress.’ It's really that way, Cissie, it takes a certain mental atmosphere to develop a people as a whole. A few individuals here and there may have the strength to spring up by themselves, but the run of the people—no. I believe one of the greatest curses of the colored race in the South is the continual draining of its best individuals North. Farquhar argued—” just then Peter saw that Cissie was not attending his discourse. She was walking at his side in a respectful silence. He stopped talking, and presently she smiled and said:

“You haven't noticed my new brooch, Peter.” She lifted her hand to her bosom, and twisted the face of the trinket toward him. “You oughtn't to have made me show it to you after you recommended it yourself.” She made a little moue of disappointment.

It was a pretty bit of old gold that complimented the creamy skin. Peter began admiring it at once, and, negro fashion, rather overstepped the limits white beaux set to their praise, as he leaned close to her.

At the moment the two were passing one of the oddest houses in Niggertown. It was a two-story cabin built in the shape of a steamboat. A little cupola represented a pilot-house, and two iron chimneys served for smoke-stacks.

This queer building had been built by a negro stevedore because of a deep admiration for the steamboats on which he had made his living. Instead of steps at the front door, this boat-like house had a stage-plank. As Peter strolled down the street with Cissie, admiring her brooch, and suffused with a sense of her nearness, he happened to glance up, and saw Tump Pack walk down the stage-plank, come out, and wait for them at the gate.

There was something grim in the ex-soldier's face and in the set of his gross lips as the two came up, but the aura of the girl prevented Peter from paying much attention to it. As the two reached Tump, Peter had just lifted his hand to his hat when Tump made a quick step out at the gate, in front of them, and swung a furious blow at Peter's head.

Cissie screamed. Siner staggered back with flames dancing before his eyes. The soldier lunged after his toppling man with gorilla-like blows. Hot pains shot through Peter's body. His head roared like a gong. The sunlight danced about him in flashes. The air was full of black fists smashing him, and not five feet away, the bullet head of Tump Pack bobbed this way and that in the rapid shifts of his attack. A stab of pain cut off Peter's breath. He stood with his diaphragm muscles tense and paralyzed, making convulsive efforts to breathe. At that moment he glimpsed the convexity of Tump's stomach. He drop-kicked at it with foot-ball desperation. Came a loud explosive groan. Tump seemed to rise a foot or two in air, turned over, and thudded down on his shoulders in the dust. The soldier made no attempt to rise, but curled up, twisting in agony.

Peter stood in the dust-cloud, wabbly, with roaring head. His open mouth was full of dust. Then he became aware that negroes were running in from every direction, shouting. Their voices whooped out what had happened, who it was, who had licked. Tump Pack's agonized spasms brought howls of mirth from the black fellows. Negro women were in the crowd, grinning, a little frightened, but curious. Some were in Mother-Hubbards; one had her hair half combed, one side in a kinky mattress, the other lying flat and greased down to her scalp.

When Peter gradually became able to breathe and could think at all, there was something terrible to him in Tump's silent attack and in this extravagant black mirth over mere suffering. Cissie was gone,—had fled, no doubt, at the beginning of the fight.

The prostrate man's tortured abdomen finally allowed him to twist around toward Peter. His eyes were popped, and seemed all yellows and streaked with swollen veins.

“I'll git you fuh dis,” he wheezed, spitting dust “You did n' fight fair, you—”

The black chorus rolled their heads and pounded one another in a gale of merriment.

Peter Siner turned away toward his home filled with sick thought. He had never realized so clearly the open sore of Niggertown life and its great need of healing, yet this very episode would further bar him, Peter, from any constructive work. He foresaw, too plainly, how the white town and Niggertown would react to this fight. There would be no discrimination in the scandal. He, Peter Siner, would be grouped with the boot-leggers and crap-shooters and women-chasers who filled Niggertown with their brawls. As a matter of simple fact, he had been fighting with another negro over a woman. That he was subjected to an attack without warning or cause would never become a factor in the analysis. He knew that very well.

Two of Peter's teeth were loose; his left jaw was swelling; his head throbbed. With that queer perversity of human nerves, he kept biting his sore teeth together as he walked along.

When he reached home, his mother met him at the door. Thanks to the swiftness with which gossip spreads among black folk, she had already heard of the fight, and incidentally had formed her judgment of the matter. Now she looked in exasperation at her son's swelling face.

“I 'cla' 'fo' Gawd!—ain't been home a week befo' he's fightin' over a nigger wench lak a roustabout!”

Peter's head throbbed so he could hardly make out the details of Caroline's face.

“But, Mother—” he began defensively, “I—”

“Me sweatin' over de wash-pot,” the negress went on, “so's you could go up North an' learn a lil sense; heah you comes back chasin' a dutty slut!”

“But, Mother,” he begged thickly, “I was simply walking home with Miss Dildine.”

“Miss Dildine! Miss Dildine!” exploded the ponderous woman, with an erasing gesture. “Ef you means dat stuck-up fly-by-night Cissie Dildine, say so, and don' stan' thaiuh mouthin', 'Miss Dildine, Miss Dildine'!”

“Mother,” asked Peter, thickly, through his swelling mouth, “do you want to know what did happen?”

“I knows. I tol' you to keep away fum dat hussy. She's a fool 'bout her bright color an' straight hair. Needn't be givin' herse'f no airs!”

Peter stood in the doorway, steadying himself by the jamb. The world still swayed from the blows he had received on the head.

“What girl would you be willing for me to go with?” he asked in faint satire.

“Heah in Niggertown?”

Peter nodded. The movement increased his headache.

“None a-tall. No Niggertown wench a-tall. When you mus' ma'y, I's 'speckin' you to go off summuhs an' pick yo' gal, lak you went off to pick yo' aidjucation.” She swung out a thick arm, and looked at Peter out of the corner of her eyes, her head tilted to one side, as negresses do when they become dramatically serious.

Peter left his mother to her stare and went to his own room. This constant implication among Niggertown inhabitants that Niggertown and all it held was worthless, mean, unhuman depressed Peter. The mulatto knew the real trouble with Niggertown was it had adopted the white village's estimate of it. The sentiment of the white village was overpowering among the imitative negroes. The black folk looked into the eyes of the whites and saw themselves reflected as chaff and skum and slime, and no human being ever suggested that they were aught else.

Peter's room was a rough shed papered with old newspapers. All sorts of yellow scare-heads streaked his walls. Hanging up was a crayon enlargement of his mother, her broad face as unwrinkled as an egg and drawn almost white, for the picture agents have discovered the only way to please their black patrons is to make their enlargements as nearly white as possible.

In one corner, on a home-made book-rack, stood Peter's library,—a Greek book or two, an old calculus, a sociology, a psychology, a philosophy, and a score of other volumes he had accumulated in his four college years. As Peter, his head aching, looked at these, he realized how immeasurably removed he was from the cool abstraction of the study.

The brown man sat down in an ancient rocking-chair by the window, leaned back, and closed his eyes. His blood still whispered in his ears from his fight. Notwithstanding his justification, he gradually became filled with self-loathing. To fight—to hammer and kick in Niggertown's dust—over a girl! It was an indignity.

Peter shifted his position in his chair, and his thoughts took another trail. Tump's attack had been sudden and silent, much like a bulldog's. The possibility of a simple friendship between a woman and a man never entered Tump's head; it never entered any Niggertown head. Here all attraction was reduced to the simplest terms of sex. Niggertown held no delicate intimacies or reserves. Two youths could not go with the same girl. Black women had no very great powers of choice over their suitors. The strength of a man's arm isolated his sweetheart. That did not seem right, resting the power of successful mating entirely upon brawn.

As Peter sat thinking it over, it came to him that the progress of any race depended, finally, upon the woman having complete power of choosing her mate. It is woman alone who consistently places the love accent upon other matters than mere flesh and muscle. Only woman has much sex selectiveness, or is inclined to select individuals with qualities of mind and spirit.

For millions of years these instinctive spiritualizers of human breeding stock have been hampered in their choice of mates by the unrestrained right of the fighting male. Indeed, the great constructive work of chivalry in the middle ages was to lay, unconsciously, the corner-stone of modern civilization by resigning to the woman the power of choosing from a group of males.

Siner stirred in his chair, surprised at whither his reverie had lead him. He wondered how he had stumbled upon these thoughts. Had he read them in a book? In point of fact, a beating administered by Tump Pack had brought the brown man the first original idea he had entertained in his life.

By this time, Peter's jaw had reached its maximum swelling and was eased somewhat. He looked out of his little window, wondering whether Cissie Dildine would choose him—or Tump Pack.

Peter was surprised to find blue dusk peering through his panes. All the scare-heads on his walls had lapsed into a common obscurity. As he rose slowly, so as not to start his head hurting again, he heard three rapid pistol shots in the cedar glade between Niggertown and the white village. He knew this to be the time-honored signal of boot-leggers announcing that illicit whisky was for sale in the blackness of the glade.