Birthright/Chapter IV

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


NEXT day the Siner-Pack fight was the focus of news interest in Hooker's Bend. White mistresses extracted the story from their black maids, and were amused by it or deprecated Cissie Dildine's morals as the mood moved them.

Along Main Street in front of the village stores, the merchants and hangers-on discussed the affair. It was diverting that a graduate of Harvard should come back to Hooker's Bend and immediately drop into such a fracas. Old Captain Renfrew, one-time attorney at law and representative of his county in the state legislature, sat under the mulberry in front of the livery-stable and plunged into a long monologue, with old Mr. Tomwit as listener, on the uneducability of the black race.

“Take a horse, sir,” expounded the captain; “a horse can be trained to add and put its name together out of an alphabet, but no horse could ever write a promissory note and figure the interest on it, sir. Take a dog. I've known dogs, sir, that could bring your mail from the post-office, but I never saw a dog stop on the way home, sir, to read a post-card.”

Here the old ex-attorney spat and renewed the tobacco in a black brier, then proceeded to draw the parrallel between dogs and horses and Peter Siner newly returned from Harvard.

“God'lmighty has set his limit on dogs, horses, and niggers, Mr. Tomwit. Thus far and no farther. Take a nigger baby at birth; a nigger baby has no fontanelles. It has no window toward heaven. Its skull is sealed up in darkness. The nigger brain can never expand and absorb the universe, sir. It can never rise on the wings of genius and weigh the stars, nor compute the swing of the Pleiades. Thus far and no farther! It's congenital.

“Now, take this Peter Siner and his disgraceful fight over a nigger wench. Would you expect an educated stud horse to pay no attention to a mare, sir? You can educate a stud till—”

“But hold on!” interrupted the old cavalryman. “I've known as gentlemanly stallions as—as anybody!”

The old attorney cleared his throat, momentarily taken aback at this failure of his metaphor. However he rallied with legal suppleness:

“You are talking about thoroughbreds, sir.”

“I am, sir.”

“Good God, Tomwit! you don't imagine I'm comparing a nigger to a thoroughbred, sir!”

On the street corners, or piled around on cotton-bales down on the wharf, the negro men of the village discussed the fight. It was for the most part a purely technical discussion of blows and counters and kicks, and of the strange fact that a college education failed to enable Siner utterly to annihilate his adversary. Jim Pink Staggs, a dapper gentleman of ebony blackness, of pin-stripe flannels and blue serge coat—altogether a gentleman of many parts—sat on one of the bales and indolently watched an old black crone fishing from a ledge of rocks just a little way below the wharf-boat. Around Jim Pink lounged and sprawled black men and youths, stretching on the cotton-bales like cats in the sunshine.

Jim Pink was discussing Peter's education.

“I 'fo' Gawd kain't see no use goin' off lak dat an' den comin' back an' lettin' a white man cheat you out'n yo' hide an' taller, an' lettin' a black man beat you up tull you has to kick him in the spivit. Ef a aidjucation does you any good a-tall, you'd be boun' to beat de white man at one en' uv de line, or de black man at de udder. Ef Peter ain't to be foun' at eider en', wha is he?”

“Um-m-m!” “Eh-h-h!” “You sho spoke a moufful, Jim Pink!” came an assenting chorus from the bales.

Eventually such gossip died away and took another flurry when a report went abroad that Tump Pack was carrying a pistol and meant to shoot Peter on sight. Then this in turn ceased to be news and of human interest. It clung to Peter's mind longer than to any other person's in Hooker's Bend, and it presented to the brown man a certain problem in casuistry.

Should he accede to Tump Pack's possession of Cissie Dildine and give up seeing the girl? Such a course cut across all his fine-spun theory about women having free choice of their mates. However, the Harvard man could not advocate a socialization of courtship when he himself would be the first beneficiary. The prophet whose finger points selfward is damned. Furthermore, all Niggertown would side with Tump Pack in such a controversy. It was no uncommon thing for the very negro women to fight over their beaux and husbands. As for any social theory changing this régime, in the first place the negroes couldn't understand the theory; in the second, it would have no effect if they could. Actions never grow out of theories; theories grow out of actions. A theory is a looking-glass that reflects the past and makes it look like the future, but the glass really hides the future, and when humanity comes to a turn in its course, there is always a smash-up, and a blind groping for the lost path.

Now, in regard to Cissie Dildine, Peter was not precisely afraid of Tump Pack, but he could not clear his mind of the fact that Tump had been presented with a medal by the Congress of the United States for killing four men. Good sense and a care for his reputation and his skin told Peter to abandon his theory of free courtship for the time being. This meant a renunciation of Cissie Dildine; but he told himself he renounced very little. He had no reason to think that Cissie cared a picayune about him.

Peter's work kept him indoors for a number of days following the encounter. He was reviewing some primary school work in order to pass a teacher's examination that would be held in Jonesboro, the county seat, in about three weeks.

To the uninitiated it may seem strange to behold a Harvard graduate stuck down day after day poring over a pile of dog-eared school-books— third arithmetics, primary grammars, beginners' histories of Tennessee, of the United States, of England; physiology, hygiene. It may seem queer. But when it comes to standing a Wayne County teacher's examination, the specific answers to the specific questions on a dozen old examination slips are worth all the degrees Harvard ever did confer.

So, in his newspapered study, Peter Siner looked up long lists of questions, and attempted to memorize the answers. But the series of missteps he had made since returning to Hooker's Bend besieged his brain and drew his thoughts from his catechism. It seemed strange that in so short a time he should have wandered so far from the course he had set for himself. His career in Niggertown formed a record of slight mistakes, but they were not to be undone, and their combined force had swung him a long way from the course he had plotted for himself. There was no way to explain. Hooker's Bend would judge him by the sheer surface of his works. What he had meant to do, his dreams and altruisms, they would never surmise. That was the irony of the thing.

Then he thought of Cissie Dildine who did understand him. This thought might have been Cissie's cue to enter the stage of Peter's mind. Her oval, creamy face floated between Peter's eyes and the dog-eared primer. He thought of Cissie wistfully, and of her lonely fight for good English, good manners, and good taste. There was a pathos about Cissie.

Peter got up from his chair and looked out at his high window into the early afternoon. He had been poring over primers for three days, stuffing the most heterogeneous facts. His head felt thick and slightly feverish. Through his window he saw the side of another negro cabin, but by looking at an angle eastward he could see a field yellow with corn, a valley, and, beyond, a hill wooded and glowing with the pageantry of autumn. He thought of Cissie Dildine again, of walking with her among the burning maples and the golden elms. He thought of the restfulness such a walk with Cissie would bring.

As he mused, Peter's soul made one of those sharp liberating movements that occasionally visit a human being. The danger of Tump Pack's jealousy, the loss of his prestige, the necessity of learning the specific answers to the examination questions, all dropped away from him as trivial and inconsequent. He turned from the window, put away his books and question-slips, picked up his hat, and moved out briskly through his mother's room toward the door.

The old woman in the kitchen must have heard him, for she called to him through the partition, and a moment later her bulky form filled the kitchen entrance. She wiped her hands on her apron and looked at him accusingly.

“Wha you gwine, son?”

“For a walk.”

The old negress tilted her head aslant and looked fixedly at him.

“You's gwine to dat Cissie Dildine's, Peter.”

Peter looked at his mother, surprised and rather disconcerted that she had guessed his intentions from his mere footsteps. The young man changed his plans for his walk, and began a diplomatic denial:

“No, I'm going to walk by myself. I'm tired; I'm played out.”

“Tired?” repeated his mother, doubtfully. “You ain't done nothin' but set an' turn th'ugh books an' write on a lil piece o' paper.”

Peter was vaguely amused in his weariness, but thought that he concealed his mirth from his mother.

“That gets tiresome after a while.”

She grunted her skepticism. As Peter moved for the door she warned him:

“Peter, you knows ef Tump Pack sees you, he's gwine to shoot you sho!”

“Oh, no he won't; that's Tump's talk.”

“Talk! talk! Whut's matter wid you, Peter? Dat nigger done git crowned fuh killin' fo' men!” She stood staring at him with white eyes. Then she urged, “Now, look heah, Peter, come along an' eat yo' supper.”

“No, I really need a walk. I won't walk through Niggertown. I'll walk out in the woods.”

“I jes made some salmon coquettes fuh you whut'll spile ef you don' eat 'em now.”

“I didn't know you were making croquettes,” said Peter, with polite interest.

“Well, I is. I gotta can o' salmon fum Miss Mollie Brownell she'd opened an' couldn't quite use. I doctered 'em up wid a lil vinegar an' sody, an' dey is 'bout as pink as dey ever wuz.”

A certain uneasiness and annoyance came over Peter at this persistent use of unwholesome foods.

“Look here, Mother, you're not using old canned goods that have been left over?”

The old negress stood looking at him in silence, but lost her coaxing expression.

“I've told and told you about using any tainted or impure foods that the white people can't eat.”

“Well, whut ef you is?”

“If it's too bad for them, it's too bad for you!”

Caroline made a careless gesture.

“Good Lawd, boy! I don' 'speck to eat whut's good fuh me! All I says is, 'Grub, keep me alive. Ef you do dat, you done a good day's wuck.'”

Peter was disgusted and shocked at his mother's flippancy. Modern colleges are atheistic, but they do exalt three gods,—food, cleanliness, and exercise. Now here was Peter's mother blaspheming one of his trinity.

“I wish you 'd let me know when you want anything Mother. I'll get it fresh for you.” His words were filial enough, but his tone carried his irritation.

The old negress turned back to the kitchen.

“Huh, boy! you been fotch up on lef'-overs,” she said, and disappeared through the door.

Peter walked to the gate, let himself out, and started off on his constitutional. His tiff with his mother renewed all his nervousness and sense of failure. His litany of mistakes renewed their dolor in his mind.

An autumn wind was blowing, and long plumes of dust whisked up out of the curving street and swept over the ill-kept yards, past the cabins, and toward the sere fields and chromatic woods. The wind beat at the brown man; the dust whispered against his clothes, made him squint his eyes to a crack and tickled his nostrils at each breath.

When Peter had gone two or three hundred yards, he became aware that somebody was walking immediately behind him. Tump Pack popped into his mind. He looked over his shoulder and then turned. Through the veils of flying dust he made out some one, and a moment later identified not Tump Pack, but the gangling form of Jim Pink Staggs, clad in a dark-blue sack-coat and white flannel trousers with pin stripes. It was the sort of costume affected by interlocutors of minstrel shows; it had a minstrel trigness about it.

As a matter of fact, Jim Pink was a sort of semi-professional minstrel. Ordinarily, he ran a pressing-shop in the Niggertown crescent, but occasionally he impressed all the dramatic talent of Niggertown and really did take the road with a minstrel company. These barn-storming expeditions reached down into Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Sometimes they proved a great success, and the darkies rode back several hundred dollars ahead. Sometimes they tramped back.

Jim Pink hailed Peter with a wave of his hand and a grotesque displacement of his mouth to one side of his face, which he had found effective in his minstrel buffoonery.

“Whut you raisin' so much dus' about?” he called out of the corner of his mouth, while looking at Peter out of one half-closed eye.

Peter shook his head and smiled.

“Thought it mout be Mister Hooker deliverin' dat lan' you bought.” Jim Pink flung his long, flexible face into an imitation of convulsed laughter, then next moment dropped it into an intense gravity and declared, “'Dus' thou art, to dus' returnest.'” The quotation seemed fruitless and silly enough, but Jim Pink tucked his head to one side as if listening intently to himself, then repeated sepulchrally, “'Dus' thou art, to dus' returnest.' By the way, Peter,” he broke off cheerily, “you ain't happen to see Tump Pack, is you?”

“No,” said Peter, unamused.

“Is he borrowed a gun fum you?” inquired the minstrel, solemnly.

“No-o.” Peter looked questioningly at the clown through half-closed eyes.

“Huh, now dat's funny.” Jim Pink frowned, and pulled down his loose mouth and seemed to study. He drew out a pearl-handled knife, closed his hand over it, blew on his fist, then opened the other hand, and exhibited the knife lying in its palm, with the blade open. He seemed surprised at the change and began cleaning his finger-nails. Jim Pink was the magician at his shows.

Peter waited patiently for Jim Pink to impart his information, “Well, what's the idea?” he asked at last.

“Don' know. 'Pears lak dat knife won't stay in any one han'.” He looked at it, curiously.

“I mean about Tump,” said Peter, impatiently.

“O-o-oh, yeah; you mean 'bout Tump. Well, I thought Tump mus' uv borrowed a gun fum you. He lef' Hobbett's corner wid a great big forty- fo', inquirin' wha you is.” Just then he glanced up, looked penetratingly through the dust-cloud, and added, “Why, I b'lieve da' 's Tump now.”

With a certain tightening of the nerves, Peter followed his glance, but made out nothing through the fogging dust. When he looked around at Jim Pink again, the buffoon's face was a caricature of immense mirth. He shook it sober, abruptly, minstrel fashion.

“Maybe I's mistooken,” he said solemnly. “Tump did start over heah wid a gun, but Mister Dawson Bobbs done tuk him up fuh ca'yin' concealed squidjulums; so Tump's done los' dat freedom uv motion in de pu'suit uv happiness gua'anteed us niggers an' white folks by the Constitution uv de Newnighted States uv America.” Here Jim Pink broke into genuine laughter, which was quite a different thing from his stage grimaces. Peter stared at the fool astonished.

“Has he gone to jail?”

“Not prezactly.”

“Well—confound it!—exactly what did happen, Jim Pink?”

“He gone to Mr. Cicero Throgmartins'.”

“What did he go there for?”

“Couldn't he'p hisse'f.”

“Look here, you tell me what's happened.”

“Mr. Bobbs ca'ied Tump thaiuh. Y' see, Mr. Throgmartin tried to hire Tump to pick cotton. Tump didn't haf to, because he'd jes shot fo' natchels in a crap game. So to-day, when Tump starts over heah wid his gun, Mr. Bobbs 'resses Tump. Mr. Throgmartin bails him out, so now Tump's gone to pick cotton fuh Mr. Throgmartin to pay off'n his fine.” Here Jim Pink yelped into honest laughter at Tump's undoing so that dust got into his nose and mouth and set him sneezing and coughing.

“How long's he up for?” asked Peter, astonished and immensely relieved at this outcome of Tump's expedition against himself.

Jim Pink controlled his coughing long enough to gasp:

“Th-thutty days, ef he don' run off,” and fell to laughing again.

Peter Siner, long before, had adopted the literate man's notion of what is humorous, and Tump's mishap was slap-stick to him. Nevertheless, he did smile. The incident filled him with extraordinary relief and buoyancy. At the next corner he made some excuse to Jim Pink, and turned off up an alley.

Peter walked along with his shoulders squared and the dust peppering his back. Not till Tump was lifted from his mind did he realize what an incubus the soldier had been. Peter had been forced into a position where, if he had killed Tump, he would have been ruined; if he had not, he would probably have murdered. Now he was free—for thirty days.

He swung along briskly in the warm sunshine toward the multicolored forest. The day had suddenly become glorious. Presently he found himself in the back alleys near Cissie's house. He was passing chicken-houses and stables. Hogs in open pens grunted expectantly at his footsteps.

Peter had not meant to go to Cissie's at all, but now, when he saw he was right behind her dwelling, she seemed radiantly accessible to him. Still, it struck him that it would not be precisely the thing to call on Cissie immediately after Tump's arrest. It might look as if—Then the thought came that, as a neighbor, he should stop and tell Cissie of Tump's misfortune. He really ought to offer his services to Cissie, if he could do anything. At Cissie's request he might even aid Tump Pack himself. Peter got himself into a generous glow as he charged up a side alley, around to a rickety front gate. Let Niggertown criticize as it would, he was braced by a high altruism.

Peter did not shout from the gate, as is the fashion of the crescent, but walked up a little graveled path lined with dusty box-shrubs and tapped at the unpainted door.

Doors in Niggertown never open straight away to visitors. A covert inspection first takes place from the edges of the window-blinds.

Peter stood in the whipping dust, and the caution of the inmates spurred his impatience to see Cissie. At last the door opened, and Cissie herself was in the entrance. She stood quite still a moment, looking at Peter with eyes that appeared frightened.

“I—I wasn't expecting to see you,” she stammered.

“No? I came by with news, Cissie.”

“News?” She seemed more frightened than ever. “Peter, you—you haven't— ” She paused, regarding him with big eyes.

“Tump Pack's been arrested,” explained Peter, quickly, sensing the tragedy in her thoughts. “I came by to tell you. If there's anything I can do for you—or him, I'll do it.”

His altruistic offer sounded rather foolish in the actual saying.

He could not tell from her face whether she was glad or sorry.

“What did they arrest him for?”

“Carrying a pistol.”

She paused a moment.

“Will he—get out soon?”

“He's sentenced for thirty days.”

Cissie dropped her hands with a hopeless gesture.

“Oh, isn't this all sickening!—sickening!” she exclaimed. She looked tired. Ghosts of sleepless nights circled her eyes. Suddenly she said, “Come in. Oh, do come in, Peter.” She reached out and almost pulled him in. She was so urgent that Peter might have fancied Tump Pack at the gate with his automatic. He did glance around, but saw nobody passing except the Arkwright boy. The hobbledehoy walked down the other side of the street, hands thrust in pockets, with the usual discontented expression on his face.

Cissie slammed the door shut, and the two stood rather at a loss in the sudden gloom of the hall. Cissie broke into a brief, mirthless laugh.

“Peter, it's hard to be nice in Niggertown. I—I just happened to think how folks would gossip—you coming here as soon as Tump was arrested.”

“Perhaps I'd better go,” suggested Peter, uncomfortably.

Cissie reached up and caught his lapel.

“Oh, no, don't feel that way! I'm glad you came, really. Here, let's go through this way to the arbor. It isn't a bad place to sit.”

She led the way silently through two dark rooms. Before she opened the back door, Peter could hear Cissie's mother and a younger sister moving around the outside of the house to give up the arbor to Cissie and her company.

The arbor proved a trellis of honeysuckle over the back door, with a bench under it. A film of dust lay over the dense foliage, and a few withered blooms pricked its grayish green. The earthen floor of the arbor was beaten hard and bare by the naked feet of children.

Cissie sat down on the bench and indicated a place beside her.

“I've been so uneasy about you! I've been wondering what on earth you could do about it.”

“It's a snarl, all right,” he said, and almost immediately began discussing the peculiarimpasse in which his difficulty with Tump had landed him. Cissie sat listening with a serious, almost tragic face, giving a little nod now and then. Once she remarked in her precise way:

“The trouble with a gentleman fighting a rowdy, the gentleman has all to lose and nothing to gain. If you don't live among your own class, Peter, your life will simmer down to an endless diplomacy.”

“You mean deceit, I suppose.”

“No, I mean diplomacy. But that isn't a very healthy frame of mind,— always to be suppressing and guarding yourself.”

Peter didn't know about that. He was inclined to argue the matter, but Cissie wouldn't argue. She seemed to assume that all of her statements were axioms, truths reduced to the simplest possible mental terms, and that proof was unnecessary, if not impossible. So the topic went into the discard.

“Been baking my brains over a lot of silly little exam questions,” complained Peter. “Can you trace the circulation of the blood? I think it leaves the grand central station through the right aorta, and then, after a schedule run of nine minutes, you can hear it coming up the track through the left ventricle, with all the passengers eager to get off and take some refreshment at the lungs. I have the general idea, but the exact routing gets me.”

Cissie laughed accommodatingly.

“I wonder why it's necessary for everybody to know that once. I did. I could follow the circulation the right way or backward.”

“Must have been harder backward, going against the current.”

Cissie laughed again. A girl's part in a witty conversation might seem easy at first sight. She has only to laugh at the proper intervals. However, these intervals are not always distinctly marked. Some girls take no chances and laugh all the time.

Cissie's appreciation was the sedative Peter needed. The relief of her laughter and her presence ran along his nerves and unkinked them, like a draft of Kentucky Special after a debauch. The curves of her cheek, the tilt of her head, and the lift of her dull-blue blouse at the bosom wove a great restfulness about Peter. The brooch of old gold glinted at her throat. The heavy screen of the arbor gave them a sweet sense of privacy. The conversation meandered this way and that, and became quite secondary to the feeling of the girl's nearness and sympathy. Their talk drifted back to Peter's mission here in Hooker's Bend, and Cissie was saying:

“The trouble is, Peter, we are out of our milieu.” Some portion of Peter's brain that was not basking in the warmth and invitation of the girl answered quite logically:

“Yes, but if I could help these people, Cissie, reconstruct our life here culturally—”

Cissie shook her head. “Not culturally.”

This opposition shunted more of Peter's thought to the topic in hand. He paused interrogatively.

“Racially,” said Cissie.

“Racially?” repeated the man, quite lost.

Cissie nodded, looking straight into his eyes. “You know very well, Peter, that you and I are not—are not anything near full bloods. You know that racially we don't belong in—Niggertown.”

Peter never knew exactly how this extraordinary sentence had come about, but in a kind of breath he realized that he and this almost white girl were not of Niggertown. No doubt she had been arguing that he, Peter, who was one sort of man, was trying to lead quite another sort of men moved by different racial impulses, and such leading could only come to confusion. He saw the implications at once.

It was an extraordinary idea, an explosive idea, such as Cissie seemed to have the faculty of touching off. He sat staring at her.

It was the white blood in his own veins that had sent him struggling up North, that had brought him back with this flame in his heart for his own people. It was the white blood in Cissie that kept her struggling to stand up, to speak an unbroken tongue, to gather around her the delicate atmosphere and charm of a gentlewoman. It was the Caucasian in them buried here in Niggertown. It was their part of the tragedy of millions of mixed blood in the South. Their common problem, a feeling of their joint isolation, brought Peter to a sense of keen and tingling nearness to the girl.

She was talking again, very earnestly, almost tremulously:

“Why don't you go North, Peter? I think and think about you staying here. You simply can't grow up and develop here. And now, especially, when everybody doubts you. If you'd go North—”

“What about you, Cissie? You say we're together—”

“Oh, I'm a woman. We haven't the chance to do as we will.”

A kind of titillation went over Peter's scalp and body.

“Then you are going to stay here and marry—Tump?” He uttered the name in a queer voice.

Tears started in Cissie's eyes; her bosom lifted to her quick breathing.

“I—I don't know what I'm going to do,” she stammered miserably.

Peter leaned over her with a drumming heart; he heard her catch her breath.

“You don't care for Tump?” he asked with a dry mouth.

She gasped out something, and the next moment Peter felt her body sink limply in his groping arms. They clung together closely, quiveringly. Three nights of vigil, each thinking miserably and wistfully of the other, had worn the nerves of both man and girl until they were ready to melt together at a touch. Her soft body clinging to his own, the little nervous pressures of her arms, her eased breathing at his neck, wiped away Siner's long sense of strain. Strength and peace seemed to pour from her being into his by a sort of spiritual osmosis. She resigned her head to his palm in order that he might lift her lips to his when he pleased. After all, there is no way for a man to rest without a woman. All he can do is to stop work.

For a long time they sat transported amid the dusty honeysuckles and withered blooms, but after a while they began talking a little at a time of the future, their future. They felt so indissolubly joined that they could not imagine the future finding them apart. There was no need for any more trouble with Tump Pack. They would marry quietly, and go away North to live. Peter thought of his friend Farquhar. He wondered if Farquhar's attitude would be just the same toward Cissie as it was toward him.

“North,” was the burden of the octoroon's dreams. They would go North to Chicago. There were two hundred and fifty thousand negroes in Chicago, a city within itself three times the size of Nashville. Up North she and Peter could go to theaters, art galleries, could enter any church, could ride in street-cars, railroad-trains, could sleep and eat at any hotel, live authentic lives.

It was Cissie planning her emancipation, planning to escape her lifelong disabilities.

“Oh, I'll be so glad! so glad! so glad!” she sobbed, and drew Peter's head passionately down to her deep bosom.