Birthright/Chapter IX

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A TURMOIL aroused Peter Siner the next morning, and when he discovered where he was, in the big canopy bed in the great room, he listened curiously and heard a continuous chattering and quarreling. After a minute or two he recognized the voice of old Rose Hobbett. Rose was cooking the Captain's breakfast, and she performed this function in a kind of solitary rage. She banged the vessels, slammed the stove-eyes on and off, flung the stove-wood about, and kept up a snarling animadversion upon every topic that drifted through her kinky head. She called the kitchen a rat-hole, stated the Captain must be as mean as the devil to live as long as he did, complained that no one ever paid any attention to her, that she might as well be a stray cat, and so on.

As Peter grew wider awake, the monotony of the old negress's rancor faded into an unobserved noise. He sat up on the edge of his bed between the parted curtains and divined there was a bath behind the screen in the corner of his room. Sure enough, he found two frayed but clean towels, a pan, a pitcher, and a small tub all made of tin. Peter assembled his find and began splashing his heavily molded chest with a feeling of well-being. As he splashed on the water, he amused himself by listening again to old Rose. She was now complaining that some white young'uns had called her “raving Rose.” She hoped “God'lmighty would send down two she bears and eat 'em up.” Peter was amazed by the old crone's ability to maintain an unending flow of concentrated and aimless virulence.

The kitchen of the Renfrew manor was a separate building, and presently Peter saw old Rose carrying great platters across the weed-grown compound into the dining-room. She bore plate after plate piled high with cookery,—enough for a company of men. A little later came a clangor on a rusty triangle, as if she were summoning a house party. Old Rose did things in a wholesale spirit.

Peter started for his door, but when he had opened the shutter, he stood hesitating. Breakfast introduced another delicate problem. He decided not to go to the dining-room at once, but to wait and allow Captain Renfrew to indicate whether he, Peter, should break his fast with the master in the dining-room or with old Rose in the kitchen.

A moment later he saw the Captain coming down the long back piazza. Peter almost addressed his host, but the old Southerner proceeded into the dining-room apparently without seeing Peter at all.

The guest was gathering his breath to call good morning, but took the cue with a negro's sensitiveness, and let his eyes run along the weeds in the compound. The drying stalks were woven with endless spider-webs, all white with frost. Peter stood regarding their delicate geometries a moment longer and then reëntered his room, not knowing precisely what to do. He could hear Rose walking across the piazza to and from the dining-room, and the clink of tableware. A few minutes later a knock came at his door, and the old woman entered with a huge salver covered with steaming dishes.

The negress came into the room scowling, and seemed doubtful for a moment just how to shut the door and still hold the tray with both hands. She solved the problem by backing against the door tremendously. Then she saw Peter. She straightened and stared at him with outraged dignity.

“Well, 'fo' Gawd! Is I bringin' dish-here breakfus' to a nigger?”

“I suppose it's mine,” agreed Peter, amused.

“But whuffo, whuffo, nigger, is it dat you ain't come to de kitchen an' eat off'n de shelf? Is you sick?”

Peter admitted fair bodily vigor.

“Den whut de debbil is I got into!” cried Rose, angrily. “I ain't gwine wuck at no sich place, ca'yin' breakfus' to a big beef uv a nigger, stout as a mule. Say, nigger, wha-chu doin' in heah, anyway? Hoccum dis?”

Peter tried to explain that he was there to do a little writing for the Captain.

“Well, 'fo' Gawd, when niggers gits to writin' fuh white folks, ants'll be jumpin' fuh bullfrogs—an havin' other niggers bring dey breakfusses. You jes as much a nigger as I is, Peter Siner, de brightes' day you ever seen!”

Peter began a conciliatory phrase.

Old Rose banged the platter on the table and then threatened:

“Dis is de las' time I fetches a moufful to you, Peter Siner, or any other nigger. You ain't no black Jesus, even ef you is a woods calf.”

Peter paused in drawing a chair to the table.

“What did you say, Rose?” he asked sharply.

“You heared whut I say.”

A wave of anger went over Peter.

“Yes, I did. You ought to be ashamed to speak ill of the dead.”

The crone tossed her malicious head, a little abashed, perhaps, yet very glad she had succeeded in hurting Peter. She turned and went out the door, mumbling something which might have been apology or renewed invectives.

Peter watched the old virago close the door and then sat down to his breakfast. His anger presently died away, and he sat wondering what could have happened to Rose Hobbett that had corroded her whole existence. Did she enjoy her vituperation, her continual malice? He tried to imagine how she felt.

The breakfast Rose had brought him was delicious: hot biscuits of feathery lightness, three wide slices of ham, a bowl of scrambled eggs, a pot of coffee, some preserved raspberries, and a tiny glass of whisky.

The plate which Captain Renfrew had set before his guest was a delicate dawn pink ringed with a wreath of holly. It was old Worcester porcelain of about the decade of 1760. The coffee-pot was really an old Whieldon teapot in broad cauliflower design. Age and careless heating had given the surface a fine reticulation. His cup and saucer, on the contrary, were thick pieces of ware such as the cabin-boys toss about on steamboats. The whole ceramic mélange told of the fortuities of English colonial and early American life, of the migration of families westward. No doubt, once upon a time, that dawn-pink Worcester had married into a Whieldon cauliflower family. A queer sort of genealogy might be traced among Southern families through their mixtures of tableware.

As Peter mused over these implications of long ancestral lines, it reminded him that he had none. Over his own past, over the lineage of nearly every negro in the South, hung a curtain. Even the names of the colored folk meant nothing, and gave no hint of their kin and clan. At the end of the war between the States, Peter's people had selected names for themselves, casually, as children pick up a pretty stone. They meant nothing. It occurred to Peter for the first time, as he sat looking at the chinaware, that he knew nothing about himself; whether his kinsmen were valiant or recreant he did not know. Even his own father he knew little about except that his mother had said his name was Peter, like his own, and that he had gone down the river on a tie boat and was drowned.

A faint sound attracted Peter's attention. He looked out at his open window and saw old Rose making off the back way with something concealed under her petticoat. Peter knew it was the unused ham and biscuits that she had cooked. For once the old negress hurried along without railing at the world. She moved with a silent, but, in a way, self-respecting, flight. Peter could see by the tilt of her head and the set of her shoulders that not only did her spoil gratify her enmity to mankind in general and the Captain in particular, but she was well within her rights in her acquisition. She disappeared around a syringa bush, and was heard no more until she reappeared to cook the noon meal, as vitriolic as ever.

When Peter entered the library, old Captain Renfrew greeted him with morning wishes, thus sustaining the fiction that they had not seen each other before, that morning.

The old gentleman seemed pleased but somewhat excited over his new secretary. He moved some of his books aimlessly from one table to another, placed them in exact piles as if he were just about to plunge into heroic labor, and could not give time to such details once he had begun.

As he arranged his books just so, he cleared his throat.

“Now, Peter, we want to get down to this,” he announced dynamically; “do this thing, shove this work out!” He started with tottery briskness around to his manuscript drawer, but veered off to the left to aline some magazines. “System, Peter, system. Without system one may well be hopeless of performing any great literary labor; but with system, the constant piling up of brick on brick, stone on stone—it's the way Rome was built, my boy.”

Peter made a murmur supposed to acknowledge the correctness of this view.

Eventually the old Captain drew out his drawer of manuscript, stood fumbling with it uncertainly. Now and then he glanced at Peter, a genuine secretary who stood ready to help him in his undertaking. The old gentleman picked up some sheets of his manuscript, seemed about to read them aloud, but after a moment shook his head, and said, “No, we'll do that to-night,” and restored them to their places. Finally he turned to his helper.

“Now, Peter,” he explained, “in doing this work, I always write at night. It's quieter then,—less distraction. My mornings I spend downtown in conversation with my friends. If you should need me, Peter, you can walk down and find me in front of the livery-stable. I sit there for a while each morning.”

The gravity with which he gave this schedule of his personal habits amused Peter, who bowed with a serious, “Very well, Captain.”

“And in the meantime,” pursued the old man, looking vaguely about the room, “you will do well to familiarize yourself with my library in order that you may be properly qualified for your secretarial labors.”

Peter agreed again.

“And now if you will get my hat and coat, I will be off and let you go to work,” concluded the Captain, with an air of continued urgency.

Peter became thoroughly amused at such an outcome of the old gentleman's headlong attack on his work,—a stroll down to the village to hold conversation with friends. The mulatto walked unsmilingly to a little closet where the Captain hung his things. He took down the old gentleman's tall hat, a gray greatcoat worn shiny about the shoulders and tail, and a finely carved walnut cane. Some reminiscence of the manners of butlers which Peter had seen in theaters caused him to swing the overcoat across his left arm and polish the thin nap of the old hat with his right sleeve. He presented it to his employer with a certain duplication of a butler's obsequiousness. He offered the overcoat to the old gentleman's arms with the same air. Then he held up the collar of the greatcoat with one hand and with the other reached under its skirts, and drew down the Captain's long day coat with little jerks, as if he were going through a ritual.

Peter grew more and more hilarious over his barber's manners. It was his contribution to the old gentleman's literary labors, and he was doing it beautifully, so he thought. He was just making some minute adjustments of the collar when, to his amazement, Captain Renfrew turned on him.

“Damn it, sir!” he flared out. “What do you think you are? I didn't engage you for a kowtowing valet in waiting, sir! I asked you, sir, to come under my roof as an intellectual co-worker, as one gentleman asks another, and here you are making these niggery motions! They are disgusting! They are defiling! They are beneath the dignity of one gentleman to another, sir! What makes it more degrading, I perceive by your mannerism that you assume a specious servility, sir, as if you would flatter me by it!”

The old lawyer's face was white. His angry old eyes jerked Peter out of his slight mummery. The negro felt oddly like a grammar-school boy caught making faces behind his master's back. It shocked him into sincerer manners.

“Captain,” he said with a certain stiffness, “I apologize for my mistake; but may I ask how you desire me to act?”

“Simply, naturally, sir,” thundered the Captain, “as one alumnus of Harvard to another! It is quite proper for a young man, sir, to assist an old gentleman with his hat and coat, but without fripperies and genuflections and absurdities!”

The old man's hauteur touched some spring of resentment in Peter. He shook his head.

“No, Captain; our lack of sympathy goes deeper than manners. My position here is anomalous. For instance, I can talk to you sitting, I can drink with you standing, but I can't breakfast with you at all. I do that in camera, like a disgraceful divorce proceeding. It's precisely as I was treated coming down here South again; it's as I've been treated ever since I've been back; it's—” He paused abruptly and swallowed down the rancor that filled him. “No,” he repeated in a different tone, “there is no earthly excuse for me to remain here, Captain, or to let you go on measuring out your indulgences to me. There is no way for us to get together or to work together—not this far South. Let me thank you for a night's entertainment and go.”

Peter turned about, meaning to make an end of this queer adventure.

The old Captain watched him, and his pallor increased. He lifted an unsteady hand.

“No, no, Peter,” he objected, “not so soon. This has been no trial, no fair trial. The little—little—er—details of our domestic life here, they will—er—arrange themselves, Peter. Gossip—talk, you know, we must avoid that.” The old lawyer stood staring with strange eyes at his protégé. “I—I'm interested in you, Peter. My actions may seem—odd, but—er—a negro boy going off and doing what you have done—extraordinary. I—I have spoken to your mother, Caroline, about you often. In fact, Peter, I—I made some little advances in order that you might complete your studies. Now, now, don't thank me! It was purely impersonal. You seemed bright. I have often thought we gentle people of the South ought to do more to encourage our black folk—not—not as social equals—” Here the old gentleman made a wry mouth as if he had tasted salt.

“Stay here and look over the library,” he broke off abruptly. “We can arrange some ground of—of common action, some—”

He settled the lapels of his great-coat with precision, addressed his palm to the knob of his stick, and marched stiffly out of the library, around the piazza, and along the dismantled walk to the front gate.

Peter stood utterly astonished at this strange information. Suddenly he ran after the old lawyer, and rounded the turn of the piazza in time to see him walk stiffly down the shaded street with tremulous dignity. The old gentleman was much the same as usual, a little shakier, perhaps, his tall hat a little more polished, his shiny gray overcoat set a little more snugly at the collar.