Birthright/Chapter V

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PETER SINER walked home from the Dildine cabin that night rather dreading to meet his mother, for it was late. Cissie had served sandwiches and coffee on a little table in the arbor, and then had kept Peter hours afterward. Around him still hung the glamour of Cissie's little supper. He could still see her rounded elbows that bent softly backward when she extended an arm, and the glimpses of her bosom when she leaned to hand him cream or sugar. She had accomplished the whole supper in the white manner, with all poise and daintiness. In fact, no one is more exquisitely polite than an octoroon woman when she desires to be polite, when she elevates the subserviency of her race into graciousness.

However, the pleasure and charm of Cissie were fading under the approaching abuse that Caroline was sure to pour upon the girl. Peter dreaded it. He walked slowly down the dark semicircle, planning how he could best break to his mother the news of his engagement. Peter knew she would begin a long bill of complaints,—how badly she was treated, how she had sacrificed herself, her comfort, how she had washed and scrubbed. She would surely charge Cissie with being a thief and a drab, and all the announcements of engagements that Peter could make would never induce the old woman to soften her abuse. Indeed, they would make her worse.

So Peter walked on slowly, smelling the haze of dust that hung in the blackness. Out on the Big Hill, in the glade, Peter caught an occasional glimmer of light where crap-shooters and boot-leggers were beginning their nightly carousal.

These evidences of illicit trades brought Peter a thrill of disgust. In a sort of clear moment he saw that he could not keep Cissie in such a sty as this. He could not rear in such a place as this any children that might come to him and Cissie. His thoughts drifted back to his mother, and his dread of her tongue.

The Siner cabin was dark and tightly shut when Peter let himself in at the gate and walked to the door. He stood a moment listening, and then gently pressed open the shutter. A faint light burned on the inside, a night-lamp with an old-fashioned brass bowl. It sat on the floor, turned low, at the foot of his mother's bed. The mean room was mainly in shadow. The old-style four-poster in which Caroline slept was an indistinct mound. The air was close and foul with the bad ventilation of all negro sleeping-rooms. The brass lamp, turned low, added smoke and gas to the tight quarters.

The odor caught Peter in the nose and throat, and once more stirred up his impatience with his mother's disregard of hygiene. He tiptoed into the room and decided to remove the lamp and open the high, small window to admit a little air. He moved noiselessly and had stooped for the lamp when there came a creaking and a heavy sigh from the bed, and the old negress asked:

“Is dat you, son?”

Peter was tempted to stand perfectly still and wait till his mother dozed again, thus putting off her inevitable tirade against Cissie; but he answered in a low tone that it was he.

“Whut you gwine do wid dat lamp, son?”

“Go to bed by it, Mother.”

“Well, bring hit back.” She breathed heavily, and moved restlessly in the old four-poster. As Peter stood up he saw that the patched quilts were all askew over her shapeless bulk. Evidently, she had not been resting well.

Peter's conscience smote him again for worrying his mother with his courtship of Cissie, yet what could he do? If he had wooed any other girl in the world, she would have been equally jealous and grieved. It was inevitable that she should be disappointed and bitter; it was bound up in the very part and parcel of her sacrifice. A great sadness came over Peter. He almost wished his mother would berate him, but she continued to lie there, breathing heavily under her disarranged covers. As Peter passed into his room, the old negress called after him to remind him to bring the light back when he was through with it.

This time something in her tone alarmed Peter. He paused in the doorway.

“Are you sick, Mother?” he asked.

The old woman gave a yawn that changed to a groan.

“I—I ain't feelin' so good.”

“What's the matter, Mother?”

“My stomach, my—” But at that moment her sentence changed to an inarticulate sound, and she doubled up in bed as if caught in a spasm of acute agony.

Peter hurried to her, thoroughly frightened, and saw sweat streaming down her face. He stared down at her.

“Mother, you are sick! What can I do?” he cried, with a man's helplessness.

She opened her eyes with an effort, panting now as the edge of the agony passed. There was a movement under the quilts, and she thrust out a rubber hot-water bottle.

“Fill it—fum de kittle,” she wheezed out, then relaxed into groans, and wiped clumsily at the sweat on her shining black face.

Peter seized the bottle and ran into the kitchen. There he found a brisk fire popping in the stove and a kettle of water boiling. It showed him, to his further alarm, that his mother had been trying to minister to herself until forced to bed.

The man scalded a finger and thumb pouring water into the flared mouth, but after a moment twisted on the top and hurried into the sick-room.

He reached the old negress just as another knife of pain set her writhing and sweating. She seized the hot-water bottle, pushed it under the quilts, and pressed it to her stomach, then lay with eyes and teeth clenched tight, and her thick lips curled in a grin of agony.

Peter set the lamp on the table, said he was going for the doctor, and started.

The old woman hunched up in bed. With the penuriousness of her station and sacrifices, she begged Peter not to go; then groaned out, “Go tell Mars' Renfrew,” but the next moment did not want Peter to leave her.

Peter said he would get Nan Berry to stay while he was gone. The Berry cabin lay diagonally across the street. Peter ran over, thumped on the door, and shouted his mother's needs. As soon as he received an answer, he started on over the Big Hill toward the white town.

Peter was seriously frightened. His run to Dr. Jallup's, across the Big Hill, was a series of renewed strivings for speed. Every segment of his journey seemed to seize him and pin him down in the midst of the night like a bug caught in a black jelly. He seemed to progress not at all.

Now he was in the cedar glade. His muffled flight drove in the sentries of the crap-shooters, and gamesters blinked out their lights and listened to his feet stumbling on through the darkness.

After an endless run in the glade, Peter found himself on top of the hill, amid boulders and outcrops limestone and cedar-shrubs. His flash- light picked out these objects, limned them sharply against the blackness, then dropped them into obscurity again.

He tried to run faster. His impatience subdivided the distance into yards and feet. Now he was approaching that boulder, now he was passing it; now he was ten feet beyond, twenty, thirty. Perhaps his mother was dying, alone save for stupid Nan Berry.

Now he was going down the hill past the white church. All that was visible was its black spire set against a web of stars. He was making no speed at all. He panted on. His heart hammered. His legs drummed with Lilliputian paces. Now he was among the village stores, all utterly black. At one point the echo of his feet chattered back at him, as if some other futile runner strained amid vast spaces of blackness.

After a long time he found himself running up a residential street, and presently, far ahead, he saw the glow of Dr. Jallup's porch light. Its beam had the appearance of coming from a vast distance. When he reached the place, he flung his breast against the top panel of the doctor's fence and held on, exhausted. He drew in his breath, and began shouting, “Hello, Doctor!”

Peter called persistently, and as he commanded more breath, he called louder and louder, “Hello, Doctor! Hello, Doctor! Hello, Doctor!” in tones edging on panic.

The doctor's house might have been dead. Somewhere a dog began barking. High in the Southern sky a star looked down remotely on Peter's frantic haste. The black man stood in the black night with cries: “Hello, Doctor! Hello, Doctor! Hello, Doctor!”

At last, in despair, he tried to think of other doctors. He thought of telephoning to Jonesboro. Just as he decided he must turn away there came a stirring in the dead house, a flicker of light appeared on the inside now here, now there; it steadied into a tiny beam and approached the door. The door opened, and Dr. Jallup's head and breast appeared, illuminated against the black interior.

“My mother's sick, Doctor,” began Peter, in immense relief.

“Who is it?” inquired the half-clad man, impassively.

“Caroline Siner; she's been taken with a—”

The physician lifted his light a trifle in an effort to see Peter.

“Lemme see: she's that fat nigger woman that lives in a three-roomed house—”

“I'll show you the way,” said Peter. “She's very ill.”

The half-dressed man shook his head.

“No, Ca'line Siner owes me a five-dollar doctor's bill already. Our county medical association made a rule that no niggers should—”

With a drying mouth, Peter Siner stared at the man of medicine.

“But, my God, Doctor,” gasped the son, “I'll pay you—”

“Have you got the money there in your pocket?” asked Jallup, impassively.

A sort of chill traveled deliberately over Peter's body and shook his voice.

“N-no, but I can get it—”

“Yes, you can all get it,” stated the physician in dull irritation. “I'm tired of you niggers running up doctors' bills nobody can collect. You never have more than the law allows; your wages never get big enough to garnishee.” His voice grew querulous as he related his wrongs. “No, I'm not going to see Ca'line Siner. If she wants me to visit her, let her send ten dollars to cover that and back debts, and I'll—” The end of his sentence was lost in the closing of his door. The light he carried declined from a beam to a twinkling here and there, and then vanished in blackness. Dr. Jallup's house became dead again. The little porch light in its glass box might have been a candle burning before a tomb.

Peter Siner stood at the fence, licking his dry lips, with nerves vibrating like a struck bell. He pushed himself slowly away from the top plank and found his legs so weak that he could hardly walk. He moved slowly, back down the unseen street. The dog he had disturbed gave a few last growls and settled into silence.

Peter moved along, wetting his dry lips, and stirring feebly among his dazed thoughts, hunting some other plan of action. There was a tiny burning spot on the left side of his occiput. It felt like a heated cambric needle which had been slipped into his scalp. Then he realized that he must go home, get ten dollars, and bring them back to Dr. Jallup. He started to run, but almost toppled over on his leaden legs.

He plodded through the darkness, retracing the endless trail to Niggertown. As he passed a dark mass of shrubbery and trees, he recalled his mother's advice to ask aid of Captain Renfrew. It was the old Renfrew place that Peter was passing.

The negro hesitated, then turned in at the gate in the bare hope of obtaining the ten dollars at once. Inside the gate Peter's feet encountered the scattered bricks of an old walk. The negro stood and called Captain Renfrew's name in a guarded voice. He was not at all sure of his action.

Peter had called twice and was just about to go when a lamp appeared around the side of the house on a long portico that extended clear around the building. Bathed in the light of the lamp which he held over his head, there appeared an old man wearing a worn dressing gown.

“Who is it?” he asked in a wavery voice.

Peter told his name and mission.

The old Captain continued holding up his light.

“Oh, Peter Siner; Caroline Siner’s sick? All right I’ll have Jallup run over; I’ll phone him.”

Peter was beginning his thanks preparatory to going, when the old man interrupted.

“No, just stay here until Jallup comes by in his car. He’ll pick us both up. It’ll save time. Come on inside. What’s the matter with old Caroline?”

The old dressing-gown led the way around the continuous piazza, to a room that stood open and brightly lighted on the north face of the old house.

A great relief came to Peter at this unexpected succor. He followed around the piazza, trying to describe Caroline’s symptoms. The room Peter entered was a library, a rather stately old room, lined with books all around the walls to about as high as a man could reach. Spaces for doors and windows were let in among the book-cases. The volumes themselves seemed composed mainly of histories and old-fashioned scientific books, if Peter could judge from a certain severity of their bindings. On a big library table burned a gasolene-lamp, which threw a brilliant whiteness all over the room. The table was piled with books and periodicals. Books and papers were heaped on every chair in the study except a deep Morris chair in which the old Captain had been sitting. A big meridional globe, about two and a half feet in diameter gleamed through a film of dust in the embrasure of a window. The whole room had the womanless look of a bachelor's quarters, and was flavored with tobacco and just a hint of whisky.

Old Captain Renfrew evidently had been reading when Peter called from the gate. Now the old man went to a telephone and rang long and briskly to awaken the boy who slept in the central office. Peter fidgeted as the old Captain stood with receiver to ear.

“Hard to wake.” The old gentleman spoke into the transmitter, but was talking to Peter. “Don't be so uneasy, Peter. Human beings are harder to kill than you think.”

There was a kindliness, even a fellowship, in Captain Renfrew's tones that spread like oil over Peter's raw nerves. It occurred to the negro that this was the first time he had been addressed as an authentic human being since his conversation with the two Northern men on the Pullman, up in Illinois. It surprised him. It was sufficient to take his mind momentarily from his mother. He looked a little closely at the old man at the telephone. The Captain wore few indices of kindness. Lines of settled sarcasm netted his eyes and drooped away from his old mouth. The very swell of his full temples and their crinkly veins marked a sardonic old man.

At last he roused central over the wire, and impressed upon him the necessity of creating a stridor in Dr. Jallup's dead house, and a moment later a continued buzzing in the receiver betokened the operator's efforts to do so.

The old gentleman turned around at last, holding the receiver a little distance from his ear.

“I understand you went to Harvard, Peter.”

“Yes, sir.” Peter took his eyes momentarily from the telephone. The old Southerner in the dressing-gown scrutinized the brown man. He cleared his throat.

“You know, Peter, it gives me a—a certain satisfaction to see a Harvard man in Hooker's Bend. I'm a Harvard man myself.”

Peter stood in the brilliant light, astonished, not at Captain Renfrew's being a Harvard man,—he had known that,—but that this old gentleman was telling the fact to him, Peter Siner, a negro graduate of Harvard.

It was extraordinary; it was tantamount to an offer of friendship, not patronage. Such an offer in the South disturbed Peter's poise; it touched him queerly. And it seemed to explain why Captain Renfrew had received Peter so graciously and was now arranging for Dr. Jallup to visit Caroline.

Peter was moved to the conventional query, asking in what class the Captain had been graduated. But while his very voice was asking it, Peter thought what a strange thing it was that he, Peter Siner, a negro, and this lonely old gentleman, his benefactor, were spiritual

The Old Gentleman Turned Around at Last.png

The old gentleman turned around at last

brothers, both sprung from the loins of Harvard, that ancient mother of souls.

From the darkness outside, Dr. Jallup's horn summmoned the two men. Captain Renfrew got out of his gown and into his coat and turned off his gasolene light. They walked around the piazza to the front of the house. In the street the head-lights of the roadster shot divergent rays through the darkness. They went out. The old Captain took a seat in the car beside the physician, while Peter stood on the running-board. A moment later, the clutch snarled, and the machine puttered down the street. Peter clung to the standards of the auto top, peering ahead.

The men remained almost silent. Once Dr. Jallup, watching the dust that lay modeled in sharp lights and shadows under the head-lights, mentioned lack of rain. Their route did not lead over the Big Hill. They turned north at Hobbett's corner, drove around by River Street, and presently entered the northern end of the semicircle.

The speed of the car was reduced to a crawl in the bottomless dust of the crescent. The head-lights swept slowly around the cabins on the concave side of the street, bringing them one by one into stark brilliance and dropping them into obscurity. The smell of refuse, of uncleaned stables and sties and outhouses hung in the darkness. Peter bent down under the top of the motor and pointed out his place. A minute later the machine came to a noisy halt and was choked into silence. At that moment, in the sweep of the head-light, Peter saw Viny Berry, one of Nan's younger sisters, coming up from Niggertown's public well, carrying two buckets of water.

Viny was hurrying, plashing the water over the sides of her buckets. The importance of her mission was written in her black face.

“She's awful thirsty,” she called to Peter in guarded tones. “Nan called me to fetch some fraish water fum de well.”

Peter took the water that had been brought from the semi-cesspool at the end of the street. Viny hurried across the street to home and to bed. With the habitual twinge of his sanitary conscience, Peter considered the water in the buckets.

“We'll have to boil this,” he said to the doctor.

“Boil it?” repeated Jallup, blankly. Then, he added: “Oh, yes—boil. Certainly.”

A repellent odor of burned paper, breathed air, and smoky lights filled the close room. Nan had lighted another lamp and now the place was discernible in a dull yellow glow. In the corner lay a half-burned wisp of paper. Nan herself stood by the mound on the bed, putting straight the quilts that her patient had twisted awry.

“She sho am bad, Doctor,” said the colored woman, with big eyes.

Seen in the light, Dr. Jallup was a little sandy-bearded man with a round, simple face, oddly overlaid with that inscrutability carefully cultivated by country doctors. With professional cheeriness, he approached the mound of bedclothes.

“A little under the weather, Aunt Ca'line?” He slipped his fingers alongside her throat to test her temperature, at the same time drawing a thermometer from his waistcoat pocket.

The old negress stirred, and looked up out of sick eyes.

“Doctor,” she gasped, “I sho got a misery heah.” She indicated her stomach.

“How do you feel?” he asked hopefully.

The woman panted, then whispered:

“Lak a knife was a-cuttin' an' a-tearin' out my innards.” She rested, then added, “Not so bad now; feels mo' lak somp'n's tearin' in de nex' room.”

“Like something tearing in the next room?” repeated Jallup, emptily.

“Yes, suh,” she whispered. “I jes can feel hit—away off, lak.”

The doctor attempted to take her temperature, but the thermometer in her mouth immediately nauseated her, so he slipped the instrument under her arm.

Old Caroline groaned at the slightest exertion, then, as she tossed her black head, she caught a glimpse of old Captain Renfrew.

She halted abruptly in her restlessness, stared at the old gentleman, wet her dry lips with a queer brown-furred tongue.

“Is dat you, Mars' Milt?” she gasped in feeble astonishment. A moment later she guessed the truth. “I s'pose you had to bring de doctor. 'Fo' Gawd, Mars' Milt—” She lay staring, with the covers rising and falling as she gasped for breath. Her feverish eyes shifted back and forth between the grim old gentleman and the tall, broad-shouldered brown man at the foot of her bed. She drew a baggy black arm from under the cover.

“Da' 's Peter, Mars' Milt,” she pointed. “Da' 's Peter, my son. He—he use' to be my son 'fo' he went off to school; but sence he come home, he been a-laughin' at me.” Tears came to her eyes; she panted for a moment, then added: “Yeah, he done marked his mammy down fuh a nigger, Mars' Milt. Whut I thought wuz gwine be sweet lays bitter in my mouf.” She worked her thick lips as if the rank taste of her sickness were the very flavor of her son's ingratitude.

A sudden gasp and twist of her body told Nan that the old woman was again seized with a spasm. The neighbor woman took swift control, and waved out Peter and old Mr. Renfrew, while she and the doctor aided the huge negress.

The two evicted men went into Peter's room and shut the door. Peter, unnerved, groped, and presently found and lighted a lamp. He put it down on his little table among his primary papers and examination papers. He indicated to Captain Renfrew the single chair in the room.

But the old gentleman stood motionless in the mean room, with its head-line streaked walls. Sounds of the heavy lifting of Peter’s mother came through the thin door and partition with painful clearness. Peter opened his own small window, for the air in his room was foul.

Captain Renfrew stood in silence, with a remote sarcasm in his wrinkled eyes. What was in his heart, why he had subjected himself to the noisomeness of failing flesh, Peter had not the faintest idea. Once, out of studently habit, he glanced at Peter’s philosophic books, but apparently he read the titles without really observing them. Once he looked at Peter.

“Peter,” he said colorlessly, “I hope you’ll be careful of Caroline’s feelings if she ever gets up again. She has been very faithful to you, Peter.”

Peter’s eyes dampened. A great desire mounted in him to explain himself to this strange old gentleman, to show him how inevitable had been the breach. For some reason a veritable passion to reveal his heart to this his sole benefactor surged through the youth.

“Mr. Renfrew,” he stammered, “Mr. Renfrew—I—I—” His throat abruptly ached and choked. He felt his face distort in a spasm of uncontrollable grief. He turned quickly from this strange old man with a remote sarcasm in his eyes and a remote affection in his tones. Peter clenched his jaws, his nostrils spread in his effort stoically to bottle up his grief and remorse, like a white man; in an effort to keep from howling his agony aloud, like a negro. He stood with aching throat and blurred eyes, trembling, swallowing, and silent.

Presently Nan Berry opened the door. She held a half-burned paper in her hand; Dr. Jallup stood near the bed, portioning out some calomel and quinine. The prevalent disease in Hooker's Bend is malaria; Dr. Jallup always physicked for malaria. On this occasion he diagnosed it must be a very severe attack of malaria indeed, so he measured out enormous doses.

He took a glass of the water that Viny had brought, held up old Caroline's head, and washed down two big capsules into the already poisoned stomach of the old negress. His simple face was quite inscrutable as he did this. He left other capsules for Nan to administer at regular intervals. Then he and Captain Renfrew motored out of Niggertown, out of its dust and filth and stench.

At four o'clock in the morning Caroline Siner died.