Birthright/Chapter VI

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CHAPTER VI


WHEN Nan Berry saw that Caroline was dead, the black woman dropped a glass of water and a capsule of calomel and stared. A queer terror seized her. She began such a wailing that it aroused others in Niggertown. At the sound they got out of their beds and came to the Siner cabin, their eyes big with mystery and fear. At the sight of old Caroline's motionless body they lifted their voices through the night.

The lamentation carried far beyond the confines of Niggertown. The last gamblers in the cedar glade heard it, and it broke up their gaming and drinking. White persons living near the black crescent were waked out of their sleep and listened to the eerie sound. It rose and fell in the darkness like a melancholy organ chord. The wailing of the women quivered against the heavy grief of the men. The half-asleep listeners were moved by its weirdness to vague and sinister fancies. The dolor veered away from what the Anglo-Saxon knows as grief and was shot through with the uncanny and the terrible. White children crawled out of their small beds and groped their way to their parents. The women shivered and asked of the darkness, “What makes the negroes howl so?”

Nobody knew,—least of all, the negroes. Nobody suspected that the bedlam harked back to the jungle, to black folk in African kraals beating tom-toms and howling, not in grief, but in an ecstasy of terror lest the souls of their dead might come back in the form of tigers or pythons or devils and work woe to the tribe. Through the night the negroes wailed on, performing through custom an ancient rite of which they knew nothing. They supposed themselves heartbroken over the death of Caroline Siner.

Amid this din Peter Siner sat in his room, stunned by the sudden taking off of his mother. The reproaches that she had expressed to old Captain Renfrew clung in Peter's brain. The brown man had never before realized the faint amusement and condescension that had flavored all his relations with his mother since his return home. But he knew now that she had felt his disapproval of her lifelong habits; that she saw he never explained or attempted to explain his thoughts to her, assuming her to be too ignorant; as she put it, “a fool.”

The pathos of his mother's last days, what she had expected, what she had received, came to Peter with the bitterness of what is finished and irrevocable. She had been dead only a few minutes, yet she could never know his grief and remorse; she could never forgive him. She was utterly removed in a few minutes, in a moment in the failing of a breath. The finality of death overpowered him.

Into his room, through the thin wall, came the catch of numberless sobs, the long-drawn open wails, and the spasms of sobbing. Blurred voices called, “O Gawd! Gawd hab mercy! Hab mercy!” Now words were lost in the midst of confusion. The clamor boomed through the thin partition as if it would shake down his newspapered walls. With wet cheeks and an aching throat, Peter sat by his table, staring at his book-case in silence, like a white man.

The dim light of his lamp fell over his psychologies and philosophies. These were the books that had given him precedence over the old washwoman who kept him in college. It was reading these books that had made him so wise that the old negress could not even follow his thoughts. Now in the hour of his mother's death the backs of his metaphysics blinked at him emptily. What signified their endless pages about dualism and monism, about phenomenon and noumenon? His mother was dead. And she had died embittered against him because he had read and had been bewildered by these empty, wordy volumes.

A sense of profound defeat, of being ultimately fooled and cozened by the subtleties of white men, filled Peter Siner. He had eaten at their table, but their meat was not his meat. The uproar continued. Standing out of the din arose the burden of negro voices “Hab mercy! Gawd hab mercy!”

In the morning the Ladies of Tabor came and washed and dressed Caroline Siner's body and made it ready for burial. For twenty years the old negress had paid ten cents a month to her society to insure her burial, and now the lodge made ready to fulfil its pledge. After many comings and goings, the black women called Peter to see their work, as if for his approval.

The huge dead woman lay on the four-poster with a sheet spread over the lower part of her body. The ministrants had clothed it in the old black-silk dress, with its spreading seams and panels of different materials. It reminded Peter of the new dress he had meant to get his mother, and of the modish suit which at that moment molded his own shoulders and waist. The pitifulness of her sacrifices trembled in Peter's throat. He pressed his lips together, and nodded silently to the black Ladies of Tabor.

Presently the white undertaker, a silent little man with a brisk yet sympathetic air, came and made some measurements. He talked to Peter in undertones about the finishing of the casket, how much the Knights of Tabor would pay, what Peter wanted. Then he spoke of the hour of burial, and mentioned a somewhat early hour because some of the negroes wanted to ship as roustabouts on the up-river packet, which was due at any moment.

These decisions, asked of Peter, kept pricking him and breaking through the stupefaction of this sudden tragedy. He kept nodding a mechanical agreement until the undertaker had arranged all the details. Then the little man moved softly out of the cabin and went stepping away through the dust of Niggertown with professional briskness. A little later two black grave-diggers set out with picks and shovels for the negro graveyard.

Numberless preparations for the funeral were going on all over Niggertown. The Knights of Tabor were putting on their regalia. Negro women were sending out hurry notices to white mistresses that they would be unable to cook the noonday meal. Dozens of negro girls flocked to the hair-dressing establishment of Miss Mallylou Speers. All were bent on having their wool straightened for the obsequies, and as only a few of them could be accommodated, the little room was packed. A smell of burning hair pervaded it. The girls sat around waiting their turn. Most of them already had their hair down,—or, rather loose, for it stood out in thick mats. The hair-dresser had a small oil stove on which lay heating half a dozen iron combs. With a hot comb she teased each strand of wool into perfect straightness and then plastered it down with a greasy pomade. The result was a stiff effect, something like the hair of the Japanese. It required about three hours to straighten the hair of one negress. The price was a dollar and a half.

By half-past nine o'clock a crowd of negro men, in lodge aprons and with spears, and negro women, with sashes of ribbon over their shoulders and across the breasts, assembled about the Siner cabin. In the dusty curving street were ranged half a dozen battered vehicles,—a hearse, a delivery wagon, some rickety buggies, and a hack. Presently the undertaker arrived with a dilapidated black hearse which he used especially for negroes. He jumped down, got out his straps and coffin stands, directed some negro men to bring in the coffin, then hurried into the cabin with his air of brisk precision.

He placed the coffin on the stands near the bed; then a number of men slipped the huge black body into it. The undertaker settled old Caroline's head against the cotton pillows, running his hand down beside her cheek and tipping her face just so. Then he put on the cover, which left a little oval opening just above her dead face. The sight of old Caroline's face seen through the little oval pane moved some of the women to renewed sobs. Eight black men took up the coffin and carried it out with the slow, wide-legged steps of roustabouts. Parson Ranson, in a rusty Prince Albert coat, took Peter's arm and led him to the first vehicle after the hearse. It was a delivery wagon, but it was the best vehicle in the procession.

As Peter followed the coffin out, he saw the Knights and Ladies of Tabor lined up in marching order behind the van. The men held their spears and swords at attention; the women carried flowers. Behind the marchers came other old vehicles, a sorry procession.

At fifteen minutes to ten the bell in the steeple of the colored church tolled a single stroke. The sound quivered through the sunshine over Niggertown. At its signal the poor procession moved away through the dust. At intervals the bell tolled after the vanishing train.

As the negroes passed through the white town the merchants, lolling in their doors, asked passers-by what negro had died. The idlers under the mulberry in front of the livery-stable nodded at the old negro preacher in his long greenish-black coat, and Dawson Bobbs remarked:

“Well, old Parson Ranson's going to tell 'em about it to-day,” and he shifted his toothpick with a certain effect of humor.

Old Mr. Tomwit asked if his companions had ever heard how Newt Bodler, a wit famous in Wayne County, once broke up a negro funeral with a hornets' nest. The idlers nodded a smiling affirmative as they watched the cortège go past. They had all heard it. But Mr. Tomwit would not be denied. He sallied forth into humorous reminiscence. Another loafer contributed an anecdote of how he had tied ropes to a dead negro so as to make the corpse sit up in bed and frighten the mourners.

All their tales were of the vintage of the years immediately succeeding the Civil War,—pioneer humor, such as convulsed the readers of Peck's Bad Boy, Mr. Bowser, Sut Lovingood. The favorite dramatic properties of such writers were the hornets' nest, the falling ladder, the banana peel. They cultivated the humor of contusions, the wit of impact. This style still holds the stage of Hooker's Bend.

In telling these tales the white villagers meant no special disrespect to the negro funeral. It simply reminded them of humorous things; so they told their jokes, like the naïve children of the soil that they were.

At last the poor procession passed beyond the white church, around a bend in the road, and so vanished. Presently the bell in Niggertown ceased tolling.


Peter always remembered his mother's funeral in fragments of intolerable pathos,—the lifting of old Parson Ranson's hands toward heaven, the songs of the black folk, the murmur of the first shovelful of dirt as it was lowered to the coffin, and the final raw mound of earth littered with a few dying flowers. With that his mother—who had been so near to, and so disappointed in, her son—was blotted from his life. The other events of the funeral flowed by in a sort of dream: he moved about; the negroes were speaking to him in the queer overtones one uses to the bereaved; he was being driven back to Niggertown; he reëntered the Siner cabin. One or two of his friends stayed in the room with him for a while and said vague things, but there was nothing to say.

Later in the afternoon Cissie Dildine and her mother brought his dinner to him. Vannie Dildine, a thin yellow woman, uttered a few disjointed words about Sister Ca'line being a good woman, and stopped amid sentence. There was nothing to say. Death had cut a wound across Peter Siner's life. Not for days, nor weeks, nor months, would his existence knit solidly back together. The poison of his ingratitude to his faithful old black mother would for a long, long day prevent the healing.