Birthright/Chapter VII

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CHAPTER VII


DURING a period following his mother's death Peter Siner's life drifted emptily and without purpose. He had the feeling of one convalescing in a hospital. His days passed unconnected by any thread of purpose; they were like cards scattered on a table, meaning nothing.

At times he struggled against his lethargy. When he awoke in the morning and found the sun shining on his dusty primers and examination papers, he would think that he ought to go back to his old task; but he never did. In his heart grew a conviction that he would never teach school at Hooker's Bend.

He would rise and dress slowly in the still cabin, thinking he must soon make new plans and take up some work. He never decided precisely what work; his thoughts trailed on in vague, idle designs.

In fact, during Peter's reaction to his shock there began to assert itself in him that capacity for profound indolence inherent in his negro blood. To a white man time is a cumulative excitant. Continuous and absolute idleness is impossible; he must work, hunt, fish, play, gamble, or dissipate,—do something to burn up the accumulating sugar in his muscles. But to a negro idleness is an increasing balm; it is a stretching of his legs in the sunshine, a cat-like purring of his nerves; while his thoughts spread here and there in inconsequences, like water without a channel, making little humorous eddies, winding this way and that into oddities and fantasies without ever feeling that constraint of sequence which continually operates in a white brain. And it is this quality that makes negroes the entertainers of children par excellence.

Peter Siner's mental slackening made him understandable, and gave him a certain popularity in Nigger-town. Black men fell into the habit of dropping in at the Siner cabin, where they would sit outdoors, with chairs propped against the wall, and philosophize on the desultory life of the crescent. Sometimes they would relate their adventures on the river packets and around the docks at Paducah, Cairo, St. Joe, and St. Louis; usually a recountal of drunkenness, gaming, fighting, venery, arrests, jail sentences, petty peculations, and escapes. Through these Iliads of vagabondage ran an irresponsible gaiety, a non-morality, and a kind of unbrave zest for adventure. They told of their defeats and flights with as much relish and humor as of their charges and victories. And while the spirit was thoroughly pagan, these accounts were full of the clichés of religion. A roustabout whom every one called the Persimmon confided to Peter that he meant to cut loose some logs in a raft up the river, float them down a little way, tie them up again, and claim the prize-money for salvaging them, God willing.

The Persimmon was so called from a scar on his long slanting head. A steamboat mate had once found him asleep in the passageway of a lumber pile which the boat was lading, and he waked the negro by hitting him in the head with a persimmon bolt. In this there was nothing unusual or worthy of a nickname. The point was, the mate had been mistaken: the Persimmon was not working on his boat at all. In time this became one of the stock anecdotes which pilots and captains told to passengers traveling up and down the river.

The Persimmon was a queer-looking negro; his head was a long diagonal from its peak down to his pendent lower lip, for he had no chin. The salient points on this black slope were the Persimmon's sad, protruding yellow eyeballs, over which the lids always drooped about half closed. An habitual tipping of this melancholy head to one side gave the Persimmon the look of one pondering and deploring the amount of sin there was in the world. This saintly impression the Persimmon's conduct and language never bore out.

At the time of the Persimmon's remarks about the raft two of Peter's callers, Jim Pink Staggs and Parson Ranson, took the roustabout to task. Jim Pink based his objection on the grounds of glutting the labor market.

“Ef us niggers keeps turnin' too many raf's loose fuh de prize-money,” he warned, “somebody's goin' to git 'spicious, an' you'll ruin a good thing.”

The Persimmon absorbed this with a far-away look in his half-closed eyes.

“It's a ticklish job,” argued Parson Ranson, “an' I wouldn't want to wuck at de debbil's task aroun' de ribber, ca'se you mout fall in, Persimmon, an' git drownded.”

“I wouldn't do sich a thing a-tall,” admitted the Persimmon, “but I jes' natchelly got to git ten dollars to he'p pay on my divo'ce.”

“I kain't see whut you want wid a divo'ce,” said Jim Pink, yawning, “when you been ma'ied three times widout any.”

“It's fuh a Christmas present,” explained the Persimmon, carelessly, “fuh th' woman I'm libin' wid now. Mahaly's a great woman fuh style. I'm goin' to divo'ce my other wives, one at a time lak my lawyer say.”

“On what grounds?” asked Peter, curiously.

“Desuhtion.”

“Desertion?”

“Uh huh; I desuhted 'em.”

Jim Pink shook his head, picked up a pebble, and began idly juggling it, making it appear double, single, treble, then single again.

“Too many divo'ces in dis country now, Persimmon,” he moralized.

“Well, whut's de cause uv 'em?” asked the Persimmon, suddenly bringing his protruding yellow eyes around on the sleight-of-hand performer.

Jim Pink was slightly taken aback; then he said:

"'Spicion; nothin' but 'spicion.”

“Yeah, 'spicion,” growled the Persimmon; "'spicion an' de husban' leadin' a irreg'lar life.”

Jim Pink looked at his companion, curiously.

“The husban'—leadin' a irreg'lar life?”

“Yeah,”—the Persimmon nodded grimly,—“the husban' comin' home at onexpected hours. You know whut I means, Jim Pink.”

Jim Pink let his pebble fall and lowered the fore legs of his chair softly to the ground.

“Now, look heah, Persimmon, you don' want to be draggin' no foreign disco'se into yo' talk heah befo' Mr. Siner an' Parson Ranson.”

The Persimmon rose deliberately.

“All I want to say is, I drapped off'n de matrimonial tree three times a'ready, Jim Pink, an' I think I feels somebody shakin' de limb ag'in.”

The old negro preacher rose, too, a little behind Jim Pink.

“Now, boys! boys!” he placated. “You jes think dat, Persimmon.”

“Yeah,” admitted Persimmon, “I jes think it; but ef I b'lieve ever'thing is so whut I think is so, I'd part Jim Pink's wool wid a brickbat.”

Parson Ranson tried to make peace, but the Persimmon spread his hands in a gesture that included the three men. “Now, I ain't sayin' nothin',” he stated solemnly, “an' I ain't makin' no threats; but ef anything happens, you-all kain't say that nobody didn' tell nobody about nothin'.”

With this the Persimmon walked to the gate, let himself out, still looking back at Jim Pink, and then started down the dusty street.

Mr. Staggs seemed uncomfortable under the Persimmon's protruding yellow stare, but finally, when the roustabout was gone, he shrugged, regained his aplomb, and remarked that some niggers spent their time in studyin' 'bout things they hadn't no info'mation on whatever. Then he strolled off up the crescent in the other direction.

All this would have made fair minstrel patter if Peter Siner had shared the white conviction that every emotion expressed in a negro's patois is humorous. Unfortunately, Peter was too close to the negroes to hold such a tenet. He knew this quarrel was none the less rancorous for having been couched in the queer circumlocution of black folk. And behind it all shone the background of racial promiscuity out of which it sprang. It was like looking at an open sore that touched all of Niggertown, men and boys, young girls and women. It caused tragedies, murders, fights, and desertions in the black village as regularly as the rotation of the calendar; yet there was no public sentiment against it. Peter wondered how this attitude of his whole people could possibly be.

With the query the memory of Ida May came back to him, with its sense of dim pathos. It seemed to Peter now as if their young and uninstructed hands had destroyed a safety-vault to filch a penny.

The reflex of a thought of Ida May always brought Peter to Cissie; it always stirred up in him a desire to make this young girl's path gentle and smooth. There was a fineness, a delicacy about Cissie, that, it seemed to Peter, Ida May had never possessed. Then, too, Cissie was moved by a passion for self-betterment. She deserved a cleaner field than the Niggertown of Hooker's Bend.

Peter took Parson Ranson's arm, and the two moved to the gate by common consent. It was no longer pleasant to sit here. The quarrel they had heard somehow had flavored their surroundings.

Peter turned his steps mechanically northward up the crescent toward the Dildine cabin. Nothing now restrained him from calling on Cissie; he would keep no dinner waiting; he would not be warned and berated on his return home. The nagging, jealous love of his mother had ended.

As the two men walked along, it was borne in upon Peter that his mother's death definitely ended one period of his life. There was no reason why he should continue his present unsettled existence. It seemed best to marry Cissie at once and go North. Further time in this place would not be good for the girl. Even if he could not lift all Niggertown, he could at least help Cissie. He had had no idea, when he first planned his work, what a tremendous task he was essaying. The white village had looked upon the negroes so long as non-moral and non- human that the negroes, with the flexibility of their race, had assimilated that point of view. The whites tried to regulate the negroes by endless laws. The negroes had come to accept this, and it seemed that they verily believed that anything not discovered by the constable was permissible. Mr. Dawson Bobbs was Niggertown's conscience. It was best for Peter to take from this atmosphere what was dearest to him, and go at once.

The brown man's thoughts came trailing back to the old negro parson hobbling at his side. He looked at the old man, hesitated a moment, then told him what was in his mind.

Parson Ranson's face wrinkled into a grin.

“You's gwine to git ma'ied?”

“And I thought I'd have you perform the ceremony.”

This suggestion threw the old negro into excitement.

“Me, Mr. Peter?”

“Yes. Why not?”

“Why, Mr. Peter, I kain't jine you an' Miss Cissie Dildine.”

Peter looked at him, astonished.

“Why can't you?”

“Whyn't you git a white preacher?”

“Well,” deliberated Peter, gravely, “it's a matter of principle with me, Parson Ranson. I think we colored people ought to be more self-reliant, more self-serving. We ought to lead our own lives instead of being mere echoes of white thought.” He made a swift gesture, moved by this passion of his life. “I don't mean racial equality. To my mind racial equality is an empty term. One might as well ask whether pink and violet are equal. But what I do insist on is autonomous development.”

The old preacher nodded, staring into the dust. “Sho! 'tonomous 'velopment.”

Peter saw that his language, if not his thought, was far beyond his old companion's grasp, and he lacked the patience to simplify himself.

“Why don't you want to marry us, Parson?”

Parson Ranson lifted his brows and filled his forehead with wrinkles.

“Well, I dunno. You an' Miss Cissie acts too much lak white folks fuh a nigger lak me to jine you, Mr. Peter.”

Peter made a sincere effort to be irritated, but he was not.

“That's no way to feel. It's exactly what I was talking about,—racial self-reliance. You've married hundreds of colored couples.”

“Ya-as, suh,”—the old fellow scratched his black jaw.—“I kin yoke up a pair uv ordina'y niggers all right. Sometimes dey sticks, sometimes dey don't.” The old man shook his white, kinky head. “I'll bust in an' try to hitch up you-all. I—I dunno whedder de cer'mony will hol' away up North or not.”

“It'll be all right anywhere, Parson,” said Peter, seriously. “Your name on the marriage-certificate will—can you write?”

“N-no, suh.”

After a brief hesitation Peter repeated determinedly:

“It'll be all right. And, by the way, of course, this will be a very quiet wedding.”

“Yas-suh.” The old man bobbed importantly.

“I wouldn't mention it to any one.”

“No, suh; no, suh. I don' blame you a-tall, Mr. Peter, wid dat Tump Pack gallivantin' roun' wid a forty-fo'. Hit would keep 'mos' anybody's weddin' ve'y quiet onless he wuz lookin' fuh a short cut to heab'n.”

As the two negroes passed the Berry cabin, Nan Berry thrust out her spiked head and called to Peter Captain Renfrew wanted to see him.

Peter paused, with quickened interest in this strange old man who had come to his mother's death-bed with a doctor. Peter asked Nan what the Captain wanted.

Nan did not know. Wince Washington had told Nan that the Captain wanted to see Peter. Bluegum Frakes had told Wince; Jerry Dillihay had told Bluegum; but any further meanderings of the message, when it started, or what its details might be, Nan could not state.

It was a typical message from a resident of the white town to a denizen of Niggertown. Such messages are delivered to any black man for any other black man, not only in the village, but anywhere in the outlying country. It may be passed on by a dozen or a score of mouths before it reaches its objective. It may be a day or a week in transit, but eventually it will be delivered verbatim. This queer system of communication is a relic of slavery, when the master would send out word for some special negro out of two or three hundred slaves to report at the big house.

However, as Peter approached the Dildine cabin, thoughts of his approaching marriage drove from his mind even old Captain Renfrew's message. His heart beat fast from having made his first formal step toward wedlock. The thought of having Cissie all to himself, swept his nerves in a gust.

He opened the gate, and ran up between the dusty lines of dwarf box, eager to tell her what he had done. He thumped on the cracked, unpainted door, and impatiently waited the skirmish of observation along the edge of the window-blinds. This was unduly drawn out. Presently he heard women's voices whispering to each other inside. They seemed urgent, almost angry voices. Now and then he caught a sentence: “What difference will it make?” “I couldn't.” “Why couldn't you?” “Because—” “That's because you've been to Nashville.” “Oh, well—” A chair was moved over a bare floor. A little later footsteps came to the entrance, the door opened, and Cissie's withered yellow mother stood before him.

Vannie offered her hand and inquired after Peter's health with a stopped voice that instantly recalled his mother's death. After the necessary moment of talk, the mulatto inquired for Cissie.

The yellow woman seemed slightly ill at ease.

“Cissie ain't so well, Peter.”

“She's not ill?”

“N-no; but the excitement an' ever'thing—” answered Vannie, vaguely.

In the flush of his plans, Peter was keenly disappointed.

“It's very important, Mrs. Dildine.”

Vannie's dried yellow face framed the ghost of a smile.

“Ever'thing a young man's got to say to a gal is ve'y important, Peter.”

It seemed to Peter a poor time for a jest; his face warmed faintly.

“It—it's about some of the details of our—our wedding.”

“If you'll excuse her to-day, Peter, an' come after supper—”

Peter hesitated, and was about to go away when Cissie's voice came from an inner room, telling her mother to admit him.

The yellow woman glanced at the door on the left side of the hall, crossed over and opened it, stood to one side while Peter entered, and closed it after him, leaving the two alone.

The room into which Peter stepped was dark, after the fashion of negro houses. Only after a moment's survey did he see Cissie sitting near a big fireplace made of rough stone. The girl started to rise as Peter advanced toward her, but he solicitously forbade it and hurried over to her. When he leaned over her and put his arms about her, his ardor was slightly dampened when she gave him her cheek instead of her lips to kiss.

“Surely, you're not too ill to be kissed?” he rallied faintly.

“You kissed me. I thought we had agreed, Peter, you were not to come in the daytime any more.”

“Oh, is that it?” Peter patted her shoulder, cheerfully. “Don't worry; I have just removed any reason why I shouldn't come any time I want to.”

Cissie looked at him, her dark eyes large in the gloom.

“What have you done?”

“Got a preacher to marry us; on my way now for a license. Dropped in to ask if you 'll be ready by tomorrow or next day.”

The girl gasped.

“But, Peter—”

Peter drew a chair beside her in a serious argumentative mood.

“Yes I think we ought to get married at once. No reason why we shouldn't get it over with—Why, what's the matter?”

“So soon after your mother's death, Peter?”

“It's to get away from Hooker's Bend, Cissie—to get you away. I don't like for you to stay here. It's all so—” he broke off, not caring to open the disagreeable subject.

The girl sat staring down at some fagots smoldering on the hearth. At that moment they broke into flame and illuminated her sad face.

“You'll go, won't you?” asked Peter at last, with a faint uncertainty.

The girl looked up.

“Oh—I—I'd be glad to, Peter,”—she gave a little shiver. “Ugh! this Niggertown is a—a terrible place!”

Peter leaned over, took one of her hands, and patted it.

“Then we'll go,” he said soothingly. “It's decided—tomorrow. And we'll have a perfectly lovely wedding trip,” he planned cheerfully, to draw her mind from her mood. “On the car going North I'll get a whole drawing-room. I've always wanted a drawing-room, and you'll be my excuse. We'll sit and watch the fields and woods and cities slip past us, and know, when we get off, we can walk on the streets as freely as anybody. We'll be a genuine man and wife.”

His recital somehow stirred him. He took her in his arms, pressed her cheek to his, and after a moment kissed her lips with the trembling ardor of a bridegroom.

Cissie remained passive a moment, then put up he hands, turned his face away, and slowly released herself.

Peter was taken aback.

“What is the matter, Cissie?”

“I can't go, Peter.”

Peter looked at her with a feeling of strangeness.

“Can't go?”

The girl shook her head.

“You mean—you want us to live here?”

Cissie sat exceedingly still and barely shook her head.

The mulatto had a sensation as if the portals which disclosed a new and delicious life were slowly closing against him. He stared into her oval face.

“You don't mean, Cissie—you don't mean you don't want to marry me?”

The fagots on the hearth burned now with a cheerful flame. Cissie stared at it, breathing rapidly from the top of her lungs. She seemed about to faint. As Peter watched her the jealousy of the male crept over him.

“Look here, Cissie,” he said in a queer voice, “you—you don't mean, after all, that Tump Pack is—”

“Oh no! No!” Her face showed her repulsion. Then she drew a long breath and apparently made up her mind to some sort of ordeal.

“Peter,” she asked in a low tone, “did you ever think what we colored people are trying to reach?” She stared into his uncomprehending eyes. “I mean what is our aim, our goal, whom are we trying to be like?”

“We aren't trying to be like any one.” Peter was entirely at a loss.

“Oh, yes, we are,” Cissie hurried on. “Why do colored girls straighten their hair, bleach their skins, pinch their feet? Aren't they trying to look like white girls?”

Peter agreed, wondering at her excitement.

“And you went North to college, Peter, so you could think and act like a white man—”

Peter resisted this at once; he was copying nobody. The whole object of college was to develop one's personality, to bring out—

The girl stopped his objections almost piteously.

“Oh, don't argue! You know arguing throws me off. I—now I've forgotten how I meant to say it!” Tears of frustration welled up in her eyes.

Her mood was alarming, almost hysterical. Peter began comforting her.

“There, there, dear, dear Cissie, what is the matter? Don't say it at all.” Then, inconsistently, he added: “You said I copied white men. Well, what of it?”

Cissie breathed her relief at having been given the thread of her discourse. She sat silent for a moment with the air of one screwing up her courage.

“It's this,” she said in an uncertain voice: “sometimes we—we—girls—here in Niggertown copy the wrong thing first.”

Peter looked blankly at her.

“The wrong thing first, Cissie?”

“Oh, yes; we—we begin on clothes and—and hair and—and that isn't the real matter.”

“Why, no-o-o, that isn't the real matter,” said Peter puzzled.

Cissie looked at his face and became hopeless.

“Oh, don't you understand! Lots of us—lots of us make that mistake! I—I did; so—so, Peter, I can't go with you!” She flung out the last phrase, and suddenly collapsed on the arm of her chair, sobbing.

Peter was amazed. He got up, sat on the arm of his own chair next to hers and put his arms about her, bending over her, mothering her. Her distress was so great that he said as earnestly as his ignorance permitted:

“Yes, Cissie, I understand now.” But his tone belied his words, and the girl shook her head. “Yes, I do, Cissie,” he repeated emptily. But she only shook her head as she leaned over him, and her tears slowly formed and trickled down on his hand. Then all at once old Caroline's accusation against Cissie flashed on Peter's mind. She had stolen that dinner in the turkey roaster, after all. It so startled him that he sat up straight. Cissie also sat up. She stopped crying, and sat looking into the fire.

“You mean—morals?” said Peter in a low tone.

Cissie barely nodded, her wet eyes fixed on the fire.

“I see. I was stupid.”

The girl sat a moment, drawing deep breaths. At last she rose slowly.

“Well—I'm glad it's over. I'm glad you know.” She stood looking at him almost composedly except for her breathing and her tear-stained face. “You see, Peter, if you had been like Tump Pack or Wince or any of the boys around here, it—it wouldn't have made much difference; but—but you went off and—and learned to think and feel like a white man. You— you changed your code, Peter.” She gave a little shaken sound, something between a sob and a laugh. “I—I don't think th-that's very fair, Peter, to—to go away an'—an' change an' come back an' judge us with yo' n-new code.” Cissie's precise English broke down.

Just then Peter's logic caught at a point.

“If you didn't know anything about my code, how do you know what I feel now?” he asked.

She looked at him with a queer expression.

“I found out when you kissed me under the arbor. It was too late then.”

She stood erect, with dismissal very clearly written in her attitude. Peter walked out of the room.