Birthright/Chapter VIII

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

CHAPTER VIII


WITH a certain feeling of clumsiness Peter groped in the dark hall for his hat, then, as quietly as he could, let himself out at the door. Outside he was surprised to find that daylight still lingered in the sky. He thought night had fallen. The sun lay behind the Big Hill, but its red rays pouring down through the boles of the cedars tinted long delicate avenues in the dusty atmosphere above his head. A sharp chill in the air presaged frost for the night. Somewhere in the crescent a boy yodeled for his dog at about half-minute intervals, with the persistence of children.

Peter walked a little distance, but finally came to a stand in the dust, looking at the negro cabins, not knowing where to go or what to do. Cissie's confession had destroyed all his plans. It had left him as adynamic as had his mother's death. It seemed to Peter that there was a certain similarity between the two events; both were sudden and desolating. And just as his mother had vanished utterly from his reach, so now it seemed Cissie was no more. Cissie the clear-eyed, Cissie the ambitious, Cissie the refined, had vanished away, and in her place stood a thief.

The thing was grotesque. Peter began a sudden shuddering in the cold. Then he began moving toward the empty cabin where he slept and kept his things. He moved along, talking to himself in the dusty emptiness of the crescent. He decided that he would go home, pack his clothes, and vanish. A St. Louis boat would be down that night, and he would just have time to pack his clothes and catch it. He would not take his books, his philosophies. He would let them remain, in the newspapered room, until all crumbled into uniform philosophic dust, and the teachings of Aristotle blew about Niggertown.

Then, as he thought of traveling North, the vision of the honeymoon he had just planned revived his numb brain into a dismal aching. He looked back through the dusk at the Dildine roof. It stood black against an opalescent sky. Out of the foreground, bending over it, arose a clump of tall sunflowers, in whose silhouette hung a suggestion of yellow and green. The whole scene quivered slightly at every throb of his heart. He thought what a fool he was to allow a picaresque past to keep him away from such a woman, how easy it would be to go back to the soft luxury of Cissie, to tell her it made no difference; and somehow, just at that moment it seemed not to.

Then the point of view which Peter had been four years acquiring swept away the impulse, and it left him moving toward his cabin again, empty, cold, and planless.

He was drawn out of his reverie by the soft voice of a little negro boy asking him apprehensively whom he was talking to.

Peter stopped, drew forth a handkerchief and dabbed the moisture from his cold face in the meticulous fashion of college men.

With the boy came a dog which was cautiously smelling Peter's shoes and trousers. Both boy and dog were investigating the phenomenon of Peter. Peter, in turn, looked down at them with a feeling that they had materialized out of nothing.

“What did you say?” he asked vaguely.

The boy was suddenly overcome with the excessive shyness of negro children, and barely managed to whisper:

“I—I ast wh-who you wuz a-talkin' to.”

“Was I talking?”

The little negro nodded, undecided whether to stand his ground or flee. Peter touched the child's crisp hair.

“I was talking to myself,” he said, and moved forward again.

The child instantly gained confidence at the slight caress, took a fold of Peter's trousers in his hand for friendliness, and the two trudged on together.

“Wh-whut you talkin' to yo' se'f for?”

Peter glanced down at the little black head that promised to think up a thousand questions.

“I was wondering where to go.”

“Lawsy! is you los' yo' way?”

He stroked the little head with a rush of self-pity.

“Yes, I have, son; I've completely lost my way.”

The child twisted his head around and peered up alongside Peter's arm. Presently he asked:

“Ain't you Mr. Peter Siner?”

“Yes.”

“Ain't you de man whut's gwine to ma'y Miss Cissie Dildine?”

Peter looked down at his small companion with a certain concern that his marriage was already gossip known to babes.

“I'm Peter Siner,” he repeated.

“Den I knows which way you wants to go,” piped the youngster in sudden helpfulness. “You wants to go over to Cap'n Renfrew's place acrost de Big Hill. He done sont fuh you. Mr. Wince Washington tol' me, ef I seed you, to tell you dat Cap'n Renfrew wants to see you. I dunno whut hit's about. I ast Wince, an' he didn' know.”

Peter recalled the message Nan Berry had given him some hours before. Now the same summons had seeped around to him from another direction.

“I—I'll show you de way to Cap'n Renfrew's ef—ef you'll come back wid me th'ugh de cedar glade,” proposed the child. “I—I ain't skeered in de cedar glade, b-b-but hit's so dark I kain't see my way back home. I—I—”

Peter thanked him and declined his services. After all, he might as well go to see Captain Renfrew. He owed the old gentleman some thanks—and ten dollars.

The only thing of which Peter Siner was aware during his walk over the Big Hill and through the village was his last scene with Cissie. He went over it again and again, repeating their conversation, inventing new replies, framing new action, questioning more fully into the octoroon’s vague confession and his benumbed acceptance of it. The moment his mind completed the little drama it started again from the very beginning.

At Captain Renfrew’s gate this mental mummery paused long enough for him to vacillate between walking in or going around and shouting from the back gate. It is a point of etiquette in Hooker’s Bend that negroes shall enter a white house from the back stoop. Peter had no desire to transgress this custom. On the other hand, if Captain Renfrew was receiving him as a fellow of Harvard, the back door, in its way, would prove equally embarrassing.

After a certain indecision he compromised by entering the front gate and calling the Captain’s name from among the scattered bricks of the old walk.

The house lay silent, half smothered in a dark tangle of shrubbery. Peter called twice before he heard the shuffle of house slippers, and then saw the Captain’s dressing-gown at the piazza steps.

“Is that you, Peter?” came a querulous voice.

“Yes, Captain. I was told you wanted to see me.”

“You’ve been deliberate in coming,” criticized the old gentleman, testily. “I sent you word by some black rascal three days ago.”

“I just received the message to-day.” Peter remained discreetly at the gate.

“Yes; well, come in, come in. See if you can do anything with this damnable lamp.”

The old man turned with a dignified drawing-together of his dressing-gown and moved back. Apparently, the renovation of a cranky lamp was the whole content of the Captain’s summons to Peter.

There was something so characteristic in this incident that Peter was moved to a vague sense of mirth. It was just like the old régime to call in a negro, a special negro, from ten miles away to move a jar of ferns across the lawn or trim a box hedge or fix a lamp.

Peter followed the old gentleman around to the back piazza facing his study. There, laid out on the floor, were all the parts of a gasolene lamp, together with a pipe-wrench, a hammer, a little old-fashioned vise, a bar of iron, and an envelop containing the mantels and the more delicate parts of the lamp.

“It’s extraordinary to me,” criticized the Captain, “why they can’t make a gasolene lamp that will go, and remain in a going condition.”

“Has it been out of fix for three days?” asked Peter, sorry that the old gentleman should have lacked a light for so long.

“No,” growled the Captain; “it started gasping at four o'clock last night; so I put it out and went to bed. I've been working at it this evening. There's a little hole in the tip,—if I could see it,—a hair-sized hole, painfully small. Why any man wants to make gasolene lamps with microscopic holes that ordinary intelligence must inform him will become clogged I cannot conceive.“

Peter ventured no opinion on this trait of lampmakers, but said that if the Captain knew where he could get an oil hand-lamp for a little more light, he thought he could unstop the hole.

The Captain looked at his helper and shook his head.

“I am surprised at you, Peter. When I was your age, I could see an aperture like that hole under the last quarter of the moon. In this strong light I could have—er—lunged the cleaner through it, sir. You must have strained your eyes in college.” He paused, then added: “You'll find hand-lamps in any of the rooms fronting this porch. I don't know whether they have oil in them or not—the shiftless niggers that come around to take care of this building—no dependence to be put in them. When I try it myself, I do even worse.”

The old gentleman's tone showed that he was thawing out of his irritable mood, and Peter sensed that he meant to be amusing in an austere, unsmiling fashion. The Captain rubbed his delicate wrinkled hands together in a pleased fashion and sat down in a big porch chair to await Peter's assembling of the lamp. The brown man started down the long piazza, in search of a hand-light.

He found a lamp in the first room he entered, returned to the piazza, sat down on the edge of it, and began his tinkering. The old Captain apparently watched him with profound satisfaction. Presently, after the fashion of the senile, he began endless and minute instructions as to how the lamp should be cleaned.

“Take the wire in your left hand, Peter,—that's right,—now hold the tip a little closer to the light—no, place the mantels on the right side—that's the way I do it. System…” the old man's monologue ran on and on, and became a murmur in Peter's ears. It was rather soothing than otherwise. Now and then it held tremulous vibrations that might have been from age or that might have been from some deep satisfaction mounting even to joy. But to Peter that seemed hardly probable. No doubt it was senility. The Captain was a tottery old man, past the age for any fundamental joy.

Night had fallen now, and a darkness, musky with autumn weeds, hemmed in the sphere of yellow light on the old piazza. A black-and-white cat materialized out of the gloom, purring, and arching against a pillar. The whole place was filled with a sense of endless leisure. The old man, the cat, the perfume of the weeds, soothed in Peter even the rawness of his hurt at Cissie.

Indeed, in a way, the old manor became a sort of apology for the octoroon girl. The height and the reach of the piazza, exaggerated by the darkness, suggested a time when retinues of negroes passed through its dignified colonnades. Those black folk were a part of the place. They came and went, picked up and used what they could, and that was all life held for them. They were without wage, without rights, even to the possession of their own bodies; so by necessity they took what they could. That was only fifty-odd years ago. Thus, in a way, Peter's surroundings began a subtle explanation of and apology for Cissie, the whole racial training of black folk in petty thievery. And that this should have touched Cissie—the meanness, the pathos of her fate moved Peter.

The negro was aroused from his reverie by the old Captain's getting out of his chair and saying, “Very good,” and then Peter saw that he had finished the lamp. The two men rose and carried it into the study, where Peter pumped and lighted it; a bit later its brilliant white light flooded the room.

“Quite good.” The old Captain stood rubbing his hands with his odd air of continued delight. “How do you like this place, anyway, Peter?” He wrapped his gown around him, sat down in the old Morris chair beside the book-piled table, and indicated another seat for Peter.

The mulatto took it, aware of a certain flexing of Hooker's Bend custom, where negroes, unless old or infirm, are not supposed to sit in the presence of whites.

“Do you mean the study, Captain?”

“Yes, the study, the whole place.”

“It's very pleasant,” replied Peter; “it has the atmosphere of age.”

Captain Renfrew nodded.

“These old places,” pursued Peter, “always give me an impression of statesmanship, somehow. I always think of grave old gentlemen busy with the cares of public policy.”

The old man seemed gratified.

“You are sensitive to atmosphere. If I may say it, every Southron of the old régime was a statesman by nature and training. The complete care of two or three hundred negroes, a regard for their bodily, moral, and spiritual welfare, inevitably led the master into the impersonal attitude of statecraft. It was a training, sir, in leadership, in social thinking, in, if you please, altruism.” The old gentleman thumped the arm of his chair with a translucent palm. “Yes, sir, negro slavery was God's great lesson to the South in altruism and loving-kindness, sir! My boy, I do believe with all my heart that the institution of slavery was placed here in God's country to rear up giants of political leadership, that our nation might weather the revolutions of the world. Oh, the Yankees are necessary! I know that!” The old Captain held up a palm at Peter as if repressing an imminent retort. “I know the Yankees are the Marthas of the nation. They furnish food and fuel to the ship of state, but, my boy, the reservoir of our country's spiritual and mental strength, the Mary of our nation, must always be the South. Virginia is the mother of Presidents!”

The Captain's oration left him rather breathless. He paused a moment, then asked:

“Peter, have you ever thought that we men of the leisure class owe a debt to the world?”

Peter smiled.

“I know the theory of the leisure class, but I've had very little practical experience with leisure.”

“Well, that's a subject close to my heart. As a scholar and a thinker, I feel that I should give the fruits of my leisure to the world. Er—in fact, Peter, that is why I sent for you to come and see me.”

“Why you sent for me?” Peter was surprised at this turn.

“Precisely. You.”

Here the old gentleman got himself out of his chair, walked across to one of a series of drawers in his bookcases, opened it, and took out a sheaf of papers and a quart bottle. He brought the papers and the bottle back to the table, made room for them, put the papers in a neat pile, and set the bottle at a certain distance from the heap.

“Now, Peter, please hand me one of those wineglasses in the religious section of my library—I always keep two or three glasses among my religious works, in memory of the fact that our Lord and Master wrought a miracle at the feast of Cana, especially to bless the cup. Indeed, Peter, thinking of that miracle at the wedding-feast, I wonder, sir, how the prohibitionists can defend their conduct even to their own consciences, because logically, sir, logically, the miracle of our gracious Lord completely cuts away the ground from beneath their feet!

“No wonder, when the Mikado sent a Japanese envoy to America to make a tentative examination of Christianity as a proper creed for the state religion of Japan—no wonder, with this miracle flouted by the prohibitionists, the embassy carried back the report that Americans really have no faith in the religion they profess. Shameful! Shameful! Place the glass there on the left of the bottle. A little farther away from the bottle, please, just a trifle more. Thank you.”

The Captain poured himself a tiny glassful, and its bouquet immediately filled the room. There was no guessing how old that whisky was.

“I will not break the laws of my country, Peter, no matter how godless and sacrilegious those laws may be; therefore I cannot offer you a drink, but you will observe a second glass among the religious works, and the bottle sits in plain view on the table—er—em.” He watched Peter avail himself of his opportunity, and then added, “Now, you may just drink to me, standing, as you are, like that.”

They drank, Peter standing, the old gentleman seated.

“It is just as necessary,” pursued the old connoisseur, when Peter was reseated, “it is just as necessary for a gentleman to have a delicate palate for the tints of the vine as it is for him to have a delicate eye for the tints of the palette. Nature bestowed a taste both in art and wine on man, which he should strive to improve at every opportunity. It is a gift from God. Perhaps you would like another glass. No? Then accommodate me.”

He drained this one, with Peter standing, worked his withered lips back and forth to experience its full taste, then swallowed, and smacked.

“Now, Peter,” he said, “the reason I asked you to come to see me is that I need a man about this house. That will be one phase of your work. The more important part is that you shall serve as a sort of secretary. I have here a manuscript.” He patted the pile of papers. “My handwriting is rather difficult. I want you to copy this matter out and get it ready for the printer.”

Peter became more and more astonished.

“Are you offering me a permanent place, Captain Renfrew?” he asked.

The old man nodded.

“I need a man with a certain liberality of culture. I will no doubt have you run through books and periodicals and make note of any points germane to my thesis.”

Peter looked at the pile of script on the table.

“That is very flattering, Captain; but the fact is, I came by your place at this hour because I am just in the act of leaving here on the steamboat to-night.”

The Captain looked at Peter with concern on his face. “Leaving Hooker's Bend?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why?”

Peter hesitated.

“Well, my mother is dead—”

“Yes, but your—your—your work is still here, Peter.” The Captain fell into a certain confusion. “A man's work, Peter; a man's work.”

“Do you mean my school-teaching?”

Then came a pause. The conversation somehow had managed to leave them both somewhat at sea. The Captain began again, in a different tone:

“Peter, I wish you to remain here with me for another reason. I am an old man, Peter. Anything could happen to me here in this big house, and nobody would know it. I don't like to think of it.” The old man's tone quite painted his fears. “I am not afraid of death, Peter. I have walked before God all my life save in one or two points, which, I believe, in His mercy, He has forgiven me; but I cannot endure the idea of being found here some day in some unconsidered posture, fallen out of a chair, or a-sprawl on the floor. I wish to die with dignity, Peter, as I have lived.”

“Then you mean that you want me to stay here with you until—until the end, Captain?”

The old man nodded.

“That is my desire, Peter, for an honorarium which you yourself shall designate. At my death, you will receive some proper portion of my estate; in fact, the bulk of my estate, because I leave no other heirs. I am the last Renfrew of my race, Peter.”

Peter grew more and more amazed as the old gentleman unfolded this strange proposal. What queerer, pleasanter berth could he find than that offered him here in the quietude of the old manor, among books, tending the feeble flame of this old aristocrat's life? An air of scholasticism hung about the library. In some corner of this dark oaken library his philosophies would rest comfortably.

Then it occurred to Peter that he would have to continue his sleeping and eating in Niggertown, and since his mother had died and his rupture with Cissie, the squalor and smells of the crescent had become impossible. He told the old Captain his objections as diplomatically as possible. The old man made short work of them. He wanted Peter to sleep in the manor within calling distance, and he might begin this very night and stay on for a week or so as a sort of test whether he liked the position or not. The Captain waited with some concern until Peter agreed to a trial.

After that the old gentleman talked on interminably of the South, of the suffrage movement, the destructive influence it would have on the home, the Irish question, the Indian question, whether the mound-builders did not spring from the two lost tribes of Israel—an endless outpouring of curious facts, quaint reasoning, and extraordinary conclusions, all delivered with the great dignity and in the flowing periods of an orator.

It was fully two o'clock in the morning when it occurred to the Captain that his new secretary might like to go to bed. The old man took the hand-lamp which was still burning and led the way out to the back piazza past a number of doors to a corner bedroom. He shuffled along in his carpet slippers, followed by the black-and-white cat, which ran along, making futile efforts to rub itself against his lean shanks. Peter followed in a sort of stupor from the flood of words, ideas, and strange fancies that had been poured into his ears.

The Captain turned off the piazza into one of those old-fashioned Southern rooms with full-length windows, which were really glazed doors, a ceiling so high that Peter could make out only vague concentric rings of stucco-work among the shadows overhead, and a floor space of ball-room proportions. In one corner was a huge canopy bed, across from it a clothes-press of dark wood, and in another corner a large screen hiding the bathing arrangements.

Peter's bedroom was a sleeping apartment, in the old sense of the word before the term “apartment” had lost its dignity.

The Captain placed the lamp on the great table and indicated Peter's possession with a wave of the hand.

“If you stay here, Peter, I will put in a call-bell, so I can awaken you if I need you during the night. Now I wish you healthful slumbers and pleasant dreams.” With that the old gentleman withdrew ceremoniously.

When the Captain was gone, the mulatto remained standing in the vast expanse, marveling over this queer turn of fortune. Why Captain Renfrew had selected him as a secretary and companion Peter could not fancy.

The magnificence of his surroundings revived his late dream of a honeymoon with Cissie. Certainly, in his fancy, he had visioned a honeymoon in Pullman parlor cars and suburban bungalows. He had been mistaken. This great chamber rose about him like a corrected proof of his desire.

Into just such a room he would like to lead Cissie; into this great room that breathed pride and dignity. What a glowing heart the girl would have made for its somber magnificence!

He walked over to the full-length windows and opened them; then he unbolted the jalousies outside and swung them back. The musk of autumn weeds breathed in out of the darkness. Peter drew a long breath, with a sort of wistful melting in his chest.