Birthright/Chapter X

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CHAPTER X


THE village of Hooker's Bend amuses itself mainly with questionable jests that range all the way from the slightly brackish to the hopelessly obscene. Now, in using this type of anecdote, the Hooker's-Benders must not be thought to design an attack upon the decencies of life; on the contrary, they are relying on the fact that their hearers have, in the depths of their beings, a profound reverence for the object of their sallies. And so, by taking advantage of the moral shock they produce and linking it to the idea of an absurdity, they convert the whole psychical reaction into an explosion of humor. Thus the ring of raconteurs telling blackguardly stories around the stoves in Hooker's Bend stores, are, in reality, exercising one another in the more delicate sentiments of life, and may very well be classed as a round table of Sir Galahads, sans peur et sans reproche.

However, the best men weary in well doing, and for the last few days Hooker's Bend had switched from its intellectual staple of conversation to consider the comedy of Tump Pack's undoing. The incident held undeniably comic elements. For Tump to start out carrying a forty-four, meaning to blow a rival out of his path, and to wind up hard at work, picking cotton at nothing a day for a man whose offer of three dollars a day he had just refused, certainly held the makings of a farce.

On the heels of this came the news that Peter Siner meant to take advantage of Tump's arrest and marry Cissie Dildine. Old Parson Ranson was responsible for the spread of this last rumor. He had fumbled badly in his effort to hold Peter's secret. Not once, but many times, always guarded by a pledge of secrecy, had he revealed the approaching wedding. When pressed for a date, the old negro said he was “not at lib'ty to tell.”

Up to this point white criticism viewed the stage-setting of the black comedy with the impersonal interest of a box party. Some of the round table said they believed there would be a dead coon or so before the scrape was over.

Dawson Bobbs, the ponderous constable, went to the trouble to telephone Mr. Cicero Throgmartin, for whom Tump was working, cautioning Throgmartin to make sure that Tump Pack was in the sleeping-shack every night, as he might get wind of the wedding and take a notion to bolt and stop it. “You know, you can't tell what a fool nigger'll do,” finished Bobbs.

Throgmartin was mildly amused, promised the necessary precautions, and said:

“It looks like Peter has put one over on Tump, and maybe a college education does help a nigger some, after all.”

The constable thought it was just luck.

“Well, I dunno,” said Throgmartin, who was a philosopher, and inclined to view every matter from various angles. “Peter may of worked this out somehow.”

“Have you heard what Henry Hooker done to Siner in the land deal?”

Throgmartin said he had.

“No, I don't mean that. I mean Henry's last wrinkle in garnisheeing old Ca'line's estate in his bank for the rest of the purchase money on the Dilihay place.”

There was a pause.

“You don't mean it!”

“Damn 'f I don't.”

The constable's sentence shook with suppressed mirth, and the next moment roars of laughter came over the telephone wire.

“Say, ain't he the bird!”

“He's the original early bird. I'd like to get a snap-shot of the worm that gets away from him.”

Both men laughed heartily again.

“But, say,” objected Throgmartin, who was something of a lawyer himself,—as, indeed, all Southern men are,—“I thought the Sons and Daughters of Benevolence owed Hooker, not Peter Siner, nor Ca'line's estate.”

“Well, it is the Sons and Daughters, but Ca'line was one of 'em, and they ain't no limited li'bility 'sociation. Henry can jump on anything any of 'em's got. Henry got the Persimmon to bring him a copy of their by-laws.”

“Well, I swear! Say, if Henry wasn't kind of held back by his religion, he'd use a gun, wouldn't he?”

“I dunno. I can say this for Henry's religion: It's jest like Henry's wife,—it's the dearest thing to his heart; he'd give his life for it, but it don't do nobody a damn bit of good except jest Henry.'”

The constable's little eyes twinkled as he heard Throgmartin roaring with laughter and sputtering appreciative oaths.

At that moment a ringing of the bell jarred the ears of both telephonists. A voice asked for Dr. Jallup. It was an ill time to interrupt two gentlemen. The flair of a jest is lost in a pause. The officer stated sharply that he was the constable of Wayne County and was talking business about the county's prisoners. His tone was so charged with consequence that the voice that wanted a doctor apologized hastily and ceased.

Came a pause in which neither man found anything to say. Laughter is like that,—a gay bubble that a touch will destroy. Presently Bobbs continued, gravely enough:

“Talking about Siner, he's stayin' up at old man Renfrew's now.”

“'At so?”

“Old Rose Hobbett swears he's doin' some sort of writin' up there and livin' in one of the old man's best rooms.”

“Hell he is!”

“Yeah?” the constable's voice questioned Throgmartin's opinion about such heresy and expressed his own.

“D' recken it's so? Old Rose is such a thief and a liar.”

“Nope,” declared the constable, “the old nigger never would of made up a lie like that,—never would of thought of it. Old Cap'n Renfrew's gettin' childish; this nigger's takin' advantage of it. Down at the liver'-stable the boys were talkin' about Siner goin' to git married, an' dern if old man Renfrew didn't git cut up about it!”

“Well,” opined Throgmartin, charitably, “the old man livin' there all by himself—I reckon even a nigger is some comp'ny. They're funny damn things, niggers is; never know a care nor trouble. Lord! I wish I was as care-free as they are!”

“Don't you, though!” agreed the constable, with the weight of the white man's burden on his shoulders. For this is a part of the Southern credo,—that all negroes are gay, care-free, and happy, and that if one could only be like the negroes, gay, care-free, and happy—Ah, if one could only be like the negroes!

None of this gossip reached Peter directly, but a sort of back-wash did catch him keenly through young Sam Arkwright and serve as a conundrum for several days.

One morning Peter was bringing an armful of groceries up the street to the old manor, and he met the boy coming in the opposite direction. The negro's mind was centered on a peculiar problem he had found in the Renfrew library, so, according to a habit he had acquired in Boston, he took the right-hand side of the pavement, which chanced to be the inner side. This violated a Hooker's-Bend convention, which decrees that when a white and a black meet on the sidewalk, the black man invariably shall take the outer side.

For this faux pas the gangling youth stopped Peter, fell to abusing and cursing him for his impudence, his egotism, his attempt at social equality,—all of which charges, no doubt, were echoes from the round table. Such wrath over such an offense was unusual. Ordinarily, a white villager would have thought several uncomplimentary things about Peter, but would have said nothing.

Peter stopped with a shock of surprise, then listened to the whole diatribe with a rising sense of irritation and irony. Finally, without a word, he corrected his mistake by retracing his steps and passing Sam again, this time on the outside.

Peter walked on up the street, outwardly calm, but his ears burned, and the queer indignity stuck in his mind. As he went along he invented all sorts of ironical remarks he might have made to Arkwright, which would have been unwise; then he thought of sober reasoning he could have used, which would perhaps have been just as ill-advised. Still later he wondered why Arkwright had fallen into such a rage over such a trifle. Peter felt sure there was some contributing rancor in the youth's mind. Perhaps he had received a scolding at home or a whipping at school, or perhaps he was in the midst of one of those queer attacks of megalomania from which adolescents are chronic sufferers. Peter fancied this and that, but he never came within hail of the actual reason.

When the brown man reached the old manor, the quietude of the library, with its blackened mahogany table, its faded green Axminster, the meridional globe with its dusty twinkle, banished the incident from his mind. He returned to his work of card-indexing the Captain's books. He took half a dozen at a time from the shelves, dusted them on the piazza, then carried them to the embrasure of the window, which offered a pleasant light for reading and for writing the cards.

He went through volume after volume,—speeches by Clay, Calhoun, Yancy, Prentiss, Breckenridge; an old life of General Taylor, Foxe's “Book of Martyrs”; a collection of the old middle-English dramatists, such as Lillo, Garrick, Arthur Murphy, Charles Macklin, George Colman, Charles Coffey, men whose plays have long since declined from the boards and disappeared from the reading-table.

The Captain's collection of books was strongly colored by a religious cast,—John Wesley's sermons, Charles Wesley's hymns; a treatise presenting a biblical proof that negroes have no souls; a little book called “Flowers Gathered,” which purported to be a compilation of the sayings of ultra-pious children, all of whom died young; an old book called “Elements of Criticism,” by Henry Home of Kames; another tome entitled “Studies of Nature,” by St. Pierre. This last was a long argument for the miraculous creation of the world as set forth in Genesis. The proof offered was a résumé of the vegetable, animal, and mineral kingdoms, showing their perfect fitness for man's use, and the immediate induction was that they were designed for man's use. Still another work calculated the exact age of the earth by the naïve method of counting the generations from Adam to Christ, to the total adding eighteen hundred and eighty-five years (for the book was written in 1885), and the original six days it required the Lord to build the earth. By referring to Genesis and finding out precisely what the Creator did on the morning of the first day, the writer contrived to bring his calculation of the age of the earth and everything in the world to a precision of six hours, give or take,—a somewhat closer schedule than that made by the Tennessee river boats coming up from St. Louis.

These and similar volumes formed the scientific section of Captain Renfrew's library, and it was this paucity of the natural sciences that formed the problem which Peter tried to solve. All scientific additions came to an abrupt stop about the decade of 1880-90. That was the date when Charles Darwin's great fructifying theory, enunciated in 1859, began to seep into the South.

In the Captain's library the only notice of evolution was a book called “Darwinism Dethroned.” As for the elaborations of the Darwinian hypothesis by Spencer, Fiske, DeVries, Weismann, Haeckel, Kidd, Bergson, and every subsequent philosophic or biologic writer, all these men might never have written a line so far as Captain Renfrew's library was informed.

Now, why such extraordinary occlusions? Why should Captain Renfrew deny himself the very commonplaces of thought, theories familiarly held by the rest of America, and, indeed, by all the rest of the civilized world?

Musing by the window, Peter succeeded in stating his problem more broadly: Why was Captain Renfrew an intellectual reactionist? The old gentleman was the reverse of stupid. Why should he confine his selection of books to a few old oddities that had lost their battle against a theory which had captured the intellectual world fifty years before?

Nor was it Captain Renfrew alone. Now and then Peter saw editorials appearing in leading Southern journals, seriously attacking the evolutionary hypothesis. Ministers in respectable churches still fulminated against it. Peter knew that the whole South still clings, in a way, to the miraculous and special creation of the earth as described in Genesis. It clings with an intransigentism and bitterness far exceeding other part of America. Why? To Peter the problem appeared insoluble.

He sat by the window lost in his reverie. Just outside the ledge half a dozen English sparrows abused one another with chirps that came faintly through the small diamond panes. Their quick movements held Peter's eyes, and their endless quarreling presently recalled his episode with young Arkwright. It occurred to him, casually, that when Arkwright grew up he would subscribe to every reactionary doctrine set forth in the library Peter was indexing.

With that thought came a sort of mental flare, as if he were about to find the answer to the whole question through the concrete attack made on him by Sam.

It is an extraordinary feeling,—the sudden, joyful dawn of a new idea. Peter sat up sharply and leaned forward with a sense of being right on the fringe of a new and a great perception. Young Arkwright, the old Captain, the whole South, were unfolding themselves in a vast answer, when a movement outside the window caught the negro's introspective eyes.

A girl was passing; a girl in a yellow dress was passing the Renfrew gate. Even then Peter would not have wavered in his synthesis had not the girl paused slightly and given a swift side glance at the old manor. Then the man in the window recognized Cissie Dildine.

A slight shock traveled through Siner's body at the sight of Cissie's colorless face and darkened eyes. He stood up abruptly, with a feeling that he had some urgent thing to say to the young woman. His sharp movement toppled over the big globe.

The crash caused the girl to stop and look. For a moment they stood thus, the girl in the chill street, the man in the pleasant window, looking at each other. Next moment Cissie hurried on up the village street toward the Arkwright house. No doubt she was on her way to cook the noon meal.

Peter remained standing at the window, with a heavily beating heart. He watched her until she vanished behind a wing of the shrubbery in the Renfrew yard.

When she had gone, he looked at his books and cards, sat down, and tried to resume his indexing. But his mind played away from it like a restive horse. It had been two weeks since he last saw Cissie. Two weeks… His nerves vibrated like the strings of a pianoforte. He had scarcely thought of her during the fortnight; but now, having seen her, he found himself powerless to go on with his work. He pottered a while longer among the books and cards, but they were meaningless. They appeared an utter futility. Why index a lot of nonsense? Somehow this recalled his flare, his adumbration of some great idea connected with young Arkwright and the old Captain, and the South.

He put his trembling nerves to work, trying to recapture his line of thought. He sat for ten minutes, following this mental train, then that, losing one, groping for another. His thoughts were jumpy. They played about Arkwright, the Captain, Cissie, his mother's death, Tump Pack in prison, the quarrel between the Persimmon and Jim Pink Staggs. The whole of Niggertown came rushing down upon him, seizing him in its passion and dustiness and greasiness, putting to flight all his cultivated white-man ideas.

After half an hour's searching he gave it up. Before he left the room he stooped, and tried to set up again the globe that the passing of the girl had caused him to throw down; but its pivot was out of plumb, and he had to lean it against the window-seat.

The sight of Captain Renfrew coming in at the gate sent Peter to his room. The hour was near twelve, and it had become a little point of household etiquette for the mulatto and the white man not to be together when old Rose jangled the triangle. By this means they forestalled the mute discourtesy of the old Captain's walking away from his secretary to eat. The subject of their separate meals had never been mentioned since their first acrimonious morning. The matter had dropped into the abeyance of custom, just as the old gentleman had predicted.

Peter had left open his jalousies, but his windows were closed, and now as he entered he found his apartment flooded with sunshine and filled with that equable warmth that comes of straining sunbeams through glass.

He prepared for dinner with his mind still hovering about Cissie. He removed a book and a lamp from the lion-footed table, and drew up an old chair with which the Captain had furnished his room. It was a delicate old Heppelwhite of rosewood. It had lost a finial from one of its back standards, and a round was gone from the left side. Peter never moved the chair that vague plans sometime to repair it did not occur to him.

When he had cleared his table and placed his chair beside it, he wandered over to his tall west window and stood looking up the street through the brilliant sunshine, toward the Arkwright home. No one was in sight. In Hooker's Bend every one dines precisely at twelve, and at that hour the streets are empty. It would be some time before Cissie came back down the street on her way to Niggertown. She first would have to wash and put away the Arkwright dishes. It would be somewhere about one o'clock. Nevertheless, he kept staring out through the radiance of the autumn sunlight with an irrational feeling that she might appear at any moment. He was afraid she would slip past and he not see her at all. The thought disturbed him somewhat. It kept him sufficiently on the alert to stand tapping the balls of his fingers against the glass and looking steadily toward the Arkwright house.

Presently the watcher perceived that a myriad spider-webs filled the sunshine with a delicate dancing glister. It was the month of voyaging spiders. Invisible to Peter, the tiny spinners climbed to the tip-most twigs of the dead weeds, listed their abdomens, and lassoed the wind with gossamer lariats; then they let go and sailed away to a hazard of new fortunes. The air was full of the tiny adventurers. As he stared up the street, Peter caught the glint of these invisible airships whisking away to whatever chance might hold for them. There was something epic in it. It recalled to the mulatto's mind some of Fabre's lovely descriptions. It reminded him of two or three books on entomology which he had left in his mother's cabin. He felt he ought to go after them while the spiders were migrating. He suddenly made up his mind he would go at once, as soon as he had had dinner; somewhere about one o'clock.

He looked again at the Arkwright house. The thought of walking down the street with Cissie, to get his books, quickened his heart.

He was still at the window when his door opened and old Rose entered with his dinner. She growled under her breath all the way from the door to the table on which she placed the tray. Only a single phrase detached itself and stood out clearly amid her mutterings, “Hope it chokes you.”

Peter arranged his chair and table with reference to the window, so he could look up the street while he was eating his dinner.

The ill-wishing Rose had again furnished a gourmet's meal, but Peter's preoccupation prevented its careful and appreciative gustation. An irrational feeling of the octoroon's imminence spurred him to fast eating. He had hardly begun his soup before he found himself drinking swiftly, looking up the street over his spoon, as if he meant to rush out and swing aboard a passing train.

Siner checked his precipitation, annoyed at himself. He began again, deliberately, with an attempt to keep his mind on the savor of his food. He even thought of abandoning his little design of going for the books; or he would go at a different hour, or to-morrow, or not at all. He told himself he would far better allow Cissie Dildine to pass and repass unspoken to, instead of trying to arrange an accidental meeting. But the brown man's nerves wouldn't hear to it. That automatic portion of his brain and spinal column which, physiologists assert, performs three fourths of a man's actions and conditions nine tenths of his volitions—that part of Peter wouldn't consider it. It began to get jumpy and scatter havoc in Peter's thoughts at the mere suggestion of not seeing Cissie. Imperceptibly this radical left wing of his emotions speeded up his meal, again. He caught himself, stopped his knife and fork in the act of rending apart a broiled chicken.

“Confound it! I'll start when she comes in sight, no matter whether I've finished this meal or not,” he promised himself.

And suddenly he felt unhurried, in the midst of a large leisure, with a savory broiled chicken dinner before him,—not exactly before him, either; most of it had been stuffed away. Only the fag-end remained on his plate. A perfectly good meal had been ruined by an ill-timed resistance to temptation.

The glint of a yellow dress far up the street had just prompted him to swift action when the door opened and old Rose put her head in to say that Captain Renfrew wanted to see Peter in the library.

The brown man came to a shocked standstill.

“What! Right now?” he asked.

“Yeah, right now,” carped Rose. “Ever'thing he wants, he wants right now. He's been res'less as a cat in a bulldog's den ever sence he come home fuh dinner. Dunno whut's come into he ole bones, runnin' th'ugh his dinner lak a razo'-back.” She withdrew in a continued mumble of censure.

Peter cast a glance up the street, timed Cissie's arrival at the front gate, picked up his hat, and walked briskly to the library in the hope of finishing any business the Captain might have, in time to encounter the octoroon. He even began making some little conversational plans with which he could meet Cissie in a simple, unstudied manner. He recalled with a certain satisfaction that he had not said a word of condemnation the night of Cissie's confession. He would make a point of that, and was prepared to argue that, since he had said nothing, he meant nothing. In fact he was prepared to throw away the truth completely and enter the conversation as an out-and-out opportunist, alleging whatever appeared to fit the occasion, as all men talk to all women.

The old Captain was just getting into his chair as Peter entered. He paused in the midst of lowering himself by the chair-arms and got erect again. He began speaking a little uncertainly:

“Ah—by the way, Peter—I sent for you—”

“Yes, sir.” Peter looked out at the window.

The old gentleman scrutinized Peter a moment; then his faded eyes wandered about the library.

“Still working at the books, cross-indexing them—”

“Yes, sir.” Peter could divine by the crinkle of his nerves the very loci of the girl as she passed down the thoroughfare.

“Very good,” said the old lawyer, absently. He was obviously preoccupied with some other topic. “Very good,” he repeated with racking deliberation; “quite good. How did that globe get bent?”

Peter, looking at it, did not remember either knocking it over or setting it up.

“I don't know,” he said rapidly. “I hadn't noticed it.”

“Old Rose did it,” meditated the Captain aloud, “but it's no use to accuse her of it; she'd deny it. And yet, on the other hand, Peter, she'll be nervous until I do accuse her of it. She'll be dropping things, breaking up my china. I dare say I'd best accuse her at once, storm at her some to quiet her nerves, and get it over.”

This monologue spurred Peter's impatience into an agony.

“I believe you were wanting me, Captain?” he suggested, with a certain urge for action.

The Captain's little pleasantry faded. He looked at Peter and became uncomfortable again.

“Well, yes, Peter. Downtown I heard—well, a rumor connected with you—”

Such an extraordinary turn caught the attention of even the fidgety Peter. He looked at his employer and wondered blankly what he had heard.

“I don't want to intrude on your private affairs, Peter, not at all— not—not in the least—”

“No-o-o,” agreed Peter, completely at a loss.

The old gentleman rubbed his thin hands together, lifted his eyebrows up and down nervously. “Are—are you about to—to leave me, Peter?”

Peter was greatly surprised at the slightness and simplicity of this question and at the evidence of emotion it carried.

“Why, no,” he cried; “not at all! Who told you I was? It is a deep gratification to me—”

“To be exact,” proceeded the old man, with a vague fear still in his eyes, “I heard you were going to marry.”

“Marry!” This flaw took Peter's sails even more unexpectedly than the other. “Captain, who in the world—who could have told—”

“Are you?”

“No.”

“You aren't?”

“Indeed, no!”

“I heard you were going to marry a negress here in town called Cissie Dildine.” A question was audible in the silence that followed this statement. The obscure emotion that charged all the old man's queries affected Peter.

“I am not, Captain,” he declared earnestly; “that's settled.”

“Oh—you say it's settled,” picked up the old lawyer, delicately.

“Yes.”

“Then you had thought of it?” Immediately, however, he corrected this breach of courtesy into which his old legal habit of cross-questioning had led him. “Well, at any rate,” he said in quite another voice, “that eases my mind, Peter. It eases my mind. It was not only, Peter, the thought of losing you, but this girl you were thinking of marrying—let me warn you, Peter—she's a negress.”

The mulatto stared at the strange objection.

“A negress!”

The old man paused and made that queer movement with his wrinkled lips as if he tasted some salty flavor.

“I—I don't mean exactly a—a negress,” stammered the old gentleman; “I mean she's not a—a good girl, Peter; she's a—a thief, in fact—she's a thief—a thief, Peter. I couldn't endure for you to marry a thief, Peter.”

It seemed to Peter Siner that some horrible compulsion kept the old Captain repeating over and over the fact that Cissie Dildine was a thief, a thief, a thief. The word cut the very viscera in the brown man. At last, when it seemed the old gentleman would never cease, Peter lifted a hand.

“Yes, yes,” he gasped, with a sickly face, “I—I've heard that before.”

He drew a shaken breath and moistened his lips. The two stood looking at each other, each profoundly at a loss as to what the other meant. Old Captain Renfrew collected himself first.

“That is all, Peter.” He tried to lighten his tones. “I think I'll get to work. Let me see, where do I keep my manuscript?”

Peter pointed mechanically at a drawer as he walked out at the library door. Once outside, he ran to the front piazza, then to the front gate, and with a racing heart stood looking up and down the sleepy thoroughfare. The street was quite empty.