Birthright/Chapter XI

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CHAPTER XI


OLD Captain Renfrew was a trustful, credulous soul, as, indeed, most gentleman who lead a bachelor's life are. Such men lack that moral hardening and whetting which is obtained only amid the vicissitudes of a home; they are not actively and continuously engaged in the employment and detection of chicane; want of intimate association with a woman and some children begets in them a soft and simple way of believing what is said to them. And their faith, easily raised, is just as easily shattered. Their judgment lacks training.

Peter Siner's simple assertion to the old Captain that he was not going to marry Cissie Dildine completely allayed the old gentleman's uneasiness. Even the further information that Peter had had such a marriage under advisement, but had rejected it, did not put him on his guard.

From long non-intimacy with any human creature, the old legislator had forgotten that human life is one long succession of doing the things one is not going to do; he had forgotten, if he ever knew, that the human brain is primarily not a master, but a servant; its function is not to direct, but to devise schemes and apologies to gratify impulses. It is the ways and means committee to the great legislature of the body.

For several days after his fear that Peter Siner would marry Cissie Dildine old Captain Renfrew was as felicitous as a lover newly reconciled to his mistress. He ambled between the manor and the livery-stable with an abiding sense of well-being. When he approached his home in the radiance of high noon and saw the roof of the old mansion lying a bluish gray in the shadows of the trees, it filled his heart with joy to feel that it was not an old and empty house that awaited his coming, but that in it worked a busy youth who would be glad to see him enter the gate.

The fear of some unattended and undignified death which had beset the old gentleman during the last eight or ten years of his life vanished under Peter's presence. When he thought of it at all now, he always previsioned himself being lifted in Peter's athletic arms and laid properly on his big four-poster.

At times, when Peter sat working over the books in the library, the Captain felt a prodigious urge to lay a hand on the young man's broad and capable shoulder. But he never did. Again, the old lawyer would sit for minutes at a time watching his secretary's regular features as the brown man pursued his work with a trained intentness. The old gentleman derived a deep pleasure from such long scrutinies. It pleased him to imagine that, when he was young, he had possessed the same vigor, the same masculinity, the same capacity for persistent labor. Indeed, all old gentlemen are prone to choose the most personable and virile young man they can find for themselves to have been like.

The two men had little to say to each other. Their thoughts beat to such different tempos that any attempt at continued speech discovered unequal measures. As a matter of fact, in all comfortable human conversation, words are used as mere buoys dropped here and there to mark well-known channels of thought and feeling. Similarity of mental topography is necessary to mutual understanding. Between any two generations the landscape is so changed as to be unrecognizable. Our fathers are monarchists; our sons, bolsheviki.

Old Rose Hobbett was more of an age with the Captain, and these two talked very comfortably as the old virago came and went with food at meal-time. For instance, the Captain always asked his servant if she had fed his cat, and old Rose invariably would sulk and poke out her lips and put off answering to the last possible moment of insolence, then would grumble out that she was jes 'bout to feed the varmint, an' 't wuz funny nobody couldn't give a hard-wuckin' colored woman breathin'-space to turn roun' in.

This reply was satisfactory to the Captain, because he knew what it meant,—that Rose had half forgotten the cat, and had meant wholly to forget it, but since she had been snapped up, so to speak, in the very act of forgetting, she would dole it out a piece or two of the meat that she had meant to abscond with as soon as the dishes were done.

While Rose was fulminating, the old gentleman recalled his bent globe and decided the moment had come for a lecture on that point. It always vaguely embarrassed the Captain to correct Rose, and this increased his dignity. Now he cleared his throat in a certain way that brought the old negress to attention, so well they knew each other.

“By the way, Rose, in the future I must request you to use extraordinary precautions in cleansing and dusting articles of my household furniture, or, in case of damage, I shall be forced to withhold an indemnification out of your pay.”

Eight or ten years ago, when the Captain first repeated this formula to his servant, the roll and swing of his rhetoric, and the last word, “pay,” had built up lively hopes in Rose that the old gentleman was announcing an increase in her regular wage of a dollar a week. Experience, however, had long since corrected this faulty interpretation.

She came to a stand in the doorway, with her kinky gray head swung around, half puzzled, wholly rebellious.

“Whut is I bruk now?”

“My globe.”

The old woman turned about with more than usual innocence.

“Why, I ain't tech yo' globe!”

“I foresaw that,” agreed the Captain, with patient irony, “but in the future don't touch it more carefully. You bent its pivot the last time you refrained from handling it.”

“But I tell you I ain't tech yo' globe!” cried the negress, with the anger of an illiterate person who feels, but cannot understand, the satire leveled at her.

“I agree with you,” said the Captain, glad the affair was over.

This verbal ducking into the cellar out of the path of her storm stirred up a tempest.

“But I tell you I ain't bruk it!”

“That's what I said.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she flared; “you says I ain't, but when you says I ain't, you means I is, an' when you says I is, you means I ain't. Dat's de sort o' flapjack I's wuckin' fur!”

The woman flirted out of the dining-room, and the old gentleman drew another long breath, glad it was over. He really had little reason to quarrel about the globe, bent or unbent; he never used it. It sat in his study year in and year out, its dusty twinkle brightened at long intervals by old Rose's spiteful rag.

The Captain ate on placidly. There had been a time when he was dubious about such scenes with Rose. Once he felt it beneath his dignity as a Southern gentleman to allow any negro to speak to him disrespectfully. He used to feel that he should discharge her instantly, and during the first years of their entente had done so a number of times. But he could get no one else who suited him so well; her biscuits, her corn-light-bread, her lye-hominy, which only the old darkies know how to make. And, to tell the truth, he missed the old creature herself, her understanding of him and his ideas, her contemporaneity; and no one else would work for a dollar a week.

Presently in the course of his eating the old gentleman required another biscuit, and he wanted a hot one. Three mildly heated disks lay on a plate before him, but they had been out of the oven for five minutes and had been reduced to an unappetizing tepidity.

A little hand-bell sat beside the Captain's plate whose special use was to summon hot biscuits. Now, the old lawyer looked at its worn handle speculatively. He was not at all sure Rose would answer the bell. She would say she hadn't heard it. He felt faintly disgruntled at not foreseeing this exigency and buttering two biscuits while they were hot, or even three.

He considered momentarily a project of going after a hot biscuit for himself, but eventually put it by. South of the Mason-Dixon Line, self-help is half-scandal. At last, quite dubiously, he did pick up the bell and gave it a gentle ring, so if old Rose chose not to hear it, she probably wouldn't: thus he could believe her and not lose his temper and so widen an already uncomfortable breach.

To the Captain's surprise, the old creature not only brought the biscuits, but she did it promptly. No sooner had she served them, however, than the Captain saw she really had returned with a new line of defense.

She mumbled it out as usual, so that her employer was forced to guess at a number of words: “Dat nigger, Peter, mus' 'a' busted yo' gl—”

“No, he didn't.”

“Mus' uv.”

“No, he didn't. I asked him, and he said he didn't.”

The old harridan stared, and her speech suddenly became clear-cut:

“Well, 'fo' Gawd, I says I didn't, too!”

At this point the Captain made an unintelligible sound and spread the butter on his hot biscuit.

“He's jes a nigger, lak I is,” stated the cook, warmly.

The Captain buttered a second hot biscuit.

“We's jes two niggers.”

The Captain hoped she would presently sputter herself out.

“Now look heah,” cried the crone, growing angrier and angrier as the reaches of the insult spread itself before her, “is you gwine to put one o' us niggers befo' de udder? Ca'se ef you is, I mus' say, it's Kady-lock-a-do' wid me.”

The Captain looked up satirically.

“What do you mean by Katie-lock-the-door with you?” he asked, though he had an uneasy feeling that he knew.

“You know whut I means. I means I 's gwine to leab dis place.”

“Now look here, Rose,” protested the lawyer, with dignity, “Peter Siner occupies almost a fiduciary relation to me.”

The old negress stared with a slack jaw. “A relation o' yo's!”

The lawyer hesitated some seconds, looking at the hag. His high-bred old face was quite inscrutable, but presently he said in a serious voice:

“Peter occupies a position of trust with me, Rose.”

“Yeah,” mumbled Rose; “I see you trus' him.”

“One day he is going to do me a service, a very great service, Rose.”

The hag continued looking at him with a stubborn expression.

“You know better than any one else, Rose, my dread of some—some unmannerly death—”

The old woman made a sound that might have meant anything.

“And Peter has promised to stay with me until—until the end.”

The old negress considered this solemn speech, and then grunted out:

“Which en'?”

“Which end?” The Captain was irritated.

“Yeah; yo' en' or Peter's en'?”

“By every law of probability, Peter will outlive me.”

“Yeah, but Peter 'll come to a en' wid you when he ma'ies dat stuck-up yellow fly-by-night, Cissie Dildine.”

“He's not going to marry her,” said the Captain, comfortably.

“Huh!”

“Peter told me he didn't intend to marry Cissie Dildine.”

“Shu! Then whut fur dey go roun' peepin' at each other lak a couple o' niggers roun' a haystack?”

The old lawyer was annoyed.

“Peeping where?”

“Why, right in front o' dis house, dat's wha; ever' day when dat hussy passes up to de Arkwrights', wha she wucks. She pokes along an' walls her eyes roun' at dis house lak a calf wid de splivins.”

“That going on now?”

“Ever' day.”

A deep uneasiness went through the old man. He moistened his lips.

“But Peter said—”

“Good Gawd! Mars' Renfrew, whut diff'ence do it make whut Peter say? Ain't you foun' out yit when a he-nigger an' a she-nigger gits to peepin' at each udder, whut dey says don't lib in de same neighbo'hood wid whut dey does?”

This was delivered with such energy that it completely undermined the Captain's faith in Peter, and the fact angered the old gentleman.

“That'll do, Rose; that'll do. That's all I need of you.”

The old crone puffed up again at this unexpected flare, and went out of the room, plopping her feet on floor and mumbling. Among these ungracious sounds the Captain caught, “Blin' ole fool!” But there was no need becoming offended and demanding what she meant. Her explanation would have been vague and unsatisfactory.

The verjuice which old Rose had sprinkled over Peter and Cissie by calling them “he-nigger” and “she-nigger” somehow minimized them, animalized them in the old lawyer's imagination. Rose's speech was charged with such contempt for her own color that it placed the mulatto and the octoroon down with apes and rabbits.

The lawyer fought against his feeling, for the sake of his secretary, who had come to occupy so wide a sector of his comfort and affection. Yet the old virago evidently spoke from a broad background of experience. She was at least half convincing. While the Captain repelled her charge against his quiet, hard-working brown helper, he admitted it against Cissie Dildine, whom he did not know. She was an animal, a female centaur, a wanton and a strumpet, as all negresses are wantons and strumpets. All white men in the South firmly believe that. They believe it with a peculiar detestation; and since they used these persons very profitably for a hundred and fifty years as breeding animals, one might say they believe it a trifle ungratefully.