Birthright/Chapter XII

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THE semi-daily passings of Cissie Dildine before the old Renfrew manor on her way to and from the Arkwright home upset Peter Siner's working schedule to an extraordinary degree.

After watching for two or three days, Peter worked out a sort of time-table for Cissie. She passed up early in the morning, at about five forty-five. He could barely see her then, and somehow she looked very pathetic hurrying along in the cold, dim light of dawn. After she had cooked the Arkwright breakfast, swept the Arkwright floors, dusted the Arkwright furniture, she passed back toward Niggertown, somewhere near nine. About eleven o'clock she went up to cook dinner, and returned at one or two in the afternoon. Occasionally, she made a third trip to get supper.

This was as exactly as Peter could predict the arrivals and departures of Cissie, and the schedule involved a large margin of uncertainty. For half an hour before Cissie passed she kept Peter watching the clock at nervous intervals, wondering if, after all, she had gone by unobserved. Invariably, he would move his work to a window where he had the whole street under his observation. Then he would proceed with his indexing with more and more difficulty. At first the paragraphs would lose connection, and he would be forced to reread them. Then the sentences would drop apart. Immediately before the girl arrived, the words themselves grew anarchic. They stared him in the eye, each a complete entity, self-sufficient, individual, bearing no relation to any other words except that of mere proximity,—like a spelling lesson. Only by an effort could Peter enforce a temporary cohesion among them, and they dropped apart at the first slackening of the strain.

Strange to say, when the octoroon actually was walking past, Peter did not look at her steadily. On the contrary, he would think to himself: “How little I care for such a woman! My ideal is thus and so—” He would look at her until she glanced across the yard and saw him sitting in the window; then immediately he bent over his books, as if his stray glance had lighted on her purely by chance, as if she were nothing more to him than a passing dray or a fluttering leaf. Indeed, he told himself during these crises that he had no earthly interest in the girl, that she was not the sort of woman he desired,—while his heart hammered, and the lines of print under his eyes blurred into gray streaks across the page.

One afternoon Peter saw Cissie pass his gate, hurrying, almost running, apparently in flight from something. It sent a queer shock through him. He stared after her, then up and down the street. He wondered why she ran. Even when he went to bed that night the strangeness of Cissie's flight kept him awake inventing explanations.

None of Peter's preoccupations was lost upon Captain Renfrew. None is so suspicious as a credulous man aroused. After Rose had struck her blow at the secretary, the old gentleman noted all of Peter's permutations and misconstrued a dozen quite innocent actions on Peter's part into signs of bad faith.

By a little observation he identified Cissie Dildine and what he saw did not reëstablish his peace of mind. On the contrary, it became more than probable that the cream-colored negress would lure Peter away. This possibility aroused in the old lawyer a grim, voiceless rancor against Cissie. In his thoughts he linked the girl with every manner of evil design against Peter. She was an adventuress, a Cyprian, a seductress attempting to snare Peter in the brazen web of her comeliness. For to the old gentleman's eyes there was an abiding impudicity about Cissie's very charms. The passionate repose of her face was immodest; the possession of a torso such as a sculptor might have carved was brazen. The girl was shamefully well appointed.

One morning as Captain Renfrew came home from town, he chanced to walk just behind the octoroon, and quite unconsciously the girl delivered an added fillip to the old gentleman's uneasiness.

Just before Cissie passed in front of the Renfrew manor, womanlike, she paused to make some slight improvements in her appearance before walking under the eyes of her lover. She adjusted some strands of hair which had blown loose in the autumn wind, looked at herself in a purse mirror, retouched her nose with her greenish powder; then she picked a little sprig of sumac leaves that burned in the corner of a lawn and pinned its flame on the unashamed loveliness of her bosom.

This negro instinct for brilliant color is the theme of many jests in the South, but it is entirely justified esthetically, although the constant sarcasm of the whites has checked its satisfaction, if it has not corrupted the taste.

The bit of sumac out of which the octoroon had improvised a nosegay lighted up her skin and eyes, and created an ensemble as closely resembling a Henri painting as anything the streets of Hooker's Bend were destined to see.

But old Captain Renfrew was far from appreciating any such bravura in scarlet and gold. At first he put it down to mere niggerish taste, and his dislike for the girl edged his stricture; then, on second thought, the oddness of sumac for a nosegay caught his attention. Nobody used sumac for a buttonhole. He had never heard of any woman, white or black, using sumac for a bouquet. Why should this Cissie Dildine trig herself out in sumac?

The Captain's suspicions came to a point like a setter. He began sniffing about for Cissie's motives in choosing so queer an ornament. He wondered if it had anything to do with Peter Siner.

All his life, Captain Renfrew's brain had been deliberate. He moved mentally, as he did physically, with dignity. To tell the truth, the Captain's thoughts had a way of absolutely stopping now and then, and for a space he would view the world as a simple collection of colored surfaces without depth or meaning. During these intervals, by a sort of irony of the gods the old gentleman's face wore a look of philosophic concentration, so that his mental hiatuses had given him a reputation for profundity, which was county wide. It had been this, years before, that had carried him by a powerful majority into the Tennessee legislature. The voters agreed, almost to a man, that they preferred depth to a shallow facility. The rival candidate had been shallow and facile. The polls returned the Captain, and the young gentleman—for the Captain was a young gentleman in those days—was launched on a typical politician's career. But some Republican member from east Tennessee had impugned the rising statesman's honor with some sort of improper liaison. In those days there seemed to be proper and improper liaisons. There had been a duel on the banks of the Cumberland River in which the Captain succeeded in wounding his traducer in the arm, and was thus vindicated by the gods. But the incident ended a career that might very well have wound up in the governor's chair, or even in the United States Senate, considering how very deliberate the Captain was mentally.

To-day, as the Captain walked up the street following Cissie Dildine, one of these vacant moods fell upon him and it was not until they had reached his own gate that it suddenly occurred to the old gentleman just what Cissie's sumac did mean. It was a signal to Peter. The simplicity of the solution stirred the old man. Its meaning was equally easy to fathom. When a woman signals any man it conveys consent. Denials receive no signals; they are inferred. In this particular case Captain Renfrew found every reason to believe that this flaring bit of sumac was the prelude to an elopement.

In the window of his library the Captain saw his secretary staring at his cards and books with an intentness plainly assumed. Peter's fixed stare had none of those small movements of the head that mark genuine intellectual labor. So Peter was posing, pretending he did not see the girl, to disarm his employer's suspicions,—pretending not to see a girl rigged out like that!

Such duplicity sent a queer spasm of anguish through the old lawyer. Peter's action held half a dozen barbs for the Captain. A fellow-alumnus of Harvard staying in his house merely for his wage and keep! Peter bore not the slightest affection for him; the mulatto lacked even the chivalry to notify the Captain of his intentions, because he knew the Captain objected. And yet all these self-centered objections were nothing to what old Captain Renfrew felt for Peter's own sake. For Peter to marry a nigger and a strumpet, for him to elope with a wanton and a thief! For such an upstanding lad, the very picture of his own virility and mental alertness when he was of that age, for such a boy to fling himself away, to drop out of existence—oh, it was loathly!

The old man entered the library feeling sick. It was empty. Peter had gone to his room, according to his custom. But in this particular instance it seemed to Captain Renfrew his withdrawal was flavored with a tang of guilt. If he were innocent, why should not such a big, strong youth have stayed and helped an old gentleman off with his overcoat?

The old Captain blew out a windy breath as he helped himself out of his coat in the empty library. The bent globe still leaned against the window-seat. The room had never looked so somber or so lonely.

At dinner the old man ate so little that Rose Hobbett ceased her monotonous grumbling to ask if he felt well. He said he had had a hard day, a difficult day. He felt so weak and thin that he foretold the gray days when he could no longer creep to the village and sit with his cronies at the livery-stable, when he would be house-fast, through endless days, creeping from room to room like a weak old rat in a huge empty house, finally to die in some disgusting fashion. And now Peter was going to leave him, was going to throw himself away on a lascivious wench. A faint moisture dampened the old man's withered eyes. He drank an extra thimbleful of whisky to try to hearten himself. Its bouquet filled the time-worn stateliness of the dining-room.

During the weeks of Peter's stay at the manor it had grown to be the Captain's habit really to write for two or three hours in the afternoon, and his pile of manuscript had thickened under his application.

The old man was writing a book called “Reminiscences of Peace and War.” His book would form another unit of that extraordinary crop of personal reminiscences of the old South which flooded the presses of America during the decade of 1908-18. During just that decade it seemed as if the aged men and women of the South suddenly realized that the generation who had lived through the picturesqueness and stateliness of the old slave régime was almost gone, and over their hearts swept a common impulse to commemorate, in the sunset of their own lives, its fading splendor and its vanished deeds.

On this particular afternoon the Captain settled himself to work, but his reminiscences did not get on. He pinched a bit of floss from the nib of his pen and tried to swing into the period of which he was writing. He read over a few pages of his copy as mental priming, but his thoughts remained flat and dull. Indeed, his whole life, as he reviewed it in the waning afternoon, appeared empty and futile. It seemed hardly worth while to go on.

The Captain had come to that point in his memoirs where the Republican representative from Knox County had set going the petard which had wrecked his political career.

From the very beginnings of his labors the old lawyer had looked forward to writing just this period of his life. He meant to clear up his name once for all. He meant to use invective, argument, testimony and a powerful emotional appeal, such as a country lawyer invariably attempts with a jury.

But now that he had arrived at the actual composition of his defense, he sat biting his penholder, with all the arguments he meant to advance slipped from his mind. He could not recall the points of the proof. He could not recall them with Peter Siner moving restlessly about the room, glancing through the window, unsettled, nervous, on the verge of eloping with a negress.

His secretary's tragedy smote the old man. The necessity of doing something for Peter put his thoughts to rout. A wild idea occurred to the Captain that if he should write the exact truth, perhaps his memoirs might serve Peter as a signal against a futile, empty journey.

But the thought no sooner appeared than it was rejected. In the Anglo-Saxon, especially the Anglo-Saxon of the Southern United States, abides no such Gallic frankness as moved a Jean-Jacques. Southern memoirs always sound like the conversation between two maiden ladies,—nothing intimate, simply a few general remarks designed to show from what nice families they came.

So the Captain wrote nothing. During all the afternoon he sat at his desk with a leaden heart, watching Peter move about the room. The old man maintained more or less the posture of writing, but his thoughts were occupied in pitying himself and pitying Peter. Half a dozen times he looked up, on the verge of making some plea, some remonstrance, against the madness of this brown man. But the sight of Peter sitting in the window-seat staring out into the street silenced him. He was a weak old man, and Peter's nerves were strung with the desire of youth.

At last the two men heard old Rose clashing in the kitchen. A few minutes later the secretary excused himself from the library, to go to his own room. As Peter was about to pass through the door, the Captain was suddenly galvanized into action by the thought that this perhaps was the last time he would ever see him. He got up from his chair and called shakenly to Peter. The negro paused. The Captain moistened his lips and controlled his voice.

“I want to have a word with you, Peter, about a—a little matter. I—I've mentioned it before.”

“Yes, sir.” The negro's tone and attitude reminded the Captain that the supper gong would soon sound and they would best separate at once.

“It—it's about Cissie Dildine,” the old lawyer hurried on.

Peter nodded slightly.

“Yes, you mentioned that before.”

The old man lifted a thin hand as if to touch Peter's arm, but he did not. A sort of desperation seized him.

“But listen, Peter, you don't want to do—what's in your mind!”

“What is in my mind, Captain?”

“I mean marry a negress. You don't want to marry a negress!”

The brown man stared, utterly blank.

“Not marry a negress!”

“No, Peter; no,” quavered the old man. “For yourself it may make no difference, but your children—think of your children, your son growing up under a brown veil! You can't tear it off. God himself can't tear it off! You can never reach him through it. Your children, your children's children, a terrible procession that stretches out and out, marching under a black shroud, unknowing, unknown! All you can see are their sad forms beneath the shroud, marching away—marching away. God knows where! And yet it's your own flesh and blood!”

Suddenly the old lawyer's face broke into the hard, tearless contortions of the aged. His terrible emotion communicated itself to the sensitive brown man.

“But, Captain, I myself am a negro. Whom should I marry?”

“No one; no one! Let your seed wither in your loins! It's better to do that; it's better—” At that moment the clashing of the supper gong fell on the old man's naked nerves. He straightened up by some reflex mechanism, turned away from what he thought was his last interview with his secretary, and proceeded down the piazza into the great empty dining-room.