Birthright/Chapter XIII

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WITH overwrought nerves Peter Siner entered his room. At five o'clock that afternoon he had seen Cissie Dildine go up the street to the Arkwright home to cook one of those occasional suppers. He had been watching for her return, and in the midst of it the Captain's extraordinary outburst had stirred him up.

Once in his room, the negro placed the broken Hepplewhite in such a position that he could rake the street with a glance. Then he tried to compose himself and await the coming of his supper and the passage of Cissie. There was something almost pathetic in Peter's endless watching, all for a mere glimpse or two of the girl in yellow. He himself had no idea how his nerves and thoughts had woven themselves around the young woman. He had no idea what a passion this continual doling out of glimpses had begotten. He did not dream how much he was, as folk naïvely put it, in love with her.

His love was strong enough to make him forget for a while the old lawyer's outbreak. However, as the dusk thickened in the shrubbery and under the trees, certain of the old gentleman's phrases revisited the mulatto's mind: “A terrible procession … marching under a black shroud. . . . Your children, your children's children, a terrible procession, . . . marching away, God knows where. . . . And yet—it's your own flesh and blood!” They were terrific sentences, as if the old man had been trying to tear from his vision some sport of nature, some deformity. As the implications spread before Peter, he became more and more astonished at its content. Even to Captain Renfrew black men were dehumanized,—shrouded, untouchable creatures.

It delivered to Peter a slow but a profound shock. He glanced about at the faded magnificence of the room with a queer feeling that he had been introduced into it under a sort of misrepresentation. He had taken up his abode with the Captain, at least on the basis of belonging to the human family, but this passionate outbreak, this puzzling explosion, cut that ground from under his feet.

The more Peter thought about it, the stranger grew his sensation. Not even to be classed as a human being by this old gentleman who in a weak, helpless fashion had crept somewhat into Peter's affections,—not to be considered a man! The mulatto drew a long, troubled breath, and by the mere mechanics of his desire kept staring through the gloom for Cissie.

Peter Siner had known all along that the unread whites of Hooker's Bend—and that included nearly every white person in the village—considered black men as simple animals; but he had supposed that the more thoughtful men, of whom Captain Renfrew was a type, at least admitted the Afro-American to the common brotherhood of humanity. But they did not.

As Peter sat staring into the darkness the whole effect of the dehumanizing of the black folk of the South began to unfold itself before his imagination. It explained to him the tragedies of his race, their sufferings at the hand of mob violence; the casualness, even the levity with which black men were murdered: the chronic dishonesty with which negroes were treated: the constant enactment of adverse legislation against them; the cynical use of negro women. They were all vermin, animals; they were one with the sheep and the swine; a little nearer the human in form, perhaps, and, oddly enough, one that could be bred to a human being, as testified a multitude of brown and yellow and cream-colored folk, but all marching away, as the Captain had so passionately said, marching away, their forms hidden from human intercourse under a shroud of black, an endless procession marching away, God knew whither! And yet they were the South's own flesh and blood.

The horror of such a complex swelled in Peter's mind to monstrous proportions. As night thickened at his window, the negro sat dazed and wondering at the mightiness of his vision. His thoughts went groping, trying to solve some obscure problem it posed. He thought of the Arkwright boy; he thought of the white men smiling as his mother's funeral went past the livery-stable; he thought of Captain Renfrew's manuscript that he was transcribing. Through all the old man's memoirs ran a certain lack of sincerity. Peter always felt amid his labors that the old Captain was making an attorney's plea rather than a candid exposition. At this point in his thoughts there gradually limned itself in the brown man's mind the answer to that enigma which he almost had unraveled on the day he first saw Cissie Dildine pass his window. With it came the answer to the puzzle contained in the old Captain's library. The library was not an ordinary compilation of the world's thought; it, too, was an attorney's special pleading against the equality of man. Any book or theory that upheld the equality of man was carefully excluded from the shelves. Darwin's great hypothesis, and every development springing from it, had been banned, because the moment that a theory was propounded of the great biologic relationship of all flesh, from worms to vertebrates, there instantly followed a corollary of the brotherhood of man.

What Christ did for theology, Darwin did for biology,—he democratized it. The One descended to man's brotherhood from the Trinity; the other climbed up to it from the worms.

The old Captain's library lacked sincerity. Southern orthodoxy, which persists in pouring its religious thought into the outworn molds of special creation, lacks sincerity. Scarcely a department of Southern life escapes this fundamental attitude of special pleader and disingenuousness. It explains the Southern fondness for legal subtleties. All attempts at Southern poetry, belles-lettres, painting, novels, bear the stamp of the special plea, of authors whose exposition is careful.

Peter perceived what every one must perceive, that when letters turn into a sort of glorified prospectus of a country, all value as literature ceases. The very breath of art and interpretation is an eager and sincere searching of the heart. This sincerity the South lacks. Her single talent will always be forensic, because she is a lawyer with a cause to defend. And such is the curse that arises from lynchings and venery and extortions and dehumanizings,—sterility; a dumbness of soul.

Peter Siner's thoughts lifted him with the tremendous buoyancy of inspiration. He swung out of his chair and began tramping his dark room. The skin of his scalp tickled as if a ghost had risen before him. The nerves in his thighs and back vibrated. He felt light, and tingled with energy.

Unaware of what he was doing, he set about lighting the gasolene-lamp. He worked with nervous quickness, as if he were in a great hurry. Presently a brilliant light flooded the room. It turned the gray illumination of the windows to blackness.

Joy enveloped Peter. His own future developed under his eyes with the same swift clairvoyance that marked his vision of the ills of his country. He saw himself remedying those ills. He would go about showing white men and black men the simple truth, the spiritual necessity for justice and fairness. It was not a question of social equality; it was a question of clearing a road for the development of Southern life. He would show white men that to weaken, to debase, to dehumanize the negro, inflicted a more terrible wound on the South than would any strength the black man might develop. He would show black men that to hate the whites, constantly to suspect, constantly to pilfer from them, only riveted heavier shackles on their limbs.

It was all so clear and so simple! The white South must humanize the black not for the sake of the negro, but for the sake of itself. No one could resist logic so fundamental.

Peter's heart sang with the solemn joy of a man who had found his work. All through his youth he had felt blind yearnings and gropings for he knew not what. It had driven him with endless travail out of Niggertown, through school and college, and back to Niggertown,—this untiring Hound of Heaven. But at last he had reached his work. He, Peter Siner, a mulatto, with the blood of both white and black in his veins, would come as an evangel of liberty to both white and black. The brown man's eyes grew moist from Joy. His body seemed possessed of tremendous energy.

As he paced his room there came into the glory of Peter's thoughts the memory of the Arkwright boy as he sat in the cedar glade brooding on the fallen needles Peter recalled the hobbledehoy's disjointed words as he wrestled with the moral and physical problems of adolescence. Peter recalled his impulse to sit down by young Sam Arkwright, and, as best he might, give him some clue to the critical and feverish period through which he was passing.

He had not done so, but Peter remembered the instance down to the very desperation in the face of the brooding youngster. And it seemed to Peter that this rejected impulse had been a sign that he was destined to be an evangel to the whites as well as to the blacks.

The joy of Peter's mission bore him aloft on vast wings. His room seemed to fall away from him, and he was moving about his country, releasing the two races from their bonds of suspicion and cruelty.

Slowly the old manor formed about Peter again, and he perceived that a tapping on the door had summoned him back. He walked to the door with his heart full of kindness for old Rose. She was bringing him his supper. He felt as if he could take the old woman in his arms, and out of the mere hugeness of his love sweeten her bitter life. The mulatto opened the door as eagerly as if he were admitting some long-desired friend; but when the shutter swung back, the old crone and her salver were not there. All he could discern in the darkness were the white pillars marking the night into panels. There was no light in the outer kitchen. The whole manor was silent.

As he stood listening, the knocking was repeated, this time more faintly. He fixed the sound at the window. He closed the door, walked across the brilliant room, and opened the shutters.

For several moments he saw nothing more than the tall quadrangle of blackness which the window framed; then a star or two pierced it; then something moved. He saw a woman's figure standing close to the casement, and out of the darkness Cissie Dildine's voice asked in its careful English:

“Peter, may I come in?”