Birthright/Chapter XIV

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FOR a full thirty seconds Peter Siner stared at the girl at the window before, even with her prompting, he thought of the amenity of asking her to come inside. As a further delayed courtesy, he drew the Heppelwhite chair toward her.

Cissie's face looked bloodless in the blanched light of the gasolene-lamp. She forced a faint, doubtful smile.

“You don't seem very glad to see me, Peter.”

“I am,” he assured her, mechanically, but he really felt nothing but astonishment and dismay. They filled his voice. He was afraid some one would see Cissie in his room. His thoughts went flitting about the premises, calculating the positions of the various trees and shrubs in relation to the windows, trying to determine whether, and just where, in his brilliantly lighted chamber the girl could be seen from the street.

The octoroon made no further comment on his confusion. Her eyes wandered from him over the stately furniture and up to the stuccoed ceiling.

“They told me you lived in a wonderful room,” she remarked absently.

“Yes, it's very nice,” agreed Peter in the same tone, wondering what might be the object of her hazardous visit. A flicker of suspicion suggested that she was trying to compromise him out of revenge for his renouncement of her, but the next instant he rejected this.

The girl accepted the chair Peter offered and continued to look about.

“I hope you don't mind my staring, Peter,” she said.

“I stared when I first came here to stay,” assisted Peter, who was getting a little more like himself, even if a little uneasier at the consequences of this visit.

“Is that a highboy?” She nodded nervously at the piece of furniture. “I've seen pictures of them.”

“Uh huh. Revolutionary, I believe. The night wind is a little raw.” He moved across the room and closed the jalousies, and thus cut off the night wind and also the west view from the street. He glanced at the heavy curtains parted over his front windows, with a keen desire to swing them together. Some fragment of his mind continued the surface conversation with Cissie.

“Is it post-Revolutionary or pre-Revolutionary?” she asked with a preoccupied air.

“Post, I believe. No, pre. I always meant to examine closely.”

“To have such things would almost teach one history,” Cissie said.

“Yeah; very nice.” Peter had decided that the girl was in direct line with the left front window and an opening between the trees to the street.

The girl's eyes followed his.

“Are those curtains velour, Peter?”

“I—I believe so,” agreed the man, unhappily.

“I—I wonder how they look spread.”

Peter seized on this flimsy excuse with a wave of relief and thankfulness to Cissie. He had to restrain himself as he strode across the room and swung together the two halves of the somber curtains in order to preserve an appearance of an exhibit. His fingers were so nervous that he bungled a moment at the heavy cords, but finally the two draperies swung together, loosing a little cloud of dust. He drew together a small aperture where the hangings stood apart, and then turned away in sincere relief.

Cissie's own interest in historic furniture and textiles came to an abrupt conclusion. She gave a deep sigh and settled back into her chair. She sat looking at Peter seriously, almost distressfully, as he came toward her.

With the closing of the curtains and the establishment of a real privacy Peter became aware once again of the sweetness and charm Cissie always held for him. He still wondered what had brought her, but he was no longer uneasy.

“Perhaps I'd better build a fire,” he suggested, quite willing now to make her visit seem not unusual.

“Oh, no,”—she spoke with polite haste,—“I'm just going to stay a minute. I don't know what you'll think of me.” She looked intently at him.

“I think it lovely of you to come.” He was disgusted with the triteness of this remark, but he could think of nothing else.

“I don't know,” demurred the octoroon, with her faint doubtful smile. “Persons don't welcome beggars very cordially.”

“If all beggars were so charming—” Apparently he couldn't escape banalities.

But Cissie interrupted whatever speech he meant to make, with a return of her almost painful seriousness.

“I really came to ask you to help me, Peter.”

“Then your need has brought me a pleasure, at least.” Some impulse kept the secretary making those foolish complimentary speeches which keep a conversation empty and insincere.

“Oh, Peter, I didn't come here for you to talk like that! Will you do what I want?”

“What do you want, Cissie?” he asked, sobered by her voice and manner.

“I want you to help me, Peter.”

“All right, I will.” He spaced his words with his speculations about the nature of her request. “What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to help me go away.”

Peter looked at her in surprise. He hardly knew what he had been expecting, but it was not this.

Some repressed emotion crept into the girl's voice.

“Peter, I—I can't stay here in Hooker's Bend any longer. I want to go away. I—I've got to go away.”

Peter stood regarding her curiously and at the same time sympathetically.

“Where do you want to go, Cissie?”

The girl drew a long breath; her bosom lifted and dropped abruptly.

“I don't know; that was one of the things I wanted to ask you about.”

“You don't know where you want to go?” He smiled faintly. “How do you know you want to go at all?”

“Oh, Peter, all I know is I must leave Hooker's Bend!” She gave a little shiver. “I'm tired of it, sick of it—sick.” She exhaled a breath, as if she were indeed physically ill. Her face suggested it; her eyes were shadowed. “Some Northern city, I suppose,” she added.

“And you want me to help you?” inquired Peter, puzzled.

She nodded silently, with a woman's instinct to make a man guess the favor she is seeking.

Then it occurred to Peter just what sort of assistance the girl did want. It gave him a faint shock that a girl could come to a man to beg or to borrow money. It was a white man's shock, a notion he had picked up in Boston, because it happens frequently among village negroes, and among them it holds as little significance as children begging one another for bites of apples.

Peter thought over his bank balance, then started toward a chest of drawers where he kept his checkbook.

“Cissie, if I can he of any service to you in a substantial way, I'll be more than glad to—”

She put out a hand and stopped him; then talked on in justification of her determination to go away.

“I just can't endure it any longer, Peter.” She shuddered again. “I can't stand Niggertown, or this side of town—any of it. They—they have no feeling for a colored girl, Peter, not—not a speck!” She rave a gasp, and after a moment plunged on into her wrongs: “When—when one of us even walks past on the street, they—they whistle and say a-all kinds of things out loud, j-just as if w-we weren't there at all. Th- they don't c-care; we're just n-nigger w-women.” Cissie suddenly began sobbing with a faint catching noise, her full bosom shaken by the spasms; her tears slowly welling over. She drew out a handkerchief with a part of its lace edge gone, and wiped her eyes and cheeks, holding the bit of cambric in a ball in her palm, like a negress, instead of in her fingers, like a white woman, as she had been taught. Then she drew a deep breath, swallowed, and became more composed.

Peter stood looking in helpless anger at this representative of all women of his race.

“Cissie, that's street-corner scum—the dirty sewage—”

“They make you feel naked,” went on Cissie in the monotone that succeeds a fit of weeping, “and ashamed—and afraid.” She blinked her eyes to press out the undue moisture, and looked at Peter as if asking what else she could do about it than to go away from the village.

“Will it be any better away from here?” suggested Peter, doubtfully.

Cissie shook her head.

“I—I suppose not, if—if I go alone.”

“I shouldn't think so,” agreed Peter, somberly. He started to hearten her by saying white women also underwent such trials, if that would be a consolation; but he knew very well that a white woman's hardships were as nothing compared to those of a colored woman who was endowed with any grace whatever.

“And besides, Cissie,” went on Peter, who somehow found himself arguing against the notion of her going, “I hardly see how a decent colored woman gets around at all. Colored boarding-houses are wretched places. I ate and slept in one or two, coming home. Rotten.” The possibility of Cissie finding herself in such a place moved Peter.

The girl nodded submissively to his judgment, and said in a queer voice: “That's why I—I didn't want to travel alone, Peter.”

“No, it's a bad idea—” and then Peter perceived that a queer quality was creeping into the tête-à-tête.

She returned his look unsteadily, but with a curious persistence.

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“You-you mean you want m-me — to go with you, Cissie?” he stammered

“I—I d-don't want to travel a-alone, Peter,” she gasped.

Her look, her voice suddenly brought home to the man the amazing connotation of her words. He stared at her, felt his face grow warm with a sharp, peculiar embarrassment. He hardly knew what to say or do before her intent and piteous eyes.

“You—you mean you want m-me—to go with you, Cissie?” he stammered.

The girl suddenly began trembling, now that her last reserve of indirection had been torn away.

“Listen, Peter,” she began breathlessly. “I'm not the sort of woman you think. If I hadn't accused myself, we'd be married now. I—I wanted you more than anything in the world, Peter, but I did tell you. Surely, surely, Peter, that shows I am a good woman—th-the real I. Dear, dear Peter, there is a difference between a woman and her acts. Peter, you're the first man in all my life, in a-all my life who ever came to me k-kindly and gently; so I had to l-love you and t-tell you, Peter.”

The girl's wavering voice broke down completely; her face twisted with grief. She groped for her chair, sat down, buried her face in her arms on the table, and broke into a chattering outbreak of sobs that sounded like some sort of laughter.

Her shoulders shook; the light gleamed on her soft, black Caucasian hair. There was a little rent in one of the seams in her cheap jacket, at one of the curves where her side molded into her shoulder. The customer made garment had found Cissie's body of richer mold than it had been designed to shield. And yet in Peter's distress and tenderness and embarrassment, this little rent held his attention and somehow misprized the wearer.

It seemed symbolic in the searching white light. He could see the very break in the thread and the widened stitches at the ends of the rip. Her coat had given way because she was modeled more nearly like the Venus de Milo than the run of womankind. He felt the little irony of the thing, and yet was quite unable to resist the comparison.

And then, too, she had referred again to her sin of peculation. A woman enjoys confessions from a man. A man's sins are mostly vague, indefinite things to a woman, a shadowy background which brings out the man in a beautiful attitude of repentance; but when a woman confesses, the man sees all her past as a close-up with full lighting. He has an intimate acquaintance with just what she's talking about, and the woman herself grows shadowy and unreal. Men have too many blots not to demand whiteness in women. By striking some such average, nature keeps the race a going moral concern.

So Peter, as he stood looking down on the woman who was asking him to marry her, was filled with as unhappy and as impersonal a tenderness as a born brother. He recalled the thoughts which had come to him when he saw Cissie passing his window. She was not the sort of woman he wanted to marry; she was not his ideal. He cast about in his head for some gentle way of putting her off, so that he would not hurt her any further, if such an easement were possible.

As he stood thinking, he found not a pretext, but a reality. He stooped over, and put a hand lightly on each of her arms.

“Cissie,” he said in a serious, even voice, “if I should ever marry any one, it would be you.”

The girl paused in her sobbing at his even, passionless voice.

“Then you—you won't?” she whispered in her arms.

“I can't, Cissie.” Now that he was saying it, he uttered the words very evenly and smoothly. “I can't, dear Cissie, because a great work has just come into my life.” He paused, expecting her to ask some question, but she lay silent, with her face in her arms, evidently listening.

“Cissie, I think, in fact I know, I can demonstrate to all the South, both white and black, the need of a better and more sincere understanding between our two races.”

Peter did not feel the absurdity of such a speech in such a place. He patted her arm, but there was something in the warmth of her flesh that disturbed his austerity and caused him to lift his hand to the more impersonal axis of her shoulder. He proceeded to develop his idea.

“Cissie, just a moment ago you were complaining of the insults you meet everywhere. I believe if I can spread my ideas, Cissie, that even a pretty colored girl like you may walk the streets without being subjected to obscenity on every corner.” His tone unconsciously patronized Cissie's prettiness with the patronage of the male for the less significant thing, as though her ripeness for love and passion and children were, after all, not comparable with what he, a male, could do in the way of significantly molding life.

Cissie lifted her head and dried her eyes.

“So you aren't going to marry me, Peter?” Woman-like, now that she was well into the subject, she was far less embarrassed than Peter. She had had her cry.

“Why—er—considering this work, Cissie—”

“Aren't you going to marry anybody, Peter?”

The artist in Peter, the thing the girl loved in him, caught again that Messianic vision of himself.

“Why, no, Cissie,” he said, with a return of his inspiration of an hour ago; “I'll be going here and there all over the South preaching this gospel of kindliness and tolerance, of forgiveness of the faults of others.” Cissie looked at him with a queer expression. “I'll show the white people that they should treat the negro with consideration not for the sake of the negro, but for the sake of themselves. It's so simple, Cissie, it's so logical and clear—”

The girl shook her head sadly.

“And you don't want me to go with you, Peter?”

“Why, n-no, Cissie; a girl like you couldn't go. Perhaps I'll be misunderstood in places, perhaps I may have to leave a town hurriedly, or be swung over the walls, like Paul, in a basket.” He attempted to treat it lightly.

But the girl looked at him with a horror dawning in her melancholy face.

“Peter, do you really mean that?” she whispered.

“Why, truly. You don't imagine—”

The octoroon opened her dark eyes until she might have been some weird.

“Oh, Peter, please, please put such a mad idea away from you! Peter, you've been living here alone in this old house until you don't see things clearly. Dear Peter, don't you know? You can't go out and talk like that to white folks and—and not have some terrible thing happen to you! Oh, Peter, if you would only marry me, it would cure you of such wildness!” Involuntarily she got up, holding out her arms to him, offering herself to his needs, with her frightened eyes fixed on his.

It made him exquisitely uncomfortable again. He made a little sound designed to comfort and reassure her. He would do very well. He was something of a diplomat in his way. He had got along with the boys in Harvard very well indeed. In fact, he was rather a man of the world. No need to worry about him, though it was awfully sweet of her.

Cissie picked up her handkerchief with its torn edge, which she had laid on the table. Evidently she was about to go.

“I surely don't know what will become of me,” she said, looking at it.

In a reversal of feeling Peter did not want her to go away quite then. He cast about for some excuse to detain her a moment longer.

“Now, Cissie,” he began, “if you are really going to leave Hooker's Bend—”

“I'm not going,” she said, with a long exhalation. “I—” she swallowed— “I just thought that up to—ask you to—to—You see,” she explained, a little breathless, “I thought you still loved me and had forgiven me by the way you watched for me every day at the window.”

This speech touched Peter more keenly than any of the little drama the girl had invented. It hit him so shrewdly he could think of nothing more to say.

Cissie moved toward the window and undid the latch.

“Good night, Peter.” She paused a moment, with her hand on the catch. “Peter,” she said, “I'd almost rather see you marry some other girl than try so terrible a thing.”

The big, full-blooded athlete smiled faintly.

“You seem perfectly sure marriage would cure me of my mission.”

Cissie's face reddened faintly.

“I think so,” she said briefly. “Good night,” and she disappeared in the dark space she had opened, and closed the jalousies softly after her.