Birthright/Chapter XIX

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The Bridal Couple Embarked for Cairo.png

The bridal couple embarked for Cairo


TWO voices talking, interrupting each other with ejaculations, after the fashion of negroes under excitement, aroused Peter Siner from his sleep. He caught the words: "He did! Tump did! The jailer did! 'Fo' God! black man, whut's Cissie doin'?"

Overtones of shock, even of horror, in the two voices brought Peter wide awake the moment he opened his eyes. He sat up suddenly in his bed, remained perfectly still, listening with his mouth open. The voices, however, were passing. The words became indistinct, then relapsed into that bubbling monotone of human voices at a distance, and presently ceased.

These fragmentary phrases, however, feathered with consternation, filled Peter with vague premonitions. He whirled his legs out of bed and began drawing on his clothes. When he was up and into the crescent, however, nobody was in sight. He stood breathing the chill, damp air, blinking his eyes. Lack of his cold bath made him feel chilly and lethargic. He wriggled his shoulders and considered going back, after all, and having his splash. Just then he saw the Persimmon coming around the crescent. Peter called to the roustabout and asked about Tump Pack.

The Persimmon looked at Peter with his half-asleep, protruding eyeballs.

“Don' you know 'bout Tump Pack already, Mister Siner?”

“No.” Peter was astonished at the formality of the “Mr. Siner.”

“Then is you 'spectin' somp'n 'bout him?”

“Why, no, but I was asleep in there a moment ago, and somebody came along talking about Tump and Cissie. They—they aren't married, are they?”

“Oh, no-o, no-o-o, no-o-o-o-o.” The Persimmon waggled his bullet head slowly from side to side. “I heared Tump got into a lil trouble wid de jailer las' night.”


“I dunno.” The Persimmon closed one of his protruding yellow eyes. “Owin' to whut you call se'ius; maybe whut I call se'ius wouldn't be se'ius to you at all; 'n 'en maybe whut you call se'ius would be ve'y insince'ius to Tump.” The roustabout's philosophy, which consisted in a monotonous recasting of a given proposition, trickled on and on in the cold wind. After a while it fizzled out to nothing at all, and the Persimmon asked in a queer manner: “Did you give Tump some women's clo'es, Peter?”

It was such an odd question that at first Peter was at loss; then he recalled Nan Berry's despatching Cissie some underwear. He explained this to the Persimmon, and tacked on a curious, “Why?”

“Oh, nothin'; nothin' 'tall. Ever'body say you a mighty long-haided nigger. Jim Pink he tell us 'bout Tump Pack marchin' you 'roun' wid a gun. I sho don' want you ever git mad at me, Mister Siner. Man wid a gun an' you turn yo' long haid on him an' blow him away wid a wad o' women's clo'es. I sho don' want you ever cross yo' fingers at me, Mister Siner.”

Peter stared at the grotesque, bullet-headed roustabout. “Persimmon,” he said uneasily, “what in the world are you talking about?”

The Persimmon smiled a sickly, white-toothed smile. “Jim Pink say yo' aidjucation is a flivver. I say, 'Jim Pink, no nigger don' go off an' study fo' yeahs in college whut 'n he comes back an' kin throw some kin' uv a hoodoo over us fool niggers whut ain't got no brains. Now, Tump wid a gun, an' you wid jes ordina'y women's clo'es! 'Fo' Gawd, aidjucation is a great thing; sho is a great thing.” The Persimmon gave Peter an apprehensive wink and moved on.

There was no use trying to extract information from the Persimmon unless he was minded to give it. His talk would merely become vaguer and vaguer. Peter watched him go, then turned and attempted to throw the whole matter off his mind by assuming a certain brisk Northern mood. He must pack, get ready for the down-river gasolene launch. The doings of Tump Pack and Cissie Dildine were, after all, nothing to him.

He started inside, when the levy notice on the door again met his eyes. He paused, read it over once more, and decided that he must go over the hill to the Planter's Bank and get Henry Hooker's permission to remove certain small personal belongings that he wanted to take with him.

The mere clear-cut decision to go invigorated Peter.

Some of the energy that always filled him during his college days in Boston seemed to come to him now from the mere thought of the North. Soon he would be in the midst of it, moving briskly, talking to wide-awake men to whom a slightly unusual English word would not form a stumbling-block to conversation. He set out down the crescent and across the Big Hill at a swinging stride. He was glad to get away.

Beyond the white church on the other side of the hill he heard a motor coming in on the Jonesboro road. Presently he saw a battered car moving around the long swing of the pike, spewing a trail of dust down the wind. Its clacking became prodigious.

The mulatto was just entering that indefinite stretch of thoroughfare where a country road becomes a village street when there came a wail of brakes behind him and he looked around.

It was Dawson Bobbs's car. The fat man now slowed up not far from the mulatto and called to him.

“Yes, sir,” said Peter.

Dawson bobbed his fat head backward and upward in a signal for Peter to approach. It held the casualness of one certain to be obeyed.

Although Peter had done no crime, nor had even harbored a criminal intention, a trickle of apprehension went through him at Bobbs's nod. He recalled Jim Pink's saying that it was bad luck to see the constable. He walked up to the shuddering motor and stood about three feet from the running-board.

The officer bit on a sliver of toothpick that he held in his thin lips.

“Accident up Jonesboro las' night, Peter.”

“What was it, Mr. Bobbs?”

“Tump Pack got killed.”

Peter continued looking fixedly at Mr. Bobbs's broad red face. The dusty road beneath him seemed to give a little dip. He repeated the information emptily, trying to orient himself to this sudden change in his whole mental horizon.

The officer was looking at Peter fixedly with his chill slits of eyes.

“Yeah; trying to make a jail delivery.”

The two men continued looking at each other, one from the road, the other from the motor. The flow of Peter's thoughts seemed to divide. The greater part was occupied with Tump Pack. Peter could vision the formidable ex-soldier lying dead in Jonesboro jail, with his little congressional medal on his breast. Some lighter portion of his mind nickered about here and there on trivial things. He observed a little hole rusted in the running-board of the motor. He noticed that the officer's eyes were just the same chill, washed blue as the winter sky above his head. He remembered a tale that, before electrocution became a law in Tennessee the county sheriff's nerve had failed him at a hanging, and the constable Dawson Bobbs had sprung the drop. There was something terrible about the fat man. He would do anything, absolutely anything, that came to his hands in the way of legal sewage.

In the midst of these thoughts Peter heard himself saying.

“He—was trying to get Cissie out?”


“He—must have been drunk.”

“Oh, yeah.”

Mr. Bobbs sat studying the mulatto. As he studied him he said slowly:

“Some of 'em say he was disguised as a woman. Others say he had some women's clothes along, ready to put on. Now, me and the sheriff knowed Tump Pack purty well, Peter, and we knowed that nigger never in the worl' would 'a' thought up sich a plan by hisself.”

He sat looking at Peter so interrogatively that the mulatto began, in a strained, earnest voice, telling the constable precisely what had happened in regard to the clothes.

Mr. Bobbs sat listening impassively, moving his toothpick up and down from one side to the other of his small, thin-lipped mouth. At last he nodded.

“Well, I guess that's about the way of it. I didn't exactly understand the women's clothes business,—damn' fool disguise,—but we figgered it might pop into the head of a' edjucated nigger.” He sucked his teeth, reflectively. “Peter,” he said at last, “seems to me, if I was you, I'd drift on away from this town. The niggers around here ain't strong for you now; some say you're a hoodoo; some say this an' some that. The white folks don't exactly like you trying to get up a cook's union. It's your right to do that if you want to, of course, but this is a mighty small city to have unions and things. The fact is, it ain't a big enough place for a nigger of yore ability, Peter. I b'lieve, if I was you, I'd jes drift on some'eres else.”

The officer tipped up his toothpick so that it lifted his upper lip in a little v-shaped opening and exposed a strong, yellowish tooth. At the moment his machine started slowly forward. It gave him the appearance of accidentally rolling off while immersed in deep thought.

The death of Tump Pack moved Peter with a sense of strange pathos. He always remembered Tump tramping away through the night to carry Cissie some underclothes and, if possible, to take her place in jail. At the foundation of Tump's being lay a faithfulness and devotion to Cissie that reached the heights of a dog's. And yet, he might have deserted her, he would probably have beaten her, and he most certainly would have betrayed her many, many times. It was inexplicable.

Now that Tump was dead, the mantle of his fidelity somehow seemed to fall on Peter. For some reason Peter felt that he should assume Tump's place as Cissie Dildine's husband and protector. Had Tump lived, Peter might have gone North in peace, if not in happiness. Now such a journey, without Cissie, had become impossible. He had a feeling that it would not be right.

As for the disgrace of marrying such a woman as Cissie Dildine, Peter slowly gave that idea up. The “worthinesses” and “disgraces” implicit in Harvard atmosphere, which Peter had spent four years of his life imbibing, slowly melted away in the air of Niggertown. What was honorable there, what was disgraceful there, somehow changed its color here.

By virtue of this change Peter felt intuitively that Cissie Dildine was neither disgraced by her arrest nor soiled by her physical condition. Somehow she seemed just as “nice” a girl, just as “good” a girl, as ever she was before. Moreover, every other darky in Niggertown held these same instinctive beliefs. Had it not been for that, Peter would have thought it was his passion pleading for the girl, justifying itself by a grotesque morality, as passions often do. But this was not the correct solution. The sentiment was enigmatic. Peter puzzled over it time and time again as he waited in Hooker's Bend for the outcome of Cissie's trial.

The octoroon's imprisonment came to an end on the third day after Tump's death. Sam Arkwright's parents had not known of their son's legal proceedings, and Mr. Arkwright immediately quashed the warrant, and hushed up the unfortunate matter as best he could. Young Sam was suddenly sent away from home to college, as the best step in the circumstances. And so the wishes of the adolescent in the cedar-glade came queerly to pass, even if Peter did withhold any grave, mature advice on the subject which he may have possessed.

Naturally, there was much mirth among the men of Hooker's Bend and much virulence among the women over the peculiar conditions under which young Sam made his pilgrimage in pursuit of wisdom and morals and the right conduct of life. And life being problematic and uncertain as it is, and prone to wind about in the strangest way, no one may say with certitude that young Sam did not make a promising start.

Certainly, over the affair the Knights of the Round Table launched many a quip and jest, but that simply proved the fineness of their sentiments toward a certain delicate human relation which forms mankind's single awful approach to the creative and the holy.

Tump Pack became almost a mythical figure in Niggertown. Jim Pink Staggs composed a saga relating the soldier's exploits in France, his assault on the jail to liberate Cissie, and his death.

In his songs—and Jim Pink had composed a good many—the minstrel instinctively avoided humor. He always improvised them to the sobbing of a guitar, and they were as invariably sad as the poetry of adolescents. It was called “Tump Pack's Lament.” The negroes of Hooker's Bend learned it from Jim Pink, and with them it drifted up and down the three great American rivers, and now it is sung by the roustabouts, stevedores, and underlings of our strange black American world.

This song commemorating Tump Pack's bravery and faithfulness to his love may very well take the place of the Congressional medal which, unfortunately, was lost on the night the soldier was killed. Between the two, there is little doubt that the accolade of fame bestowed in the buffoon's simple melody is more vital and enduring than that accorded by special act of the Congress of the United States of America.

When Cissie Dildine returned from jail, she and her mother arranged the Dildine-Siner wedding as nearly according to white standards in similar circumstances as they could conceive. They agreed that it should be a simple, quiet home wedding. However, as every soul in Niggertown, a number of colored friends in Jonesboro, and a contingent from up-river villages meant to attend, it became necessary to hold the service in the church.

The officiating minister was not Parson Ranson after all, but a Reverend Cleotus Haidus, the presiding elder of that circuit of the Afro-American Methodist Church, whose duties happened to call him to Hooker's Bend that day. So, notwithstanding Cissie's efforts at simplicity, the wedding, after all, was resolved into an affair.

Once, in one of her moments of clairvoyance, Cissie said to Peter:

“Our trouble is, Peter, we are trying to mix what I have learned in Nashville and what you have learned in Boston with what we both feel in Hooker's Bend. I—I'm almost ashamed to say it, but I don't really feel sad and plaintive at all, Peter. I feel glad, gloriously glad. Oh, my dear, dear Peter!” and she flung her arms around Peter's neck and held him with all her might against her ripening bosom.

To Cissie her theft, her jail sentence, her pregnancy, were nothing more than if she had taken a sip of water. However, with the imitativeness of her race and the histrionic ability of her sex, she appeared pensive and subdued during the elaborate double-ring ceremony performed by the Reverend Cleotus Haidus. Nobody in the packed church knew how tremendously Cissie's heart was beating except Peter, who held her hand.

The ethical engine that Peter had patiently builded in Harvard almost ceased to function in this weird morality of Niggertown. Whether he were doing right or doing wrong, Peter could not determine. He lost all his moorings. At times he felt himself walking according to the ethnological law, which is the Harvard way of saying walking according to the will of God; but at other times he felt party to some unpardonable obscenity. So deeply was he disturbed that out of the dregs of his mind floated up old bits of the Scriptures that he was unaware of possessing: “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” And Peter wondered if he were not in that way.

The bridal couple embarked for Cairo on the Red Cloud, a packet in the Dubuque, Ohio, and Tennessee River trade. Peter and Cissie were not allowed to walk up the main stairway into the passengers' cabin, but were required to pick their way along the boiler-deck, through the stench of freight, lumber, live stock and sleeping roustabouts. Then they went through the heat and steam of the engine-room up a small companionway that led through the toilet, on to the rear guard of the main deck, and thence back to a little cuddy behind the main saloon called the chambermaid's cabin.

The chambermaid's cabin was filled with the perpetual odor of hot soap-suds, soiled laundry, and the broader smell of steam and the boat's machinery. The little place trembled night and day, for the steamer's engines were just beneath them, and immediately behind them thundered the great stern-wheel of the packet. A single square window in the end of the chambermaid's cabin looked out on the wheel, but at all times, except when the wind was blowing from just the right quarter, this window was deluged with a veritable Niagara of water. The continual shake of the cabin, the creak of the rudder-beam working to and fro, the watery thunder of the wheel, and the solemn rumble of the engines made conversation impossible until the travelers grew accustomed to the noises. Still, Cissie found it pleasant. She liked to sit and look out into the main saloon, with its interminable gilded scrolls extending away up the long cabin, a suave perspective. She liked to watch the white passengers dine—the white napery, the bouquets, the endless tables all filled with diners; some swathed in napkins from chin to waistband, others less completely protected. It gave Cissie a certain tang of triumph to smile at the swathed ones and to think that she knew better than that.

At night a negro string-band played for the white excursionists to dance, and Cissie would sit, with glowing eyes, clenching Peter's hand, every fiber of her asway to the music, and it seemed as if her heart would go mad. All these inhibitions, all this spreading before her of forbidden joys, did not daunt her delight. She reveled in them by propinquity.

The chambermaid was a Mrs. Antolia Higgman, a strong, full-bodied café-au-lait negress. She was a very sensible woman, and during her work on the boat she had picked up a Northern accent and a number of little mannerisms from the Chicago and St. Louis excursionists, who made ten-day round trips from Dubuque to Florence, Alabama, and return. When Mrs. Higgman was not running errands for the women passengers, she was working at her perpetual laundering.

At first Peter was a little uneasy as to how Mrs. Higgman would treat Cissie, but she turned out a good-hearted woman, and did everything she could to make the young wife comfortable. It soon became clear that Mrs. Higgman knew the whole situation, for one day she said to Cissie in her odd dialect, burred with Yankeeish “r's” and “ing's.”

“These river-r towns, Mrs. Siner-r, are jest like one big village, with the river-r for its Main Street. I know ever-r'thang that goes on, through the cabin-boys an' cooks, an'—an'—you cerrtainly ar-re a dear-r, Mrs. Siner-r,” and thereupon, quite unexpectedly, she kissed Cissie.

So on about the second day down the river Cissie dropped her saddened manner and became frankly, freely, and riotously happy. After the fashion of village negresses, she insisted on helping Mrs. Higgman with her work, and, incidentally, she cultivated Mrs. Higgman's Northern accent. When the chambermaid was out on her errands and Cissie found a moment alone with Peter, she would tweak his ear or pull his cheek and provoke him to kiss her. Indeed, it was all the hot, shuddering little laundry-room could do to contain the gay and bubbling Cissie.

Peter thought and thought, resignedly now, but persistently, how this strange happiness that belonged to them both could be. He was content, yet he felt he ought not to be content. He thought there must be something base in himself, yet he felt that there was not. He drank the wine of his honeymoon marveling.

On the morning before the Red Cloud entered the port of Cairo Mrs. Higgman was out of the cabin, and Peter stood at the little square window, with his arm about Cissie's waist, looking out to the rear of the steamer. A strong east wind blew the spray away from the glass, and Peter could see the huge wheel covered with a waterfall thundering beneath him. Back of the wheel stretched a long row of even waves and troughs. Every seventh or eighth wave tumbled over on itself in a swash of foam. These flashing stern waves strung far up the river. On each side of the great waterway stretched the flat shores of Kentucky and Ohio. Here and there over the broad clay-colored water moved other boats—tow-boats, a string of government auto-barges, a snag-boat, another packet.

Peter gave up his question. The curves of Cissie's form in his arm held a sweetness and a restfulness that her maidenhood had never promised. He felt so deeply sure of his happiness that it seemed strange to him that he could not aline his emotions and his mind.

As Peter stood staring up the Ohio River, it occurred to him that perhaps, in some queer way, the morals of black folk were not the morals of white folk; perhaps the laws that bound one race were not the laws that bound the other. It might be that white anathemas were black blessings. Peter thought along this line peacefully for several minutes.

And finally he concluded that, after all, morals and conventions, right and wrong, are merely those precepts that a race have practised and found good in its evolution. Morals are the training rules that keep a people fit. It might very well be that one moral régime is applicable to one race, and quite another to another.

The single object of all morals is racial welfare, the racial integrity, the breeding of strong children to perpetuate the species. If the black race possess a more exuberant vitality than some other race, then the black would not be forced to practise so severe a vital economy as some less virile folk. Racial morals are simply a question of having and spending within safety limits.

Peter knew that for years white men had held a prejudice against marrying widows. This is utterly without grounds except for one reason: the first born of a woman is the lustiest. Among the still weaker Aryans of India the widows burn themselves. Among certain South Sea Islanders only the first-born may live and mate; all other children are slain. Among nearly every white race marriage lines are strictly drawn, and the tendency is to have few children to a family, to conserve the precious vital impulse. So strong is this feeling of birth control that to-day nearly all American white women are ashamed of large families. This shame is the beginning of a convention; the convention may harden into a cult, a law, or a religion.

And here is the amazing part of morals. Morals are always directed toward one particular race, but the individual members of that race always feel that their brand of morals does and should apply to all the peoples of the earth; so one has the spectacle of nations sending out missionaries and battle-ships to teach and enforce their particular folk-ways. Another queer thing is that whereas the end of morals is designed solely for the betterment of the race, and is entirely regardless of the person, to the conscience of the person morals are always translated as something that binds him personally, that will shame him or honor him personally not only for the brief span of this worldly life, but through an eternity to come. To him, his particular code, surrounded by all the sanctions of custom, law, and religion, appears earth-embracing, hell-deep, and heaven-piercing, and any human creature who follows any other code appears fatally wicked, utterly shameless, and ineluctably lost.

And yet there is no such thing as absolute morals. Morals are as transitory as the sheen on a blackbird's wing; they change perpetually with the necessities of the race. Any people with an abounding vitality will naturally practise customs which a less vital people must shun.

Morals are nothing more than the engines controlling the stream of energy that propel a race on its course. All engines are not alike, nor are all races bound for the same port.

Here Peter Siner made the amazing discovery that although he had spent four years in Harvard, he had come out, just as he went in, a negro.

A great joy came over him. He took Cissie whole-heartedly in his arms and kissed again and again the deep crimson of her lips. His brain and his heart were together at last. As he stood looking out at the window, pressing Cissie to him, he wondered, when he reached Chicago, if he could ever make Farquhar understand.