Birthright/Chapter XV

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CHAPTER XV


CISSIE DILDINE'S conviction that marriage would cure Peter of his mission persisted in the mulatto's mind long after the glamour of the girl had faded and his room had regained the bleak emptiness of a bachelor's bedchamber.

Cissie had been so brief and positive in her statement that Peter, who had not thought on the point at all, grew more than half convinced she was right.

Now that he pondered over it, it seemed there was a difference between the outlook of a bachelor and that of a married man. The former considered humanity as a balloonist surveys a throng,—immediately and without perspective,—but the latter always sees mankind through the frame of his family. A single man tends naturally to philosophy and reform; a married man to administration and statesmanship. There have been no great unmarried statesmen; there have been no great married philosophers or reformers.

Now that Cissie had pointed out this universal rule, Peter saw it very clearly. And Peter suspected that beneath this rough classification, and conditioning it, lay a plexus of obscure mental and physical reactions set up by the relations between husband and wife. It might very well be there was a difference between the actual cerebral and nervous structure of a married man and that of a single man.

At any rate, after these reflections, Peter now felt sure that marriage would cure him of his mission; but how had Cissie known it? How had she struck out so involved a theory, one might say, in the toss of a head? The more Peter thought it over the more extraordinary it became. It was another one of those explosive ideas which Cissie, apparently, had the faculty of creating out of a pure mental vacuum.

All this philosophy aside, Cissie's appearance just in the nick of his inspiration, her surprising proposal of marriage, and his refusal, had accomplished one thing: it had committed Peter to the program he had outlined to the girl.

Indeed, there seemed something fatalistic in such a concatenation of events. Siner wondered whether or not he would have obeyed his vision without this added impulse from Cissie. He did not know; but now, since it had all come about just as it had, he suspected he would have been neglectful. He felt as if a dangerous but splendid channel had been opened before his eyes, and almost at the same instant a hand had reached down and directed his life into it. This fancy moved the mulatto. As he got himself ready for bed, he kept thinking:

“Well, my life is settled at last. There is nothing else for me to do. Even if this should end terribly for me, as Cissie imagines, my life won't be wasted.”

Next morning Peter Siner was awakened by old Rose Hobbett thrusting her head in at his door, staring around, and finally, seeing Peter in bed, grumbling:

“Why is you still heah, black man?”

The secretary opened his eyes in astonishment.

“Why shouldn't I be here?”

“Nobody wuz 'speckin' you to be heah.” The crone withdrew her head and vanished.

Peter wondered at this unaccustomed interest of Rose, then hurried out of bed, supposing himself late for breakfast.

A dense fog had come up from the river, and the moisture floating into his open windows had dampened his whole room. Peter stepped briskly to the screen and began splashing himself. It was only in the midst of his ablutions that he remembered his inspiration and resolve of the previous evening. As he squeezed the water over his powerfully molded body, he recalled it almost impersonally. It might have happened to some third person. He did not even recall distinctly the threads of the logic which had lifted him to such a Pisgah, and showed him the whole South as a new and promised land. However, he knew that he could start his train of thought again, and again ascend the mountain.

Floating through the fog into his open window came the noises of the village as it set about living another day, precisely as it had lived innumerable days in the past. The blast of the six-o'clock whistle from the planing-mill made the loose sashes of his windows rattle. Came a lowing of cows and a clucking of hens, a woman's calling. The voices of men in conversation came so distinctly through the pall that it seemed a number of persons must be moving about their morning work, talking and shouting, right in the Renfrew yard.

But the thing that impressed Peter most was the solidity and stability of this Southern village that he could hear moving around him, and its certainty to go on in the future precisely as it had gone on in the past. It was a tremendous force. The very old manor about him seemed huge and intrenched in long traditions, while he, Peter Siner, was just a brown man, naked behind a screen and rather cold from the fog and damp of the morning.

He listened to old Rose clashing the kitchen utensils. As he drew on his damp underwear, he wondered what he could say to old Rose that would persuade her into a little kindliness and tolerance for the white people. As he listened he felt hopeless; he could never explain to the old creature that her own happiness depended upon the charity she extended to others. She could never understand it. She would live and die precisely the same bitter old beldam that she was, and nothing could ever assuage her.

While Peter was thinking of the old creature, she came shuffling along the back piazza with his breakfast. She let herself in by lifting one knee to a horizontal, balancing the tray on it, then opening the door with her freed hand.

When the shutter swung open, it displayed the crone standing on one foot, wearing a man's grimy sock, which had fallen down over a broken, run-down shoe.

In Peter's mood the thought of this wretched old woman putting on such garments morning after morning was unspeakably pathetic. He thought of his own mother, who had lived and died only a shade or two removed from the old crone's condition.

Rose put down her foot, and entered the room with her lips poked out, ready to make instant attack if Peter mentioned his lack of supper the night before.

“Aunt Rose,” asked the secretary, with his friendly intent in his tones, “how came you to look in this morning and say you didn't expect to find me in my room?”

She gave an unintelligible grunt, pushed the lamp to one side, and eased her tray to the table.

Peter finished touching his tie before one of those old-fashioned mirrors, not of cut-glass, yet perfectly true. He came from the mirror and moved his chair, out of force of habit, so he could look up the street toward the Arkwrights'.

“Aunt Rose,” said the young man, wistfully, “why are you always angry?”

She bridled at this extraordinary inquiry.

“Me?”

“Yes, you.”

She hesitated a moment, thinking how she could make her reply a personal assault on Peter.

"'Cause you come heah, 'sputin' my rights, da' 's' why.”

“No,” demurred Peter, “you were quarreling in the kitchen the first morning I came here, and you didn't know I was on the place.”

“Well—I got my tribulations,” she snapped, staring suspiciously at these unusual questions.

There was a pause; then Peter said placatingly:

“I was just thinking, Aunt Rose, you might forget your tribulations if you didn't ride them all the time.”

“Hoccum! What you mean, ridin' my tribulations?”

“Thinking about them. The old Captain, for instance; you are no happier always abusing the old Captain.”

The old virago gave a sniff, tossed her head, but kept her eyes rolled suspiciously on Peter.

“Very often the way we think and act makes us happy or unhappy,” moralized Peter, broadly.

“Look heah, nigger, you ain't no preacher sont out by de Lawd to me!”

“Anyway, I am sure you would feel more friendly toward the Captain if you acted openly with him; for instance, if you didn't take off all his cold victuals, and handkerchiefs and socks, soap, kitchenware—”

The cook snorted.

“I'd feel dat much mo' nekked an' hongry, dat's how I'd feel.”

“Perhaps, if you'd start over, he might give you a better wage.”

“Huh!” she snorted in an access of irony. “I see dat skinflint gib'n' me a better wage. Puuh!” The suddenly she realized where the conversation had wandered, and stared at the secretary with widening eyes “Good Lawd! Did dat fool Cap'n set up a nigger in dis bedroom winder jes to ketch ole Rose packin' off a few ole lef'-overs?” Peter began a hurried denial, but she rushed on: “'Fo' Gawd, I hopes his viddles chokes him! I hope his ole smoke-house falls down on his ole haid. I hope to Jesus—”

Peter pleaded with her not to think the Captain was behind his observations, but the hag rushed out of the bedroom, swinging her head from side to side, uttering the most terrible maledictions. She would show him! She wouldn't put another foot in his old kitchen. Wild horses couldn't drag her into his smoke-house again.

Peter ran to the door and called after her down the piazza, trying to exonerate the Captain: but she either did not or would not hear, and vanished into the kitchen, still furious.

Old Rose made Peter so uneasy that he deserted his breakfast midway and hurried to the library. In the solemn old room he found the Captain alone and in rather a pleased mood. The old gentleman stood patting and alining a pile of manuscript. As the mulatto entered he exclaimed:

“Well, here's Peter again!” as if his secretary had been off on a long journey. Immediately afterward he added, “Peter, guess what I did last night.” His voice was full of triumph.

Peter was thinking about Aunt Rose, and stood looking at the Captain without the slightest idea.

“I wrote all of this,”—he indicated his manuscript,—“over a hundred pages.”

Peter considered the work without much enthusiasm.

“You must have worked all night.”

The old attorney rubbed his hands.

“I think I may claim a touch of inspiration last night, Peter. Reminiscences rippled from under my pen, propitious words, prosperous sentences. Er—the fact is, Peter, you will see, when you begin copying, I had come to a matter—a—a matter of some moment in my life. Every life contains such moments, Peter. I had meant to write something in the nature of a defen—an explanation, Peter. But after you left the library last night it suddenly occurred to me just to give each fact as it took place, quite frankly. So I did that—not—not what I meant to write, at all—ah. As you copy it, you may find it not entirely without some interest to yourself, Peter.”

“To me?” repeated Peter, after the fashion of the unattentative.

“Yes, to yourself.” The Captain was oddly moved. He took his hands off the script, walked a little away from the table, came back to it. “It— ah—may explain a good many things that—er—may have puzzled you.” He cleared his throat and shifted his subject briskly. “We ought to be thinking about a publisher. What publisher shall we have publish these reminiscences? Make some stir in Tennessee's political circles, Peter; tremendous sales; clear up questions everybody is interested in. H-m—well, I'll walk down town and you”—he motioned to the script—“begin copying—”

“By the way, Captain,” said Peter as the old gentleman turned for the door, “has Rose said anything to you yet?”

The old man detached his mind from his script with an obvious effort.

“What about?”

“About leaving your service.”

“No-o, not especially; she's always leaving my service.”

“But in this case it was my fault; at least I brought it about. I remonstrated with her about taking your left-over victuals and socks and handkerchiefs and things. She was quite offended.”

“Yes, it always offends her,” agreed the old man, impatiently. “I never mention it myself unless I catch her red-handed; then I storm a little to keep her in bounds.”

Naturally, Peter knew of this extraordinary system of service in the South; nevertheless he was shocked at its implications.

“Captain,” suggested Peter, “wouldn't you find it to your own interest to give old Rose a full cash payment for her services and allow her to buy her own things?”

The Captain dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand. “She's a nigger, Peter; you can't hire a nigger not to steal. Born in 'em. Then I'm not sure but what it would be compounding a felony, hiring a person not to steal; might be so construed. Well, now, there's the script. Read it carefully, my boy, and remember that in order to gain a certain status quo certain antecedents are—are absolutely necessary, Peter. Without them my—my life would have been quite empty, Peter. It's—it's very strange—amazing. You will understand as you read. I'll be back to dinner, so good-by.” In the strangest agitation the old Captain walked out of the library. The last glimpse Peter had of him was his meager old figure silhouetted against the cold gray fog that filled the compound.

Neither the Captain's agitation nor his obvious desire that Peter should at once read the new manuscript really got past the threshold of the mulatto's consciousness. Peter's thoughts still hovered about old Rose, and from that point spread to the whole system of colored service in the South. For Rose's case was typical. The wage of cooks in small Southern villages is a pittance—and what they can steal. The tragedy of the mothers of a whole race working for their board and thievings came over Peter with a rising grimness. And there was no public sentiment against such practice. It was accepted everywhere as natural and inevitable. The negresses were never prosecuted; no effort was made to regain the stolen goods. The employers realized that what they paid would not keep soul and body together; that it was steal or perish.

It was a fantastic truth that for any colored girl to hire into domestic service in Hooker's Bend was more or less entering an apprenticeship in peculation. What she could steal was the major portion of her wage, if two such anomalous terms may be used in conjunction.

Yet, strange to say, the negro women of the village were quite honest in other matters. They paid their small debts. They took their mistresses' pocket-books to market and brought back the correct change. And if a mistress grew too indignant about something they had stolen, they would bring it back and say: “Here is a new one. I'd rather buy you a new one than have you think I would take anything.”

The whole system was the lees of slavery, and was surely the most demoralizing, the most grotesque method of hiring service in the whole civilized world. It was so absurd that its mere relation lapses into humor, that bane of black folk.

Such painful thoughts filled the gloomy library and harassed Peter in his copying. He took his work to the window and tried to concentrate upon it, but his mind kept playing away.

Indeed, it seemed to Peter that to sit in this old room and rewrite the wordy meanderings of the old gentleman's book was the very height of emptiness. How utterly futile, when all around him, on every hand, girls like Cissie Dildine were being indentured to corruption! And, as far as Peter knew, he was the only person in the South who saw it or felt it or cared anything at all about it.

When Cissie Dildine came to the surface of Peter's mind she remained there, whirling around and around in his chaotic thoughts. He began talking to her image, after a certain dramatic trick of his mind, and she began offering her environment as an excuse for what had come between them and estranged them. She stole, but she had been trained to steal. She was a thief, the victim of an immense immorality. The charm of Cissie, her queer, swift-working intuition, the candor of her confession, her voluptuousness—all came rushing down on Peter, harassing him with anger and love and desire. To copy any more script became impossible. He lost his place; he hardly knew what he was writing.

He flung aside the whole work, got to his feet with the imperative need of an athlete for the open. He started out of the room, but as an afterthought scribbled a nervous line, telling the Captain he might not be back for dinner. Then he found his hat and coat and walked briskly around the piazza to the front gate.

The trees and shrubs were dripping, but the fog had almost cleared away, leaving only a haze in the air. A pale, level line of it cut across the scarp of the Big Hill. The sun shone with a peculiar soft light through the vapors.

As Peter passed out at the gate, the fancy came to him that he might very well be starting on his mission. It came with a sort of surprise. He wondered how other men had set about reforms. With unpremeditation? He wondered to whom Jesus of Nazareth preached his first sermon. The thought of that young Galilean, sensitive, compassionate, inexperienced, speaking to his first hearer, filled Peter with a strange trembling tenderness. He looked about the familiar street of Hooker's Bend, the old trees over the pavement, the shabby village houses, and it all held a strangeness when thus juxtaposed to the thought of Nazareth nineteen hundred years before.

The mulatto started down the street with his footsteps quickened by a sense of spiritual adventure.