WHEN Peter Siner started on his indefinite errand among the village stores he believed it would require much tact and diplomacy to discuss the race question without offense. To his surprise, no precaution was necessary. Everybody agreed at once that the South would be benefited by a more trustworthy labor, that if the negroes were trustworthy they could be paid more; but nobody agreed that if negroes were paid more they would become more trustworthy. The prevailing dictum was, A nigger's a nigger.
As Peter came out into the shabby little street of Hooker's Bend discouragement settled upon him. He felt as if he had come squarely against some blank stone wall that no amount of talking could budge. The black man would have to change his psychology or remain where he was, a creature of poverty, hovels, and dirt; but amid such surroundings he could not change his psychology.
The point of these unhappy conclusions somehow turned against Cissie Dildine. The mulatto became aware that his whole crusade had been undertaken in behalf of the octoroon. Everything the merchants said against negroes became accusations against Cissie in a sharp personal way. “A nigger is a nigger”; “A thief is a thief”; “She wouldn't quit stealing if I paid her a hundred a week.” Every stroke had fallen squarely on Cissie's shoulders. A nigger, a thief; and she would never be otherwise.
It was all so hopeless, so unchangeable, that Peter walked down the bleak street unutterably depressed There was nothing he could do. The situation was static. It seemed best that he should go away North and save his own skin. It was impossible to take Cissie with him. Perhaps in time he would come to forget her, and in so doing he would forget the pauperism and pettinesses of all the black folk of the South. Because through Cissie Peter saw the whole negro race. She was flexuous and passionate, kindly and loving, childish and naïvely wise; on occasion she could falsify and steal, and in the depth of her Peter sensed a profound capacity for fury and violence. For all her precise English, she was untamed, perhaps untamable.
Cissie was a far cry from the sort of woman Peter imagined he wanted for a mate; yet he knew that if he stayed on in Hooker's Bend, seeing her, desiring her, with her luxury mocking the loneliness of the old Renfrew manor, presently he would marry her. Already he had had his little irrational moments when it seemed to him that Cissie herself was quite fine and worthy and that her speculations were something foreign and did not pertain to her at all.
He would better go North. It would be safer up there. No doubt he could find another colored girl in the North. The thought of fondling any other woman filled Peter with a sudden, sharp repulsion. However, Peter was wise. He knew he would get over that in time.
With this plan in mind, Peter set out down the street, intending to cross the Big Hill at the church, walk over to his mother's shack, and pack his few belongings preparatory to going away.
It was not a heroic retreat. The conversation which he had had with his college friend Farquhar recurred to Peter. Farquhar had tried to persuade Peter to remain North and take a position in a system of garages out of Chicago.
“You can do nothing in the South, Siner,” assured Farquhar; “your countrymen must stand on their own feet, just as you are doing.”
Peter had argued the vast majority of the negroes had no chance, but Farquhar pressed the point that Peter himself disproved his own statement. At the time Peter felt there was an clench in the Illinoisan's logic, but he was not skilful enough to analyze it. Now the mulatto began to see that Farquhar was right. The negro question was a matter of individual initiative. Critics forgot that a race was composed of individual men.
Peter had an uneasy sense that this was exceedingly thin logic, a mere smoke screen behind which he meant to retreat back up North. He walked on down the poor village street, turning it over and over in his mind, affirming it positively to himself, after the manner of uneasy consciences.
An unusual stir among the negroes on Hobbett's corner caught Peter's attention and broke into his chain of thought. Half a dozen negroes stood on the corner, staring down toward the white church. A black boy suddenly started running across the street, and disappeared among the stores on the other side. Peter caught glimpses of him among the wretched alleyways and vacant lots that lie east of Main Street. The boy was still running toward Niggertown.
By this time Peter was just opposite the watchers on the corner. He lifted his voice and asked them the matter, but at the moment they began an excited talking, and no one heard him.
Jim Pink Staggs jerked off his fur cap, made a gesture, contorted his long, black face into a caricature of fright, and came loping across the street, looking back over his shoulder, mimicking a run for life. His mummery set his audience howling.
The buffoon would have collided with Peter, but the mulatto caught Jim Pink by the arm and shoulder, brought him to a halt, and at the same time helped him keep his feet.
To Peter's inquiry what was the matter, the black fellow whirled and blared out loudly, for the sake of his audience:
"'Fo' Gawd, nigger, I sho thought Mr. Bobbs had me!” and he writhed his face into an idiotic grimace.
The audience reeled about in their mirth. Because with negroes, as with white persons, two thirds of humor is in the reputation, and Jim Pink was of prodigious repute.
Peter walked along with him patiently, because he knew that until they were out of ear-shot of the crowd there was no way of getting a sensible answer out of Jim Pink.
“Where are you going?” he asked presently.
“Thought I'd step over to Niggertown.” Jim Pink's humorous air was still upon him.
“What's doing over there? What were the boys raising such a hullabaloo about?”
“Why did that boy go running across like that?”
Jim Pink rolled his eyes on Peter with a peculiar look.
“Reckon he mus' 'a' wanted to git on t'other side o' town.”
Peter flattered the Punchinello by smiling a little.
“Come, Jim Pink, what do you know?” he asked. The magician poked out his huge lips.
“Mr. Bobbs turn acrost by de church, over de Big Hill. Da' 's always a ba-ad sign.”
Peter's brief interest in the matter flickered out. Another arrest for some niggerish peccadillo. The history of Niggertown was one long series of petty offenses, petty raids, and petty punishments. Peter would be glad to get well away from such a place.
“Think I'll go North, Jim Pink,” remarked Peter, chiefly to keep up a friendly conversation with his companion.
“Whut-chu goin' to do up thaiuh?”
“Take a position in a system of garages.”
“A position is a job wid a white color on it,” defined the minstrel. “Whut you goin' to do wid Cissie?”
Peter looked around at the foolish face.
“With Cissie?—Cissie Dildine?”
“Why, what makes you think I'm going to do anything with Cissie?”
“M-m, visitin' roun'.” The fool flung his face into a grimace, and dropped it as one might shake out a sack.
Peter watched the contortion uneasily.
“What do you mean—visiting around?”
“Diff'nt folks go visitin' roun';
Some goes up an' some goes down.”
Apparently Jim Pink had merely quoted a few words from a poem he knew. He stared at the green-black depth of the glade, which set in about half-way up the hill they were climbing.
“Ef this weather don' ever break,” he observed sagely, “we sho am in fuh a dry spell.”
Peter did not pursue the topic of the weather. He climbed the hill in silence, wondering just what the buffoon meant. He suspected he was hinting at Cissie's visit to his room. However, he did not dare ask any questions or press the point in any manner, lest he commit himself.
The minstrel had succeeded in making Peter's walk very uncomfortable, as somehow he always did. Peter went on thinking about the matter. If Jim Pink knew of Cissie's visit, all Niggertown knew it. No woman's reputation, nobody's shame or misery or even life, would stand between Jim Pink and what he considered a joke. The buffoon was the crudest thing in this world—a man who thought himself a wit.
Peter could imagine all the endless tweaks to Cissie's pride Niggertown would give the octoroon. She had asked Peter to marry her and had been refused. She had humbled herself for naught. That was the very tar of shame. Peter knew that in the moral categories of Niggertown Cissie would suffer more from such a rebuff than if she had lied or committed theft and adultery every day in the calendar. She had been refused marriage. All the folk-ways of Niggertown were utterly topsyturvy. It was a crazy-house filled with the most grotesque moral measures.
It seemed to Peter as he entered the cedar-glade that he had lost all sympathy with this people from which he had sprung. He looked upon them as strange, incomprehensible beings, just as a man will forget his own childhood and look upon children as strange, incomprehensible little creatures. In the midst of his thoughts he heard himself saying to Jim Pink:
“I suppose it is as dusty as ever.”
“Dustier 'an ever,” assured Jim Pink.
Apparently their conversation had recurred to the weather, after all.
A chill silence encompassed the glade. The path the negroes followed wound this way and that among reddish boulders, between screens of intergrown cedars, and over a bronze mat of needles. Their steps were noiseless. The odor of the cedars and the temple-like stillness brought to Peter's mind the night of his mother's death. It seemed to him a long time since he had come running through the glade after a doctor, and yet, by a queer distortion of his sense of time, his mother's death and burial bulked in his past as if it had occurred yesterday.
There was no sound in the glade to disturb Peter's thoughts except a murmur of human voices from some of the innumerable privacies of the place, and the occasional chirp of a waxwing busy over clusters of cedar-balls.
It had been five weeks and a day since Caroline died. Five weeks and a day; his mother's death drifting away into the mystery and oblivion of the past. Likewise, twenty-five years of his own life completed and gone.
A procession of sad, wistful thoughts trailed through Peter's brain: his mother, and Ida May, and now Cissie. It seemed to Peter that all any woman had ever brought him was wistfulness and sadness. His mother had been jealous, and instead of the great happiness he had expected, his home life with her had turned out a series of small perplexities and pains. Before that was Ida May, and now here was her younger sister. Peter wondered if any man ever reached the peace and happiness foreshadowed in his dream of a woman.
A voice calling his name checked Peter's stride mechanically, and caused him to look about with the slight bewilderment of a man aroused from a reverie.
At the first sound, however, Jim Pink became suddenly alert. He took three strides ahead of Peter, and as he went he whispered over his shoulder:
“Beat it, nigger! beat it!”
The mulatto recognized one of Jim Pink's endless stupid attempts at comedy. It would be precisely Jim Pink's idea of a jest to give Peter a little start. As the mulatto stood looking about among the cedars for the person who had called his name, it amazed him that Jim Pink could be so utterly insane; that he performed some buffoonery instantly, by reflex action as it were, upon the slightest provocation. It was almost a mania with Jim Pink; it verged on the pathological.
The clown, however, was pressing his joke. He was pretending great fear, and was shouting out in his loose minstrel voice:
“Hey, don' shoot down dis way, black man, tull I makes my exit!” And a voice, rich with contempt, called back:
“You needn't be skeered, you fool rabbit of a nigger!”
Peter turned with a qualm. Quite close to him, and in another direction from which he had been looking, stood Tump Pack. The ex-soldier looked the worse for wear after his jail sentence. His uniform was frayed, and over his face lay a grayish cast that marks negroes in bad condition. At his side, attached by a belt and an elaborate shoulder holster, hung a big army revolver, while on the greasy lapel of his coat was pinned his military medal for exceptional bravery on the field of battle.
“Been lookin' fuh you fuh some time, Peter,” he stated grimly.
Peter considered the formidable figure with a queer sensation. He tried to take Tump's appearance casually; he tried to maintain an air of ordinariness.
“Didn't know you were back.”
“Yeah, I's back.”
“Have you—been looking for me?”
“Didn't you know where I was staying?”
“Co'se I did; up 'mong de white folks. You know dey don' 'low no shootin' an' killin' 'mong de white folks.” He drew his pistol from the holster with the address of an expert marksman.
Peter stood, with a quickening pulse, studying his assailant. The glade, the air, the sunshine, seemed suddenly drawn to a tension, likely to, break into violent commotion. His abrupt danger brought Peter to a feeling of lightness and power. A quiver went along his spine. His nostrils widened unconsciously as he calculated a leap and a blow at Tump's gun.
The soldier took a step backward, at the same time bringing the barrel to a ready.
“Naw you don't,” he warned sharply. “You turn roun' an' march on to Niggertown.”
“What for?” Peter still tried to be casual, but his voice held new overtones.
“Because, nigger, I means to drap you right on de Main Street o' Niggertown, 'fo' all dem niggers whut's been a-raggin' me 'bout you an' Cissie. I's gwine show dem fool niggers I don' take no fumi-diddles off'n nobody.”
“Tump,” gasped Jim Pink, in a husky voice, “you oughtn't shoot Peter; he mammy jes daid.”
“'En she won' worry none. Turn roun', Peter, an' when I says, 'March,' you march.” He leveled his pistol. “'Tention! Rat about face! March!”
Peter turned and moved off down the noiseless path, walking with the stiff gait of a man who expects a terrific blow from behind at any instant.
The mulatto walked twenty or more paces amid a confusion of self-protective impulses. He thought of whirling on Tump even at this late date. He thought of darting behind a cedar, but he knew the man behind him was an expert shot, and something fundamental in the brown man forbade his getting himself killed while running away. It was too undignified a death.
Presently he surprised himself by calling over his shoulder, as a sort of complaint:
“How came you with the pistol, Tump? Thought it was against the law to carry one.”
“You kin ca'y 'em ef you don' keep 'em hid,” explained the ex-soldier in a wooden voice. “Mr. Bobbs tol' me dat when he guv my gun back.”
The irony of the thing caught Peter, for the authorities to arrest Tump not because he was trying to kill Peter, but because he went about his first attempt in an illegal manner. For the first time in his life the mulatto felt that contempt for a white man's technicalities that flavors every negro's thoughts. Here for thirty days his life had been saved by a technical law of the white man; at the end of the thirty days, by another technical law, Tump was set at liberty and allowed to carry a weapon, in a certain way, to murder him. It was grotesque; it was absurd. It filled Peter with a sudden violent questioning of the whole white régime. His thoughts danced along in peculiar excitement.
At the turn of the hill the trio came in sight of the squalid semicircle of Niggertown. Here and there from a tumbledown chimney a feather of pale wood smoke lifted into the chill sunshine. The sight of the houses brought Peter a sharp realization that his life would end in the curving street beneath him. A shock at the incomprehensible brevity of his life rushed over him. Just to that street, just as far as the curve, and his legs were swinging along, carrying him forward at an even gait.
All at once he began talking, arguing. He tried to speak at an ordinary tempo, but his words kept edging on faster and faster:
“Tump, I'm not going to marry Cissie Dildine.”
“I knows you ain't, Peter.”
“I mean, if you let me alone, I didn't mean to.”
“I ain't goin' to let you alone.”
“Tump, we had already decided not to marry.”
After a short pause Tump said in a slightly different tone:
“'Pears lak you don' haf to ma'y her—comin' to yo' room.”
A queer sinking came over the mulatto. “Listen, Tump, I—we—in my room—we simply talked, that's all. She came to tell me she was goin away. I—I didn't harm her, Tump.” Peter swallowed. He despaired of being believed.
But his defense only infuriated the soldier. He suddenly broke into violent profanity.
“Hot damn you! shut yo black mouf! Whut I keer whut-chu done! You weaned her away fum me. She won't speak to me! She won't look at me!” A sudden insanity of rage seized Tump. He poured on his victim every oath and obscenity he had raked out of the whole army.
Strangely enough, the gunman's outbreak brought a kind of relief to Peter Siner. It exonerated him. He was not suspected of wronging Cissie; or, rather, whether he had or had not wronged her made no difference to Tump. Peter's crime consisted in mere being, in existing where Cissie could see him and desire him rather than Tump. Why it calmed Peter to know that Tump held no dishonorable charge against him the mulatto himself could not have told. Tump's violence showed Peter the certainty of his own death, and somehow it washed away the hope and the thought of escape.
Half-way down the hill they entered the edge of Niggertown. The smell of sties and stables came to them. Peter's thoughts moved here and there, like the eyes of a little child glancing about as it is forced to leave a pleasure-ground.
Peter knew that Jim Pink, who now made a sorry figure in their rear, would one day give a buffoon's mimicry of this his walk to death. He thought of Tump, who would have to serve a year or two in the Nashville Penitentiary, for the murder of negroes is seldom severely punished. He thought of Cissie. He was being murdered because Cissie desired him.
And then Peter remembered the single bit of wisdom that his whole life had taught him. It was this: no people can become civilized until the woman has the power of choice among the males that sue for her hand. The history of the white race shows the gradual increase of the woman's power of choice. Among the yellow races, where this power is curtailed, civilization is curtailed. It was this principle that exalted chivalry. Upon it the white man has reared all his social fabric.
So deeply ingrained is it that almost every novel written by white men revolves about some woman's choice of her mate being thwarted by power or pride or wealth, but in every instance the rightness of the woman's choice is finally justified. The burden of every song is love, true love, enduring love, a woman's true and enduring love.
And in his moment of clairvoyance Peter saw that these songs and stories were profoundly true. Against a woman's selectiveness no other social force may count.
That was why his own race was weak and hopeless and helpless. The males of his people were devoid of any such sentiment or self-repression. They were men of the jungle, creatures of tusk and claw and loin. This very act of violence against his person condemned his whole race.
These thoughts brought the mulatto an unspeakable sadness, not only for his own particular death, but that this idea, this great redeeming truth, which burned so brightly in his brain, would in another moment flicker out, unrevealed, and be no more.