Birthright/Chapter XVIII

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CHAPTER XVIII


THE coughing and rattling of an old motor-car as it rounded the Niggertown curve delayed Tump Pack's act of violence. Instinctively, the three men waited for the machine to pass before Peter walked out into the road. Next moment it appeared around the turn, moving slowly through the dust and spreading a veritable fog behind it.

All three negroes recognized the first glimpse of the hood and top, for there are only three or four cars in Hooker's Bend, and these are as well known as the faces of their owners. This particular motor belonged to Constable Bobbs, and the next moment the trio saw the ponderous body of the officer at the wheel, and by his side a woman. As the machine clacked toward them Peter felt a certain surprise to see that it was Cissie Dildine.

The constable in the car scrutinized the black men, by the roadside in a very peculiar way. As he came near, he leaned across Cissie and almost eclipsed the girl. He eyed the trio with his perpetual menace of a grin on his broad red face. His right hand, lying across Cissie's lap, held a revolver. When closest he shouted above the clangor of his engine:

“Now, none o' that, boys! None o' that! You'll prob'ly hit the gal if you shoot, an' I'll pick you off lak three black skunks.”

He brandished his revolver at them, but the gesture was barely seen, and instantly concealed by the cloud of dust following the motor. Next moment it enveloped the negroes and hid them even from one another.

It was only after Peter was lost in the dust-cloud that the mulatto really divined what was meant by Cissie's strange appearance with the constable, her chalky face, her frightened brown eyes. The significance of the scene grew in his mind. He stood with eyes screwed to slits staring into the apricot-colored dust in the direction of the vanishing noise.

Presently Tump Pack's form outlined itself in the yellow obscurity, groping toward Peter. He still held his pistol, but it swung at his side. He called Peter's name in the strained voice of a man struggling not to cough:

“Peter—is Mr. Bobbs done—'rested Cissie?”

Peter could hardly talk himself.

“Don't know. Looks like it.”

The two negroes stared at each other through the dust.

“Fuh Gawd's sake! Cissie 'rested!” Tump began to cough. Then he wheezed:

“Mine an' yo' little deal's off, Peter. You gotta he'p git her out.” Here he fell into a violent fit of coughing, and started groping his way to the edge of the dust-cloud.

In the rush of the moment the swift change in Peter's situation appeared only natural. He followed Tump, so distressed by the dust and disturbed over Cissie that he hardly thought of his peculiar position. The dust pinched the upper part of his throat, stung his nose. Tears trickled from his eyes, and he pressed his finger against his upper lip, trying not to sneeze. He was still struggling against the sneeze when Tump recovered his speech.

“Wh-whut you reckon she done, Peter? She don' shoot craps, nor boot- laig, nor—” He fell to coughing.

Peter got out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes.

“Let's go—to the Dildine house,” he said.

The two moved hurriedly through the thinning cloud, and presently came to breathable air, where they could see the houses around them.

“I know she done somp'n; I know she done somp'n,” chanted Tump, with the melancholy cadence of his race. He shook his dusty head. “You ain't never been in jail, is you, black man?”

Peter said he had not.

“Lawd! it ain't no place fuh a woman,” declared Tump. “You dunno nothin' 'bout it, black man. It sho ain't no place fuh a woman.”

A notion of an iron cage floated before Peter's mind. The two negroes trudged on through the crescent side by side, their steps raising a little trail of dust in the air behind them. Their faces and clothes were of a uniform dust color. Streaks of mud marked the runnels of their tears down their cheeks.

The shrubbery and weeds that grew alongside the negro thoroughfare were quite dead. Even the little avenue of dwarf box was withered that led from the gate to the door of the Dildine home. The two colored men walked up the little path to the door, knocked, and waited on the steps for the little skirmish of observation from behind the blinds. None came. The worst had befallen the house; there was nothing to guard. The door opened as soon as an inmate could reach it, and Vannie Dildine stood before them.

The quadroon's eyes were red, and her face had the moist, slightly swollen appearance that comes of protracted weeping. She looked so frail and miserable that Peter instinctively stepped inside and took her arm to assist her in the mere physical effort of standing.

“What is the matter, Mrs. Dildine?” he asked in a shocked tone. “What's happened to Cissie?”

Vannie began weeping again with a faint gasping and a racking of her flat chest.

“It's—it's—O-o-oh, Peter!” She put an arm about him and began weeping against him. He soothed her, patted her shoulder, at the same time staring at the side of her head, wondering what could have dealt her this blow.

Presently she steadied herself and began explaining in feeble little phrases, sandwiched between sobs and gasps:

“She—tuk a brooch—Kep'—kep' layin' it roun' in—h-her way, th-that young Sam Arkwright did,—a-an' finally she—she tuk hit. N-nen, when he seen he h-had her, he said sh-sh-she'd haf to d-do wh-whut he said, or he'd sen' her to-to ja-a-il!” Vannie sobbed drearily for a few moments on Peter's breast. “Sh-she did fuh a while: 'n 'en sh-she broke off wid h-him, anyhow, an'—an' he swo' out a wa'nt an sont her to jail!” The mother sobbed without comfort, and finally added: “Sh-she in a delicate fix now, an' 'at jail goin' to be a gloomy place fuh Cissie.”

The three negroes stood motionless in the dusty hallway, motionless save for the racking of Vannie's sobs.

Tump Pack stirred himself.

“Well, we gotta git her out.” His words trailed off. He stood wrinkling his half-inch of brow. “I wonder would dey exchange pris'ners; wonder ef I could go up an' serve out Cissie's term.”

“Oh, Tump!” gasped the woman, “ef you only could!”

“I'll step an' see, Miss Vannie. 'At sho ain't no place fuh a nice gal lak Cissie.” Tump turned on his mission, evidently intending to walk to Jonesboro and offer himself in the place of the prisoner.

Peter supported Vannie back into the poor living-room, and placed her in the old rocking-chair before the empty hearth. There was where he had sat the evening Cissie made her painful confession to him. Only now did he realize the whole of what Cissie was trying to confess.

Peter Siner overtook Tump Pack a little way down the crescent, opposite the Berry cabin. The thoroughfare was deserted, because the weather was cold and the scantily clad children were indoors. However, from every cabin came sound of laughing and romping, and now and then a youngster darted through the cold from one hut to another.

It seemed to Peter Siner only a little while since he and Ida May were skittering through wintry weather from one fire to another, with Cissie, a wailing, wet-nosed little spoil-sport, trailing after them. And then, with a wheeling of the years, they were scattered everywhere.

As the negroes passed the Berry cabin, Nan Berry came out with an old shawl around her bristling spikes. She stopped the two men and drew them to her gate with a gesture.

“Wha you gwine?”

“Jonesbuh.”

“Whut you goin' do 'bout po-o-o' Cissie?”

“Goin' to see ef the sheriff won' take me 'stid o' Cissie.”

“Tha's right,” said Nan, nodding solemnly. “I hopes he will. You is mo' used to it, Tump.”

“Yeah, an' 'at jail sho ain't no place fuh a nice gal lak Cissie.”

“Sho ain't,” agreed Nan.

Peter interrupted to say he was sure the sheriff would not exchange.

The hopes of his listeners fell.

“Weh-ul,” dragged out Nan, with a long face, “of co'se now it's lak dis: ef Cissie goin' to stay in dat ja-ul, she's goin' to need some mo' clo'es 'cep'n whut she's got on,—specially lak she is.”

Tump stared down the swing of the crescent.

“'Fo' Gawd, dis sho don' seem lak hit's right to me,” he said.

Nan let herself out at the rickety gate. “You niggers wait heah tull I runs up to Miss Vannie's an' git some o' Cissie's clo'es fuh you to tote her.”

Tump objected.

“Jail ain't no place fuh clean clo'es. She jes better serve out her term lak she is, an' wash up when she gits th'ugh.”

“You fool nigger!” snapped Nan. “She kain't serve out her term lak she is!”

“Da' 's so,” said Tump.

The three stood silent, Nan and Tump lost in blankness, trying to think of something to do for Cissie. Finally Nan said:

“I heah she done commit gran' larceny, an' they goin' sen' her to de pen.”

“Whut is gran' larceny?” asked Tump.

“It's takin' mo' at one time an' de white folks 'speck you to take,” defined the woman. “Well, I'll go git her clo'es.” She hurried off up the crescent.

Peter and Tump waited in the Berry cabin for Nan's return. Outside, the Berry cabin was the usual clapboard-roofed, weather-stained structure; inside, it was dark, windowless, and strong with the odor of black folk. Some children were playing around the hearth, roasting chestnuts. Their elders sat in a circle of decrepit chairs. It was so dark that when Peter first entered he could not make out the little group, but he soon recognized their voices: Parson Ranson, Wince Washington, Jerry Dillihay, and all of the Berry family.

They were talking of Cissie, of course. They hoped Cissie wouldn't really be sent to the penitentiary, that the white folks would let her out in time for her to have her child at home. Parson Ranson thought it would be bad luck for a child to be born in jail.

Wince Washington, who had been in jail a number of times, suggested that they bail Cissie out by signing their names to a paper. He had been set free by this means once or twice.

Sally, Nan's little sister, observed tartly that if Cissie hadn't acted so, she wouldn't have been in jail.

“Don' speak lak dat uv dem as is in trouble, Sally,” reproved old Parson Ranson, solemnly; “anybody can say 'Ef.'”

“Sho am de troof,” agreed Jerry Dillihay.

“Sho am, black man.” The conversation drifted into the endless moralizing of their race, but it held no criticism or condemnation of Cissie. From the tone of the negroes one would have thought some impersonal disaster had overtaken her. Every one was planning how to help Cissie, how to make her present state more endurable. They were the black folk, the unfortunate of the earth, and the pride of righteousness is only to the well placed and the untempted.

Presently Nan came back with a bundle of Cissie's clothes. Tump took the bundle of dainty lingerie, the intimate garments of the woman he loved, and set forth on his quixotic errand. He tied it to his shoulder-holster and set out. Peter went a little of the way with him. It was almost dusk when they started. The chill of approaching night stung the men's faces. As they walked past the footpath that led over the Big Hill, three pistol-shots from the glade announced that the boot-leggers had opened business for the night.

Tump paused and shivered. He said it was a cold night. He thought he would like to get a kick of “white mule” to put a little heart in him. It was a long walk to Jonesboro. He hesitated a moment, then turned off the road around the crescent for the path through the glade.

A thought to dissuade Tump from drinking the fiery “singlings” of the moonshiners crossed Peters mind, but he put it aside. Tump was a habitué of the glade. All the physiological arguments upon which Peter could base an argument were far beyond the ex-soldier's comprehension. So Tump turned off through the dark trees. Peter watched him until all he could see was the white blur of Cissie's underwear swinging against his holster.

After Tump's disappearance, Peter stood for several minutes thinking. His brief crusade into Niggertown had ended in a situation far outside of his volition. That morning he had started out with some vague idea of taking Niggertown in his hands and molding it in accordance with his white ideas; but Niggertown had taken Peter into its hands, had threatened his life, had administered to him profound mental and moral shocks, and now had dropped him, like some bit of waste, with his face set over the Big Hill for white town.

As Peter stood there it seemed to him there was something symbolic in his attitude. He was no longer of the black world; he was of the white. He did not understand his people; they eluded him.

He belonged to the white world; not to the village across the hill, but to the North. Nothing now prevented him from going North and taking the position with Farquhar. Cissie Dildine was impossible for him now. Niggertown was immovable, at least for him. He was no Washington to lead his people to a loftier plane. In fact, Peter began to suspect that he was no leader at all. He saw now that his initial success with the Sons and Daughters of Benevolence had been effected merely by the aura of his college training. After his first misstep he had never rehabilitated himself. He perhaps had a dash of the artistic in him, and the power to mold ideas often confuses itself subjectively with the power to mold human beings. In reality he did not even understand the people he assumed to mold. A suspicion came to him that under the given conditions their ways were more rational than his own.

As for Cissie Dildine, his duty by the girl, his queer protective passion for her—all that was surely past now. After her lapse from all decency there was no reason why he should spend another thought on her. He would go North to Chicago.

The last of the twilight was fading in swift, visible gradations of light. The cedars, the cabins, and the hill faded in pulse-beats of darkness. Above the Big Hill the last ember of day smoldered against a green-blue infinity. Here and there a star pricked the dome with a wintry brilliance.

Then, somehow, the thought of Cissie looking out on that chilly sky through iron bars tightened Peter's throat. He caught himself up sharply for his emotion. He began a vague defense of the white man's laws on grounds as cold and impersonal as the winter evening. Laws, customs, and conventions were for the strengthening of men, to seed the select, to winnow the weak. It was white logic, applied firmly, as by a white man. But somehow the stars multiplied and kept Cissie's image before Peter—a cold, frightened girl, harassed with coming motherhood, peering at those chill, distant lights out of the blackness of a jail.

The mulatto decided to spend the night in his mother's cabin. He would do his packing, and be ready for the down-river boat in the morning. He found his way to his own gate in the darkness. He lifted it around, entered, and walked to his door. When he tried to open it, he found some one had bored holes through the shutter and the jamb and had wired it shut.

Peter struck a match to see just what had been done. The flame displayed a small sheet tacked on the door. He spent two matches investigating it. It was a notice of levy, posted by the constable in an action of debt brought against the estate of Caroline Siner by Henry Hooker. The owner of the estate and the public in general were warned against removing anything whatsoever from the premises under penalty exacted by the law governing such offenses. Then Peter untwisted the wire and entered.

Peter searched about and found the tiny brass night-lamp which his mother always had used. The larger glass-bowled lamp was gone. The interior of the cabin was clammy from cold and foul from long lack of airing. In the corner his mother's old four-poster loomed in the shadows, but he could see some of its covers had been taken. He passed into the kitchen with a notion of building a fire and eating a bite, but everything edible had been abstracted. Even one of the lids of the old step-stove was gone. Most of the pans and kettles had disappeared, but the pretty old Dutch sugar-bowl remained on a bare paper-covered shelf. Negro-like, whatever person or persons who had ransacked Peter's home considered the sugar-bowl too fine to take. Or they may have thought that Peter would want this bowl for a keepsake, and with that queer compassion that permeates a negro's worst moments they allowed it to remain. And Peter knew if he raised an outcry about his losses, much of the property would be surreptitiously restored, or perhaps his neighbors would bring back his things and say they had found them. They would help him as best they could, just as they of the crescent would help Cissie as best they could, and would receive her back as one of them when she and her baby were finally released from jail.

They were a queer people. They were a people who would never get on well and do well. They lacked the steel-like edge that the white man achieves. By virtue of his hardness, a white man makes his very laws and virtues instruments to crush and mulct his fellow-man; but negroes are so softened by untoward streaks of sympathy that they lose the very uses of their crimes.

The depression of the whole day settled upon Peter with the deepening night. He held his poor light above his head and picked his way to his own room. After the magnificence of the Renfrew manor, it had contracted to a grimy little box lined with yellowed papers. His books were still intact, but Henry Hooker would get them as part payment on the Dillihay place, which Henry owned. On his little table still lay the pile of old examination papers, lists of incoherent questions which somebody somewhere imagined formed a test of human ability to meet and answer the mysterious searchings of life.

Peter was familiar with the books; many of the questions he had learned by rote, but the night and the crescent, and the thought of a pregnant girl caged in the blackness of a jail filled his soul with a great melancholy query to which he could find no answer.