T.S. Stribling.

Birthright A Novel online

. (page 5 of 17)
Online LibraryT.S. StriblingBirthright A Novel → online text (page 5 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


to know what did happen?"

"I knows. I tol' you to keep away fum dat hussy. She's a fool 'bout her
bright color an' straight hair. Needn't be givin' herse'f no airs!"

Peter stood in the doorway, steadying himself by the jamb. The world
still swayed from the blows he had received on the head.

"What girl would you be willing for me to go with?" he asked in faint
satire.

"Heah in Niggertown?"

Peter nodded. The movement increased his headache.

"None a-tall. No Niggertown wench a-tall. When you mus' ma'y, I's
'speckin' you to go off summuhs an' pick yo' gal, lak you went off to
pick yo' aidjucation." She swung out a thick arm, and looked at Peter
out of the corner of her eyes, her head tilted to one side, as negresses
do when they become dramatically serious.

Peter left his mother to her stare and went to his own room. This
constant implication among Niggertown inhabitants that Niggertown and
all it held was worthless, mean, unhuman depressed Peter. The mulatto
knew the real trouble with Niggertown was it had adopted the white
village's estimate of it. The sentiment of the white village was
overpowering among the imitative negroes. The black folk looked into the
eyes of the whites and saw themselves reflected as chaff and skum and
slime, and no human being ever suggested that they were aught else.

Peter's room was a rough shed papered with old newspapers. All sorts of
yellow scare-heads streaked his walls. Hanging up was a crayon
enlargement of his mother, her broad face as unwrinkled as an egg and
drawn almost white, for the picture agents have discovered the only way
to please their black patrons is to make their enlargements as nearly
white as possible.

In one corner, on a home-made book-rack, stood Peter's library, - a Greek
book or two, an old calculus, a sociology, a psychology, a philosophy,
and a score of other volumes he had accumulated in his four college
years. As Peter, his head aching, looked at these, he realized how
immeasurably removed he was from the cool abstraction of the study.

The brown man sat down in an ancient rocking-chair by the window, leaned
back, and closed his eyes. His blood still whispered in his ears from
his fight. Notwithstanding his justification, he gradually became filled
with self-loathing. To fight - to hammer and kick in Niggertown's dust -
over a girl! It was an indignity.


Peter shifted his position in his chair, and his thoughts took another
trail. Tump's attack had been sudden and silent, much like a bulldog's.
The possibility of a simple friendship between a woman and a man never
entered Tump's head; it never entered any Niggertown head. Here all
attraction was reduced to the simplest terms of sex. Niggertown held no
delicate intimacies or reserves. Two youths could not go with the same
girl. Black women had no very great powers of choice over their suitors.
The strength of a man's arm isolated his sweetheart. That did not seem
right, resting the power of successful mating entirely upon brawn.

As Peter sat thinking it over, it came to him that the progress of any
race depended, finally, upon the woman having complete power of choosing
her mate. It is woman alone who consistently places the love accent upon
other matters than mere flesh and muscle. Only woman has much sex
selectiveness, or is inclined to select individuals with qualities of
mind and spirit.

For millions of years these instinctive spiritualizers of human breeding
stock have been hampered in their choice of mates by the unrestrained
right of the fighting male. Indeed, the great constructive work of
chivalry in the middle ages was to lay, unconsciously, the corner-stone
of modern civilization by resigning to the woman the power of choosing
from a group of males.

Siner stirred in his chair, surprised at whither his reverie had lead
him. He wondered how he had stumbled upon these thoughts. Had he read
them in a book? In point of fact, a beating administered by Tump Pack
had brought the brown man the first original idea he had entertained in
his life.

By this time, Peter's jaw had reached its maximum swelling and was eased
somewhat. He looked out of his little window, wondering whether Cissie
Dildine would choose him - or Tump Pack.

Peter was surprised to find blue dusk peering through his panes. All the
scare-heads on his walls had lapsed into a common obscurity. As he rose
slowly, so as not to start his head hurting again, he heard three rapid
pistol shots in the cedar glade between Niggertown and the white
village. He knew this to be the time-honored signal of boot-leggers
announcing that illicit whisky was for sale in the blackness of the
glade.




CHAPTER IV


Next day the Siner-Pack fight was the focus of news interest in Hooker's
Bend. White mistresses extracted the story from their black maids, and
were amused by it or deprecated Cissie Dildine's morals as the mood
moved them.

Along Main Street in front of the village stores, the merchants and
hangers-on discussed the affair. It was diverting that a graduate of
Harvard should come back to Hooker's Bend and immediately drop into such
a fracas. Old Captain Renfrew, one-time attorney at law and
representative of his county in the state legislature, sat under the
mulberry in front of the livery-stable and plunged into a long
monologue, with old Mr. Tomwit as listener, on the uneducability of the
black race.

"Take a horse, sir," expounded the captain; "a horse can be trained to
add and put its name together out of an alphabet, but no horse could
ever write a promissory note and figure the interest on it, sir. Take a
dog. I've known dogs, sir, that could bring your mail from the post-
office, but I never saw a dog stop on the way home, sir, to read a post-
card."

Here the old ex-attorney spat and renewed the tobacco in a black brier,
then proceeded to draw the parrallel between dogs and horses and Peter
Siner newly returned from Harvard.

"God'lmighty has set his limit on dogs, horses, and niggers, Mr. Tomwit.
Thus far and no farther. Take a nigger baby at birth; a nigger baby has
no fontanelles. It has no window toward heaven. Its skull is sealed up
in darkness. The nigger brain can never expand and absorb the universe,
sir. It can never rise on the wings of genius and weigh the stars, nor
compute the swing of the Pleiades. Thus far and no farther! It's
congenital.

"Now, take this Peter Siner and his disgraceful fight over a nigger
wench. Would you expect an educated stud horse to pay no attention to a
mare, sir? You can educate a stud till - "

"But hold on!" interrupted the old cavalryman. "I've known as
gentlemanly stallions as - as anybody!"

The old attorney cleared his throat, momentarily taken aback at this
failure of his metaphor. However he rallied with legal suppleness:

"You are talking about thoroughbreds, sir."

"I am, sir."

"Good God, Tomwit! you don't imagine I'm comparing a nigger to a
thoroughbred, sir!"

On the street corners, or piled around on cotton-bales down on the wharf,
the negro men of the village discussed the fight. It was for the most
part a purely technical discussion of blows and counters and kicks, and
of the strange fact that a college education failed to enable Siner
utterly to annihilate his adversary. Jim Pink Staggs, a dapper gentleman
of ebony blackness, of pin-stripe flannels and blue serge coat -
altogether a gentleman of many parts - sat on one of the bales and
indolently watched an old black crone fishing from a ledge of rocks just
a little way below the wharf-boat. Around Jim Pink lounged and sprawled
black men and youths, stretching on the cotton-bales like cats in the
sunshine.

Jim Pink was discussing Peter's education.

"I 'fo' Gawd kain't see no use goin' off lak dat an' den comin' back an'
lettin' a white man cheat you out'n yo' hide an' taller, an' lettin' a
black man beat you up tull you has to 'kick him in the spivit. Ef a
aidjucation does you any good a-tall, you'd be boun' to beat de white man
at one en' uv de line, or de black man at de udder. Ef Peter ain't to be
foun' at eider en', wha is he?"

"Um-m-m!" "Eh-h-h!" "You sho spoke a moufful, Jim Pink!" came an
assenting chorus from the bales.

Eventually such gossip died away and took another flurry when a report
went abroad that Tump Pack was carrying a pistol and meant to shoot
Peter on sight. Then this in turn ceased to be news and of human
interest. It clung to Peter's mind longer than to any other person's in
Hooker's Bend, and it presented to the brown man a certain problem in
casuistry.

Should he accede to Tump Pack's possession of Cissie Dildine and give up
seeing the girl? Such a course cut across all his fine-spun theory about
women having free choice of their mates. However, the Harvard man could
not advocate a socialization of courtship when he himself would be the
first beneficiary. The prophet whose finger points selfward is damned.
Furthermore, all Niggertown would side with Tump Pack in such a
controversy. It was no uncommon thing for the very negro women to fight
over their beaux and husbands. As for any social theory changing this
régime, in the first place the negroes couldn't understand the theory;
in the second, it would have no effect if they could. Actions never grow
out of theories; theories grow out of actions. A theory is a looking-
glass that reflects the past and makes it look like the future, but the
glass really hides the future, and when humanity comes to a turn in its
course, there is always a smash-up, and a blind groping for the lost
path.

Now, in regard to Cissie Dildine, Peter was not precisely afraid of Tump
Pack, but he could not clear his mind of the fact that Tump had been
presented with a medal by the Congress of the United States for killing
four men. Good sense and a care for his reputation and his skin told
Peter to abandon his theory of free courtship for the time being. This
meant a renunciation of Cissie Dildine; but he told himself he renounced
very little. He had no reason to think that Cissie cared a picayune
about him.

Peter's work kept him indoors for a number of days following the
encounter. He was reviewing some primary school work in order to pass a
teacher's examination that would be held in Jonesboro, the county seat,
in about three weeks.

To the uninitiated it may seem strange to behold a Harvard graduate
stuck down day after day poring over a pile of dog-eared school-books -
third arithmetics, primary grammars, beginners' histories of Tennessee,
of the United States, of England; physiology, hygiene. It may seem
queer. But when it comes to standing a Wayne County teacher's
examination, the specific answers to the specific questions on a dozen
old examination slips are worth all the degrees Harvard ever did confer.

So, in his newspapered study, Peter Siner looked up long lists of
questions, and attempted to memorize the answers. But the series of
missteps he had made since returning to Hooker's Bend besieged his brain
and drew his thoughts from his catechism. It seemed strange that in so
short a time he should have wandered so far from the course he had set
for himself. His career in Niggertown formed a record of slight
mistakes, but they were not to be undone, and their combined force had
swung him a long way from the course he had plotted for himself. There
was no way to explain. Hooker's Bend would judge him by the sheer
surface of his works. What he had meant to do, his dreams and altruisms,
they would never surmise. That was the irony of the thing.

Then he thought of Cissie Dildine who did understand him. This thought
might have been Cissie's cue to enter the stage of Peter's mind. Her
oval, creamy face floated between Peter's eyes and the dog-eared primer.
He thought of Cissie wistfully, and of her lonely fight for good
English, good manners, and good taste. There was a pathos about Cissie.

Peter got up from his chair and looked out at his high window into the
early afternoon. He had been poring over primers for three days,
stuffing the most heterogeneous facts. His head felt thick and slightly
feverish. Through his window he saw the side of another negro cabin, but
by looking at an angle eastward he could see a field yellow with corn, a
valley, and, beyond, a hill wooded and glowing with the pageantry of
autumn. He thought of Cissie Dildine again, of walking with her among
the burning maples and the golden elms. He thought of the restfulness
such a walk with Cissie would bring.

As he mused, Peter's soul made one of those sharp liberating movements
that occasionally visit a human being. The danger of Tump Pack's
jealousy, the loss of his prestige, the necessity of learning the
specific answers to the examination questions, all dropped away from him
as trivial and inconsequent. He turned from the window, put away his
books and question-slips, picked up his hat, and moved out briskly
through his mother's room toward the door.

The old woman in the kitchen must have heard him, for she called to him
through the partition, and a moment later her bulky form filled the
kitchen entrance. She wiped her hands on her apron and looked at him
accusingly.

"Wha you gwine, son?"

"For a walk."

The old negress tilted her head aslant and looked fixedly at him.

"You's gwine to dat Cissie Dildine's, Peter."

Peter looked at his mother, surprised and rather disconcerted that she
had guessed his intentions from his mere footsteps. The young man
changed his plans for his walk, and began a diplomatic denial:

"No, I'm going to walk by myself. I'm tired; I'm played out."

"Tired?" repeated his mother, doubtfully. "You ain't done nothin' but
set an' turn th'ugh books an' write on a lil piece o' paper."

Peter was vaguely amused in his weariness, but thought that he concealed
his mirth from his mother.

"That gets tiresome after a while."

She grunted her skepticism. As Peter moved for the door she warned him:

"Peter, you knows ef Tump Pack sees you, he's gwine to shoot you sho!"

"Oh, no he won't; that's Tump's talk."

"Talk! talk! Whut's matter wid you, Peter? Dat nigger done git crowned
fuh killin' fo' men!" She stood staring at him with white eyes. Then she
urged, "Now, look heah, Peter, come along an' eat yo' supper."

"No, I really need a walk. I won't walk through Niggertown. I'll walk
out in the woods."

"I jes made some salmon coquettes fuh you whut'll spile ef you don' eat
'em now."

"I didn't know you were making croquettes," said Peter, with polite
interest.

"Well, I is. I gotta can o' salmon fum Miss Mollie Brownell she'd opened
an' couldn't quite use. I doctered 'em up wid a lil vinegar an' sody,
an' dey is 'bout as pink as dey ever wuz."

A certain uneasiness and annoyance came over Peter at this persistent
use of unwholesome foods.

"Look here, Mother, you're not using old canned goods that have been
left over?"

The old negress stood looking at him in silence, but lost her coaxing
expression.

"I've told and told you about using any tainted or impure foods that the
white people can't eat."

"Well, whut ef you is?"

"If it's too bad for them, it's too bad for you!"

Caroline made a careless gesture.

"Good Lawd, boy! I don' 'speck to eat whut's good fuh me! All I says is,
'Grub, keep me alive. Ef you do dat, you done a good day's wuck.'"

Peter was disgusted and shocked at his mother's flippancy. Modern
colleges are atheistic, but they do exalt three gods, - food,
cleanliness, and exercise. Now here was Peter's mother blaspheming one
of his trinity.

"I wish you 'd let me know when you want anything Mother. I'll get it
fresh for you." His words were filial enough, but his tone carried his
irritation.

The old negress turned back to the kitchen.

"Huh, boy! you been fotch up on lef'-overs," she said, and disappeared
through the door.

Peter walked to the gate, let himself out, and started off on his
constitutional. His tiff with his mother renewed all his nervousness and
sense of failure. His litany of mistakes renewed their dolor in his
mind.

An autumn wind was blowing, and long plumes of dust whisked up out of
the curving street and swept over the ill-kept yards, past the cabins,
and toward the sere fields and chromatic woods. The wind beat at the
brown man; the dust whispered against his clothes, made him squint his
eyes to a crack and tickled his nostrils at each breath.

When Peter had gone two or three hundred yards, he became aware that
somebody was walking immediately behind him. Tump Pack popped into his
mind. He looked over his shoulder and then turned. Through the veils of
flying dust he made out some one, and a moment later identified not Tump
Pack, but the gangling form of Jim Pink Staggs, clad in a dark-blue
sack-coat and white flannel trousers with pin stripes. It was the sort
of costume affected by interlocutors of minstrel shows; it had a
minstrel trigness about it.

As a matter of fact, Jim Pink was a sort of semi-professional minstrel.
Ordinarily, he ran a pressing-shop in the Niggertown crescent, but
occasionally he impressed all the dramatic talent of Niggertown and
really did take the road with a minstrel company. These barn-storming
expeditions reached down into Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
Sometimes they proved a great success, and the darkies rode back several
hundred dollars ahead. Sometimes they tramped back.

Jim Pink hailed Peter with a wave of his hand and a grotesque
displacement of his mouth to one side of his face, which he had found
effective in his minstrel buffoonery.

"Whut you raisin' so much dus' about?" he called out of the corner of
his mouth, while looking at Peter out of one half-closed eye.

Peter shook his head and smiled.

"Thought it mout be Mister Hooker deliverin' dat lan' you bought." Jim
Pink flung his long, flexible face into an imitation of convulsed
laughter, then next moment dropped it into an intense gravity and
declared, "'Dus' thou art, to dus' returnest.'" The quotation seemed
fruitless and silly enough, but Jim Pink tucked his head to one side as
if listening intently to himself, then repeated sepulchrally, "'Dus'
thou art, to dus' returnest.' By the way, Peter," he broke off cheerily,
"you ain't happen to see Tump Pack, is you?"

"No," said Peter, unamused.

"Is he borrowed a gun fum you?" inquired the minstrel, solemnly.

"No-o." Peter looked questioningly at the clown through half-closed
eyes.

"Huh, now dat's funny." Jim Pink frowned, and pulled down his loose
mouth and seemed to study. He drew out a pearl-handled knife, closed his
hand over it, blew on his fist, then opened the other hand, and
exhibited the knife lying in its palm, with the blade open. He seemed
surprised at the change and began cleaning his finger-nails. Jim Pink
was the magician at his shows.

Peter waited patiently for Jim Pink to impart his information, "Well,
what's the idea?" he asked at last.

"Don' know. 'Pears lak dat knife won't stay in any one han'." He looked
at it, curiously.

"I mean about Tump," said Peter, impatiently.

"O-o-oh, yeah; you mean 'bout Tump. Well, I thought Tump mus' uv
borrowed a gun fum you. He lef' Hobbett's corner wid a great big forty-
fo', inquirin' wha you is." Just then he glanced up, looked
penetratingly through the dust-cloud, and added, "Why, I b'lieve da' 's
Tump now."

With a certain tightening of the nerves, Peter followed his glance, but
made out nothing through the fogging dust. When he looked around at Jim
Pink again, the buffoon's face was a caricature of immense mirth. He
shook it sober, abruptly, minstrel fashion.

"Maybe I's mistooken," he said solemnly. "Tump did start over heah wid a
gun, but Mister Dawson Bobbs done tuk him up fuh ca'yin' concealed
squidjulums; so Tump's done los' dat freedom uv motion in de pu'suit uv
happiness gua'anteed us niggers an' white folks by the Constitution uv
de Newnighted States uv America." Here Jim Pink broke into genuine
laughter, which was quite a different thing from his stage grimaces.
Peter stared at the fool astonished.

"Has he gone to jail?"

"Not prezactly."

"Well - confound it! - exactly what did happen, Jim Pink?"

"He gone to Mr. Cicero Throgmartins'."

"What did he go there for?"

"Couldn't he'p hisse'f."

"Look here, you tell me what's happened."

"Mr. Bobbs ca'ied Tump thaiuh. Y' see, Mr. Throgmartin tried to hire
Tump to pick cotton. Tump didn't haf to, because he'd jes shot fo'
natchels in a crap game. So to-day, when Tump starts over heah wid his
gun, Mr. Bobbs 'resses Tump. Mr. Throgmartin bails him out, so now
Tump's gone to pick cotton fuh Mr. Throgmartin to pay off'n his fine."
Here Jim Pink yelped into honest laughter at Tump's undoing so that dust
got into his nose and mouth and set him sneezing and coughing.

"How long's he up for?" asked Peter, astonished and immensely relieved
at this outcome of Tump's expedition against himself.

Jim Pink controlled his coughing long enough to gasp:

"Th-thutty days, ef he don' run off," and fell to laughing again.

Peter Siner, long before, had adopted the literate man's notion of what
is humorous, and Tump's mishap was slap-stick to him. Nevertheless, he
did smile. The incident filled him with extraordinary relief and
buoyancy. At the next corner he made some excuse to Jim Pink, and turned
off up an alley.

* * * * *

Peter walked along with his shoulders squared and the dust peppering his
back. Not till Tump was lifted from his mind did he realize what an
incubus the soldier had been. Peter had been forced into a position
where, if he had killed Tump, he would have been ruined; if he had not,
he would probably have murdered. Now he was free - for thirty days.

He swung along briskly in the warm sunshine toward the multicolored
forest. The day had suddenly become glorious. Presently he found himself
in the back alleys near Cissie's house. He was passing chicken-houses
and stables. Hogs in open pens grunted expectantly at his footsteps.

Peter had not meant to go to Cissie's at all, but now, when he saw he
was right behind her dwelling, she seemed radiantly accessible to him.
Still, it struck him that it would not be precisely the thing to call on
Cissie immediately after Tump's arrest. It might look as if - Then the
thought came that, as a neighbor, he should stop and tell Cissie of
Tump's misfortune. He really ought to offer his services to Cissie, if
he could do anything. At Cissie's request he might even aid Tump Pack
himself. Peter got himself into a generous glow as he charged up a side
alley, around to a rickety front gate. Let Niggertown criticize as it
would, he was braced by a high altruism.

Peter did not shout from the gate, as is the fashion of the crescent,
but walked up a little graveled path lined with dusty box-shrubs and
tapped at the unpainted door.

Doors in Niggertown never open straight away to visitors. A covert
inspection first takes place from the edges of the window-blinds.

Peter stood in the whipping dust, and the caution of the inmates spurred
his impatience to see Cissie. At last the door opened, and Cissie
herself was in the entrance. She stood quite still a moment, looking at
Peter with eyes that appeared frightened.

"I - I wasn't expecting to see you," she stammered.

"No? I came by with news, Cissie."

"News?" She seemed more frightened than ever. "Peter, you - you haven't -
" She paused, regarding him with big eyes.

"Tump Pack's been arrested," explained Peter, quickly, sensing the
tragedy in her thoughts. "I came by to tell you. If there's anything I
can do for you - or him, I'll do it."

His altruistic offer sounded rather foolish in the actual saying.

He could not tell from her face whether she was glad or sorry.

"What did they arrest him for?"

"Carrying a pistol."

She paused a moment.

"Will he - get out soon?"

"He's sentenced for thirty days."

Cissie dropped her hands with a hopeless gesture.

"Oh, isn't this all sickening! - sickening!" she exclaimed. She looked
tired. Ghosts of sleepless nights circled her eyes. Suddenly she said,
"Come in. Oh, do come in, Peter." She reached out and almost pulled him
in. She was so urgent that Peter might have fancied Tump Pack at the
gate with his automatic. He did glance around, but saw nobody passing
except the Arkwright boy. The hobbledehoy walked down the other side of
the street, hands thrust in pockets, with the usual discontented
expression on his face.

Cissie slammed the door shut, and the two stood rather at a loss in the


1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryT.S. StriblingBirthright A Novel → online text (page 5 of 17)