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"Why, yourself," said the girl, a little surprised.
"I thought all that out before I came back here, Cissie. A friend of mine named Farquhar offered me a place with him up in Chicago-a string of garages. You'd like Farquhar, Cissie. He's a materialist with an absolutely inexorable brain. I told him I could not take his offer. 'It 's like this,' I argued, 'if every negro with a little ability leaves the South, our people down here will never progress.' Farquhar argued—" Just then Peter saw that Cissie was not attending his discourse. She was walking at his side. in a respectful silence. He stopped He stopped talking, and presently she smiled and said:
"You have n't noticed my new brooch, Peter." She lifted her hand to her bosom, and twisted the face of the trinket toward him. "You ought not to have made me show it to you after you recommended it yourself." She made a little moue of disappointment.
It was a pretty bit of old gold that complemented the creamy skin. Peter began admiring it at once, and, after negro fashion, rather overstepped the limits white beaux set to their praise.
At the moment the two were passing one of the oddest houses in Nigger Town. It was a two-story cabin built in the shape of a steamboat. A little cupola represented a pilot-house, and two iron chimneys served for smoke-stacks.
This queer building had been built by a negro stevedore out of a deep admiration for the steamboats on which he had made his living. Instead of steps at the front door, this boat-like house had a stage-plank. As
Peter strolled down the street with Cissie, admiring her brooch, and suffused with a sense of her warmth and perfume, he happened to glance up, and saw Tump Pack walk down the stage-plank, come out, and wait for them at the gate.
There was something grim in the ex-soldier's face as the two came up, but the aura of the girl prevented Peter from paying much attention to it. As the two passed Tump, Peter had just lifted his hand to his hat when Tump made a quick step out of the gate, in front of them, and swung a furious blow at Peter's head.
Cissie screamed. Siner staggered back with flames dancing before his eyes. The soldier lunged after his toppling man with gorilla-like blows. Hot pains shot through Peter's body. His head roared like a gong. The sunlight danced about him in flashes. The air was full of black fists smashing him, and not five feet away, the bullet head of Tump Pack bobbed this way and that in the rapid shifts of his attack. A stab of pain cut off Peter's breath. At that moment he glimpsed the convexity of Tump's stomach. He dropped-kicked at it with foot-ball desperation. desperation. Tump seemed to rise a foot or two in air, turned over, and thudded down on his shoulders in the dust. The soldier made no attempt to rise, but curled up, twisting in agony.
Peter stood in the dust-cloud, wobbly, with roaring head. His open mouth was full of dust. Then he became aware that negroes were running in from every direction, shouting. Their voices whooped out what had happened, who it was, who had licked. Tump Pack's agonized spasms brought howls of mirth from the black fellows. Negro women were in the crowd, grin
ning, a little frightened, but curious.
When Peter gradually became able to breathe and could think at all, there was something terrible to him in Tump's silent attack and in this extravagant black mirth over mere suffering. Cissie was gone; had fled, no doubt, at the beginning of the fight.
The prostrate man's tortured abdomen finally allowed him to twist around toward Peter. His eyes were popped, and seemed all yellows and streaked with swollen veins.
"I'll git ye fuh this," he wheezed, spitting dust. "Yuh did n't fight fair -yuh-"
The black chorus rolled their heads and pounded one another in a gale of merriment.
Peter Siner turned away toward his home filled with sick thought. He never realized so clearly the open sore of Nigger Town life and its great need of healing, yet this would further bar him from any constructive work. There would be no discrimination in the scandal. He, Peter Siner, would be grouped with the boot-leggers and crap-shooters and women-chasers who filled Nigger Town with their brawls. As a matter of simple fact, he had been fighting with another negro over a That he was subjected to an attack without warning or cause would never become a factor in the analysis.
Two of Peter's teeth were loose; his left jaw was swelling; his head throbbed.
When Siner reached home, his mother met him at the door. Thanks to the swiftness with which gossip spreads among black folk, she had already heard of the fight, and incidentally had formed her judgment of the
matter. Now she looked at her son's swelling face in exasperation.
"I 'cla' 'fo' God, ain't been home a week befo' he 's fightin' ovuh a niggah wench lak a roustabout!"
Peter's head throbbed so he could hardly make out the details of Caroline's face.
"But, Mother," he began defensively, "I-"
"Me sweatin' ovuh de wash-pot," went on the negress, "so 's you could go up Nawth an lea'n a li'l' senseheah you comes back chasin' a
"But, Mother," he begged thickly, "I was simply walking home with Miss Dildine."
"Miss Dildine! Miss Dildine!" exploded the ponderous woman, with an erasing gesture. "If you means dat stuck-up fly-by-night, Cissie Dildine, say so, and don' stan' thauh mouthin' 'Miss Dildine, Miss Dildine'!"
"Mother," asked Peter, thickly through his swelling mouth, "do you want to know what did happen?"
"Done knows. I tol' you to keep away f'om that hussy. She's a fool about huh bright culluh an' straight haiuh.”
"What girl would you be willing for me to go with?" he asked in faint satire.
"Heuh in Niggah Town?"
"None at all. No Niggah Town wench a' tall. When you mus' maʼiy, I'm 'speckin' you tuh go off summuhs an pick yo' gal, lak you went off to pick yo' education." She swung out a thick arm, looked at Peter out of the corner of her eyes, her head tilted to one side, as negresses do when they become dramatically serious.
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. The negro men of the village discussed the fight on the street corners, or piled around on cotton-bales down on the wharf. 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 wharfboat. 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.
“I 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, an' de black man at de udder. Ef Petuh ain't to be foun' at eider en', whauh is he?" "Um-m-m, 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 Nigger Town 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 Nigger Town could n't understand the theory; in the second, it would have no influence if they could. Actions never grow out of theories; theories grow out of actions.
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 resignation of Cissie Dildine; but he told himself he resigned 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 a weird thing to behold a Harvard graduate stuck down day after day poring over a pile of dog-eared school-books. 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 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 Nigger Town formed a record of slight mistakes, but 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 her lonely fight for good language, good manners, and good taste. There was a pathos about Cissie.
Peter got up from his chair and looked out of 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 shack, 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 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?"
The old negress tilted her head aslant and looked fixedly at him. "You 's gwine tuh dat Cissie Dildine's, Petuh."
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."
"Tiahed?" repeated his mother, doubtfully. "You ain't done nuthin' but set an' tu'n books an' write on a li'l' piece uh papah."
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:
"Petuh, you knows if Tump Pack sees you, he 's gwine shoot you sho." "Oh, no he won't; that 's Tump's talk."
"Talk! talk! Wha's mattuh wid you, Petuh? Dat niggah done got crowned fuh killin' fo' men." She stood staring at him with white eyes. "Now, look heah, Petuh, come uhlong an' eat yo' suppah."
"No, I really need a walk. I won't walk through Nigger Town. I'll walk out in the woods."
"Well, whut if you is?"
"If it's too bad for them, it's too bad for you."
Caroline made a careless gesture. "Good Lawd, boy, I does n't 'speck tuh eat whut 's good fuh me. All I says is, 'Grub, keep me uhlive.' Ef you do that, you done a good day's wuk."
Peter was disgusted and shocked at his mother's flippancy. Modern colleges are atheistic, but they do exalt three gods, food, cleanliness, and exer
The old negress shifted uncomfort- cise. ably.
"I jes made some salmon c'oquettes fo' you what 'll spile ef you don' eat 'em now."
"I did n't know you were making croquettes," said Peter, with polite interest.
"Well, I is. I got ta can o' salmon f'om Miss Mollie Brownell which she had opened an' could n't quite use. I doctahed 'em up wid a li'l' vinegah an'
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 its irritation.
The old negress turned back to the kitchen.
"Huh, boy, you been fotch up on lef'-ovahs," she said, and disappeared through the door.
(The end of the second part of "Birthright")