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and adultery every day in the calendar. She had been refused marriage. All the folk-ways of Nigger Town were utterly topsyturvy. It was a crazyhouse 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." "Dustiah than evah," 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 Peter 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 Siner had died. Five weeks and a day; his mother's death was drifting away into the mystery and oblivion of the past. Likewise twenty-five years of his own life were completed and gone.
A procession of sad, wistful thoughts trailed through Peter's brain: his mother, 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 fancied, 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, niggah! 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 inane; 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 the worse for wear after his jail senminstrel voice:
"Hey, don' shoot down dis way, black man, tull I makes my exit!" And a voice, rich with contempt, called back:
tence. 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
"You need n't be skeered, you fool army revolver, while on the greasy rabbit of a niggah!"
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
lapel of his jacket was pinned his military medal for exceptional bravery on the field of battle.
"Been lookin' fuh you fuh some time, Petuh," he stated grimly.
Peter considered the formidable figure with a queer sensation. He tried to take Tump's visitation casually; he tried to maintain an air of ordinariness.
"Did n't know you were back." "Yeh, I 's back."
"En she won' worry none. Tu'n roun', Petuh, an' when I says, 'Ma'ch,' you ma'ch." He leveled his pistol. ""Tention! Rat about face!Ma'ch!"
Peter turned and moved off down the noiseless path, walking with the
"Have you been looking for me?" stiff gait of a man who at any instant "Yeh."
"Did n'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 studying his assailant with a quickening pulse. The glade, the air, the sunshine, seemed suddenly drawn to a tension, likely to break into violent commotion. His abrupt danger brought Peter 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 yuh don't," he warned sharply. "You t'un roun' an' ma'ch on tuh Niggah Town."
"What for?" Peter still tried to be casual, but his voice held new overtones.
"Because, niggah, I means tuh drap you right on de Main Street uv Niggah Town, 'fo' all dem niggahs what 's been a-raggin' me 'bout you an' Cissie. I 's gwine show dem fool niggahs I don' take no fumdiddles off'n nobody."
"Tump," gasped Jim Pink in a husky voice, "you ought n't shoot Petuh; he mammy jes daid."
expects a terrific blow from behind.
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 him getting himself killed while running away. It It was too undignified a
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. "Mistah Bobbs tol' me that 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 men; 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 Nigger Town. Here and there from a tumbledown chimney a feather of pale wood smoke lifted into the chill sunshine. The sight of the houses 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 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.
weaned huh away f'om me. She won' speak tuh me! She won' 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. 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 some
"Tump, I'm not going to marry how it washed away the hope and the Cissie Dildine." thought of escape.
"I know you ain't, Petuh."
did n't mean to."
Half-way down the hill they entered
“I mean, if you let me alone, I the edge of Nigger Town. The smell of sties and stables came to them. Peter's thoughts moved here and
"I ain't gon' let you alone."
"Tump, we had already decided not there, like the eyes of a little child, glancing about as it is forced to leave a pleasure-ground.
After a short pause Tump said in a slightly different tone:
Peter knew that Jim Pink, who now
"Pears lak you don' haf tuh marry made a sorry figure in their rear, huh-comin' tuh yuh room." would one day give a buffoon's
A queer sinking came over the mimicry of this, his walk to death. mulatto.
"Listen, Tump. I-we-in my room-we simply talked, that 's all. She came to tell me she was going away. I-I did n'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 ye! shut yo' black mouf! Wha 'd I keer wha' che done! You
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 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.
The coughing and rattling of some old motor-car as it rounded the Nigger Town 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 next moment the trio saw the ponderous body of the officer at the wheel, and by his side sat 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 revol
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, black eyes. The significance of the scene grew in his mind. He stood with eyes screwed to slits staring into the apricotcolored dust in the direction of the vanishing noise.