Thursday, June 30, 2011
Born in Philadelphia, and educated at Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Collège de France, Jessie Fauset (1882-1961) has taught French at Dunbar High School in Washington and in New York City. She has written verse as well as the novels There is Confusion (1924), Plum Bun (1929), The Chinaberry Tree (1932), and Comedy, American Style (1933). The excerpt below is from the last-named novel.
Mrs. Olivia Blanchard Cary glanced out of the window of her pleasant residence in West Philadelphia and saw her daughter Teresa, her books under her arm, strolling down the street, with two other little girls similarly laden. One of her companions, a very fair blonde with dark blue eyes and gay gilt hair, Mrs. Cary identified immediately as Phebe Grant. She was not so sure of the identity of the third youngster. Closer inspection revealed to her, however, the dark brown, the piquant features, the sparkling black eyes and the abundant, silky and intensely curly locks of Marise Davies. Mrs. Cary frowned. "As often as I've told Teresa to keep away from that Davies child!" she murmured angrily to herself.
She met them at the front door. The countenances of the three children were in striking contrast. Teresa's wore a look of apprehension, Phebe's of bland indifference, Marise's of acute expectancy.
"Good-afternoon, Teresa," Olivia said. "Good-afternoon children. I’m afraid it's not best for Teresa to have so much company today.
She gets excited and worn out and it’s hard afterwards for her to settle down to her lessons. I don't mind if one of you stays. Phebe, suppose you come in and play with her a while, and Marise, you can come back another time.”
"Tomorrow? " asked Marise, whose black eyes had never left Olivia’s face.
"Well, hardly tomorrow,” the woman replied, flushing a little. She really disliked this child. "Horrid, little pushing thing,” she inwardly apostrophized. But aloud she continued. "Hardly tomorrow, but some other day very soon, I am sure. Come on in, Phebe.”
"No, thank you, Mrs. Cary,” the child answered, pushing back the thick gilt hair which framed her face. “I was with Marise first, so I'll go on with her. We were just going to ask you to let Teresa come along with us. My mother expects me to be at Marise’s if I’m not home.” She spoke simply, no trace of the avenging angel about her.
The two children, hand in hand, backed off the bottom step on which they had been precariously teetering. Marise, ignoring Olivia completely, waved a slender hand toward Teresa. “Come on over whenever you can. My mother doesn't mind."
From the pavement both looked back once, more to wave a careless farewell to their schoolmate. “G’bye, Treesa!”
“Treesa!” Olivia echoed angrily. “Why can't they pronounce your name right?" She glanced sharply at her daughter's tear-stained face. "What's the matter, Teresa?"
The little girl wiped away a tear with the back of her hand.
"Mamma, why, can’t play with Marise? She’s such fun.”
Her mother sighed. I have " she thought, "the stupidest children and husband too in the world. Why can’t they see this thing the way I want it?” Not unkindly she took out her handkerchief and wiped the child's eyes.
"Now, Teresa, it isn't worth while going all over this matter again. I don't mind your having Phebe here; in fact I rather like Phebe. But I don’t like to have colored people in the house if we can possibly avoid it.”
"But, Mamma, Phebe is colored too."
“I know she is but nobody would ever guess it.”
“They don’t have to guess it; she tells it; she stood right up in class and said so.”
“What nonsense!” Olivia countered angrily. “What occasion would a girl, looking like her, have to talk about color?”
“She didn't say it of her own accord, Mamma. The teacher was having a review lesson on races one day and she asked Phebe what race she belonged to and Phebe said: `I belong to the black or Negro race.’”
"What did the teacher say?"
She just giggled at first and then she said: `Well, Phebe, we all know that isn't true. Don't try to be funny. Now tell us what race you do belong to, dear!' And Phebe said it all over again. She said: ‘I belong to the black or Negro race.’”
Olivia gasped. "Silly little thing! The idea of a girl as white as she saying that! What happened then?"
The teacher had her stay after school and Phebe showed her the picture of her mother. She wears it in a locket around her throat all the time. And her mother is colored. Not black, you know, Mamma, but real, real brown. Almost as brown as Marise, you know. You should have seen how surprised Miss Packer was!"
In spite of herself the mother was interested. "What did she say then?"
"She looked awful queer and asked Phebe if she looked like like her father and Phebe said she looked exactly like him . . . and that he didn't live here and that he was married to someone else…
And then Miss Packer turned kind of red and never said another word. ... How can Phebe's father not be married to her mother, Mamma?"
"Oh, I don't know . . . probably they couldn't get along so they seperated. Married people often do that. They call it getting a divorce." Hurriedly she changed the subject: "Did the children act any different to Phebe after that?"
Teresa considered this a moment. "Well, you see, Mamma, the chiIdren don't act any special kind of way to Phebe anyway, because Phebe don't care anything about them. The only child Phebe likes a whole lot in school is Marise."
"I thought she liked you."
“O she does, but not the same way she likes Marise. Marise is so smart you know. She can think up all the most wonderful things. Why she changed her name herself. It used to be Maria. And she said that was all wrong. She said she didn't look like a Maria person and she didn't feel like a Maria person…. Isn't that funny, Mamma? And she can sing and play and dance. You never saw anyone dance like her. And she can think up such smart things to say. I don't see why you don't like her, Mamma."
"I don't dislike her," her mother retorted in exasperation. "You don't understand these things, yet, Teresa. But you will when you're older . . . and you'll be grateful to me. I just don't want you to have Marise and people like that around because I don't want you to grow up among folks who live the life that most colored people have to live ... narrow and stultified and stupid. Always pushed in the background . . . out of everything. Looked down upon and despised! ...
"Teresa, how many times must I tell you these things? You and your father and Christopher almost drive me crazy! You're so will-fully perverse about it all! Here we could all be as white as the whitest people in Philadelphia. When we moved in this neighborhood not a soul here but thought we were white! And your father is never happy unless he has some typical Negro hanging about. I believe he does it to tease me. And now here you are, all wrapped up in this Davies child!"
"But, Mamma, what difference does it make? And anyway, there's Oliver!"
There indeed was Oliver.
Olivia, with very little love for her husband, Dr. Cary, with no enthusiasm, as such, for the institution of matrimony and with absolutely no urge for the maternal life, had none the less gone cheerfully and willingly into both marriage and motherhood because she believed that through her children she might obtain her heart’s desire. She could, she was sure, imbue her offspring with precept and example to such an extent that it would never enter their minds to acknowledge the strain of black blood which in considerable dilution would flow through their veins.
She could be certain of their color. Her twin sister and brother, only two years older than her own children, had proven that. It was worth every one, she felt, of her labor pains not to hold in her arms little Teresa, her first-born, – but to gaze on that tiny, unremarkable face and note the white skin, the thick, "good" dark hair which covered the frail skull; to note that the tell-tale half-moons of which she had so often read were conspicuously absent. It seemed to her that the tenuous bonds holding her ever so slightly to her group, and its station in America, were perceptibly weakened. Every time she appeared in public with the little girl she was presenting the incontestable proof of her white womanhood…
And when Christopher, the second child was born, she was not the least fraction worried over the closely curling tendency of his slightly reddish hair. She had known Jews with hair much kinkier. Time and care would attend to all that. And meanwhile his skin was actually fairer than that of his little sister, his features finer and better chiselled. He had, she felt, a look of "race," by which she meant of course the only race which God, or Nature, for hidden, inscrutable purposes, meant should rule.
But she had not reckoned with the children's father. Christopher had finally established in his the fact of his chaste wife’s frigidity. When he fully realized that her much-prized "aloofness," instead of being the insigne of a wealth of feeling, was merely the result of an absolute vacuum of passion, young as he was, he resolved not to kick against the pricks.
He had, he told himself, been sold, as many a man before him had; tricked as completely by his deliberate submission to ideals, entirely false to his nature and his desires, as a young girl might be by her first surrender to a passion which her heart tells her is natural, though her mind and breeding might warn her of its inexpediency. The first of that hardening process which was so to change him did have its inception during this period, but as he had some humor and a sense of justice beyond his years he refused to let the iron enter his soul.
Moreover, Olivia, though not a "comfortable" house-keeper, was a clean and considerate one. She really never interfered with his “papers”; she never, even from the beginning, troubled him with the delinquencies of the help. And in those days, and for some years to come, she never exceeded the budget which he allowed her. Also her obvious willingness, even eagerness, to have children pleased and touched him. In his total ignorance of the plans which nestled eternally in the back of her sleek, dark head, he reasoned that a woman so fond of children must by a very natural extension develop eventually a certain tenderness for their father. So he hoped for many things and forgave her much with a somewhat rueful and yet amused indulgence.
Until he found in her the unalterable determination to carry himself and his children definitely across the narrow border-line of race! This too he at first regarded with some indulgence, but her unimaginative persistence finally irritated him. He was too busy to undertake completely the education of the children – he was responsible for their maintenance. But he could let them see his manifest respect and liking for many men who had been his boyhood friends and who bore the badge of their mixed blood plainly upon them.
He told the children every story he knew about the heroes of the race. Olivia would have preferred them to be ignorant of their own remote connection with slavery. But he did strive to make them realize the contrast between their present status and that of their black forebears. He emphasized the racial progress, stressing the brief span of years in which it had been accomplished.
And the children, straightforward, serious little things without an ounce of perversity in their make-up, were entranced, thrilled. Perhaps because they never met with any open expression of prejudice they seemed to find their greatest interest and amusement among the children of their father's friends who most definitely showed color. For a brief while Christopher's hero was Crispus Attucks; Teresa's brave Sojourner Truth. But later, through lack of nourishment, their interest in this phase of history died.
When the children were four and a half, and six, respectively, Olivia found she was going to have another baby. She was really very happy about it with a naïvete and a frankness which, Dr. Cary, as before, found inexpressibly moving and charming. Within herself she was making plans. This child should be her very own. She would make her husband believe that she needed a change, she would take the child away and live with him apart for two, three, perhaps five years. In appearance, in rearing, in beliefs he should be completely, unrelievedly a member of the dominant race. She was a much wiser woman than she had been six years ago. The prospect made her gay and charming, almost girlish; far younger too than her twenty-eight years, younger indeed it seemed to her husband than she had ever been in those remote, so precious years of training.
"This one will be a boy," she told big Christopher gaily. “He’ll be the handsomest and most attractive of us all. And I'll name him after myself. An Oliver for your Christopher."
Her prophecy was, except in one respect, absolutely true. She had boasted of the ease with which her children had entered the world. But this one she was confident would outstrip them all.
"I'm sure I'll be up very soon, Chris," she told her husband. She adopted one of her rare moods of coquetry. "And when I do get up, you ought to reward a dutiful wife. How would you like to send her and your baby son on a little trip to England?" Her eyes were bright with secrecy. He would, he assured her, do anything, give her anything she wanted within his range.
But the unforseen happened. The baby arrived in due course. "Hale and hearty," said his beaming father. There never was a baby haler and heartier. But Olivia did not fare so well. She had one sinking spell after another. For the first time she was unable to nurse her child. She was to meet with no excitement or shock and as the baby was going very well it was best for her not to be concerned with him for a while. She was to concentrate on recovering her strength. So that it was a full month before the baby was set before her, crowing and laughing and persistently and futilely striking his Iittle hands together.
Olivia sat up, arms outstretched to receive him. Her baby! Her eyes stretched wide to behold every fraction of his tiny person. But the expectant smile faded as completely as though an unseen hand had wiped it off. She turned to her husband sharply:
“That's not my baby!"
But it was her baby. It was a boy, handsomer and more attractive than the other children. He was named Oliver... They had been calling him that for a month, her delighted children assured her… his hair was black and soft and curly... and he had the exact bronze gold complexion of Lee Blanchard!
She had reckoned without her own father!
For the first time since she had known the futile anger of her early childhood she slipped into a black, though silent, rage. Her early anger had been directed against her father. This later ebullition included both her husband and her helpless little boy. She had no special beliefs about prenatal influences but she did observe to herself in the dark and tortuous recesses of her mind that if big Christopher had not been so decidedly a Negrophile, the appearance of their child would have been otherwise.
The little fellow was of a remarkable beauty. Through one pretext and another Olivia contrived not to be seen on the street with him. But the two older children and his father would proudly conduct him anywhere. And wherever he went he attracted attention… infinitely more so than his brother and sister had ever earned. Added to this was an undeniable charm of manner and of mind. He possessed not only a winning smile and a genuine sweetness of attitude and conduct but he was unquestionably of remarkable mental endowment... If he had possessed an ounce of self-confidence, or even of the ordinary childish conceit which so often marks the "bright boy," he might easily have become unbearable. But even from babyhood little Oliver sensed in himself one lack which early automatically destroyed any root of undue self-esteem. He knew he did not have his mother's love…. Worse than that through some strange childish, unfailing perception he was sure of her active but hidden dislike for him.
When he was home Olivia fed him with the same food, watched over and satisfied his physical welfare as completely and meticulously as she watched over that of the other members of her household. But she never sought his company, she never took him riding or walking as she did the others, never bestowed on him more than the perfunctory kiss of salutation… When people, struck with his appearance and healthy grace, praised him before his face as so often they did, he would turn sometimes toward her thinking dimly that now she must be proud of this fine little boy who was her son. But he never surprised on her countenance a single flash of delight or pride or love.
It saddened his childish days... As soon as he became old enough to be from under her surveillance Olivia saw to it that he spent most of his time with her own mother in Boston or with her husband's mother in South Philadelphia. In both of these homes he met with the intense affection and generous esteem which his finely keyed little nature so craved. Gradually he became able to adjust himself to the inexplicable phenomenon of a mother who not only did not love with especial signal fondness, but who did not love at all, her youngest son. By sheer strength of will he forced himself to steel his brave and loyal heart against this defection and to crush down his pain. His father had some sense of what was happening and in his heart he bore his wife a deep and unyielding dislike.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
THE LIMITED WAS SPEEDING to California over the snow-blanketed prairies of Iowa. On car "Bulwer" the passengers had all retired, and Dixon, the porter, his duties finished, sought the more comfortable warmth of the smoker, where he intended to resume the reading of the book he had brought with him, Finot's "Race Prejudice." He had been reading last of the Germans and their doctrine of the racial inferiority of the remainder of the white race. Having found the passage again, he began to read: – "The notion of superior and inferior peoples spread like wildfire through Germany. German literature, philosophy, and politics were profoundly influenced by it – ." . . .
The book stood end up on the seat and he could discern from its size and binding that it was a volume that might contain serious thought. He had somehow felt that this Negro was above the ordinary and the sight of the book now confirmed the feeling.
"An American citizen," responded the other, composedly.
"Perhaps you have never heard of the word `nigger'?"
"Then do you believe the `nigger' is the equal of the Anglo-Saxon race?" he demanded with ill-concealed anger.
“I have found, sir, that any division of humanity according to physique can have but a merely nominal value, as differences in physiques are caused by climatic conditions and are subject to rechange by them. As you know, both Science and the Bible are agreed that all so-called races came from a single source. Scientists who have made a study of this question tell us that the Negro and the Yankee are both approaching the Red Indian type. Pigmented humanity becomes lighter in the temperate zone, while unpigmented humanity becomes brown in the tropics. One summer's exposure at a bathing beach is enough to make a life-saver darker than many Indians. The true skin of all human beings is of the same color – all men are white under the first layer.
Monday, June 27, 2011
John F. Matheus, born in Kyser, West Virginia, in 1887 (d. 1986), was educated in the public schools of Steubenville, Ohio, and at Western Reserve, Columbia (A. M., 1921) Chicago, and the Sorbonne. He has done research work in Haiti, Cuba, and Liberia, countries that have provided settings for several of his plays and short stories. In 1925 he won the Opportunity short-story contest with “Fog”, and in 1926 he won first prize for the personal-experience section, second prize in the drama section, and honourable mention in both the short-story and poetry sections. Since 1922 he has been professor of Romance languages at West Virginia State College.
The stir of life echoed. On the bridge between Ohio and West Virginia was the rumble of heavy trucks, the purr of high power engines in Cadillacs and Paiges, the rattle of Fords. A string of loaded freight cars pounded along on the C. & P. tracks, making a thunderous, if tedious way to Mingo. A steamboat's hoarse whistle boomed forth between the swish, swish, chug, chug of a mammoth stern paddle wheel with the asthmatic poppings of the pistons. The raucous shouts of smutty-speaking street boys, the noises of a steam laundry, the clank and clatter of a pottery, the godless voices of women from Water Street houses of ill fame, all these blended in a sort of modern babel, common to all the towers of destruction erected by modern civilization.
These sounds were stirring when the clock sounded six on top of the Court House, that citadel of Law and Order, with the statue of Justice looming out of an alcove above the imposing stone entrance, blindfolded and in her right hand the scales of Judgment. Even so early in the evening the centers from which issued these inharmonious notes were scarcely visible. This sinister cloak of a late November twilight Ohio Valley fog had stealthily spread from somewhere beneath the sombre river bed, down from somewhere in the lowering West Virginia hills. This fog extended its tentacles over city and river, gradually obliterating traces of familiar landscapes. At five-thirty the old Panhandle bridge, supported by massive sandstone pillars, stalwart, as when erected fifty years before to serve a generation now passed behind the portals of life, this old bridge had become a spectral outline against the sky as the toll keepers of the new bridge looked northward up the Ohio River.
Now at six o'clock the fog no longer distorted; it blotted out, annihilated. One by one the street lights came on, giving an uncertain glare in spots, enabling peeved citizens to tread their way homeward without recognizing their neighbour ten feet ahead, whether he might be Jew or Gentile, Negro or Pole, Slav, Croatian, Italian or one hundred per cent American.
An impatient crowd of tired workers peered vainly through the gloom to see if the headlights of the interurban car were visible through the thickening haze. The car was due at Sixth and Market at six-ten and was scheduled to leave at six-fifteen for many little towns on the West Virginia side.
At the same time as these uneasy toilers were waiting, on the opposite side of the river the car had stopped to permit some passengers to descend and disappear in the fog. The motorman, flagged and jaded by the monotony of many stoppings and startings, waited mechanically for the conductor's bell to signal, "Go ahead."
The fog was thicker, more impenetrable. It smothered the headIight. Inside the car in the smoker, that part of the seats nearest the motorman’s box, partitioned from the rest, the lights were struggling bravely against a fog of tobacco smoke, almost as opaque as the dull grey blanket of mist outside.
A group of red, rough men, sprawled along the two opposite bench-formed seats, paralled to the sides of the car, were talking to one another in the thin, flat colorless English of their mountain state, embellished with the homely idioms of the coal mine, the oil field, the gas well.
“When does this here meetin' start, Bill?"
“That air notice read half after seven."
"What's time now?"
“Damned 'f I know. Hey, Lee, what time's that pocket clock of yourn’s got?”
"Two past six."
There was the sound of a match scratching against the sole of a rough shoe.
“Gimme a light, Lafe."
In attempting to reach for the burning match before its flame was extinguished, the man stepped forward and stumbled over a cheap suitcase of imitation leather. A vile looking stogie fell in the aisle.
“God! Your feet're bigger'n Bill's."
The crowd laughed uproariously. The butt of this joke grinned and showed a set of dirty nicotine stained teeth. He recovered his balance in time to save the flaring match. He was a tremendous man, slightly stooped, with taffy colored, straggling hair and little pig eyes.
Between initial puffs he drawled: "Now you're barkin' up the wrong tree. I only wear elevens."
“Git off'n me, Lee Cromarty," growled Bill. "You hadn't ought to be rumlin' of my feathers the wrong way – and you a-plannin' to ride the goat."
Lafe, a consumptive appearing, undersized, bovine eyed individual, spat out the remark: "Naow, there! You had better be kereful. Men have been nailed to the cross for less than that."
"Ha! ha!-ho! ho! ho!"
There was a joke to arouse the temper of the crowd.
A baby began to cry lustily in the rear and more commodious end of the car reserved for nonsmokers. His infantine wailing smote in sharp contrast upon the ears of the hilarious joshers, filling the silence that followed the subsidence of the laughter.
"Taci, bimba. Non aver paura!"
Nobody understood the musical words of the patient, Madonna-eyed Italian mother, not even the baby, for it continued its yelling. She opened her gay colored shirt waist and pressed the child to her bosom. He was quieted.
"She can't speak United States, but I bet her Tony Spaghetti votes the same as you an' me. The young 'un ‘ll have more to say about the future of these Nunited States than your children an' mine unless we carry forward the word such as we are going to accomplish tonight."
"Yeh, you're damned right," answered the scowling companion of the lynx-eyed citizen in khaki clothes, who had thus commented upon the foreign woman's offspring.
“They breed like cats. They’ll outnumber us, unless –“
A smell of garlic stifled his speech. Nick and Mike Axaminter, late for the night shift at the La Belle, bent over the irate American deluging him with the odor of garlic and voluble, guttural explosions of a Slovak tongue.
"What t’ hell! Git them buckets out o' my face, you hunkies, you!"
Confused and apologetic the two men moved forward.
"Isn't this an awful fog, Barney," piped a gay, girlish voice.
"I'll tell the world it is," replied her red-haired companion, flinging a half smoked cigarette away in the darkness as he assisted the girl to the platform.
They made their way to a vacant seat in the end of the car opposite the smoker, pausing for a moment respectfully to make the sign of the cross before two Sisters of Charity, whose flowing black robes and ebon headdress contrasted strikingly with the pale whiteness of their faces. The nuns raised their eyes, slightly smiled and continued their orisons on dark decades of rosaries with pendant crosses of ivory.
"Let's sit here," whispered the girl. "I don't want to be by those niggers."
In a few seconds they were settled. There were cooings of sweet words, limpid-eyed soul glances. They forgot all others. The car was theirs alone.
"Say, boy, ain't this some fog. Yuh can't see the old berg."
“’Sthat so. I hadn't noticed."
Two Negro youths thus exchanged words. They were well dressed and sporty.
“Well, it don't matter, as long as it don't interfere with the dance."
"I hope Daisy will be there. She's some stunnin' high brown an' I don’t mean maybe."
Thereupon one began to hum "Daddy, O Daddy" and the other whistled softly the popular air from "Shuffle Along" entitled "Old-Fashioned Love.”
“Oi, oi! Ven I say vill dis car shtart. Ve must mek dot train fur Pittsburgh."
"Ach, Ish ka bibble. They can't do a thing without us, Laban."
They settled down in their seats to finish the discussions in Yiddish, emphasizing the conversation with shrugs of the shoulder and throaty interjections.
In a set apart to themselves, for two seats in front and behind were unoccupied, sat an old Negro man and a Negro woman, evidently his wife. Crowded between them was a girl of fourteen or fifteen.
"'This heah is suah cu'us weather," complained the old man.
“We all nevah had no sich fog in Oklahoma."
The girl's hair was bobbed and had been straightened by "Poro" treatment, giving her an Egyptian cast of features.
“Gran’ pappy," said the girl, "yo' cain't see ovah yander."
"Ain’t it de troot, chile."
"Ne' min', sugah," assured the old woman. "Ah done paid dat ‘ployment man an' he sayed yo' bound tuh lak de place. Dis here lady what’s hirin yo' is no po' trash an' she wants a likely gal lak yo' tuh ten' huh baby."
Now these series of conversations did not transpire in chronological order. They were uttered more or less simultaneously during the interval that the little conductor stood on tiptoe in an effort to keep one hand on the signal rope, craning his neck in a vain and dissatisfied endeavor to pierce the miasma of the fog. The motorman chafed in his box, thinking of the drudging lot of the laboring man ….
The garrulous group in the smoker were smouldering cauldrons of discontent. In truth their dissatisfaction ran the gamut of hate. It was stretching out to join hands with an unknown and clandestine host to plot, preserve, defend their dwarfed and twisted ideals.
The two foreign intruders in the smoker squirmed under the merciless, half articulate antipathy. They asked nothing but a job to make some money. In exchange for that magic English word job, they endured the terror that walked by day, the boss. They grinned stupidly at profanity, dirt, disease, disaster. Yet they were helping to make America.
Three groups in the car on this foggy evening were united under the sacred mantle of a common religion. Within its folds they sensed vaguely a something of happiness. The Italian mother radiated the joy of her child. Perhaps in honor of her and in reverence the two nuns with downcast eyes, trying so hard to forget the world, were counting off the rosary of the blessed Virgin –"Ave, Maria," "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women."
The youth and his girl in their tiny circle of mutual attraction and affection could not as in Edwin Markham's poem widen the circle to include all or even to embrace that small circumscribed area of humanity within the car.
And the Negroes? Surely there was no hate in their minds. The gay youths were rather indifferent. The trio from the South, journeying far for a greater freedom of self expression philosophically accepted the inevitable "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
The Jews were certainly enveloped in a racial consciousness, 1 unerringly fixed on control and domination of money, America's most potent factor in respectability.
The purplish haze of fog contracted. Its damp presence slipped into the car and every passenger shivered and peered forth to see. Their eyes were as the eyes of the blind!
At last the signal bell rang out staccato. The car suddenly lurched forward, shaking from side to side the passengers in their seats. The wheels scraped and began to turn. Almost at once a more chilling wetness filtered in from the river. In the invisibility of the fog it seemed that one was traveling through space, in an aeroplane perhaps, going nobody knew where.
The murmur of voices buzzed in the smoker, interrupted by the boisterous outbursts of laughter. A red glare tinted the fog for a second and disappeared. La Belle was "shooting" the furnaces. Then a denser darkness and the fog.
The car lurched, scintillating sparks flashed from the trolley wire, a terrific crash-silence. The lights went out. Before anybody could think or scream, there came a falling sensation, such as one experiences when dropped unexpectedly in an elevator or when diving through the scenic railways of the city amusement parks, or more exactly when one has a nightmare and dreams of falling, falling, falling.
"The bridge has given way. God! The muddy water! The fog! Darkness. Death."
These thoughts flashed spontaneously in the consciousness of the rough ignorant fellows, choking in the fumes of their strong tobacco, came to the garlic-scented "hunkies," to the Italian Madonna, to the Sisters of Charity, to the lover boy and his lover girl, to the Negro youths, to the Jews thinking in Yiddish idioms, to the old Negro man and his wife and the Egyptian-faced girl, with the straightened African hair, even to the bored motorman and the weary conductor.
To drown, to strangle, to suffocate, to die! In the dread silence the words screamed like exploding shells within the beating temples of terror-stricken passengers and crew.
Then protest, wild, mad, tumultuous, frantic protest. Life at bay and bellowing furiously against its ancient arch-enemy and antithesis – Death. An oath, screams,-dull, paralyzing) vomit-stirring nausea. Holy, unexpressed intimacies, deeply rooted prejudices were roughly shaken from their smug moorings. The Known to be changed for an Unknown, the ever expected, yet unexpected, Death. No! No! Not that.
Lee Cromarty saw things in that darkness. A plain, one-story frame house, a slattern woman on the porch, an overgrown, large hipped girl with his face. Then the woman's whining, scolding voice and the girl's bashful confidences. What was dimming that picture? What cataract was blurring his vision? Was it fog?
To Lafe, leader of the crowd, crouched in his seat, his fingers clawing the air for a grasping place, came a vision of a hill-side grave, – his wife's – and he saw again how she looked in her coffin – then the fog.
"I'll not report at the mine," thought Bill. "Wonder what old Bunner will say to that." The mine foreman's grizzled face dangled for a second before him and was swallowed in the fog.
Hoarse, gasping exhalations. Men, old men, young men, sobbing. "Pièta! Madre mia! – Mercy, Virgin Mary! My child!"
No thoughts of fear or pain on the threshold of death, that shadow from whence all children flow, but all the Mother Love focused to save the child.
"Memorare, remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that any one who fled to thy protection, implored thy help and sought thy intercession was left unaided."
The fingers sped over the beads of the rosary. But looming up, inerasable, shuttled the kaleidoscope of youth, love, betrayal, renunciation, the vows. Miserere, Jesu!
"Life is ever lord of Death
And Love can never lose its own."
The girl was hysterical, weeping, screaming, laughing. Did the poet dream an idle dream, a false mirage? Death is master. Death is stealing Love away. How could a silly girl believe or know the calm of poesie?
The boy crumbled. His swagger and bravado melted. The passionate call of sex became a blur. He was not himself, yet he was looking at himself, a confusion in space, in night, in Fog. And who was she hanging limp upon his arm?
That dance? The jazz dance? Ah, the dance! The dance of Life was ending. The orchestra was playing a dirge and Death was leading the Grand March. Fog! Impenetrable fog!
All the unheeded, forgotten warnings of ranting preachers, all the prayers of simple black mothers, the Mercy-Seat, the Revival, too late. Terror could give no articulate expression to these muffled feelings. They came to the surface of a blunted consciousness, incoherent.
Was there a God in Israel? Laban remembered Russia and the pogrom. The old Negro couple remembered another horror. They had been through the riots in Tulsa. There they had lost their son and his wife, the Egyptian-faced girl's father and mother. They had heard the whine of bullets, the hiss of flame, the howling of human wolves, killing in the most excruciating manner. The water was silent. The water was merciful.
The old woman began to sing in a high quavering minor key:
"Lawdy, won't yo' ketch mah groan,
Oh Lawdy, Lawdy, won't yo' ketch my groan."
The old man cried out: "Judgment! Judgment!"
The Egyptian-faced girl wept. She was sore afraid, sore afraid. And the fog was round about them.
Time is a relative term…. What happened inside the heads of these men and women seemed to them to have consumed hours instead of seconds. The conductor mechanically grabbed the trolley rope, the motorman threw on the brakes.
The reaction came. Fear may become inarticulate and paralyzed. Then again it may become belligerent and self-protective, striking blindly in the maze. Darkness did not destroy completely the sense of direction.
"The door! the exit!"
A mad rush to get out, not to be trapped without a chance, like rats in a trap.
"Out of my way! Damn you – out of my way!"
Somebody yelled: "Sit still!"
Somebody hissed: "Brutes! Beasts!"
Another concussion, accompanied by the grinding of steel. The car stopped, lurched backward, swayed, and again stood still. Excited shouts reechoed from the ends of the bridge. Automobile horns tooted. An age seemed to pass, but the great smash did not come. There was still time – maybe. The car was emptied.
"Run for the Ohio end!" someone screamed.
The fog shut off every man from his neighbour. The sound of scurrying feet reverberated, of the Italian woman and her baby, of the boy carrying his girl, of the Negro youths, of the old man and his wife, half dragging the Egyptian-faced girl, of the Sisters of Charity, miners. Flitting like wraiths in Homer's Hades, seeking life.
In five minutes all were safe on Ohio soil. The bridge still stood. A street light gave a ghastly glare through the fog. The whore houses on Water Street brooded evily in the shadows. Dogs barked, the Egyptian-faced girl had fainted. The old Negro woman panted, "Mah Jesus! Mah Jesus!"
The occupants of the deserted car looked at one another. The icy touch of the Grave began to thaw. There was a generous intermingling. Everybody talked at once, inquiring, congratulating.
"Look after the girl," shouted Lee Cromarty. "Help the old woman, boys."
Bells began to ring. People came running. The ambulance arrived.
The colored girl had recovered. Then everybody shouted again. Profane miners, used to catastrophe, were strangely moved. The white boy and girl held hands.
"Sing us a song, old woman," drawled Lafe.
"He's heard mah groan. He done heard it," burst forth the old woman in a song flood of triumph.
"Yes, he conquered Death and Hell,
An' He never said a mumblin' word,
Not a word, not a word."
"How you feelin', Mike," said Bill to the garlic eater. "Me fine. Me fine."
The news of the event spread like wildfire. The street was now crowded. The police arrived. A bridge official appeared, announcing the probable cause of the accident, a slipping of certain supports. The girders fortunately had held. A terrible tragedy had been prevented.
"I'm a wash-foot Baptist an' I don't believe in Popery," said Lafe, "but, fellers, let's ask them ladies in them air mournin' robes to say a prayer of thanksgiving for the bunch."
The Sisters of Charity did say a prayer, not an audible petition for the ears of men, but a whispered prayer for the ears of God, the Benediction of Thanksgiving, uttered by the Catholic Church through many years, in many tongues and places.
"De profundis," added the silently moving lips of the white-faced nuns. "Out of the depths have we cried unto Thee, O Lord. And Thou hast heard our cries."
The motorman was no longer dissatisfied. The conductor's strength had been renewed like the eagle's.
"Boys," drawled Lafe, "I'll be damned if I'm goin' to that meetin’ tonight."
"Nor me," affirmed Lee Cromarty. "Nor me," repeated all the others.
The fog still crept from under the bed of the river and down from the lowering hills of West Virginia – dense, tenacious, stealthy, chilling, but from about the hearts and minds of some rough, unlettered men another fog had begun to lift.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
The following excerpt is taken from the third edition of William Wells Brown's historic novel; this edition is called Clotelle, or the Colored Heroine (1867) and it is considered to be the first novel by an African-American. Brown advises his readers that the two leading characters are real personages and that the author witnessed many of the incidents.
A few miles out of Richmond is a pleasant place, with here and there a beautiful cottage surrounded by trees so as scarcely to be seen. Among these was one far retired from the public roads, and almost hidden among the trees. This was the spot that Henry Linwood had selected for Isabella, the eldest daughter of Agnes. The young man hired the house, furnished it, and placed his mistress there, and for many months no one in his father's family knew where he spent his leisure hours.
When Henry was not with her, Isabella employed herself in looking after her little garden and the flowers that grew in front of her cottage. The passion-flower, peony, dahlia, laburnum, and other plants, so abundant in warm climates, under the tasteful hand of Isabella, lavished their beauty upon this retired spot, and miniature paradise.
Although Isabella had been assured by Henry that she should be free and that he would always consider her as his wife, she nevertheless felt that she ought to be married and acknowledged by him. But this was an impossibility under the State laws, even had the young been disposed to do what was right in the matter. Related as he was, however, to one of the first families in Virginia, he would not have dared to marry a woman of so low an origin, even had the laws been favorable.
Here, in this secluded grove, unvisited by any other except her lover, Isabella lived for years. She had become the mother of a lovely daughter, which its father named Clotelle. The complexion of the child was still fairer than that of its mother. Indeed, she was not darker than other white children, and as she grew older she more and more resembled her father.
As time passed away, Henry became negligent of Isabella and his child, so much, so, that days and even weeks passed without their seeing him, or knowing where he was. Becoming more acquainted with the world, and moving continually in the society of young women of his own station, the young man felt that Isabella was a burden to him, and having as some would say, "outgrown his love," he longed to free himself of the responsibility; yet every time he saw the child, he felt that he owed it his fatherly care.
Henry had now entered into political life, and been elected to a seat in the legislature of his native State; and in his intercourse with his friends had become acquainted with Gertrude Miller, the daughter of a wealthy gentleman living near Richmond. Both Henry and Gertrude were very good-looking, and a mutual attachment sprang up between them.
Instead of finding fault with the unfrequent visits of Henry, Isabella always met him with a smile, and tried to make both him and herself believe that business was the cause of his negligence. When he was with her, she devoted every moment of her time to him, and never failed to speak of the growth and increasing intelligence of Clotelle.
The child had grown so large as to be able to follow its father on his departure out to the road. But the impression made on Henry’s feelings by the devoted woman and her child was momentary. His heart had grown hard, and his acts were guided by no fixed principle. Henry and Gertrude had been married nearly two years before Isabella knew anything of the event, and it was merely by accident that she became acquainted with the facts.
One beautiful afternoon, when Isabella and Clotelle were picking wild strawberries some two miles from their home, and near the roadside, they observed a one-horse chaise driving past. The mother turned her face from the carriage not wishing to be seen by strangers, little dreaming that the chaise contained Henry and his wife. The child, however, watched the chaise, and startled her mother by screaming out at the top of her voice, "Papa! papa!" and clapped her little hands for joy. The mother turned in haste to look at the strangers, and her eyes encountered those of Henry's pale and dejected countenance. Gertrude’s eyes were on the child. The swiftness with which Henry drove by could not hide from his wife the striking resemblance of the child to himself. The young wife had heard the child exclaim “Papa! Papa!” and she immediately saw by the quivering of his lips and the agitation depicted in his countenance, that all was not right.