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Concerning Father

 

Concerning Father

A Story

Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt, dean of American novelists of Negro descent, has kindly broken his long silence forThe Crisisand sent us this fascinating short story with its characteristic touch of color.

FATHER is a peculiar man. To be peculiar is not unusual, but father's peculiarity is, perhaps I should say was, so very unusual that we all hope it will not break out again, because, while it was interesting and no harm came of it, it was rather wearing upon the family while it lasted, and it is easy to imagine a different and a tragic outcome. Suppose, for instance, father hadn't waked up at all?

The particular incident I refer to transpired more than ten years ago, just before and reaching over the end of the Great War.

It was an evening about ten days before the armistice was signed, while the Meuse-Argonne drive was at its height. We were all in the living room after supper—father, mother, my elder sister Imogen, who is a high school teacher; her fiancé, Percival Biggs; my younger sister, Helen, who was taking a business course in Commercial High School, and my young brother Billy. Father was seated in a cushioned armchair by the table, on which stood the electric reading lamp. He had been reading aloud, from the Boston Evening Transcript, which is delivered in our town in the late afternoon, the latest news of the progress of the fighting, and the predictions of experts as to the probable duration of hostilities. Percival, who was a stenographer in a law office, and was studying law in a night law college, and who was regarded by father as a very intelligent young man, had made several comments. Imogene, who had been doing war relief work on several committees, had contributed to the discussion. Mother had expressed what turned out to be the vain hope that the end of the war might soon bring prices down, when father again took the floor. Father loves to talk, in which respect he is not at all peculiar.

"For my part," he said, "the way Foch and Pershing have got them sewed up, the Huns can't advance much farther. Their supplies are so nearly exhausted that they couldn't do much fighting if they did, and their morale and their transportation system are so shot to pieces that they can't retreat rapidly, and, if they could, we'd follow 'em to Berlin, and then where'd they be?"

He straightened himself up and leaned forward with both hands grasping the arms of the chair.

"In my opinion," he announced, "this war will come to an end on the" —

He stopped abruptly, and continued silent, while we waited for him to finish his sentence. Finally, after several moments, Percival spoke up.

"You were saying, sir?"

There was no response. We waited, breathlessly at first, then with a vague feeling of uneasiness, but still there was no answering sound. We saw that father's eyes were closed, and the natural assumption was that he had fallen asleep. But somehow this assumption was not convincing. His posture was not consistent with slumber. Had he fallen asleep he would have slumped back into the comfortable depths of the chair.

"For heaven's sake!" exclaimed mother, "it isn't at all like your pa to go to sleep that way, all of a sudden. Sam," she said, coming closer to him, "wake up, and go on upstairs if you're sleepy. We'll excuse you."

She reached over, took him by the shoulder, and tried to shake him.

"Well, I declare," she exclaimed, "he's as stiff as a board. I can't move him alone. Maybe Percival 'll help me get him upstairs."

Percival came over and took him by one arm and mother by the other, but they were not able to budge him.

"Maybe he's dead," said Billy tremulously. "Teddy Wickham's grandpa had a stroke last week and dropped dead out in the garden while he was pulling carrots."

"No," said I,—I had attended some Red Cross first aid classes, and had read more or less about death and its attendant incidents,—"if he were dead, rigor mortis wouldn't set in for several hours, and as mother says, he is stiff already."

"Hadn't we better call a doctor?" suggested Percival.

Mother had seated herself a short distance away, and was apparently deep in thought.

"No, children," she said, after a moment, "we won't call a doctor, and we needn't be alarmed. Your pa slept a whole day and two nights once before, when Emma Jane was a baby. I couldn't wake him up, and we sent for a doctor, and he said it was all right, at least for a day or two. And on the morning of the second day your pa woke up just as usual and went on about his business. And when I told him how scared I'd been, he told me never to bother about anything he did, that he had a peculiar streak in him that might crop out now and then, but it always came out right in the end, and that I wasn't to say anything about it, because he was a business man, and any reputation for being peculiar would hurt his business. So we'll just leave him where he is—I'll throw a blanket over him—and maybe he'll wake up in the morning, and if he doesn't within a day or two, we'll consider the matter further. So I guess we'd better calm ourselves and go to bed and get our night's rest. Don't say a word about this outside of the house, because I know that's what your pa would wish."

So we separated for the evening. Imogene, who was to be married as soon as Percival was admitted to the bar and began to practice, went out into the hall with him to bid him good night. Mother brought a double blanket and tucked it around father, turned out the lights, and we all went upstairs to bed.

Only mother and Billy slept well, and Imogene and I were the first ones up next morning. We woke mother and Billy, and then went somewhat fearfully downstairs to light the kitchen stove and get the breakfast started. We had given up our maid because of the war, and were doing our own housework, except the laundry work. On the way to the kitchen we peeped into the living room. Father was just as we had left him the night before. He had not moved a line, so far as we could perceive, and the blanket was still tucked around him as mother had arranged it.

We had the breakfast started when mother came down, and then, before sitting down at the table, we all went into the living room.

I took my courage in my hands and applied some of the theoretical knowledge I had acquired in my Red Cross course. I sent Billy upstairs to my bedroom for a hand mirror and held it   before father's lips. There was a faint moisture upon the surface of the glass, very faint, but enough to prove that he was still breathing, however lightly. I felt his pulse. It was very feeble, almost imperceptible, but enough to show that his heart was still beating. His flesh wasn't exactly warm, but it wasn't cold. I had a clinical thermometer, which I managed to get into his mouth through the vacant space from which a loose tooth had been recently extracted, which he had meant to get replaced with a false one when he got around to it. His temperature was away below normal, but he still had a temperature.

When I had announced these reasuring conclusions, mother said:

"Well, now, children, your father's alive, and he'll come out of this trance, or whatever it is, when he gets good and ready, and we needn't worry about it, as long as he doesn't change from what he is now. In the meantime, keep your mouths shut. I know it'll be easy for you girls, but I'm not so sure about Willie. If anybody asks about your pa, tell 'em he went away on a business trip. So he did, a week ago, but you needn't tell 'em he came back today. Now, Willie, if you breathe a word about your pa's being home or about his condition, you'll have to deal with me, and with him later. But if you keep perfectly quiet, when your pa comes around I'll see that you get that new bicycle you've been pestering him about."

So we went in to breakfast. Percival called before we had scattered to our various daily pursuits, and we told him that father's condition remained the same, and that he was to say nothing about it, but to come around that evening as usual.

Percival came after supper. He had gone to the Public Library after leaving the office, and had been reading up on cataleptic trances, suspended consciousness and other abnormal physical conditions. He expected, he said, that his cousin, a distinguished nerve specialist who had been in France for a year in the army service, would return to his home in Boston on leave within a week, and whether father had recovered or not by that time, that he would write him a letter, stating a hypothetical case corresponding to father's, and ask him for an opinion.

A week or more passed without any apparent change in father's condition. Of course so well known a man as he couldn't disappear without evoking some curiosity among his friends and business associates, but we managed to stave off any discovery or suspicion. We received callers in the library and kept the door between it and the living room locked. We arranged a screen to prevent any one from looking in the living room windows from the outside and seeing father, and put the shades down at night. We indeed got so accustomed to the situation that we resumed our evening gatherings in the living room, and even got accustomed to father's silence, which we had never had an opportunity to do before, because father had rarely been silent when there was anything being said. I sometimes wondered, somewhat unfilially, I suspect, if nature were not taking this means of evening up things by giving him a long rest from speech. It might have seemed to an outsider a little uncanny, but we became accustomed to the situation, and mother, who was of course the person most concerned, did not seem to worry.

"We'll wait a while yet," she would say, "and give him a chance. He's no worse than he was, and he'll come around all right. He told me not to worry if he did anything out of the common, and I'm not worrying. It won't last much longer, because he's got to be at the office on the fifteenth to attend the annual meeting. The office called up today and asked where he was. I said he'd been called away on private business— as he certainly was—so that was no lie. They asked would I give them his address so that they could telephone or write him. I said no, he didn't want anybody to know where he was, but I said he'd be back in time for the meeting, and if they wanted to write they could address the letter to the house and I'd forward it."

Two weeks had passed without any apparent change in father's condition, and we were all becoming a little nervous and apprehensive. Even mother's Olympian calm was beginning to crack, and she had about decided to call the doctor, when our troubles came to an end without an intervention on our part.

On the thirteenth day of November, 1918, we were all gathered in the living room—mother, Percival, Imogene, Helen, Billy and I, the same company that were present when father became unconscious. Father, still rigid and immovable, was leaning forward in his chair as usual. For two days the town had been a constant din of loud and strident noises. Cannon had been shot off, church bells rung, factory whistles sounded. On the night before, the signing of the armistice had been celebrated by a procession which had passed by our house with a clamor sufficient to have awakened the dead, so to speak, but none of these noises had disturbed father. Percival, who had developed quite a flow of speech during father's silence and had taken the lead in our evening discussions, was reading the details of the armistice from the Transcript, when a slight noise sounded from father's direction, as though he were clearing his throat. Suddenly he spoke, in a somewhat dry and husky voice:

—"On the eleventh day of November, at eleven o'clock in the morning!"

We were all too surprised to scream, and sat in a dead silence. Father stretched himself a moment and then went on.

"Good gracious, Susie"—which was the familiar form of my mother's given name, "I feel mighty stiff in the joints. I guess I'll go to bed. I never was so sleepy in my life."

He tried to rise, but mother and Percival caught him as he tottered.

"I guess it's a touch of rheumatism," he said. "You let Lizzie take your place, ma, and help me upstairs, while you make me a good stiff toddy and bring it up."

I am named Elizabeth, after the Virgin Queen, as was one of my grandmothers before me, but I have never been able to train father and mother to use anything but the vulgar old diminutive in addressing me, which was sufficiently annoying before it was adapted as the pseudonym of a cheap tin motor car, after which it became utterly unspeakable. The persistence of elderly people in clinging to old and reprehensible habits of speech and social conduct is one of the trails of the younger generation from which there seems no way of escape.

We got father to bed, and asked Percival to come to breakfast the next morning at seven-thirty. It was a holiday and Imogene and the younger children would not have to go to school, nor Percival to the office, so we would have plenty of time to talk things over. Then we all went to bed, and slept, I imagine, not much more than we did the first night we had left father sitting alone in the parlor.

It had been agreed between us the night before to say nothing to father about his strange experience until we met at the breakfast table. In the surprise and confusion of the evening before we had not quite grasped the significance of what father had said, or drawn any implications from it, at least I had not; but in the still watches of the night it was borne in upon me that, connecting up the two ends of his broken sentence, and eliminating the period of lapsed consciousness which had intervened, he had predicted two weeks in advance the exact date and hour when the armistice was signed and the fighting ceased. However, I did not try to solve the riddle, but tried to go to sleep, which I eventually succeeded in doing.

We were all seated at table when   father came down. He greeted us cheerfully, and we reponded in kind. He then, after his usual custom, picked up the morning paper.

"Well, by Godfrey!" he exclaimed, "that's a funny mistake for the Bugle to make. This paper is dated November fourteenth, when it should be October thirty-first. And what's all this", he went on, as he ran his eye along the headlines. "'Germans retiring beyond the Rhine. More details of terms of armistice. People of allied nations wild with joy at end of war.' What in the world does this mean? All these things couldn't have happened over night!"

Then mother explained, with occasional assistance from others of us, that they were the events of a fortnight, during which he had been unconscious.

"We didn't call the doctor," said mother, "because you'll remember you told me, once before, not to worry if anything peculiar happened to you. And nobody outside of the family, except Percival, knows anything at all about it."

"We haven't been able," said Percival, "in the absence of expert opinion, to determine just what your condition was, or what was the cause of it; but we thought, in view of what you had said to Mrs. Beckett, that you might be able to enlighten us."

"Well," replied father slowly, as he ate his cereal—father could do almost anything and talk at the same time, he even talked in his normal sleep—"maybe what I'm going to tell you will explain it and maybe it won't; you can take it for what it's worth. It begins with a bit of family history about the middle of the eighteenth century. I've never told any of you about it, not even you, ma, for reasons which will be apparent as I go along.

"My ancestors, the Becketts, whose name we have inherited in the direct male line, were seafaring people. This town was the principal seaport for the Chinese and Indian trade. My great-great-grandfather, Jonadab Beckett, was not a vessel owner, but was captain of a ship that traded in the eastern waters, in silks and tea and ivory, exchanging for them American trade goods which suited the Eastern market. On his return from one of his voyages he brought home with him an Indian wife.

"Gee!" exlaimed Billy, "like Pocahontas."

"Be quiet, Willie," said mother, "and don't interrupt your pa."

"No, Billy," continued father, "Pocahontas was an American Indian, and my great-great-grandmother was an East Indian, a Hindoo, I guess you'd call her."

"Of what caste was she?" asked Imogene.

"I don't know," said father. "I don't even know what her Indian name was. They had been married on board another ship in Calcutta harbor, by the captain, according to maritime law, but when great-great-grandfather Jonadab brought her home, he was persuaded, in order to keep peace in the family, to have her baptized with a Christian name, and the minister of their church remarried them so as to cure any possible informality of the maritime rite. I gather that while they didn't exactly like the marriage, they wanted to make sure, for the sake of possible children as well as on moral grounds, that it was an iron-bound, copper-riveted marraige. So they took no chances. You'll find her name in the old Beckett family Bible, at your Uncle Joe's, in Plymouth; I think it was 'Grace Abounding'—I don't remember her Indian name, although I have heard it.

"I doubt if she ever knew the meaning of her Christian name, and her new religion, I imagine, was never more than skin deep. My grandfather, Abel Beckett, who told me these things when he was a very old man, said that at home, in the privacy of her own house, she would sometimes dress in a silk or satin gown which her husband had brought with her from India, put on a necklace of gold coins or green beads—

"Rupees and jade!" murmured Imogene.

"With silver bracelets," father went on, "and sit motionless for hours staring into space or gazing at some little bronze or ivory image."

"She was homesick," interjected mother, "like I was when your father brought me here from Portsmouth."

"She was undoubtedly," suggested Percival, "a high-caste woman, a Brahmin, and of a fair complexion."

"Yes," said Imogene dreamily, "I can see her now, reclining in a cushioned, silk-curtained palanquin, borne by two stalwart coolies, going to shop in the bazaars or to make a visit upon the women of the zenana of some friendly family. She had a complexion of creamy old ivory, with a rose-bud mouth and teeth like pearls."

"But pa says he don't know," interposed Billy, "and she may have been a black, low-caste dancing girl, like the one in my geography, with bracelets on her ankles and a ring in her nose."

"Now you shut right up, Willie Beckett," said mother, severely, "and stop slandering your great-great-great-grandmother!"

"I never heard what she was," said father, "or how he came to know her. I don't know whether he bought her, or kidnapped her, or whether she came with him willingly. But he must have loved her, or he wouldn't have brought her home, and she must have been respectable or he wouldn't have married her."

"At any rate, new England didn't agree with her. I understand she never learned much of the English language. She stood the climate and the Yankee ways about three years, and then died, one cold, raw spring, of pneumonia, leaving one child, my great-grandfather, and was given Christian burial. As I say, she couldn't have been very dark, because none of my ancestors or relations ever showed any color, except her son, my great-grandfather, who had a slightly yellowish cast and very black hair and eyes. But he married a red-headed Garford, and all his descendants, so far as I know, have been fair-complexioned with light hair. I've never said anything about my East Indian ancestry, because, while I have no prejudice against color myself, and consider one man as good as another, other things being equal, yet I know how most people feel about such matters, and it's just as well not raise the question.

"I never did take a great deal of stock in this heredity," he went on. "I believe God makes each man by himself. But if there is such a thing as a hereditary throwback, it may be that I inherited from my great-great-grandmother some obscure faculty or tendency which has made me go off into a trance once or twice in my life."

At this point Billy butted into the conversation again. It was the only way he could get in.

"I wonder," he said, "if I inherited enough of her blood to learn to be a snake charmer, or a conjurer, and make a tree grow from a seed while you look at it?"

"Didn't I tell you to shut up, Willie?" said mother. "Don't let me have to tell you again. You've got entirely too much to say. You'll need all your time the next four or five years to learn your lessons in school."

"But," interposed Percival, "even that doesn't quite explain how you were able to predict to the hour the signing of the armistice, unless your ancestress's power to go into a trance was accompanied by the gift of prophecy."

"Well, now," said father, "it was hardly a prediction, was it? It was spoken after the event."

"But without any consciousness on your part," I suggested.

"Perhaps," resumed Percival, "while you were sitting quietly in the living

(Will you please turn to page 175)   Concerning Father (Continued from page 155)

room, your astral body was floating over the blood-stained battle-fields of France, watching the ebb and flow of the conflict. Perhaps you were present at the war councils of the leaders and learned at first hand what Hindenburg and Ludendorff and Foch and Pershing were saying."

"Well," said father, "I don't know that I'd have understood it if I had, for I don't speak either German or French."

"You wouldn't have needed to," said Percival. "Your astral body could have read their thoughts, and then, when it returned to your physical body, conveyed them to your subconscious mind, which found expression unwittingly when you spoke."

"Well," said father as he rose from the table, "be that as it may, it was a close guess. I hope you saved the newspapers for me, Susie; I'll have to do a lot of back reading to catch up and keep from making a fool of myself. After all, any way you look at it, this is a queer world, and a great many peculiar things happen in it."

In which opinion of father's I heartily concur.