Book Two: Flight
It seemed to Bigger that no sooner had he closed his eyes than he was wide awake again, suddenly and violently, as though someone had grabbed his shoulders and had shaken him. He lay on his back, in bed, hearing and seeing nothing. Then, like an electric switch being clicked on, he was aware that the room was filled with pale daylight. Somewhere deep in him a thought formed: It's morning. Sunday morning. He lifted himself on his elbows and cocked his head in an attitude of listening. He heard his mother and brother and sister breathing softly, in deep sleep. He saw the room and saw snow falling past the window; but his mind formed no image of any of these. They simply existed, unrelated to each other; the snow and the daylight and the soft sound of breathing cast a strange spell upon him, a spell that waited for the wand of fear to touch it and endow it with reality and meaning. He lay in bed, only a few seconds from deep sleep, caught in a deadlock of impulses, unable to rise to the land of the living.
Then, in answer to a foreboding call from a dark part of his mind, he leaped from bed and landed on his bare feet in the middle of the room. His heart raced; his lips parted; his legs trembled. He struggled to come fully awake. He relaxed his taut muscles, feeling fear, remembering that he had killed Mary, had smothered her, had cut her head off and put her body in the fiery furnace.
This was Sunday morning and he had to take the trunk to the station. He glanced about and saw Mary's shiny black purse lying atop his trousers on a chair. Good God! Though the air of the room was cold, beads of sweat broke onto his forehead and his breath stopped. Quickly, he looked round; his mother and sister were still sleeping. Buddy slept in the bed from which he had just arisen. Throw that purse away! Maybe he had forgotten other things? He searched the pockets of his trousers with nervous fingers and found the knife. He snapped it open and tiptoed to the window. Dried ridges of black blood were on the blade! He had to get rid of these at once. He put the knife into the purse and dressed hurriedly and silently. Throw the knife and purse into a garbage can. That's it! He put on his coat and found stuffed in a pocket the pamphlets Jan had given him. Throw these away, too! Oh, but . . . . Naw! He paused and gripped the pamphlets in his black fingers as his mind filled with a cunning idea. Jan had given him these pamphlets and he would keep them and show them to the police if he were ever questioned. That's it! He would take them to his room at Dalton's and put them in a dresser drawer. He would say that he had not even opened them and had not wanted to. He would say that he had taken them only because Jan had insisted. He shuffled the pamphlets softly, so that the paper would not rustle, and read the titles: Race Prejudice on Trial. The Negro Question in the United States. Black and White Unite and Fight. But that did not seem so dangerous. He looked at the bottom of a pamphlet and saw a black and white picture of a hammer and a curving knife. Below it he read a line that said: Issued by the Communist Party of the United States. Now, that did seem dangerous. He looked further and saw a pen-and-ink drawing of a white hand clasping a black hand in solidarity and remembered the moment when Jan had stood on the running board of the car and had shaken hands with him. That had been an awful moment of hate and shame. Yes, he would tell them that he was afraid of Reds, that he had not wanted to sit in the car with Jan and Mary, that he had not wanted to eat with them. He would say that he had done so only because it had been his job. He would tell them that it was the first time he had ever sat at a table with white people.
He stuffed the pamphlets into his coat pocket and looked at his watch. It was ten minutes until seven. He had to hurry and pack his clothes. He had to take that trunk to the station at eight-thirty.
Then fear rendered his legs like water. Suppose Mary had not burned? Suppose she was still there, exposed to view? He wanted to drop everything and rush back and see. But maybe even something worse had happened; maybe they had discovered that she was dead and maybe the police were looking for him? Should he not leave town right now? Gripped by the same impelling excitement that had had hold of him when he was carrying Mary up the stairs, he stood in the middle of the room. No; he would stay. Things were with him; no one suspected that she was dead. He would carry through and blame the thing upon Jan. He got his gun from beneath the pillow and put it in his shirt.
He tiptoed from the room, looking over his shoulder at his mother and sister and brother sleeping. He went down the steps to the vestibule and into the street. It was white and cold. Snow was falling and an icy wind blew. The streets were empty. Tucking the purse under his arm, he walked to an alley where a garbage can stood covered with snow. Was it safe to leave it here? The men on the garbage trucks would empty the can early in the morning and no one would be prying round on a day like this, with all the snow and its being Sunday. He lifted the top of the can and pushed the purse deep into a frozen pile of orange peels and mildewed bread. He replaced the top and looked round; no one was in sight.
He went back to the room and got his suitcase from under the side of the bed. His folks were still sleeping. In order to pack his clothes, he had to get to the dresser on the other side of the room. But how could he get there, with the bed on which his mother and sister slept standing squarely in the way? Goddamn! He wanted to wave his hand and blot them out. They were always too close to him, so close that he could never have any way of his own. He eased to the bed and stepped over it. His mother stirred slightly, then was still. He pulled open a dresser drawer and took out his clothes and piled them in the suitcase. While he worked there hovered before his eyes an image of Mary's head lying on the wet newspapers, the curly black ringlets soaked with blood.
He sucked his breath in and whirled about, his eyes glaring. His mother was leaning on her elbow in bed. He knew at once that he should not have acted frightened.
"What's the matter, boy?" she asked in a whisper.
"Nothing," he answered, whispering too.
“You jumped like something bit you."
"Aw, leave me alone. I got to pack."
He knew that his mother was waiting for him to give an account of himself, and he hated her for that. Why couldn't she wait until he told her of his own accord? And yet he knew that if she waited, he would never tell her.
"You get the job?"
"What they paying you?"
"You started already?"
"I wondered what made you so late."
''I had to work," he drawled with impatience.
"You didn't get in until after four."
He turned and looked at her.
"I got in at two."
"It was after four, Bigger," she said, turning and straining her eyes to look at an alarm clock above her head. "I tried to wait up for you, but I couldn't. When I heard you come in, I looked up at the clock and it was after four."
"I know when I got in, Ma."
"But, Bigger, it was after four."
"It was just a little after two."
"Oh, Lord! Ifyou want it two, then let it be two, for all I care. You act like you scared of something."
"Now, what you want to start a fuss for "
"A fuss? Boy!"
"Before I get out of bed, you pick on me."
"Bigger, I'm not picking on you, honey. I'm glad you got the job."
"You don't talk like it."
He felt that his acting in this manner was a mistake. If he kept on talking about the time he had gotten in last night, he would so impress it upon her that she would remember it and perhaps say something later on that would hurt him. He turned away and continued packing. He had to do better than this; he had to control himself.
"You want to eat?"
"I'll fix you something."
"You going to stay on the place?"
He heard her getting out of bed; he did not dare look round now. He had to keep his head turned while she dressed.
"How you like the people, Bigger?"
"They all right."
"You don't act like you glad."
"Oh, Ma! For Chrissakes! You want me to cry!"
"Bigger, sometimes I wonder what makes you act like you do."
He had spoken in the wrong tone of voice; he had to be care-ful. He fought down the anger rising in him. He was in trouble enough without getting into a fuss with his mother.
"You got a good job, now," his mother said. "You ought to work hard and keep it and try to make a man out of yourself. Someday you'll want to get married and have a home of your own. You got your chance now. You always said you never had a chance. Now, you got one."
He heard her move about and he knew that she was dressed enough for him to turn round. He strapped the suitcase and set it by the door; then he stood at the window, looking wistfully out at the feathery flakes of falling snow.
"Bigger, what's wrong with you?"
"Nothing," he said, wondering what change she saw in him. "Nothing. You just worry me, that's all," he concluded, feeling that even if he did say something wrong he had to fight her off him now. He wondered just how his words really did sound. Was the tone of his voice this morning different from other mornings? Was there something unusual in his voice since he had killed Mary? Could people tell he had done something wrong by the way he acted? He saw his mother shake her head and go behind the curtain to prepare breakfast. He heard a yawn; he looked and saw that Vera was leaning on her elbow, smiling at him.
"You get the job?"
"How much you making?"
"Aw, Vera. Ask Ma. I done told her everything."
"Goody! Bigger got a job!" sang Vera.
"Aw, shut up.” he said.
"Leave him alone, Vera,'' the mother said.
"What's the matter?"
"What's the matter with 'im all the time?" asked the mother.
"Oh, Bigger," said Vera, tenderly and plaintively.
"That boy just ain't got no sense, that's all," the mother said. "He won't even speak a decent word to you.''
"Turn your head so I can dress," Vera said.
Bigger looked out of the window. He heard someone say, "Aw!" and he knew that Buddy was awake.
"Turn your head, Buddy," Vera said.
"You can look now," Vera said.
He saw Buddy sitting up in bed, rubbing his eyes. Vera was sitting on the edge of a chair, with her right foot hoisted upon another chair, buckling her shoes. Bigger stared vacantly in her direction. He wished that he could rise up through the ceiling and float away from this room, forever.
"I wish you wouldn't look at me," Vera said.
"Hunh?" said Bigger, looking in surprise at her pouting lips. Then he noticed what she meant and poked out his lips at her. Quickly, she jumped up and threw one of her shoes at him. It sailed past his head and landed against the window, rattling the panes.
"I told you not to look at me!" Vera screamed.
Bigger stood up, his eyes red with anger. "I just wish you had hit me," he said.
"You, Vera!" the mother called.
"Ma, make 'im stop looking at me," Vera wailed.
"Wasn't nobody looking at her," Bigger said.
"You looked under my dress when I was buttoning my shoes!"
"I just wish you had hit me," Bigger said again.
"I ain't no dog!" Vera said.
"Come on in the kitchen and dress, Vera," the mother said.
"He makes me feel like a dog," Vera sobbed with her face buried in her hands, going behind the curtain.
"Boy,'' said Buddy, "I tried to keep awake till you got in last night, but I couldn't. I had to go to bed at three. I was so sleepy I could hardly keep my eyes open."
"I was here before then," Bigger said.
“Aw, naw! I was up. . . ."
"I know when I got in!"
They looked at each other in silence.
"O.K.," Buddy said.
Bigger was uneasy. He felt that he was not handling himself right.
"You get the job?" Buddy asked.
"What kind of a car is it?"
"Can I ride with you some time?"
"Sure; soon as I get settled."
Buddy's questions made him feel a little more at ease; he always liked the adoration Buddy showed him.
"Gee! That's the kind of job I want," Buddy said.
"Will you see if you can find me one?"
"Sure. Give me time."
"Got a cigarette?"
They were silent, smoking. Bigger was thinking of the furnace. Had Mary burned? He looked at his watch; it was seven o'clock. Ought he go over right now, without waiting for breakfast? Maybe he had left something lying round that would let them know Mary was dead. But if they slept late on Sunday mornings, as Mr. Dalton had said, they would have no reason to be looking round down there.
"Bessie was by last night," Buddy said.
"She said she saw you in Ernie's Kitchen Shack with some white folks."
"Yeah. Iwas driving 'em last night."
"She was talking about you and her getting married."
"How come gals that way, Bigger? Soon's a guy get a good job, they want to marry?"
"Damn if I know."
"You got a good job now. You can get a better gal than Bessie," Buddy said.
Although he agreed with Buddy, he said nothing.
"I'm going to tell Bessie!" Vera called.
"If you do, I'll break your neck," Bigger said.
"Hush that kind of talk in here," the mother said.
"Oh, yeah," Buddy said. "I met Jack last night. He said you almost murdered old Gus."
"I ain't having nothing to do with that gang no more," Bigger said emphatically.
"But Jack's all right," Buddy said.
"Well, Jack, but none of the rest."
Gus and G.H. and Jack seemed far away to Bigger now, in another life, and all because he had been in Dalton's home for a few hours and had killed a white girl. He looked round the room, seeing it for the first time. There was no rug on the floor and the plastering on the walls and ceiling hung loose in many places. There were two worn iron beds, four chairs, an old dresser, and a drop leaf table on which they ate. This was much different from Dalton's home. Here all slept in one room; there he would have a room for himself alone. He smelt food cooking and remembered that one could not smell food cooking in Dalton's home; pots could not be heard rattling all over the house. Each person lived in one room and had a little world of his own. He hated this room and all the people in it, including himself. Why did he and his folks have to live like this? What had they ever done? Perhaps they had not done any thing. Maybe they had to live this way precisely because none of them in all their lives had ever done anything, right or wrong, that mattered much.
"Fix the table, Vera. Breakfast's ready," the mother called.
Bigger sat at the table and waited for food. Maybe this would be the last time he would eat here. He felt it keenly and it helped him to have patience. Maybe someday he would be eating in jail. Here he was sitting with them and they did not know that he had murdered a white girl and cut her head off and burnt her body. The thought of what he had done, the awful horror of it, the daring associated with such actions, formed for him for the first time in his fear-ridden life a barrier of protection between him and a world he feared. He had murdered and had created a new life for himself. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had anything that others could not take from him. Yes; he could sit here calmly and eat and not be concerned about what his family thought or did. He had a natural wall from behind which he could look at them. His crime was an anchor weighing him safely in time; it added to him a certain confidence which his gun and knife did not. He was outside of his family now, over and beyond them; they were incapable of even thinking that he had done such a deed. And he had done something which even he had not thought possible.
Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that it had been an accident. He was black and he had been alone in a room where a white girl had been killed; therefore he had killed her. That was what everybody would say anyhow, no matter what he said. And in a certain sense he knew that the girl's death had not been accidental. He had killed many times before, only on those other times there had been no handy victim or circumstance to make visible or dramatic his will to kill. His crime seemed natural; he felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this. It was no longer a matter of dumb wonder as to what would happen to him and his black skin; he knew now. The hidden meaning of his life-- a meaning which others did not see and which he had always tried to hide- had spilled out. No; it was no accident, and he would never say that it was. There was in him a kind of terrified pride in feeling and thinking that someday he would be able to say publicly that he had done it. It was as though he had an obscure but deep debt to fulfil to himself in accepting the deed.
Now that the ice was broken, could he not do other things? What was there to stop him? While sitting there at the table waiting for his breakfast, he felt that he was arriving at something which had long eluded him. Things were becoming clear; he would know how to act from now on. The thing to do was to act just like others acted, live like they lived, and while they were not looking, do what you wanted. They would never know. He felt in the quiet presence of his mother, brother, and sister a force, inarticulate and unconscious, making for living without thinking, making for peace and habit, making for a hope that blinded. He felt that they wanted and yearned to see life in a certain way; they needed a certain picture of the world; there was one way of living they preferred above all others; and they were blind to what did not fit. They did not want to see what others were doing if that doing did not feed their own desires. All one had to do was be bold, do something nobody
thought of. The whole thing came to him in the form of a powerful and simple feeling; there was in everyone a great hunger to believe that made him blind, and if he could see while others were blind, then he could get what he wanted and never be caught at it. Now, who on earth would think that he, a black timid Negro boy, would murder and burn a rich white girl and would sit and wait for his breakfast like this? Elation filled him.
He sat at the table watching the snow fall past the window and many things became plain. No, he did not have to hide behind a wall or a curtain now; he had a safer way of being safe, an easier way. What he had done last night had proved that. Jan was blind. Mary had been blind. Mr. Dalton was blind. And Mrs. Dalton was blind; yes, blind in more ways than one. Bigger smiled slightly. Mrs. Dalton had not known that Mary was dead while she had stood over the bed in that room last night. She had thought that Mary was drunk, because she was used to Mary's coming home drunk. And Mrs. Dalton had not known that he was in the room with her; it would have been the last thing she would have thought of. He was black and would not have figured in her thoughts on such an occasion. Bigger felt that a lot of people were like Mrs. Dalton, blind.. ..
"Here you are, Bigger," his mother said, setting a plate of grits on the table.
He began to eat, feeling much better after thinking out what had happened to him last night. He felt he could control himself now.
"Ain't you-all eating?" he asked, looking round.
"You go on and eat. You got to go. We'll eat later," his mother said.
He did not need any money, for he had the money he had gotten from Mary's purse; but he wanted to cover his tracks carefully.
"You got any money, Ma?"
"Just a little, Bigger."
"I need some."
"Here's a half. That leaves me exactly one dollar to last till Wednesday."
He put the half-dollar in his pocket. Buddy had finished dressing and was sitting on the edge of the bed. Suddenly, he saw Buddy, saw him in the light of Jan. Buddy was soft and vague; his eyes were defenseless and their glance went only to the surface of things. It was strange that he had not noticed that before. Buddy, too, was blind. Buddy was sitting there longing for a job like his. Buddy, too, went round and round in a groove and did not see things. Buddy's clothes hung loosely compared the the way Jan's hung. Buddy seemed aimless, lost, with no sharp or hard edges, like a chubby puppy. Looking at Buddy and thinking of Jan and Mr. Dalton, he saw in Buddy a certain stillness, an isolation, meaninglessness.
"How come you looking at me that way, Bigger?"
"You looking at me so funny."
"I didn't know it. I was thinking."
His mother came into the room with more plates of food and he saw how soft and shapeless she was. Her eyes were tired and sunken and darkly ringed from a long lack of rest. She moved about slowly, touching objects with her fingers as she passed them, using them for support. Her feet dragged over the wooden floor and her face held an expression of tense effort. Whenever she wanted to look at anything, even though it was near her, she turned her entire head and body to see it and did not shift her eyes. There was in her heart, it seemed, a heavy and delicately balanced burden whose weight she did not want to assume by disturbing it one whit. She saw him looking at her.
"Eat your breakfast, Bigger."
Vera brought her plate and sat opposite him. Bigger felt that even though her face was smaller and smoother than his mother's, the beginning of the same tiredness was already there. How different Vera was from Mary! He could see it in the very way Vera moved her hand when she carried the forkto her mouth; she seemed to be shrinking from life in every gesture she made. The very manner in which she sat showed a fear so deep as to be an organic part of her; she carried the food to her mouth in tiny bits, as if dreading its choking her, or fearing that it would give out too quickly.
"Bigger!" Vera wailed.
"You stop now," Vera said, laying aside her fork and slapping her hand through the air at him.
"Stop looking at me, Bigger!"
"Aw, shut up and eat your breakfast!"
"Ma, make 'im stop looking at me!"
"I ain't looking at her, Ma!"
"You is!" Vera said.
"Eat your breakfast, Vera, and hush," said the mother.
"He just keeps watching me, Ma!"
"Gal, you crazy!" said Bigger.
"I ain't no crazy'n you!"
"Now, both of you hush," said the mother.
"I ain't going to eat with him watching me," Vera said, getting up and sitting on the edge of the bed.
"Go on and eat your grub!" Bigger said, leaping to his feet and grabbing his cap. "I'm getting out of here."
"What's wrong with you, Vera?" Buddy asked.
'"Tend to your business!" Vera said, tears welling to her eyes.
"Will you children please hush," the mother wailed.
"Ma, you oughtn't let 'im treat me that way," Vera said.
Bigger picked up his suitcase. Vera came back to the table, drying her eyes.
"When will I see you again, Bigger?" the mother asked.
"I don't know," he said, slamming the door.
He stopped and looked back. Buddy was running down the steps. He waited, wondering what was wrong.
"What you want?"
Buddy stood before him, diffident, smiling.
"I-I. . . ."
"What's the matter?"
"Shucks, I just thought . . . ."
Bigger stiffened with fright.
"Say, what you so excited about?"
"Aw, I reckon it ain't nothing. I just thought maybe you was in trouble . . . ."
Bigger mounted the steps and stood close to Buddy.
"Trouble? What you mean?" he asked in a frightened whisper.
"I just thought you was kind of nervous, wanted to help you, that's all. I just thought . . . ."
"How come you think that?"
Buddy held out a roll of bills in his hand.
"You dropped it on the floor," he said.
Bigger stepped back, thunder-struck. He felt in his pocket for the money; it was not there. He took the money from Buddy and stuffed it hurriedly in his pocket.
"Did Ma see it?"
He gazed at Buddy in a long silence. He knew that Buddy was yearning to be with him, aching to share his confidence; but that could not happen now. He caught Buddy's arm in a tight grip.
"Listen, don't tell nobody, see? Here," he said, taking out the roll and peeling off a bill. "Here; take this and buy something. But don't tell nobody."
"Gee! Thanks. I won't tell. But can I help you?"
"Naw; naw. . . ."
Buddy started back up the steps.
"Wait," Bigger said.
Buddy came back and stood facing him, his eyes eager, shining. Bigger looked at him, his body as taut as that of an animal about to leap. But his brother would not betray him. He could trust Buddy. He caught Buddy's arm again and squeezed it until Buddy flinched with pain.
"Don't you tell nobody, hear?"
"Naw; naw. . . . I won’t . . . "
"Go on back, now."
Buddy ran up the steps, out of sight. Bigger stood brooding in the shadows of the stairway. He thrust the feeling from him, not with shame, but with impatience. He had felt toward Buddy for an instant as he had felt toward Mary when she lay upon the bed with the white blur moving toward him in the hazy blue light of the room. But he won't tell, he thought.
He went down the steps and into the street. The air was cold and the snow had stopped. Overhead the sky was clearing a little. As he neared the corner drug store, which stayed open all night, he wondered if any of the gang was around. Maybe Jack or G.H. was hanging out and had not gone home, as they sometimes did. Though he felt he was cut off from them forever, he had a strange hankering for their presence. He wanted to know how he would feel if he saw them again. Like a man reborn, he wanted to test and taste each thing now to see how it went; like a man risen up well from a long illness, he felt deep and wayward whims.
He peered through the frosted glass; yes, G.H. was there. He opened the door and went in. G.H. sat at the fountain, talking to the soda-jerker. Bigger sat next to him. They did not speak. Bigger bought two packages of cigarettes and shoved one of them to G.H., who looked at him in surprise.
"This for me?" G.H. asked.
Bigger waved his palm and pulled down the corners of his lips.
G.H. opened the pack.
"Jesus, I sure needed one. Say, you working now?"
"How you like it?"
"Jack was telling me you saw the gal in the movie you suppose to drive around. Did you?"
"How is she?"
"Aw, we like that," Bigger said, crossing his fingers. He was trembling with excitement; sweat was on his forehead. He was excited and something was impelling him to become more excited. It was like a thirst springing from his blood. The door opened and Jack came in.
"Say, how is it, Bigger?"
Bigger wagged his head.
"Hunky dory," he said.
"Here; gimme another pack of cigarettes," he told the clerk. "This is for you, Jack."
"Jesus, you in clover, sure 'nough," Jack said, glimpsing the thick roll of bills.
"Where's Gus?" Bigger asked.
"He'll be along in a minute. We been hanging out at Clara's all night."
The door opened again; Bigger turned and saw Gus step inside. Gus paused.
"Now, you-all don't fight," Jack said.
Bigger bought another package of cigarettes and tossed it toward Gus. Gus caught it and stood, bewildered.
"Aw, come on, Gus. Forget it," Bigger said.
Gus came forward slowly; he opened the package and lit one.
"Bigger, you sure is crazy," Gus said with a shy smile.
Bigger knew that Gus was glad that the fight was over. Bigger was not afraid of them now; he sat with his feet propped upon his suitcase, looking from one to the other with a quiet smile.
"Lemme have a dollar," Jack said.
Bigger peeled off a dollar bill for each of them.
"Don't say I never give you nothing," he said, laughing.
"Bigger, you sure is one more crazy nigger," Gus said again, laughing with joy.
But he had to go; he could not stay here talking with them. He ordered three bottles of beer and picked up his suitcase.
"Ain't you going to drink one, too?" G.H. asked.
"Naw; I got to go."
"We'll be seeing you!"
He waved at them and swung through the door. He walked over the snow, feeling giddy and elated. His mouth was open and his eyes shone. It was the first time he had ever been in their presence without feeling fearful, He was following a strange path into a strange land and his nerves were hungry to see where it led. He lugged his suitcase to the end of the block, and stood waiting for a street car. He slipped his fingers into his vest pocket and felt the crisp roll of bills. Instead of going to Dalton's, he could take a street car to a railway station and leave town. But what would happen if he left? If he ran away now it would be thought at once that he knew something about Mary, as soon as she was missed. No; it would be far better to stick it out and see what happened. It might be a long time before anyone would think that Mary was killed and a still longer time before anyone would think that he had done it. And when Mary was missed, would they not think of the Reds first? The street car rumbled up and he got on and rode to Forty seventh Street, where he transferred to an east-bound car. He looked anxiously at the dim reflection of his black face in the sweaty windowpane. Would any of the white faces all about him think that he had killed a rich white girl? No! They might think he would steal a dime, rape a woman, get drunk, or cut somebody; but to kill a millionaire's daughter and burn her body? He smiled a little, feeling a tingling sensation enveloping all his body. He saw it all very sharply and simply: act like other people thought you ought to act, yet do what you wanted. In a certain sense he had been doing just that in a loud and rough manner all his life, but it was only last night when he had smothered Mary in her room while her blind mother had stood with outstretched arms that he had seen how clearly it could be done. Although he was trembling a little, he was not really afraid. He was eager, tremendously excited. I can take care of them, he thought, thinking of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton.
There was only one thing that worried him; he had to get that lingering image of Mary's bloody head lying on those newspapers from before his eyes. If that were done, then he would be all right. Gee, what a fool she was, he thought, remembering how Mary had acted. Carrying on that way! Hell, she made me do it! I couldn't help it! She should've known better! She should've left me alone,
Goddammit! He did not feel sorry for Mary; she was not real to him, not a human being; he had not known her long or well enough for that. He felt that his murder of her was more than amply justified by the fear and shame she had made him feel. It seemed that her actions had evoked fear and shame in him. But when he thought hard about it it seemed impossible that they could have. He really did not know just where that fear and shame had come from; it had just been there, that was all. Each time he had come in contact with her it had risen hot and hard.
It was not Mary he was reacting to when he felt that fear and shame. Mary had served to set off his emotions, emotions conditioned by many Marys. And now that he had killed Mary he felt a lessening of tension in his muscles; he had shed an invisible burden he had long carried.
As the car lurched over the snow he lifted his eyes and saw black people upon the snow-covered sidewalks. Those people had feelings of fear and shame like his. Many a time he had stood on street corners with them and talked of white people as long sleek cars zoomed past. To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one's feet in the dark. As long as he and his black folks did not go beyond certain limits, there was no need to fear that white force. But whether they feared it or not, each and every day of their lives they lived with it; even when words did not sound its name, they acknowledged its reality. As long as they lived here in this prescribed corner of the city, they paid mute tribute to it.
There were rare moments when a feeling and longing for solidarity with other black people would take hold of him. He would dream of making a stand against that white force, but that dream would fade when he looked at the other black people near him. Even though black like them, he felt there was too much difference between him and them to allow for a common binding and a common life. Only when threatened with death could that happen; only in fear and shame, with their backs against a wall, could that happen. But never could they sink their differences in hope.
As he rode, looking at the black people on the sidewalks, he felt that one way to end fear and shame was to make all those black people act together, rule them, tell them what to do, and make them do it. Dimly, he felt that there should be one direction in which he and all other black people could go whole-heartedly; that there should be a way in which gnawing hunger and restless aspiration could be fused; that there should be a manner of acting that caught the mind and body in certainty and faith. But he felt that such would never happen to him and his black people, and he hated them and wanted to wave his hand and blot them out. Yet, he still hoped, vaguely. Of late he had liked to hear tell of men who could rule others, for in actions such as these he felt that there was a way to escape from this tight morass of fear and shame that sapped at the base of his life. He liked to hear of how Japan was conquering China; of how Hitler was running the Jews to the ground; of how Mussolini was invading Spain. He was not concerned with whether these acts were right or wrong; they simply appealed to him as possible avenues of escape. He felt that someday there would be a black man who would whip the black people into a tight band and together they would act and end fear and shame. He never thought of this in precise mental images; he felt it; he would feel it for a while and then forget. But hope was always waiting somewhere deep down in him.
It was fear that had made him fight Gus in the poolroom. If he had felt certain of himself and of Gus, he would not have fought. But he knew Gus, as he knew himself, and he knew that one of them might fail through fear at the decisive moment. How could he think of going to rob Blum's that way? He distrusted and feared Gus and he knew that Gus distrusted and feared him; and the moment he tried to band himself and Gus together to do something, he would hate Gus and himself. Ultimately, though, his hate and hope turned outward from himself and Gus: his hope toward a vague benevolent something that would help and lead him, and his hate toward the whites; for he felt that they ruled him, even when they were far away and not thinking of him, ruled him by conditioning him in his relations to his own people.
The street car crawled through the snow; Drexel Boulevard was the next stop. He lifted the suitcase and stood at the door. In a few minutes he would know if Mary had burned. The car stopped; he swung off and walked through snow as deep as his ankles, heading for Dalton's.
When he got to the driveway he saw that the car was standing just as he had left it, but all covered with a soft coat of snow. The house loomed white and silent. He unlatched the gate and went past the car, seeing before his eyes an image of Mary, her bloody neck just inside the furnace and her head with its curly black hair lying upon the soggy newspapers. He paused. He could turn round now and go back. He could get into the car and be miles from here before anybody knew it. But why run away unless there was good reason? He had some money to make a run for it when the time came. And he had his gun. His fingers trembled so that he had difficulty in unlocking the door; but they were not trembling from fear. It was a kind of eagerness he felt, a confidence, a fulness, a freedom; his whole life was caught up in a supreme and meaningful act. He pushed the door in, then was stone-still, sucking his breath in softly. In the red glare of the furnace stood a shadowy figure. Is that Mrs. Dalton? But it was taller and stouter than Mrs. Dalton. Oh, it was Peggy! She stood with her back to him, a little bent. She seemed to be peering hard into the furnace. She didn't hear me come in, he thought. Maybe I ought to go! But before he could move Peggy turned round.
"Oh, good morning, Bigger."
He did not answer.
"I'm glad you came. I was just about to put more coal into the fire."
"I'll fix it, mam."
He came forward, straining his eyes to see if any traces of Mary were in the furnace. When he reached Peggy's side he saw that she was staring through the cracks of the door at the red bed of livid coals.
"The fire was very hot last night," Peggy said. "But this morning it got low."
"I'll fix it," Bigger said, standing and not daring to open the door of the furnace while she stood there beside him in the red darkness.
He heard the dull roar of the draft going upwards and wondered if she suspected anything. He knew that he should have turned on the light; but what if he did and the light revealed parts of Mary in the furnace?
"I'll fix it, mam," he said again.
Quickly, he wondered if he would have to kill her to keep her from telling if she turned on the light and saw something that made her think that Mary was dead? Without turning his head he saw an iron shovel resting in a near-by corner. His hands clenched. Peggy moved from his side toward a light that swung from the ceiling at the far end of the room near the stairs.
"I'll give you some light," she said.
He moved silently and quickly toward the shovel and waited to see what would happen. The light came on, blindingly bright; he blinked. Peggy stood near the steps holding her right hand tightly over her breast. She had on a kimono and was trying to hold it closely about her. Bigger understood at once. She was not even thinking of the furnace; she was just a little ashamed of having been seen in the basement in her kimono.
"Has Miss Dalton come down yet?" she asked over her shoulder as she went up the steps.
"No'm. I haven't seen her."
"You just come?"
She stopped and looked back at him.
"But the car, it's in the driveway."
"Yessum," he said simply, not volunteering any information.
"Then it stayed out all night?"
"I don't know, mam."
"Didn't you put it in the garage?"
"No'm. Miss Dalton told me to leave it out."
"Oh! Then it did stay out all night. That's why it's covered with snow."
"I reckon so, mam."
Peggy shook her head and sighed.
"Well, I suppose she'll be ready for you to take her to the station in a few minutes."
"I see you brought the trunk down."
"Yessum. She told me to bring it down last night."
"Don't forget it," she said, going through the kitchen door.
For a long time after she had gone he did not move from his tracks. Then, slowly, he looked round the basement, turning his head like an animal with eyes and ears alert, searching to see if any thing was amiss. The room was exactly as he had left it last night. He walked about, looking closer. All at once he stopped, his eyes widening. Directly in front of him he saw a small piece of blood stained newspaper lying in the livid reflection cast by the cracks in the door of the furnace. Had Peggy seen that? He ran to the light and turned it out and ran back and looked at the piece of paper. He could barely see it. That meant that Peggy had not seen it. How about Mary? Had she burned? He turned the light back on and picked up the piece of paper. He glanced to the left and right to see if anyone was watching, then opened the furnace door and peered in, his eyes filled with the vision of Mary and her bloody throat. The inside of the furnace breathed and quivered in the grip of fiery coals. But there was no sign of the body, even though the body's image hovered before his eyes, between his eyes and the bed of coals burning hotly. Like the oblong mound of fresh clay of a newly made grave, the red coals revealed the bent outline of Mary's body. He had the feeling that if he simply touched that red oblong mound with his finger it would cave in and Mary's body would come into full view, unburnt. The coals had the appearance of having burnt the body beneath, leaving the glowing embers formed into a shell of red hotness with a hollowed space in the center, keeping still in the embrace of the quivering coals the huddled shape of Mary's body. He blinked his eyes and became aware that he still held the piece of paper in his hand. He lifted it to the level of the door and the draft sucked it from his fingers; he watched it fly into the red trembling heat, smoke, turn black, blaze, then vanish.
He shut the door and pulled the lever for more coal. The rattling of the tiny lumps against the tin sides of the chute came loudly to his ears as the oblong mound of red fire turned gradually black and blazed from the fanwise spreading of coal whirling into the furnace. He shut off the lever and stood up; things were all right so far. As long as no one poked round in that fire, things would be all right. He himself did not want to poke in it, for fear that some part of Mary was still there. If things could go on like this until after noon, Mary would be burned enough to make him safe. He turned and looked at the trunk again. Oh! He must not forget! He had to put those Communist pamphlets in his room right away. He ran back of the furnace, up the steps to his room and placed the pamphlets smoothly and neatly in a corner of his dresser drawer. Yes, they would have to be stacked neatly. No one must think that he had read them.
He went back to the basement, dragged the trunk to the door, lifted it to his back, carried it to the car and fastened it to the running board. He looked at his watch; it was eight-twenty. Now, he would have to wait for Mary to come out. He took his seat at the steering wheel and waited for five minutes. He would ring the hell for her. He looked at the steps leading up to the side door of the house, remembering how Mary had stumbled last night and how he had held her up. Then, involuntarily, he started in fright as a full blast of intense sunshine fell from the sky, making the snow leap and glitter and sparkle about him in a world of magic whiteness without sound. It's getting late! He would have to go in and ask for Miss Dalton. If he stayed here too long it would seem that he was not expecting her to come down. He got out of the car and walked up the steps to the side door. He looked through the glass; no one was in sight. He tried to open the door and found it locked. He pushed the bell, hearing the gong sound softly within. He waited a moment, then saw Peggy hurrying down the hall. She opened the door.
"Hasn't she come out yet?"
"No'm. And it's getting late."
"Wait. I'll call her."
Peggy, still dressed in the kimono, ran up the stairs, the same stairs up which he had half-dragged Mary and the same stairs down which he had stumbled with the trunk last night. Then he saw Peggy coming back down the stairs, much slower than she had gone up. She came to the door.
"She ain't here. Maybe she's gone. What did she tell you?"
"She said to drive her to the station and to take her trunk, mam."
"Well, she ain't in her room and she ain't in Mrs. Dalton's room. And Mr. Dalton's asleep. Did she tell you she was going this morning?"
"That's what she told me last night, mam."
"She told you to bring the trunk down last night?"
Peggy thought a moment, looking past him at the snow covered car.
"Well, you better take the trunk on. Maybe she didn't stay here last night."
He turned and started down the steps.
"You say she told you to leave the car out, all night?"
"Did she say she was going to use it again?"
"No'm. You see," Bigger said, feeling his way, "he was in it. . . ."
"Oh; yes. Take the trunk on. I suppose Mary was up to some of her pranks."
He got into the car and pulled it down the driveway to the street, then headed northward over the snow. He wanted to look back and see if Peggy was watching him, but dared not. That would make her think that he thought that something was wrong, and he did not want to give that impression now. Well, at least he had one person thinking it as he wanted it thought.
He reached the La Salle Street Station, pulled the car to a platform, backed into a narrow space between other cars, hoisted the trunk up, and waited for a man to give him a ticket for the trunk. He wondered what would happen if no one called for it. Maybe they would notify Mr. Dalton. Well, he would wait and see. He had done his part. Miss Dalton had asked him to take the trunk to the station and he had done it.
He drove as hurriedly back to the Daltons' as the snow-covered streets would allow him. He wanted to be back on the spot to see what would happen, to be there with his fingers on the pulse of time. He reached the driveway and nosed the car into the garage, locked it, and then stood wondering if he ought to go to his room or to the kitchen. It would be better to go straight to the kitchen as though nothing had happened. He had not as yet eaten his breakfast as far as Peggy was concerned, and his coming into the kitchen would be thought natural. He went through the basement, pausing to look at the roaring furnace, and then went to the kitchen door and stepped in softly. Peggy stood at the gas stove with her back to him. She turned and gave him a brief glance.
"You make it all right?''
"You see her down there?"
"A little, mam."
"A little?" Peggy laughed. "You'll get used to how this house is run on Sundays. Nobody gets up early and when they do they're almost famished."
"I'm all right, mam."
"That was the only kick Green had while he was working here," Peggy said. "He swore we starved him on Sundays."
Bigger forced a smile and looked down at the black and white linoleum on the floor. What would she think if she knew? He felt very kindly toward Peggy just then; he felt he had something of value which she could never take from him even if she despised him. He heard a phone ring in the hallway. Peggy straightened and looked at him as she wiped her hands on her apron.
"Who on earth's calling here this early on a Sunday morning?" she mumbled.
She went out and he sat, waiting. Maybe that was Jan asking about Mary. He remembered that Mary had promised to call him. He wondered how long it took to go to Detroit. Five or six hours- It was not far. Mary's train had already gone. About four o'clock she would be due in Detroit. Maybe someone had planned to meet her? If she was not on the train, would they call or wire about it? Peggy came back, went to the stove and continued cooking.
"Things'll be ready in a minute," she said.
Then she turned to him.
"Who was the gentleman with Miss Dalton last night?"
"I don't know, mam. I think she called him Jan, or something like that."
"Jan? He just called," Peggy said. She tossed her head and her lips tightened. "He's a no-good one, if there ever was one. One of them anarchists who's agin the government."
Bigger listened and said nothing.
"What on earth a good girl like Mary wants to hang around with that crazy bunch for, God only knows. Nothing good'll come of it, just you mark my word. If it wasn't for that Mary and her wild ways, this household would run like a clock. It's such a pity, too. Her mother's the very soul of goodness. And there never was a finer man than Mr. Dalton . . . . But later on Mary'll settle down. They all do. They think they're missing something unless they kick up their heels when they're young and foolish. . . ."
She brought a bowl of hot oatmeal and milk to him and he began to eat. He had difficulty in swallowing, for he had no appetite. But he forced the food down. Peggy talked on and he wondered what he should say to her; he found that he could say nothing. Maybe she was not expecting him to
say anything. Maybe she was talking to him because she had no one else to talk to, like his mother did sometimes. Yes; he would see about the fire again when he got to the basement. He would fill that furnace as full of coal as it would get and make sure that Mary burned in a hurry. The hot cereal was making him sleepy and he suppressed a yawn.
"What all I got to do today, mam?"
"Just wait on call. Sunday's a dull day. Maybe Mr. or Mrs. Dalton'll go out."
He finished the oatmeal.
"You want me to do anything now?"
"No. But you're not through eating. You want some ham and eggs?"
"No'm. I got a plenty."
"Well, it's right here for you. Don't be afraid to ask for it."
"I reckon I'll see about the fire now.,,”
"All right, Bigger. Just you listen for the bell about two o'clock. Till then I don't think there'll be anything."
He went to the basement. The fire was blazing. The embers glowed red and the draft droned upward. It did not need any coal. Again he looked round the basement, into every nook and corner, to see if he had left any trace of what had happened last night. There was none.
He went to his room and lay on the bed. Well; here he was now. What would happen? The room was quiet. No! He heard something! He cocked his head, listening. He caught faint sounds of pots and pans rattling in the kitchen below. He got up and walked to the far end of the room; the sounds came louder. He heard the soft but firm tread of Peggy as she walked across the kitchen floor. She's right under me, he thought. He stood still, listening. He heard Mrs. Dalton's voice, then Peggy's. He stooped and put his ear to the floor. Were they talking about Mary? He could not make out what they were saying. He stood up and looked round. A foot from him was the door of the clothes closet. He opened it; the voices came clearly. He went into the closet and the planks squeaked; he stopped.
Had they heard him? Would they think he was snooping? Oh! He had an idea! He got his suitcase and opened it and took out an armful of clothes. If anyone came into the room it would seem that he was putting his clothes away. He went into the closet and listened.
". . . you mean the car stayed out all night in the driveway?"
"Yes; he said she told him to leave it there."
"What time was that?"
"I don't know, Mrs. Dalton. I didn't ask him."
"I don't understand this at all."
"Oh, she's all right. I don't think you need worry."
"But she didn't even leave a note, Peggy. That's not like Mary. Even when she ran away to New York that time she at least left a note."
"Maybe she hasn't gone. Maybe something came up and she stayed out all night, Mrs. Dalton."
"But why would she leave the car out?"
"I don't know."
"And he said a man was with her?"
"It was that Jan, I think, Mrs. Dalton."
"Yes; the one who was with her in Florida."
"She just won’t leave those awful people alone."
"He called here this morning, asking for her."
"And what did he say?"
"He seemed sort of peeved when I told him she was gone."
"What can that poor child be up to? She told me she was not seeing him any more."
"Maybe she had him to call, Mrs. Dalton . . . ."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, mam, I was kind of thinking that maybe she's with him again, like that time she was in Florida. And maybe she had him to call to see if we knew she was gone. . . ."
"Oh, I'm sorry, mam. . . . Maybe she stayed with some friends of hers?"
"But she was in her room at two o'clock this morning, Peggy. Whose house would she go to at that hour?"
"Mrs. Dalton, I noticed something when I went to her room this morning."
"Well, mam, it looks like her bed wasn't slept in at all. The cover wasn't even pulled back. Looks like somebody had just stretched out awhile and then got up . . . ."
Bigger listened intently, but there was silence. They knew that something was wrong now. He heard Mrs. Dalton's voice again, quavering with doubt and fear.
"Then she didn’t sleep here last night?"
"Looks like she didn't."
"Did that boy say Jan was in the car?"
"Yes. I thought something was strange about the car being left out in the snow all night, and so I asked him. He said she told him to leave the car there and, he said Jan was in it."
"Listen, Peggy. . . ."
"Yes, Mrs. Dalton."
"Mary was drunk last night. I hope nothing's happened to her."
"Oh, what a pity!"
"I went to her room just after she came in. . . . She was too
drunk to talk. She was drunk, I tell you.
"She'll be all right, Mrs. Dalton. I know she will."
There was another long silence. Bigger wondered if Mrs. Dalton was on her way to his room. He went back to the bed and lay down, listening. There were no sounds. He lay a long time, hearing nothing; then he heard footsteps in the kitchen again. He hurried into the closet.
"Yes, Mrs. Dalton."
"Listen, I just felt around in Mary's room. Something's wrong. She didn't finish packing her trunk. At least half of her things are still there. She said she was planning to go to some dances in Detroit and she didn't take the new things she bought."
"Maybe she didn't go to Detroit."
"But where is she?"
Bigger stopped listening, feeling fear for the first time. He had not thought that the trunk was not fully packed. How could he explain that she had told him to take a half-packed trunk to the station?
Oh, shucks! The girl was drunk. That was it. Mary was so drunk that she didn't know what she was doing. He would say that she had told him to take it and he had just taken it; that's all. If someone asked him why he had taken a half-packed trunk to the station, he would tell them that that was no different from all the other foolish things that Mary had told him to do that night. Had not people seen him eating with her and Jan in Ernie's Kitchen Shack? He would say that both of them were drunk and that he had done what they told him because it was his job. He listened again to the voices.
". . . and after a while send that boy to me: I want to talk to him."
"Yes, Mrs. Dalton."
Again he lay on the bed. He would have to go over his story and make it foolproof. Maybe he had done wrong in taking that trunk? Maybe it would have been better to have carried Mary down in his arms and burnt her? But he had put her in the trunk because of the fear of someone's seeing her in his arms. That was the only way he could have gotten her down out of the room. Oh, hell, what had happened had happened and he would stick to his story. He went over the story again, fastening every detail firmly in his mind. He would say that she had been drunk, sloppy drunk. He lay on the soft bed in the warm room listening to the steam hiss in the radiator and thinking drowsily and lazily of how drunk she had been and of how he had lugged her up the steps and of how he had pushed the pillow over her face and of how he had put her in the trunk and of how he had struggled with the trunk on the dark stairs and of how his fingers had burned while he had stumbled down the stairs with the heavy trunk going bump-bump-bump so loud that surely all the world must have heard it . . . . He jumped awake, hearing a knock at the door. His heart raced. He sat up and stared sleepily around the room. Had some one knocked? He looked at his watch; it was three o'clock. Gee! He must have slept through the bell that was to ring at two. The knock came again.
"O.K.!" he mumbled.
"This is Mrs. Dalton!"
"Yessum. Just a minute."
He reached the door in two long steps, then stood a moment trying to collect himself. He blinked his eyes and wet his lips. He opened the door and saw Mrs. Dalton smiling before him, dressed in white, her pale face held as it had been when she was standing in the darkness while he had smothered Mary on the bed.
"Y-y-yes, mam," he stammered. "I-I was asleep. . . ."
"You didn't get much sleep last night, did you? "
"No'm," he drawled, afraid of what she might mean.
"Peggy rang for you three times, and you didn't answer."
"I'm sorry, mam. . ."
"That's all right. I wanted to ask you about last night. . . . Oh, you took the trunk to the station, didn't you?" she asked.
"Yessum. This morning," he said, detecting hesitancy and con fusion in her voice.
"I see," said Mrs. Dalton. She stood with her face tilted upward in the semi-darkness of the hallway. He had his hand on the doorknob, waiting, his muscles taut. He had to be careful with his answers now. And yet he knew he had a certain protection; he knew that a certain element of shame would keep Mrs. Dalton from asking him too much and letting him know that she was worried. He was a boy and she was an old woman. He was the hired and she was the hirer. And there was a certain distance to be kept between them.
"You left the car in the driveway last night, didn't you?"
"Yessum. I was about to put it up," he said, indicating that his only concern was with keeping his job and doing his duties. "But she told me to leave it."
"And was someone with her?"
"Yessum. A gentleman."
"That must have been pretty late, wasn't it?"
"Yessum. A little before two, mam."
"And you took the trunk down a little before two?"
"Yessum. She told me to."
"She took you to her room?"
He did not want her to think that he had been alone in the room with Mary. Quickly, he recast the story in his mind.
"Yessum. They went up. . . ."
"Oh, he was with her?"
"I see. . . ."
"Anything wrong, mam?"
"Oh, no!. . . . No; there's nothing wrong."
She stood in the doorway and he looked at her light-grey blind eyes, eyes almost as white as her face and hair and dress. He knew that she was really worried and wanted to ask him more questions. But he knew that she would not want to hear him tell of how drunk her daughter had been. After all, he was black and she was white. He was poor and she was rich. She would be ashamed to let him think that something was so wrong in her family that she had to ask him, a black servant, about it. He felt confident.
"Will there be anything right now, mam?"
"No. In fact, you may take the rest of the day off, if you like. Mr. Dalton is not feeling well and we're not going out."
"Thank you, mam."
She turned away and he shut the door; he stood listening to the soft whisper of her shoes die away down the hall, then on the stairs. He pictured her groping her way, her hands touching the walls. She must know this house like a book, he thought. He trembled with excitement. She was white and he was black; she was rich and he was poor; she was old and he was young; she was the boss and he was the worker. He was safe; yes. When he heard the kitchen door open and shut he went to the closet and listened again. But there were no sounds.
Well, he would go out. To go out now would be the answer to the feeling of strain that had come over him while talking to Mrs. Dalton. He would go and see Bessie. That was it! He got his cap and coat and went to the basement. The suction of air through the furnace moaned and the fire was white-hot; there was enough coal to last until he came back.
He went to Forty-seventh Street and stood on the corner to wait for a car. Yes, Bessie was the one he wanted to see now. Funny, he had not thought of her much during the last day and night. Too many exciting things had been happening. He had had no need to think of her. But now he had to forget and relax and he wanted to see her. She was always home on Sunday afternoons. He wanted to see her very badly; he felt that he would be stronger to go through tomorrow if he saw her.
The street car came and he got on, thinking of how things had gone that day. No; he did not think they would suspect him of any thing. He was black. Again he felt the roll of crisp bills in his pocket; if things went wrong he could always run away. He wondered how much money was in the roll; he had not even counted it. He would see when he got to Bessie's. No; he need not be afraid. He felt the gun nestling close to his skin. That gun could always make folks stand away and think twice before bothering him.
But of the whole business there was one angle that bothered him; he should have gotten more money out of it; he should have planned it. He had acted too hastily and accidentally. Next time things would be much different; he would plan and arrange so that he would have money enough to keep him a long time. He looked out of the car window and then round at the white faces near him. He wanted suddenly to stand up and shout, telling them that he had killed a rich white girl, a girl whose family was known to all of them. Yes; if he did that a look of startled horror would come over their faces. But, no. He would not do that, even though the satisfaction would be keen. He was so greatly outnumbered
that he would be arrested, tried, and executed. He wanted the keen thrill of startling them, but felt that the cost was too great. He wished that he had the power to say what he had done without fear of being arrested; he wished that he could be an idea in their minds; that his black face and the image of his smothering Mary and cutting off her head and burning her could hover before their eyes as a terrible picture of reality which they could see and feel and yet not destroy. He was not satisfied with the way things stood now; he was a man who had come in sight of a goal, then had won it, and in winning it had seen just within his grasp another goal, higher, greater. He had learned to shout and had shouted and no ear had heard him; he had just learned to walk and was walking but could not see the ground beneath his feet; he had long been yearning for weapons to hold in his hands and suddenly found that his hands held weapons that were invisible.
The car stopped a block from Bessie's home and he got off. When he reached the building in which she lived, he looked up to the second floor and saw a light burning in her window. The street lamps came on suddenly, lighting up the snow-covered sidewalks with a yellow sheen. It had gotten dark early. The lamps were round hazy balls of light frozen into motionlessness, anchored in space and kept from blowing away in the icy wind by black steel posts. He went in and rang the bell and, in answer to a buzzer, mounted the stairs and found Bessie smiling at him in her door.
He stood face to face with her, then reached for her hands. She shied away.
"What's the matter "
"You know what's the matter."
''Naw, I don't."
"What you reaching for me for?"
"I want to kiss you, honey."
"You don't want to kiss me."
"I ought to be asking you that."
"What's the matter?"
"I saw you with your white friends last night."
"Aw; they wasn't my friends."
"Who was they?"
"I work for 'em."
"And you eat with 'em."
"Aw, Bessie . . . ."
"You didn't even speak to me."
"I did !"
"You just growled and waved your hand."
"Aw, baby. I was working then. You understand."
"I thought maybe you was 'shamed of me, sitting there –with that white gal all dressed in silk and satin."
"Aw, hell, Bessie. Come on. Don't act that way."
"You really want to kiss me?"
"Sure. What you think I came here for?"
"How come you so long seeing me, then?"
"I told you I been working, honey. You saw me last night. Come on. Don't act this way."
"I don't know," she said, shaking her head.
He knew that she was trying to see how badly he wanted her, trying to see how much power she still had over him. He grabbed her arm and pulled her to him, kissing her long and hard, feeling as he did so that she was not responding. When he took his lips away he looked at her with eyes full of reproach and at the same time he felt his teeth clamping and his lips tingling slightly with rising passion.
"Let's go in," he said.
"If you want to."
"Sure I want to."
"You stayed away so long."
"Aw, don't be that way."
They went in.
"How come you acting so cold tonight?" he asked.
"You could have dropped me a postcard," she said.
"Aw, I just forgot it."
"Or you could've phoned."
"Honey, I was busy."
"Looking at that old white gal, I reckon."
"You don't love me no more."
"The hell I don't."
"You could've come by just for five minutes."
"Baby, I was busy."
When he kissed her this time she responded a little. To let her know that he wanted her he allowed her to draw his tongue into her mouth.
"I'm tired tonight," she sighed.
"Who you been seeing?"
"What you doing tired?"
"If you want to talk that way you can leave right now. I didn't ask you who you been seeing to make you stay away this long, did I?"
"You all on edge tonight.''
"You could have just said, 'Hello, dog!' "
"Really, honey. I was busy."
"You was setting there at that table with them white folks like you was a lawyer or something. You wouldn't even look at me when I spoke to you."
"Aw, forget it. Let's talk about something else."
He attempted to kiss her again and she shied away.
"Come on, honey."
"Who you been with?"
"Nobody. I swear. I been working. And I been thinking hard about you. I been missing you. Listen, I got a room all my own where I'm working. Some nights you can stay there with me, see? Gee, I been missing you awful, honey. Soon's I got time I came right over."
He stood looking at her in the dim light of the room. She was teasing him and he liked it. At least it took him away from that terrible image of Mary's head lying on the bloody newspaper. He wanted to kiss her again, but deep down he did not really mind her standing off from him; it made him hunger more keenly for her.
She was looking at him wistfully, half-leaning against a wall, her hands on her hips. Then suddenly he knew how to draw her out, to drive from her mind all thought of her teasing him. He reached into his pocket and drew forth the roll of bills. Smiling, he held it in his palm and spoke as though to himself:
"Well, I reckon somebody else might like this if you don't." She came a step forward.
"Bigger! Gee! Where you get all that money from?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?"
"How much is it?"
"What you care?"
She came to his side.
"How much is it, really?"
"What you want to know for?"
"Let me see it. I'll give it back to you."
"I'll let you see it, but it'll have to stay in my hand, see?"
He watched the expression of coyness on her face change to one of amazement as she counted the bills.
"Lord, Bigger! Where you get this money from?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" he said, slipping his arm about her waist.
"Is it yours?"
"What in hell you reckon I'm doing with it?"
"Tell me where you get it from, honey."
"You going to be sweet to me?"
He felt her body growing gradually less stiff; but her eyes were searching his face.
"You ain't got into nothing, is you?"
"You going to be sweet to me?"
"Kiss me, honey."
He felt her relax completely; he kissed her and she drew him to the bed. They sat down. Gently, she took the money from his hand.
"How much is it?" he asked.
"Don't you know?"
"Didn't you count it?"
"Bigger, where you get this money from?"
"Maybe I'll tell you some day," he said, leaning back and resting his head on the pillow.
"You into something."
"How much is there?"
"A hundred and twenty-five dollars."
"You going to be sweet to me?"
"But, Bigger, where you get this money from?"
"What do that matter?"
"You going to buy me something?"
"Anything you want."
They were silent for a moment. Finally, his arm about her waist felt her body relax into a softness he knew and wanted. She rested her head on the pillow; he put the money in his pocket and leaned over her.
"Gee, honey. I been wanting you bad."
"Honest to God."
He placed his hands on her breasts just as he had placed them on Mary's last night and he was thinking of that while he kissed her.
He took his lips away for breath and heard Bessie say: "Don't stay away so long from me, hear, honey?"
"You love me?"
He kissed her again and he felt her arm lifting above his head and he heard the click as the light went out. He kissed her again, hard.
"Come on, honey."
They were still a moment longer; then she rose. He waited. He heard her clothes rustling in the darkness; she was undressing. He got up and began to undress. Gradually, he began to see in the darkness; she was on the other side of the bed, her dark body like a shadow in the denser darkness surrounding her. He heard the bed creak as she lay down. He went to her, folding her in his arms, mumbling.
He felt two soft palms holding his face tenderly and the thought and image of the whole blind world which had made him ashamed and afraid fell away as he felt her as a fallow field beneath him stretching out under a cloudy sky waiting for rain, and he slept in her body, rising and sinking with the ebb and flow of her blood, being willingly dragged into a warm night sea to rise renewed to the surface to face a world he hated and wanted to blot out of existence, clinging close to a fountain whose warm waters washed and cleaned his senses, cooled them, made them strong and keen again to see and smell and touch and taste and hear, cleared them to end the tiredness and to reforge in him a new sense of time and space; after he had been tossed to dry upon a warm sunlit rock under a white sky he lifted his hand slowly and heavily and touched Bessie's lips with his fingers and mumbled,
He took his hand away and relaxed. He did not feel that he wanted to step forth and resume where he had left off living; not just yet. He was lying at the bottom of a deep dark pit upon a pallet of warm wet straw and at the top of the pit he could see the cold blue of the distant sky. Some hand had reached inside of him and had laid a quiet finger of peace upon the restless tossing of his spirit and had made him feel that he did not need to long for a home now. Then, like the long withdrawing sound of a receding wave, the sense of night and sea and warmth went from him and he lay looking in the darkness at the shadowy outline of Bessie's body, hearing his and her breathing.
"You like your job?"
"I just asked."
"You mean that?"
"Where you working?"
"Over on Drexel."
"In the 4600 block."
"Oh, I just happen to think of something."
"Tell me. What is it?"
"It ain't nothing, Bigger, honey."
What did she mean by asking all these questions? He wondered if she had detected anything in him. Then he wondered if he were not letting fear get the better of him by thinking always in terms of Mary and of her having been smothered and burnt. But he wanted to know why she had asked where he worked.
"Come on, honey. Tell me what you thinking."
"It ain't nothing much, Bigger. I used to work over in that section, not far from where the Loeb folks lived."
"Yeah. One of the families of one of the boys that killed that Franks boy. Remember?"
"Naw; what you mean?"
"You remember hearing people talk about Loeb and Leopold."
"The ones who killed the boy and then tried to get money from the boy's family. . . .
. . . . by sending notes to them . . . . Bigger was not listening. The world of sound fell abruptly away from him and a vast picture appeared before his eyes, a picture teeming with so much meaning that he could not react to it all at once. He lay, his eyes unblinking, his heart pounding, his lips slightly open, his breath coming and going so softly that it seemed he was not breathing at all. you remember them aw you ain't even listening He said nothing. how come you won't listen when I talk to you Why could he, why could he not, not send a letter to the Daltons, asking for money? Bigger He sat up in bed, staring into the darkness. what's the matter honey He could ask for ten thousand, or maybe twenty. Bigger what's the matter I’m talking to you He did not answer; his nerves were taut with the hard effort to remember something. Now! Yes, Loeb and Leopold had planned to have the father of the murdered boy get on a train and throw the money out of the window while passing some spot. He leaped from bed and stood in the middle of the floor. Bigger He could, yes, he could have them pack the money in a shoe box and have them throw it out of a car somewhere on the South Side. He looked round in the darkness, feeling Bessie's fingers on his arm. He came to himself and sighed.
"What's the matter, honey?" she asked.
"What's on your mind?"
"Come on and tell me. You worried?"
"Naw; naw. . . ."
"Now, I told you what was on my mind, but you won't tell me what's on yours. That ain't fair."
"I just forgot something. That's all."
"That ain't what you was thinking about," she said.
He sat back on the bed, feeling his scalp tingle with excitement. Could he do it? This was what had been missing and this was what would make the thing complete. But this thing was so big he would have to take time and think it over carefully.
"Honey, tell me where you get that money?"
"What money?" he asked in a tone of feigned surprise.
"Aw, Bigger. I know something's wrong. You worried. You got something on your mind. I can tell it."
"You want me to make up something to tell your"
"All right; if that's the way you feel about it."
"Aw, Bessie . . . ."
"You didn't have to come here tonight."
"Maybe I shouldn't've come."
"You don't have to come no more."
"Don't you love me?"
"About as much as you love me."
"How much is that?"
"You ought to know."
"Aw, let's stop fussing," he said.
He felt the bed sag gently and heard the bed-covers rustling as she pulled them over her. He turned his head and stared at the dim whites of her eyes in the darkness. Maybe, yes, maybe he could, maybe he could use her. He leaned and stretched himself on the bed beside her; she did not move. He put his hand upon her shoulder, pressing it just softly enough to let her know that he was thinking about her. His mind tried to grasp and encompass as much of her life as it could, tried to understand and weigh it in relation to his own, as his hand rested on her shoulder. Could he trust her? How much could he tell her? Would she act with him, blindly, believing his word?
"Come on. Let's get dressed and go out and get something to drink," she said.
"You ain't acting like you always act tonight."
"I got something on my mind."
"Can't you tell me?"
"I don't know."
"Don't you trust me?"
"Then why don't you tell me?"
He did not answer. Her voice had come in a whisper, a whisper he had heard many times when she wanted something badly. It brought to him a full sense of her life, what he had been thinking and feeling when he had placed his hand upon her shoulder. The same deep realization he had had that
morning at home at the breakfast table while watching Vera and Buddy and his mother came back to him; only it was Bessie he was looking at now and seeing how blind she was. He felt the narrow orbit of her life: from her room to the kitchen of the white folks was the farthest she ever moved. She worked long hours, hard and hot hours seven days a week, with only Sunday afternoons off; and when she did get off she wanted fun, hard and fast fun, something to make her feel that she was making up for the starved life she led. It was her hankering for sensation that he liked about her. Most nights she was too tired to go out; she only wanted to get drunk. She wanted liquor and he wanted her. So he would give her the liquor and she would give him herself. He had heard her complain about how hard the white folks worked her; she had told him over and over again that she lived their lives when she was working in their homes, not her own. That was why, she told him, she drank. He knew why she liked him; he gave her money for drinks. He knew that if he did not give it to her someone else would; she would see to that. Bessie, too, was very blind. What ought he tell her? She might come in just handy. Then he realized that whatever he chose to tell her ought not to be anything that would make her feel in any way out of it; she ought to be made to feel that she knew it all. Goddamn! He just simply could not get used to acting like he ought. He should not have made her think that something was happening that he did not want her to know.
"Give me time, honey, and I'll tell you," he said, trying to straighten things out.
"You don't have to unless you want to."
"Don't be that way."
"You just can't treat me any old way, Bigger."
"I ain't trying to, honey."
"You can't play me cheap."
"Take it easy. I know what I'm doing."
"I hope you do."
"Aw, come on. I want a drink."
"Naw; listen. . . ."
"Keep your business. You don't have to tell me. But don't you come running to me when you need a friend, see?"
"When we get a couple of drinks, I'll tell you all about it."
He saw her waiting at the door for him; he put on his coat and cap and they walked slowly down the stairs, saying nothing. It seemed warmer outside, as though it were going to snow again. The sky was low and dark. The wind blew, and he walked beside Bessie his feet sank into the soft snow. The streets were empty and silent, stretching before him white and clean under the vanishing glow of a long string of street lamps. & he walked he saw out of the corners of his eyes Bessie striding beside him, and it seemed that his mind could feel the soft swing of her body as it went for ward. He yearned suddenly to be back in bed with her, feeling her body warm and pliant to his. But the look on her face was a hard and distant one; it separated him from her body by a great suggestion of space. He had not really wanted to go out with her tonight; but her questions and suspicions had made him say yes when she had wanted to go for a drink. As he walked beside her he felt that there were two Bessies: one a body that he had just had and wanted badly again; the other was in Bessie's face; it asked questions; it bargained and sold the other Bessie to advantage. He wished he could clench his fist and swing his arm and blot out, kill, sweep away the Bessie on Bessie's face and leave the other helpless and yielding before him. He would then gather her up and put her in his chest, his stomach, some place deep inside him, always keeping her there even when he slept, ate, talked; keeping her there just to feel and know that she was his to have and hold whenever he wanted to.
"Where we going?"
"Wherever you want to."
"Let's go to the Paris Grill."
They turned a corner and walked to the middle of the block to the grill, and went in. An automatic phonograph was playing: They went to a rear table. Bigger ordered two sloe gin fizzes. They sat
silent, looking at each other, waiting. He saw Bessie's shoulders jerking in rhythm to the music. Would she help him? Well, he would ask her; he would frame the story so that she would not have to know everything. He knew that he should have asked her to dance, but the excitement that had hold of him would not let him. He was feeling different tonight from every other night; he did not need to dance and sing and clown over the floor in order to blot out a day and night of doing nothing. He was full of excitement. The waitress brought the drinks and Bessie lifted hers.
"Here's to you, even if you don't want to talk and even if you is acting queer."
"Bessie, I'm worried."
"Aw, come on and drink," she said.
"Can't I help you in what you doing?"
"I want to."
"You trust me?"
"I have so far."
"I mean now?"
''Yes; if you tell me what to trust you for?"
"Maybe I can't do that."
"Then you don't trust me."
"It's got to be that way, Bessie."
"If I trusted you, would you tell me?"
"Don't say 'maybe,' Bigger."
"Listen, honey," he said, not liking the way he was talking to her, but afraid of telling her outright. "The reason I'm acting this way is I got something big on."
"It'll mean a lot of money."
"I wish you'd either tell me or quit talking about it."
They were silent; he saw Bessie drain her glass.
"I'm ready to go," she said.
"Aw. . . ."
"I want to get some sleep."
He did not want her to be that way. How could he make her stay? How much could he tell her? Could he make her trust him without telling everything? He suddenly felt she would come closer to him if he made her feel that he was in danger. That's it! Make her feel concerned about him.
"Maybe I'll have to get out of town soon," he said.
"What you do?"
"I'm planning to do it now."
"But where you get that money?"
"Look, Bessie, if I had to leave town and wanted dough, would you help me it split with you?"
"If you took me with you, you wouldn't have to split."
He was silent; he had not thought of Bessie's being with him. A woman was a dangerous burden when a man was running away. He had read of how men had been caught because of women, and he did not want that to happen to him. But, if, yes, but if he told her, yes, just enough to get her to work with him?
"O.K ," he said. "I'll say this much. I'll take you if you help me."
"You really mean that?"
"Then you going to tell me?"
Yes, he could dress the story up. Why even mention Jan? Why not tell it so that if she were ever questioned she would say the things that he wanted her to say, things that would help him? He lifted the glass and drained the liquor and set it down and leaned forward and toyed with the cigarette in his fingers. He spoke with bated breath.
"Listen, here's the dope, see? The gal where I'm working, the daughter of the old man who's rich, a millionaire, has done run off with a -- Red, see?"
"Hunh? Er. . . . Yeah; eloped."
"With a Red?"
"Yeah; one of them Communists."
"Oh! What's wrong with her?"
"Aw; she's crazy. Nobody don't know she's gone, so last night I took the money from her room, see?"
"They don't know where she is." "But what you going to do?"
"They don't know where she is," he said again.
"What you mean?"
He sucked his cigarette; he saw her looking at him, her black eyes wide with eager interest. He liked that look. In one way, he hated to tell her, because he wanted to keep her guessing. He wanted to take as long as possible in order to see that look of complete absorption upon her face. It made him feel alive and gave him a heightened sense of the value of himself.
"Oh, Bigger, tell me!"
"Don't talk so loud!"
"Well, tell me!"
"They don't know where the girl is. They might think she's kidnapped, see?" His whole body was tense and as he spoke his lips trembled.
"Oh, that was what you was so excited about when I told you about Loeb and Leopold. . . ."
"Well, what you think?"
"Would they really think she's kidnapped?"
"We can make 'em think it."
She looked into her empty glass. Bigger beckoned the waitress and ordered two more drinks. He took a deep swallow and said, "The gal's gone, see? They don't know where she is. Don't nobody know. But they might think somebody did if they was told, see?"
"You mean. . . . You mean we could say we did it? You mean write to 'em. . . ."
". . . . and ask for money, sure," he said. "And get it, too. You see, we cash in, 'cause nobody else is trying to."
"But suppose she shows up?"
"How you know?"
"I just know she won't."
"Bigger, you know something about that girl. You know where she is?"
'That's all right about where she is. I know we won't have to worry about her showing up, see?"
"Oh, Bigger, this is crazy!"
"Then, hell, we won't talk about it no more!"
"Oh, I don't mean that."
"Then what do you mean?"
"I mean we got to be careful."
"We can get ten thousand dollars."
"We can have 'em leave the money somewhere. They'll think they can get the girl back. . . ."
"Bigger, you know where that girl is?" she said, giving her voice a tone of half-question and half-statement.
"Then it'll be in the papers. She'll show up."
"How you know?"
"She just won't."
He saw her lips moving, then heard her speak softly, leaning toward him.
"Bigger, you ain't done nothing to that girl, is you?"
He stiffened with fear. He felt suddenly that he wanted some thing in his hand, something solid and heavy: his gun, a knife, a brick.
"If you say that again, I'll slap you back from this table!"
"Come on, now. Don't be a fool."
"Bigger, you oughtn't've done it. . . ." "
You going to help me? Say yes or no."
"Gee, Bigger. . . ."
"You scared? You scared after letting me take that silver from Mrs. Heard's home? After letting me get Mrs. Macy's radio? You scared now?"
"I don't know."
"You wanted me to tell you; well, I told you. That's a woman, always. You want to know something, then you run like a rabbit."
"But we'll get caught."
"Not if we do right."
"But how could we do it, Bigger?"
"I'll figure it out."
"But I want to know."
"It'll be easy."
"I can fix it so you can pick up the money and nobody'll bother you."
"They catch people who do things like that."
"Ifyou scared they will catch you."
"How could I pick up the money?''
"We'll tell 'em where to leave it."
"But they'll have police watching."
"Not if they want the gal back. We got a club over 'em, see? And I'll be watching, too. I work in the house where they live. If they try to doublecross us, I'll let you know."
"You reckon we could do it?"
"We could have 'em throw the money out of a car. You could be in some spot to see if they send anybody to watch. If you see anybody around, then you don't touch the money, see? But they want the gal; they won't watch."
There was a long silence.
"Bigger, I don't know," she said.
"We could go to New York, to Harlem, if we had money. New York's a real town. We could lay low for awhile."
"But suppose they mark the money?"
"They won't. And if they do, I'll tell you. You see, I'm right there in the house."
"But if we run off, they'll think we did it. They'll be looking for us for years, Bigger. . . ."
"We won't run right away. We'll lay low for awhile."
"I don't know, Bigger."
He felt satisfied; he could tell by the way she looked that if he pushed her hard enough she would come in with him. She was afraid and he could handle her through her fear. He looked at his watch; it was getting late. He ought to go back and have a look at that furnace.
"Listen, I got to go."
He paid the waitress and they went out. There was another way to bind her to him. He drew forth the roll of bills, peeled off one for himself, and held out the rest of the money toward her.
"Here," he said. "Get you something and save the rest for me."
She looked at the money and hesitated.
"Don't you want it?"
"Yeah," she said, taking the roll.
"If you string along with me you'll get plenty more."
They stopped in front of her door; he stood looking at her.
"Well," he said. "What you think?"
"Bigger, honey. I-I don't know,'' she said plaintively.
"You wanted me to tell you."
"Don't you trust me?"
"But we ain't never done nothing like this before. They'll look everywhere for us for something like this. It ain't like coming to where I work at night when the white folks is gone out of town and stealing something. It ain't. . . ."
"It's up to you."
"I'm scared, Bigger."
"Who on earth'll think we did it?"
"I don't know. You really think they don't know where the girl is?"
"I know they don't."
"She'll turn up."
"She won't. And, anyhow, she's a crazy girl. They might even think she's in it herself, just to get money from her family. They might think the Reds is doing it. They won't think we did. They don't think we got enough guts to do it. They think niggers is too scared. . . ."
"I don't know."
"Did I ever tell you wrong?"
"Naw; but we ain't never done nothing like this before."
"Well, I ain't wrong now."
"When do you want to do it?"
"Soon as they begin to worry about the gal."
"You really reckon we could?"
"I told you what I think."
"Naw; Bigger! I ain't going to do it.
I think you. . . ."
She ran over the snow and tugged at his sleeve. He stopped, but did not turn round. She caught his coat and pulled him about. Under the yellow sheen of a street lamp they confronted each other, silently. All about them was the white snow and the night; they were cut off from the world and were conscious only of each other. He looked at her without expression, waiting. Her eyes were fastened fearfully and distrustfully upon his face. He held his body in an attitude that suggested that he was delicately balanced upon a hairline, waiting to see if she would push him forward or draw him back. Her lips smiled faintly and she lifted her hand and touched his face with her fingers. He knew that she was fighting out in her feelings the question of just how much he meant to her. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it, telling him in the pressure of her fingers that she wanted him.
"But, Bigger, honey. . . . Let's don't do that. We getting along all right like we is now. . . ." He drew his hand away.
"I'm going," he said.
""When I'll see you, honey?"
"I don't know."
He started off again and she overtook him and encircled himwith her arms.
"Bigger, honey. . . ."
"Come on, Bessie. What you going to do?"
She looked at him with round, helpless black eyes. He was still poised, wondering if she would pull him toward her, or let him fall alone. He was enjoying her agony, seeing and feeling the worth of
himself in her bewildered desperation. Her lips trembled and she began to cry.
"What you going to do?" he asked again.
"If l do it, it's 'cause you want me to," she sobbed.
He put his arm about her shoulders.
"Come on, Bessie," he said. "Don't cry."
She stopped and dried her eyes; he looked at her closely. She'll do it, he thought.
"I got to go," he said.
"I ain't going in right now."
"Where you going?"
He found that he was afraid of what she did, now that she was working with him. His peace of mind depended upon knowing what she did and why.
"I'm going to get a pint."
That was all right; she was feeling as he knew she always felt.
"Well, I'll see you tomorrow night, hunh?"
"O.K., honey. But be careful."
"Look, Bessie, don't you worry none. Just trust me. No matter what happens, they won't catch us. And they won't even know you had anything to do with it."
"If they start after us, where could we hide, Bigger? You know we's black. We can't go just anywhere."
He looked round the lamp-lit, snow-covered street.
"There's plenty of places," he said. "I know the South Side from A to Z. We could even hide out in one of those old buildings, see? Like I did last time. Nobody ever looks into 'em."
He pointed across the street to a black, looming empty apartment building.
"Well," she sighed.
"I'm going," he said. "So long, honey."
He walked toward the car line; when he looked back he saw her still standing in the snow; she had not moved. She'll be all right, he thought. She'll go along.
Snow was falling again; the streets were long paths leading through a dense jungle, lit here and there with torches held high in invisible hands. He waited ten minutes for a car and none came. He turned the corner and walked, his head down, his hands dug into his pockets, going to Dalton's.
He was confident. During the last day and night new fears had come, but new feelings had helped to allay those fears. The moment when he had stood above Mary's bed and found that she was dead the fear of electrocution had entered his flesh and blood. But at home at the breakfast table with his mother and sister and brother, seeing how blind they were; and overhearing Peggy and Mrs. Dalton talking in the kitchen, a new feeling had been born in him, a feeling that all but blotted out the fear of death. As long as he moved carefully and knew what he was about, he could handle things, he thought. As long as he could take his life into his own hands and dispose of it as he pleased, as long as he could decide just when and where he would run to, he need not be afraid.
He felt that he had his destiny in his grasp. He was more alive than he could ever remember having been; his mind and attention were pointed, focused toward a goal. For the first time in his life he moved consciously between two sharply defined poles: he was moving away from the threatening penalty of death, from the deathlike rimes that brought him that tightness and hotness in his chest; and he was moving toward that sense of fullness he had so often but inadequately felt in magazines and movies.
The shame and fear and hate which Mary and Jan and Mr. Dalton and that huge rich house had made rise so hard and hot in him had now cooled and softened. Had he not done what they thought he never could? His being black and at the bottom of the world was something which he could take with a new-born strength. What his knife and gun had once meant to him, his knowledge of having secretly murdered Mary now meant. No matter how they laughed at him for his being black and clownlike, he could look them in the eyes and not feel angry. The feeling of being always enclosed in the stifling embrace of an invisible force had gone from him.
As he turned into Drexel Boulevard and headed toward Dalton's, he thought of how restless he had been, how he was consumed always with a body hunger. Well, in a way he had settled that
tonight; as time passed he would make it more definite. His body felt free and easy now that he had lain with Bessie. That she would do what he wanted was what he had sealed in asking her to work with him in this thing. She would be bound to him by ties deeper than marriage. She would be his; her fear of capture and death would bind her to him with all the strength of her life; even as what
he had done last night had bound him to this new path with all the strength of his own life.
He turned off the sidewalk and walked up the Dalton driveway, went into the basement and looked through the bright cracks of the furnace door. He saw a red heap of seething coals and heard the upward hum of the draft. He pulled the lever, hearing the rattle of coal against tin and seeing the quivering embers grow black. He shut off the coal and stooped and opened the bottom door of the furnace. Ashes were piling up. He would have to take the shovel and clean them out in the morning and make sure that no unburnt bones were left. He had closed the door and started to the rear of
the furnace, going to his room, when he heard Peggy's voice.
He stopped and before answering he felt a keen sensation of excitement flush over all his skin. She was standing at the head of the stairs, in the door leading to the kitchen.
He went to the bottom of the steps and looked upward.
"Mrs. Dalton wants you to pick up the trunk at the station. . . ."
He waited for Peggy to answer his surprised question. Perhaps he should not have asked it in that way?
"They called up and said that no one had claimed it. And Mr. Dalton got a wire from Detroit. Mary never got there."
She came all the way down the stairs and looked round the basement, as though seeking some missing detail. He stiffened; if she saw something that would make her ask him about Mary he would take the iron shovel and let her have it straight across her head and then take the car and make a quick getaway.
"Mr. Dalton's worried," Peggy said. "You know, Mary didn't pack the new clothes she bought to take with her on the trip. And poor Mrs. Dalton's been pacing the floor and phoning Mary's friends all day."
"Don't nobody know where she is?" Bigger asked.
"Nobody. Did Mary tell you to take the trunk like it was?"
"Yessum," he said, knowing that this was the first hard hurdle.
"It was locked and standing in a corner. I took it down and put it right where you saw it this morning."
"Oh, Peggy!" Mrs. Dalton's voice called.
"Yes!" Peggy answered.
Bigger looked up and saw Mrs. Dalton at the head of the stairs, standing in white as usual and with her face tilted trustingly upward.
"Is the boy back yet?"
"He's down here now, Mrs. Dalton."
"Come in the kitchen a moment, will you, Bigger?" she asked.
He followed Peggy into the kitchen. Mrs. Dalton had her hands clasped tightly in front of her and her face was still tilted, higher now, and her white lips were parted.
"Peggy told you about picking up the trunk?"
"Yessum. I'm on my way now."
''"What time did you leave here last night?"
"A little before two, mam."
"And she told you to take the trunk down?"
"And she told you not to put the car up?"
"And it was just where you left it last night when you came this morning?"
Mrs. Dalton turned her head as she heard the inner kitchen door open; Mr. Dalton stood in the doorway.
"Good day, suh."
"How are things?"
"The station called about the trunk a little while ago. You'll have to pick it up."
"Yessuh. I'm on my way now, suh."
"Listen, Bigger. What happened last night?"
"Well, nothing, suh. Miss Dalton told me to take the trunk down so I could take it to the station this morning; and I did."
"Was Jan with you?"
"Yessuh. All three of us went upstairs when I brought 'em in in the car. We went to the room to get the trunk. Then I took it down and put it in the basement."
"Was Jan drunk?"
"Well, I don't know, suh. They was drinking. . . ."
"And what happened?"
"Nothing, suh. I just took the trunk to the basement and left. Miss Dalton told me to leave the car out. She said Mr. Jan would take care of it."
"What were they talking about?"
Bigger hung his head.
"I don't know, suh."
He saw Mrs. Dalton lift her right hand and he knew that she meant for Mr. Dalton to stop questioning him so closely. He felt her shame.
"That's all right, Bigger," Mrs. Dalton said. She turned to Mr. Dalton. "Where do you suppose this Jan would be now?"
"Maybe he's at the Labor Defender office."
"Can you get in touch with him?"
"Well," said Mr. Dalton, standing near Bigger and looking hard at the floor. "I could. But I'd rather wait. I still think Mary's up to some of her foolish pranks. Bigger, you'd better get that trunk."
He got the car and drove through the falling snow toward the Loop. In answering their questions he felt that he had succeeded in turning their minds definitely in the direction of Jan. If things went at this pace he would have to send the ransom note right away. He would see Bessie tomorrow and get things settled. Yes; he would ask for ten thousand dollars. He would have Bessie stand in the window of an old building at some well lighted street corner with a flashlight. In the note he would tell Mr. Dalton to put the money in a shoe box and drop it in the snow at the curb; he would tell him to keep his car moving and his lights blinking and not to drop the money until he saw the flashlight blink three times in the window. . . . Yes; that's how it would be. Bessie would see the lights of Mr. Dalton's car blinking and after the car was gone she would pick up the box of money. It would be easy.
He pulled the car into the station, presented the ticket, got the trunk, hoisted it to the running board, and headed again for the Dalton home. When he reached the driveway the snow was falling so thickly that he could not see ten feet in front of him. He put the car into the garage, set the trunk in the snow, locked the garage door, lifted the trunk to his back and carried it to the entrance of the basement. Yes;
the trunk was light; it was half-empty. No doubt they would question him again about that. Next time he would have to go into details and he would try to fasten hard in his mind the words he spoke so that he could repeat them a thousand times, if necessary. He could, of course, set the trunk in the snow right now and take a street car and get the money from Bessie and leave town. But why do that? He could handle this thing. It was going his way. They were not suspecting him and he would be able to tell the moment their minds turned in his direction. And, too, he was glad he had let Bessie keep that money. Suppose he were searched here on the job? For them to find money on him was alone enough to fasten suspicion upon him definitely. He unlocked the door and took the trunk inside; his back was bent beneath its weight and he walked slowly with his eyes on the wavering red shadows on the floor. He heard the fire singing in the furnace. He took the trunk to the corner in which he had placed it the night before. He put it down and stood looking at it. He had an impulse to open it and look inside. He stooped to fumble with the metal clasp, then started violently, jerking upright.
Without answering and before he realized what he was doing, he whirled, his eyes wide with feat and his hand half-raised, as though to ward off a blow. The moment of whirling brought him face to face with what seemed to his excited senses an army of white men. His breath stopped and he blinked his eyes in the red darkness, thinking that he should be acting more calmly. Then he saw Mr. Dalton and another white man standing at the far end of the basement; in the red shadows their faces were white discs of danger floating still in the air.
"Oh!" he said softly.
The white man at Mr. Dalton's side was squinting at him; he felt that tight, hot, choking feat returning. The white man clicked on the light. He had a cold, impersonal manner that told Bigger to be on his guard. In the very look of the man's eyes Bigger saw his own personality reflected in narrow, restricted terms.
"What's the matter, boy?" the man asked.
Bigger said nothing; he swallowed, caught hold of himself and came forward slowly. The white man's eyes were steadily upon him.
Panic seized Bigger as he saw the white man lower his head, narrow his eyes still more, sweep back his coat and ram his hands into his pants' pockets, revealing as he did so a shining badge on his chest. Words rang in Bigger's mind: This is a cop! He could not take his eyes off the shining bit of metal. Abruptly, the man changed his attitude and expression, took his hands from his pockets and smiled a smile that Bigger did not believe.
"I'm not the law, boy. So don't be scared."
Bigger clamped his teeth; he had to control himself. He should not have let that man see him staring at his badge.
"Yessuh," he said.
"Bigger, this is Mr. Britten," Mr. Dalton said. "He's a private investigator attached to the staff of my office . . . ."
"Yessuh," Bigger said again, his tension slackening.
"He wants to ask you some questions. So just be calm and try to tell him whatever he wants to know."
"First of all, I want to have a look at that trunk," Britten said.
Bigger stood aside as they passed him. He glanced quickly at the furnace. It was still very hot, droning. Then he, too, went to the trunk, standing discreetly to one side, away from the two white men, looking with surface eyes at what they were doing. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets; he stood in a peculiar attitude that allowed him to respond at once to whatever they said or did and at the same time to be outside and away from them. He watched Britten turn the trunk over and bend to it and try to work the lock. I got to be careful, Bigger thought. One little slip now and I'll spoil the whole thing. Sweat came onto his neck and face. Britten could not unlock the trunk and he looked upward, at Bigger.
"It's locked. You got a key, boy?"
Bigger wondered if this were a trap; he decided to play safe and speak only when he was spoken to.
"You mind if I break it?"
"Go right ahead,'' Mr. Dalton said. "Say, Bigger, get Mr. Britten the hatchet."
"Yessuh," he answered mechanically.
He thought rapidly, his entire body stiff. Should he tell them that the hatchet was somewhere in the house and offer to go after it and take the opportunity and run away? How much did they really suspect him? Was this whole thing a ruse to confuse and trap him? He glanced sharply and intently at their faces; they seemed to be waiting only for the hatchet. Yes; he would take a chance and stay; he would lie his way out of this. He turned and went to the spot where the hatchet had been last night, the spot from which he had taken it to cut off Mary's head. He stopped and pretended to search. Then he straightened.
"It ain't here now. . . . I-I saw it about here yesterday," he mumbled.
"Well, never mind," Britten said. "I think I can manage."
Bigger eased back toward them, waiting, watching. Britten lifted his foot and gave the lock a short, stout kick with the heel of his shoe and it sprang open. He lifted out the tray and looked inside. It was half-empty and the clothes were disarrayed and tumbled.
"You see?" Mr. Dalton said. "She didn't take all of her things."
"Yes. In fact, she didn't need a trunk at all from the looks of this," Britten said.
"Bigger, was the trunk locked when she told you to take it down?" Mr. Dalton asked.
"Yessuh," Bigger said, wondering if that answer was the safest.
"Was she too drunk to know what she was doing, Bigger?"
"Well, they went into the room," he said. "I went in after them. Then she told me to take the trunk down. That's all happened."
"She could have put these things into a small suitcase," Britten said.
The fire sang in Bigger's ears and he saw the red shadows dance on the walls. Let them try to find out who did it! His teeth were clamped hard, until they ached.
"Sit down, Bigger," Britten said.
Bigger looked at Britten, feigning surprise.
"Sit on the trunk," Britten said.
"Yeah. Sit down."
"Now, take your time and think hard. I want to ask you some questions."
"What time did you take Miss Dalton from here last night?"
"About eight-thirty, suh."
Bigger knew that this was it. This man was here to find out everything. This was an examination. He would have to point his answers away from himself quite definitely. He would have to tell his story. He would let each of the facts of his story fall slowly, as though he did not realize the significance of them. He would answer only what was asked.
"You drove her to school?"
He hung his head and did not answer.
"Come on, boy!"
"Well, mister, you see, I'm just working here."
"What do you mean?"
Mr. Dalton came close and looked hard into his face.
"Answer his questions, Bigger."
"You drove her to school?" Britten asked again.
Still, he did not answer.
"I asked you a question, boy!"
"Nawsuh. I didn't drive her to school."
"Where did you take her?"
"Well, suh. She told me, after I got as far as the park, to turn round and take her to the Loop."
"She didn't go to school?" Mr. Dalton asked, his lips hanging open in surprise.
"Why didn't you tell me this before, Bigger?"
"She told me not to."
There was silence. The furnace droned. Huge red shadows swam across the walls.
"Where did you take her, then?" Britten asked.
"To the Loop, suh."
""Whereabouts in the Loop?"
"To Lake Street, suh."
"Do you remember the number?"
"Sixteen, I think, suh."
"Sixteen Lake Street?"
"That's the Labor Defender office," Mr. Dalton said, turning to Britten. "This Jan's a Red."
"How long was she in there?" Britten asked.
"About half-hour, I reckon, suh."
"Then what happened?"
"Well, I waited in the car. . . ."
"She stayed there till you brought her home?"
"She came out. . . ."
"They came out. . . ."
"This man Jan was with her, then?"
"Yessuh. He was with her. Seems to me she went in there to get him. She didn't say anything; she just went in and stayed awhile and then came out with him."
"Then you drove 'em. . . ."
"He drove," Bigger said.
"Weren't you driving?"
"Yessuh. But he wanted to drive and
she told me to let him."
There was another silence. They wanted him to draw the picture and he would draw it like he wanted it. He was trembling with excitement. In the past had they not always drawn the picture for him? He could tell them anything he wanted and what could they do about it? It was his word against Jan's, and Jan was a Red.
"You waited somewhere for 'em?" Britten asked; the tone of curt hostility had suddenly left his voice.
"Nawsuh. I was in the car. . . ."
"And where did they go?"
He wanted to tell of how they had made him sit between them; but he thought that he would tell that later on, when he was telling how Jan and Mary had made him feel.
"Well, Mr. Jan asked me where was a good place to eat. The only one I knew about where white folks," he said "white folks" very slowly, so that they would know that he was conscious of what was meant, "ate on the South Side was Ernie's Kitchen Shack."
"You took them there "
"Mr. Jan drove the car, suh."
"How long did they stay there?"
"Well, we must've stayed. . . ."
"Weren't you waiting in the car?"
"Nawsuh. You see, mister, I did what they told me. I was only working for 'em. . . ."
"Oh!" Britten said. "I suppose he made you eat -with 'im?"
"I didn't want to, mister. I swear I didn't. He kept worrying me till iwent in."
Britten walked away from the trunk, running the fingers of his left hand nervously through his hair.
Again he turned to Bigger.
"They got drunk, hunh? "
"Yessuh. They was drinking."
"What did this Jan say to you?"
"He talked about the Communists . . . ."
"How much did they drink?"
"It seemed like a lot to me, suh."
"Then you brought 'em home "
"I drove 'em through the park, suh."
"Then you brought 'em home?"
"Yessuh. That was nearly two."
"How drunk was Miss Dalton?"
"Well, she couldn't hardly stand up, suh. When we got home, he had to lift her up the steps," Bigger said with lowered eyes.
"That's all right, boy. You can talk to us about it," Britten said. "Just how drunk was she"
"She passed out," Bigger said. Britten looked at Dalton.
"She could not have left this house by herself," Britten said. "If Mrs. Dalton's right, then she could not have left." Britten stared at Bigger and Bigger felt that some deeper question was on Britten's mind.
"What else happened?"
He would shoot now; he would let them have some of it. "Well, I told you Miss Dalton told me to take the trunk. I said that 'cause she told me not to tell about me taking her to the Loop. It was Mr. Jan who told me to take the trunk down and not put the car away."
"He told you not to put the car away and to take the trunk?"
"Yessuh. Yessuh. That's right.''
"Why didn't you tell us this before, Bigger?" asked Mr. Dalton.
"She told me not to, suh."
"How was this Jan acting?" Britten asked.
"He was drunk," said Bigger, feeling that now was the time to drag Jan in definitely. "Mr. Jan was the one who told me to take the trunk down and leave the car in the snow. I told you Miss Dalton told me that, but he told me. I would've been giving the whole thing away ifl had told about Mr. Jan."
Britten walked toward the furnace and back again; the furnace droned as before. Bigger hoped that no one would try to look into it now; his throat grew dry. Then he started nervously as Britten whirled and pointed his finger into his face.
"What did he say about the Party?"
"Aw, come on, boy! Don't stall! Tell me what he said about the Party!"
"The party? He asked me to sit at his table. . . ."
"I mean the Party !"
"It wasn't a party, mister. He made me sit at his table and he bought chicken and told me to eat. I didn't want to, but he made me and it was my job."
Britten came close to Bigger and narrowed his grey eyes.
"What unit are you in?"
"Come on, Comrade, tell me what unit you are in?"
Bigger gazed at him, speechless, alarmed.
"Who's your organizer?"
"I don't know what you mean," Bigger said, his voice quavering.
"Don't you read the Daily?"
"Didn't you know Jan before you came to work here "
"Didn't they send you to Russia?"
Bigger stared and did not answer. He knew now that Britten was trying to find out if he were a Communist. It was something he had not counted on, ever. He stood up, trembling. He had not thought that this thing could cut two ways. Slowly, he shook his head and backed away.
"Nawsuh. You got me wrong. I ain't never fooled around with them folks. Miss Dalton and Mr. Jan was the first ones I ever met, so help me God!"
Britten followed Bigger till Bigger's head struck the wall. Bigger looked squarely into his eyes. Britten, with a movement so fast that Bigger did not see it, grabbed him in the collar and rammed his head hard against the wall. He saw a flash of red.
"You are a Communist, you goddamn black sonofabitch! And you're going to tell me about Miss Dalton and that Jan bastard!"
"Nawsuh! I ain't no Communist! Nawsuh!"
"Well, what's this?" Britten jerked from his pocket the small packet of pamphlets that Bigger had put in his dresser drawer, and held them under his eyes. "You know you're lying! Come on, talk!"
"Nawsuh! You got me wrong! Mr. Jan gave me them things!
He and Miss Dalton told me to read 'em. . . ."
"Didn't you know Miss Dalton before?"
"Wait, Britten!" Mr. Dalton laid his hand on Britten's arm. "Wait. There's something to what he says. She tried to talk to him about unions when she first saw him yesterday. If that Jan gave him those pamphlets, then he knows nothing about it."
"I'm positive. I thought at first, when you brought me those pamphlets, that he must have known something. But I don't think he does. And there's no use blaming him for something he didn't do."
Britten loosened his fingers from Bigger's collar and shrugged his shoulders. Bigger relaxed, still standing, his head resting against the wall, aching. He had not thought that anyone would dare think that he, a black Negro, would be Jan's partner. Britten was his enemy. He knew that the hard light in Britten's eyes held him guilty because he was black. He hated Britten so hard and hot, while standing there with sleepy eyes and parted lips, that he would gladly have grabbed the iron shovel from the corner and split his skull in two. For a split second a roaring noise in his ears blotted out sound. He struggled to control himself; then he heard Britten talking.
". . . got to get hold of that Jan."
"That seems to be the next thing," said Mr. Dalton, sighing.
Bigger felt that if he said something directly to Mr. Dalton, he could swing things round again in his favor; but he did not know just how to put it.
"You suppose she ran off?" he heard Britten ask.
"I don't know," Mr. Dalton said.
Britten turned to Bigger and looked at him; Bigger kept his eyes down.
"Boy, I just want to know, are you telling the truth?"
"Yessuh. I'm telling the truth. I just started to work here last night. I ain't done nothing. I did just what they told me to do."
"You sure he's all right?" Britten asked Dalton. "He's all right."
"If you don't want me to work for you, Mr. Dalton," Bigger said, "I'll go home. I didn't want to come here," he continued, feeling that his words would awaken in Mr. Dalton a sense of why he was here, "but they sent me anyhow."
"That's true," Mr. Dalton told Britten. "He's referred to me from the relief. He's been in a reform school and I'm giving him a chance . . . ." Mr. Dalton turned to Bigger. "Just forget it, Bigger. We had to make sure. Stay on and do your work. I'm sorry this had to happen. Don't let it break you down."
"O.K ," said Britten. "If you say he's O.K, then it's O.K. with me."
"Go on to your room, Bigger," said Mr. Dalton.
Head down, he walked to the rear of the furnace and upstairs into his room. He turned the latch on the door and hurried to the closet to listen. The voices came clearly. Britten and Mr. Dalton had come into the kitchen.
"My, but it was hot down there," said Mr. Dalton.
"I'm a little sorry you bothered him. He's here to try to get a new slant on things."
"Well, you see 'em one way and I see 'em another. To me, a nigger's a nigger."
"But he's sort of a problem boy. He's not really bad."
"You got to be rough with 'em, Dalton. See how I got that dope out of 'im? He wouldn't've told you that."
"But I don't want to make a mistake here. It wasn't his fault. He was doing what that crazy daughter of mine told him. I don't want to do anything I'll regret. After all, these black boys never get a chance . . ."
"They don't need a chance, if you ask me. They get in enough trouble without it."
"Well, as long as they do their work, let's let 'em be."
"Just as you say. You want me to stay on the job?"
"Sure. We must see this Jan. I can't understand Mary's going away and not saying anything."
"I can have 'im picked up."
"No, no! Not that way. Those Reds'll get hold of it and they'll raise a stink in the papers."
"Well, what do you want me to do?"
"I'll try to get 'im to come here. I'll phone his office, and if he's not there I'll phone his home."
Bigger heard their footsteps dying away. A door slammed and then all was quiet. He came out of the closet and looked in the dresser drawer where he had put the pamphlets. Yes, Britten had searched his room; his clothes were mussed and tumbled. He would know how to handle Britten next time. Britten was familiar to him; he had met a thousand Britten’s in his life. He stood in the center of the room, thinking. When Britten questioned Jan, would Jan deny having been with Mary at all, in order to protect her. If he did, that would be in his favor. If Britten wanted to check on his story about Mary's not going to school last night, he could. If Jan said that they had not been drinking it could be proved that they had been drinking by folks in the cafe. If Jan lied about one thing, it would be readily believed that he would lie about others. If Jan said that he had not come to the house, who would believe him after it was seen that he had lied about his not drinking and about Mary's going to school. If Jan tried to protect Mary, as he thought he would, he would only succeed in making a case against himself.
Bigger went to the window and looked out at the white curtain of falling snow. He thought of the kidnap note. Should he try to get money from them now? Hell, yes! He would show that Britten bastard! He would work fast. But he would wait until after Jan had told his story. He should see Bessie tonight. And he ought to pick out the pencil and paper he would use. And he must not forget to use gloves when he wrote the note so that no fingerprints would be on the paper. He'd give that Britten something to worry about, all right. Just wait.
Because he could go now, run off if he wanted to and leave it all behind, he felt a certain sense of power, a power born of a latent capacity to live. He was conscious of this quiet, warm, clean, rich
house, this room with this bed so soft, the wealthy white people moving in luxury to all sides of him, whites living in a smugness, a security, a certainty that he had never known. The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score.
The more the sense of Britten seeped into him the more did he feel the need to face him once again and let him try to get some thing from him. Next time he would do better; he had let Britten trap him on that Communist business. He should have been on the lookout for that; but the lucky thing was that he knew that Britten had done all his tricks at once, had shot his bolt, had played all his cards. Now that the thing was out in the open, he would know how to act. And furthermore, Britten might want him as a witness against Jan. He smiled while he lay in the darkness. If that happened, he would be safe in sending the ransom note. He could send it just when they thought they had pinned the disappearance of Mary upon Jan. That would throw everything into confusion and would make them want to reply and give the money at once and save the girl.
The warm room lulled his blood and a deepening sense of fatigue drugged him with sleep. He stretched out more fully on the bed, sighed, turned on his back, swallowed, and closed his eyes. Out of the surrounding silence and darkness came the quiet ringing of a distant church bell, thin, faint, but clear. It tolled, soft, then loud, then still louder, so loud that he wondered where it was. It sounded suddenly directly above his head and when he looked it was not there but went on tolling and with each passing moment he felt an urgent need to run and hide as thought the bell were sounding a warning and he stood on a street corner in a red glare of light like that which came from the furnace and he had a big pack age in his arms so wet and slippery and heavy that he could scarcely hold onto it and he wanted to know what was in the package and he stopped near an alley corner and unwrapped it and the paper fell away and he saw-it was his own head-his own head lying with black face and half-closed eyes and lips parted with white teeth showing and hair wet with blood and the red glare grew brighter like light shining down from a red moon and red stars on a hot summer night and he was sweating and breathless from running and the bell clanged so loud that he could hear the iron tongue clapping against the metal sides each time it swung to and fro and he was running over a street paved with black coal and his shoes kicked tiny lumps rattling against tin cans and he knew that
very soon he had to find some place to hide but there was no place and in front of him white people were coming to ask about the head from which the newspapers had fallen and which was now slippery with blood in his naked hands and he gave up and stood in the middle of the street in the red darkness and cursed the booming bell and the white people and felt that he did not give a damn what happened to him and when the people closed in he hurled the bloody head squarely into their faces dong dong dong . . . .
He opened his eyes and looked about him in the darkened room, hearing a bell ring. He sat up. The bell sounded again. How long had it been ringing? He got to his feet, swaying from stiffness, trying to shake off sleep and that awful dream.
"Yessum," he mumbled.
The bell rang again, insistently. He fumbled in the dark for the light chain and pulled it. Excitement quickened within him. Had something happened? Was this the police?
"Bigger!" a muffled voice called.
He braced himself for whatever was coming and stepped to the door. As he opened it he felt it being pushed in by someone who seemed determined to get in in a hurry. Bigger backed away, blinking his eyes.
"We want to talk to you," said Britten.
He did not hear what Britten said after that, for he saw directly behind Britten a face that made him hold his breath. It was not fear he felt, but a tension, a supreme gathering of all the forces of his body for a showdown.
''Go on in, Mr. Erlone," Mr. Dalton said.
Bigger saw Jan's eyes looking at him steadily. Jan stepped into the room and Mr. Dalton followed. Bigger stood with his lips slightly parted, his hands hanging loosely by his sides, his eyes watchful, but veiled.
"Sit down, Erlone," Britten said.
"This is all right," Jan said. "I'll stand."
Bigger saw Britten pull from his coat pocket the packet of parmphlets and hold them under Jan's eyes. Jan's lips twisted into a faint smile.
"Well," Jan said.
"You're one of those tough Reds, hunh?" Britten asked.
"Come on. Let's get this over with," Jan said. "What do you want?"
"Take it easy," Britten said. "You got plenty of time. I know your kind. You like to rush and have things your way."
Bigger saw Mr. Dalton standing to one side, looking anxiously from one to the other. Several times Mr. Dalton made as if to say something, then checked himself, as though uncertain.
"Bigger," Britten asked, "is this the man Miss Dalton brought here last night?"
Jan's lips parted. He stared at Britten, then at Bigger.
"Yessuh," Bigger whispered, struggling to control his feelings, hating Jan violently because he knew he was hurting him; wanting to strike Jan with something because Jan's wide, incredulous stare made him feel hot guilt to the very core of him.
"You didn't bring me here, Bigger!" Jan said. "Why do you tell them that?"
Bigger did not answer; he decided to talk only to Britten and Mr. Dalton. There was silence. Jan was staring at Bigger; Britten and Mr. Dalton were watching Jan. Jan made a move toward Bigger, but Britten's arm checked him.
"Say, what is this?" Jan demanded. "What're you making this boy lie for?"
"I suppose you're going to tell us you weren't drunk last night, hunh?" asked Britten.
"What business is that of yours?" Jan shot at him.
"Where's Miss Dalton?" Britten asked. Jan looked round the room, puzzled.
"She's in Detroit," he said.
"You know your story by heart, don't you?" Britten said.
"Say, Bigger, what're they doing to you? Don't be afraid. Speak up!" said Jan.
Bigger did not answer; he looked stonily at the floor.
"Where did Miss Dalton tell you she was going?" Britten asked.
"She told me she was going to Detroit."
"Did you see her last night?"
"You didn't give these pamphlets to this boy last night?" Jan shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said:
"All right. I saw her. So what? You know why I didn't say so in the first place . . . ."
"No. We don’t know," Britten said.
"Well, Mr. Dalton here doesn't like Reds, as you call 'em, and I didn't want to get Miss Dalton in trouble." "Then, you did meet her last night?"
"Where is she?"
"If she's not in Detroit, then I don't know where she is."
"You gave these pamphlets to this boy?"
"Yes; I did."
"You and Miss Dalton were drunk last night. . . ."
"Aw, come on! We weren't drunk. We had a little to drink. . . ."
"You brought her home about two?"
Bigger stiffened and waited.
"You told the boy to take her trunk down to the basement?" Jan opened his mouth, but no words came. He looked at Bigger, then back to Britten.
"Say, what is this?"
"Where's my daughter, Mr. Erlone?" Mr. Dalton asked.
"I tell you I don't know."
"Listen, let's be frank, Mr. Erlone," said Mr. Dalton. "We know my daughter was drunk last night when you brought her here. She was too drunk to leave here by herself. Do you know where she is?"
"I-I didn't come here last night," Jan stammered.
Bigger sensed that Jan had said that he had come home with Mary last night in order to make Mr. Dalton believe that he would not have left his daughter alone in a car with a strange chauffeur. And Bigger felt that after Jan admitted that they had been drinking, he was bound to say that he had brought the girl home. Unwittingly, Jan's desire to protect Mary had helped him. Jan's denial of having come to the home would not be believed now; it would make Mr. Dalton and Britten feel that he was trying to cover up something of even much greater seriousness.
"You didn't come home with her?" Mr. Dalton asked.
"You didn't tell the boy to take the trunk down?"
"Hell, no! Who says I did? I left the car and took a trolley home." Jan turned and faced Bigger. "Bigger, what're you telling these people?"
Bigger did not answer.
"He's just told us what you did last night," Britten said.
"Where's Mary. . . . Where's Miss Dalton?" Jan asked.
"We're waiting for you to tell us," said Britten.
"D-d-didn't she go to Detroit?" Jan stammered.
"No," said Mr. Dalton.
"I called her this morning and Peggy told me she had."
"You called her just to see if the family had missed her, didn't you?" asked Britten.
Jan walked over to Bigger.
"Leave 'im alone!" Britten said.
"Bigger," Jan said, "why did you tell these men I came here?"
"You say you didn't come here at all last night?" Mr. Dalton asked again.
"Absolutely not. Bigger, tell 'em when I left the car." Bigger said nothing.
"Come on, Erlone. I don't know what you're up to, but you've been lying ever since you've been in this room. You said you didn't come here last night, and then you say you did. You said you weren't drunk last night, then you say you were. You said you didn't see Miss Dalton last night, then you say you did. Come on, now. Tell us where Miss Dalton is. Her father and mother want to know."
Bigger saw Jan's bewildered eyes.
"Listen, I've told you all I know," said Jan, putting his hat back on. "Unless you tell me what this joke's all about, I'm getting on back home. . . ."
"Wait a minute," said Mr. Dalton.
Mr. Dalton came forward a step, and fronted Jan.
"You and I don't agree. Let's forget that. I want to know where my daughter is. . . ."
"Is this a game?" asked Jan.
"No; no. . . ." said Mr. Dalton. "I want to know. I'm worried. . . ."
"I tell you, I don't know!"
"Listen, Mr. Erlone. Mary's the only girl we've got. I don't want her to do anything rash. Tell her to come back. Or you bring her back."
"Mr. Dalton, I'm telling you the truth. . . ."
"Listen," Mr. Dalton said. "I'll make it all right with you. . . ."
Jan's face reddened.
''What do you mean?" he asked. "I'll make it worth your while . . . ."
"You son. . . ." Jan stopped. He walked to the door.
"Let 'im go," said Britten. "He can't get away. I'll phone and have 'im picked up. He knows more than he's telling . . . ."
Jan paused in the doorway, looking at all three of them. Then he went out. Bigger sat on the edge of the bed and heard Jan's feet run down the stairs. A door slammed; then silence. Bigger saw Mr. Dalton gazing at him queerly. He did not like that look. But Britten was jotting something on a pad, his face pale and hard in the yellow glare of the suspended electric bulb.
"You're telling us the truth about all this, aren't you, Bigger?"
Mr. Dalton asked.
"He's all right," Britten said. "Come on; let's get to a phone.
I'm having that guy picked up for questioning. It's the only thing to do. And I'll have some men go over Miss Dalton's room. We'll find out what happened. I'll bet my right arm that goddamn Red's up to something!"
Britten went out and Mr. Dalton followed, leaving Bigger still on the edge of the bed. When he heard the door slam, he got up and grabbed his cap and went softly down the stairs into the basement. He stood a moment looking through the cracks into the humming fire, blindingly red now; then he went into the driveway, through the falling snow to the street. He had to see Bessie at once; the kidnap note had to be sent right away; there was no time to lose. If Mr. Dalton, Britten or Peggy missed him and asked him where he had been, he would say that he had gone out to get a package of cigarettes. But with all of the excitement, no one would probably think of him. And they were after Jan now; he was safe.
He stopped, whirled, his hand reaching inside of his shirt for his gun. He saw Jan standing in the doorway of a store. As Jan came forward Bigger backed away. Jan stopped.
"For Chrissakes! Don't be afraid of me. I'm not going to hurt you."
In the pale yellow sheen of the street lamp they faced each other; huge wet flakes of snow floated down slowly, forming a delicate screen between them. Bigger had his hand inside of his shirt, on his gun. Jan stood staring, his mouth open.
"What's all this about, Bigger? I haven't done anything to you, have I? Where's Mary?"
Bigger felt guilty; Jan's presence condemned him. Yet he knew of no way to atone for his guilt; he felt he had to act as he was acting.
"I don't want to talk to you," he mumbled.
"But what have I done to you?" Jan asked desperately.
Jan had done nothing to him, and it was Jan's innocence that made anger rise in him. His fingers tightened about the gun.
"I don't want to talk to you," he said again.
He felt that if Jan continued to stand there and make him feel this awful sense of guilt, he would have to shoot him in spite of himself. He began to tremble, all over; his lips parted and his eyes widened.
"Go 'way," Bigger said.
"Listen, Bigger, if these people are bothering you, just tell me. Don't be scared. I'm used to this sort of thing. Listen, now. Let's go somewhere and get a cup of coffee and talk this thing over."
Jan came forward again and Bigger drew his gun. Jan stopped; his face whitened.
"For God's sake, man! What're you doing? Don't shoot. I haven't bothered you. . . . Don't. . . ."
"Leave me alone," Bigger said, his voice tense and hysterical. "Leave me alone! Leave me alone!"
Jan backed away from him.
"Leave me alone!" Bigger's voice rose to a scream.
Jan backed farther away, then turned and walked rapidly off, looking back over his shoulder. When he reached the corner he ran through the snow, out of sight. Bigger stood still, the gun in hand. He had utterly forgotten where he was; his eyes were still riveted on that point in space where he had last seen Jan's retreating form. The tension in him slackened and he lowered the gun until it hung at his side, loosely in his fingers. He was coming back into possession of himself; for the past three minutes it seemed he had been under a strange spell, possessed by a force which he hated, but which he had to obey. He was startled when he heard soft footsteps coming toward him in the snow. He looked and saw a white woman. The woman saw him and paused; she turned abruptly and ran across the street. Bigger shoved the gun in his pocket and ran to the corner. He looked back; the woman was vanishing through the snow, in the opposite direction.
In him as he walked was a cold, driving will. He would go through with this; he would work fast. He had encountered in Jan a much stronger determination than he had thought would be there. If he sent the kidnap note, it would have to be done before Jan could prove that he was completely innocent. At that moment he did not care if he was caught. If only he could cower Jan and Britten into awe, into fear of him and his black skin and his humble manners!
He reached a corner and went into a drug store. A white clerk came to him.
"Give me a envelope, some paper and a pencil," he said.
He paid the money, put the package into his pocket and went out to the corner to wait for a car. One came; he got on and rode eastward, wondering what kind of note he would write. He rang the bell for the car to stop, got off and walked through the quiet Negro streets. Now and then he passed an empty building, white and silent in the night. He would make Bessie hide in one of these buildings and watch for Mr. Dalton's car. But the ones he passed were too old; if one went into them they might collapse. He walked on. He had to find a building where Bessie could stand in a window and see the package of money when it was thrown from the car. He reached Langley Avenue and walked westward to Wabash Avenue. There were many empty buildings with black windows, like blind eyes, buildings like skeletons standing with snow on their bones in the winter winds. But none of them were on corners. Finally, at Michigan Avenue and East Thirty-sixth Place, he saw the one he wanted. It was tall, white, silent, standing on a well-lighted corner. By looking from any of the front windows Bessie would be able to see in all four directions. Oh! He had to have a flashlight! He went to a drug store and bought one for a dollar. He felt in the inner pocket of his coat for his gloves. Now, he was ready. He crossed the street and stood waiting for a car. His feet were cold and he stamped them in the snow, surrounded by people waiting, too, for a car. He did not look at them; they were simply blind people, blind like his mother, his brother, his sister, Peggy, Britten, Jan, Mr. Dalton, and the sightless Mrs. Dalton and the quiet empty houses with their black gaping windows.
He looked round the street and saw a sign on a building: THIS PROPERTY IS MANAGED BY THE SOUTH SIDE REAL ESTATE COMPANY. He had heard that Mr. Dalton owned the South Side Real Estate Company,
and the South Side Real Estate Company owned the house in which he lived. He paid eight dollars a week for one rat-infested room. He had never seen Mr. Dalton until he had come to work for him; his mother always took the rent to the real estate office. Mr. Dalton was somewhere far away, high up, distant, like a god. He owned property all over the Black Belt, and he owned property where white folks lived, too. But Bigger could not live in a building across the "line." Even though Mr. Dalton gave millions of dollars for Negro education, he would rent houses to Negroes only in this prescribed area, this corner of the city tumbling down from rot. In a sullen way Bigger was conscious of this. Yes; he would send the kidnap note. He would jar them out of their senses.
When the car came he rode south and got off at Fifty-first Street and walked to Bessie's. He had to ring five times before the buzzer answered. Goddammit, I bet she's drunk! he thought. He mounted the steps and saw her peering at him through the door with eyes red from sleep and alcohol. His doubt of her made him fearful and angry.
"Bigger?" she asked.
"Get on back in the room." he said.
"What's the matter?" she asked, backing away, her mouth open.
"Let me in! Open the door!"
She threw the door wide, almost stumbling as she did so.
"Turn on the light."
"What's the matter, Bigger?"
"How many times do you want me to ask you to turn on the light?"
She turned it on.
"Pull them shades."
She lowered the shades. He stood watching her. Now, I don't want any trouble out of her. He went to the dresser and pushed her jars and combs and brushes aside and took the package from his pocket and laid it in the cleared space.
He turned and looked at her.
"You ain't really planning to do that, sure 'nough?"
"What the hell you think?"
He caught her arm and squeezed it in a grip of fear and hate.
"You ain't going to turn away from me now! Not now, Goddamn you!"
She said nothing. He took off his cap and coat and threw them on the bed.
"They're wet, Bigger!"
"I ain't doing this," she said.
"Like hell you ain't!"
"You can't make me!"
"You done helped me to steal enough from the folks you worked for to put you in jail already."
She did not answer; he turned from her and got a chair and pulled it up to the dresser. He unwrapped the package and balled the paper into a knot and threw it into a corner of the room. Instinctively, Bessie stooped to pick it up. Bigger laughed and she straightened suddenly. Yes; Bessie was blind. He was about to write a kidnap note and she was worried about the cleanliness of her room.
"What's the matter?" she asked. "Nothing."
He was smiling grimly. He took out the pencil; it was not sharpened.
"Gimme a knife."
"Ain't you got one?"
"Hell, naw! Get me a knife!"
"What you do with your knife?"
He stared at her, remembering that she knew that he had had a knife. An image of blood gleaming on the metal blade in the glare of the furnace came before his eyes and fear rose in him hotly.
"You want me to slap you?"
She went behind a curtain. He sat looking at the paper and pencil. She came back with a butcher knife.
"Bigger, please . . . .I don't want to do it."
"Got any liquor?"
"Yeah. . . ."
"Get you a shot and set on that bed and keep quiet."
She stood undecided, then got the bottle from under a pillow and drank. She lay on the bed, on her stomach, her face turned so that she could see him. He watched her through the looking-glass of the dresser. He sharpened the pencil and spread out the piece of paper. He was about to write when he remembered that he did not have his gloves on. Goddamn!
"Gimme my gloves."
"Get my gloves out of the inside of my coat pocket."
She swayed to her feet and got the gloves and stood back of his chair, holding them limply in her hands.
"Give 'em here."
"Bigger. . . ."
"Give me the gloves and get back on that bed, will you?"
He snatched them from her and gave her a shove and turned back to the dresser.
"Bigger. . . ."
"I ain't asking you but once more to shut up!" he said, pushing the knife out of the way so he could write.
He put on the gloves and took up the pencil in a trembling hand and held it poised over the paper. He should disguise his handwriting. He changed the pencil from his right to his left hand. He would not write it; he would print it. He swallowed with dry throat. Now, what would be the best kind of note? He thought, I want you to put ten thousand . . . . Naw; that would not do. Not "I." It would be better to say "we." We got your daughter, he printed slowly in big round letters. That was better. He ought to say something to let Mr. Dalton think that Mary was still alive. He wrote: She is safe. Now, tell him not to go to the police. No! Say something about Mary first! He bent and wrote: She wants to come home. . . . Now, tell him not to go to the police. Don't go to the police if you want your daughter back safe. Naw;
that ain't good. His scalp tingled with excitement; it seemed that he could feel each strand of hair upon his head. He read the line over and crossed out "safe" and wrote "alive." For a moment he was frozen, still. There was in his stomach a slow, cold, vast rising movement, as though he held within the embrace of his bowels the swing of planets through space. He was giddy. He caught hold of himself, focused his attention to write again. Now, about the money. How much? Yes; make it ten thousand. Get ten thousand in 5 and 10 bills and put it in a shoe box. . . . That's good. He had read that somewhere . . . . and tomorrow night ride your car up and down Michigan Avenue from 35th Street to 40th Street. That would make it hard for anybody to tell just where Bessie would be hiding. He wrote: Blink your head lights some. When you see a light in a window blink three times, throw the box in the snow and drive off Do what this letter say. Now, he would sign it. But how? It should be signed in some way that would throw them off the trail. Oh, yes! Sign it "Red." He printed, Red. Then, for some reason, he thought that that was not enough. Oh, yes. He would make one of those signs, like the ones he had seen on the Communist pamphlets. He wondered how they were made. There was a hammer and a round kind of knife. He drew a hammer, then a curving knife. But it did not look right. He examined it and discovered that he had left the handle off the knife. He sketched it in. Now, it was complete. He read it over. Oh! He had left out something. He had to put in the time when he wanted them to bring the money. He bent and printed again: p.s. Bring the money at midnight. He sighed, lifted his eyes and saw Bessie standing behind him. He turned and looked at her.
"Where’s that girl?"
"I don't know."
"You do know. You wouldn't be doing this if you didn't know."
"Aw, what difference do it make?"
She looked straight into his eyes and whispered, "Bigger, did you kill that girl?"
His jaw clamped tight and he stood up. She turned from him and flung herself upon the bed, sobbing. He began to feel cold; he discovered that his body was covered with sweat. He heard a soft rustle and looked down at his hand; the kidnap note was shaking in his trembling fingers. But I ain't scared, he told himself. He folded the note, put it into an envelope, sealed it by licking the flap, and shoved it in his pocket. He lay down on the bed beside Bessie and took her in his arms. He tried to speak to her and found his throat so husky that no words came.
"Come on, kid," he whispered finally.
"Bigger, what's happened to you?"
"It ain't nothing. You ain't got much to do."
"I don't want to."
"Don't be scared."
"You told me you was never going to kill nobody."
"I ain't killed nobody."
"You did! I see it in your eyes. I see it all over you."
"Don't you trust me, baby?"
"Where's that girl, Bigger?"
"I don't know."
"How you know she won't turn up?"
"She just won't."
"You did kill her."
"Aw, forget the girl."
She stood up.
"Don't be a fool. I love you."
"You told me you never was going to kill."
"All right. They white folks. They done killed plenty of us."
"That don't make it right."
He began to doubt her; he had never heard this tone in her voice before. He saw her tear-wet eyes looking at him in stark fear and he remembered that no one had seen him leave his room. To stop Bessie who now knew too much would be easy. He could take the butcher knife and cut her throat. He had to make certain of her, one way or the other, before he went back to Dalton's. Quickly, he stooped over her, his fists clenched. He was feeling as he had felt when he stood over Mary's bed with the white blur drawing near; an iota more of fear would have sent him plunging again into murder.
"I don't want no playing from you now."
"I'm scared, Bigger," she whimpered.
She tried to get up; he knew she had seen the mad light in his eyes. Fear sheathed him in fire. His words came in a thick whisper.
"Keep still, now. I ain't playing. Pretty soon they'll be after me, maybe. And I ain't going to let 'em catch me, see? I ain't going to let 'em! The first thing they'll do in looking for me is to come to you. They'll grill you about me and you, you drunk fool, you'll tell! You'll tell if you ain't in it, too. If you ain't in it for your life, you'll tell."
"Naw; Bigger!" she whimpered tensely. At that moment she was too scared even to cry.
"You going to do what I say?"
She wrenched herself free and rolled across the bed and stood up on the other side. He ran round the bed and followed her as she backed into a corner. His voice hissed from his throat:
"I ain't going to leave you behind to snitch!"
"I ain't going to snitch! I swear I ain't."
He held his face a few inches from hers. He had to bind her to him.
"Yeah; I killed the girl," he said. "Now, you know. You got to help me. You in it as deep as me! You done spent some of the money. . . ."
She sank to the bed again, sobbing, her breath catching in her throat. He stood looking down at her, waiting for her to quiet. When she had control of herself, he lifted her and stood her upon her feet. He reached under the pillow and brought out the bottle and took out the stopper and put his hand round her and tilted her head.
"Here; take a shot."
"Drink. . . .”
He carried the bottle to her lips; she drank a small swallow. When he attempted to put the bottle away, she took it from him.
"That's enough, now. You don't want to get sloppy drunk."
He turned her loose and she lay back on the bed, limp, whimpering. He bent to her.
"Bigger, please! Don't do this to me! Please! All I do is work, work like a dog! From morning till night. I ain't got no happiness. I ain't never had none. I ain't got nothing and you do this to me. After how good I been to you. Now you just spoil my whole life. I've done everything for you I know how and you do this to me. Please, Bigger. . . ." She turned her head away and stared at the floor. "Lord, don't let this happen to me! I ain't done nothing for this to come to me' I just work! I ain't had no happiness, no nothing. I just work. I'm black and I work and don't bother nobody. . . ."
"Go on," Bigger said, nodding his head affirmatively; he knew the truth of all she spoke without her telling it. "Go on and see what that gets you."
"But I don't want to do it, Bigger. They'll catch us. God knows they will."
"I ain't going to leave you here to snitch on me."
"I won't tell. Honest, I won't. I cross my heart and swear by God, I won't. You can run away. . . ."
"I ain't got no money."
"You have got money. I paid rent out of what you gave me and I bought some liquor. But the rest is there."
"That ain't enough. I got to have some real dough."
She cried again. He got the knife and stood over her.
"I can stop it all right now," he said.
She started up, her mouth opening to scream.
"If you scream, I'll have to kill you. So help me God!"
"Naw; naw! Bigger, don't! Don’t!"
Slowly, his arm relaxed and hung at his side; she fell to sobbing again. He was afraid that he would have to kill her before it was all over. She would not do to take along, and he could not leave her behind.
"All right," he said. "But you better do the right thing."
He put the knife on the dresser and got the flashlight from his overcoat pocket and then stood over her with the letter and flash light in his hand.
"Come on," he said. "Get your coat on."
"Not tonight, Bigger! Not tonight . . . ."
"It won't be tonight. But I got to show you what to do."
"But it's cold. It's snowing. . . ."
"Sure. And nobody'll see us. Come on!"
She pulled up; he watched her struggle into her coat. Now and then she paused and looked at him, blinking back her tears. When she was dressed, he put on his coat and cap and led her to the street. The air was thick with snow. The wind blew hard. It was a blizzard. The street lamps were faint smudges of yellow. They walked to the corner and waited for a car.
"I'd rather do anything but this," she said.
"Stop now. We're in it."
"Bigger, honey, I'd run off with you. I'd work for you, baby. We don't have to do this. Don't you believe I love you?"
"Don't try that on me now."
The car came; he helped her on and sat down beside her and looked past her face at the silent snow flying white and wild outside the window. He brought his eyes farther round and looked at her; she was staring with blank eyes, like a blind woman waiting for some word to tell her where she was going. Once she cried and he gripped her shoulder so tightly that she stopped, more absorbed in the painful pressure of steel-like fingers than in her fate. They got off at Thirty-sixth Place and walked over to Michigan Avenue. When they reached the corner, Bigger stopped and made her stop by gripping her arm again. They were in front of the high, white, empty building with black windows.
"Where we going?"
"Bigger," she whimpered.
"Come on, now. Don't start that!"
"But I don't want to."
"You got to."
He looked up and down the street, past ghostly lamps that shed a long series of faintly shimmering cones of yellow against the snowy night. He took her to the front entrance which gave into a vast pool of inky silence. He brought out the flashlight and focused the round spot on a rickety stairway leading upward into a still blacker darkness. The planks creaked as he led her up. Now and then he felt his shoes sink into a soft, cushy substance. Cobwebs brushed his face. All round him was the dank smell of rotting timber. He stopped abruptly as something with dry whispering feet flitted across his path, emitting as the rush of its flight died a thin, piping wail of lonely fear.
Bigger whirled and centered the spot of light on Bessie's face. Her lips were drawn back, her mouth was open, and her hands were lifted midway to white-rimmed eyes.
"What you trying to do?" he asked. "Tell the whole world we in here?"
After a few feet he stopped and swung the light. He saw dusty walls, walls almost like those of the Dalton home. The doorways were wider than those of any house in which he had ever lived. Some rich folks lived here once, he thought. Rich white folks. That was the way most houses on the South Side were, ornate, old, stinking; homes once of rich white people, now inhabited by Negroes or standing dark and empty with yawning black windows. He remembered that bombs had been thrown by whites into houses like these when Negroes had first moved into the South Side. He swept the disc of yellow and walked gingerly down a hall and into a room at the front of the house. It was feebly lit from the street lamps outside; he switched off the flashlight and looked round. The room had six large windows. By standing close to any of them, the streets in all four directions were visible.
"See, Bessie . . . ."
He turned to look at her and found that she was not there. He called tensely:
There was no answer; he bounded to the doorway and switched on the flashlight. She was leaning against a wall, sobbing. He went to her, caught her arm and yanked her back into the room.
"Come on! You got to do better than this."
"I'd rather have you kill me right now," she sobbed.
"Don't you say that again!"
She was silent. His black open palm swept upward in a swift narrow arc and smacked solidly against her face.
"You want me to wake you up?"
She bent her head to her knees; he caught hold of her arm again and dragged her to the window. He spoke like a man who had been running and was out of breath:
"Now, look. All you got to do is come here tomorrow night, see? Ain't nothing going to bother you. I'm seeing to everything. Don't you worry none. You just do what I say. You come here and just watch. About twelve o'clock a car'll come along. It'll be blinking its headlights, see? When it comes, you just raise this flashlight and blink it three times, see? Like this. Remember that. Then watch that car. It'll throw out a package. Watch that package, 'cause the money'll be in it. It'll go into the snow. Look and see if anybody's about. If you see nobody, then go and get the package and go home. But don't go straight home. Make sure nobody's watching you, nobody's following you, see? Ride three or four street cars and transfer fast. Get off about five blocks from home and look behind you as you walk, see? Now, look. You can see up and down Michigan and Thirty-sixth. You can see if anybody's watching. I'll be in the white folks' house all day tomorrow. If they put anybody out to watch, I'll let you know not to come."
"Bigger. . . ."
"Come on, now."
"Take me home."
"You going to do it?"
She did not answer.
"You already in it," he said. "You got part of the money."
"I reckon it don't make no difference," she sighed.
"It'll be easy."
"It won't. I'll get caught. But it don't make no difference. I'm lost anyhow. I was lost when I took up with you. I'm lost and it don't matter. . . ."
He led her back to the car stop. He said nothing as they waited in the whirling snow. When he heard the car corning, he took her purse from her, opened it and put the flashlight inside. The car stopped; he helped her on, put seven cents in her trembling hand and stood in the snow watching her black face through the window white with ice as the car moved off slowly through the night.
He walked to Dalton's through the snow. His right hand was in his coat pocket, his fingers about the kidnap note. When he reached the driveway, he looked about the street carefully. There was no one. He looked at the house; it was white, huge, silent. He walked up the steps and stood in front of the door. He waited a moment to see what would happen. So deeply conscious was he of violating dangerous taboo, that he felt that the very air or sky would suddenly speak, commanding him to stop. He was sailing fast into the face of a cold wind that all but sucked his breath from him; but he liked it. Around him were silence and night and snow falling, falling as though it had fallen from the beginning of time and would always fall till the end of the world. He took the letter out of his pocket and slipped it under the door. Turning, he ran down the steps and round the house. I done it! I done it now! They'll see it tonight or in the morning. . . . He went to the basement door, opened it and looked inside; no one was there. Like an enraged beast, the furnace throbbed with heat, suffusing a red glare over everything. He stood in front of the cracks and watched the restless embers. Had Mary burned completely? He wanted to poke round in the coals to see, but dared not; he flinched from it even in thought. He pulled the lever for more coal, then went to his room.
When he stretched out on his bed in the dark he found that his whole body was trembling. He was cold and hungry. While lying there shaking, a hot bath of fear, hotter than his blood, engulfed him, bringing him to his feet. He stood in the middle of the floor, seeing vivid images of his gloves, his pencil, and paper. How on earth had he forgotten them? He had to burn them. He would do it right now. He pulled on the light and went to his overcoat and got the gloves and pencil and paper and stuffed them into his shirt. He went to the door, listened a moment, then went into the hall and down the stairs to the furnace. He stood a moment before the gleaming cracks. Hurriedly, he opened the door and dumped the gloves and pencil and paper in; he watched them smoke, blaze; he closed the door and heard them burn in a furious whirlwind of draft. A strange sensation enveloped him. Something tingled in his stomach and on his scalp. His knees wobbled, giving way. He stumbled to the wall and leaned against it weakly. A wave of numbness spread fanwise from his stomach over his entire body, including his head and eyes, making his mouth gap. Strength ebbed from him. He sank to his knees and pressed his fingers to the floor to keep from tumbling over. An organic sense of dread seized him. His teeth chattered and he felt sweat sliding down his armpits and back. He groaned, holding as still as possible. His vision was blurred; but gradually it cleared. Again he saw the furnace. Then he realized that he had been on the verge of collapse. Soon the glare and drone of the fire came to his eyes and ears. He closed his mouth and gritted his teeth; the peculiar paralyzing numbness was leaving.
When he was strong enough to stand without support, he rose to his feet and wiped his forehead on his sleeve. He had strained himself from a too long lack of sleep and food; and the excitement was sapping his energy. He should go to the kitchen and ask for his dinner. Surely, he should not starve like this. He mounted the steps to the door and knocked timidly; there was no answer. He turned the knob and pushed the door in and saw the kitchen flooded with light. On a table were spread several white napkins under which was something that looked like plates of food. He stood gazing at it, then went to
the table and lifted the corners of the napkins. There were sliced bread and steak and fried potatoes and gravy and string beans and spinach and a huge piece of chocolate cake. His mouth watered. Was this for him? He wondered if Peggy was around. Ought he try to find her? But he disliked the thought of looking for her; that would bring attention to himself, something which he hated. He stood in the kitchen, wondering if he ought to eat, but afraid to do so. He rested his black fingers on the edge of the white table and a silent laugh burst from his parted lips as he saw himself for a split second in a lurid objective light: he had killed a rich white girl and had burned her body after cutting her head off and had lied to throw the blame on someone else and had written a kidnap note demanding ten thousand dollars and yet he stood here afraid to touch food on the table, food which undoubtedly was his own.
"Hunh?" he answered before he knew who had called.
"Where've you been? Your dinner's been waiting for you since five o'clock. There's a chair. Eat. . . . “
as much as you want. . . . He stopped listening. In Peggy's hand was the kidnap note. I'll heat your coffee go ahead and eat Had she opened it? Did she know what was in it? No; the envelope was still sealed. She came to the table and removed the napkins. His knees were shaking with excitement and sweat broke out on his forehead. His skin felt as though it were puckering up from a blast of heat. don't you want the steak warmed the question reached him from far away and he shook his head without really knowing what she meant. don't you feel well
"This is all right," he murmured.
"You oughtn't starve yourself that way."
"I wasn't hungry."
"You're hungrier than you think," she said.
She set a cup and saucer at his plate, then laid the letter on the edge of the table. It held his attention as though it were a steel magnet and his eyes were iron. She got the coffee pot and poured his cup full. No doubt she had just gotten the letter from under the door and had not yet had time to give it to Mr. Dalton. She placed a small jar of cream at his plate and took up the letter again.
"I've got to give this to Mr. Dalton," she said. "I'll be back in a moment."
"Yessum," he whispered.
She left. He stopped chewing and stared before him, his mouth dry. But he had to eat. Not to eat now would create suspicion. He shoved the food in and chewed each mouthful awhile, then washed it down with swallows of hot coffee. When the coffee gave out, he used cold water. He strained his ears to catch sounds. But none came. Then the door swung in silently and Peggy came back. He could see nothing in her round red face. Out of the corners of his eyes he watched her go to the stove and putter with pots and pans.
"Want more coffee?"
"You ain't scared of all this trouble we're having round here, are you, Bigger?"
"Oh, no'm," he said, wondering if something in his manner had made her ask that.
"That poor Mary!" Peggy sighed. "She acts like such a ninny. Imagine a girl keeping her parents worried sick all the time. But there are children for you these days."
He hurried with his eating, saying nothing; he wanted to get out of the kitchen. The thing was in the open now; not all of it, but some of it. Nobody knew about Mary yet. He saw in his mind a picture of the Dalton family distraught and horrified when they found that Mary was kidnapped. That would put them a certain distance from him. They would think that white men did it; they would never think that a black, timid Negro did that. They would go after Jan. The "Red" he had signed to the letter and the hammer and curving knife would make them look for Communists.
"You got enough?"
"You better clean the ashes out of the furnace in the morning, Bigger."
"And be ready for Mr. Dalton at eight."
"Your room all right?"
The door swung in violently. Bigger started in fright. Mr. Dalton came into the kitchen, his face ashy. He stared at Peggy and Peggy, holding a dish towel in her hand, stared at him. In Mr. Dalton's hand was the letter, opened.
"What's the matter, Mr. Dalton?"
“Who. . . . Where did. . . . Who gave you this?"
"Why, nobody. I got it from the door."
"A few minutes ago. Anything wrong?"
Mr. Dalton looked round the entire kitchen, not at anything in particular, but just round the entire stretch of four walls, his eyes wide and unseeing. He looked back at Peggy; it was as if he had thrown himself upon her mercy; was waiting for her to say some word that would take the horror away.
"W-what's the matter, Mr. Dalton?" Peggy asked again.
Before Mr. Dalton could answer, Mrs. Dalton groped her way into the kitchen, her white hands held high. Bigger watched her fingers tremble through the air till they touched Mr. Dalton's shoulder. They gripped his coat hard enough to tear it from his body. Bigger, without moving an eyelid, felt his skin grow hot and his muscles stiffen.
"Henry! Henry!" Mrs. Dalton called. "What's the matter?"
Mr. Dalton did not hear her; he still stared at Peggy.
"Did you see who left this letter?"
"No, Mr. Dalton."
"Nawsuh,'' he whispered, his mouth full of dry food.
"Henry, tell me! Please! For Heaven's sake!"
Mr. Dalton put his arm about Mrs. Dalton's waist and held her close to him.
"It's. . . . It's about Mary. . . . It's . . . . She. . . ."
"What? Where is she?"
"They. . . . They got her! They kidnapped her."
"Henry! No!" Mrs. Dalton screamed.
"Oh, no!" Peggy whimpered, running to Mr. Dalton.
"My baby," Mrs. Dalton sobbed.
"She's been kidnapped," Mr. Dalton said, as though he had to say the words over again to convince himself.
Bigger's eyes were wide, taking in all three of them in one constantly roving glance. Mrs. Dalton continued to sob and Peggy sank into a chair, her face in her hands. Then she sprang up and ran out of the room, crying:
"Lord, don't let them kill her!"
Mrs. Dalton swayed. Mr. Dalton lifted her and staggered, trying to get her through the door. As he watched Mr. Dalton there flashed through Bigger's mind a quick image of how he had lifted Mary's body in his arms the night before. He rose and held the door open for Mr. Dalton and watched him walk unsteadily down the dim hallway with Mrs. Dalton in his arms.
He was alone in the kitchen now. Again the thought that he had the chance to walk out of here and be clear of it all came to him, and again he brushed it aside. He was tensely eager to stay and see how it would all end, even if that end swallowed him in blackness. He felt that he was living upon a high pinnacle where bracing winds whipped about him. There came to his ears a muffled sound of sobs. Then suddenly there was silence. What's happening? Would Mr. Dalton phone the police now? He strained to listen, but no sounds came. He went to the door and took a few steps into the hallway. There were still no sounds. He looked about to make sure that no one was watching him, then crept on tiptoe down the hall. He heard voices. Mr. Dalton was talking to someone. He crept farther; yes, he could hear . . . . I want to talk to Britten please. Mr. Dalton was phoning. come right over please yes at once something awful has happened I don't want to talk about it over the phone That meant that when Britten came back he would be questioned again. yes right away I’ll be waiting.
He had to get back to his room. He tiptoed along the hall, through the kitchen, down the steps and into the basement. The torrid cracks of the furnace gleamed in the crimson darkness and he heard the throaty undertone of the draft devouring the air. Was she burnt? But even if she were not, who would think of looking in the furnace for her? He went to his room, into the closet, closed the door and listened. Silence. He came out, left the door open and, in order to get to the closet quickly and without sound, pulled off his shoes. He lay again on the bed, his mind whirling, with images born of a multitude of impulses. He could run away; he could remain; he could even go down and confess what he had done. The mere thought that these avenues of action were open to him made him feel free, that his life was his, that he held his future in his hands. But they would never think that he had done it; not a meek black boy like him.
He bounded off the bed, listening, thinking that he had heard voices. He had been so deeply taken up with his own thoughts that he did not know if he had actually heard anything or had imagined it. Yes; he heard faint footsteps below. He hurried to the closet. The footsteps ceased. There came to him the soft sound of sobbing. It was Peggy. Her sobbing quieted, then rose to a high pitch. He stood for a long time, listening to Peggy's sobs and the long moan of the wind sweeping through the night outside. Peggy's sobs ceased and her footsteps sounded once more. Was she going to answer the doorbell? Footsteps came again; Peggy had gone to the front of the house for something and had come back. He heard a heavy voice, a man's. At first he could not identify it; then he realized that it was Britten's.
". . . and you found the note?"
"How long ago?"
"About an hour."
"You're sure you didn't see anyone leave it?"
"It was sticking under the door."
"Think, now. Did you see anybody about the house or driveway?"
"No. The boy and me, that's all that's been around here."
"And where's the boy now?"
"Upstairs in his room, I think."
"Did you ever see this handwriting before?"
"No, Mr. Britten."
"Can you guess, can you think, imagine who would send such a note?"
"No. Not a soul in this whole wide world, Mr. Britten," Peggy wailed.
Britten's voice ceased. There was the sound of other heavy feet. Chairs scraped over the floor. More people were in the kitchen. Who were they? Their movements sounded like those of men. Then Bigger heard Britten speaking again.
"Listen, Peggy. Tell me, how does this boy act?"
"What do you mean, Mr. Britten?"
"Does he seem intelligent? Does he seem to be acting?"
"I don't know, Mr. Britten. He's just like all the other colored boys."
"Does he say 'yes mam' and 'no mam'?"
"Yes, Mr. Britten. He's polite."
"But does he seem to be trying to appear like he's more ignorant than he really is?"
"I don't know, Mr. Britten."
"Have you missed anything around the house since he's been here?"
"Has he ever insulted you, or anything?"
"Oh, no! No!"
"What kind of a boy is he?"
"He's just a quiet colored boy. That's all I can say. . . ."
"Did you ever see him reading anything?"
"No, Mr. Britten."
"Does he speak more intelligently at some times than at others?"
"No, Mr. Britten. He talked always the same, to me."
"Has he ever done anything that would make you think he knows something about this note?"
"No, Mr. Britten."
"When you speak to him, does he hesitate before he answers, as though he's thinking up what to say?"
"No, Mr. Britten. He talks and acts natural-like."
"When he talks, does he wave his hands around a lot, like he's been around a lot of Jews?"
"I never noticed, Mr. Britten."
"Did you ever hear 'im call anybody comrade?"
"No, Mr. Britten."
"Does he pull off his cap when he comes in the house "
"I never noticed. I think so, Mr. Britten."
"Has he ever sat down in your presence without being asked, like he was used to being around white people?"
"No, Mr. Britten. Only when I told him to."
"Does he speak first, or does he wait until he's spoken to?"
"Well, Mr. Britten. He seemed always to wait until we spoke to him before he said anything."
"Now, listen, Peggy. Think and try to remember if his voice goes up when he talks, like Jews when they talk. Know what I mean? You see, Peggy, I'm trying to find out if he's been around Communists. . . ."
"No, Mr. Dalton. He talks just like all other colored folks to me."
"Where did you say he is now?"
"Upstairs in his room."
When Britten's voice ceased Bigger was smiling. Yes; Britten was trying to trap him, trying to make out a case against him; but he could not find anything to go upon. Was Britten coming to talk to him now? There came the sound of other voices.
"It's a ten-to-one chance that she's dead."
"Yeah. They usually bump 'em off. They're scared of 'em after they get 'em. They think they might identify them afterwards."
"Did the old man say he was going to pay?"
"Sure. He wants his daughter back."
"That's just ten thousand dollars shot to hell, if you ask me."
"But he wants the girl."
"Say, I bet it's those Reds trying to raise money."
"Maybe that's how they get their dough. They say that guy, Bruno Hauptmann, the one who snatched the Lindy baby, did it for the Nazis. They needed the money."
"I'd like to shoot every one of them Goddamn bastards, Red or no Red."
There was the sound of a door opening and more footsteps.
"You have any luck with the old man?"
It was Britten's voice.
"He's pretty washed up, eh?"
"Yeah; and who wouldn't be?"
"He won't call the cops?"
"Naw; he's scared stiff."
"It might seem hard on the family, but if you let them snatchers know they can't scare money out of you, they'll stop."
"Say, Brit, try 'im again."
"Yeah; tell 'im there ain't nothing to do now but to call the cops."
"Aw, I don't know. I hate to worry 'im."
"Well, after all, it's his daughter. Let him handle it."
"But, listen, Brit. When they pick up this Erlone fellow, he's going to tell the cops and the papers'll have the story anyway. so call 'em now. The sooner they get started the better."
"Naw, I'll wait for the old man to give the signal."
Bigger knew that Mr. Dalton had not wanted to notify the police; that much was certain. But how long would he hold out? The police would know everything as soon as Jan was picked up, for Jan would tell enough to make the police and the newspapers investigate. But if Jan were confronted with the fact of the kidnapping of Mary, what would happen? Could Jan prove an alibi? If he did, then the police would start looking for someone else. They would start questioning him again; they would want to know why he had lied about Jan's being in the house. But would not the word "Red" which he had signed to the ransom note throw them off the track and make them still think that Jan or his comrades did it? Why would anybody want to think that Bigger had kidnapped Mary?
Bigger came out of the closet and wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. He had knelt so long that his blood had almost stopped and needle-like pains shot from the bottom of his feet to the calves of his legs. He went to the window and looked out at the swirling snow. He could hear wind rising; it was a blizzard all right. The snow moved in no given direction, but filled the world with a vast white storm of flying powder. The sharp currents of wind could be seen in whorls of snow twisting like miniature tornadoes.
The window overlooked an alley, to the right of which was Forty-fifth Street. He tried the window to see if it would open; he lifted it a few inches, then all the way with a loud and screechy sound. Had anyone heard him? He waited; nothing happened. Good! If the worst came to the worst, he could jump out of this window, right here, and run away. It was two stories to the ground and there was a deep drift of soft snow just below him. He lowered the window and lay again on the bed, waiting. The sound of firm feet came on the stairs. Yes; someone was coming up! His body grew rigid. A knock came at the door.
He pulled on the light, opened the door and met a white face.
"They want you downstairs."
The man stepped to one side and Bigger went past him on down the hall and down the steps into the basement, feeling the eyes of the white man on his back, and hearing as he neared the furnace the muffled breathing of the fire and seeing directly before his eyes Mary's bloody head with its jet-black curly hair, shining and wet with blood on the crumpled newspapers. He saw Britten standing near the furnace with three white men.
"Yessuh," Bigger said.
"You heard what happened?"
"Listen, boy. You're talking just to me and my men here. Now, tell me, do you think Jan's mixed up in this?"
Bigger's eyes fell. He did not want to answer in a hurry and he did not want to blame Jan definitely, for that would make them question him too closely. He would hint and point in Jan's direction.
"I don't know, suh," he said.
"Just tell me what you think."
"I don't know, suh," Bigger said again.
"You really saw him here last night, didn't you?"
"You'd swear he told you to take that trunk down and leave the car out in the snow."
"I-I'd swear to what's true, suh," said Bigger.
"Did he act like he had anything up his sleeve?"
"I don't know, suh."
"What time did you say you left?"
"A little before two, suh."
Britten turned to the other men, one of whom stood near the furnace with his back to the fire, warming his hands behind him. The man's legs were sprawled wide apart and a cigar glowed in a corner of his mouth.
"It must've been that Red," Britten said to him.
"Yeah," said the man at the furnace. "What would he have the boy take the trunk down for and leave the car out? It was to throw us off the scent."
"Listen, Bigger," said Britten. "Did you see this guy act in any way out of the ordinary? I mean, sort of nervous, say? Just what did he talk about?"
"He talked about Communists . . . ."
"Did he ask you to join?"
"He gave me that stuff to read."
"Come on. Tell us some of the things he said."
Bigger knew the things that white folks hated to hear Negroes ask for; and he knew that these were the things the Reds were always asking for. And he knew that white folks did not like to hear these things asked for even by whites who fought for Negroes.
"Well," Bigger said, feigning reluctance, "he told me that some day there wouldn't be no rich folks and no poor folks . . . ."
"And he said a black man would have a chance. . . ."
"And he said there would be no more lynching. . . ."
"And what was the girl saying?"
"She agreed with 'im."
"How did you feel toward them?"
"I don't know, suh."
"I mean, did you like 'em?"
He knew that the average white man would not approve of his liking such talk.
"It was my job. I just did what they told me," he mumbled.
"Did the girl act in any way scared?"
He sensed what kind of a case they were trying to build against Jan and he remembered that Mary had cried last night when he had refused to go into the cafe with her to eat.
"Well, I don't l know, suh. She was crying once. . . ."
The men crowded about him.
"Did he hit her?"
"I didn't see that."
"What did he do then?"
"Well, he put his arms around her and she stopped."
Bigger had his back to a wall. The crimson luster of the fire gleamed on the white men's faces. The sound of air being sucked upward through the furnace mingled in Bigger's ears with the faint whine of the wind outside in the night. He was tired; he closed his eyes a long second and then opened them, knowing that he had to keep alert and answer questions to save himself.
"Did this fellow Jan say anything to you about white women?"
Bigger tightened with alarm.
"Did he say he would let you meet some white women if you joined the Reds?"
He knew that sex relations between blacks and whites were repulsive to most white men.
"Nawsuh," he said, simulating abashment.
"Did Jan lay the girl?"
"I don't know, suh."
"Did you take them to a room or a hotel?"
"Nawsuh. Just to the park."
"They were in the back seat?"
"How long were you in the park?"
"Well, about two hours, I reckon, suh."
"Come on, now, boy. Did he lay the girl?"
"I don't know, suh. They was back there kissing and going on."
"Was she lying down?"
"Well, yessuh. She was," said Bigger, lowering his eyes because he felt that it would be better to do so. He knew that whites thought that all Negroes yearned for white women, therefore he wanted to show a certain fearful deference even when one's name was mentioned in his presence.
"They were drunk, weren't they?"
"Yessuh. They'd been drinking a lot."
He heard the sound of autos coming into the driveway. Was this the police?
"Who's that?" Britten asked.
"I don't knowr," said one of the men.
"I'd better see," Britten said.
Bigger saw, after Britten had opened the door, four cars standing in the snow with headlights glowing.
"Who's that?" Britten called.
"There's nothing here for you!" Britten called in an uneasy voice.
"Don't stall us!" a voice answered. "Some of it's already in the papers. You may as well tell the rest."
"What's in the papers?" Britten asked as the men entered the basement.
A tall red-faced man shoved his hand into his pocket and brought forth a newspaper and handed it to Britten.
"The Reds say you're charging 'em with spiriting away the old man's daughter."
Bigger darted a glance at the paper from where he was; he saw: RED NABBED AS GIRL VANISHES.
"Goddamn!" said Britten.
"Phew!" said the tall red-faced man. "What a night! Red arrested! Snowstorm. And this place down here looks like some body's been murdered."
"Come on, you," said Britten. "You're in Mr. Dalton's house now."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"Where's the old man?"
"Upstairs. He doesn't want to be bothered."
"Is that girl really missing, or is this just a stunt?"
"I can't tell you anything," Britten said.
"Who’s this boy, here?"
"Keep quiet, Bigger," Britten said.
"Is he the one Erlone said accused him?"
Bigger stood against the wall and looked round vaguely.
"You going to pull the dumb act on us?" asked one of the men.
"Listen, you guys," said Britten. "Take it easy. I'll go and see if the old man will see you."
"That's the time. We're waiting. All the wires are carrying this story."
Britten went up the steps and left Bigger standing with the crowd of men.
"Your name's Bigger Thomas?" the red-faced man asked.
"Keep quiet, Bigger," said one of Britten's men.
Bigger said nothing.
"Say, what's all this? This boy can talk if he wants to."
"This smells like something big to me," said one of the men.
Bigger had never seen such men before; he did not know how to act toward them or what to expect of them. They were not rich and distant like Mr. Dalton, and they were harder than Britten, but in a more impersonal way, a way that maybe was more dangerous than Britten's. Back and forth they walked across the basement floor in the glare of the furnace with their hats on and with cigars and cigarettes in their mouths. Bigger felt in them a coldness that disregarded everybody. They seemed like men out for keen sport. They would be around a long time now that Jan had been arrested and questioned. Just what did they think of what he had told about Jan? Was there any good in Britten's telling him not to talk to them? Bigger's eyes watched the balled newspaper in a white man's gloved hand. If only he could read that paper! The men were silent, waiting for Britten to return. Then one of them came and leaned against the wall, near him. Bigger looked out of the corners of his eyes and said nothing. He saw the man light a cigarette.
"Nawsuh," he mumbled.
He felt something touch the center of his palm. He made a move to look, but a whisper checked him.
"Keep still. It's for you. I want you to give me the dope."
Bigger's fingers closed over a slender wad of paper; he knew at once that it was money and that he would give it back. He held the money and watched his chance. Things were happening so fast that he felt he was not doing full justice to them. He was tired. Oh, if only he could go to sleep! If only this whole thing could be postponed for a few hours, until he had rested some! He felt that he would have been able to handle it then. Events were like the details of a tortured dream, happening without cause. At times it seemed that he could not quite remember what had gone before and what it was he was expecting to come. At the head of the stairs the door opened and he saw Britten. While the others were looking off, Bigger shoved the money back into the man's hand. The man looked at him, shook his head and flicked his cigarette away and walked to the center of the floor.
"I'm sorry, boys," Britten said. "But the old man won't be able to see you till Tuesday."
Bigger thought quickly; that meant that Mr. Dalton was going to pay the money and was not going to call in the police.
"Aw, come on!"
"Where is the girl?"
"I'm sorry," said Britten.
"You're putting us in the position of having to print anything we can get about this case," said one of the men.
"You all know Mr. Dalton," Britten explained. "You wouldn't do that. For God's sake, give the man a chance. I can't tell you why now, but it's important. He'd do as much for you some time."
"Is the girl missing?"
"I don't know."
"Is she here in the house?"
"No; I don't think she is."
"When did she leave?"
"I don't know."
"When will she be back?"
"I can't say."
"Is this Erlone fellow telling the truth?" asked one of the men. "He said that Mr. Dalton's trying to slander the Communist Party by having him arrested. And he says it's an attempt to break up his relationship with Miss Dalton."
"I don't know," Britten said.
"Erlone was picked up and taken to police headquarters and questioned," the man continued. "He claimed that this boy here lied about his being in the home last night. Is that true?"
"Really, I can't say anything about that," Britten said.
"Did Mr, Dalton forbid Erlone to see Miss Dalton?"
"I don't know," Britten said, whipping out a handkerchief and wiping his forehead. "Honest to God, boys, I can't tell yon any thing. You'll have to see the old man."
All eyes lifted at once. Mr. Dalton stood at the head of the stairs in the doorway, white-faced, holding a piece of paper in his fingers. Bigger knew at once that it was the kidnap note. What was going to happen now? All of the men talked at once, shouting questions, asking to take pictures.
"Where's Miss Dalton?"
"Did you swear out a warrant for the arrest of Erlone?"
"Were they engaged?"
"Did you forbid her to see him?"
"Did you object to his politics?"
"Don't you want to make a statement, Mr. Dalton?"
Bigger saw Mr. Dalton lift his hand for silence, then walk slowly down the steps and stand near the men, just a few feet above them. They gathered closer, raising their silver bulbs.
"Do you wish to comment on what Erlone said about your chauffeur?"
"What did he say?" Mr. Dalton asked.
"He said the chauffeur had been paid to lie about him."
"That's not true," Mr. Dalton said firmly.
Bigger blinked as lightning shot past his eyes. He saw the men lowering the silver bulbs.
"Gentlemen," said Mr. Dalton. "Please! Give me just a moment. I do want to make a statement." Mr. Dalton paused, his lips quivering. Bigger could see that he was very nervous. "Gentlemen," Mr. Dalton said again, "I want to make a statement and I want you to take it carefully. The way you men handle this will mean life or death to someone, someone close to this family, to me. Someone. . . ." Mr. Dalton's voice trailed off. The basement filled with murmurs of eagerness. Bigger heard the kidnap note crackling faintly in Mr. Dalton's fingers. Mr. Dalton's face was dead-white and his blood-shot eyes were deep set in his head above patches of dark-colored skin. The fire in the furnace was low and the draft was but a whisper. Bigger saw Mr. Dalton's white hair glisten like molten silver from the pale sheen of the fire.
Then, suddenly, so suddenly that the men gasped, the door behind Mr. Dalton filled with a flowing white presence. It was Mrs. Dalton, her white eyes held wide and stony, her hands lifted sensitively upward toward her lips, the fingers long and white and wide apart. The basement was lit up with the white flash of a dozen silver bulbs.
Ghostlike, Mrs. Dalton moved noiselessly down the steps until she came to Mr. Dalton’s side, the white cat following her. She stood with one hand lightly touching a banister and the other held in mid-air. Mr. Dalton did not move or look round; he placed one of his hands over hers on the banister, covering it, and faced the men. Meanwhile, the big white cat bounded down the steps and leaped with one movement upon Bigger's shoulder and sat perched there. Bigger was still, feeling that the cat had given him away, had pointed him out as the murderer of Mary. He tried to lift the cat down; but its claws clutched his coat. The silver lightning flashed in his eyes and he knew that the men had taken pictures of him with the cat poised upon his shoulder. He tugged at the cat once more and managed to get it down. It landed on its feet with a long whine, then began to rub itself against Bigger's legs. Goddamn! Why can't that cat leave me alone? He heard Mr. Dalton speaking.
"Gentlemen, you may take pictures, but wait a moment. I've just phoned the police and asked that Mr. Erlone be released immediately. I want it known that I do not want to prefer charges against him. It is important that this be understood. I hope your papers will carry the story."
Bigger wondered if this meant that suspicion was now pointing away from Jan? He wondered what would happen if he tried to leave the house? Were they watching him?
"Further," Mr. Dalton went on, "I want to announce publicly that I apologize for his arrest and inconvenience." Mr. Dalton paused, wet his lips with his tongue, and looked down over the small knot of men whose hands were busy jotting his words down upon their white pads of paper. "And, gentlemen, I want to announce that Miss Dalton, our daughter. . . . Miss Dalton . . . ." Mr. Dalton's voice faltered. Behind him, a little to one side, stood Mrs. Dalton; she placed her white hand upon his arm. The men lifted their silver bulbs and again lightning flashed in the red gloom of the basement. "I-I want to announce," Mr. Dalton said in a quiet voice that carried throughout the room, though it was spoken in a tense whisper, "that Miss Dalton has been kidnapped. . . "
"We think it happened last night," said Mr. Dalton.
"What are they asking?"
"Ten thousand dollars."
"Have you any idea who it is?"
"We know nothing."
"Have you had any word from her, Mr. Dalton?"
“No; not directly. But we've had a letter from the kidnappers . . . ."
"Is that it there?"
"Yes. This is the letter."
"When did you get it?"
"Through the mail?"
"No; someone left it under our door."
"Are you going to pay the ransom?"
"Yes," said Mr. Dalton. "I'm going to pay.Listen, gentlemen, you can help me and perhaps save my daughter's life by saying in your stories that I'll pay as I've been instructed. And, too, what's most important, tell the kidnappers through your papers that I shall not call in the police. Tell them I'll do everything they ask. Tell them to return our daughter. Tell them, for God's sake, not to kill her, that they will get what they want. . . ."
"Have you any idea, Mr. Dalton, who they are?"
"I have not."
"Can we see that letter?"
"I'm sorry, but you can't. The instructions for the delivery of the money are here, and I have been cautioned not to make them public. But say in your papers that these instructions will be followed."
"When was Miss Dalton last seen?"
"Sunday morning, about two o'clock."
"Who saw her?"
"My chauffeur and my wife."
Bigger stared straight before him, not allowing his eyes to move.
"Please, don't ask him any questions," said Mr. Dalton. "I'm speaking for my whole family. I don't want a lot of crazy versions of this story going around. We want our daughter back; that's all that matters now. Tell her in the papers that we're doing all we can to get her back and that everything is forgiven. Tell her that we. . . ." Again his voice broke and he could not go on.
"Please, Mr. Dalton," begged one man. "Just let us take one shot of that note. . . ."
"No; no. . . . I can't do that."
"How is it signed?"
Mr. Dalton looked straight before him. Bigger wondered if he would tell. He saw Mr. Dalton's lips moving silently, debating something.
"Yes; I'll tell you how it's signed," said the old man, his hands trembling. Mrs. Dalton's face turned slightly toward him and her fingers gripped in his coat. Bigger knew that Mrs. Dalton was asking him silently if he had not better keep the signature of the note from the papers; and he knew, too, that Mr. Dalton seemed to have reasons of his own for wanting to tell. Maybe it was to let the Reds know that he had received their note.
"Yes," Mr. Dalton said. "It's signed 'Red.' That's all."
"Do you know the identity?"
"Have you any suspicions?"
"Beneath the signature is a scrawled emblem of the Communist Party, the hammer and the sickle," said Mr. Dalton.
The men were silent. Bigger saw the astonishment on their faces. Several did not wait to hear more; they rushed out of the basement to telephone their stories in.
"Do you think the Communists did it?"
"I don't know. I'm not positively blaming anybody. I'm only releasing this information to let the public and the kidnappers know that I've received this note. If they'll return my daughter, I'll ask no questions of anyone."
"Was your daughter mixed up with those people, Mr. Dalton?"
"I know nothing about that."
"Didn't you forbid your daughter to associate with this Erlone?"
"I hope this has nothing to do with that."
"You think Erlone's mixed in this?"
"I don't know."
"Why did you have him released?"
"I ordered his arrest before I received this note."
"Do you feel that maybe he'll return the girl if he's out?"
"I don't know. I don't know if he's got our daughter. I only know that Mrs. Dalton and I want our daughter back."
"Then why did you have Erlone released?"
"Because I have no charges to prefer against him," said Mr. Dalton stubbornly.
"Mr. Dalton, hold the letter up, and hold your hand out, like you're making an appeal. Good! Now, put your hand out, too, Mrs. Dalton. Like that. O.K., hold it!"
Bigger watched the silver bulbs flash again. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton were standing upon the steps: Mrs. Dalton in white and Mr. Dalton with the letter in his hand and his eyes looking straight back to the rear wall of the basement. Bigger heard the soft whisper of the fire in the furnace and saw the men adjusting their cameras. Others were standing round, still scribbling nervously upon their pads of paper. The bulbs flashed again and Bigger was startled to see that they were pointed in his direction. He wanted to duck his head, or throw his hands in front of his face, but it was too late. They had enough pictures of him now to know him by sight in a crowd. A few more of the men left and Mr. and Mrs. Dalton turned and walked slowly up the stairs and disappeared through the kitchen door, the big white cat following close behind them. Bigger still stood with his back to the wall, watching and trying to value every move in relation to himself and his chances of getting the money.
"You suppose we can use Mr. Dalton's phone?'' one of the men asked Britten.
Britten led a group of them up the stairs into the kitchen. The three men who had come with Britten sat on the steps and stared gloomily at the floor. Soon the men who had gone to phone their stories in came back. Bigger knew that they wanted to talk to him. Britten also came back and sat upon the steps.
"Say, can't you give us any more dope on this?" one of the reporters asked Britten.
"Mr. Dalton's told you everything," Britten said.
"This is a big story," said one of the men.
"Say, how did Mrs. Dalton take this?"
"She collapsed," said Britten.
For a while nobody said anything. Then Bigger saw the men, one by one, turn and stare at him. He lowered his eyes; he knew that they were longing to ask him questions and he did not want that. His eyes roved the room and saw the crumpled copy of the newspaper lying forgotten in a corner. He wanted ever so badly to read it; he would get at it the first opportunity and find out just what Jan had said. Presently, the men began to wander aimlessly about the basement, looking into corners, examining the shovel, the garbage pail, and the trunk. Bigger watched one man stand in front of the furnace. The man's hand reached out and opened the door; a feeble red glare lit the man's face as he stooped and looked inside at the bed of smoldering coals. Suppose he poked deeply into theme Suppose Mary's bones came into view? Bigger held his breath. But the man would not poke into that fire; nobody suspected him. He was just a black clown. He breathed again as the man closed the door. The muscles of Bigger's face jerked violently, making him feel that he wanted to laugh. He turned his head aside and fought to control himself. He was full of hysteria.
"Say, how about a look at the girl's room?" asked one of the men.
"Sure. Why not?" Britten said.
All of the men followed Britten up the stairs and Bigger was left alone. At once his eyes went to the newspaper; he wanted to pick it up, but was afraid. He stepped to the back door and made sure that
it was locked; then he went to the top of the stairs and looked hurriedly into the kitchen; he saw no one. He bounded down the steps and snatched up the paper. He opened it and saw a line of heavy black type stretched across the top of the front page: SEEK HYDE PARK HEIRESS MISSING FROM HOME SINCE SATURDAY. GIRL BELIEVED HIDING OUT WITH COMMUNISTS. POLICE NAB LOCAL RED LEADER; GRILLED ON RELA TIONSHIP WITH MARY DALTON. AUTHORITIES ACT ON TIP SUPPLIED BY GIRL'S FATHER.
And there was the picture 6f Jan in the center of page one. It was Jan all right. Just like him. He turned to the story, reading,
Did the foolish dream of solving the problem of human misery and poverty by dividing her father's real estate millions among the lowly force Mary Dalton to leave the palatial Hyde Park home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Henry G. Dalton, 4605 Drexel Boulevard, and take up life under an assumed name with her long-haired friends in the Communist movement?
This was the question that police sought to answer late tonight as they grilled Jan Erlone, executive secretary of the Labor Defenders, a Communist "front" organization in which it was said that Mary Dalton held a membership in defiance of her father's wishes.
The story went on to say that Jan was being held for investigation at the Eleventh Street Police Station and that Mary had been missing from her home since eight o'clock Saturday night. It also mentioned that Mary had been in the "company of Erlone until early Sunday morning at a notorious South Side cafe in the Black Belt."
That was all. He had expected more. He looked further. No; here was something else. It was a picture of Mary. It was so lifelike that it reminded him of how she had looked the first time he had seen her; he blinked his eyes. He was looking again in sweaty fear at her head lying upon the sticky
newspapers with blood oozing outward toward the edges. Above the picture was a caption: IN DUTCH WITH PA. Bigger lifted his eyes and looked at the furnace; it seemed impossible that she was there in the fire, burning. . . . The story in the paper had not been as alarming as he had thought it would be. But as soon as they heard of Mary's being kidnapped, what would happen? He heard footsteps and dropped the paper back in the corner and stood just as he had before, his back against the wall, his eyes vacant and sleepy. The door opened and the men came down the steps, talking in low, excited tones. Again Bigger noticed that they were watching him. Britten also came back.
"Say, why can't we talk to this boy?" one demanded.
"There's nothing he can tell you," Britten said.
"But he can tell us what he saw. After all, he drove the car last night."
"O.K. with me," Britten said. "But Mr. Dalton's told you everything."
One of the men walked over to Bigger.
"Say, Mike, you think this Erlone fellow did this?"
"My name ain't Mike," Bigger said, resentfully.
"Oh, I don't mean no harm," the man said. "But do you think he did it?"
"Answer his questions, Bigger," Britten said.
Bigger was sorry he had taken offense. He could not afford to get angry now. And he had no need to be angry. Why should he be angry with a lot of fools? They were looking for the girl and the girl was ten feet from them, burning. He had killed her and they did not know it. He would let them call him "Mike."
"I don't know, suh," he said.
"Come on; tell us what happened."
"I only work here, suh," Bigger said.
''Don't be afraid. Nobody's going to hurt you."
"Mr. Britten can tell you," Bigger said.
The men shook their heads and walked away.
"Good God, Britten!" said one of the men. "All we've got on this kidnapping is that a letter was found, Erlone's to be released, the letter was signed by 'Red,' and there was a hammer and sickle emblem on it. That doesn't make sense. Give us some more details."
"Listen, you guys," Britten said. "Give the old man a chance. He's trying to get his daughter back, alive. He's given you a big story; now wait."
"Tell us straight now; when was that girl last seen?"
Bigger listened to Britten tell the story all over again. He listened carefully to every word Britten said and to the tone of voice in which the men asked their questions, for he wanted to know if any of them suspected him. But they did not. All of their questions pointed to Jan.
"But Britten," asked one of the men, "why did the old man want this Erlone released?"
"Figure it out for yourself," Britten said.
"Then he thinks Erlone had something to do with the snatching of his daughter and wanted him out so he could give her back?"
"I don't know," Britten said.
"Aw, come on, Britten."
"Use your imagination," Britten said.
Two more of the men buttoned their coats, pulled their hats low over their eyes and left. Bigger knew that they were going to phone in more information to their papers; they were going to tell about Jan's trying to convert him to Communism, the Communist literature Jan had given him, the rum, the half-packed trunk being taken down to the station, and lastly, about the kidnap note and the demand for ten thousand dollars. The men looked round the basement with flashlights. Bigger still leaned against the wall. Britten sat on the steps. The fire whispered in the furnace. Bigger knew that soon he would have to clean the ashes out, for the fire was not burning as hotly as it should. He would do that as soon as some of the excitement died down and all of the men left.
"It's pretty bad, hunh, Bigger?" Britten asked.
"I'd bet a million dollars that this is Jan's smart idea."
Bigger said nothing. He was limp all over; he was standing up here against this wall by some strength not his own. Hours past he had given up trying to exert himself anymore; he could no longer call up any energy. So he just forgot it and found himself coasting along.
It was getting a little chilly; the fire was dying. The draft could scarcely be heard. Then the basement door burst open suddenly and one of the men who had gone to telephone came in, his mouth open, his face wet and red from the snow.
"Say!" he called.
"What is it?"
"My city editor just told me that that Erlone fellow won't leave jail.''
For a moment the strangeness of the news made them all stare silently. Bigger roused himself and tried to make out just what it meant. Then someone asked the question he longed to ask.
"Won't leave? What you mean?''
"Well, this Erlone refused to go when they told him that Mr. Dalton had requested his release. It seems he had got wind of the kidnapping and said that he didn't want to go out."
"That means he's guilty!" said Britten. "He doesn't want to leave jail because he knows they'll shadow him and find out where the girl is, see? He's scared."
"Well, this Erlone says he's got a dozen people to swear that he did not come here last night."
Bigger's body stiffened and he leaned forward slightly.
"That's a lie!" Britten said. "This boy here saw him."
"Is that right, boy?"
Bigger hesitated. He suspected a trap. But if Jan really had an alibi, then he had to talk; he had to steer them away from himself.
"Well, somebody's lying. That Erlone fellow says that he can prove it."
"Prove hell!" Britten said. "He's just got some of his Red friends to lie for him; that's all."
"But what in hell's the good of his not wanting to leave jail?" asked one of the men.
"He says if he stays in they can't possibly say he's mixed up in this kidnapping business. He said this boy's lying. He claims they told him to say these things in order to blacken his name and reputation. He swears the family knows where the girl is and that this thing is a stunt to raise a cry against the Reds."
The men gathered round Bigger.
"Say, boy, come on with the dope now. Was that guy really here last night?"
"Yessuh; he was here all right."
"You saw 'im?"
"I drove him and Miss Dalton up here in the car. We went upstairs together to get the trunk."
"And you left him here?"
Bigger's heart was pounding, but he tried to keep his face and voice under control. He did not want to seem unduly excited over these new developments. He was wondering if Jan could really prove that he had not been here last night; and he was thinking the question in his own mind when he heard someone ask, “Who has this Erlone got to prove he was not here last night?"
''He says he met some friend of his when he got on the street car last night. And he says he went to a party after he left Miss Dalton at two-thirty."
"Where was the party?"
"Somewhere on the North Side."
"Say, if what he says is true, then there's something fishy here."
"Naw," said Britten. "I'll bet he went to his pals, the ones he planned all of this with. Sure; why wouldn't they alibi for 'im?"
"So you really think he did it?"
"Hell, yes!" Britten said. "These Reds'll do anything and they stick together. Sure; he's got an alibi. Why shouldn't he have one. He's got enough pals working for 'im. His wanting to stay in jail's nothing but a dodge, but he's not so smart. He thinks that his gag'll work and leave him free of suspicion, but it won't."
The talk stopped abruptly as the door at the head of the stairs opened. Peggy's head came through.
"You gentlemen want some coffee?" she asked.
"I'll bring some down in just a minute," she said, closing the door.
"Who is she?"
"Mrs. Dalton's cook and housekeeper," Britten said.
"She know anything about all this?"
Again the men turned to Bigger. He felt this time he had to say something more to them. Jan was saying that he was lying and he had to wipe out doubt in their minds. They would think that he knew more than he was telling if he did not talk. After all, their attitude toward him so far made him feel that they did not consider him as being mixed up in the kidnapping. He was just another black ignorant Negro to them. The main thing was to keep their minds turned in another direction, Jan's direction, or that of Jan's friends.
"Say," one of the men asked, coming close to him and placing a foot upon the edge of the trunk. "Did this Erlone fellow talk to you about Communism?"
"Oh!" Britten exclaimed. "What?"
"I forgot! Let me show you fellows the stuff he gave the boy to read."
Britten stood up, his face flushed with eagerness. He ran his hand into his pocket and pulled forth the batch of pamphlets that Jan had given Bigger and held them up for all to see. The men again got their bulbs and flashed their lightning to take pictures of the pamphlets. Bigger could hear their hard breathing; he knew that they were excited. When they finished, they turned to him again.
"Say, boy, was this guy drunk?"
"And the girl, too?"
"He took the girl upstairs when they got here?"
"Say, boy, what do you think of public ownership? Do you think the government ought to build houses for people to live in?" Bigger blinked.
"Well, what do you think of private property?"
"I don't own any property. Nawsuh," Bigger said.
"Aw, he's a dumb cluck. He doesn't know anything," one of the men whispered in a voice loud enough for Bigger to hear.
There was a silence. Bigger leaned against the wall, hoping that this would satisfy them for a time, at least. The draft could not be heard in the furnace now at all. The door opened again and Peggy came into view carrying a pot of coffee in one hand and a folding card table in the other. One of the men went up the steps and met her, took the table, opened it, and placed it for her. She set the pot upon it. Bigger saw a thin spout of steam jutting from the pot and smelt the good scent of coffee. He wanted some, but he knew that he should not ask with the white men waiting to drink.
"Thank you, sirs," Peggy mumbled, looking humbly round at the strange faces of the men. "I'll get the sugar and cream and some cups."
"Say, boy," Britten said. "Tell the men how Jan made you eat with 'im."
"Yeah; tell us about it."
"Is it true?"
"You didn't want to eat with 'im, did you?"
"Did you ever eat with white people before?"
"Did this guy Erlone say anything to you about white women?"
"How did you feel, eating with him and Miss Dalton?"
"I don't know, suh. It was my job."
"You didn't feel just right, did you?"
"Well, suh. They told me to eat and I ate. It was my job."
"In other words, you felt you had to eat or lose your job?"
"Yessuh," said Bigger, feeling that this ought to place him in the light of a helpless, bewildered man.
"Good God!" said one of the men. "What a story! Don't you see it? These Negroes want to be left alone and these Reds are forcing 'em to live with 'em, see? Every wire in the country'll carry it!"
"This is better than Loeb and Leopold,'' said one.
"Say, I'm slanting this to the primitive Negro who doesn't want to be disturbed by white civilization."
"A swell idea!"
"Say, is this Erlone really a citizen?"
"That's an angle."
"Mention his foreign-sounding name."
"Is he Jewish?"
"I don't know."
"This is good enough as it is. You can't have everything you want."
"It's a natural!"
Then, before Bigger knew it, the men had their bulbs in their hands again, aiming at him. He hung his head slowly, slowly so as not to let them know that he was trying to dodge them.
"Hold up a little, boy!"
"Look over this way. Now, that's it!"
Yes; the police would certainly have enough pictures of him.
He thought it rather bitterly, smiling a smile that did not reach his lips or eyes.
Peggy came back with her arms full of cups, saucers, spoons, a jar of cream and a bowl of sugar. "Here it is, sirs. Help yourselves." She turned to Bigger.
Clean the fire out! Good God! Not now, not with the men standing round. He did not move from his place beside the wall; he watched Peggy walk back up the stairs and close the door behind her. Well, he had to do something. Peggy had spoken to him in the presence of these men, and for him not to obey would seem odd. And even if they did not say anything about it, Peggy herself would soon come back and ask about the fire. Yes, he had to do some thing. He walked to the door of the furnace and opened it. The low bed of fire was red-hot, but he could tell from the weak blast of heat upon his face that it was not as hot as it ought to be, not as hot as it had been when he had shoved Mary in. He was trying to make his tired brain work fast. What could he do to avoid bothering with the ashes? He stooped and opened the lower door; the ashes, white and grey, were piled almost level with the lower grate. No air could get through. Maybe he could sift the ashes down more and make that do until the men left? He would try it. He caught hold of the handle and worked it to and fro, seeing white ashes and red embers falling into the bottom of the furnace. Behind him he could hear the men's talk and the tinkle of their spoons against the cups. Well, there. He had gotten some of the ashes down out of the stove, but they choked the lower bin and still no air could get through. He would put some coal in. He shut the doors of the furnace and pulled the lever for coal; there was the same loud rattle of coal against the tin sides of the chute. The interior of the furnace grew black with coal. But the draft did not roar and the coal did not blaze. Goddamn' He stood up and looked helplessly into the furnace. Ought he to try to slip out of here and leave this whole foolish thing right now? Naw! There was no use of being scared; he had a chance to get that money. Put more coal in; it would burn after a while. He pulled the lever for still more coal. Inside the furnace he saw the coal beginning to smoke; there were faint wisps of white smoke at first, then the smoke drew dark, bulging out. Bigger's eyes smarted, watered; he coughed.
The smoke was rolling from the furnace now in heavy billowing grey clouds, filling the basement. Bigger backed away, catching a lungful of smoke. He bent over, coughing. He heard the men coughing. He had to do something about those ashes, and quickly. With his hands stretched before him, he groped in the corner for the shovel, found it, and opened the lower door of the furnace. The smoke surged out, thick and acrid. Goddamn!
"You'd better do something about those ashes, boy!" one of the men called.
"That fire can't get any air, Bigger!" It was Britten's voice.
"Yessuh," Bigger mumbled.
He could scarcely see. He stood still, his eyes closed and stinging, his lungs heaving, trying to expel the smoke. He held onto the shovel, wanting to move, to do something; but he did not know what.
"Say, you! Get some of those ashes out of there!"
"What're you trying to do, smother us?"
"I'm getting 'em out," Bigger mumbled, not moving from where he stood.
He heard a cup smash on the concrete floor and a man cursed. "I can't see! The smoke's got my eyes!"
Bigger heard someone near him; then someone was tugging at the shovel in his hands. He held onto it desperately, not wanting to let it go, feeling that if he did so he was surrendering his secret, his life.
"Here! Give me that shovel! I'll h-h-help y-you . . . ." a man coughed.
"Nawsuh. I-I-I can d-do it," Bigger said.
"C-come on. L-let go!"
His fingers loosened about the shovel.
''Yessuh," he said, not knowing what else to say.
Through the clouds of smoke he heard the man clanging the shovel round inside of the ash bin. He coughed and stepped back, his eyes blazing as though fire had leaped into them. Behind him the other men were coughing. He opened his eyes and strained to see what was happening. He felt that there was suspended just above his head a huge weight that would soon fall and crush him. His body, despite the smoke and his burning eyes and heaving chest, was flexed taut. He wanted to lunge at the man and take the shovel from him, slam him across the head with it and bolt from the basement. But he stood still, hearing the babble of voices and the clanging of the shovel against iron. He knew that the man was- digging frantically at the ashes in the bin, trying to clean as much out as possible so that air could pass up through the grates, pipes, chimney and out into the night. He heard the man yell:
"Open that door! I'm choking!"
There was a scuffle of feet. Bigger felt the icy wind of the night slip over him and he discovered that he was wet with sweat. Somehow something had happened and now things were out of his hands. He was nervously poised, waiting for what the new flow of events would bring. The smoke drifted past him toward the open door. The room was clearing; the smoke thinned to a grey pall. He heard the man grunting and saw him bent over, digging at the ashes in the bin. He wanted to go to him and ask for the shovel; he wanted to say that he could take care of it now. But he did not move. He felt that he had let things slip through his hands to such an extent that he could not get at them again. Then he heard the draft, this time a long low sucking of air that grew gradually to a drone, then a roar. The air passage was clear.
"There was a hell of a lot of ashes in there, boy," the man gasped. "You shouldn't let it get that way."
"Yessuh," Bigger whispered.
The draft roared loud now; the air passage was completely clear.
"Shut that door, boy! It's cold in here!" one of the men called.
He wanted to go to the door and keep right on out of it and shut it behind him. But he did not move. One of the men closed it and Bigger felt the cold air fall away from his wet body. He looked round; the men were still standing about the table, red 'eyed, sipping coffee.
"What's the matter, boy?" one of them asked.
"Nothing," Bigger said.
The man with the shovel stood in front of the furnace and looked down into the ashes strewn over the floor. What's he doing? Bigger wondered. He saw the man stoop and poke the shovel into the ashes. What's he looking at? Bigger's muscles twitched. He wanted to run to the man's side and see what it was he was looking at; he had in his mind an image of Mary's head lying there bloody and unburnt before the man's eyes. Suddenly, the man straightened, only to stoop again, as though unable to decide if the evidence of his eyes was true. Bigger edged forward, his lungs not taking in or letting out air; he himself was a huge furnace now through which no air could go; and the fear that surged into his stomach, filling him, choking him, was like the fumes of smoke that had belched from the ash bin.
"Say. . . ." the man called; his voice sounded tentative, dubious.
""What?" one man at the table answered.
"Come here! Look!" The man's voice was low, excited, tense; but what it lacked in volume was more than made up for in the breathless manner in which he spoke. The words had rolled with out effort from his lips.
The men set their cups down and ran to the pile of ashes.
Bigger, doubtful and uncertain, paused as the men ran past him.
"What is it?"
"What's the matter?"
Bigger tiptoed and looked over their shoulders; he did not know how he got strength enough to go and look; he just found himself walking and then found himself standing and peering over the men's shoulders. He saw a pile of scattered ashes, nothing else. But there must be something, or why would the men be looking?
"What is it?"
"Look! It's. . . ."
The man's voice trailed off and he stooped again and poked the shovel deeper. Bigger saw come into full view on the surface of the ashes several small pieces of white bone. Instantly, his whole body was wrapped in a sheet of fear.
"It's bone. . . ."
"Aw," one of the men said. "That's just some garbage they're burning . . . ."
"Naw! Wait; let's see that!"
"Toorman, come here. You studied medicine once . . . ."
The man called Toorman reached out his foot and kicked an oblong bone from the ashes; it slid a few inches over the concrete floor.
"My God! It's from a body. . . ."
"And look! Here's something. . . ."
One of them stooped and picked up a bit of round metal and held it close to his eyes.
"It's an earring. . . ."
There was silence. Bigger stared without a thought or an image in his mind. There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong; white men were looking at something with which they would soon accuse him. It was the old feeling, hard and constant again now, of wanting to grab something and clutch it in his hands and swing it into some one's face. He knew. They were looking at the bones of Mary's body. Without its making a clear picture in his mind, he understood how it had happened. Some of the bones had not burnt and had fallen into the lower bin when he had worked the handle to sift the ashes. The white man had poked in the shovel to clear the air pas sage and had raked them out. And now there they lay, tiny, oblong pieces of white bone, cushioned in grey ashes. He could not stay here now. At any moment they would begin to suspect him. They would hold him; they would not let him go even if they were not certain whether he had done it or not. And Jan was
still in jail, swearing that he had an alibi. They would know that Mary was dead; they had stumbled upon the white bones of her body. They would be looking for the murderer. The men were silent, bent over, poking into the pile of grey ashes. Bigger saw the hatchet blade come into view. God! The whole world was tumbling down. Quickly, Bigger's eyes looked at their bent backs; they were not watching him. The red glare of the fire lit their faces and the draft of the furnace drummed. Yes; he would go, now! He tiptoed to the rear of the furnace and stopped, listening. The men were whispering in tense tones of horror.
"It's the girl!"
"Who do you suppose did it?''
Bigger tiptoed up the steps, one at a time, hoping that the roar of the furnace and the men's voices and the scraping of the shovel would drown out the creaking sounds his feet made. He reached the top of the steps and breathed deeply, his lungs aching from holding themselves full of air so long. He stole to the door of his room and opened it and went in and pulled on the light. He turned to the window and put his hands under the upper ledge and lifted; he felt a cold rush of air laden with snow. He heard muffled shouts downstairs and the inside of his stomach glowed white-hot. He ran to the door and locked it and then turned out the light. He groped to the window and climbed into it, feeling again the chilling blast of snowy wind. With his feet upon the bottom ledge, his legs bent under him, his sweaty body shaken by wind, he looked into the snow and tried to see the ground below; but he could not. Then he leaped, headlong, sensing his body twisting in the icy air as he hurtled. His eyes were shut and his hands were clenched as his body turned, sailing through the snow. He was in the air a moment; then he hit. It seemed at first that he hit softly, but the shock of it went through him, up his back to his head and he lay buried in a cold pile of snow, dazed. Snow was in his mouth, eyes, ears; snow was seeping down his back. His hands were wet and cold. Then he felt all of the muscles of his body contract violently, caught in a spasm of reflex action, and at the same time he felt his groin laved with warm water. It was his urine. He had not been able to control the muscles of his hot body against the chilled assault of the wet snow over all his skin. He lifted his head, blinking his eyes, and looked above him. He sneezed. He was himself now; he struggled against the snow, pushing it away from him. He got to his feet, one at a time, and pulled himself out. He walked, then tried to run; but he felt too weak. He went down Drexel Boulevard, not knowing just where he was heading, but knowing that he had to get out of this white neighborhood. He avoided the car line, turned down dark streets, walking more rapidly now, his eyes before him, but turning now and then to look behind.
Yes, he would have to tell Bessie not to go to that house. It was all over. He had to save himself. But it was familiar, this running away. All his life he had been knowing that sooner or later some thing like this would come to him. And now, here it was. He had always felt outside of this white world, and now it was true. It made things simple. He felt in his shirt. Yes; the gun was still there. He might have to use it. He would shoot before he would let them take him; it meant death either way, and he would die shooting every slug he had.
He came to Cottage Grove Avenue and walked southward. He could not make any plans until he got to Bessie's and got the money. He tried to shut out of his mind the fear of being caught. He lowered his head against the driving snow and tramped through the icy streets with clenched fists. Although his hands were almost frozen, he did not want to put them in his pockets, for that would have made him feel that he would not have been ready to defend himself were the police to accost him suddenly. He went on past street lamps covered with thick coatings of snow, gleaming like huge frosted moons above his head. His face ached from the sub zero cold and the wind cut into his wet body like a long sharp knife going to the heart of him with pain.
He was in sight of Forty-seventh Street now. He saw, through a gauzelike curtain of snow, a boy standing under an awning selling papers. He pulled his cap visor lower and slipped into a doorway to wait for a car. Back of the newsboy was a stack of papers piled high upon a newsstand. He wanted to see the tall black headline, but the driving snow would not let him. The papers ought to be full of him now. It did not seem strange that they should be, for all his life he had felt that things had been happening to him that should have gone into them. But only after he had acted upon feelings which he had had for years would the papers carry the story, his story. He felt that they had not wanted to print it as long as it had remained buried and burning in his own heart. But now that he had thrown it out, thrown it at those who made him live as they wanted, the papers were printing it. He fished three cents out of his pocket; he went over to the boy with averted face.
He took the paper into a doorway. His eyes swept the streets above the top of it; then he read in tall black type:
MILLIONAIRE HEIRESS KIDNAPPED. ABDUCTORS DEMAND $10,000 IN RANSOM NOTE. DALTON FAMILY ASK RELEASE OF COMMUNIST SUSPECT.
Yes; they had it now. Soon they would have the story of her death, of the reporters' finding her bones in the furnace, of her head being cut off, of his running away during the excitement. He looked up, hearing the approach of a car. When it heaved into sight he saw that it was almost empty of passengers. Good! He ran into the street and reached the steps just as the last man got on. He paid his fare, watching to see if the conductor was noticing him; then went through the car, watching to see if any face was turned to him. He stood on the front platform, back of the motorman. If anything happened he could get off quickly here. The car started and he opened the paper again, reading:
A servant's discovery early yesterday evening of a crudely penciled ransom note demanding $10,000 for the return of Mary Dalton, missing Chicago heiress, and the Dalton family's sudden demand for the release of Jan Erlone, Communist leader held in connection with the girl's disappearance, were the startling developments in a case which is baffling local and state police.
The note, bearing the signature of "Red" and the famed hammer and sickle emblem of the Communist Party, was found sticking under the front door by Peggy O'Flagherty, a cook and housekeeper in the Henry Dalton residence in Hyde Park.
Bigger read a long stretch of type in which was described the "questioning of a Negro chauffeur,'' "the half-packed trunk," "the Communist pamphlets," "drunken sexual orgies," "the frantic parents," and "the radical's contradictory story." Bigger's eyes skimmed the words: "clandestine meetings offered opportunities for abduction," "police asked not to interfere in case," "anxious family trying to contact kidnappers"; and:
It was conjectured that perhaps the family had information to the effect that Erlone knew of the whereabouts of Miss Dalton, and certain police officials assigned that as the motive behind the family's request for the radical's release. Reiterating that police had framed him as a part of a drive to oust Communists from Chicago, Erlone demanded that the charges upon which he had been originally held be made public. Failing to obtain a satisfactory answer, he refused to leave jail, whereupon police again remanded him to his cell upon a charge of disorderly conduct.
Bigger lifted his eyes and looked about; no one was watching him. His hand was shaking with excitement. The car moved lumberingly through the snow and he saw that he was near Fiftieth Street. He stepped to the door and said,
The car stopped and he swung off into the driving snow. He was almost
in front of Bessie's now. He looked up to her window; it was dark. The
thought that she might not be in her room, but out drinking with friends,
made him angry. He went into the vestibule. A dim light glowed and his body
was thankful for the meager warmth. He could finish reading the paper now. He
unfolded it; then, for the first time, he saw his picture. It was down in the
lower left-hand corner of page two. Above it he read:
REDS TRIED TO SNARE HIM. It was a small picture and his name was under it; he looked solemn and black and his eyes gazed straight and the white cat sat perched upon his right shoulder, its big round black eyes twin pools of secret guilt. And, oh! Here was a picture of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton standing upon the basement steps. That the image of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton which he had seen but two hours ago should be seen again so soon made him feel that this whole vague white world which could do things this quickly was more than a match for him, that soon it would track him down and have it out with him. The white-haired old man and the white-haired old woman standing on the steps with their arms stretched forth pleadingly were a powerful symbol of helpless suffering and would stir up a lot of hate against him when it was found out that a Negro had killed Mary.
Bigger's lips tightened. There was no chance of his getting that money now. They had found Mary and would stop at nothing to get the one who had killed her. There would be a thousand white policemen on the South Side searching for him or any black man who looked like him.
He pressed the bell and waited for the buzzer to ring. Was she there? Again he pressed the bell, holding his finger hard upon it until the door buzzed. He bounded up the steps, sucking his breath in sharply at each lift of his knees. When he reached the second landing he was breathing so hard that he stopped, closed his eyes and let his chest heave itself to stillness. He glanced up and saw Bessie staring sleepily at him through the half-opened door. He went in and stood for a moment in the darkness.
"Turn on the light," he said.
"Bigger! What's happened?"
"Turn on the light!"
She said nothing and did not move. He groped forward, slapping the air with his open palm for the cord; he found it and jerked on the light. Then he whirled and looked about him, expecting to see someone lurking in the corners of the room.
She came forward and touched his clothes.
"It's all off," he said.
"I don't have to do it?" she asked eagerly.
Yes; she was thinking only of herself now. He was alone.
"Bigger, tell me what happened?"
"They know all about it. They'll be after me soon."
Her eyes were too filled with fear to cry. He walked about aimlessly and his shoes left rings of dirty water on the wooden floor.
"Tell me, Bigger! Please!"
She was wanting the word that would free her of this nightmare; but he would not give it to her. No; let her be with him; let somebody be with him now. She caught hold of his coat and he felt her body trembling.
"Will they come for me, too, Bigger? I didn't want to do it!"
Yes; he would let her know, let her know everything; but let her know it in a way that would bind her to him, at least a little longer. He did not want to be alone now.
"They found the girl," he said.
"What we going to do, Bigger? Look what you done to me."
She began to cry.
"Aw, come on, kid."
"You really killed her?"
"She's dead," he said. "They found her."
She ran to the bed, fell upon it and sobbed. With her mouth all twisted and her eyes wet, she asked in gasps:
"Y-y-you d-didn't send the--letter?"
"Bigger," she whimpered. "There ain't no help for it now."
"Oh, Lord' They'll come for me. They'll know you did it and they'll go to your home and talk to your ma and brother and everybody. They'll come for me now sure."
That was true. There was no way for her but to come with him. If she stayed here they would come to her and she would simply lie on the bed and sob out everything. She would not be able to help it. And what she would tell them about him, his habits, his life, would help them to track him down.
"You got the money?"
"It's in my dress pocket."
"How much is it?"
"Well, what you planning to do?" he asked.
"I wish I could kill myself."
"Ain't no use talking that way."
"There ain't no way else to talk."
It was a shot in the dark, but he decided to try it.
"If you don't act better'n this, I'll just leave."
"Naw; naw. . . . Bigger!" she cried, rising and running to him.
"Well, snap out of it," he said, backing to a chair. He sat down and felt how tired he was. Some strength he did not know he possessed had enabled him to run away, to stand here and talk with her; but now he felt that he would not have strength enough to run even if the police should suddenly burst into the room.
"You h-hurt?" she asked, catching hold of his shoulder.
He leaned forward in the chair and rested his face in the palms of his hands.
"Bigger, what's the matter?"
"I'm tired and awful sleepy," he sighed. "Let me fix you something to eat."
"I need a drink."
"Naw; no whiskey. You need some hot milk."
He waited, hearing her move about. It seemed that his body had turned to a piece of lead that was cold and heavy and wet and aching. Bessie switched on her electric stove, emptied a bottle of milk into a pan and set it upon the glowing red circle. She came back to him and placed her hands upon his shoulders, her eyes wet with fresh tears.
"I'm scared, Bigger."
"You can't be scared now."
"You oughtn't've killed her, honey."
"I didn't mean to. I couldn't help it. I swear!"
"What happened? You never told me."
''Aw, hell. I was in her room. . . ."
"Yeah. She was drunk. She passed out. I. . . . I took her there."
""What she do?"
"She. . . . Nothing. She didn't do anything. Her ma came in. She's blind . . . ."
"Naw; her ma. I didn't want her to find me there. Well, the girl was trying to say something and I was scared. I just put the edge of the pillow in her mouth and. . . . I didn't mean to kill her. I just pulled the pillow over her face and she died. Her ma came into the room and the girl was trying to say something and her ma had her hands stretched out, like this, see? I was scared she was going to touch me. I just sort of pushed the pillow hard over the girl's race to keep her from yelling. Her ma didn't touch me; I got out of the way. But when she left I went to the bed and the girl. . . . She. . . . She was dead. . . . That was all. She was dead. . . . I didn't mean . . . ."
"You didn't plan to kill her?"
"Naw; I swear I didn't. But what's the use? Nobody'll believe me."
"Honey, don't you see?"
"They'll say. . . ."
Bessie cried again. He caught her face in his hands. He was concerned; he wanted to see this thing through her eyes at that moment.
"They'll. . . . They'll say you raped her."
Bigger stared. He had entirely forgotten the moment when he had carried Mary up the stairs. So deeply had he pushed it all back down into him that it was not until now that its real meaning came back. They would say he had raped her and there would be no way to prove that he had not. That fact had not assumed importance in his eyes until now. He stood up, his jaws hardening. Had he raped her? Yes, he had raped her. Every time he felt as he had felt that night, he raped. But rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one's back was against a wall and one had to strike out, whether
one wanted to or not, to keep the pack from killing one. He committed rape every time he looked into a white face. He was a long, taut piece of rubber which a thousand white hands had stretched to the snapping point, and when he snapped it was rape. But it was rape when he cried out in hate deep in his heart as he felt the strain of living day by day. That, too, was rape.
"They found her?" Bessie asked.
"They found her?"
"Yeah. Her bones. . . ."
"Aw, Bessie. I didn't know what to do. I put her in the furnace."
Bessie flung her face to his wet coat and wailed violently.
"What we going to do?"
"I don't know."
"They'll be looking for us."
"They got my picture."
"Where can we hide?"
"We can stay in some of them old houses for a while.."
"But they might find us there."
"There's plenty of 'em. It'll be like hiding in a jungle."
The milk on the stove boiled over. Bessie rose, her lips still twisted with sobs, and turned off the electric switch. She poured out a glass of milk and brought it to him. He sipped it, slowly, then set the glass aside and leaned over again. They were silent. Bessie gave him the glass once more and he drank it down, then another glass. He stood up, his legs and entire body feeling heavy and sleepy.
"Get your clothes on. And get them blankets and quilts. We got to get out of here."
She went to the bed and rolled the covers back, rolling the pillows with them; as she worked Bigger went to her and put his hands on her shoulders.
"Where's the bottle?"
She got it from her purse and gave it to him; he drank a long swallow and she put it back.
"Hurry up," he said.
She sobbed softly as she worked, pausing now and then to wipe tears from her eyes. Bigger stood in the middle of the floor, thinking, Maybe they searching at home now; maybe tl1ey talking to Ma and Vera and Buddy. He crossed the floor and twitched back the curtains and looked out. The streets were white and empty. He turned and saw Bessie bent motionless over the pile of bedclothing.
"Come on; we got to get out of here."
"I don't care what happens." "Come on. You can't act like that."
What could he do with her? She would be a dangerous burden. It would be impossible to take her if she were going to act like this, and yet he could not leave her here. Coldly, he knew that he had to take her with him, and then at some future time settle things with her, settle them in a way that would not leave him in any danger. He thought of it calmly, as if the decision were being handed down to him by some logic not his own, over which he had no control, but which he had to obey.
"You want me to leave you here?"
"Naw; naw. . . . Bigger!''
"Well, come on. Get your hat and coat."
She was facing him, then she sank to her knees.
"Oh, Lord," she moaned. ""What's the use of
running? They'll catch us anywhere. I should've known this would
happen." She clenched her hands in front of her and rocked to and fro
with her eyes closed upon gushing tears. "All my life's been full of
hard trouble. If I wasn't hungry, I was sick. And if I wasn't sick, I was in
trouble. I ain't never bothered nobody. I just
worked hard every day as long as I can remember, till I was tired enough to
drop; then I had to get drunk to forget it. I had to get drunk to sleep.
That's all I ever did. And now I'm in this. They looking for me and when they
catch me they'll kill me." She bent her head to the floor. "God
only knows why I ever let you treat me this way. I wish to
God I never seen you. I wish one of us had died before we was born. God knows I do! All you ever caused me was trouble, just plain black trouble. All you ever did since we been knowing each other was to get me drunk so's you could have me. That was all! I see it now. I ain't drunk now. I see everything you ever did to me. I didn't want to see it before. I was too busy thinking about how good I felt when I was with you. I thought I was happy, but deep down in me I knew I wasn't. But you got me into this murder and I see it all now. I been a fool, just a blind dumb black drunk fool. Now I got to run away and I know deep down in your heart you really don't care."
She stopped, choked. He had not listened to what she had said. Her words had made leap to consciousness in him a thousand details of her life which he had long known and they made him see that she was in no condition to be taken along and at the same time in no condition to be left behind. It was not with anger or regret that he thought this, but as a man seeing what he must do to save himself and feeling resolved to do it.
"Come on, Bessie. We can't stay here like this."
He stooped and with one hand caught hold of her arm and with the other he lifted the bundle of bedclothes. He dragged her across the threshold, and pulled the door after him. He went down the steps; she came stumbling behind, whimpering. When he reached the vestibule, he got his gun from inside his shirt and put it iu the pocket of his coat. He might have to use it any minute now. The moment he stepped out of that door he would have his life in his hands. Whatever happened now depended upon him; and when he felt it that way some of his fear left; it was simple again. He opened the door and an icy blast of wind struck his face. He drew back and turned to Bessie.
"Where's the bottle?"
She held out her purse; he got the bottle and took a deep drink.
"Here," he said. "You better take one."
She drank and put the bottle back into the purse. They went into the snow, over the frozen streets, through the slicing wind. Once she stopped and began to cry. He grabbed her arm.
"Shut up, now! Come on!"
They stopped in front of a tall, snow-covered building whose many windows gaped blackly, like the eye-sockets of empty skulls. He took the purse from her and got the flashlight. He clutched her arm and pulled her up the steps to the front door. It was half-ajar. He put his shoulder to it and gave a stout shove; it yielded grudgingly. It was black inside and the feeble glow of the flashlight did not help much. A sharp scent of rot floated to him and he heard the scurrying of quick, dry feet over the wooden floor. Bessie sucked in her breath deeply, about to scream; but Bigger gripped her arm so hard that she bent halfway over and moaned. As he went up the steps there came frequently to his ears a slight creak, as of a tree bending in wind. With one hand he held her wrist, the bundle of bedclothes under his arm; with the other he beat off the clinging filmy spider webs that came thick onto his lips and eyes. He walked to the third floor and into a room that had a window opening to a narrow air-shaft. It stank of old timber. He circled the spot of the flashlight; the floor was carpeted with black dirt and he saw two bricks lying in corners. He looked at Bessie; her hands covered her face and he could see the damp of tears on her black fingers. He dropped the bundle of bedclothes.
"Unroll 'em and spread 'em out."
She obeyed. He placed the two pillows near the window, so that when he lay down the window would be just above his head. He was so cold that his teeth chattered. Bessie stood by a wall, leaning against it, crying.
"Take it easy," he said.
He hoisted the window and looked up the air-shaft; snow flew above the roof of the house. He looked downward and saw nothing but black darkness into which now and then a few flakes of white floated from the sky, falling slowly in the dim glow of the flashlight. He lowered the window and turned back to Bessie; she had not moved. He crossed the floor and took the purse from her and got the half-filled flask and drained it. It was good. It burned in his stomach and took his mind off the cold and the sound of the wind outside. He sat on the edge of the pallet and lit a cigarette. It was the first one he had smoked in a long time; he sucked the hot smoke deep into his lungs and blew it out slowly. The whiskey heated him all over, making his head whirl. Bessie cried, softly, piteously.
He took the gun from his coat pocket and put it where he could reach it.
"Come on, Bessie. You'll freeze standing there like that."
He stood up and pulled off his overcoat and spread it upon the top of the blanket for additional cover; then switched off the flash light. The whiskey lulled him, numbed his senses. Bessie's soft whimpers came to him through the cold. He took a long last draw from the cigarette and crushed it. Bessie's shoes creaked over the floor. He lay quietly, feeling the warmth of the alcohol spreading through him. He was tense inside; it was as though he had been time and then when he had the chance to relax he could not. He compelled to hold himself in a certain awkward posture for a long was tense with desire, but as long as he knew that Bessie was standing there in the room, he kept it from his mind. Bessie was worried and not to her should his mind turn now in that way. But that part of him which always made him at least outwardly adjusted to what was expected of him made him now keep what his body wanted out of full consciousness. He heard Bessie's clothes rustling in the darkness and he knew that she was pulling off her coat. Soon she would he lying here beside him. He waited for her. After a few moments he felt her fingers pass lightly over his face; she was seeking for the pallet. He reached out, groping, and found her arm.
"Here; lay down."
He held the cover for her; she slid down beside stretched out. Now that she was close to him the whiskey made him whirl faster and the tensity of his body mounted. A gust of wind rattled the windowpane and made the old building creak. He felt snug and warm, even though he knew he was in danger. The building might fall upon him as he slept, but the police might get him if he were anywhere else. He laid his fingers upon Bessie's shoulders; slowly he felt the stiffness go out of her body and as it left the tensity in his own rose and his blood grew hot.
"Cold?" he asked in a soft whisper.
"Yeah," she breathed.
"Get close to me."
"I never thought I'd be like this."
"It won't be like this always."
"I'd just as soon die right now."
"Don't say that."
"I'm cold all over. I feel like I'll never get warm."
He drew her closer, till he felt her breath coming full in his face. The wind swept against the windowpane and the building, whining, then whispered out into silence. He turned from his back and lay face to face with her, on his side. He kissed her; her lips were cold. He kept kissing her until her lips grew warm and soft. A huge warm pole of desire rose in him, insistent and demanding; his hand slid from her shoulder to her breasts, feeling one, then he slipped his other arm beneath her head, kissing her again, hard and long.
"Please, Bigger. . . ."
She tried to turn from him, but his arm held her tightly; she lay still, whimpering. He heard her sigh, a sigh he knew, for he had heard it many times before; but this time he heard in it a sigh deep down beneath the familiar one, a sigh of resignation, a giving up, a surrender of something more than her body. Her head lay limp in the crook of his arm and his hand reached for the hem of her dress, caught it in his fingers and gathered it up slowly. His cold fingers touched her warm flesh, and sought still warmer and softer flesh. Bessie was still, unresisting, without response. His icy fingers touched inside of her and at once she spoke, not a word, but a sound that gave forth a meaning of horror accepted. Her breath went out of her lungs in long soft gasps that turned to a whisper of pleading.
"Bigger. . . . Don’t!"
Her voice came to him now from out of a deep, faraway silence and he paid her no heed. The loud demand of the tensity of his own body was a voice that drowned out hers. In the cold darkness of the room it seemed that he was on some vast turning wheel that made him want to turn faster and faster;
that in turning faster he would get warmth and sleep and be rid of his tense fatigue. He was conscious of nothing now but her and what he wanted. He flung the cover back, ignoring the cold, and not knowing that he did it. Bessie's hands were on his chest, her fingers spreading protestingly open, pushing him away. He heard her give a soft moan that seemed not to end even when she breathed in or out; a moan which he heard, too, from far away and without heeding. He had to now. Yes. Bessie. His desire was naked and hot in his hand and his fingers were touching her. Yes. Bessie. Now. He had to now. Don’t Bigger! Don't! He was sorry, but he had to. He. He could not help it. Help it. Sorry. Help it. Sorry. Help it. Sorry. Help it now. She should. Look! She should should should look. Look at how he was. He. He was. He was feeling bad about how she would feel but he could not help it now. Feeling. Bessie. Now. All. He heard her breathing heavily and heard his own breath going and coming heavily. Bigger. Now. All. All. Now. All. Bigger. . . .
He lay still, feeling rid of that hunger and tenseness and hearing the wail of the night wind over and above his and her breathing. He turned from her and lay on his back again, stretching his legs wide apart. He felt the tenseness flow gradually from him. His breathing grew less and less heavy and rapid until he could no longer hear it, then so slow and steady that the consciousness of breathing left him entirely. He was not at all sleepy and he lay, feeling Bessie lying there beside him. He turned his head in the dark ness toward her. Her breath came to him slowly. He wondered if she were sleeping; somewhere deep in him he knew that he was lying here waiting for her to go to sleep. Bessie did not figure in what was before him. He remembered that he had seen two bricks lying on the floor of the room as he had entered. He tried to recall just where they were, but could not. But he was sure they were there somewhere; he would have to find them, at least one of them. It would have been much better if he had not said anything to Bessie about the murder. Well, it was her own fault. She had bothered him so much that he had had to tell her. And how on earth could he have known that they would find Mary's bones in the furnace so soon?
He felt no regret as the image of the smoking furnace and the white pieces of bone came back to him. He had gazed straight at those bones for almost a full minute and had not been able to realize that they were the bones of Mary's body. He had thought that they might find out some other way and then suddenly confront him with the evidence. Never did he think that he could stand and look at the evidence and not know it.
His thoughts came back to the room. What about Bessie? He listened to her breathing. He could not take her with him and he could not leave her behind. Yes: She was asleep. He reconstructed in his mind the details of the room as he had seen them by the glow of the flashlight when he had first come in. The window was directly behind him, above his head. The flashlight was at his side; the gun was lying beside the flashlight, the handle pointing toward him, so he could get it quickly and be in a position to use it. But he could not use the gun; that would make too much noise. He would have to use a brick. He remembered hoisting the window; it had not been hard. Yes, that was what he could do with it, throw it out of the window, down the narrow air-shaft where nobody would find it until, perhaps, it had begun to smell.
He could not leave her here and he could not take her with him. If he
took her along she would be crying all the time; she would be blaming him for
all that had happened; she would be wanting whiskey
to help her to forget and there would be rimes when he could not get it for
her. The room was black-dark and silent; the city did not exist. He sat up
slowly, holding his breath, listening. Bessie's breath was deep, regular. He
could not take her and he could not leave her. He stretched out his hand and
caught the flashlight. He listened again; her breath came like the sleep of
the tired. He was holding the covers off her by sitting up this way and he
did not want her to get cold and awaken. He eased the covers back; she still
slept. His finger pressed a button on the flashlight and a dim spot of yellow
leaped to life on the opposite wall. Quickly, he lowered it to the floor, for
fear that it might disturb her; and as he did so there passed before his eyes
in a split second of time one of the bricks he had glimpsed when
he had first come into the room. He stiffened; Bessie stirred restlessly. Her deep, regular breathing had stopped. He listened, but could not hear it. He saw her breath as a white thread stretching out over a vast black gulf and felt that he was clinging to it and was waiting to see if the ravel in the white thread which had started would continue and let him drop to the rocks far below. Then he heard her breathing again, in, out; in, out. He, too, breathed again, struggling now with his own breath to control it, to keep it from sounding so loud in his throat that it would awaken her. The fear that had gripped him when she had stirred made him realize that it would have to be quick and sure. Softly, he poked his legs from beneath the blanket, then waited. Bessie breathed, slow, long, heavy, regular. He lifted his arm and the blanket fell away. He stood up and his muscles lifted his body in slow motion. Outside in the cold night the wind moaned and died down, like an idiot in an icy black pit. Turning, he centered the disc of light where he thought Bessie's face must be. Yes. She was asleep. Her black face, stained with tears, was calm. He switched off the light, turned toward the wall and his fingers felt over the cold floor for the brick. He found it, gripped it in his hand and tiptoed back to the pallet. Her breath guided him in the dark ness; he stopped where he thought her head must be. He couldn't take her and he couldn't leave her; so he would have to kill her. It was his lire against hers. Quickly, to make certain where he must strike, he switched on the light, fearing as he did so that it might awaken her; then switched it off again, retaining as an image before his eyes her black face calm in deep sleep.
He straightened and lifted the brick, but just at that moment the reality of it all slipped from him. His heart beat wildly, trying to force its way out of his chest. No! Not this! His breath swelled deep in his lungs and he flexed his muscles, trying to impose his will over his body. He had to do better than this. Then, as suddenly as the panic had come, it left. But he had to stand here until that picture came back, that motive, that driving desire to escape the law. Yes. It must be this way. A sense of the white blur hovering near, of Mary burning, of Britten, of the law tracking him down, came back. Again, he was ready.
The brick was in his hand. In his mind his hand traced a quick invisible arc through the cold air of the room; high above his head his hand paused in fancy and imaginatively swooped down to where he thought her head must be. He was rigid; not moving. This was the way it had to be. Then he took a deep breath and his hand gripped the brick and shot upward and paused a second and then plunged downward through the darkness to the accompaniment of a deep short grunt from his chest and landed with a thud. Yes! There was a dull gasp of surprise, then a moan. No, that must not be' He lifted the brick again and again, until in falling it struck a sodden mass that gave softly but stoutly to each landing blow. Soon he seemed to be striking a wet wad of cotton, of some damp substance whose only life was the jarring of the brick's impact. He stopped, hearing his own breath heaving in and out of his chest. He was wet all over, and cold. How many times he had lifted the brick and brought it down he did not know. All he knew was that the room was quiet and cold and that the job was done.
In his left hand he still held the flashlight, gripping it for sheer life. He wanted to switch it on and see if he had really done it, but could not. His knees were slightly bent, like a runner's poised for a race. Fear was in him again; he strained his ears. Didn't he hear her breathing? He bent and listened. It was his own breathing he heard; he had been breathing so loud that he had not been able to tell if Bessie was still breathing or not.
His fingers on the brick began to ache; he had been gripping it for some minutes with all the strength of his body. He was conscious of something warm and sticky on his hand and his sense of it covered him, all over; it cast a warm glow that enveloped the surface of his skin. He wanted to drop the brick, wanted to be free of this warm blood that crept and grew powerful with each passing moment. Then a dreadful thought rendered him incapable of action. Suppose Bessie was not as she had sounded when the brick hit her. Suppose, when he turned on the flashlight, he would see her lying there staring at him with those round large black eyes, her bloody mouth open in awe and wonder and pain and accusation A cold chill, colder than the air of the room, closed about his shoulders like a shawl whose strands
were woven of ice. It became unbearable and something within him cried out in silent agony; he stooped until the brick touched the floor, then loosened his fingers, bringing his hand to his stomach where he wiped it dry upon his coat. Gradually his breath subsided until he could no longer hear it then he knew for certain that Bessie was not breathing. The room was filled with quiet and cold and death and blood and the deep moan of the night wind. But he had to look. He lifted the flashlight to where he thought her head must be and pressed the button. The yellow spot sprang wide and dim on an empty stretch of floor; he moved it over a circle of crumpled bedclothes. There! Blood and lips and hair and face turned to one side and blood running slowly. She seemed limp; he could act now. He turned off the light. Could he leave her here? No. Somebody might find her.
Avoiding her, he stepped to the far side of the pallet, then turned in the dark. He centered the spot of light where he thought the window must be. He walked to the window and stopped, waiting to hear someone challenge his right to do what he was doing. Nothing happened. He caught hold of the window, hoisted it slowly up and the wind blasted his face. He turned to Bessie again and threw the light upon the face of death and blood. He put the flashlight in his pocket and stepped carefully in the dark to her side. He would have to lift her in his arms; his arms hung loose and slid to the window He stooped and slid his hands beneath her body, expecting to touch blood, but not touching it. Then he lifted her, feeling the wind screaming a protest against him. He stepped to the window and lifted her into it; he was working fast now that he had started. He pushed her as far out in his arms as possible, then let go. The body hit and bumped against the narrow sides of the air shaft as it went down into blackness. He heard it strike the bottom.
He turned the light upon the pallet, half-expecting her to still be there; but there was only a pool of warm blood, a faint veil of vapor hovering in the air above it. Blood was on the pillows too. He took them and threw them out of the window, down the air shaft. It was over.
He eased the window down. He would take the pallet into another room; he wished he could leave it here, but it was cold and he needed it. He rolled the quilts and blanket into a bundle and picked it up and went into the hall. Then he stopped abruptly, his mouth open. Good God! Goddamn, yes, it was in her dress pocket! Now, he was in for it. He had thrown Bessie down the air-shaft and the money was in the pocket of her dress! What could he do about it? Should he go down and get it? Anguish gripped him. Naw! He did not want to see her again. He felt that if he should ever see her face again he would be overcome with a sense of guilt so deep as to be unbearable. That was a dumb thing to do, he thought. Throwing her away with all that money in her pocket. He sighed and went through the hall and entered another room. Well, he would have to do without money; that was all. He spread the quilts upon the floor and rolled himself into them. He had seven cents between him and starvation and the law and the long days ahead.
He closed his eyes, longing for a sleep that would not come. During the last two days and nights he had lived so fast and hard that it was an effort to keep it all real in his mind. So close had danger and death come that he could not feel that it was he who had undergone it all. And, yet, out of it all, over and above all that had happened, impalpable but real, there remained to him a queer sense of power. He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight.
He had killed twice, but in a true sense it was not the first time he
had ever killed. He had killed many times before, but only during the last
two days had this impulse assumed the form of actual killing. Blind anger had
come often and he had either gone behind his curtain or wall, or had
quarreled and fought. And yet, whether in running away or in fighting, he had
felt the need of the clean satisfaction
of facing this thing in all its fulness, of fighting it out in the wind and sunlight, in front of those whose hate for him was so unfathomably deep that, after they had shunted him off into a corner of the city to rot and die, they could turn to him, as Mary had that night in the car, and say: "I'd like to know how your people live."
But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness. Sometimes, in his room or on the sidewalk, the world seemed to him a strange labyrinth even when the streets were straight and the walls were square; a chaos which made him feel that something in him should be able to understand it, divide it, focus it. But only under the stress of hate was the conflict resolved. He had been so conditioned in a cramped environment that hard words or kicks alone knocked him upright and made him capable of action-- action that was futile because the world was too much for him. It was then that he closed his eyes and struck out blindly, hitting what or whom he could, not looking or caring what or who hit back.
And, under it all, and this made it hard for him, he did not want to make believe that it was solved, make believe that he was happy when he was not. He hated his mother for that way of hers which was like Bessie's. What his mother had was Bessie's whiskey, and Bessie's whiskey was his mother's religion. He did not want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose him self in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black.
He turned restlessly on his hard pallet and groaned. He had been caught up in a whirl of thought and feeling which had swept him onward and when he opened his eyes he saw that daylight stood outside ofa dirty window just above his head. He jumped up and looked out. The snow had stopped falling and the city, white, still, was a vast stretch of roof-tops and sky. He had been thinking about it for hours here in the dark and now there it was, all white, still. But what he had thought about it had made it real with a reality it did not have now in the daylight. When lying in the dark thinking of it, it seemed to have something which left it when it was looked at. Why should not this cold white world rise up as a beautiful dream in which he could walk and be at home, in which it would be easy to tell what to do and what not to do? If only some one had gone before and lived or suffered or died-made it so that it could be understood! It was too stark, not redeemed, not made real with the reality that was the warm blood of life. He felt that there was something missing, some road which, if he had once found it, would have led him to a sure and quiet knowledge. But why think of that now? A chance for that was gone forever. He had committed murder twice and had created a new world for himself.
He left the room and went down to a window on the first floor and looked out. The street was quiet and no cars were running. The tracks were buried under snow. No doubt the blizzard had tied up traffic all over the city.
He saw a little girl pick her way through the snow and stop at a corner newsstand; a man hurried out of a drug store and sold the girl a paper. Could he snatch a paper while the man was inside? The snow was so soft and deep he might get caught trying to get away. Could he find an empty building in which to hide after he had snatched the paper? Yes; that was just the thing. He looked carefully up and down the street; no one was in sight. He went through the door and the wind was like a branding-iron on his face. The sun came out, suddenly, so strong and full that it made him dodge as from a blow; a million bits of sparkle pained his eyes. He went to the newsstand and saw a tall black headline. HUNT BLACK IN GIRL'S DEATH. Yes; they had the story. He walked on and looked for a place to hide after he had snatched the paper. At
the corner of an alley he saw an empty building with a gaping window on the first floor. Yes; this was a good place. He mapped out a careful plan of action; he did not want it said that he had done all the things he had and then had got caught stealing a three-cent news paper.
He went to the drug store and looked inside at the man leaning against a wall, smoking. Yes. Like this! He reached out and grabbed a paper and in the act of grabbing it he turned and looked at the man who was looking at him, a cigarette slanting whitely across his black chin. Even before he moved from his tracks, he ran; he felt his legs turn, start, then slip in snow. Goddamn! The white world tilted at a sharp angle and the icy wind shot past his face. He fell flat and the crumbs of snow ate coldly at his fingers. He got up, on one knee, then on both; when he was on his feet he turned toward the drug store, still clutching the paper, amazed and angry with himself for having been so clumsy. The drug store door opened. He ran.
As he ducked down the alley he saw the man standing in the snow looking at him and he knew that the man would not follow.
He scrambled to the window, pitched the paper in before him, caught hold and heaved himself upward onto the ledge and then inside. He landed on his feet and stood peering through the window into the alley; all was white and quiet. He picked up the paper and walked down the hallway to the steps and up to the third floor, using the flashlight and hearing his footsteps echo faintly in the empty building. He stopped, clutched his pocket in panic as his mouth flew open. Yes; he had it. He thought that he had dropped the gun when he had fallen in the snow, but it was still there. He sat on the top step of the stairs and opened out the paper, but for quite awhile he did not read. He listened to the creaking of the building caused by the wind sweeping over the city. Yes; he was alone; he looked down and read,
REPORTERS FIND DALTON GIRL'S BONES IN FURNACE. NEGRO CHAUFFEUR DISAPPEARS.FIVE THOUSAND POLICE SURROUND BLACK BELT. AUTHORITIES HINT SEX CRIME. COMMUNIST LEADER PROVES ALIBI. GIRL'S MOTHER IN COLLAPSE
He paused and reread the line, AUTHORITIES HINT SEX CRIME. Those words excluded him utterly from the world. To hint that he had committed a sex crime was to pronounce the death sentence; it meant a wiping out of his life even before he was captured; it meant death before death came, for the white men who read those words would at once kill him in their hearts.
The Mary Dalton kidnapping case was dramatically cracked wide open when a group of local newspaper reporters accidentally discovered several bones, later positively established as those of the missing heiress, in the furnace of the Dalton home late today. . . .
Search of the Negro's home, 3721 Indiana Avenue, in the heart of the South Side, failed to reveal his whereabouts. Police expressed belief that Miss Dalton met her death at the hands of the Negro, perhaps in a sex crime, and that the white girl's body was burned to destroy evidence.
Bigger looked up. His right hand twitched. He wanted a gun in that hand. He got his gun from his pocket and held it. He read again:
a cordon of five thousand police, augmented by more than three thousand
volunteers, was thrown about the Black Belt. Chief of Police Glenman said this morning that he believed that the Negro
was still in the city, since all roads leading in and out of Chicago were
blocked by a record-breaking snowfall.
Indignation rose to white heat last night as the news of the Negro's rape and murder of the missing heiress spread through the city. Police reported that many windows in the Negro sec tions were smashed.
Every street car, bus, el train and auto leaving the South Side is being stopped and searched. Police and vigilantes, armed with rifles, tear gas, flashlights, and photos of the killer, began at 18th Street this morning and are searching every Negro home under a blanket warrant from the Mayor. They are making a careful search of all abandoned buildings, which are said to be hideouts for Negro criminals.
Maintaining that they feared for the lives of their children, a delegation of white parents called upon Superintendent of City Schools Horace Minton, and begged that all schools be closed until the Negro rapist and murderer was captured.
current that several
Negro men were beaten in various North and West Side
In the Hyde
Park and Englewood districts, men organized vigilante groups and sent word
to Chief of Police Glenman offering aid.
Glenman said this morning that the aid of such groups would be accepted. He stated that a woefully under manned police force together with recurring waves of Negro crime made such a procedure necssary.
Several hundred Negroes resembling Bigger Thomas were rounded up from South Side "hot spots"; they are being held for investigation.
In a radio broadcast last night Mayor Ditz warned of possible mob violence and exhorted the public to maintain order. "Every effort is being made to apprehend this fiend," he said.
It was reported that several hundred Negro employees throughout the city had been dismissed from jobs. A well known banker's wife phoned this paper that she had dis missed her Negro cook, "for fear that she might poison the children."
Bigger's eyes were wide and his lips were parted; he scanned the print quickly: "handwriting experts busy," "Erlone's finger prints not found in Dalton home," "radical still in custody"; and then a sentence leaped at Bigger, like a blow:
Police are not yet satisfied with the account Erlone has given of himself and are of the conviction that he may be linked to the Negro as an accomplice; they feel that the plan of the murder and kidnapping was too elaborate to be the work of a Negro mind.
At that moment he wanted to walk out into the street and up to a policeman and say, "No! Jan didn't help me! He didn't have a damn thing to do with it! –I did it!" His lips twisted in a smile that was half-leer and half-defiance.
Holding the paper in taut fingers, he read phrases: "Negro ordered to clean out ashes. . . . reluctant to respond. . . . dreading discovery. . . . smoke-filled basement. . . . tragedy of Communism and racial mixture. . . . possibility that kidnap note was work of Reds . . . ." Bigger looked up. The building was quiet save for the continual creaking caused by the wind. He could not stay here. There was no telling when they were coming into this neighborhood. He could not leave Chicago; all roads were blocked, and all trains, buses and autos were being stopped and searched. It would have been much better if he had tried to leave town at once. He should have gone to some other place, perhaps Gary, Indiana, or Evanston. He looked at the paper and saw a black-and-white map of the South Side, around the borders of which was a shaded portion an inch deep. Under the map ran a line of small print:
Shaded portion shows area already covered by police and vigilantes in search for Negro rapist and murderer. White portion shows area yet to be searched.
He was trapped. He would have to get out of this building. But where could he go? Empty buildings would serve only as long as he stayed within the white portion of the map, and the white portion was shrinking rapidly. He remembered that the paper had been printed last night. That meant that the white portion was now much smaller than was shown here. He closed his eyes, calculating: he was at Fifty-third Street and the hunt had started last night at Eighteenth Street. If they had gone from Eighteenth Street to Twenty-eighth Street last night, then they would have gone from Twenty-eighth Street to Thirty-eighth Street since then. And by midnight tonight they would be at Forty-eighth Street, or right here.
He wondered about empty flats. The paper had not mentioned them. Suppose he found a small, empty kitchenette flat in a building where many people lived? That was by far the safest thing.
He went to the end of the hall and flashed the light on a dirty ceiling and saw a wooden stairway leading to the roof. He climbed and pulled himself up into a narrow passage at the end of which was a door. He kicked at the door several times, each kick making it give slightly until he saw snow, sunshine, and an oblong strip of sky. The wind came stinging into his face and he remembered how weak and cold he was. How long could he keep going this way? He squeezed through and stood in the snow on the roof. Before him was a maze of white, sun-drenched roof-tops.
He crouched behind a chimney and looked down into the street. At the corner he saw the newsstand from which he had stolen the paper; the man who had shouted at him was standing by it. Two black men stopped at the newsstand and bought a paper, then walked into a doorway. One of them leaned eagerly over the other's shoulder. Their lips moved and they pointed their black fingers at the paper and shook their heads as they talked. Two more men joined them and soon there was a small knot of them standing in the doorway, talking and pointing at the paper. They broke up abruptly and went away. Yes; they were talking about him. Maybe all of the black men and women were talking about him this morning; maybe they were hating him for having brought this attack upon them.
He had crouched so long in the snow that when he tried to move he found that his legs had lost all feeling. A fear that he was freezing seized him. He kicked out his legs to restore circulation of his blood, then crawled to the other side of the roof. Directly below him, one floor away, through a window without shades, he saw a room in which were two small iron beds with sheets dirty and crumpled. In one bed sat three naked black children looking across the room to the other bed on which lay a man and woman, both naked and black in the sunlight. There were quick, jerky movements on the bed where the man and woman lay, and the three children were watching. It was familiar; he had seen things like that when he was a little boy sleeping five in a room. Many mornings he had awakened and watched his father and mother. He turned away, thinking: Five of 'em sleeping in one room and here's a great big empty building with just me in it. He crawled back to the chimney, seeing before his eyes an image of the room of five people, all of them blackly naked in the strong sunlight, seen through a sweaty pane: the man and woman moving jerkily in tight embrace, and the three children watching.
Hunger came to his stomach; an icy hand reached down his throat and clutched his intestines and tied them into a cold, tight knot that ached. The memory of the bottle of milk Bessie had heated for him last night came back so strongly that he could almost taste it. If he had that bottle of milk now he would make a fire out of a newspaper and hold the bottle over the flame until it was warm. He saw himself take the top off the white bottle, with some of the warm milk spilling over his black fingers, and then lift the bottle to his mouth and tilt his head and drink. His stomach did a slow flip-flop and he heard it growl. He felt in his hunger a deep sense of duty, as powerful as the urge to breathe, as intimate as the beat of his heart. He felt lil<e dropping to his knees and lifting his face to the sky and saying: "I'm hungry!" He wanted to pull off his clothes and roll in the snow until something nourishing seeped into his body through the pores of his skin. He wanted to grip some thing in his hands so hard that it would turn to food.
But soon his hunger left; soon he was taking it a little easier; soon his mind rose from the desperate call of his body and concerned itself with the danger that lurked about him. He felt something hard at the corners of his lips and touched it with his fingers; it was frozen saliva.
He crawled back through the door into the narrow passage and lowered himself down the shallow wooden steps into the hallway. He went to the first floor and stood at the window through which he had first climbed. He had to find an empty apartment in some building where he could get warm; he felt that if he did not get warm soon he would simply lie down and close his eyes. Then he had an idea; he wondered why he had not thought of it before. He struck a match and lit the newspaper; as it blazed he held one hand over it awhile, and then the other. The heat came to his skin from far off. When the paper had burned so close that he could no longer hold it, he dropped it to the floor and stamped it out with his shoes. At least he could feel his hands now; at least they ached and let him know that they were his.
He climbed through the window and walked to the street, turned northward, joining the people passing. No one recognized him. He looked for a building with a "For Rent" sign. He walked two blocks and saw none. He knew that empty flats were scarce in the Black Belt; whenever his mother wanted to move she had to put in requests long months in advance. He remembered that his mother had once made him tramp the streets for two whole months looking for a place to live. The rental agencies had told him that there were not enough houses for Negroes to live in, that the city was condemning houses in which Negroes lived as being too old and too dangerous for habitation. And he remembered the time when the police had come and driven him and his mother and his brother and sister out of a flat in a building which had collapsed two days after they had moved. And he had heard it said that black people, even though they could not get good jobs, paid twice as much rent as whites for the same kind of flats. He walked five more blocks and saw no "For Rent" sign. Goddamn! Would he freeze trying to find a place in which to get
warm? How easy it would be for him to hide if he had the whole city in which to move about! They keep us bottled up here like wild animals, he thought. He knew that black people could not go outside of the Black Belt to rent a flat; they had to live on their side of the "line." No white real estate man would rent a flat to a black man other than in the sections where it had been decided that black people might live.
His fists clenched. What was the use of running away? He ought to stop right here in the middle of the sidewalk and shout out what this was. It was so wrong that surely all the black people round him would do something about it; so wrong that all the white people would stop and listen. But he knew that they would simply grab him and say that he was crazy. He reeled through the streets, his blood shot eyes looking for a place to hide. He paused at a corner and saw a big black rat leaping over the snow. It shot past him into a doorway where it slid out of sight through a hole. He looked wistfully at that gaping blade hole through which the rat had darted to safety.
He passed a bakery and wanted to go in and buy some rolls with the seven cents he had. But the bakery was empty of customers and he was afraid that the white proprietor would recognize him. He would wait until he came to a Negro business establishment, but he knew that there were not many of them. Almost all businesses in the Black Belt were owned by Jews, Italians, and Greeks. Most Negro businesses were funeral parlors; white under takers refused to bother with dead black bodies. He came to a chain grocery store. Bread sold here for five cents a loaf, but across the "line" where white folks lived, it sold for four. And now, of all times, he could not cross that "line." He stood looking through the plate glass at the people inside. Ought he to go in? He had to. He was starving. They trick us every breath we draw! he thought. They gouge our eyes out! He opened the door and walked to the counter. The warm air made him dizzy; he caught hold of a counter in from of him and steadied himself. His eyes blurred and there swam before him a vast array of red and blue and green and yellow cans stacked high upon shelves. All about him he heard the soft voices of men and women.
"You waited on, sir?"
"A loaf of bread," he whispered.
"Anything else, sir?"
The man's face went away and came again; he heard paper rustling.
"Cold out, isn't it?"
"Hunh? Oh, yessuh."
He laid the nickel on the counter; he saw the blurred loaf being handed to him.
"Thank you. Call again."
He walked unsteadily to the door with the loaf under his arm. Oh, Lord! If only he could get into the street! In the doorway he met people coming in; he stood to one side to let them pass, then went into the cold wind, looking for an empty flat. At any moment he expected to hear his name shouted; expected to feel his arms being grabbed. He walked five blocks before he saw a two-story flat building with a "For Rent" sign in a window. Smoke bulged out of chimneys and he knew that it was warm inside. He went to the front door and read the little vacancy notice pasted on the glass and saw that the flat was a rear one. He went down the alley to the rear steps and mounted to the second floor. He tried a window and it slid up easily. He was in luck. He hoisted himself through and dropped into a warm room, a kitchen. He was suddenly tense, listening. He heard voices; they seemed to be coming from the room in front of him. Had he made a mistake? No. The kitchen was not furnished; no one, it seemed, lived in here. He tiptoed to the next room and found it empty; but he heard the voices even more clearly now. He saw still another room leading farther; he tiptoed and looked. That room, too, was empty, but the sound of the voices was coming so loud that he could make out the words. An argument was going on in the front flat. He stood with the loaf of bread in his hands, his legs wide apart, listening.
"Jack, yuh mean t' stan' there 'n' say yuh'd give tha' nigger up t' the white folks?"
"Damn right Ah would!"
''But, Jack, s'pose he ain' guilty?"
"Whut in hell he run off fer then?"
"Maybe he thought they wuz gonna blame the murder on him!''
"Lissen, Jim. Ef he wuzn't guilty, then he oughta stayed 'n' faced it. Ef Ah knowed where tha' nigger wuz Ah'd turn 'im up 'n' git these white folks off me."
"But, Jack, every nigger looks guilty t' white folks when some body's done a crime."
"Yeah; tha's 'cause so many of us act like Bigger Thomas; tha's all. When yuh ack like Bigger Thomas yuh stir up trouble."
"But, Jack, who's stirring up trouble now? The papers say they beatin' us up all over the city. They don't care whut black man they git. We's all dogs in they sight! Yuh gotta stan' up 'n' fight these folks."
'"N' git killed? Hell, naw! Ah gotta family. Ah gotta wife 'n' baby. Ah ain't startin' no fool fight. Yuh can't git no justice per tectin' men who kill. . . ."
"We's all murderers t' them, Ah tell yuh!"
"Lissen, Jim. Ah'm a hard-workin' man. Ah fixes the strets wid a pick 'n' shovel ever' day, when Ah git a chance. But the boss tol' me he didn't wan' me in them streets wid this mob feelin' among the white folks . . . . He says Ah'll git killed. So he lays me off. Yuh see, tha' Goddamn nigger Bigger Thomas made me lose mah job . . . . He made the white folks think we's all jus' like him!"
"But, Jack, Ah tell yuh they think it awready. Yuh's a good man, but tha' ain' gonna keep 'em from comin' t' yo' home, is it? Hell, naw! We's all blade 'n' we jus' as waal ack black, don' yuh see?"
"Aw, Jim, it's awright t' git mad, but yuh gotta look at things straight. Tha' guy made me lose mah job. Tha' ain' fair! How is Ah gonna eat? Ef Ah knowed where the black sonofabitch wuz Ah'd call the cops 'n' let 'em come 'n' git 'im!"
"Waal, Ah wouldn't. Ah'd die firs'!"
"Man, yuh crazy! Don' yuh wan' a home 'n' wife 'n' chillun? Whut's fightin' gonna git yuh? There's mo' of them than us. They could kill us all. Yuh gotta learn t' live 'n' git erlong wid people."
"When folks hate me, Ah don' wanna git erlong." "But we gotta eat! We gotta live!"
"Ah don' care! Ah'd die firs'!"
"Aw, hell! Yuh crazy!"
"Ah don' care whut yuh say. Ah'd die 'fo' Ah'd let 'em scare me inter tellin' on tha' man. Ah tell yuh, Ah'd die firs'!"
He tiptoed back into the kitchen and took out his gun. He would stay here and if his own people bothered him he would use it. He turned on the water faucet and put his mouth under the stream and the water exploded in his stomach. He sank to his knees and rolled in agony. Soon the pain ceased and he drank again. Then, slowly, so that the paper would not rustle, he unwrapped the loaf of bread and chewed a piece. It tasted good, like cake, with a sweetish and smooth flavor he had never thought bread could have. As he ate his hunger returned in full force and he sat on the floor and held a fistful of bread in each hand, his cheeks bulging and his jaws working and his Adam's apple going up and down with each swallow. He could not stop until his mouth became so dry that the bread balled on his tongue; he held it there, savoring the taste.
He stretched out on the floor and sighed. He was drowsy, but when he was on the verge of sleep he jerked abruptly to a dull wakefulness. Finally, he slept, then sat up, half-awake, following an unconscious prompting of fear. He groaned and his hands flayed the air to ward off an invisible danger. Once he got up completely and walked a few steps with outstretched hands and then lay down in a spot almost ten feet from where he had originally slept. There were two Biggers: one was determined to get rest and sleep at any cost; and the other shrank from images charged with terror. There came a long space of time in which he did not move; he lay on his back, his hands folded upon his chest, his mouth and eyes open. His chest rose and fell so slowly and gently that it seemed that during the intervals when it did not move he would
never breathe again. A wan sun came onto his face, malting the black skin shine like dull metal; the sun left and the quiet room filled with deep shadows.
As he slept there stole into his consciousness a disturbing, rhythmic throbbing which he tried to fight off to keep from waking up. His mind, protecting him, wove the throb into patterns of innocent images. He thought he was in the Paris Grill listening to the automatic phonograph playing; but that was not satisfying. Next, his mind told him that he was at home in bed and his mother was singing and shaking the mattress, wanting him to get up. But this image, like the others, failed to quiet him. The throb pulsed on, insistent, and he saw hundreds of black men and women beating drums with their fingers. But that, too, did not answer the question. He tossed restlessly on the floor, then sprang to his feet, his heart pounding, his ears filled with the sound of singing and shouting.
He went to the window and looked out; in front of him, down a few feet, through a window, was a dim-lit church. In it a crowd of black men and women stood between long rows of wooden benches, singing, clapping hands, and rolling their heads. Aw, them folks go to church every day in the week, he thought. He licked his lips and got another drink of water. How near were the police? What time was it? He looked at his watch and found that it had stopped running; he had forgotten to wind it. The singing from the church vibrated through him, suffusing him with a mood of sensitive sorrow. He tried not to listen, but it seeped into his feelings, whispering of another way of life and death, coaxing him to lie down and sleep and let them come and get him, urging him to believe that all life was a sorrow that had to be accepted. He shook his head, trying to rid himself of the music. How long had he slept? What were the papers saying now? He had two cents left; that would buy a Times. He picked up what remained of the loaf of bread and the music sang of surrender, resignation. Steal away) Steal away, Steal away to Jesus. . . . He stuffed the bread into his pockets; he would eat it sometime later. He made sure that his gun was still intact, hearing, Steal away.. Steal away home… I ain’t
got long to stay here. . . . It was dangerous to stay here, but it was also dangerous to go out. The singing filled his ears; it was complete, self contained, and it mocked his fear and loneliness, his deep yearning for a sense of wholeness. Its fulness contrasted so sharply with his hunger, its richness with his emptiness, that he recoiled from it while answering it. Would it not have been better for him had he lived in that world the music sang of? It would have been easy to have lived in it, for it was his mother's world, humble, contrite, believing. It had a center, a core, ID_ axis, a heart which he needed but could never have unless he laid his head upon a pillow of humility and gave up his hope of living in the world. And he would never do that.
He heard a street car passing in the street; they were running again. A wild thought surged through him. Suppose the police had already searched this neighborhood and had overlooked him? But sober judgment told him that that was impossible. He patted his pocket to make sure the gun was there, then climbed through the window. Cold wind smote his face. It must be below zero, he thought. At both ends of the alley the street lamps glowed through the murky air, refracted into mammoth balls of light. The sky was dark blue and far away. He walked to the end of the alley and turned onto the sidewalk, joining the passing stream of people. He waited for someone to challenge his right to walk there, but no one did.
At the end of the block he saw a crowd of people and fear clutched hard at his stomach. What were they doing? He slowed and saw that they were gathered about a newsstand. They were black people and they were buying papers to read about how the white folks were trying to track him to earth. He lowered his head and went forward and slipped into the crowd. The people were talking excitedly. Cautiously, he held out two cents in his cold fingers. When he was close enough, he saw the front page; his picture was in the center of it. He bent his head lower, hoping that no one would see him closely enough to see that it was he who was pictured there.
''Times." he said. and walked southward, looking for an empty flat. At the next cor ner he saw a "For Rent" sign in a building which he knew was cut up into small kitchenette flats. This was what he wanted. He went to the door and read the sign; there was an empty flat on the fourth floor. He walked to the alley and began to mount the outside rear stairs, his feet softly crunching in snow. He heard a door open; he stopped, got his gun and waited, kneeling in the snow.
It was a woman's voice. Then a man's voice sounded. "What's the matter, Ellen?"
"I thought I heard someone out here on the porch."
"Ah, you're simply nervous. You're scared of all this stuff you've been reading in the papers."
"But I'm sure I heard somebody."
"Aw, empty the garbage and shut the door. It's cold."
Bigger flattened against the building, in the dark. He saw a woman come out of a door, pause, look round; she went to the far end of the porch and dumped something into a garbage pail and went back inside. I would've had to kill 'em both if she saw me, he thought. He tiptoed up to the fourth floor and found two windows, both of them dark. He tried to lift the screen in one of them and found it frozen. Gently, he shook it to and fro until it loosened; then he lifted it out and laid it on the porch in the snow. Inch by inch, he raised the window, breathing so loud that he thought surely people must hear him even in the streets. He climbed through into a dark room and struck a match. An electric light was on the other side of the room and he went to it and pulled the chain. He put his cap over the bulb so that no light would seep through to the outside, then opened the paper. Yes; here was a large picture of him. At the top of the picture ran a tall line of black type: 24-HOUR SEARCH FAILS TO UNEARTH RAPIST. In another column he saw: RAID 1,000 NEGRO HOMES. INCIPIENT RIOT QUELLED AT 47TH AND HALSTED. There was another map of the South Side. This time the shaded area had deepened from both the north and south, leaving a
small square of white in the middle of the oblong Black Belt. He stood looking at that tiny square of white as though gazing down into the barrel of a gun. He was there on that map, in that white spot, standing in a room waiting for them to come. Dead-set, his eyes stared above the top of the paper. There was nothing left for him but to shoot it out. He examined the map again; the police had come from the north as far south as Fortieth Street; and they had come from the south as far north as Fiftieth Street. That meant that he was somewhere in between, and they were minutes away. He read:
Today and last night eight thousand armed men combed cellars, old buildings and more than one thousand Negro homes in the Black Belt in a vain effort to apprehend Bigger Thomas, 20-year-old Negro rapist and killer of Mary Dalton, whose bones were found last Sunday night in a furnace.
Bigger's eyes went down the page, snatching at what he thought most important: "word spread that the slayer had been captured, but was immediately denied," "before night police and vigilantes will have covered the entire Black Belt," "raiding numerous Communist headquarters throughout the city," "the arrest of hundreds of Reds failed, however, to uncover any clues," "public warned by Mayor against 'boring from within,' . . . ." Then:
A curious sidelight was revealed today when it became known that the apartment building in which the Negro killer lived is owned and managed by a sub-firm of the Dalton Real Estate Company.
He lowered the paper; he could read no more. The one fact to remember was that eight thousand men, white men, with guns and gas, were out there in the night looking for him. According to this paper, they were but a few blocks away. Could he get to the roof of this building? If so, maybe he could crouch there until they passed. He thought of burying himself deep in the snow of the roof, but he knew that that was
impossible. He pulled the chain again and plunged the room in darkness. Using the flashlight, he went to the door and opened it and looked into the hall. It was empty and a dim light burned at the far end. He put out the flashlight and tip toed, looking at the ceiling, searching for a trapdoor leading to the roof. Finally, he saw a pair of wooden steps leading upward. Suddenly, his muscles stiffened as though a wire strung through his body had jerked him. A siren shriek entered the hallway. And immediately he heard voices, excited, low, tense. From somewhere down below a man called,
There was nothing to do now but go up; he clutched the wooden steps above him and climbed, wanting to get out of sight before anyone came into the hall. He reached the trapdoor and pushed against it with his head; it opened. He grabbed something solid in the darkness above him and hoisted himself upward, hoping as he did so that it would hold him and not let him go crashing down upon the hall floor. He rested on his knees, his chest heaving. Then he eased the door shut, peering just in time to see a door in the hall opening. That was close! The siren sounded again; it was outside in the street. It seemed to sound a warning that no one could hide from it; that action to escape was futile; that soon the men with guns and gas would come and penetrate where the siren sound had penetrated.
He listened; there were throbs of motors; shouts rose from the streets; there were screams of women and curses of men. He heard footsteps on the stairs. The siren died and began again, on a high, shrill note this time. It made him want to clutch at his throat; as long as it sounded it seemed that he could not breathe. He had to get to the roof! He switched on the flashlight and crawled through a narrow loft till he came to an opening. He put his shoulder to it and heaved; it gave so suddenly and easily that he drew back in fear. He thought that someone had snatched it open from above and in the same instant of its opening he saw an expanse of gleaming white snow against the dark smudge of night and a stretch of luminous sky. A medley of crashing sounds came, louder than he had thought that sound could be: horns, sirens, screams.
There was hunger in those sounds as they crashed over the roof-tops and chimneys; but under it, low and distinct, he heard voices of fear: curses of men and cries of children.
Yes; they were looking for him in every building and on every floor and in every room. They wanted him. His eyes jerked upward as a huge, sharp beam of yellow light shot into the sky. Another came, crossing it like a knife. Then another. Soon the sky was full of them. They circled slowly, hemming him in; bars of light forming a prison, a wall between him and the rest of the world; bars weaving a shifting wall of light into which he dared not go. He was in the midst of it now; this was what he had been running from ever since that night Mrs. Dalton had come into the room and had charged him with such fear that his hands had gripped the pillow with fingers of steel and had cut off the air from Mary's lungs.
Below him was a loud, heavy pounding, like a faraway rumble of thunder. He had to get to the roof; he struggled upward, then fell flat, in deep soft snow, his eyes riveted upon a white man across the street upon another roof. Bigger watched the man whirl the beam of a flashlight. Would the man look in his direction? Could the beam of a flashlight make him visible from where the man was? He watched the man walk round awhile and then disappear.
Quickly, he rose and shut the trapdoor. To leave it open would create suspicion. Then he fell flat again, listening. There was the sound of many running feet below him. It seemed that an army was thundering up the stairs. There was nowhere he could run to now; either they caught him or they did not. The thundering grew louder and he knew that the men were nearing the top floor. He lifted his eyes and looked in all directions, watching roofs to the left and right of him. He did not want to be surprised by someone creeping upon him from behind. He saw that the roof to his right was not joined to the one upon which he lay; that meant that no one could steal upon him from that direction. The one to his left was joined to the roof of the building upon which he lay, making it one long icy runway. He lifted his head and looked; there were other roofs joined, too. He could run over those roofs, over the snow and round those
chimneys until he came to the building that dropped to the ground. Then that would be all. Would he jump off and kill himself? He did not know. He had an almost mystic feeling that if he were ever cornered something in him would prompt him to act the right way, the right way being the way that would enable him to die without shame.
He heard a noise close by; he looked round just in time to see a white face, a head, then shoulders pull into view upon the roof to the right of him. A man stood up, cut sharply against the back ground of roving yellow lights. He watched the man twirl a pencil of light over the snow. Bigger raised his gun and trained it upon the man and waited; if the light reached him, he would shoot. What would he do afterwards? He did not know. But the yellow spot never reached him. He watched the man go down, feet first, then shoulders and head; he was gone.
He relaxed a bit; at least the roof to his right was safe now. He waited to hear sounds that would tell him that someone was climbing up through the trapdoor. The rumbling below him rose in volume with the passing seconds, but he could not tell if the men were coming closer or receding. He waited and held his gun. Above his head the sky stretched in a cold, dark-blue oval, cupping the city like an iron palm covered with silk. The wind blew, hard, icy, with out ceasing. It seemed to him that he had already frozen, that pieces could be broken off him, as one chips bits from a cake of ice. In order to know that he still had the gun in his hand he had to look at it, for his hand no longer had any feeling.
Then he was stiff with fear. There were pounding feet right below him. They were on the top floor now. Ought he to run to the roof to his left? But he had seen no one search that roof; if he ran he might come face to face with someone coming up out of another trapdoor. He looked round, thinking that maybe someone was creeping up on him; but there was nobody. The sound of feet came louder. He put his ear to the naked ice and listened. Yes; they were walking about in the hallway; there were several of them directly under him, near the trapdoor. He looked again to the roof on his left, wanting to run to it and hide;
but was afraid. Were they coming up? He listened; but there were so many voices he could not make out the words. He did not want them to surprise him. Whatever happened, he wanted to go down looking into the faces of those that would kill him. Finally, under the terror-song of the siren, the voices came so close that he could hear words clearly.
"God, but I'm tired!"
"I believe we're just wasting time."
"Say, Jerry! You going to the roof this time?"
"Yeah; I'll go."
"That nigger might be in New York by now."
"Yeah. But we better look."
"Say, did you see that brown gal in there?"
"The one that didn't have much on?"
"Boy, she was a peach, wasn't she?"
"Yeah; I wonder what on earth a nigger wants to kill a white woman for when he has such good-looking women in his own race. . . ."
"Boy, if she'd let me stay here I'd give up this goddamn hunt."
"Come on. Give a lift. You'd better hold this ladder. It seems rickety."
"Hurry up. Here comes the captain."
Bigger was set. Then he was not set. He clung to a chimney that stood a foot from the trapdoor. Ought he to stay flat or stand up? He stood up, pushing against the chimney, trying to merge with it. He held the gun and waited. Was the man corning up? He looked to the roof to his left; it was still empty. But if he ran to it he might meet someone. He heard footsteps in the passage of the loft. Yes; the man was corning. He waited for the trapdoor to open. He held the gun tightly; he wondered if he was holding it too tightly, so tightly that it would go off before he wanted it to. His fingers were so cold that he could not tell how much pressure he was putting behind the trigger. Then, like a shooting star streaking across a black sky, the fearful thought came to him that maybe his fingers were frozen so stiff that he could not pull the trigger.
Quickly, he felt his right hand with his left; but even that did not tell him anything. His right hand was so cold that all he felt was one cold piece of flesh touching another. He had to wait and see. He had to have faith. He had to trust himself; that was all.
The trapdoor opened, slightly at first, then wide. He watched it, his mouth open, staring through the blur of tears which the cold wind had whipped into his eyes. The door came all the way open, cutting off his view for a moment, then it fell back softly upon the snow. He saw the bare head of a white man-the back of the head-framed in the narrow opening, stenciled against the yellow glare of the restless bars of light. Then the head turned slightly and Bigger saw the side of a white face. He watched the man, movll1g like a figure on the screen in close-up slow motion, come out of the hole and stand with his back to him, flashlight in hand. The idea took hold swiftly. Hit him. Hit him! In the head. Whether it would help or not, he did not know and it did not matter. He had to hit this man before he turned that spot of yellow on him and then yelled for the others. In the split second that he saw the man's head, it seemed that an hour passed, an hour filled with pain and doubt and anguish and suspense, filled with the sharp throb of life lived upon a needle-point. He lifted his left hand, caught the gun which he held in his right, took it into the fingers of his left hand, turned it round, caught it again in his right and held it by the barrel: all one motion, swift, silent; done in one breath with eyes staring unblinkingly. Hit him' He lifted it, high, by the barrel. Yes. Hit him! His lips formed the words as he let it come down with a grunt which was a blending of a curse, a prayer and a groan.
He felt the impact of the blow throughout the length of his arm, jarring his flesh slightly. His hand stopped in mid-air, at the point where the metal of the gun had met the bone of the skull; stopped, frozen, still, as though again about to lift and descend. In the instant, almost of the blow being struck, the white man emitted something like a soft cough; his flashlight fell into the snow, a fast flick of vanishing light. The man fell away from Bigger, on his face, full length in the cushion of snow, like a man falling soundlessly
in a deep dream. Bigger was aware of the clicking sound of the metal against the bone of the skull; it stayed on in his ears, faint but distinct, like a sharp bright point lingering on in front of the eyes when a light has gone out suddenly and darkness is everywhere--so the click of the gun handle against the man's head stayed on in his ears. He had not moved from his tracks; his right hand was still extended upward, in mid-air; he lowered it, looking at the man, the sound of the metal against bone fading in his ears like a dying whisper.
The sound of the siren had stopped at some time which he did not remember; then it started again, and the interval in which he had not heard it seemed to hold for him some preciously hidden danger, as though for a dreadful moment he had gone to sleep at his post with an enemy near.
He looked through the whirling spokes of light and saw a trapdoor open upon the roof to his left.
He stood rigid, holding the gun, watching, waiting. If only the man did not see him when he came up! A head came into view; a white man climbed out of the trapdoor and stood in the snow. He flinched; someone was crawling in the loft below him. Would he be trapped? A voice, a little afraid, called from the open hole through which the man whom he had struck had climbed.
The voice sounded clearly in spite of the siren and the clang of the fire wagons.
The voice was a little louder now. It was the man's partner.
Bigger looked back to the roof to his left; the man was still standing there, flashing a light round. If he would only leave! He had to get away from this trapdoor here. If that man came up to see about his
partner and found him sprawled in the snow he would yell before he got a chance to hit him. He squeezed against the chimney, looking at the man on the roof to his left, holding his breath. The man turned, walked toward the trapdoor and climbed through. He waited to hear the door shut; it did. Now, that roof was clear! He breathed a silent prayer.
With gun in hand, Bigger crept across the roof. He came to a small mound of brick, where the upjutting ridge of the building's flat top joined that of the other. He paused and looked bade. The hole was still empty. If he tried to climb over, would the man come out of the hole just in time to see him1 He had to take the chance. He grabbed the ledge, hoisted himself upon it, and lay flat for a moment on the ice, then slid to the other side, rolling over. He felt snow in his face and eyes; his chest heaved. He crawled to another chimney and waited; it was so cold that he had a wild wish to merge into the icy bricks of the chimney and have it all over. He heard the voice again, this time loud, insistent:
He looked out from behind the chimney. The hole was stillempty. But the next time the voice came he knew that the man was corning out, for he could feel the tremor of the voice, as though it were next to him.
Then he saw the man's face come through; it was stuck like a piece of white pasteboard above the top of the hole and when the man's voice sounded again Bigger knew that he had seen his partner in the snow.
Bigger lifted his gun and waited.
"Jerry. . . ."
The man came out of the hole and stood over his partner, then scrambled in again, screaming: "Say! Say!"
Yes; the man would spread the word. Ought he to run? Suppose he went down into the trapdoor of another roofl Naw! There would be people standing in the hallways and they would be afraid; they would scream at the sight of him and he would be caught. They would be glad to give him up and put an end to this terror. It would be better to run farther over the roofs. He rose; then, just as he was about to run, he saw a head bob up in the hole. Another man came through and stood over Jerry. He was tall and he stooped over Jerry's form and seemed to be putting his hand upon his face. Then another came through.
One of the men centered his flashlight on Jerry's body and Bigger saw one bend and roll the body over. The spotlight lit Jerry's face. One of the men ran to the sheer edge of the roof, overlooking the street; his hand went to his mouth and Bigger heard the sound of a whistle, sharp, thin. The roar in the street died; the siren stopped; but the circling columns of yellow continued to whirl. In the peace and quiet of the sudden calm, the man yelled,
"Surround the block!"
Bigger heard an answering shout.
"You got a line on 'im?"
"I think he's round here!"
A wild yell went up. Yes; they felt that they were near him now. He heard the man's shrill whistle sounding again. It got quiet, but not so quiet as before. There were shouts of wild joy floating up.
"Send up a stretcher and a detail of men!"
The man turned and went back to Jerry lying in the snow.
Bigger heard snatches of talk.
". . . how do you suppose it happened?"
"Looks like he was hit. . . ."
". . . maybe he's about. . . ."
"Quick! Take a look over the roof!"
He saw one of the men rise and flash a light. The circling beams lit the roof to a daylight brightness and he could see that one man held a gun. He would have to cross to other roots before this man or others came upon him. They were suspicious and would comb every inch of space on top of these houses. On all fours, he scrambled to the next ledge and then turned and looked back; the ' man was still standing, throwing the spot of yellow about over the snow. Bigger grabbed the icy ledge, hoisted himself flat upon it., and slid over. He did not think now of how much strength was needed to climb and run; the fear of capture made him forget even the cold, forget even that he had no strength left. From somewhere in him, out of the depths of flesh and blood and bone, he called up energy to run and dodge with but one impulse: he had to elude these men. He was crawling to the other ledge, over the snow, on his hands and knees, when he heard the man yell,
"There he is!"
The three words made him stop; he had been listening for them all night and when they came he seemed to feel the sky crashing soundlessly about him. What was the use of running? Would it not be better to stop, stand up, and lift his hands high above his head in surrender? Hell, naw! He continued to crawl.
A shot rang out, whining past his head. He rose and ran to the ledge, leaped over; ran to the next ledge, leaped over it. He darted among the chimneys so that no one could see him long enough to shoot. He looked ahead and saw something huge and round and white looming up in the dark: a bulk rising up sheer from the snow of the roof and swelling in the night, glittering in the glare of the searching knives of light. Soon he would not be able to go much farther, for he would reach that point where the roof ended and dropped to the street below. He wove among the chimneys, his feet slipping and sliding over snow, keeping in mind that white looming bulk which he had glimpsed ahead of him. Was it something that would help him? Could he get upon it, or behind it, and hold them off? He was listening and expecting more shots as he ran, but none came.
He stopped at a ledge and looked back; he saw in the lurid glare of the slashing lances of light a man stumbling over the snow. Ought he to stop and shoot? Naw! More would be coming in a moment and he would only waste time. He had to find some place to hide, some ambush from which he could fight. He ran to another ledge, past the white looming bulk which now towered directly above him, then stopped, blinking: deep down below was a sea of white faces and he saw himself falling, spinning straight down into that ocean of boiling hate. He gripped the icy ledge with his fingers, thinking that if he had been running any faster he would have gone right off the roof, hurtling four floors.
Dizzily, he drew back. This was the end. There were no more roots over which to run and dodge. He looked; the man was still coming. Bigger stood up. The siren was louder than before and there were more
shouts and screams. Yes; those in the streets knew now that the police and vigilantes had trapped him upon the roofs. He remembered the quick glimpse he had had of the white looming bulk; he looked up. Directly above him, white with snow, was a high water tank with a round flat top. There was a ladder made of iron whose slick rungs were coated with ice that gleamed like neon in the circling blades of yellow. He caught hold and climbed. He did not know where he was going; he knew only that he had to hide.
He reached the top of the tank and three shots sang past his head. He lay flat, on his stomach, in snow. He was high above the roof-tops and chimneys now and he had a wide view. A man was climbing over a near-by ledge, and beyond him was a small knot of men, their faces lit to a distinct whiteness by the swinging pencils of light. Men were coming up out of the trapdoor far in front of him and were moving toward him, dodging behind chimneys. He raised the gun, leveled it, aimed, and shot; the men stopped but no one fell. He had missed. He shot again. No one fell. The knot of men broke up and disappeared behind ledges and chimneys. The noise in the street rose in a flood of strange joy. No doubt the sound of the pistol shots made them think that he was shot, captured, or dead.
He saw a man running toward the water tank 'in the open; he shot again. The man ducked behind a chimney. He had missed. Perhaps his hands were too cold to shoot straight1 Maybe he ought to wait until they were closer? He turned his head just in time to see a man climbing over the edge of the roof, from the street side. The man was mounting a ladder which had been hoisted up the side of the building from the ground. He leveled the gun to shoot, but the man got over and left his line of vision, disappearing under the tank.
Why could he not shoot straight and fast enough1 He looked in front of him and saw two men running under the tank. There were three men beneath the tank now. They were surrounding him, but they could not come for him without exposing themselves.
A small black object fell near his head in the snow, hissing, shooting forth a white vapor, like a blowing plume, which was carried away from him by the wind. Tear gas! With a movement of his hand he knocked it off the tank. Another came and he knocked it off. Two more came and he shoved them off. The wind blew strong, from the lake. It carried the gas away from his eyes and nose. He heard a man yell,
"Stop it! The wind's blowing it away! He's throwing 'em back!" The bedlam in the street rose higher; more men climbed through trapdoors to the roof. He wanted to shoot, but remembered that he had but three bullets left. He would shoot when they were closer and he would save one bullet for himself. They would not take him alive.
"Come on down, boy!"
He did not move; he lay with gun in hand, waiting. Then, directly under his eyes, four white fingers caught hold of the icy edge of the water tank. He gritted his teeth and struck the white fingers with the butt of the gun. They vanished and he heard a thud as a body landed on the snow-covered roof. He lay waiting for more attempts to climb up, but none came.
"It's no use fighting, boy! You're caught! Come on down!"
He knew that they were afraid, and yet he knew that it would soon be over, one way or another: they would either capture or kill him. He was surprised that he was not afraid. Under it all some part of his mind was beginning to stand aside; he was going behind his curtain, his wall, looking out with sullen stares of contempt. He was outside of himself now, looking on; he lay under a winter sky lit with tall gleams of whirling light, hearing thirsty screams and hungry shouts, defiant, unafraid.
"Tell 'em to hurry with the hose! The nigger's armed!"
What did that mean? His eyes roved, watching for a moving object to shoot at; but none appeared. He was not conscious of his body now; he could not feel himself at all. He knew only that he was lying here with a gun in his hand, surrounded by men who wanted to kill him. Then he heard a hammering noise nearby; he looked. Behind the edge of a chimney he saw a trapdoor open.
"All right, boy!" a hoarse voice called. "We're giving you your last chance. Come on down!"
He lay still. What was coming? He knew that they were not going to shoot, for they could not see him. Then what? And while wondering, he knew: a furious whisper of water, gleaming like silver in the bright lights, streaked above his head with vicious force, passing him high in the air and hitting the roof beyond with a thudding drone. They had turned on the water hose; the fire department had done that. They were trying to drive him into the open. The stream of water was coming from behind the chimney where the trapdoor had opened, but as yet the water had not touched him. Above him the rushing stream jerked this way and that; they were trying to reach him with it. Then the water hit him, in the side; it was like the blow of a pile driver. His breath left and he felt a dull pain in his side that spread, engulfing him. The water was trying to push him off the tank; he gripped the edges hard, feeling his strength ebbing.
His chest heaved and he knew from the pain that throbbed in him that he would not be able to hold on much longer with water pounding at his body like this. He felt cold, freezing; his blood turned to ice, it seemed. He gasped, his mouth open. Then the gun loosened in his fingers; he tried to grip it again and found that he could not. The water left him; he lay gasping, spent.
"Throw that gun down, boy!"
He gritted his teeth. The icy water clutched again at his body like a giant hand; the chill of it squeezed him like the circling coils of a monstrous boa constrictor. His arms ached. He was behind his curtain now, looking down at himself freezing under the impact of water in sub-zero winds. Then the stream of water veered from his body.
"Throw that gun down, boy!"
He began to shake all over; he let go of the gun completely. Well, this was all. Why didn't they come for him? He gripped the edges of the tank again, digging his fingers into the snow and ice. His strength left. He gave up. He turned over on his back and looked weakly up into the sky through the high shifting lattices of light. This was all. They could shoot him now. Why didn't they shoot? Why didn't they come for him?
"Throw that gun down, boy!"
They wanted the gun. He did not have it. He was not afraid any more. He did not have strength enough to be.
"Throw that gun down, boy!"
Yes; take the gun and shoot it at them, shoot it empty. Slowly, he stretched out his hand and tried to pick up the gun, but his fingers were too stiff. Something laughed in him, cold and hard; he was laughing at himself. Why didn't they come for him? They were afraid. He rolled his eyes, looking longingly at the gun. Then, while he was looking at it, the stream of hissing silver struck it and whirled it off the tank, out of sight. . . .
"There it is!"
"Come on down, boy! You're through!"
"Don't go up there! He might have another gun!"
"Come on down, boy!"
He was outside of it all now. He was too weak and cold to hold onto the edges of the tank any longer; he simply lay atop the tank, his mouth and eyes open, listening to the stream of water whir above him. Then the water hit him again, in the side; he felt his body sliding over the slick ice and snow. He wanted to hold on, but could not. His body teetered on the edge; his legs dangled in air. Then he was falling. He landed on the roof, on his face, in snow, dazed.
He opened his eyes and saw a circle of white faces, but he was outside of them, behind his curtain, his wall, looking on. He heard men talking and their voices came to him from far away.
"That's him, all right!"
"Get 'im down to the street!"
"The water did it!"
"He seems half-frozen!"
"All right, get 'im down to the street!"
He felt his body being dragged across the snow of the roof. Then he was lifted and put, feet first, into a trapdoor.
"You got 'im?"
"Yeah! Let 'irn drop on!"
He dropped into rough hands inside of the dark loft. They were dragging him by his feet. He closed his eyes and his head slid along over rough planking. They struggled him through the last trapdoor and he knew that he was inside of a building, for warm air was on his face. They had him by his legs again and were dragging him down a hall, over smooth carpet.
There was a short stop, then they started down the stairs with him, his head bumping along the steps. He folded his wet arms about his head to save himself, but soon the steps had pounded his elbows and arms so hard that all of his strength left. He relaxed, feeling his head bounding painfully down the steps. He shut his eyes and tried to lose consciousness. But he still felt it, drumming like a hammer in his brain. Then it stopped. He was near the street; he could hear shouts and screams coming to him like the roar of water. He was in the street now, being dragged over snow. His feet were up in the air, grasped by strong hands.
"That black sonofabitch!"
They let go of his feet; he was in the snow, lying flat on his back. Round him surged a sea of noise. He opened his eyes a little and saw an array of faces, white and looming.
"Kill that black ape!"
Two men stretched his arms out, as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow. His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.