The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt


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IX. Doubts and Fears


Rena's heart was too heavy with these misgivings for her to keep them to herself. On the morning after the conversation with Tryon in which she had promised him an answer within a week, she went into her brother's study, where he usually spent an hour after breakfast before going to his office. He looked up amiably from the book before him and read trouble in her face.

"Well, Rena, dear," he asked with a smile, "what's the matter? Is there anything you want--money, or what? I should like to have Aladdin's lamp--though I'd hardly need it-- that you might have no wish unsatisfied."

He had found her very backward in asking for things that she needed. Generous with his means, he thought nothing too good for her. Her success had gratified his pride, and justified his course in taking her under his protection.

"Thank you, John. You give me already more than I need. It is something else, John. George wants me to say when I will marry him. I am afraid to marry him, without telling him. If he should find out afterwards, he might cast me off, or cease to love me. If he did not know it, I should be forever thinking of what he would do if he should find it out; or, if I should die without his having learned it, I should not rest easy in my grave for thinking of what he would have done if he had found it out."

Warwick's smile gave place to a grave expression at this somewhat comprehensive statement. He rose and closed the door carefully, lest some one of the servants might overhear the conversation. More liberally endowed than Rena with imagination, and not without a vein of sentiment, he had nevertheless a practical side that outweighed them both. With him, the problem that oppressed his sister had been in the main a matter of argument, of self-conviction. Once persuaded that he had certain rights, or ought to have them, by virtue of the laws of nature, in defiance of the customs of mankind, he had promptly sought to enjoy them. This he had been able to do by simply concealing his antecedents and making the most of his opportunities, with no troublesome qualms of conscience whatever. But he had already perceived, in their brief intercourse, that Rena's emotions, while less easily stirred, touched a deeper note than his, and dwelt upon it with greater intensity than if they had been spread over the larger field to which a more ready sympathy would have supplied so many points of access;--hers was a deep and silent current flowing between the narrow walls of a self- contained life, his the spreading river that ran through a pleasant landscape. Warwick's imagination, however, enabled him to put himself in touch with her mood and recognize its bearings upon her conduct. He would have preferred her taking the practical point of view, to bring her round to which he perceived would be a matter of diplomacy.

"How long have these weighty thoughts been troubling your small head?" he asked with assumed lightness.

"Since he asked me last night to name our wedding day."

"My dear child," continued Warwick, "you take too tragic a view of life. Marriage is a reciprocal arrangement, by which the contracting parties give love for love, care for keeping, faith for faith. It is a matter of the future, not of the past. What a poor soul it is that has not some secret chamber, sacred to itself; where one can file away the things others have no right to know, as well as things that one himself would fain forget! We are under no moral obligation to inflict upon others the history of our past mistakes, our wayward thoughts, our secret sins, our desperate hopes, or our heartbreaking disappointments. Still less are we bound to bring out from this secret chamber the dusty record of our ancestry.

     `Let the dead past bury its dead.'

George Tryon loves you for yourself alone; it is not your ancestors that he seeks to marry."

"But would he marry me if he knew?" she persisted.

Warwick paused for reflection. He would have preferred to argue the question in a general way, but felt the necessity of satisfying her scruples, as far as might be. He had liked Tryon from the very beginning of their acquaintance. In all their intercourse, which had been very close for several months, he had been impressed by the young man's sunny temper, his straightforwardness, his intellectual honesty. Tryon's deference to Warwick as the elder man had very naturally proved an attraction. Whether this friendship would have stood the test of utter frankness about his own past was a merely academic speculation with which Warwick did not trouble himself. With his sister the question had evidently become a matter of conscience, --a difficult subject with which to deal in a person of Rena's temperament.

"My dear sister," he replied, "why should he know? We haven't asked him for his pedigree; we don't care to know it. If he cares for ours, he should ask for it, and it would then be time enough to raise the question. You love him, I imagine, and wish to make him happy?"

It is the highest wish of the woman who loves. The enamored man seeks his own happiness; the loving woman finds no sacrifice too great for the loved one. The fiction of chivalry made man serve woman; the fact of human nature makes woman happiest when serving where she loves.

"Yes, oh, yes," Rena exclaimed with fervor, clasping her hands unconsciously. "I'm afraid he'd be unhappy if he knew, and it would make me miserable to think him unhappy."

"Well, then," said Warwick, "suppose we should tell him our secret and put ourselves in his power, and that he should then conclude that he couldn't marry you? Do you imagine he would be any happier than he is now, or than if he should never know?"

Ah, no! she could not think so. One could not tear love out of one's heart without pain and suffering.

There was a knock at the door. Warwick opened it to the nurse, who stood with little Albert in her arms.

"Please, suh," said the girl, with a curtsy, "de baby 's be'n oryin' an' frettin' fer Miss Rena, an' I 'lowed she mought want me ter fetch 'im, ef it wouldn't'sturb her."

"Give me the darling," exclaimed Rena, coming forward and taking the child from the nurse. "It wants its auntie. Come to its auntie, bless its little heart!"

Little Albert crowed with pleasure and put up his pretty mouth for a kiss. Warwick found the sight a pleasant one. If he could but quiet his sister's troublesome scruples, he might erelong see her fondling beautiful children of her own. Even if Rena were willing to risk her happiness, and he to endanger his position, by a quixotic frankness, the future of his child must not be compromised.

"You wouldn't want to make George unhappy," Warwick resumed when the nurse retired. "Very well; would you not be willing, for his sake, to keep a secret--your secret and mine, and that of the innocent child in your arms? Would you involve all of us in difficulties merely to secure your own peace of mind? Doesn't such a course seem just the least bit selfish? Think the matter over from that point of view, and we'll speak of it later in the day. I shall be with George all the morning, and I may be able, by a little management, to find out his views on the subject of birth and family, and all that. Some men are very liberal, and love is a great leveler. I'll sound him, at any rate."

He kissed the baby and left Rena to her own reflections, to which his presentation of the case had given a new turn. It had never before occurred to her to regard silence in the light of self-sacrifice. It had seemed a sort of sin; her brother's argument made of it a virtue. It was not the first time, nor the last, that right and wrong had been a matter of view-point.

Tryon himself furnished the opening for Warwick's proposed examination. The younger man could not long remain silent upon the subject uppermost in his mind. "I am anxious, John," he said, "to have Rowena name the happiest day of my life--our wedding day. When the trial in Edgecombe County is finished, I shall have no further business here, and shall be ready to leave for home. I should like to take my bride with me, and surprise my mother."

Mothers, thought Warwick, are likely to prove inquisitive about their sons' wives, especially when taken unawares in matters of such importance. This seemed a good time to test the liberality of Tryon's views, and to put forward a shield for his sister's protection.

"Are you sure, George, that your mother will find the surprise agreeable when you bring home a bride of whom you know so little and your mother nothing at all?"

Tryon had felt that it would be best to surprise his mother. She would need only to see Rena to approve of her, but she was so far prejudiced in favor of Blanche Leary that it would be wisest to present the argument after having announced the irrevocable conclusion. Rena herself would be a complete justification for the accomplished deed.

"I think you ought to know, George," continued Warwick, without waiting for a reply to his question, "that my sister and I are not of an old family, or a rich family, or a distinguished family; that she can bring you nothing but herself; that we have no connections of which you could boast, and no relatives to whom we should be glad to introduce you. You must take us for ourselves alone--we are new people."

"My dear John," replied the young man warmly, "there is a great deal of nonsense about families. If a man is noble and brave and strong, if a woman is beautiful and good and true, what matters it about his or her ancestry? If an old family can give them these things, then it is valuable; if they possess them without it, then of what use is it, except as a source of empty pride, which they would be better without? If all new families were like yours, there would be no advantage in belonging to an old one. All I care to know of Rowena's family is that she is your sister; and you'll pardon me, old fellow, if I add that she hardly needs even you,--she carries the stamp of her descent upon her face and in her heart."

"It makes me glad to hear you speak in that way," returned Warwick, delighted by the young man's breadth and earnestness.

"Oh, I mean every word of it," replied Tryon. "Ancestors, indeed, for Rowena! I will tell you a family secret, John, to prove how little I care for ancestors. My maternal great-great-grandfather, a hundred and fifty years ago, was hanged, drawn, and quartered for stealing cattle across the Scottish border. How is that for a pedigree? Behold in me the lineal descendant of a felon!"

Warwick felt much relieved at this avowal. His own statement had not touched the vital point involved; it had been at the best but a half-truth; but Tryon's magnanimity would doubtless protect Rena from any close inquiry concerning her past. It even occurred to Warwick for a moment that he might safely disclose the secret to Tryon; but an appreciation of certain facts of history and certain traits of human nature constrained him to put the momentary thought aside. It was a great relief, however, to imagine that Tryon might think lightly of this thing that he need never know.

"Well, Rena," he said to his sister when he went home at noon: "I've sounded George."

"What did he say?" she asked eagerly.

"I told him we were people of no family, and that we had no relatives that we were proud of. He said he loved you for yourself, and would never ask you about your ancestry."

"Oh, I am so glad!" exclaimed Rena joyfully. This report left her very happy for about three hours, or until she began to analyze carefully her brother's account of what had been said. Warwick's statement had not been specific,--he had not told Tryon the thing. George's reply, in turn, had been a mere generality. The concrete fact that oppressed her remained unrevealed, and her doubt was still unsatisfied.

Rena was occupied with this thought when her lover next came to see her. Tryon came up the sanded walk from the gate and spoke pleasantly to the nurse, a good-looking yellow girl who was seated on the front steps, playing with little Albert. He took the boy from her arms, and she went to call Miss Warwick.

Rena came out, followed by the nurse, who offered to take the child.

"Never mind, Mimy, leave him with me," said Tryon.

The nurse walked discreetly over into the garden, remaining within call, but beyond the hearing of conversation in an ordinary tone.

"Rena, darling," said her lover, "when shall it be? Surely you won't ask me to wait a week. Why, that's a lifetime!"

Rena was struck by a brilliant idea. She would test her lover. Love was a very powerful force; she had found it the greatest, grandest, sweetest thing in the world. Tryon had said that he loved her; he had said scarcely anything else for several weeks, surely nothing else worth remembering. She would test his love by a hypothetical question.

"You say you love me," she said, glancing at him with a sad thoughtfulness in her large dark eyes. "How much do you love me?"

"I love you all one can love. True love has no degrees; it is all or nothing!"

"Would you love me," she asked, with an air of coquetry that masked her concern, pointing toward the girl in the shrubbery, "if I were Albert's nurse yonder?"

"If you were Albert's nurse," he replied, with a joyous laugh, "he would have to find another within a week, for within a week we should be married."

The answer seemed to fit the question, but in fact, Tryon's mind and Rena's did not meet. That two intelligent persons should each attach a different meaning to so simple a form of words as Rena's question was the best ground for her misgiving with regard to the marriage. But love blinded her. She was anxious to be convinced. She interpreted the meaning of his speech by her own thought and by the ardor of his glance, and was satisfied with the answer.

"And now, darling," pleaded Tryon, "will you not fix the day that shall make me happy? I shall be ready to go away in three weeks. Will you go with me?"

"Yes," she answered, in a tumult of joy. She would never need to tell him her secret now. It would make no difference with him, so far as she was concerned; and she had no right to reveal her brother's secret. She was willing to bury the past in forgetfulness, now that she knew it would have no interest for her lover.

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