The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt

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XIX. God Made Us All

Rena was convalescent from a two-weeks' illness when her brother came to see her. He arrived at Patesville by an early morning train before the town was awake, and walked unnoticed from the station to his mother's house. His meeting with his sister was not without emotion: he embraced her tenderly, and Rena became for a few minutes a very Niobe of grief.

"Oh, it was cruel, cruel!" she sobbed. "I shall never get over it."

"I know it, my dear," replied Warwick soothingly,--"I know it, and I'm to blame for it. If I had never taken you away from here, you would have escaped this painful experience. But do not despair; all is not lost. Tryon will not marry you, as I hoped he might, while I feared the contrary; but he is a gentleman, and will be silent. Come back and try again."

"No, John. I couldn't go through it a second time. I managed very well before, when I thought our secret was unknown; but now I could never be sure. It would be borne on every wind, for aught I knew, and every rustling leaf might whisper it. The law, you said, made us white; but not the law, nor even love, can conquer prejudice. He spoke of my beauty, my grace, my sweetness! I looked into his eyes and believed him. And yet he left me without a word! What would I do in Clarence now? I came away engaged to be married, with even the day set; I should go back forsaken and discredited; even the servants would pity me."

"Little Albert is pining for you," suggested Warwick. "We could make some explanation that would spare your feelings."

"Ah, do not tempt me, John! I love the child, and am grieved to leave him. I'm grateful, too, John, for what you have done for me. I am not sorry that I tried it. It opened my eyes, and I would rather die of knowledge than live in ignorance. But I could not go through it again, John; I am not strong enough. I could do you no good; I have made you trouble enough already. Get a mother for Albert--Mrs. Newberry would marry you, secret and all, and would be good to the child. Forget me, John, and take care of yourself. Your friend has found you out through me--he may have told a dozen people. You think he will be silent;--I thought he loved me, and he left me without a word, and with a look that told me how he hated and despised me. I would not have believed it--even of a white man."

"You do him an injustice," said her brother, producing Tryon's letter. "He did not get off unscathed. He sent you a message."

She turned her face away, but listened while he read the letter. "He did not love me," she cried angrily, when he had finished, "or he would not have cast me off--he would not have looked at me so. The law would have let him marry me. I seemed as white as he did. He might have gone anywhere with me, and no one would have stared at us curiously; no one need have known. The world is wide--there must be some place where a man could live happily with the woman he loved."

"Yes, Rena, there is; and the world is wide enough for you to get along without Tryon."

"For a day or two," she went on, "I hoped he might come back. But his expression in that awful moment grew upon me, haunted me day and night, until I shuddered at the thought that I might ever see him again. He looked at me as though I were not even a human being. I do not love him any longer, John; I would not marry him if I were white, or he were as I am. He did not love me--or he would have acted differently. He might have loved me and have left me--he could not have loved me and have looked at me so!"

She was weeping hysterically. There was little he could say to comfort her. Presently she dried her tears. Warwick was reluctant to leave her in Patesville. Her childish happiness had been that of ignorance; she could never be happy there again. She had flowered in the sunlight; she must not pine away in the shade.

"If you won't come back with me, Rena, I'll send you to some school at the North, where you can acquire a liberal education, and prepare yourself for some career of usefulness. You may marry a better man than even Tryon."

"No," she replied firmly, "I shall never marry any man, and I'll not leave mother again. God is against it; I'll stay with my own people."

"God has nothing to do with it," retorted Warwick. "God is too often a convenient stalking- horse for human selfishness. If there is anything to be done, so unjust, so despicable, so wicked that human reason revolts at it, there is always some smug hypocrite to exclaim, `It is the will of God.'"

"God made us all," continued Rena dreamily, "and for some good purpose, though we may not always see it. He made some people white, and strong, and masterful, and--heartless. He made others black and homely, and poor and weak"--

"And a lot of others `poor white' and shiftless," smiled Warwick.

"He made us, too," continued Rena, intent upon her own thought, "and He must have had a reason for it. Perhaps He meant us to bring the others together in his own good time. A man may make a new place for himself--a woman is born and bound to hers. God must have meant me to stay here, or He would not have sent me back. I shall accept things as they are. Why should I seek the society of people whose friendship--and love-- one little word can turn to scorn? I was right, John; I ought to have told him. Suppose he had married me and then had found it out?"

To Rena's argument of divine foreordination Warwick attached no weight whatever. He had seen God's heel planted for four long years upon the land which had nourished slavery. Had God ordained the crime that the punishment might follow? It would have been easier for Omnipotence to prevent the crime. The experience of his sister had stirred up a certain bitterness against white people--a feeling which he had put aside years ago, with his dark blood, but which sprang anew into life when the fact of his own origin was brought home to him so forcibly through his sister's misfortune. His sworn friend and promised brother-in- law had thrown him over promptly, upon the discovery of the hidden drop of dark blood. How many others of his friends would do the same, if they but knew of it? He had begun to feel a little of the spiritual estrangement from his associates that he had noticed in Rena during her life at Clarence. The fact that several persons knew his secret had spoiled the fine flavor of perfect security hitherto marking his position. George Tryon was a man of honor among white men, and had deigned to extend the protection of his honor to Warwick as a man, though no longer as a friend; to Rena as a woman, but not as a wife. Tryon, however, was only human, and who could tell when their paths in life might cross again, or what future temptation Tryon might feel to use a damaging secret to their disadvantage? Warwick had cherished certain ambitions, but these he must now put behind him. In the obscurity of private life, his past would be of little moment; in the glare of a political career, one's antecedents are public property, and too great a reserve in regard to one's past is regarded as a confession of something discreditable. Frank, too, knew the secret --a good, faithful fellow, even where there was no obligation of fidelity; he ought to do something for Frank to show their appreciation of his conduct. But what assurance was there that Frank would always be discreet about the affairs of others? Judge Straight knew the whole story, and old men are sometimes garrulous. Dr. Green suspected the secret; he had a wife and daughters. If old Judge Straight could have known Warwick's thoughts, he would have realized the fulfillment of his prophecy. Warwick, who had builded so well for himself, had weakened the structure of his own life by trying to share his good fortune with his sister.

" Listen, Rena," he said, with a sudden impulse, "we'll go to the North or West--I'll go with you--far away from the South and the Southern people, and start life over again. It will be easier for you, it will not be hard for me--I am young, and have means. There are no strong ties to bind me to the South. I would have a larger outlook elsewhere."

"And what about our mother?" asked Rena.

It would be necessary to leave her behind, they both perceived clearly enough, unless they were prepared to surrender the advantage of their whiteness and drop back to the lower rank. The mother bore the mark of the Ethiopian--not pronouncedly, but distinctly; neither would Mis' Molly, in all probability, care to leave home and friends and the graves of her loved ones. She had no mental resources to supply the place of these; she was, moreover, too old to be transplanted; she would not fit into Warwick's scheme for a new life.

"I left her once," said Rena, "and it brought pain and sorrow to all three of us. She is not strong, and I will not leave her here to die alone. This shall be my home while she lives, and if I leave it again, it shall be for only a short time, to go where I can write to her freely, and hear from her often. Don't worry about me, John,--I shall do very well."

Warwick sighed. He was sincerely sorry to leave his sister, and yet he saw that for the time being her resolution was not to be shaken. He must bide his time. Perhaps, in a few months, she would tire of the old life. His door would be always open to her, and he would charge himself with her future.

"Well, then," he said, concluding the argument, "we'll say no more about it for the present. I'll write to you later. I was afraid that you might not care to go back just now, and so I brought your trunk along with me."

He gave his mother the baggage-check. She took it across to Frank, who, during the day, brought the trunk from the depot. Mis' Molly offered to pay him for the service, but he would accept nothing.

"Lawd, no, Mis' Molly; I did n' hafter go out'n my way ter git dat trunk. I had a load er sperrit- bairls ter haul ter de still, an' de depot wuz right on my way back. It'd be robbin' you ter take pay fer a little thing lack dat."

"My son John's here," said Mis' Molly "an' he wants to see you. Come into the settin'-room. We don't want folks to know he's in town; but you know all our secrets, an' we can trust you like one er the family."

"I'm glad to see you again, Frank," said Warwick, extending his hand and clasping Frank's warmly. "You've grown up since I saw you last, but it seems you are still our good friend."

"Our very good friend," interjected Rena.

Frank threw her a grateful glance. "Yas, suh," he said, looking Warwick over with a friendly eye, "an' you is growed some, too. I seed you, you know, down dere where you live; but I did n' let on, fer you an' Mis' Rena wuz w'ite as anybody; an' eve'ybody said you wuz good ter cullud folks, an' he'ped 'em in deir lawsuits an' one way er 'nuther, an' I wuz jes' plum' glad ter see you gettin' 'long so fine, dat I wuz, certain sho', an' no mistake about it."

"Thank you, Frank, and I want you to understand how much I appreciate"--

"How much we all appreciate," corrected Rena.

"Yes, how much we all appreciate, and how grateful we all are for your kindness to mother for so many years. I know from her and from my sister how good you've been to them."

"Lawd, suh!" returned Frank deprecatingly, "you're makin' a mountain out'n a molehill. I ain't done nuthin' ter speak of--not half ez much ez I would 'a' done. I wuz glad ter do w'at little I could, fer frien'ship's sake."

"We value your friendship, Frank, and we'll not forget it."

"No, Frank," added Rena, "we will never forget it, and you shall always be our good friend."

Frank left the room and crossed the street with swelling heart. He would have given his life for Rena. A kind word was doubly sweet from her lips; no service would be too great to pay for her friendship.

When Frank went out to the stable next morning to feed his mule, his eyes opened wide with astonishment. In place of the decrepit, one-eyed army mule he had put up the night before, a fat, sleek specimen of vigorous mulehood greeted his arrival with the sonorous hehaw of lusty youth. Hanging on a peg near by was a set of fine new harness, and standing under the adjoining shed, as he perceived, a handsome new cart.

"Well, well!" exclaimed Frank; "ef I did n' mos' know whar dis mule, an' dis kyart, an' dis harness come from, I'd 'low dere 'd be'n witcheraf' er cunjin' wukkin' here. But, oh my, dat is a fine mule!--I mos' wush I could keep 'im."

He crossed the road to the house behind the cedars, and found Mis' Molly in the kitchen. "Mis' Molly," he protested, "I ain't done nuthin' ter deserve dat mule. W'at little I done fer you wa'n't done fer pay. I'd ruther not keep dem things."

"Fer goodness' sake, Frank!" exclaimed his neighbor, with a well-simulated air of mystification, "what are you talkin' about?"

"You knows w'at I'm talkin' about, Mis' Molly; you knows well ernuff I'm talkin' about dat fine mule an' kyart an' harness over dere in my stable."

"How should I know anything about 'em?" she asked.

"Now, Mis' Molly! You folks is jes' tryin' ter fool me, an' make me take somethin' fer nuthin'. I lef' my ole mule an' kyart an' harness in de stable las' night, an' dis mawnin' dey 're gone, an' new ones in deir place. Co'se you knows whar dey come from!"

"Well, now, Frank, sence you mention it, I did see a witch flyin' roun' here las' night on a broom- stick, an' it 'peared ter me she lit on yo'r barn, an' I s'pose she turned yo'r old things into new ones. I wouldn't bother my mind about it if I was you, for she may turn 'em back any night, you know; an' you might as well have the use of 'em in the mean while."

"Dat's all foolishness, Mis' Molly, an' I'm gwine ter fetch dat mule right over here an' tell yo' son ter gimme my ole one back."

"My son's gone," she replied, "an' I don't know nothin' about yo'r old mule. And what would I do with a mule, anyhow? I ain't got no barn to put him in."

"I suspect you don't care much for us after all, Frank," said Rena reproachfully--she had come in while they were talking. "You meet with a piece of good luck, and you're afraid of it, lest it might have come from us."

"Now, Miss Rena, you oughtn't ter say dat," expostulated Frank, his reluctance yielding immediately. "I'll keep de mule an' de kyart an' de harness--fac', I'll have ter keep 'em, 'cause I ain't got no others. But dey 're gwine ter be yo'n ez much ez mine. W'enever you wants anything hauled, er wants yo' lot ploughed, er anything-- dat's yo' mule, an' I'm yo' man an' yo' mammy's."

So Frank went back to the stable, where he feasted his eyes on his new possessions, fed and watered the mule, and curried and brushed his coat until it shone like a looking-glass.

"Now dat," remarked Peter, at the breakfast- table, when informed of the transaction, "is somethin' lack rale w'ite folks."

No real white person had ever given Peter a mule or a cart. He had rendered one of them unpaid service for half a lifetime, and had paid for the other half; and some of them owed him substantial sums for work performed. But "to him that hath shall be given"--Warwick paid for the mule, and the real white folks got most of the credit.

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