The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt

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XV. Mine Own People

The drive by which Dr. Green took Tryon to his own house led up Front Street about a mile, to the most aristocratic portion of the town, situated on the hill known as Haymount, or, more briefly, "The Hill." The Hill had lost some of its former glory, however, for the blight of a four years' war was everywhere. After reaching the top of this wooded eminence, the road skirted for some little distance the brow of the hill. Below them lay the picturesque old town, a mass of vivid green, dotted here and there with gray roofs that rose above the tree-tops. Two long ribbons of streets stretched away from the Hill to the faint red line that marked the high bluff beyond the river at the farther side of the town. The market-house tower and the slender spires of half a dozen churches were sharply outlined against the green background. The face of the clock was visible, but the hours could have been read only by eyes of phenomenal sharpness. Around them stretched ruined walls, dismantled towers, and crumbling earthworks--footprints of the god of war, one of whose temples had crowned this height. For many years before the rebellion a Federal arsenal had been located at Patesville. Seized by the state troops upon the secession of North Carolina, it had been held by the Confederates until the approach of Sherman's victorious army, whereupon it was evacuated and partially destroyed. The work of destruction begun by the retreating garrison was completed by the conquerors, and now only ruined walls and broken cannon remained of what had once been the chief ornament and pride of Patesville.

The front of Dr. Green's spacious brick house, which occupied an ideally picturesque site, was overgrown by a network of clinging vines, contrasting most agreeably with the mellow red background. A low brick wall, also overrun with creepers, separated the premises from the street and shut in a well-kept flower garden, in which Tryon, who knew something of plants, noticed many rare and beautiful specimens.

Mrs. Green greeted Tryon cordially. He did not have the doctor's memory with which to fill out the lady's cheeks or restore the lustre of her hair or the sparkle of her eyes, and thereby justify her husband's claim to be a judge of beauty; but her kind-hearted hospitality was obvious, and might have made even a plain woman seem handsome. She and her two fair daughters, to whom Tryon was duly presented, looked with much favor upon their handsome young kinsman; for among the people of Patesville, perhaps by virtue of the prevalence of Scottish blood, the ties of blood were cherished as things of value, and never forgotten except in case of the unworthy--an exception, by the way, which one need hardly go so far to seek.

The Patesville people were not exceptional in the weaknesses and meannesses which are common to all mankind, but for some of the finer social qualities they were conspicuously above the average. Kindness, hospitality, loyalty, a chivalrous deference to women,--all these things might be found in large measure by those who saw Patesville with the eyes of its best citizens, and accepted their standards of politics, religion, manners, and morals.

The doctor, after the introductions, excused himself for a moment. Mrs. Green soon left Tryon with the young ladies and went to look after luncheon. Her first errand, however, was to find the doctor.

"Is he well off, Ed?" she asked her husband.

"Lots of land, and plenty of money, if he is ever able to collect it. He has inherited two estates."

"He's a good-looking fellow," she mused. "Is he married?"

"There you go again," replied her husband, shaking his forefinger at her in mock reproach. "To a woman with marriageable daughters all roads lead to matrimony, the centre of a woman's universe. All men must be sized up by their matrimonial availability. No, he isn't married."

"That's nice," she rejoined reflectively. "I think we ought to ask him to stay with us while he is in town, don't you?"

"He's not married," rejoined the doctor slyly, "but the next best thing--he's engaged."

"Come to think of it," said the lady, "I'm afraid we wouldn't have the room to spare, and the girls would hardly have time to entertain him. But we'll have him up several times. I like his looks. I wish you had sent me word he was coming; I'd have had a better luncheon."

"Make him a salad," rejoined the doctor, "and get out a bottle of the best claret. Thank God, the Yankees didn't get into my wine cellar! The young man must be treated with genuine Southern hospitality,--even if he were a Mormon and married ten times over."

"Indeed, he would not, Ed,--the idea! I'm ashamed of you. Hurry back to the parlor and talk to him. The girls may want to primp a little before luncheon; we don't have a young man every day."

"Beauty unadorned," replied the doctor, "is adorned the most. My profession qualifies me to speak upon the subject. They are the two handsomest young women in Patesville, and the daughters of the most beautiful"--

"Don't you dare to say the word," interrupted Mrs. Green, with placid good nature. "I shall never grow old while I am living with a big boy like you. But I must go and make the salad."

At dinner the conversation ran on the family connections and their varying fortunes in the late war. Some had died upon the battlefield, and slept in unknown graves; some had been financially ruined by their faith in the "lost cause," having invested their all in the securities of the Confederate Government. Few had anything left but land, and land without slaves to work it was a drug in the market.

"I was offered a thousand acres, the other day, at twenty-five cents an acre," remarked the doctor. "The owner is so land-poor that he can't pay the taxes. They have taken our negroes and our liberties. It may be better for our grandchildren that the negroes are free, but it's confoundedly hard on us to take them without paying for them. They may exalt our slaves over us temporarily, but they have not broken our spirit, and cannot take away our superiority of blood and breeding. In time we shall regain control. The negro is an inferior creature; God has marked him with the badge of servitude, and has adjusted his intellect to a servile condition. We will not long submit to his domination. I give you a toast, sir: The Anglo-Saxon race: may it remain forever, as now, the head and front of creation, never yielding its rights, and ready always to die, if need be, in defense of its liberties!"

"With all my heart, sir," replied Tryon, who felt in this company a thrill of that pleasure which accompanies conscious superiority,--"with all my heart, sir, if the ladies will permit me."

"We will join you," they replied. The toast was drunk with great enthusiasm.

"And now, my dear George," exclaimed the doctor, "to change one good subject for another, tell us who is the favored lady?"

"A Miss Rowena Warwick, sir," replied Tryon, vividly conscious of four pairs of eyes fixed upon him, but, apart from the momentary embarrassment, welcoming the subject as the one he would most like to speak upon.

"A good, strong old English name," observed the doctor.

"The heroine of `Ivanhoe'!" exclaimed Miss Harriet.

"Warwick the Kingmaker!" said Miss Mary. "Is she tall and fair, and dignified and stately?"

"She is tall, dark rather than fair, and full of tender grace and sweet humility."

"She should have been named Rebecca instead of Rowena," rejoined Miss Mary, who was well up in her Scott.

"Tell us something about her people," asked Mrs. Green,--to which inquiry the young ladies looked assent.

In this meeting of the elect of his own class and kin Warwick felt a certain strong illumination upon the value of birth and blood. Finding Rena among people of the best social standing, the subsequent intimation that she was a girl of no family had seemed a small matter to one so much in love. Nevertheless, in his present company he felt a decided satisfaction in being able to present for his future wife a clean bill of social health.

"Her brother is the most prominent lawyer of Clarence. They live in a fine old family mansion, and are among the best people of the town."

"Quite right, my boy," assented the doctor. "None but the best are good enough for the best. You must bring her to Patesville some day. But bless my life!" he exclaimed, looking at his watch, "I must be going. Will you stay with the ladies awhile, or go back down town with me?"

"I think I had better go with you, sir. I shall have to see Judge Straight."

"Very well. But you must come back to supper, and we'll have a few friends in to meet you. You must see some of the best people."

The doctor's buggy was waiting at the gate. As they were passing the hotel on their drive down town, the clerk came out to the curbstone and called to the doctor.

"There's a man here, doctor, who's been taken suddenly ill. Can you come in a minute?"

"I suppose I'll have to. Will you wait for me here, George, or will you drive down to the office? I can walk the rest of the way."

"I think I'll wait here, doctor," answered Tryon. "I'll step up to my room a moment. I'll be back by the time you're ready."

It was while they were standing before the hotel, before alighting from the buggy, that Frank Fowler, passing on his cart, saw Tryon and set out as fast as he could to warn Mis' Molly and her daughter of his presence in the town.

Tryon went up to his room, returned after a while, and resumed his seat in the buggy, where he waited fifteen minutes longer before the doctor was ready. When they drew up in front of the office, the doctor's man Dave was standing in the doorway, looking up the street with an anxious expression, as though struggling hard to keep something upon his mind.

"Anything wanted, Dave?" asked the doctor.

"Dat young 'oman's be'n heah ag'in, suh, an' wants ter see you bad. She's in de drugstore dere now, suh. Bless Gawd!" he added to himself fervently, "I 'membered dat. Dis yer recommemb'ance er mine is gwine ter git me inter trouble ef I don' look out, an' dat's a fac', sho'."

The doctor sprang from the buggy with an agility remarkable in a man of sixty. "Just keep your seat, George," he said to Tryon, "until I have spoken to the young woman, and then we'll go across to Straight's. Or, if you'll drive along a little farther, you can see the girl through the window. She's worth the trouble, if you like a pretty face."

Tryon liked one pretty face; moreover, tinted beauty had never appealed to him. More to show a proper regard for what interested the doctor than from any curiosity of his own, he drove forward a few feet, until the side of the buggy was opposite the drugstore window, and then looked in.

Between the colored glass bottles in the window he could see a young woman, a tall and slender girl, like a lily on its stem. She stood talking with the doctor, who held his hat in his hand with as much deference as though she were the proudest dame in town. Her face was partly turned away from the window, but as Tryon's eye fell upon her, he gave a great start. Surely, no two women could be so much alike. The height, the graceful droop of the shoulders, the swan-like poise of the head, the well- turned little ear,--surely, no two women could have them all identical! But, pshaw! the notion was absurd, it was merely the reflex influence of his morning's dream.

She moved slightly; it was Rena's movement. Surely he knew the gown, and the style of hair- dressing! She rested her hand lightly on the back of a chair. The ring that glittered on her finger could be none other than his own.

The doctor bowed. The girl nodded in response, and, turning, left the store. Tryon leaned forward from the buggy-seat and kept his eye fixed on the figure that moved across the floor of the drugstore. As she came out, she turned her face casually toward the buggy, and there could no longer be any doubt as to her identity.

When Rena's eyes fell upon the young man in the buggy, she saw a face as pale as death, with starting eyes, in which love, which once had reigned there, had now given place to astonishment and horror. She stood a moment as if turned to stone. One appealing glance she gave,--a look that might have softened adamant. When she saw that it brought no answering sign of love or sorrow or regret, the color faded from her cheek, the light from her eye, and she fell fainting to the ground.

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