The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt


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XVI. The Bottom Falls Out


The first effect of Tryon's discovery was, figuratively speaking, to knock the bottom out of things for him. It was much as if a boat on which he had been floating smoothly down the stream of pleasure had sunk suddenly and left him struggling in deep waters. The full realization of the truth, which followed speedily, had for the moment reversed his mental attitude toward her, and love and yearning had given place to anger and disgust. His agitation could hardly have escaped notice had not the doctor's attention, and that of the crowd that quickly gathered, been absorbed by the young woman who had fallen. During the time occupied in carrying her into the drugstore, restoring her to consciousness, and sending her home in a carriage, Tryon had time to recover in some degree his self-possession. When Rena had been taken home, he slipped away for a long walk, after which he called at Judge Straight's office and received the judge's report upon the matter presented. Judge Straight had found the claim, in his opinion, a good one; he had discovered property from which, in case the claim were allowed, the amount might be realized. The judge, who had already been informed of the incident at the drugstore, observed Tryon's preoccupation and guessed shrewdly at its cause, but gave no sign. Tryon left the matter of the note unreservedly in the lawyer's hands, with instructions to communicate to him any further developments.

Returning to the doctor's office, Tryon listened to that genial gentleman's comments on the accident, his own concern in which he, by a great effort, was able to conceal. The doctor insisted upon his returning to the Hill for supper. Tryon pleaded illness. The doctor was solicitous, felt his pulse, examined his tongue, pronounced him feverish, and prescribed a sedative. Tryon sought refuge in his room at the hotel, from which he did not emerge again until morning.

His emotions were varied and stormy. At first he could see nothing but the fraud of which he had been made the victim. A negro girl had been foisted upon him for a white woman, and he had almost committed the unpardonable sin against his race of marrying her. Such a step, he felt, would have been criminal at any time; it would have been the most odious treachery at this epoch, when his people had been subjugated and humiliated by the Northern invaders, who had preached negro equality and abolished the wholesome laws decreeing the separation of the races. But no Southerner who loved his poor, downtrodden country, or his race, the proud Anglo-Saxon race which traced the clear stream of its blood to the cavaliers of England, could tolerate the idea that even in distant generations that unsullied current could be polluted by the blood of slaves. The very thought was an insult to the white people of the South. For Tryon's liberality, of which he had spoken so nobly and so sincerely, had been confined unconsciously, and as a matter of course, within the boundaries of his own race. The Southern mind, in discussing abstract questions relative to humanity, makes always, consciously or unconsciously, the mental reservation that the conclusions reached do not apply to the negro, unless they can be made to harmonize with the customs of the country.

But reasoning thus was not without effect upon a mind by nature reasonable above the average. Tryon's race impulse and social prejudice had carried him too far, and the swing of the mental pendulum brought his thoughts rapidly back in the opposite direction. Tossing uneasily on the bed, where he had thrown himself down without undressing, the air of the room oppressed him, and he threw open the window. The cool night air calmed his throbbing pulses. The moonlight, streaming through the window, flooded the room with a soft light, in which he seemed to see Rena standing before him, as she had appeared that afternoon, gazing at him with eyes that implored charity and forgiveness. He burst into tears,-- bitter tears, that strained his heartstrings. He was only a youth. She was his first love, and he had lost her forever. She was worse than dead to him; for if he had seen her lying in her shroud before him, he could at least have cherished her memory; now, even this consolation was denied him.

The town clock--which so long as it was wound up regularly recked nothing of love or hate, joy or sorrow--solemnly tolled out the hour of midnight and sounded the knell of his lost love. Lost she was, as though she had never been, as she had indeed had no right to be. He resolutely determined to banish her image from his mind. See her again he could not; it would be painful to them both; it could be productive of no good to either. He had felt the power and charm of love, and no ordinary shook could have loosened its hold; but this catastrophe, which had so rudely swept away the groundwork of his passion, had stirred into new life all the slumbering pride of race and ancestry which characterized his caste. How much of this sensitive superiority was essential and how much accidental; how much of it was due to the ever-suggested comparison with a servile race; how much of it was ignorance and self-conceit; to what extent the boasted purity of his race would have been contaminated by the fair woman whose image filled his memory,--of these things he never thought. He was not influenced by sordid considerations; he would have denied that his course was controlled by any narrow prudence. If Rena had been white, pure white (for in his creed there was no compromise), he would have braved any danger for her sake. Had she been merely of illegitimate birth, he would have overlooked the bar sinister. Had her people been simply poor and of low estate, he would have brushed aside mere worldly considerations, and would have bravely sacrificed convention for love; for his liberality was not a mere form of words. But the one objection which he could not overlook was, unhappily, the one that applied to the only woman who had as yet moved his heart. He tried to be angry with her, but after the first hour he found it impossible. He was a man of too much imagination not to be able to put himself, in some measure at least, in her place,--to perceive that for her the step which had placed her in Tryon's world was the working out of nature's great law of self- preservation, for which he could not blame her. But for the sheerest accident,--no, rather, but for a providential interference,--he would have married her, and might have gone to the grave unconscious that she was other than she seemed.

The clock struck the hour of two. With a shiver he closed the window, undressed by the moonlight, drew down the shade, and went to bed. He fell into an unquiet slumber, and dreamed again of Rena. He must learn to control his waking thoughts; his dreams could not be curbed. In that realm Rena's image was for many a day to remain supreme. He dreamed of her sweet smile, her soft touch, her gentle voice. In all her fair young beauty she stood before him, and then by some hellish magic she was slowly transformed into a hideous black hag. With agonized eyes he watched her beautiful tresses become mere wisps of coarse wool, wrapped round with dingy cotton strings; he saw her clear eyes grow bloodshot, her ivory teeth turn to unwholesome fangs. With a shudder he awoke, to find the cold gray dawn of a rainy day stealing through the window.

He rose, dressed himself, went down to breakfast, then entered the writing-room and penned a letter which, after reading it over, he tore into small pieces and threw into the waste basket. A second shared the same fate. Giving up the task, he left the hotel and walked down to Dr. Green's office.

"Is the doctor in?" he asked of the colored attendant.

"No, suh," replied the man; "he's gone ter see de young cullud gal w'at fainted w'en de doctah was wid you yistiddy."

Tryon sat down at the doctor's desk and hastily scrawled a note, stating that business compelled his immediate departure. He thanked the doctor for courtesies extended, and left his regards for the ladies. Returning. to the hotel, he paid his bill and took a hack for the wharf, from which a boat was due to leave at nine o'clock.

As the hack drove down Front Street, Tryon noted idly the houses that lined the street. When he reached the sordid district in the lower part of the town, there was nothing to attract his attention until the carriage came abreast of a row of cedar-trees, beyond which could be seen the upper part of a large house with dormer windows. Before the gate stood a horse and buggy, which Tryon thought he recognized as Dr. Green's. He leaned forward and addressed the driver.

"Can you tell me who lives there?" Tryon asked, pointing to the house.

"A callud 'oman, suh," the man replied, touching his hat. "Mis' Molly Walden an' her daughter Rena."

The vivid impression he received of this house, and the spectre that rose before him of a pale, broken-hearted girl within its gray walls, weeping for a lost lover and a vanished dream of happiness, did not argue well for Tryon's future peace of mind. Rena's image was not to be easily expelled from his heart; for the laws of nature are higher and more potent than merely human institutions, and upon anything like a fair field are likely to win in the long ran.

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