The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt

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XVII. Two Letters

Warwick awaited events with some calmness and some philosophy,--he could hardly have had the one without the other; and it required much philosophy to make him wait a week in patience for information upon a subject in which he was so vitally interested. The delay pointed to disaster. Bad news being expected, delay at least put off the evil day. At the end of the week he received two letters,--one addressed in his own hand writing and postmarked Patesville, N. C.; the other in the handwriting of George Tryon. He opened the Patesville letter, which ran as follows:--

MY DEAR SON,--Frank is writing this letter for me. I am not well, but, thank the Lord, I am better than I was.

Rena has had a heap of trouble on account of me and my sickness. If I could of dreamt that I was going to do so much harm, I would of died and gone to meet my God without writing one word to spoil my girl's chances in life; but I didn't know what was going to happen, and I hope the Lord will forgive me.

Frank knows all about it, and so I am having him write this letter for me, as Rena is not well enough yet. Frank has been very good to me and to Rena. He was down to your place and saw Rena there, and never said a word about it to nobody, not even to me, because he didn't want to do Rena no harm. Frank is the best friend I have got in town, because he does so much for me and don't want nothing in return. (He tells me not to put this in about him, but I want you to know it.)

And now about Rena. She come to see me, and I got better right away, for it was longing for her as much as anything else that made me sick, and I was mighty mizzable. When she had been here three days and was going back next day, she went up town to see the doctor for me, and while she was up there she fainted and fell down in the street, and Dr. Green sent her home in his buggy and come down to see her. He couldn't tell what was the matter with her, but she has been sick ever since and out of her head some of the time, and keeps on calling on somebody by the name of George, which was the young white man she told me she was going to marry. It seems he was in town the day Rena was took sick, for Frank saw him up street and run all the way down here to tell me, so that she could keep out of his way, while she was still up town waiting for the doctor and getting me some camphor gum for my camphor bottle. Old Judge Straight must have knowed something about it, for he sent me a note to keep Rena in the house, but the little boy he sent it by didn't bring it till Rena was already gone up town, and, as I couldn't read, of course I didn't know what it said. Dr. Green heard Rena running on while she was out of her head, and I reckon he must have suspicioned something, for he looked kind of queer and went away without saying nothing. Frank says she met this man on the street, and when he found out she wasn't white, he said or done something that broke her heart and she fainted and fell down.

I am writing you this letter because I know you will be worrying about Rena not coming back. If it wasn't for Frank, I hardly know how I could write to you. Frank is not going to say nothing about Rena's passing for white and meeting this man, and neither am I; and I don't suppose Judge Straight will say nothing, because he is our good friend; and Dr. Green won't say nothing about it, because Frank says Dr. Green's cook Nancy says this young man named George stopped with him and was some cousin or relation to the family, and they wouldn't want people to know that any of their kin was thinking about marrying a colored girl, and the white folks have all been mad since J. B. Thompson married his black housekeeper when she got religion and wouldn't live with him no more.

All the rest of the connection are well. I have just been in to see how Rena is. She is feeling some better, I think, and says give you her love and she will write you a letter in a few days, as soon as she is well enough. She bust out crying while she was talking, but I reckon that is better than being out of her head. I hope this may find you well, and that this man of Rena's won't say nor do nothing down there to hurt you. He has not wrote to Rena nor sent her no word. I reckon he is very mad.

#p align="right"> Your affectionate mother, MARY WALDEN.

This letter, while confirming Warwick's fears, relieved his suspense. He at least knew the worst, unless there should be something still more disturbing in Tryon's letter, which he now proceeded to open, and which ran as follows:--


Dear Sir,--When I inform you, as you are doubtless informed ere the receipt of this, that I saw your sister in Patesville last week and learned the nature of those antecedents of yours and hers at which you hinted so obscurely in a recent conversation, you will not be surprised to learn that I take this opportunity of renouncing any pretensions to Miss Warwick's hand, and request you to convey this message to her, since it was through you that I formed her acquaintance. I think perhaps that few white men would deem it necessary to make an explanation under the circumstances, and I do not know that I need say more than that no one, considering where and how I met your sister, would have dreamed of even the possibility of what I have learned. I might with justice reproach you for trifling with the most sacred feelings of a man's heart; but I realize the hardship of your position and hers, and can make allowances. I would never have sought to know this thing; I would doubtless have been happier had I gone through life without finding it out; but having the knowledge, I cannot ignore it, as you must understand perfectly well. I regret that she should be distressed or disappointed,--she has not suffered alone.

I need scarcely assure you that I shall say nothing about this affair, and that I shall keep your secret as though it were my own. Personally, I shall never be able to think of you as other than a white man, as you may gather from the tone of this letter; and while I cannot marry your sister, I wish her every happiness, and remain,

#p align="right"> Yours very truly, GEORGE TRYON.

Warwick could not know that this formal epistle was the last of a dozen that Tryon had written and destroyed during the week since the meeting in Patesville,--hot, blistering letters, cold, cutting letters, scornful, crushing letters. Though none of them was sent, except this last, they had furnished a safety-valve for his emotions, and had left him in a state of mind that permitted him to write the foregoing.

And now, while Rena is recovering from her illness, and Tryon from his love, and while Fate is shuffling the cards for another deal, a few words may be said about the past life of the people who lived in the rear of the flower garden, in the quaint old house beyond the cedars, and how their lives were mingled with those of the men and women around them and others that were gone. For connected with our kind we must be; if not by our virtues, then by our vices,--if not by our services, at least by our needs.

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