The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt

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XX. Digging up Roots

When the first great shock of his discovery wore off, the fact of Rena's origin lost to Tryon some of its initial repugnance--indeed, the repugnance was not to the woman at all, as their past relations were evidence, but merely to the thought of her as a wife. It could hardly have failed to occur to so reasonable a man as Tryon that Rena's case could scarcely be unique. Surely in the past centuries of free manners and easy morals that had prevailed in remote parts of the South, there must have been many white persons whose origin would not have borne too microscopic an investigation. Family trees not seldom have a crooked branch; or, to use a more apposite figure, many a flock has its black sheep. Being a man of lively imagination, Tryon soon found himself putting all sorts of hypothetical questions about a matter which he had already definitely determined. If he had married Rena in ignorance of her secret, and had learned it afterwards, would he have put her aside? If, knowing her history, he had nevertheless married her, and she had subsequently displayed some trait of character that would suggest the negro, could he have forgotten or forgiven the taint? Could he still have held her in love and honor? If not, could he have given her the outward seeming of affection, or could he have been more than coldly tolerant? He was glad that he had been spared this ordeal. With an effort he put the whole matter definitely and conclusively aside, as he had done a hundred times already.

Returning to his home, after an absence of several months in South Carolina, it was quite apparent to his mother's watchful eye that he was in serious trouble. He was absent-minded, monosyllabic, sighed deeply and often, and could not always conceal the traces of secret tears. For Tryon was young, and possessed of a sensitive soul--a source of happiness or misery, as the Fates decree. To those thus dowered, the heights of rapture are accessible, the abysses of despair yawn threateningly; only the dull monotony of contentment is denied.

Mrs. Tryon vainly sought by every gentle art a woman knows to win her son's confidence. "What is the matter, George, dear?" she would ask, stroking his hot brow with her small, cool hand as he sat moodily nursing his grief. "Tell your mother, George. Who else could comfort you so well as she?"

"Oh, it's nothing, mother,--nothing at all," he would reply, with a forced attempt at lightness. "It's only your fond imagination, you best of mothers."

It was Mrs. Tryon's turn to sigh and shed a clandestine tear. Until her son had gone away on this trip to South Carolina, he had kept no secrets from her: his heart had been an open book, of which she knew every page; now, some painful story was inscribed therein which he meant she should not read. If she could have abdicated her empire to Blanche Leary or have shared it with her, she would have yielded gracefully; but very palpably some other influence than Blanche's had driven joy from her son's countenance and lightness from his heart.

Miss Blanche Leary, whom Tryon found in the house upon his return, was a demure, pretty little blonde, with an amiable disposition, a talent for society, and a pronounced fondness for George Tryon. A poor girl, of an excellent family impoverished by the war, she was distantly related to Mrs. Tryon, had for a long time enjoyed that lady's favor, and was her choice for George's wife when he should be old enough to marry. A woman less interested than Miss Leary would have perceived that there was something wrong with Tryon. Miss Leary had no doubt that there was a woman at the bottom of it,--for about what else should youth worry but love? or if one's love affairs run smoothly, why should one worry about anything at all? Miss Leary, in the nineteen years of her mundane existence, had not been without mild experiences of the heart, and had hovered for some time on the verge of disappointment with respect to Tryon himself. A sensitive pride would have driven more than one woman away at the sight of the man of her preference sighing like a furnace for some absent fair one. But Mrs. Tryon was so cordial, and insisted so strenuously upon her remaining, that Blanche's love, which was strong, conquered her pride, which was no more than a reasonable young woman ought to have who sets success above mere sentiment. She remained in the house and bided her opportunity. If George practically ignored her for a time, she did not throw herself at all in his way. She went on a visit to some girls in the neighborhood and remained away a week, hoping that she might be missed. Tryon expressed no regret at her departure and no particular satisfaction upon her return. If the house was duller in her absence, he was but dimly conscious of the difference. He was still fighting a battle in which a susceptible heart and a reasonable mind had locked horns in a well-nigh hopeless conflict. Reason, common-sense, the instinctive ready-made judgments of his training and environment,-- the deep-seated prejudices of race and caste,--commanded him to dismiss Rena from his thoughts. His stubborn heart simply would not let go.

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