The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt

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XXI. A Gilded Opportunity

Although the whole fabric of Rena's new life toppled and fell with her lover's defection, her sympathies, broadened by culture and still more by her recent emotional experience, did not shrink, as would have been the case with a more selfish soul, to the mere limits of her personal sorrow, great as this seemed at the moment. She had learned to love, and when the love of one man failed her, she turned to humanity, as a stream obstructed in its course overflows the adjacent country. Her early training had not directed her thoughts to the darker people with whose fate her own was bound up so closely, but rather away from them. She had been taught to despise them because they were not so white as she was, and had been slaves while she was free. Her life in her brother's home, by removing her from immediate contact with them, had given her a different point of view,--one which emphasized their shortcomings, and thereby made vastly clearer to her the gulf that separated them from the new world in which she lived; so that when misfortune threw her back upon them, the reaction brought her nearer than before. Where once she had seemed able to escape from them, they were now, it appeared, her inalienable race. Thus doubly equipped, she was able to view them at once with the mental eye of an outsider and the sympathy of a sister: she could see their faults, and judge them charitably; she knew and appreciated their good qualities. With her quickened intelligence she could perceive how great was their need and how small their opportunity; and with this illumination came the desire to contribute to their help. She had not the breadth or culture to see in all its ramifications the great problem which still puzzles statesmen and philosophers; but she was conscious of the wish, and of the power, in a small way, to do something for the advancement of those who had just set their feet upon the ladder of progress.

This new-born desire to be of service to her rediscovered people was not long without an opportunity for expression. Yet the Fates willed that her future should be but another link in a connected chain: she was to be as powerless to put aside her recent past as she had been to escape from the influence of her earlier life. There are sordid souls that eat and drink and breed and die, and imagine they have lived. But Rena's life since her great awakening had been that of the emotions, and her temperament made of it a continuous life. Her successive states of consciousness were not detachable, but united to form a single if not an entirely harmonious whole. To her sensitive spirit to-day was born of yesterday, to-morrow would be but the offspring of to day.

One day, along toward noon, her mother received a visit from Mary B. Pettifoot, a second cousin, who lived on Back Street, only a short distance from the house behind the cedars. Rena had gone out, so that the visitor found Mis' Molly alone.

"I heared you say, Cousin Molly," said Mary B. (no one ever knew what the B. in Mary's name stood for,--it was a mere ornamental flourish), "that Rena was talkin' 'bout teachin' school. I've got a good chance fer her, ef she keers ter take it. My cousin Jeff Wain 'rived in town this mo'nin', f'm 'way down in Sampson County, ter git a teacher fer the nigger school in his deestric'. I s'pose he mought 'a' got one f'm 'roun' Newbern, er Goldsboro, er some er them places eas', but he 'lowed he'd like to visit some er his kin an' ole frien's, an' so kill two birds with one stone."

"I seed a strange mulatter man, with a bay hoss an' a new buggy, drivin' by here this mo'nin' early, from down to'ds the river," rejoined Mis' Molly. "I wonder if that wuz him?"

"Did he have on a linen duster?" asked Mary B.

"Yas, an' 'peared to be a very well sot up man," replied Mis' Molly, " 'bout thirty-five years old, I should reckon."

"That wuz him," assented Mary B. "He's got a fine hoss an' buggy, an' a gol' watch an' chain, an' a big plantation, an' lots er hosses an' mules an' cows an' hawgs. He raise' fifty bales er cotton las' year, an' he's be'n ter the legislatur'."

" My gracious!" exclaimed Mis' Molly, struck with awe at this catalogue of the stranger's possessions-- he was evidently worth more than a great many "rich" white people,--all white people in North Carolina in those days were either "rich" or "poor," the distinction being one of caste rather than of wealth. "Is he married?" she inquired with interest?

"No,--single. You mought 'low it was quare that he should n' be married at his age; but he was crossed in love oncet,"--Mary B. heaved a self-conscious sigh,--"an' has stayed single ever sence. That wuz ten years ago, but as some husban's is long-lived, an' there ain' no mo' chance fer 'im now than there wuz then, I reckon some nice gal mought stan' a good show er ketchin' 'im, ef she'd play her kyards right."

To Mis' Molly this was news of considerable importance. She had not thought a great deal of Rena's plan to teach; she considered it lowering for Rena, after having been white, to go among the negroes any more than was unavoidable. This opportunity, however, meant more than mere employment for her daughter. She had felt Rena's disappointment keenly, from the practical point of view, and, blaming herself for it, held herself all the more bound to retrieve the misfortune in any possible way. If she had not been sick, Rena would not have dreamed the fateful dream that had brought her to Patesville; for the connection between the vision and the reality was even closer in Mis' Molly's eyes than in Rena's. If the mother had not sent the letter announcing her illness and confirming the dream, Rena would not have ruined her promising future by coming to Patesville. But the harm had been done, and she was responsible, ignorantly of course, but none the less truly, and it only remained for her to make amends, as far as possible. Her highest ambition, since Rena had grown up, had been to see her married and comfortably settled in life. She had no hope that Tryon would come back. Rena had declared that she would make no further effort to get away from her people; and, furthermore, that she would never marry. To this latter statement Mis' Molly secretly attached but little importance. That a woman should go single from the cradle to the grave did not accord with her experience in life of the customs of North Carolina. She respected a grief she could not entirely fathom, yet did not for a moment believe that Rena would remain unmarried.

"You'd better fetch him roun' to see me, Ma'y B.," she said, "an' let's see what he looks like. I'm pertic'lar 'bout my gal. She says she ain't goin' to marry nobody; but of co'se we know that's all foolishness."

"I'll fetch him roun' this evenin' 'bout three o'clock," said the visitor, rising. "I mus' hurry back now an' keep him comp'ny. Tell Rena ter put on her bes' bib an' tucker; for Mr. Wain is pertic'lar too, an' I've already be'n braggin' 'bout her looks."

When Mary B., at the appointed hour, knocked at Mis' Molly's front door,--the visit being one of ceremony, she had taken her cousin round to the Front Street entrance and through the flower garden,--Mis' Molly was prepared to receive them. After a decent interval, long enough to suggest that she had not been watching their approach and was not over-eager about the visit, she answered the knock and admitted them into the parlor. Mr. Wain was formally introduced, and seated himself on the ancient haircloth sofa, under the framed fashion-plate, while Mary B. sat by the open door and fanned herself with a palm-leaf fan.

Mis' Molly's impression of Wain was favorable. His complexion was of a light brown--not quite so fair as Mis' Molly would have preferred; but any deficiency in this regard, or in the matter of the stranger's features, which, while not unpleasing, leaned toward the broad mulatto type, was more than compensated in her eyes by very straight black hair, and, as soon appeared, a great facility of complimentary speech. On his introduction Mr. Wain bowed low, assumed an air of great admiration, and expressed his extreme delight in making the acquaintance of so distinguished-looking a lady.

"You're flatt'rin' me, Mr. Wain," returned Mis' Molly, with a gratified smile. "But you want to meet my daughter befo' you commence th'owin' bokays. Excuse my leavin' you--I'll go an' fetch her."

She returned in a moment, followed by Rena. "Mr. Wain, 'low me to int'oduce you to my daughter Rena. Rena, this is Ma'y B.'s cousin on her pappy's side, who's come up from Sampson to git a school-teacher."

Rena bowed gracefully. Wain stared a moment in genuine astonishment, and then bent himself nearly double, keeping his eyes fixed meanwhile upon Rena's face. He had expected to see a pretty yellow girl, but had been prepared for no such radiant vision of beauty as this which now confronted him.

"Does--does you mean ter say, Mis' Walden, dat--dat dis young lady is yo' own daughter?" he stammered, rallying his forces for action.

"Why not, Mr. Wain?" asked Mis' Molly, bridling with mock resentment. "Do you mean ter 'low that she wuz changed in her cradle, er is she too good-lookin' to be my daughter?"

"My deah Mis' Walden! it 'ud be wastin' wo'ds fer me ter say dat dey ain' no young lady too good- lookin' ter be yo' daughter; but you're lookin' so young yo'sef dat I'd ruther take her fer yo' sister."

"Yas," rejoined Mis' Molly, with animation, "they ain't many years between us. I wuz ruther young myself when she wuz bo'n."

"An', mo'over," Wain went on, "it takes me a minute er so ter git my min' use' ter thinkin' er Mis' Rena as a cullud young lady. I mought 'a' seed her a hund'ed times, an' I'd 'a' never dreamt but w'at she wuz a w'ite young lady, f'm one er de bes' families."

"Yas, Mr. Wain," replied Mis' Molly complacently, "all three er my child'en wuz white, an' one of 'em has be'n on the other side fer many long years. Rena has be'n to school, an' has traveled, an' has had chances--better chances than anybody roun' here knows."

"She's jes' de lady I'm lookin' fer, ter teach ou' school," rejoined Wain, with emphasis. "Wid her schoolin' an' my riccommen', she kin git a fus'- class ce'tifikit an' draw fo'ty dollars a month; an' a lady er her color kin keep a lot er little niggers straighter 'n a darker lady could. We jus' got ter have her ter teach ou' school--ef we kin git her."

Rena's interest in the prospect of employment at her chosen work was so great that she paid little attention to Wain's compliments. Mis' Molly led Mary B. away to the kitchen on some pretext, and left Rena to entertain the gentleman. She questioned him eagerly about the school, and he gave the most glowing accounts of the elegant school- house, the bright pupils, and the congenial society of the neighborhood. He spoke almost entirely in superlatives, and, after making due allowance for what Rena perceived to be a temperamental tendency to exaggeration, she concluded that she would find in the school a worthy field of usefulness, and in this polite and good-natured though somewhat wordy man a coadjutor upon whom she could rely in her first efforts; for she was not over-confident of her powers, which seemed to grow less as the way opened for their exercise.

"Do you think I'm competent to teach the school?" she asked of the visitor, after stating some of her qualifications.

"Oh, dere 's no doubt about it, Miss Rena," replied Wain, who had listened with an air of great wisdom, though secretly aware that he was too ignorant of letters to form a judgment; "you kin teach de school all right, an' could ef you didn't know half ez much. You won't have no trouble managin' de child'en, nuther. Ef any of 'em gits onruly, jes' call on me fer he'p, an' I'll make 'em walk Spanish. I'm chuhman er de school committee, an' I'll lam de hide off'n any scholar dat don' behave. You kin trus' me fer dat, sho' ez I'm a-settin' here."

"Then," said Rena, "I'll undertake it, and do my best. I'm sure you'll not be too exacting."

"Yo' bes', Miss Rena,'ll be de bes' dey is. Don' you worry ner fret. Dem niggers won't have no other teacher after dey've once laid eyes on you: I'll guarantee dat. Dere won't be no trouble, not a bit."

"Well, Cousin Molly," said Mary B. to Mis' Molly in the kitchen, "how does the plan strike you?"

"Ef Rena's satisfied, I am," replied Mis' Molly. "But you'd better say nothin' about ketchin' a beau, or any such foolishness, er else she'd be just as likely not to go nigh Sampson County."

"Befo' Cousin Jeff goes back," confided Mary B., "I'd like ter give 'im a party, but my house is too small. I wuz wonderin'," she added tentatively, "ef I could n' borry yo' house."

"Shorely, Ma'y B. I'm int'rested in Mr. Wain on Rena's account, an' it's as little as I kin do to let you use my house an' help you git things ready."

The date of the party was set for Thursday night, as Wain was to leave Patesville on Friday morning, taking with him the new teacher. The party would serve the double purpose of a compliment to the guest and a farewell to Rena, and it might prove the precursor, the mother secretly hoped, of other festivities to follow at some later date.

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