The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt


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XXII. Imperative Business


One Wednesday morning, about six weeks after his return home, Tryon received a letter from Judge Straight with reference to the note left with him at Patesville for collection. This communication properly required an answer, which might have been made in writing within the compass of ten lines. No sooner, however, had Tryon read the letter than he began to perceive reasons why it should be answered in person. He had left Patesville under extremely painful circumstances, vowing that he would never return; and yet now the barest pretext, by which no one could have been deceived except willingly, was sufficient to turn his footsteps thither again. He explained to his mother--with a vagueness which she found somewhat puzzling, but ascribed to her own feminine obtuseness in matters of business--the reasons that imperatively demanded his presence in Patesville. With an early start he could drive there in one day,--he had an excellent roadster, a light buggy, and a recent rain had left the road in good condition,--a day would suffice for the transaction of his business, and the third day would bring him home again. He set out on his journey on Thursday morning, with this programme very clearly outlined.

Tryon would not at first have admitted even to himself that Rena's presence in Patesville had any bearing whatever upon his projected visit. The matter about which Judge Straight had written might, it was clear, be viewed in several aspects. The judge had written him concerning the one of immediate importance. It would be much easier to discuss the subject in all its bearings, and clean up the whole matter, in one comprehensive personal interview.

The importance of this business, then, seemed very urgent for the first few hours of Tryon's journey. Ordinarily a careful driver and merciful to his beast, his eagerness to reach Patesville increased gradually until it became necessary to exercise some self-restraint in order not to urge his faithful mare beyond her powers; and soon he could no longer pretend obliviousness of the fact that some attraction stronger than the whole amount of Duncan McSwayne's note was urging him irresistibly toward his destination. The old town beyond the distant river, his heart told him clamorously, held the object in all the world to him most dear. Memory brought up in vivid detail every moment of his brief and joyous courtship, each tender word, each enchanting smile, every fond caress. He lived his past happiness over again down to the moment of that fatal discovery. What horrible fate was it that had involved him--nay, that had caught this sweet delicate girl in such a blind alley? A wild hope flashed across his mind: perhaps the ghastly story might not be true; perhaps, after all, the girl was no more a negro than she seemed. He had heard sad stories of white children, born out of wedlock, abandoned by sinful parents to the care or adoption of colored women, who had reared them as their own, the children's future basely sacrificed to hide the parents' shame. He would confront this reputed mother of his darling and wring the truth from her. He was in a state of mind where any sort of a fairy tale would have seemed reasonable. He would almost have bribed some one to tell him that the woman he had loved, the woman he still loved (he felt a thrill of lawless pleasure in the confession), was not the descendant of slaves,-- that he might marry her, and not have before his eyes the gruesome fear that some one of their children might show even the faintest mark of the despised race.

At noon he halted at a convenient hamlet, fed and watered his mare, and resumed his journey after an hour's rest. By this time he had well- nigh forgotten about the legal business that formed the ostensible occasion for his journey, and was conscious only of a wild desire to see the woman whose image was beckoning him on to Patesville as fast as his horse could take him.

At sundown he stopped again, about ten miles from the town, and cared for his now tired beast. He knew her capacity, however, and calculated that she could stand the additional ten miles without injury. The mare set out with reluctance, but soon settled resignedly down into a steady jog.

Memory had hitherto assailed Tryon with the vision of past joys. As he neared the town, imagination attacked him with still more moving images. He had left her, this sweet flower of womankind--white or not, God had never made a fairer!--he had seen her fall to the hard pavement, with he knew not what resulting injury. He had left her tender frame--the touch of her finger-tips had made him thrill with happiness-- to be lifted by strange hands, while he with heartless pride had driven deliberately away, without a word of sorrow or regret. He had ignored her as completely as though she had never existed. That he had been deceived was true. But had he not aided in his own deception? Had not Warwick told him distinctly that they were of no family, and was it not his own fault that he had not followed up the clue thus given him? Had not Rena compared herself to the child's nurse, and had he not assured her that if she were the nurse, he would marry her next day? The deception had been due more to his own blindness than to any lack of honesty on the part of Rena and her brother. In the light of his present feelings they seemed to have been absurdly outspoken. He was glad that he had kept his discovery to himself. He had considered himself very magnanimous not to have exposed the fraud that was being perpetrated upon society: it was with a very comfortable feeling that he now realized that the matter was as profound a secret as before.

"She ought to have been born white," he muttered, adding weakly, "I would to God that I had never found her out!"

Drawing near the bridge that crossed the river to the town, he pictured to himself a pale girl, with sorrowful, tear-stained eyes, pining away in the old gray house behind the cedars for love of him, dying, perhaps, of a broken heart. He would hasten to her; he would dry her tears with kisses; he would express sorrow for his cruelty.

The tired mare had crossed the bridge and was slowly toiling up Front Street; she was near the limit of her endurance, and Tryon did not urge her.

They might talk the matter over, and if they must part, part at least they would in peace and friendship. If he could not marry her, he would never marry any one else; it would be cruel for him to seek happiness while she was denied it, for, having once given her heart to him, she could never, he was sure,--so instinctively fine was her nature,--she could never love any one less worthy than himself, and would therefore probably never marry. He knew from a Clarence acquaintance, who had written him a letter, that Rena had not reappeared in that town.

If he should discover--the chance was one in a thousand--that she was white; or if he should find it too hard to leave her--ah, well! he was a white man, one of a race born to command. He would make her white; no one beyond the old town would ever know the difference. If, perchance, their secret should be disclosed, the world was wide; a man of courage and ambition, inspired by love, might make a career anywhere. Circumstances made weak men; strong men mould circumstances to do their bidding. He would not let his darling die of grief, whatever the price must be paid for her salvation. She was only a few rods away from him now. In a moment he would see her; he would take her tenderly in his arms, and heart to heart they would mutually forgive and forget, and, strengthened by their love, would face the future boldly and bid the world do its worst.

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