The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt

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XXIII. The Guest of Honor

The evening of the party arrived. The house had been thoroughly cleaned in preparation for the event, and decorated with the choicest treasures of the garden. By eight o'clock the guests had gathered. They were all mulattoes,--all people of mixed blood were called "mulattoes" in North Carolina. There were dark mulattoes and bright mulattoes. Mis' Molly's guests were mostly of the bright class, most of them more than half white, and few of them less. In Mis' Molly's small circle, straight hair was the only palliative of a dark complexion. Many of the guests would not have been casually distinguishable from white people of the poorer class. Others bore unmistakable traces of Indian ancestry,--for Cherokee and Tuscarora blood was quite widely diffused among the free negroes of North Carolina, though well-nigh lost sight of by the curious custom of the white people to ignore anything but the negro blood in those who were touched by its potent current. Very few of those present had been slaves. The free colored people of Patesville were numerous enough before the war to have their own "society," and human enough to despise those who did not possess advantages equal to their own; and at this time they still looked down upon those who had once been held in bondage. The only black man present occupied a chair which stood on a broad chest in one corner, and extracted melody from a fiddle to which a whole generation of the best people of Patesville had danced and made merry. Uncle Needham seldom played for colored gatherings, but made an exception in Mis' Molly's case; she was not white, but he knew her past; if she was not the rose, she had at least been near the rose. When the company had gathered, Mary B., as mistress of ceremonies, whispered to Uncle Needham, who tapped his violin sharply with the bow.

"Ladies an' gent'emens, take yo' pa'dners fer a Fuhginny reel!"

Mr. Wain, as the guest of honor, opened the ball with his hostess. He wore a broadcloth coat and trousers, a heavy glittering chain across the spacious front of his white waistcoat, and a large red rose in his buttonhole. If his boots were slightly run down at the heel, so trivial a detail passed unnoticed in the general splendor of his attire. Upon a close or hostile inspection there would have been some features of his ostensibly good-natured face--the shifty eye, the full and slightly drooping lower lip--which might have given a student of physiognomy food for reflection. But whatever the latent defects of Wain's character, he proved himself this evening a model of geniality, presuming not at all upon his reputed wealth, but winning golden opinions from those who came to criticise, of whom, of course, there were a few, the company being composed of human beings.

When the dance began, Wain extended his large, soft hand to Mary B., yellow, buxom, thirty, with white and even teeth glistening behind her full red lips. A younger sister of Mary B.'s was paired with Billy Oxendine, a funny little tailor, a great gossip, and therefore a favorite among the women. Mis' Molly graciously consented, after many protestations of lack of skill and want of practice, to stand up opposite Homer Pettifoot, Mary B.'s husband, a tall man, with a slight stoop, a bald crown, and full, dreamy eyes,--a man of much imagination and a large fund of anecdote. Two other couples completed the set; others were restrained by bashfulness or religious scruples, which did not yield until later in the evening.

The perfumed air from the garden without and the cut roses within mingled incongruously with the alien odors of musk and hair oil, of which several young barbers in the company were especially redolent. There was a play of sparkling eyes and glancing feet. Mary B. danced with the languorous grace of an Eastern odalisque, Mis' Molly with the mincing, hesitating step of one long out of practice. Wain performed saltatory prodigies. This was a golden opportunity for the display in which his soul found delight. He introduced variations hitherto unknown to the dance. His skill and suppleness brought a glow of admiration into the eyes of the women, and spread a cloud of jealousy over the faces of several of the younger men, who saw themselves eclipsed.

Rena had announced in advance her intention to take no active part in the festivities. "I don't feel like dancing, mamma--I shall never dance again."

"Well, now, Rena," answered her mother, "of co'se you're too dignified, sence you've be'n 'sociatin' with white folks, to be hoppin' roun' an' kickin' up like Ma'y B. an' these other yaller gals; but of co'se, too, you can't slight the comp'ny entirely, even ef it ain't jest exac'ly our party,-- you'll have to pay 'em some little attention, 'specially Mr. Wain, sence you're goin' down yonder with 'im."

Rena conscientiously did what she thought politeness required. She went the round of the guests in the early part of the evening and exchanged greetings with them. To several requests for dances she replied that she was not dancing. She did not hold herself aloof because of pride; any instinctive shrinking she might have felt by reason of her recent association with persons of greater refinement was offset by her still more newly awakened zeal for humanity; they were her people, she must not despise them. But the occasion suggested painful memories of other and different scenes in which she had lately participated. Once or twice these memories were so vivid as almost to overpower her. She slipped away from the company, and kept in the background as much as possible without seeming to slight any one.

The guests as well were dimly conscious of a slight barrier between Mis' Molly's daughter and themselves. The time she had spent apart from these friends of her youth had rendered it impossible for her ever to meet them again upon the plane of common interests and common thoughts. It was much as though one, having acquired the vernacular of his native country, had lived in a foreign land long enough to lose the language of his childhood without acquiring fully that of his adopted country. Miss Rowena Warwick could never again become quite the Rena Walden who had left the house behind the cedars no more than a year and a half before. Upon this very difference were based her noble aspirations for usefulness,--one must stoop in order that one may lift others. Any other young woman present would have been importuned beyond her powers of resistance. Rena's reserve was respected.

When supper was announced, somewhat early in the evening, the dancers found seats in the hall or on the front piazza. Aunt Zilphy, assisted by Mis' Molly and Mary B., passed around the refreshments, which consisted of fried chicken, buttered biscuits, pound-cake, and eggnog. When the first edge of appetite was taken off, the conversation waxed animated. Homer Pettifoot related, with minute detail, an old, threadbare hunting lie, dating, in slightly differing forms, from the age of Nimrod, about finding twenty-five partridges sitting in a row on a rail, and killing them all with a single buckshot, which passed through twenty-four and lodged in the body of the twenty-fifth, from which it was extracted and returned to the shot pouch for future service.

This story was followed by a murmur of incredulity--of course, the thing was possible, but Homer's faculty for exaggeration was so well known that any statement of his was viewed with suspicion. Homer seemed hurt at this lack of faith, and was disposed to argue the point, but the sonorous voice of Mr. Wain on the other side of the room cut short his protestations, in much the same way that the rising sun extinguishes the light of lesser luminaries.

"I wuz a member er de fus' legislatur' after de wah," Wain was saying. "When I went up f'm Sampson in de fall, I had to pass th'ough Smithfiel', I got in town in de afternoon, an' put up at de bes' hotel. De lan'lo'd did n' have no s'picion but what I wuz a white man, an' he gimme a room, an' I had supper an' breakfas', an' went on ter Rolly nex' mornin'. W'en de session wuz over, I come along back, an' w'en I got ter Smithfiel', I driv' up ter de same hotel. I noticed, as soon as I got dere, dat de place had run down consid'able-- dere wuz weeds growin' in de yard, de winders wuz dirty, an' ev'ything roun' dere looked kinder lonesome an' shif'less. De lan'lo'd met me at de do'; he looked mighty down in de mouth, an' sezee:--

"`Look a-here, w'at made you come an' stop at my place widout tellin' me you wuz a black man? Befo' you come th'ough dis town I had a fus'-class business. But w'en folks found out dat a nigger had put up here, business drapped right off, an' I've had ter shet up my hotel. You oughter be'shamed er yo'se'f fer ruinin' a po' man w'at had n' never done no harm ter you. You've done a mean, low-lived thing, an' a jes' God'll punish you fer it.'

"De po' man acshully bust inter tears," continued Mr. Wain magnanimously, "an' I felt so sorry fer 'im--he wuz a po' white man tryin' ter git up in de worl'--dat I hauled out my purse an' gin 'im ten dollars, an' he 'peared monst'ous glad ter git it."

" How good-hearted! How kin'!" murmured the ladies. "It done credit to yo' feelin's."

" Don't b'lieve a word er dem lies," muttered one young man to another sarcastically. "He could n' pass fer white, 'less'n it wuz a mighty dark night."

Upon this glorious evening of his life, Mr. Jefferson Wain had one distinctly hostile critic, of whose presence he was blissfully unconscious. Frank Fowler had not been invited to the party,-- his family did not go with Mary B.'s set. Rena had suggested to her mother that he be invited, but Mis' Molly had demurred on the ground that it was not her party, and that she had no right to issue invitations. It is quite likely that she would have sought an invitation for Frank from Mary B.; but Frank was black, and would not harmonize with the rest of the company, who would not have Mis' Molly's reasons for treating him well. She had compromised the matter by stepping across the way in the afternoon and suggesting that Frank might come over and sit on the back porch and look at the dancing and share in the supper.

Frank was not without a certain honest pride. He was sensitive enough, too, not to care to go where he was not wanted. He would have curtly refused any such maimed invitation to any other place. But would he not see Rena in her best attire, and might she not perhaps, in passing, speak a word to him?

"Thank y', Mis' Molly," he replied, "I'll prob'ly come over."

"You're a big fool, boy," observed his father after Mis' Molly had gone back across the street, "ter be stickin' roun' dem yaller niggers 'cross de street, an' slobb'rin' an' slav'rin' over 'em, an' hangin' roun' deir back do' wuss 'n ef dey wuz w'ite folks. I'd see 'em dead fus'!"

Frank himself resisted the temptation for half an hour after the music began, but at length he made his way across the street and stationed himself at the window opening upon the back piazza. When Rena was in the room, he had eyes for her only, but when she was absent, he fixed his attention mainly upon Wain. With jealous clairvoyance he observed that Wain's eyes followed Rena when she left the room, and lit up when she returned. Frank had heard that Rena was going away with this man, and he watched Wain closely, liking him less the longer he looked at him. To his fancy, Wain's style and skill were affectation, his good-nature mere hypocrisy, and his glance at Rena the eye of the hawk upon his quarry. He had heard that Wain was unmarried, and he could not see how, this being so, he could help wishing Rena for a wife. Frank would have been content to see her marry a white man, who would have raised her to a plane worthy of her merits. In this man's shifty eye he read the liar--his wealth and standing were probably as false as his seeming good-humor.

"Is that you, Frank?" said a soft voice near at hand.

He looked up with a joyful thrill. Rena was peering intently at him, as if trying to distinguish his features in the darkness. It was a bright moonlight night, but Frank stood in the shadow of the piazza.

"Yas 'm, it's me, Miss Rena. Yo' mammy said I could come over an' see you-all dance. You ain' be'n out on de flo' at all, ter-night."

" No, Frank, I don't care for dancing. I shall not dance to-night."

This answer was pleasing to Frank. If he could not hope to dance with her, at least the men inside --at least this snake in the grass from down the country--should not have that privilege.

"But you must have some supper, Frank," said Rena. "I'll bring it myself."

"No, Miss Rena, I don' keer fer nothin'--I did n' come over ter eat--r'al'y I didn't."

"Nonsense, Frank, there's plenty of it. I have no appetite, and you shall have my portion."

She brought him a slice of cake and a glass of eggnog. When Mis' Molly, a minute later, came out upon the piazza, Frank left the yard and walked down the street toward the old canal. Rena had spoken softly to him; she had fed him with her own dainty hands. He might never hope that she would see in him anything but a friend; but he loved her, and he would watch over her and protect her, wherever she might be. He did not believe that she would ever marry the grinning hypocrite masquerading back there in Mis' Molly's parlor; but the man would bear watching.

Mis' Molly had come to call her daughter into the house. "Rena," she said, "Mr. Wain wants ter know if you won't dance just one dance with him."

"Yas, Rena," pleaded Mary B., who followed Miss Molly out to the piazza, "jes' one dance. I don't think you're treatin' my comp'ny jes' right, Cousin Rena."

"You're goin' down there with 'im," added her mother, "an' it 'd be just as well to be on friendly terms with 'im."

Wain himself had followed the women. "Sho'ly, Miss Rena, you're gwine ter honah me wid one dance? I'd go 'way f'm dis pa'ty sad at hea't ef I had n' stood up oncet wid de young lady er de house."

As Rena, weakly persuaded, placed her hand on Wain's arm and entered the house, a buggy, coming up Front Street, paused a moment at the corner, and then turning slowly, drove quietly up the nameless by-street, concealed by the intervening cedars, until it reached a point from which the occupant could view, through the open front window, the interior of the parlor.

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