The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt

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XXVI. The Schoolhouse in the Woods

Blanche Leary, closely observant of Tryon's moods, marked a decided change in his manner after his return from his trip to Patesville. His former moroseness had given way to a certain defiant lightness, broken now and then by an involuntary sigh, but maintained so well, on the whole, that his mother detected no lapses whatever. The change was characterized by another feature agreeable to both the women: Tryon showed decidedly more interest than ever before in Miss Leary's society. Within a week he asked her several times to play a selection on the piano, displaying, as she noticed, a decided preference for gay and cheerful music, and several times suggesting a change when she chose pieces of a sentimental cast. More than once, during the second week after his return, he went out riding with her; she was a graceful horsewoman, perfectly at home in the saddle, and appearing to advantage in a riding- habit. She was aware that Tryon watched her now and then, with an eye rather critical than indulgent.

"He is comparing me with some other girl," she surmised. "I seem to stand the test very well. I wonder who the other is, and what was the trouble?"

Miss Leary exerted all her powers to interest and amuse the man she had set out to win, and who seemed nearer than ever before. Tryon, to his pleased surprise, discovered in her mind depths that he had never suspected. She displayed a singular affinity for the tastes that were his--he could not, of course, know how carefully she had studied them. The old wound, recently reopened, seemed to be healing rapidly, under conditions more conducive than before to perfect recovery. No longer, indeed, was he pursued by the picture of Rena discovered and unmasked--this he had definitely banished from the realm of sentiment to that of reason. The haunting image of Rena loving and beloved, amid the harmonious surroundings of her brother's home, was not so readily displaced. Nevertheless, he reached in several weeks a point from which he could consider her as one thinks of a dear one removed by the hand of death, or smitten by some incurable ailment of mind or body. Erelong, he fondly believed, the recovery would be so far complete that he could consign to the tomb of pleasant memories even the most thrilling episodes of his ill-starred courtship.

"George," said Mrs. Tryon one morning while her son was in this cheerful mood, "I'm sending Blanche over to Major McLeod's to do an errand for me. Would you mind driving her over? The road may be rough after the storm last night, and Blanche has an idea that no one drives so well as you."

"Why, yes, mother, I'll be glad to drive Blanche over. I want to see the major myself."

They were soon bowling along between the pines, behind the handsome mare that had carried Tryon so well at the Clarence tournament. Presently he drew up sharply.

"A tree has fallen squarely across the road," he exclaimed. "We shall have to turn back a little way and go around."

They drove back a quarter of a mile and turned into a by-road leading to the right through the woods. The solemn silence of the pine forest is soothing or oppressive, according to one's mood. Beneath the cool arcade of the tall, overarching trees a deep peace stole over Tryon's heart. He had put aside indefinitely and forever an unhappy and impossible love. The pretty and affectionate girl beside him would make an ideal wife. Of her family and blood he was sure. She was his mother's choice, and his mother had set her heart upon their marriage. Why not speak to her now, and thus give himself the best possible protection against stray flames of love?

"Blanche," he said, looking at her kindly.

"Yes, George?" Her voice was very gentle, and slightly tremulous. Could she have divined his thought? Love is a great clairvoyant.

"Blanche, dear, I"--

A clatter of voices broke upon the stillness of the forest and interrupted Tryon's speech. A sudden turn to the left brought the buggy to a little clearing, in the midst of which stood a small log schoolhouse. Out of the schoolhouse a swarm of colored children were emerging, the suppressed energy of the school hour finding vent in vocal exercise of various sorts. A group had already formed a ring, and were singing with great volume and vigor:--

     "Miss Jane, she loves sugar an' tea,
       Miss Jane, she loves candy.
       Miss Jane, she can whirl all around
       An' kiss her love quite handy.

             "De oak grows tall,
               De pine grows slim,
               So rise you up, my true love,
               An' let me come in."

"What a funny little darkey!" exclaimed Miss Leary, pointing to a diminutive lad who was walking on his hands, with his feet balanced in the air. At sight of the buggy and its occupants this sable acrobat, still retaining his inverted position, moved toward the newcomers, and, reversing himself with a sudden spring, brought up standing beside the buggy.

"Hoddy, Mars Geo'ge!" he exclaimed, bobbing his head and kicking his heel out behind in approved plantation style.

"Hello, Plato," replied the young man, "what are you doing here?"

"Gwine ter school, Mars Geo'ge," replied the lad; "larnin' ter read an' write, suh, lack de w'ite folks."

"Wat you callin' dat w'ite man marster fur?" whispered a tall yellow boy to the acrobat addressed as Plato. "You don' b'long ter him no mo'; you're free, an' ain' got sense ernuff ter know it."

Tryon threw a small coin to Plato, and holding another in his hand suggestively, smiled toward the tall yellow boy, who looked regretfully at the coin, but stood his ground; he would call no man master, not even for a piece of money.

During this little colloquy, Miss Leary had kept her face turned toward the schoolhouse.

"What a pretty girl!" she exclaimed. "There," she added, as Tryon turned his head toward her, "you are too late. She has retired into her castle. Oh, Plato!"

"Yas, missis," replied Plato, who was prancing round the buggy in great glee, on the strength of his acquaintance with the white folks.

"Is your teacher white?"

"No, ma'm, she ain't w'ite; she's black. She looks lack she's w'ite, but she's black."

Tryon had not seen the teacher's face, but the incident had jarred the old wound; Miss Leary's description of the teacher, together with Plato's characterization, had stirred lightly sleeping memories. He was more or less abstracted during the remainder of the drive, and did not recur to the conversation that had been interrupted by coming upon the schoolhouse.

The teacher, glancing for a moment through the open door of the schoolhouse, had seen a handsome young lady staring at her,--Miss Leary had a curiously intent look when she was interested in anything, with no intention whatever to be rude,-- and beyond the lady the back and shoulder of a man, whose face was turned the other way. There was a vague suggestion of something familiar about the equipage, but Rena shrank from this close scrutiny and withdrew out of sight before she had had an opportunity to identify the vague resemblance to something she had known.

Miss Leary had missed by a hair's-breadth the psychological moment, and felt some resentment toward the little negroes who had interrupted her lover's train of thought. Negroes have caused a great deal of trouble among white people. How deeply the shadow of the Ethiopian had fallen upon her own happiness, Miss Leary of course could not guess.

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