The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt


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XXVII. An Interesting Acquaintance


A few days later, Rena looked out of the window near her desk and saw a low basket phaeton, drawn by a sorrel pony, driven sharply into the clearing and drawn up beside an oak sapling. The occupant of the phaeton, a tall, handsome, well-preserved lady in middle life, with slightly gray hair, alighted briskly from the phaeton, tied the pony to the sapling with a hitching-strap, and advanced to the schoolhouse door.

Rena wondered who the lady might be. She had a benevolent aspect, however, and came forward to the desk with a smile, not at all embarrassed by the wide-eyed inspection of the entire school.

"How do you do?" she said, extending her hand to the teacher. "I live in the neighborhood and am interested in the colored people--a good many of them once belonged to me. I heard something of your school, and thought I should like to make your acquaintance."

"It is very kind of you, indeed," murmured Rena respectfully.

"Yes," continued the lady, "I am not one of those who sit back and blame their former slaves because they were freed. They are free now,--it is all decided and settled,--and they ought to be taught enough to enable them to make good use of their freedom. But really, my dear,--you mustn't feel offended if I make a mistake,--I am going to ask you something very personal." She looked suggestively at the gaping pupils.

"The school may take the morning recess now," announced the teacher. The pupils filed out in an orderly manner, most of them stationing themselves about the grounds in such places as would keep the teacher and the white lady in view. Very few white persons approved of the colored schools; no other white person had ever visited this one.

"Are you really colored?" asked the lady, when the children had withdrawn.

A year and a half earlier, Rena would have met the question by some display of self-consciousness. Now, she replied simply and directly.

"Yes, ma'am, I am colored."

The lady, who had been studying her as closely as good manners would permit, sighed regretfully.

"Well, it's a shame. No one would ever think it. If you chose to conceal it, no one would ever be the wiser. What is your name, child, and where were you brought up? You must have a romantic history."

Rena gave her name and a few facts in regard to her past. The lady was so much interested, and put so many and such searching questions, that Rena really found it more difficult to suppress the fact that she had been white, than she had formerly had in hiding her African origin. There was about the girl an air of real refinement that pleased the lady,--the refinement not merely of a fine nature, but of contact with cultured people; a certain reserve of speech and manner quite inconsistent with Mrs. Tryon's experience of colored women. The lady was interested and slightly mystified. A generous, impulsive spirit,--her son's own mother,--she made minute inquiries about the school and the pupils, several of whom she knew by name. Rena stated that the two months' term was nearing its end, and that she was training the children in various declamations and dialogues for the exhibition at the close.

"I shall attend it," declared the lady positively. "I'm sure you are doing a good work, and it's very noble of you to undertake it when you might have a very different future. If I can serve you at any time, don't hesitate to call upon me. I live in the big white house just before you turn out of the Clinton road to come this way. I'm only a widow, but my son George lives with me and has some influence in the neighborhood. He drove by here yesterday with the lady he is going to marry. It was she who told me about you."

Was it the name, or some subtle resemblance in speech or feature, that recalled Tryon's image to Rena's mind? It was not so far away--the image of the loving Tryon--that any powerful witchcraft was required to call it up. His mother was a widow; Rena had thought, in happier days, that she might be such a kind lady as this. But the cruel Tryon who had left her--his mother would be some hard, cold, proud woman, who would regard a negro as but little better than a dog, and who would not soil her lips by addressing a colored person upon any other terms than as a servant. She knew, too, that Tryon did not live in Sampson County, though the exact location of his home was not clear to her.

"And where are you staying, my dear?" asked the good lady.

"I'm boarding at Mrs. Wain's," answered Rena.

"Mrs. Wain's?"

"Yes, they live in the old Campbell place."

"Oh, yes--Aunt Nancy. She's a good enough woman, but we don't think much of her son Jeff. He married my Amanda after the war--she used to belong to me, and ought to have known better. He abused her most shamefully, and had to be threatened with the law. She left him a year or so ago and went away; I haven't seen her lately. Well, good-by, child; I'm coming to your exhibition. If you ever pass my house, come in and see me."

The good lady had talked for half an hour, and had brought a ray of sunshine into the teacher's monotonous life, heretofore lighted only by the uncertain lamp of high resolve. She had satisfied a pardonable curiosity, and had gone away without mentioning her name.

Rena saw Plato untying the pony as the lady climbed into the phaeton.

"Who was the lady, Plato?" asked the teacher when the visitor had driven away.

"Dat 'uz my ole mist'iss, ma'm," returned Plato proudly,-- "ole Mis' 'Liza."

"Mis' 'Liza who?" asked Rena.

"Mis' 'Liza Tryon. I use' ter b'long ter her. Dat 'uz her son, my young Mars Geo'ge, w'at driv pas' hyuh yistiddy wid 'is sweetheart."

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