The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt

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XXXIII. A Mule and a Cart

Frank Fowler's heart was filled with longing for a sight of Rena's face. When she had gone away first, on the ill-fated trip to South Carolina, her absence had left an aching void in his life; he had missed her cheerful smile, her pleasant words, her graceful figure moving about across the narrow street. His work had grown monotonous during her absence; the clatter of hammer and mallet, that had seemed so merry when punctuated now and then by the strains of her voice, became a mere humdrum rapping of wood upon wood and iron upon iron. He had sought work in South Carolina with the hope that be might see her. He had satisfied this hope, and had tried in vain to do her a service; but Fate had been against her; her castle of cards had come tumbling down. He felt that her sorrow had brought her nearer to him. The distance between them depended very much upon their way of looking at things. He knew that her experience had dragged her through the valley of humiliation. His unselfish devotion had reacted to refine and elevate his own spirit. When he heard the suggestion, after her second departure, that she might marry Wain, he could not but compare himself with this new aspirant. He, Frank, was a man, an honest man--a better man than the shifty scoundrel with whom she had ridden away. She was but a woman, the best and sweetest and loveliest of all women, but yet a woman. After a few short years of happiness or sorrow,-- little of joy, perhaps, and much of sadness, which had begun already,--they would both be food for worms. White people, with a deeper wisdom perhaps than they used in their own case, regarded Rena and himself as very much alike. They were certainly both made by the same God, in much the same physical and mental mould; they breathed the same air, ate the same food, spoke the same speech, loved and hated, laughed and cried, lived and would die, the same. If God had meant to rear any impassable barrier between people of contrasting complexions, why did He not express the prohibition as He had done between other orders of creation?

When Rena had departed for Sampson County, Frank had reconciled himself to her absence by the hope of her speedy return. He often stepped across the street to talk to Mis' Molly about her. Several letters had passed between mother and daughter, and in response to Frank's inquiries his neighbor uniformly stated that Rena was well and doing well, and sent her love to all inquiring friends. But Frank observed that Mis' Molly, when pressed as to the date of Rena's return, grew more and more indefinite; and finally the mother, in a burst of confidential friendship, told Frank of all her hopes with reference to the stranger from down the country.

"Yas, Frank," she concluded, "it'll be her own fault ef she don't become a lady of proputty, fer Mr. Wain is rich, an' owns a big plantation, an' hires a lot of hands, and is a big man in the county. He's crazy to git her, an' it all lays in her own han's."

Frank did not find this news reassuring. He believed that Wain was a liar and a scoundrel. He had nothing more than his intuitions upon which to found this belief, but it was none the less firm. If his estimate of the man's character were correct, then his wealth might be a fiction, pure and simple. If so, the truth should be known to Mis' Molly, so that instead of encouraging a marriage with Wain, she would see him in his true light, and interpose to rescue her daughter from his importunities. A day or two after this conversation, Frank met in the town a negro from Sampson County, made his acquaintance, and inquired if he knew a man by the name of Jeff Wain.

"Oh, Jeff Wain!" returned the countryman slightingly; "yas, I knows 'im, an' don' know no good of 'im. One er dese yer biggity, braggin' niggers--talks lack he own de whole county, an' ain't wuth no mo' d'n I is--jes' a big bladder wid a handful er shot rattlin' roun' in it. Had a wife, when I wuz dere, an' beat her an' 'bused her so she had ter run away."

This was alarming information. Wain had passed in the town as a single man, and Frank had had no hint that he had ever been married. There was something wrong somewhere. Frank determined that he would find out the truth and, if possible, do something to protect Rena against the obviously evil designs of the man who had taken her away. The barrel factory had so affected the cooper's trade that Peter and Frank had turned their attention more or less to the manufacture of small woodenware for domestic use. Frank's mule was eating off its own head, as the saying goes. It required but little effort to persuade Peter that his son might take a load of buckets and tubs and piggins into the country and sell them or trade them for country produce at a profit.

In a few days Frank had his stock prepared, and set out on the road to Sampson County. He went about thirty miles the first day, and camped by the roadside for the night, resuming the journey at dawn. After driving for an hour through the tall pines that overhung the road like the stately arch of a cathedral aisle, weaving a carpet for the earth with their brown spines and cones, and soothing the ear with their ceaseless murmur, Frank stopped to water his mule at a point where the white, sandy road, widening as it went, sloped downward to a clear-running branch. On the right a bay-tree bending over the stream mingled the heavy odor of its flowers with the delicate perfume of a yellow jessamine vine that had overrun a clump of saplings on the left. From a neighboring tree a silver-throated mocking-bird poured out a flood of riotous melody. A group of minnows; startled by the splashing of the mule's feet, darted away into the shadow of the thicket, their quick passage leaving the amber water filled with laughing light.

The mule drank long and lazily, while over Frank stole thoughts in harmony with the peaceful scene,--thoughts of Rena, young and beautiful, her friendly smile, her pensive dark eyes. He would soon see her now, and if she had any cause for fear or unhappiness, he would place himself at her service--for a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime, if need be.

His reverie was broken by a slight noise from the thicket at his left. "I wonder who dat is?" he muttered. "It soun's mighty quare, ter say de leas'."

He listened intently for a moment, but heard nothing further. "It must 'a' be'n a rabbit er somethin' scamp'in' th'ough de woods. G'long dere, Caesar!"

As the mule stepped forward, the sound was repeated. This time it was distinctly audible, the long, low moan of some one in sickness or distress.

"Dat ain't no rabbit," said Frank to himself. "Dere's somethin' wrong dere. Stan' here, Caesar, till I look inter dis matter."

Pulling out from the branch, Frank sprang from the saddle and pushed his way cautiously through the outer edge of the thicket.

"Good Lawd!" he exclaimed with a start, "it's a woman--a w'ite woman!"

The slender form of a young woman lay stretched upon the ground in a small open space a few yards in extent. Her face was turned away, and Frank could see at first only a tangled mass of dark brown hair, matted with twigs and leaves and cockleburs, and hanging in wild profusion around her neck.

Frank stood for a moment irresolute, debating the serious question whether he should investigate further with a view to rendering assistance, or whether he should put as great a distance as possible between himself and this victim, as she might easily be, of some violent crime, lest he should himself be suspected of it--a not unlikely contingency, if he were found in the neighborhood and the woman should prove unable to describe her assailant. While he hesitated, the figure moved restlessly, and a voice murmured:--

"Mamma, oh, mamma!"

The voice thrilled Frank like an electric shock. Trembling in every limb, he sprang forward toward the prostrate figure. The woman turned her head, and he saw that it was Rena. Her gown was torn and dusty, and fringed with burs and briars. When she had wandered forth, half delirious, pursued by imaginary foes, she had not stopped to put on her shoes, and her little feet were blistered and swollen and bleeding. Frank knelt by her side and lifted her head on his arm. He put his hand upon her brow; it was burning with fever.

"Miss Rena! Rena! don't you know me?"

She turned her wild eyes on him suddenly. "Yes, I know you, Jeff Wain. Go away from me! Go away!"

Her voice rose to a scream; she struggled in his grasp and struck at him fiercely with her clenched fists. Her sleeve fell back and disclosed the white scar made by his own hand so many years before.

"You're a wicked man," she panted. "Don't touch me! I hate you and despise you!"

Frank could only surmise how she had come here, in such a condition. When she spoke of Wain in this manner, he drew his own conclusions. Some deadly villainy of Wain's had brought her to this pass. Anger stirred his nature to the depths, and found vent in curses on the author of Rena's misfortunes.

"Damn him!" he groaned. "I'll have his heart's blood fer dis, ter de las' drop!"

Rena now laughed and put up her arms appealingly. "George," she cried, in melting tones, "dear George, do you love me? How much do you love me? Ah, you don't love me!" she moaned; "I'm black; you don't love me; you despise me!"

Her voice died away into a hopeless wail. Frank knelt by her side, his faithful heart breaking with pity, great tears rolling untouched down his dusky cheeks.

"Oh, my honey, my darlin'," he sobbed, "Frank loves you better 'n all de worl'."

Meantime the sun shone on as brightly as before, the mocking-bird sang yet more joyously. A gentle breeze sprang up and wafted the odor of bay and jessamine past them on its wings. The grand triumphal sweep of nature's onward march recked nothing of life's little tragedies.

When the first burst of his grief was over, Frank brought water from the branch, bathed Rena's face and hands and feet, and forced a few drops between her reluctant lips. He then pitched the cartload of tubs, buckets, and piggins out into the road, and gathering dried leaves and pine- straw, spread them in the bottom of the cart. He stooped, lifted her frail form in his arms, and laid it on the leafy bed. Cutting a couple of hickory withes, he arched them over the cart, and gathering an armful of jessamine quickly wove it into an awning to protect her from the sun. She was quieter now, and seemed to fall asleep.

"Go ter sleep, honey," he murmured caressingly, "go ter sleep, an' Frank'll take you home ter yo' mammy!"

Toward noon he was met by a young white man, who peered inquisitively into the canopied cart.

"Hello!" exclaimed the stranger, "who've you got there?"

"A sick woman, suh."

"Why, she's white, as I'm a sinner!" he cried, after a closer inspection. "Look a-here, nigger, what are you doin' with this white woman?"

"She's not w'ite, boss,--she's a bright mulatter."

"Yas, mighty bright," continued the stranger suspiciously. "Where are you goin' with her?"

"I'm takin' her ter Patesville, ter her mammy."

The stranger passed on. Toward evening Frank heard hounds baying in the distance. A fox, weary with running, brush drooping, crossed the road ahead of the cart. Presently, the hounds straggled across the road, followed by two or three hunters on horseback, who stopped at sight of the strangely canopied cart. They stared at the sick girl and demanded who she was.

"I don't b'lieve she's black at all," declared one, after Frank's brief explanation. "This nigger has a bad eye,--he's up ter some sort of devilment. What ails the girl?"

" 'Pears ter be some kind of a fever," replied Frank; adding diplomatically, "I don't know whether it's ketchin' er no--she's be'n out er her head most er de time."

They drew off a little at this. "I reckon it's all right," said the chief spokesman. The hounds were baying clamorously in the distance. The hunters followed the sound and disappeared m the woods.

Frank drove all day and all night, stopping only for brief periods of rest and refreshment. At dawn, from the top of the long white hill, he sighted the river bridge below. At sunrise he rapped at Mis' Molly's door.

Upon rising at dawn, Tryon's first step, after a hasty breakfast, was to turn back toward Clinton. He had wasted half a day in following the false scent on the Lillington road. It seemed, after reflection, unlikely that a woman seriously ill should have been able to walk any considerable distance before her strength gave out. In her delirium, too, she might have wandered in a wrong direction, imagining any road to lead to Patesville. It would be a good plan to drive back home, continuing his inquiries meantime, and ascertain whether or not she had been found by those who were seeking her, including many whom Tryon's inquiries had placed upon the alert. If she should prove still missing, he would resume the journey to Patesville and continue the search in that direction. She had probably not wandered far from the highroad; even in delirium she would be likely to avoid the deep woods, with which her illness was associated.

He had retraced more than half the distance to Clinton when he overtook a covered wagon. The driver, when questioned, said that he had met a young negro with a mule, and a cart in which lay a young woman, white to all appearance, but claimed by the negro to be a colored girl who had been taken sick on the road, and whom he was conveying home to her mother at Patesville. From a further description of the cart Tryon recognized it as the one he had met the day before. The woman could be no other than Rena. He turned his mare and set out swiftly on the road to Patesville.

If anything could have taken more complete possession of George Tryon at twenty-three than love successful and triumphant, it was love thwarted and denied. Never in the few brief delirious weeks of his courtship had he felt so strongly drawn to the beautiful sister of the popular lawyer, as he was now driven by an aching heart toward the same woman stripped of every adventitions advantage and placed, by custom, beyond the pale of marriage with men of his own race. Custom was tyranny. Love was the only law. Would God have made hearts to so yearn for one another if He had meant them to stay forever apart? If this girl should die, it would be he who had killed her, by his cruelty, no less surely than if with his own hand he had struck her down. He had been so dazzled by his own superiority, so blinded by his own glory, that he had ruthlessly spurned and spoiled the image of God in this fair creature, whom he might have had for his own treasure,-- whom, please God, he would yet have, at any cost, to love and cherish while they both should live. There were difficulties--they had seemed insuperable, but love would surmount them. Sacrifices must be made, but if the world without love would be nothing, then why not give up the world for love? He would hasten to Patesville. He would find her; he would tell her that he loved her, that she was all the world to him, that he had come to marry her, and take her away where they might be happy together. He pictured to himself the joy that would light up her face; he felt her soft arms around his neck, her tremulous kisses upon his lips. If she were ill, his love would woo her back to health,--if disappointment and sorrow had contributed to her illness, joy and gladness should lead to her recovery.

He urged the mare forward; if she would but keep up her present pace, he would reach Patesville by nightfall.

Dr. Green had just gone down the garden path to his buggy at the gate. Mis' Molly came out to the back piazza, where Frank, weary and haggard, sat on the steps with Homer Pettifoot and Billy Oxendine, who, hearing of Rena's return, had come around after their day's work.

"Rena wants to see you, Frank," said Mis' Molly, with a sob.

He walked in softly, reverently, and stood by her bedside. She turned her gentle eyes upon him and put out her slender hand, which he took in his own broad palm.

"Frank," she murmured, "my good friend-- my best friend--you loved me best of them all."

The tears rolled untouched down his cheeks. "I'd 'a' died, fer you, Miss Rena," he said brokenly.

Mary B. threw open a window to make way for the passing spirit, and the red and golden glory of the setting sun, triumphantly ending his daily course, flooded the narrow room with light.

Between sunset and dark a traveler, seated in a dusty buggy drawn by a tired horse, crossed the long river bridge and drove up Front Street. Just as the buggy reached the gate in front of the house behind the cedars, a woman was tying a piece of crape upon the door-knob. Pale with apprehension, Tryon sat as if petrified, until a tall, side-whiskered mulatto came down the garden walk to the front gate.

"Who's dead?" demanded Tryon hoarsely, scarcely recognizing his own voice.

"A young cullud 'oman, sah," answered Homer Pettifoot, touching his hat, "Mis' Molly Walden's daughter Rena."

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