The House Behind the Cedars/X
|←IX||The House Behind the Cedars by
|The House Behind the Cedars is an novel by African-American author Charles Chesnutt first published in 1900. Copied from The Project Gutenberg Etext.|
The marriage was fixed for the thirtieth of the
month, immediately after which Tryon and his
bride were to set out for North Carolina. Warwick
would have liked it much if Tryon had
lived in South Carolina; but the location of his
North Carolina home was at some distance from
Patesville, with which it had no connection by
steam or rail, and indeed lay altogether out of the
line of travel to Patesville. Rena had no
acquaintance with people of social standing in North
Carolina; and with the added maturity and charm
due to her improved opportunities, it was unlikely
that any former resident of Patesville who might
casually meet her would see in the elegant young
matron from South Carolina more than a passing
resemblance to a poor girl who had once lived in an
obscure part of the old town. It would of course
be necessary for Rena to keep away from Patesville;
save for her mother's sake, she would hardly
be tempted to go back.
On the twentieth of the month, Warwick set
out with Tryon for the county seat of the adjoining
county, to try one of the lawsuits which had
required Tryon's presence in South Carolina for
so long a time. Their destination was a day's
drive from Clarence, behind a good horse, and the
trial was expected to last a week.
"This week will seem like a year," said Tryon
ruefully, the evening before their departure, "but
I'll write every day, and shall expect a letter as
"The mail goes only twice a week, George,"
"Then I shall have three letters in each mail."
Warwick and Tryon were to set out in the cool
of the morning, after an early breakfast. Rena
was up at daybreak that she might preside at the
breakfast-table and bid the travelers good-by.
"John," said Rena to her brother in the
morning, "I dreamed last night that mother was ill."
"Dreams, you know, Rena," answered Warwick
lightly, "go by contraries. Yours undoubtedly
signifies that our mother, God bless her
simple soul! is at the present moment enjoying
her usual perfect health. She was never sick in
For a few months after leaving Patesville with
her brother, Rena had suffered tortures of
homesickness; those who have felt it know the pang.
The severance of old ties had been abrupt and
complete. At the school where her brother had
taken her, there had been nothing to relieve the
strangeness of her surroundings--no schoolmate
from her own town, no relative or friend of the
family near by. Even the compensation of human
sympathy was in a measure denied her, for Rena
was too fresh from her prison-house to doubt that
sympathy would fail before the revelation of
the secret the consciousness of which oppressed
her at that time like a nightmare. It was not
strange that Rena, thus isolated, should have been
prostrated by homesickness for several weeks
after leaving Patesville. When the paroxysm
had passed, there followed a dull pain, which
gradually subsided into a resignation as profound, in
its way, as had been her longing for home. She
loved, she suffered, with a quiet intensity of which
her outward demeanor gave no adequate expression.
From some ancestral source she had derived
a strain of the passive fatalism by which alone
one can submit uncomplainingly to the inevitable.
By the same token, when once a thing had been
decided, it became with her a finality, which only
some extraordinary stress of emotion could disturb.
She had acquiesced in her brother's plan;
for her there was no withdrawing; her homesickness
was an incidental thing which must be endured,
as patiently as might be, until time should
have brought a measure of relief.
Warwick had made provision for an occasional
letter from Patesville, by leaving with his mother a
number of envelopes directed to his address. She
could have her letters written, inclose them in
these envelopes, and deposit them in the post-
office with her own hand. Thus the place of
Warwick's residence would remain within her own
knowledge, and his secret would not be placed at
the mercy of any wandering Patesvillian who
might perchance go to that part of South Carolina.
By this simple means Rena had kept as closely in
touch with her mother as Warwick had considered
prudent; any closer intercourse was not consistent
with their present station in life.
The night after Warwick and Tryon had ridden
away, Rena dreamed again that her mother
was ill. Better taught people than she, in regions
more enlightened than the South Carolina of that
epoch, are disturbed at times by dreams. Mis'
Molly had a profound faith in them. If God, in
ancient times, had spoken to men in visions of the
night, what easier way could there be for Him to
convey his meaning to people of all ages? Science,
which has shattered many an idol and destroyed
many a delusion, has made but slight inroads
upon the shadowy realm of dreams. For Mis'
Molly, to whom science would have meant nothing
and psychology would have been a meaningless
term, the land of dreams was carefully mapped
and bounded. Each dream had some special significance,
or was at least susceptible of classification
under some significant head. Dreams, as a general
rule, went by contraries; but a dream three times
repeated was a certain portent of the thing defined.
Rena's few years of schooling at Patesville
and her months at Charleston had scarcely disturbed
these hoary superstitions which lurk in the
dim corners of the brain. No lady in Clarence,
perhaps, would have remained undisturbed by a vivid
dream, three times repeated, of some event bearing
materially upon her own life.
The first repetition of a dream was decisive of
nothing, for two dreams meant no more than one.
The power of the second lay in the suspense, the
uncertainty, to which it gave rise. Two doubled
the chance of a third. The day following this
second dream was an anxious one for Rena. She
could not for an instant dismiss her mother from
her thoughts, which were filled too with a certain
self-reproach. She had left her mother alone; if
her mother were really ill, there was no one at home
to tend her with loving care. This feeling grew
in force, until by nightfall Rena had become very
unhappy, and went to bed with the most dismal
forebodings. In this state of mind, it is not
surprising that she now dreamed that her mother was
lying at the point of death, and that she cried out
with heart-rending pathos:--
"Rena, my darlin', why did you forsake yo'r
pore old mother? Come back to me, honey; I'll
die ef I don't see you soon."
The stress of subconscious emotion engendered
by the dream was powerful enough to wake Rena,
and her mother's utterance seemed to come to her
with the force of a fateful warning and a great
reproach. Her mother was sick and needed her,
and would die if she did not come. She felt that
she must see her mother,--it would be almost
like murder to remain away from her under such
After breakfast she went into the business part
of the town and inquired at what time a train
would leave that would take her toward Patesville.
Since she had come away from the town, a railroad
had been opened by which the long river
voyage might be avoided, and, making allowance
for slow trains and irregular connections, the town
of Patesville could be reached by an all-rail route
in about twelve hours. Calling at the post-office
for the family mail, she found there a letter from
her mother, which she tore open in great excitement.
It was written in an unpracticed hand and
badly spelled, and was in effect as follows:--
MY DEAR DAUGHTER,--I take my pen in hand
to let you know that I am not very well. I have
had a kind of misery in my side for two weeks,
with palpitations of the heart, and I have been in
bed for three days. I'm feeling mighty poorly, but
Dr. Green says that I'll get over it in a few days.
Old Aunt Zilphy is staying with me, and looking
after things tolerably well. I hope this will find
you and John enjoying good health. Give my
love to John, and I hope the Lord will bless him
and you too. Cousin Billy Oxendine has had a
rising on his neck, and has had to have it lanced.
Mary B. has another young one, a boy this time.
Old man Tom Johnson was killed last week while
trying to whip black Jim Brown, who lived down
on the Wilmington Road. Jim has run away.
There has been a big freshet in the river, and it
looked at one time as if the new bridge would be
Frank comes over every day or two and asks
about you. He says to tell you that he don't
believe you are coming back any more, but you are
to remember him, and that foolishness he said
about bringing you back from the end of the
world with his mule and cart. He's very good to
me, and brings over shavings and kindling-wood,
and made me a new well-bucket for nothing. It's
a comfort to talk to him about you, though I
haven't told him where you are living.
I hope this will find you and John both well,
and doing well. I should like to see you, but if
it's the Lord's will that I shouldn't, I shall be
thankful anyway that you have done what was
the best for yourselves and your children, and that
I have given you up for your own good.
Your affectionate mother,
Rena shed tears over this simple letter, which,
to her excited imagination, merely confirmed the
warning of her dream. At the date of its writing
her mother had been sick in bed, with the symptoms
of a serious illness. She had no nurse but a
purblind old woman. Three days of progressive
illness had evidently been quite sufficient to reduce
her parent to the condition indicated by the third
dream. The thought that her mother might die
without the presence of any one who loved her
pierced Rena's heart like a knife and lent wings
to her feet. She wished for the enchanted horse
of which her brother had read to her so many
years before on the front piazza of the house
behind the cedars, that she might fly through the air
to her dying mother's side. She determined to go
at once to Patesville.
Returning home, she wrote a letter to Warwick
inclosing their mother's letter, and stating that
she had dreamed an alarming dream for three
nights in succession; that she had left the house in
charge of the servants and gone to Patesville; and
that she would return as soon as her mother was
out of danger.
To her lover she wrote that she had been called
away to visit a sick-bed, and would return very
soon, perhaps by the time he got back to Clarence.
These letters Rena posted on her way to the train,
which she took at five o'clock in the afternoon.
This would bring her to Patesville early in the
morning of the following day.