The House Behind the Cedars/XI

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt
XI
The House Behind the Cedars is an novel by African-American author Charles Chesnutt first published in 1900. Copied from The Project Gutenberg Etext.


XI

A LETTER AND A JOURNEY


War has been called the court of last resort.
A lawsuit may with equal aptness be compared to
a battle--the parallel might be drawn very closely
all along the line. First we have the casus belli,
the cause of action; then the various protocols and
proclamations and general orders, by way of pleas,
demurrers, and motions; then the preliminary
skirmishes at the trial table; and then the final
struggle, in which might is quite as likely to prevail
as right, victory most often resting with the
strongest battalions, and truth and justice not
seldom overborne by the weight of odds upon the
other side.

The lawsuit which Warwick and Tryon had
gone to try did not, however, reach this ultimate
stage, but, after a three days' engagement, resulted
in a treaty of peace. The case was compromised
and settled, and Tryon and Warwick set out on
their homeward drive. They stopped at a farm-
house at noon, and while at table saw the stage-
coach from the town they had just left, bound for
their own destination. In the mail-bag under the
driver's seat were Rena's two letters; they had
been delivered at the town in the morning, and
immediately remailed to Clarence, in accordance
with orders left at the post-office the evening
before. Tryon and Warwick drove leisurely homeward
through the pines, all unconscious of the fateful
squares of white paper moving along the road
a few miles before them, which a mother's yearning
and a daughter's love had thrown, like the apple of
discord, into the narrow circle of their happiness.

They reached Clarence at four o'clock. Warwick
got down from the buggy at his office. Tryon
drove on to his hotel, to make a hasty toilet before
visiting his sweetheart.

Warwick glanced at his mail, tore open the
envelope addressed in his sister's handwriting, and
read the contents with something like dismay.
She had gone away on the eve of her wedding, her
lover knew not where, to be gone no one knew
how long, on a mission which could not be frankly
disclosed. A dim foreboding of disaster flashed
across his mind. He thrust the letter into his
pocket, with others yet unopened, and started
toward his home. Reaching the gate, he paused a
moment and then walked on past the house. Tryon
would probably be there in a few minutes, and
he did not care to meet him without first having
had the opportunity for some moments of reflection.
He must fix upon some line of action in this
emergency.

Meanwhile Tryon had reached his hotel and
opened his mail. The letter from Rena was read
first, with profound disappointment. He had
really made concessions in the settlement of that
lawsuit--had yielded several hundred dollars of
his just dues, in order that he might get back to
Rena three days earlier. Now he must cool his
heels in idleness for at least three days before she
would return. It was annoying, to say the least.
He wished to know where she had gone, that he
might follow her and stay near her until she should
be ready to come back. He might ask Warwick--
no, she might have had some good reason for not
having mentioned her destination. She had
probably gone to visit some of the poor relations of
whom her brother had spoken so frankly, and she
would doubtless prefer that he should not see her
amid any surroundings but the best. Indeed, he
did not know that he would himself care to endanger,
by suggestive comparisons, the fine aureole of
superiority that surrounded her. She represented
in her adorable person and her pure heart the
finest flower of the finest race that God had ever
made--the supreme effort of creative power, than
which there could be no finer. The flower would
soon be his; why should he care to dig up the soil
in which it grew?

Tryon went on opening his letters. There were
several bills and circulars, and then a letter from
his mother, of which he broke the seal:--


MY DEAREST GEORGE,--This leaves us well.
Blanche is still with me, and we are impatiently
awaiting your return. In your absence she seems
almost like a daughter to me. She joins me in
the hope that your lawsuits are progressing favorably,
and that you will be with us soon. . . .

On your way home, if it does not keep you
away from us too long, would it not be well for
you to come by way of Patesville, and find out
whether there is any prospect of our being able
to collect our claim against old Mr. Duncan
McSwayne's estate? You must have taken the papers
with you, along with the rest, for I do not find
them here. Things ought to be settled enough now
for people to realize on some of their securities.
Your grandfather always believed the note was
good, and meant to try to collect it, but the war
interfered. He said to me, before he died, that if
the note was ever collected, he would use the money
to buy a wedding present for your wife. Poor
father! he is dead and gone to heaven; but I am
sure that even there he would be happier if he
knew the note was paid and the money used as he
intended.

If you go to Patesville, call on my cousin, Dr.
Ed. Green, and tell him who you are. Give him
my love. I haven't seen him for twenty years.
He used to be very fond of the ladies, a very gallant
man. He can direct you to a good lawyer,
no doubt. Hoping to see you soon,
             Your loving mother,
                    ELIZABETH TRYON.

P. S. Blanche joins me in love to you.


This affectionate and motherly letter did not
give Tryon unalloyed satisfaction. He was glad
to hear that his mother was well, but he had
hoped that Blanche Leary might have finished her
visit by this time. The reasonable inference from
the letter was that Blanche meant to await his
return. Her presence would spoil the fine romantic
flavor of the surprise he had planned for his
mother; it would never do to expose his bride to
an unannounced meeting with the woman whom he
had tacitly rejected. There would be one advantage
in such a meeting: the comparison of the
two women would be so much in Rena's favor
that his mother could not hesitate for a moment
between them. The situation, however, would
have elements of constraint, and he did not care
to expose either Rena or Blanche to any disagreeable
contingency. It would be better to take his
wife on a wedding trip, and notify his mother,
before he returned home, of his marriage. In the
extremely improbable case that she should disapprove
his choice after having seen his wife, the ice
would at least have been broken before his arrival
at home.

"By Jove!" he exclaimed suddenly, striking
his knee with his hand, "why shouldn't I run up
to Patesville while Rena's gone? I can leave here
at five o'clock, and get there some time to-morrow
morning. I can transact my business during the
day, and get back the day after to-morrow; for
Rena might return ahead of time, just as we did, and
I shall want to be here when she comes; I'd rather
wait a year for a legal opinion on a doubtful old
note than to lose one day with my love. The
train goes in twenty minutes. My bag is already
packed. I'll just drop a line to George and tell
him where I've gone."

He put Rena's letter into his breast pocket, and
turning to his trunk, took from it a handful of
papers relating to the claim in reference to which
he was going to Patesville. These he thrust into
the same pocket with Rena's letter; he wished to
read both letter and papers while on the train. It
would be a pleasure merely to hold the letter before
his eyes and look at the lines traced by her hand.
The papers he wished to study, for the more practical
purpose of examining into the merits of his
claim against the estate of Duncan McSwayne.

When Warwick reached home, he inquired if
Mr. Tryon had called.

"No, suh," answered the nurse, to whom he had
put the question; "he ain't be'n here yet, suh."

Warwick was surprised and much disturbed.

"De baby 's be'n cryin' for Miss Rena,"
suggested the nurse, "an' I s'pec' he'd like to see you,
suh. Shall I fetch 'im?"

"Yes, bring him to me."

He took the child in his arms and went out upon
the piazza. Several porch pillows lay invitingly
near. He pushed them toward the steps with his
foot, sat down upon one, and placed little Albert
upon another. He was scarcely seated when a
messenger from the hotel came up the walk from
the gate and handed him a note. At the same
moment he heard the long shriek of the afternoon
train leaving the station on the opposite side of the
town.

He tore the envelope open anxiously, read the
note, smiled a sickly smile, and clenched the paper
in his hand unconsciously. There was nothing he
could do. The train had gone; there was no
telegraph to Patesville, and no letter could leave
Clarence for twenty-four hours. The best laid
schemes go wrong at times--the stanchest ships
are sometimes wrecked, or skirt the breakers
perilously. Life is a sea, full of strange currents
and uncharted reefs--whoever leaves the traveled
path must run the danger of destruction. Warwick
was a lawyer, however, and accustomed to
balance probabilities.

"He may easily be in Patesville a day or two
without meeting her. She will spend most of her
time at mother's bedside, and he will be occupied
with his own affairs."

If Tryon should meet her--well, he was very
much in love, and he had spoken very nobly of
birth and blood. Warwick would have preferred,
nevertheless, that Tryon's theories should not be
put to this particular test. Rena's scruples had so
far been successfully combated; the question would
be opened again, and the situation unnecessarily
complicated, if Tryon should meet Rena in Patesville.

"Will he or will he not?" he asked himself.
He took a coin from his pocket and spun it upon
the floor. "Heads, he sees her; tails, he does
not."

The coin spun swiftly and steadily, leaving upon
the eye the impression of a revolving sphere. Little
Albert, left for a moment to his own devices, had
crept behind his father and was watching the whirling
disk with great pleasure. He felt that he would
like to possess this interesting object. The coin
began to move more slowly, and was wabbling to its
fall, when the child stretched forth his chubby fist
and caught it ere it touched the floor.