The House Behind the Cedars/XII

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The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt
XII
The House Behind the Cedars is an novel by African-American author Charles Chesnutt first published in 1900. Copied from The Project Gutenberg Etext.

XII

TRYON GOES TO PATESVILLE


Tryon arrived in the early morning and put
up at the Patesville Hotel, a very comfortable inn.
After a bath, breakfast, and a visit to the barbershop,
he inquired of the hotel clerk the way to the
office of Dr. Green, his mother's cousin.

"On the corner, sir," answered the clerk, "by the
market-house, just over the drugstore. The doctor
drove past here only half an hour ago. You'll
probably catch him in his office."

Tryon found the office without difficulty. He
climbed the stair, but found no one in except a
young colored man seated in the outer office, who
rose promptly as Tryon entered.

"No, suh," replied the man to Tryon's question,
"he ain't hyuh now. He's gone out to see a
patient, suh, but he'll be back soon. Won't you
set down in de private office an' wait fer 'im, suh?"

Tryon had not slept well during his journey, and
felt somewhat fatigued. Through the open door
of the next room he saw an inviting armchair,
with a window at one side, and upon the other a
table strewn with papers and magazines.

"Yes," he answered, "I'll wait."

He entered the private office, sank into the armchair,
and looked out of the window upon the square
below. The view was mildly interesting. The old
brick market-house with the tower was quite
picturesque. On a wagon-scale at one end the public
weighmaster was weighing a load of hay. In the
booths under the wide arches several old negro
women were frying fish on little charcoal stoves--
the odor would have been appetizing to one who
had not breakfasted. On the shady side stood half
a dozen two-wheeled carts, loaded with lightwood
and drawn by diminutive steers, or superannuated
army mules branded on the flank with the cabalistic
letters "C. S. A.," which represented a vanished
dream, or "U. S. A.," which, as any negro about
the market-house would have borne witness, signified
a very concrete fact. Now and then a lady or
gentleman passed with leisurely step--no one ever
hurried in Patesville--or some poor white sandhiller
slouched listlessly along toward store or bar-room.

Tryon mechanically counted the slabs of gingerbread
on the nearest market-stall, and calculated
the cubical contents of several of the meagre loads
of wood. Having exhausted the view, he turned
to the table at his elbow and picked up a medical
journal, in which he read first an account of a
marvelous surgical operation. Turning the leaves
idly, he came upon an article by a Southern writer,
upon the perennial race problem that has vexed
the country for a century. The writer maintained
that owing to a special tendency of the negro blood,
however diluted, to revert to the African type, any
future amalgamation of the white and black races,
which foolish and wicked Northern negrophiles
predicted as the ultimate result of the new conditions
confronting the South, would therefore be an
ethnological impossibility; for the smallest trace
of negro blood would inevitably drag down the
superior race to the level of the inferior, and reduce
the fair Southland, already devastated by the hand
of the invader, to the frightful level of Hayti, the
awful example of negro incapacity. To forefend
their beloved land, now doubly sanctified by the
blood of her devoted sons who had fallen in the
struggle to maintain her liberties and preserve her
property, it behooved every true Southron to stand
firm against the abhorrent tide of radicalism, to
maintain the supremacy and purity of his all-
pervading, all-conquering race, and to resist by
every available means the threatened domination of
an inferior and degraded people, who were set to
rule hereditary freemen ere they had themselves
scarce ceased to be slaves.

When Tryon had finished the article, which
seemed to him a well-considered argument, albeit
a trifle bombastic, he threw the book upon the table.
Finding the armchair wonderfully comfortable, and
feeling the fatigue of his journey, he yielded to a
drowsy impulse, leaned his head on the cushioned
back of the chair, and fell asleep. According to
the habit of youth, he dreamed, and pursuant to his
own individual habit, he dreamed of Rena. They
were walking in the moonlight, along the quiet road
in front of her brother's house. The air was
redolent with the perfume of flowers. His arm
was around her waist. He had asked her if she
loved him, and was awaiting her answer in tremulous
but confident expectation. She opened her lips
to speak. The sound that came from them seemed
to be:--

"Is Dr. Green in? No? Ask him, when he comes
back, please, to call at our house as soon as he can."

Tryon was in that state of somnolence in which
one may dream and yet be aware that one is
dreaming,--the state where one, during a dream,
dreams that one pinches one's self to be sure that
one is not dreaming. He was therefore aware of a
ringing quality about the words he had just heard
that did not comport with the shadowy converse
of a dream--an incongruity in the remark, too,
which marred the harmony of the vision. The
shock was sufficient to disturb Tryon's slumber,
and he struggled slowly back to consciousness.
When fully awake, he thought he heard a light
footfall descending the stairs.

"Was there some one here?" he inquired of
the attendant in the outer office, who was visible
through the open door.

"Yas, suh," replied the boy, "a young cullud
'oman wuz in jes' now, axin' fer de doctuh."

Tryon felt a momentary touch of annoyance that
a negro woman should have intruded herself into
his dream at its most interesting point. Nevertheless,
the voice had been so real, his imagination had
reproduced with such exactness the dulcet tones so
dear to him, that he turned his head involuntarily
and looked out of the window. He could just see
the flutter of a woman's skirt disappearing around
the corner.

A moment later the doctor came bustling in,--
a plump, rosy man of fifty or more, with a frank,
open countenance and an air of genial good nature.
Such a doctor, Tryon fancied, ought to enjoy a
wide popularity. His mere presence would suggest
life and hope and healthfulness.

"My dear boy," exclaimed the doctor cordially,
after Tryon had introduced himself, "I'm delighted
to meet you--or any one of the old blood.
Your mother and I were sweethearts, long ago,
when we both wore pinafores, and went to see our
grandfather at Christmas; and I met her more
than once, and paid her more than one compliment,
after she had grown to be a fine young woman.
You're like her! too, but not quite so handsome--
you've more of what I suppose to be the Tryon
favor, though I never met your father. So one of
old Duncan McSwayne's notes went so far as that?
Well, well, I don't know where you won't find
them. One of them turned up here the other day
from New York.

"The man you want to see," he added later in
the conversation, "is old Judge Straight. He's
getting somewhat stiff in the joints, but he knows
more law, and more about the McSwayne estate,
than any other two lawyers in town. If anybody
can collect your claim, Judge Straight can. I'll
send my boy Dave over to his office. Dave," he
called to his attendant, "run over to Judge
Straight's office and see if he's there.

"There was a freshet here a few weeks ago,"
he want on, when the colored man had departed,
"and they had to open the flood-gates and let the
water out of the mill pond, for if the dam had
broken, as it did twenty years ago, it would have
washed the pillars from under the judge's office
and let it down in the creek, and"--

"Jedge Straight ain't in de office jes' now,
suh," reported the doctor's man Dave, from the
head of the stairs.

"Did you ask when he'd be back?"

"No, suh, you didn't tell me ter, suh."

"Well, now, go back and inquire.

"The niggers," he explained to Tryon, "are
getting mighty trifling since they've been freed.
Before the war, that boy would have been around
there and back before you could say Jack Robinson;
now, the lazy rascal takes his time just like
a white man."

Dave returned more promptly than from his
first trip. "Jedge Straight's dere now, suh," he
said. "He's done come in."

"I'll take you right around and introduce you,"
said the doctor, running on pleasantly, like a
babbling brook. "I don't know whether the judge
ever met your mother or not, but he knows a
gentleman when he sees one, and will be glad to
meet you and look after your affair. See to the
patients, Dave, and say I'll be back shortly, and
don't forget any messages left for me. Look
sharp, now! You know your failing!"

They found Judge Straight in his office. He
was seated by the rear window, and had fallen
into a gentle doze--the air of Patesville was
conducive to slumber. A visitor from some
bustling city might have rubbed his eyes, on any but a
market-day, and imagined the whole town asleep
--that the people were somnambulists and did not
know it. The judge, an old hand, roused himself
so skillfully, at the sound of approaching footsteps,
that his visitors could not guess but that he had
been wide awake. He shook hands with the doctor,
and acknowledged the introduction to Tryon with
a rare old-fashioned courtesy, which the young man
thought a very charming survival of the manners
of a past and happier age.

"No," replied the judge, in answer to a question
by Dr. Green, "I never met his mother; I was a
generation ahead of her. I was at school with her
father, however, fifty years ago--fifty years ago!
No doubt that seems to you a long time, young
gentleman?"

"It is a long time, sir," replied Tryon. "I
must live more than twice as long as I have in
order to cover it."

"A long time, and a troubled time," sighed the
judge. "I could wish that I might see this unhappy
land at peace with itself before I die.
Things are in a sad tangle; I can't see the way
out. But the worst enemy has been slain, in spite
of us. We are well rid of slavery."

"But the negro we still have with us,"
remarked the doctor, "for here comes my man
Dave. What is it, Dave?" he asked sharply, as
the negro stuck his head in at the door.

"Doctuh Green," he said, "I fuhgot ter tell
you, suh, dat dat young 'oman wuz at de office
agin jes' befo' you come in, an' said fer you to go
right down an' see her mammy ez soon ez you
could."

"Ah, yes, and you've just remembered it! I'm
afraid you're entirely too forgetful for a doctor's
office. You forgot about old Mrs. Latimer, the
other day, and when I got there she had almost
choked to death. Now get back to the office, and
remember, the next time you forget anything, I'll
hire another boy; remember that! That boy's
head," he remarked to his companions, after Dave
had gone, "reminds me of nothing so much as a
dried gourd, with a handful of cowpeas rattling
around it, in lieu of gray matter. An old woman
out in Redbank got a fishbone in her throat, the
other day, and nearly choked to death before I got
there. A white woman, sir, came very near losing
her life because of a lazy, trifling negro!"

"I should think you would discharge him, sir,"
suggested Tryon.

"What would be the use?" rejoined the doctor.
"All negroes are alike, except that now and then
there's a pretty woman along the border-line.
Take this patient of mine, for instance,--I'll call
on her after dinner, her case is not serious,--thirty
years ago she would have made any man turn his
head to look at her. You know who I mean,
don't you, judge?"

"Yes. I think so," said the judge promptly.
"I've transacted a little business for her now and
then."

"I don't know whether you've seen the daughter
or not--I'm sure you haven't for the past
year or so, for she's been away. But she's in
town now, and, by Jove, the girl is really beautiful.
And I'm a judge of beauty. Do you remember
my wife thirty years ago, judge?"

"She was a very handsome woman, Ed," replied
the other judicially. "If I had been twenty years
younger, I should have cut you out."

"You mean you would have tried. But as I
was saying, this girl is a beauty; I reckon we
might guess where she got some of it, eh, Judge?
Human nature is human nature, but it's a d--d
shame that a man should beget a child like that
and leave it to live the life open for a negro. If
she had been born white, the young fellows would
be tumbling over one another to get her. Her
mother would have to look after her pretty closely
as things are, if she stayed here; but she
disappeared mysteriously a year or two ago, and has
been at the North, I'm told, passing for white.
She'll probably marry a Yankee; he won't know
any better, and it will serve him right--she's
only too white for them. She has a very striking
figure, something on the Greek order, stately and
slow-moving. She has the manners of a lady, too
--a beautiful woman, if she is a nigger!"

"I quite agree with you, Ed," remarked the
judge dryly, "that the mother had better look
closely after the daughter."

"Ah, no, judge," replied the other, with a
flattered smile, "my admiration for beauty is purely
abstract. Twenty-five years ago, when I was
younger"--

"When you were young," corrected the judge.

"When you and I were younger," continued
the doctor ingeniously,--"twenty-five years ago, I
could not have answered for myself. But I would
advise the girl to stay at the North, if she can.
She's certainly out of place around here."

Tryon found the subject a little tiresome, and
the doctor's enthusiasm not at all contagious. He
could not possibly have been interested in a colored
girl, under any circumstances, and he was
engaged to be married to the most beautiful white
woman on earth. To mention a negro woman in
the same room where he was thinking of Rena
seemed little short of profanation. His friend the
doctor was a jovial fellow, but it was surely doubtful
taste to refer to his wife in such a conversation.
He was very glad when the doctor dropped the
subject and permitted him to go more into detail
about the matter which formed his business in
Patesville. He took out of his pocket the papers
concerning the McSwayne claim and laid them on
the judge's desk.

"You'll find everything there, sir,--the note,
the contract, and some correspondence that will
give you the hang of the thing. Will you be able
to look over them to-day? I should like," he added
a little nervously, "to go back to-morrow."

"What!" exclaimed Dr. Green vivaciously,
"insult our town by staying only one day? It
won't be long enough to get acquainted with our
young ladies. Patesville girls are famous for their
beauty. But perhaps there's a loadstone in South
Carolina to draw you back? Ah, you change color!
To my mind there's nothing finer than the ingenuous
blush of youth. But we'll spare you if you'll
answer one question--is it serious?"

"I'm to be married in two weeks, sir," answered
Tryon. The statement sounded very pleasant, in
spite of the slight embarrassment caused by the
inquiry.

"Good boy!" rejoined the doctor, taking his
arm familiarly--they were both standing now.
"You ought to have married a Patesville girl, but
you people down towards the eastern counties
seldom come this way, and we are evidently too late
to catch you."

"I'll look your papers over this morning," said
the judge, "and when I come from dinner will
stop at the court house and examine the records
and see whether there's anything we can get hold
of. If you'll drop in around three or four o'clock,
I may be able to give you an opinion."

"Now, George," exclaimed the doctor, "we'll
go back to the office for a spell, and then I'll take
you home with me to luncheon."

Tryon hesitated.

"Oh, you must come! Mrs. Green would never
forgive me if I didn't bring you. Strangers are
rare birds in our society, and when they come we
make them welcome. Our enemies may overturn
our institutions, and try to put the bottom rail on
top, but they cannot destroy our Southern hospitality.
There are so many carpet-baggers and other
social vermin creeping into the South, with the
Yankees trying to force the niggers on us, that it's
a genuine pleasure to get acquainted with another
real Southern gentleman, whom one can invite into
one's house without fear of contamination, and before
whom one can express his feelings freely and
be sure of perfect sympathy."