The House Behind the Cedars/XXIV

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

XXIV

SWING YOUR PARTNERS


Moved by tenderness and thoughts of self-sacrifice,
which had occupied his mind to the momentary
exclusion of all else, Tryon had scarcely
noticed, as be approached the house behind the
cedars, a strain of lively music, to which was added,
as he drew still nearer, the accompaniment of other
festive sounds. He suddenly awoke, however, to
the fact that these signs of merriment came from
the house at which he had intended to stop;--
he had not meant that Rena should pass another
sleepless night of sorrow, or that he should himself
endure another needless hour of suspense.

He drew rein at the corner. Shocked surprise,
a nascent anger, a vague alarm, an insistent
curiosity, urged him nearer. Turning the mare into
the side street and keeping close to the fence, he
drove ahead in the shadow of the cedars until he
reached a gap through which he could see into the
open door and windows of the brightly lighted
hall.

There was evidently a ball in progress. The
fiddle was squeaking merrily so a tune that he
remembered well,--it was associated with one of
the most delightful evenings of his life, that of
the tournament ball. A mellow negro voice was
calling with a rhyming accompaniment the figures
of a quadrille. Tryon, with parted lips and slowly
hardening heart, leaned forward from the buggy-
seat, gripping the rein so tightly that his nails
cut into the opposing palm. Above the clatter of
noisy conversation rose the fiddler's voice:--

     "Swing yo' pa'dners; doan be shy,
       Look yo' lady in de eye!
       Th'ow yo' ahm aroun' huh wais';
       Take yo' time--dey ain' no has'e!"

To the middle of the floor, in full view through
an open window, advanced the woman who all day
long had been the burden of his thoughts--not
pale with grief and hollow-eyed with weeping, but
flushed with pleasure, around her waist the arm
of a burly, grinning mulatto, whose face was
offensively familiar to Tryon.

With a muttered curse of concentrated
bitterness, Tryon struck the mare a sharp blow with
the whip. The sensitive creature, spirited even
in her great weariness, resented the lash and
started off with the bit in her teeth. Perceiving
that it would be difficult to turn in the narrow
roadway without running into the ditch at the
left, Tryon gave the mare rein and dashed down
the street, scarcely missing, as the buggy crossed
the bridge, a man standing abstractedly by the old
canal, who sprang aside barely in time to avoid
being run over.

Meantime Rena was passing through a trying
ordeal. After the first few bars, the fiddler
plunged into a well-known air, in which Rena,
keenly susceptible to musical impressions,
recognized the tune to which, as Queen of Love and
Beauty, she had opened the dance at her entrance
into the world of life and love, for it was there
she had met George Tryon. The combination of
music and movement brought up the scene with
great distinctness. Tryon, peering angrily through
the cedars, had not been more conscious than she
of the external contrast between her partners on
this and the former occasion. She perceived, too,
as Tryon from the outside had not, the difference
between Wain's wordy flattery (only saved by his
cousin's warning from pointed and fulsome adulation),
and the tenderly graceful compliment,
couched in the romantic terms of chivalry, with
which the knight of the handkerchief had charmed
her ear. It was only by an immense effort that she
was able to keep her emotions under control until
the end of the dance, when she fled to her chamber
and burst into tears. It was not the cruel Tryon
who had blasted her love with his deadly look that
she mourned, but the gallant young knight who
had worn her favor on his lance and crowned her
Queen of Love and Beauty.


Tryon's stay in Patesville was very brief. He
drove to the hotel and put up for the night. During
many sleepless hours his mind was in a turmoil
with a very different set of thoughts from those
which had occupied it on the way to town. Not
the least of them was a profound self-contempt for
his own lack of discernment. How had he been
so blind as not to have read long ago the character
of this wretched girl who had bewitched him?
To-night his eyes had been opened--he had seen
her with the mask thrown off, a true daughter of
a race in which the sensuous enjoyment of the
moment took precedence of taste or sentiment or any
of the higher emotions. Her few months of boarding-
school, her brief association with white people,
had evidently been a mere veneer over the underlying
negro, and their effects had slipped away as
soon as the intercourse had ceased. With the
monkey-like imitativeness of the negro she had copied
the manners of white people while she lived among
them, and had dropped them with equal facility
when they ceased to serve a purpose. Who but
a negro could have recovered so soon from what
had seemed a terrible bereavement?--she herself
must have felt it at the time, for otherwise she
would not have swooned. A woman of sensibility,
as this one had seemed to be, should naturally feel
more keenly, and for a longer time than a man,
an injury to the affections; but he, a son of the
ruling race, had been miserable for six weeks about
a girl who had so far forgotten him as already to
plunge headlong into the childish amusements of
her own ignorant and degraded people. What
more, indeed, he asked himself savagely,--what
more could be expected of the base-born child of
the plaything of a gentleman's idle hour, who to
this ignoble origin added the blood of a servile
race? And he, George Tryon, had honored her
with his love; he had very nearly linked his fate
and joined his blood to hers by the solemn sanctions
of church and state. Tryon was not a devout
man, but he thanked God with religious fervor
that he had been saved a second time from a
mistake which would have wrecked his whole future.
If he had yielded to the momentary weakness of
the past night,--the outcome of a sickly sentimentality
to which he recognized now, in the light
of reflection, that he was entirely too prone,--he
would have regretted it soon enough. The black
streak would have been sure to come out in some
form, sooner or later, if not in the wife, then in
her children. He saw clearly enough, in this hour
of revulsion, that with his temperament and training
such a union could never have been happy.
If all the world had been ignorant of the dark
secret, it would always have been in his own
thoughts, or at least never far away. Each fault
of hers that the close daily association of husband
and wife might reveal,--the most flawless of
sweethearts do not pass scathless through the long
test of matrimony,--every wayward impulse of
his children, every defect of mind, morals, temper,
or health, would have been ascribed to the dark
ancestral strain. Happiness under such conditions
would have been impossible.

When Tryon lay awake in the early morning,
after a few brief hours of sleep, the business which
had brought him to Patesville seemed, in the cold
light of reason, so ridiculously inadequate that he
felt almost ashamed to have set up such a pretext
for his journey. The prospect, too, of meeting
Dr. Green and his family, of having to explain
his former sudden departure, and of running a
gauntlet of inquiry concerning his marriage to the
aristocratic Miss Warwick of South Carolina;
the fear that some one at Patesville might have
suspected a connection between Rena's swoon and
his own flight,--these considerations so moved
this impressionable and impulsive young man that
he called a bell-boy, demanded an early breakfast,
ordered his horse, paid his reckoning, and started
upon his homeward journey forthwith. A certain
distrust of his own sensibility, which he felt to
be curiously inconsistent with his most positive
convictions, led him to seek the river bridge by a
roundabout route which did not take him past the
house where, a few hours before, he had seen the
last fragment of his idol shattered beyond the hope
of repair.


The party broke up at an early hour, since most
of the guests were working-people, and the travelers
were to make an early start next day. About
nine in the morning, Wain drove round to Mis'
Molly's. Rena's trunk was strapped behind the
buggy, and she set out, in the company of Wain,
for her new field of labor. The school term was
only two months in length, and she did not expect
to return until its expiration. Just before taking
her seat in the buggy, Rena felt a sudden sinking
of the heart.

"Oh, mother," she whispered, as they stood
wrapped in a close embrace, "I'm afraid to leave
you. I left you once, and it turned out so miserably."

"It'll turn out better this time, honey," replied
her mother soothingly. "Good-by, child. Take
care of yo'self an' yo'r money, and write to yo'r
mammy."

One kiss all round, and Rena was lifted into
the buggy. Wain seized the reins, and under his
skillful touch the pretty mare began to prance and
curvet with restrained impatience. Wain could
not resist the opportunity to show off before the
party, which included Mary B.'s entire family and
several other neighbors, who had gathered to see
the travelers off.

"Good-by ter Patesville! Good-by, folkses all!"
he cried, with a wave of his disengaged hand.

"Good-by, mother! Good-by, all!" cried Rena,
as with tears in her heart and a brave smile on her
face she left her home behind her for the second
time.

When they had crossed the river bridge, the
travelers came to a long stretch of rising ground,
from the summit of which they could look back
over the white sandy road for nearly a mile.
Neither Rena nor her companion saw Frank Fowler
behind the chinquapin bush at the foot of the hill,
nor the gaze of mute love and longing with which
he watched the buggy mount the long incline. He
had not been able to trust himself to bid her
farewell. He had seen her go away once before with
every prospect of happiness, and come back, a dove
with a wounded wing, to the old nest behind the
cedars. She was going away again, with a man
whom he disliked and distrusted. If she had met
misfortune before, what were her prospects for
happiness now?

The buggy paused at the top of the hill, and
Frank, shading his eyes with his hand, thought he
could see her turn and look behind. Look back,
dear child, towards your home and those who love
you! For who knows more than this faithful
worshiper what threads of the past Fate is weaving
into your future, or whether happiness or misery
lies before you?