The House Behind the Cedars/XXV

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

XXV

BALANCE ALL


The road to Sampson County lay for the most
part over the pine-clad sandhills,--an alternation
of gentle rises and gradual descents, with now and
then a swamp of greater or less extent. Long
stretches of the highway led through the virgin
forest, for miles unbroken by a clearing or sign of
human habitation.

They traveled slowly, with frequent pauses in
shady places, for the weather was hot. The journey,
made leisurely, required more than a day,
and might with slight effort be prolonged into
two. They stopped for the night at a small
village, where Wain found lodging for Rena with an
acquaintance of his, and for himself with another,
while a third took charge of the horse, the
accommodation for travelers being limited. Rena's
appearance and manners were the subject of much
comment. It was necessary to explain to several
curious white people that Rena was a woman of
color. A white woman might have driven with
Wain without attracting remark,--most white
ladies had negro coachmen. That a woman of
Rena's complexion should eat at a negro's table, or
sleep beneath a negro's roof, was a seeming breach
of caste which only black blood could excuse. The
explanation was never questioned. No white person
of sound mind would ever claim to be a
negro.

They resumed their journey somewhat late in the
morning. Rena would willingly have hastened, for
she was anxious to plunge into her new work; but
Wain seemed disposed to prolong the pleasant drive,
and beguiled the way for a time with stories of
wonderful things he had done and strange experiences
of a somewhat checkered career. He was shrewd
enough to avoid any subject which would offend a
modest young woman, but too obtuse to perceive
that much of what he said would not commend
him to a person of refinement. He made little
reference to his possessions, concerning which so
much had been said at Patesville; and this
reticence was a point in his favor. If he had not
been so much upon his guard and Rena so much
absorbed by thoughts of her future work, such a
drive would have furnished a person of her discernment
a very fair measure of the man's character.
To these distractions must be added the entire
absence of any idea that Wain might have amorous
designs upon her; and any shortcomings of
manners or speech were excused by the broad
mantle of charity which Rena in her new-found zeal for
the welfare of her people was willing to throw over
all their faults. They were the victims of
oppression; they were not responsible for its results.

Toward the end of the second day, while nearing
their destination, the travelers passed a large
white house standing back from the road at the
foot of a lane. Around it grew widespreading
trees and well-kept shrubbery. The fences were
in good repair. Behind the house and across the
road stretched extensive fields of cotton and
waving corn. They had passed no other place that
showed such signs of thrift and prosperity.

"Oh, what a lovely place!" exclaimed Rena.
"That is yours, isn't it?"

"No; we ain't got to my house yet," he
answered. "Dat house b'longs ter de riches' people
roun' here. Dat house is over in de nex' county.
We're right close to de line now."

Shortly afterwards they turned off from the
main highway they had been pursuing, and struck
into a narrower road to the left.

"De main road," explained Wain, "goes on to
Clinton, 'bout five miles er mo' away. Dis one
we're turnin' inter now will take us to my place,
which is 'bout three miles fu'ther on. We'll git
dere now in an hour er so."

Wain lived in an old plantation house, somewhat
dilapidated, and surrounded by an air of neglect
and shiftlessness, but still preserving a remnant
of dignity in its outlines and comfort in its interior
arrangements. Rena was assigned a large room on
the second floor. She was somewhat surprised at
the make-up of the household. Wain's mother--
an old woman, much darker than her son--kept
house for him. A sister with two children lived
in the house. The element of surprise lay in the
presence of two small children left by Wain's wife,
of whom Rena now heard for the first time. He
had lost his wife, he informed Rena sadly, a couple
of years before.

"Yas, Miss Rena," she sighed, "de Lawd give
her, an' de Lawd tuck her away. Blessed be de
name er de Lawd." He accompanied this sententious
quotation with a wicked look from under his
half-closed eyelids that Rena did not see.

The following morning Wain drove her in his
buggy over to the county town, where she took the
teacher's examination. She was given a seat in a
room with a number of other candidates for
certificates, but the fact leaking out from some remark
of Wain's that she was a colored girl, objection
was quietly made by several of the would-be teachers
to her presence in the room, and she was requested
to retire until the white teachers should
have been examined. An hour or two later she
was given a separate examination, which she passed
without difficulty. The examiner, a gentleman of
local standing, was dimly conscious that she might
not have found her exclusion pleasant, and was
especially polite. It would have been strange,
indeed, if he had not been impressed by her sweet
face and air of modest dignity, which were all the
more striking because of her social disability. He
fell into conversation with her, became interested
in her hopes and aims, and very cordially offered
to be of service, if at any time he might, in
connection with her school.

"You have the satisfaction," he said, "of
receiving the only first-grade certificate issued to-day.
You might teach a higher grade of pupils than you
will find at Sandy Run, but let us hope that you
may in time raise them to your own level."

"Which I doubt very much," he muttered to
himself, as she went away with Wain. "What a
pity that such a woman should be a nigger! If
she were anything to me, though, I should hate
to trust her anywhere near that saddle-colored
scoundrel. He's a thoroughly bad lot, and will
bear watching."

Rena, however, was serenely ignorant of any
danger from the accommodating Wain. Absorbed
in her own thoughts and plans, she had not sought
to look beneath the surface of his somewhat overdone
politeness. In a few days she began her work
as teacher, and sought to forget in the service of
others the dull sorrow that still gnawed at her heart.