The House Behind the Cedars/XXVII

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

XXVII

AN INTERESTING ACQUAINTANCE


A few days later, Rena looked out of the
window near her desk and saw a low basket phaeton,
drawn by a sorrel pony, driven sharply into the
clearing and drawn up beside an oak sapling.
The occupant of the phaeton, a tall, handsome,
well-preserved lady in middle life, with slightly
gray hair, alighted briskly from the phaeton, tied
the pony to the sapling with a hitching-strap, and
advanced to the schoolhouse door.

Rena wondered who the lady might be. She
had a benevolent aspect, however, and came forward
to the desk with a smile, not at all embarrassed
by the wide-eyed inspection of the entire
school.

"How do you do?" she said, extending her
hand to the teacher. "I live in the neighborhood
and am interested in the colored people--a good
many of them once belonged to me. I heard
something of your school, and thought I should
like to make your acquaintance."

"It is very kind of you, indeed," murmured
Rena respectfully.

"Yes," continued the lady, "I am not one of
those who sit back and blame their former slaves
because they were freed. They are free now,--it
is all decided and settled,--and they ought to be
taught enough to enable them to make good use of
their freedom. But really, my dear,--you mustn't
feel offended if I make a mistake,--I am going
to ask you something very personal." She looked
suggestively at the gaping pupils.

"The school may take the morning recess now,"
announced the teacher. The pupils filed out in
an orderly manner, most of them stationing
themselves about the grounds in such places as would
keep the teacher and the white lady in view. Very
few white persons approved of the colored schools;
no other white person had ever visited this one.

"Are you really colored?" asked the lady, when
the children had withdrawn.

A year and a half earlier, Rena would have met
the question by some display of self-consciousness.
Now, she replied simply and directly.

"Yes, ma'am, I am colored."

The lady, who had been studying her as closely
as good manners would permit, sighed regretfully.

"Well, it's a shame. No one would ever think
it. If you chose to conceal it, no one would ever
be the wiser. What is your name, child, and where
were you brought up? You must have a romantic
history."

Rena gave her name and a few facts in regard
to her past. The lady was so much interested,
and put so many and such searching questions,
that Rena really found it more difficult to suppress
the fact that she had been white, than she had
formerly had in hiding her African origin. There
was about the girl an air of real refinement that
pleased the lady,--the refinement not merely of
a fine nature, but of contact with cultured people;
a certain reserve of speech and manner quite
inconsistent with Mrs. Tryon's experience of
colored women. The lady was interested and slightly
mystified. A generous, impulsive spirit,--her
son's own mother,--she made minute inquiries
about the school and the pupils, several of whom
she knew by name. Rena stated that the two
months' term was nearing its end, and that she
was training the children in various declamations
and dialogues for the exhibition at the close.

"I shall attend it," declared the lady positively.
"I'm sure you are doing a good work, and it's
very noble of you to undertake it when you might
have a very different future. If I can serve you
at any time, don't hesitate to call upon me. I
live in the big white house just before you turn
out of the Clinton road to come this way. I'm
only a widow, but my son George lives with me
and has some influence in the neighborhood. He
drove by here yesterday with the lady he is going
to marry. It was she who told me about you."

Was it the name, or some subtle resemblance
in speech or feature, that recalled Tryon's image
to Rena's mind? It was not so far away--the
image of the loving Tryon--that any powerful
witchcraft was required to call it up. His mother
was a widow; Rena had thought, in happier days,
that she might be such a kind lady as this. But
the cruel Tryon who had left her--his mother
would be some hard, cold, proud woman, who
would regard a negro as but little better than a
dog, and who would not soil her lips by addressing
a colored person upon any other terms than as a
servant. She knew, too, that Tryon did not live
in Sampson County, though the exact location of
his home was not clear to her.

"And where are you staying, my dear?" asked
the good lady.

"I'm boarding at Mrs. Wain's," answered
Rena.

"Mrs. Wain's?"

"Yes, they live in the old Campbell place."

"Oh, yes--Aunt Nancy. She's a good enough
woman, but we don't think much of her son Jeff.
He married my Amanda after the war--she used
to belong to me, and ought to have known better.
He abused her most shamefully, and had to be
threatened with the law. She left him a year or
so ago and went away; I haven't seen her lately.
Well, good-by, child; I'm coming to your
exhibition. If you ever pass my house, come in and
see me."

The good lady had talked for half an hour, and
had brought a ray of sunshine into the teacher's
monotonous life, heretofore lighted only by the
uncertain lamp of high resolve. She had satisfied
a pardonable curiosity, and had gone away
without mentioning her name.

Rena saw Plato untying the pony as the lady
climbed into the phaeton.

"Who was the lady, Plato?" asked the teacher
when the visitor had driven away.

"Dat 'uz my ole mist'iss, ma'm," returned Plato
proudly,-- "ole Mis' 'Liza."

"Mis' 'Liza who?" asked Rena.

"Mis' 'Liza Tryon. I use' ter b'long ter her.
Dat 'uz her son, my young Mars Geo'ge, w'at driv
pas' hyuh yistiddy wid 'is sweetheart."