The House Behind the Cedars/XXXI

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

XXXI

IN DEEP WATERS


Rena was unusually fatigued at the close of her
school on Wednesday afternoon. She had been
troubled all day with a headache, which, beginning
with a dull pain, had gradually increased in intensity
until every nerve was throbbing like a trip-
hammer. The pupils seemed unusually stupid. A
discouraging sense of the insignificance of any part
she could perform towards the education of three
million people with a school term of two months
a year hung over her spirit like a pall. As the
object of Wain's attentions, she had begun to feel
somewhat like a wild creature who hears the
pursuers on its track, and has the fear of capture
added to the fatigue of flight. But when this
excitement had gone too far and had neared the limit
of exhaustion came Tryon's letter, with the resulting
surprise and consternation. Rena had keyed
herself up to a heroic pitch to answer it; but when
the inevitable reaction came, she was overwhelmed
with a sickening sense of her own weakness. The
things which in another sphere had constituted her
strength and shield were now her undoing, and
exposed her to dangers from which they lent her
no protection. Not only was this her position in
theory, but the pursuers were already at her heels.
As the day wore on, these dark thoughts took on
an added gloom, until, when the hour to dismiss
school arrived, she felt as though she had not a
friend in the world. This feeling was accentuated
by a letter which she had that morning
received from her mother, in which Mis' Molly
spoke very highly of Wain, and plainly expressed
the hope that her daughter might like him so well
that she would prefer to remain in Sampson
County.

Plato, bright-eyed and alert, was waiting in the
school-yard until the teacher should be ready to
start. Having warned away several smaller children
who had hung around after school as though
to share his prerogative of accompanying the
teacher, Plato had swung himself into the low
branches of an oak at the edge of the clearing,
from which he was hanging by his legs, head
downward. He dropped from this reposeful attitude
when the teacher appeared at the door, and took
his place at her side.

A premonition of impending trouble caused the
teacher to hesitate. She wished that she had kept
more of the pupils behind. Something whispered
that danger lurked in the road she customarily
followed. Plato seemed insignificantly small and
weak, and she felt miserably unable to cope with
any difficult or untoward situation.

"Plato," she suggested, "I think we'll go round
the other way to-night, if you don't mind."

Visions of Mars Geo'ge disappointed, of a dollar
unearned and unspent, flitted through the narrow
brain which some one, with the irony of ignorance
or of knowledge, had mocked with the name
of a great philosopher. Plato was not an untruthful
lad, but he seldom had the opportunity to earn
a dollar. His imagination, spurred on by the
instinct of self-interest, rose to the emergency.

"I's feared you mought git snake-bit gwine
roun' dat way, Miss Rena. My brer Jim kill't a
water-moccasin down dere yistiddy 'bout ten feet
long."

Rena had a horror of snakes, with which the
swamp by which the other road ran was infested.
Snakes were a vivid reality; her presentiment
was probably a mere depression of spirits due to
her condition of nervous exhaustion. A cloud had
come up and threatened rain, and the wind was
rising ominously. The old way was the shorter;
she wanted above all things to get to Elder
Johnson's and go to bed. Perhaps sleep would rest
her tired brain--she could not imagine herself
feeling worse, unless she should break down altogether.

She plunged into the path and hastened forward
so as to reach home before the approaching
storm. So completely was she absorbed in her
own thoughts that she scarcely noticed that Plato
himself seemed preoccupied. Instead of capering
along like a playful kitten or puppy, he walked by
her side unusually silent. When they had gone a
short distance and were approaching a path which
intersected their road at something near a right
angle, the teacher missed Plato. He had dropped
behind a moment before; now he had disappeared
entirely. Her vague alarm of a few moments
before returned with redoubled force.

"Plato!" she called; "Plato!"

There was no response, save the soughing of the
wind through the swaying treetops. She stepped
hastily forward, wondering if this were some childish
prank. If so, it was badly timed, and she
would let Plato feel the weight of her displeasure.

Her forward step had brought her to the
junction of the two paths, where she paused
doubtfully. The route she had been following was the
most direct way home, but led for quite a distance
through the forest, which she did not care to
traverse alone. The intersecting path would soon
take her to the main road, where she might find
shelter or company, or both. Glancing around
again in search of her missing escort, she became
aware that a man was approaching her from each
of the two paths. In one she recognized the eager
and excited face of George Tryon, flushed with
anticipation of their meeting, and yet grave with
uncertainty of his reception. Advancing confidently
along the other path she saw the face of
Jeff Wain, drawn, as she imagined in her anguish,
with evil passions which would stop at nothing.

What should she do? There was no sign of
Plato--for aught she could see or hear of him,
the earth might have swallowed him up. Some
deadly serpent might have stung him. Some
wandering rabbit might have tempted him aside.
Another thought struck her. Plato had been
very quiet--there had been something on his
conscience--perhaps he had betrayed her! But to
which of the two men, and to what end?

The problem was too much for her overwrought
brain. She turned and fled. A wiser instinct
might have led her forward. In the two conflicting
dangers she might have found safety. The
road after all was a public way. Any number of
persons might meet there accidentally. But she
saw only the darker side of the situation. To
turn to Tryon for protection before Wain had by
some overt act manifested the evil purpose which
she as yet only suspected would be, she imagined,
to acknowledge a previous secret acquaintance
with Tryon, thus placing her reputation at Wain's
mercy, and to charge herself with a burden of
obligation toward a man whom she wished to avoid
and had refused to meet. If, on the other hand,
she should go forward to meet Wain, he would
undoubtedly offer to accompany her homeward.
Tryon would inevitably observe the meeting, and
suppose it prearranged. Not for the world would
she have him think so--why she should care
for his opinion, she did not stop to argue. She
turned and fled, and to avoid possible pursuit,
struck into the underbrush at an angle which she
calculated would bring her in a few rods to another
path which would lead quickly into the main
road. She had run only a few yards when she
found herself in the midst of a clump of prickly
shrubs and briars. Meantime the storm had
burst; the rain fell in torrents. Extricating
herself from the thorns, she pressed forward, but
instead of coming out upon the road, found herself
penetrating deeper and deeper into the forest.

The storm increased in violence. The air grew
darker and darker. It was near evening, the
clouds were dense, the thick woods increased the
gloom. Suddenly a blinding flash of lightning
pierced the darkness, followed by a sharp clap of
thunder. There was a crash of falling timber.
Terror-stricken, Rena flew forward through the
forest, the underbrush growing closer and closer
as she advanced. Suddenly the earth gave way
beneath her feet and she sank into a concealed
morass. By clasping the trunk of a neighboring
sapling she extricated herself with an effort, and
realized with a horrible certainty that she was
lost in the swamp.

Turning, she tried to retrace her steps. A flash
of lightning penetrated the gloom around her, and
barring her path she saw a huge black snake,--
harmless enough, in fact, but to her excited
imagination frightful in appearance. With a wild
shriek she turned again, staggered forward a few
yards, stumbled over a projecting root, and fell
heavily to the earth.

When Rena had disappeared in the underbrush,
Tryon and Wain had each instinctively set out in
pursuit of her, but owing to the gathering darkness,
the noise of the storm, and the thickness of
the underbrush, they missed not only Rena but
each other, and neither was aware of the other's
presence in the forest. Wain kept up the chase
until the rain drove him to shelter. Tryon, after
a few minutes, realized that she had fled to escape
him, and that to pursue her would be to defeat
rather than promote his purpose. He desisted,
therefore, and returning to the main road, stationed
himself at a point where he could watch Elder
Johnson's house, and having waited for a while
without any signs of Rena, concluded that she had
taken refuge in some friendly cabin. Turning
homeward disconsolately as night came on, he
intercepted Plato on his way back from town, and
pledged him to inviolable secrecy so effectually
that Plato, when subsequently questioned, merely
answered that he had stopped a moment to gather
some chinquapins, and when he had looked around
the teacher was gone.

Rena not appearing at supper-time nor for an
hour later, the elder, somewhat anxious, made
inquiries about the neighborhood, and finding his
guest at no place where she might be expected to
stop, became somewhat alarmed. Wain's house
was the last to which he went. He had surmised
that there was some mystery connected with her
leaving Wain's, but had never been given any
definite information about the matter. In response
to his inquiries, Wain expressed surprise, but
betrayed a certain self-consciousness which did not
escape the elder's eye. Returning home, he organized
a search party from his own family and several
near neighbors, and set out with dogs and
torches to scour the woods for the missing teacher.
A couple of hours later, they found her lying
unconscious in the edge of the swamp, only a few
rods from a well-defined path which would soon
have led her to the open highway. Strong arms
lifted her gently and bore her home. Mrs. Johnson
undressed her and put her to bed, administering
a homely remedy, of which whiskey was
the principal ingredient, to counteract the effects
of the exposure. There was a doctor within five
miles, but no one thought of sending for him, nor
was it at all likely that it would have been possible
to get him for such a case at such an hour.

Rena's illness, however, was more deeply seated
than her friends could imagine. A tired body,
in sympathy with an overwrought brain, had left
her peculiarly susceptible to the nervous shock of
her forest experience. The exposure for several
hours in her wet clothing to the damps and miasma
of the swamp had brought on an attack of brain
fever. The next morning, she was delirious. One
of the children took word to the schoolhouse that
the teacher was sick and there would be no school
that day. A number of curious and sympathetic
people came in from time to time and suggested
various remedies, several of which old Mrs. Johnson,
with catholic impartiality, administered to
the helpless teacher, who from delirium gradually
sunk into a heavy stupor scarcely distinguishable
from sleep. It was predicted that she would
probably be well in the morning; if not, it would
then be time to consider seriously the question of
sending for a doctor.