The House Behind The Cedars
Charles W. Chesnutt
Part 3 out of 5
Such people were, for the most part, merely on
the ragged edge of the white world, seldom rising
above the level of overseers, or slave-catchers, or
sheriff's officers, who could usually be relied upon
to resent the drop of black blood that tainted them,
and with the zeal of the proselyte to visit their
hatred of it upon the unfortunate blacks that fell
into their hands. One curse of negro slavery
was, and one part of its baleful heritage is, that
it poisoned the fountains of human sympathy.
Under a system where men might sell their own
children without social reprobation or loss of
prestige, it was not surprising that some of them
should hate their distant cousins. There were
not in Patesville half a dozen persons capable
of thinking Judge Straight's thoughts upon the
question before him, and perhaps not another who
would have adopted the course he now pursued
toward this anomalous family in the house behind
"Well, here we are again, as the clown in the
circus remarks," murmured the judge. "Ten years
ago, in a moment of sentimental weakness and of
quixotic loyalty to the memory of an old friend,--
who, by the way, had not cared enough for his own
children to take them away from the South, as he
might have done, or to provide for them handsomely,
as he perhaps meant to do,--I violated the traditions
of my class and stepped from the beaten path
to help the misbegotten son of my old friend out of
the slough of despond, in which he had learned, in
some strange way, that he was floundering. Ten
years later, the ghost of my good deed returns to
haunt me, and makes me doubt whether I have
wrought more evil than good. I wonder," he mused,
"if he will find her out?"
The judge was a man of imagination; he had
read many books and had personally outlived some
prejudices. He let his mind run on the various
phases of the situation.
"If he found her out, would he by any
possibility marry her?"
"It is not likely," he answered himself. "If he
made the discovery here, the facts would probably
leak out in the town. It is something that a man
might do in secret, but only a hero or a fool would
The judge sighed as he contemplated another
possibility. He had lived for seventy years under
the old regime. The young man was a gentleman
--so had been the girl's father. Conditions were
changed, but human nature was the same. Would
the young man's love turn to disgust and repulsion,
or would it merely sink from the level of worship
to that of desire? Would the girl, denied marriage,
accept anything less? Her mother had,--but
conditions were changed. Yes, conditions were
changed, so far as the girl was concerned; there
was a possible future for her under the new order
of things; but white people had not changed their
opinion of the negroes, except for the worse. The
general belief was that they were just as inferior as
before, and had, moreover, been spoiled by a
disgusting assumption of equality, driven into their
thick skulls by Yankee malignity bent upon humiliating
a proud though vanquished foe.
If the judge had had sons and daughters of his
own, he might not have done what he now proceeded
to do. But the old man's attitude toward society
was chiefly that of an observer, and the narrow
stream of sentiment left in his heart chose to flow
toward the weaker party in this unequal conflict,
--a young woman fighting for love and opportunity
against the ranked forces of society, against
immemorial tradition, against pride of family and
"It may be the unwisest thing I ever did," he
said to himself, turning to his desk and taking up
a quill pen, "and may result in more harm than
good; but I was always from childhood in sympathy
with the under dog. There is certainly as much
reason in my helping the girl as the boy, for being
a woman, she is less able to help herself."
He dipped his pen into the ink and wrote the
MADAM,--If you value your daughter's happiness,
keep her at home for the next day or two.
This note he dried by sprinkling it with sand
from a box near at hand, signed with his own name,
and, with a fine courtesy, addressed to "Mrs. Molly
Walden." Having first carefully sealed it in an
envelope, he stepped to the open door, and spied,
playing marbles on the street near by, a group
of negro boys, one of whom the judge called by
"Here, Billy," he said, handing the boy the
note, "take this to Mis' Molly Walden. Do you
know where she lives--down on Front Street, in
the house behind the cedars?"
"Yas, suh, I knows de place."
"Make haste, now. When you come back and
tell me what she says, I'll give you ten cents. On
second thoughts, I shall be gone to lunch, so
here's your money," he added, handing the lad
the bit of soiled paper by which the United States
government acknowledged its indebtedness to the
bearer in the sum of ten cents.
Just here, however, the judge made his mistake.
Very few mortals can spare the spring of hope,
the motive force of expectation. The boy kept
the note in his hand, winked at his companions,
who had gathered as near as their awe of the judge
would permit, and started down the street. As
soon as the judge had disappeared, Billy beckoned
to his friends, who speedily overtook him. When
the party turned the corner of Front Street and
were safely out of sight of Judge Straight's office,
the capitalist entered the grocery store and
invested his unearned increment in gingerbread.
When the ensuing saturnalia was over, Billy
finished the game of marbles which the judge had
interrupted, and then set out to execute his
commission. He had nearly reached his objective
point when he met upon the street a young white
lady, whom he did not know, and for whom, the
path being narrow at that point, he stepped out
into the gutter. He reached the house behind
the cedars, went round to the back door, and
handed the envelope to Mis' Molly, who was
seated on the rear piazza, propped up by pillows
in a comfortable rocking-chair.
"Laws-a-massy!" she exclaimed weakly, "what
"It's a lettuh, ma'm," answered the boy, whose
expanding nostrils had caught a pleasant odor
from the kitchen, and who was therefore in no
hurry to go away.
"Who's it fur?" she asked.
"It's fuh you, ma'm," replied the lad.
"An' who's it from?" she inquired, turning
the envelope over and over, and examining it with
the impotent curiosity of one who cannot read.
"F'm ole Jedge Straight, ma'm. He tole me
ter fetch it ter you. Is you got a roasted 'tater
you could gimme, ma'm?"
"Shorely, chile. I'll have Aunt Zilphy fetch
you a piece of 'tater pone, if you'll hol' on a
She called to Aunt Zilphy, who soon came
hobbling out of the kitchen with a large square of
the delicacy,--a flat cake made of mashed sweet
potatoes, mixed with beaten eggs, sweetened and
flavored to suit the taste, and baked in a Dutch
oven upon the open hearth.
The boy took the gratuity, thanked her, and
turned to go. Mis' Molly was still scanning the
superscription of the letter. "I wonder," she
murmured, "what old Judge Straight can be writin'
to me about. Oh, boy!"
"Yas 'm," answered the messenger, looking
"Can you read writin'?"
"All right. Never mind."
She laid the letter carefully on the chimney-
piece of the kitchen. "I reckon it's somethin'
mo' 'bout the taxes," she thought, "or maybe
somebody wants to buy one er my lots. Rena'll
be back terreckly, an' she kin read it an' find out.
I'm glad my child'en have be'n to school. They
never could have got where they are now if they
A LOYAL FRIEND
Mention has been made of certain addressed
envelopes which John Warwick, on the occasion
of his visit to Patesville, had left with his
illiterate mother, by the use of which she might
communicate with her children from time to time.
On one occasion, Mis' Molly, having had a letter
written, took one of these envelopes from the chest
where she kept her most valued possessions, and
was about to inclose the letter when some one
knocked at the back door. She laid the envelope
and letter on a table in her bedroom, and went to
answer the knock. The wind, blowing across the
room through the open windows, picked up the
envelope and bore it into the street. Mis' Molly,
on her return, missed it, looked for it, and being
unable to find it, took another envelope. An hour
or two later another gust of wind lifted the bit
of paper from the ground and carried it into the
open door of the cooper shop. Frank picked it
up, and observing that it was clean and unused,
read the superscription. In his conversations with
Mis' Molly, which were often about Rena,--the
subject uppermost in both their minds,--he had
noted the mystery maintained by Mis' Molly about
her daughter's whereabouts, and had often wondered
where she might be. Frank was an intelligent
fellow, and could put this and that together.
The envelope was addressed to a place in South
Carolina. He was aware, from some casual remark
of Mis' Molly's, that Rena had gone to live
in South Carolina. Her son's name was John--
that he had changed his last name was more than
likely. Frank was not long in reaching the
conclusion that Rena was to be found near the town
named on the envelope, which he carefully preserved
for future reference.
For a whole year Frank had yearned for a smile
or a kind word from the only woman in the world.
Peter, his father, had rallied him somewhat upon
his moodiness after Rena's departure.
"Now 's de time, boy, fer you ter be lookin'
roun' fer some nice gal er yo' own color, w'at'll
'preciate you, an' won't be 'shamed er you. You're
wastin' time, boy, wastin' time, shootin' at a mark
outer yo' range."
But Frank said nothing in reply, and afterwards
the old man, who was not without discernment,
respected his son's mood and was silent in turn;
while Frank fed his memory with his imagination,
and by their joint aid kept hope alive.
Later an opportunity to see her presented itself.
Business in the cooper shop was dull. A barrel
factory had been opened in the town, and had
well-nigh paralyzed the cooper's trade. The best
mechanic could hardly compete with a machine.
One man could now easily do the work of Peter's
shop. An agent appeared in town seeking laborers
for one of the railroads which the newly organized
carpet-bag governments were promoting.
Upon inquiry Frank learned that their destination
was near the town of Clarence, South Carolina.
He promptly engaged himself for the service, and
was soon at work in the neighborhood of Warwick's
home. There he was employed steadily
until a certain holiday, upon which a grand
tournament was advertised to take place in a
neighboring town. Work was suspended, and foremen and
laborers attended the festivities.
Frank had surmised that Rena would be present
on such an occasion. He had more than guessed,
too, that she must be looked for among the white
people rather than among the black. Hence the
interest with which he had scanned the grand stand.
The result has already been recounted. He had
recognized her sweet face; he had seen her
enthroned among the proudest and best. He had
witnessed and gloried in her triumph. He had seen
her cheek flushed with pleasure, her eyes lit up with
smiles. He had followed her carriage, had made
the acquaintance of Mimy the nurse, and had
learned all about the family. When finally he left
the neighborhood to return to Patesville, he had
learned of Tryon's attentions, and had heard the
servants' gossip with reference to the marriage,
of which they knew the details long before the
principals had approached the main fact. Frank
went away without having received one smile or
heard one word from Rena; but he had seen her:
she was happy; he was content in the knowledge of
her happiness. She was doubtless secure in the
belief that her secret was unknown. Why should he,
by revealing his presence, sow the seeds of doubt
or distrust in the garden of her happiness? He
sacrificed the deepest longing of a faithful heart,
and went back to the cooper shop lest perchance she
might accidentally come upon him some day and
suffer the shock which he had sedulously spared her.
"I would n' want ter skeer her," he mused, "er
make her feel bad, an' dat's w'at I'd mos' lackly do
ef she seed me. She'll be better off wid me out'n
de road. She'll marry dat rich w'ite gent'eman,--
he won't never know de diffe'nce,--an' be a w'ite
lady, ez she would 'a' be'n, ef some ole witch had n'
changed her in her cradle. But maybe some time
she'll 'member de little nigger w'at use' ter nuss
her w'en she woz a chile, an' fished her out'n de ole
canal, an' would 'a' died fer her ef it would 'a' done
Very generously too, and with a fine delicacy,
he said nothing to Mis' Molly of his having seen
her daughter, lest she might be disquieted by the
knowledge that he shared the family secret,--no
great mystery now, this pitiful secret, but more far-
reaching in its consequences than any blood-curdling
crime. The taint of black blood was the unpardonable
sin, from the unmerited penalty of which there
was no escape except by concealment. If there be
a dainty reader of this tale who scorns a lie, and
who writes the story of his life upon his sleeve for
all the world to read, let him uncurl his scornful
lip and come down from the pedestal of superior
morality, to which assured position and wide
opportunity have lifted him, and put himself in the
place of Rena and her brother, upon whom God had
lavished his best gifts, and from whom society would
have withheld all that made these gifts valuable.
To undertake what they tried to do required great
courage. Had they possessed the sneaking, cringing,
treacherous character traditionally ascribed
to people of mixed blood--the character which the
blessed institutions of a free slave-holding republic
had been well adapted to foster among them; had
they been selfish enough to sacrifice to their
ambition the mother who gave them birth, society would
have been placated or humbugged, and the voyage
of their life might have been one of unbroken
When Rena came back unexpectedly at the
behest of her dream, Frank heard again the music
of her voice, felt the joy of her presence and the
benison of her smile. There was, however, a subtle
difference in her bearing. Her words were not less
kind, but they seemed to come from a remoter
source. She was kind, as the sun is warm or the
rain refreshing; she was especially kind to Frank,
because he had been good to her mother. If Frank
felt the difference in her attitude, he ascribed it to
the fact that she had been white, and had taken on
something of the white attitude toward the negro;
and Frank, with an equal unconsciousness, clothed
her with the attributes of the superior race. Only
her drop of black blood, he conceived, gave him the
right to feel toward her as he would never have
felt without it; and if Rena guessed her faithful
devotee's secret, the same reason saved his worship
from presumption. A smile and a kind word were
little enough to pay for a life's devotion.
On the third day of Rena's presence in Patesville,
Frank was driving up Front Street in the
early afternoon, when he nearly fell off his cart
in astonishment as he saw seated in Dr. Green's
buggy, which was standing in front of the Patesville
Hotel, the young gentleman who had won the
prize at the tournament, and who, as he had learned,
was to marry Rena. Frank was quite certain that
she did not know of Tryon's presence in the town.
Frank had been over to Mis' Molly's in the morning,
and had offered his services to the sick woman,
who had rapidly become convalescent upon her
daughter's return. Mis' Molly had spoken of some
camphor that she needed. Frank had volunteered
to get it. Rena had thanked him, and had spoken
of going to the drugstore during the afternoon. It
was her intention to leave Patesville on the following day.
"Ef dat man sees her in dis town," said Frank
to himself, "dere'll be trouble. She don't know
HE'S here, an' I'll bet he don't know SHE'S here."
Then Frank was assailed by a very strong
temptation. If, as he surmised, the joint presence of the
two lovers in Patesville was a mere coincidence, a
meeting between them would probably result in the
discovery of Rena's secret.
"If she's found out," argued the tempter,
"she'll come back to her mother, and you can see
her every day."
But Frank's love was not of the selfish kind.
He put temptation aside, and applied the whip to
the back of his mule with a vigor that astonished the
animal and moved him to unwonted activity. In
an unusually short space of time he drew up before
Mis' Molly's back gate, sprang from the cart, and
ran up to Mis' Molly on the porch.
"Is Miss Rena here?" he demanded breathlessly.
"No, Frank; she went up town 'bout an hour ago
to see the doctor an' git me some camphor gum."
Frank uttered a groan, rushed from the house,
sprang into the cart, and goaded the terrified mule
into a gallop that carried him back to the market
house in half the time it had taken him to reach
"I wonder what in the worl 's the matter with
Frank," mused Mis' Molly, in vague alarm. "Ef
he hadn't be'n in such a hurry, I'd 'a' axed him
to read Judge Straight's letter. But Rena'll be
When Frank reached the doctor's office, he saw
Tryon seated in the doctor's buggy, which was
standing by the window of the drugstore. Frank
ran upstairs and asked the doctor's man if Miss
Walden had been there.
"Yas," replied Dave, "she wuz here a little
w'ile ago, an' said she wuz gwine downstairs ter de
drugsto'. I would n' be s'prise' ef you'd fin' her
MINE OWN PEOPLE
The drive by which Dr. Green took Tryon to
his own house led up Front Street about a mile, to
the most aristocratic portion of the town, situated
on the hill known as Haymount, or, more briefly,
"The Hill." The Hill had lost some of its former
glory, however, for the blight of a four years' war
was everywhere. After reaching the top of this
wooded eminence, the road skirted for some little
distance the brow of the hill. Below them lay the
picturesque old town, a mass of vivid green, dotted
here and there with gray roofs that rose above the
tree-tops. Two long ribbons of streets stretched
away from the Hill to the faint red line that marked
the high bluff beyond the river at the farther side
of the town. The market-house tower and the
slender spires of half a dozen churches were sharply
outlined against the green background. The face
of the clock was visible, but the hours could have
been read only by eyes of phenomenal sharpness.
Around them stretched ruined walls, dismantled
towers, and crumbling earthworks--footprints of
the god of war, one of whose temples had crowned
this height. For many years before the rebellion a
Federal arsenal had been located at Patesville.
Seized by the state troops upon the secession of
North Carolina, it had been held by the Confederates
until the approach of Sherman's victorious
army, whereupon it was evacuated and partially
destroyed. The work of destruction begun by the
retreating garrison was completed by the conquerors,
and now only ruined walls and broken cannon
remained of what had once been the chief ornament
and pride of Patesville.
The front of Dr. Green's spacious brick house,
which occupied an ideally picturesque site, was
overgrown by a network of clinging vines,
contrasting most agreeably with the mellow red
background. A low brick wall, also overrun with
creepers, separated the premises from the street
and shut in a well-kept flower garden, in which
Tryon, who knew something of plants, noticed
many rare and beautiful specimens.
Mrs. Green greeted Tryon cordially. He did
not have the doctor's memory with which to fill out
the lady's cheeks or restore the lustre of her hair
or the sparkle of her eyes, and thereby justify her
husband's claim to be a judge of beauty; but her
kind-hearted hospitality was obvious, and might
have made even a plain woman seem handsome.
She and her two fair daughters, to whom Tryon
was duly presented, looked with much favor upon
their handsome young kinsman; for among the
people of Patesville, perhaps by virtue of the
prevalence of Scottish blood, the ties of blood were
cherished as things of value, and never forgotten
except in case of the unworthy--an exception, by
the way, which one need hardly go so far to seek.
The Patesville people were not exceptional in
the weaknesses and meannesses which are common
to all mankind, but for some of the finer social
qualities they were conspicuously above the average.
Kindness, hospitality, loyalty, a chivalrous
deference to women,--all these things might be
found in large measure by those who saw Patesville
with the eyes of its best citizens, and accepted
their standards of politics, religion, manners, and
The doctor, after the introductions, excused
himself for a moment. Mrs. Green soon left
Tryon with the young ladies and went to look
after luncheon. Her first errand, however, was
to find the doctor.
"Is he well off, Ed?" she asked her husband.
"Lots of land, and plenty of money, if he is
ever able to collect it. He has inherited two
"He's a good-looking fellow," she mused. "Is
"There you go again," replied her husband,
shaking his forefinger at her in mock reproach.
"To a woman with marriageable daughters all
roads lead to matrimony, the centre of a woman's
universe. All men must be sized up by their
matrimonial availability. No, he isn't married."
"That's nice," she rejoined reflectively. "I
think we ought to ask him to stay with us while he
is in town, don't you?"
"He's not married," rejoined the doctor slyly,
"but the next best thing--he's engaged."
"Come to think of it," said the lady, "I'm
afraid we wouldn't have the room to spare, and
the girls would hardly have time to entertain him.
But we'll have him up several times. I like his
looks. I wish you had sent me word he was coming;
I'd have had a better luncheon."
"Make him a salad," rejoined the doctor, "and
get out a bottle of the best claret. Thank God,
the Yankees didn't get into my wine cellar! The
young man must be treated with genuine Southern
hospitality,--even if he were a Mormon and married
ten times over."
"Indeed, he would not, Ed,--the idea! I'm
ashamed of you. Hurry back to the parlor and
talk to him. The girls may want to primp a little
before luncheon; we don't have a young man
"Beauty unadorned," replied the doctor, "is
adorned the most. My profession qualifies me to
speak upon the subject. They are the two handsomest
young women in Patesville, and the daughters
of the most beautiful"--
"Don't you dare to say the word," interrupted
Mrs. Green, with placid good nature. "I shall
never grow old while I am living with a big boy
like you. But I must go and make the salad."
At dinner the conversation ran on the family
connections and their varying fortunes in the late
war. Some had died upon the battlefield, and
slept in unknown graves; some had been financially
ruined by their faith in the "lost cause,"
having invested their all in the securities of the
Confederate Government. Few had anything left
but land, and land without slaves to work it was a
drug in the market.
"I was offered a thousand acres, the other day,
at twenty-five cents an acre," remarked the doctor.
"The owner is so land-poor that he can't
pay the taxes. They have taken our negroes and
our liberties. It may be better for our grandchildren
that the negroes are free, but it's confoundedly
hard on us to take them without paying
for them. They may exalt our slaves over us
temporarily, but they have not broken our spirit,
and cannot take away our superiority of blood and
breeding. In time we shall regain control. The
negro is an inferior creature; God has marked
him with the badge of servitude, and has adjusted
his intellect to a servile condition. We will not
long submit to his domination. I give you a
toast, sir: The Anglo-Saxon race: may it remain
forever, as now, the head and front of creation,
never yielding its rights, and ready always to die,
if need be, in defense of its liberties!"
"With all my heart, sir," replied Tryon, who
felt in this company a thrill of that pleasure which
accompanies conscious superiority,--"with all my
heart, sir, if the ladies will permit me."
"We will join you," they replied. The toast
was drunk with great enthusiasm.
"And now, my dear George," exclaimed the
doctor, "to change one good subject for another,
tell us who is the favored lady?"
"A Miss Rowena Warwick, sir," replied Tryon,
vividly conscious of four pairs of eyes fixed upon
him, but, apart from the momentary embarrassment,
welcoming the subject as the one he would
most like to speak upon.
"A good, strong old English name," observed
"The heroine of `Ivanhoe'!" exclaimed Miss
"Warwick the Kingmaker!" said Miss Mary.
"Is she tall and fair, and dignified and stately?"
"She is tall, dark rather than fair, and full of
tender grace and sweet humility."
"She should have been named Rebecca instead
of Rowena," rejoined Miss Mary, who was well up
in her Scott.
"Tell us something about her people," asked
Mrs. Green,--to which inquiry the young ladies
In this meeting of the elect of his own class and
kin Warwick felt a certain strong illumination
upon the value of birth and blood. Finding Rena
among people of the best social standing, the
subsequent intimation that she was a girl of no family
had seemed a small matter to one so much in love.
Nevertheless, in his present company he felt a
decided satisfaction in being able to present for his
future wife a clean bill of social health.
"Her brother is the most prominent lawyer of
Clarence. They live in a fine old family mansion,
and are among the best people of the town."
"Quite right, my boy," assented the doctor.
"None but the best are good enough for the best.
You must bring her to Patesville some day. But
bless my life!" he exclaimed, looking at his
watch, "I must be going. Will you stay with the
ladies awhile, or go back down town with me?"
"I think I had better go with you, sir. I shall
have to see Judge Straight."
"Very well. But you must come back to supper,
and we'll have a few friends in to meet you.
You must see some of the best people."
The doctor's buggy was waiting at the gate.
As they were passing the hotel on their drive
down town, the clerk came out to the curbstone
and called to the doctor.
"There's a man here, doctor, who's been taken
suddenly ill. Can you come in a minute?"
"I suppose I'll have to. Will you wait for
me here, George, or will you drive down to the
office? I can walk the rest of the way."
"I think I'll wait here, doctor," answered
Tryon. "I'll step up to my room a moment. I'll
be back by the time you're ready."
It was while they were standing before the hotel,
before alighting from the buggy, that Frank
Fowler, passing on his cart, saw Tryon and set out
as fast as he could to warn Mis' Molly and her
daughter of his presence in the town.
Tryon went up to his room, returned after a
while, and resumed his seat in the buggy, where
he waited fifteen minutes longer before the doctor
was ready. When they drew up in front of the
office, the doctor's man Dave was standing in the
doorway, looking up the street with an anxious
expression, as though struggling hard to keep
something upon his mind.
"Anything wanted, Dave?" asked the doctor.
"Dat young 'oman's be'n heah ag'in, suh, an'
wants ter see you bad. She's in de drugstore dere
now, suh. Bless Gawd!" he added to himself
fervently, "I 'membered dat. Dis yer recommemb'ance
er mine is gwine ter git me inter trouble ef
I don' look out, an' dat's a fac', sho'."
The doctor sprang from the buggy with an
agility remarkable in a man of sixty. "Just keep
your seat, George," he said to Tryon, "until I
have spoken to the young woman, and then we'll
go across to Straight's. Or, if you'll drive along
a little farther, you can see the girl through the
window. She's worth the trouble, if you like a
Tryon liked one pretty face; moreover, tinted
beauty had never appealed to him. More to show
a proper regard for what interested the doctor than
from any curiosity of his own, he drove forward a
few feet, until the side of the buggy was opposite
the drugstore window, and then looked in.
Between the colored glass bottles in the window
he could see a young woman, a tall and slender girl,
like a lily on its stem. She stood talking with the
doctor, who held his hat in his hand with as much
deference as though she were the proudest dame
in town. Her face was partly turned away from
the window, but as Tryon's eye fell upon her, he
gave a great start. Surely, no two women could be
so much alike. The height, the graceful droop of the
shoulders, the swan-like poise of the head, the well-
turned little ear,--surely, no two women could
have them all identical! But, pshaw! the notion
was absurd, it was merely the reflex influence of
his morning's dream.
She moved slightly; it was Rena's movement.
Surely he knew the gown, and the style of hair-
dressing! She rested her hand lightly on the
back of a chair. The ring that glittered on her
finger could be none other than his own.
The doctor bowed. The girl nodded in response,
and, turning, left the store. Tryon leaned forward
from the buggy-seat and kept his eye fixed on the
figure that moved across the floor of the drugstore.
As she came out, she turned her face casually
toward the buggy, and there could no longer be
any doubt as to her identity.
When Rena's eyes fell upon the young man in
the buggy, she saw a face as pale as death, with
starting eyes, in which love, which once had
reigned there, had now given place to astonishment
and horror. She stood a moment as if turned to
stone. One appealing glance she gave,--a look
that might have softened adamant. When she
saw that it brought no answering sign of love or
sorrow or regret, the color faded from her cheek,
the light from her eye, and she fell fainting to the
THE BOTTOM FALLS OUT
The first effect of Tryon's discovery was,
figuratively speaking, to knock the bottom out of things
for him. It was much as if a boat on which he
had been floating smoothly down the stream of
pleasure had sunk suddenly and left him struggling
in deep waters. The full realization of the truth,
which followed speedily, had for the moment reversed
his mental attitude toward her, and love
and yearning had given place to anger and
disgust. His agitation could hardly have escaped
notice had not the doctor's attention, and that of
the crowd that quickly gathered, been absorbed by
the young woman who had fallen. During the
time occupied in carrying her into the drugstore,
restoring her to consciousness, and sending her
home in a carriage, Tryon had time to recover in
some degree his self-possession. When Rena had
been taken home, he slipped away for a long walk,
after which he called at Judge Straight's office and
received the judge's report upon the matter
presented. Judge Straight had found the claim, in
his opinion, a good one; he had discovered property
from which, in case the claim were allowed,
the amount might be realized. The judge, who had
already been informed of the incident at the drugstore,
observed Tryon's preoccupation and guessed
shrewdly at its cause, but gave no sign. Tryon
left the matter of the note unreservedly in the
lawyer's hands, with instructions to communicate
to him any further developments.
Returning to the doctor's office, Tryon listened
to that genial gentleman's comments on the accident,
his own concern in which he, by a great effort,
was able to conceal. The doctor insisted upon his
returning to the Hill for supper. Tryon pleaded
illness. The doctor was solicitous, felt his pulse,
examined his tongue, pronounced him feverish, and
prescribed a sedative. Tryon sought refuge in his
room at the hotel, from which he did not emerge
again until morning.
His emotions were varied and stormy. At first
he could see nothing but the fraud of which he had
been made the victim. A negro girl had been
foisted upon him for a white woman, and he had
almost committed the unpardonable sin against his
race of marrying her. Such a step, he felt, would
have been criminal at any time; it would have
been the most odious treachery at this epoch, when
his people had been subjugated and humiliated by
the Northern invaders, who had preached negro
equality and abolished the wholesome laws decreeing
the separation of the races. But no Southerner
who loved his poor, downtrodden country, or
his race, the proud Anglo-Saxon race which traced
the clear stream of its blood to the cavaliers of
England, could tolerate the idea that even in distant
generations that unsullied current could be
polluted by the blood of slaves. The very thought
was an insult to the white people of the South.
For Tryon's liberality, of which he had spoken so
nobly and so sincerely, had been confined unconsciously,
and as a matter of course, within the boundaries
of his own race. The Southern mind, in
discussing abstract questions relative to humanity,
makes always, consciously or unconsciously, the
mental reservation that the conclusions reached do
not apply to the negro, unless they can be made to
harmonize with the customs of the country.
But reasoning thus was not without effect upon
a mind by nature reasonable above the average.
Tryon's race impulse and social prejudice had
carried him too far, and the swing of the mental
pendulum brought his thoughts rapidly back in
the opposite direction. Tossing uneasily on the
bed, where he had thrown himself down without
undressing, the air of the room oppressed him, and
he threw open the window. The cool night air
calmed his throbbing pulses. The moonlight,
streaming through the window, flooded the room
with a soft light, in which he seemed to see Rena
standing before him, as she had appeared that
afternoon, gazing at him with eyes that implored
charity and forgiveness. He burst into tears,--
bitter tears, that strained his heartstrings. He
was only a youth. She was his first love, and he
had lost her forever. She was worse than dead
to him; for if he had seen her lying in her shroud
before him, he could at least have cherished her
memory; now, even this consolation was denied
The town clock--which so long as it was wound
up regularly recked nothing of love or hate, joy or
sorrow--solemnly tolled out the hour of midnight
and sounded the knell of his lost love. Lost she
was, as though she had never been, as she had
indeed had no right to be. He resolutely determined
to banish her image from his mind. See
her again he could not; it would be painful to
them both; it could be productive of no good to
either. He had felt the power and charm of love,
and no ordinary shook could have loosened its
hold; but this catastrophe, which had so rudely
swept away the groundwork of his passion, had
stirred into new life all the slumbering pride of
race and ancestry which characterized his caste.
How much of this sensitive superiority was essential
and how much accidental; how much of it
was due to the ever-suggested comparison with a
servile race; how much of it was ignorance and
self-conceit; to what extent the boasted purity of
his race would have been contaminated by the fair
woman whose image filled his memory,--of these
things he never thought. He was not influenced
by sordid considerations; he would have denied
that his course was controlled by any narrow
prudence. If Rena had been white, pure white (for
in his creed there was no compromise), he would
have braved any danger for her sake. Had she
been merely of illegitimate birth, he would have
overlooked the bar sinister. Had her people
been simply poor and of low estate, he would have
brushed aside mere worldly considerations, and
would have bravely sacrificed convention for love;
for his liberality was not a mere form of words.
But the one objection which he could not overlook
was, unhappily, the one that applied to the only
woman who had as yet moved his heart. He tried
to be angry with her, but after the first hour he
found it impossible. He was a man of too much
imagination not to be able to put himself, in some
measure at least, in her place,--to perceive that for
her the step which had placed her in Tryon's world
was the working out of nature's great law of self-
preservation, for which he could not blame her.
But for the sheerest accident,--no, rather, but for
a providential interference,--he would have married
her, and might have gone to the grave unconscious
that she was other than she seemed.
The clock struck the hour of two. With a
shiver he closed the window, undressed by the
moonlight, drew down the shade, and went to bed.
He fell into an unquiet slumber, and dreamed
again of Rena. He must learn to control his
waking thoughts; his dreams could not be curbed.
In that realm Rena's image was for many a day
to remain supreme. He dreamed of her sweet
smile, her soft touch, her gentle voice. In all her
fair young beauty she stood before him, and then
by some hellish magic she was slowly transformed
into a hideous black hag. With agonized eyes he
watched her beautiful tresses become mere wisps
of coarse wool, wrapped round with dingy cotton
strings; he saw her clear eyes grow bloodshot,
her ivory teeth turn to unwholesome fangs. With
a shudder he awoke, to find the cold gray dawn
of a rainy day stealing through the window.
He rose, dressed himself, went down to
breakfast, then entered the writing-room and penned a
letter which, after reading it over, he tore into
small pieces and threw into the waste basket. A
second shared the same fate. Giving up the task,
he left the hotel and walked down to Dr. Green's
"Is the doctor in?" he asked of the colored
"No, suh," replied the man; "he's gone ter see
de young cullud gal w'at fainted w'en de doctah
was wid you yistiddy."
Tryon sat down at the doctor's desk and hastily
scrawled a note, stating that business compelled
his immediate departure. He thanked the doctor
for courtesies extended, and left his regards for
the ladies. Returning. to the hotel, he paid his
bill and took a hack for the wharf, from which a
boat was due to leave at nine o'clock.
As the hack drove down Front Street, Tryon
noted idly the houses that lined the street. When
he reached the sordid district in the lower part of
the town, there was nothing to attract his
attention until the carriage came abreast of a row of
cedar-trees, beyond which could be seen the upper
part of a large house with dormer windows. Before
the gate stood a horse and buggy, which Tryon
thought he recognized as Dr. Green's. He leaned
forward and addressed the driver.
"Can you tell me who lives there?" Tryon
asked, pointing to the house.
"A callud 'oman, suh," the man replied,
touching his hat. "Mis' Molly Walden an' her daughter
The vivid impression he received of this house,
and the spectre that rose before him of a pale,
broken-hearted girl within its gray walls, weeping
for a lost lover and a vanished dream of happiness,
did not argue well for Tryon's future peace of
mind. Rena's image was not to be easily expelled
from his heart; for the laws of nature are higher
and more potent than merely human institutions,
and upon anything like a fair field are likely to
win in the long ran.
Warwick awaited events with some calmness
and some philosophy,--he could hardly have had
the one without the other; and it required much
philosophy to make him wait a week in patience
for information upon a subject in which he was so
vitally interested. The delay pointed to disaster.
Bad news being expected, delay at least put off
the evil day. At the end of the week he received
two letters,--one addressed in his own hand
writing and postmarked Patesville, N. C.; the
other in the handwriting of George Tryon. He
opened the Patesville letter, which ran as follows:--
MY DEAR SON,--Frank is writing this letter
for me. I am not well, but, thank the Lord, I
am better than I was.
Rena has had a heap of trouble on account of
me and my sickness. If I could of dreamt that I
was going to do so much harm, I would of died and
gone to meet my God without writing one word to
spoil my girl's chances in life; but I didn't know
what was going to happen, and I hope the Lord
will forgive me.
Frank knows all about it, and so I am having
him write this letter for me, as Rena is not well
enough yet. Frank has been very good to me
and to Rena. He was down to your place and
saw Rena there, and never said a word about it to
nobody, not even to me, because he didn't want
to do Rena no harm. Frank is the best friend I
have got in town, because he does so much for me
and don't want nothing in return. (He tells me
not to put this in about him, but I want you to
And now about Rena. She come to see me,
and I got better right away, for it was longing for
her as much as anything else that made me sick,
and I was mighty mizzable. When she had been
here three days and was going back next day, she
went up town to see the doctor for me, and while
she was up there she fainted and fell down in the
street, and Dr. Green sent her home in his buggy
and come down to see her. He couldn't tell what
was the matter with her, but she has been sick ever
since and out of her head some of the time, and
keeps on calling on somebody by the name of
George, which was the young white man she told
me she was going to marry. It seems he was in
town the day Rena was took sick, for Frank saw
him up street and run all the way down here to tell
me, so that she could keep out of his way, while she
was still up town waiting for the doctor and getting
me some camphor gum for my camphor bottle. Old
Judge Straight must have knowed something about
it, for he sent me a note to keep Rena in the house,
but the little boy he sent it by didn't bring it till
Rena was already gone up town, and, as I couldn't
read, of course I didn't know what it said. Dr.
Green heard Rena running on while she was out of
her head, and I reckon he must have suspicioned
something, for he looked kind of queer and went
away without saying nothing. Frank says she met
this man on the street, and when he found out she
wasn't white, he said or done something that broke
her heart and she fainted and fell down.
I am writing you this letter because I know you
will be worrying about Rena not coming back. If
it wasn't for Frank, I hardly know how I could
write to you. Frank is not going to say nothing
about Rena's passing for white and meeting this
man, and neither am I; and I don't suppose Judge
Straight will say nothing, because he is our good
friend; and Dr. Green won't say nothing about it,
because Frank says Dr. Green's cook Nancy says
this young man named George stopped with him
and was some cousin or relation to the family, and
they wouldn't want people to know that any of their
kin was thinking about marrying a colored girl,
and the white folks have all been mad since J. B.
Thompson married his black housekeeper when she
got religion and wouldn't live with him no more.
All the rest of the connection are well. I have
just been in to see how Rena is. She is feeling
some better, I think, and says give you her love
and she will write you a letter in a few days, as
soon as she is well enough. She bust out crying
while she was talking, but I reckon that is better
than being out of her head. I hope this may find
you well, and that this man of Rena's won't say
nor do nothing down there to hurt you. He has
not wrote to Rena nor sent her no word. I reckon
he is very mad.
Your affectionate mother,
This letter, while confirming Warwick's fears,
relieved his suspense. He at least knew the worst,
unless there should be something still more disturbing
in Tryon's letter, which he now proceeded to
open, and which ran as follows:--
JOHN WARWICK, ESQ.
Dear Sir,--When I inform you, as you are
doubtless informed ere the receipt of this, that I
saw your sister in Patesville last week and learned
the nature of those antecedents of yours and hers
at which you hinted so obscurely in a recent
conversation, you will not be surprised to learn that
I take this opportunity of renouncing any pretensions
to Miss Warwick's hand, and request you to
convey this message to her, since it was through
you that I formed her acquaintance. I think
perhaps that few white men would deem it necessary
to make an explanation under the circumstances,
and I do not know that I need say more than
that no one, considering where and how I met your
sister, would have dreamed of even the possibility
of what I have learned. I might with justice
reproach you for trifling with the most sacred
feelings of a man's heart; but I realize the hardship
of your position and hers, and can make allowances.
I would never have sought to know this thing; I
would doubtless have been happier had I gone
through life without finding it out; but having the
knowledge, I cannot ignore it, as you must understand
perfectly well. I regret that she should be
distressed or disappointed,--she has not suffered
I need scarcely assure you that I shall say
nothing about this affair, and that I shall keep
your secret as though it were my own. Personally,
I shall never be able to think of you as other than
a white man, as you may gather from the tone of
this letter; and while I cannot marry your sister,
I wish her every happiness, and remain,
Yours very truly,
Warwick could not know that this formal epistle
was the last of a dozen that Tryon had written and
destroyed during the week since the meeting in
Patesville,--hot, blistering letters, cold, cutting
letters, scornful, crushing letters. Though none of
them was sent, except this last, they had furnished
a safety-valve for his emotions, and had left him in
a state of mind that permitted him to write the
And now, while Rena is recovering from her
illness, and Tryon from his love, and while Fate is
shuffling the cards for another deal, a few words
may be said about the past life of the people who
lived in the rear of the flower garden, in the quaint
old house beyond the cedars, and how their lives
were mingled with those of the men and women
around them and others that were gone. For connected
with our kind we must be; if not by our
virtues, then by our vices,--if not by our services,
at least by our needs.
UNDER THE OLD REGIME
For many years before the civil war there had
lived, in the old house behind the cedars, a free
colored woman who went by the name of Molly
Walden--her rightful name, for her parents
were free-born and legally married. She was a tall
woman, straight as an arrow. Her complexion in
youth was of an old ivory tint, which at the period
of this story, time had darkened measurably. Her
black eyes, now faded, had once sparkled with the
fire of youth. High cheek-bones, straight black
hair, and a certain dignified reposefulness of manner
pointed to an aboriginal descent. Tradition
gave her to the negro race. Doubtless she had a
strain of each, with white blood very visibly
predominating over both. In Louisiana or the West
Indies she would have been called a quadroon, or
more loosely, a creole; in North Carolina, where
fine distinctions were not the rule in matters
of color, she was sufficiently differentiated when
described as a bright mulatto.
Molly's free birth carried with it certain
advantages, even in the South before the war. Though
degraded from its high estate, and shorn of its
choicest attributes, the word "freedom" had
nevertheless a cheerful sound, and described a
condition that left even to colored people who could
claim it some liberty of movement and some control
of their own persons. They were not citizens,
yet they were not slaves. No negro, save in books,
ever refused freedom; many of them ran frightful
risks to achieve it. Molly's parents were of the
class, more numerous in North Carolina than elsewhere,
known as "old issue free negroes," which
took its rise in the misty colonial period, when race
lines were not so closely drawn, and the population
of North Carolina comprised many Indians, runaway
negroes, and indentured white servants from
the seaboard plantations, who mingled their blood
with great freedom and small formality. Free
colored people in North Carolina exercised the
right of suffrage as late as 1835, and some of them,
in spite of galling restrictions, attained to a
considerable degree of prosperity, and dreamed of a
still brighter future, when the growing tyranny of
the slave power crushed their hopes and crowded
the free people back upon the black mass just
beneath them. Mis' Molly's father had been at
one time a man of some means. In an evil hour,
with an overweening confidence in his fellow men,
he indorsed a note for a white man who, in a
moment of financial hardship, clapped his colored
neighbor on the back and called him brother. Not
poverty, but wealth, is the most potent leveler.
In due time the indorser was called upon to meet
the maturing obligation. This was the beginning
of a series of financial difficulties which speedily
involved him in ruin. He died prematurely, a
disappointed and disheartened man, leaving his family
in dire poverty.
His widow and surviving children lived on for
a little while at the house he had owned, just
outside of the town, on one of the main traveled roads.
By the wayside, near the house, there was a famous
deep well. The slim, barefoot girl, with sparkling
eyes and voluminous hair, who played about the
yard and sometimes handed water in a gourd to
travelers, did not long escape critical observation.
A gentleman drove by one day, stopped at the
well, smiled upon the girl, and said kind words. He
came again, more than once, and soon, while
scarcely more than a child in years, Molly was
living in her own house, hers by deed of gift, for
her protector was rich and liberal. Her mother
nevermore knew want. Her poor relations could
always find a meal in Molly's kitchen. She did
not flaunt her prosperity in the world's face; she
hid it discreetly behind the cedar screen. Those
who wished could know of it, for there were few
secrets in Patesville; those who chose could as
easily ignore it. There were few to trouble
themselves about the secluded life of an obscure woman
of a class which had no recognized place in the
social economy. She worshiped the ground upon
which her lord walked, was humbly grateful for
his protection, and quite as faithful as the forbidden
marriage vow could possibly have made her. She
led her life in material peace and comfort, and
with a certain amount of dignity. Of her false
relation to society she was not without some
vague conception; but the moral point involved
was so confused with other questions growing out
--of slavery and caste as to cause her, as a rule, but
little uneasiness; and only now and then, in the
moments of deeper feeling that come sometimes to
all who live and love, did there break through the
mists of ignorance and prejudice surrounding her
a flash of light by which she saw, so far as she
was capable of seeing, her true position, which in
the clear light of truth no special pleading could
entirely justify. For she was free, she had not
the slave's excuse. With every inducement to do
evil and few incentives to do well, and hence
entitled to charitable judgment, she yet had
freedom of choice, and therefore could not wholly
escape blame. Let it be said, in further extenuation,
that no other woman lived in neglect or sorrow
because of her. She robbed no one else. For
what life gave her she returned an equivalent; and
what she did not pay, her children settled to the
Several years before the war, when Mis' Molly's
daughter Rena was a few years old, death had
suddenly removed the source of their prosperity.
The household was not left entirely destitute.
Mis' Molly owned her home, and had a store of
gold pieces in the chest beneath her bed. A small
piece of real estate stood in the name of each of
the children, the income from which contributed to
their maintenance. Larger expectations were
dependent upon the discovery of a promised will,
which never came to light. Mis' Molly wore black
for several years after this bereavement, until the
teacher and the preacher, following close upon the
heels of military occupation, suggested to the
colored people new standards of life and character, in
the light of which Mis' Molly laid her mourning
sadly and shamefacedly aside. She had eaten of
the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. After the war
she formed the habit of church-going, and might
have been seen now and then, with her daughter, in
a retired corner of the gallery of the white Episcopal
church. Upon the ground floor was a certain
pew which could be seen from her seat, where once
had sat a gentleman whose pleasures had not interfered
with the practice of his religion. She might
have had a better seat in a church where a Northern
missionary would have preached a sermon better
suited to her comprehension and her moral needs,
but she preferred the other. She was not white,
alas! she was shut out from this seeming paradise;
but she liked to see the distant glow of the celestial
city, and to recall the days when she had basked in
its radiance. She did not sympathize greatly with
the new era opened up for the emancipated slaves;
she had no ideal love of liberty; she was no broader
and no more altruistic than the white people around
her, to whom she had always looked up; and she
sighed for the old days, because to her they had
been the good days. Now, not only was her king
dead, but the shield of his memory protected her
Molly had lost one child, and his grave was
visible from the kitchen window, under a small
clump of cedars in the rear of the two-acre lot.
For even in the towns many a household had its
private cemetery in those old days when the living
were close to the dead, and ghosts were not the
mere chimeras of a sick imagination, but real
though unsubstantial entities, of which it was
almost disgraceful not to have seen one or two.
Had not the Witch of Endor called up the shade
of Samuel the prophet? Had not the spirit of
Mis' Molly's dead son appeared to her, as well
as the ghostly presence of another she had loved?
In 1855, Mis' Molly's remaining son had grown
into a tall, slender lad of fifteen, with his father's
patrician features and his mother's Indian hair,
and no external sign to mark him off from the
white boys on the street. He soon came to know,
however, that there was a difference. He was
informed one day that he was black. He denied the
proposition and thrashed the child who made it.
The scene was repeated the next day, with a
variation,--he was himself thrashed by a larger boy.
When he had been beaten five or six times, he
ceased to argue the point, though to himself he
never admitted the charge. His playmates might
call him black; the mirror proved that God, the
Father of all, had made him white; and God, he
had been taught, made no mistakes,--having
made him white, He must have meant him to be
In the "hall" or parlor of his mother's house
stood a quaintly carved black walnut bookcase,
containing a small but remarkable collection of
books, which had at one time been used, in his
hours of retreat and relaxation from business and
politics, by the distinguished gentleman who did
not give his name to Mis' Molly's children,--to
whom it would have been a valuable heritage, could
they have had the right to bear it. Among the
books were a volume of Fielding's complete works,
in fine print, set in double columns; a set of
Bulwer's novels; a collection of everything that Walter
Scott--the literary idol of the South--had ever
written; Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, cheek by
jowl with the history of the virtuous Clarissa
Harlowe; the Spectator and Tristram Shandy, Robinson
Crusoe and the Arabian Nights. On these secluded
shelves Roderick Random, Don Quixote, and Gil
Blas for a long time ceased their wanderings, the
Pilgrim's Progress was suspended, Milton's mighty
harmonies were dumb, and Shakespeare reigned
over a silent kingdom. An illustrated Bible, with a
wonderful Apocrypha, was flanked on one side by
Volney's Ruins of Empire and on the other by
Paine's Age of Reason, for the collector of the
books had been a man of catholic taste as well as
of inquiring mind, and no one who could have
criticised his reading ever penetrated behind the
cedar hedge. A history of the French Revolution
consorted amiably with a homespun chronicle of
North Carolina, rich in biographical notices of
distinguished citizens and inscriptions from their
tombstones, upon reading which one might well
wonder why North Carolina had not long ago
eclipsed the rest of the world in wealth, wisdom,
glory, and renown. On almost every page of this
monumental work could be found the most ardent
panegyrics of liberty, side by side with the slavery
statistics of the State,--an incongruity of which
the learned author was deliciously unconscious.
When John Walden was yet a small boy, he
had learned all that could be taught by the faded
mulatto teacher in the long, shiny black frock
coat, whom local public opinion permitted to teach
a handful of free colored children for a pittance
barely enough to keep soul and body together.
When the boy had learned to read, he discovered
the library, which for several years had been
without a reader, and found in it the portal of a new
world, peopled with strange and marvelous beings.
Lying prone upon the floor of the shaded front
piazza, behind the fragrant garden, he followed
the fortunes of Tom Jones and Sophia; he wept
over the fate of Eugene Aram; he penetrated with
Richard the Lion-heart into Saladin's tent, with
Gil Blas into the robbers' cave; he flew through
the air on the magic carpet or the enchanted horse,
or tied with Sindbad to the roc's leg. Sometimes
he read or repeated the simpler stories to his little
sister, sitting wide-eyed by his side. When he had
read all the books,--indeed, long before he had
read them all,--he too had tasted of the fruit of
the Tree of Knowledge: contentment took its flight,
and happiness lay far beyond the sphere where
he was born. The blood of his white fathers, the
heirs of the ages, cried out for its own, and after
the manner of that blood set about getting the
object of its desire.
Near the corner of Mackenzie Street, just one
block north of the Patesville market-house, there
had stood for many years before the war, on the
verge of the steep bank of Beaver Creek, a small
frame office building, the front of which was level
with the street, while the rear rested on long brick
pillars founded on the solid rock at the edge of the
brawling stream below. Here, for nearly half a
century, Archibald Straight had transacted legal
business for the best people of Northumberland
County. Full many a lawsuit had he won, lost, or
settled; many a spendthrift had he saved from
ruin, and not a few families from disgrace. Several
times honored by election to the bench, he
had so dispensed justice tempered with mercy as
to win the hearts of all good citizens, and
especially those of the poor, the oppressed, and the
socially disinherited. The rights of the humblest
negro, few as they might be, were as sacred to
him as those of the proudest aristocrat, and he
had sentenced a man to be hanged for the murder
of his own slave. An old-fashioned man, tall and
spare of figure and bowed somewhat with age, he
was always correctly clad in a long frock coat of
broadcloth, with a high collar and a black stock.
Courtly in address to his social equals (superiors
he had none), he was kind and considerate to
those beneath him. He owned a few domestic
servants, no one of whom had ever felt the weight
of his hand, and for whose ultimate freedom he
had provided in his will. In the long-drawn-out
slavery agitation he had taken a keen interest,
rather as observer than as participant. As the heat
of controversy increased, his lack of zeal for the
peculiar institution led to his defeat for the bench
by a more active partisan. His was too just a
mind not to perceive the arguments on both sides;
but, on the whole, he had stood by the ancient
landmarks, content to let events drift to a conclusion
he did not expect to see; the institutions of
his fathers would probably last his lifetime.
One day Judge Straight was sitting in his
office reading a recently published pamphlet,--
presenting an elaborate pro-slavery argument, based
upon the hopeless intellectual inferiority of the
negro, and the physical and moral degeneration
of mulattoes, who combined the worst qualities of
their two ancestral races,--when a barefooted boy
walked into the office, straw hat in hand, came
boldly up to the desk at which the old judge was
sitting, and said as the judge looked up through
his gold-rimmed glasses,--
"Sir, I want to be a lawyer!"
"God bless me!" exclaimed the judge. "It is
a singular desire, from a singular source, and
expressed in a singular way. Who the devil are
you, sir, that wish so strange a thing as to become
a lawyer--everybody's servant?"
"And everybody's master, sir," replied the lad
"That is a matter of opinion, and open to
argument," rejoined the judge, amused and secretly
flattered by this tribute to his profession, "though
there may be a grain of truth in what you say.
But what is your name, Mr. Would-be-lawyer?"
"John Walden, sir," answered the lad.
"John Walden?--Walden?" mused the judge.
"What Walden can that be? Do you belong in
"Humph! I can't imagine who you are. It's
plain that you are a lad of good blood, and yet I
don't know whose son you can be. What is your
The lad hesitated, and flushed crimson.
The old gentleman noted his hesitation. "It
is a wise son," he thought, "that knows his own
father. He is a bright lad, and will have this
question put to him more than once. I'll see
how he will answer it."
The boy maintained an awkward silence, while
the old judge eyed him keenly.
"My father's dead," he said at length, in a low
voice. "I'm Mis' Molly Walden's son." He
had expected, of course, to tell who he was, if
asked, but had not foreseen just the form of the
inquiry; and while he had thought more of his
race than of his illegitimate birth, he realized at
this moment as never before that this question too
would be always with him. As put now by Judge
Straight, it made him wince. He had not read his
father's books for nothing.
"God bless my soul!" exclaimed the judge in
genuine surprise at this answer; "and you want
to be a lawyer!" The situation was so much
worse than he had suspected that even an old
practitioner, case-hardened by years of life at the
trial table and on the bench, was startled for a
moment into a comical sort of consternation, so
apparent that a lad less stout-hearted would have
weakened and fled at the sight of it.
"Yes, sir. Why not?" responded the boy,
trembling a little at the knees, but stoutly holding
"He wants to be a lawyer, and he asks me why
not!" muttered the judge, speaking apparently to
himself. He rose from his chair, walked across
the room, and threw open a window. The cool
morning air brought with it the babbling of the
stream below and the murmur of the mill near by.
He glanced across the creek to the ruined foundation
of an old house on the low ground beyond the
creek. Turning from the window, he looked back
at the boy, who had remained standing between
him and the door. At that moment another lad
came along the street and stopped opposite the
open doorway. The presence of the two boys in
connection with the book he had been reading
suggested a comparison. The judge knew the lad
outside as the son of a leading merchant of the
town. The merchant and his wife were both of
old families which had lived in the community
for several generations, and whose blood was
presumably of the purest strain; yet the boy
was sallow, with amorphous features, thin shanks,
and stooping shoulders. The youth standing in
the judge's office, on the contrary, was straight,
shapely, and well-grown. His eye was clear, and
he kept it fixed on the old gentleman with a look
in which there was nothing of cringing. He was
no darker than many a white boy bronzed by the
Southern sun; his hair and eyes were black, and
his features of the high-bred, clean-cut order that
marks the patrician type the world over. What
struck the judge most forcibly, however, was the
lad's resemblance to an old friend and companion
and client. He recalled a certain conversation
with this old friend, who had said to him one day:
"Archie, I'm coming in to have you draw my
will. There are some children for whom I would
like to make ample provision. I can't give them
anything else, but money will make them free of
The judge's friend had died suddenly before
carrying out this good intention. The judge had
taken occasion to suggest the existence of these
children, and their father's intentions concerning
them, to the distant relatives who had inherited
his friend's large estate. They had chosen to take
offense at the suggestion. One had thought it in
shocking bad taste; another considered any mention
of such a subject an insult to his cousin's
memory. A third had said, with flashing eyes, that
the woman and her children had already robbed
the estate of enough; that it was a pity the little
niggers were not slaves--that they would have
added measurably to the value of the property.
Judge Straight's manner indicated some disapproval
of their attitude, and the settlement of the estate
was placed in other hands than his. Now, this son,
with his father's face and his father's voice, stood
before his father's friend, demanding entrance to
the golden gate of opportunity, which society barred
to all who bore the blood of the despised race.
As he kept on looking at the boy, who began at
length to grow somewhat embarrassed under this
keen scrutiny, the judge's mind reverted to certain
laws and judicial decisions that he had looked up
once or twice in his lifetime. Even the law, the
instrument by which tyranny riveted the chains
upon its victims, had revolted now and then against
the senseless and unnatural prejudice by which a
race ascribing its superiority to right of blood
permitted a mere suspicion of servile blood to
outweigh a vast preponderance of its own.
"Why, indeed, should he not be a lawyer, or
anything else that a man might be, if it be in him?"
asked the judge, speaking rather to himself than
to the boy. "Sit down," he ordered, pointing to
a chair on the other side of the room. That he
should ask a colored lad to be seated in his presence
was of itself enough to stamp the judge as eccentric.
"You want to be a lawyer," he went on, adjusting
his spectacles. "You are aware, of course, that
you are a negro?"
"I am white," replied the lad, turning back his
sleeve and holding out his arm, "and I am free, as
all my people were before me."
The old lawyer shook his head, and fixed his eyes
upon the lad with a slightly quizzical smile. "You
are black." he said, "and you are not free. You
cannot travel without your papers; you cannot
secure accommodations at an inn; you could not
vote, if you were of age; you cannot be out after
nine o'clock without a permit. If a white man
struck you, you could not return the blow, and you
could not testify against him in a court of justice.
You are black, my lad, and you are not free. Did
you ever hear of the Dred Scott decision, delivered
by the great, wise, and learned Judge Taney?"
"No, sir," answered the boy.
"It is too long to read," rejoined the judge,
taking up the pamphlet he had laid down upon the
lad's entrance, "but it says in substance, as quoted
by this author, that negroes are beings `of an
inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate
with the white race, either in social or political
relations; in fact, so inferior that they have no
rights which the white man is bound to respect, and
that the negro may justly and lawfully be reduced
to slavery for his benefit.' That is the law of
this nation, and that is the reason why you cannot
be a lawyer."
"It may all be true," replied the boy, "but it
don't apply to me. It says `the negro.' A negro
is black; I am white, and not black."
"Black as ink, my lad," returned the lawyer,
shaking his head. "`One touch of nature makes
the whole world kin,' says the poet. Somewhere,
sometime, you had a black ancestor. One drop of
black blood makes the whole man black."
"Why shouldn't it be the other way, if the
white blood is so much superior?" inquired the lad.
"Because it is more convenient as it is--and
"It is not right," maintained the lad.
"God bless me!" exclaimed the old gentleman,
"he is invading the field of ethics! He will be
questioning the righteousness of slavery next! I'm
afraid you wouldn't make a good lawyer, in any
event. Lawyers go by the laws--they abide by the
accomplished fact; to them, whatever is, is right.
The laws do not permit men of color to practice
law, and public sentiment would not allow one of
them to study it."
"I had thought," said the lad, "that I might
pass for white. There are white people darker
than I am."
"Ah, well, that is another matter; but"--
The judge stopped for a moment, struck by the
absurdity of his arguing such a question with a
mulatto boy. He really must be falling into
premature dotage. The proper thing would be to
rebuke the lad for his presumption and advise him
to learn to take care of horses, or make boots, or
lay bricks. But again he saw his old friend in the
lad's face, and again he looked in vain for any sign
of negro blood. The least earmark would have
turned the scale, but he could not find it.
"That is another matter," he repeated. "Here
you have started as black, and must remain so.
But if you wish to move away, and sink your past
into oblivion, the case might be different. Let us
see what the law is; you might not need it if you
went far enough, but it is well enough to be within
it--liberty is sweeter when founded securely on
He took down a volume bound in legal calf and
glanced through it. "The color line is drawn in
North Carolina at four generations removed from
the negro; there have been judicial decisions to
that effect. I imagine that would cover your
case. But let us see what South Carolina may
say about it," he continued, taking another book.
"I think the law is even more liberal there. Ah,
this is the place:--
"`The term mulatto,'" he read, "`is not invariably
applicable to every admixture of African blood
with the European, nor is one having all the features
of a white to be ranked with the degraded class
designated by the laws of this State as persons of
color, because of some remote taint of the negro
race. Juries would probably be justified in holding
a person to be white in whom the admixture
of African blood did not exceed one eighth. And
even where color or feature are doubtful, it is a
question for the jury to decide by reputation, by
reception into society, and by their exercise of the
privileges of the white man, as well as by admixture
"Then I need not be black?" the boy cried,
with sparkling eyes.
"No," replied the lawyer, "you need not be
black, away from Patesville. You have the somewhat
unusual privilege, it seems, of choosing
between two races, and if you are a lad of spirit,
as I think you are, it will not take you long to make
your choice. As you have all the features of a
white man, you would, at least in South Carolina,
have simply to assume the place and exercise the
privileges of a white man. You might, of course,
do the same thing anywhere, as long as no one knew
your origin. But the matter has been adjudicated
there in several cases, and on the whole I think
South Carolina is the place for you. They're more
liberal there, perhaps because they have many
more blacks than whites, and would like to lessen
"From this time on," said the boy, "I am white."
"Softly, softly, my Caucasian fellow citizen,"
returned the judge, chuckling with quiet
amusement. "You are white in the abstract, before the
law. You may cherish the fact in secret, but I
would not advise you to proclaim it openly just
yet. You must wait until you go away--to South
"And can I learn to be a lawyer, sir?" asked
"It seems to me that you ought to be reasonably
content for one day with what you have
learned already. You cannot be a lawyer until
you are white, in position as well as in theory, nor
until you are twenty-one years old. I need an
office boy. If you are willing to come into my
office, sweep it, keep my books dusted, and stay
here when I am out, I do not care. To the rest
of the town you will be my servant, and still a
negro. If you choose to read my books when no
one is about and be white in your own private
opinion, I have no objection. When you have
made up your mind to go away, perhaps what you
have read may help you. But mum 's the word!
If I hear a whisper of this from any other source,
out you go, neck and crop! I am willing to help
you make a man of yourself, but it can only be
done under the rose."
For two years John Walden openly swept the
office and surreptitiously read the law books of old
Judge Straight. When he was eighteen, he asked
his mother for a sum of money, kissed her good-
by, and went out into the world. When his sister,
then a pretty child of seven, cried because her
big brother was going away, he took her up in his
arms, gave her a silver dime with a hole in it for
a keepsake, hugged her close, and kissed her.
"Nev' min', sis," he said soothingly. "Be a
good little gal, an' some o' these days I'll come
back to see you and bring you somethin' fine."
In after years, when Mis' Molly was asked what
had become of her son, she would reply with sad
"He's gone over on the other side."
As we have seen, he came back ten years later.
Many years before, when Mis' Molly, then a
very young woman, had taken up her residence in
the house behind the cedars, the gentleman heretofore
referred to had built a cabin on the opposite
corner, in which he had installed a trusted slave
by the name of Peter Fowler and his wife Nancy.
Peter was a good mechanic, and hired his time
from his master with the provision that Peter and
his wife should do certain work for Mis' Molly and
serve as a sort of protection for her. In course of
time Peter, who was industrious and thrifty, saved
enough money to purchase his freedom and that
of his wife and their one child, and to buy the little
house across the street, with the cooper shop behind
it. After they had acquired their freedom,
Peter and Nancy did no work for Mis' Molly save
as they were paid for it, and as a rule preferred
not to work at all for the woman who had been
practically their mistress; it made them seem less
free. Nevertheless, the two households had
remained upon good terms, even after the death of
the man whose will had brought them together,
and who had remained Peter's patron after he had
ceased to be his master. There was no intimate
association between the two families. Mis' Molly
felt herself infinitely superior to Peter and his
wife,--scarcely less superior than her poor white
neighbors felt themselves to Mis' Molly. Mis'
Molly always meant to be kind, and treated Peter
and Nancy with a certain good-natured condescension.
They resented this, never openly or offensively,
but always in a subconscious sort of
way, even when they did not speak of it among
themselves--much as they had resented her
mistress-ship in the old days. For after all, they
argued, in spite of her airs and graces, her white
face and her fine clothes, was she not a negro,
even as themselves? and since the slaves had been
freed, was not one negro as good as another?
Peter's son Frank had grown up with little
Rena. He was several years older than she, and
when Rena was a small child Mis' Molly had often
confided her to his care, and he had watched over
her and kept her from harm. When Frank became
old enough to go to work in the cooper shop,
Rena, then six or seven, had often gone across
to play among the clean white shavings. Once
Frank, while learning the trade, had let slip a sharp
steel tool, which flying toward Rena had grazed
her arm and sent the red blood coursing along the
white flesh and soaking the muslin sleeve. He
had rolled up the sleeve and stanched the blood
and dried her tears. For a long time thereafter
her mother kept her away from the shop and was
very cold to Frank. One day the little girl
wandered down to the bank of the old canal. It had
been raining for several days, and the water was
quite deep in the channel. The child slipped and
fell into the stream. From the open window of
the cooper shop Frank heard a scream. He ran
down to the canal and pulled her out, and carried
her all wet and dripping to the house. From that
time he had been restored to favor. He had
watched the girl grow up to womanhood in the
years following the war, and had been sorry when
she became too old to play about the shop.
He never spoke to her of love,--indeed, he
never thought of his passion in such a light.
There would have been no legal barrier to their
union; there would have been no frightful menace
to white supremacy in the marriage of the negro
and the octoroon: the drop of dark blood bridged
the chasm. But Frank knew that she did not
love him, and had not hoped that she might. His
was one of those rare souls that can give with
small hope of return. When he had made the
scar upon her arm, by the same token she had
branded him her slave forever; when he had saved
her from a watery grave, he had given his life to
her. There are depths of fidelity and devotion in
the negro heart that have never been fathomed or
fully appreciated. Now and then in the kindlier
phases of slavery these qualities were brightly
conspicuous, and in them, if wisely appealed to, lies
the strongest hope of amity between the two races
whose destiny seems bound up together in the
Western world. Even a dumb brute can be won
by kindness. Surely it were worth while to try
some other weapon than scorn and contumely and
hard words upon people of our common race,--
the human race, which is bigger and broader than
Celt or Saxon, barbarian or Greek, Jew or Gentile,
black or white; for we are all children of a
common Father, forget it as we may, and each one
of us is in some measure his brother's keeper.
GOD MADE US ALL
Rena was convalescent from a two-weeks'
illness when her brother came to see her. He arrived
at Patesville by an early morning train before the
town was awake, and walked unnoticed from the
station to his mother's house. His meeting with
his sister was not without emotion: he embraced
her tenderly, and Rena became for a few minutes
a very Niobe of grief.
"Oh, it was cruel, cruel!" she sobbed. "I
shall never get over it."
"I know it, my dear," replied Warwick
soothingly,--"I know it, and I'm to blame for it. If
I had never taken you away from here, you would
have escaped this painful experience. But do not
despair; all is not lost. Tryon will not marry
you, as I hoped he might, while I feared the
contrary; but he is a gentleman, and will be silent.
Come back and try again."
"No, John. I couldn't go through it a second
time. I managed very well before, when I thought
our secret was unknown; but now I could never
be sure. It would be borne on every wind, for
aught I knew, and every rustling leaf might
whisper it. The law, you said, made us white;
but not the law, nor even love, can conquer
prejudice. HE spoke of my beauty, my grace, my
sweetness! I looked into his eyes and believed
him. And yet he left me without a word! What
would I do in Clarence now? I came away
engaged to be married, with even the day set; I
should go back forsaken and discredited; even the
servants would pity me."
"Little Albert is pining for you," suggested
Warwick. "We could make some explanation
that would spare your feelings."
"Ah, do not tempt me, John! I love the child,
and am grieved to leave him. I'm grateful, too,
John, for what you have done for me. I am not
sorry that I tried it. It opened my eyes, and I
would rather die of knowledge than live in ignorance.
But I could not go through it again, John;
I am not strong enough. I could do you no good;
I have made you trouble enough already. Get a
mother for Albert--Mrs. Newberry would marry
you, secret and all, and would be good to the child.
Forget me, John, and take care of yourself. Your
friend has found you out through me--he may
have told a dozen people. You think he will be
silent;--I thought he loved me, and he left me
without a word, and with a look that told me how
he hated and despised me. I would not have
believed it--even of a white man."
"You do him an injustice," said her brother,
producing Tryon's letter. "He did not get off
unscathed. He sent you a message."
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