The House Behind the Cedars
THE HOUSE BEHIND THE CEDARS
CHARLES W. CHESNUTT
THE HOUSE BEHIND THE CEDARS
A STRANGER FROM SOUTH CAROLINA
Time touches all things with destroying hand; and if he seem now andthen to bestow the bloom of youth, the sap of spring, it is but a briefmockery, to be surely and swiftly followed by the wrinkles of old age,the dry leaves and bare branches of winter. And yet there are placeswhere Time seems to linger lovingly long after youth has departed, andto which he seems loath to bring the evil day. Who has not known someeven-tempered old man or woman who seemed to have drunk of the fountainof youth? Who has not seen somewhere an old town that, having longsince ceased to grow, yet held its own without perceptible decline?
Some such trite reflection—as apposite to the subject as most randomreflections are—passed through the mind of a young man who came out ofthe front door of the Patesville Hotel about nine o'clock one finemorning in spring, a few years after the Civil War, and started downFront Street toward the market-house. Arriving at the town late theprevious evening, he had been driven up from the steamboat in acarriage, from which he had been able to distinguish only the shadowyoutlines of the houses along the street; so that this morning walk washis first opportunity to see the town by daylight. He was dressed in asuit of linen duck—the day was warm—a panama straw hat, and patentleather shoes. In appearance he was tall, dark, with straight, black,lustrous hair, and very clean-cut, high-bred features. When he pausedby the clerk's desk on his way out, to light his cigar, the day clerk,who had just come on duty, glanced at the register and read the lastentry:—
"'JOHN WARWICK, CLARENCE, SOUTH CAROLINA.'
"One of the South Ca'lina bigbugs, I reckon—probably in cotton, orturpentine." The gentleman from South Carolina, walking down thestreet, glanced about him with an eager look, in which curiosity andaffection were mingled with a touch of bitterness. He saw little thatwas not familiar, or that he had not seen in his dreams a hundred timesduring the past ten years. There had been some changes, it is true,some melancholy changes, but scarcely anything by way of addition orimprovement to counterbalance them. Here and there blackened anddismantled walls marked the place where handsome buildings once hadstood, for Sherman's march to the sea had left its mark upon the town.The stores were mostly of brick, two stories high, joining one anotherafter the manner of cities. Some of the names on the signs werefamiliar; others, including a number of Jewish names, were quiteunknown to him.
A two minutes' walk brought Warwick—the name he had registered under,and as we shall call him—to the market-house, the central feature ofPatesville, from both the commercial and the picturesque points ofview. Standing foursquare in the heart of the town, at theintersection of the two main streets, a "jog" at each street cornerleft around the market-house a little public square, which at this hourwas well occupied by carts and wagons from the country and empty draysawaiting hire. Warwick was unable to perceive much change in themarket-house. Perhaps the surface of the red brick, long unpainted,had scaled off a little more here and there. There might have been aslight accretion of the moss and lichen on the shingled roof. But thetall tower, with its four-faced clock, rose as majestically anduncompromisingly as though the land had never been subjugated. Was itso irreconcilable, Warwick wondered, as still to peal out the curfewbell, which at nine o'clock at night had clamorously warned allnegroes, slave or free, that it was unlawful for them to be abroadafter that hour, under penalty of imprisonment or whipping? Was theold constable, whose chief business it had been to ring the bell, stillalive and exercising the functions of his office, and had age lessenedor increased the number of times that obliging citizens performed thisduty for him during his temporary absences in the company of convivialspirits? A few moments later, Warwick saw a colored policeman in theold constable's place—a stronger reminder than even the burnedbuildings that war had left its mark upon the old town, with which Timehad dealt so tenderly.
The lower story of the market-house was open on all four of its sidesto the public square. Warwick passed through one of the wide brickarches and traversed the building with a leisurely step. He looked invain into the stalls for the butcher who had sold fresh meat twice aweek, on market days, and he felt a genuine thrill of pleasure when herecognized the red bandana turban of old Aunt Lyddy, the ancient negrowoman who had sold him gingerbread and fried fish, and told him weirdtales of witchcraft and conjuration, in the old days when, as an idleboy, he had loafed about the market-house. He did not speak to her,however, or give her any sign of recognition. He threw a glance towarda certain corner where steps led to the town hall above. On thisstairway he had once seen a manacled free negro shot while being takenupstairs for examination under a criminal charge. Warwick recalledvividly how the shot had rung out. He could see again the livid lookof terror on the victim's face, the gathering crowd, the resultingconfusion. The murderer, he recalled, had been tried and sentenced toimprisonment for life, but was pardoned by a merciful governor afterserving a year of his sentence. As Warwick was neither a prophet northe son of a prophet, he could not foresee that, thirty years later,even this would seem an excessive punishment for so slight amisdemeanor.
Leaving the market-house, Warwick turned to the left, and kept on hiscourse until he reached the next corner. After another turn to theright, a dozen paces brought him in front of a small weather-beatenframe building, from which projected a wooden sign-board bearing theinscription:—
He turned the knob, but the door was locked. Retracing his steps past avacant lot, the young man entered a shop where a colored man wasemployed in varnishing a coffin, which stood on two trestles in themiddle of the floor. Not at all impressed by the melancholysuggestiveness of his task, he was whistling a lively air with greatgusto. Upon Warwick's entrance this effusion came to a sudden end, andthe coffin-maker assumed an air of professional gravity.
"Good-mawnin', suh," he said, lifting his cap politely.
"Good-morning," answered Warwick. "Can you tell me anything aboutJudge Straight's office hours?"
"De ole jedge has be'n a little onreg'lar sence de wah, suh; but hegin'ally gits roun' 'bout ten o'clock er so. He's be'n kin' er feeblefer de las' few yeahs. An' I reckon," continued the undertakersolemnly, his glance unconsciously seeking a row of fine casketsstanding against the wall,—"I reckon he'll soon be goin' de way er allde earth. 'Man dat is bawn er 'oman hath but a sho't time ter lib, an'is full er mis'ry. He cometh up an' is cut down lack as a flower.''De days er his life is three-sco' an' ten'—an' de ole jedge is libbedmo' d'n dat, suh, by five yeahs, ter say de leas'."
"'Death,'" quoted Warwick, with whose mood the undertaker's remarkswere in tune, "'is the penalty that all must pay for the crime ofliving.'"
"Dat 's a fac', suh, dat 's a fac'; so dey mus'—so dey mus'. An' denall de dead has ter be buried. An' we does ou' sheer of it, suh, wedoes ou' sheer. We conduc's de obs'quies er all de bes' w'ite folks erde town, suh."
Warwick left the undertaker's shop and retraced his steps until he hadpassed the lawyer's office, toward which he threw an affectionateglance. A few rods farther led him past the old black Presbyterianchurch, with its square tower, embowered in a stately grove; past theCatholic church, with its many crosses, and a painted wooden figure ofSt. James in a recess beneath the gable; and past the old JeffersonHouse, once the leading hotel of the town, in front of which politicalmeetings had been held, and political speeches made, and political hardcider drunk, in the days of "Tippecanoe and Tyler too."
The street down which Warwick had come intersected Front Street at asharp angle in front of the old hotel, forming a sort of flatiron blockat the junction, known as Liberty Point,—perhaps because slaveauctions were sometimes held there in the good old days. Just beforeWarwick reached Liberty Point, a young woman came down Front Streetfrom the direction of the market-house. When their paths converged,Warwick kept on down Front Street behind her, it having been alreadyhis intention to walk in this direction.
Warwick's first glance had revealed the fact that the young woman wasstrikingly handsome, with a stately beauty seldom encountered. As hewalked along behind her at a measured distance, he could not helpnoting the details that made up this pleasing impression, for his mindwas singularly alive to beauty, in whatever embodiment. The girl'sfigure, he perceived, was admirably proportioned; she was evidently atthe period when the angles of childhood were rounding into thepromising curves of adolescence. Her abundant hair, of a dark andglossy brown, was neatly plaited and coiled above an ivory column thatrose straight from a pair of gently sloping shoulders, clearly outlinedbeneath the light muslin frock that covered them. He could see thatshe was tastefully, though not richly, dressed, and that she walkedwith an elastic step that revealed a light heart and the vigor ofperfect health. Her face, of course, he could not analyze, since hehad caught only the one brief but convincing glimpse of it.
The young woman kept on down Front Street, Warwick maintaining hisdistance a few rods behind her. They passed a factory, a warehouse ortwo, and then, leaving the brick pavement, walked along on motherearth, under a leafy arcade of spreading oaks and elms. Their way lednow through a residential portion of the town, which, as they advanced,gradually declined from staid respectability to poverty, open andunabashed. Warwick observed, as they passed through the respectablequarter, that few people who met the girl greeted her, and that someothers whom she passed at gates or doorways gave her no sign ofrecognition; from which he inferred that she was possibly a visitor inthe town and not well acquainted.
Their walk had continued not more than ten minutes when they crossed acreek by a wooden bridge and came to a row of mean houses standingflush with the street.