The House Behind the Cedars

Author: Charles W. Chesnutt

VIII. The Courtship

In a few weeks the echoes of the tournament died away, and Rena’s life settled down into a pleasant routine, which she found much more comfortable than her recent spectacular prominence. Her queenship, while not entirely forgiven by the ladies of the town, had gained for her a temporary social prominence. Among her own sex, Mrs. Newberry proved a warm and enthusiastic friend. Rumor whispered that the lively young widow would not be unwilling to console Warwick in the loneliness of the old colonial mansion, to which his sister was a most excellent medium of approach. Whether this was true or not it is unnecessary to inquire, for it is no part of this story, except as perhaps indicating why Mrs. Newberry played the part of the female friend, without whom no woman is ever launched successfully in a small and conservative society. Her brother’s standing gave her the right of social entry; the tournament opened wide the door, and Mrs. Newberry performed the ceremony of introduction. Rena had many visitors during the month following the tournament, and might have made her choice from among a dozen suitors; but among them all, her knight of the handkerchief found most favor.

George Tryon had come to Clarence a few months before upon business connected with the settlement of his grandfather’s estate. A rather complicated litigation had grown up around the affair, various phases of which had kept Tryon almost constantly in the town. He had placed matters in Warwick’s hands, and had formed a decided friendship for his attorney, for whom he felt a frank admiration. Tryon was only twenty-three, and his friend’s additional five years, supplemented by a certain professional gravity, commanded a great deal of respect from the younger man. When Tryon had known Warwick for a week, he had been ready to swear by him. Indeed, Warwick was a man for whom most people formed a liking at first sight. To this power of attraction he owed most of his success—first with Judge Straight, of Patesville, then with the lawyer whose office he had entered at Clarence, with the woman who became his wife, and with the clients for whom he transacted business. Tryon would have maintained against all comers that Warwick was the finest fellow in the world. When he met Warwick’s sister, the foundation for admiration had already been laid. If Rena had proved to be a maiden lady of uncertain age and doubtful personal attractiveness, Tryon would probably have found in her a most excellent lady, worthy of all respect and esteem, and would have treated her with profound deference and sedulous courtesy. When she proved to be a young and handsome woman, of the type that he admired most, he was capable of any degree of infatuation. His mother had for a long time wanted him to marry the orphan daughter of an old friend, a vivacious blonde, who worshiped him. He had felt friendly towards her, but had shrunk from matrimony. He did not want her badly enough to give up his freedom. The war had interfered with his education, and though fairly well instructed, he had never attended college. In his own opinion, he ought to see something of the world, and have his youthful fling. Later on, when he got ready to settle down, if Blanche were still in the humor, they might marry, and sink to the humdrum level of other old married people. The fact that Blanche Leary was visiting his mother during his unexpectedly long absence had not operated at all to hasten his return to North Carolina. He had been having a very good time at Clarence, and, at the distance of several hundred miles, was safe for the time being from any immediate danger of marriage.

With Rena’s advent, however, he had seen life through different glasses. His heart had thrilled at first sight of this tall girl, with the ivory complexion, the rippling brown hair, and the inscrutable eyes. When he became better acquainted with her, he liked to think that her thoughts centred mainly in himself; and in this he was not far wrong. He discovered that she had a short upper lip, and what seemed to him an eminently kissable mouth. After he had dined twice at Warwick’s, subsequently to the tournament,—his lucky choice of Rena had put him at once upon a household footing with the family,—his views of marriage changed entirely. It now seemed to him the duty, as well as the high and holy privilege of a young man, to marry and manfully to pay his debt to society. When in Rena’s presence, he could not imagine how he had ever contemplated the possibility of marriage with Blanche Leary,—she was utterly, entirely, and hopelessly unsuited to him. For a fair man of vivacious temperament, this stately dark girl was the ideal mate. Even his mother would admit this, if she could only see Rena. To win this beautiful girl for his wife would be a worthy task. He had crowned her Queen of Love and Beauty; since then she had ascended the throne of his heart. He would make her queen of his home and mistress of his life.

To Rena this brief month’s courtship came as a new education. Not only had this fair young man crowned her queen, and honored her above all the ladies in town; but since then he had waited assiduously upon her, had spoken softly to her, had looked at her with shining eyes, and had sought to be alone with her. The time soon came when to touch his hand in greeting sent a thrill through her frame,—a time when she listened for his footstep and was happy in his presence. He had been bold enough at the tournament; he had since become somewhat bashful and constrained. He must be in love, she thought, and wondered how soon he would speak. If it were so sweet to walk with him in the garden, or along the shaded streets, to sit with him, to feel the touch of his hand, what happiness would it not be to hear him say that he loved her—to bear his name, to live with him always. To be thus loved and honored by this handsome young man, —she could hardly believe it possible. He would never speak—he would discover her secret and withdraw. She turned pale at the thought,—ah, God! something would happen,—it was too good to be true. The Prince would never try on the glass slipper.

Tryon first told his love for Rena one summer evening on their way home from church. They were walking in the moonlight along the quiet street, which, but for their presence, seemed quite deserted.

"Miss Warwick—Rowena," he said, clasping with his right hand the hand that rested on his left arm, "I love you! Do you—love me?"

To Rena this simple avowal came with much greater force than a more formal declaration could have had. It appealed to her own simple nature. Indeed, few women at such a moment criticise the form in which the most fateful words of life—but one—are spoken. Words, while pleasant, are really superfluous. Her whispered "Yes" spoke volumes.

They walked on past the house, along the country road into which the street soon merged. When they returned, an hour later, they found Warwick seated on the piazza, in a rocking-chair, smoking a fragrant cigar.

"Well, children," he observed with mock severity, "you are late in getting home from church. The sermon must have been extremely long."

"We have been attending an after-meeting," replied Tryon joyfully, "and have been discussing an old text, `Little children, love one another,’ and its corollary, `It is not good for man to live alone.’ John, I am the happiest man alive. Your sister has promised to marry me. I should like to shake my brother’s hand."

Never does one feel so strongly the universal brotherhood of man as when one loves some other fellow’s sister. Warwick sprang from his chair and clasped Tryon’s extended hand with real emotion. He knew of no man whom he would have preferred to Tryon as a husband for his sister.

"My dear George—my dear sister," he exclaimed, "I am very, very glad. I wish you every happiness. My sister is the most fortunate of women."

"And I am the luckiest of men," cried Tryon.

"I wish you every happiness," repeated Warwick; adding, with a touch of solemnity, as a certain thought, never far distant, occurred to him, "I hope that neither of you may ever regret your choice."

Thus placed upon the footing of an accepted lover, Tryon’s visits to the house became more frequent. He wished to fix a time for the marriage, but at this point Rena developed a strange reluctance.

"Can we not love each other for a while?" she asked. "To be engaged is a pleasure that comes but once; it would be a pity to cut it too short."

"It is a pleasure that I would cheerfully dispense with," he replied, "for the certainty of possession. I want you all to myself, and all the time. Things might happen. If I should die, for instance, before I married you"—

"Oh, don’t suppose such awful things," she cried, putting her hand over his mouth.

He held it there and kissed it until she pulled it away.

"I should consider," he resumed, completing the sentence, "that my life had been a failure."

"If I should die," she murmured, "I should die happy in the knowledge that you had loved me."

"In three weeks," he went on, "I shall have finished my business in Clarence, and there will be but one thing to keep me here. When shall it be? I must take you home with me."

"I will let you know," she replied, with a troubled sigh, "in a week from to-day."

"I’ll call your attention to the subject every day in the mean time," he asserted. "I shouldn’t like you to forget it."

Rena’s shrinking from the irrevocable step of marriage was due to a simple and yet complex cause. Stated baldly, it was the consciousness of her secret; the complexity arose out of the various ways in which it seemed to bear upon her future. Our lives are so bound up with those of our fellow men that the slightest departure from the beaten path involves a multiplicity of small adjustments. It had not been difficult for Rena to conform her speech, her manners, and in a measure her modes of thought, to those of the people around her; but when this readjustment went beyond mere externals and concerned the vital issues of life, the secret that oppressed her took on a more serious aspect, with tragic possibilities. A discursive imagination was not one of her characteristics, or the danger of a marriage of which perfect frankness was not a condition might well have presented itself before her heart had become involved. Under the influence of doubt and fear acting upon love, the invisible bar to happiness glowed with a lambent flame that threatened dire disaster.

"Would he have loved me at all," she asked herself, "if he had known the story of my past? Or, having loved me, could he blame me now for what I cannot help?"

There were two shoals in the channel of her life, upon either of which her happiness might go to shipwreck. Since leaving the house behind the cedars, where she had been brought into the world without her own knowledge or consent, and had first drawn the breath of life by the involuntary contraction of certain muscles, Rena had learned, in a short time, many things; but she was yet to learn that the innocent suffer with the guilty, and feel the punishment the more keenly because unmerited. She had yet to learn that the old Mosaic formula, "The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children," was graven more indelibly upon the heart of the race than upon the tables of Sinai.

But would her lover still love her, if he knew all? She had read some of the novels in the bookcase in her mother’s hall, and others at boardingschool. She had read that love was a conqueror, that neither life nor death, nor creed nor caste, could stay his triumphant course. Her secret was no legal bar to their union. If Rena could forget the secret, and Tryon should never know it, it would be no obstacle to their happiness. But Rena felt, with a sinking of the heart, that happiness was not a matter of law or of fact, but lay entirely within the domain of sentiment. We are happy when we think ourselves happy, and with a strange perversity we often differ from others with regard to what should constitute our happiness. Rena’s secret was the worm in the bud, the skeleton in the closet.

"He says that he loves me. He DOES love me. Would he love me, if he knew?" She stood before an oval mirror brought from France by one of Warwick’s wife’s ancestors, and regarded her image with a coldly critical eye. She was as little vain as any of her sex who are endowed with beauty. She tried to place herself, in thus passing upon her own claims to consideration, in the hostile attitude of society toward her hidden disability. There was no mark upon her brow to brand her as less pure, less innocent, less desirable, less worthy to be loved, than these proud women of the past who had admired themselves in this old mirror.

"I think a man might love me for myself," she murmured pathetically, "and if he loved me truly, that he would marry me. If he would not marry me, then it would be because he didn’t love me. I’ll tell George my secret. If he leaves me, then he does not love me."

But this resolution vanished into thin air before it was fully formulated. The secret was not hers alone; it involved her brother’s position, to whom she owed everything, and in less degree the future of her little nephew, whom she had learned to love so well. She had the choice of but two courses of action, to marry Tryon or to dismiss him. The thought that she might lose him made him seem only more dear; to think that he might leave her made her sick at heart. In one week she was bound to give him an answer; he was more likely to ask for it at their next meeting.


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Chicago: Charles W. Chesnutt, "VIII. The Courtship," The House Behind the Cedars, trans. Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946 in The House Behind the Cedars (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831), Original Sources, accessed April 2, 2023,

MLA: Chesnutt, Charles W. "VIII. The Courtship." The House Behind the Cedars, translted by Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946, in The House Behind the Cedars, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831, Original Sources. 2 Apr. 2023.

Harvard: Chesnutt, CW, 'VIII. The Courtship' in The House Behind the Cedars, trans. . cited in 1831, The House Behind the Cedars, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 2 April 2023, from