The House Behind the Cedars

Author: Charles W. Chesnutt

XI a Letter and a Journey

War has been called the court of last resort. A lawsuit may with equal aptness be compared to a battle—the parallel might be drawn very closely all along the line. First we have the casus belli, the cause of action; then the various protocols and proclamations and general orders, by way of pleas, demurrers, and motions; then the preliminary skirmishes at the trial table; and then the final struggle, in which might is quite as likely to prevail as right, victory most often resting with the strongest battalions, and truth and justice not seldom overborne by the weight of odds upon the other side.

The lawsuit which Warwick and Tryon had gone to try did not, however, reach this ultimate stage, but, after a three days’ engagement, resulted in a treaty of peace. The case was compromised and settled, and Tryon and Warwick set out on their homeward drive. They stopped at a farmhouse at noon, and while at table saw the stagecoach from the town they had just left, bound for their own destination. In the mail-bag under the driver’s seat were Rena’s two letters; they had been delivered at the town in the morning, and immediately remailed to Clarence, in accordance with orders left at the post-office the evening before. Tryon and Warwick drove leisurely homeward through the pines, all unconscious of the fateful squares of white paper moving along the road a few miles before them, which a mother’s yearning and a daughter’s love had thrown, like the apple of discord, into the narrow circle of their happiness.

They reached Clarence at four o’clock. Warwick got down from the buggy at his office. Tryon drove on to his hotel, to make a hasty toilet before visiting his sweetheart.

Warwick glanced at his mail, tore open the envelope addressed in his sister’s handwriting, and read the contents with something like dismay. She had gone away on the eve of her wedding, her lover knew not where, to be gone no one knew how long, on a mission which could not be frankly disclosed. A dim foreboding of disaster flashed across his mind. He thrust the letter into his pocket, with others yet unopened, and started toward his home. Reaching the gate, he paused a moment and then walked on past the house. Tryon would probably be there in a few minutes, and he did not care to meet him without first having had the opportunity for some moments of reflection. He must fix upon some line of action in this emergency.

Meanwhile Tryon had reached his hotel and opened his mail. The letter from Rena was read first, with profound disappointment. He had really made concessions in the settlement of that lawsuit—had yielded several hundred dollars of his just dues, in order that he might get back to Rena three days earlier. Now he must cool his heels in idleness for at least three days before she would return. It was annoying, to say the least. He wished to know where she had gone, that he might follow her and stay near her until she should be ready to come back. He might ask Warwick— no, she might have had some good reason for not having mentioned her destination. She had probably gone to visit some of the poor relations of whom her brother had spoken so frankly, and she would doubtless prefer that he should not see her amid any surroundings but the best. Indeed, he did not know that he would himself care to endanger, by suggestive comparisons, the fine aureole of superiority that surrounded her. She represented in her adorable person and her pure heart the finest flower of the finest race that God had ever made—the supreme effort of creative power, than which there could be no finer. The flower would soon be his; why should he care to dig up the soil in which it grew?

Tryon went on opening his letters. There were several bills and circulars, and then a letter from his mother, of which he broke the seal:—

MY DEAREST GEORGE,—This leaves us well. Blanche is still with me, and we are impatiently awaiting your return. In your absence she seems almost like a daughter to me. She joins me in the hope that your lawsuits are progressing favorably, and that you will be with us soon. . . .

On your way home, if it does not keep you away from us too long, would it not be well for you to come by way of Patesville, and find out whether there is any prospect of our being able to collect our claim against old Mr. Duncan McSwayne’s estate? You must have taken the papers with you, along with the rest, for I do not find them here. Things ought to be settled enough now for people to realize on some of their securities. Your grandfather always believed the note was good, and meant to try to collect it, but the war interfered. He said to me, before he died, that if the note was ever collected, he would use the money to buy a wedding present for your wife. Poor father! he is dead and gone to heaven; but I am sure that even there he would be happier if he knew the note was paid and the money used as he intended.

If you go to Patesville, call on my cousin, Dr. Ed. Green, and tell him who you are. Give him my love. I haven’t seen him for twenty years. He used to be very fond of the ladies, a very gallant man. He can direct you to a good lawyer, no doubt. Hoping to see you soon,
Your loving mother,

P. S. Blanche joins me in love to you.

This affectionate and motherly letter did not give Tryon unalloyed satisfaction. He was glad to hear that his mother was well, but he had hoped that Blanche Leary might have finished her visit by this time. The reasonable inference from the letter was that Blanche meant to await his return. Her presence would spoil the fine romantic flavor of the surprise he had planned for his mother; it would never do to expose his bride to an unannounced meeting with the woman whom he had tacitly rejected. There would be one advantage in such a meeting: the comparison of the two women would be so much in Rena’s favor that his mother could not hesitate for a moment between them. The situation, however, would have elements of constraint, and he did not care to expose either Rena or Blanche to any disagreeable contingency. It would be better to take his wife on a wedding trip, and notify his mother, before he returned home, of his marriage. In the extremely improbable case that she should disapprove his choice after having seen his wife, the ice would at least have been broken before his arrival at home.

"By Jove!" he exclaimed suddenly, striking his knee with his hand, "why shouldn’t I run up to Patesville while Rena’s gone? I can leave here at five o’clock, and get there some time to-morrow morning. I can transact my business during the day, and get back the day after to-morrow; for Rena might return ahead of time, just as we did, and I shall want to be here when she comes; I’d rather wait a year for a legal opinion on a doubtful old note than to lose one day with my love. The train goes in twenty minutes. My bag is already packed. I’ll just drop a line to George and tell him where I’ve gone."

He put Rena’s letter into his breast pocket, and turning to his trunk, took from it a handful of papers relating to the claim in reference to which he was going to Patesville. These he thrust into the same pocket with Rena’s letter; he wished to read both letter and papers while on the train. It would be a pleasure merely to hold the letter before his eyes and look at the lines traced by her hand. The papers he wished to study, for the more practical purpose of examining into the merits of his claim against the estate of Duncan McSwayne.

When Warwick reached home, he inquired if Mr. Tryon had called.

"No, suh," answered the nurse, to whom he had put the question; "he ain’t be’n here yet, suh."

Warwick was surprised and much disturbed.

"De baby ’s be’n cryin’ for Miss Rena," suggested the nurse, "an’ I s’pec’ he’d like to see you, suh. Shall I fetch ’im?"

"Yes, bring him to me."

He took the child in his arms and went out upon the piazza. Several porch pillows lay invitingly near. He pushed them toward the steps with his foot, sat down upon one, and placed little Albert upon another. He was scarcely seated when a messenger from the hotel came up the walk from the gate and handed him a note. At the same moment he heard the long shriek of the afternoon train leaving the station on the opposite side of the town.

He tore the envelope open anxiously, read the note, smiled a sickly smile, and clenched the paper in his hand unconsciously. There was nothing he could do. The train had gone; there was no telegraph to Patesville, and no letter could leave Clarence for twenty-four hours. The best laid schemes go wrong at times—the stanchest ships are sometimes wrecked, or skirt the breakers perilously. Life is a sea, full of strange currents and uncharted reefs—whoever leaves the traveled path must run the danger of destruction. Warwick was a lawyer, however, and accustomed to balance probabilities.

"He may easily be in Patesville a day or two without meeting her. She will spend most of her time at mother’s bedside, and he will be occupied with his own affairs."

If Tryon should meet her—well, he was very much in love, and he had spoken very nobly of birth and blood. Warwick would have preferred, nevertheless, that Tryon’s theories should not be put to this particular test. Rena’s scruples had so far been successfully combated; the question would be opened again, and the situation unnecessarily complicated, if Tryon should meet Rena in Patesville.

"Will he or will he not?" he asked himself. He took a coin from his pocket and spun it upon the floor. "Heads, he sees her; tails, he does not."

The coin spun swiftly and steadily, leaving upon the eye the impression of a revolving sphere. Little Albert, left for a moment to his own devices, had crept behind his father and was watching the whirling disk with great pleasure. He felt that he would like to possess this interesting object. The coin began to move more slowly, and was wabbling to its fall, when the child stretched forth his chubby fist and caught it ere it touched the floor.


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Chicago: Charles W. Chesnutt, "XI a Letter and a Journey," The House Behind the Cedars in The House Behind the Cedars (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1903), Original Sources, accessed September 30, 2023,

MLA: Chesnutt, Charles W. "XI a Letter and a Journey." The House Behind the Cedars, in The House Behind the Cedars, New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1903, Original Sources. 30 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: Chesnutt, CW, 'XI a Letter and a Journey' in The House Behind the Cedars. cited in 1903, The House Behind the Cedars, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 30 September 2023, from