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HOME > Classical Novels > The House Behind the Cedars33 > XVIII UNDER THE OLD REGIME
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 For many years before the civil war there had lived, in the old house behind the cedars1, 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 complexion4 in youth was of an old ivory tint5, 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 dignified6 reposefulness of manner pointed7 to an aboriginal8 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 sufficiently9 differentiated10 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 frightful11 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 misty12 colonial period, when race lines were not so closely drawn13, and the population of North Carolina comprised many Indians, runaway14 negroes, and indentured15 white servants from the seaboard plantations16, who mingled17 their blood with great freedom and small formality. Free colored people in North Carolina exercised the right of suffrage18 as late as 1835, and some of them, in spite of galling19 restrictions20, attained21 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 potent22 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 prematurely23, a disappointed and disheartened man, leaving his family in dire25 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 gourd26 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 flaunt27 her prosperity in the world's face; she hid it discreetly28 behind the cedar2 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 secluded29 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 humbly30 grateful for his protection, and quite as faithful as the forbidden marriage vow31 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 entirely32 justify33. For she was free, she had not the slave's excuse. With every inducement to do evil and few incentives34 to do well, and hence entitled to charitable judgment35, she yet had freedom of choice, and therefore could not wholly escape blame. Let it be said, in further extenuation36, 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 last farthing.
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 destitute37. 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 bereavement38, 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 retired39 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 interfered40 with the practice of his religion. She might have had a better seat in a church where a Northern missionary41 would have preached a sermon better suited to her comprehension and her moral needs, but she preferred the other. She was not white, alas42! she was shut out from this seeming paradise; but she liked to see the distant glow of the celestial43 city, and to recall the days when she had basked44 in its radiance. She did not sympathize greatly with the new era opened up for the emancipated45 slaves; she had no ideal love of liberty; she was no broader and no more altruistic46 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 no longer.
Molly had lost one child, and his grave was visible from the kitchen window, under a small clump47 of cedars in the rear of the two-acre lot. For even in the towns many a household had its private cemetery48 in those old days when the living were close to the dead, and ghosts were not the mere49 chimeras50 of a sick imagination, but real though unsubstantial entities51, 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 patrician52 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 white.
In the "hall" or parlor53 of his mother's house stood a quaintly54 carved black walnut55 bookcase, containing a small but remarkable56 collection of books, which had at one time been used, in his hours of retreat and relaxation57 from business and politics, by the distinguished58 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 idol59 of the South—had ever written; Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, cheek by jowl with the history of the virtuous60 Clarissa Harlowe; the Spectator and Tristram Shandy, Robinson Crusoe and the Arabian Nights. On these secluded shelves Roderick Random61, Don Quixote, and Gil Blas for a long time ceased their wanderings, the Pilgrim's Progress was suspended, Milton's mighty62 harmonies were dumb, and Shakespeare reigned63 over a silent kingdom. An illustrated64 Bible, with a wonderful Apocrypha65, 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 penetrated66 behind the cedar hedge. A history of the French Revolution consorted67 amiably68 with a homespun chronicle of North Carolina, rich in biographical notices of distinguished citizens and inscriptions69 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 renown70. On almost every page of this monumental work could be found the most ardent71 panegyrics72 of liberty, side by side with the slavery statistics of the State,—an incongruity73 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 pittance74 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 prone75 upon the floor of the shaded front piazza76, behind the fragrant77 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 enchanted78 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 verge79 of the steep bank of Beaver80 Creek81, 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 brawling82 stream below. Here, for nearly half a century, Archibald Straight had transacted83 legal business for the best people of Northumberland County. Full many a lawsuit84 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 dispensed85 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 aristocrat86, 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 agitation87 he had taken a keen interest, rather as observer than as participant. As the heat of controversy88 increased, his lack of zeal89 for the peculiar90 institution led to his defeat for the bench by a more active partisan91. His was too just a mind not to perceive the arguments on both sides; but, on the whole, he had stood by the ancient landmarks92, 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, fr............
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