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HOME > Classical Novels > The House Behind the Cedars33 > XXI A GILDED OPPORTUNITY
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 Although the whole fabric1 of Rena's new life toppled and fell with her lover's defection, her sympathies, broadened by culture and still more by her recent emotional experience, did not shrink, as would have been the case with a more selfish soul, to the mere2 limits of her personal sorrow, great as this seemed at the moment. She had learned to love, and when the love of one man failed her, she turned to humanity, as a stream obstructed3 in its course overflows4 the adjacent country. Her early training had not directed her thoughts to the darker people with whose fate her own was bound up so closely, but rather away from them. She had been taught to despise them because they were not so white as she was, and had been slaves while she was free. Her life in her brother's home, by removing her from immediate5 contact with them, had given her a different point of view,—one which emphasized their shortcomings, and thereby6 made vastly clearer to her the gulf7 that separated them from the new world in which she lived; so that when misfortune threw her back upon them, the reaction brought her nearer than before. Where once she had seemed able to escape from them, they were now, it appeared, her inalienable race. Thus doubly equipped, she was able to view them at once with the mental eye of an outsider and the sympathy of a sister: she could see their faults, and judge them charitably; she knew and appreciated their good qualities. With her quickened intelligence she could perceive how great was their need and how small their opportunity; and with this illumination came the desire to contribute to their help. She had not the breadth or culture to see in all its ramifications8 the great problem which still puzzles statesmen and philosophers; but she was conscious of the wish, and of the power, in a small way, to do something for the advancement9 of those who had just set their feet upon the ladder of progress.  
This new-born desire to be of service to her rediscovered people was not long without an opportunity for expression. Yet the Fates willed that her future should be but another link in a connected chain: she was to be as powerless to put aside her recent past as she had been to escape from the influence of her earlier life. There are sordid10 souls that eat and drink and breed and die, and imagine they have lived. But Rena's life since her great awakening11 had been that of the emotions, and her temperament12 made of it a continuous life. Her successive states of consciousness were not detachable, but united to form a single if not an entirely13 harmonious14 whole. To her sensitive spirit to-day was born of yesterday, to-morrow would be but the offspring of to day.
One day, along toward noon, her mother received a visit from Mary B. Pettifoot, a second cousin, who lived on Back Street, only a short distance from the house behind the cedars15. Rena had gone out, so that the visitor found Mis' Molly alone.
"I heared you say, Cousin Molly," said Mary B. (no one ever knew what the B. in Mary's name stood for,—it was a mere ornamental16 flourish), "that Rena was talkin' 'bout18 teachin' school. I've got a good chance fer her, ef she keers ter take it. My cousin Jeff Wain 'rived in town this mo'nin', f'm 'way down in Sampson County, ter git a teacher fer the nigger school in his deestric'. I s'pose he mought 'a' got one f'm 'roun' Newbern, er Goldsboro, er some er them places eas', but he 'lowed he'd like to visit some er his kin17 an' ole frien's, an' so kill two birds with one stone."
"I seed a strange mulatter man, with a bay hoss an' a new buggy, drivin' by here this mo'nin' early, from down to'ds the river," rejoined Mis' Molly. "I wonder if that wuz him?"
"Did he have on a linen19 duster?" asked Mary B.
"Yas, an' 'peared to be a very well sot up man," replied Mis' Molly, "'bout thirty-five years old, I should reckon."
"That wuz him," assented20 Mary B. "He's got a fine hoss an' buggy, an' a gol' watch an' chain, an' a big plantation21, an' lots er hosses an' mules22 an' cows an' hawgs. He raise' fifty bales er cotton las' year, an' he's be'n ter the legislatur'."
"My gracious!" exclaimed Mis' Molly, struck with awe23 at this catalogue of the stranger's possessions—he was evidently worth more than a great many "rich" white people,—all white people in North Carolina in those days were either "rich" or "poor," the distinction being one of caste rather than of wealth. "Is he married?" she inquired with interest?
"No,—single. You mought 'low it was quare that he should n' be married at his age; but he was crossed in love oncet,"—Mary B. heaved a self-conscious sigh,—"an' has stayed single ever sence. That wuz ten years ago, but as some husban's is long-lived, an' there ain' no mo' chance fer 'im now than there wuz then, I reckon some nice gal24 mought stan' a good show er ketchin' 'im, ef she'd play her kyards right."
To Mis' Molly this was news of considerable importance. She had not thought a great deal of Rena's plan to teach; she considered it lowering for Rena, after having been white, to go among the negroes any more than was unavoidable. This opportunity, however, meant more than mere employment for her daughter. She had felt Rena's disappointment keenly, from the practical point of view, and, blaming herself for it, held herself all the more bound to retrieve25 the misfortune in any possible way. If she had not been sick, Rena would not have dreamed the fateful dream that had brought her to Patesville; for the connection between the vision and the reality was even closer in Mis' Molly's eyes than in Rena's. If the mother had not sent the letter announcing her illness and confirming the dream, Rena would not have ruined her promising26 future by coming to Patesville. But the harm had been done, and she was responsible, ignorantly of course, but none the less truly, and it only remained for her to make amends27, as far as possible. Her highest ambition, since Rena had grown up, had been to see her married and comfortably settled in life. She had no hope that Tryon would come back. Rena had declared that she would make no further effort to get away from her people; and, furthermore, that she would never marry. To this latter statement Mis' Molly secretly attached but little importance. That a woman should go single from the cradle to the grave did not accord with her experience in life of the customs of North Carolina. She respected a grief she could not entirely fathom28, yet did not for a moment believe that Rena would remain unmarried.
"You'd better fetch him roun' to see me, Ma'y B.," she said, &q............
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