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HOME > Classical Novels > The House Behind the Cedars33 > XXIII THE GUEST OF HONOR
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 The evening of the party arrived. The house had been thoroughly1 cleaned in preparation for the event, and decorated with the choicest treasures of the garden. By eight o'clock the guests had gathered. They were all mulattoes,—all people of mixed blood were called "mulattoes" in North Carolina. There were dark mulattoes and bright mulattoes. Mis' Molly's guests were mostly of the bright class, most of them more than half white, and few of them less. In Mis' Molly's small circle, straight hair was the only palliative of a dark complexion2. Many of the guests would not have been casually3 distinguishable from white people of the poorer class. Others bore unmistakable traces of Indian ancestry,—for Cherokee and Tuscarora blood was quite widely diffused4 among the free negroes of North Carolina, though well-nigh lost sight of by the curious custom of the white people to ignore anything but the negro blood in those who were touched by its potent5 current. Very few of those present had been slaves. The free colored people of Patesville were numerous enough before the war to have their own "society," and human enough to despise those who did not possess advantages equal to their own; and at this time they still looked down upon those who had once been held in bondage6. The only black man present occupied a chair which stood on a broad chest in one corner, and extracted melody from a fiddle7 to which a whole generation of the best people of Patesville had danced and made merry. Uncle Needham seldom played for colored gatherings8, but made an exception in Mis' Molly's case; she was not white, but he knew her past; if she was not the rose, she had at least been near the rose. When the company had gathered, Mary B., as mistress of ceremonies, whispered to Uncle Needham, who tapped his violin sharply with the bow.  
"Ladies an' gent'emens, take yo' pa'dners fer a Fuhginny reel!"
Mr. Wain, as the guest of honor, opened the ball with his hostess. He wore a broadcloth coat and trousers, a heavy glittering chain across the spacious9 front of his white waistcoat, and a large red rose in his buttonhole. If his boots were slightly run down at the heel, so trivial a detail passed unnoticed in the general splendor10 of his attire11. Upon a close or hostile inspection12 there would have been some features of his ostensibly good-natured face—the shifty eye, the full and slightly drooping13 lower lip—which might have given a student of physiognomy food for reflection. But whatever the latent defects of Wain's character, he proved himself this evening a model of geniality14, presuming not at all upon his reputed wealth, but winning golden opinions from those who came to criticise15, of whom, of course, there were a few, the company being composed of human beings.
When the dance began, Wain extended his large, soft hand to Mary B., yellow, buxom16, thirty, with white and even teeth glistening17 behind her full red lips. A younger sister of Mary B.'s was paired with Billy Oxendine, a funny little tailor, a great gossip, and therefore a favorite among the women. Mis' Molly graciously consented, after many protestations of lack of skill and want of practice, to stand up opposite Homer Pettifoot, Mary B.'s husband, a tall man, with a slight stoop, a bald crown, and full, dreamy eyes,—a man of much imagination and a large fund of anecdote18. Two other couples completed the set; others were restrained by bashfulness or religious scruples19, which did not yield until later in the evening.
The perfumed air from the garden without and the cut roses within mingled20 incongruously with the alien odors of musk21 and hair oil, of which several young barbers in the company were especially redolent. There was a play of sparkling eyes and glancing feet. Mary B. danced with the languorous23 grace of an Eastern odalisque, Mis' Molly with the mincing24, hesitating step of one long out of practice. Wain performed saltatory prodigies25. This was a golden opportunity for the display in which his soul found delight. He introduced variations hitherto unknown to the dance. His skill and suppleness26 brought a glow of admiration27 into the eyes of the women, and spread a cloud of jealousy28 over the faces of several of the younger men, who saw themselves eclipsed.
Rena had announced in advance her intention to take no active part in the festivities. "I don't feel like dancing, mamma—I shall never dance again."
"Well, now, Rena," answered her mother, "of co'se you're too dignified29, sence you've be'n 'sociatin' with white folks, to be hoppin' roun' an' kickin' up like Ma'y B. an' these other yaller gals31; but of co'se, too, you can't slight the comp'ny entirely32, even ef it ain't jest exac'ly our party,—you'll have to pay 'em some little attention, 'specially22 Mr. Wain, sence you're goin' down yonder with 'im."
Rena conscientiously33 did what she thought politeness required. She went the round of the guests in the early part of the evening and exchanged greetings with them. To several requests for dances she replied that she was not dancing. She did not hold herself aloof34 because of pride; any instinctive35 shrinking she might have felt by reason of her recent association with persons of greater refinement36 was offset37 by her still more newly awakened38 zeal39 for humanity; they were her people, she must not despise them. But the occasion suggested painful memories of other and different scenes in which she had lately participated. Once or twice these memories were so vivid as almost to overpower her. She slipped away from the company, and kept in the background as much as possible without seeming to slight any one.
The guests as well were dimly conscious of a slight barrier between Mis' Molly's daughter and themselves. The time she had spent apart from these friends of her youth had rendered it impossible for her ever to meet them again upon the plane of common interests and common thoughts. It was much as though one, having acquired the vernacular41 of his native country, had lived in a foreign land long enough to lose the language of his childhood without acquiring fully42 that of his adopted country. Miss Rowena Warwick could never again become quite the Rena Walden who had left the house behind the cedars43 no more than a year and a half before. Upon this very difference were based her noble aspirations44 for usefulness,—one must stoop in order that one may lift others. Any other young woman present would have been importuned45 beyond her powers of resistance. Rena's reserve was respected.
When supper was announced, somewh............
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