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HOME > Classical Novels > The House Behind the Cedars33 > XXVIII THE LOST KNIFE
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 Rena had found her task not a difficult one so far as discipline was concerned. Her pupils were of a docile1 race, and school to them had all the charm of novelty. The teacher commanded some awe2 because she was a stranger, and some, perhaps, because she was white; for the theory of blackness as propounded3 by Plato could not quite counter-balance in the young African mind the evidence of their own senses. She combined gentleness with firmness; and if these had not been sufficient, she had reserves of character which would have given her the mastery over much less plastic material than these ignorant but eager young people. The work of instruction was simple enough, for most of the pupils began with the alphabet, which they acquired from Webster's blue-backed spelling-book, the palladium of Southern education at that epoch4. The much abused carpet-baggers had put the spelling-book within reach of every child of school age in North Carolina,—a fact which is often overlooked when the carpet-baggers are held up to public odium. Even the devil should have his due, and is not so black as he is painted.  
At the time when she learned that Tryon lived in the neighborhood, Rena had already been subjected for several weeks to a trying ordeal5. Wain had begun to persecute6 her with marked attentions. She had at first gone to board at his house,—or, by courtesy, with his mother. For a week or two she had considered his attentions in no other light than those of a member of the school committee sharing her own zeal7 and interested in seeing the school successfully carried on. In this character Wain had driven her to the town for her examination; he had busied himself about putting the schoolhouse in order, and in various matters affecting the conduct of the school. He had jocularly offered to come and whip the children for her, and had found it convenient to drop in occasionally, ostensibly to see what progress the work was making.
"Dese child'en," he would observe sonorously9, in the presence of the school, "oughter be monst'ous glad ter have de chance er settin' under yo' instruction, Miss Rena. I'm sho' eve'body in dis neighbo'hood 'preciates de priv'lege er havin' you in ou' mids'."
Though slightly embarrassing to the teacher, these public demonstrations10 were endurable so long as they could be regarded as mere11 official appreciation12 of her work. Sincerely in earnest about her undertaking13, she had plunged14 into it with all the intensity15 of a serious nature which love had stirred to activity. A pessimist16 might have sighed sadly or smiled cynically17 at the notion that a poor, weak girl, with a dangerous beauty and a sensitive soul, and troubles enough of her own, should hope to accomplish anything appreciable18 toward lifting the black mass still floundering in the mud where slavery had left it, and where emancipation19 had found it,—the mud in which, for aught that could be seen to the contrary, her little feet, too, were hopelessly entangled20. It might have seemed like expecting a man to lift himself by his boot-straps.
But Rena was no philosopher, either sad or cheerful. She could not even have replied to this argument, that races must lift themselves, and the most that can be done by others is to give them opportunity and fair play. Hers was a simpler reasoning,—the logic21 by which the world is kept going onward22 and upward when philosophers are at odds23 and reformers are not forthcoming. She knew that for every child she taught to read and write she opened, if ever so little, the door of opportunity, and she was happy in the consciousness of performing a duty which seemed all the more imperative24 because newly discovered. Her zeal, indeed, for the time being was like that of an early Christian25, who was more willing than not to die for his faith. Rena had fully8 and firmly made up her mind to sacrifice her life upon this altar. Her absorption in the work had not been without its reward, for thereby26 she had been able to keep at a distance the spectre of her lost love. Her dreams she could not control, but she banished27 Tryon as far as possible from her waking thoughts.
When Wain's attentions became obviously personal, Rena's new vestal instinct took alarm, and she began to apprehend28 his character more clearly. She had long ago learned that his pretensions29 to wealth were a sham30. He was
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