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HOME > Classical Novels > The House Behind the Cedars33 > 33 A MULE AND A CART
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 Frank Fowler's heart was filled with longing1 for a sight of Rena's face. When she had gone away first, on the ill-fated trip to South Carolina, her absence had left an aching void in his life; he had missed her cheerful smile, her pleasant words, her graceful2 figure moving about across the narrow street. His work had grown monotonous3 during her absence; the clatter4 of hammer and mallet5, that had seemed so merry when punctuated6 now and then by the strains of her voice, became a mere7 humdrum8 rapping of wood upon wood and iron upon iron. He had sought work in South Carolina with the hope that he might see her. He had satisfied this hope, and had tried in vain to do her a service; but Fate had been against her; her castle of cards had come tumbling down. He felt that her sorrow had brought her nearer to him. The distance between them depended very much upon their way of looking at things. He knew that her experience had dragged her through the valley of humiliation9. His unselfish devotion had reacted to refine and elevate his own spirit. When he heard the suggestion, after her second departure, that she might marry Wain, he could not but compare himself with this new aspirant10. He, Frank, was a man, an honest man—a better man than the shifty scoundrel with whom she had ridden away. She was but a woman, the best and sweetest and loveliest of all women, but yet a woman. After a few short years of happiness or sorrow,—little of joy, perhaps, and much of sadness, which had begun already,—they would both be food for worms. White people, with a deeper wisdom perhaps than they used in their own case, regarded Rena and himself as very much alike. They were certainly both made by the same God, in much the same physical and mental mould; they breathed the same air, ate the same food, spoke11 the same speech, loved and hated, laughed and cried, lived and would die, the same. If God had meant to rear any impassable barrier between people of contrasting complexions12, why did He not express the prohibition13 as He had done between other orders of creation?  
When Rena had departed for Sampson County, Frank had reconciled himself to her absence by the hope of her speedy return. He often stepped across the street to talk to Mis' Molly about her. Several letters had passed between mother and daughter, and in response to Frank's inquiries14 his neighbor uniformly stated that Rena was well and doing well, and sent her love to all inquiring friends. But Frank observed that Mis' Molly, when pressed as to the date of Rena's return, grew more and more indefinite; and finally the mother, in a burst of confidential15 friendship, told Frank of all her hopes with reference to the stranger from down the country.
"Yas, Frank," she concluded, "it'll be her own fault ef she don't become a lady of proputty, fer Mr. Wain is rich, an' owns a big plantation16, an' hires a lot of hands, and is a big man in the county. He's crazy to git her, an' it all lays in her own han's."
Frank did not find this news reassuring17. He believed that Wain was a liar18 and a scoundrel. He had nothing more than his intuitions upon which to found this belief, but it was none the less firm. If his estimate of the man's character were correct, then his wealth might be a fiction, pure and simple. If so, the truth should be known to Mis' Molly, so that instead of encouraging a marriage with Wain, she would see him in his true light, and interpose to rescue her daughter from his importunities. A day or two after this conversation, Frank met in the town a negro from Sampson County, made his acquaintance, and inquired if he knew a man by the name of Jeff Wain.
"Oh, Jeff Wain!" returned the countryman slightingly; "yas, I knows 'im, an' don' know no good of 'im. One er dese yer biggity, braggin' niggers—talks lack he own de whole county, an' ain't wuth no mo' d'n I is—jes' a big bladder wid a handful er shot rattlin' roun' in it. Had a wife, when I wuz dere, an' beat her an' 'bused her so she had ter run away."
This was alarming information. Wain had passed in the town as a single man, and Frank had had no hint that he had ever been married. There was something wrong somewhere. Frank determined20 that he would find out the truth and, if possible, do something to protect Rena against the obviously evil designs of the man who had taken her away. The barrel factory had so affected21 the cooper's trade that Peter and Frank had turned their attention more or less to the manufacture of small woodenware for domestic use. Frank's mule22 was eating off its own head, as the saying goes. It required but little effort to persuade Peter that his son might take a load of buckets and tubs and piggins into the country and sell them or trade them for country produce at a profit.
In a few days Frank had his stock prepared, and set out on the road to Sampson County. He went about thirty miles the first day, and camped by the roadside for the night, resuming the journey at dawn. After driving for an hour through the tall pines that overhung the road like the stately arch of a cathedral aisle23, weaving a carpet for the earth with their brown spines24 and cones25, and soothing26 the ear with their ceaseless murmur27, Frank stopped to water his mule at a point where the white, sandy road, widening as it went, sloped downward to a clear-running branch. On the right a bay-tree bending over the stream mingled28 the heavy odor of its flowers with the delicate perfume of a yellow jessamine vine that had overrun a clump29 of saplings on the left. From a neighboring tree a silver-throated mocking-bird poured out a flood of riotous30 melody. A group of minnows; startled by the splashing of the mule's feet, darted31 away into the shadow of the thicket32, their quick passage leaving the amber33 water filled with laughing light.
The mule drank long and lazily, while over Frank stole thoughts in harmony with the peaceful scene,—thoughts of Rena, young and beautiful, her friendly smile, her pensive34 dark eyes. He would soon see her now, and if she had any cause for fear or unhappiness, he would place himself at her service—for a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime, if need be.
His reverie was broken by a slight noise from the thicket at his left. "I wonder who dat is?" he muttered. "It soun's mighty35 quare, ter say de leas'."
He listened intently for a moment, but heard nothing further. "It must 'a' be'n a rabbit er somethin' scamp'in' th'ough de woods. G'long dere, Caesar!"
As the mule stepped forward, the sound was repeated. This time it was distinctly audible, the long, low moan of some one in sickness or distress36.
"Dat ain't no rabbit," said Frank to himself. "Dere's somethin' wrong dere. Stan' here, Caesar, till I look inter19 dis matter."
Pulling out from the branch, Frank sprang from the saddle and pushed his way cautiously through the outer edge of the thicket.
"Good Lawd!" he exclaimed with a start, "it's a woman—a w'ite woman!"
The slender form of a young woman lay stretched upon the ground in a small open space a few yards in extent. Her face was turned away, and Frank could see at first only a tangled37 mass of dark brown hair, matted with twigs38 and leaves and cockleburs, and hanging in wild profusion39 around her neck.
Frank stood for a moment irresolute40, debating the serious question whether he should investigate further with a view to rendering41 assistance, or whether he should put as great a distance as possible between himself and this victim, as she might easily be, of some violent crime, lest he should himself be suspected of it—a not unlikely contingency42, if he were found in the neighborhood and the woman should prove unable to describe her assailant. While he hesitated, the figure moved restlessly, and a voice murmured:—
"Mamma, oh, mamma!"
The voice thrilled Frank like an electric shock. Trembling in every limb, he sprang forward toward the prostrate43 figure. The woman turned her head, and he saw that it was Rena. Her gown was torn and dusty, and fringed with burs and briars. When she had wandered forth44, half delirious45, pursued by imaginary foes46, she had not stopped to put on her shoes, and her little feet were blistered47 and swollen48 and bleeding. Frank knelt by her side and lifted her head on his arm. He put his hand upon her brow; it was burning with fev............
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