An Unusual Honor
To Rena's high-strung and sensitive nature, already under very great tension from her past experience, the ordeal of the next few days was a severe one. On the one hand, Jeff Wain's infatuation had rapidly increased, in view of her speedy departure. From Mrs. Tryon's remark about Wain's wife Amanda, and from things Rena had since learned, she had every reason to believe that this wife was living, and that Wain must be aware of the fact. In the light of this knowledge, Wain's former conduct took on a blacker significance than, upon reflection, she had charitably clothed it with after the first flush of indignation. That he had not given up his design to make love to her was quite apparent, and, with Amanda alive, his attentions, always offensive since she had gathered their import, became in her eyes the expression of a villainous purpose, of which she could not speak to others, and from which she felt safe only so long as she took proper precautions against it. In a week her school would be over, and then she would get Elder Johnson, or some one else than Wain, to take her back to Patesville. True, she might abandon her school and go at once; but her work would be incomplete, she would have violated her contract, she would lose her salary for the month, explanations would be necessary, and would not be forthcoming. She might feign sickness,—indeed, it would scarcely be feigning, for she felt far from well; she had never, since her illness, quite recovered her former vigor—but the inconvenience to others would be the same, and her self-sacrifice would have had, at its very first trial, a lame and impotent conclusion. She had as yet no fear of personal violence from Wain; but, under the circumstances, his attentions were an insult. He was evidently bent upon conquest, and vain enough to think he might achieve it by virtue of his personal attractions. If he could have understood how she loathed the sight of his narrow eyes, with their puffy lids, his thick, tobacco-stained lips, his doubtful teeth, and his unwieldy person, Wain, a monument of conceit that he was, might have shrunk, even in his own estimation, to something like his real proportions. Rena believed that, to defend herself from persecution at his hands, it was only necessary that she never let him find her alone. This, however, required constant watchfulness. Relying upon his own powers, and upon a woman's weakness and aversion to scandal, from which not even the purest may always escape unscathed, and convinced by her former silence that he had nothing serious to fear, Wain made it a point to be present at every public place where she might be. He assumed, in conversation with her which she could not avoid, and stated to others, that she had left his house because of a previous promise to divide the time of her stay between Elder Johnson's house and his own. He volunteered to teach a class in the Sunday-school which Rena conducted at the colored Methodist church, and when she remained to service, occupied a seat conspicuously near her own. In addition to these public demonstrations, which it was impossible to escape, or, it seemed, with so thick-skinned an individual as Wain, even to discourage, she was secretly and uncomfortably conscious that she could scarcely stir abroad without the risk of encountering one of two men, each of whom was on the lookout for an opportunity to find her alone.
The knowledge of Tryon's presence in the vicinity had been almost as much as Rena could bear. To it must be added the consciousness that he, too, was pursuing her, to what end she could not tell. After his letter to her brother, and the feeling therein displayed, she found it necessary to crush once or twice a wild hope that, her secret being still unknown save to a friendly few, he might return and claim her. Now, such an outcome would be impossible. He had become engaged to another woman,—this in itself would be enough to keep him from her, if it were not an index of a vastly more serious barrier, a proof that he had never loved her. If he had loved her truly, he would never have forgotten her in three short months,—three long months they had heretofore seemed to her, for in them she had lived a lifetime of experience. Another impassable barrier lay in the fact that his mother had met her, and that she was known in the neighborhood. Thus cut off from any hope that she might be anything to him, she had no wish to meet her former lover; no possible good could come of such a meeting; and yet her fluttering heart told her that if he should come, as his letter foreshadowed that he might,—if he should come, the loving George of old, with soft words and tender smiles and specious talk of friendship—ah! then, her heart would break! She must not meet him—at any cost she must avoid him.
But this heaping up of cares strained her endurance to the breaking-point. Toward the middle of the last week, she knew that she had almost reached the limit, and was haunted by a fear that she might break down before the week was over. Now her really fine nature rose to the emergency, though she mustered her forces with a great effort. If she could keep Wain at his distance and avoid Tryon for three days longer, her school labors would be ended and she might retire in peace and honor.
"Miss Rena," said Plato to her on Tuesday, "ain't it 'bout time I wuz gwine home wid you ag'in?"
"You may go with me to-morrow, Plato," answered the teacher.
After school Plato met an anxious eyed young man in the woods a short distance from the schoolhouse.
"Well, Plato, what news?"
"I's gwine ter see her home ter-morrer, Mars Geo'ge."
"To-morrow!" replied Tryon; "how very fortunate! I wanted you to go to town to-morrow to take an important message for me. I'm sorry, Plato—you might have earned another dollar."
To lie is a disgraceful thing, and yet there are times when, to a lover's mind, love dwarfs all ordinary laws. Plato scratched his head disconsolately, but suddenly a bright thought struck him.
"Can't I go ter town fer you atter I've seed her home, Mars Geo'ge?"
"N-o, I'm afraid it would be too late," returned Tryon doubtfully.
"Den I'll haf ter ax 'er ter lemme go nex' day," said Plato, with resignation. The honor might be postponed or, if necessary, foregone; the opportunity to earn a dollar was the chance of a lifetime and must not be allowed to slip.
"No, Plato," rejoined Tryon, shaking his head, "I shouldn't want to deprive you of so great a pleasure." Tryon was entirely sincere in this characterization of Plato's chance; he would have given many a dollar to be sure of Plato's place and Plato's welcome. Rena's letter had re-inflamed his smouldering passion; only opposition was needed to fan it to a white heat. Wherein lay the great superiority of his position, if he was denied the right to speak to the one person in the world whom he most cared to address? He felt some dim realization of the tyranny of caste, when he found it not merely pressing upon an inferior people who had no right to expect anything better, but barring his own way to something that he desired. He meant her no harm—but he must see her. He could never marry her now—but he must see her. He was conscious of a certain relief at the thought that he had not asked Blanche Leary to be his wife. His hand was unpledged. He could not marry the other girl, of course, but they must meet again. The rest he would leave to Fate, which seemed reluctant to disentangle threads which it had woven so closely.
"I think, Plato, that I see an easier way out of the difficulty. Your teacher, I imagine, merely wants some one to see her safely home. Don't you think, if you should go part of the way, that I might take your place for the rest, while you did my errand?"
"Why, sho'ly, Mars Geo'ge, you could take keer er her better 'n I could—better 'n anybody could—co'se you could!"
Mars Geo'ge was white and rich, and could do anything. Plato was proud of the fact that he had once belonged to Mars Geo'ge. He could not conceive of any one so powerful as Mars Geo'ge, unless it might be God, of whom Plato had heard more or less, and even here the comparison might not be quite fair to Mars Geo'ge, for Mars Geo'ge was the younger of the two. It would undoubtedly be a great honor for the teacher to be escorted home by Mars Geo'ge. The teacher was a great woman, no doubt, and looked white; but Mars Geo'ge was the real article. Mars Geo'ge had never been known to go with a black woman before, and the teacher would doubtless thank Plato for arranging that so great an honor should fall upon her. Mars Geo'ge had given him fifty cents twice, and would now give him a dollar. Noble Mars Geo'ge! Fortunate teacher! Happy Plato!
"Very well, Plato. I think we can arrange it so that you can kill the two rabbits at one shot. Suppose that we go over the road that she will take to go home."
They soon arrived at the schoolhouse. School had been out an hour, and the clearing was deserted. Plato led the way by the road through the woods to a point where, amid somewhat thick underbrush, another path intersected the road they were following.
"Now, Plato," said Tryon, pausing here, "this would be a good spot for you to leave the teacher and for me to take your place. This path leads to the main road, and will take you to town very quickly. I shouldn't say anything to the teacher about it at all; but when you and she get here, drop behind and run along this path until you meet me,—I'll be waiting a few yards down the road,—and then run to town as fast as your legs will carry you. As soon as you are gone, I'll come out and tell the teacher that I've sent you away on an errand, and will myself take your place. You shall have a dollar, and I'll ask her to let you go home with her the next day. But you mustn't say a word about it, Plato, or you won't get the dollar, and I'll not ask the teacher to let you go home with her again."
"All right, Mars Geo'ge, I ain't gwine ter say no mo' d'n ef de cat had my tongue."