The Purple Heights
Marie Conway Oemler
Part 1 out of 6
[Illustration: "We have met"]
THE PURPLE HEIGHTS
MARIE CONWAY OEMLER
Author of "Slippy McGee." "A Woman
Named Smith," etc.
JOHN NORTON OEMLER
FROM THE LADY
HIS SON USED TO CALL
I THE RED ADMIRAL
II THE PROMISE
III AT GRIPS WITH LIFE
IV THE SOUL OF BLACK FOLKS
V THE PURPLE HEIGHTS
VI GOOD MORNING, GOOD LUCK!
VII WHERE THE ROAD DIVIDED
X THE DEAR DAM-FOOL
XI HIS GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE
XII "NOT BY BREAD ALONE"
XIII THE BRIGHT SHADOW
XIV SWAN FEATHERS
XV "I, TOO, IN ARCADIA"
XVI THE OTHER MAN
XVII THE GUTTER-CANDLE
XIX THE POWER
XX AND THE GLORY
PETER CHAMPNEYS: _Of Riverton, South Carolina, and Paris, France_.
MARIA CHAMPNEYS: _His Mother_.
CHADWICK CHAMPNEYS: _The God in the Machine_.
EMMA CAMPBELL: _A Colored Woman_.
ANNE CHAMPNEYS, NEE NANCY SIMMS: _Cinderella_.
MRS. JOHN HEMINGWAY: _Peter's First Teacher_.
JOHN HEMINGWAY: _An American_.
JASON VANDERVELDE: _An Attorney at Law_.
MRS. JASON VANDERVELDE: _Anne's Mentor_.
MRS. MacGREGOR: _A Disciple of Hannah More_.
GLENN MITCHELL: _A Bright Shadow_.
BERKELEY HAYDEN: _The Other Man_.
GRACIE: _A Gutter-Candle_.
DENISE: _A Perfume_.
THE QUARTIER LATIN.
RIVERTON, SOUTH CAROLINA.
THE CAROLINA COLORED FOLKS.
MARTIN LUTHER: _A Gray Cat_.
SATAN: _A Black Cat_.
THE RED ADMIRAL: _A Fairy_.
THE PURPLE HEIGHTS
THE RED ADMIRAL
The tiny brown house cuddling like a wren's nest on the edge of the
longest and deepest of the tide-water coves that cut through
Riverton had but four rooms in all,--the kitchen tacked to the back
porch, after the fashion of South Carolina kitchens, the shed room
in which Peter slept, the dining-room which was the general
living-room as well, and his mother's room, which opened directly
off the dining-room, and in which his mother sat all day and
sometimes almost all night at her sewing-machine. When Peter tired
of lying on his tummy on the dining-room floor, trying to draw
things on a bit of slate or paper, he liked to turn his head and
watch the cloth moving swiftly under the jigging needle, and the
wheel turning so fast that it made an indistinct blur, and sang with
a droning hum. He could see, too, a corner of his mother's bed with
the patchwork quilt on it. The colors of the quilt were pleasantly
subdued in their old age, and the calico star set in a square
pleased Peter immensely. He thought it a most beautiful quilt. There
was visible almost all of the bureau, an old-fashioned walnut
affair with a small, dim, wavy glass, and drawers which you pulled
out by sticking your fingers under the bunches of flowers that
served as knobs. The fireplaces in both rooms were in a shocking
state of disrepair, but one didn't mind that, as in winter a fire
burned in them, and in summer they were boarded up with fireboards
covered with cut-out pictures pasted on a background of black
calico. Those gay cut-out pictures were a source of never-ending
delight to Peter, who was intimately acquainted with every flower,
bird, cat, puppy, and child of them. One little girl with a pink
parasol and a purple dress, holding a posy in a lace-paper frill, he
would have dearly loved to play with.
Over the mantelpiece in his mother's room hung his father's picture,
in a large gilt frame with an inside border of bright red plush. His
father seemed to have been a merry-faced fellow, with inquiring
eyes, plenty of hair, and a very nice mustache. This picture, under
which his mother always kept a few flowers or some bit of living
green, was Peter's sole acquaintance with his father, except when he
trudged with his mother to the cemetery on fine Sundays, and traced
with his small forefinger the name painted in black letters on a
white wooden cross:
PETER DEVEREAUX CHAMPNEYS
_Aged 30 Years_
It always gave small Peter an uncomfortable sensation to trace that
name, which was also his own, on his father's headboard. It was as
if something of himself stayed out there, very lonesomely, in the
deserted burying-ground. The word "father" never conveyed to him any
idea or image except a crayon portrait and a grave, he being a
posthumous child. The really important figures filling the
background of his early days were his mother and big black Emma
Emma Campbell washed clothes in a large wooden tub set on a bench
nailed between the two china-berry trees in the yard. Peter loved
those china-berry trees, covered with masses of sweet-smelling
lilac-colored blossoms in the spring, and with clusters of hard
green berries in the summer. The beautiful feathery foliage made a
pleasant shade for Emma Campbell's wash-tubs. Peter loved to watch
her, she looked so important and so cheerful. While she worked she
sang endless "speretuals," in a high, sweet voice that swooped
bird-like up and down.
"I wants tuh climb up Ja-cob's la-ad-dah,
Ja-cob's la-ad-dah, Jacob's la-ad-dah,
I wants tuh climb up Ja-cob's la-ad-dah,
But I cain't--
Not un-tell I makes my peace wid de La-a-wd,
En I praise _Him_--de La-a-wd!
I 'll praise Him--tell I di-e,
I 'll praise Him--tell I die!
I 'll si-ng, Je-ee-ru-suh-lem!"
Emma Campbell would sing, and keep time with thumps and clouts of
sudsy clothes. She boiled the clothes in the same large black iron
pot in which she boiled crabs and shrimp in the summer-time. Peter
always raked the chips for her fire, and the leaves and pine-cones
mixed with them gave off a pleasant smoky smell. Emma had a happy
fashion of roasting sweet potatoes under the wash-pot, and you could
smell those, too, mingled with the soapy odor of the boiling
clothes, which she sloshed around with a sawed-off broom-handle.
Other smells came from over the cove, of pine-trees, and sassafras,
and bays, and that indescribable and clean odor which the winds
bring out of the woods.
The whole place was full of pleasant noises, dear and familiar
sounds of water running seaward or swinging back landward, always
with odd gurglings and chucklings and small sucking noises, and runs
and rushes; and of the myriad rustlings of the huge live-oaks hung
with long gray moss; and the sycamores frou-frouing like ladies'
dresses; the palmettos rattled and clashed, with a sound like rain;
the pines swayed one to another, and only in wild weather did they
speak loudly, and then their voices were very high and airy. Peter
liked the pines best of all. His earliest impression of beauty and
of mystery was the moon walking "with silver-sandaled feet" over
their tall heads. He loved it all--the little house, the trees, the
tide-water, the smells, the sounds; in and out of which, keeping
time to all, went the whi-r-rr of his mother's sewing-machine, and
the scuff-scuffing of Emma Campbell's wash-board.
Sometimes his mother, pausing for a second, would turn to look at
him, her tired, pale face lighting up with her tender mother-smile:
"What are you making now, Peter?" she would ask, as she watched his
laborious efforts to put down on his slate his conception of the
things he saw. She was always vitally interested in anything Peter
said or did.
"Well, I started to make you--or maybe it was Emma. But I thought
I'd better hang a tail on it and let it be the cat." He studied the
result gravely. "I'll stick horns on it, and if they're _very_ good
horns I'll let it be the devil; if they're not, it can be Mis'
Hughes's old cow."
After a while the things that Peter was always drawing began to bear
what might be called a family resemblance to the things they were
intended to represent. But as all children try to draw, nobody
noticed that Peter Champneys tried harder than most, or that he
couldn't put his fingers on a bit of paper and a stub of pencil
without trying to draw something--a smear that vaguely resembled a
tree, or a lopsided assortment of features that you presently made
out to be a face.
But Peter Champneys, at a very early age, had to learn things less
pleasant than drawing. That tiny house in Riverton represented all
that was left of the once-great Champneys holdings, and the little
widow was hard put to it to keep even that. Before he was seven
Peter knew all those pitiful subterfuges wherewith genteel poverty
tries to save its face; he had to watch his mother, who wasn't
robust, fight that bitter and losing fight which women of her sort
wage with evil circumstances. Peter wore shoes only from the middle
of November to the first of March; his clothes were presentable only
because his mother had a genius for making things over. He wasn't
really hungry, for nobody can starve in a small town in South
Carolina; folks are too kindly, too neighborly, too generous, for
anything like that to happen. They have a tactful fashion of coming
over with a plate of hot biscuit or a big bowl of steaming
Often a bowl of that soup fetched in by a thoughtful neighbor, or an
apronful of sweet potatoes Emma Campbell brought with her when she
did the washing, kept Peter's backbone and wishbone from rubbing
noses. But there were rainy days when neighbors didn't send in
anything, Emma wasn't washing for them that week, sewing was scanty,
or taxes on the small holding had to be paid; and then Peter
Champneys learned what an insatiable Shylock the human stomach can
be. He learned what it means not to have enough warm covers on cold
nights, nor warm clothes enough on cold days. He accepted it all
without protest, or even wonder. These things were so because they
On such occasions his mother drew him closer to her and comforted
him after the immemorial South Carolina fashion, with accounts of
the former greatness, glory, and grandeur of the Champneys family;
always finishing with the solemn admonition that, no matter what
happened, Peter must never, never forget Who He Was. Peter, who was
a literal child in his way, inferred from these accounts that when
the South Carolina Champneyses used to light up their big house for
a party, before the war, the folks in North Carolina could see to
read print by the reflection in the sky, and the people over in
Georgia thought they were witnessing the Aurora Borealis.
She was a gentle, timid, pleasant little body, Peter's mother, with
the mild manners and the soft voice of the South Carolina woman; and
although the proverbial church-mouse was no poorer, Riverton would
tell you, sympathetically, that Maria Champneys had her pride. For
one thing, she was perfectly convinced that everybody who had ever
been anybody in South Carolina was, somehow, related to the
Champneyses. If they weren't,--well, it wasn't to their credit,
that's all! She preferred to give them the benefit of the doubt. Her
own grandfather had been a Virginian, a descendant of Pocahontas, of
course, Pocahontas having been created by Divine Providence for the
specific purpose of ancestoring Virginians. Just as everybody in New
England is ancestored by one of those inevitable two brothers who
came over, like sardines in a tin, in that amazingly elastic
_Mayflower_. In the American Genesis this is the Sarah and these be
the Abrahams, the mother and fathers of multitudes. They begin our
Mrs. Champneys sniffed at _Mayflower_ origins, but she was firm on
Pocahontas for herself, and adamant on Francis Marion for the
Champneyses. The fact that the Indian Maid had but one bantling to
her back, and the Swamp Fox none at all, didn't in the least
disconcert her. If he _had_ had any children, they would have
ancestored the Champneyses; so there you were!
Peter, who had a fashion of thinking his own thoughts and then
keeping them to himself, presently hit upon the truth. His was one
of those Carolina coast families that, stripped by the war and
irretrievably ruined by Reconstruction, have ever since been
steadily decreasing in men, mentality, and money-power, each
generation slipping a little farther down hill; until, in the case
of the Champneyses, the family had just about reached rock-bottom in
himself, the last of them. There had been, one understood, an uncle,
his father's only brother, Chadwick Champneys. Peter's mother hadn't
much to say about this Chadwick, who had been of a roving and
restless nature, trying his hand at everything and succeeding in
nothing. As poor as Job's turkey, what must he do on one of his
prowls but marry some unknown girl from the Middle West, as poor as
himself. After which he had slipped out of the lives of every one
who knew him, and never been heard of again, except for the report
that he had died somewhere out in Texas; or maybe it was Arizona or
Idaho, or Mexico, or somewhere in South America. One didn't know.
Behold small Peter, then, the last of his name, "all the sisters of
his father's house, and all the brothers, too." Little, thin, dark
Peter, with his knock-knees, his large ears, his shock of black
hair, and, fringed by thick black lashes, eyes of a hazel so clear
and rare that they were golden like topazes, only more beautiful.
Leonardo would have loved to paint Peter's quiet face, with its shy,
secret smile, and eyes that were the color of genius. Riverton
thought him a homely child, with legs like those of one's
grandmother's Chippendale chair, and eyes like a cat's. He was so
quiet and reticent that nearly everybody except his mother and Emma
Campbell thought him deficient in promise, and some even considered
Peter's reputation for hopelessness began when he went to school,
but it didn't end there. He really was somewhat of a trial to an
average school-teacher, who very often knows less of the human
nature of a child than any other created being. Peter used the
carelessly good-and-easy English one inherits in the South, but he
couldn't understand the written rules of grammar to save his life;
he was totally indifferent as to which states bounded and bordered
which; and he had been known to spell "physician" with an f and two
z's. But it was when confronted by a sum that Peter stood revealed
in his true colors of a dunce!
"A boy buys chestnuts at one dollar and sixty cents the bushel and
sells them at ten cents the quart, liquid measure.--Peter Champneys,
what does he get?"
Peter Champneys stood up, and reflected.
"It all depends on the judge, and whether the boy's a white boy or a
nigger," he decided. "It's against the law to use liquid measure,
you know. But I should think he'd get about thirty days, if he's a
Whereupon Peter Champneys went to the principal with a note, and
received what was coming to him. When he returned to his seat, which
was decidedly not comfortable just then, the teacher smiled a real,
sure-enough schoolma'am smile, and remarked that she hoped our
brilliant scholar, Mister Champneys, knew now what the boy got for
his chestnuts. The class laughed as good scholars are expected to
laugh on such occasions. Peter came to the conclusion that Herod,
Nero, Bluebeard, and The Cruel Stepmother all probably began their
bright careers as school-teachers.
Peter was a friendly child who didn't have the useful art of making
friends. He used to watch more gifted children wistfully. He would
so much have liked to play familiarly with the pretty, impertinent,
pigtailed little girls, the bright, noisy, cock-sure little boys;
but he didn't know how to set about it, and they didn't in the least
encourage him to try. Children aren't by any means angels to one
another. They are, as often as not, quite the reverse. Peter was
loath to assert himself, and he was shoved aside as the gentle and
the just usually are.
Being a loving child, he fell back upon the lesser creatures, and
discovered that the Little Brothers do not judge one upon hearsay,
or clothes, or personal appearance. Theirs is the infallible test:
one must be kind if one wishes to gain and to hold their love.
Martin Luther helped teach Peter that. Peter discovered Martin
Luther, a shivering gray midget, in the cold dusk of a November
evening, on the Riverton Road. The little beast rubbed against his
legs, stuck up a ridiculous tail, and mewed hopefully. Peter, who
needed friendliness himself, was unable to resist that appeal. He
buttoned the forlorn kitten inside his old jacket, and, feeling the
grateful warmth of his body, it cuddled and purred. The wise little
cat didn't care the tip of a mouse's tail whether or not Peter was
the congenital dunce his teacher had declared him to be, only that
morning. The kitten knew he was just the sort of boy to show
compassion to lost kittens, and trusted and loved him at sight.
His mother was doubtful as to the wisdom of adopting a third member
into a family which could barely feed two without one going half
hungry. Also, she disliked cats intensely. She was most horribly
afraid of cats. She was just about to say that he'd have to give the
kitten to somebody better able to care for it, but seeing the
resigned and hopeless expression that crept into Peter's face, she
said, instead, that she reckoned they could manage to feed the
little wretch, provided he kept it out of her room. Peter joyfully
agreed, washed the cat in his own basin, fed it with a part of his
own supper, and took it to bed with him, where it purred itself to
sleep. Thus came Martin Luther to the house of Champneys.
When Peter had chores to do the cat scampered about him with,
sidewise leapings and gambolings, and made his labor easier by
seasoning it with harmless amusement. When he wrestled with his
lessons Martin Luther sat sedately on the table and watched him,
every now and then rubbing a sympathetic head against him. When he
woke up at night in the shed room, he liked to put out his hand and
touch the warm, soft, silky body near him. Peter adored his cat,
which was to him a friend.
And then Martin Luther took to disappearing, mysteriously, for
longer and longer intervals. Peter was filled with apprehensions,
for Martin Luther wasn't a democratic soul; aside from his affection
for Peter, the cat was as wild as a panther. The child was almost
sick with anxiety. He wandered around Riverton hunting for the beast
and calling it by name, a proceeding which further convinced
Riverton folk that poor Maria Champneys's boy was not what one might
call bright. Fancy carrying on like that about nothing but a cat!
But Peter used to lie awake at night, lonesomely, and cry because he
was afraid some evil had befallen the perverse creature of his
affections. Then he prayed that God would look out for Martin
Luther, if He hadn't already remembered to do so. The world of a
sudden seemed a very big, sad, unfriendly place for a little boy to
live in, when he couldn't even have a cat in it!
The disappearance of Martin Luther was Peter's first sorrow that his
mother couldn't fully share, as he knew she didn't like cats. Martin
Luther had known that, too, and had kept his distance. He hadn't
even made friends with Emma Campbell, who loved cats to the extent
of picking up other people's when their owners weren't looking. This
cat had loved nobody but Peter, a fact that endeared it to him a
thousandfold, and made its probable fate a darker grief.
One afternoon, when Martin Luther had been gone so long that Peter
had about given up hopes of ever seeing him again, Emma Campbell,
who had been washing in the yard, dashed into the house screeching
that the woodshed was full of snakes.
Peter joyfully threw aside his grammar--snakes hadn't half the
terror for him that substantives had--and rushed out to investigate,
while his mother frantically besought him not to go near the
woodshed, to get an ax, to run for the town marshal, to run and ring
the fire-bell, to burn down that woodshed before they were all stung
to death in their beds!
Cautiously Peter investigated. Perhaps a chicken-snake had crawled
into the shed; perhaps a black-snake was hunting in there for rats;
over there in that dark corner, behind sticks of pine, something was
moving. And then he heard a sound he knew.
"Snakes nothin'!" shouted Peter, joyfully. "It's Martin Luther!" He
got on his hands and knees and squirmed and wriggled himself behind
the wood. There he remained, transfixed. His faith had received a
"Oh, Martin Luther!" cried Peter, with mingled joy and relief and
reproach. "Oh, Martin Luther! How you've fooled me!" Martin Luther
was a proud and purring mother.
Peter was bewildered and aggrieved. "If I'd called him Mary or
Martha in the beginning, I'd be glad for him to have as many kittens
as he wanted to," he told his mother. "But how can I ever trust him
again? He--he ain't Martin Luther any more!" And of a sudden he
began to cry.
Emma Campbell, with a bundle of clean wet clothes on her brawny arm,
shook her head at him.
"Lawd, no, Peter! 'T ain't de cat whut 's been foolin' you; it 's you
whut 's been foolin' yo' own self. For, lo, fum de foundations ob
dis worl', he was a she! Must n' blame de cat, chile. 'Cause ef you
does," said Emma, waving an arm like a black mule's hind leg for
strength, "ef you does, 'stead o' layin' de blame whah it natchelly
b'longs--on yo' own ig'nance, Peter--you'll go thoo dis worl' wid
every Gawd's tom-cat you comes by havin' kittens on you!"
"I feel like a father to those kittens," said Peter, gravely. But it
was plain that Martin Luther's furry fourlegs had put Peter's nose
out of joint!
Things were getting worse and worse at school, too, although Peter
considerately concealed this from his mother. He didn't tell her
that the promotions she was so proud of had come to him simply
because his teachers were so desperately anxious to get rid of him!
And only to-day an incident had happened that seared his soul. He
had been forced to stand out on the floor for twenty cruel, grueling
minutes, to be a Horrible Example to a tittering class. It had been
a long, wearisome day, when one's head ached because one's stomach
was empty. Peter's eyes stung and smarted, his lip was bruised
because he had bitten it to keep it from trembling, and his heart
was more like a boil in his breast than a little boy's heart. When
he was finally released for the day he didn't linger, but got away
as fast as his thin legs would carry him. Once he was sure he was
out of sight of all unfriendly eyes he let himself go and cried as
he trudged along the Riverton Road. And there, in the afternoon
sunlight, he made the acquaintance of the Red Admiral.
Just at that spot the Riverton Road was tree-shaded and
bird-haunted. There were clumps of elder here and there, and cassena
bushes, and tall fennel in the corners of the old worm-fence
bordering the fields on each side. The worm-fence was of a polished,
satiny, silvery gray, with trimmings of green vines clinging to it,
wild-flowers peeping out of its crotches, and tall purple thistles
swaying their heads toward it. On one especially tall thistle the
Red Admiral had come to anchor.
He wore upon the skirts of his fine dark-colored frock-coat a
red-orange border sewed with tiny round black buttons; across the
middle of his fore-wings, like the sash of an order, was a broad red
ribbon, and the spatter of white on the tips may have been his idea
of epaulets; or maybe they were nature's Distinguished Service
medals given him for conspicuous bravery, for there is no more
gallant sailor of the skies than the Red Admiral.
When this gentleman comes to anchor on a flower he hoists his gay
sails erect over his fat black back, in order that his under wings
may be properly admired; for he knows very well that the cunningest
craftsman that ever worked with mosaics and metals never turned out
a better bit of jewel-work than those under wings.
It was this piece of painted perfection that caught Peter
Champneys's unhappy eyes and brought him to a standstill. Peter
forgot that he was the school dunce, that tears were still on his
cheeks, that he had a headache and an empty stomach. His eyes began
to shine unwontedly, brightening into a golden limpidity, and his
lips puckered into a smile.
The Red Admiral, if one might judge by his unrubbed wings and the
new and glossy vividness of his colorings, may have been some nine
hours old. Peter, by the entry in his mother's Bible, was nine years
old. Quite instinctively Peter's brown fingers groped for a pencil.
At the feel of it he experienced a thrill of satisfaction. Down on
his knees he went, and crept forward, nearer and nearer; for one
must come as the wind comes who would approach the Red Admiral.
Peter had no paper, so a fly-leaf of his geography would have to do.
All athrill, he worked with his bit of pencil; and on the fly-leaf
grew the worm-fence with the blackberry bramble climbing along its
corners, and the fennel, and the elder bushes near by; and in the
foreground the tall thistle, with the butterfly upon it. The Red
Admiral is a gourmet; he lingers daintily over his meals; so Peter
had time to make a careful sketch of him. This done, he sketched in
the field beyond, and the buzzard hanging motionless in the sky.
It was crude and defective, of course, and a casual eye wouldn't
have glanced twice at it, but a true teacher would instantly have
recognized the value, not of what it performed, but of what it
presaged. For all its faults it was bold and rapid, like the
Admiral's flight, and it had the Admiral's airy grace and freedom.
It seized the outlines of things with unerring precision.
The child kneeling in the dust of the Riverton Road, with an old
geography open on his knee, felt in his thin breast a faint flutter,
as of wings. He looked at the sketch; he watched the Red Admiral
finish his meal and go scudding down the wind. And he knew he had
found the one thing he could do, the one thing he wanted to do, that
he must and would do. It was as if the butterfly had been a fairy,
to open for Peter a tiny door of hope. He wrote under the sketch:
Jun. 2, 189- This day I notissed the red and blak buterfly on
He stared at this for a while, and added:
P.S. In futcher watch for this buterfly witch mite be a fary.
Then he went trudging homeward. He was smiling, his own shy, secret
smile. He held his head erect and looked ahead of him as if in the
far, far distance he had seen something, a beckoning something,
toward which he was to strive. Barefooted Peter, poverty-stricken,
lonely Peter for the first time glimpsed the purple heights.
It is written in the Live Green Book that one may not stumble upon
one of its secrets without at the same discovering something about
others quite as fascinating and worth exploring. This is a wise and
blessed law, which the angels of the Little Peoples are always
trying to have enforced. Peter Champneys suspected the Red Admiral
of being a fairy; so when he ran fleet-footed over the fields and
through the woods and alongside the worm-fences after the Admiral,
the angels of the Little Peoples turned his boyish head aside and
made him see birds' wings, and bees, and the shapes of leaves, and
the colors of trees and clouds, and the faces of flowers. It is
further written that one may not intimately know the Little Peoples
without loving them. When one begins to love, one begins to grow.
Peter, then, was growing.
Lying awake in the dark now wasn't a thing to be dreaded; the dark
was no longer filled with shapes of fear, for Peter was beginning to
discover in himself a power of whose unique and immense value he was
not as yet aware. It was the great power of being able clearly to
visualize things, of bringing before his mind's eye whatever he had
seen, with every distinction of shape and size and color sharply
present, and accurately to portray it in the absence of the
original. If one should ask him, "What's the shape of the milkweed
butterfly's wing, and the color of the spice-bush swallowtail, Peter
Champneys? What does the humming-bird's nest look like? What's the
color of the rainbow-snake and of the cotton-mouth moccasin? What's
the difference between the ironweed and the aster?"--Ask Peter
things like that, and lend him a bit of paper and a pencil, and he
literally had the answers at his finger-tips.
But they never asked him what would, to him, have been natural
questions; they wished him, instead, to tell them where the Onion
River flows, and the latitude of the middle of Kamchatka, and to
spell phthisis, and on what date the Battle of Somethingorother was
fought, and if a man buys old iron at such a price, and makes it
over into stoves weighing so much, and sells his stoves at such
another price, what does it profit him, and other such-like
illuminating and uplifting problems, warranted to make any
school-child wiser than Solomon. It is a beautiful system; only,
God, who is no respecter of systems, every now and then delights to
flout it by making him a dunce like Peter Champneys, to be the
torment of school-teachers--and the delight of the angels of the
Those long, silent, solitary hours in the open gave Peter the power
of concentration, and a serenity that sat oddly on his slight
shoulders. Thoughts came to him, out there, that he couldn't put
into words nor yet set down upon paper.
On warm nights, when his mother's sewing-machine was for a time
still and the tired little woman slept, Peter slipped out of the
shed room into a big, white, enchanted world, and saw things that
are to be seen only by an imaginative and beauty-loving little boy
in the light of the midsummer moon. Big hawk-moths, swift and
sudden, darted by him with owl-like wings. Mocking-birds broke into
silvery, irrepressible singing, and water-birds croaked and rustled
in the cove, where the tide-water lipped the land. The slim, black
pine-trees nodded and bent to one another, with the moon looking
over their shoulders. Something wild and sweet and secret invaded
the little boy's spirit, and stayed on in his heart. Maybe it was
the heart-shaking call of the whippoorwill, or the song of the
mocking-bird, truest voices of the summer night; or perhaps it was
the spirit of the great green luna-moth, loveliest of all the
daughters of the dark. Or perhaps the Red Admiral was indeed a
fairy, as Peter said he was.
Peter was superstitious about the Red Admiral. He was a good-luck
sign, a sort of flying four-leaf clover. Peter noticed that whenever
the Red Admiral crossed his path now, something pleasant always
impended; it meant that he wouldn't be _very_ unhappy in school; or
maybe he'd find a thrush's nest, or the pink orchid. Or the meeting
might simply imply something nice and homey, such as a little treat
his mother contrived to make for him when sewing had been somewhat
better-paying than usual, and she could sit by the table and enjoy
his enjoyment as only one's mother can. Decidedly, the Red Admiral
was good luck!
So, all along, quietly, persistently, not exactly secretly but still
all by himself, Peter had been learning to use his fingers, as he
had been learning to use his eyes and ears. He was morbidly shy
about it. It never occurred to him that anybody might admire
anything he could do, as nobody had ever admired anything he had
On his mother's last birthday--though Peter didn't know then that it
was to be her last--he made for her his first sketch in
water-colors. By herculean efforts he had managed to get his
materials; he had picked berries, weeded gardens until his head
whirled and his back ached, chopped fire-wood, run errands, caught
crabs. Presently he had his paper and colors.
It was a beautiful surprise for Peter's mother, that sketch, which
was a larger copy of the one on the fly-leaf of his geography. There
was the gray worm-fence, a bit of brown ditch, an elder in flower, a
tall purple thistle, and on it the Red Admiral. Peter wished to make
his mother personally acquainted with the Red Admiral, so he printed
on the back of his picture:
My buterfly done for mother's burthday by her loveing son
Peter Champneys the 11th Year of his Aige.
The little woman cried, and held him off the better to look at him,
with love, and wonder, and pride, and drew his head to her breast
and kissed his hair and eyes, and wished his dear, dear father had
been there to see what her wonder-child could do.
"I can't to save my life see where you get such a lovely gift from,
Peter. It must be just the grace of God that sends it to you. Your
dear father couldn't so much as draw a straight line unless he had a
ruler, I'm sure. And I'm not bright at all, except maybe about
sewing. But you are different. I've always felt that, Peter, from
the time you were a little baby. At the age of five months you cut
two teeth without crying once! You were a _wonderful_ baby. I _knew_
it was in you to do something remarkable. Never you doubt your
mother's word about _that_, Peter! You'll make your mark in the
world yet! God couldn't fail to answer my prayers--and you the last
Peter was too innately kind and considerate to dim her joy with any
doubts. He knew how he was rated--berated is the better word for it.
He knew acutely how bad his marks were: his shoulders too often bore
witness to them. The words "dunce" and "sissy" buzzed about his ears
like stinging gnats. So he wasn't made vainglorious by his mother's
praise. He received it with cautious reservations. But her faith in
him filled him with an immense tenderness for the little woman, and
a passionate desire, a very agony of desire, to struggle toward her
aspirations for him, to make good, to repay her for all the
privations she had endured. A lump came in his throat when he saw
her place the little sketch under his father's picture, where her
eyes could open upon it the first thing in the morning, and close to
it at night.
"Ah, my dear! God's will be done--I'm not complaining--but I wish,
oh, how I wish you could be here to see what our dear child can do!"
she told the smiling crayon portrait. "Some of these days the little
son you've never seen is going to be a great man with a great
name--_your_ name, my dear, _your_ name!"
Her face kindled into a sort of exaltation. Two large tears ran down
her cheeks, and two larger ones rolled down Peter's. His heart
swelled, and again he felt in his breast the flutter as of wings.
Far, far away, on the dim and distant horizon, something glimmered,
like sunlight upon airy peaks.
Peter's mother wasn't at all beautiful--just a little, thin, sallow
woman with mild brown eyes and graying hair, and a sensitive mouth,
and dressed in a worn black skirt and a plain white shirt-waist. Her
fingers were needle-pricked, and she stooped from bending so
constantly over her sewing-machine. She had been a pretty girl; now
she was thirty-five years old and looked fifty. She wasn't in the
least intellectual; she hadn't even the gift of humor, or she
wouldn't have thought herself a sinner and besought Heaven to
forgive sins she never committed. She used to weep over the
Fifty-first Psalm, take courage from the Thirty-seventh, and when
she hadn't enough food for her body feed her spirit on the
Twenty-third. She didn't know that it is women like her who manage
to make and keep the earth worth while. This timid and modest soul
had the courage of a soldier and the patience of a martyr under the
daily scourgings inflicted upon the sensitive by biting poverty.
Peter might very well have received far less from a brilliant and
beautiful mother than he received from the woman whose only gifts
and graces were such as spring from a loving, unselfish, and pure
For Peter's sake she fought while she had strength to fight,
enduring all things, hoping all things. She didn't even know she was
sacrificing herself, because, as Emma Campbell said, "Miss Maria's
jes' natchelly all mother." But of a sudden, the winter that Peter
was turning twelve, the tide of battle went against her. The
needle-pricked, patient fingers dropped their work. She said
apologetically, "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I'm too sick to stay up
any longer." Nobody guessed how slight was her hold upon life. When
the neighbors came in, after the kindly Carolina custom, she was
cheerful enough, but quiet. But then, Maria Champneys was always
There came a day when she was unusually quiet, even for her. Toward
dusk the neighbor who had watched with her went home. At the door
she said hopefully:
"You'll be better in the morning."
"Yes, I'll be better in the morning," the sick woman repeated. After
a while Emma Campbell, who had been looking after the house, went
away to her cabin across the cove. Peter and his mother were alone.
It was a darkish, gusty night, and a small fire burned in the open
fireplace. Shadows danced on the walls, and every now and then the
wind came and tapped at the windows impatiently. On the closed
sewing-machine an oil lamp burned, turned rather low. Peter sat in a
rocking-chair drawn close to his mother's bedside and dozed
fitfully, waking to watch the face on the pillow. It was very quiet
there in the poor room, with the clock ticking, and the soft sound
of the settling log.
Just before dawn Peter replenished the fire, moving carefully lest
he disturb his mother. But when he turned toward the bed again she
was wide awake and looking at him intently. Peter ran to her, kissed
her cheek, and held her hand in his. Her fingers were cold, and he
chafed them between his palms.
"Peter," said she, very gently, "I've got to go, my dear." There was
no fear in her. The child looked at her piteously, his eyes big and
frightened in his pale face.
"And now I'm at the end," said she bravely, "I'm not afraid to leave
you, Peter. You are a brave child, and a good child. You couldn't be
dishonorable, or a coward, or a liar, or unkind, to save your life.
You will always be gentle, and generous, and just. When one is where
I am to-night, that is all that really matters. Nothing but goodness
Peter, with her hand against his cheek, tried not to weep. To
conceal his terror and grief, and the shock of this thing come upon
him in the middle of the night, to spare her the agony of witnessing
his agony, was almost intuitive with him. He braced himself, and
kept his self-control. She seemed to understand, for the hand he
held against his cheek tried, feebly, to caress it. It didn't tire
her to talk, apparently, for her voice was firm and clear.
"You're a gifted child, as well as a good child, Peter. But--our
people here don't understand you yet, my dearest. Your sort of
brightness is different from theirs--and better, because it's rarer
and slower. Hold fast to yourself, Peter. You're going to be a great
Peter stroked her hand. The two looked at each other, a long, long,
"My son,--your chance is coming. I know that to-night. And when it
comes, oh, for God's sake, for my sake, for all the Champneyses'
sake, take it, Peter, take it!" Her voice rose at that, her hand
tightened upon his; she looked at him imploringly.
"Take it for my sake," she said with terrible earnestness and
intensity. "Take it, darling, and prove that I was right about you.
Remember how all my years, Peter, I toiled and prayed--all for you,
my dearest, all for you! Remember me in that hour, Peter, and don't
fail me, don't fail me!"
"Oh, Mother, I won't fail you! I won't fail you!" cried Peter, and
at that the tears came.
His mother smiled, exquisitely; a smile of faith reassured and hope
fulfilled, and love contented. That smile on a dying mouth stayed,
with other beautiful and imperishable memories, in Peter's heart.
Presently he ventured to ask her, timidly:
"Shall I go for somebody, Mother?"
"Are you afraid, dear?"
"No," said Peter.
"Then stay by me. Just you and me together. You--you are all I
have--I don't need anybody else. Stay with me, Son,--for a little
Outside you could hear the wind moving restlessly, and the trees
complaining, and the tide-water whispering. The dark night was
filled with a multitudinous murmuring. For a long while Peter and
his mother clung to each other. From time to time she whispered to
him--such pitiful comfortings as love may lend in its extremity.
The black night paled into a gray glimmer of dawn. Peter held fast
to the hand he couldn't warm. Her face was sharp and pale and
pinched. She looked very little and thin and helpless. The bed
seemed too big for so small a woman.
More gray light stole through the windows. The lamp on the closed
machine looked ghostly, the room filled with shifting shadows. Maria
Champneys turned her head on her pillow, and stared at her son with
eyes he didn't know for his mother's. They were full of a flickering
light, as of a lamp going out.
"'Though I walk--through the valley--'" Here her voice, a mere thin
trickle of sound, failed her. As if pressed by an invisible hand her
head began to bend forward. A thin, gray shade, as of inconceivably
fine ashes, settled upon her face, and her nostrils quivered. The
eyes, with the light fading from them, fixed themselves on Peter in
a last look.
"'--of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with
me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.'" Peter finished it for
her, his boyish voice a cry of agony.
A light, puffing breath, as of a candle blown out, exhaled from his
mother's lips. Her eyes closed, the hand in Peter's fell limp and
slack. The awful and mysterious smile of death fixed itself upon her
So passed Maria Champneys from her tiny house in Riverton, in the
dawn of a winter morning, when the tide was turning and the world
was full of the sound of water running seaward.
AT GRIPS WITH LIFE
The best or the worst thing that can happen to a boy in this country
is to be poor in it for a while, to be picked up neck and crop and
flung upon his own resources; not always to remain poor, of course,
for one may be damned quite as effectually and everlastingly upon
the cross as off it; but to be poor long enough to acquire a sense
of proportion by coming to close grips with life; to learn what
things and people really are, the good and the bad of them together;
to have to weigh and measure cant and sentimentality and Christian
charity--which last is a fearsome thing--in the balance with truth
and common sense and human kindness. It is an experience that makes
Peter had always adored his mother; but it wasn't until now that he
realized how really wonderful she had been. How she had kept the
roof over his head, and his stomach somehow satisfied, and had sent
him to church and to school decently enough clad, Peter couldn't
There was no possibility now of regular schooling. Nature hasn't
provided as providently for the human grub as for the insect one. A
human grub isn't born upon a food-plant that is a house as well,
nor is nature his tailor and his shoemaker. Peter wasn't blood kin
to anybody in Riverton, so there was no home open to him. He was
deeply sensible of the genuine kindness extended to him in his dark
hour, but he wouldn't, he couldn't, have gone permanently into any
of their homes had he been asked to do so, which of course he
wasn't. He clung to the little house on the big cove. His mother's
presence lingered there and hallowed the place.
There was some talk of sending him to an orphanage--he was barely
twelve, and penniless. But when Mrs. Cooke, the minister's wife,
mentioned it to Peter, gently enough, the boy turned upon her with
flaming eyes, and said he wouldn't stay in any asylum; he'd run
away, and keep on running away until he died! Mrs. Cooke looked
troubled, and said that Mr. McMasters, a vestryman in the church,
was really the head and front of that project.
Peter went after Mr. McMasters, and found him in his grocery
store--one of those long, dim country stores that sell everything
from cradles to coffins. Mr. McMasters came from behind the counter,
rubbing his hands.
"Well, Peter, what can I do for _you_ this mawnin'?" he asked,
jovially. He was that sort.
"You can let me alone, please," said Peter, succinctly.
"Eh? What's that?" The large man stared at the little man.
"I said you can let me alone, please," said Peter, patiently. "I
hear it's you doing most of the talking about sending me to an
"I try to do my duty as a man and a Christian," said the vestryman,
piously. "You can't be allowed to run loose, Peter. 'T aint right.
'T ain't moral. 'T ain't Christian. You'll be better off in a good
orphan-asylum, bein' taught what you'd ought to learn. That's the
place for you, Peter!"
"I want to stay in my own house," said Peter.
"Shucks! You can't eat and wear a measly little house, can you?
That's what I'm askin' the town right now. Sure you can't! The thing
to do is to sell that place for what it'll fetch, sock the money in
bank for you, and it'll be there--with _interest_--when you've grown
up and aim to start in business for yourself. Yes, sir. That's my
"Mr. McMasters," said Peter, evenly, "I want you to know one thing
sure and certain. If you send me to any orphan-asylum, I'll send
_you_ to some place where you'll be better off, too, sir."
Peter Champneys shot at the stout vestryman a glance like the thrust
of a golden spear.
"The cemetery, Mr. McMasters," said he, with the deadly South
The two stared at each other. It wasn't the boy's glance that fell
"Threatenin' me, hey? Threatenin' a father of a family, are you?"
Mr. McMasters licked his lips.
"Oh, no, Mr. McMasters, I'm not threatening you, at all. I'm just
telling you what'll happen."
The vestryman reflected. He knew the Champneyses. They had all been
men of their word. And fine marksmanship ran in the family. He had
seen this same Peter handle a shot-gun: you'd think the little devil
had been born with a gun in his fist! He had a thumb-nail vision of
Mrs. McMasters collecting his life-insurance--getting new clothes,
and the piano she had been plaguing him for, too, and her mother
always in the house with her. He turned purple.
"You--why, you beggarly whelp! You--you damned Champneys!" he
roared. Peter met the angry eyes unflinchingly.
"I reckon you'd better understand I'm not going to any
orphan-asylum, Mr. McMasters. I'm going to stay right here at home.
And you are not going to get my cove lot," he added shrewdly.
"What do I care where you go? And who wants your old strip of sand
and cockspurs? Get to hell out o' here!" yelled Mr. McMasters,
Peter marched out. He knew that victory perched upon his banners. He
wouldn't be sent away, willy-nilly, to a place the bare thought of
which had made his mother turn pale. And she had wished him to keep
the place on the cove, the last poor remnant of Champneys land. To
this end had she pinched and slaved. When Peter thought of McMasters
intriguing to take from him even this poor possession, his lips came
together firmly. Somehow he would manage to keep the place. If his
mother had been able to manage it, surely a man could do so, too! He
hadn't the faintest doubt of his ability to take care of himself.
But the town was troubled and perplexed, until Peter solved his
problem for himself with the aid of Emma Campbell. Emma had always
been his friend, and she had been his mother's loyal and loving
servitor. She and Peter had several long talks; then Emma called in
Cassius, an ex-husband of hers who so long as he didn't live with
her could get along with her, and had him widen the shed room, Peter
taking in its stead his mother's bedroom. Cassius built a better
wash-bench, with a shelter, under the china-berry trees in the yard,
and strung some extra clothes-lines, and Emma Campbell moved in.
Emma would take care of the house, and look after Peter. Riverton
sighed, and shrugged its shoulders.
It was a sketchy sort of arrangement, but it worked very well.
Sometimes Peter provided the meals which Emma cooked, for he was
expert at snaring, crabbing, shrimping, and fishing. Sometimes the
spirit moved Cassius to lay an offering of a side of bacon, a bushel
of potatoes, a string of fish, or maybe a jug of syrup or a hen at
his ex-spouse's feet. Cassius said Emma was so contrary he specked
she must be 'flicted wid de moonness, which is one way of saying
that one is a bit weak in the head. But he liked her, and she washed
his shirts and sewed on a button or so for him occasionally, or
occasionally cracked him over the sconce with the hominy-spoon, just
to show that she considered her marital ties binding. Emma had been
married twice since Cassius left her, but both these ventures had
been, in her own words, "triflin' niggers any real lady 'd jes'
natchelly hab to throw out." When Cassius complained that his third
wife was "diggin' roots" against him, Emma immediately set him to
digging potatoes for herself, to offset the ill effects of possible
conjure. She was a strategical person, and Peter didn't fare very
The boy fell heir to all those odd jobs that boys in his position
are expected to tackle. When a task was too tiresome, too
disagreeable, or too ill-paying for anybody else, Peter was sent for
and graciously allowed to do it. It enabled people to feel
charitable and at the same time get something done for about a
fourth of what a man would have charged. Half the time he made his
living out of the river, going partners with some negro boatman.
They are daring watermen, the coast negroes. They took Peter on
deep-sea fishing-trips, and at night he curled up on a furled sail
and went to sleep to the sound of Atlantic waves, and of negro men
singing as only negro men can sing. Sometimes they went seining at
night in the river, and Peter never forgot the flaring torches, the
lights dipping and glinting and sliding off brawny, half-naked
figures and black faces, while the marshes were a black, long line
against the sky, and the moon made a silver track upon the waters,
and the salty smell of the sea filled one's nostrils.
Now that he could no longer attend school, Peter snatched at any
book that came his way, getting all sorts and conditions of
reading-matter from all sorts and conditions of people. His was the
unappeasable hunger and thirst of those who long to know; and he
wished to express what he learned, by making pictures and thus
interpreting it for himself and others. It wasn't easy. Life turned
a rather harsh face to him. He wasn't clothed like the birds of the
air and the lilies of the field: he had to provide his own coverings
as best he might. He wouldn't accept charity. He would wear his own
old clothes but he wouldn't wear anybody else's.
"Peter," said Emma Campbell, anxiously, "yo' rind is comin' out o'
doors. Dem britches o' yourn looks like peep-thoo-de-winduh;
daylight 's comin'." She added anxiously: "Don't you let a heavy rain
ketch you in dem pants, Peter, or it 'll baptize you plum nekked to
Peter looked alarmed. One may with decency run barefooted only to
the knees. Upon reflection, he sold his mother's sewing-machine--it
was an old machine and didn't bring much--and bought enough to cover
"I wish I'd been born with my clothes on me, like you were," he
confided to the Red Admiral. "Gee, you're lucky!"
The Red Admiral flirted his fine coat vaingloriously. _He_ didn't
have to worry about trousers, nor yet shoes for his six feet! And
all he had to do was to fly around a bit and he was sure to find his
dinner waiting for him.
"Fairy," said Peter, soberly, "I'm not sniffling, but I'm not having
what you'd call a good time. It's hard to be me, butterfly. Nothing
nice has happened in such a long time. I wish you'd think up
something pleasant and wish it to happen to me."
If you'll hold out your first and second fingers and wiggle them in
the friendliest way you know how, you'll see how the Red Admiral
moved his feelers just then.
When Peter Champneys went home that night, after a long afternoon of
weeding an old lady's garden and whitewashing a long-suffering
chicken house, Emma Campbell spread before him, on a hot platter,
and of a crispness and brownness and odorousness to have made St.
Simon Stylites slide down his pillar and grab for a piece of it, a
fat chicken with an accompaniment of hot biscuit and good brown
gravy. She didn't tell Peter how she had come by the chicken, nor
did he wait to ask. He crammed his mouth, and Emma leaned against
the door and watched him with profound satisfaction. When he had
polished the last bone to an ivory whiteness, Emma reached behind
her and handed Peter the book she had that morning wrested from a
peddler whose shirt she had washed and ironed. Emma knew Peter liked
Now, Emma Campbell couldn't by any stretch of imagination be
considered a beautiful person. She had pulled almost all of her hair
out by the roots, from a fashion she had of twisting and winding it
tightly around a tin spoon, or a match stem, to "pull her palate
up." The colored people suffer from a mysterious ailment known as
"having your palate down," for which the one specific is to take a
wisp of your hair and wrap it as tightly around a tin spoon, or a
match stem, as you can twist it; that pulls your palate up. It is,
of course, absolutely necessary for you to have your palate up,
even though you scalp yourself in the process of making it stay up.
Emma generally had a couple of spoons and two or three matches in
what was left of her wool. She could screw her mouth up until it
looked like a nozzle, and she could shoot her eyes out like a
crab's. She was so big that most folks were afraid of her. But as
she stood there beaming at Peter with the book in his hand, the
loveliest lady in the land couldn't have looked better or kinder.
Peter laid the Collection of Poetic Gems on the table, and blinked
at Emma Campbell. Then, because he was only a boy, and because
nothing so pleasant as this had happened to him for a long, long
time--not since his mother died--he put his head down on the
green-covered book and cried as only a boy can cry when he lets go.
Emma Campbell seemed to grow about nine feet tall. "Peter," said
she, in a terrifying voice, "I axes you not to lemme see you cryin'
like dat! When I sees Miss Maria's chile cryin', jes' 'cause a ole
nigger woman gives 'im a book, I wants to go out an' bust dis town
wide open wid a ax!"
When he had time to examine his Collection of Poetic Gems, Peter was
overjoyed. The paper was poor, the cuts atrocious, the binding a
poisonous green, but many of the Gems were of purest ray serene
despite their wretched setting. Old-fashioned stuff, most of it, but
woven on the loom of immortality. Peter, of course, had Simms's "War
Poems of the South." He knew much of Father Ryan by heart. He, as
well as another, could wave his brown stick of an arm and bid
somebody "Take that banner down, 'tis tattered." He had been brought
up on the story of the glory of the men who wore the gray, and for
him the sword of Robert Lee would never dim nor tarnish. But these
things were different. They talked to something deep down in him,
that was neither Yankee nor Southerner, but larger and better than
both. When Peter read these poems he felt the hair of his scalp
prickle, and his heart almost burst with a rapture that was agony.
But one can't exist on a collection of gems in a vile binding.
Shirts and shoes wear out, and trousers must be replaced when
they're too far gone to stand another stitch. Peter was too small to
do any responsible work, and he was getting too big to be paid in
pennies and dimes. People didn't exactly know what to do with him.
One can't be supercilious to a boy who is a Champneys born, but can
one invite a boy who runs errands, is on very familiar footing with
all the colored people in the county, and wears such clothes as
Peter wore, to one's house, or to be one of the guests when a child
of the family gives a birthday party? Not even in South Carolina!
For instance, when Mrs. Humphreys gave a birthday party for her
little girl, she was troubled about Peter Champneys, who hadn't been
invited. Peter had weeded her garden the day before, and mowed her
lawn; and he had looked such a little fellow, running that
lawn-mower out there in the sun! And now, while all the other
children were playing and laughing, dressed in their party finery,
Peter was splitting wood for old Miss Carruthers, a little farther
down the street. Mrs. Humphreys could see him from her bedroom
window. It was a little too much for the good-hearted woman, who had
liked his mother. She compromised with herself by taking a plate if
ice-cream and a thick slice of cake, slipping out of her back door,
and hurrying down to Miss Carruthers's back yard.
Peter stood there, leaning on his ax. Seated on a larger woodpile
was old Daddy Christmas, one of the town beggars. Daddy Christmas
was incredibly old, wrinkled, ragged, and bent. His grizzled, partly
bald head nodded while he tried to talk to Peter.
"Peter," said Mrs. Humphreys, hastily, "here's some ice-cream and
cake for you." She blushed as she spoke. "It's a hot day--and you're
working. I thought you'd like something cool and nice." She thrust
the plate upon him.
Peter smiled at her charmingly.
"You're mighty kind, Mis' Humphreys," he told her.
"I'll come back for the plate and spoon, after a while," she said,
hurrying off. But at the gate, beside the thick crape-myrtle bushes,
she paused and looked back. Somehow she wanted to see Maria
Champneys's boy eating that ice-cream and cake.
"Daddy Christmas," said a voice, gaily, "if there'd been two plates
and two spoons, and if you'd had any sort of a dinner to-day, I'd be
perfectly willing to share this treat with you. As it is, you'll
have to eat it all by yourself." A second later the voice added:
"Funny, you just saying the Lord would provide; but I bet you didn't
think He'd provide ice-cream and cake!" Followed the brisk strokes
of the ax, swung by a wiry, nervous little arm.
Mrs. Humphreys walked down the lane to her house, with a very
THE SOUL OF BLACK FOLKS
The negro to the white man, as the moon to the earth, shows one side
only; the other is dark and unknown. It is an instinct with him to
conceal the truth--any truth--from white men; who knows to what use
they will put it and him? So deeply have ages of slavery and
oppression ingrained this upon black men's subconsciousness, that
only one white man in a thousand ever knows or suspects what his
dark brethren think, or know, or feel. Peter Champneys happened to
be the thousandth.
There wasn't a cabin in all that countrywide in which this
barefooted last scion of a long line of slave-holding gentry wasn't
known and welcome. There wasn't a negro in the county he didn't know
by name: even "mean niggers" grinned amiably at Peter Champneys.
They remembered what he had once said to a district judge whom he
heard bitterly inveighing against their ingratitude, immorality,
shiftlessness, and general worthlessness. Peter had lifted his quiet
"I've often thought, Judge, what a particularly mean nigger I'd have
been, myself," he said, and studied the judge with disconcerting
directness. "If you'd been born a colored man, and some folks talked
and behaved to you like some folks talk and behave to colored men,
don't you reckon you'd be in jail right this minute, Judge?"
The white men who heard Peter's remark smiled, and one of them said,
spitting out a mouthful of tobacco juice, that it was just another
piece of that boy's damfoolishness. But the negroes, who knew that
judge as only negroes can know white men, chuckled grimly. They have
an immense respect for intelligence, and they made no mistake where
Peter's was concerned.
They knew him, too, a mild-eyed, brown-faced child reading out of a
Book by the light of a kerosene lamp to groups of gray-headed,
reverent listeners in lonely cabins. And Peter was always making
pictures of them--Mindel at the wash-tub, Emma Campbell picking a
chicken, old Maum' Chloe churning, Liza playing with her fat black
baby, Joe Tuttle plowing, old Daddy Neptune Fennick leaning on his
ax. Sometimes these sketches caught some fleeting moment of fun, and
were so true and so amusing that they were received with shouts of
delighted laughter, passed from hand to hand, and cherished by
Now, no simple and natural heart can even for a little while beat in
unison with other hearts, encased in whatsoever colored skin may
please God, without a quickening of that wisdom which is one of the
keys of the Kingdom to come. To be able really to know, truly to
understand and come human-close to the lowly, to men and women under
the bondage of age-old prejudice, or outcast by the color of their
skin, is a terrible and perilous gift. This is the much knowledge in
which there is much grief.
Peter Champneys saw both sides. He saw and heard and knew things
that would have made his mother turn in her grave had she known. He
knew what depths of savagery and superstition, of brute sloth and
ignorance, lay here to drive back many a would-be white helper in
despair, and to render the labor of many a splendid negro reformer
all but futile. But he knew, too, the terrible patience, the
incredible resignation, with which poverty and neglect and hunger
and oppression and injustice are borne, until at times, child as he
was, his soul sickened with shame and rage. He relished the sweet
earthy humor that brightens humble lives, the gaiety and charity
under conditions which, when white men have to bear them, go to the
making of red terrorists. Some of the things he saw and heard
remained like scars upon Peter's memory. He will remember until he
dies the June night he spent with Daddy Neptune Fennick in his cabin
on the edge of the River Swamp.
That early June day had been cloudy from dawn; Peter was glad of
that, for he meant to pick black-berries, and a sunless day for
berry-picking is an unmixed blessing. The little negroes are such
nimblefingered pickers, such locust-like strippers of all near-by
patches, that Peter had bad luck at first, and was driven farther
afield than he usually went; his search led him even to the edge of
the River Swamp, a dismal place of evil repute, wherein cane as tall
as a man grew thickly, and sluggish streamlets meandered in and out
of gnarled cypress roots, and big water-snakes stretched themselves
on branches overhanging the water. On the edges of the swamp the
unmolested vines were thick with fruit. In the late afternoon Peter
had filled his buckets to overflowing with extra-fine berries.
It had been a sultry day for all its sunlessness, and Peter was
tired, so tired that his head and back ached. He looked at the heavy
buckets doubtfully; it would be a man-size job to trudge the long
sandy road home, so laden. While he sat there, hating to move, Daddy
Neptune Fennick came in sight, hoe and rake and ax on his sturdy
shoulder. The old man cast a shrewd, weather-wise eye at the
"Gwine to hab one spell o' wedder," he called. "Best come on home
wid me, Peter, en wait w'ile."
Even as he spoke a blaze of lightning split the sky and lighted up
the swamp. A loud clap of thunder followed on the heels of it. Daddy
Neptune seized one bucket, Peter the other, and both ran for the
shelter of the cabin, some eighth of a mile farther on. They reached
it just as the rain came down in swirling, blinding sheets.
The old man built a fire in his mud fireplace, and prepared the
evening meal of broiled bacon, johnny-cake, and coffee. He and his
welcome guest ate from tin plates on their knees, drinking their
coffee from tin cups. Between mouthfuls each gave the other what
county news he possessed. Peter particularly liked that orderly
one-roomed cabin, and the fine old man who was his host.
He was an old-timer, was Daddy Neptune, more than six feet tall, and
massively proportioned. His bald head was fringed with a ring of
curling gray wool, and a white beard covered the lower portion of an
unusually handsome countenance. He had a shrewd and homely wit, an
unbuyable honesty, and such a simple and unaffected dignity of
manner and bearing as had won the respect of the county.
The old man lived by himself in the cabin by the River Swamp. His
wife and son had long been dead, and though he had sheltered, fed,
clothed, and taught to work several negro lads, these had gone their
way. Peter was particularly attached to him, and the old man
returned his affection with interest.
The dark fell rapidly. You could hear the trees in the River Swamp
crying out as the wind tormented them. On a night like this, with
lightning snaking through it and wild wind trying to tear the heart
out of its thin cypresses, and the cane-brake rustling ominously in
its unchancy black stretches, one might believe that the place was
haunted, as the negroes said it was. Daddy Neptune was moved to tell
Peter some of his own experiences with the River Swamp. He spoke,
between puffs of his corn-cob pipe, of the night Something had come
out of it--_pitterpat! pitterpat!_--right at his heels. It had
followed him to the very edge of his home clearing. Daddy Neptune
wasn't exactly _afraid_, but he knew that Something hadn't any
business to be pitterpattering at his heels, so he had turned around
"Ef you-all come out o' hebben, you 's wastin' good time 'yuh. Ef
Dey-all lef' you come out o' hell, you bes' git right back whah you
b'longs. One ways, _I_ ain't got nothin' I kin tell you; t'other
ways, _you_ ain't got nothin' I 's gwine to let you tell me. I 's
axin' you to _git_. En," finished Neptune, "dat t'ing done went
right _out_--whish!--same lak I 's tellin' you! Yessuh! hit went
spang _out_!" He threw another chunk of fatwood on the fire, and
watched the smoky flame go dancing up the chimney. In the red glow
he had the aspect of a kindly Titan.
"It never bothered you again, Daddy Nep?" Peter was always curious
about these experiences. He had a glimmer that negroes are nearer to
certain Powers than other folks are, and although he wasn't
superstitious, he wasn't skeptical, either.
"Never bothered me a-tall, less'n dat 's whut 's been meddlin' wid
my fowls, whichin ef I catches it, I aims to blow its head plum off,
ghostes or no ghostes," said the old man, stoutly.
"Ghosts don't steal chickens. I reckon it's a wild-cat gets yours. I
heard one scream in the swamp not so long since."
"Well, I aims to git Mistuh Wildcat, den. I done got me a couple o'
guinea-fowls for watch, en dey sho does set up a mighty potrackin'
w'en anything strange comes a-snoopin' roun' de yahd."
After a while Daddy Neptune put away his pipe and took down from a
shelf his big battered Bible, and Peter read the Twenty-first and
Twenty-second chapters of Revelation, to which the old man listened
with clasped hands and an uplifted face, his lips moving soundlessly
as he repeated to himself certain of the words:
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there
shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither
shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed
away.... He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will
be his God and he shall be my son ...
"I was born in slaveryment," said the old man, audibly.
Peter lay on his straw bed before the fire, sleepily watching
Neptune finish his prayers. He still had a child's faith, but he was
beginning to wonder how a laboring negro could retain it. One thing
he was sure of; if there was such a thing as a Christian man,
endowed with ideal Christian virtues, that old man kneeling in his
cabin, pouring out his heart to his Maker, was a Christian. And
remembering comfortable, complacent white Christians--well fed, well
housed, well clothed; with education and all that it implies as
their heritage; with all the high things of the world open to them
by reason of their white skin; praying decorously every Sunday to a
white man's God--Peter felt confused. How should the white man and
the white man's God answer and account to the Daddy Neptunes, who
had been "born in slaveryment," had lived and would die in
slaveryment to poverty and prejudice? Where do they come in, these
dispossessed dark sons of the Father? Surely, the Father has a very
great deal to make up to them!--Then the firelighted cabin walls,
the wavering figure of the kneeling old man, the soft sound of light
rain on the roof, faded and went out. Peter fell asleep.
He slept a tired boy's dreamless slumber. The night deepened. The
rain ceased, and a wan and sad moon climbed the sky, wearily, like a
tired old woman. In the River Swamp frogs croaked, a whippoorwill at
intervals gave its lonesome and lovely call, the shivering-owl's cry
making it lovelier by comparison. The cypresses shook blackly in the
blacker swamp water which licked their roots. From the drenched
vegetation arose a fresh and penetrating odor, the smell of the
clean June night. And presently, he didn't know why, Peter awoke
with every sense instantly alert. It was as if his soul had sensed a
sound, knew it for what it was, and was on guard.
A few red embers glowed in the big mud chimney. Save for these, the
one-room cabin was in darkness. Somebody was moving about. Peter
made out the figure of big Neptune standing with his head bent in a
listening attitude at one of the shuttered windows. A bit of fatwood
in the fireplace burst for a moment into an expiring flame, which
flickered dully on the barrel of the gun in the negro's hands. Peter
scrambled up, and stole noiselessly across the floor.
"Dem guineas potracked en waked me up, Son," whispered Neptune. "Now
I aims to git whut 's been sneakin' off wid my fowls."
At that moment a low knock sounded on the door. At such an hour,
and in that lonely place, it gave the old man and the boy a distinct
sensation of fear: who should come knocking so stealthily at the
door of the cabin by the River Swamp at that eerie hour? Neptune,
his gun gripped in his hands, twisted his head sidewise, listening.
The knock came again, this time more insistent. Then a thick voice
spoke, muffled by the intervening door:
"Daddy Nepshun, is you awake? For Gawd A'mighty's sake, Daddy
Nepshun, lemme in!"
The old man stepped to the door and flung it wide. The figure that
had been crouching against it tumbled in and lay panting on the
"Light me dat lamp, please, Peter," said Neptune, peering down at
Peter, who had recovered from his momentary fear, lighted the
kerosene lamp. By its light they perceived a stained, muddy,
disheveled wretch, in the last state of terror and exhaustion. Two
wild eyes glared at them out of a gray, grimed face.
"Why, Jake! Lawd 'a' mussy, hit 's Jake!" burst from Daddy Neptune.
Peter recognized in the intruder a negro to whom the old man had
been, as was his wont, fatherly kind. On a time he and his wife had
sheltered and fed Jake.
Peter didn't know why, but something in the man's aspect, in his
rolling eyes, his lips drawn back from his teeth, his torn clothes,
his desperate look of a hunted beast, made him recoil. He had never
before seen any one with just that look of brute cunning and
terror. Daddy Neptune's steady eyes took in every detail. He
stiffened in his tracks.
"Whut you been doin'?" he demanded. Jake turned his head from side
to side; he refused to meet the direct old eyes. He mumbled:
"Is you got any w'isky, Da' Nepshun? For Gawd's sake, Da' Nepshun,
gimme a drink en don't ast me no questions twell I 's able to
answer." His voice was hoarse and shaking; his whole body shook.
"I ain't got no w'isky, but I got coffee en bittles. Whichin you is
welcome to," said Neptune. "You ain't say yit whut you been doin'.
Whut you been up to, Jake?"
Jake writhed off the floor. Again Peter recoiled instinctively. As
the negro got upon his feet his coat fell open, and the torn sleeve
and cuff of a gingham shirt showed. On it was a dark stain which was
not swamp water or mud. Peter's eyes fastened upon that dark red
"Gimme a bite o' bittles so 's I kin git on," implored Jake.
"I axes you once mo', Jake: whut you been doin'?" demanded Neptune.
His voice was stern, and his face began to set.
"En I axes you to lemme git dem bittles fust, en I'll tell you, soon
's I gits back mah wind," returned Jake, sullenly.
Still retaining his gun, Neptune went to the corner cupboard, from
which he took a loaf of bread. Without cutting it he handed it to
Jake, who began to tear it with his teeth. All the while he ate, he
kept turning his head, listening, listening.
"Cain't wait for no coffee. Gimme drink o' water, please, suh." In
silence Neptune handed him a gourd of water. When Jake had gulped
this down, Neptune asked again, inexorably:
"Whut you been doin', Jake?"
Jake shifted from one foot to the other. He thrust his bullet head
forward. His hands, hanging at his sides, opened and closed, the
"Dem w'ite mens is atter--somebuddy--en dey say hit 's me," he
muttered hoarsely. His eyes rolled toward the door, which, not
having been barred after his entrance, swung slightly ajar.
"Whut dey atter somebuddy _for_?" Neptune demanded. Outside, in the
wet night, the screech-owl cried. The sweet wind danced on airy feet
in and out of the cypresses and the gums, kissed them, stole their
breath, and tossed it abroad odorously. Stars had come out to keep
the pale moon company, and a faint light glinted on wet grass and
bushes. Crickets and katydids and little green tree-frogs kept up a
harsh concert. And then, above all the minor, murmuring noises of
the night arose another sound, very faint and far off, but
unmistakable and unforgetable--the deep, long, bell note of a hound
upon the trail.
The three in the cabin stood like figures turned to stone in the
attitude of listening. Jake's teeth chattered audibly. He edged
toward the open door, but Neptune stepped in front of him, and
flung up an arresting hand.
"_Whut for_?" His voice was like a whip-lash.
"Somebuddy--done meddled wid a w'ite gal--een de cawn-field. En dey
'low--hit wuz me."
A gasp, as if his heart had been squeezed, came from Neptune. Of a
sudden he seemed to grow in height, to tower unhumanly tall above
the cringing wretch he confronted. His eyes narrowed into red points
that bored into the other's eyes, and plunged like daggers into his
heart and mind. Before that glance, like a vivisectionist's knife,
Jake wilted; he seemed to shrink, dwindle, collapse. And with a
growing, cold, awful horror, a suspicion so hideous that his mind
revolted from it, Peter Champneys stood staring from one black face
to the other.
"You--you--" Neptune gulped, strangling. A long, slow shudder, as of
one confronting unheard-of torture, went over his big frame. The
fringe of hair on his bald head rose, his beard bristled. Sparks
seemed to shoot from his eyes, burning with a terrible flame.
"Da' Nepshun--" Jake put out clawing, twitching hands. "Dey 's--dey
's--gwine to git me." His voice broke into a half-scream.
"Whut you do hit for?" This from Neptune, in a heart-shaken,
anguished, rattling whisper. He asked no further questions. He had
no doubt. Jake's rolling eyes had told him the unspeakable truth.
"I 'clah to Gawd, Da' Nepshun, I wuz n't meanin' no hahm--I never
had no idea--She came down de cawn-field paff--wid de cow followin'
'er--en--en--I don't know _whut_ mek me meddle wid dat gal. Seems
lak hit wuz de debbil, 'stead o' me."
"Is de gal done daid?"
"Yas, suh, she done daid." Jake rocked himself to and fro, muttering
Peter Champneys looked at the torn shirt-sleeve with the red stain
upon it. The room shook and wavered, wind was in his ears. And the
red of that girl's blood got into his eyes, and he saw things
through a scarlet mist. The most horrible rage he had ever
experienced shook him like a mortal sickness. Oh, God! oh, God! oh,
God! That girl!
In the momentary silence that fell upon that tragic room, a sound
shivered. Long, slow, bell-like. Nearer. It galvanized Jake into
terror-stricken action. He started for the door.
"Dey 'll git me, dey 'll git me!" he croaked.
Peter would have flung himself upon the wretch, to reach for his
throat with bare hands; but something in Neptune's face stopped him.
Neptune's bigness seemed to fill the whole room. He drew a deep
breath, and with one movement jerked the door wide.
"Run down de paff by de fowl-house," he said sharply. "Den--hit 's
de swamp for you."
Peter turned sick. Was Neptune like all other--niggers? Hadn't he
the--proper sense of what this devil had done?
Jake leaped for the door, cleared the steps at a bound, and was
flying down the path. Neptune took one forward step, filling the
doorway. He lifted the shot-gun to his shoulder. Just as the
fugitive neared the fowl-house, the gun spoke. The flying figure
leaped high in the air, and then sprawled out and was suddenly still
and inert. The guinea-hens set up a deafening potracking, and the
cooped fowls squawked and flapped. Above all the noise they made
rose the bloodhound's note.
It was done so quickly, it was so inevitable, that Peter could only
stand and blink. He thought, sickly, that the very earth should
shudder away from the soiling touch of that appalling carrion. But
the earth was the one thing that would receive Jake unprotestingly.
He lay on his face, his arms outflung, and from the gaping hole
between his shoulders a dark stream welled. The indifferent earth,
the uncaring grass, received it. The wind came out of the swamp
on mincing feet and danced over him, and fluttered his torn
Stonily, voicelessly, Neptune stood in the cabin door, staring at
that which lay in the pathway. Then he lowered the smoking gun, and
leaned on it. His bald head drooped until his gray beard swept his
breast, and his throat rattled like a dying man's. Shudders went
over him. And stonily young Peter Champneys stood beside him, his
boyish eyes hard in a dead-white face, his boyish mouth a grim, pale
"Peter," said the old man presently, in a thin whisper, "I helped
raise dat boy. Wuz n't sich a bad boy, neither. Used to sing en
wissle roun' de house, en fetch water en fiah-wood. Chloe, she loved
'im. Used to say Ouah Fathuh right in dis same room 'fo' he went to
sleep. Ef I 'd 'a' knowed--
"En dat po' lil w'ite chile's daddy en mammy, _dey_ done raise
'er--used to say 'er prayers--en laff en sing--en trus' de Almighty
He raised his sinewy arms and shook the gun aloft.
"Ah, Gawd Almighty! Gawd Almighty! Whah is You dis night? Whah is
You?" cried the old man. And of a sudden he began to weep
dreadfully; heart-broken cries of pain and of protest, the tortured
cries of one suffering inhumanly.
"And all this while God said not a word."
Shaken to the soul, full of sick horror, and loathing, and rage,
Peter Champneys yet had a swift, intuitive understanding of old
Neptune; and as if through him he had caught a glimpse of the naked
and suffering soul of the black people, the boy began to weep with
him. With understanding merging into pity he crept nearer and put
his slender, boyish arm around the big, shaking, agonized figure,
and the old man turned his head and looked long and sorrowfully into
the white child's face. He put out the big, seamed, work-hardened
hand that had labored since it could hold an implement to labor
with, and laid it on the child's shoulder.
Then, bareheaded and empty-handed, Neptune sat down on his cabin
steps to wait for what should happen, and Peter Champneys sat beside
him, the gun between his knees. Over there by the fowl-house lay
Jake, a horrid blotch in the moonlight.
Presently, echoing through the River Swamp, the hunting hounds set
up their thrilling, deep-mouthed belling. They were closing in on
their quarry and the nearness of it excited them. A few minutes
later, and here they were, a posse of some thirty or forty mounted
men struggling pell-mell after them. One great hound leaped forward,
stood rigid by that which lay in a heap in the cabin clearing,
pointed his nose, and gave tongue. Other dogs bunched around him,
sniffed, and joined in.
The mounted men came to an abrupt standstill, the horses, like the
dogs, bunching together. Neptune had risen and Peter Champneys stood
on the top step, his head about level with the old man's shoulder.
He looked in vain for the sheriff; evidently, this was an
independent posse. One of the men rode up to the door, shouting to
make himself heard above the din of the dogs, and Peter recognized
him, with a sinking of the heart--a tenant farmer named Mosely, of a
violent and quarrelsome disposition.
"Shet up them damn dogs!" he yelled. And to Neptune, savagely: "Now
then, nigger, talk! What's been doin' here?"
It was Peter Champneys who answered.
"Daddy Neptune's been worried by something or somebody stealing his
fowls. He's been on the watch. So when he saw that--that nigger over
there running by the chicken-house, he just blazed away. Got him
between the shoulder-blades."
A yell so ferocious that Peter's marrow froze, burst from the posse,
which had dismounted.
"It's him!" howled a farm-hand, and kicked the corpse in the face.
"What in hell did that big nigger shoot him for, anyhow?" he roared.
"He'd ought to be strung up himself, the old black--" And he cursed
Neptune vilely. He felt swindled. There would be no burning, with
interludes of unspeakable things. Nothing but senseless carrion to
wreak vengeance upon. And all through a damned old meddling nigger's
fault! A nigger taking the law into his own hands!
Somebody, discovering Daddy Neptune's woodpile, had kindled a
fatwood torch. Others followed his example, and the red, smoky light
flared over enraged faces and glaring eyes of maddened men; over the
sweating horses, the baying dogs, and the black corpse with its
bruised face. The guinea-hens, after their insane fashion, kept up a
deafening potracking, flapping from limb to limb of the tree in
which they roosted. The indifferent swamp chorus joined in, katydids
and crickets shrilling all the while. And over it all the moon went
about its business; the awful depths of the sky were silent. The
wind from the swamp, the night, the earth, didn't care.
Somebody whipped out a knife and bent over Jake's body. A yell
greeted this. Dogs and men moved confusedly around the thing on the
ground, in a sort of demoniac circle upon which the hissing, flaring
pitch-pine torches danced with infernal effect. Peter Champneys
watched it, his soul revolting. He had no sympathy for Jake; he felt
for him nothing but hatred. He couldn't think of that gay and
innocent girl coming down the corn-field path, unafraid--to meet
what she had met--without a suffocating sense of rage. She had been,
Peter remembered, a very pretty girl, a girl who, as Neptune had
said, used to sing, and laugh, and say her prayers, and trust
But Peter was seeing now the other side of that awful cloud which
darkens the horizon of the South--the brute beast mob-vengeance that
follows swiftly upon the heels of the unpardonable sin. There must
be justice. But what was happening now wasn't justice. It was stark
barbarism let loose.
Neptune, who had "helped raise" Jake, had meted out to him justice
full and sure. He had avenged both the wronged white and the wronged
black people. Peter looked at the men in the cabin clearing, and saw
the thing nakedly, and from both angles. For instance, consider
Mosely, who had done things--with a clasp-knife. And that other man,
the farm-hand, shifty-eyed and mean, always half drunk, a bad
citizen: _they_ would be sure to be foremost in affairs like this.
They had precious little respect for the law as law. And here they
were, making the holy night indecent with bestial behavior. Again a
sick qualm shook Peter: Mosely was calmly putting four severed black
fingers into his coat pocket. Oh, where was the sheriff? Why didn't
the sheriff come?
Peter caught a glimpse of a shapeless, battered, gory mass under
trampling feet. Maddened by the little they were able to accomplish,
and with the torture-lust that is as old as humanity itself roused
to fury by frustration, the posse turned from that which had been
Jake, to old Neptune, standing motionless by his doorway. Neptune
had not moved or spoken since Peter had answered the posse's
questions. He had not even appeared to hear the vile abuse heaped
upon him. He was not in the least afraid for his life: He was beyond
that. That which had happened, which was happening, had dealt the
stern, simple-hearted old man so mighty a blow that his faculties
were stunned. He couldn't think. He could only suffer a bewildered,
baffled torment. He stood there, dumb as a sheep before the
slaughterers, and the sight of his black face maddened the men who
were out to avenge a black man's monstrous crime.
"Hang the damn nigger!" screamed Mosely, and the crowd surged
forward ominously. You could see, by the shaking torch-light, faces
in which the eyes glared wolf-like, brandished fists, glints of
guns. Neptune, without a flicker of fear, regarded them with his
sorrowful gaze. But Peter Champneys stepped in front of him, and
thrust the cold muzzle of the shot-gun against Mosely's face. The
man, a coward at heart, leaped back, trampling upon the toes of
those behind him, who cursed him shrilly and vindictively.
Then spoke up small Peter Champneys, standing barefooted and
bareheaded, clothed in a coarse blue blouse and a pair of patched
and faded denim trousers, but for all that heir to a long line of
dead-and-gone Champneyses who had been, whatever their faults,
fearless and gallant gentlemen.
"Get back there, you, Mosely!" Peter Champneys spoke in the voice
his grandfather had on a time used to a recalcitrant field-hand.
"Chuck that little nigger-lover in the swamp!"
"Knock him down an' git the nigger, Mosely!"
"Burn down the house!"
But the shot-gun in that steady young hand held them in check for a
breathing-space. They knew Peter Champneys.
"Mosely!" snapped Peter. "You, too, Nicolson! Stand back, you
white-livered hounds! First one of you lays a hand on me or Daddy
Nep gets his head blown off! Damn you, Mosely! don't make me tell
you again to get back!"
And Mosely saw that in the boy's eyes that drove him back, swearing.
The huge farm-hand, who had shifted and squirmed his way to the back
of the crowd, now lifted his arm. A rope with a noose at the end
snaked over the tossing heads, and all but settled over black
Neptune's. It slipped, writhing from the old man's shoulder and down
his shirt. The mob set up a disappointed and yet hopeful howl.
"Try it again! Try it again!" they shrieked. Then a sort of waiting
hush fell upon them. The farm-hand, to whom the rope had been
tossed, was again making ready for a throw, measuring the distance
with his eyes. Peter, his lips tightening, waited too. The farm-hand
was a tall man, and the posse had shifted to allow him space. His
arm shot up, the noosed rope whizzed forward. But even as it did so
Peter Champneys's trigger-finger moved. The report sounded like a
clap of thunder, and was followed by a roar of rage and pain. The
rope-thrower, with the rope tripping his feet and impeding his
movements, danced about wildly, shaking the hand from which three
fingers had been cleanly clipped. At that instant another posse rode
up, with a baying of hounds to herald it. One saw the sheriff on a
large bay horse, a Winchester in the crook of his arm. With a merest
glance at what had been Jake, he pushed his way through the throng,
and was confronted by Peter Champneys standing in front of old
Neptune Fennick, with a smoking shot-gun in his hands.
"You better do something, quick! If you let anything happen to Daddy
Nep, you've got to kill me first," panted Peter.
"He'd ought to be shot for a nigger-lover, Sheriff!" shouted the
"All right. Do it. But you'll get your neck stretched for it! My
name's _Champneys_," shouted Peter.
The sheriff moved restlessly on his bay. A Champneys had fed his
parents. Chadwick Champneys had given him his first pair of shoes.
The sheriff was stirred to the depths by the crime that had been
committed, and he had no love for a nigger, but--
He turned to the menacing crowd. "Here, boys, enough o' this! The
right nigger's dead, and that's all there is to it. No, you don't do
no hangin'! I'm sheriff o' this county, an' I aim to keep the law.
Let that old nigger alone, Mosely! If that young hell-cat puts a
bullet in your chitlin's, it'll be your own funeral."
He straightened in the saddle, touched the rein, and in a second the
big bay had been swung around to stand between Neptune and the white
men. The muzzle of Peter's gun touched the sheriff's leg.
"Put that pop-gun up, Son," said he, turning his head to look down
into the boy's face. Their eyes met, in a long look.
"I knew that girl since she was bawn," he said, and his hard face
quivered. "Hell!" swore the sheriff, and the hand on his bridle
shook. He knew old Neptune, too, and in his way liked him. But it
was hard for the sheriff, who had seen the dead little girl, to look
into any black face that night and retain any feeling of humanity.
"Yes, sir. I knew her, too," said Peter Champneys, gulping. "But--I
know Neptune, too. And--what happened--wasn't his fault. It's got
nothing to do with Neptune--and--and things that Mosely--" His voice
"Hell!" swore the sheriff again. And he whispered, more gently, "All
right, Peter. An' I reckon you better stay by the old nigger for a
day or two until this thing dies down." After all, the sheriff
thought relievedly, Neptune's swift action, actuated by whatsoever
motive, had saved the county and himself from a rather frightful
episode. Turning to the crowd, he yelled:
"Get them dogs started for home! They're goin' plum crazy! Get on
your hawse, Mosely! You, over there, with your fist shot up, ride
next to me. Mount, all o' you! Mount, I say! No, I'll come last.
"What's that you're sayin', Briggs? No, suh, not by a damn-sight you
won't! Not while I'm sheriff o' this county an' upholdin' law an'
order in it, you won't drag no dead nigger behind _my_ hawse--nor
yet in front of him, neither! Let the nigger lay where he is and
rot--what's left of him."
"Do you want us to bury--it?" quavered Peter.
"Bury it or burn it. What the hell do I care what you do with it?"
growled the sheriff. "He's dead, that's all I got to think about."
He ran his shrewd eyes over the posse, saw that not one straggler
remained to do further mischief, and drove them before him,
willy-nilly. In five minutes the trampled yard was clear, and the
sound of the horses' hoofs was already dying in the distance. In the
sky all other stars had paled to make room for the morning star.
Peter and Neptune, left alone, looked at each other dumbly. A thing
remained to be done. The sun mustn't rise upon the horror that lay
in the cabin yard. Neptune went to his small barn and trundled out a
wheelbarrow, in which were several gunny-sacks, a piece of rope, and
Peter turned his head away while the old man covered the thing on
the ground with sacking, rolled it over, floppily, and tied it as
best he could. The sweat came out on them both as they saw the
stains that spread on the clean sacking. Neptune heaped the bundle
into his wheelbarrow. At a word from him Peter went into the house
and returned with a lighted lantern, for the River Swamp was still
very dark. The sun wouldn't be up for an hour or two yet. Peter held
the lantern in one hand, and carried spade and shot-gun over the
other shoulder. In the ghostly light they entered the swamp, every
turn and twist of whose wide, watery acreage was known to Neptune,
and was fairly familiar to Peter. They had to proceed warily, for
the ground was treacherous, and at any moment a jutting tree-root
might upset the clumsy barrow. Despite Neptune's utmost care it
bumped and swayed, and the shapeless bundle in it shook hideously,
as if it were trying to escape. And the stains on the coarse shroud
grew, and spread.
In a small and fairly dry space among particularly large cypresses,
Neptune stopped. At one side was a deep pool in whose depths the
lantern was reflected. About it ferns, some of a great height, grew
thickly. Neptune began to dig in the black earth. Sometimes he
struck a cypress root, against which the spade rang with a hollow
sound. It was slow enough work, but the hole in the swamp earth grew
with every spade-thrust, like a blind mouth opening wider and wider.
Peter held the lantern. The trees stood there like witnesses.
Presently Neptune straightened his shoulders, moved back to the
barrow, and edged it to the hole. Swiftly and deftly he tipped it,
and the shapeless bundle slid into the open mouth awaiting it. It
was curiously still just then in the River Swamp.
When they emerged into the open, the sun was rising over a clean,
fresh world. The dark tops of the trees were gilded by the first
rays. Every bush was hung with diamonds, the young grass rippled
like a child's hair, and birds were everywhere, voicing the glory of
The old negro dropped his wheelbarrow, and lifted a supplicating
face and a pair of gnarled hands to the morning sky. His lips moved.
One saw that he prayed, trustingly, with a childlike simplicity.
Peter Champneys watched him speculatively. He tried to reason the
thing out, and the heart in his boyish breast ached with a new pain.
Thoughts big, new, insistent, knocked at the door of his intellect
and refused to be denied admittance.
He thought it better to take the sheriff's advice and stay with
Neptune for a few days, but nobody troubled the good old man. The
verdict of the whole county was in his favor. He went his harmless,
fearless, laborious way unmolested. That autumn he died, and the
cabin by the River Swamp was taken over by nature, who gave it to
her winds and rains to play with. Her leaves drifted upon its floor,
her birds built under its shallow eaves.
Nobody would live there any more. The negroes said the place was
haunted: on wild nights one might hear there the sound of a shot,
the baying of a hound; and see Jake running for the swamp.
THE PURPLE HEIGHTS
Emma Campbell had one of her contrary fits, and when Emma was
contrary, the best thing to do was to keep out of her way. Her
"palate was down," her temper was up; she'd had trouble with the
Young Sons and Daughters of Zion, in her church, and hot words with
a deacon who said that when he passed the cup Emma Campbell lapped
up nearly all the communion wine, which was something no lady ought
to do. And Cassius had taken unto himself a fourth spouse, and,
without taking Emma into his confidence, had gotten her to wash and
iron his wedding-shirt for him. So Emma's "palate was down," and not
even three toothpicks and two spoons in her hair had been able to
get it up. Peter, therefore, took a holiday. He filled his pockets
with bread, and set out with no particular destination in mind.
At a turn in the Riverton Road he met the Red Admiral.
He stopped, reflectively. He hadn't seen the Admiral in some time,
and it pleased him to be led by that gay adventurer now. The Admiral
flitted down the Riverton Road, and Peter ran gaily after him. He
led the boy a fine chase across fields, and out on the road again,
and then down a lane, and along the river, and through the pines,
and finally to the River Swamp woods. Peter came fleet-footed to
Neptune's old cabin, raced round it, and then stopped, in utter
confusion and astonishment. On the back steps, with an umbrella
beside her, and an easel in front of her, sat a young woman so busy
getting a bit of the swamp upon her canvas that she didn't hear or
see Peter until he was upon her. Then she looked up, with her
paint-brush in her hand.
"Hello!" said she, in the friendliest fashion, "where did _you_ come
She was a big girl, blue as to eyes, brown as to hair, and with a
fresh-colored, good-humored face. Her glance was singularly clear
and direct, and her smile so comradely that Peter took an
instantaneous liking to her. He wondered what on earth she meant by
coming here, to this lonely place, all by herself. But she was
making a picture, and his interest was more in that than in the
"May I look at it, please?" he asked politely. He smiled at her, and
Peter had a mighty taking smile of his own.
"Of course you may!" said the lady, genially. Hands behind his back,
Peter stared at the canvas. Then he stepped back yet farther, lifted
one hand, and squinted through the fingers. The young lady regarded
him with growing interest.
"Well, what do you think of it?" she asked.
The young woman wasn't a quick worker, but she was a careful one,
and very exact. Unfinished though it was, the picture showed that;
and it showed, too, a lack of something vital; there was no
spontaneity in it.
"I've never seen anybody paint before, though I've always wanted
to," said Peter, and fetched an unconscious sigh of envy.
"You haven't said whether or not you like it," the girl reminded
"It isn't finished," said Peter. His eyes went to the familiar
woods, the beloved woods, and came back to her canvas. "I think when
it's finished it will be like a photograph," he added.
Claribel Spring--for that was the big girl's name--knew her own
limitations; but to meet a criticism so exact and so just, from a
barefooted child in the South Carolina wilds wasn't to be expected.
She took a longer look at the boy and thought she had never before
seen a pair of eyes so absolutely, clearly golden. Those eyes would
create a distinct impression upon people: either you'd like them, or
you'd find them so strange you'd think them ugly. She herself
thought them beautiful.
"You seem to know something about pictures, even unfinished ones,"
she told him comradely. "And may I ask who you are, and why and how
you come flying out of the nowhere into the here of these forsaken
"Oh, I'm only Peter Champneys," said the boy with the golden eyes,
shyly. "I hope I didn't startle you? It's my butterfly's fault. You
see, I never know where I've got to follow him, or what I'm going
to find when I get there."
"Your butterfly? You mean that Red Admiral that just whizzed by? He
skimmed over my easel," said the young lady.
"Is that his real name?" Peter was enchanted. "A black fellow with
red on his coat-tails, and a sash like a general's? Then that's my
butterfly!" said Peter, happily. He smiled at the girl again, and
finished, naively: "I owe that butterfly a whole heap of good luck!"
She told him she was spending some time with the Northern people who
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