English Literature

The Purple Heights by Marie Conway Oemler

The Purple Heights by Marie Conway Oemler



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:

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 Campbell.

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 okra-and-tomato soup.

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 were so.

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 Begats.

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 him “wanting.”

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 nigger.”

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 shocking blow.

“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 the thissel.

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.


Categories: English Literature

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