Marie Conway Oemler.

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[Illustration: "We have met"]




Author of "Slippy McGee." "A Woman
Named Smith," etc.







PETER CHAMPNEYS: _Of Riverton, South Carolina, and Paris, France_.
CHADWICK CHAMPNEYS: _The God in the Machine_.
EMMA CAMPBELL: _A Colored Woman_.
MRS. JOHN HEMINGWAY: _Peter's First Teacher_.
JOHN HEMINGWAY: _An American_.
JASON VANDERVELDE: _An Attorney at Law_.
MRS. MacGREGOR: _A Disciple of Hannah More_.
GLENN MITCHELL: _A Bright Shadow_.
GRACIE: _A Gutter-Candle_.
DENISE: _A Perfume_.
SATAN: _A Black Cat_.




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

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

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

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

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Online LibraryMarie Conway OemlerThe Purple Heights → online text (page 1 of 23)