Marie Conway Oemler.

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Already he had struck up a firm friendship with his brisk, strong
old landlady.

"Fit in the war, didn't ye?" asked the old lady, genially.

Mr. Johnston's face took on a look of weariness and obstinacy.
Grandma Baker smiled cheerfully.

"Tell the truth and shame the devil," she chirped. "You fit, but you
needn't be scared I'll ask you any questions about it. I mind Abner,
my husband, comin' back from Virginia after he'd fit the hull
dratted Civil War straight through and helped win it. And he
wouldn't open his trap. Couldn't bear havin' to talk about it. Some
men's like that. Ornery, o' course, but you got to humor 'em. You
put me a hull lot in mind o' my Abner." And she looked with great
kindliness upon the taciturn person known to her as Mr. Johnston.
True to her word, she asked him no questions. She fed him, and let
him alone.

He was so weary, at first, that he didn't want to do anything but
lie under a tree idly for long drowsy hours, as he had lain under
the trees on the edge of the River Swamp years before. This Maine
landscape, so rugged and yet so tender, had a brooding and
introspective calm, as of a serene and strong old man who has lived
a vigorous, simple, and pure life, and to the jangled nerves and
tired mind of Peter Champneys it was like the touch of a healing
hand. With every day he felt his strength of mind and body
returning, and the restless perturbation that had tormented him
receding, fading. These green and gracious trees, bathed in a lucent
light, this sweet sea-wind, and the voice of the waters, a voice
monotonously soothing, helped him to find himself, - and to find
himself newer, fresher, a more vital personality. This newer Peter
Champneys was not going to be, perhaps, so easy-going a chap. He was
more insistent, he was sterner; to the art-conscience, in itself a
troublesome possession, he was adding the race-conscience, which
questions, demands, and will have nothing short of the truth. He had
been forced to see things as they are, things stripped of pleasant
trappings and made brutally bare; and his conscience and his
courage now arose to face facts. Any misery, rather than be slave to
shams! Any grief to bear, any price to pay, but let him possess his
own soul, let him have the truth!

He could not sit in judgment upon himself as an artist only; he had
to take himself seriously as a very wealthy man in an hour when very
wealthy men stood, so to speak, before the tribunal of the
conscience of mankind. He could not afford to be crushed by the
burden of much money. Neither could he ignore the stern question:
what was he going to do with the Champneys wealth? He wished that
that red-headed woman had taken half of it off his hands!

The Champneys money made him very thoughtful this morning, walking
with his hands behind his back, his head bare to the wind. The water
rippled in the sunlight. Out on the horizon a solitary sail
glimmered. The semicircle of village houses resembled the white
beads of a broken necklace, lying exactly where they'd fallen. He
turned a small headland, and the village vanished.

He had a pleasant sense of being alone with this rocky coast, with
its salty-sweet wind, its blue water, its limitless sky, from which
poured a flood of clear, pale golden sunlight. And then, as if out
of the heart of them all, came a figure immensely alive, the light
focusing upon her as if she were the true meaning of the picture in
which she appeared; as if this background were not accidental, but
had been chosen and arranged for her with delicate and deliberate
care.

He thought he had never seen any woman's body so superbly free in
its movement: she had the grace of a birch stirred by a spring wind.
The poise of her shoulders, the sweep of her garments blown by the
sea-breeze, the joyous and vigorous grace of her whole attitude,
reminded him of the winged Victory. So might that splendid vision
have walked upon the glad Greek coast in the bright light of the
world's morning.

The woman walked swiftly, lightly, her head held high, her long
loose hair blown about her like flame. Where the rough path narrowed
between two large boulders, he had paused to allow her to pass; and
so they came face to face, he the taller by a head. She lifted her
cool, gray-green eyes that had in them the silvery sparkle of the
sea, and met his golden gaze. Her face framed in her flaming mane
was warmly pale, the brow thoughtful, the mouth virginal. For a long
moment they regarded each other steadily, wonderingly; and in that
single moment the eternal miracle occurred by which life and the
face of the world changed for them.

That long, clear, grave gaze pierced her heart like a golden
poniard. He was of a thin body and visage, but the effect was of
virility, not weakness, - as if the soul of him, like a blade in a
scabbard, had fretted the body fine. There was a quiet stateliness
in his bearing, a simple and unaffected dignity, to which the thick,
blue-black hair, the foreign beard, and the aquiline features lent
an added touch of distinction. One was reminded of those dangerously
mild and rather sad faces of Spanish soldiers which look at one
from Velasquez's canvases. This man might wear a ruff and a velvet
doublet, or, better yet, a coat of mail, she reflected, instead of
the well-cut but rather worn gray tweeds that clothed him.

She was not conscious of her flying hair, or the wind-blown disorder
of her skirts. She was conscious, rather, that for the first time a
man was looking at her as from a height, and she was filled with a
beautiful astonishment, a sort of divine amazement, as if it were
toward this that always, inevitably, she had been moving, - and now
it was here! Her blood leaped to it, and went racing fierily through
her veins, as if there had been poured into it the elixir of life.
She was gloriously conscious of her youth and her womanhood. A quick
and vivid rush of warm blood stained her, brow to bosom. Her
every-day mind was saying, "It is the stranger who's staying at
Grandma Baker's - the gentleman who's been ill." But beyond and
behind her every-day mind, her heart was shouting, exultant,
ecstatic, and very sure: "It is You! It is You!"

In quick sympathy with that bright flush of hers the blood showed
for an instant in his pale face. He had been staring at her! An
agitation new to him, an emotion to which all others he had ever
experienced were childishly mild, filled him as the resistless sweep
of the sea at flood tide fills the shallows of the shores. Love did
not come to him gently and insidiously, but as with the overwhelming
rush of great waters. This, then, must be that "nice, common sort
of a woman" staying with the Widow Thatcher, at the other end of the
village - this woman clothed with the sun of her red hair, and with
the sea in her eyes! A smile curved his lips. His kindling glance
played over her like lightning, and said to her: "I know you. I have
always known you. Do you not recognize me? I am I, - and you are
You!"

Had he obeyed his instincts, he would have flung himself before her
and clasped her around the knees. Being a modern gentleman, he had
to stand aside, bowing, and let her pass. She, too, bowed slightly.
She went by with her quick and resilient tread, her cheek royally
red. A wind roared in her ears, her heart beat thickly.

When she had turned the little headland she paused, and
mechanically braided her hair. Her fingers shook, and she breathed
as if she had been running. The incredible, the unbelievable, had
pounced upon her as from a clear sky, and the world was never again
to be the same. She had been so sure, so safe, with her pleasant
life all mapped out before her, like the raked and swept paths of an
ordered and formal garden; a life in which reason and convention and
culture and wealth should rule, and from which tumultuous and
tormenting passions and disorderly emotions should be rigidly
excluded. In that ordered existence, she would be, if not happy, at
least satisfied and proud. And now! A strange man in passing had
looked into her eyes; love had come, and the gates of her formal
garden had been pulled down, wild nature threatened to invade and
overrun her trimmed and clipped borders and her smooth lawns.

The Widow Thatcher commented approvingly upon her fine color when
she appeared at the house.

"You just stay here a leetle mite longer, Mis' Riley, and you'll be
that changed you won't know yourself," said the kindly woman,
heartily.

"I'm sure of that!" murmured her guest.

The red-haired lady who called herself Mrs. Riley - Riley had been
her mother's name - had been, up to this time, an altogether
satisfying guest, simple, friendly, with a sound and healthy
appetite, and well deserving that praiseful "nice, common sort of a
woman" bestowed upon her. Now, mysteriously, she changed. She wasn't
less friendly, but her appetite was capricious and she would fall
into reveries, sudden fits of gravity, sitting beside the window,
staring somberly out at the waters. She would snatch up her hat and
go out, get as far as the gate, and return to the house. Mrs.
Thatcher heard her pacing up and down her room, when she should have
been sound asleep. She would laugh, and then sigh upon the heels of
it, break into fitful singing, and fall into sudden silence in the
midst of her song.

"She's gettin' religion," the widow reflected. "The Spirit's workin'
on her. 'T ain't nothin' I can do except pray for her." And the
simple soul got on her knees and besought Heaven that the stranger
under her roof might "escape whatever trouble 't is that's
threatenin' her, O Lord, an' save her soul alive!"

Although the widow didn't know it, her guest had come to the
dividing of the ways. She had come to this quiet place to find
peace, to rest, to escape from the world for a breathing-space. And
in this quiet place that which had missed her in the great outside
world had come to her, the most tremendous of all powers had seized
upon her. The situation was not without a sly and ironical humor.

She wondered what Marcia would say if she should write to her: "I
have fallen in love at sight, hopelessly, irremediably, head over
ears, with, a strange man who passed me on the shore. He wears gray
tweeds. His name, I am told, is Johnston. That's all I know about
him, except that I seem to have known him since the beginning of all
things. He is as familiar to my heart as my blood is, and all he had
to do to make me love him was to look at me. Yes! I love him as I
could never love anybody but him. He's the one man."

She could fancy Marcia's astonishment, her shocked "Oh, but Anne,
there's Berkeley Hayden!"

And indeed, there was Berkeley Hayden!

When Anne had determined to have her marriage to Peter Champneys
annulled, Marcia had upheld her, though Jason hadn't liked it at
all. If he hadn't exactly opposed her course, he had tried to
dissuade her from it. But she had persisted, and as the case was
simple and quite clear her freedom was a foregone conclusion, though
there were, of course, the usual formalities, the usual wearisome
delays.

She had closed the Champneys house, and gone to Marcia, who wanted
her. Jason, too, had insisted that she should make her home with
them for the time being. And then had come the war, and she and
Marcia found themselves swept into the whirlpool of work it
involved. But not even the tremendous news that filled all the
newspapers had kept the Champneys romance from being featured. Her
case received very much more notice than pleased her. She was weary
of her own photographs, sick of the interest she aroused.

Hayden kept discreetly in the background. He behaved beautifully.
But he knew that Anne was going to marry him. Jason and Marcia knew
it. Anne herself knew it. Now that the war was on, a good many of
his plans would have to be postponed, but when Anne had secured her
freedom, and things had righted themselves, they two would take up
life as he wished to live it. All the women of his family had
occupied prominent social positions: _his_ wife should surpass them
all. She should be the acknowledged leader, the most brilliant
figure of her day. Nothing less than this would satisfy him.

For all his esthetic tastes, Hayden was an immensely able and
capable man of business. He had not the warmth of heart that at
times obscured Jason Vandervelde's judgment, nor the touch of
unworldliness that marked the behavior of the Champneys men.
His intellect had a cold, clear brilliancy, diamond-bright,
diamond-hard; to this he added tact, and the power of organizing and
directing and of getting results. In certain crises such men are
invaluable.

Hayden hated war. It was, so to speak, an uncouth and barbarous
gesture, a bestial and bellowing voice. He felt constrained to offer
his services, and even before America became actually involved he
was able to render valuable aid. There were delicate and dangerous
missions where his tact, his diplomacy, and his shrewd, cold,
unimpassioned intelligence won the stakes for which he played. This
in itself was good; but for the time being it took him away from
Anne. He saw her only occasionally. She, like him, was immersed in
work. Once or twice he was able to snatch her from the thick of
things and carry her off with him to lunch or to dinner. She enjoyed
these small oases in the desert of work. She liked to watch his
clever, composed face, to listen to his modulated voice. The serene
ease of his manner soothed her. She was tremendously proud of
Hayden. She was glad he cared for her. This seemed to her an
excellent foundation for their marriage. They would please and
interest each other; neither would be bored! And when, leaning
across the table one day at lunch, he looked at her with unwonted
fire in his quiet eyes, and said in a low voice: "Just as soon as
this business is finished, as soon as we've cleaned up the mess, I'm
going to claim you, Anne. It's all I can do to wait!" Anne met his
eyes, smiled slightly, and nodded. A faint flush rose to her cheek,
and a deeper one rose to his. For a moment he touched her hand.

"You understand you are promised to me," he said. "If I dared show
you what I really feel, Anne - " and he glanced around the crowded
dining-room, and smiled.

She smiled in return, tranquilly. She was not stirred. His touch had
no power to thrill her. She was comfortably content that things
should be as they were, that was all. Yet her very lack of emotion
added to her charm for him. He disliked emotional women. Excess of
affection would have bored him. It smacked of crudeness, and he had
an epicurean distaste for crudeness.

Busy as he was, he found time to select the ring he wished her to
wear. He was fastidious and hyper-critical to a degree, and he
wished her ring to suit her, to be flawless. It was really a work
of art, and Anne Champneys wondered at her own coolness when she
received the exquisite jewel. She understood his feeling, she
appreciated the beauty of the gem, yet it left her unmoved. It
gratified her woman's vanity; it did not stir her to one
heart-throb. She accepted it, not indifferently, but placidly.
After a while she would accept a plain gold ring from him just as
placidly. This was her fate. She did not quarrel with it.

Marcia watched her pleasedly. She loved Anne Champneys, she admired
Hayden exceedingly, and that they should marry each other seemed
natural and inevitable. Hayden was just the man she would have
chosen for Anne. Even the fact that Jason wasn't altogether happy
about it couldn't dampen Marcia's delight in the affair. Jason would
come around, in time. He was too fond of Anne not to.

"Well, you're free," he had told Anne, the day that the Champneys
marriage was declared null and void, and both parties had received
the right to remarry, as a matter of course. "You are free. I'm sure
I hope you won't regret it!"

"Why should I regret it?" wondered Anne, good-humoredly. But the big
man shook his head, remembering Chadwick Champneys.

Hayden had become more and more involved in war work; he was in
constant demand, he was sent hither and thither to attend to this
and that troublesome affair. Twice he had to go abroad. At home,
Anne's work called her into the homes of soldiers; she came in close
contact with the families of the men who were fighting, and what she
saw she was never able to forget. She got down to bed-rock. Her own
early life made her acutely understanding. Where Marcia would have
been blind, Anne saw; where the woman who had never known poverty
and hardship would have remained deaf, the woman who had slaved in
the Baxters' kitchen, who had been an overworked, unloved child in
bondage, heard, and understood to the core of her soul what she was
hearing. These voices from the depths were not inarticulate to Anne!

When Berkeley came back from his second voyage abroad, he was more
impatient than she had ever seen him. The end was in sight then, as
he knew, and he saw no reason for further delay. He urged Anne to
marry him. Why should they waste time? When he consulted Marcia, she
agreed with him. Everybody, she said, was getting married. Why
shouldn't he and Anne? Already the rumor of their engagement had
crept out. There were hints of it in the social chatter of the
papers. Why not announce it formally, and have the marriage follow
immediately?

But Anne Champneys found herself in a curious mood. The nervous
strain of war work, perhaps, was accountable. She meant to marry
Berkeley; but she didn't want to marry him at once. She did not
object to having their engagement announced. He could shout it
from the housetops if that pleased him. But in the meanwhile
she wanted a little rest, a little freedom. She wished to be
fetterless, free to come and go as she pleased. No work, no
interviews, no photographers, no weary hours with dressmakers and
tailors. No envy because Berkeley Hayden was going to marry her,
no wearisome comments, idle flattery hiding spite, no gossip
violating all privacies. A raging impatience against it all
assailed her. It seemed to her that she had never been allowed
really to think or to act for herself disinterestedly, that she
had never been free. Always she had been in bondage! Oh, for just
a little hour of freedom, in the open, to be just as ordinary and
inconspicuous as in her heart of hearts she would have preferred
to be, left to herself!

Marcia said her nerves were unstrung, and no wonder, considering
how she'd worked, and what she'd seen. Jason came vigorously to her
rescue. He advised her to go off somewhere and get acquainted with
herself. To drop out of things for a while, and treat herself to the
rest she needed. Cut and run! Scuttle for cover!

"You've been overdoing things, of course. You've been Lady
Bountiful, and first-aider, and last-leaver. Like the Lord and a
thumping good lie, you've been a very present help in time of
trouble. But there's such a thing as being too steady on the job.
You need a change of people, scene, and mind. Take it."

This conversation occurred on a morning in his office, where she had
gone on some slight business, and with concern he had noticed her
tired eyes. At his advice she brightened.

"Marcia thinks I should marry Berkeley, immediately, and let him
take me away, but - "

"But you aren't ready to rush into matrimony just yet?" Vandervelde
growled. "I should think you wouldn't be! If Hadyen's managed to
exist this long without a wife, I take it for granted he can exist
unwed a little longer. You are certain you mean to marry him?"

"Oh, yes, I am certain I mean to marry him," said Anne, flatly. "But
I - that is, not so soon."

"I think I understand, Anne," said the big man, kindly. "Look here,
you just tell 'em all to wait! Tell 'em you're tired. Then you pick
yourself up and light out for a while, by yourself. Chuck the
madding throng and all that, Anne, and beat it for the open!"

"Oh, how I wish I could!" she sighed. "You don't know how I long for
a chance to be just me by myself! I want to stay with people who
have never heard the name of Champneys or Hayden and who wouldn't
care if my name happened to be Mudd! I want plain living and plain
thinking and plain people. I - I'll come back to - everything I should
come back to, afterward. But first I want to be free! Just for a
little while I want to be free!"

"But how could you manage it?" mused Vandervelde. "The lady who
divorced Peter Champneys and is going to marry Berkeley Hayden can't
pick herself up 'unbeknownst' and hope to get away with it. Not in
these days of good reporting! You're copy, you understand."

"But I don't want to be Mrs. Peter Champneys! I don't want to be the
woman Berkeley Hayden's going to marry! I want to be just me!" she
cried. "I want to go to some place where nobody's ever heard either
of those names! Some little place where there are water and
trees - and not much else. Like, say, - Jason! Do you remember that
place you found, in Maine, I think? You _babbled_ about it. Said you
were going to go there if ever you wanted to get out of the world.
Said it was Eden before the serpent entered. Where's that place,
Jason? Why can't I go there, just as myself - " she paused, and
looked at him hopefully.

"I don't see why you can't," said he, cheerfully.

And so Anne, who didn't wish to be Mrs. Peter Champneys, or the
woman whom Berkeley Hayden was to marry, or anybody but herself,
came to the out-of-the-way nook on the Maine shore, and was welcomed
by the Widow Thatcher.

She found the place idyllic. She liked its skies unclouded by smoke,
translucent skies in which silver mountains of clouds reared
themselves out of airy continents that shifted and drifted before
the wind. She liked its clean, pure, untainted air. And she liked
contact with these simple souls, men who labored, women who knew
birth and death and were not afraid of either. It came to her that
her own contacts with and concepts of life - and death - had always,
been more or less artificial. Perhaps these simple and laborious
folk had the substance of things of which she and her sort had but
the shadow. And then she asked herself: Well, but couldn't one,
anywhere, in any circumstances, make life real for oneself, meet
facts unafraid? Get at the truths, somehow? That's what she had to
find out!

And of a sudden she had been answered. The reality, the truth, the
real meaning of life was made plain to her when a man she didn't
know, and yet knew to the last fiber of her soul, had paused to look
into her eyes.

For two or three days she went no further than the rambling garden
at the back of the house. She tried to read, and couldn't. From
every page those eyes looked at her. There was more in that
remembered glance than in any book ever written, and she was torn
between the desire to meet it again and the fear of meeting it.

On the night of the third day she sat with her elbows on her
windowsill, looking out at the moonlight night. A sweet wind touched
her face, like the breath of love. There arose the scent of quiet
places, of trees and flowers and herbs, mingled with the vast
breathing of the sea. And she thought the sea called to her, an
imperious and yet caressing voice in the night. She stirred
restlessly. Down there on the shore-line, where she had met him, the
rocks would glint with silvery reflections, the water would come
fawning to one's feet, the wind would pounce upon one like a rough
lover. She stirred restlessly. The small bedroom seemed to hold her
like a cage. And again the sea called, a wild and compelling voice.

Her blood stirred to the magic of the night. Her eyes gleamed, her
cheek reddened. She listened for a moment, intently. The Widow
Thatcher slept the sleep of the good housekeeper. No one was
stirring. She could have the night, the wind, the sea, to herself.
Noiselessly she stole downstairs and let herself out.

Out there, with the scent of the summer night greeting her, with
bushes brushing her lightly with their green fingers, her heart
leaped joyously. She flung her arms over her head and went running
down the path to the water, a tall white figure with flying hair.
Then she turned the small headland, and the village dropped behind
her. Overhead the big gold lamp of the moon lighted shore and sea.
And here came the sea-wind, bracing, strong, and sweet. At the rush
of it she laughed aloud, and the wind seized upon her laughter and
tossed it into the night like airy bells.

She slackened her wild race when she neared the great boulders
shutting in the little narrow path where she had met him, and stood
flushed, panting, her shining glance uplifted, her bright hair


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Online LibraryMarie Conway OemlerThe Purple Heights → online text (page 21 of 23)