THE PURPLE HEIGHTS
MARIE CONWAY OEMLER
Author of "Slippy McGee." "A Woman Named Smith," etc.
NEW YORK 1920
JOHN NORTON OEMLER FROM THE LADY HIS SON USED TO CALL "MRS. DADDY"
CHAPTER 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 VIII CINDERELLA IX PRICE-TAGS 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 XVIII KISMET! 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 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.
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 Little Peoples.
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 done.
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 Champneys."
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 heart.
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 quiet.
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 counts."
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 man."
Peter stroked her hand. The two looked at each other, a long, long, luminous look.
"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 while."
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 pale mouth.
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 or breaks.
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 imagine.
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 orphanage."
"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 idea."
"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 Carolina gentleness.
The two stared at each other. It wasn't the boy's glance that fell first.
"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, violently.
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 badly, considering.
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 yo' shirt-tail."
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 himself with.
"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 books.
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 thoughtful face.
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 eyes.
"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 fortunate recipients.
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 darkening sky.
"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 and said:
"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 floor.
"Light me dat lamp, please, Peter," said Neptune, peering down at his visitor.
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 smear.
"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 fingers twitching.
"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 her name.
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 shirt-sleeve.
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 line.
"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 Gawd—"
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 Almighty God.
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.