Read CHAPTER III - AT GRIPS WITH LIFE of The Purple Heights, free online book, by Marie Conway Oemler, on ReadCentral.com.

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.”

“Meanin’?”

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 olé 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.