Read CHAPTER V - THE PURPLE HEIGHTS of The Purple Heights, free online book, by Marie Conway Oemler, on

Emma Campbell had one of her contrary fits, and when Emma was contrary, the best thing to do was to keep out of her way. Her “palate was down,” her temper was up; she’d had trouble with the Young Sons and Daughters of Zion, in her church, and hot words with a deacon who said that when he passed the cup Emma Campbell lapped up nearly all the communion wine, which was something no lady ought to do. And Cassius had taken unto himself a fourth spouse, and, without taking Emma into his confidence, had gotten her to wash and iron his wedding-shirt for him. So Emma’s “palate was down,” and not even three toothpicks and two spoons in her hair had been able to get it up. Peter, therefore, took a holiday. He filled his pockets with bread, and set out with no particular destination in mind.

At a turn in the Riverton Road he met the Red Admiral.

He stopped, reflectively. He hadn’t seen the Admiral in some time, and it pleased him to be led by that gay adventurer now. The Admiral flitted down the Riverton Road, and Peter ran gaily after him. He led the boy a fine chase across fields, and out on the road again, and then down a lane, and along the river, and through the pines, and finally to the River Swamp woods. Peter came fleet-footed to Neptune’s old cabin, raced round it, and then stopped, in utter confusion and astonishment. On the back steps, with an umbrella beside her, and an easel in front of her, sat a young woman so busy getting a bit of the swamp upon her canvas that she didn’t hear or see Peter until he was upon her. Then she looked up, with her paint-brush in her hand.

“Hello!” said she, in the friendliest fashion, “where did you come from?”

She was a big girl, blue as to eyes, brown as to hair, and with a fresh-colored, good-humored face. Her glance was singularly clear and direct, and her smile so comradely that Peter took an instantaneous liking to her. He wondered what on earth she meant by coming here, to this lonely place, all by herself. But she was making a picture, and his interest was more in that than in the painter.

“May I look at it, please?” he asked politely. He smiled at her, and Peter had a mighty taking smile of his own.

“Of course you may!” said the lady, genially. Hands behind his back, Peter stared at the canvas. Then he stepped back yet farther, lifted one hand, and squinted through the fingers. The young lady regarded him with growing interest.

“Well, what do you think of it?” she asked.

The young woman wasn’t a quick worker, but she was a careful one, and very exact. Unfinished though it was, the picture showed that; and it showed, too, a lack of something vital; there was no spontaneity in it.

“I’ve never seen anybody paint before, though I’ve always wanted to,” said Peter, and fetched an unconscious sigh of envy.

“You haven’t said whether or not you like it,” the girl reminded him.

“It isn’t finished,” said Peter. His eyes went to the familiar woods, the beloved woods, and came back to her canvas. “I think when it’s finished it will be like a photograph,” he added.

Claribel Spring for that was the big girl’s name knew her own limitations; but to meet a criticism so exact and so just, from a barefooted child in the South Carolina wilds wasn’t to be expected. She took a longer look at the boy and thought she had never before seen a pair of eyes so absolutely, clearly golden. Those eyes would create a distinct impression upon people: either you’d like them, or you’d find them so strange you’d think them ugly. She herself thought them beautiful.

“You seem to know something about pictures, even unfinished ones,” she told him comradely. “And may I ask who you are, and why and how you come flying out of the nowhere into the here of these forsaken woods?”

“Oh, I’m only Peter Champneys,” said the boy with the golden eyes, shyly. “I hope I didn’t startle you? It’s my butterfly’s fault. You see, I never know where I’ve got to follow him, or what I’m going to find when I get there.”

“Your butterfly? You mean that Red Admiral that just whizzed by? He skimmed over my easel,” said the young lady.

“Is that his real name?” Peter was enchanted. “A black fellow with red on his coat-tails, and a sash like a general’s? Then that’s my butterfly!” said Peter, happily. He smiled at the girl again, and finished, naively: “I owe that butterfly a whole heap of good luck!”

She told him she was spending some time with the Northern people who had lately bought Lynwood Plantation, a few miles down the river. She liked to prowl around and paint things.

“And now,” she asked, “would you mind telling me something more about that butterfly of yours? And where some more of the good luck comes in?” She was growing more and more interested in Peter.

Peter dropped down beside the easel, his hands clasped loosely between his knobby knees. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should find himself talking freely to this Yankee girl; it was the most natural thing in the world that she should understand. So Peter, who, as a rule, would have preferred to be beaten with rods rather than divulge his feelings, told her exactly what she wished to know. This must be blamed upon the Red Admiral!

She caught a sharp outline of the child’s life, poor in material circumstances, but crowded to the brim with thought and feeling and emotion, and colorful as the coast country was colorful. He had kept himself, she thought, as sweet and limpid as a mountain spring. He was wistful, eager, and mad to know things. His eyes went back again and again, with a sort of desperate hunger in them, to the canvas on her easel, as if the secret of him lay there. The girl sat with her firm white chin in her firm white hands, and looked down at Peter with her bright blue Yankee eyes, and understood him as none of his own people had ever understood him. She even understood what his innate reticence and decency held back. Who shall say that the Admiral wasn’t a fairy?

“I’d like to see that first little sketch,” she said, when he had finished. Her eyes were very sweet.

For a second he hesitated. Then he rose, went into the deserted cabin, and took from the cupboard a dusty bundle of papers pieces of white cardboard, sheets of letter-paper, any sort of paper he had been able to lay his hands on. Riverton and the surrounding country, as Peter Champneys saw it, unrolled before her astonished eyes. It was roughly done, and there were glaring faults; but there was something in the crude work that wasn’t in the canvas on her easel, and she recognized it. She singled out several sketches of an old negro with a bald head and a white beard, and a stern, fine face innate with dignity. She said quietly:

“You are quite right, Peter: the Red Admiral is undoubtedly a fairy.” And after a moment, studying the old man’s face: “He’s rather a remarkable old man, isn’t he?”

Peter looked around him. On that terrible night Daddy Neptune had stood just where the easel was standing now; over there by the tumble-down chicken house, Jake had fallen; and the space that was now green with grass had been full of vengeful men, and howling dogs, and trampling horses. Peter took the sketch from her, looked at it for a long moment, and, as briefly as he could, and keeping himself very much in the background, he told her.

Claribel Spring looked around her, almost disbelieving that such a thing could happen in such a place. She looked at the quiet-faced boy, at the sketches, and shook her head.

When she was ready to go, Peter helped pack her traps, picked up her paint-box, and slung her folding-easel and camp-stool across his shoulder. Lynwood was some three miles from the River Swamp, and shall a gentleman allow a lady to lug her belongings that distance?

“Miss Spring,” said Peter, anxiously, as they reached the porch of Lynwood, “Miss Spring, do you expect to go about these woods much by yourself?”

“Why, yes! Nobody here has time to prowl with me, you see. And I can’t stay indoors. I’ve got to make the most of these woods while I have the opportunity.”

Peter looked troubled. His brows puckered. “I wonder if you’d mind if I just sort of stayed around so I could look after I mean, so I could watch you painting? May I? Please!”

Claribel sensed something tense under that request. She longed to get at Peter’s thought processes. She was immensely interested in this shabby little chap who made astonishing sketches and whose personality was so intriguing.

“Why, of course you may, Peter. But would you mind telling me just why you want to come with me aside from the painting?”

Peter shifted from one bare foot to the other.

“Because somebody’s got to go with you,” he blurted flatly. “Don’t the people here know you mustn’t go off like that, by yourself? There well, Miss Spring, there are bad folks everywhere, I reckon. Our niggers” Peter’s head went up “are the best niggers, in the world. But sometimes And and ” He looked at her, trying to make her understand.

Claribel Spring considered him. He might be about fourteen. His head just reached her shoulder. And he was offering to take care of her, to be her protector! That’s what his anxiety meant. “Oh, you darling little gentleman!” she thought.

“I see. And I’ll be perfectly delighted if you can manage to come with me, Peter,” said she, sincerely. “And listen: I’ve been thinking about those sketches of yours, while we were walking home, and I’ve got the nicest little plan all worked out in my mind. You shall take me around these woods, which you know and I don’t. You’ll be my guide, philosopher, and friend. In return I’ll teach you what I can. You needn’t bother about materials: I have loads of stuff for the two of us. What do you say?”

It was so unexpected, so marvelous, that an electrified and transformed Peter looked at her with a face gone white from excess of astonished rapture, and a pair of eyes like pools in paradise when the stars of heaven tremble in their depths.

Claribel Spring was a better teacher than artist, as she discovered for herself. She had the divine faculty of imparting knowledge and at the same time arousing enthusiasm; and she had such a pupil now as real teachers dream of. It wasn’t so much like learning, with Peter; it was as if he were being reminded of something he already knew. He had never had a lesson in his whole life, he didn’t go about things in the right manner, and there were grave faults to be overcome; but he had the thing itself.

She taught him more than the rudiments of technique, more than the mere processes of mixing colors, more than shading and form, and perspective, and flat surfaces, and high lights, and foreshortening. She was the first person from the outside world with whom Peter had ever come into real contact, the first person not a Southerner with whom he had ever been intimately friendly. And oddly enough, Peter taught her a few things.

Riverton learned that Peter Champneys had been engaged as a sort of fetch-and-carry boy by that big Vermont girl who was stopping at Lynwood. They thought Miss Spring charming, when they occasionally met her, but when it came to trapesing about the woods like a gipsy, quite as irresponsible as Peter Champneys himself “Birds of a feather flock together,” you know.

Claribel Spring was just at that time passing through a Gethsemane of her own, and she needed Peter quite as badly as he needed her. Peter was really a godsend to the girl. Her quiet self-control kept any one from discovering that she was cruelly unhappy, but Peter did at times perceive the shadow upon her face, and he knew that the silence that sometimes fell upon her was not always a happy one. At such times he managed to convey to her delicately, without words, his sympathy. He piloted her to lovely places, he made her pause to look at birds’ nests, at corners of old fences, at Carolina wild-flowers. And when he had made her smile again, he was happy. To Peter that was the swiftest, happiest, most enchanted summer he had ever known.

It ended all too soon. He went up to Lynwood one morning to find Claribel packing for a hasty departure. It was a new Claribel that morning, a Claribel with a rosy face and shining eyes and smiling lips. She had gotten news, she told Peter joyously, that called her away at once beautiful news. The most wonderful news in the world!

She turned over to Peter all the material she had on hand, and gave him painstaking directions as to how he was to proceed, what he was to strive for, what to avoid. And she said that when he had become a great man in the big world, one of these days, he wasn’t to forget that she’d prophesied it, and had been allowed to play her little part in his career. Then she kissed Peter as nobody had ever kissed him except his mother. And so she left him.

He was turning fifteen then, and getting too big for the penny jobs Riverton had in pickle for him. Nothing better offering, he hired out that autumn to a farmer who fed his stock better than he did his men. Peter’s mouth still twists wryly when he remembers that first month of heavy farm work. The mule was big and Peter wasn’t, the plow and the soil were heavy, and Peter was light. Trammell, the farmer, held him to his task, insisting that “a boy who couldn’t learn to plow straight couldn’t learn to do nothin’ else straight, and he’d better learn now while he had the chanst.” Peter would have cheerfully forfeited his chance to learn to plow straight; but the thing was there to do, and he tried to do it.

Sunday, his one free day, was the only thing that made life at all endurable to Peter. It was a day to be looked forward to all through the heavy week. Early in the morning, with such lunch as he could come by, his worn Bible in his coat pocket and a package of paper under his arm, Peter disappeared, not to return until nightfall. The farmer’s over-burdened wife was glad enough to see him go; that meant one less for whom to cook and to wash dishes.

All the week, after his own fashion, Peter had been observing things. On Sundays he tried to put them down on paper. He had the great, rare, sober gift of seeing things as they are, a gift given to the very few. A negro plowing in a flat brown field behind a horse as patient as himself; an old woman in a red jacket and a plaid bandana, feeding a flock of turkeys; a young girl milking; a boy driving an unruly cow all the homely, common, ordinary things of everyday life among the plain people, Peter, who had been set down among the plain people, tried to crowd on his scanty supply of drawing-paper on Sunday in the woods.

Peter had learned to draw animals playing, and birds flying, and butterflies fluttering, and folks working. But he couldn’t draw a decent living-wage for his daily labor. He was only a boy, and it seemed to be a part of the scheme of things that a boy should be asked to do a man’s work for a dwarf’s wages. And the food they gave him at the Trammell farm-house was beginning to tell on him. Peter asked for more money and was refused with contumely. He asked for a change of diet, and was informed violently that this country is undoubtedly going to the dogs when folks like himself “think theirselfs too dinged uppidy for good victuals. Eat ’em or leave ’em!”

Peter couldn’t eat them any more, so he left them. He discharged himself out of hand, and went back to Riverton and Emma Campbell with forty dollars and a bundle of sketches.

The doctor in Riverton got most of the forty dollars. However, as he needed a boy in his drug store just then, he gave the place to Peter, who took it willingly enough, as he was still feeling the effects of bad food and heavy farm work. He learned to roll pills and weigh out lime-drops and mix soft drinks, and to keep his patience with women who wanted only a one-cent stamp, and expected him to lick it for them into the bargain.

Grown into a gawky chap of sixteen, Peter didn’t impress people too favorably. They felt for him the instinctive distrust of the conservative and commercial mind for the free and artistic one. The Peter Champneyses of the world challenge the ideal of commercial success by their utter inability to see in it the real reason for being alive, and the chief end of man. They are inimical to smugness and to complacent satisfaction. Naturally, safe and sane citizens resent this.

There was one person in Riverton who didn’t share the general opinion that Peter Champneys was trifling, and that was Mrs. Humphreys. Mrs. Humphrey still tasted that ice-cream and cake Peter had given to old Daddy Christmas on a hot afternoon. It was she who presently persuaded her husband to take Peter into his hardware store, at a better salary than the doctor paid him.

Everybody agreed that it was noble of Sam Humphreys to take Peter on. Of course, Peter was as honest as the sun, but he wasn’t businesslike. Not to be businesslike is the American sin against the Holy Ghost. It is far less culpable to begin with the first of the deadly sins on Sunday morning and finish up the last of the seven on Saturday night, than to have your neighbors say you aren’t businesslike. Had Peter taken to tatting, instead of to sketching niggers in ox-carts, and men plowing, and women washing clothes, Riverton couldn’t have been more impatient with him. Artists, so far as the average American small town is concerned, are ineffectual persons, godless creatures long on hair and short on morals, men whom nobody respects until they are decently dead. It disgusted Riverton that Peter Champneys, who had had such a nice mother and come from a good family, should follow such examples.

But Peter meant to hold fast to his one power, though every hand in the world were against it, though every tongue shouted “Fool,” though for it he should go hungry and naked and friendless to the end of his days. He wished to get away from Riverton, to study in some large city under good teachers. Claribel Spring had stressed the necessity of good teachers. Grimly he set himself to work to obtain at least a start toward the coveted end.

By incredible efforts he had managed to save one hundred and ten dollars, when Emma Campbell fell ill with a misery in her legs. Although she had a conjure bag around her neck, a rabbit foot in her pocket, and a horseshoe nailed above the door, she was helpless for a while, and Peter had to hire another colored woman to care for her.

Emma was just on her feet when Cassius took it into his head to die. There was a confusion of husbands and wives between Emma and Cassius, but she mourned for him shrilly. What deepened her distress was the fact that in repudiating him his last wife had carried off all his small possessions, and there was no money left to bury him. Now, not to be buried with due and fitting ceremonies and the displayed insignia of some churchly Buryin’ Society, is a calamity and a disgrace. Emma felt that she could never hope to hold up her head again if Cassius had to be buried by town charity.

Peter Champneys hadn’t lived among and liked the colored people all these years for nothing. He looked at big Emma Campbell sitting beside the kitchen table with her head buried in her arms, a prey to woe. Then he went to the bank and drew what remained of his savings. Cassius was gathered to his father’s with all the accustomed trappings, and Emma’s grief was turned to proud joy. But it was another proof of the unbusinesslike mind of Peter Champneys. His small savings were gone; he had to begin all over again.

Decidedly, the purple heights were a long, long way off!