Read CHAPTER XIX - THE POWER of The Purple Heights, free online book, by Marie Conway Oemler, on ReadCentral.com.

Grandma Baker’s cottage formed the extreme right horn of the crescent that was the village. The middle of the crescent backed up against a hill, the horns dipped toward the shore-line and the water. Near Grandma Baker’s front gate were currant bushes, and a path bordered with dahlias and gillyflowers led to the door, which had two stone slabs for steps, and on both sides of which were large lilac bushes, she called them “lay-locks.” Behind the house were apple-trees, and more currant bushes, as well as gooseberries and raspberries. A herb garden grew under her kitchen windows, so that her kitchen and pantry always smelled of thyme and wintergreen, and her bedrooms were fragrant with lavender.

The quiet gentleman to whom she had given an upper room that looked out upon woods and waters, a bit of pasture, a stretch of coast, and a pale blue sky full of sudsy clouds, thought that Mr. Jason Vandervelde’s fervent praises hadn’t done justice to this bit of untouched Eden tucked away in a bend of the Maine coast. It gave him what his heart craved beauty, fragrance, stillness. A few weather-beaten old men, digging clams, dragging lobster-pots, or handling a boat. A few quiet women, busy with household affairs. No one to have to talk to. No one to ask him questions. There was but one other visitor in the village, Grandma Baker told him, a young widow, “a nice common sort of a woman,” who was staying up the street with Mis’ Thatcher.

Mr. Johnston, as the gentleman called himself, hadn’t seen the “nice common sort of a woman” yet, though he had been here a whole week, and he wasn’t in the least curious about her. He didn’t know that when you’re a “nice common sort of a woman” to these Maine folk, you’re receiving high praise from sturdy democrats. The phrase, to him, called up a good, homely creature, amiably innocuous, placidly cow-like.

Mr. Johnston slept in a four-poster, under a patchwork quilt that aroused poignant memories. At his own request he ate in a corner of the big kitchen, near the window opening upon the herb garden. Already he had struck up a firm friendship with his brisk, strong old landlady.

“Fit in the war, didn’t ye?” asked the old lady, genially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure of that!” murmured her guest.

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

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

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

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

She could fancy Marcia’s astonishment, her shocked “Oh, but Anne, there’s Berkeley Hayden!”

And indeed, there was Berkeley Hayden!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marcia thinks I should marry Berkeley, immediately, and let him take me away, but ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t see why you can’t,” said he, cheerfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She slackened her wild race when she neared the great boulders shutting in the little narrow path where she had met him, and stood flushed, panting, her shining glance uplifted, her bright hair framing the sweetness of her face. And even as she paused, he stepped out of the shadow and confronted her. As if he had been awaiting her. As if he had known she must come. He said, in a voice vibrant with fierce joy:

“It is You!”

She answered, in a shaking tone, like a child: “Yes, I had to come,” and stood there looking at him, face uplifted, lips apart.

He drew nearer. “Why?” said he, in a whisper. “Why?”

She did not reply. For a long moment they regarded each other, passion-pale in the moonlight.

“Was it because you knew I must be here!” he asked.

Her hands went to her leaping heart. She had no faintest notion of concealing the truth, for there was no coquetry in her. These two facing each other were as honest as the rocky coast, as unabashed as the wind. They had no more thought of subterfuges and conventions than the sea had. They were as real as nature itself.

He bent upon her his compelling glance, which seemed to lift her as upon golden pinions. She was thrillingly conscious of his nearness.

“You knew I would be here?” he repeated.

She drew a deep breath. “Yes!” she sighed.

And at that, inevitably, irresistibly, they rushed together. He caught her in a mighty embrace and she gave him back his kiss with a heavenly shamelessness, a glorious passion, naïve and pure. It was as if she were born anew in the fire of his lips. For she was sure, with a crystal clarity. This man whose heart beat against hers was her high destiny. Body and soul, she was his. His kiss was the chrism of life. And he, fallen into the same divine lunacy, was equally sure. He had been born a man to hold this strong sweet body in his arms, to meet this spirit that complemented his own. Not in high and lonely altitudes whose cold stillness chilled the heart, but by simple paths to peace, in a simple and passionate woman’s love, could he gain the purple heights!