Story type: Literature
A train of circus-wagons, strung along a dusty road, in the Santa Clara Valley, crept slowly under the beating heat of a July sun. The dust rolled in clouds over the gaudy wagons of the menagerie. The outer doors of the cages had been opened to give access of air to the panting animals, but with the air came the dust, and the dust annoyed Romulus greatly. Never before had he longed for freedom so intensely. Ever since he could remember he had been in a cage like this; it had been so all through his childhood and youth. There was no trace in his memory of days when he of a time had been free. Not the faintest recollection existed of the time when he might have swung in the branches of equatorial forests. To him life was a desolation and a despair, and the poignancy of it all was sharpened by the clouds of dust which rolled through the grated door.
Romulus, thereupon, sought means of escape. Nimble, deft, sharp-sighted, he found a weak place in his prison, worked it open, and leaped forth upon the highway a free anthropoid ape. None of the sleepy, weary drivers noticed his escape, and a proper sense of caution caused him to seek security under a way-side shrub until the procession had safely passed. Then the whole world lay before him.
His freedom was large and sweet, but, for a while, perplexing. An almost instinctive leap to catch the trapeze-bar that had hung in his cage brought his hands in contact with only unresisting air. This confused and somewhat frightened him. The world seemed much broader and brighter since the black bars of his prison no longer striped his vision. And then, to his amazement, in place of the dingy covering of his cage appeared a vast and awful expanse of blue heaven, the tremendous depth and distance of which terrified him.
The scampering of a ground-squirrel seeking its burrow soon caught his notice, and he watched the little animal with great curiosity. Then he ran to the burrow, and hurt his feet on the sharp wheat-stubble. This made him more cautious. Not finding the squirrel, he looked about and discovered two owls sitting on a little mound not far away. Their solemn gaze fastened upon him inspired him with awe, but his curiosity would not permit him to forego a closer view. He cautiously crept towards them; then he stopped, sat down, and made grotesque faces at them. This had no effect. He scratched his head and thought. Then he made a feint as though he would pounce upon them, and they flew. Romulus gazed at them with the greatest amazement, for never before had he seen anything skim through the air. But the world was so wide and freedom so large that surely everything free ought to fly; so Romulus sprang into the air and made motions with his arms like to those the owls had made with their wings; and the first grievous disappointment which his freedom brought came when he found himself sprawling on the field.
His alert mind sought other exercise. Some distance away stood a house, and at the front gate was a man, and Romulus knew man to be the meanest and most cruel of all living things and the conscienceless taskmaster of weaker creatures. So Romulus avoided the house and struck out across the fields. Presently he came upon a very large thing which awed him. It was a live-oak, and the birds were singing in the foliage. But his persistent curiosity put a curb upon his fears, and he crept closer and closer. The kindly aspect of the tree, the sweetness of the shade which it cast, the cool depths of its foliage, the gentle swaying of the boughs in the soft north wind–all invited him to approach. This he did, until he arrived at the gnarled old bole, and then he leaped into the branches and was filled with delight. The little birds took flight. Romulus sat upon a limb, and then stretched himself at full length upon it and enjoyed the peace and comfort of the moment. But he was an ape and had to be employed, and so he ran out upon the smaller branches and shook them after the manner of his parents before him.
These delights all exploited, Romulus dropped to the ground and began to explore the world again; but the world was wide and its loneliness oppressed him. Presently he saw a dog and made quickly for him. The dog, seeing the strange creature approach, sought to frighten it by barking; but Romulus had seen similar animals before and had heard similar sounds; he could not be frightened by them. He went boldly towards the dog by long leaps on all fours. The dog, terrified by the strange-looking creature, ran away yelping and left Romulus with freedom and the world again.
On went Romulus over the fields, crossing a road now and then, and keeping clear of all living things that he found. Presently he came to a high picket-fence, surrounding a great inclosure, in which sat a large house in a grove of eucalyptus-trees. Romulus was thirsty, and the playing of a fountain among the trees tempted him sorely. He might have found courage to venture within had he not at that moment discovered a human being, not ten feet away, on the other side of the fence. Romulus sprang back with a cry of terror, and then stopped, and in a crouching attitude, ready to fly for his life and freedom, gazed at the enemy of all creation.
But the look he received in return was so kindly, and withal so peculiar and so unlike any that he had ever seen before, that his instinct to fly yielded to his curiosity to discover. Romulus did not know that the great house in the grove was an idiot-asylum, nor that the lad with the strange but kindly expression was one of the inmates. He knew only that kindness was there. The look which he saw was not the hard and cruel one of the menagerie-keeper, nor the empty, idle, curious one of the spectators, countenancing by their presence and supporting with their money the infamous and exclusively human practice of capturing wild animals and keeping them all their lives in the torture of captivity. So deeply interested was Romulus in what he saw that he forgot his fear and cocked his head on one side and made a queer grimace; and his motions and attitude were so comical that Moses, the idiot, grinned at him through the pickets. But the grin was not the only manifestation of pleasure that Moses gave. A peculiar vermicular movement, beginning at his feet and ending at his head, was the precursor of a slow, vacant guffaw that expressed the most intense delight of which he was capable. Moses never before had seen so queer a creature as this little brown man all covered with hair; he never before had seen even a monkey, that common joy of ordinary childhood, and remoter from resemblance to human kind than was Romulus. Moses was nineteen; but, although his voice was childlike no longer and his face was covered with unsightly short hair, and he was large and strong, running mostly to legs and arms, he was simple and innocent. His clothes were much too small, and a thick growth of wild hair topped his poll, otherwise innocent of covering.
Thus gazed these two strange beings at each other, held by sympathy and curiosity. Neither had the power of speech, and hence neither could lie to the other. Was it instinct which made Romulus believe that of all the bipedal devils which infested the face of the earth there was one of so gentle spirit that it could love him? And was it by instinct that Romulus, ignorant as he was of the larger ways of the world, discovered that his own mind was the firmer and cleverer of the two? And, feeling the hitherto unimaginable sweetness of freedom, did there come to him a knowledge that this fellow-being was a prisoner, as he himself had been, and longed for a taste of the open fields? And if Romulus so had reasoned, was it a sense of chivalry or a desire for companionship that led him to the rescue of this one weaker and more unfortunate than he?
He went cautiously to the fence, and put through his hand and touched Moses. The lad, much pleased, took the hand of the ape in his, and at once there was a good understanding between them. Romulus teased the boy to follow him, by going away a few steps and looking back, and then going and pulling his hand through the fence–doing this repeatedly–until his intention worked its way into the idiot’s mind. The fence was too high to be scaled; but now that the desire for freedom had invaded his being, Moses crushed the pickets with his huge feet and emerged from his prison.
These two, then, were at large. The heavens were lifted higher and the horizon was extended. At a convenient ditch they slaked their thirst, and in an orchard they found ripe apricots; but what can satisfy the hunger of an ape or an idiot? The world was wide and sweet and beautiful, and the exquisite sense of boundless freedom worked like rich old wine in unaccustomed veins. These all brought infinite delight to Romulus and his charge as over the fields they went.
I will not tell particularly of all they did that wild, mad, happy afternoon, while drunk and reeling with freedom. I might say in passing that at one place they tore open the cage of a canary-bird swinging in a cherry-tree out of sight of the house, and at another they unbuckled the straps which bound a baby in a cart, and might have made off with it but for fear of arrest; but these things have no relation to the climax of their adventures, now hastening to accomplishment.
When the sun had sunk lower in the yellow splendor of the west and the great nickel dome of the observatory on Mount Hamilton had changed from silver to copper, the two revellers, weary and now hungry again, came upon a strange and perplexing place. It was a great oak with its long, cone-shaped shadow pointed towards the east and the cool depths of its foliage that first attracted them. About the tree were mounds with wooden head-boards, which wiser ones would have known the meaning of. But how could an ape or an idiot know of a freedom so sweet and silent and unencompassed and unconditional as death? And how could they know that the winners of so rich a prize should be mourned, should be wetted with tears, should be placed in the ground with the strutting pomp of grief? Knowing nothing at all of things like this, how could they know that this shabby burying-ground upon which they had strayed was so unlike that one which, in clear sight some distance away, was ordered in walks and drive-ways and ornamented with hedges, and fountains, and statues, and rare plants, and costly monuments–ah, my friends, how, without money, may we give adequate expression to grief? And surely grief without evidence of its existence is the idlest of indulgences!
But there was no pomp in the shadow of the oak, for the broken fence setting apart this place from the influence of Christian civilization enclosed graves holding only such bones as could not rest easy in soil across which was flung the shadow of the cross. Romulus and Moses knew nothing of these things; knew nothing of laws prohibiting disinterment within two years; knew nothing of a strange, far-away people from Asia, who, scorning the foreign Christian soil upon which they walked, despising the civilization out of which they wrung money, buried their dead in obedience to law which they had not the strength to resist, and two years afterwards dug up the bones and sent them to the old home to be interred for everlasting rest in the soil made and nourished by a god of their own.
Should either Romulus or Moses judge between these peoples? They were in better business than that.
Their examination of a strange brick furnace in which printed prayers were burned, and of a low brick altar covered with the grease of used-up tapers, had hardly been finished when an approaching cloud of dust along the broken fence warned them to the exercise of caution. Romulus was the quicker to escape, for a circus-train makes a trail of dust along the road, and with swift alacrity he sprang into the boughs of the oak, the heavy Moses clambering laboriously after, emitting guffaws in praise of the superior agility of his guardian. It made Moses laugh again to see the little hairy man stretch himself on a branch and sigh with the luxurious comfort of repose, and he nearly had fallen in trying to imitate the nimble Romulus. But they were still and silent when the cloud of dust, parting at a gate, gave forth into the enclosure a small cavalcade of carriages and wagons.
There was a grave newly dug, and towards this came the procession,–a shallow grave, for one must not lie too deep in the Christian soil of the white barbarian,–but it was so small a grave! Even Romulus could have filled it, and, as for Moses, it was hardly too large for his feet.
For little Wang Tai was dead, and in this small grave were her fragile bones to rest for twenty-four months under three feet of Christian law. Interest tempered the fright which Romulus and Moses felt when from the forward carriage came the sound of rasping oboes, belly-less fiddles, brazen tom-toms, and harsh cymbals, playing a dirge for little Wang Tai; playing less for godly protection of her tiny soul than for its exemption from the torture of devils.
With the others there came forth a little woman all bent with grief and weeping, for little Wang Tai had a mother, and every mother has a mother’s heart. She was only a little yellow woman from Asia, with queer wide trousers for skirts and rocker-soled shoes that flapped against her heels. Her uncovered black hair was firmly knotted and securely pinned, and her eyes were black of color and soft of look, and her face, likely blank in content, was wet with tears and drawn with suffering. And there sat upon her, like a radiance from heaven, the sweetest, the saddest, the deepest, the tenderest of all human afflictions,–the one and the only one that time can never heal.
So they interred little Wang Tai, and Romulus and Moses saw it all, and paper prayers were burned in the oven, and tapers were lighted at the altar; and for the refreshment of the angels that should come to bear little Wang Tai’s soul to the farther depths of blue heaven some savory viands were spread upon the grave. The grave filled, the diggers hid their spades behind the oven, Romulus watching them narrowly. The little bent woman gathered her grief to her heart and bore it away; and a cloud of dust, widening away alongside the broken fence, disappeared in the distance. The dome of Mount Hamilton had changed from copper to gold; the purple canyons of the Santa Cruz Mountains looked cold against the blazing orange of the western sky; the crickets set up their cheerful notes in the great old oak, and night fell softly as a dream.
Four hungry eyes saw the viands of the grave, and four greedy nostrils inhaled the aroma. Down dropped Romulus, and with less skill down fell Moses. Little Wang Tai’s angels must go supperless to heaven this night–and it is a very long road from Christendom to heaven! The two outlaws snatched, and scrambled, and fought, and when all of this little was eaten they set their minds to other enterprises. Romulus fetched the spades and industriously began to dig into Wang Tai’s grave, and Moses, crowing and laughing, fell to as assistant, and as the result of their labor the earth flew to either side. Only three feet of loose Christian law covered little Wang Tai!
* * * * *
A small yellow woman, moaning with grief, had tossed all night on her hard bed of matting and her harder pillow of hollowed wood. Even the familiar raucous sounds of early morning in the Chinese quarter of San Jose, remindful of that far-distant country which held all of her heart not lying dead under Christian sod, failed to lighten the burden which sat upon her. She saw the morning sun push its way through a sea of amber and the nickel dome of the great observatory on Mount Hamilton standing ebony against the radiant East. She heard the Oriental jargon of the early hucksters who cried their wares in the ill-smelling alleys, and with tears she added to the number of pearls which the dew had strewn upon the porch. She was only a small yellow woman from Asia, all bent with grief; and what of happiness could there be for her in the broad sunshine which poured forth from the windows of heaven, inviting the living babies of all present mankind to find life and health in its luxurious enfolding? She saw the sun climb the skies with imperious magnificence, and whispering voices from remote Cathay tempered the radiance of the day with memories of the past.
Could you, had your hearts been breaking and your eyes blinded with tears, have seen with proper definition the figures of a strange procession which made its way along the alley under the porch? There were white men with three prisoners–three who so recently had tested the sweets of freedom, and they had been dragged back to servitude. Two of these had been haled from the freedom of life and one from the freedom of death, and all three had been found fast asleep in the early morning beside the open grave and empty coffin of little Wang Tai. There were wise men abroad, and they said that little Wang Tai, through imperfect medical skill, had been interred alive, and that Romulus and Moses, by means of their impish pranks, had brought her to life after raising her from the grave. But wherefore the need of all this talk? Is it not enough that these two brigands were whipped and sent back into servitude, and that when the little yellow woman from Asia had gathered her baby to her breast the windows of her soul were opened to receive the warmth of the yellow sunshine that poured in a flood from heaven?