LITTLE RED TOM
MY Uncle Peter was much interested in the war which broke out, not long ago, among the professional nature-writers. He said that it was a civil war, and therefore a philosopher was bound to be regardful of it, because a civil war always involved subtle problems of psychology. He also said that it was a most uncivil war, and that the picturesque violence of the language employed on both sides was intrinsically noteworthy to a philologist, and therefore he felt obliged to follow it with care. When the Chief Magistrate of his native country took a hand in it, my Uncle Peter claimed that it had become a subject of national importance and that no true patriot could be indifferent to it. Finally he admitted, in a moment of confidence, that the real reason for his interest was the fact that so many of his friends were engaged in the strife, on both sides, and were being badly pummeled; and that he would like to take some part in it himself. I asked him what part. He answered that he proposed to himself the part of peace-maker. I pointed out that this part is usually the most perilous and painful. He said that this should not deter him from doing his duty, and he added that he thought he could do it in such a way that no one could tell that he was doing it. A week later he brought me the following paper, which he called
THE TRAGEDY OF LITTLE RED TOM:
A Contribution to the Fight About Nature-Books.
He was the youngest of the family, a late-comer at the feast of life. Yet the rose-garlands on the table were not faded when he arrived, and the welcome that he received was not colder, indeed it was probably several degrees warmer, because he was so tardy, so young, so tiny.
There was room for him in the household circle; joyous affection and merry murmurs of contentment greeted his coming. His older brothers never breathed a word of jealousy or unkindness toward him. He grew peacefully under the shelter of mother-love, and it would have been difficult to foresee, in the rosy promise of his youth, the crimson tragedy in which his llfe ended.
How dull, how insensible to such things, most men and women are! They go on their way, busily and happily, doing their work, seeking their daily food, enjoying their human pleasures, and never troubling themselves about the hidden and inarticulate sorrows of the universe. Thc hunter hunts, and the fisher fishes, with inconsiderate glee. A man kills a troublesome insect, he cats a juicy berry or a succulent oyster, without thinking of what his victims must feel.
But there are some tender and sensitive souls who are too fine for these callous joys. They no longer imagine that human emotions are confined to man. They reflect that every plant and every animal is (loomed to die in some way which the average man would regard as distinctly unpleasant. To them the sight of a chicken-house is full of sorrowful suggestion, and a walk through a vegetable garden is like a funeral procession. They meditate upon the tragic side of all existence; and to them there will be nothing strange in this story of the tragedy of Little Red Tom.
You have guessed that he was called "red" on account of his colour. It was a family trait. All his brothers had it; and strange to say they were proud of it.
Most people are so foolish that they speak with ridicule, or even with contempt of this colour, when it is personally evolved. Have you ever asked yourself why it is that the cold world alludes derisively to a "red-headed boy," or a "red-headed girl"? The language is different when the locks are of another hue. Then it is a "black-haired boy," or a "golden-haired girl." Is not the very word "redheaded," with its implied slur upon an innocent and gorgeous colour, an unconscious evidence of the unreasonable prejudice and hard insensibility of the human race?
Not so the family of Tom. The redder they grew the happier they were, and the more pride their mother took in them. But she herself was green. And so was little Tom, like all his brothers, when he made his first appearance in the world – green-very green.
Nestled against his mother's side, sheltered by her embracing arms, safe and happy in the quietude of her maternal care, he must have looked out upon the passing show with wonder and pleasure, while she instilled into him the lessons of wisdom and the warnings of destiny.
"Grow, my little one," we can imagine her saying to him, in her mysterious wordless language, "your first duty is to grow. Look at your brothers, how big and round and fat they are! I can hardly lift them. They did what I told them, and see what they have become. All by growing! Simple process! Even a babe can understand it. Grow, my Tommykin, grow! But don't try to grow red; first, you must grow big."
It is quite sure, and evident to every inaginative observer of nature, that Tommy's mother must have told him something like this, for this is precisely what he did – -obedient, docile, clever little creature! How else could he have learned it, if she had not taught him? Who can trace the subtle avenues by which intelligence is communicated from the old to the young, the treasured lore of the ages handed down from one generation to another? But when we see the result, when the little one begins to do what its parents and grandparents have done, is it not evident that the teaching must have been given, though in some way beyond our ken? If Tommy's mother had not taught him, there is at least an even chance that he would have tried to grow red before he grew big. But he laid her lesson to heart, and day by day, week by week, his rotundity expanded, while his verdancy remained.
It was a very beautiful life that they lived in the garden; and if the thoughts and feelings that unfolded there could be known, perhaps they would seem even more wonderful than the things which the old German gardener cultivated. Away at one end were the beds of old-fashioned flowers: hollyhocks and phlox and stocks, coreopsis and calliopsis, calendula and campanula, fox-gloves and monkshoods and lady-slippers. At the other end were the strawberry-bed and the asparagus-bed. In between, there were long rows of all kinds of vegetables and small fruits and fragrant herbs.
Who can tell what ideas and emotions were stirring in those placid companies of leguminous comrades? What aspirations toward a loftier life in the climbing beans? What high spirits in the corn? What light and airy dreams on the asparagus-bed ? What philosophy among the sage ? Imagine what great schemes were hatching among the egg-plants, and what hot feelings stung tlle peppers when the raspberries crowded them!
Tommy, from his central place in the garden must have felt the agitation of this mimic world around him. Many a time, no doubt, he was tempted to give himself up to one or another of the contiguous influences, and throw himself into the social tide for "one glorious hour of crowded life." But his mother always held him back.
"No, my Tommykin, stay with me. It is not for you to climb a pole like a bean or wave in the wind like an asparagus stalk, or rasp your neighbours like a raspberry. Be modest, be natural, be true to yourself. Stay with me and grow fat."
When the sunshine of the long July days flooded the garden, glistening on the silken leaves of the corn, wilting the potato-blossoms, unfolding the bright yellow flowers of the okra and the melon, Tom would fain have pushed himself out into the full tide of light and heat. But his mother bent tenderly over him.
"Not yet, my child; it is not time for you to bear the heat of the day. A little shade is good for you. Let me cover you. It is too soon for you to be sunburned."
When the plumping afternoon showers came down, refreshing leaf and root of every plant, Tom shrank from the precipitate inundation.
"Mother, I'm all wet. I want to come in out of the rain."
But the mother knew what was good for him. So she held him out bravely while the streaming drops washed him; and she taught him how to draw in the moisture which she gathered for his nourishment.
In late August a change began to come over his complexion. His verdant brilliancy was "sicklied o'er with a pale cast of thought," whitish, yellowish, nondescript. A foolish human mother would have been alarmed and would have hurried to the medicine closet for a remedy for biliousness. Not so Tom's wise parent. She knew that the time had come for him to grow red. She let him have his own way now about being out in the sunshine. She even thrust him gently forth into the full light, withdrawing the shelter that she had cast around him. Slowly, gradually, but surely the bright crimson hue spread over him, until the illumination was complete, and the mother felt that he was the most beautiful of her children – not the largest, but round and plump and firm and glowing red as a ruby.
Then the mother-heart knew that the perils of life were near at hand for Litfie Red Tom. Many of his brothers had already been torn from her by the cruel hand of fate and had disappeared into the unknown.
"Where have they gone to?" wondered Tom. But his mother could not tell him. All that she could do was to warn him of the unseen dangers that surrounded him, and prepare him to meet them.
"Listen, my child, and do as I tell you. When you hear a step on the garden path, that means danger; and when a thing with wings flies around me and comes near to you, that means danger too. But I will teach you how to avoid it. I will give you three signs.
"The first sign is a rustling noise that I will make when a bird comes near to you. That means droop. Let yourself down behind the wire netting that I lean on, and then the bird will be afraid to come close enough to peek at you. The second sign is a trembling that you will feel in my arms when the gardener eomes along the walk. That means snuggle. Hide yourself as close to me as you can. The third sign – well, I will tell you the third sign to-morrow evening, for now I am tired."
In the early morning of a bright September day, while the dew was still heavy on the leaves and the grass, and the gossamer eobwebs glistened with little diamonds, a hungry robin flew into the garden, and Tom heard the signal "Droop!" So he let himself down behind the woven wire, and the robin put his head on one side and looked at Tom greedily, and flew on to find a breakfast elsewhere.
A little before noon, when the sun was shining broadly and the silken tassels of the corn were shrivelling up into make-believe tobacco for bad little boys to smoke, there was a heavy step on the garden walk, and Tom felt the signal "Snuggle!" Then he hugged as close as he could to his mother's side, and the gardener with his sharp knife cut off all Tom's surviving brothers and put them into a box full of vegetables. But he did not see Tom, hidden close and safe.
How glad the mother must have been, and how much Tom must have loved her as he remembered all her wise lessons! It was a long beautiful afternoon that they spent together, filled with pleasant reminiscences, touched by no shadow of gloom, no dream of parting. A golden afternoon – the last!
Just before sunset, a fair creature, clothed in white, came into the garden. She moved for a while among the flowers, her yellow hair gleaming in the low rays of the sun, her eyes bluer than forget-me-nots. Who could think that such a creature could be cruel or heartless? Who could dream that she would pursue her pleasure at the cost of pain to the innocent? Who could imagine that she would take life to feed her own?
Gently and daintily she came down the garden walk, past the raspberry patch, past the tall rows of corn, past the egg-plants and the peppers, with steps so light that the ground hardly felt them, with bright eyes glancing from side to side – yes, with all these, and also with a remorseless purpose in her heart and a basket half full of cut flowers on her arm.
No signal to droop or snuggle came to Tom. The third signal – ah, that he had not yet learned! So he basked his rosy sides in the sunlight as the lovely apparition drew near to him. She looked at him with delight. She put out her delicate hand to embrace him. Then, without a tremor, she tore him ruthlessly from his mother's grasp, from the home that he loved, and dropped him into her basket.
"Oh, you little red beauty!" she cried. "You are just what I wanted to fill up my tomato salad."
That night, as she sat at supper, with her father and mother and brother and sisters, she was smiling and serene, for the table was well furnished, and the feast was merry. There was white bread that had been ground from thousands of innocent blades of wheat, once waving in the sunlight, and a juicy fish that had been lured and unwillingly drawn from the crystal waters. There was a brace of grouse that had been snatched away from their feeding-grounds among the spicy berries in the woods. And there was poor Little Red Tom, in the centre of the salad, surrounded by crisp lettuce leaves and dressed to the queen's taste.
Are there not some who would have shed tears at that sight, and lamented even while they ate? But do you suppose the young girl was one of that kind? Do you imagine that she thought she had played a part in a tragedy? Not a bit of it. She was simply grateful that her salad was so good, and glad that the others liked it.
Reader, if you would not be like this young girl, you must read and believe – *
*Note: I regret to state that my Uncle Peter's manuscript broke off at this point.