The Little Sign for Friend

I

Now there are diversities of gifts, even in a school for deaf-mute children. There was Everett Dwight, for instance, who, in the modeling class, always specialized in pigs — most engaging pigs, with expressively cocked ears, and tails of an unbelievable curliness. There was little Mary Logan, who had learned to say, ’I know,’long before any of the other children in her class, and who said it upon all occasions, in season and out. And again, there was great awkward Christopher Adams who could make grotesque wooden snakes. But to Charlie Webster, — little old Webster, as all the teachers called him in sheer affection, or ‘ W-on-the-eyes,’as his sign went among the deaf children, for a reason which has been explained elsewhere,1 — to him was the gift for friendship.

From what enchanted source had a little deaf boy of ten drawn this miracle of affection that bubbled forth to enrich every new acquaintanceship? At the Lomax School for Deaf and Blind Children, he was friends with every one, — high and low, black and white, deaf and blind, — and his hands were forever flying together to form the little sign for friend, which is made in the deaf language by locking the forefingers first in one direction and then in the other; and by this sign he conquered.

‘Certainly it takes little old Webster to be friends with Christopher Adams,’ Miss Evans, one of the teachers, sighed as her mind’s eye presented the picture of the latter’s awkward shambling figure, and his dumb bewildered face.

Christopher Adams was a great lumbering deaf mute of nineteen, sent to school years too late, and so homesick and confused and unhappy, and with a mind so long neglected, that he was well-nigh unteachable.

‘You should have let us have him years ago,’ Mr. Lincoln, the Superintendent of Lomax, had cried reproachfully when Christopher’s father had brought him to school. The boy’s agonized glance flickered about the unfamiliar room, alighting here and there, on the bookcases, the typewriter, the desk, then fled back to his father’s face to cling there in desperate question. His body was that of a man almost six feet tall, but the spirit of childhood, like a captive Ariel, looked forth from the dark tragic eyes, terrified by the unknown, and caught so fast in its prison of deafness, that it might never give place to maturity.

‘I allus ’lowed he ought to go to school,’ his father sighed. He was a little, shabby, discouraged man from the backwoods of Lupin County. ‘But his mammy said she wa’n’t agoin’ to have her afflicted child sent among strangers. But this fall we heard you was teachin’ deef children to talk, so I got her persuaded to let. me bring Chrissy.’

‘ But your boy is so old —,’ Mr. Lincoln broke off, hunting for the kindest words; but the little man’s fear caught him up sharply.

‘You mean — you mean my boy can’t learn?’

As Mr. Lincoln hesitated, Charlie Webster pushed open the study door, his dancing eyes asking permission to enter, while his fingers signed a request for some writing paper. Mr. Lincoln, however, shook his head over the signs.

‘You must speak,’ he commanded.

And little old Webster, who believed with all his small soul in articulation for deaf children, flung back his head obediently, and, though somewhat embarrassed by t he presence of strangers, made a buoyant attempt to control his stubborn lips.

‘Ples’ gif me—’ He paused, his vocabulary being as yet very limited, and, touching his forehead, and flinging his hand out, made the sign for, ‘I don’t know.’

‘Some paper,’ Mr. Lincoln prompted him.

‘Ples’ gif me som’ paper,’ Webster repeated, reading the words from the other’s lips and beaming with excitement.

And when Mr. Lincoln complied, he said, ‘Thank you,’pressing his finger to the side of his nose, as he always did to be sure that the vibration was right; flashed his engaging smile once more upon every one, and departed.

‘Why, he’s a-talkin’!’ Mr. Adams burst out in great excitement. ‘ He’s atalkin’ an’ he’s deef, ain’t he? Why can’t my boy learn good as him?’

‘Because your boy has been kept from school too long. However,’ Mr. Lincoln went on kindly, ‘perhaps we can give him a little speech even yet. And at any rate, if he is contented here ’ — he glanced rather doubtfully at the terror in Christopher’s eyes — ‘we can at least teach him a trade, and he will pick up the sign language.’

But the little man’s slow mind was working over the Superintendent’s earlier remark.

‘ He oughter of come sooner — when they’s little they kin learn better.’ His thin jaws worked a moment uncertainly; then, ‘I reckon,’ he began,— but suddenly caught himself up. ‘No — no,’ he mumbled, his words trailing off to silence.

Later that morning Mr. Lincoln was startled by an agonized cry, and the sight of a great body flashing past his study window. Rushing out to the porch, he found Mr, Bennet, the supervisor of the deaf boys, struggling to calm Christopher Adams.

‘He’s just realized that his father has left him here,’ the former gasped.

With a sudden inspiration of hope, Christopher tore himself free from the supervisor and dashed away to Mr. Lincoln’s study. His father was not there. He fled back again to the front yard — nor was he there either. Then to the schoolrooms, the dormitories, the carpenter’s shop, the yard again, — to all the places they had visited together, — but his father was in none of them. His agonized eyes questioned Mr. Lincoln’s face for a moment, as desperate as those of a lost dog. Then he was off again, running down the path and through t he school gates and away to the railroad station, Mr. Lincoln and the supervisor in pursuit. He reached the station just as the little jerky local train was pulling out. His father was on the rear platform. Christopher caught sight of him and, screaming inarticulately and waving wild arms, plunged after the train. On the platform, the little man burst into a babble of incoherent, futile words, the tears raining down his cheeks, his hands trying to form reassuring signs.

‘Don’t be skeered, son,’ he cried. ‘They ain’t goin’ ter hurt ye. Don’t be skeered, honey! Pappy’ll be back for ye in the spring. Don’t — son —’

Quickening its pace, the train swept away around a bend and the father, still waving his hands and crying useless words to his son’s deaf ears, was snatched away out of sight. Christopher stood a blank moment, staring down the track. Then he flung his arms high above his head, and pitched over upon the ties.

The next morning in school, little Hiram Cobb engaged in a desperate struggle with the written word — always so difficult to deaf children who have never heard it spoken — and produced the following: ‘We have a new boy. He is big. He is never to school. He is very a savage.’ He was extremely proud of this effusion, for it had required time and patience and a thrustout tongue to achieve it, and moreover, it contained three capital H’s which were more beautiful than any he had ever before accomplished. He showed it to Charlie Webster at recess, but little old Webster promptly tore the neatly written page to shreds; upon which they fought, Hiram sustaining a skinned knuckle and sprained finger, and Webster a swollen lip. Afterwards, Webster sought out Christopher Adams where he sat in one corner bowed over in utter misery, and related to him on his fingers the whole history of the battle, — how Hiram had written bad things about Christopher; how he, Webster, had torn them up; and how they had fought. With extraordinary vividness of gesture, the incidents flowed from Webster’s fingers in a series of sharp pictures. The signs were utterly unintelligible to Christopher, of course, and he had not the least idea what it was all about; but no one could have the entire attention of little old Webster’s engaging personality without responding somewhat to it, and when he finished his narrative with a fine flourishing defiance of the whole world, and then, pointing to Christopher and himself, locked his fingers together in the little sign for friend, the agonized look of Christopher’s face relaxed faintly and he presented the other with his apple which he had been too unhappy to eat. Webster accepted the apple, — though he had already devoured two, — for he was well aware that the game of friendship should not be played with all the favors coming from one side, and any way fighting always made him hungry.

After the first days of frantic bewilderment, and constant attempts to run away, Christopher settled down to a stunned acquiescence. He was docile enough, and appeared to be trying with his groping mind to discover what it was all about; but it was infinitely difficult to get into touch with the imprisoned Ariel of his soul. Having never been to school, the spoken and written word was, of course, wholly unintelligible to him; nor did the sign language which all the deaf children used in their play hours, help him much more, for their signs were not like the ones that he had himself made up for his own use at home. Mr. Lincoln never saw his lumbering figure towering up in the class of little beginners of six and seven, nor looked into his dazed, unhappy face, without a contraction of rage for the lost years.

‘If I had my way, I’d hang, draw, and quarter every parent who keeps his deaf or blind child at home from school,’ he commented grimly.

Moreover, Christopher, from lack of training, was full of uncouth habits, inarticulate sounds, strange gestures and grimaces which made him the continual butt of the other children. Against the older boys he had no hesitancy in using his fists; but it had evidently been drilled into him at home that he must never put forth his great strength against anyone smaller than himself, and once his slow mind had closed upon a command, it apparently never opened to any exceptions. The astonishing fact developed itself that this great giant would run away from the little boys; would, if tortured too far, even burst into frantic tears rather than turn and defend himself.

Little Hiram Cobb was the first to discover this. He treasured a resentment against Christopher as having been the cause of the destruction of his capital H’s, and one cold, sleeting day, just before Christmas, when the boys were all collected in the gymnasium at playtime, he caught up a bean bag and, running across to where Christopher leaned against the wall, flung it violently in his face, and scuttled away. Glancing back, however, what was his astonishment to discover that Christopher was running from him. With a squeal of joy, he caught up more bean bags and started in hot pursuit. Other little boys joined in. With inarticulate cries, they harried their victim all across the gymnasium, pelting him with the bags. The older boys stopped their games to shout with laughter at the spectacle of the biggest boy in school fleeing from assailants who barely reached to his waist. Driven mad by the laughter, Christopher made a dash for the door to escape, but the big boys joined forces and, blocking his way, thrust him back to his tormentors. The whole room rocked with laughter, and wild applause.

Christopher, who knew no defense save his fists, plunged at one big, laughing boy after another. Rut he could not fight them all, and he must not fight the little ones. Crimson, bewildered, frantic, pelted by the bean bags, he rushed first in one direction, then in another, now attacking a big boy, now fleeing from a little one. The room reeled before his distracted eyes, full of taunting gesticulating boys, all laughing at him, all against him. He had no language of either word or gesture. He did not know why he had been brought to this terrible place; he was one against sixty. All the agony, and confusion, and desperation of the past months rushed upon him. He dropped his clenched fists. A bag struck him on the head; another in his bewildered face. He turned and, with the rabble still at his heels, stumbled blindly over to one corner of the gymnasium, and there, crouching down, turned his face to the wall, and burst into helpless tears, an uncouth, weeping giant, with the little boys shouting with laughter and pelting him.

Suddenly Webster was among them. But such a Webster! Eyes flashing; cheeks on fire; fists clinched. He made short work of Hiram Cobb and his like. Then he turned upon the big boys, and poured forth a furious speech with his hands.

‘Shame! Shame!’ his hand flung the word at them, and his eyes blazed it. ‘All you boys on one! Shame! Not one of you big enough to fight him alone! Shame on you! Shame on you! ’

The sign for shame is sufficiently expressive in itself, but Webster flung into it such an impassioned scorn and contempt, such accusation, that all the culprits, turning away, began to pretend an elaborate interest in boxing gloves, dumb-bells, vaulting horses, or anything that would shield them from the blazing eyes of one accusing little boy.

Then little old Webster stooped down to Christopher. What gift of insight bestowed upon him the understanding and tenderness of a mother? With an infinite compassion — a compassion that realized in his owm little body all the other’s mortification — he found Christopher’s cap for him; smoothed his disheveled hair, dusted his coat with eager, sorry hands, and then, grunting all the while little inarticulate sounds of sympathy — which neither he nor Christopher could hear — he drew the broken, sobbing giant to his feet, and trying with his inadequately small body to shield his friend from the eyes of the other boys, he led him away from the scene of his humiliation.

The next day Christopher Adams was gone. At some time when the night-watchman was in another part of the building, he had slipped out and away into the open country. It was Christmas Day that he went, and while all the school made merry with Christmas trees and festivities, Mr. Lincoln was scouring the country and telephoning far and wide. At dusk they caught him. He was walking straight down the railroad track, his eyes wide and far away, picturing some distant desired spot. At the end of the day, when every other child was replete with nuts and candy and Christmas cheer, Christopher, tired and footsore and frustrated, limped into the deaf boys’ sitting-room, and sinking into a chair, put his head down on the table in front of him, and not even Webster with all his array of toys could rouse him from his hopeless despair. So, after a time, little old Webster desisted, and just sat quietly by his side, not trying to do anything, simply assuring him of his sympathy by his loyal presence.

Once when Christopher looked up for a moment, Webster crooked his forefingers together in the sign for friend. A faint bleak smile went over the other’s face, and his clumsy fingers copied the little sign.

II

The winter swung into the New Year. The busy schooldays went by, treading fast upon one another’s heels, and in all the pressure of work, and the care of over two hundred children, it was not possible to give Christopher the individual attention that his case required. He did, it is true, begin to learn a little, and to pick up a few signs, but his face had settled to a strained and baffled look as if his whole soul were striving to understand, and could not because the doors had been closed too long. The teachers regarded him always with a vague foreboding. It did not seem possible that all the smouldering unhappiness which his eyes showed would not flame out into tragedy somewhere, somehow. Had it been possible for him to have a special teacher, things might have been different. But this the parents could not afford, and the school funds were too limited for it to be thought of, much as Mr. Lincoln desired it.

But, as has been said, there are diversities of gifts, and even Christopher had his. He coidcl make snakes. They were whittled bits of wood, painted black, and mottled, joined by stout thread, and so cunningly balanced that when grasped by the middle they would writhe and twist and lash themselves from side to side in a truly snakelike and repulsive manner. Christopher had brought one of these snakes to school with him, — apparently his only treasure, — and there was not a deaf girl at Lomax who did not shudder at the sight of it, or a deaf boy who did not covet it. Nothing would induce Christopher to part with it, but one day he set to work in the carpenter’s shop to fashion a similar one, indicating by signs that the new snake was to be for Webster. He was a slow worker, with his untrained mind and clumsy fingers, but his whole soul went into the task, and as he worked, he chuckled and grimaced happily to himself.

It was something conceived by his brain, brought to birth by his hands, and destined for his friend, so heart and brain and hand were all at work together, and in the fashioning of that snake, he knew his first happy moments at school. In the midst of all the baffled bewilderment which he felt for his other tasks, here was something he could do; something, moreover, which no one else in the school could do. He began to improve, to lose a little of his strained look, and in the respect which his snake gained for him, the inhibiting mortification which he had suffered from being placed with the little boys lifted somewhat. Because he could do one thing well, he began to do everything a little better.

Through the long, bewildering hours of study, his mind warmed itself with pictures of the carpenter shop and the treasure it held. Lacking language, his thoughts made pictures and presented sensations with extraordinary clearness. When he thought of the consummation of his task — the presentation of the snake to Charlie Webster — he saw the whole picture of the sun-lighted work-room with its group of admiring boys; he could smell the shavings and sawdust, could feel the snake in his grasp, and could see Webster’s little eager up-turned face; while the delight of doing something for his friend ran in warm anticipation through his whole being.

At last, the snake was finished. His soul shining through his face, Christopher lifted the hideous thing from the bench and held it out to Webster, but in the moment that his tribute to their friendship was changing hands, Hiram Cobb in sheer bravado, leaped forward, snatched the snake away, wrung it to bits, and flung the fragments in the stove. With a choking sound that was half a roar and half a sob, Christopher’s great fist shot out, and Hiram went down, limp and unconscious. The other boys rushed up, dragging Christopher back, accusing him with wild gesticulations, and pointing down at Hiram.

Struggling, and panting, and horrified, all the bubble of his happiness shattered, Christopher stared for a moment at the boy at his feet. Then, wrenching himself free, he flung his arms up before his face and fled away into the snow-covered country, sobbing and panting, and running.

An excited company of boys carried Hiram to the hospital, and there, after a time, he regained consciousness, very limp and frightened, but not seriously hurt.

But Christopher was gone, and another fact was revealed. Charlie Webster was gone also. When? Where? No one knew. One of the big deaf boys remembered seeing him in the group that carried Hiram to the hospital, and remembered that as soon as Hiram opened his eyes, and showed signs of being alive, Webster had rushed from the room.

Mr. Lincoln had been absent from the school at the time and it was late when he returned. Fortunately, though the ground was covered with snow, a thaw had set in and it was not cold.

‘That little old Webster ’s gone after Christopher,’ Mr. Lincoln said. ‘And Christopher ’ll make straight down the railroad track for home, and neither of them can hear a train.’

For hours he drove along the country road, a full moon overhead, and on his right, hand the black lines of the railroad track stretching into the distance. But the boys had a long start of him, and dawn came and then full morning before at last he found them. Rounding a bend in the road, he came upon a little appalled huddle of humanity caught together in the fellowship of disaster. The gray wunter landscape surrounded them; the uncaring sky arched overhead, and beside them lay the sinister line of the railroad.

They were all there: Christopher’s father and mother; his little whitefaced brothers and sisters; a few neighbors hastily collected; the track-walker; the station agent. Charlie Webster was there too, and Christopher was there. At least, his body was. The trackwalker had found them: Christopher lying where the train had flung him, and Webster beside him, weeping and cold and terrified, but keeping faithful watch over his friend. It had happened not far from Christopher’s home. Neighbors had recognized him and sent the tragic word to his parents.

Mr. Lincoln went over and looked down at the body, and suddenly his eyes blurred. The heavy dead fingers were locked tight in the little sign for friend, and he knew that at the last Christopher had looked into the face of one person whom he loved. Perhaps, too, Webster had reached him in time to make him understand that he had not killed the boy he had struck, for the face turned up to the bleak daylight had lost its terrified bewilderment, and in his death Christopher Adams looked as though he could at last hear and understand, and was free.

From her place beside her boy Christopher’s mother rose up from her knees and confronted Mr. Lincoln. She was a gaunt mountain woman, and her face was terrible.

‘Look!’ she cried, ‘look at my son! ’ and spread her shaking hands out over the body at her feet. ‘ I sent you my boy — I trusted him to you. I sent him away well and strong, and now — Here he comes runnin’ and runnin home to his mammy through the dark and the cold.’

With a sharp sob, she broke off and, flinging herself down, began touching the great broken body here and there, tending it softly, pushing the hair from the forehead, brushing the coat, and with her coarse apron wiping the face.

‘You knowed yer mammy’d take keer of you, did n’t yer, little boy?’ she whispered. ‘You was runnin’ home through ther dark to yer mammy, was n’t you? Oh!’ she burst out, distractedly, ‘it’s er lie! It’s all er lie, I tell yer! Deef children can’t learn! It’s er lie they tell ter git ’em fooled erway from their mammies. It ’s er lie! Er lie!’

‘Ca’line, they kin learn when they’s little!’ All at once her husband who had been weeping beside his son stopped crying. ‘They kin learn when they’s little, Ca’line!’ he persisted, his voice sharp with pleading. ‘Make him talk — show her!' he commanded suddenly, whirling upon Mr. Lincoln and pointing to Webster. ‘ Make that there little feller talk.’

Mr. Lincoln hesitated. It seemed too cruel to show the mother what her misdirected love and ignorance had cost her son; but there was such a wrung intensity in the little man’s voice, and in his tear-disfigured face, and he cried so insistently, ‘Make him talk! make him talk!’ that the Superintendent could not but comply. Drawing Webster over to him, he put him through some of his familiar questions.

‘How old are you? What is your name? Have you a sister? Have you a brother?’

And putting his small cold hands into Mr. Lincoln’s, and raising his quivering face to the latter’s, Webster made a faithful attempt to control his voice. He was white and distraught, and his eyes wavered constantly in the direction of his dead friend, but obedient as always, he did his best.

‘I am ten years ou’ld. I haf no sister. I haf no bro’ther.’ His replies came as he read the questions from the Superintendent’s lips.

‘I told you they could learn if they was sent to school early! I told you they could learn, Ca’line!’ the little man’s sobbing and pleading broke out.

‘He ain’t deef! That ain’t er deef child like mine!’ she cried passionately.

‘He is stone deaf, he can’t hear a word,’ Mr. Lincoln returned.

She looked at Webster a moment longer as he went patiently on through his sentences, and at last conviction grew in her eyes.

‘Sonny! Sonny!’ she cried, putting her face down close to Christopher’s, and caressing him pitifully, ‘O little boy, I reckon yer mammy’s love ruined yer! I would n’t let you go to school — I thought nobody could do for you like yer mammy — O sonny —’

Suddenly, little old Webster broke away from Mr. Lincoln and going over, touched the mother, and, pointing to Christopher’s locked hands, copied the sign of the dead fingers.

‘Fr-r-riend,’ he said, carefully, — it was a word he had early learned to say, — ‘my fr-r-riend, ’ and burst into tears.

Answering tears flashed up in the mother’s passionate eyes. ‘Was he your friend, little honey?’ she said, brokenly, and hid her face in her apron.

‘Ca’line they kin learn when they’s little,’ her husband’s distracted pleading began again.

She silenced him with a gesture, and staggering blindly to her feet, went over to her huddled group of children, and drew from the midst of them a beautiful sturdy little boy of about six years.

‘Take him!’ she panted. ‘Take him ’fore his mammy’s love ruins him too —’

‘Another deaf child?’ Mr. Lincoln cried.

‘Yes — yes! My little baby child! My oldest an’ my youngest, both deef. I ’lowed never to let my baby go, but now —’ A rush of tears cut her short. ‘Mammy’s got to let you go — she’s got to let her baby go,’ she sobbed to the child. Taking his small hand she placed it in Webster’s. ‘You be good to him — you learn him, honey,’ she implored.

Nobody ever called on little old Webster in vain. His stricken face relaxed now into a smile, greeting this new friendship that had flowered out of the one so tragically broken. The little boy hung back a moment, his big mute eyes questioning the other. Then, suddenly, his face broke into a copy of Webster’s own smile, he made a little chuckling inarticulate sound, and snuggled his small body confidingly up against the other.

And little old Webster, all unconscious that he had been the means of rescuing this child from one of the most pathetic lives which the world has to offer, — that of an uneducated deaf mute, — took the little boy’s soft fingers and began at once to shape them into the sign that Christopher’s had died in — the little sign for friend.

  1. ‘ Why it was W-on-the-Eyes,’ in theAtlantic Monthly, April, 1913.