WITH tropical swiftness the twilight faded. A few moments before the gayly clad groups blazed by. Now orange, purple, and magenta softened into the background of green and rose-colored houses. Norah Whitney closed the neglected book in her lap. She had not yet been away from New England long enough to gaze in unembarrassed idleness at the passers-by, but before the vivid panorama of the tropics the volume in her hands was the merest of excuses.
Still the little groups sauntered by. From the darkening verandah Norah watched them frankly — the pleasant, laughing girls, high-combed and hatless; the straight white figures of linen-clad men; the punctuation of tiny feet in high-heeled slippers; the click of fans incessantly opened and closed; and through it all the running inflection of clear Latin voices rippling through soft Spanish syllables. Suddenly a little group would halt. Someone was talking whose speech was accompanied by so many gestures that to walk at the same time was impossible. The little oration would end and the group would move on. It was the nightly parade, but their voices and gestures seemed unusually excited. In place of the customary sauntering back and forth everyone was going in the same direction.
At the end of the verandah Roman Angel was whittling sticks for a new kite. Norah called to the boy. ‘Is something going on at the plaza tonight?’
Jabbing the knife and the sticks into the earth of a potted plant as he passed, the boy stood at Norah’s chair. ‘Going?’ he echoed and shook his head doubtfully. ‘Comes a man to the plaza to-night. He speakas about’ — he hesitated — ‘ governa menta. ‘ With the reënforcement of additional vowels Roman Angel attacked the word manfully. ‘Shall you go — with me?’ He paused, and added persuasively, ‘a little time?’
So for ‘a little time’ Norah Whitney stood with Roman Angel Morales amid the swaying, attentive crowd. The blazing arc-lights fell upon faces of all shades from the blond of northern Spain to the black of Africa. All eyes were lifted to the speaker. Standing on the narrow platform at the centre of the idle fountain, he rested his hand betw een gestures on the shoulder of the cement fireman from whose hose — on Sundays and feast days when the water-supply was sufficient — gushed the fountain.
Every Porto Rican is an orator. From the lips of the speaker flowed soft, caressing words. ‘ He says, ‘ interpreted Roman Angel after a few moments, ‘he says, “How beautiful are the cocos!” He says it many times.’ As though to acknowledge the tribute of the orator, a near-by clump of cocos bent their supple trunks to a passing breeze and bowed their heads with the soft ‘Swish!’ which is the accent of silence in the tropics.
The crowd was applauding. ‘He says,’ continued Roman Angel, “‘The coco is the friend to all man.”’ The speaker grew more emphatic. His gestures rose from horizontal to vertical. His words burst forth in a fountain of eloquence. ‘Friend to all man,’interpreted the boy, ‘poor man and richa man.’ The eloquence rose to a climax. The crowd cheered wildly. ‘He says: “Vote for the coco, and poor man can have cocos very cheap”' — another burst of applause — ‘ “and can sell to the States for much money. Vote for the coco!”’
Back at the house Norah questioned her uncle. ‘What is this “Vote for the coco! ” and how are they going to have them for nothing and all get rich selling them to the States?’
The orange-planter smiled. Twenty years in the tropics brings great placidity. ‘They ‘ve one trick in politics that we have n’t in the States. Congress gave them the vote without a literacy test. Most of the voters can’t read, so they have to vote by pictures. For candidates it’s not so bad, but for measures they have to use symbols.’
‘ But how are they going to vote for free coconuts?’
The old man knocked the ashes from his pipe with exasperating deliberation. ‘The coco on the ballot has nothing in the world to do with coconuts. It’s the symbol adopted by the prohibitionists. The islanders love their cocos and they ‘ll vote for that picture — and vote themselves dry in the bargain.’ He rapped his pipe meditatively against the railing as he rose to go indoors. ‘Democracy— ‘ and the door clicked sharply on the sentence he was wise enough to leave unfinished.
A moment later it opened again, but softly. With his good-night offering of a fragrant refresco, Roman Angel appeared, gently tinkling the ice against the glass, the wonder of newness still undimmed. Absent-mindedly Norah accepted the fruit punch. The boy waited silently for the glass. At last Norah laid it down. ‘I think, Roman Angel, you’d better recite your school lessons to me every night.’
The boy reached for the empty glass, but halted abruptly at her words. ‘Recite lessons to you every night?’ he repeated to make certain that he had heard aright.
‘We can start to-morrow,’ added Norah.
Slowly he picked up the glass. Only a shade of huskiness in the boy’s ‘Si, señorita’ betrayed the leaping dream which would keep him awake for hours with its unfolding vistas of the great world opening to meet him.
It was through an official whom she had met on the boat that Norah had taken Roman Angel into her uncle’s household. The story of his visit to the department of education had appalled Norah by its simplicity. In barefoot silence the boy had stood like a dusty apparition at the desk of the supervisor.
‘ Is this the department of education ? ‘ he had asked.
The supervisor had nodded. Something in his earnestness had prevented her from motioning him away to the information clerk.
‘I want one,’ he had said simply.
‘ One — what ? ‘
‘One education,’ and his tone added ‘of course,’ as though that were the only thing one could possibly ask for at the department of education.
‘You must take him,’ the supervisor had concluded her story. ‘It ‘s his one chance for an education. We ‘re swamped. The station doctor has taken the seventh child into his house besides having six children of his own. He’s been my stand-by, but I can’t ask him to take another.’
‘We must take him,’ Norah repeated to her uncle after Roman Angel had been presented for inspection. ‘He can go to the town school here and I can teach him a lot, too.’
‘Teach,’repeated the old planter, dropping his hand affectionately on her shoulder. ‘And you might learn something, too.'
In quaint English which he had picked up from an Irish priest, Roman Angel told Norah scraps of stories from which she pieced together a picture of the life that lay behind him. He came from the mountain district of Moca, where the little coffee-planters stood by uncomprehending as the sixteenth century rolled into the twentieth. Each season more mouths had to be fed and less and less of the hillside lay idle from which friendly Nature could hold out gifts of bananas and other fruits to her children. Those of the workers who were landless now went down for the harv est to the cane fields in the bottom lands. Sometimes they returned with extravagant tales of having lived in wooden houses, of having rice to eat every day, of streams of water which flowed when one turned on a faucet, and even of strange, flat contrivances whereon one slept instead of in a hammock. One man had returned with still wilder tales; of a city with great houses of stone, of people who ate from white dishes with forks and spoons of metal, of sewers, and libraries, and free concerts, of great white ships which were said to come from incredible places, of people who paid huge sums of money to have their shoes cleaned, of schools of unimaginable size where the children learned everything and spoke in English.
The hill folk listened and shook their heads. Old men told tales of the time when land and trees and food were endless, when no one ever had any money and no one wanted to read and write, before the evil day when the land grew small and things began to have prices and someone invented work and education. Sometimes a boy slipped away from the hills, but none of these adventurers returned, and the little myths of their fortunes, and even of their existence, faded away.
Only surreptitiously had the city invaded the hills, until one year from far down in the valley there began to creep toward them the great white highway whose building was the wonder tale of Roman Angel’s early childhood. From his hill perch, through the endless days of childhood, he looked down on the white ribbon crawling slowly nearer. In fascination he saw the white line move across the bright green world. His mother drew her foot across the narrow trail which led down to the stream. The ribbon was like the trail, only larger, she explained. With the valor of his six years Roman Angel tried to widen the path so that it too might turn a magic white. In one soft spot he pulled grass and uprooted bushes until the trail was fully three feet wide, but even then it failed to turn white. Disbelief entered his soul. The great white highway was something else.
In the early morning of a day of high adventure, Roman Angel started forth down the familiar path to the stream, but instead of halting at this point he made his way boldly across the water, stepping carefully from one to the next of the flat stones on which the women, a little later in the day, would squat at their eternal job of washing and beating garments. Beyond lay a wagon road leading to unknown territory and over this road he started out, terrified and exalted. The road went on endlessly. The sun stood still overhead. The few people he met on the road paid no attention to him. At last the road turned abruptly and before him lay the baking expanse of the great highway.
In the shade of a gorgeous red tree he sat down to gaze upon the untrodden road. Again curiosity surged. To the very edge of the white road he made his way and stretched out his foot. The beautiful white highway was hot and hard to his bare toes. He touched the broken limestone with his hand, gently. Down the road he peered until the ribbon curled out of sight. Up the valley it ran a little way, and there innumerable men were shoveling and raking and tamping. It was music, the sound of men, and achievement. In the shade of a near-by bush he squatted, to watch and to listen to the rhythm of movement and sound. It was a wonderful rhythm, exciting, then monotonous, and finally very, very sleepy.
The sun was straight overhead when Roman Angel awoke. A noise was screaming in his ears and a monstrous machine puffed slowly by before him. Again the giant screamed and Roman Angel leaped madly backward into the bushes. The man in the steam roller laughed and waved a friendly hand. Spellbound the boy gazed upon the monster puffing back and forth.
It was a day of unbelievable marvels, one crowding on the heels of the next. The god from the machine finally stopped for lunch. Seating himself in the shade of Roman Angel’s bushes he shared strange, delicious food with the boy and through his hour of rest talked of the glories of building roads. He told of the great highway built by the soldiers of the Queen of Spain, which cost so much gold that Isabella swore she could see it glitter all the way across the ocean. What gold and the ocean and the Queen of Spain might be Roman Angel knew not, but uncomprehending he bathed in the glory. ‘I too will build a road,’ he promised at the end of the tale. Gravely the engineer shook hands with him on the promise. For a moment the little brown fingers rested in the big sunburned hand. It was a solemn occasion. ‘I will give you one ride in the great machine and then you must go home.’ Roman Angel agreed. ‘And you must go to school. Roads are built with heads as well as with hands.’
For one glorious, thumping, puffing, screaming lap Roman Angel rode in the great machine. With a promise not to wander again — which he understood — and to go to school — which he did not understand — he started back to the hills.
From his hillside the boy watched the road stretch out until it was lost behind a hill. Later strange black objects darted back and forth over the white road, and later still came word that a school would be started in their district. It was another day of fulfillment when Roman Angel followed the older children to the tiny shack where the lone teacher struggled by day and by night to lift up his charges to meet the modern age which was seeking them. With eagerness not un mixed with doubt and suspicion, the countryside accepted education. Only Roman Angel surrendered his liberty with no hesitation. This was the school he had promised to attend, and at the end of school glittered a great white road.
Four years in the rural school opened and closed the door of education for the others. For Roman Angel the foot of the engineer kept the door from closing. On the rosy-cheeked padre who ministered to the group of mountain hamlets the boy tried out the snatches of English which the overworked teacher gave them along with all the other subjects, from arithmetic to agriculture. The padre responded. From his tales and instruction Roman Angel emerged with a working knowledge of English flavored delicately with brogue, and a disjointed familiarity with the battle won by Saint Patrick at Bunker Hill, and other inspiring events in the history of the country that was his.
This was the age of fulfillment. The road and the school were the signs and symbols of a friendly world reaching out a hand to help every boy to follow in the footsteps of Washington and Lincoln. With never a doubt Roman Angel had taken the elaborately printed certificate from the rural school as his sole baggage and had started out for the capital over the highway of his dreams. Between lifts and walking, the sixty miles had been only an adventure. That the department of education had listened to his story and had found him a bed for the night was part of the kindness of a kind world, and when he found himself in the household of old Cyrus Whitney he accepted the miracle simply, as only a believer can.
With shy pride Roman Angel recited his lessons to Norah. His classes were still conducted in Spanish and the effort of translating to Norah brought a flush to his cheek and to his eyes a light that wavered between triumph and baffled impatience.
The class in geography had reached Alaska. ‘The capital of Alaska is Sitka and Juneau is the largest city,’Roman Angel recited fluently.
‘Juneau is the largest city,’ agreed Norah, ‘but the capital has been changed from Sitka to Juneau.’
Roman Angel’s eye rested upon the closed book and then moved slowly to one who could so lightly contradict the authority of the printed page. Norah saw his doubt. She opened the geography to the page on Alaska and placed her finger on the word ‘Sitka.’ ‘ I know the book says Sitka, but the book is a little old and since the man wrote it the capital has been changed.’ The doubt in his face darkened. To the child of illiterates the printed page was created inviolate.
‘A man wrote the book,’ repeated Roman Angel, trying to take in the import of the words. It was a new idea. Books came from the department of education. That back of the department some person wrote them was a disturbing, a revolutionary thought.
Norah watched the play of uncertainties on the boy’s face. A curious sense of distance and helplessness came over her. ‘ All books have to be written by someone,’ she went on. ‘They write what is true’ — her words fell on her ears as oversimple — ‘ but afterward things may change.’ She hesitated. Roman Angel was evidently not convinced. Alaska was so vast and so cold and so far away that to visualize it at all was difficult. To visualize it in process of change was asking too much. From Alaska to his own valley Norah leaped. ‘If a man had written about your valley ten years ago he would have said, “There is no highway,” and that would have been true. But since then the highway has been built.’
Roman Angel nodded and the puzzled look left his eyes. ‘All right,’ he agreed. ‘The capital of Alaska is — he paused to recollect the name.
‘Juneau,’ relief in her voice at hitting upon an acceptable analogy. In his geography she crossed out ‘Sitka’ and wrote in ‘Juneau.’
‘Juneau,’ repeated Roman Angel. His tone was satisfied. The building of his road belonged to a world that changed and progressed.
It was an unhappy Roman Angel who brought back word of the rejection of his corrected information. ‘Miss Incarnacion said, “What is the capital of Alaska?” and Luis said, “Sitka.” And she said, “Yes.” But I said, “No, Miss Incarnacion, now it is Juneau.” She said, “Open your books!” and in all the books it was the same. It was Sitka!’
Norah suppressed a desire to smile.
‘I wanted to tell her all about it,’ went on Roman Angel, ‘ but she was too busy. She is always busy.’ He glanced up at Norah for assistance. ‘To-morrow,’ he spoke the word slowly as though doom itself were contained in the word, ‘to-morrow we will also recite the lesson of to-day. To-morrow Miss Incarnacion will say, “What is the capital of Alaska?” and I will say, “Juneau!”’ His glance was tragic. ‘And she will say: “Sitka!”’
It was a challenge and Norah accepted the challenge by writing a careful explanation to Miss Incarnacion.
With vindication in his hand Roman Angel set forth triumphantly for school. Crestfallen he returned. ‘ I told her and she read the letter. When she had read both pages she said, “Roman Angel, what is the capital of Alaska?” I was happy and I said, “Juneau!” Then she said, “Children, what is the capital of Alaska?” and all the children said “Sitka!”' While he spoke he jerked the leaves from a twig in his fingers. He threw away the bare stem. ‘But I believe,’ he added, earnestly, ‘I truly believe that Juneau is the capital of Alaska.’
At recess the following day Norah appeared at the school. Until the question of Alaska was settled there could be no peace. Faith and belief as well as the whole principle of education and authority were involved.
With the courtesy which more effectively than rudeness preserves distance between people, Miss Incarnacion welcomed Norah. ‘Will you drink a chair?’ she asked with startling clearness. Her gesture explained her meaning, and Norah remembered that in Spanish to ‘ drink ‘ and to ‘ take ‘ are one verb. Choosing her words with the exactness of one born to a foreign tongue, Miss Incarnacion inquired about Norah’s voyage, of the North, whither she hoped to go some day, of the differences between the North and the Tropics.
It was Norah who had to bring up the question of Alaska. By way of referring to a friend who had gone to the Territory, she spoke about the Governor’s ball, the great party of the season, and then led up to the session of the legislature at Juneau.
Miss Incarnacion listened courteously but defensively. ‘Alaska is very far away,’ she commented politely. ‘It is inhabited by Esquimaux, a variety of Indians, who speak a language of their own.’ This sentence Norah recognized as a direct translation from the geography.
‘They are strange people,’ agreed Norah. The unlucky geography had contained pictures of them, ugly enough to grip one’s attention. ‘But also in Alaska there are Americans and Canadians and other people.’
A flash of dissent reminded Norah that the geography as translated by Roman Angel had omitted mention of any races save the Esquimaux.
The bell had rung. The children were passing to their seats in normal noise and confusion. Miss Incarnacion stepped to the front of her desk and rapped sharply for order. The noise quieted. The children moved hastily to their seats. All eyes were fixed on the tense figure of the teacher standing before her desk in an attitude dramatically protective.
The room was silent. Miss Incarnacion turned to Norah. A queen robbed of her throne could not have shown greater dignity. ‘You desire to say that our books are not correct.’ She spoke slowly, half turned so that the class could hear her words distinctly. ‘You desire to say that Sitka is not the capital of Alaska!’
Norah sat still. Her tongue was tied, her gaze fascinated by the flash in the eyes of Miss Incarnacion. In an overdramatic situation a self-conscious American is lost. As an outsider at a spectacle Norah looked on. The sanctity of a textbook to these children of illiterates! It was not a mere error that she was trying to correct. She was sweeping away their whole security.
Miss Incarnacion turned to the class. The tense silence was broken: ‘We will vote! ‘
The responsive Latins sat upright at attention.
‘Those who believe the capital of Alaska is Sitka will stand!'
With the exception of Roman Angel the class rose at the word. For a moment of triumph and vindication the teacher stood motionless. With a gesture she seated the class. Only courteous dignity was in her voice as she held out a generous hand to Norah. ‘They have voted,’ she announced simply, ‘and the capital of Alaska is Sitka!’
As she crossed the plaza Norah tore from a tree a prohibition dodger. With a curious sense of unreality she examined it. There was the ballot, the picture of the coconut, and the box stamped to vote ‘Yes.’ With impatient neatness she folded the paper and slipped it into her purse.
Her footsteps quickened and then slowed down. She took out the ballot again and looked at it searchingly, then put it back and resumed her way: ‘And I suppose some day I shall think this was funny!’