Yellow by G. Ranger Wormser

He walked along the pavement with the long, swinging stride he had so successfully aped from the men about him. It had been one of the first things upon which he had dwelt with the greatest patience; one of the first upon which he had centered his stolid concentration. He had carried his persistency to such a degree that he had even been known to follow other men about measuring their step to a nicety with those long, narrow eyes of his, that seemed to see nothing, and yet penetrated into the very soul of everything.

His classmates at the big college had at the beginning laughed at him; scoffing readily because of the dogged manner in which he had persevered at his desire to become thoroughly American. Now after all his laborious painstaking, now that he had carefully studied all their ways of talking, all their distinctive mannerisms; now that he had gone even beyond that with true Oriental perception, reaching out with the cunning tentacles of his brain into the minds of those about him, he knew they had begun to treat him with the comradeship, the unthinking fellow-feeling which they accorded each other.

He thoroughly realized that had they paused to consider, had they in any way been made to feel that he, a Chinaman, had consciously made up his mind to become one of them, consistently mimicking them day after day, that they would have resented him. He knew that they could not have helped but think it all hypocrisy. And yet he actually felt that it was the one big thing of his life; that desire of his to cast aside the benightment of dying China, for what he considered the enlightment and virility of America.

To be sure he recognized there was still a great number of the men who distrusted him because of his yellow face. He had made up his mind with the slow deliberation that always characterized his unswerving determination to win every one of them before the end of his last year. He would show them one and all that he was as good as they were; that the traditions of the Chinaman which they so looked down upon, upon which he himself looked down upon, were not his traditions.

As he walked along he thought of these things; thought of them carefully and concisely in English. His narrow eyes became a trifle more narrow, and a smile that held something of triumph in it came and played about his flat, mobile mouth.

It had been raining hard. The wet streets stretched in dark, reflecting coils under the corner lamps. Overhead a black sky lowered threateningly; pressing down upon the crouching, gray masses of the close-built houses in sullen menace. Now and again a swift moving train flung itself in thundering derision across the elevated tracks; a long brightly lit line streaking through the encircling gloom.

He could feel the mysterious throb of life all about him. The unfathomed lure of the night, of the few people that at so late an hour crept past him, looming for a second in sudden distinctness at his side, then fading phantom-like into the deep engulfing shadows of the dim street.

He was at a complete loss how to express to himself the feeling of dread; a subtle feeling that somehow refused to be translated into the carefully acquired English of which he was so proud.

For a moment he doubted himself. Doubted that, were he so thoroughly American, he could feel the Oriental's subconscious recognition of the purposeful, sinister intent in the huddled mass of darkened shop windows with their rain-dripping signs; in the shining reptile scales of the asphalt underfoot; in the pulsing intensity of the hot, torpid July atmosphere.

A street lamp flickered its uncertain light sluggishly over the carefully groomed figure and across the placid breath of the yellow face.

He paused a second as he saw a form come lurching unsteadily out of the gloom ahead of him. It came nearer and he could see that what had at first appeared to be a dark, undefinable mass, pushed here and there by unseen hands, was in reality a man swaying drunkenly out of the shadows.

He watched the man curiously, with a little of that contemptuous feeling an Oriental always holds for any expression of excess. As the man stood before him in the darkness, as he stumbled and seemed about to fall, he put out his hand and caught him by the elbow.

"Thank 'e;" the drunken eyes blinked blearily up into his stolid impassive face. "It's fine to be saved on a stormy night like this. It is—"

"Don't mention it."

"It's a powerful dark night;—it is."

"Les. That is so."

"And it's a damn long way home. Ain't it?"

"I do not know."

"By the saints! And no more do I. Ain't you got a dime on you, mister? You could be giving it to me for car fare—; couldn't you now, mister?"

"Velee glad to let you have it."

He fished in his pocket. He drew out the coin and placed it in the man's outstretched hand. He watched the dirty fingers close eagerly over it. Suddenly the bloodshot eyes wavered suspiciously across his face. He saw the red flushed features twitch convulsively.

"Holy Mother!" The drunkard muttered thickly. "It's a heathen."

The dime slipped from between the inert fingers. It tinkled down onto the pavement, rolling with a little splash into a pool of water that lay a deep stain in the crevice of the broken asphalt.

For a moment he wondered placidly at the injustice of it; wondered that he should be made to feel the disgust of so revolting a thing as this drunkard.

He saw that the man had crossed himself with sudden fervor; he saw him shuffle uncertainly this way and that, as though the feet refused to carry the huge, bloated body. He stood watching the reeling figure until its dark outline was absorbed into the intenser darkness of a side street. The expression on his face never changing, he walked on.

He knew he had no right to be out at that time of the night; he knew he ought to be sitting at his desk in his comfortable little room, working out the studies which he had set himself. And yet he could not make up his mind to turn back.

Something drew him on into the blackness of the night; pulling him into it like a fated thing.

Now and then he found that the stride he had acquired from such grinding observation tired him. Not for worlds would he have shortened his step to that padding, sinuous motion so distinctly Chinese.

He had grown to hate all things Chinese. In the short time in which he had been in New York he had discarded with the utmost patience the traits which are so persistently associated with the Chinaman. To be thought American; to have the freedom, the quick appreciation of life that belongs to the Occident, that had been the goal toward which he had striven; the goal he prided himself he had almost reached.

Suddenly he became aware of a hand on his arm.

In the dark he felt the pressure of bony fingers against his flesh.

Looking down he saw that a woman had crept up from behind him; that she had put out her hand in an effort to detain him.

It was in the center of a block. The thick blackness that hung loosely, an opaque veil all about him, was almost impenetrable. Yet as he looked at her with his small, piercing eyes, he thought he saw her lips moving in crimsoned stains splashed against the whiteness of her face.

"What is it?" He asked.

He saw her raise her eyelids at his question. He found himself gazing into her eyes; eyes that were twin balls of fire left to burn in a place that had been devastated by flames.

"It's hot;—ain't it?"

He stood silent for a moment trying to realize that the woman had every right to be there; trying to understand with an even greater endeavor that she was in reality a flesh and blood woman, and not some mysteriously incarnate soul crawling to his side out of the sinister night.

"Les,—it's velee hot."

Something in his tone caused her to start; caused her to look around her as though she were afraid.

"I wouldn't have spoke," she stammered. "I wouldn't have spoke only it's such a fierce night." Then as he did not answer her immediately, her voice rose querulously. "It's a fierce night; ain't it, now?"

That was the word for which he had so vainly searched throughout the vocabulary of his carefully acquired English. The word the woman had given him, that expressed the sullen menace of the night about him.

"It is—fie—" He made an effort to accomplish the refractory "r." "It is fierce."

The hand she had withdrawn from his arm was reached out again. He could feel her fingers scrape like the talons of a frightened bird around his wrist.

"You get it too, mister?"

"Get what?"

"The kind of feeling that makes you think something is going to happen?" She drew the back of her free hand across her mouth. "Ain't it making you afraid?"

Somehow the woman's words aroused within him a dread that was a prophecy. He made one attempt at holding to his acquired Americanism. The Americanism which was slowly receding before the stifled waves of Oriental foreboding, like a weak, protesting thing that fears a hidden strength. For he knew the foreboding was fate; and he knew too that when fulfilled, it would be met with all the stoicism of a Chinaman.

"You feel aflaid?"

The fingers about his wrist clattered bonily together; then clinched themselves anew.

"Yes," she whispered. "I guess that's it. I guess I'm afraid."

For a moment he thought of the lateness of the hour.

"I'm velee solee," he said. "I'm solee, but I must be going."

"You can't leave me;" she stuttered behind her shut teeth. "You ain't got the heart to leave me all alone on a night like this."

"You can go to your home;" and he thought of the drunkard who had gone to his home. Surely the night sheltered strange creatures. "Les, you better go on to your home."

She laughed.

He had never thought of one of his little Chinese gods with their crooked faces laughing; but as he heard her he knew that their mirth would sound like that. Sound as though all the gladness had been killed; choked out of it, leaving only the harsh echoes that mocked and mocked.

"Gee, mister—; I ain't got no place to go."

"I'm velee solee."

He said it again, not knowing what else to say.

Something in his evident sincerity aroused her to protest.

"Oh, I know you thinks it queer for me to be talking this way," she said. "I know you thinks it funny for me to say I'm afraid. And I ain't, excepting—" she added hastily, "on a night like this. It kinder makes everything alive; everything that's rotten bad. I ain't ashamed of the things I've done. I ain't scared of the dead things. It's the live ones I'm afraid of—; the dirty live things. They kinder come at you in the dark." For an instant her body trembled against his. "Then they goes past you all creepy-like. Creeping on their bellies—; sliding,—like—like—slime."

"You don't know what you are saying," he interrupted.

"I know," she insisted. "I know! Some night like this I'll be doing something awful;—and they'll be there." She pointed a shaking hand towards the shadows. "They'll be there, wriggling to me—quiet—!"

"Imagination," he said, and he smiled. In the dark she could not have seen the smile, nor could she have known that the lightness of his tone covered a deep, malignant dread. "It is all imagination!"

"It ain't!" She spoke sullenly. "I tell you, it's real. It's horrible real!"

Her voice was frantic.

"Maybe it is," he conceded, and then, as she made no answer, he asked: "You like to walk with me a little?"

"Yes." Her head drooped as though she were utterly discouraged. "It wouldn't be so bad as sticking it out here—alone."

He could not help but notice that she hesitated a bit before the word alone. Undoubtedly she could not get the thought of those things—those live things she so feared, out of her head. The things that waited for her in the shadows.

They walked along the wet pavements together.

An engine shrieked weirdly above them, like something neither bird nor beast; like something inhuman.

Under a street lamp she glanced up at him curiously.

He heard her gasp. He looked down at her. He saw her eyes widen in terror; he saw her pale, bare hands creep uncertain, stumbling to her neck, as if she were choking. He heard her voice rattling in her throat.

"What is it?" He asked. "You are ill?"

He put his hand on her shoulder. He could feel her shudder, as she writhed and twisted under his touch.

"Let go of me." Her voice was hoarse. "Let go of me, I say!"

For some unaccountable reason his fingers closed all the more tightly on her shrinking flesh.

"Let me go;—you—damned—Chink!"

She muttered the words under her breath.

He heard her.

He thought of the drunkard and he thought of her.

Suddenly he felt quite furious; stilly, sinisterly furious.

"I'm 'Melican."

He said it stolidly. His narrow, black eyes were unwavering on her.

She began to cry.

"Let me go," she whimpered. "I ain't done nothing to you. I couldn't have got on to your being—a—Chink."

"What diffelence does that make?" He asked. And then he reiterated with careful precision: "I tell you I'm a 'Melican."

Her words came to him in a gurgle of terror.

"I hate you. I hate all of your yellow faces—and them eyes! I hate them horrid, nasty—eyes!"

He bent his head until his face almost touched hers. His strong, angry fingers held her firmly by either arm.

"It is not pletty, this face?"

She struggled, inane with fear. She fought, trying to free herself, to tear away from the vise-like grip of those awful hands; swaying like a tortured, trapped creature against his strength. She could feel the intensity, the calm scrutiny of his long, narrow eyes upon her.

Suddenly something in his brain snapped.

He pushed her roughly from him.

He saw her fall to the pavement; he saw her head strike the curb.

He stood there watching her as she lay, outlined by the light colored material of her dress against the wet blackness of the asphalt.

"What diffelence does it make if I am a Chinaman?"

He asked it as he bent over her. But she did not answer. The question went out into the heavy stillness, hanging there to be echoed deafeningly by a thousand silent tongues.

Something in the sudden quiet of the way she lay filled him with a tranquil joy. He knelt beside her, He reached his hand over her heart.

He got up slowly, deliberately.

He moved silently away, going with that padded, sinuous motion, so distinctly Chinese.

With cunning stealth he went back the way he had come, treading lightly; cautiously seeking the darkest shadows.

He had gone some little distance when he heard the regular beat of hurrying footsteps following him.

He stood stolidly, still, awaiting whatever might happen.

Overhead he saw a cluster of heavy, black clouds sweeping across the sky, like eager, reaching hands against a somber background.

It had begun to rain again. He could feel the raindrops trickling gently down his upturned face.

He wondered, as the footsteps halted beside him, if he should have run. His mind, working rapidly, decided that any other man would have gotten away; any other man but not a Chinaman.

A heavy hand fell across his shoulder.

"I've got you, my boy!" A voice shouted in his ear. "I seen you kneeling there beside her. You'll be coming along with me!"

He turned to face the voice.

The wind that heralded the coming storm rustled through the street, carrying with it a litter of filthy castaway newspapers. Flurries of stinging sand-sharp dust swirled above the pavement. A low rumble of thunder bellowed overhead. Then the rain came down in sudden lashing fury.

He had to raise his voice to make himself heard.

"I'm velee glad," he said.

The bull's eye was flashed into his placid, narrow eyes.

He could see the policeman's face behind the light; see the surprise quivering on the red features.

In the darkness above the racket of the storm, he heard the man's gasping mutter:

"Yellow—by God!—Yellow!"