After having been childless for some time, the Farquars finally have a son, Teddy. When he is born, all of their servants rejoice. They praise Mrs. Farquar and marvel over Teddy’s blond hair and blue eyes. When Teddy is old enough to have his first haircut, the Farquars’ cook, Gideon, is fascinated by Teddy’s golden locks. He calls Teddy ‘‘Little Yellow Head.’’ All the natives and servants call him that from then on. Gideon cares a great deal for Teddy. The two have a special bond, and when Gideon finishes his work, he plays with Teddy and makes toys for him. Mrs. Farquar likes Gideon because he clearly loves her son.
The Farquars do not have any other children, and Gideon tells Mrs. Farquar, ‘‘Little Yellow Head is the most good thing we have in our house.’’ Mrs. Farquar is touched that Gideon has used the word ‘‘we,’’ indicating that he thinks of himself as part of the family. She raises his pay at the end of the month. Gideon has worked for the Farquars for many years, and his own wife and children also live on the ‘‘compound.’’ Unlike many other servants, Gideon does not require time off so he can travel to his distant home village in order to visit his family. This further binds and endears Gideon to his employers.
A native baby, born around the same time as Teddy, is in awe of the blond child. As Gideon watches the two boys, he states that one will be the master and one will be the servant. Mrs. Farquar observes that the same thought had crossed her mind. Gideon says that this ‘‘is God’s will.’’ Both he and Mrs. Farquar are religious, and this commonality bonds them yet more.
When Teddy is six, he is given a scooter, which he rides all over the compound. Gideon laughs at Teddy’s youthful antics. His young son is in awe of the scooter, but Teddy teases the boy and scares him off by racing the scooter in evershrinking circles around Gideon admonishes Teddy for doing so, but Teddy haughtily remarks, ‘‘He’s only a black boy.’’ Gideon does not reply, but he turns his back on Teddy. The young master is upset that he has hurt Gideon. Teddy picks an orange and brings it to Gideon, but Teddy still cannot bring himself to say that he is sorry. Gideon accepts the orange ‘‘unwillingly.’’ He says that Teddy will be sent away to school soon and when he returns he will be an adult, ‘‘and that is how our lives go.’’
Gideon soon begins to distance himself from Teddy, not because he is angry but because he is preparing himself for ‘‘something inevitable.’’ Gideon no longer plays with Teddy or gives him any physical affection. Teddy, in turn, begins to treat Gideon differently, speaking to him ‘‘in the way a white man uses towards a servant, expecting to be obeyed.’’
This formality evaporates, however, when Teddy falls victim to a tree snake. While out on his scooter, Teddy stops to rest by some plants. The snake has been sitting on a roof nearby, and it spits its venom directly into Teddy’s eyes. Teddy rushes home in agony. He is in danger of permanently losing his sight; the Farquars know of many who have done so. Gideon calms Mrs. Farquar and promises to heal Teddy. He sets out into the bush in search of a cure.
Meanwhile, Teddy’s eyes are swollen, and he is crying in both pain and fear. Mrs. Farquar is equally afraid. She washes Teddy’s eyes out, but nothing seems to have an effect. She feels anxious and helpless. As far as she knows, there is no cure, so she can hardly understand how Gideon intends to help. Gideon returns quickly with a plant, from which he removes the leaves to reveal a white root. Gideon chews the root and holds Teddy down. He squeezes Teddy’s eyes, and the boy cries out in pain. Gideon then pries open Teddy’s swollen eyelids and spits the chewed-up root directly into his eyes. Gideon then declares that Teddy will retain his sight. Mrs. Farquar is shocked by the violent nature of Gideon’s so-called cure, and she does not have any faith that it will work.
The remedy does indeed work, though, and bothMr.andMrs.FarquarthankGideonprofusely, feeling ‘‘helpless in their gratitude.’’ They lavish Gideon and his family with gifts and give their cook a large raise. Mrs. Farquar says that Gideon is an ‘‘instrument’’ of God’s ‘‘goodness.’’ Gideon replies that God is indeed good.
News of the miraculous recovery travels throughout the compound and into the neighboring farms. Similar stories of extraordinary cures also abound. The white men and women in the area realize that the bush harbors many medicinal plants, but despite their best efforts, they are never able to get the natives to divulge their secrets. The tale of Teddy’s cure is eventually heard by a doctor in the nearest town, who calls the story absurd. He has heard such rumors before, all of which have turned out to be false upon further investigation. Despite their skepticism, people from the laboratory in town travel to the Farquars’ home to test the local plants.
The Farquars are ‘‘flustered and pleased and flattered’’ by the attention. They have lunch with the laboratory technicians and tell them their story. The head scientist and the technicians hope to discover a new drug that will help all humanity. The thought of contributing to such a noble endeavor pleases the Farquars. The head scientist also notes that the medicine could be highly profitable, but the Farquars are uncomfortable with this line of thought. They feel that Teddy’s cure was a ‘‘miracle,’’ and the thought of making money because of it is unappealing to them.
Nevertheless, the Farquars focus on the good that the proposed medicine might do. They call Gideon in and ask him to tell the scientists about the plant he used to cure Teddy. Gideon is flabbergasted and deeply hurt. He clearly feels betrayed. The Farquars explain that the medicine will help others, but Gideon only looks at the ground sullenly. The scientist then tells Gideon how the drug will be manufactured in an attempt to impress Gideon with modern technology. He then switches to bribery, telling Gideon that he would like to give him a gift.
Gideon still does not respond. When he does, he says flatly that he cannot remember which plant he used. He is clearly upset and lying. He looks coldly at his employers. Though the Farquars at first felt guilty about pressing Gideon for information, they become annoyed by Gideon’s anger and his stubborn refusal to comply. Still, they sense that he will not relent and that his knowledge will remain a mystery to them. It will continue to be the inheritance of the descendants ‘‘of the old witch doctors whose ugly masks . . . and all the uncouth properties of magic were the outward signs of real power and wisdom.’’ Still, despite their inward sense of defeat, they persist.
Gideon again says he cannot remember the plant he used, and then he says that no such plant exists, that his own spit cured Teddy. He gives all manner of excuses, many of which are directly conflicting. The Farquars begin to find him an ‘‘ignorant, perversely obstinate African’’ instead of ‘‘their gentle, lovable old servant.’’ Finally, to everyone’s surprise, Gideon agrees to show them the root, but he looks at his employers and the scientist with anger as he does so. Gideon, the scientist, the Farquars, and even Teddy head out into the bush. It is December, a summer month in Africa, and extremely hot outside.
The group walks for a suspiciously long time. When Gideon had rushed out to get the plant to heal Teddy, he was gone for only a little while. Every now and then, someone asks whether or not they are getting any closer to the plant. Gideon only replies that he is still looking. The Farquars grow increasingly angry, and the scientist, who thinks that that the story of the miracle cure is likely to be a scam, feels vindicated. As they walk, Gideon occasionally stops to run his hands through the plants as if he is searching for the right one, but it is clear he is merely putting on a show. After two hours have gone by, Gideon picks a plant with blue flowers on it and gives it to the scientist before storming away. The group has passed this exact plant many times over on the walk, so it seems that Gideon has led them on a wild goose chase.
Back at the house, the scientist politely thanks Gideon, but it is clear he thinks the whole episode is a ruse. Gideon remains in a bad mood for several days, speaking and acting rudely toward the Farquars, but over time, his naturally sunny disposition returns. The Farquars continue to ask the other servants for information on the actual cure, but no one will tell them anything. One servant tells them that Gideon is the son of a great medicine man and that he can cure anything. However, he quickly backpedals and says that Gideon is ‘‘not as good as the white man’s doctor.. .but he’s good for us.’’
As Gideon and the Farquars become friendly again, over time they come to laugh at the incident. The Farquars jokingly ask whether Gideon will ever show them the ‘‘snake-root.’’ Gideon laughs and replies, ‘‘But I did show you missus, have you forgotten?’’ When Teddy is older and attending school, he also jokes with Gideon about the time they went searching for the ‘‘snake-root.’’ He calls Gideon a ‘‘rascal’’ and says they walked so far that his father had to carry him. Gideon chuckles politely and calls Teddy ‘‘Little Yellow Head.’’ He remarks that the boy has gotten older and that soon he will run his own farm.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Doris Lessing, Published by Gale Group, 2010