Nobody's Boy/Chapter VIII
|←Chapter VII||Nobody's Boy by , translated by Florence Crewe-Jones
Chapter VIII - One Who Had Known A King
Our mode of traveling was very simple: We went straight ahead, anywhere, and when we found a village, which from the distance looked sufficiently important, we began preparations for a triumphal entry. I dressed the dogs, and combed Dulcie's hair; stuck a plaster over Capi's eye when he was playing the part of an old grouchy man, and forced Pretty-Heart into his General's uniform. That was the most difficult thing I had to do, for the monkey, who knew well enough that this was a prelude to work for him, invented the oddest tricks to prevent me from dressing him. Then I was forced to call Capi to come to my aid, and between the two of us we finally managed to subdue him.
The company all dressed, Vitalis took his fife and we went in marching order into the village. If the number of people who trooped behind us was sufficient, we gave a performance, but if we had only a few stragglers, we did not think it worth our while to stop, so continued on our way. When we stayed several days in a town, Vitalis would let me go about alone if Capi was with me. He trusted me with Capi.
"You are traveling through France at the age when most boys are at school," he once said to me; "open your eyes, look and learn. When you see something that you do not understand, do not be afraid to ask me questions. I have not always been what you see me now. I have learnt many other things."
"We will speak of that later. For the present listen to my advice, and when you grow up I hope you will think with a little gratitude of the poor musician of whom you were so afraid when he took you from your adopted mother. The change may not be bad for you after all."
I wondered what my master had been in the days gone by.
We tramped on until we came to the plains of Quercy, which were very flat and desolate. There was not a brook, pond, or river to be seen. In the middle of the plain we came to a small village called Bastide-Murat. We spent the night in a barn belonging to the inn.
"It was here in this village," said Vitalis, "and probably in this inn, that a man was born who led thousands of soldiers to battle and who, having commenced his life as a stable boy, afterwards became a king. His name was Murat. They called him a hero, and they named this village after him. I knew him and often talked with him."
"When he was a stable boy?"
"No," replied Vitalis, laughing, "when he was a king. This is the first time I have been in this part of the country. I knew him in Naples, where he was king."
"You have known a king!"
The tone in which I said this must have been rather comical, for my master laughed heartily.
We were seated on a bench before the stable door, our backs against the wall, which, was still hot from the sun's rays. The locusts were chanting their monotonous song in a great sycamore which covered us with its branches. Over the tops of the houses the full moon, which had just appeared, rose gently in the heavens. The night seemed all the more beautiful because the day had been scorchingly hot.
"Do you want to go to bed?" asked Vitalis, "or would you like me to tell you the story of King Murat?"
"Oh, tell me the story!"
Then he told me the story of Joachim Murat; for hours we sat on the bench. As he talked, the pale light from the moon fell across him, and I listened in rapt attention, my eyes fixed on his face. I had not heard this story before. Who would have told me? Not Mother Barberin, surely! She did not know anything about it. She was born at Chavanon, and would probably die there. Her mind had never traveled farther than her eyes.
My master had seen a king, and this king had spoken to him! What was my master in his youth, and how had he become what I saw him now in his old age?...
We had been tramping since morning. Vitalis had said that we should reach a village by night where we could sleep, but night had come, and I saw no signs of this village, no smoke in the distance to indicate that we were near a house. I could see nothing but a stretch of plains ahead of us. I was tired, and longed to go to sleep. Vitalis was tired also. He wanted to stop and rest by the roadside, but instead of sitting down beside him, I told him that I would climb a hill that was on the left of us and see if I could make out a village. I called Capi, but Capi also was tired, and turned a deaf ear to my call; this he usually did when he did not wish to obey me.
"Are you afraid?" asked Vitalis.
His question made me start off at once, alone.
Night had fallen. There was no moon, but the twinkling stars in the sky threw their light on a misty atmosphere. The various things around me seemed to take on a strange, weird form in the dim light. Wild furze grew in bushes beside some huge stones which, towering above me, seemed as though they turned to look at me. The higher I climbed, the thicker became the trees and shrubs, their tops passing over my head and interlacing. Sometimes I had to crawl through them to get by. Yet I was determined to get to the top of the hill. But, when at last I did, and gazed around, I could see no light anywhere; nothing but strange shadows and forms, and great trees which seemed to hold out their branches to me, like arms ready to enfold me.
I listened to see if I could catch the bark of a dog, or the bellow of a cow, but all was silent. With my ear on the alert, scarcely breathing so as to hear better, I stood quiet for a moment. Then I began to tremble, the silence of this lonely, uncultivated country frightened me. Of what was I frightened? The silence probably ... the night ... anyhow, a nameless fear was creeping over me. My heart beat quickly, as though some danger was near. I glanced fearfully around me, and then in the distance I saw a great form moving amongst the trees. At the same time I could hear the rustling of branches. I tried to tell myself that it was fear that made me fancy I saw something unusual. Perhaps it was a shrub, a branch. But then, the branches were moving and there was not a breath of wind or a breeze that could shake them. They could not move unless swayed by the breeze or touched by some one.
No, this great, dark form that was coming towards me could not be a man—some kind of animal that I did not know, or an immense night bird, a gigantic spider, hovering over the tops of the trees. What was certain, this creature had legs of unusual length, which brought it along with amazing bounds. Seeing this, I quickly found my own legs, and rushed down the hill towards Vitalis. But, strange to say, I made less haste going down than I had in climbing up. I threw myself into the thick of the thistles and brambles, scratching myself at every step. Scrambling out of a prickly bush I took a glance back. The animal was coming nearer! It was almost upon me!
Fortunately, I had reached the bottom of the hill and I could run quicker across the grass. Although I raced at the top of my speed, the Thing was gaining upon me. There was no need for me to look behind, I knew that it was just at the back of me. I could scarcely breathe. My race had almost exhausted me; my breath came in gasps. I made one final effort and fell sprawling at Vitalis' feet. I could only repeat two words:
"The beast! the beast!"
Above the loud barking of the dogs, I heard a hearty peal of laughter. At the same time my master put his hands on my shoulders and forced me to look round.
"You goose," he cried, still laughing, "look up and see it."
His laugh, more than his words, brought me to my senses. I opened one eye, then the other, and looked where he was pointing. The apparition, which had so frightened me, had stopped and was standing still in the road. At the sight of it again, I must confess, I began to shake, but I was with Vitalis and the dogs were beside me. I was not alone up there in the trees.... I looked up boldly and fixed my eyes on the Thing.
Was it an animal or a man? It had the body, the head, and arms like a man, but the shaggy skin which covered it, and the two long thin legs upon which it seemed to poise, looked as though they belonged to an animal.
Although the night was dark, I could see this, for the silhouette of this dark form stood out against the starry sky. I should have remained a long time undecided as to what it was, if my master had not spoken to it.
"Can you tell me if we are far from the village?" he asked, politely.
He was a man, then, if one could speak to him! What was my astonishment when the animal said that there were no houses near, but an inn to which he would take us. If he could talk, why did he have paws?
If I had had the courage, I would have gone up to him to see how his paws were made, but I was still somewhat afraid, so I picked up my bag and followed my master, without saying a word.
"You see now what scared you so," Vitalis said, laughing, as we went on our way.
"But I don't know what it is, yet. Are there giants in this part of the country, then?"
"Yes, when men are standing on stilts."
Then he explained to me that the Landais, so as to get over the marshy plains, and not sink in up to their hips, stride about the country on stilts.
What a goose I had been!