Nobody's Boy/Chapter XVII

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Nobody's Boy by Hector Malot, translated by Florence Crewe-Jones
Chapter XVII - Poor Vitalis

While we were in the street Vitalis said not a word, but soon we came to a narrow alley and he sat down on a mile-stone and passed his hand several times across his forehead.

"It may be fine to listen to the voice of generosity," he said, as though speaking to himself, "but now we're in the gutters of Paris, without a sou; not a bite to eat.... Are you hungry?" he asked, looking up at me.

"I haven't eaten anything since that little roll you gave me this morning."

"Poor, poor child, and you'll have to go to bed to-night without supper. And where are we going to sleep?"

"Did you count on sleeping at Garofoli's, then?"

"I counted upon you sleeping there, and as he would have given me twenty francs for you for the winter, I could have managed for the time being. But, seeing the way he treated those children, I could not give you to him."

"Oh, you are so good!"

"Perhaps in this old, hardened vagabond there is still a bit of the young man's heart left. This old vagabond calculated shrewdly, but the young man still in him upset all.... Now, where to go?" he murmured.

It was already late and the cold had increased. It was going to be a hard night. For a long time Vitalis sat on the stone. Capi and I stood silently before, waiting until he had come to some decision. Finally he rose.

"Where are we going?"

"To Gentilly, to try and find a race-course where I've slept sometimes. Are you tired?"

"I rested at Garofoli's."

"The pity is that I haven't rested, and I can't do much more. But we must get along. Forward! March! Children!"

This was his good humor signal for the dogs and myself when we were about to start, but this night he said it sadly.

Here we were, wandering in the streets of Paris; the night was dark and the gas jets, which flickered in the wind, lit the alleys but dimly. At each step we slipped on the ice-covered pavement. Vitalis held me by the hand, and Capi followed at our heels. From time to time, the poor dog stopped behind to look amongst a heap of garbage to see if he could find a bone or a crust, for he was oh, so hungry, but the garbage was covered with frozen snow and he searched in vain. With drooping ears he trotted on to catch up with us.

After the big streets, more alleys; after the alleys, more big streets; we walked on, and on; the few pedestrians that we met stared at us in astonishment. Was it our costumes? Was it the tired way we plodded along which arrested their attention? The policemen that we passed turned round and followed us with a glance.

Without saying a word, Vitalis tramped on, his back almost bent double, but despite the cold, his hand burned in mine. It seemed to me that he was trembling. Sometimes, when he stopped to lean for a minute against my shoulder, I felt all his body shaken with trembling. Ordinarily, I would not dare to have questioned him, but I felt I must to-night. Besides, I had a great wish to tell him how much I loved him or, at least, that I wanted to do something for him.

"You are ill?" I said, when he stopped again.

"I'm afraid so; anyway, I'm very tired. This cold is too severe for my old blood. I need a good bed and a supper before a fire. But that's a dream. Forward! March! Children."

Forward! March! We had left the city behind us; we were now in the suburbs. We saw no people or policemen or street lights, only a lighted window here and there, and over our heads the dark-blue sky dotted with a few stars. The wind, which blew more bitter and more violently, stuck our clothing to our bodies. Fortunately, it was at our backs, but as the sleeves of my coat were all torn near the shoulders, it blew in and slipped along my arms, chilling me to the bone.

Although it was dark and the streets continually crossed each other, Vitalis walked like a man who knows his way, and was perfectly sure of his road. So I followed, feeling sure that we should not lose ourselves. Suddenly, he stopped.

"Do you see a group of trees?" he asked.

"I don't see anything."

"You don't see a big black mass?"

I looked on all sides before answering. I saw no trees or houses. Space all around us. There was no other sound save the whistle of the wind.

"See, down there!" He stretched out his right hand before him, then, as I did not reply, for I was afraid to say that I saw nothing, he trudged on again.

Some minutes passed in silence; then he stopped once more and asked me if I did not see a group of trees. A vague fear made my voice tremble when I replied that I saw nothing.

"It is fear, my boy, that makes your eyes dance; look again."

"I tell you, I do not see any trees."

"Not on the big road?"

"I can't see anything."

"We've made a mistake."

I could say nothing, for I did not know where we were, nor where we were going.

"Let us walk for another five minutes and, if we do not see the trees, we will come back here. I might have made a mistake on the road."

Now that I knew that we had gone astray, I seemed to have no more strength left. Vitalis pulled me by the arm.

"Come, come."

"I can't walk any farther."

"Ah, and do you think I'm going to carry you?"

I followed him.

"Are there any deep ruts in the road?"

"No."

"Then we must turn back."

We turned. Now we faced the wind. It stung our faces like a lash. It seemed that my face was being scorched with a flame.

"We have to take a road leading from the cross-roads," said my master feebly; "tell me when you see it."

For a quarter of an hour we went on, struggling against the wind; in the doleful silence of the night the noise of our footsteps echoed on the dry, hard earth. Although scarcely able to put one foot before the other, it was I who dragged Vitalis. How anxiously I looked to the left! In the dark shadows I suddenly saw a little red light.

"See, there's a light," I said, pointing.

"Where?"

Vitalis looked; although the light was but a short distance off, he saw nothing. I knew then that his sight was going.

"What is that light to us?" he asked; "it is a lamp burning on the table of some worker, or it's near the bed of a dying person. We cannot go and knock at those doors. Away in the country, during the night, you can ask hospitality, but so near Paris ... we must not expect hospitality here. Come."

A few steps more and I thought I could make out the cross-roads and a black mass which must be the trees. I let go of my master's hand to go ahead quicker. There were deep ruts in the road.

"See, here are the ruts?" I cried.

"Give me your hand, we are saved," said Vitalis; "look, now you can see the group of trees."

I told him that I thought I could see the trees.

"In five minutes we shall be there," he murmured.

We trudged along, but the five minutes seemed an eternity.

"Where are the ruts?"

"They are still on the right."

"We must have passed the entrance to the race-course without seeing it. I think we'd better go back."

Once more we turned back.

"Do you see the trees?"

"Yes, there on the left."

"And the ruts?"

"There are not any."

"Am I blind?" asked Vitalis in a low voice, as he passed his hands across his eyes; "walk straight along by the trees, and give me your hand."

"Here is a wall."

"No, it's a heap of stones."

"No, I am sure it's a wall."

Vitalis took a step aside to see if it really was as I said. He stretched out his two hands and touched the wall.

"Yes, it's a wall," he murmured. "Where is the entrance. Look for the track."

I stooped down to the ground and felt all along to the end of the wall, but I found no entrance; then, turning back to where Vitalis stood, I continued to feel along the wall on the other side. The result was the same; there was no opening, no gate.

"There is nothing," I said.

The situation was terrible. Without doubt my master was delirious. Perhaps there was no race-course here at all! Vitalis stood for a moment as though in a dream. Capi began to bark impatiently.

"Shall we look further?" I asked.

"No, the race-course is walled up."

"Walled up?"

"Yes, they have closed the opening, and it is impossible for us to get inside."

"Well, then?"

"What to do, eh? I don't know. Die here."

"Oh, Master! Master!"

"Yes, you don't want to die, you are so young. Life seems good to you. Let us walk on. Can you still walk a bit further, my child."

"Oh, but you?"

"When I can go no farther, I shall fall down like an old horse."

"Where shall we go?"

"Return to Paris. When we meet a policeman we will let him take us to the police station. I did not want that, but I cannot let you die of cold, boy. Come, little Remi, come. On, my children. Courage!"

We turned back the same way that we had come. What time was it? I had no idea. We had walked for hours, a long, long time, and so slowly. Perhaps it was midnight or one o'clock. The sky was still a somber blue, without moon, and with but few stars, and the few that had appeared seemed to me to be smaller than usual. The wind had increased; the snow beat in our faces; the houses that we passed were closed for the night. It seemed to me that if the people who slept there, warmly beneath the sheets, knew how cold we were outside, they would have opened their doors to us.

Vitalis walked slower and slower; when I spoke to him he made a sign to me to be silent. We were now nearing the city. Vitalis stopped. I knew that he had come to the end of his strength.

"Shall I knock at one of the doors?" I asked.

"No, they will not let us in. They are gardeners who live here. They supply the market. They would not get up at this hour to take us in. Let us go on."

But he had more will than strength. After a moment he stopped again.

"I must rest a little," he said, feebly; "I can't go on."

There was a gate leading to a big garden. The wind had blown a lot of straw, that covered a manure heap near the gate, into the street.

"I am going to sit here," said Vitalis.

"You said that if we sat down we should get too cold to get up again."

He made no reply, but signed for me to heap up the straw against the door; then he fell, rather than sat down upon it. His teeth chattered and all his body shook.

"Bring some more straw," he said; "with a lot of straw we can keep the wind from us."

The wind, yes, but not the cold. When I had gathered up all the straw that I could, I sat down beside Vitalis.

"Come quite close to me," he said, "and lift Capi on your lap. He will give you some warmth from his body."

Vitalis was ill. Did he know how ill? As I crept close up against him, he bent over and kissed me. That was the second time he had kissed me. Alas! it was the last.

Scarcely had I cuddled up against Vitalis than I felt my eyes close. I tried to keep them open, but I could not. I pinched my arms, but there was no feeling in my flesh. On my legs, which were drawn up to my chest, Capi slept already. The wind blew the wisps of straw upon us like dried leaves that fall from a tree. There was not a soul in the street, and around us was the silence of death.

This silence frightened me. Of what was I afraid? I did not know, but a vague fear came over me. It seemed to me that I was dying there. And then I felt very sad. I thought of Chavanon, of poor Mother Barberin. Must I die without seeing her again, and our little house, and my little garden! Then, I was no longer cold; it seemed that I was back in my little garden. The sun was shining and was so warm. The jonquils were opening their golden petals; the birds were singing in the trees and on the hedges. Yes, and Mother Barberin was hanging out the clothes that she had just washed in the brook, which rippled over the pebbles. Then I left Chavanon, and joined Arthur and Mrs. Milligan on the Swan. Then my eyes closed again, my heart seemed to grow heavy, and I remembered no more.