Nobody's Boy/Chapter XXVII

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Nobody's Boy by Hector Malot, translated by Florence Crewe-Jones
Chapter XXVII - A Distressing Discovery

My father left the candle with us, but locked the caravan on the outside. We got into bed as quickly as possible, without chatting, as was our habit. Mattia did not seem to want to talk any more than I and I was pleased that he was silent. We blew the candle out, but I found it impossible to go to sleep. I thought over all that had passed, turning over and over in my narrow bed. I could hear Mattia, who occupied the berth above mine, turn over restlessly also. He could not sleep any more than I.

Hours passed. As it grew later a vague fear oppressed me. I felt uneasy, but I could not understand why it was that I felt so. Of what was I afraid? Not of sleeping in a caravan even in this vile part of London! How many times in my vagabond life had I spent the night less protected than I was at this moment! I knew that I was sheltered from all danger and yet I was oppressed with a fear that amounted almost to terror.

The hours passed one after the other; suddenly I heard a noise at the stable door which opened onto another street. Then came several regular knocks at intervals. Then a light penetrated our caravan. I glanced hastily round in surprise and Capi, who slept beside my bed, woke up with a growl. I then saw that this light came in through a little window of the caravan against which our berths were placed, and which I had not noticed when going to bed because there was a curtain hanging over it. The upper part of this window touched Mattia's bed and the lower part touched mine. Afraid that Capi might wake up all the house, I put my hand over his mouth, then looked outside.

My father had entered the stable and quietly opened the door on the other side, then he closed it again in the same cautious manner after admitting two men heavily laden with bundles which they carried on their shoulders. Then he placed his finger on his lip, and with the other hand which held the lantern, he pointed to the caravan in which we were sleeping. I was about to call out that they need not mind us, but I was afraid I should wake up Mattia, who now, I thought, was sleeping quietly, so I kept still. My father helped the two men unload their bundles, then he disappeared, but soon he returned with my mother. During his absence the men had opened their baggage. There were hats, underclothes, stockings, gloves, etc. Evidently these men were merchants who had come to sell their goods to my parents. My father took each object and examined it by the light of the lantern and passed it on to my mother, who with a little pair of scissors cut off the tickets and put them in her pocket. This appeared strange to me, as also the hour that they had chosen for this sale.

While my mother was examining the goods my father spoke to the men in a whisper. If I had known English a little better I should perhaps have caught what he said, but all I could hear was the word "police," that was said several times and for that reason caught my ear.

When all the goods had been carefully noted, my parents and the two men went into the house, and again our caravan was in darkness. They had evidently gone inside to settle the bill. I wanted to convince myself that what I had seen was quite natural, yet despite my desire I could not believe so. Why had not these men who had come to see my parents entered by the other door? Why did they talk of the police in whispers as though they were afraid of being heard outside? Why had my mother cut off the tickets after she had bought the goods? I could not drive these thoughts from my mind. After a time a light again filled our caravan. I looked out this time in spite of myself. I told myself that I ought not to look, and yet ... I looked. I told myself that it was better that I should not know, and yet I wanted to see.

My father and mother were alone. While my mother quickly made a bundle of the goods, my father swept a corner of the stable. Under the dry sand that he heaped up there was a trap door. He lifted it. By then my mother had finished tying up the bundles and my father took them and lowered them through the trap to a cellar below, my mother holding the lantern to light him. Then he shut the trap door and swept the sand over it again. Over the sand they both strewed wisps of straw as on the rest of the stable floor. Then they went out.

At the moment when they softly closed the door it seemed to me that Mattia moved in his bed and that he lay back on his pillow. Had he seen? I did not dare ask him. From head to foot I was in a cold perspiration. I remained in this state all night long. A cock crowed at daybreak; then only did I drop off to sleep.

The noise of the key being turned in the door of our caravan the next morning woke me. Thinking that it was my father who had come to tell us that it was time to get up, I closed my eyes so as not to see him.

"It was your brother," said Mattia; "he has unlocked the door and he's gone now."

We dressed. Mattia did not ask me if I had slept well, neither did I put the question to him. Once I caught him looking at me and I turned my eyes away.

We had to go to the kitchen, but neither my father nor mother were there. My grandfather was seated before the fire in his big chair as though he had not moved since the night before, and my eldest sister, whose name was Annie, was wiping the table. Allen, my eldest brother, was sweeping the room. I went over to them to wish them good morning, but they continued with their work without taking any notice of me. I went towards my grandfather, but he would not let me get near him, and like the evening before, he spat at my side, which stopped me short.

"Ask them," I said to Mattia, "what time I shall see my mother and father?"

Mattia did as I told him, and my grandfather, upon hearing one of us speak English, seemed to feel more amiable.

"What does he say?"

"He says that your father has gone out for the day and that your mother is asleep, and that if we like we may go out."

"Did he only say that?" I asked, finding this translation very short.

Mattia seemed confused.

"I don't know if I understood the rest," he said.

"Tell me what you think you understood."

"It seemed to me that he said that if we found some bargains in the city we were not to miss them. He said that we lived at the expense of fools."

My grandfather must have guessed that Mattia was explaining what he had said to me, for with the hand that was not paralyzed, he made a motion as though he were slipping something into his pocket, then he winked his eye.

"Let us go out," I said quickly.

For two or three hours we walked about, not daring to go far for fear we might become lost. Bethnal-Green was even more horrible in the daytime than it had been at night. Mattia and I hardly spoke a word. Now and again he pressed my hand.

When we returned to the house my mother had not left her room. Through the open door I could see that she was leaning her head on the table. Thinking that she was sick I ran to her to kiss her, as I was unable to speak to her. She lifted up her head, which swayed. She looked at me but did not see me. I smelled the odor of gin on her hot breath. I drew back. Her head fell again on her arms resting on the table.

"Gin," said my grandfather, grinning.

I remained motionless. I felt turned to stone. I don't know how long I stood so. Suddenly I turned to Mattia. He was looking at me with eyes full of tears. I signed to him and again we left the house. For a long time we walked about, side by side, holding each other's hands, saying nothing, going straight before us without knowing where we were going.

"Where do you want to go, Remi?" he asked at last, anxiously.

"I don't know. Somewhere so we can talk. I want to speak to you, Mattia. We can't talk in this crowd."

We had by this time come to a much wider street at the end of which was a public garden. We hurried to this spot and sat down on a bench.

"You know how much I love you, Mattia boy," I began, "and you know that it was through friendship for you that I asked you to come with me to see my people. You won't doubt my friendship, no matter what I ask of you?"

"Don't be such a silly," he said, forcing a smile.

"You want to laugh so that I won't break down," I replied. "If I can't cry when I'm with you, when can I cry? But.... Oh ... oh, Mattia, Mattia!"

Throwing my arms around dear old Mattia's neck, I burst into tears. Never had I felt so miserable. When I had been alone in this great world, never had I felt so unhappy as I did at this moment. After my burst of sobs I forced myself to be calm. It was not because I wanted Mattia's pity that I had brought him to this garden, it was not for myself; it was for him.

"Mattia," I said resolutely, "you must go back to France."

"Leave you? Never!"

"I knew beforehand what you would reply and I am pleased, oh, so pleased that you wish to be with me, but, Mattia, you must go back to France at once!"

"Why? Tell me that."

"Because.... Tell me, Mattia. Don't be afraid. Did you sleep last night? Did you see?"

"I did not sleep," he answered.

"And you saw...?"

"All."

"And you understood?"

"That those goods had not been paid for. Your father was angry with the men because they knocked at the stable door and not at the house door. They told him that the police were watching them."

"You see very well, then, that you must go," I said.

"If I must go, you must go also; it is no better for one than for the other."

"If you had met Garofoli in Paris and he had forced you to go back to him, I am sure you would not have wanted me to stay with you. I am simply doing what you would do yourself."

He did not reply.

"You must go back to France," I insisted; "go to Lise and tell her that I cannot do for her father what I promised. I told her that the first thing I did would be to pay off his debts. You must tell her how it is, and go to Mother Barberin also. Simply say that my people are not rich as I had thought; there is no disgrace in not having money. But don't tell them anything more."

"It is not because they are poor that you want me to go, so I shan't go," Mattia replied obstinately. "I know what it is, after what we saw last night; you are afraid for me."

"Mattia, don't say that!"

"You are afraid one day that I shall cut the tickets off goods that have not been paid for."

"Mattia, Mattia, don't!"

"Well, if you are afraid for me, I am afraid for you. Let us both go."

"It's impossible; my parents are nothing to you, but this is my father and mother, and I must stay with them. It is my family."

"Your family! That man who steals, your father! That drunken woman your mother!"

"Don't you dare say so, Mattia," I cried, springing up from my seat; "you are speaking of my father and mother and I must respect them and love them."

"Yes, so you should if they are your people, but ... are they?"

"You forget their many proofs."

"You don't resemble your father or your mother. Their children are all fair, while you are dark. And then how is it they could spend so much money to find a child? Put all these things together and in my opinion you are not a Driscoll. You might write to Mother Barberin and ask her to tell you just what the clothes were like that you wore when you were found. Then ask that man you call your father to describe the clothes his baby had on when it was stolen. Until then I shan't move."

"But suppose one day Mattia gets a bang on his poor head?"

"That would not be so hard if he received the blow for a friend," he said, smiling.

We did not return to the Red Lion Court until night. My father and mother passed no remark upon our absence. After supper my father drew two chairs to the fireside, which brought a growl from my grandfather, and then asked us to tell him how we had made enough money to live on in France. I told the story.

"Not only did we earn enough to live on, but we got enough to buy a cow," said Mattia with assurance. In his turn he told how we came by the cow.

"You must be clever kids," said my father; "show us what you can do."

I took my harp and played a piece, but not my Neapolitan song. Mattia played a piece on his violin and a piece on his cornet. It was the cornet solo that brought the greatest applause from the children who had gathered round us in a circle.

"And Capi, can he do anything?" asked my father. "He ought to be able to earn his food."

I was very proud of Capi's talents. I put him through all his tricks and as usual he scored a great success.

"Why, that dog is worth a fortune," exclaimed my father.

I was very pleased at this praise and assured him that Capi could learn anything that one wished to teach him. My father translated what I said into English, and it seemed to me that he added something more which made everybody laugh, for the old grandfather winked his eye several times and said, "Fine dog!"

"This is what I suggest," said my father, "that is if Mattia would like to live with us?"

"I want to stay with Remi," replied Mattia.

"Well, this is what I propose," continued my father. "We're not rich and we all work. In the summer we travel through the country and the children go and sell the goods to those who won't take the trouble to come to us, but in the winter we haven't much to do. Now you and Remi can go and play music in the streets. You'll make quite a little money as Christmas draws near, but Ned and Allen must take Capi with them and he'll make the people laugh with his tricks; in that way the talent will be distributed."

"Capi won't work well with any one but me," I said quickly. I could not bear to be parted from my dog.

"He'll learn to work with Allen and Ned easy," said my father; "we'll get more money this way."

"Oh, but we'll get ever so much more with Capi," I insisted.

"That's enough," replied my father briefly; "when I say a thing I mean it. No arguments."

I said nothing more. As I laid down in my bed that night Mattia whispered in my ear: "Now to-morrow you write to Mother Barberin." Then he jumped into bed.

But the next morning I had to give Capi his lesson, I took him in my arms and while I gently kissed him on his cold nose, I explained to him what he had to do; poor doggy! how he looked at me, how he listened! I then put his leash in Allen's hand and he followed the two boys obediently, but with a forlorn air.

My father took Mattia and me across London where there were beautiful houses, splendid streets with wide pavements, and carriages that shone like glass, drawn by magnificent horses and driven by big fat coachmen with powdered wigs. It was late when we got back to Red Lion Court, for the distance from the West End to Bethnal-Green is great. How pleased I was to see Capi again. He was covered with mud, but in a good humor. I was so pleased to see him, that after I had rubbed him well down with dry straw, I wrapped him in my sheepskin and made him sleep in my bed.

Things went on this way for several days. Mattia and I went one way and Capi, Ned, and Allen another. Then one evening my father told me that we could take Capi the next day with us, as he wanted the two boys to do something in the house. Mattia and I were very pleased and we intended to do our utmost to bring back a good sum of money so that he would let us have the dog always. We had to get Capi back and we would not spare ourselves, neither one of us. We made Capi undergo a severe washing and combing early in the morning, then we went off.

Unfortunately for our plan a heavy fog had been hanging over London for two entire days. It was so dense that we could only see a few steps before us, and those who listened to us playing behind these fog curtains could not see Capi. It was a most annoying state of affairs for our "takings." Little did we think how indebted we should be to the fog a few minutes later. We were walking through one of the most popular streets when suddenly I discovered that Capi was not with us. This was extraordinary, for he always kept close at our heels. I waited for him to catch up with us. I stood at the entrance of a dark alley and whistled softly, for we could see but a short distance. I was beginning to fear that he had been stolen from us when he came up on the run, holding a pair of woolen stockings between his teeth. Placing his fore paws against me he presented them to me with a bark. He seemed as proud as when he had accomplished one of his most difficult tricks and wanted my approval. It was all done in a few seconds. I stood dumbfounded. Then Mattia seized the stockings with one hand and pulled me down the alley with the other.

"Walk quick, but don't run," he whispered.

He told me a moment later that a man who had hurried past him on the pavement was saying, "Where's that thief? I'll get him!" We went out by the other end of the alley.

"If it had not been for the fog we should have been arrested as thieves," said Mattia.

For a moment I stood almost choking. They had made a thief of my good honest Capi!

"Hold him tight," I said, "and come back to the house."

We walked quickly.

The father and mother were seated at the table folding up material. I threw the pair of stockings down. Allen and Ned laughed.

"Here's a pair of stockings," I said; "you've made a thief of my dog. I thought you took him out to amuse people."

I was trembling so I could scarcely speak, and yet I never felt more determined.

"And if it was not for amusement," demanded my father, "what would you do, I'd like to know?"

"I'd tie a cord round Capi's neck, and although I love him dearly, I'd drown him. I don't want Capi to become a thief any more than I want to be one myself, and if I thought that I ever should become a thief, I'd drown myself at once with my dog."

My father looked me full in the face. I thought he was going to strike me. His eyes gleamed. I did not flinch.

"Oh, very well, then," said he, recovering himself; "so that it shall not happen again, you may take Capi out with you in the future."

I showed my fist to the two boys. I could not speak to them, but they saw by my manner that if they dared have anything more to do with my dog, they would have me to reckon with. I was willing to fight them both to protect Capi.

From that day every one in my family openly showed their dislike for me. My grandfather continued to spit angrily when I approached him. The boys and my eldest sister played every trick they possibly could upon me. My father and mother ignored me, only demanding of me my money every evening. Out of the whole family, for whom I had felt so much affection when I had landed in England, there was only baby Kate who would let me fondle her, and she turned from me coldly if I had not candy or an orange in my pocket for her.

Although I would not listen to what Mattia had said at first, gradually, little by little, I began to wonder if I did really belong to this family. I had done nothing for them to be so unkind to me. Mattia, seeing me so greatly worried, would say as though to himself: "I am just wondering what kind of clothes Mother Barberin will tell us you wore...."

At last the letter came. The priest had written it for her. It read:


"My little Remi: I was surprised and sorry to learn the contents of your letter. From what Barberin told me and also from the clothes you had on when you were found, I thought that you belonged to a very rich family. I can easily tell you what you wore, for I have kept everything. You were not wound up in wrappings like a French baby; you wore long robes and underskirts like little English babies. You had on a white flannel robe and over that a very fine linen robe, then a big white cashmere pelisse lined with white silk and trimmed with beautiful white embroidery, and you had a lovely lace bonnet, and then white woolen socks with little silk rosettes. None of these things were marked, but the little flannel jacket you had next to your skin and the flannel robe had both been marked, but the marks had been carefully cut out. There, Remi, boy, that is all I can tell you. Don't worry, dear child, that you can't give us all the fine presents that you promised. Your cow that you bought with your savings is worth all the presents in the world to me. I am pleased to tell you that she's in good health and gives the same fine quantity of milk, so I am very comfortably off now, and I never look at her without thinking of you and your little friend Mattia. Let me have news of you sometimes, dear boy, you are so tender and affectionate, and I hope, now you have found your family, they will all love you as you deserve to be loved. I kiss you lovingly.

                                    "Your foster mother,
                                             "WIDOW BARBERIN."


Dear Mother Barberin! she imagined that everybody must love me because she did!

"She's a fine woman," said Mattia; "very fine, she thought of me! Now let's see what Mr. Driscoll has to say."

"He might have forgotten the things."

"Does one forget the clothes that their child wears when it was kidnaped? Why, it's only through its clothes that they can find it."

"Wait until we hear what he says before we think anything."

It was not an easy thing for me to ask my father how I was dressed on the day that I was stolen. If I had put the question casually without any underthought, it would have been simple enough. As it was I was timid. Then one day when the cold sleet had driven me home earlier than usual, I took my courage in both hands, and broached the subject that was causing me so much anxiety. At my question my father looked me full in the face. But I looked back at him far more boldly than I imagined that I could at this moment. Then he smiled. There was something hard and cruel in the smile but still it was a smile.

"On the day that you were stolen from us," he said slowly, "you wore a flannel robe, a linen robe, a lace bonnet, white woolen shoes, and a white embroidered cashmere pelisse. Two of your garments Were marked F.D., Francis Driscoll, your real name, but this mark was cut out by the woman who stole you, for she hoped that in this way you would never be found. I'll show you your baptismal certificates which, of course, I still have."

He searched in a drawer and soon brought forth a big paper which he handed to me.

"If you don't mind," I said with a last effort, "Mattia will translate it for me."

"Certainly."

Mattia translated it as well as he could. It appeared that I was born on Thursday, August the 2nd, and that I was the son of John Driscoll and Margaret Grange, his wife.

What further proofs could I ask?

"That's all very fine," said Mattia that night, when we were in our caravan, "but how comes it that peddlers were rich enough to give their children lace bonnets and embroidered pelisses? Peddlers are not so rich as that!"

"It is because they were peddlers that they could get those things cheaper."

Mattia whistled, but he shook his head, then again he whispered: "You're not that Driscoll's baby, but you're the baby that Driscoll stole!"

I was about to reply but he had already climbed up into his bed.