Nobody's Boy/Chapter III
SIGNOR VITALIS' COMPANY
THAT night I dreamed that I had been taken to the Home. When I opened my eyes in the early morning I could scarcely believe that I was still there in my little bed. I felt the bed and pinched my arms to see if it were true. Ah, yes, I was still with Mother Barberin.
She said nothing to me all the morning, and I began to think that they had given up the idea of sending me away. Perhaps she had said that she was determined to keep me. But when mid day came Barberin told me to put on my cap and follow him. I looked at Mother Barberin to implore her to help me. Without her husband noticing she made me a sign to go with him. I obeyed. She tapped me on the shoulder as I passed her, to let me know that I had nothing to fear. Without a word I followed him.
It was some distance from our house to the village—a good hour's walk. Barberin never said a word to me the whole way. He walked along, limping. Now and again he turned 'round to see if I was following. Where was he taking me? I asked myself the question again and again. Despite the reassuring sign that Mother Barberin had made, I felt that something was going to happen to me and I wanted to run away. I tried to lag behind, thinking that I would jump down into a ditch where Barberin could not catch me.
At first he had seemed satisfied that I should tramp along just behind him, on his heels, but he evidently soon began to suspect what I intended to do, and he grabbed me by the wrist. I was forced to keep up with him. This was the way we entered the village. Every one who passed us turned round to stare, for I looked like a bad dog held on a leash.
As we were about to pass the tavern, a man who was standing in the doorway called to Barberin and asked him to go in. Barberin took me by the ear and pushed me in before him, and when we got inside he closed the door. I felt relieved. This was only the village tavern, and for a long time I had wanted to see what it was like inside. I had often wondered what was going on behind the red curtains, I was going to know now...
Barberin sat down at a table with the boss who had asked him to go in. I sat by the fireplace. In a corner near me there was a tall old man with a long white beard. He wore a strange costume. I had never seen anything like it before. Long ringlets fell to his shoulders and he wore a tall gray hat ornamented with green and red feathers. A sheepskin, the woolly side turned inside, was fastened round his body. There were no sleeves to the skin, but through two large holes, cut beneath the shoulders, his arms were thrust, covered with velvet sleeves which had once been blue in color. Woolen gaiters reached up to his knees, and to hold them in place a ribbon was interlaced several times round his legs. He sat with his elbow resting on his crossed knees. I had never seen a living person in such a quiet calm attitude. He looked to me like one of the saints in our Church. Lying beside him were three dogs—a white spaniel, a black spaniel, and a pretty little gray dog with a sharp, cute little look. The white spaniel wore a policeman's old helmet, which was fastened under its chin with a leather strap.
While I stared at the man in wonder, Barberin and the owner of the tavern talked in low voices. I knew that I was the subject of their talk. Barberin was telling him that he had brought me to the village to take me to the mayor's office, so that the mayor should ask the Charity Home to pay for my keep. That was all that dear Mother Barberin had been able to do, but I felt that if Barberin could get something for keeping me I had nothing to fear.
The old man, who without appearing, had evidently been listening, suddenly pointed to me, and turning to Barberin said with a marked foreign accent:
"Is that the child that's in your way?"
"And you think the Home is going to pay you for his keep?"
"Lord! as he ain't got no parents and I've been put to great expense for him, it is only right that the town should pay me something."
"I don't say it isn't, but do you think that just because a thing is right, it's done?"
"Well, then I don't think you'll ever get what you're after."
"Then he goes to the Home, there's no law that forces me to keep him in my place if I don't want to."
"You agreed in the beginning to take him, so it's up to you to keep your promise."
"Well, I ain't going to keep him. And when I want to turn him out I'll do so."
"Perhaps there's a way to get rid of him now," said the old man after a moment's thought, "and make a little money into the bargain."
"If you'll show me how, I'll stand a drink."
"Order the drinks, the affair's settled."
The old man got up and took a seat opposite Barberin. A strange thing, as he rose, I saw his sheepskin move. It was lifted up, and I wondered if he had another dog under his arm.
What were they going to do with me? My heart beat against my side, I could not take my eyes off the old man.
"You won't let this child eat any more of your bread unless somebody pays for it, that's it, isn't it?"
"That's it... because..."
"Never mind the reason. That don't concern me. Now if you don't want him, just give him to me. I'll take charge of him."
"You? take charge of him!"
"You want to get rid of him, don't you?"
"Give you a child like him, a beautiful boy, for he is beautiful, the prettiest boy in the village, look at him."
"I've looked at him."
"Remi, come here."
I went over to the table, my knees trembling.
"There, don't be afraid, little one," said the old man.
"Just look at him," said Barberin again.
"I don't say that he is a homely child, if he was I wouldn't want him. I don't want a monster."
"Ah, now if he was a monster with two ears, or even a dwarf...."
"You'd keep him, you could make your fortune out of a monster. But this little boy is not a dwarf, nor a monster, so you can't exhibit him: he's made the same as others, and he's no good for anything."
"He's good for work."
"He's not strong."
"Not strong, him! Land's sakes! He's as strong as any man, look at his legs, they're that solid! Have you ever seen straighter legs than his?"
Barberin pulled up my pants.
"Too thin," said the old man.
"And his arms?" continued Barberin.
"Like his legs... might be better. They can't hold out against fatigue and poverty."
"What, them legs and arms? Feel 'em. Just see for yourself."
The old man passed his skinny hand over my legs and felt them, shaking his head the while and making a grimace.
I had already seen a similar scene enacted when the cattle dealer came to buy our cow. He also had felt and pinched the cow. He also had shaken his head and said that it was not a good cow, it would be impossible to sell it again, and yet after all he had bought it and taken it away with him. Was the old man going to buy me and take me away with him? Oh, Mother Barberin! Mother Barberin!
If I had dared I would have said that only the night before Barberin had reproached me for seeming delicate and having thin arms and legs, but I felt that I should gain nothing by it but an angry word, so I kept silent.
For a long time they wrangled over my good and bad points.
"Well, such as he is," said the old man at last, "I'll take him, but mind you, I don't buy him outright. I'll hire him. I'll give you twenty francs a year for him."
"That's a good sum, and I'll pay in advance." "But if I keep him the town will pay me more than ten francs a month."
"I know what you'd get from the town, and besides you've got to feed him."
"He will work."
"If you thought that he could work you wouldn't be so anxious to get rid of him. It is not for the money that's paid for their keep that you people take in lost children, it's for the work that you can get out of them. You make servants of them, they pay you and they themselves get no wages. If this child could have done much for you, you would have kept him."
"Anyway, I should always have ten francs a month."
"And if the Home, instead of letting you have him, gave him to some one else, you wouldn't get anything at all. Now with me you won't have to run for your money, all you have to do is to hold out your hand."
He pulled a leather purse from his pocket, counting out four silver pieces of money; he threw them down on the table, making them ring as they fell.
"But think," cried Barberin; "this child's parents will show up one day or the other."
"What does that matter?"
"Well, those who've brought him up will get something. If I hadn't thought of that I wouldn't have taken him in the first place."
Oh! the wicked man! How I did dislike Barberin!
"Now, look here, it's because you think his parents won't show up now that you're turning him out," said the old man. "Well, if by any chance they do appear, they'll go straight to you, not to me, for nobody knows me."
"But if it's you who finds them?"
"Well, in that case we'll go shares and I'll put thirty down for him now."
"Make it forty."
"No, for what he'll do for me that isn't possible."
"What do you want him to do for you? For good legs, he's got good legs; for good arms, he's got good arms. I hold to what I said before. What are you going to do with him?"
Then the old man looked at Barberin mockingly, then emptied his glass slowly:
"He's just to keep me company. I'm getting old and at night I get a bit lonesome. When one is tired it's nice to have a child around."
"Well, for that I'm sure his legs are strong enough."
"Oh, not too much so, for he must also dance and jump and walk, and then walk and jump again. He'll take his place in Signor Vitalis' traveling company."
"Where's this company?"
"I am Signor Vitalis, and I'll show you the company right here."
With this he opened the sheepskin and took out a strange animal which he held on his left arm, pressed against his chest. This was the animal that had several times raised the sheepskin, but it was not a little dog as I had thought. I found no name to give to this strange creature, which I saw for the first time. I looked at it in astonishment. It was dressed in a red coat trimmed with gold braid, but its arms and legs were bare, for they really were arms and legs, and not paws, but they were covered with a black, hairy skin, they were not white or pink. The head which was as large as a clenched fist was wide and short, the turned-up nose had spreading nostrils, and the lips were yellow. But what struck me more than anything, were the two eyes, close to each other, which glittered like glass.
"Oh, the ugly monkey!" cried Barberin.
A monkey! I opened my eyes still wider. So this was a monkey, for although I had never seen a monkey, I had heard of them. So this little tiny creature that looked like a black baby was a monkey!
"This is the star of my company," said Signor Vitalis. "This is Mr. Pretty-Heart. Now, Pretty-Heart,"—turning to the animal—"make your bow to the society."
The monkey put his hand to his lips and threw a kiss to each of us.
"Now," continued Signor Vitalis, holding out his hand to the white spaniel, "the next. Signor Capi will have the honor of introducing his friends to the esteemed company here present."
The spaniel, who up till this moment had not made a movement, jumped up quickly, and standing on his hind paws, crossed his fore paws on his chest and bowed to his master so low that his police helmet touched the ground. This polite duty accomplished, he turned to his companions, and with one paw still pressed on his chest, he made a sign with the other for them to draw nearer. The two dogs, whose eyes had been fixed on the white spaniel, got up at once and giving' each one of us his paw, shook hands as one does in polite society, and then taking a few steps back bowed to us in turn.
"The one I call 'Capi,'" said Signor Vitalis, "which is an abbreviation of Capitano in Italian, is the chief. He is the most intelligent and he conveys my orders to the others. That black haired young dandy is Signor Zerbino, which signifies 'the sport.' Notice him and I am sure you will admit that the name is very appropriate. And that young person with, the modest air is Miss Dulcie. She is English, and her name is chosen on account of her sweet disposition. With these remarkable artistes I travel through the country, earning my living, sometimes good, sometimes bad, ... it is a matter of luck! Capi!..."
The spaniel crossed his paws.
"Capi, come here, and be on your best behavior. These people are well brought up, and they must be spoken to with great politeness. Be good enough to tell this little boy who is looking at you with such big, round eyes what time it is."
Capi uncrossed his paws, went up to his master, drew aside the sheepskin, and after feeling in his vest pocket pulled out a large silver watch. He looked at the watch for a moment, then gave two distinct barks, then after these two decisive sharp barks, he uttered three little barks, not so loud nor so clear.
The hour was quarter of three.
"Very good," said Vitalis; "thank you, Signor Capi. And now ask Miss Dulcie to oblige us by dancing with the skipping rope."
Capi again felt in his master's vest pocket and pulled out a cord. He made a brief sign to Zerbino, who immediately took his position opposite to him. Then Capi threw him one end of the cord and they both began to turn it very gravely. Then Dulcie jumped lightly into the rope and with her beautiful soft eyes fixed on her master, began to skip.
"You see how intelligent they are," said Vitalis; "their intelligence would be even more appreciated if I drew comparisons. For instance, if I had a fool to act with them. That is why I want your boy. He is to be the fool so that the dogs' intelligence will stand out in a more marked manner."
"Oh, he's to be the fool...." interrupted Barberin.
"It takes a clever man to play the fool," said Vitalis, "the boy will be able to act the part with a few lessons. We'll test him at once. If he has any intelligence he will understand that with me he will be able to see the country and other countries besides; but if he stays here all he can do is to drive a herd of cattle in the same fields from morning to night. If he hasn't any intelligence he'll cry and stamp his feet, and then I won't take him with me and he'll be sent to the Foundlings' Home, where he'll have to work hard and have little to eat."
I had enough intelligence to know this,... the dogs were very funny, and it would be fun to be with them always, but Mother, Mother Barberin!... I could not leave her!... Then if I refused perhaps I should not stay with Mother Barberin.... I might be sent to the Home. I was very unhappy, and as my eyes filled with tears, Signor Vitalis tapped me gently on the cheek.
"Ah, the little chap understands because he does not make a great noise. He is arguing the matter in his little head, and to-morrow...."
"Oh, sir," I cried, "let me stay with Mother Barberin, please let me stay."
I could not say more, for Capi's loud barking interrupted me. At the same moment the dog sprang towards the table upon which Pretty-Heart was seated. The monkey, profiting by the moment when every one was occupied with me, had quickly seized his master's glass, which was full of wine, and was about to empty it. But Capi, who was a good watch dog, had seen the monkey's trick and like the faithful servant that he was, he had foiled him. [Illustration: "I’LL GIVE YOU THIRTY FRANCS FOR HIM."]
"Mr. Pretty-Heart," said Vitalis severely, "you are a glutton and a thief; go over there into the corner and turn your face to the wall, and you, Zerbino, keep guard: if he moves give him a good slap. As to you, Mr. Capi, you are a good dog, give me your paw. I'd like to shake hands with you."
The monkey, uttering little stifled cries, obeyed and went into the corner, and the dog, proud and happy, held out his paw to his master.
"Now," continued Vitalis, "back to business. I'll give you thirty francs for him then."
A discussion commenced, but Vitalis soon stopped it by saying:
"This doesn't interest the child, let him go outside and play."
At the same time he made a sign to Barberin.
"Yes, go out into the yard at the back, but don't move or you'll have me to reckon with."
I could not but obey. I went into the yard, but I had no heart to play. I sat down on a big stone and waited. They were deciding what was to become of me. What would it be? They talked for a long time. I sat waiting, and it was an hour later when Barberin came out into the yard. He was alone. Had he come to fetch me to hand me over to Vitalis?
"Come," he said, "back home."
Home! Then I was not to leave Mother Barberin?
I wanted to ask questions, but I was afraid, because he seemed in a very bad temper. We walked all the way home in silence. But just before we arrived home Barberin, who was walking ahead, stopped.
"You know," he said, taking me roughly by the ear, "if you say one single word of what you have heard to-day, you shall smart for it. Understand?"