Nobody's Boy/Chapter IV
THE MATERNAL HOUSE
"WELL," asked Mother Barberin, when we entered, "what did the mayor say?"
"We didn't see him."
"How! You didn't see him?"
"No, I met some friends at the Notre-Dame café and when we came out it was too late. So we'll go back to-morrow."
So Barberin had given up the idea of driving a bargain with the man with the dogs.
On the way home I wondered if this was not some trick of his, returning to the house, but his last words drove all my doubts away. As we had to go back to the village the next day to see the mayor, it was certain that Barberin had not accepted Vitalis' terms.
But in spite of his threats I would have spoken of my fears to Mother Barberin if I could have found myself alone for one moment with her, but all the evening Barberin did not leave the house, and I went to bed without getting the opportunity. I went to sleep thinking that I would tell her the next day. But the next day when I got up, I did not see her. As I was running all round the house looking for her, Barberin saw me and asked me what I wanted.
"She has gone to the village and won't be back till this afternoon."
She had not told me the night before that she was going to the village, and without knowing why, I began to feel anxious. Why didn't she wait for us, if we were going in the afternoon? Would she be back before we started? Without knowing quite why, I began to feel very frightened, and Barberin looked at me in a way that did not tend to reassure me. To escape from his look I ran into the garden.
Our garden meant a great deal to us. In it we grew almost all that we ate—potatoes, cabbages, carrots, turnips. There was no ground wasted, yet Mother Barberin had given me a little patch all to myself, in which I had planted ferns and herbs that I had pulled up in the lanes while I was minding the cow. I had planted everything pell mell, one beside the other, in my bit of garden: it was not beautiful, but I loved it. It was mine. I arranged it as I wished, just as I felt at the time, and when I spoke of it, which happened twenty times a day, it was "My garden."
Already the jonquils were in bud and the lilac was beginning to shoot, and the wall flowers would soon be out. How would they bloom? I wondered, and that was why I came to see them every day. But there was another part of my garden that I studied with great anxiety. I had planted a vegetable that some one had given to me and which was almost unknown in our village; it was Jerusalem artichokes. I was told they would be delicious, better than potatoes, for they had the taste of French artichokes, potatoes, and turnips combined. Having been told this, I intended them to be a surprise for Mother Barberin. I had not breathed a word about this present I had for her. I planted them in my own bit of garden. When they began to shoot I would let her think that they were flowers, then one fine day when they were ripe, while she was out, I would pull them up and cook them myself. How? I was not quite sure, but I did not worry over such a small detail; then when she returned to supper I would serve her a dish of Jerusalem artichokes! It would be something fresh to replace those everlasting potatoes, and Mother Barberin would not suffer too much from the sale of poor Rousette. And the inventor of this new dish of vegetables was I, Remi, I was the one! So I was of some use in the house.
With such a plan in my head I had to bestow careful attention on my Jerusalem artichokes. Every day I looked at the spot where I had planted them, it seemed to me that they would never grow. I was kneeling on both knees on the ground, supported on my hands, with my nose almost touching the earth where the artichokes were sown, when I heard Barberin calling me impatiently. I hurried back to the house. Imagine my surprise when I saw, standing before the fireplace, Vitalis and his dogs.
I knew at once what Barberin wanted of me. Vitalis had come to fetch me and it was so that Mother Barberin should not stop me from going that Barberin had sent her to the village. Knowing full well that I could expect nothing from Barberin, I ran up to Vitalis.
"Oh, don't take me away. Please, sir, don't take me away." I began to sob.
"Now, little chap," he said, kindly enough, "you won't be unhappy with me. I don't whip children, and you'll have the dogs for company. Why should you be sorry to go with me?"
"Anyhow, you're not going to stay here," said Barberin roughly, taking me by the ear. "Go with this gentleman or go to the workhouse. Choose!"
"No, no. Mamma! Mamma!"
"So, you're going to make me mad, eh!" cried Barberin. "I'll beat you good and hard and chase you out of the house."
"The child is sorry to leave his mamma, don't beat him for that. He's got feelings, that's a good sign."
"If you pity him he'll cry all the more."
"Well, now to business."
Saying that, Vitalis laid eight five franc pieces on the table, which Barberin with a sweep of his hand cleared up and thrust into his pocket.
"Where's his bundle?" asked Vitalis.
"Here it is," said Barberin, handing him a blue cotton handkerchief tied up at the four corners. "There are two shirts and a pair of cotton pants."
"That was not what was agreed; you said you'd give some clothes. These are only rags."
"He ain't got no more."
"If I ask the boy I know he'll say that's not true. But I haven't the time to argue the matter. We must be off. Come on, my little fellow. What's your name?"
"Well, then, Remi, take your bundle and walk along beside Capi."
I held out both my hands to him, then to Barberin. But both men turned away their heads. Then Vitalis took me by the wrist. I had to go.
Ah, our poor little house! It seemed to me when I passed over the threshold that I left a bit of my body there. With my eyes full of tears I looked around, but there was no one near to help me. No one on the road, and no one in the field close by. I began to call:
"Mamma ... Mother Barberin!"
But no one replied to my call, and my voice trailed off into a sob. I had to follow Vitalis, who had not let go of my wrist.
"Good-by and good luck," cried Barberin. Then he entered the house. It was over.
"Come, Remi, hurry along, my child," said Vitalis. He took hold of my arm and I walked side by side with him. Fortunately he did not walk fast. I think he suited his step to mine.
We were walking up hill. As I turned I could still see Mother Barberin's house, but it was getting smaller and smaller. Many a time I had walked this road and I knew that for a little while longer I should still see the house, then when we turned the bend, I should see it no more. Before me the unknown, behind me was the house, where until that day I had lived such a happy life. Perhaps I should never see it again! Fortunately the hill was long, but at last we reached the top. Vitalis had not let go his hold.
"Will you let me rest a bit?" I asked.
"Surely, my boy," he replied.
He let go of me, but I saw him make a sign to Capi and the dog understood. He came close to me. I knew that Capi would grab me by the leg if I attempted to escape. I went up a high grassy mound and sat down, the dog beside me. With tear-dimmed eyes I looked about for Mother Barberin's cottage. Below was the valley and the wood, and away in the distance stood the little house I had left. Little puffs of yellow smoke were coming out of the chimney, going straight up in the sky, and then on towards us. In spite of the distance and the height, I could see everything very clearly. On the rubbish heap I could see our big fat hen running about, but she did not look as big as usual; if I had not known that it was our hen, I should have taken her for a little pigeon. At the side of the house I could see the twisted pear tree that I used to ride as a horse. In the stream I could just make out the drain that I had had so much trouble in digging, so that it would work a mill made by my own hands; the wheel, alas! had never turned, despite all the hours I had spent upon it. I could see my garden. Oh, my dear garden!...
Who would see my flowers bloom? and my Jerusalem artichokes, who would tend them? Barberin, perhaps, that wicked Barberin! With the next step my garden would be hidden from me. Suddenly on the road which led to our house from the village, I saw a white sunbonnet. Then it disappeared behind some trees, then it came in view again. The distance was so great that I could only see a white top, like a spring butterfly. It was going in and out amongst the trees. But there is a time when the heart sees better and farther than the sharpest eyes. I knew it was Mother Barberin. It was she. I was sure of it.
"Well," asked Vitalis, "shall we go on now?"
"Oh, sir, no, please no."
"Then it is true what they say, you haven't any legs, tired out already. That doesn't promise very good days for us."
I did not reply, I was looking....
It was Mother Barberin. It was her bonnet. It was her blue skirt. She was walking quickly as though she was in a hurry to get home. When she got to our gate she pushed it open and went quickly up the garden path. I jumped up at once and stood up on the bank, without giving a thought to Capi, who sprang towards me. Mother Barberin did not stay long in the house. She came out and began running to and fro, in the yard, with her arms stretched out.
She was looking for me. I leaned forwards and, at the top of my voice, I cried:
"Mamma! Mamma!" But my cry could not reach her, it was lost in the air.
"What's the matter? Have you gone crazy?" asked Vitalis.
I did not reply; my eyes were still fixed on Mother Barberin. But she did not look up, for she did not know that I was there above her. She went round the garden, then out into the road, looking up and down. I cried louder, but like my first call it was useless. Then Vitalis understood, and he also came up on the bank. It did not take him long to see the figure with the white sunbonnet.
"Poor little chap," he said softly to himself.
"Oh," I sobbed, encouraged by his words of pity, "do let me go back." But he took me by the wrist and drew me down and onto the road.
"As you are now rested," he said, "we'll move on."
I tried to free myself, but he held me firmly.
"Capi! Zerbino," he said, looking at the dogs. The two dogs came close to me; Capi behind, Zerbino in front. After taking a few steps I turned round. We had passed the bend of the hill and I could no longer see the valley nor our house.