Nobody's Boy/Chapter IX
I HAD a pleasant remembrance of Pau, the beautiful winter resort where the wind scarcely ever blew. We stayed there the whole winter, for we were taking in quite a lot of money. Our audience consisted mostly of children, and they were never tired if we did give the same performance over and over again. They were children of the rich, mostly English and American. Fat little boys, with ruddy skins, and pretty little girls with soft eyes almost as beautiful as Dulcie's. It was from these children that I got a taste for candy, for they always came with their pockets stuffed with sweets which they divided between Pretty-Heart, the dogs, and myself. But when the spring approached our audience grew smaller. One by one, two by two, the little ones came to shake hands with Pretty-Heart, Capi, and Dulcie. They had come to say good-by. They were going away. So we also had to leave the beautiful winter resort and take up our wandering life again.
For a long time, I do not know how many days or weeks, we went through valleys, over hills, leaving behind the bluish top of the Pyrenees, which now looked like a mass of clouds.
Then one night we came to a great town with ugly red brick houses and with streets paved with little pointed stones, hard to the feet of travelers who had walked a dozen miles a day. My master told me that we were in Toulouse and that we should stay there for a long time. As usual, the first thing we did was to look about for a suitable place to hold the next day's performance. Suitable places were not lacking, especially near the Botanical Gardens, where there is a beautiful lawn shaded with big trees and a wide avenue leading to it. It was in one of the side walks that we gave our first performance.
A policeman stood by while we arranged our things. He seemed annoyed, either because he did not like dogs, or because he thought we had no business there; he tried to send us away. It would have been better if we had gone. We were not strong enough to hold out against the police, but my master did not think so. Although he was an old man, strolling about the country with his dogs, he was very proud. He considered that as he was not breaking the law, he should have police protection, so when the officer wanted to send us away, he refused to leave.
Vitalis was very polite; in fact he carried his Italian politeness to the extreme. One might have thought that he was addressing some high and mighty personage.
"The illustrious gentleman, who represents the police authority," he said, taking off his hat and bowing low to the policeman, "can he show me an order emanating from the said authority, which states that it is forbidden for poor strolling players, like ourselves, to carry on their humble profession on a public square?"
The policeman replied that he would have no argument. We must obey.
"Certainly," replied Vitalis, "and I promise that I will do as you order as soon as you let me know by what authority you issue it."
That day the officer turned on his heels, and my master, with hat in hand, body bent low, smilingly bowed to the retreating form.
But the next day the representative of the law returned, and jumping over the ropes which inclosed our theater, he sprang into the middle of the performance.
"Muzzle those dogs," he said roughly to Vitalis.
"Muzzle my dogs!"
"It's an order of the law, you ought to know that!"
The spectators began to protest.
"Let him finish the show, cop!"
Vitalis then took off his felt hat, and with his plumes sweeping the ground, he made three stately bows to the officer.
"The illustrious gentleman representing the law, does he tell me that I must muzzle my actors?" he asked.
"Yes, and be quick about it!"
"Muzzle Capi, Zerbino, and Dulcie," cried Vitalis, addressing himself more to the audience than to the officer; "how can the great physician, Capi, known throughout the universe, prescribe a cure for Mr. Pretty-Heart, if the said physician wears a muzzle on the end of his nose?"
The children and parents began to laugh. Vitalis encouraged by the applause, continued:
"And how can the charming nurse, Dulcie, use her eloquence to persuade the patient to take the horrible medicine which is to relieve him of his pains if I am forced to carry out this cruel order of the law? I ask the audience if this is fair?"
The clapping of hands and shouts of laughter from the onlookers was answer enough. They cheered Vitalis and hooted the policeman and, above all, they were amused at the grimaces Pretty-Heart was making. He had taken his place behind the "illustrious gentleman who represented the law," and was making ridiculous grimaces behind his back. The officer crossed his arms, then uncrossed them and stuck his fists on his hips and threw back his head, so did the monkey. The onlookers screamed with laughter.
The officer turned round suddenly to see what amused them, and saw the monkey striking his own attitude to perfection. For some moments the monkey and the man stared at each other. It was a question which would lower his eyes first. The crowd yelled with delight.
"If your dogs are not muzzled to-morrow," cried the policeman, angrily shaking his first, "you'll be arrested. That's all."
"Good-day, until to-morrow, Signor," said Vitalis, bowing, "until to-morrow...."
As the officer strode away, Vitalis stood with his body almost bent to the ground in mock respect.
I thought that he would buy some muzzles for the dogs, but he did nothing of the kind, and the evening passed without him even mentioning his quarrel with the policeman. I decided at last to broach the subject myself.
"If you don't want Capi to tear off his muzzle to-morrow during the performance," I said, "I think it would be a good thing to put it on him beforehand, and let him get used to it. We can teach him that he must keep it on."
"You think I am going to put one of those things on their little noses?"
"The officer is down on us."
"You are only a country boy. Like all peasants you are afraid of a policeman.
"Don't worry," he added, "I'll have matters arranged to-morrow so that the policeman can't have me arrested, and at the same time so that the dogs won't be uncomfortable. On the other hand, the public shall be amused a bit. This officer should be the means of bringing us some more money and, in the bargain, play the comic rôle in the piece that I shall prepare for him. Now, to-morrow, you are to go there alone with Pretty-Heart. You will arrange the ropes, and play a few pieces on your harp, and when you have a large audience the officer will arrive on the scene. I will make my appearance with the dogs. Then the farce will commence."
I did not at all like going alone the next day, but I knew that my master must be obeyed.
As soon as I got to our usual place I roped off an inclosure and commenced to play. The people came from all parts and crowded outside the ropes. By now I had learnt to play the harp and sing very well. Amongst other songs, I had learnt a Neapolitan canzonetta which was always greatly applauded. But to-day I knew that the crowd had not come to pay tribute to my talent. All who had witnessed the dispute with the officer the day before were present, and had brought their friends with them. The police are not liked at Toulouse, and the public were curious to see how the old Italian would come out, and what significance was attached to his parting words, "Until to-morrow, Signor." Several of the spectators, seeing me alone with Pretty-Heart, interrupted my song to ask if the "old Italian" was coming.
I nodded. The policeman arrived. Pretty-Heart saw him first. He at once put his clenched hands on his hips and began trotting around in a ridiculously important manner. The crowd laughed at his antics and clapped their hands. The officer glared at me angrily.
How was it going to end? I was rather ill at ease. If Vitalis were there he could reply to the officer. But I was alone. If he ordered me away, what should I say?
The policeman strode back and forth outside the ropes, and when he passed near me, he had a way of looking at me over his shoulder that did not reassure me.
Pretty-Heart did not understand the seriousness of the situation, so he gleefully strutted along inside the ropes, side by side with the officer, mimicking his every movement. As he passed me, he also looked at me over his shoulder in such a comical manner that the people laughed still louder.
I thought the matter had gone far enough, so I called Pretty-Heart, but he was in no mood to obey, and continued his walk, running and dodging me when I tried to catch him. I don't know how it happened, but the policeman, probably mad with rage, thought that I was encouraging the monkey, for he quickly jumped the ropes. In a moment he was upon me, and had knocked me to the ground with one blow. When I opened my eyes and got to my feet Vitalis, who had sprung from I don't know where, stood before me. He had just seized the policeman's wrist.
"I forbid you to strike that child," he cried, "what a cowardly thing to do!"
For some moments the two men looked at each other. The officer was purple with rage. My master was superb. He held his beautiful white head high; his face expressed indignation and command. His look was enough to make the policeman sink into the earth, but he did nothing of the kind. He wrenched his hand free, seized my master by the collar and roughly pushed him before him. Vitalis stumbled and almost fell, but he drew himself up quickly and with his free hand struck the officer on the wrist. My master was a strong man, but still he was an old man, and the policeman was young and robust. I saw how a struggle would end. But there was no struggle.
"You come along with me," said the officer, "you're under arrest."
"Why did you strike that child?" demanded Vitalis.
"No talk. Follow me."
Vitalis did not reply, but turned round to me.
"Go back to the inn," he said, "and stay there with the dogs. I'll send word to you."
He had no chance to say more, for the officer dragged him off. So ended the performance that my poor master had wanted to make amusing. The dogs at first had followed their master, but I called them back, and accustomed to obey, they returned to me. I noticed that they were muzzled, but instead of their faces being inclosed in the usual dog-muzzle, they simply wore a pretty piece of silk fastened round their noses and tied under their chins. Capi, who was white, wore red; Zerbino, who was black, wore white, and Dulcie, who was gray, wore blue. My poor master had thus carried out the order of the law.
The public had quickly dispersed. A few stragglers remained to discuss what had happened.
"The old man was right."
"He was wrong."
"Why did the cop strike the boy? He did nothing to him; never said a word."
"Bad business. The old fellow will go to jail, for sure!"
I went back to the inn, depressed. I had grown very fond of my master, more and more every day. We lived the same life together from morning till night, and often from night to morning, when we had to sleep on the same bed of straw. No father could have shown more care for his child than he showed for me. He had taught me to read, to sing, and to write. During our long tramps he gave me lessons, first on one subject then on another. On very cold days he shared his coverings with me, on hot days he had always helped me carry the bags, and the various things which I was supposed to carry. And when we ate he never served me the worst piece, keeping the best for himself; on the contrary, he shared it equally, the good and the bad. It is true, he sometimes pulled my ears more roughly than I liked, but if I needed the correction, what of that? In a word, I loved him, and he loved me. For how long would they send him to prison? What should I do during that time? How should I live?
Vitalis was in the habit of carrying his money on him, and he had not had time to give me anything before he was dragged off. I had only a few sous in my pocket. Would it be enough to buy food for Pretty-Heart, the dogs, and myself? I spent the next two days in agony, not daring to leave the inn. The monkey and the dogs were also very downcast. At last, on the third day, a man brought me a letter from him. Vitalis wrote me that on the following Saturday he was to be tried for resisting police authority, and for attacking an officer.
"I was wrong to get into a temper," he wrote. "This may cost me dearly, but it is too late now. Come to the court, you will learn a lesson." Then he gave me some advice, and sent his love to me, telling me to caress the animals for him.
While I was reading the letter, Capi, standing between my feet, put his nose to the paper, and sniffed it. I could see by the way he wagged his tail that he knew it had come from his master. This was the first time in three days that he had showed any signs of joy.
I got to the court early on Saturday morning. Many of the people who had witnessed the scene with the policeman were present. I was so scared at being in court, that I got behind a large stove and squeezed up as small as I could against the wall. Some men who had been arrested for robbery, others for fighting, were tried first. All said that they were innocent, but all were found guilty. At last Vitalis was brought in. He sat down on a bench between two policemen. What he said at first, and what they asked him, I scarcely knew, my emotion was so great. I stared at Vitalis; he stood upright, his white head thrown back. He looked ashamed and worried. I looked at the judge.
"You gave blows to the officer who arrested you," said the judge.
"Not blows, your Honor," said Vitalis, "I only struck once. When I got to the place where we were to give our performance, I was just in time to see the officer fell a child to the ground with a blow, the little boy who is with me."
"The child is not yours."
"No, but I love him as my own son. When I saw him struck I lost my temper and seized the policeman's arm so that he could not strike again."
"You struck him?"
"When he laid his hands on me I thought of him only as a man, not as a police officer."
The officer then said what he had to say.
Vitalis' eyes roamed around the room. I knew that he was looking to see if I were there, so I decided to come out of my hiding place, and elbowing through the crowd of people, I came and stood beside him. His face lit up when he saw me. Presently, the trial ended. He was sentenced to two months' imprisonment and a fine of one hundred francs. Two months' prison! The door through which Vitalis had entered was opened. Through my tears I saw him follow a policeman, and the door closed behind him. Two months' separation!
Where should I go?