Nobody's Boy/Chapter VI

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




CHAPTER VI

MY DÉBUT


 WE started early the next morning. The sky was blue and a light wind had come up in the night and dried all the mud. The birds were singing blithely in the trees and the dogs scampered around us. Now and again Capi stood up on his hind paws and barked into my face, two or three times. I knew what he meant. He was my friend. He was intelligent, and he understood every thing, and he knew how to make you understand. In his tail only was more wit and eloquence than in the tongue or in the eyes of many people.

Although I had never left my village and was most curious to see a town, what I most wanted to see in that town was a boot shop. Where was the welcome shop where I should find the shoes with nails that Vitalis had promised me? I glanced about in every direction as we passed down the old streets of Ussel. Suddenly my master turned into a shop behind the market. Hanging outside the front were some old guns, a coat trimmed with gold braid, several lamps, and some rusty keys. We went down three steps and found ourselves in a large room where the sun could never have entered since the roof had been put on the house. How could such beautiful things as nailed shoes be sold in such a terrible place? Yet Vitalis knew, and soon I had the pleasure of being shod in nailed shoes which were ten times as heavy as my clogs. My master's generosity did not stop there. He bought me a blue velvet coat, a pair of trousers, and a felt hat.

Velvet for me who had never worn anything but cotton! This was surely the best man in the world, and the most generous. It is true that the velvet was creased, and that the woolen trousers were well worn, and it was difficult to guess what had been the original color of the felt hat, it had been so soaked with rain; but dazzled by so much finery I was unconscious of the imperfections which were hidden under their aspect.

When we got back to the inn, to my sorrow and astonishment, Vitalis took a pair of scissors and cut the two legs of my trousers to the height of the knees, before he would let me get into them. I looked at him with round eyes.

"That's because I don't want you to look like everybody else," he explained. "When in France I'll dress you like an Italian; when in Italy, like a French boy."

I was still more amazed.

"We are artistes, are we not? Well, we must not dress like the ordinary folk. If we went about dressed like the country people, do you think anybody would look at us? Should we get a crowd around us when we stop? No! Appearances count for a great deal in life."

I was a French boy in the morning, and by night I had become an Italian. My trousers reached my knees. Vitalis interlaced red cords all down my stockings and twisted some red ribbon all over my felt hat, and then decorated it with a bunch of woolen flowers.

I don't know what others thought of me, but to be frank I must admit that I thought I looked superb; and Capi was of the same opinion, for he stared at me for a long time, then held out his paw with a satisfied air. I was glad to have Capi's approval, which was all the more agreeable, because, during the time I had been dressing, Pretty-Heart had seated himself opposite to me, and with exaggerated airs had imitated every movement I had made, and when I was finished put his hands on his hips, threw back his head, and laughed mockingly.

It is a scientific question as to whether monkeys laugh or not. I lived on familiar terms with Pretty-Heart for a long time, and I know that he certainly did laugh and often in a way that was most humiliating to me. Of course, he did not laugh like a man, but when something amused him, he would draw back the corners of his mouth, screw up his eyes, and work his jaws rapidly, while his black eyes seemed to dart flames.

"Now you're ready," said Vitalis, as I placed my hat on my head, "and we'll get to work, because to-morrow is market day and we must give a performance. You must play in a comedy with the two dogs and Pretty-Heart."

"But I don't know how to play a comedy," I cried, scared.

"That is why I am going to teach you. You can't know unless you learn. These animals have studied hard to learn their part. It has been hard work for them; but now see how clever they are. The piece we are going to play is called, 'Mr. Pretty-Heart's Servant, or The Fool is not Always the One You Would Think.' Now this is it: Mr. Pretty-Heart's servant, whose name is Capi, is about to leave him because he is getting old. And Capi has promised his master that before he leaves he will get him another servant. Now this successor is not to be a dog, it is to be a boy, a country boy named Remi."

"Oh..."

"You have just come from the country to take a position with Mr. Pretty-Heart."

"Monkeys don't have servants."

"In plays they have. Well, you've come straight from your village and your new master thinks that you're a fool."

"Oh, I don't like that!"

"What does that matter if it makes the people laugh? Well, you have come to this gentleman to be his servant and you are told to set the table. Here is one like we shall use in the play; go and set it."

On this table there were plates, a glass, a knife, a fork, and a white tablecloth. How could I arrange all those things? As I pondered over this question, leaning forward with hands stretched out and mouth open, not knowing where to begin, my master clapped his hands and laughed heartily.

"Bravo!" he cried, "bravo! that's perfect. The boy I had before put on a sly expression as much as to say, 'See what a fool I can make of myself'; you are natural; that is splendid."

"But I don't know what I have to do."

"That's why you are so good! After you do know, you will have to pretend just what you are feeling now. If you can get that same expression and stand just like you are standing now, you'll be a great success. To play this part to perfection you have only to act and look as you do at this moment."

"Mr. Pretty-Heart's Servant" was not a great play. The performance lasted not more than twenty minutes. Vitalis made us do it over and over again, the dogs and I.

I was surprised to see our master so patient. I had seen the animals in my village treated with oaths and blows when they could not learn. Although the lesson lasted a long time, not once did he get angry, not once did he swear.

"Now do that over again," he said severely, when a mistake had been made. "That is bad, Capi. I'll scold you, Pretty-Heart, if you don't pay attention."

And that was all, but yet it was enough.

"Take the dogs for an example," he said, while teaching me; "compare them with Pretty-Heart. Pretty-Heart has, perhaps, vivacity and intelligence, but he has no patience. He learns easily what he is taught, but he forgets it at once; besides he never does what he is told willingly. He likes to do just the contrary. That is his nature, and that is why I do not get angry with him; monkeys have not the same conscience that a dog has; they don't understand the meaning of the word 'duty,' and that is why they are inferior to the dog. Do you understand that?"

"I think so."

"You are intelligent and attentive. Be obedient, do your best in what you have to do. Remember that all through life."

Talking to him so, I summoned up courage to ask him about what had so astonished me during the rehearsal: how could he be so wonderfully patient with the dogs, the monkey, and myself?

He smiled.

"One can see that you have lived only with peasants who are rough with animals, and think that they can only be made to obey by having a stick held over their heads. A great mistake. One gains very little by being cruel, but one can obtain a lot, if not all, by gentleness. It is because I am never unkind to my animals that they are what they are. If I had beaten them they would be frightened creatures; fear paralyzes the intelligence. Besides, if I gave way to temper I should not be what I am; I could not have acquired this patience which has won their confidence. That shows that who instructs others, instructs himself. As I have given lessons to my animals, so I have received lessons from them. I have developed their intelligence; they have formed my character."

I laughed. This seemed strange to me.

"You find that odd," he continued; "odd that a dog could give a lesson to a man, yet it is true. The master is obliged to watch over himself when he undertakes to teach a dog. The dog takes after the master. Show me your dog and I'll tell you what you are. The criminal has a dog who is a rogue. The burglar's dog is a thief; the country yokel has a stupid, unintelligent dog. A kind, thoughtful man has a good dog."

I was very nervous at the thought of appearing before the public the next day. The dogs and the monkey had the advantage over me, they had played before, hundreds of times. What would Vitalis say if I did not play my part well? What would the audience say? I was so worried that, when at last I dropped off to sleep, I could see in my dreams a crowd of people holding their sides with laughter because I was such a fool.

I was even more nervous the next day, when we marched off in a procession to the market place, where we were to give our performance. Vitalis led the way. Holding his head high and with chest thrown out, he kept time with his arms and feet while gayly playing his fife. Behind him came Capi, carrying Pretty-Heart on his back, wearing the uniform of an English general, a red coat and trousers trimmed with gold braid and helmet topped with a plume. Zerbino and Dulcie came next, at a respectful distance. I brought up the rear. Our procession took up some length as we had to walk a certain space apart. The piercing notes of the fife brought the people running from their houses. Scores of children ran behind us, and by the time we had reached the square, there was a great crowd. Our theater was quickly arranged. A rope was fastened to four trees and in the middle of this square we took our places.

The first numbers on the program consisted of various tricks performed by the dogs. I had not the slightest notion what they did. I was so nervous and taken up in repeating my own part. All that I remember was that Vitalis put aside his fife and took his violin and played accompaniments to the dogs' maneuvers; sometimes it was dance music, sometimes sentimental airs.

The tricks over, Capi took a metal cup between his teeth and began to go the round of the "distinguished audience." When a spectator failed to drop a coin in, he put his two fore paws upon the reluctant giver's pocket, barked three times, then tapped the pocket with his paw. At this every one laughed and shouted with delight.

"If that ain't a cunning spaniel! He knows who's got money and who hasn't!"

"Say, out with it!"

"He'll give something!"

"Not he!"

"And his uncle left him a legacy! The stingy cuss!"

And, finally, a penny was dug out of a deep pocket and thrown into the cup. During this time, Vitalis, without saying a word, but with his eyes following Capi, gayly played his violin. Soon Capi returned to his master, proudly carrying the full cup.

Now for the comedy.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said Vitalis, gesticulating with his bow in one hand and his violin in the other, "we are going to give a delightful comedy, called 'Mr. Pretty-Heart's Servant, or the Fool is not Always the One You Would Think.' A man of my standing does not lower himself by praising his plays and actors in advance. All I have to say is look, listen, and be ready to applaud."

What Vitalis called a delightful comedy was really a pantomime; naturally it had to be for the very good reason that two of its principals, Pretty-Heart and Capi, could not speak, and the third, myself, was incapable of uttering two words. However, so that the audience would clearly understand the play, Vitalis explained the various situations, as the piece progressed. For instance, striking up a warlike air, he announced the entrance of General Pretty-Heart, who had won his high rank in various battles in India. Up to that day General Pretty-Heart had only had Capi for a servant, but he now wished to have a human being as his means allowed him this luxury. For a long time animals had been the slaves of men, but it was time that such was changed!

While waiting for the servant to arrive, the General walked up and down, smoking his cigar. You should see the way he blew the smoke into the onlookers' faces! Becoming impatient, he began to roll his eyes like a man who is about to have a fit of temper. He bit his lips, and stamped on the ground. At the third stamp I had to make my appearance on the scene, led by Capi. If I had forgotten my part the dog would have reminded me. At a given moment he held out his paw to me and introduced me to the General. The latter, upon noticing me, held up his two hands in despair. What! Was that the servant they had procured for him. Then he came and looked pertly up into my face, and walked around me, shrugging his shoulders. His expression was so comical that every one burst out laughing. They quite understood that the monkey thought I was a fool. The spectators thought that also. The piece was made to show how dense was my stupidity, while every opportunity was afforded the monkey to show his sagacity and intelligence. After having examined me thoroughly, the General, out of pity, decided to keep me. He pointed to a table that was already set for luncheon, and signed to me to take my seat.

"The General thinks that after his servant has had something to eat he won't be such an idiot," explained Vitalis.

I sat down at the little table; a table napkin was placed on my plate. What was I to do with the napkin?

Capi made a sign for me to use it. After looking at it thoughtfully for a moment, I blew my nose. Then the General held his sides with laughter, and Capi fell over with his four paws up in the air, upset at my stupidity.

Seeing that I had made a mistake, I stared again at the table napkin, wondering what I was to do with it. Then I had an idea. I rolled it up and made a necktie for myself. More laughter from the General. Another fall from Capi, his paws in the air.

Then, finally overcome with exasperation, the General dragged me from the chair, seated himself at my place, and ate up the meal that had been prepared for me.

Ah! he knew how to use a table napkin! How gracefully he tucked it into his uniform, and spread it out upon his knees. And with what an elegant air he broke his bread and emptied his glass!

The climax was reached when, luncheon over, he asked for a toothpick, which he quickly passed between his teeth. At this, applause broke out on all sides, and the performance ended triumphantly.

What a fool of a servant and what a wonderful monkey!

On our way back to the inn Vitalis complimented me, and I was already such a good comedian that I appreciated this praise from my master.