Nobody's Boy/Chapter XII
THE MASTER'S CONSENT
IT was all to end,—this beautiful trip that I had made on the barge. No nice bed, no nice pastry, no evenings listening to Mrs. Milligan. Ah! no Mrs. Milligan or Arthur!
One day I decided to ask Mrs. Milligan how long it would take me to get back to Toulouse. I wanted to be waiting at the prison door when my master came out. When Arthur heard me speak of going back, he began to cry.
"I don't want him to go! I don't want Remi to go," he sobbed.
I told him that I belonged to Vitalis, and that he had paid a sum of money for me, and that I must return to him the moment he wanted me. I had spoken of my foster parents, but had never said that they were not really my father and mother. I felt ashamed to admit that I was a foundling,—a child picked up in the streets! I knew how the children from the Foundlings' Hospital had been scorned. It seemed to me that it was the most abject thing in the world to be a foundling. I did not want Mrs. Milligan and Arthur to know. Would they not have turned from me in disdain!
"Mamma, we must keep Remi," continued Arthur.
"I should be very pleased to keep Remi with us," replied Mrs. Milligan; "we are so fond of him. But there are two things; first, Remi would have to want to stay..."
"Oh, he does! he does!" cried Arthur, "don't you, Remi? You don't want to go back to Toulouse?"
"The second is," continued Mrs. Milligan, "will his master give him up?"
"Remi comes first; he comes first," Arthur insisted.
Vitalis had been a good master, and I was very grateful for all he had taught me, but there was no comparison between my life with him and that which I should have with Arthur, and at the same time, there was also no comparison between the respect I had for Vitalis and the affection which I felt for Mrs. Milligan and her invalid boy. I felt that it was wrong for me to prefer these strangers to my master, but it was so. I loved Mrs. Milligan and Arthur.
"If Remi stays with us it will not be all pleasure," went on Mrs. Milligan; "he would have to do lessons the same as you; he would have to study a great deal; it would not be the free life that he would have in going tramping along the roads."
"Ah, you know what I would like,..." I began.
"There, there, you see, Mamma!" interrupted Arthur.
"All that we have to do now," continued Mrs. Milligan, "is to get his master's consent. I will write and ask him if he will come here, for we cannot return to Toulouse. I will send him his fare, and explain to him the reason why we cannot take the train. I'll invite him here, and I do hope he will accept.
"If he agrees to my proposition," added Mrs. Milligan, "I will then make arrangements with your parents, Remi, for of course they must be consulted."
Consult my parents! They will tell her what I have been trying to keep secret. That I am a foundling! Then neither Arthur nor Mrs. Milligan would want me!
A boy who did not know his own father or mother had been a companion to Arthur! I stared at Mrs. Milligan in affright. I did not know what to say. She looked at me in surprise. I did not dare reply to her question when she asked me what was the matter. Probably thinking that I was upset at the thought of my master coming, she did not insist.
Arthur looked at me curiously all the evening. I was glad when bedtime came, and I could close myself in my cabin. That was my first bad night on board the Swan. What could I do? What say?
Perhaps Vitalis would not give me up, then they would never know the truth. My shame and fear of them finding out the truth was so great that I began to hope that Vitalis would insist upon me staying with him.
Three days later Mrs. Milligan received a reply to the letter she had sent Vitalis. He said that he would be pleased to come and see her, and that he would arrive the following Saturday, by the two o'clock train. I asked permission to go to the station with the dogs and Pretty-Heart to meet him.
In the morning the dogs were restless as though they knew that something was going to happen. Pretty-Heart was indifferent. I was terribly excited. My fate was to be decided. If I had possessed the courage I would have implored Vitalis not to tell Mrs. Milligan that I was a foundling, but I felt that I could not utter the word, even to him.
I stood on a corner of the railway station, holding my dogs on a leash, with Pretty-Heart under my coat, and I waited. I saw little of what passed around me. It was the dogs who warned me that the train had arrived. They scented their master. Suddenly there was a tug at the leash. As I was not on my guard, they broke loose. With a bark they bounded forward. I saw them spring upon Vitalis. More sure, although less supple than the other two, Capi had jumped straight into his master's arms, while Zerbino and Dulcie jumped at his feet.
When Vitalis saw me, he put Capi down quickly, and threw his arms around me. For the first time he kissed me.
"God bless you, my boy," he said again, and again.
My master had never been hard with me, but neither had he ever been affectionate, and I was not used to these effusions. I was touched, and the tears came to my eyes, for I was in the mood when the heart is easily stirred. I looked at him. His stay in prison had aged him greatly. His back was bent, his face paler, and his lips bloodless.
"You find me changed, don't you, Remi?" he said; "I was none too happy in prison, but I'll be better now I'm out."
Then, changing the subject, he added:
"Tell me about this lady who wrote to me; how did you get to know her?"
I told him how I had met Mrs. Milligan and Arthur in their barge, the Swan, on the canal, and of what we had seen, and what we had done. I rambled along hardly knowing what I said. Now that I saw Vitalis, I felt that it would be impossible to tell him that I wanted to leave him and stay with Mrs. Milligan.
We reached the hotel where Mrs. Milligan was staying, before my story was ended. Vitalis had not mentioned what she had proposed to him in her letter, so I said nothing of her plan.
"Is this lady expecting me?" he asked, as we entered the hotel.
"Yes, I'll take you up to her apartment," I said.
"There's no occasion for that," he replied; "I'll go up alone; you wait here for me with Pretty-Heart and the dogs."
I had always obeyed him, but in this case I felt that it was only fair for me to go up with him to Mrs. Milligan's apartment. But with a sign he stopped the words on my lips, and I was forced to stay below with the dogs.
Why didn't he want me to be present when he spoke to Mrs. Milligan? I asked myself this question again and again. I was still pondering over it when he returned.
"Go and say good-by to the lady," he said, briefly. "I'll wait for you here. We shall go in ten minutes."
I was thunderstruck.
"Well," he said, "didn't you understand me? You stand there like a stupid! Hurry up!"
He had never spoken so roughly to me. Mechanically I got up to obey, not seeming to understand. "What did you say to her?" I asked, after I had gone a few steps.
"I said that I needed you and that you needed me, and consequently I was not going to give up my rights to you. Go; I give you ten minutes to say good-by."
I was so possessed by the fact that I was a foundling, that I thought that if I had to leave immediately it was because my master had told them about my birth.
Upon entering Mrs. Milligan's apartment I found Arthur in tears and his mother bending over him.
"You won't go, Remi! Oh, Remi, tell me you won't go," he sobbed.
I could not speak. Mrs. Milligan replied for me, telling Arthur that I had to do as I was told.
"Signor Vitalis would not consent to let us have you," said Mrs. Milligan in a voice so sad.
"He's a wicked man!" cried Arthur.
"No, he is not a wicked man," continued Mrs. Milligan; "he loves you ... and he needs you. He speaks like a man far above his position. He told me,—let me see, these were his words:
"'I love that child, and he loves me. The apprenticeship in the life that I give him is good for him, better, far better, than he would have with you. You would give him an education, that is true; you would form his mind, but not his character. It is the hardships of life that alone can do that. He cannot be your son; he will be mine. That is better than to be a plaything for your sick child, however sweet he may be. I also will teach the boy.'"
"But he isn't Remi's father," cried Arthur.
"That is true, but he is his master, and Remi belongs to him. For the time being, Remi must obey him. His parents rented him to Signor Vitalis, but I will write to them and see what I can do."
"Oh, no, no, don't do that," I cried.
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, no, please don't."
"But that is the only thing to do, my child."
"Oh, please, please don't."
If Mrs. Milligan had not spoken of my parents, I should have taken much more than the ten minutes to say good-by that my master had given me.
"They live in Chavanon, do they not?" asked Mrs. Milligan.
Without replying, I went up to Arthur and, putting my arms round him, clung to him for a moment then, freeing myself from his weak clasp, I turned and held out my hand to Mrs. Milligan.
"Poor child," she murmured, kissing me on the forehead.
I hurried to the door.
"Arthur, I will love you always," I said, choking back my sobs, "and I never, never will forget you, Mrs. Milligan."
"Remi! Remi!" cried Arthur.
I closed the door. One moment later I was with Vitalis.
"Off we go," he said.
And that was how I parted from my first boy friend.