Nobody's Boy/Chapter XIII

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CHAPTER XIII

WEARY DREARY DAYS


 AGAIN I had to tramp behind my master with the harp strapped to my shoulder, through the rain, the sun, the dust, and the mud. I had to play the fool and laugh and cry in order to please the "distinguished audience."

More than once in our long walks I lagged behind to think of Arthur, his mother, and the Swan. When I was in some dirty village how I would long for my pretty cabin on the barge. And how rough the sheets were now. It was terrible to think that I should never again play with Arthur, and never hear his mother's voice.

Fortunately in my sorrow, which was very deep, I had one consolation; Vitalis was much kinder, kinder than he had ever been before. His manner with me had quite changed. I felt that he was more to me than a master now. Often, if I dared, I would have embraced him, I so needed love. But I had not the courage, for Vitalis was not a man with whom one dared be familiar. At first it had been fear that kept me at a distance, but now it was something vague, which resembled a sentiment of respect.

When I left the village I had looked upon Vitalis the same as the other men of the poorer class. I was not able to make distinctions, but the two months that I had lived with Mrs. Milligan had opened my eyes and developed my intelligence. Looking at my master with more attention, it seemed to me that in manner and bearing he appeared to be very superior. His ways were like Mrs. Milligan's ways...

Weeks passed. On our tramps, now, my eyes were always turned in the direction of the water, not to the hills. I was always hoping that one day I should see the Swan. If I saw a boat in the distance I always thought that it might be the Swan. But it was not.

We passed several days at Lyons, and all my spare time I spent on the docks, looking up and down the river. I described the beautiful barge to the fishermen and asked them if they had seen it, but no one had seen it.

We had to leave Lyons at last and went on to Dijon; then I began to give up hope of ever seeing Mrs. Milligan again, for at Lyons I had studied all the maps of France, and I knew that the Swan could not go farther up the river to reach the Loire. It would branch off at Chalon. We arrived at Chalon, and we went on again without seeing it. It was the end of my dream.

To make things worse, the winter was now upon us, and we had to tramp along wearily in the blinding rain and slush. At night, when we arrived at a wretched inn, or in a barn, tired out, wet to the skin, I could not drop off to sleep with laughter on my lips. Sometimes we were frozen to the bone, and Pretty-Heart was as sad and mournful as myself.

My master's object was to get to Paris as quickly as possible, for it was only in Paris that we had a chance to give performances during the winter. We were making very little money now, so we could not afford to take the train.

After the cold sleet, the wind turned to the north. It had been very damp for several days. At first we did not mind the biting north wind in our faces, but soon the sky filled with great black clouds and the wintry sun disappeared altogether. We knew that a snowstorm was coming.

Vitalis was anxious to get to the next big town, where we could stay and give several performances, if very bad weather overtook us.

"Go to bed quickly," he said, when we got to an inn that night; "we are going to start at a very early hour to-morrow, because I don't want to be caught in a snowstorm."

He did not go to bed at once, but sat down by a corner of the kitchen fire to warm Pretty-Heart, who was suffering terribly from the cold. The monkey had not ceased moaning, although we had wrapped him up in plenty of coverlets.

The next morning I got up early as I had been told. It was not yet day, the sky was lowering and black, and there was not a star to be seen. When we opened the door a strong wind almost took us off our feet.

"If I were in your place," said the innkeeper to Vitalis, "I wouldn't venture out. We're going to have a terrible snowstorm."

"I'm in a hurry," replied Vitalis, "and I want to get to Troyes before it comes on."

"Thirty miles."

Nevertheless, we started.

Vitalis held Pretty-Heart tight against his body so as to give him some of his own warmth, and the dogs, pleased with the hard dry roads, raced before us. My master had bought a sheepskin for me at Dijon, and I wrapped myself up in it with the wool inside.

It was anything but agreeable when we opened our mouths, so we walked along in silence, hurrying as much to get warm as to get ahead. Although it was long past the hour of daybreak, the sky was still quite black. Although to the east a whitish band cut the clouds, yet the sun would not come out. Looking across the country, objects were now becoming more distinct. We could see the trees stripped of their leaves, and the shrubs and bushes with dry foliage rustling and cracking with the heavy gusts of wind. There was no one on the roads, nor in the fields, not a sound of cart wheels, nor the crack of a whip.

Suddenly, in the distance, we could see a pale streak which got larger and larger as it came towards us. Then we heard a sort of hissing murmur, the strange, harsh cry of the wild geese. The maddened flock flew over our heads; on they went, wildly fleeing from the north towards the south. Before they were out of sight, soft flakes were dropping gently from the skies and floating in the atmosphere.

The country through which we tramped was desolate and bleak, the mournful aspect seemed to add to the silence; only the shrill whistling of the north wind was heard. Snowflakes, like tiny butterflies, fluttered around us, whirling incessantly without touching the ground.

We made little headway. It seemed impossible that we could reach Troyes before the storm was fully upon us. But I did not worry; I thought that if the snow fell it would not be so cold.

I did not know what a snow storm could be. It was not long before I learned, and in a way that I shall never forget. The clouds were gathering from the northwest. The flakes no longer hovered in the air, but fell straight and swift, covering us from head to foot.

"We shall have to take shelter in the first house we come to," murmured Vitalis; "we cannot make Troyes."

I was pleased to hear him say that, but where could we find shelter? As far as the eye could reach there was not a house to be seen, nor anything to indicate that we were nearing a village.

Before us lay a forest with its dark depths, and on either side of us the hills. The snow came down faster and thicker.

We tramped in silence. My master lifted his sheepskin now and again for Pretty-Heart to breathe more easily. From time to time we had to turn our heads to one side, so that we also could breathe. The dogs no longer raced ahead; they walked at our heels asking for the shelter that we were unable to give them.

We went slowly and painfully on, blinded, wet and frozen, and, although we were now in the heart of the forest, the road through it was exposed to the full wind. Several times I saw my master glance to the left, as though he were looking for something, but he said nothing. What did he hope to find? I looked straight before me, down the long road. As far as my eye could reach, I could see nothing but woods on either side. I thought we should never come to the end of that forest.

I had seen the snow falling only through the window panes of a warm kitchen. How far off that warm kitchen seemed now! Our feet sunk into the white bed of snow, deeper and deeper. Then, suddenly, without saying a word, Vitalis pointed to the left. I looked and saw indistinctly a little hut made of branches.

We had to find the track that led to the hut. This was difficult, for the snow was already thick enough to efface all trace of a path. We scrambled through the bushes, and after crossing a ditch, we managed at last to reach the hut and get inside. The dogs, in ecstasy, rolled over and over on the dry ground, barking. Our satisfaction was no less keen than theirs.

"I thought there would be a wood-cutter's cabin somewhere in the forest," said Vitalis. "Now, it can snow!"

"Yes, let it snow," I said defiantly; "I don't care!"

I went to the door, or rather to the opening of the hut, for there was neither door nor window, and shook my coat and hat, so as not to wet the inside of our apartment.

Our quarters were very simply but strongly built. Its furniture consisted of a heap of dirt and some big stones for seats.

In a house like this it was not difficult to find fuel; we had only to take it down from the walls and the roof, dragging out a few faggots here and there. This was quickly done, and soon we had a bright flaming fire. It is true that the hut was soon filled with smoke, but what did that matter? There was a flame, and it was heat that we wanted. I lay down, supporting myself on my two hands, and blew the fire; the dogs sat around the grate gravely; with necks stretched out they presented their wet sides to the flames.

Pretty-Heart soon ventured to peep from under Vitalis' coat; prudently putting the end of his nose outside, he looked about to take in his surroundings. Evidently satisfied, he jumped quickly to the ground and taking the best place before the fire he held out his two little trembling hands to the flames.

That morning before I had risen, Vitalis had packed some provisions. There was some bread and a piece of cheese. We all expressed satisfaction at the sight of the food. Unfortunately, we were only able to have a very small piece, for not knowing how long we should have to stay in the hut, Vitalis thought it advisable to keep some for supper. I understood, but the dogs did not, and when they saw the bread put back in the bag before they had scarcely eaten, they held out their paws to their master, scratching his neck, and performing pantomime gestures to make him open the bag upon which their eyes were fixed. But Vitalis took no notice of them; the bag was not opened. The dogs settled themselves to go to sleep, Capi with his nose in the cinders. I thought that I would follow their example.

I do not know how long I slept; when I awoke the snow had stopped falling. I looked outside. It was very deep; if we ventured out it would come above our knees.

What time was it? I could not ask Vitalis. His big silver watch, by which Capi had told the hour, had been sold. He had spent all his money to pay his prison fine, and when he bought my sheepskin at Dijon he had parted with his big watch to pay for it. From the misty atmosphere it was impossible for me to tell what hour it might be.

There was not a sound to be heard; the snow seemed to have petrified every movement of life. I was standing in the opening of our cabin when I heard my master calling.

"Do you want to get on your way?" he asked.

"I don't know; I want to do what you wish."

"Well, I think we ought to stay here; we are at least sheltered and have warmth."

That was true, but I remembered that we had no food. However, I said nothing.

"I'm afraid it will snow again," continued Vitalis. "We don't want to spend the night outside. Better stay here."

Yes, we should have to stay in the hut and tighten our belts round our stomachs, that was all.

At supper Vitalis divided the remainder of the bread. Alas, there was but little, and it was quickly eaten; we gobbled up every crumb. When our frugal supper was over I thought that the dogs would begin making signs for more as they had done before, for they were ravenous. But they did nothing of the kind, and once again I realized how great was their intelligence.

When Vitalis thrust his knife into his trouser pocket, which indicated that the feast was over, Capi got up and smelled the bag in which the food was kept. He then placed his paw on the bag to feel it. This double investigation convinced him that there was nothing left to eat. Then, coming back to his place before the fire, he looked at Zerbino and Dulcie. The look clearly signified that they would get nothing more; then he stretched himself out his entire length with a sigh of resignation. "There is nothing more. It is useless to beg." He said this to them as plainly as though he had spoken aloud.

His companions, understanding this language, also stretched out before the fire sighing, but Zerbino's sigh in no wise betokened resignation, for added to a large appetite, Zerbino was very much of a gourmand, and this was a greater sacrifice for him than for the others.

The snow had commenced to fall again; it fell persistently. We could see the white carpet on the ground rise higher and higher until the small shrubs and bushes were hidden beneath it. When night came, big flakes were still falling from the black sky onto the shimmering earth.

As we had to sleep there, the best thing to do was to go to sleep as quickly as possible. I wrapped myself up in my sheepskin, which I had dried by the fire during the day, and I laid down beside the fire, my head on a flat stone which served for a pillow.

"You go to sleep," said Vitalis; "I'll wake you when it's my turn, for although we have nothing to fear from animals or people in this cabin, one of us must keep awake to see that the fire does not go out. We must be careful not to get cold, for it will be bitter when the snow stops."

I slept. In the small hours of the night my master woke me. The fire was still burning, and the snow had stopped falling.

"It's my turn to sleep now," said Vitalis; "as the fire goes down you throw on this wood that I've got already here."

He had piled up a heap of small wood by the grate. My master, who slept much lighter than I, did not wish me to wake him by pulling down the wood from the walls each time I needed it. So from this heap that he had prepared, I could take the wood and throw on the fire without making a noise. It was a wise thing to do, but alas, Vitalis did not know what the result would be.

He stretched out now before the fire with Pretty-Heart in his coverlet cuddled up against him, and soon, from his deep breathing, I knew that he had fallen asleep. Then I got up softly and went to the opening to see how it looked outside.

All the grass, the bushes, and the trees were buried in snow. Everywhere the eye rested was a dazzling white. The sky was dotted with twinkling stars, but although they were so bright it was the snow which shed the pale light over the earth. It was much colder now; it was freezing hard.

Oh! what should we have done in the depths of the forest in the snow and the cold if we had not found this shelter?

Although I had walked on tiptoe to the opening without scarcely making a sound, I had roused the dogs, and Zerbino had followed me. The splendor of the night was nothing to him; he looked on the scene for a moment, and then became bored and wanted to go outside. I ordered him to return to his place. Foolish dog, wasn't it better to stay by the warm fire in this terrible cold than to go prowling around. He obeyed me, but with a very bad grace, and kept his eyes fixed on the entrance. I stayed there for a few minutes longer, looking at the white night. It was beautiful, but although I enjoyed it, somehow I felt a vague sadness. I could have gone inside and not looked, of course, but the white, mysterious scene held me fascinated.

At last I went back to the fire and having placed two or three long pieces of wood crossways upon one another, I sat down on the stone which had served me for a pillow. My master was sleeping calmly; the dogs and Pretty-Heart also slept, and the flames leaped from the fire and swirled upward to the roof, throwing out bright sparks. The spluttering flame was the only sound that broke the silence of the night. For a long time I watched the sparks, then little by little I began to get drowsy, without my being aware.

If I had been compelled to busy myself with getting the wood, I could have kept awake, but seated before the fire with nothing to do, I became so sleepy, and yet all the time I thought that I could manage to keep awake.

I sprang up suddenly, awakened by a violent barking! It was night. I probably had slept for a long time and the fire was almost out. No flames lit the hut now. Capi was barking loudly, furiously. But, strange! there was no sound from Zerbino or Dulcie.

"What's the matter?" cried Vitalis, waking up.

"I don't know."

"You've been to sleep, and the fire's gone out."

Capi had run to the opening, but had not ventured outside. He stood on the threshold barking.

"What has happened?" I asked in my turn.

In answer to Capi's barks came two or three mournful howls. I recognized Dulcie's voice. These howls came from behind our hut and at a very short distance.

I was going out. But Vitalis put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me.

"First," he said, in a tone of command, "put some wood on the fire."

While I obeyed, he took a sprig from the fire and blew it out until only the point remained burning. He held the torch in his hand.

"Come and see what is the matter," he said; "you walk behind me. Go ahead, Capi."

As we went out there was a frightful howl. Capi drew back, cowering behind us in terror.

"Wolves! Where are Zerbino and Dulcie?"

What could I say? The two dogs must have gone out while I slept. Zerbino had waited until I was asleep and had then crept out, and Dulcie had followed him. The wolves had got hold of them! There was fear in my master's voice when he asked for the dogs.

"Take a torch," he said, "we must go to their aid."

In our village I had heard them tell terrible stories of wolves, yet I could not hesitate. I ran back for a torch, then followed my master.

But outside we could see neither dogs nor wolves. On the snow we could see only the imprint of the two dogs' paws. We followed these traces around the hut, then at a certain distance we could see a space in the snow which looked as though some animals had been rolling in it.

"Go and look for them, Capi," said my master; at the same time he whistled to attract Zerbino and Dulcie.

But there was no barking in reply; no sound disturbed the mournful silence of the forest, and Capi, instead of running off as he was told, kept close to us, giving every sign of fear. Capi who was usually so obedient and brave!

There was not sufficient light for us to follow the imprints any distance. The snow around us was dazzling, but beyond seemed all vague and obscure.

Again Vitalis whistled and shouted for the missing dogs. There was no answering bark.

Oh, poor Zerbino; poor Dulcie!

"The wolves have got them," said Vitalis; "why did you let them go out?"

Yes? why? I had nothing to say.

"We must go and look for them," I said after a pause.

I went before him, but he stopped me.

"Where will you look for them?" he asked.

"I don't know; everywhere."

"We can't tell, in this dim light, where they have gone."

That was true, and the snow came up above our knees. Our two torches together could not penetrate the shadows.

"If they do not reply, it is because they are a long way off," he said. "We must not go on; the wolves might attack us also. We cannot defend ourselves."

It was dreadful to have to leave the poor dogs to their fate—our two friends; friends particularly to me. And the terrible part of it was that I knew that I was responsible. If I had not slept they would not have gone out.

My master had turned back to the hut. I followed, looking back at each step, stopping to listen. I heard nothing, and saw nothing but the snow.

When we reached the hut another surprise awaited us. The branches that I had thrown on the fire were aflame and lit up the darkest corners of the cabin, but Pretty-Heart was nowhere to be seen. His coverlets were there before the fire, but he was not in them. I called. Vitalis called, but he did not appear.

My master said that when he awoke the monkey was beside him, so it was while we were out that he had disappeared. With our burning torches held down to the snowy earth we started out to look for him. We found no trace of him.

We returned to the hut to see if he were hidden behind some faggots. We searched for a long time; ten times we looked in the same place, the same corners. I climbed up on Vitalis' shoulders to look amongst the branches of which the roof was made. We called again and again, but there was no answer.

Vitalis seemed angry. I was in despair. I asked my master if he thought that the wolves could have taken him also.

"No," he said, "the wolves would not dare come into the hut. I am afraid they got Zerbino and Dulcie when they went out, but they did not come in here. It is quite likely that Pretty-Heart was terrified and has hidden himself somewhere while we were outside; that is why I am so anxious. In this terrible weather he will catch cold, and cold is fatal for him."

"Well, let us keep on looking."

We went over the ground again, but all in vain.

"We must wait till day," said Vitalis.

"When will it be day?"

"In two or three hours, I think."

Vitalis sat down before the fire, with his head in his hands. I did not dare disturb him. I stood quite close to him, only moving occasionally to put some branches on the fire. Once or twice he got up and went to the door. He looked at the sky, listened attentively, then came back and sat down. I would rather that he had been angry with me, than that he should be so silent and sad.

The three hours passed slowly. It seemed that the night would never end. The stars were fading from the heavens, the sky was getting lighter. Day was breaking. But as morning came the cold grew more intense; the air which came through the door froze us to the bone.

If we did find Pretty-Heart, would he be alive?

The snow had quite stopped falling now and there was a pinkish light in the sky which foretold fine weather. As soon as it was quite light, Vitalis and I, armed with a stout stick, left the hut.

Capi did not appear so terrified as he had been the night before. With his eyes fixed on his master, he only waited for a sign from him to rush forward. As we were examining the ground for Pretty-Heart's footprints, Capi threw back his head and began to bark joyfully. He signified that we must look up, not on the ground.

In the great oak standing by the hut we found him.

Poor Pretty-Heart! Frightened by the howling of the dogs, he had jumped onto the roof of the cabin when we had gone out, and from there he had climbed to the top of an oak, where, feeling that he was in a safe place, he had remained crouching, without replying to our calls.

The poor little frail creature, he must be frozen!

My master called him gently. He did not move. We thought that he was already dead. For several minutes Vitalis continued to call him, but the monkey gave no sign of life. My heart ached with remorse. How severely I was being punished! I must atone.

"I'll go up and get him," I said.

"You'll break your neck."

"No, there is no danger. I can do it easily."

That was not true. There was danger. It was very difficult, for the large tree was covered with ice and snow.

When I was quite small I had learned to climb trees, and I was quite an adept in this art. I jumped and caught hold of the lowest branches. I held onto these, and, although blinded by the snow that fell in my eyes, I managed to climb up the trunk to the stronger branches. Once up there I had only to be careful not to lose my footing.

As I climbed I spoke softly to Pretty-Heart. He did not move, but looked at me with shining eyes. I had almost reached him and was about to stretch out my hand, when, with a spring, he had jumped to another branch. I followed him to this branch, but men, alas, and even youngsters are very inferior to monkeys when it comes to climbing trees. It is quite possible that I should never have caught him if the snow had not wet his feet. He did not like this and soon got tired of dodging me; then, letting himself drop from branch to branch, he jumped straight onto his master's shoulders and hid himself inside his coat.

It was a great thing to have found Pretty-Heart, but that was not all. Now we had to look for the dogs.

It was day now and easy for us to see what had happened. In the snow we read the death of our dogs. We followed their footprints for thirty yards. They had come out of the hut, one behind the other, Dulcie following Zerbino. Then we saw other footprints. On one side there were signs of a struggle where the wolves had sprung upon the dogs, and on the other sides were the footprints of the wolves where they trotted off, carrying their prey with them, to be devoured at their leisure. There was no trace of the dogs except a red trail of blood which here and there stained the snow.

The two poor dogs had gone to their death while I slept!

We had to get busy as quickly as possible with warming Pretty-Heart. We hurried back to the hut. While Vitalis held out the little creature's feet and hands to the fire, as one holds a tiny baby, I warmed his coverlets and we rolled him up in them. But he needed more than the coverlets; he needed a warm drink. My master and I sat by the fire, silent, watching the wood burn.

"Poor Zerbino; poor Dulcie!"

Each of us murmured these words; first he, then I.

The dogs had been our friends, our companions, in good and bad fortune, and to me in my loneliness they had meant so much. How deeply I reproached myself for not having kept watch. The wolves would not have come to attack us in our cabin; they would have stayed in the distance, frightened by the fire.

If only Vitalis would have scolded me! I wished that he would beat me. But he said nothing. He did not even look at me. He sat with his head bent over the fire; probably wondering what would become of us without the dogs.