Nobody's Boy/Chapter XVIII
WHEN I awoke I was in a bed, and the flames from a big fire lit up the room in which I was lying. I had never seen this room before, nor the people who stood near the bed. There was a man in a gray smock and clogs, and three or four children. One, which I noticed particularly, was a little girl about six years old, with great big eyes that were so expressive they seemed as though they could speak.
I raised myself on my elbow. They all came closer.
"Vitalis?" I asked.
"He is asking for his father," said a girl, who seemed to be the eldest of the children.
"He is not my father; he is my master," I said; "where is he? where's Capi?"
If Vitalis had been my father they perhaps would have broken the news to me gently, but as he was only my master, they thought that they could tell me the truth at once.
They told me that my poor master was dead. The gardener, who lived on the grounds outside of which we had fallen exhausted, had found us early the next morning, when he and his son were starting off with their vegetables and flowers to the markets. They found us lying, huddled together in the snow, with a little covering of their straw over us. Vitalis was already dead, and I should have died but Capi had crept up to my chest and kept my heart warm. They had carried us into the house and I had been placed in one of the children's warm beds.
"And Capi?" I asked, when the gardener stopped talking.
"Yes, the dog."
"I don't know, he's disappeared."
"He followed the body," said one of the children. "Didn't you see him, Benjamin?"
"Should say I did," answered another boy; "he walked behind the men who carried the stretcher. He kept his head down, and now and again he jumped up on the body, and when they made him get down he moaned and howled something terrible."
Poor Capi! how many times, as an actor, had he not followed Zerbino's funeral. Even the most serious children had been obliged to laugh at his display of grief. The more he moaned, the more they had laughed.
The gardener and his children left me alone. Not knowing quite what to do or what I was going to do, I got up and dressed. My harp had been placed at the foot of the bed upon which I was lying. I passed the strap over my shoulder and went into the room where the family were. I should have to go, but where? While in bed I had not felt very weak, but now I could scarcely stand; I was obliged to hold on to a chair to keep from falling. The odor of the soup was too much for me. I was reminded brutally that I had eaten nothing the night before. I felt faint, and staggering, I dropped into a chair by the fire.
"Don't you feel well, my boy?" asked the gardener.
I told him that I did not feel very well, and I asked him to let me sit by the fire for a little while.
But it was not the heat that I wanted; it was food. I felt weaker as I watched the family take their soup. If I had dared, I would have asked for a bowl, but Vitalis had taught me not to beg. I could not tell them I was hungry. Why? I don't know, quite, unless it was that I could not ask for anything that I was unable to return.
The little girl with the strange look in her eyes, and whose name was Lise, sat opposite to me. Suddenly, she got up from the table and, taking her bowl which was full of soup, she brought it over to me and placed it on my knees. Weakly, for I could no longer speak, I nodded my head to thank her. The father did not give me time to speak even if I had been able.
"Take it, my boy," he said. "What Lise gives is given with a kind heart. There is more if you want more."
If I want more! The bowl of soup was swallowed in a few seconds. When I put down the soup, Lise, who had remained standing before me, heaved a little sigh of content. Then she took my bowl and held it out to her father to have it refilled, and when it was full she brought it to me with such a sweet smile, that in spite of my hunger, I sat staring at her, without thinking to take it from her. The second bowlful disappeared promptly like the first. It was no longer a smile that curved Lise's pretty lips; she burst out laughing.
"Well, my boy," said her father, "you've got an appetite and no mistake."
I was much ashamed, but after a moment I thought it better to confess the truth than to be thought a glutton, so I told them that I had not had any supper the night before.
"No dinner, either."
"And your master?"
"He hadn't eaten, either."
"Then he died as much from starvation as from cold."
The hot soup had given me strength. I got up to go.
"Where are you going?" asked the father.
"I don't know."
"Got any friends or relations in Paris?"
"Where do you live?"
"We hadn't any home. We only got to the city yesterday."
"What are you going to do, then?"
"Play my harp and get a little money."
"In Paris? You had better return to your parents in the country. Where do they live?"
"I haven't any parents. My master bought me from my foster parents. You have been good to me and I thank you with all my heart and, if you like, I'll come back here on Sunday and play my harp while you dance."
While speaking I had walked towards the door, but I had only taken a few steps when Lise, who followed me, took my hand and pointed to my harp.
"You want me to play now?" I asked, smiling at her.
She nodded and clapped her hands.
Although I had no heart to play, I played my prettiest waltz for this little girl. At first she listened with her big, beautiful eyes fixed on me, then she began to keep time with her feet, and very soon was dancing gayly round the kitchen, while her brothers and sisters watched her. Her father was delighted. When the waltz was finished the child came and made me a pretty curtsy. I would have played for her all day, but the father thought she had danced enough so, instead, I sang the Neapolitan song that Vitalis had taught me. Lise stood opposite me, moving her lips as though repeating the words. Then, suddenly, she turned round and threw herself into her father's arms, crying.
"That's enough music," said the father.
"Isn't she a silly?" said the brother named Benjamin, scoffingly; "first she dances, and then she cries!"
"She's not so silly as you!" retorted the elder sister, leaning over the little one affectionately. "She understands..."
While Lise cried on her father's knee, I again strapped my harp to my shoulder, and made for the door.
"Where are you going?" asked the gardener. "Wouldn't you like to stay here and work? It won't be an easy life. You'll have to get up very early in the morning and work hard all day. But you may be sure that you won't have to go through what you did last night. You will have a bed and food and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have earned it. And, if you're a good boy, which I think you are, you will be one of the family."
Lise turned round and, through her tears, she looked at me and smiled. I could hardly believe what I heard. I just stared at the gardener. Then Lise jumped off her father's knee and came up and took my hand.
"Well, what do you say, boy?" asked the father.
A family! I should have a family. I should not be alone. The man I had lived with for several years, who had been almost a father to me, was dead, and dear, good Capi, my companion and friend, whom I loved so much, was lost. I had thought that all was over for me, and here was this good man offering to take me into his family. Life would begin again for me. He said he offered me food and lodging, but what meant more to me was this home life which would be mine also. These boys would be my brothers. This pretty little Lise would be my sister. I would no longer be nobody's boy. In my childish dreams I had more than once thought I might find my father and mother, but I had never thought that I should have brothers and sisters! And this was what was being offered to me. I quickly slipped the strap of my harp from off my shoulders.
"There's his reply," said the father, laughing. "I can see by your face how pleased you are; no need for you to say anything. Hang your harp up there on the wall and when you get tired of us you may take it down and go on your way again, but you must do like the swallows, choose your season to start on your flight. Don't go off in the depth of winter."
My new family consisted of the father, whose name was Pierre Acquin, two boys, Alexix and Benjamin, and two girls, Etiennette, the elder, and Lise, the youngest of the family.
Lise was dumb. She was not born dumb, but just before her fourth birthday, through an illness, she had lost the power of speech. This affliction, fortunately, had not impaired her intelligence; quite the contrary, her intelligence was developed to an extraordinary degree. She seemed to understand everything. And her sweet, pretty ways made her adored by the family.
Since the mother had died, Etiennette had been mother to the family. She had left school early to stay at home to cook and sew and clean the house for her father and brothers. They had quite forgotten that she was the daughter, the sister; they were so accustomed to seeing her doing the work of a servant, for she seldom went out and was never angry. Carrying Lise in her arms, dragging Benny by the hand, getting up at daybreak to get her father's breakfast, going to bed late after washing the dishes, she had not had time to be a child. At fourteen years her face was serious and sad. It was not the face of a little girl.
Five minutes after I had hung my harp on the wall, I was telling them all what had happened the night before, how we had hoped to sleep on the race-course, when I heard a scratching on the door which opened onto the garden; then there was a plaintive whine.
"Capi! Capi!" I cried, jumping up quickly.
But Lise was before me; she had already opened the door.
Capi sprang upon me. I took him in my arms; with little howls of joy, and his whole body trembling, he licked my face.
"And Capi?..." I asked.
My question was understood.
"Well, Capi will remain with you, of course," said the father.
As though he knew what we were saying, the dog jumped to the ground and putting his paw straight on his heart, he bowed. It made the children laugh, especially Lise, and to amuse them I wanted Capi to perform some of his tricks, but he had no wish to obey me; he jumped on my knee and commenced to lick my face; then he sprung down and began to drag me by the sleeve of my coat.
"He wants me to go out."
"To take you to your master."
The police, who had taken Vitalis away, had said that they wished to question me when I was better. It was very uncertain as to when they would come, and I was anxious to have news. Perhaps Vitalis was not dead as they had thought. Perhaps there was still a spark of life left in my master's body.
Upon seeing my anxiety, Monsieur Acquin offered to take me to the police station. When we arrived there I was questioned at length, but I would give no information until they had declared that poor Vitalis was really dead. Then I told them what I knew. It was very little. Of myself I was able to say that I had no parents and that Vitalis had hired me for a sum of money, which he had paid in advance to my foster mother's husband.
"And now?..." inquired the commissioner.
"We are going to take care of him," interrupted my new friend; "that is, if you will let us."
The commissioner was willing to confide me to his care and complimented him upon his kind act.
It is not easy for a child to hide much from a police officer who knows his business. They very soon trap persons into telling what they wish to hide. This was so in my case. The commissioner had quickly gleaned from me all about Garofoli.
"There is nothing to do but to take him to this chap, Garofoli," he said to one of his men. "Once in the street he mentions, he will soon recognize the house. You can go up with him and question the man."
The three of us started. As the officer had said, we found the street and the house. We went up to the fourth floor. I did not see Mattia. He had probably been taken off to the hospital. Upon seeing the officer and recognizing me, Garofoli paled and looked frightened, but he soon recovered himself when he learned that they had only come to question him about Vitalis.
"So the old fellow is dead?" he said.
"You know him? Well, tell us all you can about him."
"There is not much to tell. His name was not Vitalis. He was Carlo Balzini, and if you had lived thirty-five or forty years ago in Italy, that name alone would tell you all you want to know. Carlo Balzini was the greatest singer of the day. He sang in Naples, Rome, Milan, Venice, Florence, London and Paris. Then came the time when he lost his magnificent voice, and as he could not be the greatest of singers, he would not dim his fame by singing on cheaper stages unworthy of his great reputation. Instead he preferred to hide himself from the world and from all who had known him in his triumph. Yet he had to live. He tried several professions, but could not succeed, then finally he took to training dogs. But in his poverty he was still very proud and he would have died of shame if the public could have known that the brilliant Carlo Balzini had sunk to the depths he had. It was just a matter of chance that I learned his secret."
Poor Carlo Balzini; dear, dear Vitalis!