Nobody's Boy/Chapter XXI
MEETING OLD FRIENDS
IT took us nearly three months to do this journey, but when at last we reached the outskirts of Varses we found that we had indeed employed our time well. In my leather purse I now had one hundred and twenty-eight francs. We were only short of twenty-two francs to buy Mother Barberin's cow.
Mattia was almost as pleased as I, and he was very proud that he had contributed his part to such a sum. His part was great, for I am sure that without him, Capi and I could not have collected anything like the sum of one hundred and twenty-eight francs! From Varses to Chavanon we could easily gain the twenty-two francs that we were short.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon when we arrived at Varses and a radiant sun shone in the clear sky, but the nearer we got to the town the darker became the atmosphere. Between the sky and the earth hung a cloud of smoke.
I knew that Alexix's uncle was a miner at Varses, but I did not know whether he lived in the town itself or outside. I simply knew that he worked in a mine called the "Truyère."
Upon entering the town I asked where this mine was situated, and I was directed to the left bank of the river Divonne, in a little dale, traversed by a ravine, after which the mine had been named. This dale is as unattractive as the town.
At the office they told us where Uncle Gaspard, Alexix's uncle, lived. It was in a winding street, which led from the hill to the river, at a little distance from the mine.
When we reached the house, a woman who was leaning up against the door talking to two or three neighbors told me that Gaspard, the miner, would not be back until six o'clock.
"What do you want of him?" she asked.
"I want to see Alexix, his nephew."
"Oh? you're Remi?" she said. "Alexix has spoken of you. He's been expecting you. Who's that boy?" She pointed to Mattia.
"He's my friend."
This woman was Alexix's aunt. I thought she would ask us to go in and rest, for we were very dusty and tired, but she simply repeated that if I would return at six o'clock I could see Alexix, who was then at the mine. I had not the heart to ask for what was not offered. I thanked her and went into the town to find a baker, to get something to eat. I was ashamed of this reception, for I felt that Mattia would wonder what it meant. Why should we have tramped so many miles for this.
It seemed to me that Mattia would have a poor idea of my friends, and that when I should speak to him of Lise he would not listen to me with the same interest. And I wanted him very much to like Lise. The cold welcome that the aunt had given us did not encourage me to return to the house, so at a little before six o'clock, Mattia, Capi, and I went to the entrance of the mine to wait for Alexix.
We had been told by which gallery the miners would come out, and a little after six we began to see in the dark shadows of the gallery some tiny lights which gradually became larger. The miners, with lamp in hand, were coming up into the day, their work finished. They came on slowly, with heavy gait, as though they suffered in the knees. I understood how this was later, when I myself had gone over the staircases and ladders which led to the last level. Their faces were as black as chimney sweeps; their clothes and hats covered with coal dust. Each man entered the lamplighter's cabin and hung up his lamp on a nail.
Although keeping a careful lookout, I did not see Alexix until he had rushed up to me. I should have let him pass without recognizing him. It was hard to recognize in this boy, black from head to foot, the chum who had raced with me down the garden paths in his clean shirt, turned up to the elbows, and his collar thrown open, showing his White skin.
"It's Remi," he cried, turning to a man of about forty years, who walked near him, and who had a kind, frank face like M. Acquin. This was not surprising, considering that they were brothers. I knew that this was Uncle Gaspard.
"We've been expecting you a long time," he said, smiling.
"The road is long from Paris to Varses," I said, smiling back.
"And your legs are short," he retorted, laughing.
Capi, happy at seeing Alexix, expressed his joy by tugging at the leg of his trousers with all his might. During this time I explained to Uncle Gaspard that Mattia was my friend and partner, and that he played the cornet better than any one.
"And there's Monsieur Capi," said Uncle Gaspard; "you'll be rested to-morrow, so you can entertain us, for it's Sunday. Alexix says that that dog is cleverer than a schoolmaster and a comedian combined."
As much as I felt ill at ease with the aunt, so I felt at ease with Uncle Gaspard.
"Now, you two boys talk together," he said cheerily, "I am sure that you have a lot to say to each other. I'm going to have a chat with this young man who plays the cornet so well."
Alexix wanted to know about my journey, and I wanted to know about his work; we were so busy questioning each other that neither of us waited for a reply.
When we arrived at the house, Uncle Gaspard invited us to supper; never did an invitation give me such pleasure, for I had wondered as we walked along if we should have to part at the door, the aunt's welcome not having given us much hope.
"Here's Remi and his friend," said the father, entering the house.
We sat down to supper. The meal did not last long, for the aunt, who was a gossiper, was only serving delicatessen that evening. The hard-working miner ate his delicatessen supper without a word of complaint. He was an easy going man who, above all, liked peace: He never complained; if he had a remark to pass it was said in a quiet, gentle way. The supper was soon over.
Uncle Gaspard told me that I could sleep with Alexix that night, and told Mattia that if he would go with him into the bakehouse he would make him up a bed there.
That evening and the greater part of the night Alexix and I spent talking.
Everything that Alexix told me excited me strangely. I had always wanted to go down in a mine, but when I spoke of it the next day to Uncle Gaspard he told me that he could not possibly take me down as only those who worked in the colliery were permitted to enter.
"If you want to be a miner," he said, "it will be easy. It's not worse than any other job. It's better than being a singer on the streets. You can stay here with Alexix. We'll get a job for Mattia also, but not in playing the cornet, oh no."
I had no intention of staying at Varses; there was something else I had set myself to do. I was about to leave the town without my curiosity being satisfied when circumstances came about in which I learned, in all their horror, the dangers to which the miners are exposed.
On the day that I was to leave Varses a large block of coal fell on Alexix's hand and almost crushed his finger. For several days he was obliged to give the hand complete rest. Uncle Gaspard was in despair, for now he had no one to push his car and he was afraid that he also would be obliged to stay at home, and he could ill afford to do this.
"Why can't I take his place?" I asked, when he returned home after hunting in vain for a boy.
"I was afraid the car would be too heavy for you, my boy," he said, "but if you'd be willing to try, you'd help me a mighty lot. It is hard to find a boy for a few days only."
"And while you are down in the mine I'll go off with Capi and earn the rest of the money for the cow," cried Mattia.
The three months that we had lived together in the open air had completely changed Mattia. He was no longer the poor, pale boy whom I had found leaning up against the church; much less was he the monster whom I had seen for the first time in Garofoli's attic, looking after the soup, and from time to time clasping his hands over his poor aching head. Mattia never had a headache now. He was never unhappy, neither was he thin or sad. The beautiful sun and the fresh air had given him health and spirits. On our tramps he was always laughing and in a good humor, seeing the best side of everything, amused at anything, happy at nothing. How lonely I would have been without him!
We were so utterly different in character, perhaps that was why we got on so well together. He had a sweet, sunny disposition, a little careless, and with a delightful way of overcoming difficulties. We might well have quarreled when I was teaching him to read and giving his lessons in music, for I had not the patience of a schoolmaster. I was often unjust to him, but never once did he show signs of anger.
It was understood that while I was down in the mine Mattia and Capi were to go off into the suburbs and give "musical and dramatic performances" and thereby increase our fortune. Capi, to whom I explained this arrangement, appeared to understand and accordingly barked approval.
The next day, following close in Uncle Gaspard's footsteps, I went down into the deep, dark mine. He bade me be very cautious, but there was no need for his warning. It is not without a certain fear and anxiety that one leaves the light of day to enter into the bowels of the earth. When far down the gallery I instinctively looked back, but the daylight at the end of the long black tube looked like a white globe,—like the moon in a dark, starless sky. Soon the big, black pit yawned before us. Down below I could see the swaying lamps of other miners as they descended the ladder. We reached the stall where Uncle Gaspard worked on the second level. All those employed in pushing the cars were young boys, with the exception of one whom they called Professor. He was an old man who, in his younger days had worked as a carpenter in the mine but through an accident, which had crushed his fingers, had been obliged to give up his trade. I was soon to learn what it meant to be a miner.