Nobody's Boy/Chapter XXIV

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CHAPTER XXIV

FRIENDSHIP THAT IS TRUE


 I LOVED Mattia when we arrived at Mendes, but when we left the town I loved him even more. I could not tell him before the barber how I felt when he cried out: "Leave my friend!"

I took his hand and squeezed it as we tramped along.

"It's till death doth us part now, Mattia," I said.

"I knew that long ago," he replied, smiling at me with his great, dark eyes.

We heard that there was going to be an important cattle fair at Ussel, so we decided to go there and buy the cow. It was on our way to Chavanon. We played in every town and village on the road, and by the time we had reached Ussel we had collected two hundred and forty francs. We had to economize in every possible manner to save this sum, but Mattia was just as interested and eager to buy the animal as I. He wanted it to be white; I wanted brown in memory of poor Rousette. We both agreed, however, that she must be very gentle and give plenty of milk.

As neither of us knew by what signs one could tell a good cow, we decided to employ the services of a veterinarian. We had heard many stories of late how people had been deceived when buying a cow, and we did not want to run any risk. It would be an expense to employ a veterinarian, but that could not be helped. We had heard of one man who had bought an animal for a very low price and when he had got her home he found that she had a false tail; another man, so we were told, had bought a cow which seemed to be in a very healthy state, and had every appearance of giving plenty of milk, but she only gave two glasses of milk in twenty-four hours. By a little trick, practiced by the cattle dealer, the animal was made to look as though she had plenty of milk.

Mattia said that as far as the false tail went we had nothing to fear, for he would hang onto the tail of every cow with all his might, before we entered into any discussion with the seller. When I told him that if it were a real tail he would probably get a kick in the stomach or on his head, his imagination cooled somewhat.

It was several years since I had arrived at Ussel with Vitalis, where he had bought me my first pair of shoes with nails. Alas! out of the six of us who started, Capi and I were the only ones left. As soon as we got to the town, after having left our baggage at the same inn where I had stayed before with Vitalis and the dogs, we began to look about for a veterinarian. We found one and he seemed very amused when we described to him the kind of a cow we wanted, and asked if he would come and buy it for us.

"But what in the world do you two boys want with a cow, and have you got the money?" he demanded.

We told him how much money we had, and how we got it, and that we were going to give a present, a surprise, to Mother Barberin of Chavanon, who had looked after me when I was a baby. He showed a very kindly interest then, and promised to meet us the next morning at the fair at seven o'clock. When we asked him his charges he refused flatly to accept anything. He sent us off laughing and told us to be at the fair on time.

The next day at daybreak the town was full of excitement. From our room at the inn we could hear the carts and wagons rolling over the cobblestones in the street below, and the cows bellowing, the sheep bleating, the farmers shouting at their animals and joking with each other. We jumped into our clothes and arrived at the fair at six o'clock, for we wanted to make a selection before the veterinarian arrived.

What beautiful cows they were, ...all colors, and all sizes, some fat, some thin, and some with their calves; there were also horses and great fat pigs, scooping holes in the ground, and little plump sucking pigs, squealing as though they were being skinned alive. But we had eyes for nothing but the cows; they stood very quiet, placidly chewing. They permitted us to make a thorough examination, merely blinking their eyelids. After one hour's inspection, we had found seventeen that pleased us, this for one quality, that for another, a third because she was red, two because they were white, which, of course, brought up a discussion between Mattia and myself. The veterinarian arrived. We showed him the cows we liked.

"I think this one ought to be a good one," Mattia said, pointing to a white animal.

"I think that is a better one," I said, indicating a red one.

The veterinarian stopped the argument we had begun by ignoring both and passing on to a third one. This one had slim legs, red coat with brown ears and cheeks, eyes bordered with black, and a whitish circle around her muzzle.

"This is just the one you want," said the veterinarian.

It was a beauty! Mattia and I now saw that this was the best. The veterinarian asked a heavy looking peasant, who held the cow by a rope, how much he wanted for it.

"Three hundred francs," he replied.

Our mouths dropped. Three hundred francs! I made a sign to the veterinarian that we must pass on to another; he made another sign that he would drive a bargain. Then a lively discussion commenced between the veterinarian and the peasant. Our bidder went up to 170, the peasant came down to 280. When they reached this sum, the veterinarian began to examine the cow more critically. She had weak legs, her neck was too short, her horns too long, she hadn't any lungs and her teats were not well formed. No, she certainly would not give much milk.

The peasant said that as we knew so much about cows, he would let us have her for 250 francs, because he felt sure she would be in good hands. Thereupon we began to get scared, for both Mattia and I thought that it must be a poor cow then.

"Let us go and see some others," I suggested, touching the veterinarian's arm.

Hearing this, the man came down ten francs. Then, little by little, he came down to 210 francs, but he stopped there. The veterinarian had nudged me and given me to understand that he was not serious in saying what he did about the cow, that it was an excellent animal, but then 210 francs was a large sum for us.

During this time Mattia had gone behind her and pulled a long wisp of hair from her tail and the animal had given him a kick. That decided me.

"All right, 210 francs," I said, thinking the matter was settled. I held out my hand to take the rope.

"Have you brought a halter?" asked the man. "I'm selling my cow, not the halter."

He said that, as we were friends, he would let me have the halter for sixty sous. We needed a halter, so I parted with the sixty sous, calculating that we should now have but twenty sous left. I counted out the two hundred and thirteen francs, then again I stretched out my hand.

"Have you got a rope?" inquired the man. "I've sold you the halter, but I haven't sold you the rope."

The rope cost us our last twenty sous.

The cow was finally handed over to us, but we had not a sou left to buy food for the animal, nor for ourselves. After warmly thanking the veterinarian for his kindness, we shook hands and said good-by to him, and went back to the inn, where we tied our cow up in the stable. As it was a very busy day in the town on account of the fair, and people from all parts had come in, Mattia and I thought that it would be better for each to go his own way and see what we could make. In the evening Mattia brought back four francs and I three francs fifty centimes.

With seven francs fifty we felt that we were again rich. We persuaded the kitchen maid to milk our cow and we had the milk for supper. Never had we tasted anything so good! We were so enthusiastic about the quality of the milk that we went into the stable as soon as we had finished to embrace our treasure. The cow evidently appreciated this caress, for she licked our faces to show her appreciation.

To understand the pleasure that we felt at kissing our cow and to be kissed by her, it must be remembered that neither Mattia nor I had been overburdened with caresses; our fate had not been that of the petted and pampered children who are obliged to defend themselves against too many kisses.

The next morning we rose with the sun and started for Chavanon. How grateful I was to Mattia for the help he had given me; without him I never could have collected such a big sum. I wanted to give him the pleasure of leading the cow, and he was very proud indeed to pull her by the rope while I walked behind. She looked very fine; she walked along slowly, swaying a little, holding herself like an animal that is aware of her value. I did not want to tire her out, so I decided not to get to Chavanon that evening late; better, I thought, get there early in the morning. That is what we intended to do; this is what happened:

I intended to stay the night in the village where I had spent my first night with Vitalis, when Capi, seeing me so unhappy, came to me and lay down beside me. Before reaching this village we came to a nice green spot, and, throwing down our baggage, we decided to rest. We made our cow go down into a ditch. At first I wanted to hold her by the rope, but she seemed very docile, and quite accustomed to grazing, so after a time I twisted the rope around her horns and sat down near her to eat my supper. Naturally we had finished eating long before she had, so after having admired her for some time and not knowing what to do next, we began to play a little game with each other. When we had finished our game, she was still eating. As I went to her, she pulled at the grass sharply, as much as to say that she was still hungry.

"Wait a little," said Mattia.

"Don't you know that a cow can eat all day long?" I replied.

"Well, wait a little."

We got our baggage and instruments together, but still she would not stop eating.

"I'll play her a piece on the cornet," said Mattia, who found it difficult to keep still. "There was a cow at Gassot's Circus and she liked music."

He commenced to play a lively march.

At the first note the cow lifted up her head; then suddenly, before I could throw myself at her horns to catch hold of the rope, she had gone off at a gallop. We raced after her as fast as we could, calling to her to stop. I shouted to Capi to stop her. Now one cannot be endowed with every talent. A cattle driver's dog would have jumped at her nose, but Capi was a genius, so he jumped at her legs. Naturally, this made her run faster. She raced back to the last village we had passed through. As the road was straight, we could see her in the distance, and we saw several people blocking her way and trying to catch hold of her. We slackened our speed, for we knew now that we should not lose her. All we should have to do would be to claim her from the good people who had stopped her going farther. There was quite a crowd gathered round her when we arrived on the scene, and instead of giving her up to us at once, as we expected they would, they asked us how we got the animal and where we got her. They insisted that we had stolen her and that she was running back to her owner. They declared that we ought to go to prison until the truth could be discovered. At the very mention of the word "prison" I turned pale and began to stammer. I was breathless from my race and could not utter a word. At this moment a policeman arrived, and, in a few words, the whole affair was explained to him. As it did not seem at all clear, he decided to take possession of the cow and have us locked up until we could prove that it belonged to us. The whole village seemed to be in the procession which ran behind us up to the town hall, which was also the station house. The mob pushed us and sneered at us and called us the most horrible names, and I do believe that if the officer had not defended us they would have lynched us as though we were criminals of the deepest dye. The man who had charge of the town hall, and who was also jailer and sheriff, did not want to admit us. I thought what a kind man! However, the policeman insisted that we be locked up, and the jailer finally turned the big key in a double-locked door and pushed us into the prison. Then I saw why he had made some difficulty about receiving us. He had put his provision of onions to dry in this prison and they were strewn out on every bench. He heaped them all together in a corner. We were searched, our money, matches and knives taken from us. Then we were locked up for the night.

"I wish you'd give me a good slap," said Mattia miserably, when we were alone; "box my ears or do something to me."

"I was as big a fool as you to let you play the cornet to a cow," I replied.

"Oh, I feel so bad about it," he said brokenly; "our poor cow, the Prince's cow!" He began to cry.

Then I tried to console him by telling him that our situation was not very serious. We would prove that we bought the cow; we would send to Ussel for the veterinarian ... he would be a witness.

"But if they say we stole the money to buy it," he said, "we can't prove that we earned it, and when one is unfortunate they always think you're guilty." That was true.

"And who'll feed her?" went on Mattia dismally.

Oh, dear, I did hope that they would feed our poor cow.

"And what are we going to say when they question us in the morning?" asked Mattia.

"Tell them the truth."

"And then they'll hand you over to Barberin, or if Mother Barberin is alone at her place and they question her to see if we are lying, we can't give her a surprise."

"Oh, dear!"

"You've been away from Mother Barberin for a long time; how do you know if she isn't dead?"

This terrible thought had never occurred to me, and yet poor Vitalis had died, ...how was it I had not thought that I might lose her...

"Why didn't you say that before?" I demanded.

"Because when I'm happy I don't have those ideas. I have been so happy at the thought of offering your cow to Mother Barberin and thinking how pleased she'd be, I never thought before that she might be dead."

It must have been the influence of this dismal room, for we could only see the darkest side of everything.

"And, oh," cried Mattia, starting up and throwing out his arms, "if Mother Barberin is dead and that awful Barberin is alive and we go there, he'll take our cow and keep it himself."

It was late in the afternoon when the door was thrown open and an old gentleman with white hair came into our prison.

"Now, you rogues, answer this gentleman," said the jailer, who accompanied him.

"That's all right, that's all right," said the gentleman, who was the public prosecutor, "I'll question this one." With his finger he indicated me. "You take charge of the other; I'll question him later."

I was alone with the prosecutor. Fixing me with his eye, he told me that I was accused of having stolen a cow. I told him that we bought the animal at the fair at Ussel, and I named the veterinarian who had assisted us in the purchase.

"That will be verified," he replied. "And now what made you buy that cow?"

I told him that I was offering it as a token of affection to my foster mother.

"Her name?" he demanded.

"Madame Barberin of Chavanon," I replied.

"The wife of a mason who met with a serious accident in Paris a few years ago. I know her. That also will be verified."

"Oh!..."

I became very confused. Seeing my embarrassment, the prosecutor pressed me with questions, and I had to tell him that if he made inquiries of Madame Barberin our cow would not be a surprise after all, and to make it a surprise had been our chief object. But in the midst of my confusion I felt a great satisfaction to know that Mother Barberin was still alive, and in the course of the questions that were put to me I learned that Barberin had gone back to Paris some time ago. This delighted me.

Then came the question that Mattia had feared.

"But how did you get all the money to buy the cow?"

I explained that from Paris to Varses and from Varses to Ussel we had collected this sum, sou by sou.

"But what were you doing in Varses?" he asked.

Then I was forced to tell him that I had been in a mine accident.

"Which of you two is Remi?" he asked, in a softened voice.

"I am, sir," I replied.

"To prove that, you tell me how the catastrophe occurred. I read the whole account of it in the papers. You cannot deceive me. I can tell if you really are Remi. Now, be careful."

I could see that he was feeling very lenient towards us. I told him my experience in the mine, and when I had finished my story, I thought from his manner, which was almost affectionate, that he would give us our freedom at once, but instead he went out of the room, leaving me alone, a prey to my thoughts. After some time he returned with Mattia.

"I am going to have your story investigated at Ussel," he said. "If it is true, as I hope it is, you will be free to-morrow."

"And our cow?" asked Mattia anxiously.

"Will be given back to you."

"I didn't mean that," replied Mattia; "but who'll feed her, who'll milk her?"

"Don't worry, youngster," said the prosecutor.

Mattia smiled contentedly.

"Ah, then if they milk our cow," he asked, "may we have some milk for supper?"

"You certainly shall!"

As soon as we were alone I told Mattia the great news that had almost made me forget that we were locked up.

"Mother Barberin is alive, and Barberin has gone to Paris!" I said.

"Ah, then the Prince's cow will make a triumphal entry."

He commenced to dance and sing with joy. Carried away by his gayety, I caught him by the hands, and Capi, who until then had been lying in a corner, quiet and thoughtful, jumped up and took his place between us, standing up on his hind paws. We then threw ourselves into such a wild dance that the jailer rushed in to see what was the matter, probably afraid for his onions. He told us to stop, but he spoke very differently to what he had before. By that, I felt that we were not in a very serious plight. I had further proof of this when a moment later he came in carrying a big bowl of milk, our cow's milk. And that was not all. He brought a large piece of white bread and some cold veal, which he said the prosecutor had sent us. Decidedly, prisons were not so bad after all; dinner and lodging for nothing!

Early the next morning the prosecutor came in with our friend the veterinarian, who had wanted to come himself to see that we got our freedom. Before we left, the prosecutor handed us an official stamped paper.

"See, I'm giving you this," he said; "you are two silly boys to go tramping through the country without any papers. I have asked the mayor to make out this passport for you. This is all you will need to protect you in the future. Good luck, boys."

He shook hands with us, and so did the veterinarian.

We had entered the village miserably, but we left in triumph. Leading our cow by the rope and walking with heads held high, we glanced over our shoulders at the villagers, who were standing on their doorsteps staring at us.

I did not want to tire our cow, but I was in a hurry to get to Chavanon that same day, so we set out briskly. By evening we had almost reached my old home. Mattia had never tasted pancakes, and I had promised him some as soon as we arrived. On the way I bought one pound of butter, two pounds of flour and a dozen eggs. We had now reached the spot where I had asked Vitalis to let me rest, so that I could look down on Mother Barberin's house, as I thought for the last time.

"Take the rope," I said to Mattia.

With a spring I was on the parapet. Nothing had been changed in our valley; it looked just the same; the smoke was even coming out of the chimney. As it came towards us it seemed to me I could smell oak leaves. I jumped down from the parapet and hugged Mattia, Capi sprang up on me, and I squeezed them both tight.

"Come, let's get there as quickly as possible now," I cried.

"What a pity," sighed Mattia. "If this brute only loved music, what a triumphal entry we could make."

As we arrived at one of the turns in the road, we saw Mother Barberin come out of her cottage and go off in the direction of the village. What was to be done? We had intended to spring a surprise upon her. We should have to think of something else.

Knowing that the door was always on the latch, I decided to go straight into the house, after tying our cow up in the cowshed. We found the shed full of wood now, so we heaped it up in a corner, and put our cow in poor Rousette's place.

When we got into the house, I said to Mattia: "Now, I'll take this seat by the fire so that she'll find me here. When she opens the gate, you'll hear it creak; then you hide yourself with Capi."

I sat down in the very spot where I had always sat on a winter night. I crouched down, making myself look as small as possible, so as to look as near like Mother Barberin's little Remi as I could. From where I sat I could watch the gate. I looked round the kitchen. Nothing was changed, everything was in the same place; a pane of glass that I had broken still had the bit of paper pasted over it, black with smoke and age. Suddenly I saw a white bonnet. The gate creaked.

"Hide yourself quickly," I said to Mattia.

I made myself smaller and smaller. The door opened and Mother Barberin came in. She stared at me.

"Who is there?" she asked.

I looked at her without answering; she stared back at me. Suddenly she began to tremble.

"Oh, Lord, is it my Remi!" she murmured.

I jumped up and caught her in my arms.

"Mamma!"

"My boy! my boy!" was all that she could say, as she laid her head on my shoulder.

Some minutes passed before we had controlled our emotion. I wiped away her tears.

"Why, how you've grown, my boy," she cried, holding me at arms' length, "you're so big and so strong! Oh, my Remi!"

A stifled snort reminded me that Mattia was under the bed. I called him. He crept out.

"This is Mattia," I said, "my brother."

"Oh, then you've found your parents?" she cried.

"No, he's my chum, but just like a brother. And this is Capi," I added, after she had greeted Mattia. "Come and salute your master's mother, Capitano."

Capi got on his hind paws and bowed gravely to Mother Barberin. She laughed heartily. Her tears had quite vanished. Mattia made me a sign to spring our surprise.

"Let's go and see how the garden looks," I said.

"I have kept your bit just as you arranged it," she said, "for I knew that some day you would come back."

"Did you get my Jerusalem artichokes?"

"Ah, you planted them to surprise me! You always liked to give surprises, my boy."

The moment had come.

"Is the cowshed just the same since poor Rousette went?" I asked.

"Oh, no; I keep my wood there now."

We had reached the shed by this time. I pushed open the door and at once our cow, who was hungry, began to bellow.

"A cow! A cow in my cowshed!" cried Mother Barberin.

Mattia and I burst out laughing.

"It's a surprise," I cried, "and a better one than the Jerusalem artichokes."

She looked at me in a dazed, astonished manner.

"Yes, it's a present for you. I did not come back with empty hands to the mamma who was so good to the little lost boy. This is to replace Rousette. Mattia and I bought it for you with the money we earned."

"Oh, the dear boys!" she cried, kissing us both.

She now went inside the shed to examine her present. At each discovery she gave a shriek of delight.

"What a beautiful cow," she exclaimed.

Then she turned round suddenly.

"Say, you must be very rich now?"

"I should say so," laughed Mattia; "we've got fifty-eight sous left."

I ran to the house to fetch the milk pail, and while in the house I arranged the butter, eggs, and flour in a display on the table, then ran back to the shed. How delighted she was when she had a pail three-quarters full of beautiful frothy milk.

There was another burst of delight when she saw the things on the table ready for pancakes, which I told her we were dying to have.

"You must have known that Barberin was in Paris, then?" she said. I explained to her how I had learned so.

"I will tell you why he has gone," she said, looking at me significantly.

"Let's have the pancakes first," I said; "don't let's talk about him. I have not forgotten how he sold me for forty francs, and it was my fear of him, the fear that he would sell me again, that kept me from writing to tell you news of myself."

"Oh, boy, I thought that was why," she said, "but you mustn't speak unkindly of Barberin."

"Well, let's have the pancakes now," I said, hugging her.

We all set briskly to prepare the ingredients and before long Mattia and I were cramming pancakes down our throats. Mattia declared that he had never tasted anything so fine. As soon as we had finished one we held out our plates for another, and Capi came in for his share. Mother Barberin was scandalized that we should give a dog pancakes, but we explained to her that he was the chief actor in our company and a genius, and that he was treated by us with every consideration. Later, while Mattia was out getting some wood ready for the next morning, she told me why Barberin had gone to Paris.

"Your family is looking for you," she said, almost in a whisper. "That's what Barberin has gone up to Paris about. He's looking for you."

"My family," I exclaimed. "Oh, have I a family of my own? Speak, tell all, Mother Barberin, dear Mother Barberin!"

Then I got frightened. I did not believe that my family was looking for me. Barberin was trying to find me so that he could sell me again. I would not be sold! I told my fears to Mother Barberin, but she said no, my family was looking for me. Then she told me that a gentleman came to the house who spoke with a foreign accent, and he asked Barberin what had become of the little baby that he had found many years ago in Paris. Barberin asked him what business that was of his. This answer was just like Barberin would give.

"You know from the bakehouse one can hear everything that is said in the kitchen," said Mother Barberin, "and when I knew that they were talking about you, I naturally listened. I got nearer and then I trod on a twig of wood that broke."

"'Oh, we're not alone,' said the gentleman to Barberin.

"'Yes, we are; that's only my wife,' he replied. The gentleman then said it was very warm in the kitchen and that they could talk better outside. They went out and it was three hours later when Barberin came back alone. I tried to make him tell me everything, but the only thing he would say was that this man was looking for you, but that he was not your father, and that he had given him one hundred francs. Probably he's had more since. From this, and the fine clothes you wore when he found you, we think your parents must be rich.

"Then Jerome said he had to go off to Paris," she continued, "to find the musician who hired you. This musician said that a letter sent to Rue Mouffetard to a man named Garofoli would reach him."

"And haven't you heard from Barberin since he went?" I asked, surprised that he had sent no news.

"Not a word," she said. "I don't even know where he is living in the city."

Mattia came in just then. I told him excitedly that I had a family, and that my parents were looking for me. He said he was pleased for me, but he did not seem to share my joy and enthusiasm. I slept little that night. Mother Barberin had told me to start off to Paris and find Barberin at once and not delay my parent's joy at finding me. I had hoped that I could spend several days with her, and yet I felt that she was right. I would have to see Lise before going. That could be managed, for we could go to Paris by way of the canal. As Lise's uncle kept the locks and lived in a cottage on the banks, we could stop and see her.

I spent that day with Mother Barberin, and in the evening we discussed what I would do for her when I was rich. She was to have all the things she wanted. There was not a wish of hers that should not be gratified when I had money.

"The cow that you have given me in your poor days will be more to me than anything you can give me when you're rich, Remi," she said fondly.

The next day, after bidding dear Mother Barberin a loving farewell, we started to walk along the banks of the canal. Mattia was very thoughtful. I knew what was the matter. He was sorry that I had rich parents. As though that would make any difference in our friendship! I told him that he should go to college and that he should study music with the very best masters, but he shook his head sadly. I told him that he should live with me as my brother, and that my parents would love him just the same because he was my friend. But still he shook his head.

In the meantime, as I had not my rich parents' money to spend, we had to play in all the villages through which we passed to get money for our food. And I also wanted to make some money to buy a present for Lise. Mother Barberin had said that she valued the cow more than anything I could give her when I became rich, and perhaps, I thought, Lise would feel the same about a gift. I wanted to give her a doll. Fortunately a doll would not cost so much as a cow. The next town we came to I bought her a lovely doll with fair hair and blue eyes.

Walking along the banks of the canal I often thought of Mrs. Milligan and Arthur and their beautiful barge, and wondered if we should meet it on the canal. But we never saw it.

One evening we could see in the distance the house where Lise lived. It stood amongst the trees and seemed to be in an atmosphere of mist. We could see the window lit up by the flames from a big fire inside. The reddish light fell across our path as we drew nearer. My heart beat quickly. I could see them inside having supper. The door and the window were shut, but there were no curtains to the window, and I looked in and saw Lise sitting beside her aunt. I signed to Mattia and Capi to be silent, and then taking my harp from my shoulder, I put it on the ground.

"Oh, yes," whispered Mattia, "a serenade. What a fine idea!"

"No, not you; I'll play alone."

I struck the first notes of my Neapolitan song. I did not sing, for I did not want my voice to betray me. As I played, I looked at Lise. She raised her head quickly and her eyes sparkled. Then I commenced to sing. She jumped from her chair and ran to the door. In a moment she was in my arms. Aunt Catherine then came out and invited us in to supper. Lise quickly placed two plates on the table.

"If you don't mind," I said, "will you put a third; we have a little friend with us." And I pulled out the doll from my bag and placed her in the chair next to Lise. The look that she gave me I shall never forget!