Nobody's Boy/Chapter XXVI
WHEN we got to the street the clerk hailed a cab and told us to jump in. The strange looking vehicle, with the coachman sitting on a box at the back of a hood that covered us, I learned later was a hansom cab. Mattia and I were huddled in a corner with Capi between our legs. The clerk took up the rest of the seat. Mattia had heard him tell the coachman to drive us to Bethnal-Green. The driver seemed none too anxious to take us there. Mattia and I thought it was probably on account of the distance. We both knew what "Green" meant in English, and Bethnal-Green undoubtedly was the name of the park where my people lived. For a long time the cab rolled through the busy streets of London. It was such a long way that I thought perhaps their estate was situated on the outskirts of the city. The word "green" made us think that it might be in the country. But nothing around us announced the country. We were in a very thickly populated quarter; the black mud splashed our cab as we drove along; then we turned into a much poorer part of the city and every now and again the cabman pulled up as though he did not know his way. At last he stopped altogether and through the little window of the hansom a discussion took place between Greth & Galley's clerk and the bewildered cabman. From what Mattia could learn the man said that it was no use, he could not find his way, and he asked the clerk which direction he should take. The clerk replied that he did not know for he had never been in that thieves' locality before. We both caught the word "thieves." Then the clerk gave some money to the coachman and told us to get out of the cab. The man grumbled at his fare and then turned round and drove off. We were standing now in a muddy street before what the English call a gin palace. Our guide looked about him in disgust, then entered the swing-doors of the gin palace. We followed. Although we were in a miserable part of the city I had never seen anything more luxurious. There were gilt framed mirrors everywhere, glass chandeliers and a magnificent counter that shone like silver. Yet the people who filled this place were filthy and in rags. Our guide gulped down a drink standing before the beautiful counter, then asked the man who had served him if he could direct him to the place he wanted to find. Evidently he got the information he required for he hurried out again through the swing-doors, we following close on his heels. The streets through which we walked now were even narrower and from one house across to another were swung wash lines from which dirty rags were hanging. The women who sat in their doorways were pale and their matted fair hair hung loose over their shoulders. The children were almost naked and the few clothes that they did wear were but rags. In the alley were some pigs wallowing in the stagnant water from which a fetid odor arose. Our guide stopped. Evidently he had lost his way. But at this moment a policeman appeared. The clerk spoke to him and the officer told him he would show him the way... We followed the policeman down more narrow streets. At last we stopped at a yard in the middle of which was a little pond.
"This is Red Lion Court," said the officer.
Why were we stopping there? Could it be possible that my parents lived in this place? The policeman knocked at the door of a wooden hut and our guide thanked him. So we had arrived. Mattia took my hand and gently pressed it. I pressed his. We understood one another. I was as in a dream when the door was opened and we found ourselves in a room with a big fire burning in the grate.
Before the fire in a large cane chair sat an old man with a white beard, and his head covered with a black skull cap. At a table sat a man of about forty and a woman about six years his junior. She must have been very pretty once but now her eyes had a glassy stare and her manners were listless. Then there were four children—two boys and two girls—all very fair like their mother. The eldest boy was about eleven, the youngest girl, scarcely three. I did not know what the clerk was saying to the man, I only caught the name "Driscoll," my name, so the lawyer had said. All eyes were turned on Mattia and me, only the baby girl paid attention to Capi.
"Which one is Remi?" asked the man in French.
"I am," I said, taking a step forward.
"Then come and kiss your father, my boy."
When I had thought of this moment I had imagined that I should be overwhelmed with happiness and spring into my father's arms, but I felt nothing of the kind. I went up and kissed my father.
"Now," he said, "there's your grandfather, your mother, your brothers and sisters."
I went up to my mother first and put my arms about her. She let me kiss her but she did not return my caress; she only said two or three words which I did not understand.
"Shake hands with your grandfather," said my father, "and go gently; he's paralyzed."
I also shook hands with my brothers and my eldest sister. I wanted to take the little one in my arms but she was too occupied with Capi and pushed me away. As I went from one to the other I was angry with myself. Why could I not feel any pleasure at having found my family at last. I had a father, a mother, brothers, sisters and a grandfather. I had longed for this moment, I had been mad with joy in thinking that I, like other boys, would have a family that I could call my own to love me and whom I could love.... And now I was staring at my family curiously, finding nothing in my heart to say to them, not a word of affection. Was I a monster? If I had found my parents in a palace instead of in a hovel should I have had more affection for them? I felt ashamed at this thought. Going over again to my mother I put my arms round her and kissed her full on the lips. Evidently she did not understand what made me do this, for instead of returning my kisses she looked at me in a listless manner, then turning to her husband, my father, she shrugged her shoulders and said something that I could not understand but which made him laugh. Her indifference and my father's laugh went right to my heart. It did not seem to me that my affection should have been received in such a way.
"Who is he?" asked my father, pointing to Mattia. I told him that Mattia was my dearest friend and how much I owed him.
"Good," said my father; "would he like to stay and see the country?" I was about to answer for Mattia, but he spoke first.
"That's just what I want," he exclaimed.
My father then asked why Barberin had not come with me. I told him that he was dead. He seemed pleased to hear this. He repeated it to my mother, who also seemed pleased. Why were they both pleased that Barberin was dead?
"You must be rather surprised that we have not searched for you for thirteen years," said my father, and then suddenly to go off and look up this man who found you when you were a baby."
I told him that I was very surprised, and that I'd like to know about it.
"Come near the fire then and I'll tell you all about it."
I flung the bag from my shoulders and took the chair that he offered me. As I stretched out my legs, wet, and covered with mud, to the fire my grandfather spat on one side, like an old cat that is annoyed.
"Don't pay any attention to him," said my father; "the old chap doesn't like any one to sit before his fire, but you needn't mind him, if you're cold."
I was surprised to hear any one speak like this of an old man. I kept my legs under my chair, for I thought that attention should be paid to him.
"You are my eldest son now," said my father; "you were born a year after my marriage with your mother. When I married there was a young girl who thought that I was going to marry her, and out of revenge she stole you from us when you were six months old. We searched everywhere for you but we did not go so far as Paris. We thought that you were dead until three months ago when this woman was dying she confessed the truth. I went over to France at once and the police in that locality where you had been left, told me that you had been adopted by a mason named Barberin who lived at Chavanon. I found him and he told me that he had loaned you to a musician named Vitalis and that you were tramping through France. I could not stay over there any longer, but I left Barberin some money and told him to search for you, and when he had news to write to Greth and Galley. I did not give him my address here, because we are only in London during the winter; the rest of the year we travel through England and Scotland. We are peddlers by trade, and I have my own caravans. There, boy, that is how it is you have come back to us after thirteen years. You may feel a little timid at first because you can't understand us, but you'll soon pick up English and be able to talk to your brothers and sisters. It won't be long before you're used to us."
Yes, of course I should get used to them; were they not my own people? The fine baby linen, the beautiful clothes had not spoken the truth. But what did that matter! Affection was worth more than riches. It was not money that I pined for, but to have affection, a family and a home. While my father was talking to me they had set the table for supper. A large joint of roast beef with potatoes round it was placed in the middle of the table.
"Are you hungry, boys?" asked my father, addressing Mattia and myself. Mattia showed his white teeth.
"Well, sit down to table."
But before sitting down he pushed my grandfather's cane rocker up to the table. Then taking his own place with his back to the fire, he commenced to cut the roast beef and gave each one a fine big slice and some potatoes.
Although I had not been brought up exactly on the principle of good breeding, I noticed that my brothers and sister's behaved very badly at table; they ate more often with their fingers, sticking them into the gravy and licking them without my father and mother seeming to notice them. As to my grandfather, he gave his whole attention to what was before him, and the one hand that he was able to use went continually from his plate to his mouth. When he let a piece fall from his shaking fingers my brothers and sisters laughed.
I thought that we should spend the evening together round the fire, but my father said that he was expecting friends, and told us to go to bed. Beckoning to Mattia and me he took a candle and went out to a stable that led from the room where we had been eating. In this stable were two big caravans. He opened the door of one and we saw two small beds, one above the other.
"There you are, boys, there are your beds," he said. "Sleep well."
Such was the welcome into my family.