Small Souls/Chapter XXIX

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Small Souls by Louis Couperus
Chapter XXIX
CHAPTER XXIX


After the summer holidays, Addie, who was now in the third class at the Grammar School, sometimes went to his Van Saetzema cousins on a Sunday afternoon, rather against the grain, for there was not much love lost between them. But, as he had not failed to notice that the three boys tired his mother greatly when they came to the little house, however much she liked to keep up the relationship, he made it a sort of duty to go to them once a fortnight, or so, either for a walk or for a bicycle-ride. It was more natural to him to go about with boys who were his seniors; he had made a couple of older friends at the Grammar School; and even Frans and Henri van Naghel, who were young fellows of twenty-three and twenty-four, said that it might sound very funny, but they always thought it jolly when Addie looked in. But, to please his mother, who disapproved of this tendency to spend his time with his elders, he would go and walk or bicycle with the three Van Saetzemas, while despising them in his heart for unmannerly young louts, stupid as well as ill-bred and, in addition, having their mouths ever full of coarse talk and suggestive jokes. They were not fond of Addie, but they looked up to him a little, just because they knew that the older cousins, the Van Naghels, the undergraduates, thought Addie a nice boy, though he was as young as the Van Saetzemas, while looking upon the Van Saetzemas themselves as mere brats not worth noticing. But, for this very reason, they did not see how Addie could care to go to Uncle Gerrit’s and play with all those babies there. They thought him a queer boy, they did not really like him; but his intimacy with Frans and Henri van Naghel gave Addie a sort of manly, grown-up air which they secretly envied. And so, in order, in their turn, to appear manly and grownup before Addie, they could never, walking or bicycling, pass a woman without exchanging a coarse word or phrase or disapproval, like young men-about-town who know all about everything.

Then Addie chuckled inside himself, for he could never laugh outright, even though he wanted to:

“You fellows sometimes call me an old fogey,” he said, “but, whenever you pass a woman, you talk like old fogeys of things you know nothing about.”

“Oh, do you know more than we do?”

“I don’t say that, but I haven’t my mouth always full of it.”

Then they were angry, because their assumption of rakishness made no impression, and they did not understand how Addie could flatly admit his innocence and ignorance. They, on the contrary, were ashamed of their innocence and ignorance, were burning to lose both as quickly as possible, had not the courage to do so yet, though they sometimes did go down the Spuistraat of an evening. And Addie thought to himself:

“Mamma ought just to hear them, or to see them lounging along the streets; then she wouldn’t ask me every Sunday if I have been out with Jaap and Piet and Chris!”

And, though they did not like Addie, they were flattered when he came and asked:

“Are you fellows coming for a ride this afternoon?”

They did not like him and they gave him all sorts of nicknames among themselves: Old Fogey, the Baron, the Italian. . . .

Then Marietje would ask, gently:

“Why do you always talk so unkindly of Addie?”

And then the three boys laughed and teased Marietje with being in love with “the Baron.”

But Marietje, who was sixteen, shrugged her shoulders, feeling grown-up already: in a year’s time, she was going to boarding-school, near Cleves. No, she, who was sixteen, was not in love with a little cousin of thirteen, with a child; but she thought him a nice boy all the same. The three brothers and their friends had never danced, or talked, or bicycled with her, or paid her any attention, whereas Addie behaved like a gallant young cavalier. In that noisy, fussy, bawling household, the girl had always been a little fragile, a little pale, a little quiet, like a small, gentle alien that could not cope with the hard voices of Mamma and the sisters and the rough horseplay of the brothers; and Addie talked so nicely, so pleasantly, so politely, so gallantly, so very differently from Chris and Piet and Jaap.

“The Italian wasn’t here last Sunday.”

“Then he’s sure to come to-day.”

“He always comes once a fortnight.”

“That’s the Italian fashion.”

“Why do you boys always call Addie the Italian?” asked Marietje.

Now the three burst with laughing:

“That’s nothing to do with you.”

“Little girls shouldn’t ask questions.”

“I think it a silly nickname,” said Marietje, “and it means nothing.”

They burst out laughing again, full of importance and worldly wisdom.

“That’s because you don’t know.”

“If you knew, you’d think it witty enough.”

“It’s a damned witty nickname.”

“Chris, what language!”

“So you want to know why Addie is an Italian?”

She shrugged her shoulders, played the grown-up sister:

“I think you’re silly, just like children. That nickname means nothing.”

They burst with laughter once more:

“Don’t you know what they do in Italy?”

“In Rome?”

She looked at them, her louts of brothers; she vaguely remembered incautiously-whispered remarks about Aunt Constance, about the time when she was still the wife of the Netherlands minister at Rome, of that old uncle De Staffelaer whom she had never known.

“Well, look here: what do you think the name means? . . .”

She grew uncomfortable, fearing that they were suggesting something improper which she did not understand:

“I don’t know,” she said, “and I don’t care.”

“Then you shouldn’t call it a silly name.”

But now Marietje was really interested and so she asked Caroline, a little later:

“Do you know why the boys call Addie the Italian?”

“Because they’re silly,” said Caroline.

“No, there must be some reason, but they wouldn’t tell me.”

Now Carolientje was puzzled in her turn and she asked her mother, later:

“Why are the boys always calling Addie the Italian, Mamma?”

“I don’t know,” said Adolphine, sharply.

But the girls, both curious, continued to talk about the nickname and they sounded Karel and also Marianne and Marietje van Naghel.

No, none of them, either, knew what the name meant. But Karel was determined to find out and did find out:

“I know,” he said to his little sister, Marie.

“I know,” Marie whispered to the Van Saetzema girls.

But Marietje van Saetzema did not yet quite understand, but she would not let this appear, because Caroline would have thought her such a baby. If Auntie had never married an Italian, how could she have a son who was an Italian?

The nickname came to the ears of Herman Ruyvenaer, the youngest son of Uncle and Aunt, a lean little brown sinjo of fifteen, who mentioned the nickname at home to his sisters Toetie, Dot and Pop.

Allah, it’s too bad!” said the girls. “It’s a shame of those boys, Mamma; just listen. . . .”

“Oh, no, I don’t believe it,” said Aunt Ruyvenaer, when she heard. “Gossip, I say; kassian, Constance!”

But Uncle Ruyvenaer told her that it was so.

“But how do you know?”

“Adolphine told me herself.”

“Oh, nonsense, she wasn’t there! . . . Kassian, that boy and his mother!”

And Aunt Lot and the girls refused to believe, were indignant; and Auntie called her husband an old gossip. But the nickname was often on the lips of the young boy- and girl-cousins and of their friends at home and at school. Once, Addie thought he heard a boy shout to him, by way of an abusive epithet:

“Italian!”

He did not understand, did not even apply the word to himself and walked on.

Another time, however, bicycling with the Van Saetzema boys, along the Wassenaar Road, he grew angry because Jaap was trying his hardest to run over a cat:

“Leave the animal alone,” cried Addie, furiously, “or I’ll punch your head!”

“Oh?” roared Jaap. “You would, would you, Italian?”

Addie did not yet understand. But he had a vague recollection of hearing the name before. He did not at once recall the incident of that other boy:

“Why do you call me an Italian?” he asked.

The others were frightened, pulled Jaap’s sleeve.

“That’s nothing to do with it,” growled Jaap, taken aback. “You say you’re going to punch my head.”

But Addie, in a flash, remembered the boy and that shout in the street near the school:

“Out with it!” he cried. “Why do you call me an Italian?”

Chris and Piet tried to smooth things over:

“Come, don’t bother; he’s talking rot.”

“But why an Italian?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing!”

“Yes, there’s something. I mean to know!”

“Keep your hair on; it’s nothing.”

“Out with it!” cried Addie, scarlet with rage.

And he flew at Jaap’s throat.

“Oh, hang it! Shut up!” shouted the two others.

But Jaap and Addie were struggling. Their boyish hatred suddenly burst forth:

“Out with it! Why do you call me an Italian?”

Addie was very strong, stronger than Jaap, who was a year and a half older than he and taller. He got him down: his small, hard knuckles were at Jaap’s throat; and he was nearly strangling him. The others pulled him off:

“That’ll do, I say! Shut up!”

They pulled Addie away from Jaap; and now Jaap, furious because he had been beaten, purple in the face, half choking, unable to control his hate, cried out:

“Because you’re not the son of your father!”

“Hold your jaw!” shouted Piet and Chris to Jaap.

But the word was spoken and Addie was like a madman:

“You hound! You hound!” he yelled.

And he tried to fling himself on Jaap again.

The two other boys held him back. And a sudden reasonableness came to soothe Addie’s passion: he must not let himself go like that, against that cur of a Jaap. When that young bounder lost his temper, he didn’t know what he shouted and raved, “Italian!” and “Not the son of your father!” Addie shrugged his shoulders:

“I’ve had enough of cycling with you chaps. I can spend my Sundays better than in tormenting cats and quarrelling and fighting.”

And he sprang on his bicycle and rode away.

“Italian!” Jaap screamed after him once more, forgetting everything, except his hatred.

Addie looked round; and he saw that Chris and Piet, both furious, were thrashing the very life out of Jaap.

He rode away, mastering his nerves. No, he could never again, to please Mamma, spoil his Sunday holiday with those cads of boys. This was the last time, for good and all! Besides, he felt that they liked him as little as he them. And then, suddenly, his thoughts went back to the strange word, the word of abuse, and to the boy who, once before, had shouted it after him in the street. That time, he had not imagined that it was he whom the boy meant.

Try as he would to keep calm, he was too much excited to go straight home and perhaps meet Papa and Mamma. He therefore rode to the Bezuidenhout, hoping to find Frans van Naghel in: Henri was not at the Hague, was working hard at Leiden.

He found Frans at home, in the two elder boys’ sitting-room, smoking with a couple of friends.

“Well, old man, what is it?”

And he took Addie outside.

“I’ve been fighting with that cad of a Jaap. He called me an Italian, Frans. What did he mean?”

Frans started; and Addie noticed it, became suspicious.

“Oh, nothing, old man: it’s just that he’s an ass!”

“No, Frans, there must be some reason why he called me that; and I mean to know the reason.”

“Don’t worry about it, old chap.”

“And the other fellows licked Jaap because he said it. And then Jaap also said . . .”

“Well, what else did Jaap say, old man?”

“That I . . . that I was not the son of my father.”

Suddenly, while he was unbosoming himself in the warmth of Frans’ sympathy, a light flashed across him. He remembered the mysterious fits of sadness of Mamma’s, scenes with Papa, during those early days at the Hague, when he had vaguely noticed in his mother something as though she were asking for forgiveness, humbling herself before Grandmamma, before the uncles and aunts. And all this, taken in connection with Papa and Mamma’s former residence in Italy, in Rome, caused to flicker before him as it were a reflection of cruel truths. As he looked at Frans, these cruel truths flickered up before him again. He had read much for his years; his school, his school-friends had soon revealed some of the mysteries of life to him, though he was still a boy, though he was still a child, with a child’s innocence in his soul and his eyes, with the soft bloom of that innocence on his child’s skin and his child’s mind, even though there was something of a little man about him. And, suddenly, he saw everything: the rage of the boys because Jaap had given himself away, their confusion and now Frans’ confusion. . . .

“Not the son of your father?” repeated Frans. “They’re asses, those three louts. . . . Come, Addie, don’t have anything more to do with those clod- hoppers. When they’re coarse, they’re very coarse and they don’t know what they’re saying.”

“Yes,” said Addie, with sudden reserve, “that’s what it must be, that’s what it is.”

“Come, Addie, come for a walk, will you, with the two Hijdrechts? We were going to the Witte; but, if you’ll come with us, old man, we’ll go to Scheveningen instead.”

The boy’s senses suddenly became very acute and he heard a sort of pity in Frans’ voice. He began to feel very unhappy, because of that pity, restrained himself spasmodically from sobbing, gulped it all down: all about Italy and that he was not the child of his father. And he hesitated whether he had better hide somewhere, all alone, or stay for sympathy, with Frans. . . .

“Come along, old man, come with us,” said Frans. “Then we’ll go to Scheveningen.”

And he went at once and told the other two students, the Hijdrechts, of the change of plan.

“Then I’ll leave my bicycle here,” said Addie.

He went with the three young men, who, for his sake, did not go to the Witte; and they walked to Scheveningen. And it was as though he heard that note of pity in the Hijdrechts’ voices too. Then, suddenly, on the New Road, he saw the three Saetzemas cycling back to the Hague.

“There are our three nice gentlemen,” said Frans.

The three boys nodded as they passed:

Bejour!

But Addie did not nod back.

Scheveningen was overcrowded, with its Sunday visitors; but the Hijdrechts were quite amusing and Frans was always pleasant.

It was late, close upon six, when he decided to go home.

“Well, good-bye, old man,” said Frans.

Addie pressed Frans’ hand, wanted to thank him for the walk, but was too proud, because of that pity, and could not:

“I’ll come and fetch my bicycle to-morrow,” was all he said, dully.

And he went home slowly, alone. He felt as though he could not go home; as though he would have liked to walk somewhere else, anything to escape going home. He felt as though, suddenly, he had to drag with him a heavy sorrow, too heavy for his years, and as though it lay on his chest, on his throat, on his lungs. But he reached home at last, about half-past six.

“How late you are, Addie,” said Constance, a little annoyed. “We’ve been waiting for you for the last half hour. Have you been with the three boys?”

“Yes,” said Addie.

“Oh, then, it’s all right,” she said.

They sat down to dinner, but Addie was quiet, did not eat.

“What is it, my boy?” asked Van der Welcke.

“Nothing,” said Addie.

But his parents were not used to seeing their child like that and insisted on knowing what was the matter.

“I’ve been fighting with Jaap,” said Addie.

Constance, already a little annoyed, flared up at once:

“Fighting? Fighting? What about, Addie? There’s always something with the three boys.”

“Oh, nothing!” said Addie, evasively.

“Come,” said Van der Welcke, “all boys have a fight now and again.”

But Addie did not speak, remained stiff and silent. He did not answer, would not say why he had fought with Jaap. And he was reasonable, tried to eat something, so as not to upset his mother; but the food stuck in his throat. They hurried through dinner. When Addie was gloomy, everything was gloomy, there was nothing left, life was not worth the dismal living, Constance’ new and gentle happiness was gone, gone. . . .

“Shall we go and bicycle a bit, my boy?” asked Van der Welcke. “Or are you tired?”

“Yes, I’m tired.”

“Remember, Addie,” said Constance, coldly, “that we are going to Grandmamma’s and that you have to change.”

“Yes.”

He got up, went upstairs, to his boy’s room, not knowing what to say next, what to do with himself, where to sit, what book to take up; he remained standing, aimlessly, in the middle of the room, with that bottled-up sorrow of a whole afternoon lying heavy on his chest and lungs: that sorrow which he had dragged with Frans and the Hijdrechts to Scheveningen, quietly, without sobbing, amid that bustling crowd of Sunday visitors.

He stood there, aimlessly, dejected, when the door opened and Van der Welcke entered:

“Come, Addie, my boy, tell your father. What is it?”

“Papa,” he began, yearning now, burning to know. . . .

But he could not go on. It was his first sorrow and it was so heavy, so oppressively heavy.

“Come, my lad, what’s the matter?”

“Papa . . .”

“Tell me, come on, tell me.”

“Papa, am I not . . .”

“What, Addie?”

“Papa, am I not your child?”

Van der Welcke looked at him in astonishment:

“What’s that?” he asked and did not understand.

“No, I’m not, am I? Yes, I know now!”

“Look here, Addie, what’s the matter with you?”

“I’m not your child, am I?”

“You’re not my child? What do you mean?”

“I’m the child of an Italian, am I not?”

“Of an Italian?”

“And that’s why they call me the Italian?”

Van der Welcke, in his amazement, did not know what to say. He stared at Addie; and his silence meant confession to Addie.

“I am Mamma’s child, am I not, but not yours? I am the child of an Italian. . . .”

“My boy, who told you that?”

“Jaap.”

“But, Addie, it’s not true!”

“Oh, you only say that it’s not true, but it is true. . . .”

But now Van der Welcke, after his first amazement, suddenly realized the boy’s distress and caught him in his arms and took him on his knees, there, in the big chair:

“Addie, Addie, I swear to you, it’s not true! My child, it’s not true, you are my child, you are my boy, you are mine, you are mine, mine, mine!”

“Is it really true?”

“You’re mine, you’re mine, Addie! They lie, they lie! Good Lord! My boy, would I love you so madly, if you were not my boy?”

And he pressed his son to his breast, his two arms tightly round him.

“Papa, can I trust you?”

“Yes, yes, my boy! God! Those vile people! Who says it and why do they say it? And it’s a lie, Addie; they lie, they lie. You’re my child, mine, mine alone, my son and Mamma’s son, my child, my darling! Would we, your two parents, your father and your mother, be so fond of you, so passionately fond of you, if it were not so?”

Now Addie believed and he burst into sobs. He sobbed freely, he could no longer restrain himself and he felt as if he were sobbing for the first time in his young life. It melted away, all his young, small, natural manliness melted away; and he became as weak as a child, because Papa assured him that he was the son of Papa and Mamma and because he believed Papa, now. He sobbed wildly on his father’s chest, clutching Van der Welcke in his sturdy little arms, until both of them were nearly stifled:

“Daddy, my Daddy!” he said, in little jerks. “Am I really your child? Oh, tell me again: am I your child? The whole day long, Daddy, I believed I was not your child! The whole day long, I was walking with Frans and the Hijdrechts, thinking I was not your son. And I didn’t want to come back home, because I thought I was not your son. I wanted just to go away somewhere, because I thought I was not your son. Daddy, tell me, am I your son? Oh, I should have thought it so terrible if I was not your son! I should have thought it so terrible, because I love you so and because everything would have been for nothing then, if you weren’t my father. They said that my father was an Italian and that you, that you were not my father. Tell me again, Daddy: are you my father?”

“Yes, my boy, I am your father.”

He said it now with such conviction that Addie believed him absolutely. But the child still clasped his father to him, as though he would never let him go.

“Addie, how could you, how could you believe it for a moment?”

“But then why do people say it?”

“Because they are spiteful.”

“But why do people say it?”

There was still a lurking suspicion in him. If he was not the son of an Italian, why did people talk about his parents’ past, years ago, at Rome. And, though he believed Papa now, there was still much suspicion in him and he kept on saying to himself:

“But then why do people say it? . . .”

It tossed about in his mind, that there must be something that Papa was keeping back. But he believed, he wanted to believe Papa: yes, yes, he was Papa’s child. And that was his great content, after the sorrow which he had suffered a whole day long: that he had not loved Papa for nothing, that he was the child of the man whom he loved. . . .

“Addie!”

It was Constance calling from downstairs.

“Hush!” said Van der Welcke. “Hush, my boy! Say nothing to Mamma, let Mamma see nothing, for it would cause her so much pain, unnecessarily; and you do believe me now, don’t you? You do believe me now, when I assure you that I couldn’t possibly, Addie, couldn’t possibly be so fond of you else?”

Yes, he now believed his father’s word, which he felt to be the truth; he believed, but still, still there was something. But he did not want to ask anything more now: Papa himself was too much upset; and they had to go out, to Grandmamma’s, because it was Sunday evening.

“Addie!”

“Go down now, Addie: Mamma’s calling you.”

He went out on the landing:

“Yes, Mamma, what time is it?”

“It’s time to dress.”

“Yes, I’ll get dressed at once, Mamma.”

He became a little man again, while his eyes were still screwed up and red with crying.

He once more embraced his father very tightly:

“Daddy, Daddy, I believe you!”

“My boy, my boy, my boy! Go now, my own boy, go and wash and get dressed; and don’t let Mamma notice anything, will you?”

No, he would not let her see; and he would have a good wash, in cold water, wash his throbbing temples and his smarting eyes.

“Those damned people! Those damned people!” said Van der Welcke, cursing and clenching his fists.

Constance, downstairs, ready dressed, was waiting for them, a little put out because Addie had come home so late, because he had fought with Jaap, because he had refused to eat.

“Here I am, Mamma.”

There was nothing to show what he had been through: he looked fresh and serious in his new blue suit; his voice was soft and propitiatory. Her face lit up at once:

“Tell me now, Addie, why you fought with Jaap.”

“Oh, a boys’ quarrel, Mamma, about nothing, really, about nothing at all! Jaap was tormenting a cat; and I can’t stand that. Give me a kiss, Mamma.”

He kissed his mother very earnestly, embraced her in his clutching arms. He would have forgiven her everything, if it had been really so, if he had been the son of an Italian; but it would have been an everlasting grief to him if he had not been his father’s son. . . .