Friday, 23/02/2024 - 14:25

Chapter XX. Mattia

14:46 | 19/10/2019

The world was before me; I could go where I liked, north, south, east or west. I was my own master. How many children there are who say to themselves, “If I could only do as I liked, … if I were my own master!” And how impatiently they look forward to this day when they can do the things they have longed to do, … often very foolish things. Between these children and myself there was a vast difference. When they do anything foolish there is a hand stretched out, and they are picked up if they fall. If I fell I should go down, down, down, and I might not be able to pick myself up again. I was afraid. I knew the dangers that beset me.

Before beginning my wanderings I wanted to see the man who had been so good to me. Aunt Catherine had not wished to take me with them when they had gone to say good-by, but I felt that, at least, I could go and see him now that I was alone.

I did not dare walk across Paris with Capi running at my heels. I was afraid that a policeman would stop and question me. My greatest fear was the police. I tied a string to Capi’s collar. I was loath to do this, for I knew that it hurt his self-respect, but it had to be, and in this humiliating manner I dragged him along to the Clichy prison, where M. Acquin was serving his sentence. For some moments I looked in a sort of fear at the great prison doors, thinking that perhaps once they had closed on me I might not be able to get out again. I found it more difficult than I had thought to get into a prison, but I would not be discouraged. After much waiting and questioning, I was finally permitted to see M. Acquin.

“Ah, Remi, boy, I was expecting you,” he said, as I entered the room where visitors were allowed to see the prisoners. “I scolded Aunt Catherine for not bringing you with the others.”

I brightened up at these words.

“The children tell me that you are going on your wanderings again. Have you forgotten that you almost died of cold and hunger, my boy?”

“No, I’ve not forgotten that.”

“You were not alone then; you had some one to look after you. At your age I don’t think it is right to go tramping across the country alone.”

“You don’t want me to bring you news of your children, then?” I asked.

“They told me that you were going to see them all, one after the other,” he replied, “but I am not thinking of us when I ask you to give up this wandering life.”

“And if I do what you ask I should be thinking of myself and not of you … of Lise.”

This time he looked at me for several seconds, then he suddenly took both my hands.

“You have a heart, and I will not say another word, my boy. God will take care of you.”

I threw my arms round his neck; the time had come for me to say good-by. For some moments he held me in silence, then suddenly he felt in his vest pocket and pulled out a large silver watch.

“Here, boy, take this,” he said. “I want you to have it as a keepsake. It isn’t of much value; if it had been I’d have sold it. It doesn’t keep good time, either. When anything is wrong with it, just give it a thump. It is all I have.”

I wanted to refuse such a beautiful present, but he forced it into my closed hands.

“Oh, I don’t need to know the time,” he said sadly; “the hours pass slowly enough. I should die counting them. Good-by, little Remi; always remember to be a good boy.”

I was very unhappy. How good he had been to me! I lingered round the prison doors for a long time after I had left him. I might have stayed there perhaps until night if I had not suddenly touched a hard round object in my pocket. My watch!

All my grief was forgotten for the moment. My watch! My very own watch by which I could tell the time. I pulled it out to see the hour. Midday! It was a matter of small importance whether it was midday, ten o’clock or two o’clock. Yet, I was very pleased that it was midday. It would have been hard to say why, but such was the case. I knew that it was midday; my watch told me so. What an affair! It seemed to me that a watch was a sort of confidential friend of whom one could ask advice and to whom one could talk.

“Friend watch, what’s the time?”

“Just twelve o’clock, my dear Remi.”

“Really! Then it’s time for me to do this or that. A good thing you reminded me; if you had not, I should have forgotten.”

In my joy I had not noticed that Capi was almost as pleased as myself. He pulled me by the leg of my trousers and barked several times. As he continued to bark, I was forced to bestow some attention upon him.

“What do you want, Capi?” I asked.

He looked at me, but I failed to understand him. He waited some moments, then came and stood up against me, putting his paws on the pocket where I had placed my watch. He wanted to know the time to tell the “distinguished audience,” like in the days when he had worked with Vitalis.

I showed the watch to him. He looked at it for some time, as though trying to remember, then, wagging his tail, he barked twelve times. He had not forgotten! We could earn money with my watch! That was something I had not counted upon.

Forward march, children!

I took one last look at the prison, behind the walls of which little Lise’s father was shut, then went on my way.

The thing I needed most of all was a map of France. Knowing that in the book stalls on the quays I could procure one, I wended my way towards the river. At last I found one that was so yellow that the man let me have it for fifteen sous.

I was able to leave Paris now, and I decided to do so at once. I had a choice between two roads. I chose the road to Fontainebleau. As I went up the Rue Mouffetard, a host of memories rushed upon me. Garofoli! Mattia! Ricardo! the soup pot fastened with a padlock, the whip, and Vitalis, my poor, good master, who had died because he would not rent me to the padrone. As I passed the church I saw a little boy leaning against the wall, and I thought I recognized him. Surely it was Mattia, the boy with the big head, the great eyes and the soft, resigned look. But then he had not grown one inch! I went nearer to see better. Yes, it was Mattia. He recognised me. His pale face broke into a smile.

“Ah, it’s you,” he said. “You came to Garofoli’s a long time ago with an old man with a white beard, just before I went to the hospital. Ah! how I used to suffer with my head then.”

“Is Garofoli still your master?”

He glanced round before replying, then lowering his voice he said: “Garofoli is in prison. They took him because he beat Orlando to death.”

I was shocked at this. I was pleased to hear that they had put Garofoli in prison, and for the first time I thought the prisons, which inspired me with so much horror, had their use.

“And the other boys?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. I was not there when Garofoli was arrested. When I came out of the hospital, Garofoli, seeing that it was no good to beat me ’cause I got ill, wanted to get rid of me, so he sold me for two years to the Gassot Circus. They paid him in advance. D’ye know the Gassot Circus? No? Well, it’s not much of a circus, but it’s a circus all the same. They wanted a child for dislocation, and Garofoli sold me to Mr. Gassot. I stayed with him until last Monday, when he sent me off because my head was too big to go into the box. After leaving the circus I went back to find Garofoli, but the place was all shut up, and a neighbor told me what had happened. Now that Garofoli’s in prison I don’t know where to go.

“And I haven’t any money,” he added, “and I haven’t had a bite to eat since yesterday.”

I was not rich, but I had enough to give something to poor Mattia. How I would have blessed one who would have given me a crust of bread when I was wandering round Toulouse, famished like Mattia now.

“Stay here until I come back,” I said.

I ran to a bakery at the corner of the street and soon returned with a roll, which I offered him. He devoured it in a moment.

“Now,” I said, “what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. I was trying to sell my violin when you spoke to me, and I would have sold it before, if I hadn’t hated to part with it. My violin is all I have and when I’m sad, I find a spot where I can be alone and play to myself. Then I see all sorts of beautiful things in the sky, more beautiful than in a dream.”

“Why don’t you play your violin in the streets?”

“I did, but I didn’t get anything.”

How well I knew what it was to play and not get a coin.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I don’t know why, but on the spur of the moment, I put up a ridiculous bluff.

“I’m the boss of a company,” I said proudly.

It was true, but the truth was very near a falsehood. My “company” only consisted of Capi.

“Oh, will you….” began Mattia.


“Take me in your company?”

Not wishing to deceive him, I smiled and pointed to Capi.

“But that is all the company I have,” I said.

“Well, what does that matter? I’ll be another. Oh, please don’t leave me; I shall die of hunger!”

Die of hunger! His words seemed to strike my very heart. I knew what it would be to die of hunger.

“I can play the violin, and I can dislocate,” said Mattia breathlessly. “I can dance on the tight rope, I can sing, I’ll do anything you like. I’ll be your servant; I’ll obey you. I don’t ask for money; food only. And if I do badly, you can beat me, that is understood. All that I ask is, that you won’t strike me on the head; that also must be understood, because my head is very sore since Garofoli beat me so much on it.”

I felt like crying, to hear poor little Mattia speak so. How could I refuse to take him with me. Die of hunger! But with me there was also a chance that he might die of hunger. I told him so, but he would not listen to me.

“No, no,” he said; “when there are two, one doesn’t starve, because one helps the other. The one who has it gives to the one who hasn’t.”

I hesitated no longer. As I had some I must help him.

“Well, then, it’s understood,” I said.

Instantly he took my hand and actually kissed it in gratitude.

“Come with me,” I said; “not as a servant, Mattia, but as my chum.”

Shouldering my harp, I gave the signal:

“Forward, march!”

At the end of a quarter of an hour, we had left Paris behind.

I left Paris by this route because I wanted to see Mother Barberin. How many times I had wanted to write to her and tell her that I thought of her, and that I loved her with all my heart, but the horrible fear of Barberin restrained me. If Barberin found me by means of my letter, he might take me and sell me to another man. He probably had the right to do so. I preferred that Mother Barberin should think that I was an ungrateful boy rather than run the risk of falling into Barberin’s power.

But though I dared not write, now that I was free, I could go and see her. Since I had taken Mattia into my “company” I had made up my mind to do so, for it seemed to me that it could easily be arranged. I would send him ahead and he could find out if she were alone, and then tell her that I was not far off, and was only waiting to know if it were safe for me to come and see her. Then, if Barberin were in the village, Mattia could ask her to come to some safe spot where I could meet her.

I tramped along in silence, working out this plan. Mattia trudged by my side; he also seemed to be thinking deeply. The idea came to me to show off my possessions to Mattia. Unfastening my bag, I proudly spread out my riches on the grass. I had three cotton shirts, three pairs of socks, five handkerchiefs, all in good condition, and one pair of shoes, slightly used.

Mattia was awestruck.

“And you, what have you got?” I asked.

“I’ve only got my violin.”

“Well, we’ll go shares, now we’re chums; you’ll have two shirts, two pairs of socks, and three handkerchiefs, but as it’s only fair that we go shares in everything, you’ll carry my bag for one hour and I’ll carry it for another.”

Mattia wanted to refuse the things, but as I had quickly fallen into the habit of commanding, which, I must say I found very pleasant, I told him to be silent. I had laid out Etiennette’s needle case and also a little box in which I had placed Lise’s rose. Mattia wanted to open this box, but I would not let him. I put it back in my bag without even lifting the lid.

“If you want to please me,” I said, “you will never touch this box … it’s a present.”

“I promise never to touch it,” he said solemnly.

Since I had again donned my sheepskin and my harp there was one thing which caused me serious thought. That was my trousers. It seemed to me that an artist ought not to wear long trousers; to appear in public an artist should have short trousers with stockings coming over them, laced over and over with colored ribbons. Trousers were all right for a gardener, but now … I was an artist! Yes, I must wear knickers. I quickly took the scissors from Etiennette’s work-case.

“While I arrange my trousers,” I said to Mattia, “you ought to show me how you play the violin.”

“Oh, I’d like to.”

He began to play, while I boldly stuck the points of my scissors into my trousers a little above the knee. I commenced to cut the cloth.

Yet, however, they were a beautiful pair of gray cloth trousers, with vest and coat to match, and I had been so proud of them when M. Acquin had given them to me, but I did not consider that I was spoiling them by shortening them, quite the contrary.

At first I scarcely listened to Mattia; I was too busy cutting my trousers, but soon I stopped manipulating the scissors and became all ears. Mattia played almost as well as Vitalis.

“Who taught you the violin?” I asked, clapping my hands.

“No one, I studied alone.”

“Hasn’t any one explained to you anything about music?”

“No, I play just what I hear.”

“I’ll teach you, I will.”

“You know everything, then?”

“Well so I ought to, if I’m the director.”

I wanted to show Mattia that I also was a musician. I took my harp and, wishing to impress him, I sang the famous canzonette. Then, as it should be between artists, he complimented me. He had great talent. We were worthy of each other.

I buckled my knapsack and Mattia, in turn, hoisted it on his shoulders.

We had to stop at the first village to give a performance. It was to be the “First appearance of Remi’s Company.”

“Teach me your song,” said Mattia; “we’ll sing it together, and I’ll soon be able to accompany you on the violin. That’ll be pretty.”

Certainly, that would be pretty, and the “distinguished audience” would have a heart of stone if they were not generous in their offerings.

At the first village that we came to we had to pass before a large farm gate; looking in we saw a crowd of people dressed up in their best; some of them carried bouquets tied with satin streamers. It was a wedding. I thought that perhaps these people might like a little music and dance, so I went into the farmyard and suggested it to the first person that I met. This was a big, good-natured looking man with a red face; he wore a tall white collar and a Prince Albert coat. He did not reply to my question, but turning to the guests, he put his two fingers in his mouth and gave such a shrill whistle that it frightened Capi.

“Say, you all,” he cried, “what about a little music; the musicians have arrived.”

“Oh, music! music!” came the chorus.

“Take your places for the quadrilles!”

The dancers soon gathered in the middle of the yard. Mattia and I took our places up in a wagon.

“Can you play the quadrilles?” I whispered anxiously.


He struck a few notes on his violin. By luck I knew the air. We were saved. Although Mattia and I had never played together, we did not do badly. It is true the people had not much ear for music.

“Can one of you play the cornet?” asked the big man with the red face.

“I can,” said Mattia, “but I haven’t the instrument with me.”

“I’ll go and find one; the violin’s pretty, but it’s squeaky.”

I found that day that Mattia could play everything. We played until night, without stopping. It did not matter for me, but poor Mattia was very weak. From time to time I saw him turn pale as though he felt ill, yet he continued to play, blowing with all his might. Fortunately, I was not the only one who saw that he was ill; the bride remarked it also.

“That’s enough,” she said; “that little chap is tired out. Now all hands to your pockets for the musicians!”

I threw my cap to Capi, who caught it in his jaws.

“Give your offerings to our secretary, if you please,” I said.

They applauded, and were delighted at the manner in which Capi bowed. They gave generously; the husband was the last, and he dropped a five franc piece in the cap. The cap was full of silver coins. What a fortune!

We were invited to supper, and they gave us a place to sleep in the hay loft. The next day when we left this hospitable farm we had a capital of twenty-eight francs!

“I owe this to you, Mattia,” I said, after we had counted it; “I could not have made an orchestra all alone.”

With twenty-eight francs in our pockets we were rich. When we reached Corbeil I could very well afford to buy a few things that I considered indispensable: first, a cornet, which would cost three francs at a second-hand shop, then some red ribbons for our stockings and, lastly, another knapsack. It would be easier to carry a small bag all the time than a heavy one in turns.

“A boss like you, who doesn’t beat one, is too good,” said Mattia, laughing happily from time to time.

Our prosperous state of affairs made me decide to set out for Mother Barberin’s as soon as possible. I could take her a present. I was rich now. There was something that, more than anything else, would make her happy, not only now, but in her old age—a cow that would replace poor Rousette. How happy she would be if I gave her a cow, and how proud I should be. Before arriving at Chavanon I would buy a cow and Mattia would lead it by a rope, right into Mother Barberin’s yard.

Mattia would say to her: “Here is a cow I’ve brought you.”

“A cow!” she would say; “you’ve made a mistake, my boy,” and she would sigh.

“No, I haven’t,” Mattia would answer; “you’re Mother Barberin of Chevanon, aren’t you? Well, the prince (like in fairy tales) has sent you this as a present.”

“What prince?”

Then I would appear and take her in my arms, and after we had hugged each other we would make some pancakes and apple fritters which would be eaten by the three of us and not by Barberin, as on that Shrove Tuesday when he had returned to upset our frying pan and put our butter in his onion soup. What a beautiful dream! But to realize it we must first buy the cow!

How much would a cow cost? I had not the slightest idea; a great deal probably, but still…. I did not want a very big cow. Because the fatter the cow the higher the price, and then the bigger the cow the more nourishment it would require, and I did not want my present to be a source of inconvenience to Mother Barberin. The essential, for the moment, was to find out the price of cows or, rather, of a cow of the kind that I wanted. Fortunately, that was not difficult for we often met many farmers and cattle dealers at the different villages where we stopped. I put the question to the first I met at the inn that day.

He burst out laughing and gave a bang on the table. Then he called the landlady.

“This little musician wants to know how much a cow costs, not a very large one, but a very healthy one that’ll give plenty of milk!”

Every one laughed. I didn’t care, though.

“Yes, she must give good milk and not eat too much,” I said.

“And she mustn’t mind being led along the lanes by a halter.”

When he had had his laugh, he was quite willing to enter a discussion with me, and to take the matter seriously. He had just the very thing, a nice cow which gave delicious milk—real cream!—and she hardly ate anything. If I would put down fifty écus, the cow was mine. Although I had had trouble in making him talk at first, once he commenced it was difficult to stop him. Finally, we were able to retire for the night, and I dreamed of all I had learned from him.

Fifty écus; that was one hundred and fifty francs! I had nothing like that great sum. Perhaps if our luck still continued I could, if I saved sou by sou, get together the hundred and fifty francs. But it would take time. In that case we should have to go, first of all, to Varses and see Benny and give all the performances that we could on our way. And then on our return we would have the money and we would go to Chavanon and act the fairy tale, “The Prince’s Cow.”

I told Mattia of my plan and he raised no objections.


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