Chapter XXVIII. A Mysterious Stranger
If I had been in Mattia’s place, I should perhaps have had as much imagination as he, but I felt in my position that it was wrong for me to have such thoughts. It had been proved beyond a doubt that Mr. Driscoll was my father. I could not look at the matter from the same point of view as Mattia. He might doubt … but I must not. When he tried to make me believe as he did, I told him to be silent. But he was pig-headed and I was not always able to get the better of his obstinacy.
“Why are you dark and all the rest of the family fair?” he would ask repeatedly.
“How was it that poor people could dress their baby in fine laces and embroidery?” was another often repeated question. And I could only reply by putting a question myself.
“Why did they search for me if I was not their child? Why had they given money to Barberin and to Greth and Galley?”
Mattia could find no answer to my question and yet he would not be convinced.
“I think we should both go back to France,” he urged.
“Because it’s your duty to keep with your family, eh? But is it your family?”
These discussions only had one result, they made me more unhappy than I had ever been. How terrible it is to doubt. Yet, in spite of my wish not to doubt, I doubted. Who would have thought when I was crying so sadly because I thought I had no family that I should be in such despair now that I had one. How could I know the truth? In the meantime I had to sing and dance and laugh and make grimaces when my heart was full.
One Sunday my father told me to stay in the house because he wanted me. He sent Mattia off alone. All the others had gone out; my grandfather alone was upstairs. I had been with my father for about an hour when there was a knock at the door. A gentleman, who was unlike any of the men who usually called on my father, came in. He was about fifty years old and dressed in the height of fashion. He had white pointed teeth like a dog and when he smiled he drew his lips back over them as though he was going to bite. He spoke to my father in English, turning continually to look at me. Then he began to talk French; he spoke this language with scarcely an accent.
“This is the young boy that you spoke to me about?” he said. “He appears very well.”
“Answer the gentleman,” said my father to me.
“Yes, I am quite well,” I replied, surprised.
“You have never been ill?”
“I had pneumonia once.”
“Ah, when was that?”
“Three years ago. I slept out in the cold all night. My master, who was with me, was frozen to death, and I got pneumonia.”
“Haven’t you felt any effects of this illness since?”
“No fatigue, no perspiration at night?”
“No. When I’m tired it’s because I have walked a lot, but I don’t get ill.”
He came over to me and felt my arms, then put his head on my heart, then at my back and on my chest, telling me to take deep breaths. He also told me to cough. That done he looked at me for a long time. It was then that I thought he wanted to bite me, his teeth gleamed in such a terrible smile. A few moments later he left the house with my father.
What did it mean? Did he want to take me in his employ? I should have to leave Mattia and Capi. No, I wouldn’t be a servant to anybody, much less this man whom I disliked already.
My father returned and told me I could go out if I wished. I went into the caravan. What was my surprise to find Mattia there. He put his finger to his lips.
“Go and open the stable door,” he whispered, “I’ll go out softly behind you. They mustn’t know that I was here.”
I was mystified but I did as he asked.
“Do you know who that man was who was with your father?” he asked excitedly when we were in the street. “It was Mr. James Milligan, your friend’s uncle.”
I stood staring at him in the middle of the pavement. He took me by the arm and dragged me on.
“I was not going out all alone,” he continued, “so I went in there to sleep, but I didn’t sleep. Your father and a gentleman came into the stable and I heard all they said; at first I didn’t try to listen but afterward I did.
“‘Solid as a rock,’ said the gentleman; ‘nine out of ten would have died, but he pulled through with pneumonia.’
“‘How is your nephew?’ asked your father.
“‘Better. Three months ago the doctors again gave him up, but his mother saved him once more. Oh, she’s a marvelous mother, is Mrs. Milligan.’
“You can imagine when I heard this name if I did not glue my ears to the window.
“‘Then if your nephew is better,’ continued your father, ‘all you’ve done is useless.’
“‘For the moment, perhaps,’ replied the other, ‘but I don’t say that Arthur is going to live; it would be a miracle if he did, and I am not afraid of miracles. The day he dies the only heir to that estate will be myself.’
“‘Don’t worry; I’ll see to that,’ said Driscoll.
“‘Yes, I count on you,’ replied Mr. Milligan.”
My first thought was to question my father, but it was not wise to let them know that they had been overheard. As Mr. Milligan had business with my father he would probably come to the house again, and the next time, Mattia, whom he did not know, could follow him.
A few days later Mattia met a friend of his, Bob, the Englishman, whom he had known at the Gassot Circus. I could see by the way he greeted Mattia that he was very fond of him. He at once took a liking to Capi and myself. From that day we had a strong friend, who, by his experience and advice, was of great help to us in time of trouble.