Cuore (Chapter 51)
Edmondo De Acids
FROM THE APENNINES TO THE ANDES
Many years ago a Genoese lad of thirteen, the son of a workingman, went from Genoa to America all alone to seek his mother.
His mother had gone two years before to Buenos Ayres, a city, the capital of the Argentine Republic, to take service in a wealthy family, and to thus earn in a short time enough to place her family once more in easy circumstances, they having fallen, through various misfortunes, into poverty and debt. There are courageous women—not a few—who take this long voyage with this object in view, and who, thanks to the large wages which people in service receive there, return home at the end of a few years with several thousand lire. The poor mother had wept tears of blood at parting from her children,—the one aged eighteen, the other, eleven; but she had set out courageously and filled with hope.
The voyage was prosperous: she had no sooner arrived at Buenos Ayres than she found, through a Genoese shopkeeper, a cousin of her husband, who had been established there for a very long time, a good Argentine family, which gave high wages and treated her well. And for a short time she kept up a regular correspondence with her family. As it had been settled between them, her husband addressed his letters to his cousin, who transmitted them to the woman, and the latter handed her replies to him, and he despatched them to Genoa, adding a few lines of his own. As she was earning eighty lire a month and spending nothing for herself, she sent home a handsome sum every three months, with which her husband, who was a man of honor, gradually paid off their most urgent debts, and thus regained his good reputation. And in the meantime, he worked away and was satisfied with the state of his affairs, since he also cherished the hope that his wife would shortly return; for the house seemed empty without her, and the younger son in particular, who was extremely attached to his mother, was very much depressed, and could not resign himself to having her so far away.
But a year had elapsed since they had parted; after a brief letter, in which she said that her health was not very good, they heard nothing more. They wrote twice to the cousin; the cousin did not reply. They wrote to the Argentine family where the woman was at service; but it is possible that the letter never reached them, for they had distorted the name in addressing it: they received no answer. Fearing a misfortune, they wrote to the Italian Consulate at Buenos Ayres to have inquiries made, and after a lapse of three months they received a response from the consul, that in spite of advertisements in the newspapers no one had presented herself nor sent any word. And it could not have happened otherwise, for this reason if for no other: that with the idea of sparing the good name of her family, which she fancied she was discrediting by becoming a servant, the good woman had not given her real name to the Argentine family.
Several months more passed by; no news. The father and sons were in consternation; the youngest was oppressed by a melancholy which he could not conquer. What was to be done? To whom should they have recourse? The father’s first thought had been to set out, to go to America in search of his wife. But his work? Who would support his sons? And neither could the eldest son go, for he had just then begun to earn something, and he was necessary to the family. And in this anxiety they lived, repeating each day the same sad speeches, or gazing at each other in silence; when, one evening, Marco, the youngest, declared with decision, “I am going to America to look for my mother.”
His father shook his head sadly and made no reply. It was an affectionate thought, but an impossible thing. To make a journey to America, which required a month, alone, at the age of thirteen! But the boy patiently insisted. He persisted that day, the day after, every day, with great calmness, reasoning with the good sense of a man. “Others have gone thither,” he said; “and smaller boys than I, too. Once on board the ship, I shall get there like anybody else. Once arrived there, I only have to hunt up our cousin’s shop. There are plenty of Italians there who will show me the street. After finding our cousin, my mother is found; and if I do not find him, I will go to the consul: I will search out that Argentine family. Whatever happens, there is work for all there; I shall find work also; sufficient, at least, to earn enough to get home.” And thus little by little he almost succeeded in persuading his father. His father esteemed him; he knew that he had good judgment and courage; that he was inured to privations and to sacrifices; and that all these good qualities had acquired double force in his heart in consequence of the sacred project of finding his mother, whom he adored. In addition to this, the captain of a steamer, the friend of an acquaintance of his, having heard the plan mentioned, undertook to procure a free third-class passage for the Argentine Republic.
And then, after a little hesitation, the father gave his consent. The voyage was decided on. They filled a sack with clothes for him, put a few crowns in his pocket, and gave him the address of the cousin; and one fine evening in April they saw him on board.
“Marco, my son,” his father said to him, as he gave him his last kiss, with tears in his eyes, on the steps of the steamer, which was on the point of starting, “take courage. Thou hast set out on a holy undertaking, and God will aid thee.”
Poor Marco! His heart was strong and prepared for the hardest trials of this voyage; but when he beheld his beautiful Genoa disappear on the horizon, and found himself on the open sea on that huge steamer thronged with emigrating peasants, alone, unacquainted with any one, with that little bag which held his entire fortune, a sudden discouragement assailed him. For two days he remained crouching like a dog on the bows, hardly eating, and oppressed with a great desire to weep. Every description of sad thoughts passed through his mind, and the saddest, the most terrible, was the one which was the most persistent in its return,—the thought that his mother was dead. In his broken and painful slumbers he constantly beheld a strange face, which surveyed him with an air of compassion, and whispered in his ear, “Your mother is dead!” And then he awoke, stifling a shriek.
Nevertheless, after passing the Straits of Gibraltar, at the first sight of the Atlantic Ocean he recovered his spirits a little, and his hope. But it was only a brief respite. That vast but always smooth sea, the increasing heat, the misery of all those poor people who surrounded him, the consciousness of his own solitude, overwhelmed him once more. The empty and monotonous days which succeeded each other became confounded in his memory, as is the case with sick people. It seemed to him that he had been at sea a year. And every morning, on waking, he felt surprised afresh at finding himself there alone on that vast watery expanse, on his way to America. The beautiful flying fish which fell on deck every now and then, the marvellous sunsets of the tropics, with their enormous clouds colored like flame and blood, and those nocturnal phosphorescences which make the ocean seem all on fire like a sea of lava, did not produce on him the effect of real things, but of marvels beheld in a dream. There were days of bad weather, during which he remained constantly in the dormitory, where everything was rolling and crashing, in the midst of a terrible chorus of lamentations and imprecations, and he thought that his last hour had come. There were other days, when the sea was calm and yellowish, of insupportable heat, of infinite tediousness; interminable and wretched hours, during which the enervated passengers, stretched motionless on the planks, seemed all dead. And the voyage was endless: sea and sky, sky and sea; to-day the same as yesterday, to-morrow like to-day, and so on, always, eternally.
And for long hours he stood leaning on the bulwarks, gazing at that interminable sea in amazement, thinking vaguely of his mother, until his eyes closed and his head was drooping with sleep; and then again he beheld that unknown face which gazed upon him with an air of compassion, and repeated in his ear, “Your mother is dead!” and at the sound of that voice he awoke with a start, to resume his dreaming with wide-open eyes, and to gaze at the unchanging horizon.
The voyage lasted twenty-seven days. But the last days were the best. The weather was fine, and the air cool. He had made the acquaintance of a good old man, a Lombard, who was going to America to find his son, an agriculturist in the vicinity of the town of Rosario; he had told him his whole story, and the old man kept repeating every little while, as he tapped him on the nape of the neck with his hand, “Courage, my lad; you will find your mother well and happy.”
This companionship comforted him; his sad presentiments were turned into joyous ones. Seated on the bow, beside the aged peasant, who was smoking his pipe, beneath the beautiful starry heaven, in the midst of a group of singing peasants, he imagined to himself in his own mind a hundred times his arrival at Buenos Ayres; he saw himself in a certain street; he found the shop, he flew to his cousin. “How is my mother? Come, let us go at once! Let us go at once!” They hurried on together; they ascended a staircase; a door opened. And here his mute soliloquy came to an end; his imagination was swallowed up in a feeling of inexpressible tenderness, which made him secretly pull forth a little medal that he wore on his neck, and murmur his prayers as he kissed it.
On the twenty-seventh day after their departure they arrived. It was a beautiful, rosy May morning, when the steamer cast anchor in the immense river of the Plata, near the shore along which stretches the vast city of Buenos Ayres, the capital of the Argentine Republic. This splendid weather seemed to him to be a good augury. He was beside himself with joy and impatience. His mother was only a few miles from him! In a few hours more he would have seen her! He was in America, in the new world, and he had had the daring to come alone! The whole of that extremely long voyage now seemed to him to have passed in an instant. It seemed to him that he had flown hither in a dream, and that he had that moment waked. And he was so happy, that he hardly experienced any surprise or distress when he felt in his pockets and found only one of the two little heaps into which he had divided his little treasure, in order to be the more sure of not losing the whole of it. He had been robbed; he had only a few lire left; but what mattered that to him, when he was near his mother? With his bag in his hand, he descended, in company with many other Italians, to the tug-boat which carried him within a short distance of the shore; clambered down from the tug into a boat which bore the name of Andrea Doria; was landed on the wharf; saluted his old Lombard friend, and directed his course, in long strides, towards the city.
On arriving at the entrance of the first street, he stopped a man who was passing by, and begged him to show him in what direction he should go in order to reach the street of los Artes. He chanced to have stopped an Italian workingman. The latter surveyed him with curiosity, and inquired if he knew how to read. The lad nodded, “Yes.”
“Well, then,” said the laborer, pointing to the street from which he had just emerged, “keep straight on through there, reading the names of all the streets on the corners; you will end by finding the one you want.”
The boy thanked him, and turned into the street which opened before him.
It was a straight and endless but narrow street, bordered by low white houses, which looked like so many little villas, filled with people, with carriages, with carts which made a deafening noise; here and there floated enormous banners of various hues, with announcements as to the departure of steamers for strange cities inscribed upon them in large letters. At every little distance along the street, on the right and left, he perceived two other streets which ran straight away as far as he could see, also bordered by low white houses, filled with people and vehicles, and bounded at their extremity by the level line of the measureless plains of America, like the horizon at sea. The city seemed in finite to him; it seemed to him that he might wander for days or weeks, seeing other streets like these, on one hand and on the other, and that all America must be covered with them. He looked attentively at the names of the streets: strange names which cost him an effort to read. At every fresh street, he felt his heartbeat, at the thought that it was the one he was in search of. He stared at all the women, with the thought that he might meet his mother. He caught sight of one in front of him who made his blood leap; he overtook her: she was a negro. And accelerating his pace, he walked on and on. On arriving at the cross-street, he read, and stood as though rooted to the sidewalk. It was the street del los Artes. He turned into it, and saw the number 117; his cousin’s shop was No. 175. He quickened his pace still more, and almost ran; at No. 171 he had to pause to regain his breath. And he said to himself, “O my mother! my mother! It is really true that I shall see you in another moment!” He ran on; he arrived at a little haberdasher’s shop. This was it. He stepped up close to it. He saw a woman with gray hair and spectacles.
“What do you want, boy?” she asked him in Spanish.
“Is not this,” said the boy, making an effort to utter a sound, “the shop of Francesco Merelli?”
“Francesco Merelli is dead,” replied the woman in Italian.
The boy felt as though he had received a blow on his breast.
“When did he die?”
“Eh? quite a while ago,” replied the woman. “Months ago. His affairs were in a bad state, and he ran away. They say he went to Bahia Blanca, very far from here. And he died just after he reached there. The shop is mine.”
The boy turned pale.
Then he said quickly, “Merelli knew my mother; my mother who was at service with Signor Mequinez. He alone could tell me where she is. I have come to America to find my mother. Merelli sent her our letters. I must find my mother.”
“Poor boy!” said the woman; “I don’t know. I can ask the boy in the courtyard. He knew the young man who did Merelli’s errands. He may be able to tell us something.”
She went to the end of the shop and called the lad, who came instantly. “Tell me,” asked the shopwoman, “do you remember whether Merelli’s young man went occasionally to carry letters to a woman in service, in the house of the son of the country?”
“To Signor Mequinez,” replied the lad; “yes, signora, sometimes he did. At the end of the street del los Artes.”
“Ah! thanks, signora!” cried Marco. “Tell me the number; don’t you know it? Send some one with me; come with me instantly, my boy; I have still a few soldi.”
And he said this with so much warmth, that without waiting for the woman to request him, the boy replied, “Come,” and at once set out at a rapid pace.
They proceeded almost at a run, without uttering a word, to the end of the extremely long street, made their way into the entrance of a little white house, and halted in front of a handsome iron gate, through which they could see a small yard, filled with vases of flowers. Marco gave a tug at the bell.
A young lady made her appearance.
“The Mequinez family lives here, does it not?” demanded the lad anxiously.
“They did live here,” replied the young lady, pronouncing her Italian in Spanish fashion. “Now we, the Zeballos, live here.”
“And where have the Mequinez gone?” asked Marco, his heart palpitating.
“They have gone to Cordova.”
“Cordova!” exclaimed Marco. “Where is Cordova? And the person whom they had in their service? The woman, my mother! Their servant was my mother! Have they taken my mother away, too?”
The young lady looked at him and said: “I do not know. Perhaps my father may know, for he knew them when they went away. Wait a moment.”
She ran away, and soon returned with her father, a tall gentleman, with a gray beard. He looked intently for a minute at this sympathetic type of a little Genoese sailor, with his golden hair and his aquiline nose, and asked him in broken Italian, “Is your mother a Genoese?”
Marco replied that she was.
“Well then, the Genoese maid went with them; that I know for certain.”
“And where have they gone?”
“To Cordova, a city.”
The boy gave vent to a sigh; then he said with resignation, “Then I will go to Cordova.”
“Ah, poor child!” exclaimed the gentleman in Spanish; “poor boy! Cordova is hundreds of miles from here.”
Marco turned as white as a corpse, and clung with one hand to the railings.
“Let us see, let us see,” said the gentleman, moved to pity, and opening the door; “come inside a moment; let us see if anything can be done.” He sat down, gave the boy a seat, and made him tell his story, listened to it very attentively, meditated a little, then said resolutely, “You have no money, have you?”
“I still have some, a little,” answered Marco.
The gentleman reflected for five minutes more; then seated himself at a desk, wrote a letter, sealed it, and handing it to the boy, he said to him:—
“Listen to me, little Italian. Take this letter to Boca. That is a little city which is half Genoese, and lies two hours’ journey from here. Any one will be able to show you the road. Go there and find the gentleman to whom this letter is addressed, and whom everyone knows. Carry the letter to him. He will send you off to the town of Rosario to-morrow, and will recommend you to someone there, who will think out a way of enabling you to pursue your journey to Cordova, where you will find the Mequinez family and your mother. In the meanwhile, take this.” And he placed in his hand a few lire. “Go, and keep up your courage; you will find fellow-countrymen of yours in every direction, and you will not be deserted. Adios!”
The boy said, “Thanks,” without finding any other words to express himself, went out with his bag, and having taken leave of his little guide, he set out slowly in the direction of Boca, filled with sorrow and amazement, across that great and noisy town.
Everything that happened to him from that moment until the evening of that day ever afterwards lingered in his memory in a confused and uncertain form, like the wild vagaries of a person in a fever, so weary was he, so troubled, so despondent. And at nightfall on the following day, after having slept overnight in a poor little chamber in a house in Boca, beside a harbor porter, after having passed nearly the whole of that day seated on a pile of beams, and, as in delirium, in sight of thousands of ships and boats and tugs, he found himself on the poop of a large sailing vessel, loaded with fruit, which was setting out for the town of Rosario, managed by three robust Genoese, who were bronzed by the sun; and their voices and the dialect which they spoke put a little comfort into his heart once more.
They set out, and the voyage lasted three days and four nights, and it was a continual amazement to the little traveller. Three days and four nights on that wonderful river Paranà, in comparison with which our great Po is but a rivulet; and the length of Italy quadrupled does not equal that of its course. The barge advanced slowly against this immeasurable mass of water. It threaded its way among long islands, once the haunts of serpents and tigers, covered with orange-trees and willows, like floating coppices; now they passed through narrow canals, from which it seemed as though they could never issue forth; now they sailed out on vast expanses of water, having the aspect of great tranquil lakes; then among islands again, through the intricate channels of an archipelago, amid enormous masses of vegetation. A profound silence reigned. For long stretches the shores and very vast and solitary waters produced the impression of an unknown stream, upon which this poor little sail was the first in all the world to venture itself. The further they advanced, the more this monstrous river dismayed him. He imagined that his mother was at its source, and that their navigation must last for years. Twice a day he ate a little bread and salted meat with the boatmen, who, perceiving that he was sad, never addressed a word to him. At night he slept on deck and woke every little while with a start, astounded by the limpid light of the moon, which silvered the immense expanse of water and the distant shores; and then his heart sank within him. “Cordova!” He repeated that name, “Cordova!” like the name of one of those mysterious cities of which he had heard in fables. But then he thought, “My mother passed this spot; she saw these islands, these shores;” and then these places upon which the glance of his mother had fallen no longer seemed strange and solitary to him. At night one of the boatmen sang. That voice reminded him of his mother’s songs, when she had lulled him to sleep as a little child. On the last night, when he heard that song, he sobbed. The boatman interrupted his song. Then he cried, “Courage, courage, my son! What the deuce! A Genoese crying because he is far from home! The Genoese make the circuit of the world, glorious and triumphant!”
And at these words he shook himself, he heard the voice of the Genoese blood, and he raised his head aloft with pride, dashing his fist down on the rudder. “Well, yes,” he said to himself; “and if I am also obliged to travel for years and years to come, all over the world, and to traverse hundreds of miles on foot, I will go on until I find my mother, were I to arrive in a dying condition, and fall dead at her feet! If only I can see her once again! Courage!” And with this frame of mind he arrived at daybreak, on a cool and rosy morning, in front of the city of Rosario, situated on the high bank of the Paranà, where the beflagged yards of a hundred vessels of every land were mirrored in the waves.
Shortly after landing, he went to the town, bag in hand, to seek an Argentine gentleman for whom his protector in Boca had intrusted him with a visiting-card, with a few words of recommendation. On entering Rosario, it seemed to him that he was coming into a city with which he was already familiar. There were the straight, interminable streets, bordered with low white houses, traversed in all directions above the roofs by great bundles of telegraph and telephone wires, which looked like enormous spiders’ webs; and a great confusion of people, of horses, and of vehicles. His head grew confused; he almost thought that he had got back to Buenos Ayres, and must hunt up his cousin once more. He wandered about for nearly an hour, making one turn after another, and seeming always to come back to the same street; and by dint of inquiring, he found the house of his new protector. He pulled the bell. There came to the door a big, light-haired, gruff man, who had the air of a steward, and who demanded awkwardly, with a foreign accent:—
“What do you want?”
The boy mentioned the name of his patron.
“The master has gone away,” replied the steward; “he set out yesterday afternoon for Buenos Ayres, with his whole family.”
The boy was left speechless. Then he stammered, “But I—I have no one here! I am alone!” and he offered the card.
The steward took it, read it, and said surlily: “I don’t know what to do for you. I’ll give it to him when he returns a month hence.”
“But I, I am alone; I am in need!” exclaimed the lad, in a supplicating voice.
“Eh? come now,” said the other; “just as though there were not a plenty of your sort from your country in Rosario! Be off, and do your begging in Italy!” And he slammed the door in his face.
The boy stood there as though he had been turned to stone.
Then he picked up his bag again slowly, and went out, his heart torn with anguish, with his mind in a whirl, assailed all at once by a thousand anxious thoughts. What was to be done? Where was he to go? From Rosario to Cordova was a day’s journey, by rail. He had only a few lire left. After deducting what he should be obliged to spend that day, he would have next to nothing left. Where was he to find the money to pay his fare? He could work—but how? To whom should he apply for work? Ask alms? Ah, no! To be repulsed, insulted, humiliated, as he had been a little while ago? No; never, never more—rather would he die! And at this idea, and at the sight of the very long street which was lost in the distance of the boundless plain, he felt his courage desert him once more, flung his bag on the sidewalk, sat down with his back against the wall, and bent his head between his hands, in an attitude of despair.
People jostled him with their feet as they passed; the vehicles filled the road with noise; several boys stopped to look at him. He remained thus for a while. Then he was startled by a voice saying to him in a mixture of Italian and Lombard dialect, “What is the matter, little boy?”
He raised his face at these words, and instantly sprang to his feet, uttering an exclamation of wonder: “You here!”
It was the old Lombard peasant with whom he had struck up a friendship during the voyage.
The amazement of the peasant was no less than his own; but the boy did not leave him time to question him, and he rapidly recounted the state of his affairs.
“Now I am without a soldo. I must go to work. Find me work, that I may get together a few lire. I will do anything; I will carry rubbish, I will sweep the streets; I can run on errands, or even work in the country; I am content to live on black bread; but only let it be so that I may set out quickly, that I may find my mother once more. Do me this charity, and find me work, find me work, for the love of God, for I can do no more!”
“The deuce! the deuce!” said the peasant, looking about him, and scratching his chin. “What a story is this! To work, to work!—that is soon said. Let us look about a little. Is there no way of finding thirty lire among so many fellow-countrymen?”
The boy looked at him, consoled by a ray of hope.
“Come with me,” said the peasant.
“Where?” asked the lad, gathering up his bag again.
“Come with me.”
The peasant started on; Marco followed him. They traversed a long stretch of street together without speaking. The peasant halted at the door of an inn which had for its sign a star, and an inscription beneath, The Star of Italy. He thrust his face in, and turning to the boy, he said cheerfully, “We have arrived at just the right moment.”
They entered a large room, where there were numerous tables, and many men seated, drinking and talking loudly. The old Lombard approached the first table, and from the manner in which he saluted the six guests who were gathered around it, it was evident that he had been in their company until a short time previously. They were red in the face, and were clinking their glasses, and vociferating and laughing.
“Comrades,” said the Lombard, without any preface, remaining on his feet, and presenting Marco, “here is a poor lad, our fellow-countryman, who has come alone from Genoa to Buenos Ayres to seek his mother. At Buenos Ayres they told him, ‘She is not here; she is in Cordova.’ He came in a bark to Rosario, three days and three nights on the way, with a couple of lines of recommendation. He presents the card; they make an ugly face at him: he hasn’t a centesimo to bless himself with. He is here alone and in despair. He is a lad full of heart. Let us see a bit. Can’t we find enough to pay for his ticket to go to Cordova in search of his mother? Are we to leave him here like a dog?”
“Never in the world, by Heavens! That shall never be said!” they all shouted at once, hammering on the table with their fists. “A fellow-countryman of ours! Come hither, little fellow! We are emigrants! See what a handsome young rogue! Out with your coppers, comrades! Bravo! Come alone! He has daring! Drink a sup,patriotta! We’ll send you to your mother; never fear!” And one pinched his cheek, another slapped him on the shoulder, a third relieved him of his bag; other emigrants rose from the neighboring tables, and gathered about; the boy’s story made the round of the inn; three Argentine guests hurried in from the adjoining room; and in less than ten minutes the Lombard peasant, who was passing round the hat, had collected forty-two lire.
“Do you see,” he then said, turning to the boy, “how fast things are done in America?”
“Drink!” cried another to him, offering him a glass of wine; “to the health of your mother!”
All raised their glasses, and Marco repeated, “To the health of my—” But a sob of joy choked him, and, setting the glass on the table, he flung himself on the old man’s neck.
At daybreak on the following morning he set out for Cordova, ardent and smiling, filled with presentiments of happiness. But there is no cheerfulness that rules for long in the face of certain sinister aspects of nature. The weather was close and dull; the train, which was nearly empty, ran through an immense plain, destitute of every sign of habitation. He found himself alone in a very long car, which resembled those on trains for the wounded. He gazed to the right, he gazed to the left, and he saw nothing but an endless solitude, strewn with tiny, deformed trees, with contorted trunks and branches, in attitudes such as were never seen before, almost of wrath and anguish, and a sparse and melancholy vegetation, which gave to the plain the aspect of a ruined cemetery.
He dozed for half an hour; then resumed his survey: the spectacle was still the same. The railway stations were deserted, like the dwellings of hermits; and when the train stopped, not a sound was heard; it seemed to him that he was alone in a lost train, abandoned in the middle of a desert. It seemed to him as though each station must be the last, and that he should then enter the mysterious regions of the savages. An icy breeze nipped his face. On embarking at Genoa, towards the end of April, it had not occurred to him that he should find winter in America, and he was dressed for summer.
After several hours of this he began to suffer from cold, and in connection with the cold, from the fatigue of the days he had recently passed through, filled as they had been with violent emotions, and from sleepless and harassing nights. He fell asleep, slept a long time, and awoke benumbed; he felt ill. Then a vague terror of falling ill, of dying on the journey, seized upon him; a fear of being thrown out there, in the middle of that desolate prairie, where his body would be torn in pieces by dogs and birds of prey, like the corpses of horses and cows which he had caught sight of every now and then beside the track, and from which he had turned aside his eyes in disgust. In this state of anxious illness, in the midst of that dark silence of nature, his imagination grew excited, and looked on the dark side of things.
Was he quite sure, after all, that he should find his mother at Cordova? And what if she had not gone there? What if that gentleman in the Via del los Artes had made a mistake? And what if she were dead? Thus meditating, he fell asleep again, and dreamed that he was in Cordova, and it was night, and that he heard cries from all the doors and all the windows: “She is not here! She is not here! She is not here!” This roused him with a start, in terror, and he saw at the other end of the car three bearded men enveloped in shawls of various colors who were staring at him and talking together in a low tone; and the suspicion flashed across him that they were assassins, and that they wanted to kill him for the sake of stealing his bag. Fear was added to his consciousness of illness and to the cold; his fancy, already perturbed, became distorted: the three men kept on staring at him; one of them moved towards him; then his reason wandered, and rushing towards him with arms wide open, he shrieked, “I have nothing; I am a poor boy; I have come from Italy; I am in quest of my mother; I am alone: do not do me any harm!”
They instantly understood the situation; they took compassion on him, caressed and soothed him, speaking to him many words which he did not hear nor comprehend; and perceiving that his teeth were chattering with cold, they wrapped one of their shawls around him, and made him sit down again, so that he might go to sleep. And he did fall asleep once more, when the twilight was descending. When they aroused him, he was at Cordova.
Ah, what a deep breath he drew, and with what impetuosity he flew from the car! He inquired of one of the station employees where the house of the engineer Mequinez was situated; the latter mentioned the name of a church; it stood beside the church: the boy hastened away.
It was night. He entered the city, and it seemed to him that he was entering Rosario once more; that he again beheld those straight streets, flanked with little white houses, and intersected by other very long and straight streets. But there were very few people, and under the light of the rare street lanterns, he encountered strange faces of a hue unknown to him, between black and greenish; and raising his head from time to time, he beheld churches of bizarre architecture which were outlined black and vast against the sky. The city was dark and silent, but after having traversed that immense desert, it appeared lively to him. He inquired his way of a priest, speedily found the church and the house, pulled the bell with one trembling hand, and pressed the other on his breast to repress the beating of his heart, which was leaping into his throat.
An old woman, with a light in her hand, opened the door.
The boy could not speak at once.
“Whom do you want?” demanded the dame in Spanish.
“The engineer Mequinez,” replied Marco.
The old woman made a motion to cross her arms on her breast, and replied, with a shake of the head: “So you, too, have dealings with the engineer Mequinez! It strikes me that it is time to stop this. We have been worried for the last three months. It is not enough that the newspapers have said it. We shall have to have it printed on the corner of the street, that Signor Mequinez has gone to live at Tucuman!”
The boy gave way to a gesture of despair. Then he gave way to an outburst of passion.
“So there is a curse upon me! I am doomed to die on the road, without having found my mother! I shall go mad! I shall kill myself! My God! what is the name of that country? Where is it? At what distance is it situated?”
“Eh, poor boy,” replied the old woman, moved to pity; “a mere trifle! We are four or five hundred miles from there, at least.”
The boy covered his face with his hands; then he asked with a sob, “And now what am I to do!”
“What am I to say to you, my poor child?” responded the dame: “I don’t know.”
But suddenly an idea struck her, and she added hastily: “Listen, now that I think of it. There is one thing that you can do. Go down this street, to the right, and at the third house you will find a courtyard; there there is a capataz, a trader, who is setting out to-morrow for Tucuman, with his wagons and his oxen. Go and see if he will take you, and offer him your services; perhaps he will give you a place on his wagons: go at once.”
The lad grasped his bag, thanked her as he ran, and two minutes later found himself in a vast courtyard, lighted by lanterns, where a number of men were engaged in loading sacks of grain on certain enormous carts which resembled the movable houses of mountebanks, with rounded tops, and very tall wheels; and a tall man with mustaches, enveloped in a sort of mantle of black and white check, and with big boots, was directing the work.
The lad approached this man, and timidly proffered his request, saying that he had come from Italy, and that he was in search of his mother.
The capataz, which signifies the head (the head conductor of this convoy of wagons), surveyed him from head to foot with a keen glance, and replied drily, “I have no place.”
“I have fifteen lire,” answered the boy in a supplicating tone; “I will give you my fifteen lire. I will work on the journey; I will fetch the water and fodder for the animals; I will perform all sorts of services. A little bread will suffice for me. Make a little place for me, signor.”
The capataz looked him over again, and replied with a better grace, “There is no room; and then, we are not going to Tucuman; we are going to another town, Santiago dell’Estero. We shall have to leave you at a certain point, and you will still have a long way to go on foot.”
“Ah, I will make twice as long a journey!” exclaimed Marco; “I can walk; do not worry about that; I shall get there by some means or other: make a little room for me, signor, out of charity; for pity’s sake, do not leave me here alone!”
“Beware; it is a journey of twenty days.”
“It matters nothing to me.”
“It is a hard journey.”
“I will endure everything.”
“You will have to travel alone.”
“I fear nothing, if I can only find my mother. Have compassion!”
The capataz drew his face close to a lantern, and scrutinized him. Then he said, “Very well.”
The lad kissed his hand.
“You shall sleep in one of the wagons to-night,” added the capataz, as he quitted him; “to-morrow morning, at four o’clock, I will wake you. Good night.”
At four o’clock in the morning, by the light of the stars, the long string of wagons was set in motion with a great noise; each cart was drawn by six oxen, and all were followed by a great number of spare animals for a change.
The boy, who had been awakened and placed in one of the carts, on the sacks, instantly fell again into a deep sleep. When he awoke, the convoy had halted in a solitary spot, full in the sun, and all the men—the peones—were seated round a quarter of calf, which was roasting in the open air, beside a large fire, which was flickering in the wind. They all ate together, took a nap, and then set out again; and thus the journey continued, regulated like a march of soldiers. Every morning they set out on the road at five o’clock, halted at nine, set out again at five o’clock in the evening, and halted again at ten. The peones rode on horseback, and stimulated the oxen with long goads. The boy lighted the fire for the roasting, gave the beasts their fodder, polished up the lanterns, and brought water for drinking.
The landscape passed before him like an indistinct vision: vast groves of little brown trees; villages consisting of a few scattered houses, with red and battlemented façades; very vast tracts, possibly the ancient beds of great salt lakes, which gleamed white with salt as far as the eye could reach; and on every hand, and always, the prairie, solitude, silence. On very rare occasions they encountered two or three travellers on horseback, followed by a herd of picked horses, who passed them at a gallop, like a whirlwind. The days were all alike, as at sea, wearisome and interminable; but the weather was fine. But the peones became more and more exacting every day, as though the lad were their bond slave; some of them treated him brutally, with threats; all forced him to serve them without mercy: they made him carry enormous bundles of forage; they sent him to get water at great distances; and he, broken with fatigue, could not even sleep at night, continually tossed about as he was by the violent jolts of the wagon, and the deafening groaning of the wheels and wooden axles. And in addition to this, the wind having risen, a fine, reddish, greasy dust, which enveloped everything, penetrated the wagon, made its way under the covers, filled his eyes and mouth, robbed him of sight and breath, constantly, oppressively, insupportably. Worn out with toil and lack of sleep, reduced to rags and dirt, reproached and ill treated from morning till night, the poor boy grew every day more dejected, and would have lost heart entirely if the capataz had not addressed a kind word to him now and then. He often wept, unseen, in a corner of the wagon, with his face against his bag, which no longer contained anything but rags. Every morning he rose weaker and more discouraged, and as he looked out over the country, and beheld always the same boundless and implacable plain, like a terrestrial ocean, he said to himself: “Ah, I shall not hold out until to-night! I shall not hold out until to-night! To-day I shall die on the road!” And his toil increased, his ill treatment was redoubled. One morning, in the absence of the capataz, one of the men struck him, because he had delayed in fetching the water. And then they all began to take turns at it, when they gave him an order, dealing him a kick, saying: “Take that, you vagabond! Carry that to your mother!”
His heart was breaking. He fell ill; for three days he remained in the wagon, with a coverlet over him, fighting a fever, and seeing no one except the capataz, who came to give him his drink and feel his pulse. And then he believed that he was lost, and invoked his mother in despair, calling her a hundred times by name: “O my mother! my mother! Help me! Come to me, for I am dying! Oh, my poor mother, I shall never see you again! My poor mother, who will find me dead beside the way!” And he folded his hands over his bosom and prayed. Then he grew better, thanks to the care of the capataz, and recovered; but with his recovery arrived the most terrible day of his journey, the day on which he was to be left to his own devices. They had been on the way for more than two weeks; when they arrived at the point where the road to Tucuman parted from that which leads to Santiago dell’Estero, the capataz announced to him that they must separate. He gave him some instructions with regard to the road, tied his bag on his shoulders in a manner which would not annoy him as he walked, and, breaking off short, as though he feared that he should be affected, he bade him farewell. The boy had barely time to kiss him on one arm. The other men, too, who had treated him so harshly, seemed to feel a little pity at the sight of him left thus alone, and they made signs of farewell to him as they moved away. And he returned the salute with his hand, stood watching the convoy until it was lost to sight in the red dust of the plain, and then set out sadly on his road.
One thing, on the other hand, comforted him a little from the first. After all those days of travel across that endless plain, which was forever the same, he saw before him a chain of mountains very high and blue, with white summits, which reminded him of the Alps, and gave him the feeling of having drawn near to his own country once more. They were the Andes, the dorsal spine of the American continent, that immense chain which extends from Tierra del Fuego to the glacial sea of the Arctic pole, through a hundred and ten degrees of latitude. And he was also comforted by the fact that the air seemed to him to grow constantly warmer; and this happened, because, in ascending towards the north, he was slowly approaching the tropics. At great distances apart there were tiny groups of houses with a petty shop; and he bought something to eat. He encountered men on horseback; every now and then he saw women and children seated on the ground, motionless and grave, with faces entirely new to him, of an earthen hue, with oblique eyes and prominent cheek-bones, who looked at him intently, and accompanied him with their gaze, turning their heads slowly like automatons. They were Indians.
The first day he walked as long as his strength would permit, and slept under a tree. On the second day he made considerably less progress, and with less spirit. His shoes were dilapidated, his feet wounded, his stomach weakened by bad food. Towards evening he began to be alarmed. He had heard, in Italy, that in this land there were serpents; he fancied that he heard them crawling; he halted, then set out on a run, and with cold chills in all his bones. At times he was seized with a profound pity for himself, and he wept silently as he walked. Then he thought, “Oh, how much my mother would suffer if she knew that I am afraid!” and this thought restored his courage. Then, in order to distract his thoughts from fear, he meditated much of her; he recalled to mind her words when she had set out from Genoa, and the movement with which she had arranged the coverlet beneath his chin when he was in bed, and when he was a baby; for every time that she took him in her arms, she said to him, “Stay here a little while with me”; and thus she remained for a long time, with her head resting on his, thinking, thinking.
And he said to himself: “Shall I see thee again, dear mother? Shall I arrive at the end of my journey, my mother?” And he walked on and on, among strange trees, vast plantations of sugar-cane, and fields without end, always with those blue mountains in front of him, which cut the sky with their exceedingly lofty crests. Four days, five days—a week, passed. His strength was rapidly declining, his feet were bleeding. Finally, one evening at sunset, they said to him:—
“Tucuman is fifty miles from here.”
He uttered a cry of joy, and hastened his steps, as though he had, in that moment, regained all his lost vigor. But it was a brief illusion. His forces suddenly abandoned him, and he fell upon the brink of a ditch, exhausted. But his heart was beating with content. The heaven, thickly sown with the most brilliant stars, had never seemed so beautiful to him. He contemplated it, as he lay stretched out on the grass to sleep, and thought that, perhaps, at that very moment, his mother was gazing at him. And he said:—
“O my mother, where art thou? What art thou doing at this moment? Dost thou think of thy son? Dost thou think of thy Marco, who is so near to thee?”
Poor Marco! If he could have seen in what a case his mother was at that moment, he would have made a superhuman effort to proceed on his way, and to reach her a few hours earlier. She was ill in bed, in a ground-floor room of a lordly mansion, where dwelt the entire Mequinez family. The latter had become very fond of her, and had helped her a great deal. The poor woman had already been ailing when the engineer Mequinez had been obliged unexpectedly to set out far from Buenos Ayres, and she had not benefited at all by the fine air of Cordova. But then, the fact that she had received no response to her letters from her husband, nor from her cousin, the presentiment, always lively, of some great misfortune, the continual anxiety in which she had lived, between the parting and staying, expecting every day some bad news, had caused her to grow worse out of all proportion. Finally, a very serious malady had declared itself,—a strangled internal rupture. She had not risen from her bed for a fortnight. A surgical operation was necessary to save her life. And at precisely the moment when Marco was apostrophizing her, the master and mistress of the house were standing beside her bed, arguing with her, with great gentleness, to persuade her to allow herself to be operated on, and she was persisting in her refusal, and weeping. A good physician of Tucuman had come in vain a week before.
“No, my dear master,” she said; “do not count upon it; I have not the strength to resist; I should die under the surgeon’s knife. It is better to allow me to die thus. I no longer cling to life. All is at an end for me. It is better to die before learning what has happened to my family.”
And her master and mistress opposed, and said that she must take courage, that she would receive a reply to the last letters, which had been sent directly to Genoa; that she must allow the operation to be performed; that it must be done for the sake of her family. But this suggestion of her children only aggravated her profound discouragement, which had for a long time prostrated her, with increasing anguish. At these words she burst into tears.
“O my sons! my sons!” she exclaimed, wringing her hands; “perhaps they are no longer alive! It is better that I should die also. I thank you, my good master and mistress; I thank you from my heart. But it is better that I should die. At all events, I am certain that I shall not be cured by this operation. Thanks for all your care, my good master and mistress. It is useless for the doctor to come again after to-morrow. I wish to die. It is my fate to die here. I have decided.”
And they began again to console her, and to repeat, “Don’t say that,” and to take her hand and beseech her.
But she closed her eyes then in exhaustion, and fell into a doze, so that she appeared to be dead. And her master and mistress remained there a little while, by the faint light of a taper, watching with great compassion that admirable mother, who, for the sake of saving her family, had come to die six thousand miles from her country, to die after having toiled so hard, poor woman! and she was so honest, so good, so unfortunate.
Early on the morning of the following day, Marco, bent and limping, with his bag on his back, entered the city of Tucuman, one of the youngest and most flourishing towns of the Argentine Republic. It seemed to him that he beheld again Cordova, Rosario, Buenos Ayres: there were the same straight and extremely long streets, the same low white houses, but on every hand there was a new and magnificent vegetation, a perfumed air, a marvellous light, a sky limpid and profound, such as he had never seen even in Italy. As he advanced through the streets, he experienced once more the feverish agitation which had seized on him at Buenos Ayres; he stared at the windows and doors of all the houses; he stared at all the women who passed him, with an anxious hope that he might meet his mother; he would have liked to question everyone, but did not dare to stop any one. All the people who were standing at their doors turned to gaze after the poor, tattered, dusty lad, who showed that he had come from afar. And he was seeking, among all these people, a countenance which should inspire him with confidence, in order to direct to its owner that tremendous query, when his eyes fell upon the sign of an inn upon which was inscribed an Italian name. Inside were a man with spectacles, and two women. He approached the door slowly, and summoning up a resolute spirit, he inquired:—
“Can you tell me, signor, where the family Mequinez is?”
“The engineer Mequinez?” asked the innkeeper in his turn.
“The engineer Mequinez,” replied the lad in a thread of a voice.
“The Mequinez family is not in Tucuman,” replied the innkeeper.
A cry of desperate pain, like that of one who has been stabbed, formed an echo to these words.
The innkeeper and the women rose, and some neighbors ran up.
“What’s the matter? what ails you, my boy?” said the innkeeper, drawing him into the shop and making him sit down. “The deuce! there’s no reason for despairing! The Mequinez family is not here, but at a little distance off, a few hours from Tucuman.”
“Where? where?” shrieked Marco, springing up like one restored to life.
“Fifteen miles from here,” continued the man, “on the river, at Saladillo, in a place where a big sugar factory is being built, and a cluster of houses; Signor Mequinez’s house is there; every one knows it: you can reach it in a few hours.”
“I was there a month ago,” said a youth, who had hastened up at the cry.
Marco stared at him with wide-open eyes, and asked him hastily, turning pale as he did so, “Did you see the servant of Signor Mequinez—the Italian?”
“The Genoese? Yes; I saw her.”
Marco burst into a convulsive sob, which was half a laugh and half a sob. Then, with a burst of violent resolution: “Which way am I to go? quick, the road! I shall set out instantly; show me the way!”
“But it is a day’s march,” they all told him, in one breath. “You are weary; you should rest; you can set out to-morrow.”
“Impossible! impossible!” replied the lad. “Tell me the way; I will not wait another instant; I shall set out at once, were I to die on the road!”
On perceiving him so inflexible, they no longer opposed him. “May God accompany you!” they said to him. “Look out for the path through the forest. A fair journey to you, little Italian!” A man accompanied him outside of the town, pointed out to him the road, gave him some counsel, and stood still to watch him start. At the expiration of a few minutes, the lad disappeared, limping, with his bag on his shoulders, behind the thick trees which lined the road.
That night was a dreadful one for the poor sick woman. She suffered atrocious pain, which wrung from her shrieks that were enough to burst her veins, and rendered her delirious at times. The women waited on her. She lost her head. Her mistress ran in, from time to time, in affright. All began to fear that, even if she had decided to allow herself to be operated on, the doctor, who was not to come until the next day, would have arrived too late. During the moments when she was not raving, however, it was evident that her most terrible torture arose not from her bodily pains, but from the thought of her distant family. Emaciated, wasted away, with changed visage, she thrust her hands through her hair, with a gesture of desperation, and shrieked:—
“My God! My God! To die so far away, to die without seeing them again! My poor children, who will be left without a mother, my poor little creatures, my poor darlings! My Marco, who is still so small! only as tall as this, and so good and affectionate! You do not know what a boy he was! If you only knew, signora! I could not detach him from my neck when I set out; he sobbed in a way to move your pity; he sobbed; it seemed as though he knew that he would never behold his poor mother again. Poor Marco, my poor baby! I thought that my heart would break! Ah, if I had only died then, died while they were bidding me farewell! If I had but dropped dead! Without a mother, my poor child, he who loved me so dearly, who needed me so much! without a mother, in misery, he will be forced to beg! He, Marco, my Marco, will stretch out his hand, famishing! O eternal God! No! I will not die! The doctor! Call him at once I let him come, let him cut me, let him cleave my breast, let him drive me mad; but let him save my life! I want to recover; I want to live, to depart, to flee, to-morrow, at once! The doctor! Help! help!”
And the women seized her hands and soothed her, and made her calm herself little by little, and spoke to her of God and of hope. And then she fell back again into a mortal dejection, wept with her hands clutched in her gray hair, moaned like an infant, uttering a prolonged lament, and murmuring from time to time:—
“O my Genoa! My house! All that sea!—O my Marco, my poor Marco! Where is he now, my poor darling?”
It was midnight; and her poor Marco, after having passed many hours on the brink of a ditch, his strength exhausted, was then walking through a forest of gigantic trees, monsters of vegetation, huge boles like the pillars of a cathedral, which interlaced their enormous crests, silvered by the moon, at a wonderful height. Vaguely, amid the half gloom, he caught glimpses of myriads of trunks of all forms, upright, inclined, contorted, crossed in strange postures of menace and of conflict; some overthrown on the earth, like towers which had fallen bodily, and covered with a dense and confused mass of vegetation, which seemed like a furious throng, disputing the ground span by span; others collected in great groups, vertical and serrated, like trophies of titanic lances, whose tips touched the clouds; a superb grandeur, a prodigious disorder of colossal forms, the most majestically terrible spectacle which vegetable nature ever presented.
At times he was overwhelmed by a great stupor. But his mind instantly took flight again towards his mother. He was worn out, with bleeding feet, alone in the middle of this formidable forest, where it was only at long intervals that he saw tiny human habitations, which at the foot of these trees seemed like the ant-hills, or some buffalo asleep beside the road; he was exhausted, but he was not conscious of his exhaustion; he was alone, and he felt no fear. The grandeur of the forest rendered his soul grand; his nearness to his mother gave him the strength and the hardihood of a man; the memory of the ocean, of the alarms and the sufferings which he had undergone and vanquished, of the toil which he had endured, of the iron constancy which he had displayed, caused him to uplift his brow. All his strong and noble Genoese blood flowed back to his heart in an ardent tide of joy and audacity. And a new thing took place within him; while he had, up to this time, borne in his mind an image of his mother, dimmed and paled somewhat by the two years of absence, at that moment the image grew clear; he again beheld her face, perfect and distinct, as he had not beheld it for a long time; he beheld it close to him, illuminated, speaking; he again beheld the most fleeting motions of her eyes, and of her lips, all her attitudes, all the shades of her thoughts; and urged on by these pursuing recollections, he hastened his steps; and a new affection, an unspeakable tenderness, grew in him, grew in his heart, making sweet and quiet tears to flow down his face; and as he advanced through the gloom, he spoke to her, he said to her the words which he would murmur in her ear in a little while more:—
“I am here, my mother; behold me here. I will never leave you again; we will return home together, and I will remain always beside you on board the ship, close beside you, and no one shall ever part me from you again, no one, never more, so long as I have life!“
And in the meantime he did not observe how the silvery light of the moon was dying away on the summits of the gigantic trees in the delicate whiteness of the dawn.
At eight o’clock on that morning, the doctor from Tucuman, a young Argentine, was already by the bedside of the sick woman, in company with an assistant, endeavoring, for the last time, to persuade her to permit herself to be operated on; and the engineer Mequinez and his wife added their warmest persuasions to those of the former. But all was in vain. The woman, feeling her strength exhausted, had no longer any faith in the operation; she was perfectly certain that she should die under it, or that she should only survive it a few hours, after having suffered in vain pains that were more atrocious than those of which she should die in any case. The doctor lingered to tell her once more:—
“But the operation is a safe one; your safety is certain, provided you exercise a little courage! And your death is equally certain if you refuse!” It was a sheer waste of words.
“No,” she replied in a faint voice, “I still have courage to die; but I no longer have any to suffer uselessly. Leave me to die in peace.”
The doctor desisted in discouragement. No one said anything more. Then the woman turned her face towards her mistress, and addressed to her her last prayers in a dying voice.
“Dear, good signora,” she said with a great effort, sobbing, “you will send this little money and my poor effects to my family—through the consul. I hope that they may all be alive. My heart presages well in these, my last moments. You will do me the favor to write—that I have always thought of them, that I have always toiled for them—for my children—that my sole grief was not to see them once more—but that I died courageously—with resignation—blessing them; and that I recommend to my husband—and to my elder son—the youngest, my poor Marco—that I bore him in my heart until the last moment—” And suddenly she became excited, and shrieked, as she clasped her hands: “My Marco, my baby, my baby! My life!—” But on casting her tearful eyes round her, she perceived that her mistress was no longer there; she had been secretly called away. She sought her master; he had disappeared. No one remained with her except the two nurses and the assistant. She heard in the adjoining room the sound of hurried footsteps, a murmur of hasty and subdued voices, and repressed exclamations. The sick woman fixed her glazing eyes on the door, in expectation. At the end of a few minutes she saw the doctor appear with an unusual expression on his face; then her mistress and master, with their countenances also altered. All three gazed at her with a singular expression, and exchanged a few words in a low tone. She fancied that the doctor said to her mistress, “Better let it be at once.” She did not understand.
“Josefa,” said her mistress to the sick woman, in a trembling voice, “I have some good news for you. Prepare your heart for good news.”
The woman observed her intently.
“News,” pursued the lady, with increasing agitation, “which will give you great joy.”
The sick woman’s eyes dilated.
“Prepare yourself,” continued her mistress, “to see a person—of whom you are very fond.”
The woman raised her head with a vigorous movement, and began to gaze in rapid succession, first at the lady and then at the door, with flashing eyes.
“A person,” added the lady, turning pale, “who has just arrived—unexpectedly.”
“Who is it?” shrieked the woman, with a strange and choked voice, like that of a person in terror. An instant later she gave vent to a shrill scream, sprang into a sitting posture in her bed, and remained motionless, with starting eyes, and her hands pressed to her temples, as in the presence of a supernatural apparition.
Marco, tattered and dusty, stood there on the threshold, held back by the doctor’s hand on one arm.
The woman uttered three shrieks: “God! God! My God!”
Marco rushed forward; she stretched out to him her fleshless arms, and straining him to her heart with the strength of a tiger, she burst into a violent laugh, broken by deep, tearless sobs, which caused her to fall back suffocating on her pillow.
But she speedily recovered herself, and mad with joy, she shrieked as she covered his head with kisses: “How do you come here? Why? Is it you? How you have grown! Who brought you? Are you alone? You are not ill? It is you, Marco! It is not a dream! My God! Speak to me!”
Then she suddenly changed her tone: “No! Be silent! Wait!” And turning to the doctor, she said with precipitation: “Quick, doctor! this instant! I want to get well. I am ready. Do not lose a moment. Take Marco away, so that he may not hear.—Marco, my love, it is nothing. I will tell you about it. One more kiss. Go!—Here I am, doctor.”
Marco was taken away. The master, mistress, and women retired in haste; the surgeon and his assistant remained behind, and closed the door.
Signor Mequinez attempted to lead Marco to a distant room, but it was impossible; he seemed rooted to the pavement.
“What is it?” he asked. “What is the matter with my mother? What are they doing to her?”
And then Mequinez said softly, still trying to draw him away: “Here! Listen to me. I will tell you now. Your mother is ill; she must undergo a little operation; I will explain it all to you: come with me.”
“No,” replied the lad, resisting; “I want to stay here. Explain it to me here.”
The engineer heaped words on words, as he drew him away; the boy began to grow terrified and to tremble.
Suddenly an acute cry, like that of one wounded to the death, rang through the whole house.
The boy responded with another desperate shriek, “My mother is dead!”
The doctor appeared on the threshold and said, “Your mother is saved.”
The boy gazed at him for a moment, and then flung himself at his feet, sobbing, “Thanks, doctor!”
But the doctor raised him with a gesture, saying: “Rise! It is you, you heroic child, who have saved your mother!”