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Stories by Foreign Authors (French III)/The Sorrow of an Old Convict

THE SORROW OF AN OLD
CONVICT

BY

PIERRE LOTI


From "The Book of Pity and of Death."
Translated by T. P. O'Connor.
Published by the Cassell Publishing Co.

Copyright, 1892, by Cassell Publishing Co.

THIS is a little story which was told me by Yves. It happened one evening when he had gone into the Roads to carry in his gunboat a cargo of convicts to the transport vessel which was to take them to New Caledonia.

Among them was a very old convict (seventy at least), who carried with him very tenderly a poor sparrow in a small cage.

Yves, to pass the time, had entered into conversation with this old fellow, who had not, it appears, a bad face, but who was tied by his chain to a young gentleman—ignoble-looking, sneering, with the glasses of the short-sighted on a small, pale nose.

An old highwayman arrested for the fifth or sixth time for vagabondage and robbery, he said he was. "How can a man avoid stealing when he has once commenced, and when he has no trade whatever, and when people won't have anything to do with him anywhere? He must, must n't he? My last sentence was for a sack of potatoes which I took in a field with a wagoner's whip and a pumpkin. Might n't they have allowed me to die in France, I ask you, instead of sending me down there, old as I am?" . . . And then, quite happy at finding that somebody was willing to listen to him with sympathy, he showed to Yves his most precious possession in the world, the little cage and the sparrow.

The sparrow was quite tame, and knew his voice, and for more than a year had lived with him in his cell, perched on his shoulder. . . . Ah, it was not without trouble he had obtained permission to take it with him to New Caledonia, and then, he had besides to make for it a cage which would be suitable for the voyage, to procure some wood, a little old wire, and a little green paint to paint the whole and make it pretty.

Here I recall the very words of Yves. "Poor sparrow! It had for food in its cage a piece of that gray bread which is given in prisons, but it had the appearance of being quite happy, nevertheless. It jumped about just like any other bird."

Some hours afterward, when they reached the transport vessel and the convicts were about to embark for their long voyage, Yves, who had forgotten this old man, passed once more by chance near him.

"Here, take it," said the old man, with a voice that had altogether changed, holding out to him his little cage, "I give it to you. You may, perhaps, find some use for it; perhaps it may give you pleasure."

"Certainly not," replied Yves. "On the contrary, you must take it with you. It will be your little comrade down there."

"Oh," replied the old man, "he is no longer inside. You did n't know that; you did n't hear then? He is no longer there," and two tears of indescribable misery ran down his cheeks.

Through a lurch of the vessel the door of the cage had opened; the sparrow took fright, flew out, and immediately fell into the sea because of its cut wing. Oh, what a moment of horrible grief to see it fight and die, swept away by the rapid current, and he all the time helpless to rescue it. At first, by a natural impulse, he wished to cry out for help; to address himself to Yves; to implore him. . . . But the impulse was immediately stopped by the recollection and consciousness of his personal degradation. An old wretch like him! Who would be ready to hear the prayer of such as he? Could he ever imagine that the ship would be stopped to fish up a drowning sparrow the poor bird of a convict? The idea was absurd. Accordingly he remained silent in his place, looking at the little gray body as it disappeared on the foam of the sea, struggling to the end. He felt terribly lonely now, and for ever, and great tears of solitary and supreme despair dimmed his eyes. Meantime, the young gentleman with the eyeglasses, his chain-fellow, laughed to see an old man weep.

Now that the bird was no longer there, he did not wish to preserve its cage, made with so much solicitude for the lonely dead bird. He offered it to this good soldier who had condescended to listen to his story, anxious to leave him this legacy before departing for his long and last voyage.

And Yves sadly had accepted the empty cage as a present, so that he might not cause any more pain to this old abandoned wretch by appearing to disdain this thing which had cost him so much labor.

I feel that I have not been able to do full justice to all the sadness that there was in this story as it was told me.

It was evening and very late, and I was about to go to bed. I, who had in the course of my life seen with little emotion so many loud-sounding sorrows and dramas and deaths, perceived with astonishment that the distress of this old man tore my heart, and even threatened to disturb my sleep.

"I wonder," said I, "if means could be found of sending him another?"

"Yes," replied Yves, "I also thought of that. I thought of buying him a beautiful bird at a bird-dealer's and bringing it back to him to-morrow with the little cage if there were time to do so before his departure. It would be a little difficult. Moreover, you are the only person who could go into the Roads to-morrow and go on board the transport to find out this old man; and I do not even know his name. And, then, would not people think it very odd?"

"Ah, yes, certainly. As to its being thought odd, there cannot be any mistake about that." And for a moment I dwelt with pleasure upon the idea, laughing that good inner laugh which scarcely appears upon the surface.

However, I did not follow up the project, and the following morning when I awoke, and with the first impression gone, the thing appeared to me childish and ridiculous. This disappointment was not one of those which a mere plaything could console. The poor old convict, all alone in the world the most beautiful bird in Paradise would never replace for him the humble gray little sparrow with cut wing, reared on prison bread, who had been able to awake once more in him a tenderness infinitely sweet, and to draw tears from a heart that was hardened and half-dead.