Coppice Row

Chapter 2

Ice House

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Carlo's son, Stefano, was out in the courtyard when he arrived. "Run up and get your mother," Carlo commanded and then carrying the boy, he mounted the stairs above the shop.
"What is it? What's the matter?" Maria asked from the landing.
"A boy - he's faint and sick. We must get him to the fire."
"But who is he?"
"I found him in the street and brought him here."
Maria was angry. "Santa Maria, what are you thinking of? Isn't it enough that you have lost one child already and now you put the others in danger?"
For a moment Carlo hesitated, then he said contritely, "But what could I do? I couldn't leave him there."
He propped the child up near the fire. The child opened his eyes.
"Grazie, signore,' he whispered.
"See here, he speaks our own tongue, one of our own race. We can't abandon him." Maria sighed. Then she moved forward to examine the child. Feeling his hands and forehead, she said, "God be praised, there is no fever."
"He's starved and beaten, that's what's the matter with him. Give him a bowl of soup."
Maria fetched a cup and slowly spooned the soup into the boy's mouth and slowly a little colour returned to his face.
Carlo bent towards him and said gently, "Who are you? What's your name?"
"My name's Ragazzo, signore?
"Ragazzo, that's not a name."
"My name's Ragazzo'; the boy repeated.
"And where do you come from?"
"From Signor Giudotti, the padrone, signore."
"No, no. You speak our Ticino dialect. What village do you come from?"
"I don't remember, signore." The eyelids fluttered closed again.
Carlo was disconcerted. The boy did not have a name, didn't know where he came from, had been left to die in the street.
"He beats me, signore. The padrone always beats me because I cannot sing."
His blue eyes were full of tears. Carlo turned to Maria.
"It shames me to think one of our own race can behave so. He must be one of those men who bring over a number of boys to London from the mountain villages. Taking children from poor parents on the promise they will receive a training."
He laughed scornfully. "Train for what? To sing and play in the streets for pennies, which the padrone takes from them."
"They look happy enough when you see them in the streets."
"Perhaps some are, but if they fall into cruel hands, what chance have they?"
By now Stefano and his little sister, Rosa, were peering round the door, gazing at the boy.
"What shall we do with him? We can't send him back."
"The boy belongs to the padrone, we have no right to keep him."
Carlo paused, then he said, "I'm not prepared to send him back. Anyway I don't know where the padrone lives."
"It would not be difficult to find out."
"We'll not try. If the padrone comes to claim him - well, we'll think about it when the boy is better. Come, I'll carry him up and find him a place in the attic. And you, Maria carissima, will fatten him up on your pasta."
"But. . . " Maria protested.
He picked up the boy. "See here, he's a nice-looking child. There are plenty of jobs around the house. He can carry water and mend the fire and help you in all kinds of ways."

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Within a week Ragazzo's strength returned and when the daily jobs were done, he and Stefano would play together. As he put on a little flesh, it was clear that there was only a year or two between them. Sometimes he would entertain Rosa with the tricks he had learned, standing on his head and turning cartwheels over and over again till Rosa was dizzy.
Once when he was showing her how he could walk on his hands, his shirt fell down over his head, revealing a dark red mark on his left shoulder.
"Oh, there's blood on your shoulder," cried Rosa in horror. "You're bleeding!"
Quickly Ragazzo stood up, pulling down his shirt and stuffing it into his breeches.
"No, it's nothing. It's not bleeding. It's just. . . Just a mark."
"But how did you get it?" said Stefano.
"I've always had it," said Ragazzo shyly.
Stefano grew more inquisitive. "But your name, Ragazzo. That's not a real name. It just means Boy. Can't you remember your real name?"
Ragazzo shook his head.
"Or where you come from?"
Ragazzo shook his head again.
"Papa and Mama come from the Ticino," said Stefano proudly, "that's far away all across France on the other side of the high mountains."
"When Papa was a boy, he walked across the mountains," said Rosa.
"He joined a band of chestnut sellers and they walked all across the Alps, over 600 miles. It took them six weeks. He went to join his father in the Great Market in Paris." And then Stefano added, "Later on, he came to London."
Something in Ragazzo's memory stirred - chestnut sellers. He remembered chestnut sellers - a group of men setting out on a journey. He remembered being told to wave goodbye. He found Stefano staring at him. Quickly he said, "But your home is here?"
"Yes, but once in a while we go back to the Ticino. We went when I was six, across the sea and then by coach for days and days. I remember but Rosa was only a baby so she can't." Ragazzo felt ashamed - ashamed that he did not know where he came from, ashamed and sad that he had not got a family.
"You don't remember your Papa and Mama?"
Ragazzo shook his head once again, but he knew his answer was not quite true, for distantly in the back of his mind, he had a recurring memory which woke him in the night, a memory of a dark cold room, lit by one candle, and on the bed a young woman, once warm and loving, now cold and silent. Was that his mother? He could not be sure and he could not bring himself to tell others of it.
"Where did you learn the tricks?" broke in Rosa.
"The padrone taught me. You see I was the youngest of the boys and all the others were cleverer than I. Giovanni learnt the violin and Luigi the flute and the others would sing. But as for me, I just couldn't sing in tune. The padrone was angry with me and said 1 was good for nothing. So," he added sadly, "he taught me tricks like a dog."
For a moment Stefano was silent, aware of the hurt that Ragazzo had suffered. But Rosa pressed him.
"The barrel organ, did it have a monkey?"
"Giacomo - yes. He had a little red cap, a red waistcoat and a bell round his neck. He would dance and collect pennies."
"I should like to have a monkey," said Rosa.
"But one day someone in the crowd pulled his tail too hard and Giacomo bit him and the Police came and took him away. The padrone blamed me for not looking after Giacomo. I was afraid. 1 thought they would take me to prison."
"Well, you're safe with us," said Stefano comfortingly, "Papa won't send you back, I'm sure."
And it was true that within the house, Ragazzo did feel safe, both amongst the family and in the attic, where he slept on a rough straw mattress with the men who worked for the signore. Their laughter and talk, the sound of their breathing at night, the comfort of their companionship lulled his fears. But for many weeks he would not venture out into the streets for fear either the Police or the padrone might see him and take him away.

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