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THE LITTLE IMAGE PEDDLERS
I THINK it was the following Friday afternoon that a curious diversion occurred at the schoolhouse, just as the school was dismissed. Coming slowly along the white highway two small boys were espied, each carrying on his head a raft-like platform laden with plaster-of-Paris images. They were dark-complexioned little fellows, not more than twelve or thirteen years old; and were having difficulty to keep their feet and stagger along with their preposterous burdens.
The plaster casts comprised images of saints, elephants, giraffes, cherubs with little wings tinted in pink and yellow, a tall Madonna and Child, a bust of George Washington, a Napoleon, a grinning Voltaire, an angel with a pink trumpet and an evil-looking Tom Paine.
I suppose the loads were not as heavy as they looked, but the boys were having a hard time of it, to judge from their distressed faces peering anxiously from underneath the rafts which, at each step, rocked to and fro and seemed always on the point of toppling. Frantic clutches of small brown hands and the quick shifting of feet alone saved a smash-up.
The master was still in the schoolhouse with some of the older boys and girls; but the younger ones had rushed out when the bell rang.
"Hi, where are you going?" several shouted. "What you got on your heads?"
The little strangers turned their faces and, nodding violently, tried to smile ingratiatingly. Some one let fly a snowball, and in a moment the mob of boys, shouting and laughing noisily, chased after them. No harm was intended; it was merely excess of spirits at getting out from school. But the result was disastrous. The little fellows faced round in alarm, cried out wildly in an unknown tongue and then, in spite of their burdens, tried to run away.
The inevitable happened: one of them stumbled, fell against the other, and down they both went headlong with a crash. The tall Madonna was broken in two; Washington had his cocked hat crushed; the cherubs had lost their wings; and as for the elephants and the giraffes, there was a general mix-up of broken trunks and long necks.
The little fellows had scrambled to their feet, and after a frightened glance set up wails of lamentation in which the word padrone recurred fast and fearfully. By that time Master Brench, with the older pupils, among whom were my cousins, Addison, Theodora and Ellen, had come out. The old Squire, too, chanced to be approaching with a horse sled; often of late, since the traveling was bad, he had driven to the schoolhouse to get us.
It was a wholly compassionate group that now gathered about the forlorn itinerants. Who they were or whither they were traveling was at first far from clear, for they could not speak a word of English.
At last the old Squire, touched by their looks of despair and sorrow, decided to put their "rafts" on the horse sled and to take the little strangers home with us for the night.
They seemed to be chilled to the very marrow of their bones, for they hung round the stove in the kitchen as if they would never thaw out. When grandmother Ruth set a warm supper before them, they ate like starved animals and cast pathetic glances at the table to see whether there was more food. Tears stood in grandmother's eyes as she replenished their plates.
Little by little, with the aid of many signs and gestures, they managed to tell us their story. A padrone had brought them with nine other boys from Naples to sell plaster images for him; we gathered that this man, who lived in Portland, cast the images himself. The only English words he had taught them were "ten cent," "twenty-five cent" and "fifty cent" — the prices of the plaster casts.
A few days before, in spite of the bitterly cold weather, he had sent them out with their wares and bidden them to call at every house until they had sold their stock. Then they were to bring back the money they had taken in. He had given a package of dry, black bread to each of them and had told them to sleep at nights in barns.
Sales were few, and long after their bread was gone they had wandered on, not daring to go back until they had sold all their wares. What little money they had taken in they dared not spend for food, for fear the padrone would whip them! Their tale roused no little indignation in the old Squire and grandmother Ruth.
What with the food and the warmth the little Italians soon grew so sleepy that they drowsed off before our eyes. We made a couch of blankets for them in a warm corner, and they were still soundly asleep there when Addison and I went out to do the farm chores the next morning.
We kept the little image peddlers with us for several days thereafter. In fact, we were at a loss to know what to do with them, for a cold snap had come on. With their thin clothes and worn-out shoes they were in no condition either to go on or to go back; and, moreover, now that their images were broken, they were in terror of their padrone.
One of the boys was slightly larger and stronger than the other; his name, he managed to tell us, was Emilio Foresi. The first name of the other was Tomaso, but I have forgotten his surname. Tomaso, I recollect, had little gold rings in his ears. His voice was soft, and he had gentle manners.
Under the influence of good food and a warm place to sleep both boys brightened visibly and even grew vivacious. On the third morning we heard Emilio singing some Neapolitan folk-song to himself. Yet they were shy about singing to us, and it was only after considerable coaxing that Theodora induced them to sing a few Italian songs together. Halstead had an old violin, and we found that Tomaso could play it surprisingly well.
By carefully sorting our reserve of worn clothes and shoes we managed to fit out the little strangers more comfortably, but the problem of what to do with them remained. Grandmother Ruth thought that their padrone might trace them and appear on the scene.
Several days more passed; and then the old Squire, having business at Portland, decided to take them with him. He intended to find this Neapolitan padrone and try to secure better treatment for the boys in the future.
Addison drove them to the railway station, where the old Squire checked their empty image "rafts" in the baggage car. Before they left the old farm, first Emilio and then Tomaso took grandmother Ruth's hand very prettily and said, with deep feeling, "Vi ringrazio," several times, and managed to add "Tank you."
After his return from Portland the old Squire told us that he had gone with the lads to the place where they lodged and had taken an officer with him. They found the padrone in a basement, engaged in casting more images. At first the Italian was very angry; but partly by persuasion, partly by putting the fear of the law into his heart, they made him promise not to send his boys out again until May.
The old Squire also enlisted the sympathies of two women in Portland, who undertook to see that the boys were better housed and cared for in the future. And there for the time being the episode of the little image venders ended.
Twelve, perhaps it was thirteen, years passed. Addison, Halstead, Theodora and Ellen went their various ways in life, and of the group of young folks at the old farm I alone was left there. The old Squire was not able now to do more than oversee the work and to give me advice from his large experience of the past.
One day, late in October, we were in the apple house getting the crop of winter apples ready for market — Baldwins, Greenings, Blue Pearmains, Russets, Orange Apples, Arctic Reds — about four hundred barrels of them. We were sorting the apples carefully and putting the "number ones" in fresh, new barrels.
It was near noon, and grandmother Ruth had come out to say that our midday meal would soon be ready. She remained for a few moments and was counting the barrels we had put up that forenoon, when the doorway darkened behind her, and, looking up, we saw a stranger standing there — a well-dressed, rather handsome young man with dark hair and dark moustache. He was looking at us inquiringly, smilingly, almost timidly, I thought.
"How do you do?" I said. "You wanted to see some one here?"
He came a step nearer and said, with a foreign accent, "I ver glad see you again."
Seeing our puzzled looks, he went on: "I tink maybe you not remember me. But I come here one time, when snow ver deep. Ver cold then," and he shuddered to show how cold it was. "I stay here whole week. You no 'remember? I Emilio — Emilio Foresi."
Now, indeed, we remembered the little image peddlers. "Yes, yes, yes!" the old Squire cried.
"Well, I never! Can it be possible?" grandmother Ruth exclaimed. "Why, you've grown up, of course!"
Grown up, in good truth, and a very prosperous-looking young man was Emilio. He evidently remembered well his sojourn with us years ago, and, moreover, remembered it with pleasure; for now he grasped the old Squire's hand warmly and then, laughing joyously, held grandmother Ruth's in both his own.
"But where have you been all this time?" the old Squire exclaimed.
"I live now in Boston. Not long did I sell the images. I leave my padrone. He was hard man, not so ver bad, but ver poor. Then I have a cart and sell fruit, banan, orange, apple, in de street, four year. After that I have fruit stand on Tremont Street three year. I do ver well, and have five fruit stands; and now I buy apples to send to Genoa and Messina."
"But Tomaso, where's little Tomaso?" grandmother Ruth exclaimed.
Emilio's face saddened. "Tomaso he die," said he and shook his head. "He tak bad colds and have cough two year. Doctors said he have no chance in dis climate. I send him home to Napoli, and he die. But America fine place," Emilio added, as if defending our climate. "Good country. Everybody do well here."
We had Emilio as a guest at our midday meal that day — quite a different Emilio from the pinched little fellow of thirteen years before. He glanced round the old dining-room.
"Here where I sit dat first night!" he cried, laughing like a boy. "Big old clock right over there, Tomaso dis side of me, and young, kind, pretty girl on other side. All smile so kind to us; and oh, how good dat warm, nice food taste, we so hongry!"
He remembered every detail of his stay. The red apples that we had given him seemed to have impressed him especially; neither of the boys had ever eaten an apple before.
Whole big basketful you fetch up from de cellar and say tak all you want," he ran on, still laughing. "Naver any apple taste like dose, so beeg, so red!"
As we sat and talked he told us of his present business and how he had tried the then novel experiment of shipping small lots of New England apples to Italy. There had been doubt whether the apples would bear the voyage and arrive in sound condition, but he had no trouble when the fruit was carefully selected and well put up. That led him to inquire about our apple crop and to explain that that was perhaps one of the reasons — not the only one — for his visit.
"I know you raise good apples," he said. "I like to buy them."
We told him how many we had, and he asked what price we expected to get. We answered that the local dealers had already fixed the price that fall at two dollars a barrel.
"I will pay you two dollars and a half," Emilio said without a moment's hesitation.
"But, Emilio," the old Squire put in, "we couldn't ask more than the market price."
"Ah, but you have good apples!" he replied. "I know how dose apples taste, and I know dey will be well barreled. No wormy apples, no bruised apples. Dey worf more because good honest man put dem up. I pay you two fifty."
We shipped the entire lot to him the following week and received prompt payment. Incidentally, we learned that Foresi's rating as a business man was high, and that he enjoyed the reputation of being an honorable dealer. For many years — as long as he was in the business, in fact — we sent him choice lots of winter fruit, for which he always insisted on paying a price considerably in advance of the market quotations.