The Great Exhibition

Chapter 11

A few days later Ragazzo came in for a big surprise. Mary Sherwood, the shop assistant, fell ill. It was Mary whom Carlo relied on to go regularly to the Great Exhibition to dust the Gatti's model chocolate machine, to set out samples of their chocolate and to see that all was in order. That morning there was no-one else to go. Signor Carlo was busy, Battista and Julian were in the kitchen and so Carlo had insisted that Maria should go in Mary's stead. The Signora was not pleased. Rosa said she wanted to go too and clung, crying to her mother. When Carlo refused, she threw an angry tantrum. At last Carlo, exasperated by so much temperament, had bundled Maria out of the house.
"My dear, Ragazzo will go with you, to carry the basket," and as the bus clattered up, he had paid the conductor two threepenny fares to make sure there would be no mistake about their getting there.

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It was crowded in the bus. Maria was squashed between an elderly gentleman in a frock coat and a fat woman with a very large basket, whilst Ragazzo stood awkwardly by. The woman had said something to the Signora, but as Maria understood and spoke little English, she could not reply; and recognising her as a foreigner, the fat woman turned away to pass the time of day with other passengers.

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The Signora looked ashamed and uncomfortable. Ragazzo knew that she hated going out alone in London. She was confused by the noise and the traffic and like him, afraid of meeting people she could not understand. She fussed and fretted. "We're so late," she whispered. We must get there before the doors open to the public." But the bus seemed to go slower and slower and was constantly held up. By the time they got to Hyde Park at nine o'clock the traffic seemed to have come to a standstill.

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Some of the passengers on the open top deck climbed down, complaining to the conductor that it was quicker to walk.
"Don't blame me, sir. It'll be like this all week till Friday. All these people are going to the Exhibition for just one shilling."
"A disgraceful waste of time." said the elderly gentleman.
"Entrance fee came down at the end of the month, guvnor and since then they've been pouring in thick and fast."

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As they alighted in Knightsbridge, the people did indeed pour past them, jostling and laughing. There were groups up from the country, families with their children, elderly couples, two young curates, a band of lads larking around and some bearded gentlemen whom Maria guessed came from the continent. Once Ragazzo heard the sound of an Italian tongue and strained to see who it might be.

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And then as they turned into the Kensington Road, there it was, the Great Crystal Palace, stretching as far as the eye could see, tier upon tier of glass, topped with fluttering flags and set amongst lawns and trees. Ragazzo stared and stared.

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"Come along, Ragazzo." Already there were great crowds of people waiting for the doors to open. With some difficulty Maria led the way, pushing through the people to the Exhibitors' entrance. Showing her ticket, they passed through into the building. It was certainly not Maria's first visit to the Exhibition, but once again she was overwhelmed by the size and scale of the place, the sunshine streaming in through the thousands of glass panes and lighting up the great crystal fountain which stood in the very centre of the Palace, the water leaping and sparkling like the streams which poured down the mountainside in her homeland.

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To Ragazzo it was like another world. He stood amazed, dwarfed by everything around him. "Come along, Ragazzo." Maria hurried towards the Moving Machinery section, past giant steam presses and cotton looms. Ragazzo followed, confused and dogged. Finally she stopped in front of a row of models - models of every size and description, set out on a long table.

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Ragazzo recognised the model at once, but how grand it looked, set under a beautiful glass dome, with its label which read Gatti and Bolla. Manufacturers of French and Italian Chocolate.

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Maria took off her shawl, took a duster from the basket and began to polish the glass case. Then she took off the dome and dusted the model itself, checked that it was working and reset the label before it. While she was there she could operate the model and give away the little leaflet Carlo had prepared, but secretly she hoped no-one would come and ask her about it.

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Whilst she unpacked the tablets of chocolate, Ragazzo timidly approached.
"Don't touch it, Ragazzo," Maria warned, "Here you can set out these tablets in the front there." Then she took out a big bag of chocolate drops and poured them into a shallow dish. "These will go quickly enough once the crowds arrive, especially the silvered ones, Battista's speciality." Then she added "I wonder who's on duty upstairs in the Flower section. Signor Agostino has an exhibit there. Suppose you go up to the Gallery and find out. Now don't look so stupid. Go straight back to the great fountain. There you'll see the stairs opposite. Up the steps and turn right. You'll recognise the flowers soon enough. And don't get lost!"

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Ragazzo was terrified. He was already lost.
"Go on, off you go." He turned away, walking blindly between the great machines. Already the assistants were beginning to warm up the steam presses, wheels were slowly turning and behind him there was a sudden hiss of steam. As he moved quickly into the main concourse, a huge railway engine loomed over him. Above him hung a great reflecting cage. To his left he saw a whole section full of carriages of every kind. Desperately he looked around for the fountain. Ah, there it was, close to a great warrior on horseback.

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Timidly he made his way towards the fountain. As he walked along there were stalls set out with all kinds of goods, beautiful furs and feathers, rich cloth embossed with gold, vases, statues, and then very simple ordinary things like grates, and china and cutlery and scissors and products of all kinds from foreign countries in jars and bags and bottles. There was coffee there and cocoa beans like they had in the shop! It was only when he looked up that he saw the elephant - an enormous elephant with long white tusks, adorned with rich draperies, a great golden carriage on its back and beside it, dusky men in foreign-looking clothes; long coats and pantaloons, turbans and sashes. For a moment he thought they were all real and then he saw they were life-size models. He stood gazing at the elephant for a long time. What must it be like to ride on an elephant. For a moment he imagined himself a prince riding in a great procession. Then, remembering his task, he found the stairs and began his climb to the gallery above. As he went up, he saw to his amazement that there was a real tree towering up beside him. Above its topmost branches the arched glass roof had enclosed it within the Palace.

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Once in the gallery he felt safer. The exhibits were smaller. There were more strange-looking models, but soon he saw wax flowers, flowers made from feathers and then he recognised the familiar flowers and patterns he had seen in Coppice Row. In the centre of the exhibit was a beautiful bunch of sweet peas made of velvet and muslin.

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"Ragazzo!" It was Signor Gaspero. "What brings you here?" Ragazzo explained. "In a moment I'll go down and see her, but first you must have a look at the Exhibition from here." He led Ragazzo to the gallery rail and they looked down. "From this side you can see all the exhibits from abroad. Just down there is Switzerland - all clocks and watches and musical boxes - nothing to show for the Ticino, I'm told. Over there, marvellous carpets and tapestries from France. And immediately down there is the Great Kohinor diamond which the Indians gave to the Queen."

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Feeling bolder but holding tightly to the rail, Ragazzo began to walk along the gallery, looking down onto all the richness and variety which came from so many countries. Just below him an organ began to play. He stopped to listen.

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Maria began to wonder where Ragazzo had got to. She glanced up at the clock. Ten minutes to 10. The doors would soon be open and she would spend an hour watching the crowd come and go. Then she must get back to prepare the meal for the men. By now most of the machinery in the section seemed to be in motion. There was a whirring of wheels, a regular thump, thump of the power hammer nearby and occasionally the searing sound of the sawmill in operation, so it was not surprising that she only became aware at the last minute that a group of ladies and gentlemen were moving through the section and approaching the alleyway where the models stood. Suddenly she heard a hoarse whisper. "The Queen, the Queen!" And a tall gentleman talking and pointing to various exhibits led the Queen and her two children towards the row of models.

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She recognised the Queen at once, but her dear children - cara bambini. Flustered, she curtsied and the Queen inclining her head from left to right passed by. But as the group passed, the little Prince dropped back and moved towards her to look at the model.

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Quickly she turned the handle to operate the machine. For a moment he peered up at it and then, to her amazement, his small hand stole out, picked up a silvered chocolate drop and put it into his mouth. Then he looked up, straight at her, an impish smile spreading across his face and he was gone.

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But his smile warmed her. Bello! The little Prince, just the same age as her dear Stefano, dead these last two years and with the same sweet tooth! What would Carlo say - and Battista? And Gaspero and Agostino? Hurriedly she put back the glass case, fastened her shawl and moved down the central concourse to the stairs to the gallery. Looking up she saw many people leaning over the rails peering down to catch a glimpse of the Queen's party. Pushing her way up the stairs she almost collided with Gaspero and Ragazzo coming down.
"Did you see the Queen," said Gaspero.
"Yes, yes, she passed so close ... but the Prince, the Prince." She felt faint with excitement.
"Yes?" Gaspero was amused by her confusion.
"He, he, . . . he took one of Battista's chocolate drops."
"He did?"
"He did, he did."
Gaspero laughed. "Maria Santissia, we shall never hear the last of this. Chocolate-drop maker to Prince Bertie. Carlo and Battista will be pleased about that." He smiled and took her arm, "Come we shall celebrate and drink Prince Bertie's health."

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And so they all went down to the big Refreshment Room laughing and talking, and over a glass of lemonade and a Chelsea bun which Ragazzo had never tasted before, Maria recounted the story over and over again.

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"Well," said Gaspero, "let's hope the Queen will put our bunch of sweet peas on her bonnet next time she comes round, then all the Gattis will be famous."

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Maria and Ragazzo left the Great Palace warm and happy. Maria was so proud she felt brave enough to buy a penny telescopic print for Rosa from one of the hawkers who stood by the bus stop. Opening up the print and looking through the peep hole, Ragazzo could see the whole length of the Palace with the Crystal Fountain in the middle and the tall trees beyond.

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Going home the bus was crowded and streets jammed, but they sat peaceful and unworried as the bus jogged and rattled to Holborn Hill. How pleased Carlo will be, Maria thought. He worked so hard and it wasn't always easy for him in this foreign land. English people seemed so cool and distant. But, of course, Carlo didn't see it that way. He was friendly with everyone and never took offence. He was a remarkable man, her husband. Why he'd married her - a poor girl from Castro - she never did know!

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As they stepped off the bus she glanced across at the shop at 129. With its well polished windows and neatly swept doorway it looked so smart and prosperous. And above, the painted sign - Gatti and Bolla. Established 1849.

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Established. Established. She gave a comfortable sigh. For the first time she began to feel at home. Watching her, Ragazzo knew that, for he and Carrie, today would be an easy one!

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