Stefano

Chapter 5

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Ragazzo could not remember a day like it. A day without work and drudgery, a day of excitement out on the canal, in the cold frosty air. Ragazzo was truely happy.

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Sitting on the front seat of the cart, next to Stefano and Luke, he chattered incessantly about all that they had done and seen, so that it was only when they were approaching Coppice Row that he became aware that Stefano had fallen curiously silent. There was an air, too, of concern about Signor Carlo as he sat with his arm round his son and suddenly Ragazzo felt Stefano shivering, his body vibrating against his own.

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At the shop Signor Carlo jumped down and Luke handed Stefano carefully into his arms. Ragazzo ran forward opening the door and together they climbed the stairs to the living room. There was shock on the Signora's face when she saw her son. Swiftly he was brought to the fire, Carlo chaffing his hands and Maria removing his boots and rubbing his feet. Little was said, but soon Stefano was wrapped in a blanket and carried to bed. The workmen came in and took their supper, enquiring after the boy. "A good night's rest and he will be alright," said the Signor cheerfully, but Maria looked grave.

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By morning the shivering had turned to fever and Stefano tossed and turned, calling for water and crying out. The Signora was distraught, Rosa frightened and crying. Ragazzo tried to comfort and distract her.

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Two days later Stefano was dead, a victim, they said, of the slum fever which had already carried off his baby sister.

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Ragazzo would never forget the gloom and despair which settled on the household, the visits of the Priest, the undertaker, the arrival of friends and relations bringing condolences, the smell of the boiling and dyeing of clothes - for everyone must wear black, even little Rosa.

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And then the moment when he entered the Gatti's bedroom to see the frail white child, once his friend, lying silent in his open coffin, a cross in his hands, the candles nearby throwing their flickering light across his thin pinched face.

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There was a sound of weeping, but Ragazzo could not weep. He could only stare at Stefano, remembering him running and playing, laughing in the cold air on that wonderful day on the canal which seemed so long ago. He could not believe what he saw. He did not want to believe it.

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The priest stepped forward and sprinkled holy water on the child. The others in the room knelt to follow him in prayer. Ragazzo did not pray for he did not know how. He wanted somehow to protest, to shout out loud against what had happened but, as he knelt, his thoughts were overwhelmed by the long prayers, the murmured rosaries and the whispering black figures which hovered in the room.

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Next day, the day of the funeral, was again freezing cold with snow in the streets. The Gatti's decided to leave Rosa at home in the charge of Ragazzo and little Carrie Pye, whose mother worked in the shop below. So it was from an upstairs window that these two watched the funeral procession arrive and depart.

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The Gatti's had spared no expense. An ornate hearse drawn by four horses with black plumes on their heads drew up at the door. Luke and Barthes carried the coffin reverently down the stairs and placed it in the glass hearse, arranging the flowers, both fresh and artificial, which friends and relatives had sent, around the coffin. Then the hearse set off supported on either side by the funeral attendants, dressed in their black frock coats and top hats, some wearing bands of black crepe, others carrying wands draped with crepe. Behind them walked Signor Carlo and his wife and all the friends who had come to pay their respects - the whole sad black procession outlined against the white snow-covered streets.

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Ragazzo and Carrie turned away from the window to find Rosa had fallen asleep in her little chair and so, covering her with a rug, they crept towards the comfort of the fire. There was silence between them. Then Carrie Whispered, "Ma says I may take some flowers to his grave tomorrow. She'll make up a special bunch from scraps of material."

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Ragazzo looked up startled. What could he take? He had nothing, nothing to give to mark his sorrow. For the first time he began to weep. Through his tears he blurted out, "What can I take? I have nothing, nothing. I am no-one, with no name, no family, nothing." His tears rolled down his face and he wept uncontrollably.

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Taking his hand, Carrie whispered, "Don't cry, don't cry Ragazzo. Ma will make you some flowers. We'll go together." And hand in hand a little comforted, they sat gazing at the glowing embers of the fire until the Gatti's returned.

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In respect for the dead the flower-makers were given the day off. Mrs. Pye took Carrie home. Maria took Rosa to her room and at a loss, Ragazzo went up to the attic where he fell asleep overwhelmed by the sadness of the day.

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When he awoke it was dark. Remembering his evening duties, he crept downstairs to mend the fire. He slipped into the room making his way to the grate before he saw Signor Carlo sitting, his head in his hands, at the long table. Ragazzo stopped. No sound came from Carlo but Ragazzo saw his shoulders shake in silent weeping.

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What should he do? What could he do? He longed to go to his master, to put out his hand to comfort him, but the words stuck in his throat. Stefano was gone, buried deep in the earth.... what could he say? He went to the fire, stirred the dying embers and quietly put on the coals. He took up the bellows and slowly the flames regained strength, their light dancing on the ceiling and walls. "Thank you, Ragazzo," the voice was firm and calm, but as Ragazzo turned round, he saw the bearded face, tear-stained and worn and for a moment his master's huge frame looked fragile and empty. "It's dark in here. Bring me the lamp." Obediently Ragazzo carried the big oil lamp over to the table and fetched a lighted taper from the fire. A warm glow filled the room.

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"That's better," said Carlo, mopping his face with a big handkerchief, "it's not good to stay too long in the dark."
"No, Signore."
With an effort, Carlo said, "It's been a long hard day for all of us. What do you say lad, shall we make some coffee?"
Before Ragazzo could swing the kettle over the blaze, there was a distant knocking at the door downstairs.

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"Who can that be at this time of night?" said Carlo. Ragazzo moved to the door.
"No. I'll go."
Ragazzo set the kettle on the blaze and went to get a jug and mugs from the cupboard. He heard muffled voices downstairs, then the door opened and Signor Carlo came in followed by a stranger.

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"But why didn't you come before?" asked Carlo. Maria will be quite mortified you've delayed so long. Ragazzo, run up and tell your mistress we have a visitor from her own village, from Castro." He chuckled. "It will be a surprise for her."
Ragazzo ran quickly to the Signora's door and knocked.

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"What is it?" "The Signore says to come quickly."
The door opened, a look of anxiety on Maria's face.
"There's a visitor, and the master says to tell you that he's from your village, from Castro."
"From Castro?" Maria's sad face lit up, "Mama mia, who is it? I'll be there directly."

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Whilst he made the coffee, Ragazzo gathered the visitor to be Battista Bolla, an acquaintance of Maria's own family. He had come to seek his fortune here three months earlier but, trained as he was a chocolate maker, he had found little scope for his skills and had fallen on hard times. It was then he remembered that a friend had told him to go and see Maria Marioni. That she was married to Carlo Gatti who was doing well there. Battista's voice dropped, "And here I come to you on a day of tragedy."

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"No, no," said Carlo, "you are most welcome at any time. We must see how we can help you."

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"It was good to hear news from home," said Maria. Then she sighed. "How I wish our Stefano could have been laid to rest in our own country."