Rosa sat on a high stool, swinging her legs backwards and forwards. Uncle Battista had said she could stay in the kitchen if she would sit still, for today they were preparing some specialities for the Great Exhibition and they had no time for little girls - not even little Rosa.
The atmosphere of the kitchen was warm and humid, heavy with the sweet smell of chocolate and boiling syrup. At the range Julian was making marron glaces - crystalised chestnuts - boiling up the chestnuts in one batch and draining off the syrup in another. As he set out the chestnuts one by one to dry, he lent over and popped one in her mouth. "Don't tell Uncle," he said, "that's for the birthday girl."
June 12th 1851. Tomorrow was her birthday. She would be six and Papa had promised to take her to work with him in his new pastry shop in the Strand and, on the way, they would go to look at the famous toyshops in the Lowther Arcade. Perhaps she would find a doll, but when she hinted at this to her mother, Maria had said sharply that the shops in the Arcade were for looking, not for buying for the likes of us and that little girls must not expect too much.
Forgetting her promise to sit still, she slipped down off the stool and made her way into the shop where Uncle Battista was tending the great chocolate machine which stood in the window. He and Papa were very proud of the machine and when it was first installed a year ago, people had crowded into the shop from the street to see it. Many times she had watched the thick yellow cocoa fat churning and mixing as her Uncle or Ragazzo poured in the sugar. All day the machine pounded and rolled and mixed until the thick dark chocolate liquor emerged, smooth enough for chocolate making. It was hard to see why it took so long, but as Uncle Battista always said "It's not the eyes but the tongue which is the test."
But now it was ready and her Uncle transferred the thick warm liquor to a big bowl and moved into the kitchen. In front of him lay a long trestle table. On it a series of small tin moulds, set on a board. These were for the slabs and tablets of chocolate. Carefully, Battista poured in the chocolate liquor. When the moulds were all full, he gently shook the board, so that the chocolate lay flat and began to shine.
At the other end of the table was a marble slab. Keeping his chocolate warm, Battista whisked in some eggs. A teaspoonful of this liquor poured onto the smooth cool surface formed a round drop about an inch across and soon the marble was lined with drops lying in serried ranks, waiting to be lifted off or to be coated again in silver, for silvered chocolate drops were one of Battista's specialities for the Exhibition.
Uncle Battista was a quiet gentle man and worked slowly and deliberately, not like Julian who often got impatient, did things too quickly and burned the syrup. When that happened, Papa got very cross at the waste and Julian had to reboil the chestnuts and they were sold off cheap to some street trader.
"Rosa, Rosa." She heard her mother calling from upstairs. "Your
soup is ready. Tell your Uncle."
"Alright, alright," said Battista, "we'll come when we've finished. Up you go, Rosalia."
She climbed the stairs to the big living room-kitchen where the
family and the workmen all ate together. At the open fire stood her mother
stirring the polenta and at the rough deal table down the centre of the room,
Aubron and Burgonino were already seated with their spoons and hunks of bread.
Luke Corrazza followed her upstairs and folded a rough blanket several times on
the bench so that she could sit up to the table with the others. Soon Ragazzo
and Julian joined her. Her mother poured out the thick polenta into bowls and
Carrie and Ragazzo served the men. Rosa liked to sit up to the table like this.
The men were always laughing, telling stories and playing tricks on each other.
Sometines when Mama was tired and cross, when the new baby was crying and the
cooking was too much for her, the men would begin to talk about their village -
"Never mind, Maria," they would say, "one day we'll all make our fortunes and go back to Dongio. We'll go back to the mountains and the pure fresh air and buy a piece of land and never stir again."
"Well if anyone will make his fortune," said Barthes Borsa, blowing on his steaming bowl, "it will be your Carlo, Maria. Why nowadays he's never here. If he's not making pastries across the road, he's down at Hungerford Market selling them. And now he tells me he wants to open a large cafe." Maria nodded. "He wants Luke and me down there next week to start putting up the counter and shelves and make the furniture, and he's got Giovanni Graziani coming to put terrazza tops on the counters. One day that Carlo of yours is going to be a rich man."
"Well if that's the way of it, he'd better look out," said Uncle Luke darkly, "He might go the way of my Great Uncle Giacomo."
They all laughed. It was an old story. Even Rosa had heard it before, but Ragazzo said "What happened to him?"
Luke Corazza took out his clay pipe and filled it. "Why he had
his head cut off! In the Revolution, in Paris," Ragazzo looked shocked. "They
do say there's a stone there in the floor of the Palace with his name on it.
Maria, now you lived in Paris. What's the name of the Palace?"
"The Tuileries Palace where the King used to live."
"But what did he do?" Ragazzo broke in.
"Why he had a cafe." They all laughed. "And that's why I say Carlo should beware." Seeing Ragazzo looked puzzled, he went on "Now you see my Great Uncle Giacomo had a cafe in the fashionable part of Paris, in the Rue Poissioniere, and it was there many grand gentlemen came each day to drink their chocolate and to talk with their friends; and in summertime their wives and children came for ices. They always say we Italian people make the best ice cream and Uncle Giacomo was famous for his. But when the Revolution came, all that changed. The mob took over Paris. They chopped off the King's head and many of the gentlemen my uncle knew were rounded up and put in prison and quite a few of them went to the guillotine. Mind you, I'll weep no tears for them. Few of them had much time for the likes of us and they were much richer and more powerful than the proprietari of the Ticino. But, of course, when all this happened, Uncle Giacomo lost his business and because he was chocolate maker to the king he came under suspicion of the local Committee and before he knew where he was, he was in prison and swish they cut off his head."
Luke brought his hand down on the table with a crash so that the
empty bowls rattled on the boards. Rosa started.
"That's enough, Luke," said Maria, "you'll frighten the life out of Rosa. Now off with you. If Carlo was here you'd be away quick enough. And Ragazzo, help Carrie clear the table."
That evening Rosa lay in a little truckle bed at the feet of her parents' bed. Baby Clara was asleep in a big box which served as her cradle. She could hear the clatter of the horses' hooves in the street below, the murmur of the workmen playing morra next door. Occasionally she heard the shop bell downstairs as a late customer came in after work. The shop was always open till 9 or 10 at night when Mary Sherwood, the shop assistant locked the door and came upstairs to her bed in a tiny attic room, under the eaves. The moonlight shone brightly in on the bare boards and the chest of drawers where the little statue of the Virgin Mary stood. Mr. Brugiotti in Leather Lane had made it for her mother after her brother Stefano and baby Maria had died of fever. The sadness of her brother's death swept over her, but bravely she set her face against it and closed her eyes. In a moment she slept.
A group of men turned drunkenly out of Leather Lane into Holborn Hill, laughing and singing. One of them darted across the road. "Whoa there, whoa."
The cab-driver's shout, a rattle of wheels, a horse neighing,
cries and jeers, Rosa woke abruptly. As she sat up the moonlight flashed in her
eyes and she seemed to see a great shining curved knife hanging in the air.
Suddenly she saw her father standing on a high platform, still and drawn,
staring up at the guillotine. There were strange people all around shouting and
jeering, but as he stepped forward a terrible silence fell. He knelt down and
laid his head on the curved block. She screamed. She screamed over and over
"Rosa, Rosalia, cara." The door burst open and the bulk of her father loomed over her.
"Papa, Papa, they will cut off your head, they will cut off your head."
"Dio mio, perchè piangi?" As he bent towards her she clung to his head. "Maria, what is she saying?"
Her mother had come in behind him, a candle in her hand. "Suisu, Rosa. It's that Luke Corazza with his Uncle Giacomo. I told him it would frighten her." Rosa sobbed.
"Bambina, cara, no one will cut off my head."
"They said if you have a cafe, they will cut off your head." She felt her father take a swift intake of breath and then he laughed - a deep-throated roar which rocked her as he held her close. "So that's it." He laughed again. "Now your Papa will have a cafe, a fine cafe, but not for the rich and powerful proprietari. It will be a cafe for all kinds of people like you and me, and tomorrow I shall show you where it will be."
"Can Rag come?" said Rosa tearfully.
"Of course, if you so wish it. But now it's time for you to sleep." He kissed her and settled her in the cot.
"When I am bigger I will help you in the café, Papa. I will help you."
"You will be my right hand," he said. And holding his hand, she fell asleep.