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Child stories by Frances Hodgson Burnett are among the best of their kind. Those terrible "Two Days in the Life of Piccino" are enough to make one shake-with laughter. Piccino was a "Gesu bambino," pretty as a Christ-child in a picture, who lived with his parents, his sister Maria, and a donkey and a dog, in the outskirts of Ceriani, an old town of the Italian Riviera, and who was early initiated into the art and mystery of drawing soldi out of foreigners' pockets. A rich English lady took a fancy to see just how pretty a bambino Piccino might be if he were washed, and bought him for the purpose. Then began his frightful two days of scrubbings and rubbings, of indigestible mutton-chops and destitution of garlic, from which he ran away, and which furnished him with matter to talk and think over for the rest of his life. The other stories tell how "The Captain's Youngest " prevented his sister's elopement; how '' Little Betty's Kitten " had excellent times with her mistress, and "How Fauntleroy Occurred"-that is, in the most natural way in the world. They are none the worse for being a trifle "grown-up," and for reminding one a little of Ouida.
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And other Child Stories
FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT
Piccino, F. Hodgson Burnett
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
TWO DAYS IN THE LIFE OF PICCINO... 1
CHAPTER IV.. 29
THE CAPTAIN'S YOUNGEST.. 35
LITTLE BETTY'S KITTEN TELLS HER STORY.. 51
HOW FAUNTLEROY OCCURRED.. 61
CHAPTER I - HIS ENTRANCE INTO THE WORLD... 61
CHAPTER II - IN WHITE FROCK AND SASH.. 69
CHAPTER III - IN BOYHOOD AND NOW... 77
IF he lived a hundred years – to be as old as Giuseppe, who was little Roberto's great-grandfather, and could only move when he was helped, and sat in the sun and played with bits of string – if he lived to be as old as that, he could never forget them, those two strange and dreadful days.
When sometimes he spoke of them to such of his playmates as were older than himself – especially to Carlo, who tended sheep, and was afraid of nothing, even making jokes about the forestieri – they said they thought he had been foolish; that as it seemed that the people had been ready to give him anything, it could not have been so bad but one could have tried to bear it, though they all agreed that it was dreadful about the water.
It is true, too, that as he grew older himself, after his mother died and his father married again – the big Paula who flew into such rages and beat him – and when he had to tend sheep and goats himself, and stay out on the hills all day in such ragged jackets and with so little food – because Paula said he had not earned his salt, and she had her own children to feed – then he longed for some of the food he would not eat during those two days, and wondered if he would do quite the same thing again under the same circumstances. But this was only when he was very hungry and the mistral was blowing, and the Mediterranean looked gray instead of blue.
He was such a tiny fellow when it happened. He was not yet six years old, and when a child is under six he has not reached the age when human creatures have begun to face life for themselves altogether; and even a little Italian peasant, who tumbles about among sheep and donkeys, which form part of his domestic circle, is still in a measure a sort of baby, whose mother or brother or sister has to keep an occasional eye on him to see that he does not kill himself. And then also Piccino had been regarded by his family as a sort of capital, and had consequently had more attention paid to him than he would have had under ordinary circumstances.
It was like this. He was so pretty, so wonderfully pretty! His brothers and sisters were not beauties, but he was a beauty from his first day, and with every day that passed he grew prettier. When he was so tiny that he was packed about like a bundle, wound up in unattractive-looking bandages, he had already begun to show what his eyes were going to be – his immense soft black eyes, with lashes which promised to be velvet fringes. And as soon as his hair began to show itself, it was lovely silk, which lay in rings, one over the other, on his beautiful little round head. Then his soft cheeks and chin were of exquisite roundness, and in each he had a deep dimple which came and went as he laughed.
He was always being looked at and praised. A " Gesu bambino " the peasant women called him. That was what they always said when a child had wonderful beauty, their idea of supreme child loveliness being founded on the pictures and waxen, richly dressed figures they saw in the churches.
But it was the forestieri who admired him most, and that was why he was so valuable. His family lived near a strange little old city in the hills, which spread out behind one of the fashionable seaside towns on the Italian Riviera. The strange little old city, which was a relic of centuries gone by, was one of the places the rich foreigners made excursions to see. It was a two or three hours' drive from the fashionable resort, and these gay, rich people, who seemed to do nothing but enjoy themselves, used to form parties and drive in carriages up the road which wound its way up from the shore through the olive vineyards and back into the hills. It was their habit to bring servants with them, and hampers of wonderful things to eat, which would be unpacked by the servants and spread on white cloths on the grass in some spot shaded by the trees. Then they would eat, and drink wine, and laugh, and afterwards wander about and explore the old city of Ceriani, and seem to find the queer houses and the inhabitants and everything about it interesting.
To the children of Ceriani and its outskirts these excursion parties were delightful festivities. When they heard of the approach of one they gathered themselves together and went forth to search for its encampment. When they had found it they calmly seated themselves in rows quite near and watched it as if it were a kind of theatrical entertainment to which they had paid for admission. They Were all accomplished in the art of begging, and knew that the forestieri always had plenty of small change, and would give, either through good-nature or to avoid being annoyed. Then they knew from experience that the things that were not eaten were never repacked into the hampers if there was someone to ask for them. So they kept their places quite cheerfully and looked on at the festivities, and talked to each other and showed their white teeth in generous grins quite amiably, sure of reaping a pleasant harvest before the carriages drove back again down the winding road ending at the sea and San Remo, and the white, many-balconied hotels.
And it was through these excursion parties that Piccino's market value was discovered. When he was a baby and his sister Maria, who was his small nurse – being determined not to be left behind by her comrades – toiled after the rest of the children with her little burden in her arms or over her shoulder, it was observed that the forestieri always saw the pretty round black baby head and big soft dark eyes before they saw anything else, and their attention once attracted by Piccino very pleasant things were often the result. The whole party got more cakes and sandwiches and legs of chickens and backs of little birds, and when bits of silver were given to Maria for Piccino, Maria herself sometimes even had whole francs given to her, because it was she who was his sister and took care of him. And then, having begun giving, the good-natured ones among the party of ladies and gentlemen did not like to quite neglect the other children, and so scattered soldi among them, so that sometimes they all returned to Ceriani feeling that they had done a good day's work. Their idea of a good day's work was one when they had not run after carriages for nothing, or had heads shaken at them when they held out their hands and called imploringly, "Uno soldi no, bella signora bella signora!' Piccino had been born one of the class which in its childhood and often even later never fails in the belief that the English and Americans who come to the beautiful Riviera come there to be begged from, or in some way beguiled out of their small coin.
Maria was a sharp child. She had not lugged her little brothers and sisters about all through the working time of her twelve years without learning a few things. She very soon found out what it was that brought in the soldi and the nice scraps from the hampers.
"It is Piccino they give things to – ecco!' she said.
" They see his eyes and they want to look at him and touch his cheeks. They like to see the dimples come when he laughs. They would not look at me like that, or at you, Carmela. They would not come near us."
This was quite true. The row of little spectators watching the picnics might be picturesque, but it was exceedingly dirty, and not made up of the material it is quite safe to come near. It was a belief current among the parties who drove up from San Remo that soap had never been heard of in the vicinity of Ceriani and that water was avoided as a poisonous element, and this belief was not founded upon mere nothings.
"They are as dirty as they are cheerful and impudent," someone had said, " and that is saying a great deal. I wonder what would happen if one of them were caught and washed all over."
Nobody could have been dirtier than Piccino was. Pretty as he looked, there were days when the most enthusiastic of the ladies dare not have taken him in her arms. In fact, there were very few days when any one would have liked to go quite that far – or any farther, indeed, than looking at his velvet eyes and throwing him soldi and cakes. But his eyes always won him the soldi and cakes, and the older he grew the more he gained, so that not only Maria and her companions, but his mother herself, began to look upon him as a source of revenue.
"If he can only sing when he grows a little older," his mother said, " he can fill his pockets full by going and singing before the hotels and in the gardens of the villas. Everyone will give him something. They are a queer lot, these foreigners, who are willing to give good money to a child because he has long eyelashes. His are long enough, thanks to the Virgin! Sometimes I wonder they are not in his way."
His mother was the poorest of the poor. She had seven children, and a mere hovel to put them in, and nothing to feed and clothe them with. Her husband was a good-for-nothing, who never worked if he could help it, and who, if he earned a few soldi, got rid of them at once before they could be scolded out of him and spent on such extravagances as food and fire. If Piccino had not been a little Italian peasant he would, no doubt, have starved to death or died of cold long before he had his adventure; but on the Riviera the sun shines and the air is soft, and people seem born with a sort of gay carelessness of most things that trouble the serious world.
As for Piccino, he was as happy as a soft little rabbit or a young bird or a baby fawn. When he was old enough to run about, he had the most beautiful days. They seemed to him to be made up of warm sunshine and warm grass, flowers looking at him as he toddled round, light filtering through vines and the branches of olive-trees, nice black bread and figs, which he lay on his back and munched delightedly, and days when Maria dragged him along the road to some green place where grand people sat and ate good things, and who afterwards gave him cakes and delicious little bones and soldi, saying over and over again to each other that he was the prettiest little boy they had ever seen, and had the most beautiful eyes, and oh! his eyelashes!
" Look at his eyelashes! " they would exclaim. " They are as thick as rushes round a pool, and they must be half an inch long."
Sometimes Piccino got rather tired of his eyelashes, and wore a resigned expression, but he was little Italian enough to feel that they must be rather a good thing, as they brought such luck. Once, indeed, a man came all by himself to Ceriani, and persuaded his mother to make him sit on a stone while he put him in a picture, and when it was over he gave his mother several francs, and she was delighted; but Piccino was not so pleased, because he had thought it rather tiresome to sit so long on one stone.
This was the year before the dreadful two days came.
When they came he had been put into queer little trousers, which were much too big for him. One of his brothers had outgrown them and given them good wear.
They were, in fact, as ragged as they were big, and as dirty as they were ragged; but Piccino was very proud of them. He went and showed them to the donkey, whose tumble-down sleeping apartment was next to his own, and who was his favorite playmate and companion. It was such a little donkey, but such a good one! It could carry a burden almost as big as its stable, and it had soft, furry ears and soft, furry sides, and eyes and eyelashes as pretty for a donkey as Piccino's were for a boy. It was nearly always at work, but when it was at home Piccino was nearly always with it. On wet and cold days he stayed with it in its tiny, broken stable, playing and talking to it; and many a day he had fallen asleep with his curly head on its warm little fuzzy side. When it was fine they strolled about together and were companions, the donkey cropping the grass and Piccino pretending it was a little flock of sheep, and that he was big enough to be a shepherd. In the middle of the night he used to like to waken and hear it move and make little sounds. It was so close to him that he felt as if they slept together.
So he went to show it his trousers, of course.
" Now I am a man," he said, and he stood close by its head, and the two pairs of lustrous eyes looked affectionately into each other.
After that they sauntered out together into the beautiful early morning. When Piccino was with the donkey his mother and Maria knew he was quite safe and so was the donkey, so they were allowed to ramble about. They never went far, it is true. Piccino was too little, and besides, there were such nice little rambles quite near. This time was the loveliest of all the year. The sun was sweetly warm, but not hot, and there were anemones and flaming wild tulips in the grass.
Piccino did not know how long they were out together before Maria came to find them. The donkey had a beautiful breakfast, and Piccino ate his piece of black bread without anything to add to its flavor, because his mother was at the time in great trouble and very poor, and there was scarcely the bread itself to eat. Piccino toddled along quite peacefully, however, and when he came upon a space where there were red and yellow tulips swaying in the soft air he broke off a fine handful, and when the donkey lay down he sat by it and began to stick the beautiful, flaring things round his hat, as he had seen Maria stick things round hers. It was a torn, soft felt hat, with a pointed crown and a broad rim, and when he put it on again, with its adornment of red and yellow flowers sticking up and down, and falling on his soft, thick curls, he was a strangely beautiful little thing to see, and so like a picture that he scarcely seemed like a real child at all, but like a lovely, fantastic little being some artist had arranged to put on canvas.
He was sitting in this way, looking out to where he could see a bit of blue sea through a break in the hills, when Maria came running towards him.
"The donkey! "she cried, "the donkey!"
She had been crying and looked excited, and took him by the hand, dragging him towards home. His legs were so short and he was so little that it always seemed as if she dragged him. She was an excitable child, and always went fast when she had an object in view. Piccino was used to excitement. They all shouted and screamed and gesticulated at each other when any trifling thing happened. His mother and her neighbors were given to tears and cries and loud ejaculations upon the slightest provocation, as all Italian peasants are, so he saw nothing unusual in Maria's coming upon him like a whirlwind and exclaiming disjointedly with tears. He wondered, however, what the donkey could have to do with it, and evidently the donkey wondered too, for she got up and trotted after them down the road.
But when they reached the house it was very plain that the thing which had occurred was not a trifle, or usual.
Piccino saw an old man standing before the door talking to his mother. At least, he was trying to get in a word edgeways now and then, while the mother wept and beat her breast and poured forth a torrent of bewailing, mingled with an avalanche of scolding addressed to her husband, who stood near her, looking at once sheepish and ill-tempered.
"Worthless brute and pig," she proclaimed; "idle, wicked animal, who will not work to help me to feed his children. It is only I who work and the donkey who helps me. Without her we should starve – starve! And he sells her – poor beast! – sells her to get money for his wickedness and gluttony. And I am to starve without her – a fine thing! And he brings to my door the thief he has sold her to."
Baby as he was, Piccino began to understand. His father had sold the donkey, and it would be taken away. He lifted up his voice in a wail of bitter lamentation, and breaking away from Maria ran to the donkey and clung round her front leg, rubbing his cheek woefully against her gray shoulder.
For an hour or so they all wept and lamented while their mother alternately wept and raved. She abused her husband and the old man who had bought the donkey, by turns. Stray neighbors dropped in and helped her. They all agreed that old Beppo was a usurer and a thief, who had somehow got the better of Annibale, who was also a drunken, shameless brute. Old Beppo was so overwhelmed by the storm of hard words and bad names raging about him that he actually was stunned into allowing that the donkey should remain where she was for two days, that she might finish some work her mistress had promised to do with her aid. And he went away grumbling, with his piece of rope over his arm.
There was nothing to eat in the house, and if there had been, the mother was too prostrate with grief and rage to have prepared anything like a meal. And so it seemed a great piece of good luck when dirty little Filippo burst upon them with the news that three grand carriages full of illustrious-looking forestieri and inviting hampers were unloading themselves at a certain turn of the road, where the grass was thick and the trees big and close together.
"Come!" said Maria, catching at Piccino's hand. She gave him a look over. His crying had left a flush in his soft cheeks and a little pathetic curve on his baby mouth, which was always like a tiny vermilion bow. His hat, with the tulips tumbling round it, was set on the back of his head, and the red and yellow things made his eyes look bigger and lovelier than ever by contrast. In these respects Maria saw that he was good for more cakes and soldi than ever. And it would never have occurred to her that tears and rubbing against the donkey had left him dirtier than ever. In Maria's world nobody troubled themselves about dirt. Washing one's self amounted almost to a religious ceremony. But ah! that little love of a Piccino was dirty – as dirty as he was soft and dimpled and rich-colored and beautiful!
Near the place where the pleasure-seekers had spread their feast upon the grass there was a low, rough, stone wall at the side of the road.
When the servants had spread the bright rugs and cushions upon the ground the party sat down in little groups. No sooner had they done this than one of the ladies looked up and broke into a little laugh.
" Look there! " she said, nodding in the direction of the low wall, which was only a few yards from them.
And those near her looked and saw a little boy peasant, sitting with his legs dangling, and gazing at them with the interest and satisfaction of a person who has had the good fortune to secure the best seat at a theatre.
"He is a sharp one," said the lady, "he has got here first. There will be others directly. They are like a swarm of little vultures. The Bothwicks, who have the Villa des Palmiers, were here a week ago, and they said children seemed to start up from the earth."
The servants moved about in dexterous silence, unpacking the hampers and spreading white cloths. The gentlemen sat at the ladies' feet, and everybody laughed and talked gayly. In a few minutes the lady looked up and laughed again.
" Look," she said, " now there are three! '
And there were six legs dangling, and the second and third pair were little girls' legs, and their owners looked on at the strangers with cheerful composure, as if their assistance at the festive scene were the most proper and natural thing in the world.
The lady who had seen them first was a tall and handsome Englishwoman. She had big coils of reddish-brown hair, and large bright eyes which looked restless and tired at the same time. Everybody seemed to pay her a great deal of attention. The party was hers, the carriages were hers, the big footmen were hers. Her guests called her Lady Aileen. She was a very rich young widow with no children, and though she had everything that wealth and rank could give she found it rather hard to amuse herself. Perhaps this was because she had given everything to Lady Aileen Chalmer that she could, and it had not yet occurred to her that anyone else in the world was any affair of hers.
" The Bothwicks came home in raptures over a child they had seen," she said; "they talked of him until it was fatiguing. They said he was as dirty as a pig and as beautiful as an angel. The rest of the children seemed to use him as a bait. I wish they would bring him to-day; I should like to see him. I must say I don't believe he was as beautiful as they said. You know Mary Bothwick is by way of being artistic, and is given to raptures."
" Are you fond of children, Lady Aileen? " asked the man nearest to her.
" I don't know," she answered, " I never had one. But I think they are amusing. And these little Italian beggars are sometimes very handsome. Perhaps I should not be so bored if I had a very good-looking child. I should want a boy. I believe I will buy one from a peasant some day. They will give you anything for money." She turned her face a little, and laughed as she had done before.
" There are quite twelve on the wall now," she said, " perhaps more. I must count them." When they counted them they found there were fourteen, all in a row, all with dangling feet, all dirty, and all staring at what was going on with a composure which had no shadow of embarrassment touching it.
The row having gained in numbers was also beginning to be a little more lively. The young spectators had begun to exchange conversational and lively remarks upon the party, the big footmen, and the inviting things being handed about and eaten.
In ten minutes from that time Lady Aileen counted again and found there were twenty-two lookers-on, and when she reached the twenty-first she gave a slight start.
" Dear me! " she exclaimed, and laid down her fork.
" What is it, Lady Aileen? " asked a girl who sat at her side.
" I am perfectly certain the twenty-first one is the child the Bothwicks were talking about. And he is a handsome creature! "
"Which one?" the girl exclaimed, leaning forward to look. " The twenty-first. Oh, I am sure you mean the one next to the end. What a beauty! Mr. Gordon, look at him! "
And Maria had the encouragement of seeing half a dozen people turn to look at Piccino sitting by her on the wall, a marvel of soft roundness and rich color, his velvet eyes dreamily wide open as he gazed fixedly at the good things to eat, his crimson bow of a mouth with parted lips, his flaming tulips nodding, round his torn felt hat.
Lady Aileen looked quite interested.
" I never saw such a beautiful little animal," she said. " I had no idea children were ever really like that. He looks as if he had been deliberately made to order. But I should never have had the imagination to order anything so perfect."
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