Cuore (Chapter 34)
Edmondo De Acimis
THE LITTLE HARLEQUIN
The whole city is in a tumult over the Carnival, which is nearing its close. In every square rise booths of mountebanks and jesters; and we have under our windows a circus-tent, in which a little Venetian company, with five horses, is giving a show. The circus is in the centre of the square; and in one corner there are three very large vans in which the mountebanks sleep and dress themselves,—three small houses on wheels, with their tiny windows, and a chimney in each of them, which smokes continually; and between window and window the baby’s swaddling-bands are stretched. There is one woman who is nursing a child, who prepares the food, and dances on the tight-rope. Poor people! The word mountebank is spoken as though it were an insult; but they earn their living honestly, nevertheless, by amusing all the world—and how they work! All day long they run back and forth between the circus-tent and the vans, in tights, in all this cold; they snatch a mouthful or two in haste, standing, between two performances; and sometimes, when they get their tent full, a wind arises, wrenches away the ropes and extinguishes the lights, and then good by to the show! They are obliged to return the money, and to work the entire night at repairing their booth. There are two lads who work; and my father recognized the smallest one as he was traversing the square; and he is the son of the proprietor, the same one whom we saw perform tricks on horseback last year in a circus on the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. And he has grown; he must be eight years old: he is a handsome boy, with a round and roguish face, with so many black curls that they escape from his pointed cap. He is dressed up like a harlequin, decked out in a sort of sack, with sleeves of white, embroidered with black, and his slippers are of cloth. He is a merry little imp. He charms every one. He does everything. We see him early in the morning, wrapped in a shawl, carrying milk to his wooden house; then he goes to get the horses at the boarding-stable on the Via Bertola. He holds the tiny baby in his arms; he transports hoops, trestles, rails, ropes; he cleans the vans, lights the fire, and in his leisure moments he always hangs about his mother. My father is always watching him from the window, and does nothing but talk about him and his family, who have the air of nice people, and of being fond of their children.
One evening we went to the circus: it was cold; there was hardly any one there; but the little harlequin exerted himself greatly to cheer those few people: he executed precarious leaps; he caught hold of the horses’ tails; he walked with his legs in the air, all alone; he sang, always with a smile constantly on his handsome little brown face. And his father, who had on a red vest and white trousers, with tall boots, and a whip in his hand, watched him: but it was melancholy. My father took pity on him, and spoke of him on the following day to Delis the painter, who came to see us. These poor people were killing themselves with hard work, and their affairs were going so badly! The little boy pleased him so much! What could be done for them? The painter had an idea.
“Write a fine article for the Gazette,” he said: “you know how to write well: relate the miraculous things which the little harlequin does, and I will take his portrait for you. Everybody reads the Gazette, and people will flock thither for once.”
And thus they did. My father wrote a fine article, full of jests, which told all that we had observed from the window, and inspired a desire to see and caress the little artist; and the painter sketched a little portrait which was graceful and a good likeness, and which was published on Saturday evening. And behold! at the Sunday performance a great crowd rushed to the circus. The announcement was made: Performance for the Benefit of the Little Harlequin, as he was styled in the Gazette. The circus was crammed; many of the spectators held the Gazette in their hands, and showed it to the little harlequin, who laughed and ran from one to another, perfectly delighted. The proprietor was delighted also. Just fancy! Not a single newspaper had ever done him such an honor, and the money-box was filled. My father sat beside me. Among the spectators we found persons of our acquaintance. Near the entrance for the horses stood the teacher of gymnastics—the one who has been with Garibaldi; and opposite us, in the second row, was the little mason, with his little round face, seated beside his gigantic father; and no sooner did he catch sight of me than he made a hare’s face at me. A little further on I espied Garoffi, who was counting the spectators, and calculated on his fingers how much money the company had taken in. On one of the chairs in the first row, not far from us, there was also poor Robetti, the boy who saved the child from the omnibus, with his crutches between his knees, pressed close to the side of his father, the artillery captain, who kept one hand on his shoulder. The performance began. The little harlequin accomplished wonders on his horse, on the trapeze, on the tight-rope; and every time that he jumped down, every one clapped their hands, and many pulled his curls. Then several others, rope-dancers, jugglers, and riders, clad in tights, and sparkling with silver, went through their exercises; but when the boy was not performing, the audience seemed to grow weary. At a certain point I saw the teacher of gymnastics, who held his post at the entrance for the horses, whisper in the ear of the proprietor of the circus, and the latter instantly glanced around, as though in search of some one. His glance rested on us. My father perceived it, and understood that the teacher had revealed that he was the author of the article, and in order to escape being thanked, he hastily retreated, saying to me:—
“Remain, Enrico; I will wait for you outside.”
After exchanging a few words with his father, the little harlequin went through still another trick: erect upon a galloping horse, he appeared in four characters—as a pilgrim, a sailor, a soldier, and an acrobat; and every time that he passed near me, he looked at me. And when he dismounted, he began to make the tour of the circus, with his harlequin’s cap in his hand, and everybody threw soldi or sugar-plums into it. I had two soldi ready; but when he got in front of me, instead of offering his cap, he drew it back, gave me a look and passed on. I was mortified. Why had he offered me that affront?
The performance came to an end; the proprietor thanked the audience; and all the people rose also, and thronged to the doors. I was confused by the crowd, and was on the point of going out, when I felt a touch on my hand. I turned round: it was the little harlequin, with his tiny brown face and his black curls, who was smiling at me; he had his hands full of sugar-plums. Then I understood.
“Will you accept these sugar-plums from the little harlequin?” said he to me, in his dialect.
I nodded, and took three or four.
“Then,” he added, “please accept a kiss also.”
“Give me two,” I answered; and held up my face to him. He rubbed off his floury face with his hand, put his arm round my neck, and planted two kisses on my cheek, saying:—
“There! take one of them to your father.”