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In Madeira Place 1887   By: (1847-1924)

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By Heman White Chaplin

Turning from the street which follows the line of the wharves, into Madeira Place, you leave at once an open region of docks and spars for comparative retirement. Wagons seldom enter Madeira Place: it is too hard to turn them in it; and then the inhabitants, for the most part, have a convenient way of buying their coal by the basket. How much trouble it would save, if we would all buy our coal by the basket!

A few doors up the place a passageway makes off to the right, through a high wooden gate that is usually open; and at the upper corner of this passage stands a brick house, whose perpetually closed blinds suggest the owner's absence. But the householders of Madeira Place do not absent themselves, even in summer; they could hardly get much nearer to the sea. And if you will take the pains to seat yourself, toward the close of day, upon an opposite doorstep, between two rows of clamorous little girls sliding, with screams of painful joy, down the rough hammered stone, to the improvement of their clothing, you will see that the house is by no means untenanted.

Every evening it is much the same thing. First, following close upon the heels of sunset, comes a grizzly, tall, and slouching man, in the cap and blouse of a Union soldier, bearing down with his left hand upon a cane, and dragging his left foot heavily behind him, while with his right hand he holds by a string a cluster of soaring toy balloons, and also drags, by its long wooden tongue, a rude child's cart, in which is a small hand organ.

Next will come, most likely, a dark, bent, keen eyed old woman, with her parchment face shrunk into deep wrinkles. She bears a dangling placard, stating, in letters of white upon a patent leather background, what you might not otherwise suspect, that she was a soldier under the great Napoleon, and fought with him at Waterloo. She also bears, since music goes with war, a worn accordion. She is the old woman to whose shrivelled, expectant countenance you sometimes offer up a copper coin, as she kneels by the flagged crossway path of the Park.

She is succeeded, perhaps, by a couple of black haired, short, broad shouldered men, leading a waddling, unconcerned bear, and talking earnestly together in a language which you will hardly follow.

Then you will see six or eight or ten other sons and daughters of toil, most of them with balloons.

All these people will turn, between the high, ball topped gate posts, into the alley, and descend at once to the left, by a flight of three or four steps, to a side basement door.

As they begin to flock in, you will see through the alley gate a dark, thick set man, of middle age, but with very little hair, come and stand at the foot of the steps, in the doorway. It is Sorel, the master of the house; for this is the Maison Sorel . Some of his guests he greets with a Noachian deluge of swift French words and high pitched cries of welcome. It is thus that he receives those capitalists, the bear leaders from the Pyrenees; it is thus that he greets the grizzled man in the blue cap and blouse, Fidèle the old soldier, Fidèle the pensioner, to whom a great government, far away, at Washington, doubtless with much else on its mind, never forgets to send by mail, each quarter day morning, a special, personal communication, marked with Fidèle's own name, enclosing the preliminaries of a remittance: "Accept" (as it were) "this slight tribute." " Ah! que c'est un gouvernement! Voilà une république! "

Even a Frenchman may be proud to be an American!

Most of his guests, however, Sorel receives with a mere pantomime of wide opened eyes and extended hands and shrugged up shoulders, accompanied by a long drawn " Eh! " by which he bodies forth a thousand refinements of thought which language would fail to express. Does a fresh immigrant from the Cévennes bring back at night but one or two of the gay balloons with which she was stocked in the morning, or, better, none; or, on the other hand, does a stalwart man just from the rich Brie country return at sundown in abject despair, bringing back almost all of the red and blue globes which floated like a radiant constellation of hope about his head when he set forth in the early morning, Sorel can express, by his " Eh! " and some slight movement, with subtle exactness and with no possibility of being misapprehended, the precise shade of feeling with which the result inspires him... Continue reading book >>

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