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Saunterings - The Price Of Oranges Post by :joannent Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :2746

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Saunterings - The Price Of Oranges

If ever a northern wanderer could be suddenly transported to look down upon the Piano di Sorrento, he would not doubt that he saw the Garden of the Hesperides. The orange-trees cannot well be fuller: their branches bend with the weight of fruit. With the almond-trees in full flower, and with the silver sheen of the olive leaves, the oranges are apples of gold in pictures of silver. As I walk in these sunken roads, and between these high walls, the orange boughs everywhere hang over; and through the open gates of villas I look down alleys of golden glimmer, roses and geraniums by the walk, and the fruit above,--gardens of enchantment, with never a dragon, that I can see, to guard them.

All the highways and the byways, the streets and lanes, wherever I go, from the sea to the tops of the hills, are strewn with orange-peel; so that one, looking above and below, comes back from a walk with a golden dazzle in his eyes,--a sense that yellow is the prevailing color. Perhaps the kerchiefs of the dark-skinned girls and women, which take that tone, help the impression. The inhabitants are all orange-eaters. The high walls show that the gardens are protected with great care; yet the fruit seems to be as free as apples are in a remote New England town about cider-time.

I have been trying, ever since I have been here, to ascertain the price of oranges; not for purposes of exportation, nor yet for the personal importation that I daily practice, but in order to give an American basis of fact to these idle chapters. In all the paths I meet, daily, girls and boys bearing on their heads large baskets of the fruit, and little children with bags and bundles of the same, as large as they can stagger under; and I understand they are carrying them to the packers, who ship them to New York, or to the depots, where I see them lying in yellow heaps, and where men and women are cutting them up, and removing the peel, which goes to England for preserves. I am told that these oranges are sold for a couple of francs a hundred. That seems to me so dear that I am not tempted into any speculation, but stroll back to the Tramontano, in the gardens of which I find better terms.

The only trouble is to find a sweet tree; for the Sorrento oranges are usually sour in February; and one needs to be a good judge of the fruit, and know the male orange from the female, though which it is that is the sweeter I can never remember (and should not dare to say, if I did, in the present state of feeling on the woman question),--or he might as well eat a lemon. The mercenary aspect of my query does not enter in here. I climb into a tree, and reach out to the end of the branch for an orange that has got reddish in the sun, that comes off easily and is heavy; or I tickle a large one on the top bough with a cane pole; and if it drops readily, and has a fine grain, I call it a cheap one. I can usually tell whether they are good by splitting them open and eating a quarter. The Italians pare their oranges as we do apples; but I like best to open them first, and see the yellow meat in the white casket. After you have eaten a few from one tree, you can usually tell whether it is a good tree; but there is nothing certain about it,--one bough that gets the sun will be better than another that does not, and one half of an orange will fill your mouth with more delicious juices than the other half.

The oranges that you knock off with your stick, as you walk along the lanes, don't cost anything; but they are always sour, as I think the girls know who lean over the wall, and look on with a smile: and, in that, they are more sensible than the lively dogs which bark at you from the top, and wake all the neighborhood with their clamor. I have no doubt the oranges have a market price; but I have been seeking the value the gardeners set on them themselves. As I walked towards the heights, the other morning, and passed an orchard, the gardener, who saw my ineffectual efforts, with a very long cane, to reach the boughs of a tree, came down to me with a basketful he had been picking. As an experiment on the price, I offered him a two-centime piece, which is a sort of satire on the very name of money,--when he desired me to help myself to as many oranges as I liked. He was a fine-looking fellow, with a spick-span new red Phrygian cap; and I had n't the heart to take advantage of his generosity, especially as his oranges were not of the sweetest. One ought never to abuse generosity.

Another experience was of a different sort, and illustrates the Italian love of bargaining, and their notion of a sliding scale of prices. One of our expeditions to the hills was one day making its long, straggling way through the narrow street of a little village of the Piano, when I lingered behind my companions, attracted by a handcart with several large baskets of oranges. The cart stood untended in the street; and selecting a large orange, which would measure twelve inches in circumference, I turned to look for the owner. After some time a fellow got from the open front of the neighboring cobbler's shop, where he sat with his lazy cronies, listening to the honest gossip of the follower of St. Crispin, and sauntered towards me.

"How much for this?" I ask.

"One franc, signor," says the proprietor, with a polite bow, holding up one finger.

I shake my head, and intimate that that is altogether too much, in fact, preposterous.

The proprietor is very indifferent, and shrugs his shoulders in an amiable manner. He picks up a fair, handsome orange, weighs it in his hand, and holds it up temptingly. That also is one, franc.

I suggest one sou as a fair price, a suggestion which he only receives with a smile of slight pity, and, I fancy, a little disdain. A woman joins him, and also holds up this and that gold-skinned one for my admiration.

As I stand, sorting over the fruit, trying to please myself with size, color, and texture, a little crowd has gathered round; and I see, by a glance, that all the occupations in that neighborhood, including loafing, are temporarily suspended to witness the trade. The interest of the circle visibly increases; and others take such a part in the transaction that I begin to doubt if the first man is, after all, the proprietor.

At length I select two oranges, and again demand the price. There is a little consultation and jabber, when I am told that I can have both for a franc. I, in turn, sigh, shrug my shoulders, and put down the oranges, amid a chorus of exclamations over my graspingness. My offer of two sous is met with ridicule, but not with indifference. I can see that it has made a sensation. These simple, idle children of the sun begin to show a little excitement. I at length determine upon a bold stroke, and resolve to show myself the Napoleon of oranges, or to meet my Waterloo. I pick out four of the largest oranges in the basket, while all eyes are fixed on me intently, and, for the first time, pull out a piece of money. It is a two-sous piece. I offer it for the four oranges.

"No, no, no, no, signor! Ah, signor! ah, signor!" in a chorus from the whole crowd.

I have struck bottom at last, and perhaps got somewhere near the value; and all calmness is gone. Such protestations, such indignation, such sorrow, I have never seen before from so small a cause. It cannot be thought of; it is mere ruin! I am, in turn, as firm, and nearly as excited in seeming. I hold up the fruit, and tender the money.

"No, never, never! The signor cannot be in earnest."

Looking round me for a moment, and assuming a theatrical manner, befitting the gestures of those about me, I fling the fruit down, and, with a sublime renunciation, stalk away.

There is instantly a buzz and a hum that rises almost to a clamor. I have not proceeded far, when a skinny old woman runs after me, and begs me to return. I go back, and the crowd parts to receive me.

The proprietor has a new proposition, the effect of which upon me is intently watched. He proposes to give me five big oranges for four sous. I receive it with utter scorn, and a laugh of derision. I will give two sous for the original four, and not a centesimo more. That I solemnly say, and am ready to depart. Hesitation and renewed conference; but at last the proprietor relents; and, with the look of one who is ruined for life, and who yet is willing to sacrifice himself, he hands me the oranges. Instantly the excitement is dead, the crowd disperses, and the street is as quiet as ever; when I walk away, bearing my hard-won treasures.

A little while after, as I sat upon the outer wall of the terrace of the Camaldoli, with my feet hanging over, these same oranges were taken from my pockets by Americans; so that I am prevented from making any moral reflections upon the honesty of the Italians.

There is an immense garden of oranges and lemons at the village of Massa, through which travelers are shown by a surly fellow, who keeps watch of his trees, and has a bulldog lurking about for the unwary. I hate to see a bulldog in a fruit orchard. I have eaten a good many oranges there, and been astonished at the boughs of immense lemons which bend the trees to the ground. I took occasion to measure one of the lemons, called a citron-lemon, and found its circumference to be twenty-one inches one way by fifteen inches the other,--about as big as a railway conductor's lantern. These lemons are not so sour as the fellow who shows them: he is a mercenary dog, and his prices afford me no clew to the just value of oranges.

I like better to go to a little garden in the village of Meta, under a sunny precipice of rocks overhung by the ruined convent of Camaldoli. I turn up a narrow lane, and push open the wooden door in the garden of a little villa. It is a pretty garden; and, besides the orange and lemon-trees on the terrace, it has other fruit-trees, and a scent of many flowers. My friend, the gardener, is sorting oranges from one basket to another, on a green bank, and evidently selling the fruit to some women, who are putting it into bags to carry away.

When he sees me approach, there is always the same pantomime. I propose to take some of the fruit he is sorting. With a knowing air, and an appearance of great mystery, he raises his left hand, the palm toward me, as one says hush. Having dispatched his business, he takes an empty basket, and with another mysterious flourish, desiring me to remain quiet, he goes to a storehouse in one corner of the garden, and returns with a load of immense oranges, all soaked with the sun, ripe and fragrant, and more tempting than lumps of gold. I take one, and ask him if it is sweet. He shrugs his shoulders, raises his hands, and, with a sidewise shake of the head, and a look which says, How can you be so faithless? makes me ashamed of my doubts.

I cut the thick skin, which easily falls apart and discloses the luscious quarters, plump, juicy, and waiting to melt in the mouth. I look for a moment at the rich pulp in its soft incasement, and then try a delicious morsel. I nod. My gardener again shrugs his shoulders, with a slight smile, as much as to say, It could not be otherwise, and is evidently delighted to have me enjoy his fruit. I fill capacious pockets with the choicest; and, if I have friends with me, they do the same. I give our silent but most expressive entertainer half a franc, never more; and he always seems surprised at the size of the largesse. We exhaust his basket, and he proposes to get more.

When I am alone, I stroll about under the heavily-laden trees, and pick up the largest, where they lie thickly on the ground, liking to hold them in my hand and feel the agreeable weight, even when I can carry away no more. The gardener neither follows nor watches me; and I think perhaps knows, and is not stingy about it, that more valuable to me than the oranges I eat or take away are those on the trees among the shining leaves. And perhaps he opines that I am from a country of snow and ice, where the year has six hostile months, and that I have not money enough to pay for the rich possession of the eye, the picture of beauty, which I take with me.

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