Not many miles outside the city of Florence, in the fertile valley of the Arno, there is a little village called Bagno a Ripoli. Here, many, many years ago, there lived in one of the poorest of the village houses a little girl called Domenica. Her father and mother were poor contadini or peasants, who worked in the fields all day, and the little Domenica early learned to take care of herself during the long hours she was left alone. Her mother knew it was not likely she would come to any harm, although she was but five years old, for she was a wise little maid and seldom got into any mischief. She would play about the house or go out to gather flowers in the fields when the sun was not too hot, and when she was hungry she knew where to get the slice of good black bread and handful of fruit which had been put aside for her dinner.
Domenica never thought about being lonely. Her head was always full of busy thoughts and plans. And then, too, the picture of the Madonna and Gesu Bambino always seemed to keep her company. It hung high up on the wall of the little room, and the lamp that hung before it threw a faint light upon the mother's face.
How Domenica wished that the picture hung lower down that she might see it better. Even when she climbed on the old wooden chair and stood on tiptoe, she could not see it clearly. The picture was blackened by smoke and age, and the light was so bad. She could see the sweet smile on the Madonna's face as she looked downwards, but the rest of the picture was dark, and Domenica could only just trace the faintest outline of the Holy Child.
But how she loved that picture! The Madonna and the Baby were her friends and companions all day long. Kneeling upon the wooden chair, she would tell all the thoughts that came into her head to the gentle mother, for she was never tired of listening, and always smiled so kindly and always understood.
Every morning the first thing Domenica loved to do was to wander out into the fields and gather flowers for her Madonna. There was a little shelf below the picture which she could just reach, and there, in an old cracked jug, she placed her offering. She was very particular which kind of flowers she gave to the Madonna, and if possible she always gathered a bunch of the small pink-tipped daisies. They were the flowers she loved best herself, and she was sure the Gesu Bambino must love them too, just as all babies did. They did not make a very grand show, for their stalks were often very short and they would not hold up their heads, but the Madonna knew the ways of daisies and would not need any excuses made for their waywardness.
It was just the one drawback to Domenica's happiness that the picture should hang so high, and every morning she told the Madonna how hard it was for her.
"My Lady," she said, looking up with folded hands, "thou art holding the Gesu Bambino in thy arms I know, but I cannot see Him at all. Thou art so kind and good, and thou knowest how much I long to see His face. Wilt thou not some day bend down and show Him to me, if I am very good?"
Her face grew very wistful as she prayed this prayer over and over again. It almost seemed as if the Madonna never meant to show her the Baby, for she never came nearer, and the shadow over the Bambino never lifted.
Domenica had gathered her daisies as usual one morning, and was playing quietly by herself in the little room, when a gentle knock sounded at the door.
She trotted across the floor and opened the door a very little way, and then peeped out to see who was there. She knew that it was not wise to open the door too far and allow any stranger to come in. A poor, tired-looking woman was standing on the doorstep, and wrapped in her old shawl was a little bundle which Domenica was sure must be a baby.
"May I come in and rest awhile?" the woman asked, and she smiled at the little eager face peeping through the half-open door. "The sun is very hot and I cannot find shade in which to rest."
"Come in, come in," said Domenica, opening the door quite wide. "Come in and rest."
She dragged forward the wooden chair and smiled a shy smile of welcome as the poor woman sat wearily down and began to undo the little bundle wrapped in her shawl. Domenica loved babies, and she stood watching with intense interest while the shawl was being unfolded. Then the woman spoke again.
"We have come a long weary way," she said, "and have tasted nothing to-day. I would be very grateful for a mouthful of bread, and the baby too is hungry. For the love of the Gesu Bambino, little maid, give us something to eat."
"You shall have my dinner," said Domenica joyfully. "How glad I am that I have not eaten it yet."
She ran to the cupboard and reached down the thick slice of black bread, and brought too the bunch of sweet white grapes, which had been set aside for her by her careful mother that morning.
"It is all I have," said Domenica; "but how I wish there was some milk for the bambino."
"Thou hast given us all thy dinner, little one," said the woman very gently; "thou couldst not do more. But if I might have a drink of cool water from the well, it would do instead of milk."
The copper water-pot was heavy to carry, but Domenica struggled bravely with it down the path to the spring close by, and before very long came panting back with as much of the water as had not been spilt by the way. She put the pot down on the floor and then stood upright to take a long breath.
But what was it that had made the little room suddenly so bright, brighter even than the sunshine outside? Domenica gazed at the mother and child. A soft, bright light shone round the mother's head, and a still brighter light made a circle round the head of the sleeping baby. Domenica caught her breath almost with a sob of fear, but the mother stretched out her hand and drew the little one close to her knee.
"Dost thou not know me, little maid?" she asked.
And Domenica, looking up, was afraid no longer. It was her own Madonna who was looking down so kindly at her.
"I have come to grant thy prayer and to show thee my Baby," said the gentle voice again. "But first I had to prove if thou wert worthy. Thou hast given thine all for the love of the Gesu Bambino, and now thou shalt look upon His face."
Then the Mother folded back the shawl, and Domenica, with hands clasped tight together, bent over and looked with all her heart in her eyes.
"He is more beautiful even than I thought He could be," she whispered, "but, my Lady, tell me why He is so small."
"He is small because the love for Him in thy heart is still but small," said the Mother gently. "As thy love grows bigger, He will grow too."
Domenica knelt down and pressed closer to the Madonna's knee.
"Now that thou hast indeed come, thou wilt not take the Bambino away again," she said. "Or if thou must go, take me with thee that I may be always near Him."
But the Madonna shook her head.
"I cannot take thee now," she said, "and I must not stay. But some day thou shalt see Him again. If the love grows ever greater in thy heart, if thou wilt learn to do His work here, to care for His little ones, the poor, the sick and the sorrowful, for His dear sake, then thou wilt always belong to Him, and by-and-bye, when He is ready, He will return and take thee home where thou wilt ever be near Him."
The tears had gathered in Domenica's brown eyes, and for a moment everything looked dim. Then she quickly raised her hand to brush the tears away, that she might look once more on the face of the little sleeping Child.
But the room was dim again. There was no one sitting in the old wooden chair by which she knelt. High above her the lamp cast its light on the pictured Madonna, and the heavy shadow lay dark as ever over the outline of the Gesu Bambino.
Domenica knelt on there, gazing at the empty chair, the tears all dried, and her eyes shining like two stars. She had seen the Christ-child, and that vision would never again fade from her heart.
In after years, when she told this wonderful story, people asked her reverently to tell them what He looked like as He lay upon His Mother's knee. But Domenica would only shake her head and say she could not tell. There were no earthly words that could describe the beauty of that face. But perhaps the look on her own face, and the wonderful light that came into her eyes when she spoke of the vision, told more than words could have done.
She grew to be a great saint, this little Domenica, and in the convent where she went to serve her Lord they called her "The heavenly sister." Then when her work on earth was done she saw once more the vision of the Lord she loved. Not this time did He come as a tiny, helpless Baby, but in the fulness of His strength, just as the love for Him had grown great in her heart. Did she know Him again? Ah! yes. The look that she had seen in the face of the Gesu Bambino had never faded from her memory, and she knew Him at once, knew that He had come to fulfil the promise made on that sunny morning years ago when He lay a helpless Baby in His Mother's arms—"He will return and take thee home where thou wilt ever be near Him."