Gateway to the Classics: Legends and Stories of Italy by Amy Steedman
Legends and Stories of Italy by  Amy Steedman

The Angels' Robe

"Why art thou crying, bambina mia?" asked the grandmother kindly as Angelina crept close to the old woman's chair and hid her little wet face in the rough woollen skirt. "Ah! but I can guess without any words. It is hard, is it not, to be left at home to look after little Giovanino and the old grandmother, while all the rest have gone to the great city to see the festa. And it is hard, too, never to have a pair of shoes or a bright new handkerchief nor any pretty necklace such as other little maidens wear."

"O Nonna," said Angelina, lifting her tear-stained face, "how canst thou know it all? I think the blessed saints must tell thee all my secrets."

The old woman smiled and stroked the little brown head.

"It needs no telling to guess such things," she said. "It needs but the old memory of what another little girl used to feel to make me understand what goes on in thy little head. See here, bring thy stool and sit down close to me, and while the bambinetto sleeps so soundly in his cradle I will tell thee a story with a wonderful secret which will help thee to bear all thy troubles.

"It was in this very village and in this very house that there lived, long years ago, a little maid, whose name, like thine, was Angelina. She was but eight years old when she learned the wonderful secret of which I shall tell thee, so thou seest she was not very old and could not yet have been very wise.

"She was not much like her name, this little Angelina. When we think of angels we picture them tall and beautiful, with golden hair and wearing wonderful robes of white, while Angelina was short and square, with dark, straight hair and a little round face, which, though it looked honest and pleasant, could never be called beautiful. And then her clothes! How unlike they were to the white robes of the angels which one sees in the holy pictures. She had, like thee, an old blue petticoat faded into so pale a colour, that only the patches showed how gay the blue had once been. Her camicetta had all its red washed out, so that it only kept the faint colour of the apricot, and the old orange handkerchief which she tied over her dark hair was little more than a rag.

"And if there was one thing more than another that Angelina loved and longed for, it was to have fine clothes. Once or twice since she had grown old enough for the walk, she had gone with her father to the distant town, built high up on the hill. She had trotted along the winding white road and climbed up to the city gates and entered what seemed to her a paradise.

"For there, in the churches, she saw wonderful pictures of blue-robed Madonnas, and angels with gold-embroidered robes. And almost better still, she would catch glimpses of noble ladies as they came out of their palaces and stepped into their carriages. How her eyes would shine at the sight of the flowing silks, rich velvets, and dainty lace. She felt as if she had had a glimpse of heaven. Of course all these soft, fine garments of wondrous colour were only fit for noble ladies—for the Madonna and holy angels. But oh! how she longed sometimes, when she sat at home sewing a new patch on the old blue petticoat, for something new and bright. If she could have even a new handkerchief, or a little necklace such as Margherita who lived next door so proudly wore on Sundays! The envious tears filled Angelina's eyes when she thought of Margherita, who wore shoes on festa days and carried a white handkerchief with her prayer-book when she went to Mass.

"It always made the child cross and impatient when such thoughts filled her head, and one day she had even slapped Tommaso's little chubby hands when in his play he had torn the yellow handkerchief off her head and made another rent in the faded border. But when he sobbed with hurt feelings and smarting knuckles she took him in her arms and comforted him again, for she was really a kind-hearted little maid. Then she told him stories of all the grand times that were coming, when she would have as many gay silk handkerchiefs as she wanted, and he should have a little green hat with a long red feather and a golden clasp.

"The children always loved to listen to Angelina's stories. She seemed to open a little door and take them into a beautiful new world where every one wore gay clothes and splendid jewels, where the children played with golden toys, and the Madonna and saints looked on with the shining halos round their heads.

" 'Where dost thou fill thy head with all that nonsense?' her mother would ask. 'Come, there is no time for idle tales, when so much work is waiting to be done.'

"There was, indeed, little time for idling now that Angelina was old enough to help in the house. There was Tommaso to be washed and dressed and kept out of mischief, the baby to be carried about until he slept, and the sheep to be tended on the hillside and led safely home at night.

"Then came a day when there was quite a stir in the village, and Angelina came home at dusk breathless with the news she had to tell.

"The great lord who owned the castle close by was coming home, they said, and would bring with him a beautiful young bride. Many gay nobles and ladies would also come in his train, and the procession would pass close to the village next day. It was to be a great festa for every one, and already they were beginning to weave garlands of flowers and green leaves.

" 'Well,' said Angelina's mother, when she heard the great news, 'thou hast been a good child of late, and to-morrow thou shalt have a whole holiday to see the show.'

"The little maid could scarcely sleep that night, her head was so full of pleasure and excitement. There was only one little cloud to shadow her happiness. If only she had something gay to wear, something that would show it was a festa day! But all the wishing in the world wouldn't buy her a new handkerchief or take away the patches on her petticoat, so she tried not to think of it, and by-and-bye she fell asleep.

"The next day she woke very early and crept quietly out of doors before any one was awake. What if it should be raining! But no, the sun was beginning to rise clear and bright and the mists were rolling back. All was fair for the great holiday.

"Angelina's little bare feet danced along with joy as she went down the path and scrambled up the banks in search of wild flowers. Before long she had filled her hands with sweet violets and sat down contentedly to tie them into bunches. There was no need to hurry home, for this was a holiday, and there was no work to do.

"But presently she heard her mother call to her, and she went quickly towards the house, for the voice sounded sharp and troubled.

" 'Where hast thou been, child?' said her mother, who sat rocking the baby in her arms and looking down at it with an anxious face. 'I have been calling and calling for thee. The little one is ill, I fear. See how hot and flushed he is, and I cannot stop his wailing. Thou must go off to the town as fast as thy feet can carry thee. I have no one else to send. The good doctor there will give thee the medicine he needs.'

" 'O mother,' burst from Angelina's lips, 'but this is the festa day, and I was to have a holiday to see the grand procession of lords and ladies.'

" 'I wish thou hadst a wiser head, and cared less for gay sights and grand clothes,' said her mother sharply. 'But to-day there can be no holiday for thee. Thou must be gone at once, and even so thou wilt scarcely be back before nightfall, the way is so long. But see that thou dost not linger and that the medicine is carried carefully home.'

"Angelina did not answer, but listened silently while her mother gave her the directions how to find the doctor when once she should reach the town. Then she turned obediently and began to go down the steep mountain path that led to the high-road below.

"But though she seemed so quiet and obedient, her heart was full of bitter disappointment and angry thoughts.

"As long as she was in sight of the little house she walked swiftly on, but by-and-bye, when she reached the white, dusty high-road, her feet began to drag slowly along until at last she stopped and sat down on the grass at the wayside.

"It really was very hard that the baby should fall ill that one day of all others. It was very hard that she must fetch the medicine. It was very hard that she should never have a holiday, but always work from morning until night, and have such poor clothes to wear.

"The sun was shining brightly now, but there was no sunshine in Angelina's face. A sullen, dark cloud had gathered there. She pushed the white dust to and fro with her little brown toes, and then began to make now a round O, now a cross with her great toe, as if that was the most important work in the world.

" 'I wish,' she went on, muttering gloomily to herself, 'I wish I had a pair of shoes. When I am always sent so far to fetch whatever is needed, it wears out all the soles of my feet.'

"She stopped drawing crosses and turned up one foot to see if there were any holes or worn-out places. It was quite a disappointment to find the sole as hard and firm as a piece of tanned leather.

"Then a gentler look began to steal over the sullen little face, and she looked soberly down at the crosses in the dust. They reminded her of the words of the kind old priest when he had explained to her the meaning of a cross and had bidden her always try to do her duty as cheerfully as possible. In a moment the clouds broke and the sunshine once more shone in Angelina's eyes.

" 'To think,' she said, 'that I should care more for fine sights than the poor bambinetto! But he shall have his medicine now as quickly as I can fetch it.'

"She started at a steady trot along the road, eager to make up for lost time, and thinking only now of the sick baby and poor, anxious mother at home. She had many a mile to go before she came to the hill on which the town was built, and then there was a weary climb before she reached the city gates. The little maid was indeed very hot and very tired by the time she had done her mother's bidding and could turn her face homewards carrying the precious medicine bottle rolled up safely in her apron. She never stopped to look at the shops or the gay crowds to-day, but as she passed a little quiet church she slipped in and knelt for a moment in a dim corner before her favourite picture of the Madonna and white-robed angels.

"Very carefully then she unwrapped the precious little bottle from her apron and held it out in both hands.

" 'Mary Mother,' she prayed, 'for the sake of the Gesu Bambino, bless our bambinetto and grant that this medicine may make him better.'

"The Madonna looked down with such kind eyes that Angelina was sure that all would be well, and it was with a happy heart that she left the church and started on her homeward way.

"The sun was beginning to set when at last Angelina came in sight of the little village and turned from the high-road to climb the mountain pathway. She was very tired, and just then she knocked her foot against a great stone that lay in the way. The pain was sharp, and she stopped for a moment to rest by the roadside to rub the place that hurt so badly.

"She was bending down to touch the foot just to see how much it was hurt when something bright caught her eye shining there in the dust. It was something that shone as brightly as a star. She stretched out her hand and lifted it up and then gave a cry of surprise and delight. It was a beautiful gold brooch set with shining jewels. The light that looked like a star came from the white stone in the middle, and round it was a circle of stones blue as the summer sky.

"For a moment Angelina gazed at the beautiful thing lying in her hand, as if she could not believe it was real. She rubbed her eyes to be sure she was awake and not dreaming. Then she looked upwards as if she thought it must have fallen from the sky. Surely such a beautiful thing could not belong to earth?

"Then in a moment she guessed where it had come from. There were marks of carriage wheels and many feet in the white dust of the high-road. The lords and ladies had surely passed by that way, and one of the beautiful ladies must have dropped this treasure.

"But even as these thoughts came rushing through her mind, her hand closed tightly over the brooch. She knew that it did not belong to her, and that she must at once show it to her mother, and then take it to the old priest, who would return it to the beautiful lady.

"But oh! if only she might keep it, just for a few hours. It could do no harm if she hid it for one night and looked at it once more in the morning. The longer she looked at it the more she felt that she could not part with it at once, and so at last she pinned it inside a fold of her camicetta, and when it was quite hidden she got up and limped slowly home.

"The mother was standing watching for the child as Angelina came up the path.

" 'Thou art a good little messenger,' she said, 'and hast done thine errand quickly. After all, though, there was no need for such great haste, for the little one is better.'

" 'Ah!' said Angelina, 'I knew the Madonna would not forget him.'

"Then she stopped, and a troubled look came into her eyes. Somehow she felt ashamed to think of the kind, gentle look upon the Madonna's face. Would the Madonna smile upon her so kindly now?

" 'Thou art tired, child,' said her mother; 'come in and rest. I have saved thy dinner for thee.'

"But Angelina was not very hungry and did not seem inclined to rest.

" 'The walk has overtired thee,' said her mother kindly. 'Go now to bed and sleep soundly until the morning.'

"Angelina crept into bed and shut her eyes as if she were asleep. But her head was full of busy thoughts. She had slipped the wonderful brooch under her pillow and lay holding it with one little hot hand. Would the Madonna and the Gesu Bambino be angry with her for hiding this treasure? But whatever happened she could not part with it. She thought if she might only keep it she would never be unhappy again. What did it matter if her clothes were old and patched and she had no shoes, if only she might always keep the beautiful brooch. So at last she fell asleep dreaming of stars that shone in a blue sky.

"Next morning she woke with the remembrance that something wonderful had happened. Then she quickly thrust her hand under her pillow to feel if the brooch were really there. She dared scarcely look at it, but once more pinned it carefully in the folds of her dress and went softly out of doors.

"When she reached the shelter of the olive-trees and had seated herself behind one of the old, gnarled grey trunks, she felt at last that it was safe to take out her treasure. Oh, how beautiful it was! Almost more beautiful in the clear morning light than she had dreamed it could be. She held it up to catch the sunbeams that came sliding through the silver screen of the olive leaves, then she pinned it in the front of her old red camicetta, and sat silent with clasped hands and burning cheeks.

"What visions of splendour filled her head. She was no longer a little, ragged, bare-footed child sitting in an olive wood, but a grand lady in a flowing silken gown and scarlet pointed shoes. All around her were other gay ladies, but they all looked with envy upon her, and pointed at the wonderful star with its circle of blue, which shone upon her breast.

"But there was not much time for day-dreams, and soon the brooch was hidden away again and Angelina went back to her work. Strange to say, she did not feel as happy as usual that day. Nothing seemed to go well. She was impatient with the children and careless about her work, which made her mother scold. But worst of all was the strange, frightened feeling that seemed to choke her when she saw the old priest come slowly up the path towards the house. How glad she had always been to see him before. Why was it that now she only wished she might run away, and hide her burning cheeks?

"Even before the old man began to speak she guessed why he had come. But she listened eagerly while he told her mother how one of the ladies at the castle had lost a valuable brooch and how it was thought it might be lying along the road. Of course, if any one found it, they would bring it at once to him, but he wanted all the children to look carefully for it.

" 'The little ones have such sharp eyes,' he said. And then patting Angelina's head he added, 'And this little maid has, I know, a special eye for beautiful things.'

"Then he asked how little Giovannino fared, and smiled down very kindly on Angelina when he heard the tale of her lost holiday and the long walk to fetch the medicine.

" 'There is a special blessing on feet that cheerfully run errands for others,' he said. 'I think the angels make golden shoes for such little feet.'

"But Angelina's heart was heavy, and the kindly words of the old priest only seemed to make her more unhappy. If his eyes could but see what was hidden in the folds of her dress, would he still look so kindly on her?

"There was much talk among the village folk about the missing brooch. They searched for it high and low, but not a trace of it could be found. Often when she listened to the talk Angelina's little guilty heart would thump so loudly that she wondered every one around her did not hear the beating noise.

"She scarcely dared take the beautiful thing out now to look at it, and she almost began to wish she had never seen it. Night after night she sobbed herself to sleep, and those tears seemed gradually to wash away all the longing to keep the forbidden treasure.

"Then at last she could bear it no longer, and very early one morning, before the village was astir, she found her way to the old priest's house. She waited patiently outside the door until the church bell began to ring, and then she saw him come out and cross the path towards the church.

"At first the old man did not notice the child, but presently a gentle pull at his cassock made him look down.

" 'Why, what is the matter, little one?' he said. 'Is the bambinetto ill again?'

"But Angelina only shook her head. She was sobbing so bitterly that she could not speak.

" 'Come and tell me all about it,' said the kind old voice, and he took her hand and led her back into the house.

"It was a long story and Angelina could not tell it very clearly, but the old priest understood. He took the brooch from the little trembling hand and locked it carefully away. Then he sat looking at the child with grave, kind eyes.

" 'Ah,' he said, 'thou hast learned the lesson that fine things cannot make thee happy, and an honest and clear conscience is worth all the jewels in the world. It matters but little if we wear old and patched earthly garments, if only our heavenly robe is kept pure and stainless. But now as thou hast done thy best to right the wrong, I will not punish thee. Only remember the lesson thou hast learnt.'

"What a different world it seemed to Angelina as she knelt in the quiet little church that sunny morning listening to the old priest's voice as he chanted the service. She was no longer ashamed to think of the Madonna and the holy angels. It seemed as if a dark cloud had been rolled away.

"And then as she knelt a strange thing happened.

"She thought one of those same white-robed angels stood at her side, and bending down gently took her hand and led her up a flight of golden steps until they came to a shining room. There other angels sat at work, and before them lay a beautiful shining white robe, sewed with pearls and precious jewels, more exquisite than anything Angelina had ever dreamed of. And as she gazed spell-bound one of the angels put beside it a pair of little golden shoes.

" 'These are for the little feet that are never too tired to run errands for others,' said the angel with a gentle smile.


" 'We have sewn her robe with every kind act and unselfish thought that we could gather,' said another, 'for we must make it fit to be worn in the presence of the King. But alas! there is here one stain we cannot cover.'

"Angelina hung her head and a great sob choked her, but the angel who held her hand looked down with a comforting smile.

" 'See,' the angel said, 'I have brought something that will quite cover the stain.'

"The angel held out an open hand, and there on the palm lay some wondrous gleaming pearls, large enough to cover the ugly mark upon the robe.

" 'Tears of repentance and sorrow,' said the angel; 'the robe is not spoilt after all.'

"Then the vision faded and Angelina found she was kneeling in the church and the service was ended.

"But she never forgot the secret of that heavenly robe. What did it matter now if she had only old worn clothes and a faded handkerchief? Her robe was in the angels' keeping, and her only care would be to see that nothing should ever again stain its pure beauty."

The old grandmother's voice ceased, and little Angelina looked up with an awed light in her eyes.

"Of course, after she saw the angels' robe she would never care if her petticoat was old and her feet were bare," she said thoughtfully.

"No," said her grandmother, "for she knew that some day she would wear those golden shoes."

"And was she very, very careful never to stain the robe again?" asked Angelina.

A sad look came into the old grandmother's eyes.

"She tried her very best," she said, "but I fear there were many stains that spoilt the angels' work."

"But there would always be the sorry tears to cover them," said Angelina, "and the kind angel would gather them safely as they fell."

"Ah, yes," said the grandmother softly, "thou art right, little one. There is no white robe that is not sewn with pearls."

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