T he piazza or square in front of the Cathedral was the only open space in which the children of Spinalunga had room to play. Spinalunga means a Long Spine or Ridge of rock, and the castello or little walled town which bore that name was built on the highest peak of the ridge, inside strong brown stone walls with square towers. So rough and steep was this portion of the ridge that the crowded houses, with their red roofs and white gables, were piled up one behind another, and many of the streets were narrow staircases, climbing up between the houses to the blue sky.
On the top the hill was flat, and there the Cathedral stood, and from her niche above the great west entrance the beautiful statue of the Madonna with the Babe in her arms looked across the square, and over the huddled red roofs, and far away out to the hills and valleys with their evergreen oaks and plantations of grey olives, and bright cornfields and vineyards.
On three sides the town was sheltered by hills, but a very deep ravine separated them from the ridge, so that on those three sides it was impossible for an enemy to attack the town. On the nearest hills great pine woods grew far up the slopes, and sheltered it from the east winds which blew over the snowy peaks.
Now on the southern side of the square stood the houses of the Syndic and other wealthy citizens, with open colonnades of carved yellow stone; and all about the piazza at intervals there were orange-trees and pomegranates, growing in huge jars of red earthenware.
This had been the children's playground as long as any one could remember, but in the days of the blessed Frate Agnolo the Syndic was a grim, childless, irascible old man, terribly plagued with gout, which made him so choleric that he could not endure the joyous cries and clatter of the children at their play. So at last in his irritation he gave orders that, if the children must play at all, it would have to be in their own dull narrow alleys paved with hard rock, or outside beyond the walls of the castello. For their part the youngsters would have been glad enough to escape into the green country among the broom and cypress, the red snap-dragon and golden asters and blue pimpernels, but these were wild and dangerous times, and at any moment a troop of Free-lances from Pisa or a band of Lucchese raiders might have swept down and carried them off into captivity.
They had therefore to sit about their own doors, and the piazza of the Cathedral became strangely silent in the summer evenings, and there was a feeling of dullness and discontent in the little town. Never a whit better off was the Syndic, for he was now angry with the stillness and the deserted look of the square.
In the midst of this trouble the blessed Brother Agnolo came down from his hermitage among the pine woods, and when he heard of what had taken place, he went straightway to the Syndic and took him to task, with soft and gracious words.
"Messer Gianni, pain I know will often take all sweetness out of the temper of a man, but in this you are not doing well. There is no child in Spinalunga but would readily forego all his happy play to give you ease and solace, but in this way they cannot help you. By sending them away you do but cloud their innocent lives, and you are yourself none the better for their absence. Were it not wiser for you to seek to distract yourself in their harmless merry-making? I may well think that you have never watched them at their sports; but if you will bid them come back to-day, and will but walk a little way with me, you shall see that which shall give you content and delight so great, that never again will you wish to banish them, but will rather pray to have their companionship at all times."
Now the Frate so prevailed on the Syndic that he gave consent, and bade all the children, lass and lad, babe and prattler, come to the square for their games as they used to do. And leaning with one hand on his staff, and with the other on the shoulder of Brother Agnolo, he moved slowly through the fruit-trees in the great jars to the steps of the Cathedral.
Suddenly the joy-bells began to ring, and the little people came laughing and singing and shouting from the steep streets and staircases and alleys, and they raced and danced into the piazza like Springtime let loose, and they chased each other, and caught hands and played in rings, and swarmed among the jars, as many and noisy as swallows when they gather for their flight over sea in the autumn-tide.
"Look well, Messer Gianni," said the Frate, "and perceive who it is that shares their frolics."
As the Brother spoke the eyes of the Syndic were opened; and there, with each little child, was his Angel, clothed in white, and white-winged; and as the little folk contended together, their Angels contended with each other; and as they ran and danced and sang, so ran and danced and sang their Angels. Which was the laughter of the children, and which that of the Angels, the Syndic could not tell; and when the plump two-year-olds tottered and tumbled, their Angels caught them and saved them from hurt; and even if they did weep and make a great outcry, it was because they were frightened, not because they were injured, and straightway they had forgotten what ailed them and were again merrily trudging about.
In the midst of this wonderful vision of young Angels and bright-eyed children mingling so riotously together, the Syndic heard an inexpressibly joyous laugh behind him. Turning his head, he saw that it was the little marble Babe in the arms of the Madonna. He was clapping his hands, and had thrown back his head against his mother's bosom in sudden delight.
Did the Syndic truly see this? He was certain he did—for a moment; and yet in that same moment he knew that the divine Babe was once more a babe of stone, with its sweet grave face and unconscious eyes; and when the Syndic turned again to watch the children, it was only the children he saw; the Angels were no longer visible.
"It is not always given to our sinful eyes to see them," said Brother Agnolo, answering the Syndic's thought, "but whether we see them or see them not, always they are there."
Now it was in the autumn of the same year that the fierce captain of Free-lances, the Condottiere Ghino, appeared one moonlight night before the gates of Spinalunga, and bade the guard open in the name of Pisa.
As I have said, the little hill-town could only be attacked on the western side, on account of the precipitous ravine which divided it from the hills; but the ridge before the gate was crowded with eight hundred horsemen and two thousand men-at-arms clamouring to be admitted. Nothing daunted, the garrison on the square towers cried back a defiance; the war-bell was sounded; and the towns-people, men and women, hurried down to defend the walls.
After the first flight of arrows and quarrels the Free-lances fell back out of bowshot, and encamped for the night, but the hill-men remained on the watch till daybreak. Early in the morning Ghino himself rode up the ascent with a white flag, and asked for a parley with the Syndic.
"We are from Pisa," said the Condottiere; "Florence is against us; this castello we must hold for our safety. If with your goodwill, well and good!"
"We are bound by our loyalty to Florence," replied the Syndic briefly.
"The sword cuts all bonds," said the Free-lance, with a laugh; "but we would gladly avoid strife. Throw in your lot with us. All we ask is a pledge that in the hour of need you will not join Florence against us."
"What pledge do you ask?" inquired the Syndic.
"Let twenty of your children ride back with us to Pisa," said the Free-lance.
"These shall answer for your fidelity. They shall be cherished and well cared for during their sojourn."
Who but Messer Gianni was the angry man on hearing this?
"Our children!" he cried; "are we, then, slaves, that we must needs send you our little ones as hostages? Guards, here! Shoot me down this brigand who bids me surrender your children to him!"
Bolts flew whizzing from the cross-bows; the Free-lance shook his iron gauntlet at the Syndic, and galloped down the ridge unharmed. The Syndic forgot his gout in his wrath, and bade the hill-men hold their own till their roofs crumbled about their ears.
Then began a close siege of the Castello; but on the fourth day Frate Agnolo passed boldly through the lines of the enemy, and was admitted through the massive stone gateway which was too narrow for the entrance of either cart or waggon. Great was the joy of the hill-men as the Brother appeared among them. He, they knew, would give them wise counsel and stout aid in the moment of danger.
When they told him of the pledge for which the besiegers asked, he only smiled and shook his head. "Be of good cheer," he said, "God and His Angels have us in their keeping."
Thoughtfully he ascended the steep streets to the piazza, and, entering the Cathedral, he remained there for a long while absorbed in prayer. And as he prayed his face brightened with the look of one who hears joyful news, and when he rose from his knees he went to the house of the Syndic, and spoke with him long and seriously.
The eight hundred horsemen turned in dismay.
At sunset that day a man-at-arms went forth from the gates of the castello with a white flag to the beleaguering lines, and demanded to be taken into the presence of the captain. To him he delivered this message from the Syndic: "To-morrow in the morning the gate of Spinalunga will be thrown open, and all the children of our town who are not halt or blind or ailing shall be sent forth. Come and choose the twenty you would have as hostages."
By the camp-fires that night the Free-lances caroused loud and long; but in the little hill-town the children slept sound while the men and women prayed with pale stern faces. An hour after midnight all the garrison from the towers and all the strong young men assembled in the square. They were divided into two bands, and were instructed to descend cautiously by rope-ladders into the ravine on the eastern side of the town. Thence without sound of tongue or foot they were to steal through the darkness till they had reached certain positions on the flanks of the besiegers, where they were to wait for the signal of onset. Frate Agnolo gave each of them his blessing, as one by one they slid over the wall on to the rope-ladders and disappeared in the blackness of the ravine. Noiselessly they marched under the walls of the town till they reached their appointed posts, and there they lay hidden in the woods till morning.
The Free-lances were early astir. As the first ray of golden light streamed over the pine woods on to the ridge and the valley, the bells of the Cathedral began to ring; the heavy gate of the castello was flung open, and the children trooped out laughing and gay, just as they had burst into the square a few months ago, for this, they were told, was to be a great feast and holiday. As they issued through the deep stone archway they filed to right or left, and drew up in long lines across the width of the ridge. Then raising their childish voices in a simple hymn, they all moved together down the rough slope to the lines of the besiegers. Brother Agnolo, holding a plain wooden cross high above his head, led the way, singing joyously.
It was a wonderful sight in the clear shining air of the hills, and hundreds of women weeping silently on the walls crowded together to watch it; and as they watched they held their breath, for suddenly in the golden light of the morning they saw that behind each child there was a great white-winged Angel with a fiery spear.
Then, as that throng of singing children and shining spirits swept down upon the Free-lances, a wild cry of panic arose from the camp. The eight hundred horsemen turned in dismay, and plunged through the ranks of the men-at-arms, and the mercenaries fell back in terror and confusion, striking each other down and trampling the wounded underfoot in their frantic efforts to escape. At that moment the hill-men who were lying in ambush on each flank bore down on the bewildered multitude, and hacked and hewed right and left till the boldest and hardiest of the horsemen broke and fled, leaving their dead and dying on the field.
So the little hill-town of Spinalunga was saved by the children and their Angels, and even to this day the piazza of the Cathedral is their very own playground, in which no one can prevent them from playing all the year round.