Near the banks of the river Arno, in an upper room of the beautiful old palace of the Grifoni family, Beppina, the twelve-year-old daughter of the Marchese, lay peacefully sleeping. In his own room across the hall from hers, Beppo, her twin brother, slept also, though it was already early dawn of Easter Saturday in the city of Florence, and both children had meant to be up before the sun, that no hour of the precious holiday should be lost in sleep.
It was the jingle of donkey bells and the sound of laughing voices in the street below her windows that at last roused Beppina. Though it was not yet light, the peasants were already pouring into the city from outlying villages and farms, bringing their families in donkey-carts or wagons drawn by sleek oxen, to enjoy the wonderful events which were to take place in the city on that holy day.
Beppina opened her great dark eyes and sat up in bed to listen. "I'm awake before Beppo," she whispered joyfully to herself. "I told him I should be first. I wonder what time it is!"
As if in answer to her question a distant clock struck five. "Five o'clock!" murmured Beppina, and, struggling to her knees in her great carved bed, she dipped a dainty finger in the vase of holy water which hung on the wall near by, and crossed herself devoutly. Then, folding her hands, she murmured an Ave Maria before the image of the Virgin which stood on the little table beside her bed. This duty done, she slid to the floor, thrust her little white feet into a pair of blue felt slippers, and her arms into the sleeves of a gay wrapper, then ran across the room to the eastern windows.
As she pushed open the shutters, a gleam of sunshine flashed across the room, lighting the dim frescoes on the high ceiling, and paling the light of the little lamp which burned before the image of the Madonna. A wandering breeze, fresh from the distant hills, blew in, making the flame dance and flicker and flaunting a corner of the white counterpane gayly in the air.
Beppina leaned her arms on the wide stone window-sill, and looked out over Florence. The sun had just risen above the blue crest of the Apennines, its level rays tipping the Campanile and the great dome of the Cathedral with light, and turning eastern window-panes into flaming beacons. The glowing color of the sky was reflected in the waters of the Arno, which flowed beneath its many bridges like a stream of molten gold. Pigeons wheeled and circled above the roofs, and the air was filled with gentle croonings and the whir of wings.
For a moment Beppina stood drinking in the freshness of the lovely spring morning, then, stepping softly to the door of her room, she opened it cautiously and peered into the dark corridor. She listened; there was not a sound in the house except the gurgle of a distant snore.
"Ah, that Teresina!" murmured Beppina to herself. "She sleeps like a kettle boiling! First the lid rattles, then there is a whistle like the steam. Why does she not put corks in her nose at night and shut the noise up inside of her?"
She slipped silently into the hall and listened at the door of Beppo's room. She heard no sound, and was just on the point of turning the knob, when the door flew open of itself and a boy with great dark eyes like her own burst into the corridor and bumped directly into her. Beppina backed hastily against the wall, and though the breath was nearly knocked out of her, remembered to offer him her Easter greetings.
"Buona Pasqua, Beppo mio," she gasped. "I was just going to wake you."
"To wake me!" Beppo shouted derisively. "That's a good joke. I'm up first, just as I said I should be! See, I am all dressed, and you—you have not even begun!"
Beppina laid her finger on her lips. "Hush, Beppo!" she whispered. "Don't roar so. It's only five o'clock, and every one else in the house is asleep. Not even the maids have stirred, and as for Teresina—listen to her! She sleeps like the dead, though less quietly, yet she rouses at once if the baby stirs, and if we should wake the baby at this hour, she would be angry at us all day long."
They listened for a moment to the appalling sounds which rolled forth from the room where Teresina, the nurse, slept. Then Beppo said: "If the baby can sleep through that noise, she can sleep through anything. It sounds like a thunder-storm in the mountains."
At that moment a wicked idea popped into his head. "I know what I'm going to do," he whispered, grinning with delight. "I'm going to creep into her room like a cat and drop something into her mouth. She sleeps with it open, and I have a piece of soap just the right size!"
"Beppo!" gasped Beppina. "Don't you dare! Teresina would then refuse to take us to the piazza, and you know very well there is no one else to go with us, for the governess had a headache last night and went to bed looking as yellow as saffron."
"Oh, but just think how funny Teresina would look, choking and sputtering like a volcano pouring forth fire, smoke, and lava," chuckled Beppo, who was studying geography and liked it much better than Beppina did.
"If you do it you'll just have to spend Easter Saturday in the house and miss all the fun," warned Beppina. "Mammina would not let us go with any of the other servants."
"I don't see why she won't let us go alone," said Beppo crossly. "I hate to go out on the street with Teresina all dressed up in her ruff and streamers so people will know she's a baby nurse. I'm big enough to go by myself!"
Beppina looked despairingly at her brother. "Oh, dear!" she said, "I wish Mammina had taken us with her to the villa instead of leaving us to go later with Teresina and the governess, when she has everything ready for us. I wouldn't mind missing Easter Saturday here if only we could be up at the villa."
"Or if only our dear Babbo had not had to go away to Rome," added Beppo gloomily. "He would have taken us with him to see all the Easter sights, and no thanks to Teresina either!"
"But they did go, both of them," sighed Beppina. "So it's Teresina or stay at home for us, and I'm sure I don't want to stay at home!"
Beppo thrust his hands into his pockets, hunched up his shoulders, and looked so gloomy and obstinate that Beppina saw something must be done at once. "Oh, pazienza, Beppo mio!" she said, giving him a little shake. "It might be worse surely. Come, let's go down to the garden and feed the pigeons. You get the crumbs while I dress."
"Hurry, then," said Beppo, brightening a little, as Beppina flung him a butterfly kiss and ran back to her room. She threw on her clothes in two minutes, fastened her long black hair with a hair-pin, and appeared again in the corridor just as Beppo returned from the kitchen with a pan of crumbs in his hand.
The two children then quietly opened the door which led from the Grifoni apartment into the public hall of the old palace and crept silently down the long, dark stone stairs to the ground floor, where Pietro, the porter, lived with his wife and six children. Pietro opened the door of his own apartment and stepped into the public hall just as the two dark figures came stealthily down the last flight. Beppo was certainly in a mood for mischief that morning, for when he saw Pietro he crept softly up behind him as he was buttoning the last button of his livery, and suddenly shouted "Boom!" right in his ear!
Pietro thought it was one of his own children who had played this saucy trick. "Santa Maria!" he cried, wheeling about with his hands out to catch and punish the offender. "Come here, thou thorn in the eye!" Then, as he saw the children of the Marchese grinning at him out of the shadows, his hand went up in a salute instead. "Buona Pasqua, Donna Beppina!" he cried, "and you too, Don Beppo! Why are you about at this hour in the morning scaring honest people out of their wits?"
"Buona Pasqua, Pietro," laughed the Twins. "We are going out in the garden, and we want you to open the door for us."
No one but the gardener and the members of the Grifoni family ever went into the garden, which lay at the back of the palace, for the tenants who occupied other portions of the ancient building were not allowed to use it, and the Marchese Grifoni lived in Florence only during the winter months. The rest of the year—and the children thought much the best part of it—was spent in their beautiful vine-covered villa in the hills near Padua.
Pietro selected a key from the jingling bunch which he carried at his belt, and opened the old carved door. It was a charming sight which greeted their eyes as the door swung back on its rusty hinges. The garden was small, with a high wall all about it, over which ivy spread a mantle of green. In the middle of the space a fountain splashed and bubbled, and the garden borders were gay with yellow daffodils, blue chicory, and white Florentine lilies. There were other delights also in the Grifoni garden, for in the fountain lived Garibaldi, a turtle of great age and dignity, and in the chinks of the walls were lizards which liked nothing better than to be tickled with straws as they lay basking in the sunshine.
The moment the children appeared, a cloud of pigeons swept down from the neighboring roofs and begged for food. Beppina held a piece of bread between her lips, and a fat pigeon with glistening purple feathers on his breast instantly lit upon her shoulder. He was followed by another and another, until she flung up her arms and sent them all skyward in a whirl of wings, only to return again a moment later to peck the morsel from her lips.
As she was playing in this way with the pigeons, she chanced to glance up at the windows of the porter's rooms which overlooked the garden. There, gazing wistfully out at them, were six pairs of eyes, belonging to Pietro's six children. Beppina waved her hand at them. "Come out!" she cried gayly, and, wild with delight at such an unheard-of privilege, the six came scrambling into the garden at once. There the eight children played with the pigeons in the sunshine, until in an unlucky moment Pietro's youngest baby fell into the fountain and was rescued, screaming with fright, by Beppina, who got her own dress quite wet in the process.
It was at this very moment, as luck would have it, that Teresina appeared in the doorway, her ruffled cap bristling and her hands upheld in horror at finding the children of the Marchese Grifoni playing in the sacred palace garden with the dirty little children of the porter's family.
"I have been looking everywhere for you," she said with freezing dignity. "The priest will soon be here to bless the house, and you, Signorina, are not half dressed, and besides, you are as wet as if you had been swimming in the fountain! What would the Signora say if she could see you now?" She glared at the six children of Pietro as she spoke, and they instantly scuttled back into their own quarters like mice who had seen the cat. Then she thumped majestically upstairs.
The children prepared to follow, but all the brightness had gone out of the morning, and they went slowly and sullenly. Though Teresina had a good heart, she had a sharp tongue, and the Twins had some reason for not loving her. It was now six months since she had first appeared before them, carrying a little red, wrinkled baby on a pillow, and had told them that it was their little new sister, and that now the Signora, their mother, would love the baby much better than she loved them, and she had laughed when she said it! Yes, believe it or not, she had laughed!
"Teresina is always spoiling things," said Beppo, kicking his feet against each step as he began to climb the stairs.
"Che, che!" said Beppina, which is Italian for "tut, tut." "After all, it is quite true that we must be ready for the priest. What would Mammina say if she knew we were wet and dirty when he came?"
Beppo's face broke suddenly into a beaming smile. "I know what I'll do!" he cried, and disappeared into the garden again. In a moment he came back, carrying some water from the fountain in an old flower-pot, and went bounding upstairs two steps at a time, slopping it all the way. Beppina followed breathlessly, and reached the top step just in time to see that bad boy give a vigorous pull at the bell.
There was a scrambling sound within before the door was thrown open by Teresina, who, supposing it to be the priest, had instantly called the other servants and flopped down upon her knees to receive his blessing, and the sprinkling of holy water which always accompanied it. Behind Teresina knelt Maria, the cook, and Antonia, the house-maid, with their hands clasped and their heads reverently bent, and it was only when they had all received a generous dose of water which was not at all holy that they raised their heads and saw the grinning face of Beppo and the empty flower-pot in his hand. Teresina started wrathfully to her feet, and if the real priest had not been heard coming up the stairs at that moment things might have gone badly with Beppo. As it was, the real priest followed the bogus one so quickly that there was just time for the children to slip to their knees before Padre Ugo, who was short, fat, and breathless, entered, followed by an acolyte carrying the vessel of holy water.
Padre Ugo was in a tremendous hurry, for he had many other places to visit that morning. He fairly ran through the rooms, sprinkling each with a dash of holy water, mumbling a prayer and raising his hand in blessing, then racing on to the next, with all the household trailing behind him like the tail of a kite. He blessed the kitchen and pantries, he even blessed the cat which was washing her face by the kitchen range. Not being a religious cat, she put up her tail and fled into the coal-hole, where she stayed until the priest had gone.
The only room in the whole house to be missed was the one occupied by the governess. That poor lady had locked herself in with her headache, and she was a Protestant besides, so that room had to go unblessed the whole year through.
When Padre Ugo had gone, Teresina was obliged to give her whole attention to the baby, and it was not until she and the Twins were ready for the street that at last she said stiffly to Beppo, "To-morrow morning, Don Beppo, you will find that the hares have left no Easter eggs in the garden for such a naughty boy as you."