Up among the marble mountains of Carrara there are beautiful glens where many a little village clings to the side of the hills or nestles in the valley below. Lower down in these glens are fruitful vineyards and olive woods, while higher up the chestnuts and pine-trees grow, with little patches of cornfields between. But high and low there are always flowers springing up to make the world beautiful with their colours of purple, white, and gold.
It was in one of these little villages among the hills, nine miles north of the city of Lucca, that one of the fairest flowers in God's Garden blossomed long years ago. She was only a poor little peasant baby, born in a humble home, and she never became rich or grand or powerful. But the story of her life, laid by now and almost forgotten, has still the sweet perfume of those hidden flowers which never fade.
It was to a very poor home that little Zita came, poor at least as the world counts poverty. Her father and mother worked hard, but even then there was not always enough to eat, and in winter-time Zita was often cold and hungry. But there are other things that count more than gold, and the little home was rich in goodness and kindness and honesty. There was not a better man in all the countryside than the father, Giovanni Lombardo, and the mother, who was called Buonissima (which in Italian means very good), early taught her little daughter all that was good and true.
The child was easily trained, for she was so sweet-tempered and obedient and thoughtful for others. She was quick and merry too, and very helpful in the house. It was only when she knelt in church that she grew quiet and dreamy. She loved to think of the Gesu Bambino who was born in just such a poor little place as theirs, and of the years He walked on earth. She pictured Him going from one little village to another, helping all the poor people she knew, and then on to the great city below where rich and powerful people lived, who still needed His help. The charm of that life seemed to fill her whole heart.
The little mountain maidens very quickly leave their childhood behind and learn to be helpful women, and Zita was only twelve years old when she began to think it was time she should try to earn her own living. Her father worked so hard and her mother too. She could not bear to think that she was doing nothing, and she prayed that the good God would send her some work to do.
"Little daughter," said her mother that very day, "thy father and I have found a place for thee with a noble family at Lucca. I know thou wilt do thy best to be a good servant, for in serving thy master thou wilt be serving God."
"I am ready to start at once," said Zita cheerfully, "and I will do my very best."
There were not many preparations to make, and the little maid soon set out with her father to walk the nine miles that lay between them and the city of Lucca, where her work was waiting for her.
It was to the Casa Fantenelli that they were bound, and Zita thought herself most fortunate to be engaged to serve such a noble family. But it must have been very hard for the little maid, in spite of the twelve years which made her feel so grown-up and womanly, to keep back the tears as she said good-bye to her father. It felt so lonely to be left standing at the door of the Casa, in a strange town, among strange people.
But Zita seldom wasted much time thinking of herself. She was always looking for the work that was waiting to be done next, and had no thought to spare beyond the desire to do that well. So, although there was perhaps a mist of tears over her dark eyes as she watched her father turn and go down the street, she did not watch for long, but passed through the great door, anxious to begin work at once. She was but a child when she entered that service, but she never left it again, and served the family well and faithfully until her death.
Never had there been a more hard-working little maid. No one knew how early she got up, and how much work she got through before the sun began to rise. There was only one favour she asked, and that was to be allowed to go to the early service at the church close by. And as she always came quickly home and worked twice as well when it was over, she was allowed to go each morning as she wished.
All the family grew fond of the cheerful, busy little maid who served them so faithfully, and as the years went by, everything was left in her hands, for they knew she could be trusted.
There was no waste in the kitchen now, for Zita had always a thought for the poor, and nothing was thrown away that could with care be used for them. Even her leisure time she spent in helping others, and many a sick and lonely person was cheered and fed by the little maid, who often went hungry herself that she might share her food with them.
It was indeed seldom that Zita neglected or forgot a duty, but one morning a strange thing happened. It was the day when the bread was to be baked, and the loaves should have been ready before Zita started for church. She could not think afterwards how she had forgotten, and it was only when she rose from her knees after the service that she suddenly remembered that she had left her work undone. In great distress she hurried home, and was quite breathless with running when she entered the kitchen.
But as she looked towards the table she stood quite still and her eyes grew round with wonder. There lay a row of loaves, all evenly shaped and ready to be baked, with a white cloth laid over them to keep them from the dust. Could it possibly be her mistress who had come down and done her work? But no, no one was stirring in the house, every one was fast asleep.
Then a great feeling of contentment filled the heart of the little maid. Something told her that it was God's good angels that had done this kindness. Their helpful hands had not scorned the lowly service, that they might help a little hard-working maid-servant while she prayed in church.
Zita had always loved her work, but the thought of the angels' help seemed to make the common duties of life beautiful in her eyes, and she felt more than ever that it was the service of the King.
That winter was a hard one for the poor. The cold was bitter and lasted long. Zita had given away all the warm clothes she had, and still she grieved for the poor souls who shivered in the keen wind and whom she could not help. And when Christmas morning dawned it was the coldest day of all. The air was thick with snow, and the icy wind swept every thought of warmth away. The people who were hurrying to church were wrapped up to their ears in their cloaks, and walked with their heads well down to escape the sting of the bitter mountain wind.
Zita as usual was ready to start, never giving a thought to the cold, though her dress was thin and she had no cloak to cover her. But she had not gone many steps from the door when she heard her master's voice calling to her.
"Zita," he said, "it is madness to go out in such weather as this. Thou hast no cloak and thy garments are but thin. Be content and stay at home to-day."
"O master!" she cried, and the tears started to her eyes, "bid me do anything but that. It is the festa of the Christ-child, and I go to greet Him in His church."
"Nay, but thou wilt be frozen," said her master.
"The church is near," said Zita pleadingly, "and I shall scarce feel the cold."
Her master smiled and bade her take her own way, but as he spoke he took off his own warm cloak and wrapped it round her shoulders.
"I will lend thee this," he said, "that it may keep thee warm whilst thou art in the church. But remember it is but lent and thou must bring it safely back to me."
Never had Zita felt so warm and comfortable before. The thick soft cloak kept out the piercing cold and sent a glow of warmth down to her very toes. She said to herself that now she knew what the young birds must feel like when they creep under their mother's wing.
But with the warmth and comfort came another thought. This was the day when Christ was born in a poor bare stable where all had been cold and hard for Him. No fine soft clothing had covered Him, and it seemed scarcely right that she, His servant, should fare so much better than her Master.
"Forgive me, Lord," she prayed. "Thou knowest I did not ask to wear this cloak, and I would gladly suffer far more than cold for Thy dear sake."
She reached the church door just as her prayer was ended, and there she stopped for a moment to look with pity upon a poor beggar-man who stood leaning against the wall. He was very poor and thin, and he shivered as he stood there, as if half dead with cold. Zita's heart was filled with a great pity as she looked at him, and she went closer and gently touched his arm.
"Brother," she said, "art thou so very cold? See here, I will lend thee this soft warm cloak. I cannot give it thee, for it is not mine. But while we kneel together in church it shall keep thee warm, and afterwards thou shalt come with me and warm thyself at my kitchen fire."
So Zita and the beggar-man knelt together through the service, and though the stones were cold on which the little maid knelt, she never missed the soft warmth of the fine cloak. Her heart was warm with her great love and the worship she had brought. But presently, the service ended, people began to stream out, and Zita turned to where the man had knelt beside her to bid him once more come home with her. But the beggar was gone. Up and down the church she went seeking him, but he was nowhere to be found. At last the sacristan crossly bade her begone, for it was time to shut the doors. Poor Zita! she scarcely knew what to do.
"I had no right, even in my pity, to lend the cloak," she sobbed. "How can I face my master now?"
And with a heavy heart she turned at last and went slowly home.
Her face was white and she trembled with fear as she entered the house and stood silent before her master. He looked her over and his eyes grew stern.
"Where is the cloak I lent thee?" he asked. "Did I not bid thee bring it back to me most carefully?"
His voice was loud and angry, for he was in a terrible rage, seeing that the cloak was gone. His angry words thundered out, and Zita stood silently weeping before him with bowed head.
But who was this that stood at her side and touched her arm so gently? She looked up. Could it indeed be the beggar-man? It certainly was her master's cloak which he placed in her hands, but round the face that smiled so kindly down on her there was a wondrous light, which seemed to lighten all the place. She tried to speak, but before the words would come he was gone.
"Who was the man?" the master asked in low, awed tones.
"I thought at first it was the poor beggar-man, to whom I lent thy cloak," said Zita, "for, see, he hath brought it safely back. But when I saw his face, I knew it was the Angel of the Lord."
The master was ashamed of the anger he had shown. How could he blame her now? From that day his words grew more gentle, and angry tones were seldom heard in the house. Indeed, it seemed as if all evil things, all unkind thoughts, and selfish deeds were banished at the presence of the faithful serving-maid.
It was one day in summer when the heat was so great that there seemed no air to breathe, that, as Zita went to draw water from the well, a poor pilgrim passed that way. His throat was parched and he was faint and weary, and seeing Zita, he stopped and begged for a draught of water to quench his thirst.
"I only wish that it was wine," said Zita, for she knew that it was not wise in the great heat to drink that water.
But what could she do? She had nothing else to give him, and he was so thirsty. There was only one thing she could do to guard against the danger, and so she silently prayed the Lord that He would bless the water and not suffer it to hurt His poor servant.
The pilgrim smiled at her words.
"I, too, wish that it was wine," he said, as he raised the cup to his lips.
Then he started and looked at the lowly servant-maid who had handed him the water.
"See, but it is wine," he said, "the most delicious wine that I have ever tasted." So Zita knew the Lord had heard her prayer.
The years went by and Zita grew old in the service of her master, working well and faithfully until the end, when the angels came and bore her gentle soul to heaven.
She was only a poor serving-maid, but the people of Lucca knew that a saint had lived among them, and they crowded to her funeral that they might kiss her hand and touch her garments. It was said too that a bright star shone above the house the day she died, but her pure life shone out more brightly than any star, and shines on even now with a soft radiance wherever her memory still lingers.