They Learn To Dance
It was cold in the mountains, and the children shivered as Carlotta routed them out in the early dawn of the next morning. "Come," she said crossly, as she set up the forked sticks for the kettle, "bestir yourselves, lazy ones! We are poor people. Do you think we can afford to feed you and wait upon you like servants besides? To-day there must be no more sniveling and whining. Beppo, take the pail and fetch water. You, Beppina, gather sticks for the fire."
Her wheedling manner was now quite gone. Instead she gave her orders with such a threatening look that the children trembled with fear as they hastened to obey. At a little distance from the spot where they were encamped, a stream, fed by a mountain spring, gushed forth from a pile of rocks, and Beppo, seizing the pail, plunged into the dark pine woods to find it. Beppina followed, and the instant they found themselves alone in the forest, the two hid behind a tree and held a hurried consultation.
"Listen, cocca mia," whispered Beppo. "I have thought this all out. They do not mean to take us back, ever! They will keep us like slaves to work for them! If we want to see our home again, we must obey everything they say, no matter how hard. Then some day, when they aren't watching, we will run away. Only not in these mountains! We should only die of hunger and be eaten by the wolves."
Beppina shuddered. "Oh, Beppo," she sobbed, "there is a lump in my throat as big as an egg! I cannot swallow it. When I think of Mammina, it seems to me I shall die!"
Beppo gave her a little shake. "But you must be brave," he said. "Every day we will have a word together, and soon our chance will come."
"I'll try, Beppo," said Beppina, gulping down her sobs.
"Good girl!" said Beppo, patting her approvingly, though his own lips trembled and his voice shook. "Don't you remember how it is in the fairy tales? The prince always kills the giants and dragons if only he isn't afraid, even if he has to pass through enchanted forests."
Beppina looked fearfully over her shoulder. "Oh, Beppo," she gasped, "I didn't think of it before, but now I'm sure. This is an enchanted forest, and Carlotta is a witch woman! We must pray always to the Holy Virgin to protect us. Promise me you will!"
"I promise," said Beppo solemnly; "and don't you forget about the prince either."
Just then they heard Carlotta's voice shouting at them, and, leaping apart, they fled to do their errands.
When breakfast had been eaten, and the animals fed, Luigi lit his pipe and stretched out on the ground beside the fire with the monkey beside him.
"Here we stay a little," he said. "Ugolone lies there like one dead. The donkeys are tired and so am I. We have come thirty miles from Florence."
"Ecco!" said Carlotta. "Then there is time for bean soup." She sent Beppo for more water, and, when the kettle was bubbling on the fire, called the children to her side. "Tell me," she said, "can you dance?"
"A little," quavered Beppina.
"Dance, then," said the woman.
Beppina reluctantly seized her skirts, and, making a dancing-school bow, took a few dainty steps and tripped over a stone.
Carlotta laughed contemptuously. "Santa Maria!" she said, "you don't call that dancing!" Then, beckoning to her husband, she cried, "But they know nothing! They cannot earn their salt! We have made a bad bargain. Come, then, and we will teach these ignorant ones the trescone!"
Luigi grunted as he rose unwillingly from his hard couch, tied the monkey's string about a tree branch, and came forward.
"Watch closely, both of you," said Carlotta to the children. "It is for you to dance like Tuscans, not like marionettes. Even old Ugolone can do better."
Once he was roused, Luigi's weariness seemed to vanish. He suddenly seized Carlotta's hands, and, holding her at arm's length, began to wheel and jump, to turn and twist in all sorts of curious figures. Sometimes the dancers' arms were linked above their heads. Sometimes they shook a lifted foot. Faster and faster they whirled, and the monkey, inspired by their example, began to leap and bound about at the end of her string, chattering wildly.
The speed of the dancers slackened like that of a spinning top, and they came to a sudden standstill. Luigi returned to Carina and his place by the fire, and Carlotta got out the hand-organ. All the morning she made the children practice the figures of the dance to music, until they were ready to drop with fatigue. While she prepared the soup for their noon meal they were allowed to rest, but immediately afterwards the donkeys were harnessed again, and to the music of their tinkling bells the little cavalcade moved on.
For some time they traveled over the steep mountain roads without seeing a soul; then they met a girl driving a flock of sheep to pasture. Later they overtook some peasant women walking like queens with great loads of wood on their heads. Beyond them they passed an ox-team, and Beppo whispered to Beppina, "It's a good sign to meet oxen in the road." But alas, a moment later they met a priest, mumbling his prayers as he walked. It was a glance of despair that Beppina gave her brother then, for it is very bad luck to meet a priest in the road, as every Tuscan child can tell you.
Nevertheless, all these signs, bad and good, indicated that they were approaching a town, and a few moments later they came to a stream where women were washing clothes, and the van rumbled across a bridge and into the open square of a small mountain village. In an instant there was great excitement in the town, and all the inhabitants swarmed about the van.
Luigi climbed down from the driver's seat, with Carina on his shoulder, and loosed the bear's rope, while Carlotta brought out the organ, and gave the tambourine to the monkey.
"Balla! Balla!" cried Luigi, and Ugolone rising to his hind legs wearily began his clumsy dance. The children, meanwhile, shrank back out of sight in the van.
"She will make us dance like the bear, I know she will," moaned Beppina, "and I cannot remember the steps!" She crossed herself frantically, and said a prayer to the Virgin, but it was of no avail, for soon Carlotta's wheedling tones reached their hiding-place.
"Avanti, carissimi," she called, and, not daring to disobey or even to linger, the children leaped from the back of the van into the center of a crowd of round-eyed villagers. The children of the Marchese Grifoni dancing in company with a monkey and a bear for the entertainment of an audience of peasants! The humiliation of it was almost more than they could endure, but the Twins did their best, and the moment the performance was over dived into the back of the van, and hid themselves again, while Carina leaped about among the crowd, gathering the soldi in her tambourine.
Their stay in the village was short, for the people were poor.
"It is a town of pigs," said Carlotta angrily, as she counted the money, and to the great relief of the children she gave the order to move on into the hills beyond the village.
They stopped at one more village during the afternoon, and here things went better. The children remembered their steps, and there were more soldi in the tambourine, even though Ugolone sat firmly down upon his haunches and refused to budge. In vain Luigi tugged at his rope and shouted "Balla! Balla!" It was as if Ugolone, seeing the children dance, had concluded that his dancing days were over, and had resigned in their favor.
To make up for Ugolone the Twins had to dance again and again, and then to their great surprise Carlotta made them sing! They had voices like the whistle of song thrushes in the spring, but how in the world could Carlotta have guessed that? They were too astonished to refuse, even if they had dared, so they opened their mouths and quavered out a song about the swallow, which they had learned in the nursery at home.
This was the song:—
It was so familiar a song that all the people joined with them in singing it, and some of them danced to the music of the hand-organ when it played, so that altogether the villagers had a gay time, and as a result Carlotta found many more coins than usual in the tambourine when the performance was over. She glanced triumphantly at her husband as she counted the money. "We have caught two pigeons with one pea after all," she said to him. "As for that lazy Ugolone, he gets no supper! If he will not work, he shall not eat!"
The children heard and shuddered. "She will treat us like that, too," sobbed Beppina, "and if she's truly a witch she may even turn us into bears!"
Out through sunny vineyards and gray olive orchards beyond the town they followed the winding road, and, as night came on, the weary children saw that they were approaching a ruined castle set high on a spur of the Apennines. The wind swept over the bare hill-top and whistled through the windows of its ruined towers, where hundreds of years before lovely ladies had watched their knights ride forth to battle.
It was a bleak and lonely spot, fit only to be inhabited by ghosts, and Beppina shivered as the wheels of the van rattled over the ancient draw-bridge, and stopped in the overgrown court-yard.
"I know it's enchanted," she whispered to Beppo, and Beppo, his own teeth chattering, could only say, "Remember about the prince," to keep up their failing courage.
There was no sign of human beings about the place, and Luigi took possession as if he owned it. He tied Ugolone in the ruins of what had once been a stately banqueting-hall, and let the donkeys eat their supper from the green grass which carpeted the court-yard.
Soon a fire was blazing in the ruins of an ancient chimney, and the tired travelers gathered about it for their evening meal. From the tower came the surprised hoot of a solitary owl, and bats, disturbed by the light, swooped in great circles about the little group as they silently ate their polenta. Even the monkey seemed to feel the weird spell of the place, for she cowered in a corner by the fire, chattering to herself, while from the banqueting-hall came the complaining growls of poor hungry Ugolone. It was to such music as this that the children of the Marchese at last fell asleep.