In the Mountains
They were awakened next morning by the chattering of the monkey, and, looking out from their corner, they could not for a moment remember where they were, or how they came to be there. The sun was shining brightly, the birds were singing, and Carlotta was up and stirring something in a pot over the fire. Luigi had gone with the donkeys to give them a drink, and Ugolone was standing on his hind legs beside his tree, grunting impatiently for his breakfast.
Beppina gazed at the strange scene for one blank moment, then, as memory came back, she buried her head in the straw and sobbed. Beppo tried to comfort her.
"Don't cry, Beppinella," he whispered. "To-day we shall find some way of returning to Florence. I feel sure of it! It might be worse. Pazienza! We must make the best of it."
Just then, Carlotta, hearing the muffled sobs and the murmur of his voice, appeared at the end of the van.
"Come out, little lost ones," she called to them. "The sun shines, and we shall have a fine day in the mountains. See, here is Carina waiting to greet you!" She tossed the monkey toward them as she spoke, and disappeared around the end of the van. Soon she returned, carrying in her hand a green blouse and a gay striped skirt.
"Here," she said to Beppina, "I will lend these to you. Then you can save your pretty clothes so they will be clean to wear when you return to your Mammina." She spoke so confidently of their return that Beppina thought perhaps the woman meant to take them back that very day. She reluctantly put on the queer blouse and the striped skirt, while Beppo arrayed himself in a pair of velveteen trousers which were as much too long for him as the skirt was for Beppina. Carlotta had brought these also, and she gave him a red sash to bind around his waist as well. When they were equipped in these garments the two children gazed at each other in dismay.
"You don't look like Beppo at all. You look just like a bandit," said Beppina.
"And you—you look like a gypsy girl!" gasped Beppo.
"Even Mammina wouldn't know us if she were to see us now," Beppina whispered, despairingly.
"That's just why that woman did it!" gasped Beppo, with sudden illumination. "She doesn't care a bit about saving our clothes! She wants to disguise us, so people will think we belong to them!"
"Oh, dear!" shuddered Beppina. "Let's change back again."
They seized their clothes, but just then they saw Carlotta's glittering black eyes gazing in at them from the end of the van. It was as if she knew their very thoughts.
"Avanti, avanti!" she called. "Is it that you are lazy? Come! We must be on the road!"
Not daring to linger or protest, the two strange little figures came tumbling out of the straw at once, and, after washing in the brook, sat down on a fallen log to eat their breakfast. Carina perched beside them on the log, and, when she had finished her own portion, leaped on Ugolone's back, and, leaning down, snatched away some of his breakfast from under his nose. In vain poor old Ugolone growled and slapped at her with his clumsy paws. He was always too slow to catch her.
The children were so absorbed in watching this drama that they did not notice what Carlotta was doing meanwhile, but later, when they looked for their own clothes again, they had mysteriously disappeared, and were not seen again.
When they had finished breakfast, Carlotta called to Beppina, "Come here, poverina! Your hair is full of straw. I will fix it for you." Beppina obeyed, and the woman coaxed her tangled locks into place, combing them with her fingers, and at last succeeded in plaiting them into a number of tight braids which she wound about her head. "There," said she when this was done, "now you will no longer need your hat."
"But," said Beppina, "I want my hat! Only peasants go bare-headed." The woman gave a short laugh, and her teeth gleamed so white between her lips that Beppina thought of the wolf who tried to pass himself off for Red Riding Hood's grandmother.
"Do as you are told," said Carlotta. She smiled as she said it, but there was such a fierce look in her face that Beppina made the sign against the Evil Eye, with her hand behind her, and submitted silently as Carlotta tied a red kerchief over the braids. These preparations completed, the caravan moved on, with Luigi as usual in the driver's seat, Carlotta leading the bear, and the Twins, carrying the monkey, bringing up the rear.
On and on they traveled, but in which direction the children could only guess. There were many turns in the road, which wound constantly upward, and with every mile the country grew more wild. Through openings between the hills they caught fleeting glimpses of quaint villages clinging to the mountain-sides, and of ancient castles commanding beautiful views across fertile valleys. At one time they saw the roofs of a great stone monastery, hidden away among olive trees. They heard the music of its bells and caught faint echoes of the chanting of the monks. It was then that they remembered that it was Easter Sunday.
"If we were at home, we should now be hunting Easter eggs and sugar lambs in the garden," whispered Beppina.
"Teresina said there wouldn't be any there, anyway," Beppo answered, winking very hard; and then neither one said anything for a long time.
All day long the donkeys plodded up the steep slopes, only stopping by the wayside for rest and food at noon. It was evident that Luigi thought best to keep to the least-frequented mountain ways, so all through the sunny hours the sad little travelers walked behind the van, or climbed inside to rest their weary feet, not knowing where they were going and not daring to ask.
At sunset they reached the crest of a high hill, and, looking back, they could see far, far away in the purple distance, the twinkling lights of the city of Florence, looking like a sky full of stars fallen to earth. On the slopes of nearer hills there were other twinkling lights like chains of jewels winding in and out among the trees. The mountain villages were celebrating the Easter festival with candle-lit processions and with singing. The words of the Easter song floated across the blue spaces. "The Royal Banners forward go," came the faint chant, and, mingling with the vesper song of thrush and nightingale, lulled the tired travelers to dreamless sleep.