In the Piazza
The clock in the reception hall had already struck eleven, when the two children, dressed in their best, followed by Teresina, passed out beneath the carved stone arch of the palace door into the streets of Florence. Their way lay through the edge of the beautiful Boboli Gardens, where lilacs bloomed, and birds were singing as they built their nests, past churches and palaces, across the Ponte Vecchio, one of the oldest of all the old bridges across the Arno, and then on through narrow streets on the other side of the river, and it was nearly noon when at last they reached the Piazza del Duomo.
The square was a wonderful sight on that beautiful spring morning. There in front of them rose the great Cathedral, with its mighty dome, and beside it stood the bell- tower, which Beppina had watched from her window in the dawn. Here also in the square was the old Baptistery, il bel San Giovanni, where Beppo and Beppina, and all the other children in Florence had been baptized when they were babies.
From all the side streets entering the piazza there poured streams of people, until it seemed as if everybody in the world must be there. In that great crowd there were peasants leading donkeys, with bells jingling from their scarlet trappings; there were carts filled with black-eyed babies and women whose only head-covering was their own sleek black braids; there were farmers and peddlers, noblemen and beggars, great ladies and gypsies, bare-footed monks and tourists, black-hooded Brothers of the Misericordia, and organ-grinders, fruit-sellers, flower-sellers, old people and young, rich and poor, every one eager for the great Easter spectacle to begin.
Teresina found a place for the children and herself on the edge of the crowd, and almost at once there appeared right before their eyes a great black car drawn by four splendid white oxen all garlanded with flowers. This strange black car stopped directly in front of the Cathedral; then from the open door of the Baptistery came a solemn procession, headed by the Archbishop bearing a brazier filled with sacred fire. The procession disappeared within the Cathedral doors, and there was a moment of breathless silence both within the church and without, as the Archbishop lighted the candles on the high altar from the holy fire.
The instant the candles flamed, the choir burst forth in a great swelling chorus. "Glory to God in the highest," they sang, and the bells in the Campanile began to ring as if they had suddenly gone mad.
Then the wonderful thing happened for which every one had been waiting. Out of the door of the Cathedral, high above the heads of the people, there flashed a white dove! It sped along a wire to the great black car, and the instant it touched it there was a terrific bang, then another, and another, as hissing rockets tore their way into the sky. The whole car seemed to blow up in a joyful burst of sound!
"Look! Look! the Colombina!" shouted the people, and as the mechanical dove returned along its wire to the altar, the air was filled with shouts of "Christ is risen! Buona Pasqua! Buona Pasqua!" from a thousand throats.
The bells of the Campanile clashed and sang overhead, waking all the bells in Florence and in the hills for miles around, so that, with the singing and the ringing, there was never a more joyful noise made than was heard in the Piazza del Duomo on that Easter Saturday in Florence!
Teresina and the children, shouting like the others, had just turned with the crowd to follow the car as it moved away from the Cathedral doors, when suddenly Teresina gave a shriek of joy, and, dropping their hands, rushed to the side of a cart which was standing beside the curb in one of the streets opening into the square. It is not surprising that she forgot the children for a moment, for there in the cart sat her mother, holding in her arms Teresina's own baby, which she had left at home in order to take care of the baby of the Marchesa. Moreover, beside the cart was Teresina's husband, and in it there were also her little brothers and sisters!
The Twins, thus suddenly loosed from Teresina's grasp, were swept along by the crowd, and when, a few moments later, she turned to look for them, they were no longer in sight.
Beppina clutched Beppo's arm as they were pushed along by a fat man behind them. "We must find Teresina!" she shouted in his ear.
"We can't get back!" Beppo shouted in reply, punching the fat man in the stomach with his elbow and pulling Beppina closer to his side; "and besides," he went on in a lower key, "I'm glad to get away from her. We'll have a good time by ourselves and go home when we get ready without being followed around by a nurse like two babies."
"What will Mammina say?" gasped Beppina.
"She isn't here, so she won't say anything at all," said naughty Beppo. Then he added with an important wag of his head, "Just you stick by me; I'll take care of you."
Beppina had her doubts, but she considered Beppo the most remarkable boy in the world, so she trotted obediently along with her hand in his, sure that he was equal to any situation that might arise.
For an hour or more the two children wandered about the piazza, carried hither and thither in the wake of the crowds. First they followed the black-cowled Misericordia Brothers as they bore away to the hospital a sick old man who had fallen in the street. Then they found a marionette show and stood entranced for a long time before it, watching the thrilling adventures of Pantalone. After that they crept into the dim Cathedral, now nearly empty of people, and watched the women who came to light their tapers at the Great Paschal Candle beside the altar. It was then that they discovered they were hungry, and, going out on the street, they refreshed themselves with oranges bought of a fruit-vender.
If Teresina could have seen the children of the Marchesa as they stood sucking oranges in the public street, it is likely she might have fainted with horror, and been carried away to the hospital by the black-robed Brothers of Mercy in her turn; but as it was, Teresina was not there to see. After searching the crowds distractedly for an hour, she had rushed back to the palace, hoping to find the Twins there before her, and turning the whole establishment into an uproar when she found they had not yet appeared.
Meanwhile, the children, unconscious of time, were wandering about enjoying their new freedom, and growing more adventurous at every step. Though they had finished their oranges, they were still hungry, and there was a wonderful smell of roasting chicken in the air, which Beppo followed with the unerring instinct of a hungry boy, and soon the two children were standing before an open cook-shop in a side street, gnawing chicken bones and smacking their lips with as much gusto as if they had been bred in the streets instead of a palace.
When they left the cook-shop, with its rows of bright copper pots and pans and its delicious smells, Beppo had only a few soldi left in his pockets, and as for Beppina, there had been nothing but a handkerchief in hers from the beginning.
"Avanti!" cried Beppo, made more bold than ever by the courage which comes with a full stomach. "Let's explore!" and, seizing the hand of the more timid Beppina, he ventured farther and farther up the narrow street. They had never been in this part of the city before in their lives. They had never even dreamed that people could live in such dark, dirty houses, more like rabbit-warrens than homes for human beings, and on streets so narrow that Beppo could easily leap across them in one jump.
They made their way through groups of idle loungers, stepping cautiously around dirty babies playing in the gutters, and past slatternly mothers gossiping in shrill tones from doorsteps and open windows, quite unconscious of the fact that every one turned to look with astonishment at the strange spectacle of two well-dressed children walking alone through the burrow-like streets of old Florence.
At the opening of a dark passage they almost stumbled over an old woman bent over a charcoal-brazier, where she was roasting chestnuts.
"She looks just like a witch," whispered Beppina, making the devil's horns with her fingers to protect herself from the Evil Eye. "Let's hurry past."
They shrank back against the opposite wall of the narrow passage and tried to squeeze by, but the old woman swept out a bony hand and seized Beppina by the skirt.
"For the love of Santa Maria, just a few soldi, my pretty little lady," she whined, pulling the child toward her. Her smile was so terrifying that Beppina gave a little scream, and with Beppo's help tore herself free of the old woman's grasp. Then the two fled still farther up the street, followed by a storm of abuse and the laughter of the idle people they passed in their flight.
When at last they paused for breath, they found themselves in a labyrinth of narrow alleys, with no idea of which way to turn to get back to the piazza. Beppina was frightened, but Beppo said confidently, "All we've got to do is to keep on going, and we are sure to strike either the piazza or the river, and we shall know how to get home from either one, so don't you be afraid."
Inspired by his boldness, Beppina followed him from one narrow passage to another, until at last the streets began to widen again, and they saw before them an open square, and heard the sound of music. They ran joyously forward and found themselves in a beautiful but strange piazza, with a great fountain playing in the center, and fine old buildings surrounding it on all sides.
The source of the music was hidden by a throng of people gathered together near the fountain. "It's a hand-organ," cried Beppo eagerly. "Maybe there's a monkey!" and he dashed into the midst of the crowd.
Beppina followed close behind, and the two worked their way under the elbows of the grown people until they reached the very center, where they were thrilled to find a dark, swarthy man, holding a bear by a rope. The bear was dancing clumsily on his hind legs, and near by a woman with black eyes and hair and great rings in her ears was grinding an organ. On top of the organ sat a monkey in a red cap shaking a tambourine. Behind the group stood a yellow van, drawn by two donkeys gayly tricked out with scarlet nets and jingling bells.
The Twins had no sooner arrived upon the scene than the music stopped, the bear dropped upon all fours, and the monkey, hopping down from the organ, began to leap about among the people, holding out the tambourine for money. Then it was wonderful to see how rapidly the crowd melted away! In a few moments the children were the only ones left. Beppo gave his last coin to the monkey, and the woman, throwing a black look after the disappearing crowd, ground out another tune for them on the organ, while the monkey, to Beppo's great delight, leaped upon his shoulder and searched his pockets with her little black paws.
The man, meanwhile, was preparing to start away. He handed the bear's rope to his wife and, climbing to the driver's seat of the van, cracked his whip, and shouted, "Aiou! aiou! you laggards!" to the donkeys. The monkey leaped from Beppo's shoulder to the back of the bear, and, as the caravan began to move, turned somersaults on the bear's back with such wonderful agility that no boy on earth could have resisted following her. The woman said something to her husband which the children did not understand, though they did not know that it was because she spoke to him in the Venetian dialect; then she turned to Beppo and said with an insinuating smile, "Where is it that the Signore lives?"
Now here was a woman of sense! She called him Signore, as if he were already a grown man! Beppo swelled with satisfaction and answered promptly, "In the Palace Grifoni, across the river."
"Si, si," said the woman, which in Italian means "Yes, yes." "We are going in that direction. Would you not like to go with us and lead the bear?" Oh, if Teresina could have heard that! Here were people who thought him quite big enough to lead a live bear, while she—and Mammina, too, for that matter—thought he still should be followed by a nurse!
Beppo leaped boldly forward, though Beppina tried to hold him back, and, seizing the bear's rope, marched proudly along behind the van. The woman laughed and clapped her hands. "Bravo, bravo!" she cried. Then, turning to the panic-stricken Beppina, she said comfortingly: "The old Ugolone will not hurt him. He is very old and as tame as a kitten. See!" She gave the bear a slap and walked along beside him with her hand on his back, and Beppina could do nothing but follow.
For some time they trailed the van in this way, together with a small army of boys and girls, who were consumed with envy for Beppo and hoped they too might be allowed a turn at leading the bear. One by one they had dropped away and returned to their homes before the Twins realized that the afternoon was nearly spent and night was approaching.
"We must go home now, please," said Beppina politely to the woman.
"Si, si," said the woman, nodding her head and smiling more than ever. "We shall soon see the river."
This assurance quieted Beppina for a time, and she trudged patiently along until they reached the very outskirts of the city, and still no bridge and no river had appeared. Not Beppina only, but Beppo too now began to be alarmed. Where were they going? Oh, if only the gray walls of the Grifoni palace would rise before them! Beppo even began to modify his opinion about Teresina. Her ruff and streamers would have been as welcome a sight to him just then as an oasis to travelers in the desert. But alas! Teresina was at that moment many miles away, and distracted with anxiety and grief. The bewildered Beppina now began to cry.
"Come, my pretty," said the woman in a wheedling tone, "you are tired, is it not so? You shall rest the weary legs." Her voice was soft, but she seized Beppina with a grip of steel, and swung her up into the back of the moving van. "You too, my brave one," she went on, taking the bear's rope from Beppo's hand, and tying it to a ring in the back of the cart. "Up you go." She gave him a shove as he scrambled up beside Beppina, and then, tossing the monkey in after him, swung herself up beside the children.
The road now began to ascend, and the Twins with growing terror watched the sun sink lower and lower behind the dome of the Cathedral, which they could see in the distance. Beppina shook with sobs, and Beppo sat pale and frightened as the tower and the dome, the only landmarks they knew in Florence, grew darker and darker against the sunset sky.
"Do not cry, madonna mia," said the woman, giving Beppina a little shake. "You have missed your way, but what of that? You are safe with us. If you have money in your pockets you might possibly find your way home even yet, though it is nearly dark, and it is very dangerous for children to go about alone."
"But we haven't any money," said Beppo. "I gave all I had to the monkey!"
"Ah," said the woman, "that is bad, to go back without money! You would spend the night in the streets without doubt, or possibly in the jail. If the police found you they would take you for vagrants. It would be terrible indeed if the police should get you! Still, if you think best you can jump down and start back right now. I do not believe the bear would hurt you, even though he does not like to have any one jump right in front of him!"
The children looked down at Ugolone, lumbering along behind the van. If they jumped it must be almost on top of him, and in the darkness he looked as big as a house and very alarming. Even Beppo lost his swagger, and as for Beppina, she was speechless with terror. The woman continued to cajole them.
"Soon we shall camp beside the road for the night," she said, "and you shall have something hot for your supper, and sleep in the van as cozy as birds in a nest. That is surely much better than the jail! And to-morrow—oh, la bella vita! just think, you shall grind the organ and play with Carina all day long, and there will be no lessons!"
There was no response to this alluring prospect. The children, homesick, weary, terror-stricken, clung to each other in the darkness, and shrank as far as possible from the woman, whom they now saw to be not their friend, but their jailer.
On and on through the deepening darkness lumbered the yellow van, until it seemed to the unhappy children that it must be nearly morning. At last, however, the team turned from the highroad and stopped beside a little stream. The woman sprang out, and while her husband unharnessed the donkeys and tied Ugolone to a tree for the night, she built a fire, and hung a kettle over it. She put the monkey in Beppina's arms, and sent Beppo for water from the stream, and to gather sticks for the fire.
Soon a kettleful of steaming mush was ready, and the woman, whose name was Carlotta, called Luigi, her husband, and, giving the children each a tin dish, bade them eat their supper. Even if it had been her favorite food, Beppina could not have swallowed a mouthful that night, but Beppo, though he too was homesick, could still eat, even though nothing better than polenta was offered him. He sat down with Carlotta and Luigi before the fire on the ground, while Beppina stayed in the back of the van, hugging the monkey to her lonely heart and striving to keep back the tears.
The flickering flames lit up the trunks of the trees, making them stand out like sentinels against the velvet darkness of the woods beyond, and sending dancing shadows of the bear and the donkeys far across the murmuring stream. The moon looked down through the tree-tops and the nightingales sang plaintively in the shadows.
After supper, while Luigi sat smoking his pipe by the fire, Carlotta threw a heap of straw into one corner of the van, and said to the children: "Come hither, my poverelli! Here is a soft bed for you! Lie down and sleep!" Too tired to do anything else, if, indeed, there had been anything else in the world for them to do, the children obeyed, and, clasped in each other's arms, soon fell asleep, worn-out with sorrow and fatigue.