On the Road
When they awoke the next morning Carlotta and Luigi were nowhere in sight. The monkey was tied to one wheel of the van, and from the banqueting-hall came the sound of human voices, quarreling. The tones were so loud that the children could not help hearing the words.
"It is all your fault!" said Luigi's voice. "It was you who made me get the bear in the first place, and undertake this foolish trip, all because you must again see your people in Florence. If we had but stayed in Venice! The bear was old when we got him; he was already tired and sick when we left Florence, and now, per Bacco, he is dead! You would not feed him, yet it was Ugolone that we depended upon to bring in the money. A hand-organ, a monkey— what are they? And now you have added those brats beside for us to feed! This comes of listening to a woman and a smooth-tongued Tuscan at that. I could beat you!"
Carlotta's wheedling voice answered him. "Do not grieve, my angel," she said; "you will yet see the wisdom of your Carlotta. Ugolone was old and sick, it is true. A pest upon the villain who sold him to us! May his eyes weep rivers of tears! But you are wrong about the children. They are worth more than Ugolone, the donkeys, and the van, all put together. Did you not see how they pleased the people yesterday? I will teach them to sing more songs, and to dance the tarantella as well as the trescone, and we shall soon forget this sorrow. When we reach the coast, we will sell the van and the donkeys, and go back to your beloved Venice, to live in comfort on the earnings of these brats! You shall see!"
"That's more of your oily Tuscan talk," growled Luigi. "Think of the risk we run! If the ragazzini should be recognised, it would go hard with us. Their parents will lay every trap to catch us. It is safe enough in these mountain villages, but in the larger towns it will be a different story. There are the police—"
Carlotta interrupted him. "Che, che!" she cried. "You have the heart of a chicken! I tell you, even their own mother would hardly know them now, and it will be easy to hide them in Venice. We shall be like rats in the walls of a house, where the cat cannot follow. As for traps—we are too sharp for them. Even if we were to be seen and tracked, they will not seek donkeys and a van in Venice, where there are no such things."
Luigi only grunted for reply, and Carlotta, seeing that her arguments had made an impression, boldly finished her plan.
"When we reach the coast," she said, "you remain behind to sell the van, and I will go on to Venice with the ragazzini. We shall not be pursued upon the boat. Courage! In a few days we shall be safe, and then we can live at ease, and you will say, 'Ah, what a great head has my Carlotta!' "
There was no reply from Luigi, and soon the children heard their returning footfalls on the stone flagging.
"Pretend you're asleep," whispered Beppo. "We mustn't let them think we overheard." They instantly lay down in the straw again, and when Carlotta came to the back of the van a moment later, she was obliged to call twice before she could arouse them!
While Carlotta, looking very glum, was cooking the everlasting polenta, the children crept fearsomely into the ruined tower to take a last look at poor old Ugolone. There he lay on the flag-stones, a shapeless lump of fur, and a little later Luigi skinned him, hung the pelt on the back of the van, and, leaving the bones to whiten where they lay, set forth once more upon the road. From this time on things grew harder and harder for the unhappy children. Carlotta was caressing and smooth in her manner to them when they were in the villages, calling them "my children," "carissimi," which means "dearest," and other tender names, but when they were by themselves she grew more and more harsh, while Luigi was sullen, and scarcely spoke to them at all.
It was Carlotta who made them dance until they were ready to drop with fatigue, and sing when their hearts were breaking. Everywhere the people thought them charming, and it was true, as Carlotta had said, that they brought in more money than Ugolone.
They were now passing through one of the most lovely regions in the world, but its beauty failed to comfort them or reconcile them to their lot. The rocky ramparts and blue horizon of the mountains were but prison walls to them, from which they longed to escape. One night, as they lay shivering in the straw, with Carlotta and Luigi snoring at the other end of the van, Beppo cautiously nudged his sister.
"It sounds like Teresina," he whispered. "Don't you remember how she snored that day we left home?"
"Don't," begged Beppina. "It makes me homesick."
"I never thought I could wish to hear Teresina snore," Beppo answered, "but now it would be music in my ears." They were silent a few minutes, and then Beppina—timid Beppina—put her lips close to Beppo's ear and whispered, "Let's get out and run away."
"Where to?" Beppo whispered.
"Anywhere, anywhere away from here!" said poor Beppina. "I'd rather starve in the mountains than stay any longer. We could creep out without waking them."
"It's awfully dark," said Beppo, "and we'll have to climb right over them!"
"Oh, let's try," urged Beppina. They sat up cautiously and peered out. They could just see a dark mass blocking up the open end of the van. They struggled to their knees. The straw rustled, and they stopped dead, until everything was still again. Then Beppo rose to his feet, and, treading very carefully, took a step toward the end of the van. But alas, he had forgotten the monkey! She slept beside her mistress, and Beppo stepped on her tail! There was a scream as Carina leaped up in the air, and lit on Beppo's shoulder, chattering furiously, and Beppo instantly dropped down into the straw again.
"What's the matter?" said Carlotta.
The children could see her dark silhouette as she sat up and looked into the dark interior of the van.
"Carina mia! What is the matter?"
"Lie down," growled Luigi. "She has had a bad dream. Go to sleep!" The monkey leaped to Carlotta's arm, snuggled down beside her, and quiet reigned once more. When the snores began again, the children had no courage for a second attempt, and morning found things as hopeless as ever.
They were now descending the eastern slopes of the Apennines, and Beppo, remembering his geography, knew that they were getting farther and farther from Florence. At noon that day, as they were walking ahead of the van, they rounded a turn in the road, and came suddenly upon a view stretching far across the plains of eastern Italy to where the blue waters of the Adriatic lay sparkling in the sun. The landscape was dotted with villages, and far away in the blue distance they could see the spires and towers of a large coast town.
Beppo's spirits rose a little. "See," he said to Beppina, "we are coming out of the mountains into a region where there are many towns. Who knows? Perhaps we may find a chance to get away. It would be less dangerous here than in the hills."
But again they were doomed to disappointment, for the next day it rained, and Carlotta made them stay hidden in the van as it lumbered slowly through the villages on the road to the sea. Though it was only two days, it seemed at least a week that they lay in the straw, listening to the rumble of the wheels and the patter of the rain on the roof. There could be no fires, so their food was bread and cheese, which Carlotta bought in the towns.
At last, early on the third morning, they heard from their prison a new sound, and, peering cautiously over Luigi's shoulder, saw that at last they had reached the sea. They could hear the slapping of waves against the piles of a dock, and could catch glimpses of green water. Men with trucks were hurrying by, loading fruit and vegetables upon a large boat which was tied to the pier. There was so much noise about them that the children could talk together in low tones without being overheard.
"I know where we are," said Beppo. "I tell you, I'm glad I studied geography! The sun is breaking through the clouds over the water, and it's early morning, so that's the east, of course. We heard Carlotta say they were going to take us to Venice, so this must be a coast town on the Adriatic. It isn't Ravenna, because Ravenna is back from the sea a few miles. The only other big port along here is Rimini, and I'll bet that's just where we are."
"Oh, Beppo, what a wonderful boy you are, to think that all out yourself!" said Beppina. "You're such a wonderful thinker! Why can't you think of a way to escape?"
"I do think, all the time," answered poor Beppo, "but Carlotta is just like a cat at a mouse-hole. Her eyes never leave us, and if we should try to run, she would pounce—"
"Hush!" whispered Beppina, "there she is." There, indeed, she was, smiling craftily at them from the end of the van.
"You may come out now, my little ones," she said in her most syrupy tones. "Here we leave the van with Luigi, while we take a nice boat-ride!" She seized them firmly by the hands, and, followed by Luigi carrying the organ and the monkey, led them over the gang-plank on to the boat. Once aboard, she sought an obscure corner, behind the baskets of fruit and vegetables with which the vessel was loaded, and made the children sit beside her, while Luigi piled around them numerous bundles brought from the van.
At last the rumble of trucks ceased, the sailors loosed the great hawsers which tied the boat to the dock, and in a few moments the children, looking back to the shore, saw a widening strip of green water between them and their native land.