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Legends and Stories of Italy by  Amy Steedman


 

 

A TALE OF THE EPIPHANY

[103] THE Christmas bells had but lately ceased to ring out the message of peace and goodwill to all the world, and now the Feast of the Epiphany was drawing near. All around the city there hung an expectant air of holiday-making, and every one was preparing for the great festa. The street boys made enough noise on their long glass trumpets to drive peaceful people mad, but the good-natured folks only clapped their hands over their ears and thanked the saints that such noise came but once a year. Up and down the busy streets the country-people walked, swinging pairs of shrieking fowls by their long, lean legs, eager to sell them for a good price, and paying no heed to their miserable cries. There was scarcely a family in the city, however poor, who would not have a fowl to cook for the coming festa, and so trade was brisk and bargaining became a fine art.

Amidst all the noise of bargaining, the shrieks of fowls, and the blare of the glass trumpets, a poor woman made her way through the busy, crowded streets. Her thin old shawl was tightly wound round her shoulders, and in its folds was wrapped a little bundle which from its shape might be a baby. Another [104] child, three or four years old, clattered along over the stone pavement, at her side, clutching a fold of the mother's gown, Behind came the tap, tap of wooden crutches as a bigger child who was lame tried to keep up with the rest.

The woman looked wistfully at the array of fowls held up so temptingly before her, and the quick eye of one of the sellers rested on her at once.

"Ecco," he cried," this is the very thing thou seekest! See how fat and tender he is." Here he displayed a sad-looking, long-legged bird, little more than skin and bone and bedraggled feathers. "And the price is so small, it is really nothing. I rob myself and my innocent children, but there! I give it thee for two lire."

The woman shook her head and hurried on. She could not trust herself to look at the tempting dainty.

"Mother," said Brigida, the little lame girl, making an effort to keep up at her mother's side, "shall we have no festa to-morrow?"

"Who can tell?" said her mother cheerfully. "Perhaps we may earn money to-day. If the master can but pay us, we may keep the festa with the best of them. A good boiled fowl and plenty of polenta, a gay new dress for the old doll thou lovest so well, a toy for little Maria here, and good milk for little Beppino. Ah yes, who knows, we too may keep the festa!"

The faces of the two children brightened as she [105] talked, and Maria's little legs, which had begun to drag wearily along, stepped out bravely once more.

"See, here we are," said the mother, stopping before a big, gloomy-looking entrance and preparing to climb the steps which led up and up to the top story.

"Who comes there?" sounded a warning voice from above.

"A friend," answered the woman, and then climbed steadily on, giving a helping hand to the tired child at her side.

At last they all reached the topmost flight, and there a door stood open, and a tall, stern-faced old man looked keenly out on the little family who came toiling up the last few steps.

"Ah!" he said, "so thou hast brought my model. Come in, come in; the daylight fades all too soon these bitter days, and I would finish my work to-day if it be possible."

He led them as he spoke into a great, bare attic, and bade the woman sit upon the old chair which he pulled forward.

The children pressed close to their mother and looked about with round, surprised eyes. What a strange place this was! No table, no bed, nothing but piles of pictures standing with their faces against the walls, and in the centre of the room on a curious wooden stand a great uncovered picture glowing with such wonderful colour that it seemed almost to shine in the dull, dim room. The light from the sloping window fell full [106] upon this picture, and as they looked the children forgot their shyness and fear of the stern-faced old man, and pressed forward to look at it.

Why, it was a picture of the very festa which they were preparing to keep next day, the feast of the Blessed Epiphany. There was the rough, rude stable, with the dim outline of the cattle just seen in the background; at one side an empty manger; and in the centre, where some straw had been heaped together, the Holy Mother with her Baby in her arms. Such a sweet young mother she looked, as she gazed down with tender happiness and almost reverent awe upon the Child on her knee. Before them, on the rough stones of the stable floor, knelt the three kings, their heads bent in lowly adoration, their costly robes of crimson, purple and gold standing out in contrast to the dark stable and the simply clad mother. It was a wonderful picture, but it was disappointing too, for the best part of all was still unfinished, and only a blank showed where the face of the Gesu Bambino was still to be painted.

The old painter himself stood with the children looking at the picture, and he sighed heavily as he gazed. Day after day, month after month, he had worked at this picture, which he felt sure would at last bring him fame and honour. Faithfully and well he had worked, and each part was as beautiful as he could make it: only one thing seemed beyond his power. It was the face of the Child, the centre of the whole, [107] and toil as he might he could not paint it as he wished it to be. Over and over again had he tried; he had sought for models far and near, but it always ended in failure, and he painted it out each time in fresh despair.

But here was a new chance, a little model his quick eye had noted in his search the day before. He roused himself and bade the children stand back as he caught up his brushes and prepared to work. Then he turned impatiently to the woman.

"Unwrap thy shawl and hold the child so that I can see its face," he ordered. "Dost thou think that I wish to paint a mummy or a chrysalis?"

The woman started and began hastily to undo her shawl.

"He is asleep," she said, "and has a cough, poverino." But seeing an angry, impatient look come over the painter's face, she hastened to rouse the child and arrange its blue pinafore and gently stroke its little, dark, downy head.

But Beppino did not approve of this at all. He liked the soft shawl round him, and he wanted to go to sleep. So his nose began to wrinkle up, and his mouth to open wider as his eyes shut tighter, and a long-drawn wail came sobbing forth. Then followed a fit of coughing and more cries till the painter dashed down his brushes and clapped his hands over his ears.

"Away with thee!" he cried; "as well bring me a screaming parroquet for a model."

[108] The angry voice stopped Beppino's cries for a moment, and he gazed across, his brown eyes full of tears, and his lip still quivering and ready to start afresh. The mother gently chafed the little blue hands and spoke soothing words, and Maria clapped her hands and played bo-peep to make him laugh. But it was all no use. Beppino found the world a cold, unkind place, and the sobs broke out again even louder than before.

"There, take him away," said the painter, "it is but waste of time," and he stood gloomily looking on as the woman wrapped Beppino in her old shawl once more and took Maria's hand in hers. Very wearily she walked towards the door, followed by the tap, tap of Brigida's crutches behind. Then for one moment she paused and looked round. Could she ask for just a little help? She had never begged of any one before, but to-morrow was the festa, and there was nothing for the children to eat. It was some weeks now since poor little Beppino's mother had died, leaving him alone and uncared for, and he had had his share of love and daily bread with her own two little ones. But an extra mouth, however small, was difficult to fill, and to-day she did not know where to turn to for help. She looked wistfully at the tall figure with the stern face standing there. She tried to speak, but the words would not come. If he would but give her one kindly glance she might find courage. But a dark frown had gathered on the painter's forehead, and he turned [109] impatiently from her beseeching look and stood before his picture.

With a choking sob the woman held the baby closer and went slowly through the door and down the long flight of stone steps. It was no use looking at the fowls now or dreaming of gay presents. Brigida saw the tears stealing one after another down her mother's cheeks as they silently trudged homewards.

"Thou art not angry with the little one, mammina?" she asked anxiously. "It is not easy to sit and smile when one is cold and sleepy."

The woman shook her head and tried to smile.

"Poor lamb," she said; "no, it is no fault of his, but there will be no festa for us to-morrow."

Maria opened her mouth and gave out one long, loud wail. No good food, no sweet cake, no toy; it was more than she could bear.

"Hush thee, hush now," cried Brigida, bending down to kiss the miserable little face. "I promise thee thou shalt have a beautiful present all thy own," and she gave a mysterious little nod and smile, which put a stop to Maria's tears like magic.

Meanwhile, in the cold, bare attic the painter stood motionless before his picture and then sank down in his chair in an attitude of deep despair. All his hopes had been set on this one picture, his greatest and his best. He knew that the work was good, but he began to fear now that it was beyond his power to finish it. He saw nothing but the blank where the Christ-child's [110] face should be, the centre and heart of the whole picture, till at last he covered his eyes with his hand that he might shut out the sight of his bitter failure and disappointment.

But a few minutes seemed to have passed when he looked up again with a start. What was that light which shone so clear in the dim twilight of the room? It seemed to come from the unfinished picture, he thought, and then suddenly he felt rather than saw that the picture was unfinished no longer. The light which dazzled his eyes was the halo of glory which shone round the Christ-child's face—that face painted as even in his fairest dreams he had not pictured it. There was something so divine in the beauty of the little face that it seemed to make the very attic a holy place, and the painter fell upon his knees as he gazed, his eyes almost blinded by the glory. But was it only a picture, after all? He looked around. Where was he, and who were these kneeling figures beside him? This was not his great, bare garret but a stable, and instead of the kings in their costly robes, the space before the gentle Mother and her Divine Child was filled with many figures crowding round, some richly dressed, some in rags, old and young, but each one bearing in his hand some gift to offer to the Infant King. Strange gifts they were, some of them; surely the Christ-child would refuse such mean offerings? But no, His hand was stretched out to receive even the commonest, and, strange to say, [111] some gifts that seemed the poorest, at His touch were changed to such rare worth and beauty that they shone like pure gold, while others that looked fit offerings for a king, piles of gold and precious gems, turned in an instant to dull lead and worthless pebbles. "It is love that makes an offering really precious," whispered a voice in the painter's ear. "Wherever self creeps in, it spoils the most costly gift."

But now the painter felt he was being pressed forward, nearer and nearer, and only then it flashed upon him that he had no offering to make, that he alone of all the throng was kneeling there with empty hands. He thought of his past life and searched to find if he had any excuse to offer to the Child King. No, it was Self he saw at every turn; he had lived for nothing else, and now his hands were empty.

It was not fear that made him bow his head while the big sobs shook his shoulders. No fear could have broken up the ice which for years had been gathering round his frozen heart; it was the thought that soon the Blessed Child would smile on him, would stretch out His little hand towards him, and that he would have nothing to place there, no offering to make this glad Epiphany morning. Every one except himself had something. Even the little lame girl in old tattered clothes, who knelt beside him, held clasped in her arms an old wooden doll. He alone had nothing, and every moment he was drawing nearer.

Only three people were in front of him now—a man, [112] grasping a handful of gold, a poor woman carrying a tiny baby, and the little lame child with her battered doll.

The man walked confidently up, but lo! when the gold touched the outstretched hand, it lost its shining glitter and was changed to dull grey lead. Strangely enough, the man did not seem to notice that, for he never glanced upward, and did not see the grieved look upon the Christ-child's face.

Timidly now the poor woman came nearer, and kneeling down, she whispered how she had nothing to give, for the baby she held was a motherless waif, and her offering had been spent in giving it food and shelter. Nothing to give? Ah! but as the painter looked nearer he saw in the Christ-child's hand a golden scroll on which was written in shining characters, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me."

The little lame child came next, and she gazed up with perfect trust and fearlessness as she held out the old wooden doll. It had been her one treasured possession, and it was very hard to part with it, but the little sister had nothing for the festa and had so longed for a real present. It was only an old doll, but it shone as brightly as the costliest gifts, and perhaps was counted by Him more precious than the gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Then the painter knew that it was his turn, and humbly kneeling there he covered his face with his [113] hands, while from his lips the words fell, "I am but a poor man, too poor, Lord, to offer Thee anything, nor have I ever had the opportunity of doing anything for Thee."

But the Child's voice bade him look up, and there before him was another scene. It was his old garret again, and a poor woman stood there holding a baby, and two children were clinging to her skirts. He saw the beseeching look in her eyes as she turned to go, and heard the sound of the half-choked sob as the door closed behind her. He started forward as if to stop her, but the vision faded, and again the voice sounded sorrowfully in his ear, "Inasmuch as ye did it not."

The painter wakened with a start. He had been dreaming, only dreaming, but the tears were wet on his cheeks, and a new pain gnawed at his heart. He could scarcely see the dim outline of his unfinished picture as he groped for his hat and felt his way to the door. Down the stone steps he hastened and out into the silent night, with but one thought in his mind. The streets were very quiet, but ere long the bells would ring out their glad welcome to the joyous festa day, and he must do his errand quickly. It was not long before he reached the poor street he sought, and climbed the steep stairs and stood before a closed door. Hastily he felt for his wallet and wrapped something round in a piece of paper, and then stooping down he slipped it under the door, carefully pushing it [114] in until the last scrap of paper had disappeared. Then with a sigh of relief he turned to go, with such a look of happiness upon his face as it had not worn for years.
. . . . . .

"Get thee up, Brigida, dost thou not hear the bells?" cried the mother. "Hark! we must not be late in going to the church to-day, to greet the Gesu Bambino."

"Truly, mother," answered Brigida, rubbing her eyes, "the night has seemed so short, and I dreamed that I had been to greet Him already." And her face shone with such a happy smile that the mother stooped down to kiss the sunshiny little face.

A shriek of joy from the other little bed made them start, and then they both laughed with joy too. For there sat Maria staring with big round eyes at the old wooden doll which dangled from the end of the bed in front of her.

"For me?" she shouted, stretching out her arms towards it. Then as it seemed as if it must be too good to be true, she cried again, "For me?"

"But yes, it is thy festa gift," said Brigida, with a wise little womanly shake of her head. "I am growing too old for playthings, and this is for thy very own."

Even Beppino set up a feeble little crow of pleasure as he listened to the shouts of delight which came from Maria's bed as she clasped the old doll tight in her arms, and the poor mother too smiled at the sound, [115] though her heart was heavy when she thought of the long day before her, and the very small piece of bread which was all she had to fill those hungry little mouths.

"Come, children," she cried, "let us hurry, or the bells will stop before we can reach the church."

She wrapped Beppino in her old shawl and helped to fasten Maria's little frock, and then began to unlock the door.

"See, mother," said Brigida, stooping down and lifting a piece of paper that lay there, "some one has pushed this under the door."

"Only a little piece of dirty paper," said the mother, but as she opened it her face changed.

"Children, children," she cried, "it is a piece of silver, it is money to buy all we need to-day."

She stood and gazed at the scrap of paper and the silver piece as if she were bewitched.

"Mammina," shouted little Maria, tugging at her dress. "It is a gift from the Gesu Bambino for His festa, is it not so?"

"Now we shall have a fat fowl and sweet chestnuts, and Beppino will have the good white milk he loves," cried Brigida, as she hopped about with joy, while Maria joined in the dance.

But the mother did not seem to heed them. There was an awed, thankful look upon her face as she held the piece of money tightly in her hand.

"Hush, hush, children," she said, "make not so much noise. There is something else to think of first. [116] We must away to thank the Blessed Child for this His birthday gift."

"The streets were already filled with hurrying people, and the air was gay with the sound of the glad bells, as the little family wended its way to the square and up the steps to the front of the great church. The door stood open, and the mother had only to push the heavy leathern curtains aside to let the little ones pass in. But first she pulled her handkerchief over her head, and laid two little white squares on the curly heads of the two children.

Hand in hand they walked slowly up the great dim church to where a glow of light shone from the candles of a distant altar, and there on the pavement they knelt in solemn reverence. Even the baby face of Maria wore an awed look as she folded her hands together and tried to say her Latin prayer, which ended with her own words, "And I thank Thee, Little Lord Jesus, for this Thy birthday gift."
. . . . . .

There was a stir in the world of Art, and men crowded to the convent chapel to see the new picture, about which every one was talking.

"Really a wonderful piece of work," said the prior, rubbing his hands with pride over his new possession. "And to think that we never knew until now how great a painter dwelt in our city!"

"Ah, we knew him well enough," said a brother artist standing near, "but never before has he painted [117] like this. His work was always good, but it lacked life and soul."

"It would seem he has found his soul at last then," said another, "or how could he have painted a face such as that?" and he pointed with a reverent gesture to the face of the Christ-child, which looked out from the picture with such divine beauty that even as men beheld it they bowed their heads in reverence before it.

"It is painted from no earthly model," said the prior thoughtfully, gazing at the great Epiphany picture. "One feels that such a face could only have been seen in some vision sent by God to gladden our dim eyes."


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