Rico and Stineli.
Chapter XVI. Counsel that Brings Joy to Many.
 

In all this trouble and uncertainty it was a real comfort to Mrs. Menotti to see the long black coat of the kind-hearted old priest, who had not been to visit her for a long time, coming through the garden gate.

She sprang up from her seat, crying out joyfully, "Look, Silvio; there comes the dear, good priest!" and went towards him. But Silvio, in his anger over every thing, said, as loud as he could, "I would rather it were Stineli!"

Then he crept quickly under the coverlet, so that the priest need not know where the voice came from. His mother, however, was dreadfully shocked, and begged the good man, who now entered the room, not to take offence at this greeting, as it was not really so bad as it sounded.

Silvio did not stir, but said softly, under the bed-cover,--

"I really mean just what I say."

The father must have had a suspicion of where the voice came from. He stepped at once to the bedside; and, though there was not a hair of Silvio's head even to be seen, he said, "God bless you, my son! how are you? How is your health nowadays? and why do you creep into this hidden hole like a little badger? Come out, and explain it all to me. What do you mean by Stineli?"

Now Silvio crept forth, for he had the priest in great respect now that he was so close to him. He stretched out his little thin hand in greeting, and said, "Rico's Stineli, I mean."

His mother now interposed with the explanation, for the father shook his head very doubtfully as he seated himself by the bedside. The good woman related the whole affair about Stineli, and told how her little boy had got the idea firmly fixed in his noddle that he would never be well again unless this Stineli could come to him; and how even Rico had become unreasonable, and declared that he could go to fetch Stineli, even though he did not know a single stock nor stone of the way; and it was such a long journey up into the mountains, moreover, and it was impossible to realize what horrible people they were who lived up there. But it proved how very bad they must be when a tender little fellow like Rico preferred to incur the great danger of the journey than to remain among such rude folk. "If it were practicable," however, added Mrs. Menotti, "no money would seem to me wasted that would procure me such a girl to quiet Silvio's longing, and to have some one to help take care of him;" for sometimes she had almost too much to endure, and felt as if she must give up altogether. And Rico, who was usually very discreet in his conversation, was of the opinion that nobody could help her so much nor so well in every way as this same Stineli. He ought to know her very well, too; and certainly, if she really corresponded to his description, it would be a great escape for such a girl to get away from the mountains; but she did not know of anybody who would do them such a favor as to bring her.

To all this discourse the kind priest lent an attentive ear in profound silence, until Mrs. Menotti had quite finished. Indeed, he could not have got a word in edgewise if he had been inclined; for the good woman had not opened her heart for a long time, and it was so full that it almost choked her when she gave her words full expression, and she quite lost her breath.

Now quiet reigned for a while, then the good man began very calmly to smoke his second pipe; and presently he said, "H--m, h--m, Mrs. Menotti; I rather think you have an impression of the mountaineers that is decidedly exaggerated. There are good Christians there as elsewhere; and now that there are so many ways of doing things discovered, it would be also quite possible to get up there without danger. We must bethink ourselves about that, and find out about it."

After this opinion, the priest stopped to refresh himself a little from his snuffbox; then he went on:--

"There are all sorts of trades-people who are always coming down to Bergamo,--sheep and horse dealers: they know the road well enough, of course. We can obtain information, and then bethink ourselves: we can find a way sooner or later. It you are in earnest about it, Mrs. Menotti, I will look about a little. I go every year once or twice to Bergamo, and I will take the thing in hand for you."

Mrs. Menotti was so filled with gratitude at this promise, that words utterly failed her that were, in her opinion, adequate to express her thanks. Suddenly all the heavy thoughts had vanished that had oppressed her day and night for such a long time past, and in which she was getting more and more involved the more she puzzled over them, so that at the last she saw no hope of a decision. Now the Father took the whole burden upon himself, and she could refer her troublesome little Silvio to him.

While this conference was taking place, the little invalid had almost pierced the priest through with his great gray eyes, so great was his interest in what they said. When the priest arose, and held his hand towards the child to say good-by, the little thin fingers were pressed into his big palm as if he were making a firm contract.

The father gave his promise to bring tidings as soon as he had obtained the necessary information; and then they could decide whether the thing could be done, or whether Silvio must give up his wish altogether.

Week after week slipped by, but Silvio did not waver. He had a firm ground of hope now by which to hold; and, moreover, Rico had become so lively and amusing, that he was hardly to be recognized. It acted upon him like a spark that kindled a joyful bonfire when he learned the priest's comforting words; and a new life was awakened in the lad. He knew more stories to tell Silvio than ever before; and when he took his fiddle in his hand, he produced such heart-stirring tones and tunes, that Mrs. Menotti could not tear herself from the room where the boys were, and was full of astonishment at Rico's store of music.

It was only in this room at Mrs. Menotti's that Rico fully enjoyed his instrument. It sounded so well in the large, lofty space, where it was quiet and peaceful, without a taint of tobacco-smoke, or the clamor of noisy men; and he was not confined to dance music, but at liberty to play as his fancy directed. Every day he went with increasing pleasure to Mrs. Menotti's, and often said to himself, as he entered, "This is the way it must feel when one is entering his own home."

But it was not his home: he only was permitted to go there for a little while, and away again.

There had come over Rico a very decided change within a short time; and the landlady, who perceived it clearly, was greatly perplexed thereby. When she placed a nasty broken pail of refuse before him, saying, "There, Rico, carry this to the hens," he would step aside a little, put his hands behind his back, to show that he did not mean to touch the pail, and say quietly, "I prefer that some one else should do that;" and when she brought out an old pair of shoes and handed them to him to carry to the cobbler, he did the same, saying. "I prefer that you should give them to another person to carry."

Now the landlady was a clever woman, and knew how to put two and two together; and it had not escaped her that Rico was quite another person within a short time, and looked very differently too. Mrs. Menotti had always dressed him very nicely since she had undertaken that office; but when she observed how well his clothes became him, and what an air of real gentility he had, she used finer materials than at first; and the lad always took good care of his person and his dress, for he detested uncleanliness and disorder, both on his own appearance and in his surroundings. All of this was not unnoticed, nor did she ever forget that even as Rico had poured out his pocketful of gold upon the table before her after his first "dance evening," so had he continued to do faithfully, and not so much as looked as if he would like to keep one bit for himself.

He brought more and more each time; for it was not only for his dance music that he was called so often, but because of his songs, that were very popular.

And the landlady recognized that it was her best policy to treat him always kindly and well; and she did not trouble him about the hens nor the shoes, and required such little services from him no more.

It was now three years since Rico made his first entry into Peschiera. He was now a tall, fourteen-year old stripling, and whoever laid eyes upon him found him pleasing to look upon.

Once again the golden sun of autumn burnished the surface of the Lake of Garda, and the heavens lay blue above the tranquil waves. In the garden the great bunches of grapes hung gold against the trellises, and the red flowers of the oleander glistened in the sunbeams.

It was quiet in Silvio's room, for his mother was without in the garden gathering grapes and figs for the evening. The invalid lay listening for Rico's step, for this was the time of his usual visit. The wicket opened: Silvio pulled himself up in his bed. A long black coat came slowly toward the door,--it was the priest. Silvio did not think of hiding himself this time. He stretched out his little arm as far as he was able, to shake hands with the good man, before he had fairly entered the room.

This welcome pleased the priest, who walked at once into the room, and to the child's bedside, even though he saw Mrs. Menotti's form behind him in the garden.

"This is right, my son," he said. "And how do you find yourself?"

"All right," said Silvio quickly; and, looking eagerly at the good man, he added softly, "When may Rico go?"

Seating himself by the bedside, the good man said, a little pompously, "To-morrow, at five o'clock, Rico will start, my son."

Mrs. Menotti entered as he was speaking, and it was with some difficulty that the priest could quiet her enough to get a chance to tell his story in a consecutive way, and to make himself understood; and all the time he was speaking, Silvio's eyes were fixed upon his face like a little sparrow-hawk.

He had come directly from Bergamo, where he had passed two days. He had made all the necessary arrangements with a horse-trader,--a friend of his who had been travelling, for thirty years or more, every autumn, and knew the way over the mountains that Rico must take. He knew, also, how the journey could be made without leaving the coach, or sleeping by the way. He was going there himself, and would take Rico under his charge, if the lad would go to Bergamo by the early train. The man knew all the drivers and conductors, also; and would arrange for his and his companion's return, and recommend them so well that there would be no trouble or danger.

The Father was convinced that there was no hindrance to Rico's going in perfect safety, and gave his blessing to the undertaking.

As he stood by the garden-hedge, after saying good-by to Silvio, Mrs. Menotti, who had accompanied him thus far, detained him for a moment, to ask again, full of sudden anxiety, "Oh, there will not be any danger to his life, I hope? Nor that he may lose his way, and go wandering about in the mountains? You do not think that possible, do you, Father?" But the good man quieted her fears; and she returned to the house, thinking of what there remained to do for Rico, who entered the garden at this moment, and was greeted by such a startling cry of joy from Silvio, that he reached the bedside in three leaps to find out what it all meant.

"What is the matter? What ails you?" Rico kept asking; and Silvio repeated, "I will tell you, I will tell you!" until, in real anxiety, his mother came to his aid. Soon, however, she left the boys to enjoy their happiness together; and went about her business, which she thought very important. She fetched a portmanteau, and placed a huge piece of smoked meat first of all at the bottom, then a half loaf of bread, a big parcel of preserved plums and figs, and a bottle of wine, carefully wrapped in a cloth. Then came the clothes,--two shirts and a pair of shoes, two pair of stockings, and pocket-handkerchiefs; for it seemed always to Mrs. Menotti as if Rico were going to the farthermost part of the world; and she only now fully realized how dearly she loved the lad, for she felt that she could not get on without him.

All the while, as she was packing, she would pause, sit down, and say to herself, anxiously, "Oh, I do hope there will not be an accident!"

Presently she brought the portmanteau down-stairs, and counselled Rico to go at once and explain to the landlady how every thing had happened; and to ask if she would allow him to go, and not oppose it; and afterwards Rico was to carry the portmanteau to the station.

The boy was in the greatest surprise over his portmanteau. He obeyed in silence, as usual, however, and went to the landlady. He explained to her that he was going back to the mountains to bring Stineli back with him, and that the priest had arranged it so that he was to start on the following morning at five o'clock.

It produced a feeling of respect at once in the mind of the landlady when she found that the priest was at the head of the business. But she naturally wished to know who this Stineli might be, and what the idea was in fetching her; for she hoped it might be on her account.

She only found out that Stineli was a girl whose name was Stineli, and that she was coming to Mrs. Menotti. So she let the thing go; for she would not interfere, for the world, with that lady's wishes. She was only too glad that Rico had been left to her for so long. She took it for granted that Stineli was Rico's sister, only that he had not said so, because he never did say any thing about his family.

So she told all the guests in the inn that evening that Rico was going to bring his sister down to Peschiera, because he had found out how well they all lived there.

In order to show how highly she held the lad in respect, she had a big basket brought down from the attic, and filled it with sausages and cheese, and slices of bread, and eggs, saying,--

"You must not get hungry on the way; and what is left over, you can eat while you are there. It will not be too much; and coming back, you will need something too. You are certainly coming back, Rico, are you not?"

"Certainly," replied the lad. "In eight days I shall be back again."

In Mrs. Menotti's hands he placed his beloved fiddle, for he would not have trusted it to any one else; and then he took his leave for eight days, for he could easily be back again in that time, if every thing went well.