Rico and Stineli.
Chapter XVIII. Two Happy Travellers.
 

On Monday evening the journey was to begin. The horse-dealer had impressed this fact so thoroughly on Rico's memory, that there was not a chance for a mistake. After the farewells were all said, Rico and Stineli went towards Sils together, while her mother, with all the little children clustered about her, stood upon the doorstep and looked after them.

Sami accompanied them to carry the portmanteau on his head, and Rico carried the basket on one side, and Stineli held it on the other. Stineli's clothes had just filled it.

When they reached the church in Sils, Stineli said, "Oh, if my grandmother could only see us now! We will go to say good-by to her, Rico." He was very willing, and told Stineli how he had already tried to find the grave, but had not succeeded.

The girl was better informed than her brother.

When the post-wagon came along and stopped, the driver called out, "Are the couple ready who are to go down to the Lake of Garda? I was asking for them yesterday."

The horse-dealer had given them a good recommendation; and the driver called out that they should climb up to the top: the others had found it too cold. "You are younger," he said.

So saying, he helped them up to the seats behind the box, and took out a thick horse-blanket, and wrapped them up snugly therein; and off they went.

For the first time since they had come together again, the two young people were alone, and could talk freely and undisturbed, and tell each other how they had passed the three long years since they parted. And they chattered away happily under the starry heavens, never thinking of sleep in their joy at being together.

Towards morning they reached the lake, and arrived in Peschiera at the same hour as Rico had before arrived, and walked along the road to the lake-side. But Rico did not wish his companion to see the lake until she had reached the spot he called his own; so he led her through the trees until they came to the little stone bridge in the open.

There lay the lake in the light of the setting sun; and the children sat side by side on the little mound, and gazed across the water.

There it was, just as Rico had described it, but more, much more lovely; for such colors Stineli had never seen before.

She looked about her towards the purple mountains, across the golden waters, and she cried out with all her heart, "Yes, it is finer than the Lake of Sils."

But Rico felt that it had never yet been so exquisitely beautiful as on this evening when he and Stineli saw it together.

Rico had another secret joy that he cherished in his heart. How surprised Silvio and his mother would be to see them! Nobody had expected them back so soon. Nobody would look for them before the end of the week, and now there they sat by the lake-side.

They did not quit the little mound until the sun had fairly disappeared.

Rico pointed out to his companion the spot where his mother stood washing something in the lake, and how he used to sit waiting until she had finished; and then he told how they walked back together, hand in hand, over the little bridge.

"But where did you go when you went back?" asked Stineli. "Have you never found the house that you returned to?"

Rico could not say. "When I go up there, away from the lake towards the railroad, I seem to remember that there I stood with my mother, or sat with her upon a garden-seat with the red flowers before us; but now nothing is to be seen like the house, and I do not even recognize the road at all."

At last they arose, and went towards the garden. Rico carried the portmanteau, and the girl the basket. As they entered the garden, Stineli called out too loud, in her delight, "Oh, the beautiful, beautiful flowers!"

Silvio heard these unfortunate words, and pulled himself up in an instant, crying out, at the top of his lungs,--

"Here comes Rico with his Stineli!"

His poor mother thought that he had an attack of fever. She thrust her things back into the chest which she was arranging,--every thing in again, pell-mell,--and ran quickly to the bedside.

At that moment Rico walked boldly into the room, and the good woman almost fell over backward in her surprise and delight; for until that very instant she had secretly been a prey to the darkest fears, always believing that Rico's adventure would cost him his life.

A maiden came behind Rico, with a friendly face that won Mrs. Menotti's heart in a twinkling, for she was a very impressionable woman.

First of all, however, she shook Rico's hands almost off in her welcoming grasp; and in the meantime Stineli had gone over to the bedside and placed her arm about the thin shoulders of the child, and smiled into his face as if they were old and dear friends, while Silvio in return put his arm about her neck, and drew her face down to his.

Straightway Stineli placed a present for the child before him. She had put it conveniently in her pocket, so that she could place her hand on it at once. It was a toy that had been Peterli's favorite before any other,--a pine-cone, with a thin wire introduced into each little opening between the hard scales, and a little figure, made of sole-leather, perched on the top of each bit of wire. All these tiny figures shook and nodded so merrily towards each other, and had such funnily painted little faces, that Silvio could scarcely stop laughing at them.

Mrs. Menotti had learned from Rico all that he had to tell her of importance while this play went on,--for she was anxious to learn from himself that all had gone quietly and safely,--then she turned to the girl, and greeted her with heartfelt kindness; and Stineli made answer more with her kindly eyes than with her tongue, for she could not speak a word of Italian, and had to help herself out with such Romanish words as she had learned.

But she was quick-witted, and found a way to make herself understood without difficulty; for, if the right word was wanting, she described the thing cleverly with her fingers, and by all sorts of signs, which amused Silvio exceedingly; for it was a kind of game of guessing for him all the time.

Now Mrs. Menotti went over to the cupboard, where all the service for the table was kept, and brought out tablecloth and plates, cold chicken, fruit, and wine; which, when Stineli observed, she hastened after her to aid her, and did it so neatly and handily that there remained little for Mrs. Menotti to do; and she stood gazing at the nimble, willing girl, who had soon served Silvio also, as he lay in bed, cutting his food for him, and helping him neatly and rapidly, which pleased the child very much.

Mrs. Menotti seated herself, saying, "I have not had such help as this in many a year; but, come now, Stineli: sit down, and eat with us."

And they sat and chatted and ate together, as if they were old friends who had always been accustomed to such free intercourse.

Rico began to give an account of the journey after they had finished eating, and Stineli meanwhile quietly replaced every thing in the cupboard; for she knew well enough, without being told, how such work should be done. Then she seated herself by Silvio's bedside, and made shadow pictures on the wall with her supple fingers; and Silvio laughed aloud, and called the names,--"A hare! A beast with horns! A spider with long legs!"

So sped away the first evening quickly and merrily, and they all were taken by surprise when it struck ten o'clock. Rico rose, for he knew he must be going; but a dark cloud came over his countenance.

He said shortly, "Good-night," and went away. But the girl ran after him; and in the garden she took his hand, saying, "Now you must not be sad, Rico, it is so beautiful here. I cannot tell you how lovely I find it, nor how happy I am; and I owe it all, all to you. And you will come again to-morrow, and every day, will you not, Rico?"

"Yes," he said; and looked at Stineli with a most melancholy expression. "Yes; and every evening, when it is most beautiful, I must be off and away, because I belong to nobody."

"Oh! do not think in that way, Rico," said his friend encouragingly. "Have we not always belonged to each other, and have not I often rejoiced over that thought all these three years that are past? And when things were almost unsupportable, and I longed to get away, have not I always said to myself, 'If I could only be with Rico again, I would bear any thing?' And now it has come about as we wished, and, indeed, far better than I had imagined; and will you not be happy with me, Rico?"

"Yes; that I will," said the lad; and his countenance cleared a little.

He did belong to somebody, after all; and Stineli's words had restored his tranquility. They shook hands again; and Rico went through the garden-gate, and away.

When Stineli returned to the room, and, by Mrs. Menotti's directions, was about to say good-night to Silvio, the child began to dispute again, and declared that he would not be separated from his newly-found friend even for a few hours; but would have her sit by his bedside all night long, and say funny words to him, and look at him with her laughing eyes.

Nothing that his mother could say produced any impression upon him, until she spoke thus: "Very well; if you keep Stineli standing by your bed to amuse you all night, she will soon be as ill as you are, and not be able to get up at all, but have to lie in bed, and you will not see her for a long time."

So, after a while, the child released his hold of Stineli's arm, and said,--

"There, go to sleep; but come to me again to-morrow early."

This was promised; and Mrs. Menotti showed the girl into a neat little bedroom that looked out upon the garden, whence a delicious scent of flowers rose through the open window.

With every day that passed Stineli became more and more necessary to little Silvio. If she only went out-of-doors for a few moments, he considered it a misfortune. He was obedient and quiet enough, however, when she stayed with him; and did every thing she bade him do, and did not tease his mother as before.

And it seemed as if the nervous little fellow had less frequent attacks of pain since Stineli's arrival. Indeed, he had not complained since her coming, and she had been with them many days.

It must certainly be acknowledged that she was the most amusing of companions, and turned every thing that came in her way into a game. She had always lived with children, and constantly had their entertainment in her mind. She had also learned a great many words from Silvio, and could soon chatter away with him at her ease; and when she did get the words twisted and upside down, it was even more funny, and Silvio looked upon that as a game made expressly for him.

Mrs. Menotti never saw Rico entering the garden but she ran towards him, for now she was at liberty to move about freely; and she always drew him a little aside to tell him what a treasure he had brought into the house for her, how happy and gay her Silvio had become, and that she never would have believed that such a girl as Stineli existed on the face of the earth; for with Silvio she was as merry as if her only pleasure consisted in playing the little games he liked, while she was as wise and intelligent as any grown woman with Mrs. Menotti, and understood housework so that it all seemed to go on of its own accord; and nicely, too, as if every day were Sunday. In short, Mrs. Menotti could not find words enough to praise Stineli in all the ways in which she found her admirable; and Rico was always happy in listening to these praises.

When they all sat together in the pleasant room, and exchanged loving and happy glances, they felt that they never wanted to be separated, and called themselves the happiest family in the whole world, and needed for nothing.

But the clouds on Rico's brow grew dark as night came on, and towards ten o'clock every thing looked black and blacker; and even if Mrs. Menotti, in her contentment, did not notice it, Stineli did, and secretly worried over it, thinking, "It is just as if there were a thunder-storm in the air."