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- The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 10/39 -


figures, were moving towards him.

Half absently, he let his eyes accompany them.

As they carne nearer, they defined themselves as a boy and a girl. Nearer still, he saw that they were ragged and dusty and barefoot.

The boy had three or four gaudy-hued wicker baskets slung over his shoulder.

Vaguely, tacitly, Peter supposed that they would be the children of some of the peasants of the countryside, on their way home from the village.

As they arrived abreast of him, they paid him the usual peasants' salute. The boy lifted a tattered felt hat from his head, the girl bobbed a courtesy, and "Buona sera, Eccellenza," they said in concert, without, however, pausing in their march.

Peter put his hand in his pocket.

"Here, little girl," he called.

The little girl glanced at him, doubting.

"Come here," he said.

Her face a question, she came up to him; and he gave her a few coppers.

"To buy sweetmeats," he said.

"A thousand thanks; Excellency," said she, bobbing another courtesy.

"A thousand thanks, Excellency," said the boy, from his distance, again lifting his rag of a hat.

And they trudged on.

But Peter looked after them--and his heart smote him. They were clearly of the poorest of the poor. He thought of Hansel and Gretel. Why had he given them so little? He called to them to stop.

The little girl came running back.

Peter rose to meet her.

"You may as well buy some ribbons too," he said, and gave her a couple of lire.

She looked at the money with surprise--even with an appearance of hesitation. Plainly, it was a sum, in her eyes.

"It's all right. Now run along," said Peter.

"A thousand thanks, Excellency," said she, with a third courtesy, and rejoined her brother . . . .

"Where are they going?" asked a voice.

Peter faced about.

There stood the Duchessa, in a bicycling costume, her bicycle beside her. Her bicycling costume was of blue serge, and she wore a jaunty sailor-hat with a blue ribbon. Peter (in spite of the commotion in his breast) was able to remember that this was the first time he had seen her in anything but white.

Her attention was all upon the children, whom he, perhaps, had more or less banished to Cracklimbo.

"Where are they going?" she repeated, trouble in her voice and in her eyes.

Peter collected himself.

"The children? I don't know--I didn't ask. Home, aren't they?"

"Home? Oh, no. They don't live hereabouts," she said. "I know all the poor of this neighbourhood.--Ohe there! Children! Children!" she cried.

But they were quite a hundred yards away, and did not hear.

"Do you wish them to come back?" asked Peter.

"Yes--of course," she answered, with a shade of impatience.

He put his fingers to his lips (you know the schoolboy accomplishment), and gave a long whistle.

That the children did hear.

They halted, and turned round, looking, enquiring.

"Come back--come back!" called the Duchessa, raising her hand, and beckoning.

They came back.

"The pathetic little imps," she murmured while they were on the way.

The boy was a sturdy, square-built fellow, of twelve, thirteen, with a shock of brown hair, brown cheeks, and sunny brown eyes; with a precocious air of doggedness, of responsibility. He wore an old tail-coat, the tail-coat of a man, ragged, discoloured, falling to his ankles.

The girl was ten or eleven, pale, pinched; hungry, weary, and sorry looking. Her hair too had been brown, upon a time; but now it was faded to something near the tint of ashes, and had almost the effect of being grey. Her pale little forehead was crossed by thin wrinkles, lines of pain, of worry, like an old woman's.

The Duchessa, pushing her bicycle, and followed by Peter, moved down the road, to meet them. Peter had never been so near to her before--at moments her arm all but brushed his sleeve. I think he blessed the children.

"Where are you going?" the Duchessa asked, softly, smiling into the girl's sad little face.

The girl had shown no fear of Peter; but apparently she was somewhat frightened by this grand lady. The toes of her bare feet worked nervously in the dust. She hung her head shyly, and eyed her brother.

But the brother, removing his hat, with the bow of an Italian peasant--and that is to say, the bow of a courtier--spoke up bravely.

"To Turin, Nobility."

He said it in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, quite as he might have said, "To the next farm-house."

The Duchessa, however, had not bargained for an answer of this measure. Startled, doubting her ears perhaps, "To--Turin--!" she exclaimed.

"Yes, Excellency," said the boy.

"But--but Turin--Turin is hundreds of kilometres from here," she said, in a kind of gasp.

"Yes, Excellency," said the boy.

"You are going to Turin--you two children--walking--like that!" she persisted.

"Yes, Excellency."

"But--but it will take you a month."

"Pardon, noble lady," said the boy. "With your Excellency's permission, we were told it should take fifteen days."

"Where do you come from?" she asked.

"From Bergamo, Excellency."

"When did you leave Bergamo?"

"Yesterday morning, Excellency."

"The little girl is your sister?"

"Yes, Excellency."

"Have you a mother and father?"

"A father, Excellency. The mother is dead." Each of the children made the Sign of the Cross; and Peter was somewhat surprised, no doubt, to see the Duchessa do likewise. He had yet to learn the beautiful custom of that pious Lombard land, whereby, when the Dead are mentioned, you make the Sign of the Cross, and, pausing reverently for a moment, say in silence the traditional prayer of the Church:

"May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the Mercy of God, rest in peace."

"And where is your father?" the Duchessa asked.

"In Turin, Excellency," answered the boy. "He is a glass-blower. After the strike at Bergamo, he went to Turin to seek work. Now he has found it. So he has sent for us to come to him."

"And you two children--alone--are going to walk all the way to Turin!" She could not get over the pitiful wonder of it.

"Yes, Excellency."


The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 10/39

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