Almost before they were aware of it, the afternoon was drawing to a close, and with the coming of twilight Venice became more of a fairyland than ever.
Outlining the buildings throughout the Square, throwing into prominence every graceful point and cornice, were thousands of electric lights: St. Mark's herself appeared more like a jewel box than ever, and was only surpassed by the Campanile which was ablaze from top to bottom.
Everywhere was music, everywhere was light, and in this new and splendid setting, Venice looked a very gorgeous "Bride of the Sea!"
The spirit of the old Carnival days was once more present: as women in black shawls and strange masked figures threaded their way amid the throngs of people accompanied by wild music, while confetti, thrown from every balcony, caused shouts of laughter and fell harmlessly upon them.
There were to be fireworks on the water, and Paolo had offered his old gondola that they might join the gay crowds on the Grand Canal. Here Pietro was supreme, and it required only the twisting of a scarf about his waist to transform him into a gondolier, at least in the eyes of his not too critical audience.
So Giovanni and the children crowded into the shabby gondola and rowed with thousands of others up and down, watching the rockets soaring into the sky and bursting into myriads of dazzling stars as they fell into the water below.
Later, when the display was over, Pietro guided them among the storied palaces of the long ago, now close behind some concert barge, playing softest strains of grand opera, or answering the low call of passing gondoliers with like musical response.
A LITTLE JOURNEY IN THE WORLD
The morning after the great Carnival day Andrea woke with a sense of disquietude. Something was going to happen, but for a few moments he could not think what it was. Then with a rush he remembered. He had promised to show Chico to his uncle. Since the suggestion had been made he had not been able to dismiss it from his mind and, even while watching the bursting rockets the evening before, he had found himself wondering what Pietro could have meant by his mysterious remark, "If the bird is what you say—we shall see. We shall see!"
Although he liked his uncle immensely, he had not been able entirely to overcome a certain feeling of awe in his presence, and he shuddered at thought of many scathing criticisms he had heard him make upon objects which he had been brought up to regard with veneration. Suppose he should make fun of Chico! The quick tears started at the thought. Then his eyes flashed and he sprang out of bed, exclaiming to himself, "I don't care what he may say, I know he's the finest pigeon in the world!"
This feeling of confidence lasted until they finished breakfast and Pietro had pushed back his chair, with the remark:
"And now, my boy, we must be off to see that wonderful bird of yours!"
Then his timidity returned, and beset by anxious fears, he walked silently by his uncle's side.
Pietro was in his most jocund mood that morning, jauntily swinging his cane, joking about the Rialto as they crossed it, and talking a great deal about London and Paris. His companion's courage gradually oozed away. In fact it was completely gone by the time they rounded the corner of the church and came upon the happy couple basking in the sunlight and cooing affectionately to each other.
"So that's the fellow!"—and Pietro pointed to Chico, entirely ignoring little Pepita by his side.
Andrea nodded, not daring to trust himself to speak.
"Hum-mm." His uncle cleared his throat. "Suppose you call him that I may see him closer."
Andrea managed a faint "Chico," and in an instant the pigeon was in his lap, burrowing in his pocket in search of the usual tidbits.
"Hum-mm." Pietro caught the bird firmly in one hand, at the same time swiftly running the other over the trembling body.
"Long wings, bulge prominent over the ear, broad breast, a clear, keen eye—"
Andrea's heart almost ceased to beat.
Then, very slowly, Pietro went on appraisingly. "Very good, very good, indeed! And you say he has had some training?"
"Oh, yes!" the boy answered, and with glowing face, vastly relieved, "he has carried messages from ever so far, from the Lido, from Chioggia—"
"Have you kept his record?" Pietro interrupted brusquely.
At this the boy fished in one pocket after another, finally producing a grimy card, covered with figures.
His uncle took it and, after studying it over carefully, handed it back, saying:
"This is somewhat remarkable, and should be marked on his wings." With that he produced a tiny bottle of India ink a rubber stamp, and while Andrea, with fascinated interest, held the bird, Pietro copied the figures on the primary feathers of the right wing, remarking as he finished, "There, I guess that will attract attention from any fancier. You have really a fine bird, my boy, and I would suggest that it might be well to exhibit him at some pigeon show. There's to be one at Verona next week."
Andrea's head swam. What was his uncle saying? Go to Verona? Exhibit Chico? Impossible! Well he knew there was no money in the little home to pay for any such expenditure, but Pietro was not yet through.
"Your father and mother have treated me right royally ever I've been in Venice, and I am sure they will not deny me this opportunity to make some return. It will not cost you a single lira. What say you, will you accompany me? I happen to be going in that direction and can arrange to stop over as well as not."
Andrea caught his uncle's hands in a paroxysm of joy. In his wildest dreams he had never thought of ever going anywhere outside of Venice, and now, to be thus calmly discussing an errand like this, it seemed as if he could scarcely believe his ears.
Then Pietro, taking for granted that the matter was settled as far as Andrea was concerned, that very evening broached the plan to the boy's father and mother, overruling all their objections with the result that the following Monday found the two travelers, with Chico in his basket, on the train bound for Verona.
It is an interesting trip for any one through the plain towns of northern Italy, and, needless to state, not the slightest detail of the passing landscape was lost on Andrea. Not once did he take his eyes from the car window save occasionally to look through the cracks of the basket into Chico's bright eyes, as if to assure himself that the bird was still there.
On, on they sped, catching glimpses of gnarled olive trees, silvery gray, while Roman walls, centuries old, silhouetted against the horizon, spoke of a civilization long past. There were rounded hill-slopes and ancient castles, while the broad Adige dashed madly along the sides of the track.
It was two o'clock when they reached their destination and rumbled into the huge covered station of Verona.
With beating heart, Andrea followed the business-like Pietro as he led the way out of the station and hailed a vettura [Footnote: Carriage.] to take them up the wide tree-shaded avenue.
The boy paid little attention to the marble palaces by which they drove, but was overwhelmed at the experience of actually being behind a horse. He drew a deep breath—it was a dream come true; he was further amazed at finding their conveyance but one of an endless throng of wagons, carriages, and tram-cars.
In many ways Verona is fully as old-fashioned as Venice, but to Andrea the city seemed the personification of all that was progressive, and while the horses were not the gay steeds of the boy's dream, they were really alive, and wonder of wonders, as they drove over the grand arches of the historic structure which bridges the muddy, swirling waters of the Adige, they were suddenly outdistanced by what Pietro pointed out as one of the few automobiles of Verona.
The boy's eyes widened. What tales he would have to tell old Paolo and the little Maria! When they came to the great Arena, in the heart of the city, Pietro dismissed their vettura, and together they walked down the principal promenade to the shopping center where they mingled with the endless crowds of pedestrians and looked into the windows of the gay little shops that made Andrea think of Venice.
Not far from the imposing City Hall was an ancient red marble Gothic cross about which were clustered hundreds of what looked like canvas toadstools, but which were, in reality, immense white umbrellas, sheltering countless market stalls. Here were gathered a motley collection of all sorts of things for sale, ranging from boots and shoes to many kinds of provisions and fruits.
Through all this Pietro walked so fast that his companion had hard work to keep up with him, and was glad when they finally stopped in front of an enclosure sheltered by two large umbrellas. Then his heart sank and he clutched his basket closer as he realized that here was where the pigeon show would be held, and understood, from what a loud-voiced man was calling, that the birds were already being entered. He wished—oh, how he wished—he had not come, and was almost overwhelmed by the thought that he would be obliged to leave Chico with these chattering strangers.
There was no alternative—already many of the birds were in place. He could see some of them and realized they were, for the most part, dejected looking specimens. He touched Pietro's sleeve nervously and inquired faintly, "Are you sure I shall get him back?"
But on this point his uncle was most reassuring and replied confidently:
"There's nothing at all to worry about. The bird will be perfectly safe. They'll fasten an aluminum tag about his leg with his number on it and give you the duplicate. A claim check, you know. Come, buck up and be a sport!"
Still doubtful, Andrea sorrowfully relinquished his pet. From that time on, his peace of mind was gone, and he mournfully studied the bit of aluminum with the number—1104.
Pietro noticed the lad's dejection and exerted himself to the utmost to divert him. After a good dinner he proceeded to show him the sights of Verona, at the same time telling him interesting tales about the Arena, the beautiful gardens, and the palaces of olden time. But Andrea remained listless, only rousing when his proposed a visit to the tomb of Romeo and Juliet which was the one place his mother had charged him to see.
The show was to open the next morning at ten o'clock, and long before that time there was an eager crowd at the turnstile.
All was in order—the birds of the various exhibits being arranged in cages in different compartments. There were of every color variety, from big fellows, brought 'way from London, to all white beauties. One corner was devoted to the homing pigeons, and here Andrea discovered Chico in the same cage with some highly trained racers from Belgium. His head had lost its saucy tilt, and he was miserably pecking in the sawdust as if in search of something to eat. But otherwise he seemed in good condition, and his master felt a glow of pride as he mentally contrasted the appearance of "1104" with those exhibited by the foreign fanciers, although, of course, he supposed that, in all probability, Chico didn't have a ghost of a chance.
All this time his uncle was excitedly bobbing back and forth, mingling with the people and commenting on the points of one or another specimen. It was a good-natured crowd, that had, for the most part, drifted in from the poultry show that was being held in an adjoining tent. There was not much enthusiasm until four judges made their appearance, and with notebooks in hand, began their inspection of the cages. Then there was a stir; the bystanders pressed more closely to the railing, and there was considerable excitement as fluttering blue and white ribbons indicated the winners of first and second honors.
By the time the cage of messenger pigeons was reached, there was a ripple of genuine excitement, and from one and another quarter bids were shouted by those who knew the characteristics of a good homer. These began as low as "Four lire" on a pigeon from Milan, "A hundred lire" on number "670," an aggressive-looking Belgian, and then—Andrea's head swam as a burly American called out, "fifty dollars on '1104.'"
After that things became lively as the judges passed from one to another, inspecting every bird most carefully and making note of individual characteristics. When they seemed especially pleased, or stopped to confer, as occasionally happened, over the record which, in every case, was marked on the wings, then the bidding became fairly furious, "670" leading and "1104" a close second. One of the judges took so long in his examination of Chico that a fat German changed his bid, and an American called out, "Come, get a move on you!" There was a long conference among the judges, during which the people waited impatiently enough, and Andrea felt himself more tense every moment.
Finally, with exasperating deliberateness, one of them turned and announced that the blue rosette was awarded to number "1104." Andrea's cheeks went scarlet, and the air was rent by cries of "Urra! Urra!" "Bully for 1104!"
The boy's head swam. CHICO HAD WON. It seemed as if he could scarcely believe his senses. He looked around for his uncle only to find he had leaped the railing and was shaking hands with the judges, and pointing to Andrea as the owner of the bird. On every side could be heard excited comments, and the American, just behind, was holding forth at a great rate:
"I knew it—I knew it all the time; he doesn't make the show some of 'em do, but look at his breast! Look at the length of his wings, and his eye! There isn't a bird here with such a keen eye as he has! Then, did you watch him? He wasn't half as scared as the other birds! Just kind of bored by the performance! One can see he has a strong heart, and that's what counts in a homer! Why, bless me, I'd like to get hold of that bird. Is the owner anywhere around?"
It was then Pietro reappeared, jubilant, of course. He wrung the boy's hand until it ached, at the time exclaiming, "You're wanted on every side; you can take your pick of chances to sell your bird, and if you ever wish to engage as a trainer of pigeons, the way is open to you!"
When Andrea presented his metal tag for "1104," the crowd fairly closed in upon him, shouting offers. Altogether it was a great triumph, but he felt tired, and his head ached so that it was a distinct relief when Pietro, looking at his watch, declared there wasn't a moment to lose if he intended to catch the noon train for Venice!
He was glad it was over, and all the way down the tree-lined avenue, he kept looking through the cracks of the basket, as if to assure himself that Chico was really there.
But at the station another ordeal confronted him. Pietro had insisted when they were first discussing coming to Verona that Chico must fly home, and to this Andrea, at the time, had consented. Now he wished he had not. He felt it almost an impossibility again to relinquish his bird, and pleaded with Pietro to release him from his promise. But, no, his uncle was obdurate, and was moved by no entreaties.
"Of what are you afraid? A bird which has the blue rosette can find his way from Verona. He must carry the news of his victory himself, and I miss my guess, if he doesn't reach home before you do."
"But it looks most terribly like a storm," the boy expostulated, his eyes resting uneasily on the angry clouds looming over the castled hills.
"And what if it does rain? A homing pigeon has a stout heart and I warrant it will take more than a thunder-storm to dismay our prize bird." And with that he fastened to Chico's leg a little aluminum pouch, in which was a bit of paper, containing the laconic message, "WON—THE BLUE ROSETTE!"
Andrea made no further protest, and away flew the bird, circling into the air above, then, by still wider circles, higher and higher until he was finally off.
Andrea watched until the mere speck in the distance had completely disappeared. Venice seemed very far away! With a sinking heart he made his way across the platform, and climbed into the little train from the window of which he forlornly waved "good-bye" to the irrepressible Pietro, who, after shouting a final injunction to the lad to "buck-up," and to be sure and let him know how long Chico took to make the trip by his "air-line," jauntily waved his hand, and the train, moved out.
For fully half an hour Andrea crouched in his seat, altogether dejected, watching the sky illuminated from time to time by flashes of lightning. A man in the seat across the aisle leaned over to inquire the meaning of the blue rosette he wore on his breast, but Andrea shook his head and with blurred eyes looked out at the storm already breaking. Soon the thunder could be heard above the noise of the train, and hailstones as large as marbles rattled against the windows.
Somewhere in all that darkness Chico was flying! The boy's heart grew more and more heavy and was filled with bitterness against his uncle who had been so insistent. Of what use were empty honors if his bird was lost forever?
In the meantime Chico was having his difficulties. For the first time he was too far from Venice to catch even a glimpse of her domes or the new Campanile. He was puzzled.
But somewhere was Venice, somewhere his nest—with Pepita and the fledglings. The thunder rumbled, the lightning flashed, the rain fell. Yet his heart was stout and his courage strong.
Do they call it instinct that so unerringly guides the flight of the homing pigeon? Was it the sea that called? Did the winds convey a message? I know not, but, after that single moment of hesitation, the brave bird plunged into the darkness and made his way to home and loved ones.
At last the long afternoon was over and the slow Italian train pulled into Venice. Andrea sadly picked up his empty basket. As it happened, at the very moment he stepped upon the platform, the clouds parted and the sun shone, lighting with splendor the rippling waters of the Adriatic, and shining full on the golden domes of the churches.
He expected Paolo and his sister would be at the station to welcome him and to hear the result of the pigeon show. After all, what had it all amounted to if the bird had been lost in the storm? At that point in his reflections a little figure came rushing to him, all breathless with excitement. It was Maria, with her father and mother just behind. They were followed by the old caretaker, hurrying as fast as his rheumaticky limbs would permit, and, wonder of wonders! Andrea had to look twice to be sure he was not mistaken, perched upon his shoulder was—CHICO! To be sure, his feathers were a little disheveled, for he had been too busy with Pepita and the fledglings to take time to preen them, but apparently he was unharmed by the perils through which he had passed, and there was as saucy a tilt to his as ever.
"Urra! Urra!" the boy cried, throwing his cap twice into the air, while his father wrung his hand excitedly, and Maria exclaimed:
"He came into the nest more than an hour and a half ago. Oh, isn't he the grande bird?"
"He's the fast express all right!" put in Paolo, waving his cane proudly in the air; "made the whole distance at the rate of over forty miles an hour."
Then they all talked at once, asking questions, first about the pigeon show, and then about the adventures in Verona.
It seemed as if Andrea couldn't answer fast enough, there was so much to tell, and he repeated more than once as he passed the blue rosette for their closer inspection:
"There wasn't a bird to compare with him!"
"And you say you rode behind a horse?" Paolo questioned, as the entire party crowded into the old gondola, and Chico flew into his master's lap.
"Si! Si! And saw an automobile!" was the proud answer as Andrea went on to describe how it "went like the wind," just like the one he had dreamed of.
Unconsciously there crept into his demeanor a slight suggestion of Pietro's swagger, and while he was glad to get home, and though St. Mark's Square never seemed so beautiful before, still there was no denying it was a great experience to have traveled and seen something of the world.
AND ALL FOR ITALY!
Some years passed and Andrea was now a stocky lad with resolute walk and steady black eyes. He was fourteen, the age to which he had long looked forward as the time when he should realize his ambition to work beside his father in the glass factory. Maria, too, was growing up: already her fingers were almost as deft as her mother's in making lace, under whose guidance she could even fashion the beautiful roses, the special characteristic of Venetian point.
As for Chico, he was constantly establishing new records, and his wings bore witness to many triumphs.
Then the Great War came, and the world shook with its thunders. On May 23, 1915, Italy had declared hostilities against Austria-Hungary, although the Italian offensive did not begin until 1917.
At first the victories were all on the side of Italy, when her brave heroes broke through on the Isonzo front, it seemed almost as if they were destined to sweep everything before them Then the tide turned: one town after another was retaken by the Austrians, until, on October 29, 1917, the entire Italian front on the Isonzo collapsed.
Then came days of black despair: all Italy mourned, but in Venice especially was the horror felt. From her situation she had always been a bulwark against the Austrians, and not yet had she forgotten the hated rule of her enemies.
Nearer drew the lines until the roar of the cannon could be sometimes heard, and there was scarcely a clear night that aeroplanes did not hover over the terrified city. Dimmed were the lights that were wont to make a fairyland of St. Mark's Square, and in the daytime the red, white, and green of the Italian flag supplied almost the only color, while the only music was the martial call of Garibaldi, to which countless marched to the field of battle.
"To arms! Haste! Haste! ye martial youth! On every wind our banners fly, Rise all with arms, all with fire!"
The glass factories were closed, and Giovanni went, with the rest of the brave men, to fight for home and country. Even Pietro hastened from his wanderings to offer his services. The lace factories were deserted, and instead of the delicate threads and the bobbins, the women busied themselves with bandages for the Red Cross.
No longer did the canals echo the laughter of gay tourists, and desolately the pigeons flew about St. Mark's Square, which was almost a deserted place save for the workmen to whom had been assigned the task of protecting the church by placing sandbags on the roofs and iron girders at the windows: mournfully lapped the waters of the Adriatic.
The bronze horses were transferred to Rome for safety; even the pictures by the great masters were taken from their places and hidden, lest they fall into the hands of the enemy.
Old Paolo, who, for a year past had been decrepit, died, broken-hearted, when the first news came of Austrian victories. He was sadly missed in his accustomed haunts. A younger man succeeded him as caretaker of St. Mark's, and Andrea, not old enough to be drafted for service at the front, was appointed chief guard of the church by night.
Sacrifice was the watchword of the hour. Men gave up the savings of years, women brought their trinkets to be sold or melted down for the use of the Government.
And Andrea—what had he to give?
One night, as he paced back and forth on his beat, listening for the possible roar of an aeroplane or the sudden bursting of a bomb, there flashed into his mind the story of services rendered Venice in the olden time by homing pigeons. He seemed a child again, sitting close to old Paolo's side and listening to his tales of happenings in the long ago.
True, now there was wireless at the front, besides telephones and telegraphs, and yet, even with all modern inventions, he wondered if the War Department might not be able to find some use for a trusty pigeon.
Though the boy's heart grew faint at the thought of the sacrifice, his resolution was immediately taken, and as soon as he was released from duty in the morning he made his way directly round the church to the bird's nest. He was tall now and had no need of the box Paolo had placed so long ago for use as a step: thrusting his hand through the aperture, he firmly grasped Chico who happened at that time to be taking his turn with the eggs while his mate enjoyed a much-needed constitutional.
Naturally he resented the interruption and made futile efforts to free himself. But Andrea was resolved on no delay, and without more ado bore off the struggling bird, just as Pepita fluttered into the aperture, with an apology for being late, and ready to assume her wifely duties.
"Chico! Chico!" the boy exclaimed, gently smoothing the rumpled feathers, "you mustn't mind, old fellow. I'm sorry to take you away, but you and I have a duty to our country and we mustn't shirk!"
Gradually the pigeon ceased to struggle, and while not in the least understanding what it was all about, snuggled close to Andrea's breast, putting his head confidingly inside his soldier's coat.
"And, Chico," the boy went on, "you must do your part, no matter what happens. And, if you"—he choked a little at the thought—"and if you should never come back, it will be for Venice, and for Italy. We won't forget that, will we, my bird?"
As he spoke, he bent his head to listen caught a faint answering "coo," as Chico snuggled his head closer.
By this time he had reached the War Office which was located in one of the buildings on the north side of the Square. In response to his knock he was ushered into the presence of a kindly official who sat at a table littered with maps and papers of every description.
There was a moment's pause, during which Andrea stood uneasily fidgeting, and his courage almost oozed away as he nervously twisted his cap.
But at last the great man looked up, and somewhat abstractly asked, "Well, my boy, what can I do for you?"
"Please, signore," Andrea faltered, as he took from his coat the precious bird, "please, I have a homing pigeon—"
At once the officer became alert. "A homing pigeon?" he repeated quickly. "Is he trained to carry messages?"
"Si, signore." And the boy forgot his embarrassment in his anxiety to tell of Chico's exploits. "He won the blue rosette at a pigeon show at Verona, a few years since, and see, here is the record of his flights." With that he spread out the wings and the officer studied them over thoughtfully.
When at last he spoke, Andrea could not but note the light in the tense eyes and the eagerness of his tone:
"My boy, this well-trained homing pigeon will, indeed, be valuable to the War Department. Tell me, what shall I give you for your bird? Name your price!"
"My Chico is not for sale!" the boy protested stoutly, "It is my wish to give his services to my country!"
"Think carefully, the Department is ready to pay well for this branch of air-line service."
But Andrea shook his head, "No, signore, it is for Italy. There is but one thing I would make sure of." He paused.
"And what is that?" the great official inquired kindly. He was beginning to realize that this was no ordinary relation which existed between the lad and his pigeon.
"Please, I would ask that when the war is ended, I may have my bird again; that is, that is—" and the boy's eyes were misty as he spoke.
"To be sure, to be sure," the officer cleared his throat. "I'll see that you have a written voucher to that effect."
He touched a bell and gave the order in a business-like tone to the respectful soldier who at once made his appearance.
"We have a valuable addition to our air messengers in the shape of this well-trained homing pigeon. Have you room for him in the next consignment that is sent to the front?"
"Si, signore, one will go to-morrow. The baskets have four compartments and there is one place still vacant." With that he fixed the metal anklet, and Chico was thereby enrolled as number 7788 in the air brigade of the Italian army.
But that was not all; a voucher was then and there made out that, after hostilities had ceased, number 7788 should be returned to the owner, Andrea Minetti.
The great official affixed his own signature and, after handing the paper to the lad, escorted him to the door and opened it for him.
Though Andrea's heart was well-nigh bursting with grief, the parting words brought a thrill to his whole being:
"It is such sacrifices that will win the war for Italy and, believe me, this act of yours will not be forgotten!"
EVVIVA VENEZIA! EVVIVA ITALIA! [Footnote: Long live Venice! Long live Italy!]
Still nearer drew the hated Austrians: the roar of cannon could be heard distinctly now, an air raid was no longer a novelty, and many a home and public building showed ravages wrought by bursting bombs.
The hospitals were crowded with maimed, among whom was Pietro who had been gassed and wounded at the front, and was now slowly convalescing in Venice.
The Piazza echoed the tread of marching feet, by day and by night, and the battle hymn heard on every side:
"To arms! Haste! Haste! ye martial youth! On every wind our banners fly, Rise all with arms, all with fire!"
The world thrilled with tales of bravery, the exploits of Italian soldiers and aviators were quoted far and wide. But with all their heroism they could not stay the Austrian advance.
With the coming of 1918 deepest gloom settled over Italy as the people girded themselves for what seemed a struggle for very existence: not the slightest suggestion of luxury was permitted, even the making and selling of cakes, pastry, and confectionery being sternly prohibited by government edict.
The Minetti family had fared as had the others, neither better nor worse, and though one corner of the wall of the modest home had been torn away in an explosion, the statue of the Virgin remained as if to protect from further harm. No news had come from Giovanni since his return to the front, over six months before, and Luisa, dry-eyed but worn and racked with anxiety, worked far into the night on bandages for the wounded. Maria, in common with others of her age, had lost the fresh prettiness that, by right, belongs to youth, and her form was bent by work and her face furrowed by lines of apprehension.
Of Chico nothing had been heard since the morning, months before, when his master had left him in the office of the War Department. One's heart ached for the faithful little mate, as she brooded forlornly on the window ledge, refusing to pay the slightest heed to any bold fellow who dared make overtures to her.
His bird was much in Andrea's thoughts as he paced back and forth each night upon his beat and, gazing into the sky in his lookout for aeroplanes, he would strain his eyes for a speck that might resolve itself into Chico's wings.
Possibly, he reasoned, the bird had not yet been made use of. Perhaps—and at the thought, his heart would almost fail him—perhaps, it might even be that he had been entrusted with some message, but had failed to reach his destination.
To the boy's other duties had been added that of watching the nest. He had scorned the suggestion that an electric bell be placed there to attract attention.
"As if I should not hear the slightest flutter of my Chico's wings!" he protested. But, to make sure, he even slept in the little room back of the church and arranged that hither should his meals be brought.
Poor lad! He, too, showed the strain of the Great War, and looked tense and worn. He was not the same Andrea who had dreamed of inventing some wonderful new glaze: now his ambition was to be an aviator in the service of the Government and, like the bird he loved, fly through the blue heavens.
One evening (it happened to be a cloudless one, with the moon scheduled to rise about one o'clock) he felt more than usually restless and on fire with this desire.
It was on such nights as this that the danger from air raids was especially imminent, and the boy's senses were at tight tension.
As the moon rose, Venice stood revealed an enchanted city, a place of beauty, touched as of old with a magic wand. Hark—already the clock was striking the hour of two! Andrea's eyes wandered from one familiar object to another the Ducal Palace, the new Campanile, the column of St. Theodore, and, beyond, the dome of Sta. Maria della Salute. He held his breath, it was so wonderful. And to think—to-night, to-morrow, all might be in ruins. Surely the great God would never permit it!
Only a short time before, on June 15, the enemy had launched a new offensive the Piave River, from the Asiago Plateau to the Adriatic Sea, and though a few days later the news had reached Venice that their own brave men had taken the offensive, nothing had since been heard. Would it be as it had been before, a few spasmodic successes and then—loss and defeat?
Suddenly (was he dreaming?) there was a whirr of wings; he rubbed his sleeve across his eyes. Swiftly there shot across his vision something that in the soft moonbeams seemed an arrow of silver—a flash of light! He was dazed; could it be—Chico? At full speed he ran to the nest, and there, close by the side of cooing Pepita, lay the exhausted bird, while a ray of moonlight closed a stain of blood across his breast.
Quick as a flash the boy reached in his hand, unfastened the little aluminum pouch, and, without waiting to find out whether the pigeon was alive or dead, fairly flew to the War Department where a light was burning, as he knew it would be. In these days of strain the high official scarcely closed his eyes and on this night he was tracing over and over again the plan of the new offensive.
Andrea rapped on the window—he could not wait to knock and be admitted, neither did he dare to leave his watch for even a fraction of a second.
"Who is it?"—the window was cautiously opened.
"It is I, Andrea Minetti, number 7788 has just come in with a message from the front." With that he thrust the metal cylinder into the officer's hand. He tore it open and for one tense moment scanned the bit of tissue paper, then, with tears of joy, he read aloud: "'Austrian offensive declared a failure—Italians make sweeping victories along the Piave: Evviva Venezia! Evviva Italia!'" Then added exultantly, "Buone notizie! good news, good news!" and the tears coursed freely down his furrowed cheek, Andrea, beside himself with joy, threw his cap Into the air, echoing; "Viva Venezia! Evviva Italia! It was my Chico brought the message!"
At mention of the pigeon the officer turned quickly, asking:
"Your bird—tell me, is he alive and in good condition?"
"I know not, signore, there was a stain of blood upon his breast, but I stopped not to find the cause."
"Then go, go quickly. I will have some one relieve you of your watch the rest of the night. See that everything is done. Venice wakes from her nightmare, and the faithful messenger that brought the joyful tidings must not be neglected!"
Andrea saluted and started away, but had gone only a few steps when the officer recalled him:
"Hold—you say there was a stain of blood! The Red Cross surgeon is not too great a personage to save the bird. If you will take him to the hospital, I myself will telephone the story!"
With a look of gratitude in his dark eyes, and a "Grazie, signore," Andrea was off as quickly as he had come, and fifteen minutes later was in the Red Cross rooms holding out the suffering Chico to the great surgeon, who, in less time than it takes to say it, had located the trouble, extracted the tiny bit of lead that had come so perilously near piercing the brave heart, bound up the wound, and handed the quivering bird back to his master:
"There, I have done my best. A short time and he will be all right, although his left wing will be crippled and his flights from now on can only be short." As he spoke, he laid his hand on Andrea's shoulder: "My boy, there is no greater hero in the wards of this hospital than this faithful homing pigeon!"
Tears blurred Andrea's sight as he hugged Chico close and with reiterated expressions of gratitude made his way down the hospital steps. The heart within his soldier's coat was pulsating with joy at the spontaneous words of praise and the assurance that Chico would not die. Anything else mattered little.
Gently he laid the wounded pigeon in his nest, just as Maria came with his breakfast.
She was dazed, and at first did not understand what had happened; then a light broke over her face and, reaching up, she smoothed the ruffled feathers whispered, "Poor Chico! Poor Chico!" until a quiver of the eyelids and the most pathetic of faint "coos" gave evidence that the sufferer appreciated her sympathy.
In the meantime the word had spread, and cries of "Evviva Venezia! Evviva Italia!" rent the air. People, mad with joy, marched up and down the narrow streets unfurling flags shouting:
"Buone notizie! Buone notizie! Good news! Good news!"
The piazza became an animated place as groups of men, women, children gathered, embracing one another, and longing to hear further details.
In the hospitals there was great excitement: it was difficult to restrain the joyful demonstrations. When Luisa whispered the news in Pietro's ear, he leaped out of bed in spite of his wounds, crying:
"The grande bird! I always said he would be game! Oh, but he's a sport!"
As for Chico, if he could have spoken he would have told a harrowing tale. Thrown into the air with dozens of others, when all other means of communication were interrupted, at first even his stout heart was appalled. One by one the others fluttered to the ground, afraid to attempt the flight, and of the four who persisted, three fell, torn to pieces by bullets. But Chico struggled on, on, in spite of shot and shell—on, on, in spite of the fact that he was wounded, and the loss of blood made him weak, while the crippled wing retarded the swiftness of his flight. Still he carried on—his stout heart never wavering, until, in the distance, his keen eyes detected the tall shape of the new Campanile. Then, on and on, in spite of the great aeroplanes constantly threatening destruction.
At last the domes of the churches came in sight, and the salt smell of the Adriatic acted as a tonic to the weary bird. He was nearing home and Venice. Another moment and he was safe—safe with Pepita excitedly fluttering over him.
In the rejoicing Chico was called for again and again, but for the first time since Paolo had clumsily put together the rude nest for the forlorn little pigeon he found upon the pavement, the window was closed that the sufferer might not be disturbed.
THE HERO OF THE SQUARE
It was some months before hostilities ended, but favorable word continued to come from the front, and the gloom that had so long overhung Italy was dissipated. Women worked with light hearts, men fought with the assurance of victory.
Chico was soon about again and was the hero of the Square. Although his nights were now somewhat restricted, he found it very pleasant to fly about the accustomed haunts, and if he was a little inclined to assume the airs of a war veteran, no one criticized.
When Pepita, amid the cares of domesticity, wearied a little of her husband's oft-repeated tales of life at the front, he had only to repair to the Piazza where, in the perches among the Statuary, he never failed to find plenty of cronies eager to pay him fascinated attention.
When the armistice was signed, Venice gave herself up to revelry, and the scenes when the Piazza was once more illuminated were wilder than at any Carnival time.
Processions of people, mad with joy, marched up and down, headed by Chico and his master, and shouting in praise of the brave bird.
It was not long before the city began to assume her customary appearance as greatly prized treasures were brought from their hiding-places.
The Colleoni statue once more stood in place; Titian's famous Assumption of the Virgin that had transferred to Pisa was returned securely packed in a huge chest, some seven and a half meters in length, and amid the wild excitement the bronze horses were restored to their position on the top of St. Mark's. People thronged to witness the ceremony and afterwards flocked into the church where the patricians of Venice intoned the Te Deum in thanksgiving.
When the time came for conferring honors upon the war heroes, Chico was not forgotten. After some discussion as to whether it would be practicable for the bird to wear a band of honor about his leg, the idea was abandoned, and a special medal was struck off and given to Andrea. It bore the arms of Italy on one side and a pigeon on the other, with the inscription, "De virtute." [Footnote: For courage.]
On the eventful day in the office of the War Department, after the presentation had been made, the General further addressed the boy who stood, all trembling at the honor that had come to his Chico.
"Special orders, my lad, have come from Rome that something shall be done for you."
As he paused, Andrea protested, "No, No! it is enough—the medal is enough!"
"The orders on this point are most explicit." The General's tone was positive. "Come tell us, what is your ambition?"
"To be an aviator, signore, in the service of my country," was the stammering answer.
"Bene! It shall be done. Your expenses shall be paid to the best government school of aviation, and, from this time on, an income of one hundred and fifty lire a month shall be allowed your parents, for it is understood your father has aged greatly in the service of his country."
Andrea bowed his head. He had no words to express his gratitude. But, once outside, he ran every step of the way home, in his eagerness to tell the wonderful news.
* * * * *
The Great War is now a matter of history, and once more tourists are flocking to Venice. Again gay laughter is heard on the Grand Canal. The little shops that line the sides of the Piazza of St. Mark's are now bright with glittering strands of beads, while the women are once more busy with their bobbins.
The clock tower, the Ducal Palace, the Campanile—they are all there, beautiful as ever, and now as ever stands St. Mark's Church, sharing the joy of her people as she has sympathized with them in their sorrow.
Perchance, reader, you may yourself sometime visit this city of "Beautiful Nonsense," and, if so, may call "Chico, Chico!" and look to see if one of the fluttering pigeons that so contentedly coo about the Square will not come and light upon your shoulder.
Should you be so fortunate as to catch a glimpse of an aeroplane circling in the blue sky, you may risk a guess that the aviator is Andrea, in the government employ.
You may even learn that he wears a medal ever about his neck and that sometimes he carries with him Chico as a mascot: sometimes, but not always, for little Pepita is sadly lonesome when her faithful mate is long away.
Who knows but that in the future this story of a homing pigeon may have a place with the other memories of this wonderful city, and that, five or six hundred years from now, children may gather about some old caretaker of St. Mark's and listen, with fascinated attention, as he tells of the service rendered Venice by a homing pigeon in the time of the Great War?