CHILDREN OF SPINALUNGA  
 
  

The piazza or square in front of the Cathedral was the only open space in 
which the children of Spinalunga had room to play. Spinalunga means a Long 
Spine or Ridge of rock, and the castello or little walled town which bore 
that name was built on the highest peak of the ridge, inside strong brown 
stone walls with square towers. So rough and steep was this portion of the 
ridge that the crowded houses, with their red roofs and white gables, were 
piled up one behind another, and many of the streets were narrow staircases, 
climbing up between the houses to the blue sky. 

On the top the hill was flat, and there the Cathedral stood, and from her 
niche above the great west entrance the beautiful statue of the Madonna with 
the Babe in her arms looked across the square, and over the huddled red 
roofs, and far away out to the hills and valleys with their evergreen oaks 
and plantations of gray olives, and bright corn fields and vineyards. 

 On three sides the town was sheltered by hills, but a very deep ravine 
separated them from the ridge, so that on those three sides it was impossible 
for an enemy to attack the town. On the nearest hills great pine woods grew 
far up the slopes, and sheltered it from the east winds which blew over the 
snowy peaks. Now on the southern side of the square stood the houses of the 
Syndic and other wealthy citizens, with open colonnades of carved yellow 
stone; and all about the piazza at intervals there were orange trees and 
pomegranates, growing in huge jars of red earthenware.

This had been the children's playground as long as any one could remember, 
but in the days of the blessed Frate Agnolo the Syndic was a grim, childless, 
irascible old man, terribly plagued with gout, which made him so choleric 
that he could not endure the joyous cries and clatter of the children at 
their play. So at last in his irritation he gave orders that, if the children 
must play at all, it would have to be in their own dull narrow alleys paved 
with hard rock, or outside beyond the walls of the castello. For their part 
the youngsters would have been glad enough to escape into the green country 
among the broom and cypress, the red snapdragon and golden asters and blue 
pimpernels, but these were wild and dangerous times, and at any moment a 
troop of Freelances from Pisa or a band of Luchese raiders might have swept 
down and carried them off into captivity.

They had therefore to sit about their own doors, and the piazza of the 
Cathedral became strangely silent in the summer evenings, and there was a 
feeling of dullness and discontent in the little town. Never a whit better 
off was the Syndic, for he was now angry with the stillness and the deserted 
look of the square.

In the midst of this trouble the blessed Brother Agnolo came down from his 
hermitage among the pine woods, and when he heard of what had taken place, he 
went straightway to the Syndic and took him to task, with soft and gracious 
words.  

" Messer Gianni, pain I know will often take aI1 sweet ness out of the temper 
of a man, but in this you are not doing welt here IS no child in Spinalunga 
but would readily forego all his happy play to give you ease and solace, but 
in this way they cannot help you. By sending them away you do but cloud their 
innocent lives, and you are yourself none the better for their absence. Were 
it not wiser for you to seek to distract yourself in their harmless 
merrymaking ? I may well think that you have never watched them at their 
sports; but if you will bid them come back today, and will but walk a little 
way with me, you shall see that which shall give you content and delight so 
great, that never again will you wish to banish them, but will rather pray to 
have their companionship at all times."

Now the Frate so prevailed on the Syndic that he gave consent, and bade all 
the children, lass and lad, babe and prattler, come to the square for their 
games as they used to do. And leaning with one hand on his staff, and with 
the other on the shoulder of Brother Agnolo, he moved slowly through the 
fruit-trees in the great jars to the steps of the Cathedral.

Suddenly the joy bells began to ring, and the little people came laughing and 
singing and shouting from the steep streets and staircases and alleys, and 
they raced and danced into the piazza like Springtime let loose, and they 
chased each other, and caught hands and played in rings, and swarmed among 
the jars, as many and noisy as swallows when they gather for their flight 
over sea in the autumntide.  

" Look well, Messer Gianni," said the Frate, " and perceive who it is that 
shares their frolics." 

As the Brother spoke the eyes of the Syndic were opened; and there, with each 
little child, was his Angel, clothed in white, and white winged; and as the 
little folk contended together, their Angels contended with each other; and 
as they ran and danced and sang, so ran and danced and sang their Angels. 
Which was the laughter of the children, and which that of the Angels, the 
Syndic could not tell; and when the plump two year olds tottered and tumbled, 
their Angels caught them and saved them from hurt; and even if they did weep 
and make a great outcry, it was because they were frightened, not because 
they were injured, and straightway they had forgotten what ailed them and 
were again merrily trudging about.

In the midst of this wonderful vision of young Angels and bright eyed 
children mingling so riotously together, the Syndic heard an inexpressibly 
joyous laugh behind him. Turning his head, he saw that it was the little 
marble Babe in the arms of the Madonna. He was clapping his hands, and had 
thrown back his head against his mother's bosom in sudden delight.

Did the Syndic truly see this? He was certain he did for a moment; and yet in 
that same moment he knew that the divine Babe was once more a babe of stone, 
with its sweet grave face and unconscious eyes; and when the Syndic turned 
again to watch the children, it was only the children he saw; the Angels were 
no longer visible.

" It is not always given to our sinful eyes to see them," said Brother 
Agnolo, answering the Syndic's thought, " but whether we see them or see them 
not, always they are there."
Now it was in the autumn of the same year that the fierce captain of Free 
lances, the Condottiere Ghino, appeared one moonlight night before the gates 
of Spinalunga, and bade the guard open in the name of Pisa.  

As I have said, the little hilltown could only be attacked on the western 
side, on account of the precipitous ravine which divided it from the hills; 
but the ridge before the gate was crowded with eight hundred horsemen and two 
thousand men at arms clamoring to be admitted. Nothing daunted, the garrison 
on the square towers cried back a defiance; the war bell was sounded; and the 
townspeople, men and women, hurried down to defend the walls. 

After the first flight of arrows and quarrels the Freelances fell back out of 
bowshot, and encamped for the night, but the hill men remained on the watch 
till daybreak. Early in the morning Ghino himself rode up the ascent with a 
white flag, and asked for a parley with the Syndic.  

" We are from Pisa," said the Condottiere; " Florence is against us; this 
castello we must hold for our safety. If with your goodwill, well and good! "  

" We are bound by our loyalty to Florence," replied the Syndic briefly.  

"The sword cuts all bonds," said the Freelance, with a laugh; " but we would 
gladly avoid strife. Throw in your lot with us. All we ask is a pledge that 
in the hour of need you will not join Florence against us."  

" What pledge do you ask  " inquired the Syndic.  

" Let twenty of your children ride back with us to Pisa," said the Free 
lance. " These shall answer for your fidelity. They shall be cherished and 
well cared for during their sojourn." 

Who but Messer Gianni was the angry man on hearing this? 

"Our children!" he cried; "are we, then, slaves, that we must needs send you 
our little ones as hostages I Guards, here! Shoot me down this brigand who 
bids me surrender your children to him! 

Bolts flew whizzing from the crossbows; the Freelance shook his iron gauntlet 
at the Syndic, and galloped down the ridge unharmed. The Syndic forgot his 
gout in his wrath, and bade the hill men hold their own till their roofs 
crumbled about their ears. 

Then began a close siege of the castello; but on the fourth day Frate Agnolo 
passed boldly through the lines of the enemy, and was admitted through the 
massive stone gateway which was too narrow for the entrance of either cart or 
wagon. Great was the joy of the hill men as the Brother appeared among them. 
He, they knew, would give them wise counsel and stout aid in the moment of 
danger.  

When they told him of the pledge for which the besiegers asked, he only 
smiled and shook his head. " Be of good cheer," he said, " God and His Angels 
have us in their keeping."  

Thoughtfully he ascended the steep streets to the piazza, and, entering the 
Cathedral, he remained there for a long while absorbed in prayer. And as he 
prayed his face brightened with the look of one who hears joyful news, and 
when he rose from his knees he went to the house of the Syndic, and spoke 
with him long and seriously.  

At sunset that day a man at arms went forth from the from the gates of the 
castello with a white flag to the beleaguering lines, and demanded to be 
taken into the presence of the captain. To him he delivered this message from 
the Syndic: " Tomorrow in the morning the gate of Spinalunga will be thrown 
open, and all the children of our town who are not halt or blind or ailing 
shall be sent forth. Come and choose the twenty you would have as hostages."

 By the campfires that night the Freelances caroused loud and long; but in 
the little hill town the children slept sound while the men and women prayed 
with pale stern faces. An hour after midnight all the garrison from the 
towers and all the strong young men assembled in the square. They were 
divided into two bands, and were instructed to descend cautiously by rope 
ladders into the ravine on the eastern side of the town. Thence without sound 
of tongue or foot they were to steal through the darkness till they had 
reached certain positions on the flanks of the besiegers, where they were to 
wait for the signal of onset. Frate Agnolo gave each of them his blessing, as 
one by one they slid over the wall on to the rope ladders and disappeared in 
the blackness of the ravine. Noiselessly they marched under the walls of the 
town till they reached their appointed posts, and there they lay hidden in 
the woods till morning.

 The Free lances were early astir. As the first ray of golden light streamed 
over the pine woods on to the ridge and the valley, the bells of the 
Cathedral began to ring; the heavy gate of the castello was flung open, and 
the children trooped out laughing and gay, just as they had burst into the 
square a few months ago, for this, they were told, was to be a great feast 
and holiday. As they issued through the deep stone archway they filed to 
right or left, and drew up in long lines across the width of the ridge. Then 
raising their childish voices in a simple hymn, they all moved together down 
the rough slope to the lines of the besiegers. Brother Agnolo, holding a 
plain wooden cross high above his head, led the way, singing joyously.  

It was a wonderful sight in the clear shining air of the hills, and hundreds 
of women weeping silently on the walls crowded together to watch it; and as 
they watched they held their breath, for suddenly in the golden light of the 
morning they saw that behind each child there was a great white winged Angel 
with a fiery spear.  

Then, as that throng of singing children and shining spirits swept down upon 
the Freelances, a wild cry of panic arose from the camp. The eight hundred 
horsemen turned in dismay, and plunged through the ranks of the men at arms, 
and the mercenaries fell back in terror and confusion, striking each other 
down and trampling the wounded underfoot in their frantic efforts to escape. 
At that moment the hill men who were lying in ambush on each flank bore down 
on the bewildered multitude, and hacked and hewed right and left till the 
boldest and hardiest of the horsemen broke and fled, leaving their dead and 
dying on the field.  

So the little hill town of Spinalunga was saved by the children and their 
Angels, and even to this day the piazza of the Cathedral is their very own 
playground, in which no one can prevent them from playing all the year round.

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