In the lonely country places of Italy, where the people live a struggling life of toil, where comforts are few and hardships are many, the poor often tell to each other the stories of our Blessed Lord and the Madonna.
These stories never fail to bring comfort and cheer to their weary hearts, for they love to remember that the Lord was just as poor as they, and that His dear Mother knew what it meant to toil and care for her Child.
It seems to lighten their burdens and make them more content, when they think that the King of Heaven once shared their lot.
And sometimes when the children complain that they have only lupin beans to eat, and say that lupins leave them just as hungry as they were before, the mother will tell them this old legend, which the children never tire of hearing.
We all know how the Gesu Bambino was born in a poor stable with no royal servants to guard Him, although He was King of Heaven. But we must remember, that He had something better than royal servants. He had His own dear Mother, and she was the best guard of all. She needed to be brave and watchful, for very soon danger drew near. The wicked King of that country sent out his cruel soldiers to kill the newborn Child, and the guards were soon on their way to Bethlehem to do his bidding.
Then the Madonna wrapped the precious Bambino in her shawl, and set out swiftly and secretly by night, to save Him from King Herod's fury.
Early in the morning, when the faint light was beginning to dawn over the hills, and the olive-trees showed silver in the morning dew, the poor Madonna sat down to rest by the wayside. She was very weary, for she had walked all night. Her heart too was heavy with fear, though her precious burden felt light.
So far she had escaped, but even now as she rested she heard the tramp of feet close by, and saw a company of soldiers wending their way down the long white road.
It was useless to think of hiding, for they must already have seen her, and it was useless, too, to think of flight, for the men
would so easily overtake her.
There was nothing to do but to sit still quietly and pray to the good God for help. So she did not move or start, but gently and carefully she laid the Bambino in her lap and covered Him with her apron, tying the corners together to hide what lay there.
"Sleep, Little One, sleep," she whispered.
"Thy Mother will see that no harm comes near Thee. Only sleep."
Then up came the guards heated and angry with their fruitless search. Very roughly they spoke to her.
"Hast thou seen a woman and child pass by this way?"
they asked. "Answer truly or it will be the worse for thee."
"I have seen no one pass by," said the Madonna, lifting her gentle eyes to their scowling faces.
"What hast thou got in thy apron?" shouted one of the men.
"Gran Signor," she answered, and by the way she said those words it sounded as if she meant that her apron was full of grain.
But what she truly said was "the great lord."
Then one of the soldiers rudely caught at a corner of her apron and shook it. And lo! a stream of golden grain trickled out.
The men seemed satisfied then that this was but a poor peasant woman who could tell them nothing, so they turned back grumbling to seek some other road.
The Madonna bent her head over the sleeping Child and thanked God for the miracle of the grain, and then she once more lifted Him in her arms and set out on her way.
But she had not gone far before she again heard the tramp of soldiers' feet, and turning aside she hurried through a field of lupins. The lupin beans were dry and ready to be cut, and their tall stalks hid her as she passed. She stepped as lightly as she could and held her breath as she sped on noiselessly, holding her Treasure in her arms. But these lupin beans were senseless
things, and instead of keeping very still and quiet as she passed, they rattled so loudly and made such a busy, bustling noise that it was a wonder the soldiers did not hear.
The Madonna stopped, trembling, to listen, but the tramp of feet grew fainter, and she knew that the pursuers had passed on and the danger was over for the time. Then she turned back to the field of lupins and shook her head over the noisy beans.
"Could ye not be silent when the Gesu Bambino was in danger?" she said. "Henceforth when men eat of you, ye shall not satisfy their hunger, and this shall be your punishment."
So that is why the lupin beans leave ever a hungry, empty feeling within us.
But the Madonna journeyed on, and when the sun was high in the heavens and she was faint with heat, again she heard the sound of pursuing feet. She was passing through a field just then where the peasants were sowing their corn, and the kind people seeing her tired face came round her and asked if they could help her on her way.
"I have a great favour to ask," she said. "A guard of soldiers will presently come up, and should they ask if ye have seen a woman and child pass by this way, only answer, I pray you, that one passed by when ye were sowing your corn."
The men were puzzled, but promised to do as she asked.
And lo! when she had crossed the field, the corn in the furrows began to sprout, the green blades shot up, and the ears of corn appeared, swelled and ripened before their eyes, so that by the time the soldiers arrived the men were in the midst of the harvest.
"Have ye seen a woman and child pass by this way?"
shouted the soldiers.
The peasants stopped their cutting and looked up, answering quietly just as the Madonna had bade them.
"We saw a woman and child pass by when we were sowing this corn," they said.
"What use is that to us?" stormed the soldiers. "Keep thy foolish jests for those that are in the humour for such things."
"It is no jest," said one of the reapers, "we only speak the truth."
"Well," said the soldiers to each other, "these men are too stupid to deceive us. It is no use going on. We must search in some other direction."
The poor Madonna!
She had but a sad, anxious life to the very end, and even now one can see the traces of her tears.
It was when she stood all trembling and weeping beneath the Cross that the swallows, swooping and darting overhead,
longed to comfort and help her. Even the birds were sorrowful at that sight, and they flew closer and closer, circling round and round until at last they swept her breast with their soft feathers as they passed. The great tears were dropping slowly from her eyes, and fell on the upturned breasts of the little birds, and wherever a tear fell the feathers turned from black to pure white.
And so the swallows have worn their white badge ever since in memory of the comfort they longed to give.
by Amy Steedman