A Story From: Italy
Read Time: ["20+mins"]
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs., 12 to 14yrs.
ONCE THERE WAS a man named August who owned a wine business and who lived with his wife Nina and their beloved little daughter. For two years the little girl was the joy of her parents. But one sad day, when Nina was cooking some broth for the child, and her daughter was playing in the sunshine in the garden, an ugly-looking man broke into the yard, seized the child, and ran away.
You can only imagine the despair of her parents. They tried everything to get her back again; but all was in vain. They had nothing left to do but to comfort each other in their suffering.
After five years of crying and lamenting, they had still not found a single trace of their daughter.
One evening, as August was coming home, there appeared before him a little boy about seven years old beside the road, who cried out, “Please, sir, I’m so hungry!”
August said to the boy, “Well, little fellow, come home with me; we’ll have some supper together.”
Then he took the boy’s hand. “What is your name, son?”
“Oresto,” said the boy.
“Where is your mother?”
“My mother died just two days ago,” said the boy sadly. “They buried her.”
August squeezed the boy’s hand.
“And where is your father?”
“I never knew him,” said the child. “I was two years old when he went away from mother and me to ‘seek his fortune in the world,’ as he said in his note. Since then we never heard from him, and mother mourned him as dead.”
“I’m so sorry,” said August. The idea occurred to him of adopting the little fellow, to be a joy and comfort to them in their sorrow. But, of course, he had to talk to his wife Nina about it first.
August was delighted to see how well his wife took to the little boy.
And so August and Nina adopted the child. As he grew up, Oresto showed so much gratitude and love for his foster parents that the couple was ever grateful they had taken him into their lives. When he was growing up he was never bad, and in school he learned so well that soon he could read and write very well.
When Oresto was old enough, August took him into the wine business, where he made himself very useful in delivering goods from house to house.
But this sort of business did not please Oresto very much, because he wanted another business which would enable him to increase his parents’ wealth, and secure their old age. So August gave his foster son some money when he was eighteen years old. With this, Oresto bought a lot of hay and sold it at a good profit.
Then Oresto bought and sold more hay, and more hay. In a short time he was able to buy a horse and wagon. The business went very well indeed.
Good fortune seemed to smile on the little house, but tears were still often shed at the memory of the lost daughter, whom her parents had not been able to forget in spite of Oresto’s presence. Now and then, Nina’s look became gloomy and when Oresto would come home he often found his mother (for so he called her) in great distress.
He wanted so much to comfort her. The young man would have given half his life if he could have found out what fate the poor little girl had met.
Meanwhile, Oresto had built himself a pretty little house on a hill with a lovely lawn around it, and asked his foster parents to move over and live in it. So August gave up his wine business. Every day he stayed at home and enjoyed working in the garden beside his good wife, and almost all the time they talked about their young son.
One Sunday, as they were all three at dinner, they heard a knock at the door. Oresto went out, and came back to tell August and Nina that a traveler was outside and was asking for a place to stay and rest for a little while. The three of them welcomed him in. The traveler was an old man with gray hair, and wore a big straw hat, which hid his whole face.
“Thank you,” he replied. Then he placed his large walking staff in the corner and looked round him. “I’ve been on the road since yesterday without food or rest,” he said. “I will be so thankful to you if you can give me a little of both.”
“Sit down, please,” said Nina. Oresto brought a plate and placed it before the guest. “As you can see,” she said, “we’re all alone here, so we’re glad to talk to travelers who can tell us what’s going on in the world.”
The traveler answered quietly, “I’m afraid I cannot tell you very much, dear lady, for I have been sick more than a year, and it is only a few days since I came out of the cave where I live.”
All were silent. They did not talk about this any more during the rest of the meal, and it seemed as if they all intentionally spoke of ordinary things, because they did not wish to pry.
Later, when they were all sitting around the hearth, Nina looked into the fire, as she was accustomed to doing, and cried out suddenly:
“Oh! Whatever has become of my poor little girl!”
The traveler then asked with interest if they had had a daughter. Nina told him of that terrible occurrence, and how they later adopted Oresto in their child’s place. The traveler listened to her with growing attention, now and then wiping drops of sweat from his forehead, to the great surprise of August and Oresto, to whom it seemed as if the room were rather cold rather than warm. Frequently the traveler interrupted Nina to question her about certain details.
When Nina had finished her story, the old man seemed as pale as a stone and stared steadily at Oresto. Then he collapsed and fainted.
“Poor fellow!” said Nina. “He spoke truly when he said that he was still very sick. I’ll make up a bed so that he can lie down.”
Oresto carried the stranger in his arms to the bed, and laid him carefully upon it. The old man’s eyes opened, and he gazed around him as if in surprise. He whispered: “Cecilia.”
Then he went to sleep. Apparently he slept well the whole night, for at daybreak he was up and ready to leave.
Oresto, who was also up at dawn to sell his hay in town that day, climbed up on his wagonload of hay, and drove his horse into town. But great was his surprise to see the old traveler standing before him in the middle of the road. The old man called him by name and asked him to stop.
“What do you wish, my good man?” said Oresto, drawing up the horse and climbing down from the wagon.
“I have something very important to talk to you about, which I could not say in the presence of your parents.”
“Then I don’t care to know anything about it,” said Oresto. “I have no secrets from my mother and father. You could tell anything in their presence you wish to say to me.”
“I beg you,” said the traveler, “to make an exception for me, an old man, and perhaps very near death. I have a secret which weighs heavily on my heart, and which I must share with you.”
“Has it anything to do with me?”
“Yes. And sooner or later you must hear where you came from.”
Oresto stared at the old man. “Tell me then.”
“Not here,” said the old man. “Hitch your horse to the tree and come into my cave, where nobody else can hear us, and where you can also keep an eye on your horse and wagon.”
The cave was only a few steps away. Oresto tied the horse and went with the stranger inside. The cave was dark, with only a bit of sunshine from outside. Finally the stranger spoke.
“Do you love August and Nina very much?” he said.
“How can you ask? I cannot repay them my whole life long as I would like to, for all the kindnesses they have shown me.”
“Oh yes, you can, for you will get back their daughter whom they have mourned for so many years.”
“Where is she?” cried Oresto. “Do you know?”
“Yes I do,” said the old man, “and I will tell you, but only on condition that you pardon her kidnapper and do not try to take revenge on him.”
“Who was the miserable wretch who stole the little girl away from her parents?”
“It was I.”
Oresto gave a great cry. Enraged with anger, he lifted his hand to strike the old man, but catching sight of his gray hair, and remembering his promise, he lay down his hand.
At the same instant the back wall of the cave opened. A beautiful fairy appeared in a blaze of light, who pointed at the old man with her finger. She announced: “Oresto, that man is your father.” She vanished, and the wall closed. It was as dark as before.
Oresto felt as if someone had struck him on the head with a hammer. That was his father, the one who said he had stolen his foster parents’ little girl? He had to feel himself over several times to make sure that his head was still on his shoulders. And yet, suddenly there came over him an endless love for this old man, missing for so many years, who at this moment looked like a living picture of misery. Oresto fell down on his knees and said, “Oh, father, pardon me that I did not hear the call of blood before.”
The traveler grasped his shoulders, pressed him to his heart, and said, “Oh no, not you, it is I who must ask for forgiveness. I beg you to have compassion on my wrong deeds, which I am only now trying to set right.”
“Although I only dimly remember you,” said Oresto, “I know that my mother always taught me to respect you.”
“Ah, your mother,” said the old man. “How I loved her.”
“Then why did you desert her?”
“Listen to me carefully. Take in what I say, my son, and I hope you will understand. A man cannot successfully strive against the laws of nature.” Oresto looked puzzled.
This is the story that the old man told:
“When I was a child I was terribly afraid of death. The thought that some time everyone must meet the same fate, and go out of this life into the mystery of the grave, it terrified me. I would have sold my soul to the devil if he had promised me everlasting life on earth.
“When I met your mother, and fell madly in love with her, this cowardly fear prevented me from asking her to marry me. I worried that if I should die before her, she might marry again, and in my poor mind this doubt grew until it caused me fearful anxiety.
“Finally, I learned that at the foot of a neighboring mountain lived a wizard who could tell the future. I went to the crafty wizard and he promised me that he would guarantee me a life of two hundred years if I would make an agreement with him. I was delighted, and hastily accepted all his conditions. He said, ‘You shall marry Anita (that was the name of your mother); but the first child the two of you have shall belong to me. I live in a crystal palace at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea, and you can get to it only through an underwater cave called the Dolphin Gallery. Bring the child to me there. Here is the key and the plan.’ With these words the wizard handed me a golden key and little scroll of parchment, on which the way was drawn so clearly that one could not go astray.
As I didn’t know at that time what a father’s love is, I thought the agreement of little importance. I cheerfully signed the contract the wizard handed me. My only thought was to marry Anita as quickly as I could and have a long life with her. But before the wizard let me go he said, “Beware: If you do not fulfill this agreement, you will die at once, and so will your wife and child.”
“Some weeks later I married your mother, and she was the dearest wife in the world. But soon my suffering began. When you were born, your mother noticed that I was not overjoyed, as she had hoped. I could not, and would not, tell her about the agreement with the wizard, and it made me miserable to think that the poor little thing, for which I would have gladly given everything, must pay for the long years I had bargained for myself. My love for you, son, was boundless. When you grew bigger, I almost forgot the horrible contract. It seemed as if I was the luckiest man in the world. My trifling earnings were hardly enough to keep us alive, but I didn’t care about that. My riches were seen in your eyes, your wonderful eyes, which you used to look at me when you began to call me Father.
“So a few years went quickly by. One night the terrible wizard appeared. He reminded me of the agreement. He threatened me, your mother and you with death if I did not bring him the child immediately. The next morning, I woke up and you were both sick with fever. I understood the warning. Almost crazy with fear, I wrote a few words to my dear wife Anita, saying that I was going away to look for better luck, and that sooner or later I would come back.
“I ran into the fields, arrived right here at this neighborhood, and caught sight of a little girl playing in a garden. Instantly, I decided to steal the girl, give her to the wizard instead of you, and then to go home again to my wife. And so, I’m afraid that that is what I did.
“When the wizard saw me coming with the little girl, he said, “If you had delayed just one more hour, that would have been the end of you all.”
“The little girl began to cry. I tried in vain to quiet her. The wizard knocked on the glass wall of his dwelling, and there appeared a beautiful talking doll, which made little Cecilia quiet again. This is what I named her and call her to this day.
“The wizard asked me, ‘What did your wife say when you took away the little child?’ I was afraid what else to say and so I said, ‘She cursed me, and swore that she would never see me again.’
“Ah, I thought she would say that” said the wizard. “Now I can show you a favor.’
“A chill went over me at these words. I stammered, ‘Thank you, sir; but I do not wish any other reward than the two hundred years of life that you promised.’
“Yes, that is understood; you are to live two hundred years, but of course, only if you do not make an attempt to steal Cecilia from me, because that would be breaking our agreement, now wouldn’t it? But I will do more for you. Since your wife has driven you away and you cannot return anyway, you shall stay here with your daughter and bring her up.’
“I wanted to make some reply, but the wizard said, ‘That is my desire, and it will be so. Bring up the child for me, and on her 18th birthday I will return for her. If you let her escape from here, or if you try to escape yourself, you will die. But it will be impossible for you to escape in any event, for at this moment my palace has separated itself from the bottom of the Adriatic Sea, and is drifting about among the seaweed and coral.’ I was convinced that must be true, because I felt the house rocking as if I were on ship.
“I won’t try to describe to you the anxiety, remorse and the sting of conscience which tortured me the whole time I was imprisoned there. I had left my wife and child, I had taken another mother’s little girl, and the two of us were trapped. I had only one comfort. That was little Cecilia, who grew to love me as much as if I were really her father, and she was as pretty as a flower. Nothing was lacking to make life comfortable there, and I was given all the books I wanted with which to teach her. I never told her about the wizard’s intention of how he could come for her when she became 18 years old, and tried to make our time together are pleasant as possible.
“After a voyage of ten years under the sea my obedience won the confidence of the wizard. He attached the crystal palace back to the bottom of the sea and to the Dolphin Gallery, and so it was connected again with the mainland. I was permitted to go out three days a year, so I could visit my friends. He intended to please me with this, and he was right. I put on these traveler’s clothes, so I would not be recognized. As my hair had already become gray before its time, no one even recognized me anyway. For six years now I have been coming once a year out from the crystal palace. The first time I ventured out, I learned of my poor wife Anita’s death, but no one could tell me what had become of you, my son.
“I looked for you on each of my trips to the mainland. Finally, I decided to try and find Cecilia’s parents. I was in despair of ever finding you, was conscience-stricken and bowed with grief, and I wanted to at least give them back their daughter. Fate was kind to me at last, as you know, when your foster parents invited me in.
“Now, my son, I have no other desire except to help you to show yourself grateful to these unhappy people who took care of you and brought you up, and have suffered so much because of what I did years ago. I want to take you to their daughter, so you can return her to them at last.”
Oresto listened to his father with the greatest attention.
“But then what would happen to you, father?”
“How can I know? But I know that Cecilia is nearly eighteen, and she must be returned to her parents before the wizard comes back for her.”
Oresto then embraced the old man, and received from him these hints for rescuing Cecilia:
“Come at noon time,” said his father as they were about to separate. “At that time the wizard will be asleep and I can help you. Now, I have to hurry and return to the crystal palace, for if my absence extends over the time allowed, Cecilia and I will both be severely punished.”
“Good-bye, father,” said Oresto. “Tomorrow at noon I will be at the entrance to the Dolphin Gallery. Leave the door open for me.”
The old man went away. Instead of going to town, Oresto turned around and in a short time was home again.
The next morning, Oresto announced to his parents, “I have a feeling that today I am going to bring you back your daughter Cecilia.”
“Cecilia?” cried both his parents, looking at each other, puzzled. “Her name was Teresa.”
Oresto regretted the slip of the tongue. “Oh, well perhaps she has been called Cecilia up to this time,” he said quickly. “Perhaps she found another father, who loved her and took care of her, and he gave her this name.”
Nina and August were doubtful of such a claim and looked at one another with concern. But they did not want to dampen the spirits of their son, and so they sent him on his way.
The entrance to the Dolphin Gallery was hidden from the eyes of all people, but Oresto found it easily enough with the directions given to him by his father. He tied his horse to a column of coral and walked inside.
After a while he came into an immensely long crystal room, which extended right to the sea. Through its clear walls, which were supported by stout silver hoops, he looked out upon the whole moving animal life under the surface of the sea. In the green water Oresto gazed up with astonishment at silvery and golden fishes with glittering scales scurrying about. He walked through the Dolphin Gallery for perhaps an hour, and finally arrived in front of a golden gate, which he easily opened.
A crystal door led him into a vestibule, around which he could see the doors of many richly furnished rooms. The smell of the sea was very strong here, almost too strong. At that moment the gray head of his father appeared through one of the doors. He smiled. The old man took the boy by the hand and led him out onto a balcony.
He asked the lad to sit and wait for him a moment. He soon returned with a young girl, at the sight of whom Oresto was lost in amazement. It was a girl of spectacular beauty. Her oval face and sky-blue eyes had an expression of unspeakable sorrow. Her thick hair fell down over a dark gray cloak in two golden braids. She held out her hand to Oresto in a friendly way, and said, “I know we’re going to love each other like brother and sister, since we exchanged our parents with each other when we were children. Take me back to my mother and father, and we will all live near one another in happiness.”
The three of them set out, but Oresto kept constantly looking at the girl – she had bewitched him so – and the old man smiled, so that the last trace of sadness disappeared from his face, and he seemed almost young again.
“Listen, my children,” he said when they reached the end of the Dolphin Gallery. “I will say good-bye to you now, perhaps forever.”
“What?” cried both the young people, astonished. “Aren’t you going to come with us?”
“I’m afraid not,” said the old man. “I want to spare you the sight of my death.”
“What is that you say?” cried Cecilia. “I will not leave here if that means you will face any kind of danger. I will not leave this house without you, father.”
The old man regretted that he had said so much. He answered, “Well, if you wish, then I will go with you.”
They walked on and came out on dry land, but they had hardly left the Dolphin Gallery when a terrible explosion deafened them, and the entire gallery collapsed in ruins.
The old man turned pale and clung to Cecilia. She cried, “What is the matter? Are you ill?”
“No, no,” replied the old man in a weak voice.
Oresto lifted him and Cecilia into the saddle, and led the horse by the bridle on the road home. They arrived at Oresto’s home in a fearful storm, and the joy over Cecilia’s homecoming was somewhat saddened by the evident illness of Oresto’s father. They immediately put the old man to bed. He died that same night.
Before he died, he said to the young people, who were crying at his bedside, “The wizards’ revenge had to reach me as soon as I broke my agreement, but sooner or later we must all die. I prefer death now that I’ve set things right, to a life of regret and sorrow. My last wish is for forgiveness from Cecilia’s parents, and to hear from their own mouths that they will agreee to your marriage, for I know the two of you love each other.”
And so it was that the sister’s love which Cecilia had promised to Oresto changed to real love, and Oresto, of course, had loved her from the moment he first set eyes on her.
August and Nina were called to the dying man, kissed him on the brow, assured him that they did forgive him, and that they would very gladly see the two young people married. So Oresto’s father died quietly, and his face in death showed the peace which he had not known in life.
The grief of Oresto and Cecilia was lessened by the joy of their love, and their wedding took place in less than a year.
If You Like This Story You Will Love:
The story "The Traveler's Secret" is revised from a story titled, "The Pilgrim's Secret" from Fairy Tales of Many Lands, translated and edited by Logan Marshall, published by The John C. Winston Company, Chicago, 1928.
Adapted by Elaine Lindy. ©2001. All rights reserved.
According to the Library of Congress Copyright Office, the book Fairytales of Many Lands was renewed in 1955 by John C. Winston Company. However, we were not able to locate a publisher by that name today. There are three publishers with similar names (Winston Derek Publications, Winston Publication, and Harry Winston Company) but none of these three companies has any record or file on the book title referenced above. Therefore we are assuming the John C. Winston Company is no longer in business, and as such that its copyright has likewise ended. If this is not the case, and a reader can correct our records, then kindly contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you!