Short Story The Swineherd
The Swineherd
Short Story The Metal Pig

The Metal Pig

by

IN THE city of Florence, not far from the Piazza del Granduca, runs a little cross street called Porta Rosa. In this street, just in front of the market place where vegetables are sold, stands a pig, made of brass and curiously formed. The color has been changed by age to dark green, but clear,…

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ABOUT THIS STORY

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IN THE city of Florence, not far from the Piazza del Granduca, runs a little cross street called Porta Rosa. In this street, just in front of the market place where vegetables are sold, stands a pig, made of brass and curiously formed. The color has been changed by age to dark green, but clear, fresh water pours from the snout, which shines as if it had been polished—and so indeed it has, for hundreds of poor people and children seize it in their hands as they place their mouths close to the mouth of the animal to drink. It is quite a picture to see a half-naked boy clasping the well-formed creature by the head as he presses his rosy lips against its jaws. Every one who visits Florence can very quickly find the place; he has only to ask the first beggar he meets for the Metal Pig, and he will be told where it is.

It was late on a winter evening. The mountains were covered with snow, but the moon shone brightly, and moonlight in Italy is as good as the light of gray winter’s day in the north. Indeed, it is better, for the clear air seems to raise us above the earth; while in the north a cold, gray, leaden sky appears to press us down to earth, even as the cold, damp earth shall one day press on us in the grave.

In the garden of the grand duke’s palace, under the roof of one of the wings, where a thousand roses bloom in winter, a little ragged boy had been sitting the whole day long. The boy might serve as a type of Italy: lovely and smiling, and yet suffering. He was hungry and thirsty, but no one gave him anything; and when it became dark and they were about to close the gardens, the porter turned him out. A long time he stood musing on the bridge which crosses the Arno and looking at the glittering stars that were reflected in the water which flowed between him and the wonderful marble bridge Delia Trinità. He then walked away towards the Metal Pig, half knelt down, clasped it with his arms, and, putting his mouth to the shining snout, drank deep draughts of the fresh water. Close by lay a few salad leaves and two chestnuts, which were to serve for his supper. No one was in the street but himself. It belonged only to him. He boldly seated himself on the pig’s back, leaned forward so that his curly head could rest on the head of the animal, and, before he was aware, fell asleep.

It was midnight. The Metal Pig raised himself gently, and the boy heard him say quite distinctly, “Hold tight, little boy, for I am going to run”; and away he started for a most wonderful ride. First they arrived at the Piazza del Granduca, and the metal horse which bears the duke’s statue neighed aloud. The painted coats of arms on the old council house shone like transparent pictures, and Michelangelo’s “David” swung his sling. It was as if everything had life. The metallic groups of figures, among which were “Perseus” and “The Rape of the Sabines,” looked like living persons, and cries of terror sounded from them all across the noble square. By the Palazzo degli Uffizi, in the arcade where the nobility assembled for the carnival, the Metal Pig stopped. “Hold fast,” said the animal, “hold fast, for I am going upstairs.”

The little boy said not a word. He was half pleased and half afraid. They entered a long gallery, where the boy had been before. The walls were resplendent with paintings, and here and there stood statues and busts, all in a clear light as if it were day. The grandest sight appeared when the door of a side room opened. The little boy could remember what beautiful things he had seen there, but to-night everything shone in its brightest colors. Here stood the figure of a beautiful woman, as radiantly beautiful as nature and the art of one of the great masters could make her. Her graceful limbs appeared to move; dolphins sprang at her feet, and immortality shone from her eyes. The world called her the “Venus de’ Medici.” By her side were statues of stone, in which the spirit of life breathed; figures of men, one of whom whetted his sword and was named “The Grinder”; fighting gladiators, for whom the sword had been sharpened, and who strove for the goddess of beauty. The boy was dazzled by so much glitter, for the walls were gleaming with bright colors. Life and movement were in everything.

As they passed from hall to hall, beauty showed itself in whatever they saw; and, as the Metal Pig went step by step from one picture to another, the little boy could see it all plainly. One glory eclipsed another; yet there was one picture that fixed itself on the little boy’s memory more especially, because of the happy children it represented; for these the little boy had seen in daylight. Many pass this picture with indifference, and yet it contains a treasure of poetic feeling. It represents Christ descending into Hades. It is not those who are lost that one sees, but the heathen of olden times.

The Florentine, Angiolo Bronzino, painted this picture. Most beautiful is the expression on the faces of two children who appear to have full confidence that they shall reach heaven at last. They are embracing each other, and one little one stretches out his hand towards another who stands below them, and points to himself as if he were saying, “I am going to heaven.” The older people stand as if uncertain yet hopeful, and bow in humble adoration to the Lord Jesus. On this picture the boy’s eyes rested longer than on any other, and the Metal Pig stood still before it. A low sigh was heard. Did it come from the picture or from the animal? The boy raised his hands toward the smiling children, and then the pig ran off with him through the open vestibule.

“Thank you, thank you, you beautiful animal,” said the little boy, caressing the Metal Pig as it ran down the steps.

“Thanks to yourself also,” replied the Metal Pig. “I have helped you and you have helped me, for it is only when I have an innocent child on my back that I receive the power to run. Yes, as you see, I can even venture under the rays of the lamp in front of the picture of the Madonna, but I must not enter the church. Still, from without, and while you are upon my back, I may look in through the open door. Do not get down yet, for if you do, then I shall be lifeless, as you have seen me in the daytime in the Porta Rosa.”

“I will stay with you, my dear creature,” said the little boy. So they went on at a rapid pace through the streets of Florence, till they came to the square before the church of Santa Croce. The folding doors flew open, and lights streamed from the altar, through the church, into the deserted square. A wonderful blaze of light streamed from one of the monuments in the left aisle, and a thousand moving stars formed a kind of glory round it. Even the coat of arms on the tombstone shone, and a red ladder on a blue field gleamed like fire. It was the grave of Galileo. The monument is unadorned, but the red ladder is an emblem of art—signifying that the way to glory leads up a shining ladder, on which the great prophets rise to heaven like Elijah of old. In the right aisle of the church every statue on the richly carved sarcophagi seemed endowed with life. Here stood Michelangelo; there Dante, with the laurel wreath around his brow; Alfieri and Machiavelli; for here, side by side, rest the great men, the pride of Italy.

The church itself is very beautiful, even more beautiful than the marble cathedral at Florence, though not so large. It seemed as if the carved vestments stirred, and as if the marble figures which they covered raised their heads higher to gaze upon the brightly colored, glowing altar, where the white-robed boys swung the golden censers amid music and song; and the strong fragrance of incense filled the church and streamed forth into the square. The boy stretched out his hands toward the light, and at the same moment the Metal Pig started again, so rapidly that he was obliged to cling tightly to him. The wind whistled in his ears. He heard the church door creak on its hinges as it closed, and it seemed to him as if he had lost his senses; then a cold shudder passed over him, and he awoke.

It was morning. The Metal Pig stood in its old place on the Porta Rosa, and the boy found that he had nearly slipped off its back. Fear and trembling came upon him as he thought of his mother. She had sent him out the day before to get some money, but he had not been able to get any, and now he was hungry and thirsty. Once more he clasped the neck of his metal steed, kissed its nose, and nodded farewell to it. Then he wandered away into one of the narrowest streets, where there was scarcely room for a loaded donkey to pass. A great iron-bound door stood ajar; and, passing through, he climbed a brick staircase with dirty walls, and a rope for balustrade, till he came to an open gallery hung with rags. From here a flight of steps led down to a court, where from a fountain water was drawn up by iron rollers to the different stories of the house. Many water buckets hung side by side. Sometimes the roller and the bucket danced in the air, splashing the water all over the court. Another broken-down staircase led from the gallery, and two Russian sailors running down it almost upset the poor boy. They were coming from their nightly carousal. A woman, not very young, with an unpleasant face and a quantity of black hair, followed them. “What have you brought home?” she asked when she saw the boy.

“Don’t be angry,” he pleaded. “I received nothing, I have nothing at all”; and he seized his mother’s dress and would have kissed it. Then they went into a little room. I need not describe it, but only say that there stood in it an earthen pot with handles, made for holding fire, which in Italy is called a marito. This pot she took in her lap, warmed her fingers, and pushed the boy with her elbow.

“Certainly you must have some money,” she said. The boy began to cry, and then she struck him till he cried aloud.

“Be quiet, or I’ll break your screaming head.” She swung about the fire pot which she held in her hand, while the boy crouched to the earth and screamed. Then a neighbor came in, who also had a marito under her arm. “Felicita,” she said, “what are you doing to the child?”

“The child is mine,” she answered; “I can murder him if I like, and you too, Giannina.”

Then again she swung the fire pot about. The other woman lifted hers up to defend herself, and the two pots clashed so violently that they were dashed to pieces and fire and ashes flew about the room.

The boy rushed out at the sight, sped across the courtyard, and fled from the house. The poor child ran till he was quite out of breath. At last he stopped at the church the doors of which were opened to him the night before, and went in. Here everything was bright, and the boy knelt down by the first tomb on his right hand, the grave of Michelangelo, and sobbed as if his heart would break. People came and went; the service went on, but no one noticed the boy except an elderly citizen, who stood still and looked at him for a moment and then went away like the rest. Hunger and thirst overpowered the child, and he became quite faint and ill. At last he crept into a corner behind the marble monuments and went to sleep. Towards evening he was awakened by a pull at his sleeve. He started up, and the same old citizen stood before him.

“Are you ill? Where do you live? Have you been here all day?” were some of the questions asked by the old man. After hearing his answers, the old man took him to a small house in a back street close by. They entered a glovemaker’s shop, where a woman sat sewing busily. A little white poodle, so closely shaved that his pink skin could plainly be seen, frisked about the room and gamboled over the boy.

“Innocent souls are soon intimate,” said the woman, as she caressed both the boy and the dog.

These good people gave the child food and drink, and said he should stay with them all night, and that the next day the old man, who was called Giuseppe, would go and speak to his mother. A simple little bed was prepared for him, but to him who had so often slept on the hard stones it was a royal couch, and he slept sweetly and dreamed of the splendid pictures, and of the Metal Pig. Giuseppe went out the next morning, and the poor child was not glad to see him go, for he knew that the old man had gone to his mother, and that perhaps he would have to return. He wept at the thought, and then played with the lively little dog and kissed it, while the old woman looked kindly at him to encourage him.

What news did Giuseppe bring back? At first the boy could not find out, for the old man talked to his wife, and she nodded and stroked the boy’s cheek. Then she said, “He is a good lad, he shall stay with us. He may become a clever glovemaker, like you. Look what delicate fingers he has. Madonna intended him for a glovemaker.”

So the boy stayed with them, and the woman herself taught him to sew. He ate well, and slept well, and became very merry. But at last he began to tease Bellissima, as the little dog was called. This made the woman angry, and she scolded him and threatened him, which made him unhappy, and he went and sat in his own room, full of sad thoughts. This chamber looked out upon the street, in which hung skins to dry, and there were thick iron bars across his window. That night he lay awake, thinking of the Metal Pig. Indeed, it was always in his thoughts. Suddenly he fancied he heard feet outside going pitapat. He sprang out of bed and went to the window. Could it be the Metal Pig? But there was nothing to be seen. Whatever he had heard had passed already.

“Go help the gentleman to carry his box of colors,” said the woman the next morning when their neighbor, the artist, passed by, carrying a paint box and a large roll of canvas. The boy instantly took the box and followed the painter. They walked on till they reached the picture gallery, and mounted the same staircase up which[282] he had ridden that night on the Metal Pig. He remembered all the pictures and statues, especially the marble Venus, and again he looked at the Madonna with the Saviour and St. John. They stopped before the picture by Il Bronzino, in which Christ is represented as standing in the lower world, with the children smiling before him in the sweet expectation of entering heaven. The poor boy smiled, too, for here was his heaven.

“You may go home now,” said the painter, while the boy stood watching him till he had set up his easel.

“May I see you paint?” asked the boy. “May I see you put the picture on this white canvas?”

“I am not going to paint,” replied the artist, bringing out a piece of chalk. His hand moved quickly, and his eye measured the great picture, and though nothing appeared but a faint line, the figure of the Saviour was as clearly visible as in the colored picture.

“Why don’t you go?” said the painter. Then the boy wandered home silently, and seated himself on the table, and learned to sew gloves. But all day long his thoughts were in the picture gallery, and so he pricked his fingers and was awkward. But he did not tease Bellissima. When evening came, and the house door stood open, he slipped out. It was a bright, beautiful, starlight evening, but rather cold. Away he went through the already deserted streets, and soon came to the Metal Pig. He stooped down and kissed its shining nose, and then seated himself on its back.

“You happy creature,” he said; “how I have longed for you! We must take a ride to-night.”

But the Metal Pig lay motionless, while the fresh stream gushed forth from its mouth. The little boy still sat astride its back, when he felt something pulling at his clothes. He looked down, and there was Bellissima, little smooth-shaven Bellissima, barking as if she would have said, “Here I am, too. Why are you sitting there?”

A fiery dragon could not have frightened the little boy so much as did the little dog in this place. Bellissima in the street and not dressed! as the old lady called it. What would be the end of this? The dog never went out in winter, unless she was attired in a little lambskin coat, which had been made for her. It was fastened round the little dog’s neck and body with red ribbons, and decorated with rosettes and little bells. The dog looked almost like a little kid when she was allowed to go out in winter and trot after her mistress. Now, here she was in the cold, and not dressed. Oh, how would it end? All his fancies were quickly put to flight; yet he kissed the Metal Pig once more, and then took Bellissima in his arms. The poor little thing trembled so with cold that the boy ran homeward as fast as he could.

“What are you running away with there?” asked two of the police whom he met, and at whom the dog barked. “Where have you stolen that pretty dog?” they asked, and took it away from him.

“Oh, I have not stolen it. Do give it back to me,” cried the boy, despairingly.

“If you have not stolen it, you may say at home that they can send to the watch-house for the dog.” Then they told him where the watch-house was, and went away with Bellissima.

Here was trouble indeed. The boy did not know whether he had better jump into the Arno or go home and confess everything. They would certainly kill him, he thought.

“Well, I would gladly be killed,” he reasoned; “for then I should die and go to heaven.” And so he went home, almost hoping for death.

The door was locked, and he could not reach the knocker. No one was in the street, so he took up a stone and with it made a tremendous noise at the door.

“Who is there?” asked somebody from within.

“It is I,” said he. “Bellissima is gone. Open the door, and then kill me.”

Then, indeed, there was a great panic, for madam was so very fond of Bellissima. She immediately looked at the wall where the dog’s dress usually hung; and there was the little lambskin.

“Bellissima in the watch-house!” she cried. “You bad boy! How did you entice her out? Poor little delicate thing, with those rough policemen! And she’ll be frozen with cold.”

Giuseppe went off at once, while his wife lamented and the boy wept. Several of the neighbors came in, and among them the painter. He took the boy between his knees and questioned him. Soon he heard the whole story, told in broken sentences, and also about the Metal Pig and the wonderful ride to the picture gallery, which was certainly rather incomprehensible. The painter, however, consoled the little fellow, and tried to soften the woman’s anger, but she would not be pacified till her husband returned from the police with Bellissima. Then there was great rejoicing, and the painter caressed the boy and gave him a number of pictures.

Oh, what beautiful pictures those were—figures with funny heads! And, best of all, the Metal Pig was there, too. Nothing could be more delightful! By means of a few strokes it was made to appear on the paper; and even the house that stood behind it had been sketched. Oh, if he could only draw and paint! He who could do this could conjure all the world before him. The first leisure moment during the next day the boy got a pencil, and on the back of one of the other drawings he attempted to copy the drawing of the Metal Pig, and he succeeded. Certainly it was rather crooked, rather up and down, one leg thick, and another thin. Still it was like the copy, and he was overjoyed at what he had done. The pencil would not go quite as it ought, he had found, but the next day he tried again. A second pig was drawn by the side of the first, and this looked a hundred times better. The third attempt was so good that everybody could see what it was meant to represent.

And now the glovemaking went on but slowly. The orders given by the shops in the town were not finished quickly; for the Metal Pig had taught the boy that all objects may be drawn upon paper, and Florence is a picture book in itself for any one who chooses to turn over its pages. On the Piazza della Trinità stands a slender pillar, and upon it is the goddess of justice blindfolded, with her scales in her hand. She was soon represented on paper, and it was the glovemaker’s boy who placed her there. His collection of pictures increased, but as yet they were only copies of lifeless objects, when one day Bellissima came gamboling before him. “Stand still,” cried he, “and I will draw you beautifully, to put in my collection.”

Bellissima would not stand still, so she must be bound fast in one position. He tied her head and tail, but she barked and jumped and so pulled and tightened the string that she was nearly strangled. And just then her mistress walked in.

“You wicked boy! The poor little creature!” was all she could utter.

She pushed the boy from her, thrust him away with her foot, called him a most ungrateful, good-for-nothing, wicked boy, and forbade him to enter her house again. Then she wept, and kissed her little half-strangled Bellissima. At this moment the painter entered the room—and here is the turning point of the story.

In the year 1834 there was an exhibition in the Academy of Arts at Florence. Two pictures, placed side by side, attracted many people. The smaller of the two represented a little boy sitting at a table drawing. Before him was a little white poodle, curiously shaven, but as the animal would not stand still, its head and tail had been fastened with a string, to keep it in one position. The truthfulness and life in this picture interested every one. The painter was said to be a young Florentine, who had been found in the streets when a child by an old glovemaker, who had brought him up. The boy had taught himself to draw. It was also said that a young artist, now famous, had discovered this talent in the child just as he was about to be sent away for having tied up madam’s favorite little dog to use as a model.

The glovemaker’s boy had become a really great painter, as the picture proved; but the larger picture by its side was a still greater proof of his talent. It represented a handsome boy asleep, clothed in rags and leaning against the Metal Pig, in the street of the Porta Rosa. All the spectators knew the spot well. The child’s arms were round the neck of the Pig, and he was in a deep sleep. The lamp before the picture of the Madonna threw a strong light on the pale, delicate face of the child. It was a beautiful picture. A large gilt frame surrounded it, and on one corner of the frame a laurel wreath had been hung. But a black band, twined unseen among the green leaves, and a streamer of crape hung down from it; for within the last few days the young artist had—died.

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