It was late of a beautiful afternoon in May. In the hedges outside the village roses were blossoming, yellow and white. Overhead the larks were singing their happiest songs, because the sky was so blue. But nearer the village the birds were silent, marveling at the strange noises which echoed up and down the narrow, crooked streets.
“Tom-tom; tom-tom; tom-tom”; the hollow thud of a little drum sounded from the market-place. Boys and girls began to run thither, crying to one another:—
“The Tumblers! The Tumblers have come. Hurry, oh, hurry!”
Three little brothers, Beppo, Giovanni, and Paolo, who had been poking about the market at their mother’s heels, pricked up their ears and scurried eagerly after the other children.
Jostling one another good-naturedly, the crowd surged up to the market-place, which stood upon a little hill. In the middle was a stone fountain, whence the whole village was wont to draw all the water it needed. In those long-ago days folk were more sparing in the use of water than they are to-day, especially for washing. Perhaps we should not be so clean, if we had to bring every bucket of water that we used from the City Square!
“Tom-tom; tom-tom; tom-tom”; the little drum sounded louder and louder as the crowd increased. Men and women craned their necks to see who was beating it. The children squirmed their way through the crowd.
On the highest step of the fountain stood a man dressed in red and yellow, with little bells hung from every point of his clothing, which tinkled with each movement he made. In his left hand he held a small drum, from which hung streamers of red and green and yellow ribbon. This drum he beat regularly with the palm of his skinny right hand. He was a lean, dark man, with evil little red-rimmed eyes and a hump between his shoulders.
“Ho! Men and women! Lads and lasses!” he cried in a shrill, cracked voice of strange accent. “Hither, hither quickly, and make ready to give your pennies. For the tumbling is about to begin,—the most wonderful tumbling in the whole round world!”
Stretching out his arm, he pointed to the group below him. The crowd pressed forward and stood on tiptoe to see better. Beppo and Giovanni and Paolo wriggled through the forest of legs and skirts and came out into the open space which had been left about the fountain. And then they saw what the backs of the butcher and baker and candlestick-maker had hidden from them.
From the back of a forlorn little donkey that was tethered behind the fountain a roll of carpet had been taken and spread out on the ground. Beside this stood the three tumblers. One of them was a thin, dark man, small and wicked-looking, dressed, like the drum-beater, in red and yellow. The second tumbler was a huge fellow more than six feet tall, with a shaggy mane of black hair. His muscles stood out in great knots under the suit of green tights which he wore.