The Swiss Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins
IV. The Lonely Herdsman
The sun was already dipping toward the west when they finished the last crumb of their bread and cheese, washed it down with a drink from the mountain stream, and started once more on their journey. They followed the path without much difficulty, for it had been trampled by the feet of many cattle that morning, and at the end of an hour had covered several miles without meeting a person or finding any sign of human habitation The way grew wilder and wilder and wound slowly upward.
"It's going to be dark pretty soon," said Leneli at last, trying hard to conceal the tremble in her voice, "and we are going up instead of down. Seppi, do you suppose there are any bears and wolves about here?"
"Maybe," said Seppi, and there was a little catch in his throat, too. "But then," he added, trying hard to look on the bright side of things, "if there are, they'd be much more likely to eat the goats. I don't believe they care much about eating people."
"Well, anyway, if they do," quavered Leneli, "I hope they'll begin with Nanni."
The afternoon waned; the shadows grew longer and longer, and they wire just making up their minds that they must soon lie down among the goats beside the trail and wait for morning, when a turn in the path brought them out on a spur of the mountain where they could look for miles across a deep valley towards the west. On the farther side, range after range of snow-capped peaks gave back the golden glory of the sunset, and from somewhere came the sound of an Alpine horn playing the first few notes of the hymn "Praise Ye the Lord."
"The Angelus!" cried Leneli clasping, her hands. "They can't hear the church-bells up here, so they blow the horns instead."
Far away across the valley another horn answered, then another and another, and the echoes took up the refrain until it seemed as if the hills themselves were singing.
Following eagerly the direction of the sound the children were overjoyed to see in the distance a lonely herdsman standing on a great rock overlooking the valley, his long Alpine horn in his hand, and his head bowed in prayer. Leneli and Seppi bowed their heads too, and it comforted them to think that their mother in the old farm-house, and Father and Fritz on the far-away alp, were all at that same moment praying too. It seemed to bring them near together in spite of the distance which separated them.
Their prayers said, the children hastened forward, driving the goats before them, and now the sound of cow-bells mingled with the tinkle of the bells on the goats. Another turn in the path revealed a green pasture where a herd of cows was grazing, and, just beyond, a rough shelter made of logs with the herdsman, still holding his horn, standing beside it. He was gazing in astonishment at the sight of two little children alone on the mountains at so late an hour. He was an old man, with a shaggy white beard, and strange kind eyes that seemed always looking for something that he could not find. Beside him, his ears pointed forward and his tail pointing back, was his dog. The dog was growling.
For an instant the children stood still, not quite daring to go nearer, but Bello, dear friendly old Bello, had no such fears. He ran forward barking joyfully; the two dogs smelled each other, and then trotted back down the path together as if they had been friends since they were puppies.
The man followed at a slower pace. "What in the world are you doing up here on the mountains with your goats at this time o' day?" he said to the children.
The Twins told him their story, and he stood for a moment scratching his head, as if he were much puzzled to know what to do with them.
"Well," he said at length, "you can't get down the mountain tonight, that's certain; and you must be hungry enough to eat an ox roasted whole, that's certain too. And your goats are hungry into the bargain. Goats aren't allowed in this pasture, but they mustn't starve either. Nothing is as it should be."
He scratched his head again, and Leneli, fearing he was going to turn them away, could not keep a large tear from rolling, down her nose and splashing off her chin.
"There, there," said the old herdsman, comfortingly, "don't you cry, sissy. Things aren't so bad but that they might be worse. You can sleep in the hay up yonder," he jerked his thumb toward the hut, "and I'll give you a bite to eat, and the goats will help themselves, I've no manner of doubt."
"We can drink goat's milk," said Leneli timidly, "and you may have all we don't take."
"We'll have to milk them first," said Seppi, "and we've never done it before. Mother always does the milking."
"I know how," said Leneli proudly. "Don't you remember, Fritz taught me the day Nanni swallowed my lunch?"
"I'll lend you a milk-pail," said the herdsman. "The cows were all milked some time ago."
He went back to the but and soon reappeared with two pails, and as Leneli struggled with one goat he milked another, while Seppi fed both creatures with tufts of grass to keep them quiet. It was the first good grass the goats had seen since morning, and apparently they were determined to eat the pasture clean.
The herdsman looked at them anxiously and scratched his head again. "They certainly have healthy appetites," he said woefully; "they don't calculate to leave anything behind 'em but stones and gravel!"
The milking took some time and after it was done, the old man placed the sad and tired children on the bench beside his door, and while they ate the food he gave them and watched the moon rise over the mountains, he told them about his home in the village fifteen miles away at the foot of the pass, and about his wife and two grandchildren who lived there with him.
"The only thing you can do," he said, "is to go down the pass on this side of the mountain. You can spend the night at my house or at some farm-house on the way and it is only about ten miles back to your own village from the foot of the pass."
"But how can we find the way?" quavered poor Leneli.
The old man scratched his head, as he always did when he was puzzled, and finally said, "Well, I'm blest if I can tell you. It's a hard pass. I'd go with you, but I'm alone here and I can't leave the cows even for half a day. I'll start you right, the dog and the goats have some sense of their own; and the good God will guide you. Besides, Swiss boys and girls are never afraid."
"I'm a little afraid, I think," confessed Leneli. She looked at the moon and thought how it must be shining down on the old farm- house; and of her mother, who at that very moment must be frantic with fears for their safety; and of the long and perilous journey before they could see her again, and though she tried hard to swallow them, three little sobs slipped out.
The old man heard them. "Why, bless me, bless me," he said, rumpling his hair until it stood on end, "this will never do at all! Why, bless us, think of William Tell! Think of Peter, who lived long ago in your own Lucerne, and who saved the whole city! To take a little herd of goats down a strange pass is child's play compared with what he did; and he was only a boy like Seppi here, and I always thought girls were braver than boys."
Leneli sat up and sniffed resolutely. "I think--I'm almost sure-- I'm going to be brave now," she said. "Tell us about Peter."
"Well, it was like this," said the herds- man. "Peter was a smart, likely lad enough, but nobody thought he was a hero. In fact, he never suspected it himself. You see, you can't tell whether you are one or not until something happens that calls for courage. Then if you do the right thing, whether you are afraid or not, you'll know you are one. Well, one summer night this Peter went out to have a swim in the lake, and when he crawled upon the bank to dress again, he was so tired he fell asleep. By and by he was wakened by voices and, opening his eyes, he saw five or six men creeping stealthily along the lake-shore.
"'Aha,' says Peter to himself, 'that's not the walk of honest men.'
"He got up on his elbow in the long grass and watched them without being seen. He saw many more men steal silently after the first group, and among them he recognized the Bailiff of Rothenburg,whom he knew to be an Austrian and the sworn enemy of Lucerne. He saw the men talk together and heard enough of what they paid to be sure that danger threatened his beloved town. So when they moved on, he followed them, slipping along behind rocks and bushes, until suddenly they disappeared as if the earth had swallowed them. Peter groped about hunting for them until at last he saw a faint light shining from out a dark cavern among the rocks. Then, though he knew how dangerous it was, he followed the light and found himself in along, dark tunnel."
"Oh," shuddered Leneli. "I could never be as brave as that. I don't like dark places."
"Peter knew that a tunnel ran underneath the walls of the town and that the other end of it opened by a trap-door into a stable in Lucerne," went on the old man without noticing Leneli's interruption, "and at once he saw that some traitor must have told the Austrians of this secret passage. He crept closer and closer to the group of men, until he was near enough to hear what they said. You may be sure his blood ran cold in his veins when he heard the voice of a man he knew, telling the Austrians just how best they could capture the town! He knew that terrible things would happen in Lucerne that night if the enemy ever reached the other end of the tunnel, and at once made up his mind that he must alarm the town. He dropped on his hands and knees and was beginning to crawl back toward the entrance, when he heard some one coming into the tunnel! He sprang to his feet and tried to run past, but the passage was narrow, and he was caught at once and dragged into the light."
"Oh! Oh!" gasped the Twins, breathless with excitement. "It sounds just like a bad dream."
"It was no dream," said the old herdsman, "for when the traitor, whose name was Jean de Malters, saw Peter, he was terribly angry. 'How did you come here,' he roared, in a voice that made the earth shake.
"'I was asleep on the bank and you woke me up, so I followed to see what was going on,' said Peter.
"'I don't believe you. Some one sent you to spy upon us,' said Jean de Matters, and he shook Peter. 'Who sent you?'
"'No one,' said Peter. 'I have told you the truth.'
"'You lie,' said his captor. "I give you just two minutes to tell who sent you, and if you do not tell us then, you shall die!'
"Poor Peter thought of his home and his mother and father, and there never was a more homesick boy in the world than he was at that moment, but though he was terribly frightened, he did not say a single word.
"'He shall die, then,' said Jean de Falters, when the two minutes were up, and Peter had not spoken.
"One of the Austrians interfered. 'No,' he said. 'It would be bad luck to begin the night's work by shedding the blood of a child. Make him swear he will not tell what he has seen to any living soul, and let him go.'
"In spite of Jean de Matters, who was bound that he should be killed, that was what they did, and the moment he was free you may be sure Peter ran like the wind for home.
"Now you see," said the old herdsman, and he shook his finger at Seppi and Leneli, "I this was a dreadful position for Peter. He had solemnly promised not to tell a living soul what he had seen and heard, but if he didn't tell, his parents and friends would be murdered before morning.
"That evening his father and a number of other men were gathered together in the town hall of Lucerne to talk over community affairs, when Peter suddenly burst into the room, his eyes as big as saucers.
"The men gathered about him, thinking he must have some tremendous piece of news, but Peter spoke never a word to them. Instead, he marched up to the great porcelain stove that stood in the room.
"'O Stove,' said Peter, 'I have just heard terrible things which I have promised not to tell to a living soul, but you, O Stove, have no soul, so to you I will say that the Austrians are now in the tunnel underneath the walls and that at midnight they will break in and sack the town.'
"At first the men thought Peter had gone crazy, but when he had finished telling the stove all he had seen and heard, they flew to alarm the town and get their weapons.
"At midnight, when the Austrians came up through the hole in the stable floor, they were received by a little army of men of Lucerne, and in the battle that followed they were completely whipped and driven from the town forever. And it was Peter who saved the city.
"You see that was Peter's chance to show what he was made of, and he didn't miss his chance. He did the right thing, even though he was afraid. It's a great thing not to miss one's chance."
The old herdsman looked up at the moon as if he hadn't meant any one in particular when he said that about missing one's chance, and the children didn't say a word for a minute.
Then Seppi said, "If Peter could save a whole town, I guess we can get down that pass with a few goats."
"Why, of course," said the herdsman. "It's your chance, you see, and when you get home very likely you'll find you are both heroes. You see if there were never any danger, there never could be any heroes at all! Now climb up into the hay, both of you, and I'll wake you for an early start in the morning."