What Sami Sings with the Birds by Johanna Spyri
Chapter First. Old Mary Ann
For three days the Spring sun had been shining out of a clear sky and casting a gleaming, golden coverlet over the blue waters of Lake Geneva. Storm and rain had ceased. The breeze murmured softly and pleasantly up in the ash-trees, and all around in the green fields the yellow buttercups and snow-white daisies glistened in the bright sunshine. Under the ash-trees, the clear brook was running with the cool mountain water and feeding the gaily nodding primroses and pink anemones on the hillside, as they grew and bloomed down close to the water.
On the low wall by the brook, in the shadow of the ash-trees, an old woman was sitting. She was called "Old Mary Ann" throughout the whole neighborhood. Her big basket, the weight of which had become a little heavy, she had put down beside her. She was on her way back from La Tour, the little old town, with the vine-covered church tower and the ruined castle, the high turrets of which rose far across the blue lake. Old Mary Ann had taken her work there. This consisted in all kinds of mending which did not need to be done particularly well, for the woman was no longer able to do fine work, and never could do it.
Old Mary Ann had had a very changeable life. The place where she now found herself was not her home. The language of the country was not her own. From the shady seat on the low wall, she now looked contentedly at the sunny fields, then across the murmuring brook to the hillside where the big yellow primroses nodded, while the birds piped and sang in the green ash-trees above her, as if they had the greatest festival to celebrate.
"Every Spring, people think it never was so beautiful before, when they have already seen so many," she now said half aloud to herself, and as she gazed at the fields so rich in flowers, many of the past years rose up and passed before her, with all that she had experienced in them.
As a child she had lived far beyond the mountains. She knew so well how it must look over there now at her father's house, which stood in a field among white-blooming pear-trees. Over yonder the large village with its many houses could be seen. It was called Zweisimmen. Everybody called their house the sergeant's house, although her father quite peacefully tilled his fields. But that came from her grandfather. When quite a young fellow, he had gone over the mountains to Lake Geneva and then still farther to Savoy. Under a Duke of Savoy he had taken part in all sorts of military expeditions and had not returned home until he was an old man. He always wore an old uniform and allowed himself to be called sergeant. Then he married and Mary Ann's father was his only child. The old man lived to be a hundred years old, and every child in all the region round knew the old sergeant.
Mary Ann had three brothers, but as soon as one of them grew up he disappeared, she knew not where. Only this much she understood, that her mother mourned over them, but her father said quite resignedly every time: "We can't help it, they will go over the mountains; they take it from their grandfather." She had never heard anything more about her brothers.
When Mary Ann grew up and married, her young husband also came into the house among the pear-trees, for her father was old and could no longer do his work alone. But after a few years Mary Ann buried her young husband; a burning fever had taken him off. Then came hard times for the widow. She had her child, little Sami, to care for, besides her old, infirm parents to look after, and moreover there was all the work to be done in the house and in the fields which until now her husband had attended to. She did what she could, but it was of no use, the land had to be given up to a cousin. The house was mortgaged, and Mary Ann hardly knew how to keep her old parents from want. Gradually young Sami grew up and was able to help the cousin in the fields. Then the old parents died about the same time, and Mary Ann hoped now by hard work and her son's help little by little to pay up her debts and once more take possession of her fields and house. But as soon as her father and mother were buried, her son Sami, who was now eighteen years old, came to her and said he could no longer bear to stay at home, he must go over the mountains and so begin a new life. This was a great shock to the mother, but when she saw that persuasion, remonstrance and entreaty were all in vain her father's words came to her mind and she said resignedly, "It can't be helped; he takes it from his great-grandfather."
But she would not let the young man go away alone, and he was glad to have his mother go with him. So she wandered with him over the mountains. In the little village of Chailly, which lies high up on the mountain slope and looks down on the meadows rich in flowers and the blue Lake Geneva, they found work with the jolly wine-grower Malon. This man, with curly hair already turning grey and a kindly round face, lived alone with his son in the only house left standing, near a crooked maple-tree.
Mary Ann received a room for herself and was to keep house for Herr Malon, and keep everything in order for him and his son. Sami was to work for good pay in Malon's beautiful vineyard. The widow Mary Ann passed several years here in a more peaceful way than she had ever known before.
When the fourth Summer came to an end, Sami said to her one day:
"Mother, I must really marry young Marietta of St. Legier, for I am so lonely away from her."
His mother knew Marietta well and besides she liked the pretty, clever girl, for she was not only always happy but there were few girls so good and industrious. So she rejoiced with her son, although he would have to go away from her to live with Marietta and her aged father in St. Legier, for she was indispensable to him. Herr Malon's son also brought a young wife home, and so Mary Ann had no more duties there, and had to look out for herself. She kept her room for a small rent, and was able to earn enough to support herself. She now knew many people in the neighborhood, and obtained enough work.
Mary Ann pondered over all these things, and when her thoughts returned from the distant past to the present moment, and she still heard the birds above her singing and rejoicing untiringly, she said to herself:
"They always sing the same song and we should be able to sing with them. Only trust in the dear Lord! He always helps us, although we may often think there is no possible way."
Then Mary Ann left the low wall, took her basket up again on her arm and went through the fragrant meadows of Burier up towards Chailly. From time to time she cast an anxious look in the direction of St. Legier. She knew that young Marietta was lying sick up there and that her son Sami would now have hard work and care, for a much smaller Sami had just come into the world. Tomorrow Mary Ann would go over and see how things were going with her son and if she ought to stay with him and help.
Mary Ann had scarcely stepped into her little room and put on her house dress, to prepare her supper, when she heard some one coming along with hurried footsteps. The door was quickly thrown open and in stepped her son Sami with a very distressed face. Under his arm he carried a bundle wrapped up in one of Marietta's aprons. This he laid on the table, threw himself down and sobbed aloud, with his head in his arms:
"It is all over, mother, all over; Marietta is dead!"
"Oh, for Heaven's sake, what are you saying?" cried his mother in the greatest horror. "Oh, Sami, is it possible?"
Then she lifted Sami gently and continued in a trembling voice:
"Come, sit down beside me and tell me all about it. Is she really dead? Oh, when did it happen? How did it come so quickly?"
Sami willingly dropped down on a chair beside his mother. But then he buried his face in his hands and went on sobbing again.
"Oh, I can't bear it, I must go away, mother, I can't bear it here any longer, it is all over!"
"Oh, Sami, where would you go?" said his mother, weeping. "We have already come over the mountains, where would you go from here?"
"I must go across the water, as far as I possibly can, I can't stay here any longer. I cannot, mother," declared Sami. "I must go across the great water as far as possible!"
"Oh, not that!" cried Mary Ann. "Don't be so rash! Wait a little, until you can think more calmly; it will seem different to you."
"No, mother, no, I must go away. I am forced to it; I can't do any different," cried Sami, almost wild.
His mother looked at him in terror, but she said nothing more. She seemed to hear her father saying: "It can't be helped. He takes it from his grandfather." And with a sigh she said:
"It will have to be so."
Then there sounded from the bundle a strange peeping, exactly as if a chicken were smothering inside. "What have you put in the bundle, Sami?" asked the mother, going towards it, to loosen the firmly tied apron.
"That's so, I had almost forgotten it, mother," replied Sami, wiping his eyes, "I have brought the little boy to you, I don't know what to do with it."
"Oh, how could you pack him up so! Yes, yes, you poor little thing," said the grandmother soothingly, taking the diminutive Sami out of one wrapping and then a second and a third.
The father Sami had wrapped the little baby first in its clothes, then in a shawl, and then in the apron as tight as possible, so that it couldn't slip out on the way, and fall on the ground. When little Sami was freed from the smothering wrappings and could move his arms and legs he fought with all his limbs in the air and screamed so pitifully that his grandmother thought it seemed exactly as if he already knew what a great misfortune had come to him.
But father Sami said perhaps he was hungry, for since the evening before no one had paid any attention to the little baby. This seemed to the sympathetic Mary Ann quite too cruel, and she realised that if she didn't care for the poor little mite it would die. She wrapped him up again carefully in his blanket, but not around his head, and carried him upright on her arm, not under it, as one carries a bundle. Then she ran all around her room to collect milk, a dish and fire together, so that the starving little creature might have some nourishment. As she sat on her stool, and the little one eagerly sipped the milk, while his tiny little hand tightly clasped his grandmother's forefinger like a life-preserver, she said, greatly touched:
"Yes, indeed, you little Sami, you poor little orphan, I will do what I can for you and the dear Lord will not forsake us."
And to the big Sami she said:
"I will keep him, but don't take any rash steps! In the first great sorrow many a one does what he later regrets. See, you can't run away from sorrow, it runs with you. Stay and bear what the dear Lord sends. He is not angry with you. Hold to him still in time of sorrow, then the sun will shine tomorrow! It will be the same with you as it has been with so many others." Sami had listened in silence, but like one who does not understand what he hears.
"Good night, mother! May God reward you for what you do for the boy," he said then, after wiping his eyes again. Then he pressed his mother's hand, and went out of the door.