Uncle Titus and His Visit to the Country by Johanna Spyri
Chapter II. Long, Long Days.
It was not many days after the events mentioned in the last chapter. Dora sat by her father's bedside, her head buried in the pillows, vainly striving to choke down her tears and sobs. It seemed as if her heart must break. The Major lay back on his pillow, white and still, with a peaceful smile on his calm face. Dora could not understand it, could not take it in, but she knew it. Her father was gone to join her mother in heaven.
In the morning her father had not come as usual to her bedside to awaken her, so when at last she opened her eyes, she went to seek him, and she found him still in bed, and lying so quiet that she seated herself quite softly by his side, that she might not disturb him.
Presently the servant came up with the breakfast, and looking through the open door into the bed-room where Dora sat by her father's bed-side, she called out in terror,
"Oh God, he is dead! I will call your aunt, child," and hurried away.
Dora's heart seemed cut in two by these words. She put her head upon the pillow and sobbed and wept. Presently she heard her aunt come into the room, and she raised her head and tried to control herself, for she dreaded the scene that she knew was coming. And it came--cries and sobs, loud groans and lamentations. Aunt Ninette declared that she could never bear this terrible blow; she did not know which way to turn, nor what to do first.
In the open drawer of the table by the side of the bed, lay several papers, and as she laid them together, meaning to lock them up, she saw a letter addressed to herself. She opened it and read as follows:
Aunt Ninette read and re-read these touching lines, and could not help growing calmer as she read. She turned to the silently weeping Dora with these words,
"Come, my child, your home henceforth will be with us. You and I will try to remember that all is well with your father; otherwise we shall break down under our sorrow."
Dora arose at once and prepared to follow her aunt, but her heart was heavy within her; she felt as if all was over and she could not live much longer.
As she came up the stairs behind her aunt, Aunt Ninette omitted for the first time to caution her to step lightly, and indeed there was no need now of the usual warning when they approached Uncle Titus' room, for the little girl was so sad, so weighed down with her sorrow as she entered her new home, that it seemed as if she could never again utter a sound of childish merriment.
A little room under the roof, hitherto used as a store-room, was changed into a bed-room for Dora, though not without some complainings from Aunt Ninette. However, the furniture was brought over from the Major's rooms, and after a slight delay, all was comfortably arranged for the child.
When supper-time came, Dora followed her aunt, without a word, into the dining-room, where they were joined by Uncle Titus, who however seldom spoke, so deeply was he absorbed in his own thoughts. After supper, Dora went up to her little room under the roof, and with her face buried in her pillow, cried herself softly to sleep.
On the following morning she begged to be allowed to go over to look once again at her father, and after some objection, her aunt agreed to go with her, and they crossed the narrow street.
Dora took a silent farewell of her dear father, weeping all the time but making no disturbance. Only when she again reached her little bed-room, did she at last give way to her sobs without restraint, for she knew that soon her good father would be carried away, and that she could never, never see him again on earth.
And now began a new order of life for Dora. She had not been to school, during the short time that she and her father had lived together in Karlsruhe. Her father went over with her the lessons she had learned in Hamburg, but he did not seem to care to begin any new study, preferring to leave everything for her aunt to arrange.
It happened that one of Aunt Ninette's friends was the teacher of a private school for girls, so that it was soon settled that Dora was to go to her every morning to learn what she could. Also a seamstress was engaged to teach her the art of shirt-making in the afternoon, for it was a theory of Aunt Ninette's that the construction of shirts of all kinds was a most useful branch of knowledge, and she proposed that Dora should learn this art, with a view of being able to support herself with her needle. She argued that since the shirt is the first garment to be put on in dressing, it should be the first that one should learn to make, and with this as a foundation, Dora could go on through the whole art of sewing, till in time she might even arrive at the mighty feat of making dresses! With which achievement Aunt Ninette would feel more than satisfied, but this great end would never be reached, unless the first steps were taken in the right direction.
So every morning Dora sat on the school-bench studying diligently, and every afternoon on a little chair close to the seamstress' knee, sewing on a big shirt that made her very warm and uncomfortable.
The mornings were not unpleasant; for she was in the company of other children who were all studying, and Dora was ambitious and willing to learn. So the hours flew quickly, for she was too busy to dwell much on the loss of her dear father, and to think that he was gone forever. But the afternoons were truly dreadful. She must sit through the long hot hours, close by the seamstress, almost smothered by the big piece of cotton cloth, which her little fingers could hardly manage, and she grew restless and irritable, for her hands were moist, and the needle refused to be driven through the thick cloth. How often she glanced up at the clock on the wall during those long hours, when the minute hand was surely stuck at half-past three, and the regular tic-tac seemed to fill the quiet room with its sleepy droning. So hot, so still, so long were the hours of those summer afternoons!
The silence was broken now and then by the sounds of a distant piano. "What a happy child that must be!" thought little Dora, "who can sit at the piano and practise exercises, and all sorts of pretty tunes!" She could think of nothing more delightful; she listened with hungry ears, and drank in every note that reached her. In the narrow street where the seamstress lived she could hear the music distinctly, for no wagons passed, and the voices of foot-passengers did not reach up so high as to her room. So Dora listened to the sweet melodies which were her only refreshment during those hot long hours, and even the running scales were a pleasure to her ear. But then the thought of her father came back to her, and she felt bitterly the terrible contrast between these hot lonely afternoons and those which she used to spend with him under the cool shade of the lindens. Then she thought of that glorious sunset, and of her father, as he stood transfigured in the golden light. She remembered his comforting words, his assurance that some day they two and the mother would stand thus together, shining in the eternal light of Heaven. But Dora sighed at the thought of the long weary time before she should join them, unless indeed some accident should happen to her, or she should fall ill and die, from this too heavy task of shirt-making. After all, her best consolation was her father's verse; and then too, he had been so sure of its truth:
"God holds us in his hand, God knows the best to send."
She believed it too; and as she repeated the lines to herself, her heart grew lighter, and even her needle moved more easily, as if inspired by the cheering thoughts. Yet the days were long and wearisome, and their stillness followed her when she went home to her uncle and aunt.
She reached home just in time for supper. Uncle Titus always held the newspaper before his face, and read and ate behind its ample shelter. Aunt Ninette spoke in whispers all the while, and asked only the most necessary questions, in order not to disturb her husband. Dora said little; and less every day, as she grew accustomed to this silent life. Even when she came home from school at noon for the short interval before the time for her sewing lessons, there was no need to caution her against noise; for the child moved ever less and less like a living being, and grew more like a shadow day by day.
Yet by nature she was a lively little maiden, and took so keen an interest in all about her, that her father often used joyfully to observe it, saying,
"That child is exactly like her dear mother; just the same movements, the same indomitable spirit and enjoyment of life!"
But now all this vivacity seemed extinguished. Dora was very careful never to provoke her aunt to complaints, which she dreaded exceedingly. Yet for all her pains it would happen sometimes, most unexpectedly and when she was least looking for a storm, that one would break over her head, and frighten all her thoughts and words back into her childish heart; nay, almost check the flow of youth in her veins.
One evening, she came home from her work filled with enthusiasm, by a song she had been listening to, played by her unseen musician. Dora knew the words well:
"Live your life merrily While the lamp glows, Ere it can fade and die, Gather the rose."
Dora had often sung this song, but she had never dreamed that it could be played on the piano, and it sounded so beautiful, so wonderful to her, that she said to her aunt, as she entered the dining-room,
"Oh, Aunt Ninette, how delightful it must be to know how to play on the piano! Do you think that I can ever learn it in my life?"
"Oh, in heaven's name, how can you ask me such a thing? How can you worry me so? How could you do anything of the kind in our house? Think of the terrible din that a piano makes! And where would the money come from if you could find the time? Oh, Dora, where did you get hold of that unfortunate idea? I should think I had enough to worry me already, without your asking me such a thing as this into the bargain."
Dora hastened to assure her aunt that she had no intention of asking for any thing, and the storm blew over. But never again did she dare even to speak of music, no matter how eagerly she had listened to the piano, during her long sewing lessons.
Every evening after Dora had learned all her lessons for school, while her aunt in utter silence knitted or nodded, the child climbed up to her little attic room; and before she closed her tiny window, she leaned out into the night to see whether the stars were shining, and looking down upon her from the high heavens. Five there were always up there just above her head; they stood close together and Dora looked at them so often and so steadily, that she began to consider them as her own special property--or rather as friends who came every night and twinkled down into her heart, to tell her that she was not utterly alone. One night the idea came to her that these bright stars were loving messengers, who brought her kisses and caresses from her dear parents. And from these heavenly messengers the lonely child gained nightly comfort when she climbed to her little chamber in the roof, with her feeble candle for her only companion. She sent her prayers up to heaven through the tiny window, and received full assurance in return, that her Father in heaven saw her, and would not forsake her. Her father had told her that God would always help those who trusted him and prayed to him, and she had no fear.
And so the long hot summer passed, and Autumn came. Then followed a long, long winter with its cold and darkness; such cold that Dora often thought that even the hot summer days were better, for she no longer dared to open the window to look for her friends the stars, and often she could hardly get to sleep, it was so cold in the little room, under the roof. At last the Spring rolled round again, and the days passed one like another, in the quiet dwelling of Uncle Titus. Dora worked harder than ever on the big shirts, for she had learned to sew so well, that she had to help the seamstress in earnest now. When the hot days came again, something happened; and now Aunt Ninette had reason enough to lament. Uncle Titus had an attack of dizziness, and the doctor was sent for.
"I suppose it is thirty years since you went beyond the limits of the town of Karlsruhe, and in all that time you have never left your desk except to eat and sleep. Am I right?" asked the physician, after he had looked steadily at Uncle Titus and tapped him a little here and there.
There was no denying that the doctor had stated the case truly.
"Very well," he said, "now off with you! go away at once; to-day rather than to-morrow. Go to Switzerland. Go to the fresh mountain air; that is all the medicine you need. Don't go too high up, but stay there six weeks at least. Have you any preference as to the place? No? Well, set yourself to thinking and I will do the same, and to-morrow I shall call again to find you ready for the journey."
With this off started the doctor, but Aunt Ninette would not let him escape so easily. She followed close at his heels with a whole torrent of questions, which she asked over and over again, and she would have an answer. The doctor had fairly deserved this attack, by his astounding prescription. His little game of snapping it suddenly upon them, and then quickly making his escape, had not succeeded; he lost three times as much time outside the door as if he had staid quietly in the room. When at last Aunt Ninette returned to her husband, there he sat at his desk again, writing as usual!
"My dear Titus," cried the good woman really in great astonishment, "is it possible that you did not hear what we are ordered to do? To drop everything and go away at once, and stay away for six weeks! And where? We have not an idea where! And there's no way of knowing who our neighbors will be! It is terrible, and there you sit and write as if there were nothing else to be done in the world!"
"My love, it is exactly because I must go away so soon, that I wish to make the most of the little time I have left," said Uncle Titus, and he went on with his writing.
"My dear Titus, your way of accepting the unexpected is most admirable, but this must be talked over, I assure you. The consequences may be very serious, and the matter must not be lightly treated. Do think at once where we are to go! Aunt Ninette spoke very impressively.
"Oh, it makes no difference where we go, if it is only quiet, and out in the country some where," said the good man, as he calmly continued his writing.
"Of course, that is the very thing" said his wife, "to find a quiet house, not full of people nor in a noisy neighborhood. We might happen on a school close by, or a mill, or a waterfall. There are so many of those dreadful things in Switzerland. Or some noisy factory, or a market place, always full of country folk, all the people of the whole canton pouring in there together and making a terrible uproar. But I have an idea, my dearest Titus, I have thought of a way to settle it. I shall write to an old uncle of my brother's wife. You remember the family used to live in Switzerland; I am sure I can find out from him just what it is best for us to do."
"That seems to me rather a round-about way," said her husband, "and if I remember right the family had some unpleasant experiences in Switzerland, and are not likely to have kept up any connection with it."
"Oh, let me see to that; I will take care that all is as it should be, my dear Titus," said aunt Ninette decidedly, and off she went, and without more delay wrote and dispatched a letter to her brother's wife's uncle. This done, she hurried away to Dora's sewing teacher, who was a most respectable woman, and arranged that while they were in Switzerland, Dora should spend the days with her, going to school as usual in the morning and sewing all the afternoon, and that the woman should go home with Dora to pass the nights.
Dora was informed of this plan when she came home that evening. She received the news in silence, and after supper in silence went to her little attic room. There as she sat upon her little bed, she realized fully what her life would be when her uncle and aunt had gone away, and as she compared it sadly with the happy companionship of her dear father, her sorrow and solitude seemed too terrible to bear, and she hid her face in her hands and gave way to bitter tears. Her uncle and aunt might die too, she thought, and she should be left alone with no one to care for her, no one in the world to whom she belonged, and nothing to do but to sit forever sewing on endless shirts. For ever and ever! for she knew she must earn her living by sewing. Well, she was quite willing to do that; but oh! not to be left all alone.
The poor child was so wholly absorbed in these painful thoughts, as they passed again and again through her mind, that she lost all sense of time, till at last she was aroused, by the clock on the neighboring tower striking so many times that she was frightened. She raised her head. It was perfectly dark. Her little candle had burned out, and not a glimmer of light came from the street. But the stars; yes, there were the five stars above still shining so joyfully, that it seemed to Dora as if her father were looking down upon her with loving eyes, and saying cheeringly,
"God holds us in his hand God knows the best to send."
The sparkling starlight sank deep into her heart, and made it lighter. She grew calmer. Her father knew, she said to herself, she would trust his knowledge, and not fear what the future might hold in store. And after she laid her head on her pillow, she kept her eyes fixed upon the beautiful stars until they closed in sleep.
On the following evening the doctor came as he had promised. He began to suggest various places to Uncle Titus, but Aunt Ninette assured him rather curtly, that she was already on the track of something that promised to be satisfactory. There were a great many things to be taken into consideration, she said, since Uncle Titus was to make so vast a change in his habits. The utmost prudence must be exercised in the selection of the situation, and of the house also. This was her present business, and when everything was settled she would inform the doctor of her arrangements.
"Very well, only don't be long about it; be off as soon as you can, the quicker the better," said the physician warningly, and he was making a hasty retreat, when he almost fell over little Dora who had stolen so quietly into the room that he had not seen her.
"There, there, I hope I did not hurt you," he said, tapping the frightened child upon the shoulder. "It will do this thin little creature a world of good too, this trip to Switzerland," he continued. "She must drink plenty of milk,--lots of milk."
"We have decided to leave Dora behind," remarked Aunt Ninette drily.
"As you please; it is your affair, Mrs. Ehrenreich; but you must let me observe that if you do not look out, you will have another case on your hands, as bad as your husband's, if not worse. Good-morning madam," and he vanished.
"Doctor, doctor! what do you mean? What did you say?" cried Aunt Ninette in her most plaintive tone, running down the stairs to overtake him.
"I mean that the little person up there has quite too little good blood in her veins, and that she cannot last long, unless she gets more and better nourishment."
"For heaven's sake! What unfortunate people we are!" cried Mrs. Ehrenreich, wringing her hands in distress, as she came back into her husband's room. "My dearest Titus, just lay down your pen for one moment. You did not hear the dreadful things the doctor said would happen to Dora, if she did not have more and better blood?"
"Oh, take her with us to Switzerland. She never makes any noise," and Uncle Titus went on with his writing.
"My dearest Titus, how can you decide such a thing in one second? To be sure she never makes any noise, and that is the most important thing. But there are so many other things to consider, and arrange for, and think over! Oh dear! Oh dear me!"
But Uncle Titus was again absorbed in his work, and paid not the slightest heed to his wife's lamentations. So, seeing that she could expect no help from him, she went into her own room, thought everything over carefully again and again, and at last decided that it was best to follow the doctor's advice, and take Dora with them.
In a day or two the expected letter came from Hamburg. It was very short. The old uncle knew nothing about his brother's residence in Switzerland, now thirty years back. Tannenburg was certainly quiet enough, for his brother had always complained of the want of society there, and that was all he knew about it. But this was satisfactory so far, and Aunt Ninette decided at once to write to the clergyman at Tannenburg for farther particulars. Solitude and quiet! this was just what Uncle Titus needed.
This second letter brought an immediate answer which confirmed her hopes. "Tannenburg is a small place, with scattered houses," wrote the clergyman. "There is just such a dwelling as you describe, now ready for lodgers. It is occupied by the widow of the school-teacher, an elderly and very worthy woman, who has two good-sized rooms and a little bed-room which she will be glad to let." And the widow's address was added, in case Mrs. Ehrenreich should wish farther information.
Mrs. Ehrenreich wrote immediately, setting forth her wishes at full length and in great detail. She expressed her satisfaction that the houses in Tannenburg were so far apart, and she hoped that the one in question was not situated in such a way as to be undesirable for the residence of an invalid. She wished to make sure that there was in the vicinity no smithy, no locksmith, no stables, no stone-breaker's yard, no slaughter-house nor mill, no school, and particularly no waterfall.
The answer from the widow, very prettily expressed, contained the agreeable assurance, that not one of these dreaded nuisances was to be found in her neighborhood. The school and the mill were so far away that not a sound could reach her dwelling from either, and there was no waterfall in that part of the country. Also there was not a house to be seen far or near, except the large residence of Mr. Birkenfeld, standing surrounded by beautiful gardens, fields and meadows. The Birkenfelds were the most respected family in the neighborhood. He was a member of every committee, and was a most benevolent man, and his wife was full of good works. The widow added that she herself owed a great deal to the kindness of this family, particularly with regard to her little house which was their property, and which Mr. Birkenfeld had allowed her to occupy ever since her husband's death. He had proved to be the kindest of landlords.
After a letter like this there was no need for farther delay; everything had been provided for. Dora now heard for the first time that she was to go with them, and with a light heart and a willing hand, she packed the heavy materials for six large shirts, which she was to make while they were in Switzerland. The prospect of sewing on the shirts in a new place, and with different surroundings, excited her so much that she looked on it all as a holiday. At last all was ready. The trunks and chests were carried down to the street door, and the servant-girl was sent out for a cabman with a hand-cart, to take them away.
Dora had been ready for a long time, and stood at the head of the stairs with beating heart filled with expectations of all the new things that she was to see for the next six weeks. The idea of this coming freedom almost overcame her with its bewildering delight, after all those long, long days in the seamstress' little, stifling room.
At last her uncle and aunt came from their room laden with innumerable umbrellas and parasols, baskets and bundles, got down stairs with some difficulty, and mounted the carriage that was waiting below. And they were fairly off for the country,--and quiet.