Uncle Titus and His Visit to the Country by Johanna Spyri
Chapter III. On the Other Side of the Hedge.
Mr. Birkenfeld's large house was situated on the summit of a green hill with a lovely view across a lake to a richly-wooded valley beyond. From early spring to the end of autumn, flowers of every hue glistened and glowed in the bright sunshine that seemed always to lie on those lovely meadows. Near the house was the stable, in which stamped four spirited horses, and there, also, many shining cows stood at their cribs, peacefully chewing the fragrant grass with which they were well-supplied by the careful Battiste, an old servant who had served the family for many years. When Hans, the stable-boy, and all the other servants were away, busy on the estate, it was Battiste's habit to walk round from time to time through the stalls, to make sure that all was as it should be. For he knew all about the right management of horses and cattle, having been in the service of Mr. Birkenfeld's father when he was a mere lad. Now that he was well on in years, he had been advanced to the position of house-servant, but he still had an eye upon the stable and over the whole farm. The mows were neatly filled with sweet-smelling hay, and the bins were piled full of wheat and oats and barley, all the product of the farm, which extended over the hill-side far away into the valley below. On the side of the house opposite the barnyards stood the wash-house with its spacious drying-ground, and not far away, but quite concealed by a high hedge from the house and garden, was the tiny cottage which the owner had kindly allowed the school-master's widow to occupy for several years past.
On the evening of which we write, the warm sunlight lay softly on the hillside, revealing the red and white daisies which nestled everywhere in the rich green grass. A shaggy dog was basking in the open space before the house door, lazily glancing about now and then to see what was stirring. All was quiet, however, and he peacefully dozed again after each survey. Occasionally a young, gray cat peeped slily forth from beneath the door-step, stared at the motionless sleeper and cautiously withdrew again. Everything denoted peace and quiet except certain sounds of voices and of great activity which proceeded from the back of the house, where the door leading into the garden, stood open.
Presently wheels were heard, and a wagon drove up and stopped before the door of the widow's cottage. The dog opened his eyes and pointed his ears, but it was evidently not worth while to growl at something in the next place, so he dozed off again at once. The newly-arrived guests descended from the carriage, and entered the cottage in silence. There they were cordially welcomed by Mrs. Kurd, and shown to the rooms reserved for them, and soon Aunt Ninette was busy in the large chamber unpacking her big trunk, while Dora in her little bedroom soon emptied her little box and put her clothes in the other room, which was to be his study, Uncle Titus also sat at a square table, busy placing his writing materials in readiness for work. Dora ran again and again to the window, whence she saw very different sights from any she had ever looked upon before. Green fields sprinkled with many-colored flowers, the blue lake, the snow-capped mountains in the distance, and over all, the enchantment of the golden-green light from the setting sun. The child could scarcely tear herself away from the window. She did not know that the world could be so beautiful. But her aunt soon recalled her from her wonderment, for there were still things to be put away which belonged to her, but had been brought in her aunt's trunk.
"Oh, Aunt Ninette," cried the child, "Isn't it perfectly beautiful?"
She spoke louder than she had ever thought of speaking in Uncle Titus' house, for the new scenes had aroused her natural sprightliness, and she was herself once more.
"Hush, hush Dora! Why, I don't know what to make of you, child! Don't you know that your uncle is in the next room, and is already at work?"
Dora took her things from her aunt's hands, but while passing the window, she asked softly,
"May I just look out of these windows a minute now, Aunt? I want to see what there is on every side of the house."
"Yes, yes, you may look out for a moment. There is nobody about. A quiet garden lies beyond the hedge. From the other window you see the big open space in front of the great house. Nothing else but the sleeping watch-dog before the door. I hope he is always as quiet. You may look out there too, if you like."
Dora first opened the window towards the garden; a delicious odor of jasmine and mignonette was wafted into the room from the flower-beds below. The high green hedge stretched away for a long distance, and beyond it she could see green sward and flower-beds and shady bowers. How lovely it must be over there! There was no one in sight, but some one certainly must have been there, for by the door of the house rose a wonderful triumphal arch, made of two tall bean-poles tied together at the top, and thickly covered with fir-branches. A large piece of card-board hung down from the arch, and swung back and forth in the wind, and something was written on it in big letters.
Suddenly a noise resounded from the open space in front of the great house. Dora ran to the other window and peeped out. A carriage stood there and two brown horses there stamping impatiently in their traces. A crowd of children came bursting out of the door of the house, all together; one, two, three, four, five, six, both boys and girls. "I, I, I must get upon the box," cried each one, and all together, louder and louder at every word; while in the midst of the crowd, the great dog began to jump upon first one child and then another, barking joyfully in his excitement. Such a noise had probably not greeted Aunt Ninette's ears within the memory of man.
"What is the matter, in heaven's name," cried she, almost beside herself. "What sort of a place have we come to?"
"Oh Aunty, look! see; they are all getting into the carriage," cried Dora, who was enchanted at the sight. Such a merry party she had never seen before.
One lad jumped upon the wheel, and clambered nimbly to a seat on the box beside the driver, from which he reached down his hand towards the dog, who was jumping and barking with delight.
"Come Schnurri, you can come too," cried the boy at the top of his lungs, at the same time catching at the dog, now by his tail, now by his paw, and again by his thick hair, until the driver leaned down and pulled the creature up beside them, with a strong swing. Meantime the eldest boy lifted a little girl from the ground, and jumped her into the carriage, and two younger boys, one slender, the other round as a ball, began to clamor, "Me too, Jule, me too, a big high one! me higher still!" and they shouted with glee, as they too were lifted up and deposited on the seat. Then Jule helped the older girl into the carriage, jumped in himself, and gave the door a good smart bang, for "big Jule" had strong muscles. The horses started; but now another cry arose.
"If Schnurri is going, I can take Philomele with me. Trine! Trine! bring me Philomele, I want to take Philomele!" shouted the little girl as loud as she could call.
The young, strong-fisted servant-maid who now appeared in the door-way, grasped the situation at once. She seized the gray cat that stood on the stone step casting angry looks at Schnurri, and flung her into the carriage. The whip cracked, and off they rolled.
Aunt Ninette hastened into her husband's room in great alarm, not knowing what effect all this disturbance would have upon him. He was sitting calmly at his table, with all the windows in the room closed and fastened.
"My dear Titus! who could have foreseen this? What shall we do?" she called out in tones of despair.
"It strikes me that the next house has a great wealth of children. We cannot help that, but we can keep the windows shut," replied her husband resignedly.
"But, my dearest Titus, only remember that you have come here expressly to breathe the healthy mountain air! As you never go out, you must let the air come in to you. But what will be the end if this is the beginning? What will become of us if this goes on?"
"We must go home again," said Uncle Titus, continuing to write.
Somewhat calmed by this proposition, Aunt Ninette returned to her room.
Dora had been very busy, putting her little room in perfect order, for she had formed a plan, which she meant to carry out as soon as this was done. The happy noise of the six children had so excited the lonely little girl that she was filled with the strongest desire to see them come back again, to see them get out of the carriage, and to see what would happen next; whether they wouldn't perhaps come into the garden where the triumphal arch stood, and then she could have a nearer view. She had made a little plan for watching them if they came into the garden. She thought that she might perhaps find a hole in the hedge that divided Mrs. Kurd's little garden from the large grounds next door, through which she could get a good view of what the children were doing, and how they looked. The child did not know what Aunt Ninette would say to this, but she determined to ask directly. At the door of her aunt's room she met Mrs. Kurd, who had come to call them to supper. Dora made her request then and there, to be allowed to go into the little garden, but her aunt said that it was now supper time, and after supper it would be quite too late. Mrs. Kurd put in a word in Dora's favor, saying that no one would be out there, and it would be safe for Dora to run about there as much as she chose, and at last Aunt Ninette consented to allow her to go out for a while after supper. The child could scarcely eat, so great was her excitement. She listened all the while for the sound of the returning wheels and the children's voices, but nothing was to be heard. When supper was over, her aunt said,
"You may go out now for a little while, but don't go far from the house."
Dora promised not to leave the garden, and ran off to search the hedge for the opening she wanted. It was a white-thorn hedge, and so high and thick that the child could see neither through it nor over it, but down near the ground were here and there thin places, where one could look into the next garden; but only by lying close on the ground. Little did Dora mind that; her one idea was to see the children. She had never seen so large a family, boys and girls, big and little, and all so happy and merry. And to have seen them all climbing into the carriage and driving off together! What a jolly party! She lay down on the ground in a little heap, and peered through the hedge. There was nothing to be heard; the garden beyond was still; the odor of the flowers was wafted to her on the cool, evening air, and she felt as if she could not get enough of it into her lungs. How beautiful it must be in there, she thought; to be able to walk about among the flower-beds! to sit under the tree where the red apples were hanging! And there under the thick branches stood a table, covered with all sorts of things which she could not see plainly, but which shimmered white as snow in the evening light. She was quite absorbed in wonder and curiosity, when--there--that was the carriage, and all the merry voices talking together. The children had returned. Dora could hear very plainly. Now all was still again; they had gone into the house. Now they were coming out again; now they were in the garden.
Mr. Birkenfeld had just returned from a long journey. The children had all gone down to the lake, to meet him at the landing when the steamboat came in. Their mother had remained at home to complete the preparations for the grand reception and the feast in the garden under the big apple-tree. The father's home-coming after so long an absence was a very joyful occasion for the family, and must be celebrated as such.
As soon as the carriage stopped at the door, the mother came running out to meet her husband. All the children jumped down, one after another, and the cat and the dog too, and they all crowded into the large hall, where the welcomings and greetings grew so loud and so violent that the father hardly knew where he was, nor which way to turn as they all pressed about him.
"Now one at a time, my children, and then I can give you each a good kiss," he said at last, when he succeeded in making himself heard through the tumult, "first the youngest, and then the others according to age. Now, my little Hunne, what have you to tell me?"
So saying, Mr. Birkenfeld drew his chubby five-year old boy to his knees. The child's name was Hulreich, but as he had always called himself Hunne, the other children and the parents had adopted the nick-name. Moreover, Julius, the eldest brother, declared that the baby's little stumpy nose made him look like a Hun, and so the name was very appropriate. But his mother would not admit the resemblance.
The little one had so much to tell his father, that there was not time to wait for the end of his story, and it had to be cut short.
"Bye and bye, little Hunne, you shall tell me all about it. Now it is time for Wili and Lili." And giving the twins each a kiss he asked them, "Well now, have you been very good and happy? and obedient, too, all this long time?"
"Almost always," replied Wili rather timidly, while Lili, recalling certain deviations from perfect obedience during her father's absence, thought it best not to make any answer. The twins were eight years old, and perfectly inseparable, never more so than in planning and carrying out various delightful plans, of whose mischievousness they were really only half conscious.
"And you, Rolf, how is it with you?" said the father, turning to a twelve-year old lad with a high forehead, and a strong, firm neck. "Plenty of Latin learned? More new puzzles ready?"
"I have been doing both, father," said the boy. "But the children will not guess my riddles, and my mother has not time to try."
"That is too bad," said his father, kindly and turning to the eldest daughter, a girl of nearly thirteen, he drew her to his side and said tenderly,
"And you Paula, are you still alone in your garden walks? have you no dear friend with you yet?"
"No, of course not, father, but it is beautiful to have you at home again," she answered as she embraced him.
"And I hope my 'big Jule,' is using his vacation in some sensible way?"
"I combine the agreeable with the useful," said Julius gaily, returning his father's embrace. "You must know, father, that the hazel-nuts are almost ripe and I am watching them carefully, and meantime I am riding Castor a good deal, so that he may not grow too lazy."
Julius was at home now only for the summer holidays, his school being in a distant town. He was seventeen, and tall, even too tall for his years so that in the family he was generally called "Big Jule."
Mr. Birkenfeld now turned to shake hands with the children's governess and the dear friend of the family, Miss Hanenwinkel, when Jule interrupted him.
"Come papa, I beg that you will do the rest of your greetings in the garden, where a most astonishing reception awaits you."
But his words cost him dear, for Wili and Lili sprang upon him as he spoke, pinching, pounding and thumping him to give him to understand that the "surprise" was not a thing to be talked about beforehand. He defended himself to the best of his ability.
"Lili, you little gad-fly, you, stop, stop, I tell you. I will make it all right," and he shouted to his father,
"I mean you are to go into the garden where my mother has prepared all sorts of delicious things for your supper, to celebrate your return."
"That is delightful. We shall find a big table spread under my favorite apple-tree. That is a surprise worth having. Come then let us all go into the garden."
He drew his wife's arm in his, and they walked out to the garden, the whole swarm following, Wili and Lili capering about in most noisy delight that their father should suppose that he knew what the "surprise" was already.
As they passed out into the garden they passed under the great triumphal arch, with red lanterns hung on each side, lighting up the large tablet, on which was an inscription in big letters.
"Oh, oh, how splendid!" cried the father, now really surprised, "a beautiful arch and a poem of welcome. I must read them aloud:"
"Here we stand in welcome Beside the garden door, How glad we are that you're at home! We feared you'd come no more, So long you've stayed--but now to-day Forgot is all our pain. The whole world now is glad and gay, Papa is here again!"
"That is fine--Rolf must have been the author of that, was he not?" and Wili and Lili jumped about more than ever, crying out,
"Yes, yes, Rolf wrote it, but we planned it all out and he made the verses, and Jule put up the poles and then we fetched the fir twigs."
"That was a delightful surprise, my children," said their father, much gratified. "How pretty the garden looks, all lighted up with red and blue and yellow lanterns. It looks like an enchanted spot, and now for my favorite apple-tree."
The garden did look very pretty. The little paper lanterns had been made up a long time before, and this very morning Jule had fastened them about on all the trees and high bushes, and while the hand-shaking and kissing had been going on in the house, Battiste and Trine had lighted the candles. The big apple-tree was dotted all over with them, so that it looked like a huge out-of-doors Christmas tree, and the red apples shone so prettily in the flickering light, that altogether it would have been difficult to imagine a more charming scene.
The table, spread with a white cloth and loaded with all sorts of nice dishes, looked irresistibly attractive.
"What a beautiful banquet-hall," cried the delighted father, "and how good the feast will taste! But what is this? Another poem?" and to be sure, a large white placard hung by two cords from the high bushes behind the apple-tree, and on it were the following lines:
"My first is good for man to be-- Better than wealth. My second we have longed to see Our father do in health. My whole with merry hearts we cry Today, and shout it to the sky."
"A riddle! Rolf made this too, I am sure," said he, clapping the boy kindly on the shoulder. "I will begin to guess it as soon as I can. Now we must sit down and enjoy these good things before us, and the pleasure of being all together again."
So they all took their places at the table, and each had his or her own story to tell of what had happened, and what had been done during the separation. There was so much to say that there seemed no chance for a pause.
At last however, came a silence, when lo! Mr. Birkenfeld drew a huge bundle from beneath his chair, and began to open the wrapper, while the children looked on with the greatest interest, knowing very well that that bundle held some gift for each one of them. First came a pair of shining spurs for "big Jule," then a lovely book with blue covers for Paula. Next a long bow with a quiver and two feather arrows. "This is for Rolf," said the father, adding as he showed the boy the sharp points of the arrows, "and for Rolf only, for he knows how to use it properly. It is not a plaything, and Wili and Lili must never dream of playing with it, for they might easily hurt themselves and others with it."
There was a beautiful Noah's Ark for the twins, with fine large animals all in pairs, and Noah's family, all the men with walking-sticks and all the women with parasols, all ready for use whenever they should leave the ark.
Last of all, little Hunne had a wonderfully constructed nutcracker, that made a strange grimace as if he were lamenting all the sins of the world. He opened his big jaws as if he were howling, and when they were snapped together, he gnashed his teeth as if in despair, and cracked a nut in two without the slightest trouble so that the kernel fell right out from the shell.
The children were full of admiration over both their own and each others' presents, and their joy and gratitude broke out afresh at every new inspection of each.
At last the mother stood up and said that they must all go into the house, for it was long after the children's usual bed-time. At this their father arose, and called out,
"Who has guessed the charade?"
Not one had even thought of it, except to be sure, the author.
"Well, I have guessed it myself," said their father, as no one spoke. "It must be 'welcome,' is it not, Rolf? I will touch glasses with you, my boy, and thank you very much for your charade."
Just as Rolf was raising his glass towards his father's to drink his health, a terrible shriek arose, "It is burning, it is burning!" Everybody ran from under the apple-tree; Battiste and Trine came from the house with tubs and buckets, Hans from the stable with a pail in each hand; all screaming and shouting together.
"The bush is on fire! the hedge is on fire!" There was terrible noise and confusion.
"Dora! Dora!" cried a voice of distress from the cottage behind the hedge, and Dora rose from her hiding place and hurried into the house. She had been so completely absorbed by what had been taking place under the apple-tree, though indeed she saw and heard but imperfectly, that she had entirely forgotten everything else, and it was full two hours that she had been lying all doubled up in the gap under the hedge.
Her aunt was flying back and forth, complaining and scolding. She had collected all her things from the drawers and the presses, and heaped them together, ready for flight.
"Aunt Ninette," said the little girl timidly, for she knew she had staid out too long, "you need not be frightened; it is all dark again in the garden; the fire is all out."
Her aunt cast a rapid glance from the window, and saw that this was true; everything was dark, even the last lantern extinguished. Some one was moving about among the trees, evidently to make sure that all was safe.
"This is too terrible! Who would have believed that such things could happen?" said Aunt Ninette, half scolding, half-whimpering. "Go to bed now Dora. To-morrow we will move away, and find another house, or leave the place altogether."
The child obeyed quickly, and went up to her little bedroom, but it was long, very long, before she could sleep. She still saw the illuminated garden, the sparkling apple tree, and the father and mother with their happy children gathered about them. She thought of the time when she too could tell her father everything, and the thought doubled her sense of her own loneliness, and of the happiness of those other children.
And the child had become so much interested in the life beyond the hedge, and so almost fond of that good father and mother, whom she had been watching, that the thought of going away again as her aunt threatened, was a very sad one. She could not go to sleep. Presently she seemed to see the children with their kind father again, and her own father was standing with them, and she heard these words,
"God holds us in his hand, God knows the best to send."
And so she fell asleep, and in her dreams she again saw the shining apple-tree, and the merry group under its branches.
On investigating the cause of the fire, it was discovered that Wili and Lili had conceived the happy thought of turning the riddle into a transparency, so that suddenly the company might see it shining with red light behind it, like the motto behind the Christmas tree, "Glory to God in the highest."
So they withdrew silently from the company, fetched two candles, climbed upon some high steps, which had been brought when the placard was put in place, and held the candles as near as possible to the card. As they did not perceive any expression of surprise on the faces of the company at the table, they raised their candles higher and higher, nearer and nearer, until the paste-board suddenly took fire, and the flame quickly spread to the bushes above.
The twins readily confessed themselves the cause of the mischief, and were sent to bed with but a gentle reproof, so as not to spoil the general effect of the festivity, but they were seriously warned never to play with fire again as long as they lived.
Soon all was quiet in the great house, and the moon looked peacefully down on the trees and the sleeping flowers in the silent garden.