Uncle Titus and His Visit to the Country by Johanna Spyri
Chapter VI. A Frightful Deed.
It was a beautiful, bright Sunday morning. In the garden all was peaceful and lovely. No sound broke the perfect stillness, save when now and then a rosy-cheeked apple fell to the ground, for the apples were ripening fast in the autumn sun.
Mr. and Mrs. Birkenfeld had gone to church, and with them Paula and Miss Hanenwinkel. In the sitting-room, Jule and Hunne were harmoniously discussing over a big dish of hazel-nuts, in how many different ways they could make the nutcracker crack a nut. The twins, since the lesson they had had in the wash-house, had returned contented to the mimic ark, with its wooden men and women, and they were now playing with it on the school-room table, which they had all to themselves to-day. Rolf had early betaken himself to the garden, and had settled down in a sequestered summer-house, where he could think over all sorts of things, without fear of being disturbed.
After the flood had subsided (a flood this time without water), and when the dove had returned with the olive-branch, and quiet was restored in the land, new schemes began to work in Lili's busy little head.
"What do you say, Wili, to coming down-stairs to look at Rolf's new bow; he left it in the passage-way last evening."
Wili was all agog at the idea, and they both scampered down-stairs. Lili knew the corner where Rolf had placed the bow, and there too was the quiver, with its two feathered arrows.
"Just see how jolly this is;" said Lili, "you pull this string back, and put the arrow here, and then let the string fly, and off goes the arrow like anything. I saw just how Rolf did it; and suppose we try to see how it works!"
"But we must not shoot with it; don't you remember that papa said so, Lili?"
"I don't mean to shoot, but only to try it. I just want to see how it is done; don't you understand?"
This explanation satisfied Wili.
"Where shall we try it? There is not room in this passage."
"No, no; I know where, in the garden. Come along;" and Lili ran off with the quiver, while Wili followed with the bow. They chose a nice open space near the hedge.
"Here now, we will both try together, and see if we can do it," said Lili.
Wili brought up his bow, and they pressed it against the ground, and then both took the cord in their hands, and tugged away till they had snapped it into place. Lili shouted with delight.
"Now, we must lift it up," she said, "so; and put the arrow in here, Wili, do you see? and now you pull back that thing underneath, and you will see how it will go off. There, just try."
Wili tried; pulled back the "thing," and the arrow whistled through the hedge. Instantly a cry of anguish sounded from the other side, and then all was silent. They looked at each other in great fright.
"Do you think that was a rabbit?" asked Wili.
"I thought it sounded like a hen;" said Lili. Their consciences were troubled, and their hearts were filled with fear, for they knew they had done wrong to take the bow, and they each had the impression that the cry of pain came from a child, though each hoped that the other thought it was really only an animal. They carried the bow back to its place in silence. Suddenly a new fear seized them. One arrow was gone from the quiver; what if Rolf should miss it! The sound of the family coming back from church, added to their embarrassment. It was not possible now to go to look for the arrow, for that would lead to immediate discovery. Rolf did not yet know that they had been shooting, but if he should begin to question them! They had got themselves into a fine box, through their disobedience; and they had no idea how they should ever get out of it, for they felt sure that they should never dare to tell the truth, if the arrow were asked for.
Silent, and covered with confusion from their consciousness of wrong-doing, the twins crept back to the school-room, and there they sat without stirring or speaking, until they were called to dinner. They did not dare lift their eyes to the table, to see what dainty Sunday-dish had been prepared, but slipped into their seats and felt almost choked even by the soup; for something seemed to lie like a lump in their throats, and prevent them from swallowing. They did not look up once during the whole of dinner-time, and although their father spoke to them several times, they could not find voice to answer.
"What have you two been about this time?" he said at last; for he knew very well that this depression was not the result of yesterday's performance; their contrition never lasted over night; that was not the way with the twins. There was no answer. They sat as if nailed to their seats, and stared into their plates. Their mother shook her head thoughtfully. Little Hunne kept a watchful eye on them, for he had observed from the first, that something was amiss. Presently a delicious pudding with wine sauce was brought in, and their mother helped each one to a good big slice. At that moment their father exclaimed,
"What is that? Is there any one very ill in the next house? There goes the doctor, hurrying along as if some one were in great danger."
"I do not know of any one's being ill there," said the mother. "Mrs. Kurd has let her rooms to some strangers. It may be one of them."
The twins were by turns as red as fire and as white as chalk. A secret voice cried out in each little palpitating heart, "Now it is coming! it is coming!" They were almost paralyzed with fright; the delicious pudding lay untouched on their plates, though it was full of raisins and looked unusually tempting. But even Hunne, the pudding-eater of the family, neglected his plate today, and suddenly jumping down from his chair, he began to shout like a crazy creature,
"Mama! Papa! come away! the house is going to fall down! everything is going to pieces!" In his excitement he almost pulled Jule off his seat, to make him come with him, as he ran out of the door. Presently they heard him outside repeating, "The house will tumble down; Jule said it would!"
"Some evil spirit has certainly taken possession of the children," said the astonished father, "The twins look as if they were sitting on pins, and little Hunne is acting like a mad-man."
At these words Julius broke out into inextinguishable laughter; for it suddenly dawned upon him what the little boy had in his mind. The unusual timidity and silence of the twins was caused, no doubt, by their having already begun in secret the work of destruction; and at any moment now the house might fall in ruins upon the assembled family. Jule explained with repeated outbursts of laughter, the meaning of Hunne's fright. In vain the mother called the little boy to come in; he was jumping up and down before the house door, stamping, and calling to his father and mother and Jule and everyone to come out. At last his father lost patience, and said decidedly that the door must be closed, and that the dinner should be ended in peace. After dinner they all went into the garden, where Hunne joined them. When he saw them all seated in safety under the apple-tree, he said with a sigh,
"I wish some one would bring me my pudding, before the house falls down."
His mother drew him to her, and explained to him that big Jule and little Hunne, were two very foolish fellows; the first to invent such silly stuff, and the second to believe it. She begged him to think a bit how impossible it would be for two children like Wili and Lili to pull down a great strong stone house like theirs. But it was a long time before the impression was effaced from the child's imagination.
Dora had been standing by the hedge, as usual, hoping that the children would come into the garden, when Wili and Lili appeared with the bow. She had watched the progress of their undertaking with the greatest interest. At last, off flew the arrow; and in a second, the sharp point pierced the little girl's bare arm. Dora groaned aloud with pain. The arrow fell to the ground; it had not penetrated deep enough to hold at all; but the blood followed, and trickled along her arm and hand, and down upon her dress. At this sight Dora forgot her pain in her fear. Her first thought was, "How Aunt Ninette will scold!" She tried to hide what had happened. She twisted her handkerchief about the wounded arm, and she ran to the spring before the house, to wash out all signs of blood. It was useless; the blood flowed out under the bandage in a stream, and soon her dress was spotted all over with the red drops.
"Dora! Dora!" called some one from above. It was her aunt; there was no help for it; she must show herself. In fear and trembling, she mounted the stairs and stood before her aunt, hiding the bandaged arm behind her. Her pretty Sunday dress was stained with blood, and her face too; for in her eagerness to wash it off she had spread it everywhere.
"Merciful Heaven!" cried her aunt, "what is the matter? Speak, child, did you fall down? How you look! You are as pale as death, and all smeared with blood! Dora, for heaven's sake, do speak!"
Dora had been trying to speak, but she could not get in a word edgewise. At last she said timidly,
"It was an arrow!"
A flood of lamentations followed. Aunt Ninette flew up and down the room wringing her hands and crying, "An arrow! an arrow! You have been shot! Shot in the arm! You will have a stiff arm all your life! You will be a cripple! You can never sew any more, nor do anything else! You will come to want! We shall all have to suffer for it! How unlucky we are! How are we to live, how can we ever get along, if your arm is lame?"
"Oh, Aunty dear, perhaps it will not be as bad as all that;" said the child sobbing, "did not papa tell us to remember:
"God holds us in his hand God knows the best to send."
"Certainly, of course that's true; but if you are lame, you will be lame;" said Mrs. Ehrenreich, whimpering, "it makes me perfectly desperate. But go--no--come here to the water. Where is Mrs. Kurd? Somebody must go for the doctor."
Dora went to the wash-basin, while her aunt ran for Mrs. Kurd, and begged her to send for the doctor to come immediately; it was a case of shooting, and no one could tell how dangerous it might prove.
The doctor came as quickly as possible. He examined the wound, stopped the bleeding, bound it up without a word, in spite of Aunt Ninette's pertinacious attempts to make him express an opinion. He then took his hat and made for the door.
But Aunt Ninette followed him up before he could make good his retreat. "Do tell me, doctor, will her arm be lame? Stiff all the rest of her life?"
"Oh, I trust not. I will call again to-morrow;" and the doctor was gone.
"'Oh I trust not,'" repeated Aunt Ninette in a despairing tone, "that's a doctor's way of saying 'yes, of course.' I understand perfectly. What will become of us? How shall we ever live through this misfortune?"
And she kept on fretting in this way until late into the evening.
When Wili's mother went in to hear her little boy's prayers that night, she did not find him as usual, cheerfully sitting up in bed, ready for a good chat with her, if she would stay. He was crouched down all in a heap, and did not even look up at her, nor speak to her, when she sat down by him.
"What is the matter with my little boy?" said she gently, "have you something wrong in your heart? have you been doing what you ought not?"
The child made an unintelligible sound, neither yes nor no.
"Well, say your evening hymn, Wili; perhaps that will make you feel better," said his mother.
"The moon climbs up the sky, The stars shine out on high, Shine sparkling, bright and clear"--
and so on, but his thoughts were not on what he was saying; he was listening to every sound outside the room, and he kept looking towards the door as if he expected something terrible to come in at any moment; and in his restless movements it was plain to see what a state of fear he was in. When he had reached the end of his hymn,
"Oh Father, spare thy rod; Send us sweet sleep, Oh God; Let our sick neighbor slumber, too"--
he suddenly burst into tears, and clinging tight to his mother he sobbed out,
"The child will not be able to sleep, and God will punish us dreadfully."
"What are you talking about, dear Wili?" asked his mother tenderly. "Come, tell me what has happened. I have seen all day that something was the matter, and feared that you had been doing something wrong. What is it? Tell me."
"We, we--perhaps we have shot a child!"
"What do you mean?" cried his mother, now thoroughly alarmed, for she instantly recalled having seen the doctor hurry by to the cottage when they were at dinner.
"It cannot be! Do tell me all about it, clearly, so that I can understand."
And Wili gave as good an account as he could, of what he and Lili had been about that morning, and of their being so frightened at the cry of pain which followed the shooting of the arrow, that they had run away as fast as possible. And now they were so very miserable, that they did not want to live any longer, and both wanted to die, and to be done with it all.
"Now you see, my Wili, what disobedience leads to," were the mother's serious words after she had listened to the boy's sad story. "You did not mean to do anything but play a little while with the bow, but your father knew very well when he forbade your touching it, how great the danger was. We do not know what evil consequences may follow your disobedience, but we will pray the dear Father in heaven to avert the evil, and turn it to good if possible."
Then Wili repeated after his mother a short prayer, and never had he prayed so earnestly as now, with his heart full of dread for the results of his naughty conduct. Indeed he could scarcely stop praying; it seemed to relieve his heart to lay all his sorrow before his Heavenly Father, and beg his forgiveness and help.
And now he could look in his mother's eyes again as he bade her good-night.
Lili was waiting in the next room, for her turn to talk to this same good mother.
"Are you ready to say your prayers, Lili?" The little girl began, paused, began again and stopped in the middle. Presently she stammered out,
"Mamma I cannot pray, for God is angry with me."
"What have you done, Lili, to make him angry?"
Lili was silent, and sat pulling at the sheet, for she was naturally obstinate, and found it hard to own a fault.
"If the good God is not pleased with you, I certainly cannot be. Good night, my child, sleep well--that is if you can."
"Mamma, do not go away, I will tell you everything; only stay with me."
Her mother gladly turned back.
"We were shooting with the bow, though papa told us not to touch it, and we hit something and it cried out; and we were so frightened that we could not be happy any more at all." Lili's voice was hurried, and full of distress.
"I don't wonder that you could not feel happy, and you cannot yet. Because of your disobedience, a poor little child is lying suffering in the next house, perhaps without its mother to comfort it, for it is a stranger here. Think of it there in a strange house, away from home, crying in pain all night long."
"I will go right over there and stay with it," said Lili dolefully, and she began to cry again. "I cannot sleep either mamma; I am so worried." "We are always worried, my dear child, when we have done wrong. I will go now and find out whether the child is in need of help; and you will pray to God to give you an obedient spirit, and to turn aside the evil that your naughtiness may have caused an innocent child to suffer."
Lili followed her mother's advice. She could pray, now that she had confessed her fault; as she felt that she might now be forgiven. She prayed heartily for the recovery of the wounded child, and for forgiveness for herself.
Trine was sent over to the widow's house, to inquire whether it was really a child that had been hit by the arrow, and whether it was badly hurt. Mrs. Kurd told Trine the whole story, and that the doctor had said, "We trust no serious harm is done," and that he would come again the next day. Trine carried this report back to her mistress, and Mrs. Birkenfeld was very much relieved; for her first fear had been that the child's eye might have been hit, even if no mortal wound had been inflicted, and she was thankful to find that things were no worse.