Rico and Stineli.
Chapter III. The Old Schoolmaster's Fiddle.
 

Stineli and Rico freed themselves from the crowd of children gathered before the schoolhouse, and wandered off together. "Were you thinking so that you could not sing with us to-day, Rico?" asked Stineli. "Were you thinking again about the lake?"

"No, it was quite another thing," replied the boy. "I know how to play 'Little lambkins, come down,' if I only had a fiddle."

Judging from the deep sigh that accompanied these words, the wish must have weighed heavily on Rico's heart. The sympathetic little Stineli began at once to contrive some means of helping him to get his wish.

"We will buy one together, Rico," she said suddenly, full of delight at a happy thought that had entered her head. I have ever so many pieces of money,--as many as twelve. How much have you got?"

"None at all," said the boy sadly. "My father gave me some before he went away, but my cousin said I should only spend it foolishly, and she took it from me, and put it up on the shelf in a box where I cannot get it."

Such a trifle did not discourage Stineli. "Perhaps we have enough without that, and my grandmother will give me some more soon," she said consolingly. "You know, Rico, a fiddle can't cost so very much; it is nothing but a bit of old wood with four strings stretched across it, that will be cheap, I'm sure. You must ask the teacher about it to-morrow morning, and then we will try to find one."

So it was settled, and Stineli resolved to do all she could at home to make herself useful by getting up bright and early, and making the fire before her mother was afoot, thinking that, if she worked busily from morning till night, perhaps her grandmother would put a bit of money for her in the bag.

After school the next day Stineli went out and waited alone behind the wood-pile at the schoolhouse corner, for Rico had made up his mind at last to ask the teacher how much it would cost to buy a fiddle. He was such a long time about it, that Stineli kept peeping out from behind the wood-pile, quite overcome with impatience, but only saw the other school children who were standing about and playing; but now certainly,--yes, that was Rico who came around the corner.

"What did he say? How much does it cost?" cried Stineli, almost breathless with suspense.

"I had not the courage to ask," was the sad answer.

"Oh, what a shame!" said the girl, and stood still and disappointed for a moment, but not more. "Never mind, Rico; you can try again to-morrow," she said cheerfully, taking him by the hand and turning homeward. "I got another bit of money from my grandmother this morning, because I got up early and was in the kitchen when she came in."

The same thing happened, however, the next day and the day after. Rico stood for half an hour before the door without getting courage to go in to ask his question. At last Stineli made up her mind to go herself, if this lasted three days more. On the fourth day, however, as Rico was standing, timid and depressed, before the door, it opened suddenly, and the teacher came out quickly, and ran into Rico with such force, that the slender little fellow, who did not weigh more than a feather, was thrown backward several feet. The teacher stood looking at the child in great surprise and some displeasure. Then he said, "What does this mean, Rico? Why do you stand before the door without knocking, if you have a message to deliver? If you have no message, why do you not go away? If you wish to tell me any thing, do so at once. What is it that you wish?"

"How much does a fiddle cost?" Rico blurted out his question in great fear and haste. The teacher's surprise and displeasure increased visibly.

"I do not understand, Rico," he said, with a severe glance at the boy. Have you come here on purpose to mock me? or have you any particular reason for asking this? What did you mean to say?"

"I did not mean any thing," said Rico abashed, "only to ask how much it would cost to buy a fiddle."

"You did not understand me just now,--pay attention to what I am saying. There are two ways of asking a question: either to obtain information, or simply from idle curiosity, which is foolishness. Now pay attention, Rico: is this a mere idle question, or did somebody send you who wishes to buy a fiddle?"

"I want to buy one myself," said the boy, taking courage a little; but he was frightened when the angry reply came, "What! what did you say? A forlorn little fellow like you buy a fiddle! Do you even know what the instrument is? Have you any idea of how old I was, and what I knew, before I obtained one? I was a teacher, a regular teacher; was twenty-two years old, with an assured profession, and not a child like you.

"Now I will tell you what a fiddle costs, and then you will see how foolish you are. Six hard gulden I paid for mine. Can you realize what that means? We will separate it into blutsgers. If one gulden contains a hundred blutsgers, then six guldens will be equal to six times one hundred,--quickly, quickly! Now, Rico, you are generally ready enough."

"Six hundred blutsgers," said the lad softly, for he was quite overpowered with the magnitude of this sum as compared with Stineli's twelve blutsgers.

"And, moreover, my son, do you imagine that you have only to take a fiddle in your hand to be able to play on it at once? It takes a long time to do that. Come in here now, for a moment." And the teacher opened the door, and took his fiddle from its place on the wall. "There," he said, as he placed it on Rico's arm, "take the bow in your hand,--so, my boy; and if you can play me c, d, e, f, I will give you a half-gulden."

Rico had the fiddle really in his hand; his eyes sparkled with fire; c, d, e, f,--he played the notes firmly and perfectly correctly. "You little rascal!" cried the astonished teacher, "where did you learn that? Who taught you? How do you find the notes?"

"I can do more than that, if I may," said the boy.

"Play, then."

And Rico played correctly, and with enthusiasm,--

  "Little lambkins, come down
  From the bright sunny height;
  The daylight is fading,
  The sun says, 'Good-night!'"

The teacher sunk into a chair, and put his spectacles on his nose. His eyes rested on Rico's fingers as he played, then on his sparkling eyes, and again on his hands. When the air was finished, he said, "Come here to me, Rico;" and, moving his chair into the light, he placed the lad directly before him. "Now I have something to say to you. Your father is an Italian; and I know that down there all sorts of things go on of which we have no idea here in the mountains. Now look me straight in the eye, and answer me truly and honestly. How did you learn to play this air so correctly?"

Looking up with his honest eyes, the boy replied, "I learned it from you, in the school where it is so often sung."

These words gave an entirely new aspect to the affair. The teacher stood up, and went back and forth several times in the room. Then he was himself the cause of this wonderful event; there was no necromancy concerned in it.

In a far better humor, he took out his purse, saying, "Here is your half-gulden, Rico; it is justly yours. Now go; and for the future be very attentive to the music-lesson as long as you go to the school. In that way you may, perhaps, accomplish something; and in twelve or fourteen years perhaps you may be able to buy a fiddle. Now you may go."

Rico cast one look at the fiddle, and departed with deep sadness in his heart.

Stineli came running to meet him from behind the wood-pile. "You did stay a long time. Have you asked the question?"

"It is all of no use," said the boy; and his eyebrows came together in his distress, and formed a thick black line across his forehead over his eyes. "A fiddle costs six hundred blutsgers; and in fourteen years I can buy one, when everybody will be dead. Who will be living fourteen years from now? There, you may have this; I do not want it." With these words he pressed the half-gulden into Stineli's hand.

"Six hundred blutsgers!" repeated the girl, horrified. "But where did this half-gulden come from?"

Rico told her all that had happened at the teacher's, ending with the same words expressing his great regret, "It is all of no use!"

Stineli tried to console him a little with the half-gulden; but he was furious at the thought of the innocent piece of money, and would not even look at it.

So Stineli said, "I will put it with my blutsgers, and we will have it all between us."

Stineli herself was very much discouraged now; but as they went around the corner into the field, the little pathway that led to their doors shone so prettily in the bright sunlight, and the plat before the houses was so white and dry, that she called out,--

"See, see! now it is summer, Rico; and we can go up into the wood, and we will be happy again. Shall we go next Sunday?"

"Nothing will ever make me happy again," said Rico; "but if you want to go, I will go with you."

When they reached the door, they had arranged to go to the wood on the following Sunday, and Stineli was very happy at the thought. She did all that she was able to do through the week, and there was a great deal of work for her. Peterli, Sami, and Urschli had the measles, and in the stable one of the goats was sick, and needed hot water very often; and Stineli had to run hither and thither, lending a helping hand in every direction as soon as she came home from school, and on Saturday all day long until late in the evening; and then there were the stable buckets to be cleaned. But that night her father said,--

"Stineli is a handy child."