Gritli's Children by Johanna Spyri
Chapter I. At the Country-House on the Rhine.
The golden sunshine of a glorious June morning flooded the roses of the beautiful garden that surrounded a handsome stone villa on the banks of the Rhine. A thousand sweet perfumes borne upon the gentle breeze mounted like incense to the open windows, and sought entrance there. From a great basin in the middle of the garden, a slender shaft of water rose straight up into the blue sky, and then fell plashing back, sprinkling the flowers and the grass with sparkling moisture. Gay butterflies fluttered hither and thither, sipping sweets from the honey-laden flowers. Under the trees stood marble statues gleaming white through the shadows; and seats in sheltered nooks invited the loiterer to rest and listen to the concert of the myriad birds that made their happy homes in this paradise of summer beauty.
At the closed window of one of the upper rooms of this delightful house sat a little maiden, pressing her pale face against the wide, clear glass, as she peered out with longing eyes over the roses, toward the wavering fountain, and into the depths of the trees, whose graceful branches stirred in the light breeze. Her gaze passed over the shining flowers and the green terraces of the sunny garden, and rested far away on the glistening waves of the fast-flowing Rhine, that ran past the foot of the garden, bathing caressingly the long over-hanging branches of the old linden trees as it passed along. The rich foliage of the trees by the river-side was visible from the windows of the house; but not the stone bench which stood in the cool shade, so close to the water that one could look from it directly down into the eddying waves, and watch the drooping branches dip and rise again and again, as if in pure delight. What a spot for summer dreaming and castle-building! The pale child at the window knew the place well; and as her eyes turned in that direction, the expression of longing grew more and more painful as she gazed.
"Oh, mamma!" she cried presently, with tears in her voice, "may I not go out soon into the garden, and down to the seat under the lindens by the river?"
An hour before, the mother had brought her suffering little girl into this room, and placed her in her favorite resting-place in the window-seat, and her anxious gaze had scarcely left the pale little face, with its big eyes full of pain, that looked so longingly into the beautiful garden, which the poor child could not enjoy in any other way.
"Dear child," she said now, in a voice which trembled with anxiety and affection, "you know that you are too tired to go out in the morning; but this afternoon, perhaps, we will go down to the river. Will not that be better, my darling?"
"Oh, yes, I suppose so," sighed the child; but though she said no more, she did not turn her eyes away from the blooming roses and the waving leaves below her.
"Oh, it is so beautiful down there! Do let me go out, mamma!" she exclaimed again a little while afterwards. "Do let me go!" and her mother could not resist the beseeching tones. She arose, and at that moment an elderly woman entered the room--a woman who looked so exquisitely neat that one would have thought that she had no other business in life than that of keeping in perfect order her gray hair, with its snow-white cap, and her simple, spotless dress; but, on the contrary, she was the house-keeper, and had the whole charge of the big house, with all its complicated domestic arrangements. Both mother and daughter exclaimed on seeing her, "Oh, Clarissa, how glad I am that you've come!" And both began to ask her opinion as to the visit to the garden, which the invalid so longed for, but which her mother hesitated to grant.
Clarissa was a person of rare character, and a tower of strength in this household, where, from the lady of the house down to the lowest servant, her word was followed as law and obeyed with affection; and one took into the clear depths of her honest, loving eyes explained the secret of her power: they were "Mother's eyes."
"Say 'yes,' Clarissa, and let us go," begged the child, pathetically.
"The air is soft, all the birds are singing and calling us: why should we not try it to-day, dear Mrs. Stanhope?" said Clarissa.
"Yes; if you think best, we will," answered the mother. And Frederic, the tall footman, was summoned to carry the little girl down the long staircase and out of the house. Then, once out-of-doors, the two women, supporting the child tenderly between them, led her through the sunny garden.
"Nora, are you happy now?" asked the mother, tenderly.
"Yes; it is beautiful here," replied the child; "but I should like to go down to the stone bench by the river-side, where the branches dip into the water."
So they went on over the green terraces to the water-side, down to the seat almost hidden under the lindens, among the clusters of whose pendent, sweet-smelling blossoms the bees were busy, mingling their deep murmur with the song which the Rhine sang in passing. Nora's eyes followed the dancing waves that seemed like living, happy sprites.
"Oh! how I wish that I could leap and dance so, mamma! away! away! but I am so tired; I am always tired. I long to hop about as the birds do up in the trees there, and sing and be merry; but I am always so tired."
"My darling, when you are stronger you will dance," replied her mother, in a cheerful tone; but her looks belied her voice, for she was far from feeling the confidence which she tried to give.
"The doctor is coming to-day, and we will ask him what we can do this summer to make you stronger. Now we must go back to the house, Nora; you look pale and ill, my child. Is anything more than usual the matter with you?"
Nora assured her mother that she was only tired. After any unusual exertion, her face always grew paler and her expression more suffering. She reached the house with difficulty, and, when Frederic had carried her up to her bed-room, she lay on the sofa a long time without moving, thoroughly exhausted.
The doctor came towards noon, and declared that a complete change of air would be the best thing for the little Nora, who certainly seemed to be losing strength daily. He would write to a physician, a friend of his in Switzerland, to find a suitable place for her, and would come again as soon as he received an answer.
Towards evening, Nora sat once more in the window, gazing wearily at the long slanting rays of the setting sun that fell across the greensward in golden radiance, and lighted up the rose-leaves till they shone like lamps among the flowers. Clarissa sat at her work-table by Nora's side and from time to time, she raised her head and looked sadly at the frail form that lay so motionless in the window-seat.
"Clarissa," said the child, presently, "will you repeat the old song of Paradise to me?"
Clarissa laid aside her work.
"We will sing it together again some day, dear child, when you are strong enough; now I will say it to you if you wish" and she folded her hands and began:--
"A stream of water, crystal bright, Flows down through meadows green, Where lilies, shining in the light, Like twinkling starlets gleam.
"And roses blow, and roses glow, While birds in every tree Are singing loud, are singing low, 'In Paradise are we.'
"Here, gently blows the soft, sweet wind; Bright flowers grow all around; Men wake, as from a dream, to find They tread on holy ground.
"In blissful happiness they rove, At peace with each and all; United now in bonds of love, Freed from the grave's dark pall.
"All want and weariness are o'er, All sorrow and all pain; Their rapture gathers more and more; The sick are well again."
After Clarissa had finished her recitation, no sound broke the stillness for a long time; Nora seemed lost in thought. "Clarissa," she said at last, "that is a beautiful poem, and makes me long to go."
"Yes; go willingly, go gladly, dear child," replied Clarissa, with tears in her eyes. "Then you can wander joyfully among the bright flowers, and sing:
"'Our rapture gathers more and more; The sick are well again.'
"And we shall soon join you there, your mamma and I--"
At this moment the mother entered, and Clarissa stopped suddenly; for she knew well that Mrs. Stanhope could not endure the thought of losing little Nora, even though her child were called to heaven; but the mother had heard enough of what had been said, and looked at the child with renewed anxiety. Nora certainly looked very pale and weary; and, at her mother's request, she let herself be carried at once to bed in Clarissa's strong and tender arms.
Later in the evening when Mrs. Stanhope sat alone with her old friend, she began anxiously to question the suitableness of talking to the child upon such topics.
"Surely there is no need of dwelling on such mournful things, Clarissa. Nora is not so ill that we need think the worst, much less talk about it."
"Nora likes to hear me repeat her favorite poem," replied Clarissa; "and, dear Mrs. Stanhope, let me say one thing to you. If our darling is to live only to suffer through long years of pain, can you wish for life for her? Why should we wish to keep her here, where she cannot enjoy the smallest part of the wealth and beauty about her, rather than let her go to that heavenly home, where there is no more sorrow nor pain?"
"I cannot bear the thought of parting from her; it must not, it cannot be. Why may not all yet go well, and Nora get strong again?" said the poor mother; and the heart within her was heavy with grief. She could say no more, and withdrew in silence to her own room.
The great stone mansion was soon wrapped in stillness; and as the light of the summer moon shone down upon it, whoever had seen it standing there in stately beauty, its high white pillars gleaming through the dark trees, would surely have thought:
"How beautiful it must be to live there! No care nor sorrow can reach the inmates of that lovely dwelling!"
Mrs. Stanhope occupied her paternal home on the banks of the Rhine. She had married an English-man when very young, and had lived in England until his death, when she returned to the home of her childhood, unoccupied since the death of her parents, bringing with her two little children, the brown-eyed Philo, and his delicate, fair-haired sister, Nora. The faithful Clarissa, who had taken care of Mrs. Stanhope in her childhood and who had accompanied her to her foreign home, loved these children as if they were her own. The little family had now lived several years in this beautiful house on the Rhine; a very peaceful and regular life it was, one day like another; for the children were delicate and could bear no exciting pleasures. Two years ago a heavy sorrow dropped its dark shadow over the household. Little Philo closed his dark eyes forever, and was laid to rest under the old linden-tree in the garden, where the roses bloomed all summer long. Nora, who was only a year younger than her brother, was now in her eleventh year.
In about a week after his first visit, the doctor came again. He had heard from his friend, the physician, who had willingly offered to find a house for Mrs. Stanhope near his own, in the little village of Buchberg, among the mountains. Mrs. Stanhope might set out as soon as she pleased. He would answer for all being in readiness to receive her.
In a few days they were ready to start. Clarissa was to remain behind to put the house in order, and only a young maid-servant went with them. As the carriage rolled away, bearing Mrs. Stanhope and her little daughter on the way to Switzerland, Clarissa gave them many a God-speed, and, turning back into the empty house, she wiped away the tears she could no longer repress, saying softly to herself:
"'Their rapture gathers more and more; The sick are well again.'"