Gritli's Children by Johanna Spyri
Chapter IV. In the Fisherman's Hut.
The next morning, Oscar was early on hand at the iron gate; waiting to see the baker's boy, when he brought the bread. The boy came along with a huge basket on his arm, from which issued an agreeable smell of freshly baked loaves. Oscar went to meet him, and asked abruptly:--
"Which canton are you from?"
"That is none of your business," answered the boy.
Oscar was not a whit surprised or daunted by this reply.
"You needn't be so rough," he said; "I've a very good reason for asking." And he went on to explain to the boy what he had in mind, and to enlarge on the pleasure of collecting as many Swiss as possible; and of holding a festival in honor of their country. Then it appeared that the fellow was not a bad fellow at all, and had only answered in that rude way to show his independence. He received Oscar's proposal with great interest, though he owned that he knew but very few Swiss in the neighborhood. He had come from Lucerne only about six months before, to work for the baker, whose wife was his cousin. A shoemaker's boy from Uri lived near by, and a porter at the "Bunch of Grapes" came from Schwyz. Then there was the great factory down by the canal, which belonged to some Swiss gentlemen. He carried bread there every day, and had often seen two boys playing ball in the garden, but they had never spoken to him. Oscar was well pleased with this information. He asked the boy to invite the shoemaker's boy and the porter to join the society, and he would see the others himself. He would appoint the day, and decide on other particulars later; as the baker's boy came every day to the house, there would be no difficulty in keeping him informed.
Highly delighted with his success, Oscar told the other children of his plans, and asked Fani to go with him to the factory to see the two boys. Fani refused decidedly. Mrs. Stanhope, he said, did not allow him and Elsli to visit people with whom she was not acquainted, especially in the neighborhood. But when Elsli saw how badly Oscar felt at this refusal, she said:--
"Perhaps you can go, Oscar. If you don't think of any better way, I'll tell you what I think you could do. When I came away from home, Mr. Bickel asked me to look about here and find out what sort of factories there were in this neighborhood, and send him word so that he might know whether he could form any business relations with them. I have not been able to do anything about it. Perhaps you could go and visit the factory, and then write to Mr. Bickel about it"
"I always said you were the cleverest girl in the world," cried Oscar, with delight; for he saw the way now clear before him. That afternoon, when they all went out to the court-yard and garden for their out-door games, he ran off to the factory. The dwelling-house stood not far from the canal, surrounded by a pretty flower-garden. Under the trees two lads were playing ball. They played with such zeal that Oscar, looking over the hedge, became absorbed in watching them, and entirely forgot his object He was a good player himself; but such throws!
"Bravo!" he cried; and the boys looked round. "Come and play too," called one of them.
Oscar asked nothing better. Hardly had he entered the yard than piff! paff! the play began again. Such a game he had never had before, nor with such players. The boys were as well pleased as he; and they played on till the big factory bell rang for close of work, and Oscar remembered that he must go home. He wanted to make acquaintance with these boys. The three playmates had, to be sure, already struck up a friendship, but they did not even know each other's names. Oscar now told his, and asked theirs; and learned that they were named Fink; the sons of the family who lived in the large house. They were from St. Gall, and were warm-hearted, wide awake young fellows. They made friends with this new acquaintance from Switzerland with all their hearts, and Oscar was as ardent as they. What enterprises they would plan and carry out together! But there was no time to stop and talk about it now. He could only hint to them that he had a project of founding a great society of Swiss, a kind of Swiss Confederation, in which he wished them to take part. They received the idea with enthusiasm, and, having fixed a time for meeting his new friends again, Oscar returned to Rosemount with a happy heart. But what kind of a factory that was of Mr. Fink's, he knew as little as before; he had forgotten to ask.
From this time Oscar was always missing during the time that the children were left to themselves to play as they pleased out-of-doors. No one minded his absence; Fred was so busy with his collections that he thought of nothing else; Fani and Emma were absorbed in their own plans and only wanted to be let alone; and Elsli, feeling that her society was not important to any one, sat by herself on the bench under the lindens, occupied with her own thoughts by the hour together. Sometimes she grew unhappy at the thought that she was living here so well-off and at ease, while her father and mother still had such a hard life at home. Often she thought about Nora, and wondered if she had forgotten to ask the heavenly Father to call her to himself. She could well be spared from the earth, where no one needed her, and she longed to go. To tell the truth, Elsli dreaded to look forward. She did not feel at home in Mrs. Stanhope's house; she had a constant sense of unfitness for the position; yet when she thought of going back to her parents, she knew that there she should be equally out of place. So the poor child was living a lonely life at beautiful Rosemount, and thinking herself a useless and superfluous being on the face of the earth.
Down along the bank of the river, a narrow foot-path ran for some distance towards a thick clump of willows, in which it disappeared. Elsli had often followed this path by herself; it was so quiet that she liked it particularly; she never met any one there, for it led only from Mrs. Stanhope's grounds to the willows. To-day, after Elsli had sat alone for a time, she rose and walked along this path, and gazed at the ever-moving waves as they rushed headlong toward the sea. Sunk in thought, she came at last nearer to the willows than she had ever been before. The bushes grew larger and higher and became real trees; from a distance they looked like a thick wood that reached far into the water. Here was complete solitude; not a creature was to be seen, and the plash of the water below was the only sound that broke the stillness. Suddenly a loud scream startled the air. Elsli drew back in alarm. Louder and louder grew the sounds of distress, now pausing, then beginning afresh. The child, recovering her courage, hurried forward to the spot from which they came. Behind the first low-growing clump of willows the ground was wet and swampy; and fast caught in the bog stood two children;--a little girl, who was screaming with all her might, and a boy, who was tugging at his sister's arm as hard as he could. When he found that he could not pull her out he too began to cry aloud. Elsli came to their aid, and lifted the little girl from her uncomfortable position. The boy then slowly worked his way out, but his wooden shoes were a great encumbrance, and he moved with difficulty. When the two children stood at last on dry land with their wet shoes and clothes soaked with muddy water, they presented a pitiable sight, and Elsli asked them sympathetically whether they were far from home, and where they lived.
The boy, who was scarcely more than six years old, evidently felt immediate confidence in Elsli. He took her by the hand and said entreatingly:--
"Come with us and tell mother about it!" And as he spoke he looked ruefully at his shoes and at his sister's gown, on which the mud was rapidly drying, and which looked as if it were made of pasteboard. The little girl, not more than four years old, taking Elsli's other hand, said softly, "Do come with us."
It was plain that they wanted some friendly intercession with their mother, and Elsli felt sure that such small children could not have wandered far from home; so she held tight the clasping hands and let them lead her.
The boy became at once very confidential, and entered on the family history. His mother was ill, and his grandfather could not go out into the sun unless she helped him. The little girl's name was Lenchen, and his own was Lucas, and the other boys were Tolf and Heini, and were not much bigger than he. As he talked, they passed the willow-bushes, and came to the taller trees that stood near together; and quite close to the water, wedged tightly in between two of these trees, stood a small hut, so low and gray with moss, that it could scarcely be distinguished from the trees.
"Here," said the boy, and drew Elsli with him into the house. It was pleasant and clean within, though low and small. The sun was streaming in through the little window in the corner. Against the wall was a bedstead, where the sick mother lay, staring with big, wide-open eyes at the new-comer. In the sunny corner sat an old man with snow-white hair. He looked up wonderingly at Elsli and the children. Two boys, not much larger than Lucas, came towards them as they entered.
"We've been looking for you everywhere, and we couldn't find you anywhere!" they cried. Elsli went to the bedside and told the mother about the children's misfortune, and where she had found them.
The poor woman thanked her, and said it was very difficult for her to look after the little ones, now that she was confined to her bed. The two older boys had all they could do to keep the house in order, so she let the younger children go out by themselves; and sometimes they got into trouble, for they were foolish little things. As she spoke, the mother looked with anxious eyes at Lenchen, as she stood in her mud-stiffened clothes.
"Can I help you in any way?" asked Elsli. She spoke timidly, for the woman's tone and manner compelled respect.
"We have never been obliged to beg," was the reply. "We help ourselves as well as we can. But since I have been ill, it has been very hard. What help could a young lady like you give us?"
"I am not a young lady. I can take off Lenchen's frock and wash it, and hang it out to dry," replied Elsli, eagerly.
"Your dress shows that you are a young lady," answered the sick woman, evidently much surprised; and she glanced searchingly at Elsli from head to foot.
The dress, which was one of Nora's, was of soft woollen material, trimmed with silk bands.
"It is not mine; it was only given me to wear," she said.
Suddenly the woman felt strongly drawn towards the friendly girl. She thought she must be a foreigner. Her way of speaking, her whole appearance had something unusual about it. Perhaps some one had taken pity on her, and had lent her clothes because she was so good. So she thanked Elsli and accepted her offer. Without hesitation Elsli set to work, and it was easy to see that it was not for the first time. In a trice she had freed Lenchen from her shell, and dressed her in a little jacket that hung on the wall. Then she took the stiff frock upon her arm and went with the children into the kitchen. She drew water in a wooden bucket, and put the two pairs of little feet to soak, after removing the dirty shoes and socks. When they were clean and dried, she sent the children back into the other room, while she washed out the dress. They went very obediently, but Lucas called back to her to hurry and come to them as soon as the washing was done. The other boys now came into the kitchen, desirous to scrape acquaintance with this novel visitor.
When Tolf saw how much at home the stranger seemed to be in her work, he said:--
"Get our supper ready too, won't you? If you don't, we shall have to wait till father comes home; and he doesn't know how to cook very well, either."
"Yes," chimed in Heini; "and once he fell asleep when he was cooking, he was so tired; and the potatoes were all burned up."
"Yes, and then father has to go fishing after supper," continued Tolf; "every day, no matter how tired he is, he takes the boat and goes to catch fish to sell."
"And we've got to learn to fish too," interrupted Heini; "father says the oars are too heavy for us now, but by and by we shall be strong enough, and we must all work as hard as we can, or else we shall have nothing to eat, and our house will be taken away from us."
These words roused many old memories in Elsli; how well she knew how it all was. It seemed to her as if she were at home with her father again, and saw his tired face, and heard him say:--
"If we can only manage so that we shall not have to give up our house!"
When Elsli had finished the washing, she went to the mother's bedside, and asked if she were willing that she should get the supper ready, and if she would tell her what to do. The eyes of the sick woman glowed with pleasure.
"Oh!" she cried, "how kind you are! will you really do that for us?" and she seized Elsli's hand, and grasped it heartily. Then she told her what she wished to have done. It was simple enough; Elsli had done the same at home a hundred times. The boys ran into the kitchen with her.
"I know of something new for you to do," she said, presently. "How old are you?"
"I am seven," "I am eight," they answered both at once; and Elsli said:--
"Well, you are old enough. When I was eight I had to cook the potatoes all by myself. Now I will show you how to do it, if you like, and then when your father comes home tired, you can say, 'Sit down, dear father, and eat your supper; it is all ready.'"
The boys were very much pleased with this proposition, and all eagerness to begin. Elsli showed them how to make the fire with small bits of dry wood at first, and to put the larger sticks on afterwards. Then the potatoes must be washed very clean, and put into the pot, and a very little water poured upon them. The boys worked away merrily, and meanwhile Elsli fetched the sour milk. The boys watched the pot unceasingly, but when the potatoes began to burst apart, first one and then another, they were frightened and called aloud for Elsli. She speedily reassured them, explaining that the bursting only meant that they were good potatoes and that they were done. Then she threw away the water that remained in the pot, and poured the potatoes out into a big round dish. She carried the plates into the other room, and made the table ready against the father's arrival.
The old grandfather, who had watched the proceedings from his corner, called Elsli to him.
"You are good, and very handy too," he said; "can you come again to-morrow?"
Elsli promised to come.
"Look, I am lame," he went on, "and ever since my daughter has been sick, I have not been able to get out into the sun, because there is no one for me to lean on; the children are too little. Will you help me to-morrow to get out-of-doors?"
She promised that too. But now it was time for her to go; she must not be away when the supper-bell rang. The mother thanked her again and again, and the children begged her to stay longer. As she went out of the house she saw a man just taking from his shoulder a shovel, which he placed against the house. Elsli recognized him at once as the weary laborer whom she had seen before, and who had reminded her of her father. And as he stood there now, with his two boys affectionately clinging to his sides, and looked sadly yet kindly at her, he seemed still more to resemble her father, and she could not keep the tears from her eyes. She could scarcely refrain from sobbing, so clearly did she see the anxiety and trouble that were in his heart, the same that weighed down her own father at home. She held her hand to him, he pressed it kindly, and she was gone.
When the father entered the cottage, the children all began talking at once, so that he could not understand a word they said. He went to the bedside, and asked his wife for an explanation. She told him just what had happened, and of her wonder that a child so well dressed and with such an air of refinement should have been able to do that kind of work for poor people like themselves, and she didn't know where she could have come from; but the father said simply, "Our Heavenly Father has taken pity on our misery, and has sent a kind angel to help us." And he thought of the tears of pity that he had seen in Elsli's eyes.
Elsli ran as fast as she could along the path to the linden tree and up into the garden. The supper-bell rang just as she reached the house, and the different members of the household gathered together from their different occupations. No one asked any questions of Elsli. She meant, as soon as she could find a good opportunity, to ask Aunt Clarissa's leave to continue her visits to the fisherman's family. She did not doubt that she should be allowed to help them; they were so much in need of help.
When she left the cottage, she had asked the woman if she should not send a doctor to her; but the answer was that the best medicine would be her own return. The poor mother had been constantly prevented from getting well by trying to work before she was strong enough, and yet there was so much to be done that it was hard for her to keep her bed. If she could lie still for one week only, she would be well again.
So Elsli had decided that she could not help going again, and she was glad to go. It was a real pleasure to her to feel that she could be of use, that some one really needed her.
The next afternoon Elsli did not wait a moment on the seat by the river. As soon as the children had scattered to their different amusements she started down to the lindens, and she did not stop till she reached the little house among the willows. All four children were standing in the door-way awaiting her. They cried out with joy when they espied her, and ran to meet her, and when she took little Lenchen up in her arms, the child almost choked her in her close embrace. The boys too were so glad to see her, and pressed so near her side, that she began to feel as if she were surrounded by a tenderness and love such as she had never before received; the poor, lonely little girl!
The mother's welcome was warm, and the grandfather raised both arms in the air and cried out:--
"God be praised! I had begun to think that there was no chance for to-day!"
He asked her to help him go directly out into the sun; for it was pleasant and warm outside, but within he sat chilly all day long. It was no easy task, for the old man was heavy, and leaned upon her so that she could scarcely stand under his weight, but at last they struggled out to where the sun shone pleasantly on the water, and gilded the trunks of the old willows with his beams. Here the old man sat down, and asked Elsli to sit by him. She did so, and he went on talking.
"Yes," he said, "that is the same old Rhine! How I have always loved it! But it will soon be all over with me; I shall not be long here to see it; I must go, and where? But it's foolish to talk this way to you; you are too young to understand. Your life is just beginning. Are you not happy, and glad to think that you can stay here by this beautiful water for a long, long time to come?"
"I don't think of that when I look at the river," said Elsli. "I think of the beautiful stream that flows through Paradise, and of the happiness of those who live there."
"What do you say! How can you know anything about that?" said the old man, looking at Elsli in amazement.
"I know what is said about it in a beautiful song; I have known it a long time. One of my friends taught it to me, and she has gone there already. Shall I repeat it to you?"
The old man nodded assent, and Elsli was glad to repeat the song again to some one who must be interested to hear it, since he was so soon going there himself, he said. She began directly, and, as the old man listened with great attention, she kept on to the end. He shook his head several times during the recitation, and, when it was finished, he said:--
"That will not be for me."
Elsli was very much startled. "But why not, why not?" she asked, anxiously. "It is certainly for every one; we must all die some time, and then how happy we shall be, when we go there."
He shook his head again.
"Not for me; it is only for the good." He said no more for some minutes, and Elsli sat in silence. At last he spoke again.
"I could tell you something, but I don't think you would understand me. If a man doesn't get along well in life, and he thinks that God can help him but does not, he says to himself that there's no use in praying, and he must help himself as he can; and so he grows reckless and does things that are wrong and that he shouldn't do; then when he comes to die, and he has not thought for a long time anything about God and Heaven, then the door of Paradise does not open to him, and he cannot go in to that happy life. But why do I talk to you of this? You cannot understand."
But Elsli did understand partly, for she remembered hearing her step-mother once say it was easy enough for those to pray who had all they wanted, for they could see that God helped them; but he had never helped her. And Elsli could hear again the sorrowful tones of her father's voice as he answered:--
"If we think that, it will be worse and worse for us; that is not the right way to think."
These thoughts made Elsli very sad; but presently she roused herself and said she would go into the house and see if she could do something for the sick woman; she would come back by and by, and help him into the house again. The old man would not let her go, however; he drew her down again upon the fallen tree on which he was sitting.
"No, no; stay here," he said. "Let us talk a little more; you are wise COT your age. Don't you know some other song? I should like to hear another."
Yes; Elsli knew many others; but she could not tell which it would be best to repeat now. After thinking awhile, she suddenly looked up brightly and said, "I remember one now that perhaps you will like. Shall I say it?" and as her companion nodded assent, she went on:--
"The night draws on--sped is my day; I know my end is near. I raise my trembling hands to pray; The grave's dark road I fear.
"O God! thou art my only light! Be thou my guiding star! Hide all my trespasses from sight; Thy mercies endless are.
"Look down upon me, Lord! I bow, Repenting of my sin, Oh! ope the gates of heaven now, And bid me enter in."
The old man was silent. In a few moments Elsli arose, and the grandfather rose also, to go back with her into the house. While with slow and painful steps they regained the door, he said, thoughtfully:--
"Yes; I heard that long ago when I went to church. Then, it is still true! If I could only find my way there! Will you come to-morrow, my child, and say those verses again?"
Elsli promised heartily. She was glad that she had thought of the right words to help the poor old man. She set to work at once in the house, and did not rest till she had put to rights everything that could make the mother uneasy, and had made the sick woman and the children orderly and comfortable. The boys were eager to have her come into the kitchen, to see how well they remembered their yesterday's lesson. Everything went right; and as she was leaving the house she again met the father coming in, and again received from him the friendly yet depressed greeting which reminded her of her own father. And when the four children seized and held her, declaring that she should not leave them, a rare smile lighted up his weary face for a moment, and he stretched out his hand to her with such a tender look of love as she had never in her life received from any one but her father.
And this was the story of one day after another for many succeeding days. Elsli was living in quite another world from that in which the other children were amusing themselves at Rosemount. A new life had come to her, and she looked so happy always and so changed that Fred one day called out:--
"What makes you so happy, Elsli? You look as if you had just caught two gold beetles!"
Elsli had found a place in the world, and no longer felt herself useless and superfluous. She knew that early every morning the four children began to count the hours till she should come. The sick mother longed for her to appear and with her skilful hands bring neatness and comfort into her room. The grandfather depended on her help to take his daily airing, and, more than that, he loved the songs and hymns and gentle talk, with which Elsli brightened an hour of his lonely day. And every day Elsli could see more clearly how the father grew happier in his home-coming, now that he found the house-work done and a peaceful evening of rest before him.
Only one thing troubled her. She had not found a chance to talk with Aunt Clarissa, and these daily visits were still a secret. And what if Mrs. Stanhope should disapprove them! This thought gave her great anxiety. She knew that there was nothing wrong about them, but she was not sure that they would be allowed. For all that, she could not give them up. She had made many attempts to tell Aunt Clarissa, but there was a great deal going on in the house, and every time she spoke she was told that she must wait till another time. One day she determined to make another effort to get a few minutes' attention from Aunt Clarissa in the evening, and then she would tell her the whole story. After supper she went to her and asked whether she might tell her something before they went out on the terrace with the others. Aunt Clarissa asked how long it would take, for Mrs. Stanhope wished them all to go out together in a few minutes. Elsli answered that it would take some time to tell it all, but that it was very important.
"Then, dear," said Aunt Clarissa, "we shall have to wait till some other time; but I will call you to come to me in my room as soon as I can find a quiet time. There is no hurry, I'm sure."
So it was put off again.