Gritli's Children by Johanna Spyri
Chapter VI. Anxiety at Rosemount.
The only really quiet part of the day at Rosemount was during the morning hours, when the children were busy writing letters home and learning their lessons. To-day, however, a certain restlessness seemed to have taken possession of them all. Emma and Fani could not keep still a minute. The latter tossed his papers about as if he couldn't make up his mind which one he wanted. The former made all sorts of signs to him across the table, and, in the midst of studying her French verbs, she seemed to be suddenly seized with a desire for lead-pencils, for she began to sharpen all that she could get together, one after the other. Oscar was writing out his speech. Any one would have thought that he was composing a drama and acting it out as he went along; he kept throwing up his head, and gazing enthusiastically first at one inkstand and then at another, as if he were summoning them all to great heroic deeds.
Aunt Clarissa, who generally sat in the room during the lesson-time to keep order in the little company, had just been called out by Lina, the maid-servant, who was usually a most quiet and reserved young person, but who was now, evidently, much excited and almost distressed as she asked to "speak a word with Mrs. Clarissa."
No sooner was the door closed than Oscar broke out eagerly:--
"Though neither you nor anybody knows where the Festival is to be this evening, Fani, yet promise me, on your word of honor, that you will join us--Promise! at quarter before six, at the three oaks. Promise! and from there we march to the place of celebration."
Fani looked at Emma.
"Yes, of course you can promise. We shall be back by that time," said Emma, decidedly. "You see, Oscar, we have something to do together before that; but we are going at two o'clock if we can get away."
"Go where you please; only promise to be back," said Oscar.
Fani promised that he would be at the three oaks before six o'clock.
"And you too, Fred; we have not too many at the best. Promise that you'll come too."
It was not so easy to get Fred's consent; he was always slow to make a promise. Perhaps he would come; but, if he had anything important to attend to, he couldn't come if he did promise, so he must be excused.
Oscar was determined to have his own way. Fred was obstinate and would not yield. Emma and Fani were not at all loath to give up their studies and join in the dispute.
In the other room, Lina, her cheeks flaming with excitement, was declaring to Mrs. Clarissa that she would not stay another day in the house; no one would believe such things could happen who hadn't seen them; she never heard of such things before in her life.
"Do try to speak plainly, so that I can understand what you mean," said Clarissa, who had not an idea what the girl was talking about.
"Well, I noticed it a little once or twice before," said the agitated house-maid; "but I thought it came in at the open window. But to-day, just now, when I opened the drawer of the young gentleman's wash-stand to clean it, out jumped a live frog. I opened another and there were a lot of spiders crawling about! I slapped at them with a cloth and they ran into all the corners, and I couldn't get them out. Then I saw that the key was in the writing-desk, and I thought what if by chance any of the disgusting creatures had got in there; for what would Mrs. Stanhope say? I opened one division and then another and another. Hu! how it looked! I can't tell you how horrid it was! Snails, caterpillars, beetles, every sort of ugly living creature crawled out of every place,--it was all dirty and nasty and abominable! I cleaned and brushed and washed and scrubbed as well as I could; but it was so dirty and so sticky! Ugh! And it was done on purpose, too; that's the worst of it; and the nasty things have got into my clothes and my hair and all over me! That stupid young gentleman did it just to frighten whoever came and found them there! I know he did!"
"No, Lina, you're mistaken," said Clarissa, when she could get in a word. "Come with me, and I'll see what can be done with the room. The boy didn't mean to frighten any one. I'm only afraid he was trying to hide them where they wouldn't be found. Let's go and see."
The aspect of Fred's room was indeed alarming. All the drawers and shelves in the different pieces of furniture were pulled out, and all were dirty and bore the marks of the creatures who had been kept in them. On the floor lay the remains of the spiders and worms that Lina had destroyed. The windows also were spotted with the dead bodies of insects. Clarissa shook her head sadly.
"Call the lad to come up here," she said. "But do not make any more fuss about the matter. Listen to me, Lina; we must make this all clean and nice again without letting Mrs. Stanhope know anything about it. Do you understand?"
Lina muttered something to herself and went to call Fred. When the poor lad entered his room and saw the destruction of all his carefully preserved treasures, he turned as white as chalk, and spoke not one word.
"My dear boy," said Clarissa very gently, "you need not be frightened, but I must tell you that you cannot use these drawers nor this desk for this purpose. Now, we will clean them all out, but remember that no more creatures must be brought into the house."
"Oh, my collection! my whole collection!"
"Yes, you see this is not the way to go to work to make a collection. Don't be unhappy. I will see about your getting some more creatures. But the first thing is to get this room cleaned up, and I'm sure you won't want to give us so much trouble again."
Fred glanced at the places where his most cherished treasures had been stored. His rare oleander-worms and his priceless beetles all were destroyed. The drawers all opened, the creatures all killed and spoiled. He went down stairs again, but he could not go back to the others and have them ask him why he had been sent for. He went out into the garden, and down to the seat under the lindens by the river. The thought of his specimens, his precious specimens, was too much for the poor fellow. He threw himself on the ground and poured out his sorrows in sobs and tears.
In the afternoon, when the others all ran out rejoicing in the sunshine, he hid himself in a corner of the school-room, and wrote the following letter:--
The evening came; lovely and bright. Under the three oaks were assembled the two Fink boys, the baker's son from Lucerne, the shoemaker's apprentice from Uri, the hotel porter from Schwyz, and Feklitus! Oscar stood in the midst with his banner, and looked sharply in every direction, for it was almost six o'clock and neither Fred nor Fani was in sight. The clock struck; five, ten minutes passed, and they did not come.
Oscar felt that it was useless to wait longer. Fred did not mean to come; he had seen that in the morning; but Fani, where was he? As he asked himself this question, Oscar raised his fist threateningly in the air and muttered to himself:--
"Oh, that Emma! that Xanthippe!"
His original intention had been to march to the windmill to the music of fife and drum, flute and harmonicon, but he had given up part of this plan; chiefly, he said to himself, on account of his father's advice not to make any disturbance in a strange place; but also because he could not get a drum, and Feklitus would not play the flute.
Now it was time to move, and the procession began to march. The lad from Lucerne went first, playing briskly upon the harmonicon; the others followed two and two, and Oscar in the middle held aloft the banner. The staff was quickly planted as previously arranged; the beautiful banner floated proudly over the land. Oscar took his stand by it, and the others formed a circle, lying on the grass about him. With a loud ringing voice he began:--
"Friends and brothers!"
"What does this mean? What is this all about?" suddenly thundered a voice behind him.
The boys sprang to their feet. Oscar looked round. Two bearded men in uniform stood close behind him and looked at him with threatening glances. In a flash Oscar turned about, made one great leap down the hill-side and away across the field like a madman. Behind him came the Finks, scarcely touching the ground. Down the other side ran the Lucerner fast on the heels of the Schwyzer, who tripped, and both went headlong into a ditch. Feklitus was the only one who kept his ground. He knew who he was; Fortunatus, the only son of Mr. Bickel. No one would dare to meddle with him. He knew, too, that he was by no means nimble, and the sudden appearance of the men in uniform had given him a strange feeling of heaviness in his legs. He had no mind to stay alone, however, and so he seized the shoemaker's boy by the collar, and held him as in a vise.
One of the men now came up to them and said roughly,--
"Come along to the watch-house and explain what you have been about, and what it all means."
The Uri boy hid himself as well as he could. Feklitus, half-frightened, half-angry, answered,--
"We have done nothing. We are not to blame. It's all Oscar's doing."
"We don't know anything about that," said the man. "You come along with us. Our motto is, 'Taken together, hung together.'" Then he turned to his comrade, and they began to whisper.
Feklitus was as pale as a ghost.
"Did you hear that? They are going to hang us," he said, grasping his companion still more tightly.
"Let us run away," gasped the boy, hardly able to speak for choking.
Feklitus looked at the men; they were in earnest conversation with the miller. He sprang from the ground; fear gave him unwonted agility. Down the hill he raced, his hair fairly standing on end with fright, and the Uri boy after him. Neither looked back to see whether they were pursued, but they thought they heard footsteps behind them. On they ran--on, on; at last they separated; one this way, the other that; and then both disappeared. They had not been followed.
Oscar reached Rosemount all out of breath. He rushed up the steps, ran to his bed-room, took out his portfolio, threw himself on a seat before the table, and wrote the following, sobbing more and more as he went on:--
The letter was folded in haste, and the address quickly added; and the writer ran with all his might to the post-office, a short distance from the house. He had to hurry, for it was nearly supper-time. As he came tearing along into the court-yard at Rosemount, on his return, he started back; for there stood one of the men in uniform, with the deserted banner in his hand. He was waiting to be let in. The door opened. He entered. Oscar drew back behind a great oak-tree. His heart beat like a trip-hammer. What was going on inside there? Mrs. Stanhope would know now all about it! What would she think of him after this! Perhaps she would send them all home with a letter of complaint to their father! His heart beat louder and louder. Perhaps the man came to fetch him to be punished and imprisoned. Had he broken some law when he had the hole dug in front of the mill, when there was nothing but short grass there? Oh, if he had only followed his father's advice, and not tried to do anything in this strange country without leave! All these anxious thoughts ran through Oscar's head, and the longer that dreadful man stayed, the more alarmed he grew.
Clarissa had just finished her disagreeable task, and, assisted very reluctantly by the indignant Lina, had at last succeeded in removing all traces of Fred's unfortunate collection, when a tremendous ringing at the house-door called her down stairs. It was the watchman with the banner. Another strange occurrence. What would happen next? She was really frightened when she recognized Oscar's banner, and read the too distinctly printed motto which embellished it. Clarissa looked anxiously at the different doors for fear that Mrs. Stanhope might come through one of them. She asked the man what his business might be. He replied that they had discovered that the owner of the banner he held in his hand belonged at Rosemount, and also that they had come to the conclusion that all that affair was only boys' play, though at first the miller had thought otherwise because of the motto. This was why he had informed the police. Now, they merely wished to advise Mrs. Stanhope to bid her young people keep such games within the limits of her own grounds.
Clarissa still glanced anxiously towards the doors, while she assured the man that his advice would be followed, and pressed a coin into his hand as an acknowledgment of the trouble he had taken. Then she hurriedly took the banner, rolled it up, and carried it away. She was determined, if possible, to keep from Mrs. Stanhope all knowledge of this day's occurrences. But would it be possible?
However, all was safe for the present; and, when the bell rang for supper, Clarissa laid aside her anxiety and went cheerfully into the dining-room. Oscar and Fred followed each other with slow steps and dejected demeanor. Their usual vivacity had vanished, and, as they seated themselves at the table, they hung their heads like hyacinths nipped by the frost.
Elsli sat next to Fred; her cheeks were glowing with exercise, for she had had to run fast all the way home to be in time for supper. She, too, hung her head over her plate to hide her heated face.
Emma and Fani were not there.
Mrs. Stanhope looked silently first at the empty places, then at the children.
Clarissa watched the door uneasily; no one came.
"I am willing to allow children all possible freedom," said Mrs. Stanhope, seriously; "but the order of the house must be maintained. I am very much annoyed at unpunctuality at meals. Fani has never allowed himself any such irregularity. I wonder how it happened now."
She looked from one brother to another as if expecting some explanation. They looked so uncomfortable that she took it as a sign of regret for their sister's delinquency, and so forbore farther remark.
After supper, Mrs. Stanhope went out as usual on the terrace, and the others followed. It began to grow dark. Clarissa's anxiety became unendurable; what could have happened to the children?
"Dear Mrs. Stanhope," she said, entreatingly, "do let me send some one out to look for the children. I cannot rest for fear that they have met with some accident."
"Where can we send? We have no clue to the direction they have taken," answered Mrs. Stanhope in a tone of vexation. "It is very provoking. Fani never did such a thing before. I will go with you."
She rose and went through a long corridor to the court-yard. Clarissa and the children followed. There they found the servants all assembled: the footman, coachman, cook, and maids were holding a council. They were talking over the children's absence, its possible cause, and Mrs. Stanhope's probable displeasure. When that lady came upon them unperceived, they tried to separate and escape; but it was too late. She told the men to go out into the street and to inquire in different directions whether anything had been seen of the lost children. Lina came forward to say that the cook knew that the young lady had gone fishing. It was a pity that all these young people were so cruel to animals, the house-maid added; and therewith she shot an angry glance at Fred, whom she hadn't forgiven for the trouble he had given her.
"For Heaven's sake!" cried Clarissa, in great alarm. "If those children have gone out on the river, something terrible must have happened to them! If we could only have the least idea which way they went!"
The cook, being appealed to, said that she had directed the young lady to the fisherman's hut. It might be well to look for her there.
Clarissa started at once, calling the men to go with her and show her the way.
Poor Elsli was more frightened now than any one else. She thought that Aunt Clarissa would now learn the story which she ought long ago to have told her. By her daily visits she had become so familiar with all the wants and sufferings of the fisherman's family that she had been led on to undertake more and more, till at last she had come to do nearly all the housework of the poor little dwelling. But gradually had grown upon her the conviction that Mrs. Stanhope would be extremely displeased if she knew of her conduct. In great agony she now started after Aunt Clarissa, crying out:--
"Oh, do let me go with you! I have something to tell you, and we can talk as we go."
"My dear child, what a time to choose to tell me something! How could I listen now? Turn back directly. What will Mrs. Stanhope think to see you running away at such a time?"
Mrs. Stanhope only thought that Elsli was anxious about her brother, as was very natural. She bade the children go to bed, since they could be of no use in finding the missing ones. They obeyed her in silence, and went to their rooms. The boys fell asleep as soon as their heads touched their pillows, and so happily lost remembrance of their troubles; but poor Elsli sat on her bed with wide-open eyes, for the anxious fear in her heart made sleep impossible. She went over and over again the events of the last few weeks. She had not at first meant to do wrong, but she certainly ought not to have repeated her visits to the fisherman's house without leave, especially as she knew that Mrs. Stanhope would probably object. Yet, how could she have left those poor people without help, when she found that she could do so much for them, and they reminded her so much of her family at home? Probably Mrs. Stanhope would send her and Fani away, but she deserved it and Fani did not. The more the poor girl pondered over all this trouble, the more unhappy she became; and at last she burst into tears and sobbed out:--
"Oh, if I only had some one to help me. I cannot tell what to do!"
Then Elsli remembered that she could bring her trouble to her Heavenly Father, and seek comfort and forgiveness from him. She had already repeated her daily evening prayer; but now she folded her hands again, and prayed, not as a form but from the bottom of her heart, that God would help her in her dire need, so that Fani should not be punished for her fault, and that she should not do wrong again, and that the fisherman's family should not suffer any more. Peace came as she prayed, and she lay down and slept at last.