Gritli's Children by Johanna Spyri
Chapter II. In the Doctor's House at Buchberg.
The kitchen-garden is the especial delight of the true German housewife; that is, of one who lives in the country where such a luxury is possible. The flower-garden is a source of pleasure to the whole family; but the vegetable-garden is her own, so to speak; she cares for it herself; she watches each little plant with her own eyes, and removes each encroaching weed with her own hands. Now this year the cauliflowers were of unusually fine promise, and they excited the hopes of their owner that a wonderful harvest would before long reward her care; not a trace of a noxious worm was as yet to be detected.
"Good evening," said some one from the other side of the hedge; "your vegetables are always the best and the most forward of any in the neighborhood; they show the care you take of them."
The doctor's wife came nearer to the hedge, and over the low barrier Heiri, the day-laborer, stretched his hand, stained and knotted with work, to clasp that of his old friend and schoolmate. How often had he been to her for counsel and aid since those school-days, and when had that willing and helpful hand ever failed him?
"How are you all at home, Heiri?" she asked heartily. "Have you plenty of work? Are your wife and children well?"
"Yes, yes, thank God!" replied Heiri, as he lifted his heavy tools from his shoulder and set them on the ground. "There is work enough; I am just taking these tools to be sharpened. I have to keep hard at it, for the family is growing big."
"The three little boys look finely; I saw them go by yesterday with Elsli," continued the doctor's wife. "But Elsli herself looks quite too pale and delicate. Do not forget how her mother died, Heiri. The little girl ought not to have too much to do; she is not strong, and she is growing too fast. Do take it in time, Heiri; you know by sad experience how rapidly disease gains ground when it has once got hold of a young girl."
"Yes, yes, I can never forget that. It was terrible to see how quickly Gritli sank,--and she so young, so young! Marget is a good wife and an industrious woman; but nothing will ever make me forget my poor Gritli"; and Heiri wiped away a few tears with his hard hand.
Tears were also in the eyes of the doctor's wife, as she said, "Neither can I ever forget her, nor how gladly she would have lived for you and the children, nor how quickly it was all over. Elsli is the very image of her mother, Heiri, and I cannot help fearing that she is working beyond her strength."
"She's a poor, thin little creature, to be sure," said Heiri; "and it strikes me, now and then, that she is delicate; but usually she is so quiet that I don't take much notice of her. Now, the boy is much more like his mother; he's always busy about something, especially about keeping things clean. He can't abide dirt, any more than Gritli could, and he is always at the little ones to make them come and be washed at the spout. Of course the little boys won't stand that, and they set up a scream, and then out comes their mother, and there's a grand row! I scarcely ever come home at night that Marget doesn't come complaining of the boy for plaguing the younger children. She wants me to punish him, but when the little fellow stands up before me, and looks straight into my eyes with such a look of his mother about him, I cannot bring myself to strike him. Then Marget is vexed and begins to scold, and I do not like to vex her, for she works hard and means all right. I have often thought that perhaps you, Mrs. Stein, would speak a word for me to Marget about punishing the boy; for anything from you would have great weight with her."
"Certainly I will, with pleasure. But tell me about Elsli; is Marget kind to her?"
"Well, this is how it is,"--and Heiri drew a little nearer the hedge and spoke in a confidential tone--"the little girl is more like me, and gives in easily and is not obstinate about having her own way, as her poor mother was. She does what she is bid, and never answers back when Marget scolds, nor ever complains, though she has to work from the time she gets home from school till she goes to bed; always carrying the baby, or doing something about the house."
"But you must not let her do too much, Heiri," said Mrs. Stein seriously. "I am very anxious about her. Ask Marget to come over and see me: tell her I have some clothes which my children have out-grown, and I should like to give them to her if she will come for them."
"Thank you; I will certainly send her. Good-night I hope you will have good luck with the cauliflowers"; and, with another shake of his good friend's hand, Heiri went off to the smithy.
The doctor's wife stood lost in thought for several minutes. She was looking towards her vegetables, but she was thinking of neither beet nor cauliflower, though her eyes were resting on the neat rows before her. This talk with Heiri had brought the old days of her childhood forcibly back to her memory. She saw the pretty Gritli with her big brown eyes, as she used to sit weaving forget-me-nots into pretty wreaths with her skilful fingers; always putting a few into her belt and into her hair. Gritli was the child of poor parents, but she was always neatly dressed, and, though her clothes were of the coarsest stuff, yet there was a peculiar look of daintiness about her, which, with the bit of color in flower or ribbon that was never wanting in her costume, gave the impression that she had just been dressed by an artist, as a model for a picture. Many criticised this daintiness and many laughed at it, but it made no difference to Gritli; for indeed it was only the instinctive expression of the girl's natural longing for the beautiful.
At eighteen, Gritli married Heiri, a good-hearted fellow who had long loved her. But after five years of married life she died, of a rapid consumption; leaving two children, Stefan and Elsli, four and three years old. It was not long before Heiri found that he needed help in the care of these little ones, and, taking the advice of friends and neighbors, he married Marget, who was recommended to him as specially capable of looking after his house and children. She proved indeed a good house-keeper; but for ornaments and flowers she had no taste, and she did not see the use of being over particular about neatness either, so that Heiri's household soon lost the air of refinement which had been noticeable during Gritli's life.
Marget's three children did not get by any means the nice care that Fani and Elsli had received from their own mother, and Gritli's children retained an air of distinction that was ineffaceable, and that marked them as quite different from the younger set.
The memories that passed almost like a vision before the eyes of the doctor's wife, as she stood apparently studying her kitchen-garden, were rudely dispelled by a piercing scream that resounded from the house; and presently an eight-year-old girl came running round the corner, pursued by her older brother; a big lad, who held a huge volume under his left arm, and had something tightly clutched in his right hand.
"Rikli! what a fearful noise! come here to me! what has happened now?"
The girl screamed louder and hid her face in the skirts of her mother's dress.
"Now, just look at the innocent cause of this ridiculous disturbance, mother," said Fred. "Only this pretty, dear little froggy, that I caught, and was holding out for Rikli to admire. Just let me read you this description, and you will see how exactly it agrees with Mr. Frog himself. Look, mamma, look!" and Fred opened his hand and showed a small green frog.
"Stand still, and be quiet, Rikli," said her mother to the crying girl, "and, Fred, why do you persist in showing the silly child these creatures, when you know how much she is afraid of them?"
"She was the only person near," answered Fred. "But do listen to this, mamma." Fred opened his book, and began to read:--
"'The green or water frog, esculenta, is about three inches in length, grass-green, with black spots. His eyes have a golden color, and the toes of his hind legs are webbed. His voice, which is often heard on warm summer nights, sounds Brekekex! He passes the winters hidden in the mud and slime. He feeds upon'--"
At this moment a carriage was heard approaching. "It is the lady with the sick child," said Mrs. Stein, putting Fred aside rather hastily, for he tried to detain her. He followed her, crying out:--
"Do listen, mamma; you do not know what he eats. He eats--"
The carriage was at the door. Hans came from the stable, and Kathri, in her best white apron, from the kitchen, to lift out the sick girl and carry her into the house. Fred and Rikli stood back by the hedge, as still as mice, watching the proceedings.
First, a lady alighted from the carriage, and beckoned to Kathri, who came forward, lifted out the pale child, and carried her up the steps into the house. The lady followed with Mrs. Stein.
"That girl is a great deal bigger than you are, if mother did say that she was only eight or nine years old," said Fred to Rikli. "She is more nearly Emma's age, and what do you suppose she would think to hear you screaming as you did just now? I don't think she'd like you for a friend."
"Well, at any rate, she wouldn't always have centipedes and frogs and spiders in her pockets, as you have, Fred," retorted Rikli; and she was about to add some farther excuse for her screams, when Fred opened his hand to see how his frog was getting on, and lo! the little creature made one big jump right towards Rikli's face! With a piercing cry, the child flew into the house, but was instantly stopped by Kathri, with:
"Hush! hush! When there is that sick little girl in there, how can you make such a noise?"
"Where is aunty?" asked Rikli; a question that the maid answered before it was fairly uttered, for it was asked hundreds of times in that household every day.
"In the other room. The sick girl is in here, and you mustn't go in, your mother says. And as for screaming like a pig, you mustn't do that either, in a respectable house," added Kathri, on her own account.
Rikli hastened into the room where her aunt was, to tell her about Fred's horrid frog, and how it had jumped almost into her very face. Her aunt was listening to Oscar, the eldest brother, who was talking earnestly.
"You see, aunty," he was saying, "that if Feklitus does not object, we can put the two verses together; then ours could go here, and the other there, and both would be used. Won't that do?"
"Yes, that will be very nice indeed," said his aunt in a tone of conviction; "that will remove all difficulties; and the verses are really very suitable, as such verses ought to be."
"You will help Emma with the embroidery, won't you, aunty? You know she will never finish the banner by herself. She is always up to so many pranks, and she cannot keep at one thing half an hour at a time."
His aunt promised her assistance, and he ran off, well pleased, to tell his friends of their new ally. Rikli thought her chance had come now, but before she could begin her story Emma rushed in, crying, almost out of breath:--
"Aunty! aunty! They are all going to gather strawberries--a lot of boys and girls--may I go too? Say 'yes' quick, for I can't get at mamma and they won't wait."
"Strawberries to-day, violets yesterday, and blueberries to-morrow; always something or other; that is the way with you, Emma. Well, go, but do not stay out too late."
"I want to go too," cried Rikli, and started after her sister.
But Emma, clearing the steps in two jumps, called back:--
"No, you can't go into the woods; there are red snails there and beetles and--"
But Rikli did not wait to hear more; she was reminded of the frog, and turned back to tell her story, when she saw Fred coming in with his book under his arm. He seated himself by his aunt and opened the book.
"How nice it is to find you, aunty," he began, "Mamma couldn't wait to hear the end of this description; and it was a pity, for I had found such a perfect specimen. But I'll find another to-morrow to show you."
"No! no!" cried Rikli. "Say 'no,' aunty; it will jump right into your face, and it has yellow eyes like a dragon's."
Fred had doubled up his fist as if he had something in it, and now he suddenly opened it into his sister's face. She sprang back with a cry, and away through the door.
"Now we can have a little peace," said Fred, well pleased at the success of his trick; and he began to read.
"'The green or water-frog, esculenta'--"
At this moment the house-door was opened, and they heard footsteps and voices in the passage-way.
"Come," said his aunt, "let us look out at the little sick girl who is going away; then we will come back to the frog."
They went to the window and looked out. A sad expression came into the good aunt's face as she saw the little girl lifted into the carriage.
"How sick and pale she looks, poor little thing! or, rather, poor sorrowful mother!" she said, as her eyes fell on the face of the lady who was at this moment pressing Mrs. Stein's hand, while tears were running, unheeded, down her cheeks.
The carriage rolled away. Fred returned to his book; but he had no chance to go on with the description of the frog, for his mother, greatly excited over the sight of the suffering child and the anxious mother, came to talk it over with her sister, with whom she consulted about everything that took place in the family, so that the household would have been as much at a loss without "aunty" as without father or mother. Fred saw that this was not his opportunity; so, exacting a promise from his aunt that she would give him a chance with his frog just before bed-time, he took himself off.
Then Mrs. Stein told her sister all about her painful interview with Mrs. Stanhope. The child, she said, was so pale and transparent-looking that she seemed already to belong more to heaven than to earth; but the mother would not believe it, and had eagerly explained, in a burst of tears, that it was only the fatigue of the journey which made Nora look so ill, and that she was sure that the mountain air would soon restore her darling to health. Was she trying to deceive herself?
While Mrs. Stein was speaking, the sound of a horse's hoofs was heard, and she hurried out to meet her husband and to tell him of Mrs. Stanhope's arrival. The doctor hastened away on foot to pay a visit to his new patient. Not until late in the evening did he return; long after the children were safe in their beds. Fred, by the way, had persevered till he had secured his aunt long enough to give her a thorough account of the appearance of the "green or water-frog." It had been no easy task, for each of the children had some special need of her that evening, and his mother, too; and even Kathri asked for "one word"; but Fred was not to be cheated, and he came out triumphant at last.
The doctor sat down hungry at the supper-table, and not one word did he speak to his expectant wife and sister, until he had satisfied his appetite. He shook his head doubtfully, in answer to their questions about Nora.
"There is nothing to build upon," he said; "the little plant has no strength. It is not a case of failing health, but of utter want of vitality from the very beginning. If our mountain air can work a miracle, we may see her restored; if not, there is no hope."
His wife and "aunty" were grieved at this reply, though they had expected nothing better; but they tried to take a more cheerful view.
"While there is life, there is hope," they said, "and our mountain air does certainly work wonders."
"I should like to have Emma go to see the little girl, and try to amuse her now and then," said the doctor presently; "Emma has too many schemes in her head; perhaps she will drop some of them if she gets interested in this child, and I am sure it would be a good thing; for her projects almost always end in some kind of mishap. Nora will be rather astonished, probably, at some of her suggestions, but it will do no harm to the poor child to have some new and interesting ideas introduced into her restricted life, and there is no chance of her being enticed into joining in Emma's wild pranks. It will be good for both of them to be together."
Mrs. Stein was pleased at the idea of a friendship between the girls. Nora's gentleness and delicacy might have a softening influence on her impulsive little daughter, while, on the other hand, Emma's active, happy spirits could not fail to attract Nora, and to draw her out of herself.
Later in the evening, while the doctor was busy with his arrangements for the next day's work, his wife and her sister sat together, as usual, over the great basket that stood always well supplied with mending and sewing of various kinds. They talked over the experiences of the day, the conduct of the children, and the general affairs of the household, and took counsel together for the day to come. This was the only time in the twenty-four hours that they could call their own, and they could hardly have got along without it; for their lives were so closely interwoven that they needed this interchange of thoughts to help each other and themselves. Naturally, the children were first discussed, with their varied joys and sorrows, wants and wishes; next, the doctor's patients, who came to the house from far and near; and last, the many calls for sympathy and advice that reached their ears and their hearts from all the country round about; for many were those who brought their troubles of all kinds to this hospitable house, where they were always sure of help and encouragement, of support in word and deed. So the two sisters, on this, as on many another evening, had so many things of interest to discuss and decide, that, under their busy hands, the heap of unmended stockings in the work-basket melted away unobserved, while many a neighborly plan and kindly conspiracy were hatched by their warm hearts and busy heads; and it was very late when at last they separated to their well earned rest.