J OHN felt discouraged and unhappy when he got up next morning; doubtless because he was stiff and tired from his hard climb up through the snow. But he did not think of that. He thought of the people in the Toy Valley all working so contentedly in their snug houses and of the toys everywhere piling up to be carried, when spring came, across the mountains.
And he could never have a share in it! It was enough to make anybody miserable! No, he could never be a wood carver. He remembered how clumsy he had been when he broke the spoke, and how Frau Herder would not let him touch the little tool that made the horses' manes, and of what his father was always saying about no one of his family having ever carved.
He was sitting dejectedly on the bench in front of the house with his hands thrust deep in his pockets and looking as cross as it was possible for a boy with such a big mouth and such round eyes to look. You, no doubt, noticed long ago how hard it is for people with round eyes to be real cross!
Old Franz stood near him with his ears hanging down as though he understood. He did not frisk at all, but kept putting his nose against John's shoulder as though trying to tell him how sorry he felt to see him so sad. The hens, too, clustered about John's feet and the great rooster with the missing tail feathers cocked one eye inquiringly at him.
There were deep, deep blue shadows on the snow that lay so white over the earth, and the mountains had a lovely, rosy glow on them. Suddenly, John looked up to the shining heights and a smile chased the gloom from his face, for it seemed to him that he heard Frau Ampezzang's voice again, saying, "It is just wanting to hard enough and keeping at it long enough."
All his weariness and unhappiness vanished, and he jumped up so suddenly that old Franz was startled and sprang backwards, but not before John had hold of the halter. Up went Franz's ears, all his dejection vanished too, and when John jumped on his back he kicked up and tried to throw him off into the snow. But John clung fast and Franz reared and plunged, and so they had a grand frolic, for Franz's efforts to throw John were all pretence. Then John jumped down and went off whistling to look after the sheep and goats.
That night he prayed more fervently than ever to the good Lord to send him a tool.
A day or two after, with his father's permission, he took his sled and went to see Anton, who lived, as you know, in the stone house with the wide, latticed balconies at the foot of the long slope. Down this John sped, guiding his sled very skilfully. When he had first made this trip alone a few days before it had seemed to him a great feat, but now, after he had gone down the mountain with his father it seemed nothing at all, and he longed to be allowed to try a longer and steeper descent.
"I want to sled down to the Ringovitch's," he confided to Anton. "Father says I may next winter, and then—after that—who knows how soon I may be allowed to take the great chute clear down to the valley!"
"You? Take the great chute all by yourself? Why, John, you are crazy! One must be a man to do that. One must be very strong and hold a clear head all the time. You told me you shut your eyes the whole way."
"I wouldn't do that again, Anton. Do you know, I feel almost grown up since then? And, Anton, I am going to carve!"
"Does your father say so?"
"Not yet, but he will. And, Anton, what do you think? I heard father talking with mother last night and I am to live at Uncle Francesco's and go to school!"
"Not down in the valley!" and Anton threw down the stick he had been twirling and looked at John with great interest.
"Yes, in the school there. I am to live with Uncle Francesco and help him. The school is close by his house near the church."
"Oh, I know where it is, but I don't want to go. I should like to be down in the valley and see all the people if I could come home at night."
"That cannot be. Father is to take me down and then I must stay until the snow is gone."
"Will you sled down?" and there was a tone of envy in Anton's voice.
"I don't know, but I hope so. And I tell you, Anton, if I do I shall keep my eyes open and see it all. Only going around the curve the snow flies so it cuts your face and covers you. But I mean to hold my eyes open and watch just how father does it."
It was not long after this that John took the trip down into the valley again, and, as he had longed to do, on his father's sled. Father Hofer had hesitated some time about using the sled, because the winter was not half gone and he had only one left, and who could tell how often he might want to go down in a hurry, or how often the snow might be too deep for him to walk down?
He finally decided to risk it, and one day John said good-bye to old Franz, and with a little bundle of clothes strapped to his shoulders followed his father and mother to the starting-place, for the mother had come to see them off. Her eyes were steady but her face was white, for she dreaded the dangerous gully; and now her boy, too, was going down it and she would be left alone until the father came back at night to tell her all was well.
How white the wide world was! Never could anything be whiter than these vast expanses of pure snow with deep blue shadows under the slopes; and over them the big hawk, the geier of the Alps, muffled in his warm feathers was sailing great circles through the icy air.
This time John held up his head and kept his eyes wide open as they flashed down, only half-closing them around the curve to keep out the sharp flying snow. It seemed to him that the sled went even faster than before, and although he kept his eyes open, he could not help holding his breath.
In a few minutes they were clear down to the foot of the mountain, and in a little while more they were going into Uncle Francesco's house where they put off their big spiked shoes at the door, and put on some warm felt slippers that Father Hofer had carried in his pocket.
John felt a little strange, for he had always been rather afraid of Uncle Francesco, and now he was coming to stay with him, which made everything seem different.
Uncle Francesco lived all by himself in a good stone house with plenty of lattices that stood with a little cluster of similar houses, and the church with a tall steeple, on top of a high bluff that fell sheer down to the very bottom of the valley where the stream ran. A path led down the other side of the bluff to the road below, on either side of which were the rest of the houses of the village as close together as they could stand.
The precipice at the edge of the bluff on which stood Uncle Francesco's house was so steep that John used to go to the edge and look down on the roof of a house that stood far, far below at its foot. In this house lived the Wolferlos, who were generally to be found painting horses; and pretty Angelica, who put bright red spots in their nostrils.
After dinner Father Hofer started up the mountain and left John, who began to feel very lonesome, though he whistled and walked about and tried not to let Uncle Francesco see he cared.
"Here, John," said his uncle, "take a bundle of fagots and fire up the stove; it is time."
So John went to the shed, got a bundle of fagots and put them in at the door of the big, brick vault that opened into the hallway. It was yet warm, though the fire Uncle Francesco had made in it in the morning was quite burned out.
John made a hot fire of fagots, put on some sticks of wood, and then went into the room where his uncle was and seated himself on the bench that ran around the big stove, which in a little while began to send out a pleasant warmth. There was a bed above this stove, but Uncle Francesco slept there and John had a little cot with plenty of sweet hay under him and a warm feather bed over him, in another room. For in John's country the people sleep with their feather beds on top of them, which, come to think of it, is a very sensible plan. It makes one feel safe and warm, like a little chicken under its mother's wing. Smother you? Of course not. John didn't smother, neither has anybody in his part of the world smothered that anyone ever heard of. Perhaps the reason is that the feather beds are too short to cover more than half of you at once. You have to curl up like a kitten or else keep changing the feather bed about so as to warm the cold half. Of course one half or the other of you always is cold, but you get used to that.
Uncle Francesco sat a long time without speaking, then he said:
"Now, John, you are here to stay with me and help me. You are to care for the stove and heat it twice a day; at four o'clock in the morning and at two in the afternoon. Then we shall be warm. You are to fetch the water from the spout in the yard and fill the kettles before breakfast. See that you do it all neatly and on time."
"Yes, uncle," said John, glad to have something to think about.
"You will start to-morrow morning to school and after school you will saw the wood for the stove."
"Yes, uncle," said John, again.
He helped his uncle so cheerfully to get the supper and put away the dishes, that the old man looked at him with kinder eyes than John had ever noticed in him before.
"We shall get on," the uncle said, as John went off to bed.