W HEN the children came into the kitchen the next morning, they found their new friend beating mush and milk together for their breakfast, and there was a smell of coffee in the air.
"Sit right down and eat," said she, pushing a stool toward the table with her foot. "I've milked the goats for you. They didn't give much, poor things, and it's no wonder, after such a day as they had yesterday! The wonder is that they gave any at all. I've made coffee for you, for you've a long day ahead of you, and it will cheer up your insides. It's a lucky thing for you the day is so fine. I thought I heard it rain in the night, but old Pilatus' head has no cloud cap this morning, and he is a good weather prophet."
The baby was already seated in her high chair at the table, beating upon it with a spoon to welcome them, and the children were soon seated beside her putting away a great store of the good mush. The farmer's wife had no one but the baby to talk to during the long days when her husband was away, and she made the most of her time while the children were with her. She told them all about her cows and her pigs and her chickens, just how much hay her husband brought down from his highland meadow on his back the previous summer, and how many cheeses he expected to bring home from the alp at the end of the season. And when at last they had eaten all they could, she put up a lunch for them, and gave them full directions for reaching their own village.
"It's not hard at all," said she, "for though it is still a long way to the foot of the mountain, you've only to follow the road, and if you don't know which turn to take at a cross-roads, there'll always be somebody to ask somewhere along the way. If you could get so far down the mountain and across the glacier by yourselves you've nothing to fear now, and you'd better make all the speed you can, for my heart bleeds for your poor mother. She must be half dead with anxiety by now."
She kissed them good-bye at the door and stood with her baby on her arm, gazing after them when they drove the goats out of the door-yard and started down the highway toward their home. They did not forget to thank their kind hostess, and after they had started turned again and again to wave a farewell to her. She waved to them in return, and the baby also fluttered her tiny pink hand until they were quite out of sight.
"We'll never forget her, shall we?" said Leneli.
"Never," answered Seppi, fervently. "She's almost as good as Mother! And doesn't she make good pancakes, though?"
They set their faces northward and trudged along, hurrying rather than slacking their speed as the miles lengthened behind them, for as the distance between them and their home shortened, their eagerness to get there increased. It was a good twelve miles from the farm-house where they had spent the night to their own village, and a mile this side of the village and a mile up the mountain-slope was their own dear home. This, to the sturdy Swiss boy and girl, brought up in the mountains, was not a hard walk, but they knew that goats must not be driven too fast if they are expected to give any milk, so it was late afternoon before the cavalcade reached the foot of their own hill-side and began the last climb of the weary journey.
The children could see their own roof, weighted down by stones, peeping over the edge of the hill long before they were anywhere near it, and they fastened their homesick eyes upon it as a sailor fixes his upon the North Star at sea. Now they could see the whole house, with the goat-shed and cow-stables back of it, the straw-stack, and the southern slope of the garden.
They strained their eyes for a glimpse of their mother, but there was no movement to be seen anywhere about the place. Even the breeze had died down, so there was not so much as a flutter among the trees as they drew nearer and nearer. At last, unable to hold themselves back longer, they broke into a run and came dashing into the yard with all the goat-bells jingling, Bello barking, and their own voices raised in a joyful shout: "Mother, Mother, where are you? We're home!"
But to their surprise and great disappointment, there was no answer. The house was as still as if it were asleep. Leaving the goats to Bello, the children dashed into the kitchen. There was no one there, and there was no sound but the loud tick-tock of the cuckoo clock. They dashed upstairs to the bedrooms and back again to the kitchen. Everywhere silence.
"It's just as if the house were dead when Mother isn't in it," sobbed Leneli. "Where can she be? And Roseli too!"
"Roseli is where Mother is, you may be sure," said Seppi.
They ran outdoors again, and found Bello barking madly at Nanni, who was having a blissful time with the carrot-tops, which she refused to leave even when Bello, who knew very well she shouldn't be in the garden at all, nipped at her heels.
"We'll have to shut up the goats," said Seppi, as he ran to Bello's assistance.
They drove them into the shed, gave them some hay, and then rested their weary legs for a moment, sitting on the kitchen steps, while they considered what to do next.
Then an awful thought struck Leneli. "The avalanche!" she gasped. "Maybe she was caught by it!"
Seppi grew pale and gulped down a sob. "No," he said, when after a moment he could speak. "I don't believe it! There's no sign of the avalanche about here, and Mother never goes away from home. She's trying to find us; that's what she's doing!"
Leneli collapsed on the step. "Oh, Seppi," she cried, "do you suppose she's lost on the mountain just as we've found ourselves and got home again?" The thought was too much for her, and she sobbed afresh.
"Well," said Seppi, "crying won't do any good. Let's go and see if we can find her."
Weary as they were, they started at once to their feet to begin this new quest, even though the shadows were long across the flower-starred mountain-slopes and the sun was already sinking toward the west.
As they rounded the corner of the house, Seppi gave a joyful shout and pointed up the goat-path toward the mountain. There, a long distance off, they saw their mother coming toward them with Baby Roseli in her arms! Even at that distance they could see that she looked weary and sad, for her head drooped and her step was slow.
All their own weariness vanished like magic at sight of her, and with a shout that waked the echoes on old Pilatus they bounded up the path to meet her.
She heard the shout, and shading her eyes with her hand, looked eagerly in the direction of the sound, and in another minute mother and children were clasped in each other's arms, while Baby Roseli crowed with delight from a nest in the midst of grass and flowers where she had been suddenly deposited.
For a moment they gave themselves up to the joy of reunion, then Seppi said proudly: "We brought the goats safely home, Mother. They are all in the shed."
"I thought you had been swallowed up by the avalanche," sobbed their mother, clasping them again to her heart. "All the men of the village are now up the mountain-side searching for you and trying to break a fresh path to the goat-pastures. They must be told that you are safe."
She sprang to her feet, and started back up the path. Then she thought of Seppi's horn. "Blow," she cried, "blow Fritz's tune if you can. They all know it, and some of them are near enough to hear."
Seppi put the horn to his lips and blew. At first it was only a dismal squawk; then, though it sounded much like the crowing of a young rooster in imitation of an old one, he did manage to achieve the first few notes of Fritz's tune. Soon a head appeared above a rock far up the trail, then a whole man scrambled to the top of it and gazed earnestly at the little group in the path below.
Again Seppi sounded his horn, his mother flung out her apron like a flag of victory, and all of them, including Roseli, waved their arms so joyously that there was no mistaking the message. With an answering shout the man dropped out of sight again behind the rock, and a few moments later they saw him running down the hill-side toward the village.
Soon the church-bell was clanging joyfully from the belfry, carrying the news of the wanderers' safe return to every one within hearing distance. Bells from the adjoining village joined the clamor, and horns answering from distant crags told the glad news. The toilers on the mountain-side heard and rejoiced.
From the cliffs where the echoes lived came shout after shout, and soon the women of the village, who had been watching with the distracted mother and helping in the work of the men, came hurrying down the goat-path to welcome the wanderers and rejoice over their safe return. They were joined by one and another of the men as they returned from the mountain-side, until quite a group had gathered in the blossoming field to hear the children tell the story of their perilous adventures. They were standing thus when the sun dipped behind the western hills and the Angelus once more called the countryside to prayer. With grateful hearts and bowed heads, neighbors and friends gave thanks to God for his mercies, then scattered to their own firesides, leaving the happy mother and children together.
When they entered the kitchen of the old farm-house once more, the tiny wooden cuckoo hopped out of his tiny wooden door and shouted "cuckoo" seven times, and when they had eaten their supper, and the children sat beside the great stove telling their mother all over again about the old herdsman, and the eagle, and the farmer's wife, and all the other events of their three days on the mountain, the cuckoo waited fifteen whole minutes beyond the hour before he could make up his mind to remind them of bed-time. Then he stuck his head out once more and cried "cuckoo" quite hysterically eight times. Even then they lingered to talk about Father and Fritz far away in the high alps, and of how glad they were that they knew nothing of the dangers and anxieties they had just been through.
"Dear me!" said the mother, rising at last, "how fast the time goes when we are happy! It's long past your bed hour, and you must be very tired. We must stop talking this very minute!"
She sent the children upstairs, tucked them in bed, heard their prayers, and kissed them good-night. Then she came back to the kitchen, patted Bello, who was sound asleep on the doorstep, looked at the moon rising over the crest of Rigi, fastened the door, pulled up the weights to wind the clock, and, taking her candle, went upstairs to bed herself.
When at last the sound of her footsteps ceased, and the house was quiet for the night, the cuckoo stuck out his head and looked about the silent kitchen. The moonlight streamed in at the eastern window, the little mouse was creeping from her hole, and the shadows were whispering together in corners.
"On the whole," said the cuckoo to himself, "I think I've managed this thing very well. Every one is happy again, and now I can take a little rest myself. The past three days have been very wearying to one with my responsibilities."
"Cuckoo," he called nine times, then the tiny wooden door clapped shut, and he too went to sleep.