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, siting 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.