The Little Mountain Maiden
I WANT you to look at the picture on the opposite page. It is a little deer: its name is the chamois. Do you see what delicate horns it has, and what slender legs, and how it seems to stand on that bit of rock, and lift its head to look in your face?
Last summer I saw a little chamois like that, and just as small: it was not alive, but cut or carved of wood,—such a graceful, pretty little plaything as one does not meet every day.
Would you like to know who made it, and where it came from?
It was made in the mountain country, by the brother of my good Jeannette, the little Swiss maiden.
Here among the high mountains she lives with her father, mother, and brothers; and far up among those high snowy peaks, which are seen behind the house, the chamois live, many of them together, eating the tender grass and little pink-colored flowers, and leaping and springing away over the ice and snow when they see the men coming up to hunt them.
I will tell you by and by how it happened that Jeannette's tall brother Joseph carved this tiny chamois from wood. But first you must know about this small house upon the great hills, and how they live up there so near the blue sky.
One would think it might be easier for a child to be good and pure so far up among the quiet hills, and that there God would seem to come close to the spirit, even of a little girl or boy.
On the sides of the mountains tall trees are growing: pine and fir trees, which are green in winter as well as in summer. If you go into the woods in winter, you will find that almost all the trees have dropped their pretty green leaves upon the ground, and are standing cold and naked in the winter wind; but the pines and the firs keep on their warm green clothes all the year round.
It was many years ago, before Jeannette was born, that her father came to the mountains with his sharp axe and cut down some of the fir-trees. Other men helped him; and they cut the great trees into strong logs and boards, and built of them the house of which I have told you. Now he will have a good home of his own, for as long as he likes to live there; and to it will come his wife and children as God shall send them, to nestle among the hills.
Then he went down to the little town at the foot of the mountain, and when he came back, he was leading a brown, long-eared donkey; and upon that donkey sat a rosy-cheeked young woman, with smiling brown eyes, and long braids of brown hair hanging below a little green hat set on one side of her head, while beautiful rose-colored carnations peeped from beneath it on the other side. Who was this? It wasn't Jeannette: you know I told you this was before she was born. Can you guess, or must I tell you that it was the little girl's mother? She had come up the mountain for the first time to her new home,—the house built of the fir and the pine,—where after awhile were born Jeannette's two tall brothers, and at last Jeannette herself.
It was a good place to be born in. When she was a baby she used to lie on the short, sweet grass before the doorstep, and watch the cows and the goats feeding, and clap her little hands to see how rosy the sunset made the snow that shone on the tops of those high peaks. And the next summer, when she could run alone, she picked the blue-eyed gentians, thrusting her small fingers between their fringed eyelids, and begging them to open and look at little Jean; and she stained her wee hands among the strawberries, and pricked them with the thorns of the long raspberry-vines, when she went with her mother in the afternoon to pick the sweet fruit for supper. Ah, she was a happy little thing! Many a fall she got over the stones or among the brown moss, and many a time the clean frock that she wore was dyed red with the crushed berries; but, oh, how pleasant it was to find them in great patches on the mountain-side, where the kind sun had warmed them into such delicious life! I have seen the children run out of school to pick such sweet wild strawberries, all the recess-time, up in the fields of Maine; and how happy they were with their little stained fingers as they came back at the call of the bell!
In the black bog-mud grew the Alpen roses, and her mother said, "Do not go there, my little daughter: it is too muddy for you." But at night, when her brother came home from the chamois hunt, he took off his tall, pointed hat, and showed his little sister the long spray of roses twisted round it, which he had brought for her. He could go in the mud with his thick boots, you know, and never mind it.
Here they live alone upon the mountain: there are no near neighbors. At evening they can see the blue smoke curling from the chimney of one house that stands behind that sunny green slope, a hundred yards from their door, and they can always look down upon the many houses of the town below, where the mother lived when she was young.
Many times has Jeannette wondered how the people lived down there,—so many together; and where their cows could feed, and whether there were any little girls like herself, and if they picked berries, and had such a dear old black nanny-goat as hers, that gave milk for her supper, and now had two little black kids, its babies. She didn't know about those little children in Maine, and that they have little kids and goats, as well as sweet red berries, to make the days pass happily.
She wanted to go down and see some day; and her father promised that, when she was a great girl, she should go down with him on market-days, to sell the goat's-milk cheeses and the sweet butter that her mother made.
When the cows and goats have eaten all the grass near the house, her father drives them before him up farther among the mountains, where more grass is growing, and there he stays with them many weeks; he does not even come home at night, but sleeps in a small hut among the rocks; where, too, he keeps the large clean milk-pails, and the little one-legged stool upon which he sits at morning and night to milk the cows and goats.
When the pails are full, the butter is to be made, and the cheese; and he works while the animals feed. The cows have little bells tied to their necks, that he may hear and find them, should they stray too far.
Many times, when he is away, does his little daughter at home listen, listen, while she sits before the door, to hear the distant tinkling of the cow-bells. She is a loving little daughter; and she thinks of her father so far away alone, and wishes he was coming home to eat some of the sweet strawberries and cream for supper.
Last summer some travellers came to the house. They stopped at the door and asked for milk: the mother brought them brimming bowlsfull, and the shy little girl crept up behind her mother with her birch-bark baskets of berries. The gentlemen took them and thanked her, and one told of his own little Mary, at home, far away over the great sea. Jeannette often thinks of her, and wonders whether her papa has gone home to her.
While the gentlemen talked, Jeannette's brother Joseph sat upon the broad stone door-step and listened. Presently one gentleman, turning to him, asked if he would come with them over the mountain to lead the way, for there are many wild places and high, steep rocks, and they feared to get lost.
Joseph sprang up from his low seat and said he would go; brought his tall hat and his mountain-staff, like a long, strong cane, with a sharp iron at the end, which he can stick into the snow or ice, if there is danger of slipping; and they went merrily on their way, over the green grass, over the rocks, far up among the snow and ice, and the frozen streams and rivers that pour down the mountain-sides.
Joseph was brave and gay: he led the way, singing aloud until the echoes answered from every hill-side. It makes one happy to sing; and when we are busy and happy we sing without thinking of it, as the birds do. When every thing is bright and beautiful in nature around us, we feel like singing aloud, and praising God who made the earth so beautiful; then the earth also seems to sing of God who made it, and the echo seems like its answer of praise. Did you ever hear the echo,—the voice that seems to come from a hill or a house far away, repeating whatever you may say? Among the mountains the echoes answer each other again and again. Jeannette has often heard them.
That night, while the mother and her little girl were eating their supper, the gentlemen came back again, bringing Joseph with them. He could not walk now, nor spring from rock to rock with his Alpen staff; he had fallen and broken his leg, and he must lie still for many days. But he could keep a cheerful face, and still sing his merry songs; and as he grew better, and could sit out again on the broad bench beside the door, he took his knife and pieces of fine wood, and carved beautiful things,—first a spoon for his little sister, with gentians on the handle; then a nice bowl, with a pretty strawberry-vine carved all about the edge. And from this bowl, and with this spoon, she ate her supper every night,—sweet milk, with the dry cakes of rye bread broken into it, and sometimes the red strawberries. I know his little sister loved him dearly, and thanked him in her heart every time she used the pretty things. How dearly a sister and brother can love each other!
Then he made other things,—knives, forks, and plates; and at last one day he sharpened his knife very sharp, chose a very nice, delicate piece of wood, and carved this beautiful chamois, just like a living one, only so small. My cousin, who was travelling there, bought it and brought it home.
When the summer had passed, the father came down from the high pastures; the butter and cheese making was over, and the autumn work was now to be done. Do you want to know what the autumn work was, and how Jeannette could help about it? I will tell you. You must know that a little way down the mountain-side is a grove of chestnut-trees. Did you ever see the chestnut-trees? They grow in our woods, and on the shores of some ponds. In the spring they are covered with long, yellowish blossoms, and all through the hot summer those blossoms are at work, turning into sweet chestnuts, wrapped safely in round, thorny balls, which will prick your fingers sadly if you don't take care. But when the frost of the autumn nights comes, it cracks open the prickly ball, and shows a shining brown nut inside; then, if we are careful, we may pull off the covering and take out the nut. Sometimes, indeed, there are two, three, or four nuts in one shell; I have found them so myself.
Now the autumn work, which I said I would tell you about, is to gather
these chestnuts and store them away,—some to be eaten, boiled or
roasted by the bright fire in the cold winter days that are coming;
and some to be nicely packed in great bags, and carried on the donkey
down to the town to be sold. The boys of New England, too, know what
good fun it is to gather nuts in the fall, and spread them over the
garret floor to dry, and at last to crack and eat them by the winter
hearth. So when the father says one night at supper-time, "It is
growing cold; I think there will be a frost
She has gone to bed early, that she may wake with the first daylight, and she is out of bed in a minute when she hears her father's cheerful call in the morning, "Come, children, it is time to be off."
Their dinner is packed in a large basket. The donkey stands ready before the door, with great empty bags hanging at each side; and they go merrily over the crisp white frost to the chestnut-trees. How the frost has opened the burrs! He has done more than half their work for them already. How they laugh and sing and shout to each other as they gather the smooth brown nuts, filling their baskets, and running to pour them into the great bags! It is merry autumn work. The sun looks down upon them through the yellow leaves, and the rocks give them mossy seats; while here and there comes a bird or a squirrel to see what these strange people are doing in their wood.
Jeannette declares that the chestnut days are the best in the year. Perhaps she is right. I am sure I should enjoy them; shouldn't you? She really helps, although she is but a little girl; and her father says at night that his little Jean is a dear, good child. It makes her very happy. She thinks of what he has said while she undresses at night, unbraiding her hair and unlacing her little blue bodice with its great white sleeves: and she goes peacefully to sleep, to dream again of the merry autumn days. And while she dreams good angels must be near her; for she said her sweet and reverent prayer on her knees, with a full and thankful heart to the All-Father who gave her so many blessings.
She is our little mountain sister. The mountain life is a fresh and happy one. I should like to stay with this little sister a long, long time.