Gateway to the Classics: The Seven Sisters by Jane Andrews
The Seven Sisters by  Jane Andrews

Louise, the Child of the Beautiful River Rhine

HAVE you heard of the beautiful River Rhine—how at first it hides, a little brook among the mountains and dark forests, and then steals out into the sunshine, and leaps down the mountain-side, and hurries away to the sea, growing larger and stronger as it runs, curling and eddying among the rocks, and sweeping between the high hills where the grape-vines grow and the solemn old castles stand?

How people come from far and near to see and to sail upon the beautiful river! And the children who are so blessed as to be born near it, and to play on its shores through all the happy young years of their lives, although they may go far away from it in the after years, never, never forget the dear and beautiful River Rhine.

It is only a few miles away from the Rhine— perhaps too far for you to walk, but not too far for me—that we shall find a fine large house; a house with pleasant gardens about it, broad gravel walks, and soft, green grass-plats to play upon, and gay flowering trees and bushes, while the rose-vines are climbing over the piazza, and opening rose-buds are peeping in at the chamber windows.

Isn't this a pleasant house? I wish we could all live in as charming a home, by as blue and lovely a river, and with as large and sweet a garden; or, if we might have such a place for our school, how delightful it would be!

Here lives Louise, my blue-eyed, sunny-haired little friend; and here in the garden she plays with Fritz and sturdy little Gretchen. And here, too, at evening the father and mother come to sit on the piazza among the roses; and the children leave their games, to nestle together on the steps while the dear brother Christian plays softly and sweetly on his flute.

Louise is a motherly child, already eight years old, and always willing and glad to take care of the younger ones; indeed, she calls Gretchen her  baby, and the little one loves dearly her child-mamma.

They live in this great house, and they have plenty of toys and books, and plenty of good food, and comfortable little beds to sleep in at night; although, like Jeannette's, they are only neat little boxes built against the side of the wall.

But near them, in the valley, live the poor people, in small, low houses; they eat black bread, wear coarse clothes, and even the children must work all day that they may have food for to-morrow.

The mother of Louise is a gentle, loving woman; she says to her children: "Dear children, to-day we are rich, we can have all that we want; but we will not forget the poor. You may some day be poor yourselves; and, if you learn now what poverty is, you will be more ready to meet it when it comes." So, day after day, the great stove in the kitchen is covered with stew-pans and kettles, in which are cooking dinners for the sick and the poor; and day after day, as the dinner-hour draws near, Louise will come, and Fritz, and even little Gretchen, saying, "Mother, may I go?" "May I go?" and the mother answers: "Dear children, you shall all go together"; and she fills the bowls and baskets, and sends her sunny-hearted children down into the valley to old Hans the gardener, who has been lame with rheumatism so many years; and to young Marie, the pale, thin girl, who was so merry and rosy-cheeked in the vineyard a year ago; and to the old, old woman with the brown wrinkled face and bowed head, who sits always in the sunshine before the door, and tries to knit; but the needles drop from the poor trembling hands, and the stitches slip off, and she cannot see to pick them up. She is too deaf to hear the children as they come down the road; and she is nodding her poor old head, and feeling about in her lap for the lost needle, when Louise, with her bright eyes, spies it, picks it up, and before the old woman knows she has come, a soft little hand is laid in the brown, wrinkled one, and the little girl is shouting in her ear, that she has brought some dinner from mamma. It makes a smile shine in the old half-blind eyes. It is always the happiest part of the day to her when the dear little lady comes with her dinner. And it made Louise happy too, for nothing repays us so well as what we do unselfishly for others.

These summer days are full of delight for the children. It is not all play for them, to be sure; but then, work is often even more charming than play, as I think some little girls know when they have been helping their mothers,—running of errands, dusting the furniture, and sewing little squares of patchwork that the baby may have a cradle-quilt made entirely by her little sister.

Louise can knit, and, indeed, every child and woman in that country knits. You would almost laugh to see how gravely the little girl takes out her stocking, for she has really begun her first stocking; and sits on the piazza-steps for an hour every morning at work. Then the little garden, which she calls her own, must be weeded. The gardener would gladly do it; but Louise has a hoe of her own, which her father bought in the spring, and, bringing it to his little daughter, said, "Let me see how well my little girl can take care of her own garden." And the child has tried very hard: sometimes, it is true, she would let the weeds grow pretty high before they were pulled up; but, on the whole, the garden promises well, and there are buds on her moss-rose bush. It is good to take care of a garden; for, besides the pleasure the flowers can bring us, we learn how watchful we must be to root out the weeds, and how much trimming and care the plants need: so we learn how to watch over our own hearts.

She has books, too, and studies a little each day,—studies at home with her mother, for there is no school near enough for her to go to it; and while she and Fritz are so young, their mother teaches them: while Christian, who is already more than twelve years old, has gone to the school upon that beautiful hill which can be seen from Louise's chamber window,—the school where a hundred boys and girls are studying music. For, ever since he was a baby, Christian has loved music; he has sung the very sweetest little songs to Louise, while she was yet so young as to lie in her cradle; and he has whistled until the birds among the bushes would answer him again; and now, when he comes home from school to spend some long summer Sunday, he always brings the flute, and plays, as I told you in the beginning of the story.

When the summer days are over, what comes next? You do not surely forget the autumn, when the leaves of the maples turn crimson and yellow, and the oaks are red and brown, and you scuff your feet along the path ankle-deep in fallen leaves.

On the banks of the Rhine the autumn is not quite like ours. You shall see how our children of the great house will spend an autumn day.

Their father and mother have promised to go with them to the vineyards as soon as the grapes are ripe enough for gathering, and on this sunny September morning the time has really come.

In the great covered baskets are slices of bread and German sausage, bottles of milk and of beer, and plenty of fresh and delicious prunes; for the prune orchards are loaded with ripe fruit. This is their dinner, for they will not be home until night.

Oh, what a charming day for the children! Little Gretchen is rolling in the grass with delight, while Louise runs to bring her own little basket, in which to gather grapes.

They must ride in the broad old family carriage, for the little ones cannot walk so far; but, when they reach the river, they will take a boat with white sails, and go down to where the steep steps and path lead up on the other side, up the sunny green bank to the vineyard, where already the peasant girls have been at work ever since sunrise. Here the grapes are hanging in heavy, purple clusters; the sun has warmed them through and through, and made them sweet to the very heart. Oh, how delicious they are, and how beautiful they look, heaped up in the tall baskets, which the girls and women are carrying on their heads! How the children watch these peasant-girls, all dressed in neat little jackets, and many short skirts one above another, red and blue, white and green. On their heads are the baskets of grapes; and they never drop nor spill them, but carry them steadily down the steep, narrow path to the great vats, where the young men stand on short ladders to reach the top, and pour in the purple fruit. Then the grapes are crushed till the purple juice runs out; and that is wine,—such wine as even the children may drink in their little silver cups, for it is even better than milk. You may be sure that they have some at dinner-time, when they cluster round the flat rock below the dark stone castle, with the warm noonday sun streaming across their mossy table; and the mother opens the basket and gives to every one a share.

Below them is the river, with its boats and beautiful shining water; behind them are the vine-covered walls of that old castle, where two hundred years ago lived armed knights and stately ladies; and all about them is the rich September air, full of the sweet fragrance of the grapes, and echoing with the songs and laughter of the grape-gatherers. On their rocky table are purple bunches of fruit, in their cups the new wine-juice, and in their hearts all the joy of the merry grape season.

There are many days like this in the autumn; but the frost will come at last, and the snow too. This is winter; but winter brings the best pleasure of all.

When two weeks of the winter had nearly passed, the children, as you may suppose, began to think of Christmas; and, indeed, their best and most loving friend had been preparing for them the sweetest of Christmas presents. Ten days before Christmas it came, however. Can you guess what it was? Something for all of them,—something which Christian will like just as well as little Gretchen will, and the father and mother will perhaps be more pleased than any one else.

Do you know what it is? What do you think of a little baby brother,—a little round, sweet, blue-eyed baby brother as a Christmas present for them all?

When Christmas Eve came, the mother said: "The children must have their Christmas-tree in my room, for baby is one of the presents; and I don't think I can let him be carried out and put upon the table in the hall, where we had it last year."

So all day long the children are kept away from their mother's room. Their father comes home with his great coat-pockets very full of something, but, of course, the children don't know what. He comes and goes, up stairs and down; and, while they are all at play in the snow, a fine young fir-tree is brought in and carried up. Louise knows it, for she picked up a fallen branch upon the stairs; but she doesn't tell Fritz and Gretchen.

How they all wait and long for the night to come! They sit at the windows, watching the red sunset light upon the snow, and cannot think of playing or eating their supper. The parlor-door is open, and all are waiting and listening. A little bell rings, and in an instant there is a scampering up the broad stairs to the door of mother's room; again the little bell rings, and the door is opened wide by their father, who stands hidden behind it.

At the foot of their mother's white-curtained bed stands the little fir-tree; tiny candles are burning all over it like little stars, and glittering golden fruits are hanging among the dark-green branches. On the white-covered table are laid Fritz's sword and Gretchen's big doll, they being too heavy for the tree to hold. Under the branches Louise finds charming things; such a little work-box as it is a delight to see, with a lock and key, and inside, thimble and scissors, and neat little spools of silk and thread. Then there are the fairy stories of the old Black Forest, and that most charming of all little books, "The White Cat;" an ivory cup and ball for Fritz. Do you remember where the ivory comes from? And, lest baby Hans should think himself forgotten, there is an ivory rattle for him.

There he lies in the nurse's arms, his blue eyes wide open with wonder; and in a minute the children, with arms full of presents, have gathered round the old woman's arm-chair,—gathered round the best and sweetest little Christmas present of all. And the happy mother, who sits up among the pillows taking her supper, while she watches her children, forgets to eat, and leaves the gruel to grow cold; but her heart is warm enough.

Why is not Christian here to-night? In the school of music, away on the hill, he is singing a grand Christmas hymn, with a hundred young voices to join him. It is very grand and sweet, full of thanks and of love. It makes the little boy feel nearer to all his loved ones; and in his heart he is thanking the dear Father who has given them that best little Christmas present,—the baby.

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