Louise, the Child of the Western Forest
THERE are many things happening in this world, dear children,—things that happen to you yourselves day after day, which you are too young to understand at the time. By and by, when you grow to be as old as I am, you will remember and wonder about them all.
Now, it was just one of these wonderful things, too great for the young children to understand, that happened to our little Louise and her brothers and sister when the Christmas time had come around again, and the baby was more than a year old.
It was a cold, stormy night; there were great drifts of snow, and the wind was driving it against the windows. In the beautiful great parlor, beside the bright fire, sat the sweet, gentle mother, and in her lap lay the stout little Hans. The children had their little chairs before the fire, and watched the red and yellow flames, while Louise had already taken out her knitting-work.
They were all very still; for their father seemed sad and troubled, and the children were wondering what could be the matter. Their mother looked at them and smiled; but, after all, it was only a sad smile. I think it is hardest for the father, when he can no longer give to wife and children their pleasant home; but, if they can be courageous and happy when they have to give it up, it makes his heart easier and brighter.
"I must tell the children
So the father told to his wondering little ones that he had lost all his money; the beautiful great house and gardens were no longer his; and they must all leave their pleasant home near the Rhine, and cross the great, tossing ocean, to find a new home among the forests or the prairies.
As you may suppose, the children didn't fully understand this. I don't think you would yourself. You would be quite delighted with the packing and moving, and the pleasant journey in the cars, and the new and strange things you would see on board the ship; and it would be quite a long time before you could really know what it was to lose your own dear home.
So the children were not sad; you know their mother said they would not be. But when they were safely tucked up in their little beds, and tenderly kissed by the most loving lips, Louise could not go to sleep for thinking of this strange moving, and wondering what they should carry, and how long they should stay. For she had herself once been on a visit to her uncle in the city, carrying her clothes in a new little square trunk, and riding fifty miles in the cars, and she thought it would be quite a fine thing that they should all pack up trunks full of clothing, and go together on even a longer journey.
A letter had been written to tell Christian, and the next day he came home from the school. His uncles in the city begged him to stay with them, but the boy said earnestly, "If my father must cross the sea, I too must go with him."
They waited only for the winter's cold to pass away; and when the first robins began to sing among the naked trees, they had left the fine large house,—left the beautiful gardens where the children used to play; left the great, comfortable arm-chairs and sofas, the bookcases and tables, and the little beds beside the wall. Besides their clothes, they had taken nothing with them but two great wooden chests full of beautiful linen sheets and table-cloths. These had been given to the mother by her mother long ago, before any of the children were born; and they must be carried to the new home. You will see, by and by, how glad the family all were to have them.
Did you ever go on board a ship? It is almost like a great house upon the water; but the rooms in it are very small, and so are the windows. Then there is the long deck, where we may walk in the fresh air, and watch the water and the sea-birds, or the sailors at work upon the high masts among the ropes, and the white sails that spread out like a white bird's wings, and sweep the ship along over the water.
It was in such a ship that our children found themselves, with their father and mother, when the snow was gone and young grass was beginning to spring up on the land. But of this they could see nothing, for in a day they had flown on the white wings far out over the water; and as Louise clung to her father's hand and stood upon the deck at sunset, she saw only water and sky all about on every side, and the red clouds of the sunset. It was a little sad, and quite strange to her; but her younger brothers and sisters were already asleep in the small beds of the ship, which, as perhaps you know, are built up against the wall, just as their beds were at home. Louise kissed her father, and went down, too, to bed, for you must know that on board ship you go down stairs to bed instead of up stairs. After all, if father, mother, brother, and sister can still cling to each other and love each other, it makes little difference where they are; for love is the best thing in the universe, and nothing is good without it.
They lived for many days in the ship; and the children, after a little time, were not afraid to run about the deck and talk with the sailors, who were always very kind to them. And Louise felt quite at home sitting in her little chair beside the great mast, while she knit upon her stocking,—a little stocking now, one for the baby.
Christian had brought his flute, and at night he played to them as he used at home; and, indeed, they were all so loving and happy together that it was not much sorrow to lose the home while they kept each other.
Sometimes a hard day would come, when the clouds swept over them, and the rain and the great waves tossed the ship, making them all sick, and sad too, for a time; but the sun was sure to come out at last, as I can assure you it always will, and, on the whole, it was a pleasant journey for them all.
It was a fine, sunny May-day when they reached the land again. No time, though, for them to go Maying, for only see how much is to be done! Here are all the trunks and the linen-chests, and all the children, too, to be disposed of; and they are to stop but two days in this city. Then they must be ready for a long journey in the cars and steamboats, up rivers and across lakes, and sometimes for miles and miles through woods, where they see no houses nor people, excepting here and there a single log cabin with two or three ragged children at play outside, or a baby creeping over the doorstep; while farther on, among the trees stands a man with his axe, cutting, with heavy blows, some tall trees into such logs as those of which the house is built.
These are new and strange sights to the children of the River Rhine. They wonder, and often ask their parents if they, too, shall live in a little log house like that.
How fresh and fragrant the new logs are for the dwelling, and how sweet the pine and spruce boughs for a bed! A good new log house in the green woods is the best home in the world.
Oh, how heartily tired they all are when at last they stop! They have been riding by day and by night. The children have fallen asleep with heads curled down upon their arms upon the seats of the car, and the mother has had very hard work to keep little Hans contented and happy. But here at last they have stopped. Here is the new home.
They have left the cars at a very small town. It has ten or twelve houses and one store; and they have taken here a great wagon with three horses to carry them yet a few miles farther to a lonely, though beautiful place. It is on the edge of a forest. The trees are very tall, their trunks moss-covered; and when you look far in among them, it is so dark that no sunlight seems to fall on the brown earth. But out here is sunshine, and the young spring grass and wild flowers, different from those which grow on the Rhine banks.
But where is their house?
Here is indeed something new for them. It is almost night; no house is near, and they have no sleeping-place but the great wagon. But their cheerful mother packs them all away in the back part of the wagon, on some straw, covering them with shawls as well as she can, and bids them good-night, saying, "You can see the stars whenever you open your eyes."
It is a new bed and a hard one. However, the children are tired enough to sleep well; but they woke very early, as you or I certainly should if we slept in the great concert-hall of the birds. Oh, how those birds of the woods did begin to sing, long before sunrise! And Christian was out from his part of the bed in a minute, and off four miles to the store, to buy some bread for breakfast.
An hour after sunrise he was back again, and Louise had gathered sticks, of which her father made a bright fire. And now the mother is teaching her little daughter how to make tea, and Fritz and Gretchen are poking long sticks into the ashes to find the potatoes which were hidden there to roast.
To them it is a beautiful picnic, like those happy days in the grape season; but Louise can see that her mother is a little grieved at having them sleep in the wagon with no house to cover them. And when breakfast is over she says to the father that the children must be taken back to the village to stay until the house is built. He, too, had thought so; and the mother and children go back to the little town.
Christian alone stays with his father, working with his small axe as his father does with the large one; but to both it is very hard work to cut trees; because it is something they have never done before. They do their best; and when he is not too tired, Christian whistles to cheer himself.
After the first day, a man is hired to help, and it is not a great while before the little house is built,—built of great, rough logs, still covered with brown bark and moss. All the cracks are stuffed with moss to keep out the rain and cold, and there is one window and a door.
It is a poor little house to come to after leaving the grand old one by the Rhine, but the children are delighted when their father comes with the great wagon to take them to their new home.
And into this house one summer night they come,—without beds, tables, or chairs; really with nothing but the trunks and linen-chests. The dear old linen-chests, see only how very useful they have become! What shall be the supper-table for this first meal in the new house? What but the largest of the linen-chests, round which they all gather, some sitting on blocks of wood, and the little ones standing! And after supper what shall they have for beds? What but the good old chests again! For many and many a day and night they are used; and the mother is, over and over again, thankful that she brought them.
As the summer days go by, the children pick berries in the woods and meadows; and Fritz is feeling himself a great boy when his father expects him to take care of the old horse, blind of one eye, bought to drag the loads of wood to market.
Louise is learning to love the grand old trees where the birds and squirrels live. She sits for hours with her work on some mossy cushion under the great waving boughs; and she is so silent and gentle that the squirrels learn to come very near her, turning their heads every minute to see if she is watching, and almost laughing at her with their sharp, bright eyes; while they are cramming their cheeks full of nuts,—not to eat now, you know, but to carry home to the storehouses in some comfortable hollow trees, to be saved for winter use. When the snow comes, you see, they will not be able to find any nuts.
One day Louise watched them, until she suddenly thought, "Why don't we, too, save nuts for the winter?" and the next day she brought a basket and the younger children, instead of her knitting-work. They frightened away the squirrels, to be sure, but they carried home a fine large basketful of nuts.
Oh, how much might be seen in those woods on a summer day!—birds, and flowers, and such beautiful moss! I have seen it myself, so soft and thick, better than the softest cushion to sit on, and then so lovely to look at, with its long, bright feathers of green.
Sometimes Louise has seen the quails going out for a walk; the mother with her seven babies all tripping primly along behind her, the wee, brown birds, and all running, helter-skelter, in a minute, if they hear a noise among the bushes, and hiding, each one, his head under a broad leaf, thinking, poor little foolish things, that no one can see them!
Christian whistles to the quails a long, low call; they will look this way and that and listen, and at last really run towards him without fear.
Before winter comes, the log house is made more comfortable: beds and chairs are bought, and a great fire burns in the fireplace. But, do the best they can the rain will beat in between the logs; and, after the first snow-storm one night, a white pointed drift is found on the breakfast-table. They laugh at it, and call it ice-cream; but they almost feel more like crying, with cold blue fingers, and toes, that even the warm knit stockings can't keep comfortable. Never mind, the swift snow-shoes will make them skim over the snow-crust like birds flying, and the merry sled-rides that brother Christian will give them will make up for all the trouble. They will soon love the winter in the snowy woods.
Their clothes, too, are all wearing out. Fritz comes to his mother with great holes in his jacket-sleeves, and poor Christian's knees are blue and frost-bitten through the torn trousers. What shall be done?
Louise brings out two old coats of her father's. Christian is wrapped in one from head to foot; and Fritz looks like the oddest little man with his great coat muffled around him, crossed in front and buttoned around behind, while the long sleeves can be turned back almost to his shoulders. Funny enough he looks; but it makes him quite warm, and in this biting wind who would think of the looks? So our little friend is to drive poor old Major to town with a sled-load of wood every day, while his father and brother are cutting trees in the forest.
Should you laugh to see a boy so dressed coming up the street with a load of wood? Perhaps you wouldn't if you knew how cold he would be without this coat, and how much he hopes to get the half-dollar for his wood, and bring home bread and meat for supper.
How wise the children grow in this hard work and hard life! Fritz feels himself a little man; and Louise, I am sure, is as useful as many a woman, for she is learning to cook and tend the fire, while even Gretchen has some garters to knit, and takes quite good care of the baby.
Little Hans will never remember the great house by the Rhine; he was too little when they came away; but by and by he will like to hear stories about it, which, you may be sure, Louise will often tell her little brother.
The winter is the hardest time. When Christmas comes there is not even a tree; for there are no candles to light one and no presents to give. But there is one beautiful gift which they may and do all give to each other; it makes them happier than many toys or books: it is love. It makes even this cold, dreary Christmas bright and beautiful to them.
Next winter will not be so hard: for in the spring corn will be planted, and plenty of potatoes and turnips and cabbages; and they will have enough to eat and something to sell for money.
But I must not stay to tell you more now of the backwoods life of Louise and her brothers and sister. If you travel some day to the West, perhaps you will see her yourself, gathering her nuts under the trees, or sitting in the sun on the door-step with her knitting. Then you will know her for the little sister who has perhaps come closest to your heart, and you will clasp each other's hands in true affection.