L ITTLE Siegfried, the widow's son, climbed day by day up the hill which overlooked his mother's cottage, and rambled about on the top, running after birds and insects, and gathering the beautiful wild-flowers that grow on the Swiss Alps.
There the dark blue gentians and the Alpine rose, as it is called, and campanulas and salvias, are almost as common as the cowslips and daisies of English fields, and, from the brightness of their colours, make the hillsides look like gardens, instead of uncultivated ground.
Little Siegfried's father had been killed in battle, some months before his child's birth, and so, when he came into the world, he was cradled in tears instead of smiles; and what wonder if he grew up less thoughtless and gay than other boys of his age?
It was his mother who had first shown Siegfried where to climb the hill, and where to find the finest flowers; and had made him look at the hills still higher than their own, by which their valley was enclosed, and had pointed out to him Mont Blanc in the distance, looming like a shadowy giant in the sky.
For thus and thus had her husband shown her all these things, during the few happy months of their marriage, before he was called away to the wars; and on the same heights where the child now roamed after flowers, his parents had sat together among them, in quiet summer evenings, sometimes talking, sometimes reading, always praising God for the happiness He was permitting them to enjoy.
But having thus led her child to the spot so fondly endeared to herself, and bidden him rejoice in the sights and scenes of Nature, and told him of the protecting God of goodness who ruled over all, the widowed mother went back alone to her cottage, to weep out in secret her re-awakened grief.
Siegfried, meanwhile, amused himself on the flowery heights, his new playground; and after he had gathered for his mother the nosegay she had asked him to bring, he lay down on the soft turf, and looked round at the hills, and up to the snowy sides of the huge Mont Blanc, (of which he could see so much more here than down in the valley below,) till it took possession of his fancy as something wonderful and grand; something far beyond the flowers, bright and lovely as they were.
And ever afterwards, day by day, when he had had enough of chasing and rambling, he used to lie down in the same place, and look at the hills in the same way, that he might feel again what he had felt at first.
Yet he found no sameness in the sight. The clouds that sometimes lifted themselves up from, and at other times came down over, the mountain, were never quite alike. The shadows that flitted across it varied from day to day in their shape and size and course; and the sunshine that broke over it was of many different tints, and lit it up in a thousand different ways. At one time it was wrapt in a silvery haze; at another the air became so clear, that the child could see the glittering of the snow atoms, as they seemed to dance in and out, like the stars in the sky.
So Siegfried never wearied of watching the huge mountain, but got to love it more and more, with a love mixed with respectful awe, and a feeling as if it had some sort of life and consciousness.
At last, one day, when his mother was putting his little basket in his hand, that he might go on the hill as usual to play, he asked her if he might go to the top of Mont Blanc instead, and if she would show him the way.
It was no wonder that the good widow smiled, as she told him that neither he nor she were able to climb up such a terrible mountain. But she did smile; and although she noticed how the little face flushed over as she spoke, she thought, naturally enough, that this was because of his disappointment. So, kissing him lovingly, she said:
"You must be a great strong man, Siegfried, before you can scramble up the heights of Mont Blanc: and even for great strong men the way is very dangerous. And even if you were there, you would find nothing but cold and snow and misery; neither life nor flowers; our own hills are as pleasant again."
So Siegfried went away with his basket; but instead of running about and picking flowers, he threw himself at once upon the ground, and looked at the mountain, and cried, for he felt very sorry at what his mother had said. Presently, however, he wiped his eyes, and looked again; then sprang up and stared before him as if surprised.
All the distance was bathed in bright sunshine, and the air was more transparent than usual, and, lo! a round rosy-coloured patch was visible on the far-off snows. He had never seen it before. What could it be? He thought he knew; and running hastily down to the cottage, threw open the door, and shouted in delight, "Mother! there is a rose on Mont Blanc!"
Siegfried's mother did not laugh now, for she saw the child was excited; and she was grieved for him. Ah! he had only half the love that should have been his; she must console him as best she could; he was not like other boys, she knew—and thinking this, she took him on her knee, and tried to explain to him that it must be only some accidental light from the sky that caused the rosy patch, for that no vegetation of any kind grew on the sides of the snowy mountain; there could be no roses there; and she knew that it often looked pink in the evening sun—only now it was not evening.
Siegfried was silent for a few seconds, and hung down his head; but presently he murmured out, "Why?"
"Ah, Siegfried!" cried his mother, "is it not enough that God chooses it to be so? It is He who sends the everlasting snows there, and the flowery herbage here."
"I am very sorry for the mountain," persisted little
Siegfried, sadly; so sadly that his mother grieved for
the fanciful child, and asked should she go up with him
again to the hill, and see the rosy patch on the snow
herself? On which the smiles came back to Siegfried's
face, and they went away together very happily, and
with the basket as usual; for, said the mother, "You
came back empty-handed
But, by the time they reached the spot, heavy mists had come down over the landscape, and neither Mont Blanc nor its rosy patch could be seen. Even Siegfried laughed at the journey they had had for nothing, and, after filling his basket, was contented to return home; but in doing so, he began to talk again.
"If we had fewer flowers, Mother, we should be quite as happy, and then the great mountain could have some too. I wish God would make things equal."
"Hush, little Siegfried, hush!" cried his mother, in a half whisper; "God has a right to do what He pleases, and we must not dispute about it, nor wish it otherwise. He chooses that there shall be desolate places as well as pretty ones in the world; outcast ends of the earth, as it were, which nobody seems to care for, as well as happy valleys. I am afraid it is the same with human beings—men and women, I mean—which is much worse. I am afraid there are many outcast, God-deserted men, as well as desolate mountains. But you are too young to understand such things."
The mother sighed as she spoke. Verily, she did not understand such things herself.
And so they walked on a few steps farther, and then the boy began again,—
"At any rate, the top of the mountain is nearer Heaven than our hill, Mother. It goes right into the blue."
"No, no," cried the widow, passionately; "it only looks to be so. It is no nearer the real Heaven than we are. If it were, oh! would I not have gone there long ago, at the risk of life itself!"
The child looked very surprised at his mother; for she spoke in tones very unusual to her; and seeing how sad her face, he wondered to himself if she, also, were fretting that Mont Blanc was so miserable and forlorn.
And, snatching the nosegay from the basket, he flung the flowers as far into the air as he could, exclaiming, "There! I wish you had wings, and would fly away to the mountain, and make it look beautiful, too!"
Nothing more was spoken between them, but after little Siegfried had said his evening prayers, and gone to bed, and while the mother was sitting alone in the chamber below, she heard a sound of crying; and, going upstairs, found the boy in tears, the only account he could give of which was, that he could not help thinking about the poor outcast, God-deserted mountain.
Now, she had not called the mountain God-deserted. That was his own disturbed idea; a confusion he had got into from what his mother had said. But how hard this was to explain! How painful to touch the chords of a subject which jarred so cruelly against the natural hopes and faith of a gentle heart!
How difficult also for one who had known the stern realities of sorrow, to "feel along" the more delicate "line" of an infant's dreamy griefs!
He was soothed by degrees, however, and after she left him, her thoughts soon wandered away from what she felt to be his fanciful troubles about the desolate mountain, to her own struggles with her desolate heart.
The next day was Sunday, and Siegfried was able to walk to the somewhat distant church, and even to repeat a few of the prayers, and listen, now and then, to bits of the sermon, when his mother thought there was something he could understand, and drew his attention to it.
But on this particular day there was no need for her to call his attention to the preacher; nay, had she been able, she would have been very glad to have prevented his hearing him at all. But how could he help hearing, when the pastor, addressing his flock, asked if there was a single one, young or old, among them, who had not gazed hundreds and hundreds of times at the giant mountain of their land—the snow-covered, inaccessible heights of Mont Blanc?
Siegfried and his mother looked at each other, and his heart leapt within him, to think that now, at last, he should hear something about his mysterious friend; and, clasping his mother's hand tightly in his own, he listened for every word.
But alas! for what he heard. The pastor, after describing the mountain in all the magnificence of its size and form, painted it as being, nevertheless, the region of hopeless desolation; the abode of everlasting lifelessness and despair. Cold, hard, insensible, what could rouse it from its death-like torpor? The life-giving sun shone upon it from day to day, from age to age; but no influence from its rays ever penetrated that frozen bosom. The dews fell upon it, the storms burst over it, equally in vain. Unmoved, it lifted up its gloomy crest to Heaven, as if defying its very Maker to touch the stony depths and bid the waters flow, or warm and soften them into life and gladness!
Siegfried was already in tears, but what followed was still worse, for the pastor now called upon his congregation to consider whether there was not something in the moral world of which the insensible mountain was but the too faithful type? And then he answered himself. Yes!—the hardened human heart, the wicked natural heart, the Pharaoh-heart of the multitude, on which the sunshine of Divine Grace and the storms of Divine wrath were equally poured out in vain.
Yet, that "offences must needs come," he was well aware; that such God-deserted beings as he had spoken of, must come up and be cut down, he knew: "vessels of wrath appointed to destruction." But, oh! might none of the congregation now before him be of the number of those lost ones! Might all there present take warning henceforth, as they turned their eyes to the stiff-necked hill of their native country, and flee from the wrath of the Lamb! . . . .
Siegfried's sobs had by this time become so uncontrollable, that the neighbours were disturbed; and the widow thought the best thing she could do, was to rise up and leave the church with her child.
There was no use arguing with him; he was both too young and too much distressed; added to which, his mother was scarcely less pained by the stern words than he was.
She, too, could have wept to think of "vessels of wrath appointed to destruction," and longed to hope against hope for the world of her fellow-creatures. In the material world she had but little interest, for she knew but little about it, and had not sufficiently considered the text which says that "God's mercy is over all His works;" not limited to one class of creatures, or even to one sort of life.
Feeling as she did, therefore, she entered into no discussion with her boy, but through the home evening contrived to divert his mind, by reading him pleasant stories of good people who had lived in favour with God, and had died full of hope and peace.
Nevertheless, Siegfried's last thought, as he fell asleep, was not of comfort and joy in the righteous, but of pity and almost love for all the wretched things for whom there seemed no hope.
The next day, his mother would fain have persuaded him to remain below in the valley, and seek some new amusement, but finding she could not reconcile him to the idea of forsaking his favourite haunt, she gave way, though with a sigh; and so, after his little daily tasks and helps to her were ended, he climbed up the heights as usual.
It was well that he had promised his mother to tease her no more about the matter. Otherwise, on that day, he would have made more fuss than ever, for, when the sun was at the highest, the rosy flush re-appeared on the distant snow, only not now confined to one small patch, but spread in broad tracts of delicate colour, which threatened to cover the whole mountain with its Aurora-like tint.
Once or twice Siegfried's resolution to keep his promise nearly gave way, but he held out manfully even to the last, contenting himself, on his return into the valley, with enquiring of a neighbour's son, whom he met driving home his father's cattle, why some of the snow on the hills looked pink?
At first the boy said he didn't know, but presently he recollected that he had heard it said, that red snow fell sometimes out of the sky. Very likely that was it; but what it was, or what became of it, he had no notion. Only it went away as it came. Nothing ever stopped on the hill but the snow that was always there.
Hearing this, Siegfried had no longer even a wish to speak to his mother about it. She would say it was because the mountain was so cold and hard, no good thing, even from Heaven, could stay upon it!
And thus a day or two passed, and the tracts of rosy colour grew fainter, and finally disappeared, as the farmer's son had said was always the case; and Siegfried never spoke about it again, but sat on the hill-side daily, wondering and dreaming to himself.
But he was interrupted at last. One morning, when the snow looked colder and whiter than ever against the blue sky, and he had been sitting for a while, with his face hidden by his hands, a voice he did not know called to him, asking what he was doing. And when he lifted up his eyes, a stranger stood between him and Mont Blanc.
A child always answers "Nothing" to such a question, for children never feel thinking to be doing anything.
But the stranger would not be so easily satisfied, and smiling, persisted in his enquiries.
"What are you thinking of, then, little boy? One must be either doing or thinking while one is awake. And I want you to talk to me. I have come from such a long way off, and am so weary."
Here the stranger seated himself by Siegfried's side on the grass.
"First," continued he, "I want you to tell me, if you can, whether I can get to the town of ——, through the pretty valley here at the bottom of this hill? Then, I want you to tell me for whom you have picked this basket of flowers? Then, why you are on this wild hill-side alone? Then, what you think about when you cover up your face with your hands? Now, then, can I get to the town through the valley?"
The voice that asked was so good-natured, and the smile on the stranger's face so kind, that Siegfried was won at once, and looking full at his new friend, and smiling himself, nodded ascent to this first question.
"Does your nod always mean 'yes,' little boy?" asked the stranger, amused.
Siegfried nodded again.
"Very good. Now we understand each other. Will you answer my other questions?"
Siegfried gave another nod, and then they both laughed, and the stranger went on.
"For whom have you gathered the flowers?"
"For my mother."
"And why are you here alone?"
"What, alone? Why?"
"I have nobody else to play with."
"And what is it you think of when you sit with your face covered up?"
Siegfried's heart melted within him, and, pointing by a sorrowful nod to the giant mountain, he answered, "I think of it."
"Of it?" What can you find in it to think about?"
"I am so sorry for it!" cried little Siegfried, passionately; "so sorry it is so miserable and outcast, and that God will let nothing grow there, while we have all these flowers!"
And once more he tossed the flowers contemptuously out of the basket.
"Ah, little boy," said the stranger, putting his arm kindly around the child, and drawing himself nearer to him. "You must answer another question now. Who put such strange fancies into your heard? Who told you this about the poor mountain?"
"They all say so," murmured Siegfried. "The pastor preached about it on Sunday, and mother says so, too, and the farmer's son, and everybody; and I am so sorry, so very sorry!"
The young voice died away, as it were, in regret.
"And why do you care so much about the mountain, little boy?"
Siegfried looked up, puzzled, for a moment, but very soon out came the simple, child-like answer, "I look at it so much when I come up here to play."
It was the stranger's turn now to feel his eyes moisten, as he thought of the solitary child sending out his heart into the inanimate creation around him.
Extremely interested, therefore, he made a few more enquiries, and, by degrees, brought out a part, at any rate, of what Siegfried's mother and the pastor between them had told and taught of outcast countries and God-deserted men. All was confusion in the child's account, but the drift of it could easily be discovered.
Without making a single remark, however, the stranger smiled again, and said, quite cheerfully, "I will tell you a secret, little boy. Neither the pastor, nor your mother, nor the farmer's son were ever up the mountain, I suspect, so they cannot know very much about it."
"I wanted to go, but they would not let me," interposed Siegfried. "They said I was not able to get up."
"They said right," replied the stranger. "But I, you see, am older and stronger, and could go; and I have been."
Quietly as he purposely spoke, the effect of what he said was, as he expected, very great. Siegfried jumped up; then sat down; then once more started from his seat, and was far more anxious to run down the hill and tell his mother the news, than to remain quietly where he was, and hear what more the stranger had to tell. He allowed himself to be controlled, however, and his friend went on talking as if he had not been interrupted.
"And the place is neither lifeless nor deserted. God sends it the beautiful red snow plant instead of flowers. I have been gathering it for days."
As he spoke, he unfastened from the leathern strap that went across his shoulders a small tin box, and, opening it for a moment, let Siegfried peep at a bright carmine-coloured mass of something within.
The child was speechless at first, overpowered by admiration and delight, but presently exclaimed, "Then that was what I saw!" adding gently, "And it really came down from Heaven, then?" He was thinking of what the farmer's son had said.
"All good things come from Heaven, that is, from the God of Heaven," answered the stranger. "But this is as much a plant as the Alpine rose by your side. It did not drop down from the sky, but grows in the very snow itself, and covers over miles and miles of the hill you thought so desolate. God sends good things everywhere, though not everywhere alike."
Oh, the joy of such a doctrine! The simplest child could understand it, and be glad! All was explained now, too; the rosy patch and the broad tracts of colour were both accounted for, and Siegfried was as happy as he now believed the mountain to be. And, embracing his new friend, he forthwith began such a blundering account of what he, and his mother, and the farmer's boy, had thought about the rosy patch, that the stranger could do nothing but laugh, and at last stopped him by exclaiming:
"Then you see you were all wrong; but never mind. Take me to your mother's cottage, and we will tell her all about it, too, and I will show it to you both, for even you have not really seen it yet."
Siegfried's mother welcomed the friendly stranger whom her son brought to her door with all the heartiness of a Swiss welcome; and not the less when she found he was an English traveller, on his way to a neighbouring town to visit a well-known officer there, who had been deprived of a limb in the same action in which Siegfried's father had lost his life.
And as the town was but a few miles off, and the summer evenings so long, the stranger was easily persuaded to rest for a few hours in the Swiss cottage, and tell the widow and her son the history of his adventures on Mont Blanc, and of the red snow plant he had brought from it. Not that telling its history only would have been enough; nor was there anything either beautiful or wonderful-looking in the red, jelly-like mass in the tin box, when looked at only with the naked eye. The stranger had far more in store for them than that.
"I am going to show you," he began, at last, and after busying himself in unpacking that revealer of secrets, a microscope,—"that God has sent many more gracious things into the world than our natural eyes are able to see. Do you like to know this, little Siegfried?" he added, turning purposely to the child.
Siegfried nodded his heartiest nod of assent, and the widow said, with a smile, "You should have asked that question, Sir, of me. It is I who have not believed, because I did not see. He has had the instinct of the truth all along."
"Well, then, good Mother," replied the stranger, "you shall see and believe what will, I think, comfort you for life—namely, that God makes the very wilderness to burst forth and blossom like a rose: that there are no outcast ends of the earth, uncared for by Him; no desolate corners where His goodness is not shown forth."
As he spoke he finished the last adjustment of the microscope, and touching the red jelly in the tin box with the fine point of a porcupine's quill, he placed the tiny morsel so obtained in a glass, to be looked at, and called to Siegfried to have the first peep.
The widow, struck as she had been with the stranger's words, had her own doubts as to what there could be to be seen, for she had not been able to detect anything on the porcupine's quill, but she said nothing, and very soon Siegfried's shouts of delight announced that something, at any rate, was there.
And, truly, what there was, was a very pretty sight. Four or five bright little red balls, and two or three colourless ones among them, were lying like gems in the few drops of water which had been put in to keep them separate.
The child believed at once, but at the first moment the mother could scarcely credit what she saw. That this should be a bit of the shapeless stuff she had looked at in the tin box—it was marvellous indeed.
The stranger now proceeded to explain. He told them that each of the red balls was a perfect plant in itself. That it was a little colourless bag, finer than gold-beater's skin, filled with a red substance, which shone through. That, as soon as it was full grown, the red substance within divided into four, eight, and sometimes sixteen separate red balls, of course of the tiniest size possible, all which immediately began to grow very fast, and grew, and grew, and grew, till the little bag in which they lived could hold them no longer, but burst, and dropt them out.
"These," said he, "are the young plants; and when each of them is full grown, the same thing happens again. The red substance in each divides into other tiny balls, and, as these grow, they burst out from the parent bag, (called a cell, properly,) and begin life for themselves. And thus comes another generation of the ball-like plants, and so another and another; and all this so quickly, that, in a few hours, millions of them have sprung from a few single cells. So now, little Siegfried, you know why, when you looked the second time at the rosy patch, it had spread into those great broad tracts of colour which, in fact, covered over miles of the poor snow with its beauty. It was no wonder, was it?"
No, that was no wonder; but that such things were, of which so many people did not know, was a wonder from which the good widow could not easily recover. Besides, she was thinking of the pastor having made such a mistake.
As for Siegfried, he had not lived long enough to know why he should be so much surprised about the red snow plant; was it a bit more really strange than the growth of the Alpine rose, which astonished nobody? So his chief feeling was extreme delight at there being something on the mountain to make amends for its want of flowers.
"And now," said the stranger, "is there anything more you would like to ask?"
The mother was about to speak at once, but hesitated and drew back. She knew so little; she feared to seem so ignorant and foolish.
Reassured, however, she begged to be told how the marvellous plant could live amidst nothing but snow; could come up, and bring forth a thousand fold, with nothing to nourish and support it?
The stranger repeated the word "nothing" with a smile.
"Nothing, because we see nothing!"
"Ah, see what a bad habit is!" cried the mother. "I had forgotten already. Then you think there may be things I do not know of, in what we call the cold, barren snow?"
"Ay, ay," was the answer; "germs of life, hidden and buried, perhaps, for years; seeds scattered no one can tell how or when; and salts and chemical properties, needing only some accident of a sunbeam, or dew, or state of the very air, to make all work together, and the frozen surface to become moist, and the red snow plant to spring up by millions."
Here he paused, and seeing little Siegfried looking wistfully at him, as if trying to understand, he took him on his knee caressingly, and said, "That microscope is a very curious thing, is it not?"
The child nodded his "yes" as heartily as ever, and then laid his head, contentedly, on his friend's shoulder, while he went on talking.
"Yes; it is very curious, for it shows us quantities of things we could not see without it; but the best lesson it teaches is, how much more there may be of which, even with its help, we can see and know nothing; for, although there is a limit to our power of seeing God's works, no naturalist dares to think he has reached the limits of the works themselves. In this life we cannot hope to know a hundredth part of the creations which surround us. You can believe this now, good Mother?"
"With all my heart," was her answer.
"And, further," he added, "You can judge now for yourself, that even of the things we do what we call see with the naked eye, there are a great many of which we can never know anything like the real truth, without such aid as this (pointing to the microscope). What was the red snow plant to you at first? A piece of shapeless jelly. What did it become to your more enlightened eye? A living organism, unmistakably from Almighty hands, endowed with a system of life, if not of life-enjoyment, peculiarly its own. This is something to have discovered, certainly, but is it all? Ah! as I tell it, I feel how imperfect the account is—how much remains behind. All we have done is but to have made a step or two out of complete ignorance.
Yet a glory comes into our hearts from the thought of the worlds beyond reach of our present senses, like the reflection from lightning below our own horizon, and both faith and hope ought to be strengthened."
The widow did not speak.
"I have one more word to say," continued the stranger guest, "If you will allow me to say it, and can forgive the old traveller for preaching as well as teaching. I have taught you something of God's doings in the natural world, which has given you comfort and hope. What, then, you believe of His works, believe also of His mercies. If you cannot find a limit to the one, suspect and hope that the other, too, may be infinite—far beyond our comprehension. Will you try and take this last lesson to heart?"
The poor mother's eyes filled with tears. She had passed tremblingly through life, and sadly needed the good counsel.
After a short pause, her counsellor went on, firmly, but very kindly—
"You have seen how weak and short-sighted the natural eye is; can you for a moment suppose that the spiritual eye is more far-seeing and better able to acquaint you with God's purposes and doings? Are His works to be infinite, and His mercies bounded, so that a man can point to the limit, and say, Here God's mercy ceases; here there is no hope—but only everlasting lifelessness and despair? Oh, good Mother, to whom is entrusted the rearing of a very tender plant, take heed what you teach, and foster in it, above all other virtues, the charity which 'hopeth all things,' and then can both believe and endure."
The lesson was not spoken in vain even then, and it was never forgotten. And Siegfried grew on, and the stranger revisited the cottage many times, and by and by aided in the education of the child whose acquaintance he had made in so singular a manner. And, after many years, the young man, Siegfried, became a teacher himself—a pastor—though not in his own country.
But never, through a long life, did he forget his early hopes, and fears, and fancies, about the desolate mountain, nor the lesson he learnt from the stranger traveller. And into whatever scenes of darkness and ignorance he forced his way; whatever he met of sin and sorrow; however often baffled, thrown back, and disappointed, he never despaired; for he used to recall the past, and take comfort to himself by thinking, "It may be God's will yet, that the red snow plant may one day burst into life on the cold hillside."