Winter in Dörfli
T HE snow was lying so high around the hut that the windows looked level with the ground, and the door had entirely disappeared from view. If Alm-Uncle had been up there he would have had to do what Peter did daily, for fresh snow fell every night. Peter had to get out of the window of the sitting-room every morning, and if the frost had not been very hard during the night, he immediately sank up to his shoulders almost in the snow and had to struggle with hands, feet, and head to extricate himself. Then his mother handed him the large broom, and with this he worked hard to make a way to the door. He had to be careful to dig the snow well away, or else as soon as the door was opened the whole soft mass would fall inside, or, if the frost was severe enough, it would have made such a wall of ice in front of the house that no one could have gone in or out, for the window was only big enough for Peter to creep through. The fresh snow froze like this in the night sometimes, and this was an enjoyable time for Peter, for he would get through the window on to the hard, smooth, frozen ground, and his mother would hand him out the little sleigh, and he could then make his descent to Dörfli along any route he chose, for the whole mountain was nothing but one wide, unbroken sleigh road.
Alm-Uncle had kept his word and was not spending the winter in his old home. As soon as the first snow began to fall, he had shut up the hut and the outside buildings and gone down to Dörfli with Heidi and the goats. Near the church was a straggling half-ruined building, which had once been the house of a person of consequence. A distinguished soldier had lived there at one time; he had taken service in Spain and had there performed many brave deeds and gathered much treasure. When he returned home to Dörfli he spent part of his booty in building a fine house, with the intention of living in it. But he had been too long accustomed to the noise and bustle of arms and the world to care for a quiet country life, and he soon went off again, and this time did not return. When after many long years it seemed certain that he was dead, a distant relative took possession of the house, but it had already fallen into disrepair, and he had no wish to rebuild it. So it was let to poor people, who paid but a small rent, and when any part of the building fell it was allowed to remain. This had now gone on for many years. As long ago as when his son Tobias was a child Alm-Uncle had rented the tumble-down old place. Since then it had stood empty, for no one could stay in it who had not some idea of how to stop up the holes and gaps and make it habitable. Otherwise the wind and rain and snow blew into the rooms, so that it was impossible even to keep a candle alight, and the indwellers would have been frozen to death during the long cold winters. Alm-Uncle, however, knew how to mend matters. As soon as he made up his mind to spend the winter in Dörfli, he rented the old place and worked during the autumn to get it sound and tight. In the middle of October he and Heidi took up their residence there.
On approaching the house from the back one came first into an open space with a wall on either side, of which one was half in ruins. Above this rose the arch of an old window thickly overgrown with ivy, which spread over the remains of a domed roof that had evidently been part of a chapel. A large hall came next, which lay open, without doors, to the square outside. Here also walls and roof only partially remained, and indeed what was left of the roof looked as if it might fall at any minute had it not been for two stout pillars that supported it. Alm-Uncle had here put up a wooden partition and covered the floor with straw, for this was to be the goats' house. Endless passages led from this, through the rents of which the sky, as well as the fields and the road outside, could be seen at intervals; but at last one came to a stout oak door that led into a room that still stood intact. Here the walls and the dark wainscoting remained as good as ever, and in the corner was an immense stove reaching nearly to the ceiling, on the white tiles of which were painted large pictures in blue. These represented old castles surrounded with trees, and huntsmen riding out with their hounds; or else a quiet lake scene, with broad oak trees and a man fishing. A seat ran all round the stove so that one could sit at one's ease and study the pictures. These attracted Heidi's attention at once, and she had no sooner arrived with her grandfather than she ran and seated herself and began to examine them. But when she had gradually worked herself round to the back, something else diverted her attention. In the large space between the stove and the wall four planks had been put together as if to make a large receptacle for apples; there were no apples, however, inside, but something Heidi had no difficulty in recognising, for it was her very own bed, with its hay mattress and sheets, and sack for a coverlid, just as she had it up at the hut. Heidi clapped her hands for joy and exclaimed, "O grandfather, this is my room, how nice! But where are you going to sleep?"
"Your room must be near the stove or you will freeze," he replied, "but you can come and see mine too."
Heidi got down and skipped across the large room after her grandfather, who opened a door at the farther end leading into a smaller one which was to be his bedroom. Then came another door. Heidi pushed it open and stood amazed, for here was an immense room like a kitchen, larger than anything of the kind that Heidi had seen before. There was still plenty of work for the grandfather before this room could be finished, for there were holes and cracks in the walls through which the wind whistled, and yet he had already nailed up so many new planks that it looked as if a lot of small cupboards had been set up round the room. He had, however, made the large old door safe with many screws and nails, as a protection against the outside air, and this was very necessary, for just beyond was a mass of ruined buildings overgrown with tall weeds, which made a dwelling-place for endless beetles and lizards.
Heidi was very delighted with her new home, and by the morning after their arrival she knew every nook and corner so thoroughly that she could take Peter over it and show him all that was to be seen; indeed she would not let him go till he had examined every single wonderful thing contained in it.
Heidi slept soundly in her corner by the stove; but every morning when she first awoke she still thought she was on the mountain, and that she must run outside at once to see if the fir trees were so quiet because their branches were weighed down with the thick snow. She had to look about her for some minutes before she felt quite sure where she was, and a certain sensation of trouble and oppression would come over her as she grew aware that she was not at home in the hut. But then she would hear her grandfather's voice outside, attending to the goats, and these would give one or two loud bleats, as if calling to her to make haste and go to them, and then Heidi was happy again, for she knew she was still at home, and she would jump gladly out of bed and run out to the animals as quickly as she could. On the fourth morning, as soon as she saw her grandfather, she said, "I must go up to see grandmother to-day; she ought not to be alone so long."
But the grandfather would not agree to this. "Neither to-day nor to-morrow can you go," he said; "the mountain is covered fathom-deep in snow, and the snow is still falling; the sturdy Peter can hardly get along. A little creature like you would soon be smothered by it, and we should not be able to find you again. Wait a bit till it freezes, then you will be able to walk over the hard snow."
Heidi did not like the thought of having to wait, but the days were so busy that she hardly knew how they went by.
Heidi now went to school in Dörfli every morning and afternoon, and eagerly set to work to learn all that was taught her. She hardly ever saw Peter there, for as a rule he was absent. The teacher was an easygoing man who merely remarked now and then, "Peter is not turning up to-day again, it seems, but there is a lot of snow up on the mountain and I daresay he cannot get along." Peter, however, always seemed able to make his way through the snow in the evening when school was over, and he then generally paid Heidi a visit.
At last, after some days, the sun again appeared and shone brightly over the white ground, but he went to bed again behind the mountains at a very early hour, as if he did not find such pleasure in looking down on the earth as when everything was green and flowery. But then the moon came out clear and large and lit up the great white snowfield all through the night, and the next morning the whole mountain glistened and sparkled like a huge crystal. When Peter got out of his window as usual, he was taken by surprise, for instead of sinking into the soft snow he fell on the hard ground and went sliding some way down the mountain-side like a sleigh before he could stop himself. He picked himself up and tested the hardness of the ground by stamping on it and trying with all his might to dig his heels into it, but even then he could not break off a single little splinter of ice; the Alm was frozen hard as iron. This was just what Peter had been hoping for, as he knew now that Heidi would be able to come up to them. He quickly got back into the house, swallowed the milk which his mother had put ready for him, thrust a piece of bread in his pocket, and said, "I must be off to school." "That's right, go and learn all you can," said the grandmother encouragingly. Peter crept through the window again—the door was quite blocked by the frozen snow outside—pulling his little sleigh after him, and in another minute was shooting down the mountain.
He went like lightning, and when he reached Dörfli, which stood on the direct road to Mayenfeld, he made up his mind to go on further, for he was sure he could not stop his rapid descent without hurting himself and the sleigh too. So down he still went till he reached the level ground, where the sleigh came to a pause of its own accord. Then he got out and looked round. The impetus with which he had made his journey down had carried him some little way beyond Mayenfeld. He bethought himself that it was too late to get to school now, as lessons would already have begun, and it would take him a good hour to walk back to Dörfli. So he might take his time about returning, which he did, and reached Dörfli just as Heidi had got home from school and was sitting at dinner with her grandfather. Peter walked in, and as on this occasion he had something particular to communicate, he began without a pause, exclaiming as he stood still in the middle of the room, "She's got it now."
"Got it? what?" asked the Uncle. "Your words sound quite warlike, general."
"The frost," explained Peter.
"Oh! then now I can go and see grandmother!" said Heidi joyfully, for she had understood Peter's words at once. "But why were you not at school then? You could have come down in the sleigh," she added reproachfully, for it did not agree with Heidi's ideas of good behavior to stay away when it was possible to be there.
"It carried me on too far and I was too late," Peter replied.
"I call that being a deserter," said the Uncle, "and deserters get their ears pulled, as you know."
Peter gave a tug to his cap in alarm, for there was no one of whom he stood in so much awe as Alm-Uncle.
"And an army leader like yourself ought to be doubly ashamed of running away," continued Alm-Uncle. "What would you think of your goats if one went off this way and another that, and refused to follow and do what was good for them? What would you do then?"
"I should beat them," said Peter promptly.
"And if a boy behaved like these unruly goats, and he got a beating for it, what would you say then?"
"Serve him right," was the answer.
"Good, then understand this: next time you let your sleigh carry you past the school when you ought to be inside at your lessons, come on to me afterwards and receive what you deserve."
Peter now understood the drift of the old man's questions and that he was the boy who behaved like the unruly goats, and he looked somewhat fearfully towards the corner to see if anything happened to be there such as he used himself on such occasions for the punishment of his animals.
But now the grandfather suddenly said in a cheerful voice, "Come and sit down and have something, and afterwards Heidi shall go with you. Bring her back this evening and you will find supper waiting for you here."
This unexpected turn of conversation set Peter grinning all over with delight. He obeyed without hesitation and took his seat beside Heidi. But the child could not eat any more in her excitement at the thought of going to see grandmother. She pushed the potatoes and toasted cheese which still stood on her plate towards him while Uncle was filling his plate from the other side, so that he had quite a pile of food in front of him, but he attacked it without any lack of courage. Heidi ran to the cupboard and brought out the warm cloak Clara had sent her; with this on and the hood drawn over her head, she was all ready for her journey. She stood waiting beside Peter, and as soon as his last mouthful had disappeared she said, "Come along now." As the two walked together Heidi had much to tell Peter of her two goats that had been so unhappy the first day in their new stall that they would not eat anything, but stood hanging their heads, not even rousing themselves to bleat. And when she asked her grandfather the reason of this, he told her it was with them as with her in Frankfurt, for it was the first time in their lives they had come down from the mountain. "And you don't know what that is, Peter, unless you have felt it yourself," added Heidi.
The children had nearly reached their destination before Peter opened his mouth; he appeared to be so sunk in thought that he hardly heard what was said to him. As they neared home, however, he stood still and said in a somewhat sullen voice, "I had rather go to school even than get what Uncle threatened."
Heidi was of the same mind, and encouraged him in his good intention. They found Brigitta sitting alone knitting, for the grandmother was not very well and had to stay the day in bed on account of the cold. Heidi had never before missed the old figure in her place in the corner, and she ran quickly into the next room. There lay grandmother on her little poorly covered bed, wrapped up in her warm gray shawl.
"Thank God," she exclaimed as Heidi came running in; the poor old woman had had a secret fear at heart all through the autumn, especially if Heidi was absent for any length of time, for Peter had told her of a strange gentleman who had come from Frankfurt, and who had gone out with them and always talked to Heidi, and she had felt sure he had come to take her away again. Even when she heard he had gone off alone, she still had an idea that a messenger would be sent over from Frankfurt to fetch the child. Heidi went up to the side of the bed and said, "Are you very ill, grandmother?"
"No, no, child," answered the old woman reassuringly, passing her hand lovingly over the child's head, "It's only the frost that has got into my bones a bit."
"Shall you be quite well then directly it turns warm again?"
"Yes, God willing, or even before that, for I want to get back to my spinning; I thought perhaps I should do a little to-day, but to-morrow I am sure to be all right again." The old woman had detected that Heidi was frightened and was anxious to set her mind at ease.
Her words comforted Heidi, who had in truth been greatly distressed, for she had never before seen the grandmother ill in bed. She now looked at the old woman seriously for a minute or two, and then said, "In Frankfurt everybody puts on a shawl to go out walking; did you think it was to be worn in bed, grandmother?"
"I put it on, dear child, to keep myself from freezing, and I am so pleased with it, for my bedclothes are not very thick," she answered.
"But, grandmother," continued Heidi, "your bed is not right, because it goes downhill at your head instead of uphill."
"I know it, child, I can feel it," and the grandmother put up her hand to the thin flat pillow, which was little more than a board under her head, to make herself more comfortable; "the pillow was never very thick, and I have lain on it now for so many years that it has grown quite flat."
"Oh, if only I had asked Clara to let me take away my Frankfurt bed," said Heidi. "I had three large pillows, one above the other, so that I could hardly sleep, and I used to slip down to try and find a flat place, and then I had to pull myself up again, because it was proper to sleep there like that. Could you sleep like that, grandmother?"
"Oh, yes! the pillows keep one warm, and it is easier to breathe when the head is high," answered the grandmother, wearily raising her head as she spoke as if trying to find a higher resting-place. "But we will not talk about that, for I have so much that other old sick people are without for which I thank God; there is the nice bread I get every day, and this warm wrap, and your visits, Heidi. Will you read me something to-day?"
Heidi ran into the next room to fetch the hymn book. Then she picked out the favorite hymns one after another, for she knew them all by heart now, as pleased as the grandmother to hear them again after so many days. The grandmother lay with folded hands, while a smile of peace stole over the worn, troubled face, like one to whom good news has been brought.
Suddenly Heidi paused. "Grandmother, are you feeling quite well again already?"
"Yes, child, I have grown better while listening to you; read it to the end."
The child read on, and when she came to the last words:
the grandmother repeated them once or twice to herself, with a look of happy expectation on her face. And Heidi took equal pleasure in them, for the picture of the beautiful sunny day of her return home rose before her eyes, and she exclaimed joyfully, "Grandmother, I know exactly what it is like to go home." The old woman did not answer, but she had heard Heidi's words, and the expression that had made the child think she was better remained on her face.
A little later Heidi said, "It is growing dark and I must go home; I am glad to think, that you are quite well again."
The grandmother took the child's hand in hers and held it closely. "Yes," she said, "I feel quite happy again; even if I have to go on lying here, I am content. No one knows what it is to lie here alone day after day, in silence and darkness, without hearing a voice or seeing a ray of light. Sad thoughts come over me, and I do not feel sometimes as if I could bear it any longer or as if it could ever be light again. But when you come and read those words to me, then I am comforted and my heart rejoices once more."
Then she let the child go, and Heidi ran into the next room, and bid Peter come quickly, for it had now grown quite dark. But when they got outside they found the moon shining down on the white snow and everything as clear as in the daylight. Peter got his sleigh, put Heidi at the back, he himself sitting in front to guide, and down the mountain they shot like two birds darting through the air.
When Heidi was lying that night on her high bed of hay she thought of the grandmother on her low pillow, and of all she had said about the light and comfort that awoke in her when she heard the hymns, and she thought: if I could read to her every day, then I should go on making her better. But she knew that it would be a week, if not two, before she would be able to go up the mountain again. This was a thought of great trouble to Heidi, and she tried hard to think of some way which would enable the grandmother to hear the words she loved every day. Suddenly an idea struck her, and she was so delighted with it that she could hardly bear to wait for morning, so eager was she to begin carrying out her plan. All at once she sat upright in her bed, for she had been so busy with her thoughts that she had forgotten to say her prayers, and she never now finished her day without saying them.
When she had prayed with all her heart for herself, her grandfather and grandmother, she lay back again on the warm soft hay and slept soundly and peacefully till morning broke.