WINTER IN THE VILLAGE
The snow lay so deep around the Alm-hut that the windows seemed to stand level with the ground and the house-door had entirely disappeared. Round Peter's hut it was the same. When the boy went out to shovel the snow, he had to creep through the window; then he would sink deep into the soft snow and kick with arms and legs to get free. Taking a broom, the boy would have to clear away the snow from the door to prevent its falling into the hut.
The uncle had kept his word; when the first snow had fallen, he had moved down to the village with Heidi and his goats. Near the church and the parish house lay an old ruin that once had been a spacious building. A brave soldier had lived there in days gone by; he had fought in the Spanish war, and coming back with many riches, had built himself a splendid house. But having lived too long in the noisy world to be able to stand the monotonous life in the little town, he soon went away, never to come back. After his death, many years later, though the house was already beginning to decay, a distant relation of his took possession of it. The new proprietor did not want to build it up again, so poor people moved in. They had to pay little rent for the house, which was gradually crumbling and falling to pieces. Years ago, when the uncle had come to the village with Tobias, he had lived there. Most of the time it had been empty, for the winter lasted long, and cold winds would blow through the chinks in the walls. When poor people lived there, their candles would be blown out and they would shiver with cold in the dark. But the uncle, had known how to help himself. In the fall, as soon as he had resolved to live in the village, he came down frequently, fitting up the place as best he could.
On approaching the house from the back, one entered an open room, where nearly all the walls lay in ruins. On one side the remains of a chapel could be seen, now covered with the thickest ivy. A large hall came next, with a beautiful stone floor and grass growing in the crevices. Most of the walls were gone and part of the ceiling also. If a few thick pillars had not been left supporting the rest, it would undoubtedly have tumbled down. The uncle had made a wooden partition here for the goats, and covered the floor with straw. Several corridors, most of them half decayed, led finally to a chamber with a heavy iron door. This room was still in good condition and had dark wood panelling on the four firm walls. In one corner was an enormous stove, which nearly reached up to the ceiling. On the white tiles were painted blue pictures of old towers surrounded by high trees, and of hunters with their hounds. There also was a scene with a quiet lake, where, under shady oak-trees, a fisherman was sitting. Around the stove a bench was placed. Heidi loved to sit there, and as soon as she had entered their new abode, she began to examine the pictures. Arriving at the end of the bench, she discovered a bed, which was placed between the wall and the stove. "Oh grandfather, I have found my bed-room," exclaimed the little girl. "Oh, how fine it is! Where are you going to sleep?"
"Your bed must be near the stove, to keep you warm," said the old man. "Now come and look at mine."
With that the grandfather led her into his bed-room. From there a door led into the hugest kitchen Heidi had ever seen. With a great deal of trouble the grandfather had fitted up this place. Many boards were nailed across the walls and the door had been fastened with heavy wires, for beyond, the building lay in ruins. Thick underbrush was growing there, sheltering thousands of insects and lizards. Heidi was delighted with her new home, and when Peter arrived next day, she did not rest till he had seen every nook and corner of the curious dwelling-place.
Heidi slept very well in her chimney corner, but it took her many days to get accustomed to it. When she woke up in the morning and could not hear the fir-trees roar, she would wonder where she was. Was the snow too heavy on the branches? Was she away from home? But as soon as she heard her grandfather's voice outside, she remembered everything and would jump merrily out of bed.
After four days had gone by, Heidi said to her grandfather: "I must go to grandmother now, she has been alone so many days."
But the grandfather shook his head and said: "You can't go yet, child. The snow is fathoms deep up there and is still falling. Peter can hardly get through. A little girl like you would be snowed up and lost in no time. Wait a while till it freezes and then you can walk on top of the crust."
Heidi was very sorry, but she was so busy now that the days flew by. Every morning and afternoon she went to school, eagerly learning whatever was taught her. She hardly ever saw Peter there, for he did not come very often. The mild teacher would only say from time to time: "It seems to me, Peter is not here again! School would do him good, but I guess there is too much snow for him to get through." But when Heidi came home towards evening, Peter generally paid her a visit.
After a few days the sun came out for a short time at noon, and the next morning the whole Alp glistened and shone like crystal. When Peter was jumping as usual into the snow that morning, he fell against something hard, and before he could stop himself he flew a little way down the mountain. When he had gained his feet at last, he stamped upon the ground with all his might. It really was frozen as hard as stone. Peter could hardly believe it, and quickly running up and swallowing his milk, and putting his bread in his pocket, he announced: "I must go to school to-day!"
"Yes, go and learn nicely," answered his mother.
Then, sitting down on his sled, the boy coasted down the mountain like a shot. Not being able to stop his course when he reached the village, he coasted down further and further, till he arrived in the plain, where the sled stopped of itself. It was already late for school, so the boy took his time and only arrived in the village when Heidi came home for dinner.
"We've got it!" announced the boy, on entering.
"What, general?" asked the uncle.
"The snow," Peter replied.
"Oh, now I can go up to grandmother!" Heidi rejoiced. "But Peter, why didn't you come to school? You could coast down to-day," she continued reproachfully.
"I went too far on my sled and then it was too late," Peter replied.
"I call that deserting!" said the uncle. "People who do that must have their ears pulled; do you hear?"
The boy was frightened, for there was no one in the world whom he respected more than the uncle.
"A general like you ought to be doubly ashamed to do so," the uncle went on. "What would you do with the goats if they did not obey you anymore?"
"Beat them," was the reply.
"If you knew of a boy that was behaving like a disobedient goat and had to get spanked, what would you say?"
"Serves him right."
"So now you know it, goat-general: if you miss school again, when you ought to be there, you can come to me and get your due."
Now at last Peter understood what the uncle had meant. More kindly, the old man then turned to Peter and said, "Come to the table now and eat with us. Then you can go up with Heidi, and when you bring her back at night, you can get your supper here."
This unexpected change delighted Peter. Not losing any time, he soon disposed of his full plate. Heidi, who had given the boy most of her dinner, was already putting on Clara's new coat. Then together they climbed up, Heidi chatting all the time. But Peter did not say a single word. He was preoccupied and had not even listened to Heidi's tales. Before they entered the hut, the boy said stubbornly: "I think I had rather go to school than get a beating from the uncle." Heidi promptly confirmed him in his resolution.
When they went into the room, Peter's mother was alone at the table mending. The grandmother was nowhere to be seen. Brigida now told Heidi that the grandmother was obliged to stay in bed on those cold days, as she did not feel very strong. That was something new for Heidi. Quickly running to the old woman's chamber, she found her lying in a narrow bed, wrapped up in her grey shawl and thin blanket.
"Thank Heaven!" the grandmother exclaimed when she heard her darling's step. All autumn and winter long a secret fear had been gnawing at her heart, that Heidi would be sent for by the strange gentleman of whom Peter had told her so much. Heidi had approached the bed, asking anxiously: "Are you very sick, grandmother?"
"No, no, child," the old woman reassured her, "the frost has just gone into my limbs a little."
"Are you going to be well again as soon as the warm weather comes?" inquired Heidi.
"Yes, yes, and if God wills, even sooner. I want to go back to my spinning-wheel and I nearly tried it to-day. I'll get up to-morrow, though," the grandmother said confidently, for she had noticed how frightened Heidi was.
The last speech made the child feel more happy. Then, looking wonderingly at the grandmother, she said: "In Frankfurt people put on a shawl when they go out. Why are you putting it on in bed, grandmother?"
"I put it on to keep me warm, Heidi. I am glad to have it, for my blanket is very thin."
"But, grandmother, your bed is slanting down at your head, where it ought to be high. No bed ought to be like that."
"I know, child, I can feel it well." So saying, the old woman tried to change her position on the pillow that lay under her like a thin board. "My pillow never was very thick, and sleeping on it all these years has made it flat."
"Oh dear, if I had only asked Clara to give me the bed I had in Frankfurt!" Heidi lamented. "It had three big pillows on it; I could hardly sleep because I kept sliding down from them all the time. Could you sleep with them, grandmother?"
"Of course, because that would keep me warm. I could breathe so much easier, too," said the grandmother, trying to find a higher place to lie on. "But I must not talk about it anymore, for I have to be thankful for many things. I get the lovely roll every day and have this beautiful warm shawl. I also have you, my child! Heidi, wouldn't you like to read me something to-day?"
Heidi immediately fetched the book and read one song after another. The grandmother in the meantime was lying with folded hands; her face, which had been so sad a short time ago, was lit up with a happy smile.
Suddenly Heidi stopped.
"Are you well again, grandmother?" she asked.
"I feel very much better, Heidi. Please finish the song, will you?"
The child obeyed, and when she came to the last words,
When mine eyes grow dim and sad, Let Thy love more brightly burn, That my soul, a wanderer glad, Safely homeward may return.
"Safely homeward may return!" she exclaimed: "Oh, grandmother, I know what it is like to come home." After a while she said: "It is getting dark, grandmother, I must go home now. I am glad that you feel better again."
The grandmother, holding the child's hand in hers, said: "Yes, I am happy again, though I have to stay in bed. Nobody knows how hard it is to lie here alone, day after day. I do not hear a word from anybody and cannot see a ray of sunlight. I have very sad thoughts sometimes, and often I feel as if I could not bear it any longer. But when I can hear those blessed songs that you have read to me, it makes me feel as if a light was shining into my heart, giving me the purest joy."
Shaking hands, the child now said good-night, and pulling Peter with her, ran outside. The brilliant moon was shining down on the white snow, light as day. The two children were already flying down the Alp, like birds soaring through the air.
After Heidi had gone to bed that night, she lay awake a little while, thinking over everything the grandmother had said, especially about the joy the songs had given her. If only poor grandmother could hear those comforting words every day! Heidi knew that it might be a week or two again before she could repeat her visit. The child became very sad when she thought how uncomfortable and lonely the old woman would be. Was there no way for help? Suddenly Heidi had an idea, and it thrilled her so that she felt as if she could not wait till morning came to put her plan in execution. But in her excitement she had forgotten her evening prayer, so sitting up in bed, she prayed fervently to God. Then, falling back into the fragrant hay, she soon slept peacefully and soundly still the bright morning came.