by Johanna Spyri

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XIX: The Winter Continues

Peter arrived punctually at school the following day. He had brought his dinner with him, for all the children who lived at a distance regularly seated themselves at mid-day on the tables, and resting their feet firmly on the benches, spread out their meal on their knees and so ate their dinner, while those living in Dorfli went home for theirs. Till one o'clock they might all do as they liked, and then school began again. When Peter had finished his lessons on the days he attended school, he went over to Uncle's to see Heidi.

When he walked into the large room at Uncle's to-day, Heidi immediately rushed forward and took hold of him, for it was for Peter she had been waiting. "I've thought of something, Peter," she said hastily.

"What is it?" he asked.

"You must learn to read," she informed him.

"I have learnt," was the answer.

"Yes, yes, but I mean so that you can really make use of it," continued Heidi eagerly.

"I never shall," was the prompt reply.

"Nobody believes that you cannot learn, nor I either now," said Heidi in a very decided tone of voice. "Grandmamma in Frankfurt said long ago that it was not true, and she told me not to believe you."

Peter looked rather taken aback at this piece of intelligence.

"I will soon teach you to read, for I know how," continued Heidi. "You must learn at once, and then you can read one or two hymns every day to grandmother."

"Oh, I don't care about that," he grumbled in reply.

This hard-hearted way of refusing to agree to what was right and kind, and to what Heidi had so much at heart, aroused her anger. With flashing eyes she stood facing the boy and said threateningly, "If you won't learn as I want you to, I will tell you what will happen; you know your mother has often spoken of sending you to Frankfurt, that you may learn a lot of things, and I know where the boys there have to go to school; Clara pointed out the great house to me when we were driving together. And they don't only go when they are boys, but have more lessons still when they are grown men. I have seen them myself, and you mustn't think they have only one kind teacher like we have. There are ever so many of them, all in the school at the same time, and they are all dressed in black, as if they were going to church, and have black hats on their heads as high as that--" and Heidi held out her hand to show their height from the floor.

Peter felt a cold shudder run down his back.

"And you will have to go in among all those gentlemen," continued Heidi with increasing animation, "and when it comes to your turn you won't be able to read and will make mistakes in your spelling. Then you'll see how they'll make fun of you; even worse than Tinette, and you ought to have seen what she was like when she was scornful."

"Well, I'll learn then," said Peter, half sorrowfully and half angrily.

Heidi was instantly mollified. "That's right, then we'll begin at once," she said cheerfully, and went busily to work on the spot, dragging Peter to the table and fetching her books.

Among other presents Clara had sent Heidi a book which the latter had decided, in bed the night before, would serve capitally for teaching Peter, for it was an A B C book with rhyming lines. And now the two sat together at the table with their heads bent over the book, for the lesson had begun.

Peter was made to spell out the first sentence two or three times over, for Heidi wished him to get it correct and fluent. At last she said, "You don't seem able to get it right, but I will read it aloud to you once; when you know what it ought to be you will find it easier." And she read out:--

A B C must be learnt to-day
Or the judge will call you up to pay.

"I shan't go," said Peter obstinately.

"Go where?" asked Heidi.

"Before the judge," he answered.

"Well then make haste and learn these three letters, then you won't have to go."

Peter went at his task again and repeated the three letters so many times and with such determination that she said at last,--

"You must know those three now."

Seeing what an effect the first two lines of verse had had upon him, she thought she would prepare the ground a little for the following lessons.

"Wait, and I will read you some of the next sentences," she continued, "then you will see what else there is to expect."

And she began in a clear slow voice:--

D E F G must run with ease
Or something will follow that does not please.
Should H I J K be now forgot
Disgrace is yours upon the spot.
And then L M must follow at once
Or punished you'll be for a sorry dunce.
If you knew what next awaited you
You'd haste to learn N O P Q.
Now R S T be quick about
Or worse will follow there's little doubt.

Heidi paused, for Peter was so quiet that she looked to see what he was doing. These many secret threats and hints of dreadful punishments had so affected him that he sat as if petrified and stared at Heidi with horror-stricken eyes. Her kind heart was moved at once, and she said, wishing to reassure him, "You need not be afraid, Peter; come here to me every evening, and if you learn as you have to-day you will at last know all your letters, and the other things won't come. But you must come regularly, not now and then as you do to school; even if it snows it won't hurt you."

Peter promised, for the trepidation he had been in had made him quite tame and docile. Lessons being finished for this day he now went home.

Peter obeyed Heidi's instructions punctually, and every evening went diligently to work to learn the following letters, taking the sentences thoroughly to heart. The grandfather was frequently in the room smoking his pipe comfortably while the lesson was going on, and his face twitched occasionally as if he was overtaken with a sudden fit of merriment. Peter was often invited to stay to supper after the great exertion he had gone through, which richly compensated him for the anguish of mind he had suffered with the sentence for the day.

So the winter went by, and Peter really made progress with his letters; but he went through a terrible fight each day with the sentences.

He had got at last to U. Heidi read out:--

And if you put the U for V,
You'll go where you would not like to be.

Peter growled, "Yes, but I shan't go!" But he was very diligent that day, as if under the impression that some one would seize him suddenly by the collar and drag him where he would rather not go. The next evening Heidi read:--

If you falter at W, worst of all,
Look at the stick against the wall.

Peter looked at the wall and said scornfully, "There isn't one."

"Yes, but do you know what grandfather has in his box?" asked Heidi. "A stick as thick almost as your arm, and if he took that out, you might well say, look at the stick on the wall."

Peter knew that thick hazel stick, and immediately bent his head over the W and struggled to master it. Another day the lines ran:-

Then comes the X for you to say
Or be sure you'll get no food to-day.

Peter looked towards the cupboard where the bread and cheese were kept and said crossly, "I never said that I should forget the X."

"That's all right; if you don't forget it we can go on to learn the next, and then you will only have one more," replied Heidi, anxious to encourage him.

Peter did not quite understand, but when Heidi went on and read:-

And should you make a stop at Y,
They'll point at you and cry, Fie, fie.

All the gentlemen in Frankfurt with tall black hats on their heads, and scorn and mockery in their faces rose up before his mind's eye, and he threw himself with energy on the Y, not letting it go till at last he knew it so thoroughly that he could see what it was like even when he shut his eyes.

He arrived on the following day in a somewhat lofty frame of mind, for there was now only one letter to struggle over, and when Heidi began the lesson with reading aloud:--

Make haste with Z, if you're too slow
Off to the Hottentots you'll go.

Peter remarked scornfully, "I dare say, when no one knows even where such people live."

"I assure you, Peter," replied Heidi, "grandfather knows all about them. Wait a second and I will run and ask him, for he is only over the way with the pastor." And she rose and ran to the door to put her words into action, but Peter cried out in a voice of agony,--

"Stop!" for he already saw himself being carried off by Alm- Uncle and the pastor and sent straight away to the Hottentots, since as yet he did not know his last letter. His cry of fear brought Heidi back.

"What is the matter?" she asked in astonishment.

"Nothing! come back! I am going to learn my letter," he said, stammering with fear. Heidi, however, herself wished to know where the Hottentots lived and persisted that she should ask her grandfather, but she gave in at last to Peter's despairing entreaties. She insisted on his doing something in return, and so not only had he to repeat his Z until it was so fixed in his memory that he could never forget it again, but she began teaching him to spell, and Peter really made a good start that evening. So it went on from day to day.

The frost had gone and the snow was soft again, and moreover fresh snow continually fell, so that it was quite three weeks before Heidi could go to the grandmother again. So much the more eagerly did she pursue her teaching so that Peter might compensate for her absence by reading hymns to the old woman. One evening he walked in home after leaving Heidi, and as he entered he said, "I can do it now."

"Do what, Peter?" asked his mother.

"Read," he answered.

"Do you really mean it? Did you hear that, grandmother?" she called out.

The grandmother had heard, and was already wondering how such a thing could have come to pass.

"I must read one of the hymns now; Heidi told me to," he went on to inform them. His mother hastily fetched the book, and the grandmother lay in joyful expectation, for it was so long since she had heard the good words. Peter sat down to the table and began to read. His mother sat beside him listening with surprise and exclaiming at the close of each verse, "Who would have thought it possible!"

The grandmother did not speak though she followed the words he read with strained attention.

It happened on the day following this that there was a reading lesson in Peter's class. When it came to his turn, the teacher said,--

"We must pass over Peter as usual, or will you try again once more--I will not say to read, but to stammer through a sentence."

Peter took the book and read off three lines without the slightest hesitation.

The teacher put down his book and stared at Peter as at some out- of-the-way and marvellous thing unseen before. At last he spoke,--

"Peter, some miracle has been performed upon you! Here have I been striving with unheard-of patience to teach you and you have not hitherto been able to say your letters even. And now, just as I had made up my mind not to waste any more trouble upon you, you suddenly are able to read a consecutive sentence properly and distinctly. How has such a miracle come to pass in our days?"

"It was Heidi," answered Peter.

The teacher looked in astonishment towards Heidi, who was sitting innocently on her bench with no appearance of anything supernatural about her. He continued, "I have noticed a change in you altogether, Peter. Whereas formerly you often missed coming to school for a week, or even weeks at a time, you have lately not stayed away a single day. Who has wrought this change for good in you?"

"It was Uncle," answered Peter.

With increasing surprise the teacher looked from Peter to Heidi and back again at Peter.

"We will try once more," he said cautiously, and Peter had again to show off his accomplishment by reading another three lines. There was no mistake about it--Peter could read. As soon as school was over the teacher went over to the pastor to tell him this piece of news, and to inform him of the happy result of Heidi's and the grandfather's combined efforts.

Every evening Peter read one hymn aloud; so far he obeyed Heidi. Nothing would induce him to read a second, and indeed the grandmother never asked for it. His mother Brigitta could not get over her surprise at her son's attainment, and when the reader was in bed would often express her pleasure at it. "Now he has learnt to read there is no knowing what may be made of him yet."

On one of these occasions the grandmother answered, "Yes, it is good for him to have learnt something, but I shall indeed be thankful when spring is here again and Heidi can come; they are not like the same hymns when Peter reads them. So many words seem missing, and I try to think what they ought to be and then I lose the sense, and so the hymns do not come home to my heart as when Heidi reads them."

The truth was that Peter arranged to make his reading as little troublesome for himself as possible. When he came upon a word that he thought was too long or difficult in any other way, he left it out, for he decided that a word or two less in a verse, where there were so many of them, could make no difference to his grandmother. And so it came about that most of the principal words were missing in the hymns that Peter read aloud.

Return to the Heidi Summary Return to the Johanna Spyri Library

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.