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Donkey John of the Toy Valley by  Margaret Warner Morley




Progressive blocks: first and second steps



OHN climbed steadily on, scarcely ever stopping, and going as fast as he could in his impatience to reach home. He wished he had wings like the geier  to land him at the top in a moment.

The snow was by no means gone, though here and there green patches had begun to show through it. The mountains shouldered their bare forms out from the heavy mantle that had covered them through the winter; in the broad spaces between the peaks the [142] great snow fields that lingered all summer were growing a little smaller. There was a strong, sweet smell in the air, the smell of the springtime that made John draw full breaths and almost laugh aloud.

It was late in the afternoon before he started, and, though he walked at a brisk pace, night began to fall long before he reached home. But he did not care for this, for he knew the way well and there was not much snow on the trail under the rocks. Before entering the pine forest he turned and looked back. The sky was clear and glowing, and here and there, away down below where the valley was quite dark, he saw a light shine out like a star on the earth.

At last he got to the end of the forest, and above his head he saw another star [143] shine out, and that, he knew, was the light of his own home.

He gave a loud call and his mother came running to the door. In spite of his being such a big boy I think there were tears in his eyes as he kissed her on both cheeks, and I am sure there were tears running down her cheeks, for they had never been separated from each other before.

Presently Father Hofer came in and the first thing John did was to take his new tool out of its wrapper and show it.

"Uncle Francesco gave it to me," he said.

Neither of his parents said anything, but only looked at each other.

Next morning John had scarcely time to look around him when he heard an impatient he-haw, and in another moment old Franz was capering about like [144] mad, so delighted was he to see John back. He went off a little way and then charged down on John with his ears back and his mouth open as though he were going to eat him up, but just before he got to him he planted his front hoofs, stopped short, and flung his heels in the air. Then he ran round and round John with his tail up, until at last John succeeded in getting on his back and they had a splendid frolic.

The goats remembered him too, and his pet Wawa cuddled up to him in the most loving manner.

"Are you glad to be home again, John?" asked Mother Hofer that night at supper. She had made a great plateful of fritters to please him and her face was shining with happiness.

Anton came over as soon as he heard that John was back and the two friends [145] sat on the bench and told each other all that had happened in those long winter months, but first of all John showed the tool to Anton.

"Now, I can begin," he proudly announced, "when I go back next winter."

"But who is to teach you, John?"

"Oh, I don't know, but you will see that someone will teach me."

Both boys had been re-chosen goatherds for the following summer and as soon as the snow was off enough they started out every fair morning with their flocks.

Down in the valley the wood-carving had been put aside for the summer and all the people were busy ploughing and sowing.

John's father made their garden and sowed the broad field above the house in the intervals of wood-chopping.

[146] Anton talked with as much interest as ever of the Big Alp and how he would one day be a herder up there and make collars for the cows. "That is carving enough for me," he would say in reply to John's tales of the work going on in the Toy Valley. "And I like a live cow better than a wooden one."

One Sunday John went with his father to the great forest of zirbel pines growing on the slope of a mountain a few miles away. The forest belonged to Herr Malnitz and his father was to chop there and cut the trees into lengths to be used by the toy-makers for their winter work.

"There never was such wood," Father Hofer said, laying his hand on the trunk of a tree by which he was standing, and John looked at the noble pine with a feeling of awe. Surely the good God [147] had planted it on those mountains to give wood to the toy-makers.

They took a long walk that day over a high wind-swept alp covered with flowers, among which grew the gentians, from whose roots the people distilled a strong, bitter liquor. To one of these gentian stills Father Hofer directed his steps, having need to talk to the man in charge, and John climbed on to the upper rim of the vast meadow, where one could see far off to distant new and wonderful snow-clad heights.

Standing there and looking over that limitless expanse John wondered what manner of people lived at the foot of those mountains and how far beyond them one would need to travel to find the cities. It was so vast, this world of mountains. Could  there really be anything else? Plains that he had read of [148] in his book—and the great restless sea?

When he got back to the gentian still the keeper of it was telling how he had once crossed the northern mountains, the very ones at which John had been looking. And from him John learned that in time the mountains came to an end and the land lay "as flat as the top of this table," the narrator said, "with here and there cities, but lying so far apart that you could not see from one to the other, and needing more than a long day's march across the plains to get to them."

How was it possible to be on a plain and not see across it? With no mountains to obstruct the view why could one not see from one city to the others? With all John's schooling this mystery of the plains where one could see and not see was inscrutable.

[149] The summer slipped away and the ground was covered with pine cones, when one day John said to his father, "Herr Malnitz told me that if I would bring him some cones to feed his squirrels he would give me some pieces of zirbel wood."

"Very well, John," his father replied, "you may take Franz to carry the bags if Anton can find some one to help guard the flock while you are gone."

This Anton willingly did, and one day John started down the mountain driving Franz on ahead with two bags of cones strapped across his back.

Franz did not frisk now. He understood this was business, and, though he had on no harness but the strap that held the bags, he went on ahead picking his way carefully over the rocky path.

John delivered the cones and received [150] in exchange a fine piece of wood which he put away in Uncle Francesco's house. Before starting up the mountain again he ran through the yard behind the church and out upon the cliff edge where he looked down for a moment on the brown roof of the Wolferlos house. Then he started for home, Franz walking sedately on ahead with the empty bags across his back.

John had a great deal to tell Anton next day as they lay among the flowers in the sunshine with the cool breeze from the snow fields blowing over them. Little Wawa was under his arm and gave a soft whimpering bleat occasionally as she looked up into his face.

"She missed you so she was a nuisance all day running around and bleating," Anton said, and John caressed the little creature.

[151] "I am to go down to Uncle Francesco's earlier this year," he said finally. "As soon as the snow comes and the herding ceases."

A few days later the snow came, and came so fast and so deep that all thought of going again to the pastures was given up. The goats were put in their winter quarters in the barns and John once more said good-bye to those at home and went down the mountain. He walked this time, floundering through the snow as best he could, for the gully was not yet packed hard enough to be safe sledding.

As soon as he could he took out his zirbel wood and with Uncle Francesco's help split it into small pieces, the size of those from which the Wolferlos carved the horses, in whose nostrils little Angelica painted red spots.

He thought a long time, then one day [152] he took his tool and some pieces of wood and went with them to the Ampezzangs. It was a half-holiday and young Wolfram Ampezzang had gone off hunting. The old people were glad to see John, who finally drew out his tool and showed it to them and his pieces of wood. Herr Ampezzang examined the tool, "It is of the best," he said approvingly, "but it must have a handle and I will make you one."

So he cut out and fitted a neat handle upon the tool while John looked on.

"There, now," said Herr Ampezzang, "you are all ready to begin."

"But I don't know how," and John looked at Frau Ampezzang.

"Dear me, Antonio Ampezzang, clamp that extra length of wood on the end of the table; or no, John, you sit down in Wolfram's place and learn how to shape your blocks," and John sat down in the [153] son's place, feeling very solemn, indeed. He made clumsy work of it and finally the tool slipped and cut a deep gash in his thumb from which the red blood spirted. But that was an accident for which every carver was prepared and in a moment Frau Ampezzang had the wound in a basin of icy water fresh from the brook, which soon stopped the bleeding. Then she bound a rag around the thumb and told John to come again when he got a chance.

The next time John went he found an extra piece of wood clamped to the end of the table and an extra chair set, and henceforth that was his place whenever he could get a half-holiday.

"I never saw anybody try so hard," Herr Ampezzang said to Uncle Francesco one day. "He spends all his spare time at it. He has ruined nearly all of his [154] blocks trying to get them cut down to the right starting point."

Uncle Francesco shook his head.

"I never should have given him the tool," he said anxiously.

But Mother Ampezzang took another view of it. "Slow but sure," she hastily interposed. "He is doing better; he will cut the blocks well enough in time."

It did seem as though he never would and when you think that this first shaping of the block was nothing at all compared to the rest, not much more than getting the block down to the right size and proportions, it is no wonder everybody was discouraged over John, everybody, that is, but John himself. He declined to know the meaning of the word "failure" and went on spoiling the good wood as cheerfully as though he were turning out the finest toys in the valley.

[155] By the end of winter he had used up all his own wood and some besides, but he had learned to shape the blocks so that he could prepare them for the others to go on with.

He was very slow but very exact and he sat day after day shaving off the edges of his blocks and smoothing the bottoms so that they would stand quite firmly.

"Unless your block stands, your horse won't," said Frau Ampezzang so often that John concluded the most important thing in wood-carving was to make your block stand, and this he learned to do so well that whatever else happened his blocks always stood up.

He learned, too, to sharpen his tool on the little whetstone, "and that is a good deal," kind Frau Ampezzang said encouragingly to him.

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