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Donkey John of the Toy Valley by  Margaret Warner Morley






OHN has finished his third year in school and is again climbing up the steep green mountain side. Again he has his basket on his back, but this time his father is not with him. Nor is the basket the one he carried that day he took the sheep-bell home; it is almost as large as the one his father wore and it is filled to the top with neatly cut blocks of wood. John himself has grown large and strong. His wide mouth wears a very pleasant expression and his blue [189] eyes are shining happily, for in his pocket he is clasping with one hand a toy donkey that he has made and finished himself.

He looks neither to the right nor left but straight ahead, apparently thinking of things far away, then he suddenly starts. Across his path is thrown the shadow of the tall crucifix that marks the spot where a man once fell over the cliff above and was dashed to pieces. John knelt reverently at the foot of the cross with bared head and fervently thanked the dear God for the success he had achieved. Then he went up on the mountain through the fir forest that filled the air with a warm and exquisite fragrance.

When John reached the top of the mountain it was yet broad daylight about his home, though down in the [190] deep valley and the dense forest night had already fallen.

There was no one in the house, and standing his basket in a corner John took the little wooden donkey from his pocket, stood it in the middle of the table, and hid away.

Presently his mother came in. She gave a great cry when she saw what was on the table, and ran and found John.

"Is it true that you did it yourself?" she asked breathlessly, after embracing him. "Run now and call the father and let us all rejoice together."

So the three sat and looked at the little wooden animal, first one and then the other of the parents taking it up and feeling of it and turning it over to examine every part.

"It is wonderful," said Mother Hofer, "and it looks life Franz."

[191] "Yes, I think so," agreed Father Hofer. "See, that is the way he stands with his right hind leg a little drawn up, and see!—there is the little bunch above his knee, and one ear lopped down!"

"Yes, indeed!" cried John, wild with delight, "it is Franz. I didn't expect you to know it so soon though," and he capered about the little room like a young elephant.

"Now I must show it to Anton," he shouted, and though it was fast getting dark he dashed down the mountain to Anton's house.

Anton looked at it in amazement as John, still breathless from his headlong rush down the mountain, gasped out that he had done it.

"Why, John!" he cried at last, and dealt his friend a great slap on the back [192] that made him stagger, for he had grown, too, and still remained a head taller than John. "Tell me now, did you do that? I should have said Frau Ampezzang herself did it!"

Since Frau Ampezzang was the best animal carver in the valley, Anton could have bestowed no higher praise and John, well satisfied, presently burst out laughing, and Anton burst out laughing too and there they stood and laughed and laughed, though if they had been asked what they were laughing at I doubt if either of them could have told.

"I have brought a basketful of blocks up the mountain," John said at last, "and all summer on rainy days I shall carve. And next winter I shall learn to carve many other kinds of animals; when you know one the others are easy," he added boastfully; "and then I shall [193] go to the Fair and sell them and buy the hat," for it was every boy's ambition to possess as soon as possible the broad-rimmed, wide-crowned hat with a ribbon band that the young men wore on holidays.

"Now think!" and Anton regarded him almost with envy. "Yes, that is well. And as for me, I am to go to the Big Alp with Herr Weidl and his men. I go in a week, and I am to help with the cows and drive them down the mountain before the snow comes."

For neither of the boys was to herd the neighbors' goats any more. No, that was past and gone. Younger boys would take their place, but both of them were too full of the future and too eager to test the new life to spare a regret for the loss of those long days on the breezy [194] mountain side, lying in the hot sun and the keen air, dreaming of robbers and knights and Minnesingers, of the world of cities and the Big Alp. No, the world of cities and the Big Alp were drawing near, and their hearts beat high with expectancy. The boy's life was over for them. John was now to help his father with the farming and Anton, as he had said, was to go to the Big Alp.

There were rainy days when no work could be done out of doors and the first one of these that came saw John bending over the table he had made ready, while Father and Mother Hofer hung over him entranced, as with slow, sure strokes he chipped away the wood and modelled from it a tiny donkey as perfect as the one he had brought home.

"They are the best I ever saw," was [195] Father Hofer's proud comment as he stood critically surveying a row of them that in course of time stood side by side on the table.

They were all alike, even to the little bunch on the knee and the characteristic position of the hind leg.

"I will buy a tree and cut you plenty of wood, John, and next winter you shall stay at home and carve all you please," said Father Hofer, who could yet scarcely believe his eyes that a son of his had really become a carver; "and none of the family before him ever did it," he said many times, looking at John in a dazed way.

But this plan did not suit John in the least. "No, father," he said, "I must go back and learn to make a horse and a cow and all the rest."

So when the first snow fell, down [196] went John into the Toy Valley again, leaving a bundle of finished donkeys on the shelf at home. "When I get my basket full of all sorts of fine animals you shall see how I will sell them!" he boasted merrily.

Frau Ampezzang was almost as pleased as John over his success, although she must soon lose a valuable apprentice, for he could no longer spend his time cutting out blocks for her to finish.

"You must now carve a horse," she told him, "it will be very easy for you, it is so like the donkey," and taking a block, she skilfully shaped it, showing him just where the two differed.

Then John tried. It was indeed very easy, too easy as it proved, for John had quite finished one before he discovered to his dismay that what he had so easily made was no horse at all but only an- [197] other donkey! The only difference was that there was no little bunch above the knee and the hind leg was a little straighter.

"Never mind, John," said Frau Ampezzang, patiently, "it is a beautiful donkey. No one could make a better, and in time you will make as good a horse." So John tried again, and again he turned out a donkey. Again and again he ended in the same way until even Frau Ampezzang gave up in despair.

"You must try something quite different," she declared, "you must try a sheep; that you cannot make into a donkey." And she carved a sheep before his eyes, then started a new block and told him to go ahead with it.

John strove laboriously over the sheep and when he got done behold!—it was [198] a donkey with unnaturally short legs and strangely placed ears, but a donkey for all that, as any one who looked at it would have said at once. Yes, it was a donkey, though a precious queer one.

When this became known the people young and old all over the Toy Valley shouted with delight. Not that they disliked John, but it was so funny and they were so used to laughing at him that when he succeeded they had nothing left to joke about. They all shouted with delight, for it was  funny, all but Angelica. She did not laugh nor make fun of John but pitied him in her heart.

More than ever they called the unlucky boy Donkey John, but when in midwinter all the toys were exhibited as usual, what do you think happened? [199] One row of donkeys took the prize. The people said they had never seen anything like them, for though of wood they seemed to be alive. So to the amazement of nearly everybody Donkey John took the prize at the toy contest, and after that, though the people still called him Donkey John, the name grew to be a compliment, for never had so young a boy taken the prize before.

"It is as though the donkeys had been made by an old carver descended from a race of carvers," the people said, and wondered greatly, and many among them began to shake their heads and say, "I knew how it would be." "I told you so." "I predicted from the start that John Hofer would become a great man among us." And they all did their best to show him how well they thought of him, [200] and it was forgotten in the Toy Valley that the name "Donkey John" had ever meant anything uncomplimentary.

His success at the contest encouraged John greatly and he worked with renewed energy, but try as he would and try what he would, cow, lamb, dog, fish, or bird, the result was always the same. From under his hand came forth a procession of donkeys. If he tried a fish he got a flat donkey with a comical head that made the people die a-laughing. If he tried a cow he got a lank and bony donkey, equally amusing. No matter what he tried out came out some form of donkey. It was as though the wood were bewitched.

And the joke of it was, the people did not know he was trying to make anything but donkeys, excepting Frau Ampezzang of course. She  knew and pitied [201] him from the bottom of her heart, he tried so hard. No, the people, quite awed at his success as a prize-winner, could not imagine his being unable to do anything he wanted to. They laughed at his strange beasts and said to each other, "Oh, he was always a comical rogue." "Now who else could do anything so clever as that!" "Think of joking in donkeys in that splendid way," and more and more of them went about saying, "I told you so."

If John had been a genius, as they seemed to think he was, he could not have been more highly esteemed.

At last the snow began to melt and the sweet smell of springtime crept over mountain and valley, and John could make nothing but donkeys. All kinds of donkeys, but after all, only donkeys.

[202] "Never mind," said good Frau Ampezzang, trying to comfort him as was her wont. "You have conquered one thing. No one can carve a donkey like you. I cannot myself do it so well. And nearly every family sticks to one animal. The Wolferlos make horses, as you know, and have made them for generations. The Roesslers carve only pigs, their next neighbors make wagon wheels, and the Hoefflers dolls. Why not be satisfied to make donkeys?"

"Because," replied John sadly, "you can make all the animals so well and I wanted to learn them all too, and be like you." Then looking up he added, half laughing and half crying, "I want to go out into the world with a basketful of fine toys on my back. I do not want to sell at the warehouse here [203] where everything is piled in together. I want to go to the fairs and see for myself."

"Donkeys sell well at the fairs, John," said Frau Ampezzang, then shook her head and added, "you are over young to be knocking about the world, John. You should be content to do as the rest of us do—all but the older men, who still carry their toys on their backs and go to the fairs. Do you know you can go every Saturday to Herr Malnitz and he will buy all you have, and give you the worth of your time?"

John knew this well enough, but he also knew that Herr Malnitz gave only half what one could get at the fairs and in the cities, and then—how could one, not being a minnesinger in a bygone age, ever see anything of that great world beyond the mountains if one [204] worked from fall to spring only to sell one's toys to Herr Malnitz?

This John did not say to Frau Ampezzang, but something very like it he thought as he walked along home having ended his apprenticeship in the Toy Valley.

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