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Donkey John of the Toy Valley by  Margaret Warner Morley






EXT morning John was up long before daylight and fired the big stove. Then he went to bed again and slept until his uncle shook him, saying, "Come, John, fetch the water now and help with the breakfast."

John jumped up and ran about the house doing everything he could think of. He remembered what his mother did at home and tried his best to do it in the same way. While Uncle Francesco was cooking porridge over the open fire [127] in the smoke-stained kitchen he swept up the floor of the other room and set the bowls on the table. Then he ran and milked the goat that stood bleating by the door. He carried down some fodder for it from the top of the house, and after breakfast went into the shed and chopped wood until he heard a sound that made him stop and run to the door.

The sound he had heard was the clappity-clap, clappity-clap  of a great many wooden shoes pattering over the stony pavement of the narrow street, and when he looked out he saw a long file of boys and girls walking along with books under their arms. It was the school children going to church for the morning prayers, and in a little while they came clattering back and disappeared into a doorway nearly opposite his uncle's house.

[128] "Come, John, now you will go to school," and Uncle Francesco led him through the doorway where the children had disappeared, then through a narrow passage and into a large room full of boys and girls seated at their tables.

The teacher stood in front and when Uncle Francesco introduced John, he took his hand and looked at him kindly. Then Uncle Francesco went away and left John in the roomful of children, who all looked at him and some that he knew smiled and nodded their heads.

The teacher gave him a seat and a book and John really tried to remember what was told him, but it was hard work and he was glad when recess came and they all went outside for a few minutes to breath the fresh air. The school-room was so close it made his head ache, but he forgot that when his young [129] friends gathered around him, and he told them he had come down the mountain to stay all the winter and go to school.

After school he went home and did his work and was too busy to think much about his home on the mountain top. Indeed, it seemed as though Uncle Francesco thought of one thing after another for him to do until bedtime and then he was so sleepy he barely sent a thought up there.

John did not get on very well in school, though everybody liked him. He was so good-natured they could not help it, and he knew how to do so many things. But when it came to books—well, the less said about that the better.

The master, who liked John very much indeed, declared he might as well try to teach a stone post to read. That [130] was not quite fair, for John did do better than a stone post, though perhaps not much  better. He would sit staring at his book as though the letters in it were so many black beetles, until the master rapped him on the head and told him to quit staring and think a little.

But this John either could not or would not do. He no sooner got a book before him than he began to stare at it in that idiotic way, and he confessed long afterwards that half the time he did not see the letters at all, but only all sorts of toy animals capering over the pages as they used to do through the grass on the mountain side when he took the goats to browse.

And that is the only thing any one ever had against John, that he did not pay better attention to his books. He was great at arithmetic though, and [131] could add 19 and 37 in his head as quick as a flash, but he always did his arithmetic in his head; if he tried to put down the sums he could not do them at all.

The master gave him a certain little book to see if it would not wake him up, and it did to an extent. It was a book about the Minnesingers, in easy words. The Minnesingers were minstrels or wandering singers who lived in that part of the world in early times. They went about the kings' courts and sang their beautiful songs and between times did a good deal of hard fighting, for they were knights who wore armor as well as sweet singers. At least this was true of the Minnesingers told about in John's book. I should like to write down one of their songs for you if I could only remember it well enough. [132] But perhaps you would not care for them as they were all love songs. Or course the time may come when you will feel differently. There is another reason why you might not care particularly for the songs, that is, they were sung in German.

I suspect that was the real trouble with John. In his school all the books were printed in German, a language he could not understand, for though the people of the Toy Valley did not talk English neither did they speak German. They had a language of their own but there were no books written in it; so when John went to school he had to poke his poor little pug nose into a German book from morning to night.

Just think of it! It does make one feel sorry for him, yet he should have tried; for after all the story of Columbus [133] discovering America, of Ulysses wandering about the world, of William Tell, and the Minnesingers, and all the other famous stories, can be told about as well in German as in English. Now John, who, so far as books went, had no language at all, should have tried his best to learn to read in whatever language came handy. But he did not understand this, though after he got his book about the Minnesingers he did better; at least he learned to read that one book. In fact, he almost learned everything in it by heart. But he did not learn German after all, and he was well punished for it later, as you will see.

Far, far better than books he liked the half-hour out of doors with the children, and better yet the walks he sometimes took along the snowy paths to their homes. For as soon as winter came [134] everybody in the Toy Valley began carving. Even the children helped their parents after school, and John was never so happy as when sitting on a bench and watching his schoolmates at their work.

He did not do this very often, it is true, as the school hours were long and Uncle Francesco kept him pretty busy at home. Uncle Francesco evidently believed the old adage that "Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do," and saw to it that John did not get into mischief for lack of employment. Even on Saturdays he had to clean coppers,—which was no idle jest,—for everybody cooked in copper pots and kettles and had copper milk jugs and copper coffee pots,—there was no end to the coppers. And every one of them had to get a good polishing every Saturday afternoon.

[135] It is true that everybody was doing it, and it was not so bad when the weather permitted one to sit outside on the bench by the door and rub away until one got a shining row of them, when all one's neighbors were out-of-doors, too, in plain sight doing the same thing.

But, notwithstanding all this, John was sometimes allowed to go visiting on a half-holiday, and then it was that he found his way to some carver's home, even when the other children were out with their sleds.

He went oftenest to watch the Wolferlos family where Angelica sat putting the red paint in the horses' nostrils with her yellow hair wound about her pretty head and her mouth puckered up in that comical way whenever she put on a spot. Truth to tell, he went there oftener than anywhere else, and sometimes he went [136] to the edge of the cliff and looked down on the brown roof that sheltered her.

"Where have you been, John?" his uncle always asked him when he came home, and then he would tell him where he had been and all that had happened. He talked so much about the carving that his uncle one day asked him why he felt such an interest.

"Because," replied John, his face reddening, "I hope sometime to carve, myself."

"Tut, tut, John, none of the family has ever carved."

"Frau Ampezzang says I can learn. She says it is only 'want to hard enough and keep at it long enough.' "

"But where can you get the tools? They cost money."

John looked at his uncle and his face [137] got very red though his eyes were steady as he replied, "I pray every night to the good Lord to send me a tool to begin with."

John did not always go to visit the carvers when he was out. He sometimes went sledding with the rest; and because he had lived up on the mountain all his life he could outsled any boy in the valley. They poked a great deal of fun at him in school, but out on the slopes he was the leader of them all and they did exactly as he told them.

On his way about the village he often passed the fine large house of Herr Malnitz, underneath which was a store-room where he kept wood for carving, for he was one of the most prosperous carvers in the community. John sometimes stopped to look at the two handsome squirrels he kept in a large [138] cage and one day Herr Malnitz called out to him and said,

"John, if you will bring me some cones down from the mountain to feed the squirrels I will give you a piece of good wood which you can sell for a handful of copper money."

"That I will do," said John, eagerly, "but I will not sell the wood. I will keep it for my own use, for I, too, shall learn to carve."

Herr Malnitz laughed loud and long.

"Why, John," said he, "how can you carve? You are a clumsy boy and none of your family has ever carved. It takes skill."

"I shall learn," replied John, unabashed, "only give me the wood."

"That I will when you bring the cones; but I advise you to sell it as soon as you can."

[139] Everyone knew of John's desire to carve and every one laughed at him for it; it was absurd, they said, for a boy whose family were none of them carvers.

"He will never cut anything but his fingers," the people mocked.

But this did not trouble John, who was always ready for any fun that came along and always ready to laugh—even at himself if nothing funnier was in sight.

And so the winter passed quickly away and John began to think of the time when he should go up the mountain again. His father had come to see him only once and his heart longed for the dear home and his mother and old Franz and Anton to whom he would have so much to tell. But all the time he never once forgot his wish to be a carver nor to pray every night for the tool.

[140] At last the longed-for day came. School was over and John, with his bundle strapped to his shoulders, started up the mountain.

As he said good-bye to him, Uncle Francesco slipped something into his hand, saying, "You have been a good boy, John, and I shall be glad to see you back next winter."

John started up the mountain as though he had wings on his feet, for he held in his hand a broad, sharp, chisel-shaped piece of steel, the tool he needed to begin his carving!

Suddenly he stopped under a roadside shrine, fell on his knees, clasped his hands, and fervently thanked the good God who had answered his prayer.

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