The Ice Maiden The uncle Andersen's fairy tale

When Rudy arrived in his uncle's house he thanked God to see people such as he was accustomed to. There was only one cretin, a poor imbecile boy, one of those unfortunate beings who, in their poverty, which amounts to utter destitution, always travel about in Canton Valais, visiting different families in turn and staying a month or two in each house. Poor Saperli happened to be living in the house of Rudy's uncle when the boy arrived.

This uncle was a bold hunter, and a cooper by trade, while his wife was a lively little person, with a face somewhat like a bird's, eyes like an eagle's, and a long, skinny, fuzz-covered neck.

Everything was strange and new to Rudy - dress, customs, employment, even the language, though his young ear would soon learn to understand that. A comparison between his grandfather's little home and his uncle's domicile greatly favored the latter. The room they lived in was larger; the walls were decorated with chamois heads and brightly polished guns; a painting of the Virgin Mary hung over the door, with fresh Alpine roses and a constantly burning lamp before it.

As you have learned, his uncle was one of the most famous chamois hunters of the canton, and also the most experienced and best guide.

Rudy became the pet of the house, but there was another pet too - a blind, lazy old dog, of not much use any more. But he had been useful once, and his value in former years was remembered, so he now lived as one of the family, with every comfort. Rudy patted him, but the dog didn't like strangers and still considered Rudy one. But the boy did not long remain so, for soon he won his way into everyone's heart.

"Things are not so bad here in Canton Valais," said his uncle. "We have plenty of chamois; they don't die off as fast as the wild goats. Things are much better now than in the old days, however much we praise the olden times. A hole has been burst in the bag, so now we have a little fresh air in our cramped valley. When you do away with out-of-date things you always get something better," he said.

When the uncle became really talkative, he would tell the boy about his own and his father's childhood. "In those days Valais was," he called it, "just a closed bag full of too many sick people - miserable cretins. But the French soldiers came, and they made excellent doctors - they soon killed the disease, and the patients too. They knew how to strike - yes, to strike in many different ways; even their girls knew how to strike!" Then he winked at his wife, who was French by birth, and laughed. "The French knew how to split solid stones if they wanted to. It was they who cut out of solid rock the road over the Simplon Pass - yes, and made such a road that I could tell a three-year-old child to go to Italy! You just have to keep on the highway, and there you are!" Then the uncle sang a French song, and ended by shouting "hurrah!" for Napoleon Bonaparte.

It was the first time Rudy had ever heard of France or of Lyons, that great city on the Rhone which his uncle had visited.

In a few years Rudy would become an expert chamois hunter, for he showed quite a flair for it, said the uncle. He taught the boy to hold, load, and fire a gun; in the hunting season he took him up into the hills and made him drink warm chamois blood to ward off hunter's giddiness; he taught him to know the times when, on different slopes of the mountains, avalanches were likely to fall, in the morning or evening, whenever the sun's rays had the greatest effect. He taught him to observe the movements of the chamois and copy their leaps, so that he might light firmly on his feet. He told him that if there was no footing in the rock crevices, he must support himself by the pressure of his elbows, and the muscles, of his thighs and calves; if necessary even the neck could be used.

The chamois is cunning and places sentinels on guard, so the hunter must be still more cunning, and scent them out. Sometimes he could cheat them by arranging his hat and coat on his alpine staff, so that the chamois would mistake the dummy for the man. The uncle played this trick one day when he was out hunting with Rudy.

It was a narrow mountain path - indeed, scarcely a path at all; it was nothing more than a slight ledge close to the yawning abyss. The snow there was half thawed, and the rock crumbled away under the pressure of a boot; so that uncle lay down at full length and inched his way forward. Every fragment of rock that crumbled off fell, knocking and bouncing from one side of the wall to the other, until it came to rest in the depths far below. Rudy stood on the edge of the last point of solid rock, about a hundred paces behind his uncle, and from there he suddenly saw, wheeling through the air and hovering just above his uncle, an enormous vulture, which, with one stroke of its tremendous wings, could easily have hurled the creeping form into the abyss beneath, and there feed on his carcass.

The uncle had eyes for nothing but the chamois, which had appeared with its young kid on the other side of the crevasse. But Rudy kept watching the bird, with his hand on his gun to fire the instant it became necessary, for he understood its intention. Suddenly the chamois leaped upward; the uncle fired, and the animal was hit by the deadly bullet; but the kid escaped as skillfully as if it had had a lifelong experience of danger and flight. The huge bird, frightened by the report, wheeled off in another direction; and the uncle was saved from a danger of which he knew nothing until Rudy told him about it later.

As they were making their way homeward in high good humor, the uncle humming an air he remembered from his childhood; they heard a strange noise very close to them. They looked all around, and then upward; and there, on the slope of the mountain high above, the heavy snow covering was lifted up and heaving as a stretched linen sheet heaves when the wind creeps under it. Then the great mass cracked like a marble slab, broke, and changed into a foaming cataract, rushing down on them with a rumbling noise like distant thunder. An avalanche was coming, not directly toward Rudy and his uncle, but close to them - much too close!

"Hang on, Rudy!" he cried. "Hang on with all your might!"

Rudy threw his arms around the trunk of a near-by tree, while his uncle climbed higher and clung to the branches of the tree. The avalanche roared past a little distance away, but the gale of wind that swept behind it, the tail of a hurricane, snapped trees and bushes all around them as if they had been dry rushes, and hurled them about in wild confusion. Rudy was flung to the ground, for the trunk of his tree looked as if it had been sawed in two, and the upper part was tossed a great distance. And there, among the shattered branches, Rudy found his poor uncle, with a fractured skull! His hands were still warm, but his face was unrecognizable. Rudy turned pale and trembled, for this was the first real shock of his life, the first terror he had ever experienced.

Late that evening he brought the fatal news to his home - his home, which was now to be the home of grief. The wife stood like a statue, uttering no word, shedding no tear; it was not until the corpse was brought home that her sorrow found utterance. The poor cretin crept into his bed, and was not seen throughout the whole next day. But the following evening he came to Rudy.

"Write a letter for me please!" he said. "Saperli can't write. Saperli can only take letter to post office."

"A letter for you?" Rudy asked. "To whom?"

"To our Lord Christ!"

"What do you mean?"

And the half-wit, as he was called, looked at Rudy with a touching expression, clasped his hands, and said solemnly and reverently, "Jesus Christ! Saperli would send Him a letter to pray Him that Saperli lie dead, and not the master of the house here."

And Rudy pressed his hand. "That letter wouldn't reach up there. That letter wouldn't restore him to us."

He found it very difficult to convince Saperli how impossible his request was.

"Now you must be the support of the house," said his aunt. And Rudy became just that.

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