Little Kirl kept the goats on the mountain. Little Kirl was very little, his legs were very short, his body was very round and chubby, and he could certainly not have overtaken an active and badly-disposed goat, whatever had been the consequences. So it was a fortunate thing that they did not require much herding. He had only to drive them to the pastures on the mountain in the morning, and home again in the evening, and the young ones followed the old ones, round whose necks the tinkling bells were hung.
Little Kirl had only begun to keep the goats this summer, and he thought when one has become a real live goat-herd one is in a fair way to become a man. How all the other little boys in the village must envy him—poor things, not yet promoted to manhood! And he had a crooked stick also, and a little pipe on which he could really play several notes; and this was the way he went up the mountain.
First there were the goats to be driven out of the gate, and what a thing it was to walk after them, playing those three notes with variations, and trying not to look too proud of himself! It was not a very large village, to be sure, the little cluster of brown chalets and the tiny pink-washed church beside the pine-wood; but to Kirl it was a whole world looking on and admiring. He blew his three notes louder with a more and more cheerful trill all down the street. At the cross-roads below the church the greatest caution had to be exercised to keep the frisky kids from going the wrong way, but it was worth the trouble. Only think how well it looked to drive them close together, and to fence them off, first on one side and then on the other, with the crooked stick, and then, with an air as if he thought nothing of it, turn them all successfully into the narrow path, and strike up the three notes more gaily than ever! It was the pride of Kirl’s heart to count the goats up in a business-like manner, and call them by name, and shout “thou” to them, as if he were quite hard-hearted, instead of loving them with all his might.
There was one goat in particular that was the pride of Kirl’s heart; she was not more than a kid, and snowy white, with a beautiful little head and a bright eye, a credit to any man’s herd. How little Kirl loved her! He called her Liesl, as if she had been his sister. The path led upwards first through the pine-woods, with moss a foot deep on either side, where the wood was damp with the dividing arms of the stream, and the moss on the trees hung in solemn grey clusters, like banners swinging from the branches. And then the path grew steeper and runnels of water dripped down the rocks, all covered with ferns and saxifrage. Down below on one side lay the rushing stream and the valley where the village was, and up above on the other side rose the great mountains, dark with pine-woods about their feet and glittering with snow upon their heads.
Little Kirl loved the mountains. He had been born under their shadow, and perhaps it was this that made him wander up them as far as he dared go, for they seemed to draw him to them. Some day—it was such a tremendous thought that little Kirl kept it quite to himself, deep down in his mind—but some day, when he had got beyond even herding the goats, he meant to become a guide.
The way up the mountain hitherto for little Kirl ended in the grassy pasture where the goats stayed. Here was a pleasant slope thick with globe-flowers and narcissus at the lower end, and fragrant with wild thyme at the upper ridge, where the precipice began.
And now this is the story of little Kirl and the goats. For it was at this place one hot day in July, when little Kirl sat clasping his knees and looking up at the mountain-tops, that he was suddenly wakened from his dream by seeing Liesl perched on the extreme edge of the precipice. It was a spot to which the goats were not allowed to go, for, sure-footed though they were, it was crumbling and unsafe. And there stood Liesl, the flower of the flock, her pretty snowy figure against the dark-blue sky. Even as little Kirl leaped up and called her, she threw up her graceful head as if in pride.
And then there came the most dreadful thing that had ever happened in little Kirl’s life. Exactly how it was he could not afterwards remember, but all in a moment Liesl, who could perch herself, as it seemed, on nothing at all, pretty, sure-footed Liesl was over the edge! Little Kirl threw himself down on his face in an agony, and peered over the edge, calling and screaming wildly in his despair, for there was no hope of saving poor Liesl. But yes, there was! Down there she had got her fore-foot on a ledge below the brink, and was fighting and scrambling to regain her foothold. The loose stones were slipping away under the pretty tufts of “student roses” that grew amongst the shale, and poor Liesl was slipping away too, down and down.
She was staring up at him with imploring eyes, with a look that seemed to call aloud for help. But little Kirl had got her. It was not for nothing that little Kirl’s eyes were so steady when they looked in your face and his face was so square about the chin, however much he smiled. Those stout little arms were clinging to neck and leg as if the owner of them would be dragged over the ledge himself before he would leave poor Liesl to her fate. Let her go? No! That was not the way little Kirl kept his charge; that was not the way of men on the mountains.
But Liesl was not light, and Kirl was only little, and his breath came and went, and his eyes saw nothing, and the world was whirling round, and a great sob burst from him. And then a big, big voice said: “Thou little thing! Thou little, good thing!” And two big, big arms came downwards and caught little Kirl and Liesl up together into—oh, such blissful safety! And little Kirl stood clinging to somebody; and what happened next he did not know. Careless, ungrateful Liesl only shook herself and frisked off, with a little squeal of relief, to join the older and wiser goats.
But little Kirl, when he next knew what he was doing, found that he was crying and sobbing uncontrollably, and big Kirl, the tallest, handsomest man in the village, was patting his shoulders, and soothing and consoling and praising him. And yet more—big Kirl, one of the best guides in the canton, whose fame had gone far abroad, by whom it was an honour to be noticed at all, said, and little Kirl heard it with his own ears: “Na, if I had not seen it, I would not have believed it! But yes, I saw it, and I saw also in days to come the little man will make such a guide of mountains as Switzerland may be proud of!”