THE PATH OF LIFE
Translated From The West-Flemish By
ALEXANDER TEIXEIRA DE MATTOS
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In introducing this new writer to the English-speaking public, I may be permitted to give a few particulars of himself and his life. Stijn Streuvels is accepted not only in Belgium, but also in Holland as the most distinguished Low-Dutch author of our time: his vogue, in fact, is even greater in the North Netherlands than in the southern kingdom. And I will go further and say that I know no greater living writer of imaginative prose in any land or any language. His medium is the West-Flemish dialect, which is spoken by perhaps a million people inhabiting the stretch of country that forms the province of West Flanders and is comprised within the irregular triangle outlined by the North Sea on the west, the French frontier of Flanders on the south and a line drawn at one-third of the distance between Bruges and Ghent on the east. In addition to Bruges and Ostend, this province of West Flanders includes such towns as Poperinghe, Ypres and Courtrai; and so subtly subdivided is the West-Flemish dialect that there are words which a man of Bruges will use to a man of Poperinghe and not be understood.
It is one of the most interesting dialects known to me, containing numbers of mighty mediaeval words which survive in daily use; and it is one of the richest: rich especially—and this is not usual in dialects—in words expressive of human characteristics and of physical sensations.
Thus there is a word to describe a man who is not so much a poor wretch, un miserable, as what Tom Hood loved to call "a hapless wight:" one who is poor and wretched and outcast and out of work, not through any fault of his own, through idleness or fecklessness, but through sheer ill-luck. There is a word to describe what we feel when we hear the tearing of silk or the ripping of calico, a word expressing that sense of angry irritation which gives a man a gnawing in the muscles of the arms, a word that tells what we really feel in our hair when we pretend that it "stands on end." It is a sturdy, manly dialect, moreover, spoken by a fine, upstanding race of "chaps," "fellows," "mates," "wives," and "women-persons," for your Fleming rarely talks of "men" or "women." It is also a very beautiful dialect, having many words that possess a charm all their own. Thus monkelen, the West-Flemish for the verb "to smile," is prettier and has an archer sound than its Dutch equivalent, glimlachen. And it is a dialect of sufficient importance to boast a special dictionary (Westvlaamsch Idiotikon, by the Rev. L. L. De Bo: Bruges, 1873) of 1,488 small-quarto pages, set in double column.
In translating Streuvels' sketches, I have given a close rendering: to use a homely phrase, their flavour is very near the knuckle; and I have been anxious to lose no more of it than must inevitably be lost through the mere act of translation. I hope that I may be forgiven for one or two phrases, which, though not existing, so far as I am aware, in any country or district where the English tongue is spoken, are not entirely foreign to the genius of that tongue. Here and there, but only where necessary, I have added an explanatory foot-note.
For those interested in such matters, I may say that Stijn Streuvels' real name is Frank Lateur. He is a nephew of Guido Gezelle, the poet-priest, whose statue graces the public square at Courtrai, unless indeed by this time those shining apostles of civilization, the Germans, have destroyed it. Until ten years ago, when he began to come into his own, he lived at Avelghem, in the south-east corner of West Flanders, hard by Courtrai and the River Lys, and there baked bread for the peasant-fellows and peasant-wives. For you must know that this foremost writer of the Netherlands was once a baker and stood daily at sunrise, bare-chested, before his glowing oven, drawing bread for the folk of his village. The stories and sketches in the present volume all belong to that period.
Of their number, Christmas Night, A Pipe or no Pipe, On Sundays and The End have appeared in the Fortnightly Review, which was the first to give Stijn Streuvels the hospitality of its pages; In Early Winter and White Life in the English Review; The White Sand-path in the Illustrated London News; An Accident in Everyman; and Loafing in the Lady's Realm. The remainder are now printed in English for the first time.
ALEXANDER TEIXEIRA DE MATTOS.
Chelsea, April, 1915.
* * * * *
I. THE WHITE SAND-PATH
II. IN EARLY WINTER.
III. CHRISTMAS NIGHT.
VI. IN THE SQUALL
VII. A PIPE OR NO PIPE
VIII. ON SUNDAYS
IX. AN ACCIDENT
X. WHITE LIFE
XI. THE END.
* * * * *
THE WHITE SAND-PATH
* * * * *
THE WHITE SAND-PATH
I was a devil of a scapegrace in my time. No tree was too high for me, no water too deep; and, when there was mischief going, I was the ring-leader of the band. Father racked his head for days together to find a punishment that I should remember; but it was all no good: he wore out three or four birch-rods on my back; his hands pained him merely from hitting my hard head; and bread and water was a welcome change to me from the everyday monotony of potatoes and bread-and-butter. After a sound drubbing followed by half a day's fasting, I felt more like laughing than like crying; and, in half a while, all was forgotten and my wickedness began afresh and worse than ever.
One summer's evening, I came home in fine fettle. I and ten of my school-fellows had played truant: we had gone to pick apples in the priest's orchard; and we had pulled the burgomaster's calf into the brook to teach it to swim, but the banks were too high and the beast was drowned. Father, who had heard of these happenings, laid hold of me in a rage and gave me a furious trouncing with a poker, after which, instead of turning me into the road, as his custom was, he caught me up fair and square, carried me to the loft, flung me down on the floor and bolted the trap-door behind him.
In the loft! Heavenly goodness, in the loft!
Of an evening I never dared think of the place; and in bright sunshine I went there but seldom and then always in fear.
I lay as dead, pinched my eyes to and pondered on my wretched plight. 'Twas silent all around; I heard nothing, nothing. That lasted pretty long, till I began to feel that the boards were so hard and that my body, which had been thrashed black and blue, was hurting me. My back was stiff and my arms and legs grew cold. And yet I nor wished nor meant to stir: that was settled in my head. In the end, it became unbearable: I drew in my right leg, shifted my arm and carefully opened my eyes. 'Twas so ghastly, oh, so frightfully dark and warm: I could see the warm darkness; so funny, that steep, slanting tiled roof, crossed by black rafters, beams and laths, and all that space beyond, which disappeared in the dark ridgework: 'twas like a deserted, haunted booth at a fair, during the night. Over my head, like threatening blunderbusses, old trousers and jackets hung swinging, with empty arms and legs: they looked just like fellows that had been hanged! And it grew darker, steadily darker.
My eyes stood fixed and I heard my breath come and go. I pondered how 'twould end here. That lasting silence affrighted me; the anxious waiting for that coming night: to have to spend a long, long night here alone! My hair itched and pricked on my head. And the rats! I gave a great loud scream. It rang in anguish through the sloping vault of the loft. I listened as it died away ... and nothing followed. I screamed again and again and went on, till my throat was torn.
The gruesome thought of those rats and of that long night drove me mad with fear. I rolled about on the floor, I struck out with my arms and legs, like one possessed, in violent, childish fury. Then, worn out, I let my arms and legs rest; at last, tired, swallowed up in my helplessness, left without will or feeling, I waited for what was to come. I had terribly wicked thoughts: of escaping from the house, of setting fire to the house, of murder! I was an outcast, I was being tortured. I should have liked to show them what I could do, who I was; to see them hunting for me and crying; and then to run away, always farther away, and never come back again.
Downstairs, the plates and forks were clattering for supper. I was not hungry; I did not wish nor mean to eat. I heard soft, quiet voices talking: that made me desperate; they were not speaking of me! They had no thought nor care for the miscreant; they would liefst have him dead, out of the way. And I was in the loft!
Later, very much later, I heard my little brother's voice saying evening prayers—I would not pray—and then I heard nothing more, nothing; and I lay there, upstairs, lonely and forlorn....
I walked all alone in the forest, through the brushwood. 'Twas half-dark below; but, above the bushes, the sun was playing as through a green curtain. I went on and on. The bushes here grew thick now and the tiny path was lost. After long creeping and stumbling, I leapt across a ditch and entered the wide drove. It did not seem strange to me that 'twas even darker here and that the light, instead of from above, came streaming low down from between the trunks of the trees. The vault was closed leaf-tight and the trunks hung down from out of it like pillars. 'Twas silent all around. I went, as I thought that I must see the sun, round behind the trunks, half anxious at last to get out of that magic forest; but new trees kept coming up, as though out of the ground, and hid the sun. I would have liked to run, but felt I know not what in my legs that made me drag myself on.
Far beyond, on the road-side grass, sat two boys. It was ... but no, they were sitting there too glumly! I went up to them and, after all, knew them for Sarelke and Lowietje, the village-constable's children. They sat with their legs in the ditch, their elbows on their knees, earnestly chatting. I sat down beside them, but they did not even look up, did not notice me. Those two boys, my schoolmates, the worst two scamps in the village, sat there like two worn-out old fogies: they did not know me. This ought to have surprised me, and yet I thought that it must be right and that it had always been so. They chatted most calmly of the price of marbles, of the way to tell the best hoops, of buying a new box of tin soldiers; and they mumbled their words as slowly as the priest in his pulpit. I became uncomfortable, felt ill at ease in that stifling air, under that half-dusk of the twilight, where everything was happening so earnestly, so very slowly and so heavily. I, who was all for sport and child's-play, now found my own chums so altered; and they no longer knew me. I would have liked to shout, to grip them hard by the shoulder and call out that it was I: I, I, I! But I durst not, or could not.
"There—comes—the—keeper," droned Sarelke.
Lowietje looked down the drove with his great glassy eyes. The two boys stood up and, without speaking, shuffled away. I saw them get smaller and smaller, till they became two black, hovering little specks that vanished round the bend.
I was alone again! Alone, with all those trees, in that frightful silence all around me. And the keeper, where was he? He would come, I knew it; and I felt afraid of the awful fellow. I must get away from this, I must hide myself. I lay down, very slowly, deep in the ditch. I now felt that I had been long, long dead and that I was lying here alone, waiting for I forget what. That keeper: was there such a person? He now seemed to me an awesome clod of earth, which came rolling down, slowly but steadily, and which would fall heavily upon me. Then he turned into a lovely white ashplant, which stood there waving its boughs in a stately manner. I would let him go past and then would go away. People were waiting for me, I had to be somewhere: I tried mightily to remember where, but could not.
The keeper did not come.
The ditch was cold, the bottom was of smooth, worn stone and very hard. I lay there with gleaming eyes: above my head stood the giant oaks, silently, and their knotted branches ran up and were lost in the dark sky.
The keeper came, I heard his coming; and the wind blew fearfully through the trees. I shivered....
I woke with fright and I was still lying in my loft. The hard bottom of the ditch was the boarded floor and the tree-trunks were the legs of father's trousers and the branches ran up and were lost in the darksome roofwork. Two sharp rays of light beamed through the shut dormer-window. It must be day then! And this awful night was past! All my dismay was gone and a bold feeling came over me, something like the feeling of gladness that follows on a solved problem. I would make Lowietje and Sarelke and all the boys at school hark to my tale, that I would! I had slept a whole night alone in the loft! And the rats! And the ghosts! Ooh! And not a whit afraid!
I got up, but that was such a slow business. I still felt that dream and that slackness in my limbs. I was so stiff; that heavy gloom, that slow passing of time still lingered—just as in my dream—in my slow breathing. I still saw that forest and, shut up as I was, with not a single touchstone for my thoughts, I began to doubt if my dream was done and I had to feel the trouser-legs to make sure that they were not really trees.
Time stood still and there was no getting out of my mind the strange things seen in that dream-forest, with those earnest, sluggish, elderly children and that queer keeper. 'Twas as though some one were holding my arms and legs tight to make them move heavily, deadly heavily; and I felt myself, within my head, grown quite thirty years older, become suddenly an old man. I walked about the loft; I wanted to make myself heard, but my footsteps gave no sound.
I grew awfully hungry. Near the ladder-door, I found my prison fare. I nibbled greedily at my crust of bread and took a good drink of water.
I now felt better, but this doing nothing wearied me; I became sad and felt sorry to be sitting alone. If things had gone their usual gait, I should now be with my mates at school or playing somewhere under the open sky; and that open sky now first revealed all its delightfulness. The usual gait, when all was said, was by far the best.... All alone like this, up here.... Should I go down and beg father's pardon? Then 'twould all be over and done with....
"No!" said something inside me, "I stay here!"
And I stayed.
I shoved a box under the dormer-window, I pushed open the wooden shutter ... and there! Before me lay the wide stretch in the blazing sunlight! My eyes were quite blind with it.
'Twas good up here and funny to see everything from so high up, so endlessly far! And the people were no bigger than tiny tadpoles!
Just under my dormer-window came a path, a white sand-path winding from behind the house and then running forwards to the horizon in a line straight as an arrow. It looked like a naked strip of ground, powdered white and showing up sharply, like a flat snake, in the middle of the green fields which, broken into their many-coloured squares, lay blinking in the sun.
This path was deserted, lonely, as though nor man nor beast had ever trodden it. It lay very near the house and I did not know it from up here; it looked now like a long strip of drab linen, which lay bleaching in a boundless meadow. And that again suited my loneliness so well! At last, I looked and saw nothing more. And that path!...
Slowly, overcome by that silent, restful idleness, I fell a-dreaming; and that path, that long, white path seemed to me to have become a part of my own being, something like a life that began over there, far away yonder in the clear blue, to end in the unknown, here, behind the gable-end, cut off at that fatal bend.
After long looking, I saw something, very far off; it came so slowly, so softly, like a thing that grows, and those two little black patches grew into two romping schoolboys, who, rolling and leaping along, came running down the white sand-path and, at last, disappeared in the bend behind the gable-end.
Then, for another long while, nothing more, nothing but sand, green and sunshine.
Later, 'twas three labourers, who came stepping up briskly, with their gear over their shoulders. Half-way up the path, they jumped across the ditch and went to work in the field. They toiled on, without looking up or round, toiled on till I got tired of watching and tired of those three stooping men and of seeing that gleaming steel flicker in the sun and go in and out of the earth.
When now 'twas mid-day and fiercely hot in my loft, my three labourers sat down behind a tree and ate their noonday meal.
I went to the loft-door and devoured my second crust of bread and took a fresh gulp of water.
Very calmly, without thinking, lame with the heat and with that old-man's feeling still inside me, I went and sat at the window.
The three men worked on, always, without stopping.
And that went on, went on, until the evening! When 'twas nearly dark, they gathered up their tools, jumped over the ditch, walked down the path the way they had come and disappeared behind the gable-end.
Now it became deadly.
In the distance appeared a great black patch, which came slowly nearer and nearer. The patch turned into a lazy, slow-stepping ox, with a jolting, creaking waggon, in which sat a little old man who gazed stupidly in front of him into the dark distance. The cart dragged along wearily, creeping through the sand, and first the ox, then the little fellow, then the waggon disappeared behind the gable-end.
Now I felt something like fear and I shivered: the evening was coming so slowly, so sadly; and I dared not think of the night that was to follow. 'Twas the first time in my life that I fell earnestly a-thinking. So that path there became a life, a long-drawn-out, earnest life.... That was quite plain in my head; and those boys had rolled and tumbled along that path; next, those big men had burdensomely, most burdensomely turned over their bit of earth; and the ox and the little old fellow had joggled along it so piteously.... That life was so earnest and I had seen it all from so far, from the outside of it: I did nothing, I took no part in it and yet I lived ... and must also one day go along that path!
Getting up in the morning, eating, playing, going to school, misbehaving, playing, eating, sleeping....
The mist rose out of the fields and I saw nothing more.
I jumped off my box, begged father's pardon and crept into bed.
Never again was I shut up in the loft.
* * * * *
IN EARLY WINTER
* * * * *
IN EARLY WINTER
First the leaves had become pale, deathly pale; later they turned yellow-brown; and then they went fluttering and flickering, so wearily, so slackly, like the wings of dying birds; and, one after the other, they began to fall, dancing gently downwards, in eddies. They whirled in the air, were carried on by the wind and at last fell dead and settled somewhere in the mud.
Not a living thing was to be seen and the cottages that sat huddled close to the ground remained fast shut; the smoke from the chimneys alone still gave a sign of life.
The green drove now stood bare and bleak: two rows of straight trunks which grew less and faded away in the blue mist.
Yonder comes something creeping up: a shapeless thing, like two little black stripes, with something else; and it approaches....
At last and at length, out of those little stripes, appear a man and a wife; and, out of the other thing, a barrel-organ on a cart, with a dog between the wheels.
It all looked the worse for wear. The little fellow went bent between the shafts and tugged; the little old woman's lean arms pushed against the organ-case; and the wheeled thing jolted on like that over the cart-ruts, along the drove and through the wide gate of an honest homestead.
A flight of black crows sailed across the sky. The wind soughed through the naked tree-tops; the mist rose and the world thinned away in a bluey haze; this all vanished and slowly it became dark black night.
Man, woman and dog, they crept, all three, high into the loft and deep into the hay; and they dozed away, like all else outside them and around. Warm they lay there! And dream they did, of the cold, of the dark and of the sad moaning wind!
At early morning, before it was bright day, they were on the tramp, over the fallow fields, and drowned in a huge sea of thick blue mist. They pulled for all they could: the little fellow in the shafts, the little old woman behind the cart and the dog, with his head to the ground, for the road's sake.
A red glow broke in the east and a new day brightened. 'Twas all white, snow-white, as if the blue mist had bleached, melted and stuck fast on the black fields, on the half-withered autumn fruits and on the dark fretwork of the trees. Great drops dripped from the boughs.
From under the peak of his cap, the fellow peered into the distance with his one eye, and he saw a church and houses. They went that way.
'Twas low-roofed cottages they saw, all covered with hoar-frost; here and there stood one alone and then a whole little row, crowded close together: a street.
They were in the village.
It was lone and still, like a cloister, with here a little woman who, tucked into her hooded cloak, crept along the houses to the church; there a smith who hammered ... and the little church-bell, which tinkled over the house-tops.
They stopped. The dog sat down to look. The little fellow threw off his shoulder-strap, pulled his cap down lower and felt under the red-brown organ-cloth for the handle. He gave a look at the houses that stood before him, pinched his sunken mouth, wiped the seam of his sleeve over his face and started grinding. Half-numbed sounds came trickling into the chill street from under the organ-cloth: a sad—once, perhaps, dance-provoking—tune, which now, false, dragging and twisted out of shape, was like a muddled crawling of sounds all jumbled up together; some came too soon, the others too late, as in a weariful dream; and, in between, a sighing and creaking which came from very deep down, at each third or fourth turn, and was deadened again at once in those ever-recurring rough organ-sounds or dragged on and deafened in a mad dance. 'Twas like a poor little huddled soul uttering its plaint amid the hullabaloo of rude men shouting aloud in the street.
The dog also had begun to howl when the tune started.
The little wife had settled her kerchief above her sharp-featured old-wife's face; and, with one hand in her apron-pocket and the other holding a little tin can, she now went from door to door:
"For the poor blind man.... God reward you."
And this through the whole street and farther, to the farmhouses, from the one to the other, all day long, till evening fell again and that same thick mist came to wrap everything in its grey, dark breath.
And again they wandered, through a drove, to a homestead and into the hay.
"The dog has pupped," said the little old woman; and she shook her man.
And he turned in the nest which he had made for himself, pushed his head deeper in the hay and drowsed on. He dreamt of dogs and of pups and of organs and of ear-splitting yelps and howls.
The dog lay in a fine, round little nest of his own, rolled into a ball and moaning. And he looked so sadly and kindly into the little old woman's eyes; and he licked, never stopped licking his puppies. They were like three red-brown moles, each with a fat head; they wriggled their thick little bodies together and sought about and squeaked.
 The West-Fleming talks of dogs of either sex invariably as "he."
When the tramps had swallowed their slice of rye-bread and their dish of porridge, they went on, elsewhither. The little fellow tugged, the little old woman pushed and the dogs hung swinging between the wheels, in a fig-basket. So they went begging, from hamlet to hamlet, the wide world through: an old man and woman, with their organ; and a dog with his three young pups.
* * * * *
The thick mist had changed into bright, glittering dewdrops and the sun shone high in the heaven. Now four dogs lay harnessed to the cart, four red-brown dogs. And, when the handle turned and the organ played, all those four dogs lifted their noses on high and howled uglily.
Inside, deep-hidden under the organ-cloth, sat the little soul, the mysterious, shabby little organ-soul, grown quite hoarse now and almost dumb.
* * * * *
* * * * *
Over there, high up among the pines, stood the house where he lived alone with the trees and the birds; and there, every morning, he saw the sun rise and, in the evening, sink away again. And for how many years!
In summer, the white clouds floated high over his head; the blackbirds sang in the wood around his door; and before him, in a blue vista, lay the whole world.
When his harvest was gathered and the days drew in, when the sky closed up, when the dry pines shook and rocked in the sad wind and the crows dropped like black flakes and came cawing over the fields, he closed his windows and sat down in the dark to brood.
He must go down yonder now, to the village below.
He fetched his Christmas star from the loft, restuck the gold flowers and paper strips and fastened them in the cleft of the long wand. Then he put on his greatcoat, drew the hood over his head and went.
From behind the black clouds came a light, a dull copper glow, without rays, high up where the stars were; it set golden edges to the hem of the clouds; the heaven remained black. There appeared a little streak of glowing copper, which grew and grew, became a sickle, a half-disk and at last a great, round, giant gold moon, which rose and rose. It went up like a huge round orange behind the heaven and, more and more swiftly, shot up into the sky, growing smaller and smaller, till it became just a common moon, the laughing moon among the stars.
He alone had seen it.
Now he took his star on his shoulder, pulled his hood deep over his head and wandered down the little path, all over the snow, to where the lights were burning. It was lonely, lifeless, that white plain under that burnished sky; and he was all alone, the black fellow on the snow. And he saw the world so big, so monotonously bleak; a flat, white wilderness, with here and there a straight, thin poplar and a row of black, lean, knotty willows.
He went down towards the lights.
The village lay still. The street was black with people. Great crowds of womenfolk, tucked and muffled in black hooded cloaks, tramped as in a dream along the houses, over the squeaking snow. They shuffled from door to door, stuck out their bony hands and asked plaintively for their God's-penny. They disappeared at the end of the street and went trudging into the endless moonlight.
Children went with lights and stars and stood gathered in groups, their black faces glowing in the shine of their lanterns; they made a huge din with their tooting-horns and rumble-pot and sang of
The Babe born in the straw
The shepherds they come here. They're bringing wood and fire And this and that and t'other: Now bring us a pot of beer.
 A cow's horn fitted with a mouthpiece.
 An iron pot with a bladder stretched across the top, beaten with sticks, like a drum.
Mad Wanne went alone; she kept on lurching across the street with her long legs, which stuck out far from under her skirt, and held her arms wide open under her hooded cloak, like a demon bat. She snuffled something about:
'Twas hailing, 'twas snowing and 'twas bad weather And over the roofs the wind it flew. Saint Joseph said to Mary Maid: "Mary, what shall we do?"
Top Dras, Wulf and Grendel, three fellows, tall as trees, were also loafing round. They were the three Kings: Top had turned his big jacket and blackened his face; Grendel wore a white sheet over his back and blew the horn; and Wulf had a mitre on and carried a great star with a lantern on a stick. So they dragged along the street, singing at every door:
Three Kings with a star Came travelling from afar, Over mountains, hills and dale, To go and look In every nook, To go and look for the Lord of All.
Their rough voices droned and three great shadows walked far ahead of them on the white street-snow. All those people came and went and twisted and turned and came and went again. Each sang his own little song and fretted his whining prayer. Above all this rose the dull toot of the baker's horn, as he kept on shouting:
"Hot bread! Hot bread!"
High hung the moon and blinked the stars; and fine white shafts fell through the air, upon everything around, like silver pollen.
"Maarten of the mountain!" whispered the children behind the window. "Maarten the Freezyman!"
 A legendary figure of a snow-covered bogie, who comes down to the villages at Christmas-time and runs away with the children.
And they crept back into the kitchen, beside the fire.
And the black man stood outside the door, tugging at the string of his twirling star, and sang through his nose:
Come, star, come, star, you must not so still stand! You must go with me to Bethlehem Land, To Bethlehem, that comely city, Where Mary sits with her Babe on her knee....
Along the country-roads, the farmhouses stood snowed in, with black window-shutters, which showed dark against the walls and shut in the light, and stumpy chimneys, with thick smoke curling from them. Indoors, there was no seeing clearly: the lamp hung from the ceiling in a ring of steam and smoke and everything lay black and tumbled. In the hearth, the yule-log lay blazing. The farmer's wife baked waffles and threw them in batches on the straw-covered floor.
In one corner, under the light and wound from head to foot in tobacco-smoke, were the farm-hands, playing cards. They sat wrapped up in their game, bending over their little table, very quiet. Now and then came a half-oath and the thud of a fist on the table and then again peaceful shuffling and stacking and playing of their cards.
The Freezyman sat in the midst of the children, who listened open-mouthed to his tale of The Mighty Hunter.
His star stood in the corner.
Later, the big table was drawn out and supper served. All gathered round and sat down and ate. First came potatoes and pork, red kale and pigs' chaps, then stewed apples and sausages ... and waffles, waffles, waffles. They drank beer out of little glass mugs. The table was cleared, coffee poured out, spirits fetched from the cupboard and gin burnt with sugar. Then the chairs were pushed close, right round the hearth, and Maarten stood up, took his star, smoothed his long beard and, keeping time by tugging the string of his star, droned out:
On Christmas night Is Jesus born To fight our fight Against the night Of Satan and his devil-spawn. And a manger is His cot And all humble is His lot; So, mortal, make you humble, too, To serve Him Who thus served you.
Three wise men and each a king Come to make Him offering; Gold, frankincense and myrrh they bring. Angels sweet Kiss His feet, As they sing: "Hail, Lord and King!" Telling all mankind the story Of His wonder and His glory; So, mortal, make you humble, too, To serve Him Who thus served you.
All else was still. The men sat drinking their hot gin, the children listened with their heads on one side and the farmer's wife, with her hands folded over her great lap, sat crying.
The door opened and the Kings stood in the middle of the floor. They were white with snow and their faces blue with cold; the ice hung from Grendel's moustache. They looked hard under their hats at the table, the hearth and the little glasses and at Maarten, who was still standing up. Wulf made his star turn, Top banged his rumble-pot to time and they sang:
Three Kings came out of the East; 'Twas to comfort Mary....
When the song was ended, each got two little glasses; then they could go.
Grendel cursed aloud.
"That damned hill-devil swallows it all up," muttered Wulf.
And they went off through the snow.
The others sang and played and played cards for ever so long and 'twas late when Maarten took his star and, with a "Good-night till next year," pulled the door behind him.
It was still light outside, but the sky hung full of snow; above, a grey fleece and, lower, a swirl of great white flakes, which fell down slowly swarming one on top of the other.
He plunged deep into it.... It was still so far to go; and his house and his pines, he had left them all so far behind.
He was so old, so lone; it was so cold; and all the roads were white ... all sky and snow. In the hollow lay the village: a little group of sleeping houses round the white church-steeple; and behind it lay his mountain, but it was like a cloud, a shapeless monster, very far away.
Above his head, stars, stars in long rows. He stood still and looked up and found one which he saw every evening, a pale, dead star, like an old acquaintance, which would lead him—for the last time, perhaps—back to his mountain, back home.
And he trudged on.
There was a light in the three narrow pointed windows of the chapel and the bell tinkled within. He went to rest a bit against the wall. What a noise and what a bustle all the evening ... and the gin! And those rough chaps had looked at him so brutally. In there, it was still; those windows gleamed so brightly; and, after the sound of the bell, there came so softly a woman's voice:
Then all was silence, the lights went out. And he fared on.
The village lay behind him and the road began to climb. There, on the right, stood "The Jolly Hangman." Now he knows his way and 'tis no longer far from home. From out of the ditch comes something creeping, a black shape that runs across the plain, chattering like a magpie: Mad Wanne, with her thin legs and her cloak wide open. She ran as fast as she could run and vanished behind the inn.
He had started; he became so frightened, so uneasy, that he hastened his steps and longed to be at home.
There was still a light in "The Jolly Hangman" and a noise of drunken men. He passed, but then turned back again ... to sing his last song, according to old custom. They opened the door and asked him in. He saw Grendel sitting there and tried to get away. Then the three of them rushed out and called after him. When they saw that he went on, they broke into a run:
"Stop, you brute!... Here, you with your star!... Oh, you damned singer of songs!" they howled and ran and caught him and threw him down.
Grendel dug his knee into his chest and held his arms stretched wide against the ground. Wulf and Dras gripped whole handfuls of snow and crammed it into his mouth and went on until all his face was thickly covered and he lay powerless. Then they planted his star beside him in the snow and began to turn and sing to the echo:
A, a, a—glory be to Him on high to-day! E, e, e—upon earth peace there shall be! I, i, i—come and see with your own eye! O, o, o—His little bed of straw below!
Like a flash, Mad Wanne shot past, yelling and shrieking. Wulf flung his stick against her legs. She waved her arms under her cloak and vanished in the dark.
The three men sat down by the ditch and laughed full-throated. Then they started for the village. Long it rang:
Three Kings came out of the East; 'Twas to comfort Mary ...
Great white flakes fell from the starry sky, wriggled and swarmed, one on top of the other.
* * * * *
* * * * *
He went, ever on the move, with the slow, shuffling step of wandering beggars who are nowhere at home.
They had discharged him, some time ago, and now he was walking alone like a wild man. For whole days he had dragged himself through the moorland, from farm to farm, looking for his bread like the dogs. Now he came to a wide lane of lime-trees and before him lay the town, asleep. He went into it. The streets lay dead, the doors were shut, the windows closed: all the people were resting; and he loafed. It was dreary, to walk alone like that, all over the country-side, and with such a body: a giant with huge legs and arms, which were doomed to do nothing, and that belly, that craving belly, which he carried about with him wherever he went.
And nobody wanted him: 'twas as though they were afraid of his strong limbs and his stubborn head—because his glowing eyes could not entreat meekly enough—and his blackguardly togs....
Morning came; the working-folk were early astir. Lean men and pale women, carrying their kettles and food-satchels in their hands, beat the slippery pavements with their wooden shoes. Doors and windows flew open; life began; every one walked with a busy air, knew where he was going; and they vanished here and there, through a big gate or behind a narrow door that shut with a bang. Carts with green stuff, waggons with sand and coal drove this way and that. Fellows with milk and bread went round; and it grew to a din of calls and cries, each shouting his loudest.
And he loafed. Nobody looked at him, noticed him or wanted him. In the middle of the forenoon, a young lady had stared at him for a long time and said to her mother:
"What a huge fellow!"
He had heard her and it did him good. He looked round, but mother and daughter were gone, behind a corner, and stood gazing into a shop full of bows and ribbons.
It began to whirl terribly in his belly; and his stomach hurt him so; and his legs were tired.
The streets and houses and all those strange people annoyed him. He wanted to get away, far away, and to see men like himself: workers without work, who were hungry!
He looked for the narrow alleys and the poor quarter.
Out of a side-street a draycart came jogging along. Half a score of labourers lay tugging in the shoulder-strap or leant with all the force of their bodies against the cart, which rolled on toilsomely. 'Twas a load of flax, packed tightly in great square bales standing one against the other, the whole cart full. The dray caught its right wheel in the grating of an open gutter and remained stock-still, leaning aslant, as though planted there. The workmen racked and wrung to get the wheel out, but it was no good. Then they stood there, staring at one another, at their wits' end and throwing glances into the eyes of that big fellow who had come to look on. Without saying or speaking, he caught a spoke in either hand, pressed with his mighty shoulder against the inside of the wheel, bent and wrung and in a turn brought the cart on the level. Then he went behind among the other workmen to go and help them shove. They looked at him queerly, as if to say that they no longer needed his help and had rather done without him. The cart rolled on, another street or two, and then through the open gate of the warehouse. The labourers looked into one another's eyes uneasily, moved about, pulled the bales off the cart and dragged them a little farther along the wall. Then they tailed off, one by one, through a small inner door; and he stood there alone, like a fool. A bit later, he heard them laugh and whisper under their breaths. When he was tired of waiting, he went up the street again.
Nobody, nobody, nobody wanted him!
He ground his teeth and clenched his fists. In the street through which he had to go, on the spaces outside the hotels sat ladies and gentlemen toying with strange foods and sipping their wine out of long goblets. They chattered gaily and tasted and pecked with dainty lips and turned-up noses. The waiters ran here, there, like slaves. Those coaxing smells stung like adders and roused evil thoughts in his brain. His stomach fretted awfully and his empty head turned.
He hurried away.
In a street with windowless house-fronts, a street without people in it, he felt better. He let his body lean against the iron post of a gas-lamp, stuck his hands in his trouser-pockets and stood there looking at the paving-stones. Now he was damned if he would take another step, he would rather croak here like a beast; then they would have to take him up and know that he existed.
The boys coming from school mocked him; they danced in a ring, with him, the big fellow, in the middle. They hung paper flags on his back and sang:
Hat, hat, Ugly old hat! It serves as a slop-pail and as a hat!
He did not stir.
Yon came a milk-maid driving up in a cart drawn by dogs. He got a gnawing in his arms, a spout of blood shot to his head and he suddenly felt as if something was going to happen. Just as she drove past, he put his great hand on the edge of the little cart, with one pull took a copper can from its straw, put it to his mouth and drank; then he sent the can clattering through the window of the first-best house, till the panes rattled again. Looking round—as if bewildered and set going, roused by what he had done—he caught sight of the frightened little dairy-maid. A mocking grin played on his cruel face; he flung his rough arm round her little body and lifted the girl out of the cart right up to his face in a fierce hug.
The boys had fled shrieking. He felt two pairs of hands pulling at his sleeves from below. He loosed the girl and saw two policemen who held him fast and ordered him to go with them. They held him by the arm on either side and stepped hurriedly to keep pace with his great strides. They looked in dismay at that huge fellow, with his wicked eyes, and then at each other, as if to ask what they should do.
They came to a narrow little street, with nobody in it, and stopped at a public-house:
"Could you do with a dram, mate?" they asked him.
He looked bewildered, astounded. They all three went inside; and each of them drank a big glass of gin.
The policemen whispered something together; the elder wiped the drink from his moustache and then said, very severely:
"And now, clear out; hurry up! And mind your manners, will you, next time!"
He was outside once more, loafing on, along the houses.
* * * * *
* * * * *
Mother stood like a clucking hen among her red-cheeked youngsters. She was holding a loaf against her fat stomach and, with a curved pruning-knife, was cutting off good thick slices which the youngsters snatched away one by one and stuffed into their pockets. Horieneke fetched her basket of knitting and her school-books. She first pulled Fonske's stocking up once more, buttoned Sarelke's breeches and wiped Lowietje's nose; and, with an admonishing "Straight to school, do you hear, boys?" from mother, the whole band rushed out of the door, through the little flower-garden and up the broad unmetalled road, straight towards the great golden sun which was rising yonder, far behind the pollard alders, in a mighty fire of rays. It was cool outside; the sky was bright blue streaked with glowing shafts aslant the hazy-white clouds deep, deep in the heavens. Over the level fields, ever so far, lay a stain of pale green and brown; and the slender stalks of the wheat stood like needles, quivering in their glittering moisture. The trees were still nearly bare; and their trunks and tops stood tall and black against the clear sky; but, when you saw them together, in rows or little clusters, there was a soft yellow-green colour over them, spotted with gleaming buds ready to burst. A soft wind, just warm enough to thaw the frost, worked its way into and through everything and made it all shake and swarm till it was twisted full of restless, growing life. That wind curled through the youngsters' tangled hair and coloured their round cheeks cherry-red. They ran and romped through the dry sand, stamping till it flew above their heads. They were mad with enjoyment.
Trientje stood in the doorway, in her little shirt, with her stomach sticking out, watching her brothers as they disappeared; and, when she saw them no longer, she thrust her fists into her sockets, opened her mouth wide and started a-crying, until mother's hands lifted her up by the arms and mother's thick lips gave her a hearty kiss.
Horieneke came walking step by step under the lime-trees, along the narrow grass-path beside the sand, keeping her eyes fixed on the play of her knitting-needles. When she reached the bridge that crossed the brook, she looked round after her brothers. They had run down the slope and were now trotting wildly one after the other through the rich brown grass, pulling up all the white and yellow flowers, one by one, till their arms were crammed with them. Horieneke took out her catechism, laid it open on the low rail and sat there cheerfully waiting. Sarelke had crept through the water-flags until he was close to the brook and, through the clear, gleaming blue water, watched a little fish frisking about. In a moment, his wooden shoes and his stockings were off and one leg was in the water, trying it: it was cold; and he felt a shiver right down his back. Ripples played on the smooth blue and widened out to the bank. The little fish was gone, but so was the cold; and he saw more fish, farther away: quick now, the other leg in the water! He pulled his breeches up high and there he stood, with the water well above his knees, peering out for fish. The water was clear as glass; and he saw swarms of them playing, darting swiftly up and down, to and fro like arrows: they shot past in shoals that held together like long snakes, in among the moss and the reeds and between the stones, winding through slits and crannies. He shouted aloud for joy. Bertje and Wartje and the others all had their stockings off and stood in the water bending down to look, making funnels of their hands in the water, where it rustled in little streams between two grass-sods through which the fish had to pass. Whenever they felt one wriggling in their hands they yelled and screamed and sprang out of the brook to put it into their wooden shoes, which stood on the bank, scooped full of water. There they loitered examining those beasties from close by: those fish were theirs now; and they would let them swim about in the big tub at home and give them a bit of their bread and butter every day, so that they might grow into great big pike. And now back to the runnel for more.
"Boys, I'll tell mother!" cried Horieneke.
But they did not hear and just kept on as before. Fonske had not been able to catch one yet and his fat legs were turning blue with the cold. In front of him stood Bertje, stooping and peering into the water, with his hands ready to grasp; and Fonske saw such a lovely little runnel from his neck to halfway down his back, all bare skin. He carefully scooped his hands full of water and let it trickle gently inside Bertje's shirt. The boy growled; and Fonske, screaming with laughter, skipped out of the brook. Now came a romping and stamping in the water, a dashing and splashing with their hands till it turned to a rain of gleaming drops that fell on their heads and wetted their clothes through and through. And a bawling! And a plashing with their bare legs till the spray spouted high over the bank.
"The constable!" cried Horieneke.
The sport was over. Like lightning they all sprang out of the brook, caught up their wooden shoes with the little fish in them and ran as hard as they could through the grass to the bridge. There only did they venture to look round. Hurriedly they turned down their breeches, dried their shiny cheeks and dripping hair with one another's handkerchiefs and then marched all together through the sun and wind to school.
In the village square they wandered about among the other boys, silently showed their catch, hid their shoes in the hawthorn-hedge behind the churchyard and stayed playing until schoolmaster's bell rang.
Boys and girls, each on their own side, disappeared through the gate; and the street was now silent as the grave. After a while, there came through the open window of the school first a sort of buzzing and humming and then a repetition in chorus, a rhythmical spelling aloud: b-u-t, but; t-e-r, ter: butter; B-a, Ba; b-e-l, bel: Babel; ever on and more and more noisily. In between it all, the sparrows chattered and chirped and fluttered safely in the powdery sand of the playground.
The sun was now high in the sky and the light glittered on the young leaves, full of the glad life of youth and gleaming with gold.
Horieneke, with a few more children, was in another school. They sat, the boys on one side and the girls on the other, on long benches and were wrapped up in studying their communion-book and listening to an old nun, who explained it to them in drawling, snuffling tones. After that, they had to say their lesson, one by one; and this all went so quietly, so modestly, so easily, 'twas as if they had the open book before them. Half-way through the morning, they went two and two through the village to the church, where the priest was waiting to hear their catechism. This also went quietly; and the questions and answers sounded hollow in that empty church.
Horieneke sat at the head of the girls; she had caught up almost half of them because she always knew her lessons so well and listened so attentively. She was allowed to lead the prayers and was the first examined; then she sat looking at the priest and listening to what came from his lips. He always gave her a kind smile and held her up to the others as an example of good conduct. After the catechism, they had leave to go and play in the convent-garden. In the afternoon, there were new lessons to be learnt and new explanations; and then quietly home.
So they lived quite secluded, alone, in their own little world of modesty and piety, preparing for the great day. The other youngsters, who went their several ways, felt a certain awe for these school-fellows who once used to romp and fight with them and who were now so good, so earnest, so neat in their clothes and so polite. The "first-communicants:" the word had something sacred about it which they respected; and the little ones counted on their fingers how many years they would have to wait before they too were learning their catechism and having leave to play in the convent-garden.
To her brothers Horieneke had now become a sacred thing, like a guardian angel who watched over them everywhere; and they dared do no mischief when she was by. She no longer played with them after school; she was now their "big sister," to whom they softly whispered the favours which they wished to get out of mother.
When Trientje saw her sister coming home in the distance, she put out her little arms and then would not let her go. For mother, Horieneke had to wash the dishes, darn the stockings and, when the baby cried, sit for hours rocking it in the cradle or dandling it on her lap, like a little young mother.
Holding Trientje by the hand and carrying the other on her arm, she would walk along the paths of the garden and then put them both down on the bench in the box arbour, while she tended the plants and shrubs that were beginning to shoot.
In the evening, when the bell rang for benediction, she called all her little brothers and they went off to church together. From every side came wives in hooded cloaks and lads in wooden shoes that stamped on the great floor till it echoed in the silent nave.
The choir was a semicircular, homely little chapel, with narrow pointed windows, black at this hour, like deep holes, with leads outlining saints in shapeless dark patches of colour. The altar was a mass of burning candles; and a flickering gleam fell on the brass candlesticks, the little gold leaves and the artificial flowers and on the corners of the silver monstrance, which stood glittering high up in a little white satin house. All of this was clouded in a blue smoke which rose from the holes of the censer continuously swung to and fro by the arm of a roguish serving-boy. Far at the back, in the dark, in the black stripes of shadow cast by the pillars or under the cold bright patch of a lamp or a stand of votive candles was an old wife, huddled under her hood, with bent back, praying, and here and there a troop of boys who by turns dropped their wooden shoes or fought with one another's rosaries.
Near the communion-bench knelt Horieneke, her eyes wide open, full of brightness and gladness and ecstacy, face to face with Our Lord. The incense smelt so good and the whole little church was filled with the trailing chords of the organ and with soft, plaintive Latin chant. Her lips muttered automatically and the beads glided through her fingers: numbered Hail Marys like so many roses that were to adorn her heart against the coming of the great God. Her thoughts wafted her up to Heaven in that wide temple full of glittering lights where, against the high walls full of pedestals and niches, the saints, all stiff with gold and jewels, stood smiling under their haloes and the nimble angels flew all around on their white-plaster wings. She had something to ask of every one of them and they received her prayer in turns. When the priest stood up in his gleaming silver cope, climbed the three steps and took the Blessed Sacrament in his white hands to give the benediction; when the bell tinkled and the censer flew on high and the organ opened all its throats and the glittering monstrance slowly made a cross in the air and above the heads of the worshippers, she fell forward over her praying-stool and lay like that, swooning in mute adoration, until all was silent again, the candles out and she sitting alone there in the dark with a few black shapes of cloaked women who wandered discreetly from one station of the Cross to the next. Outside she heard her brothers playing in the church-square. There she joined the little girls of her school; and, arm in arm, they walked along past the dark houses and the silent trees, each whispering her own tale: about her new dress, her veil, her white shoes, her long taper with golden bows; about flowers and beads and prayers....
After supper, Horieneke had to rock the baby to sleep, while mother moved about, and then to say the evening prayers out loud, after which they all of them went to bed. On reaching her little bedroom, she visited all the prints and images hanging on the walls. She then undressed and listened whether any one was still awake or up. Next she carefully crept down the three stairs in her little shift and clambered up the ladder to the loft, where all her little brothers lay playing in a great box-bed. They knew that she would come and had kept a place for her in the middle. She sank deep in the straw and, when they all lay still, she went on with the tale which she had broken off yesterday half-way. It was all made up of long, long stories out of The Golden Legend and wonderful adventures of far beyond the sea in unknown lands. She told it all so prettily, so leisurely; and the children listened like eager little birds. High up in the dusk of the rafters they saw all those things happening before their eyes in the black depths and saw the mad fairy-dance there, until they dreamed off for good and all and Horieneke was left the only one awake, still telling her story. Then she crept carefully back to her room and into bed, where she lay counting: how many more days, how many times sleeping and getting up and how many more lessons to learn ... and then the great day! The great day! Slowly she made all the days, with their special happenings, appear before her eyes; and she enjoyed beforehand all those beautiful things which had kept her so long a-longing. When, in her thoughts, it came to Saturday evening and at last, slowly—like a box with something wonderful inside which you daren't open—to that Sunday morning, then her heart began to flutter, a thrill ran through her body and, so that she shouldn't weep for gladness, she bit her lips, squeezed her hands between her knees and rubbed them until the ecstasy was passed and she again lay smiling in supreme content and shivering with delight.
 The bedroom behind the kitchen or living-room, in the Flemish cottages, is over the cellar; but this cellar is not entirely underground and is lighted by a very low window at the back. Consequently, the floor of the bedroom is a little higher than that of the living-room and is approached by a flight of two or three steps.
Time dragged on; cold weather came and rain and it seemed as if it never would be summer. And that constant repetition of getting up and going to bed and learning her lessons and counting the hours and the minutes became so dreary and seemed to go round and round in an endless circle.
To-day at last was the long-awaited holiday when Horieneke might go into town with mother to buy clothes. Her heart throbbed; and she walked beside mother, with eyes wide-open, looking round at every window, up one street and down another, crying aloud each time for joy when she saw pretty things displayed. They bought white slippers with little bows, a splendid wreath of white lilies of the valley, a great veil of woven lace, a white-ivory prayer-book, a mother-of-pearl rosary with a little glass peep-hole in the silver crucifix, showing all manner of pretty things. Horieneke sighed with happiness. Mother haggled and bargained, said within herself that it was "foolishness to waste all that money," but bought and went on buying; and, every time something new went into the big basket, it was:
"Don't tell father what it cost, Rieneke!"
All those pretty things were locked away in the bedroom at home and hung up in the oak press, while father was still at work.
On another evening, when mother and Horieneke were alone at home, the seamstress brought the new clothes: a whole load of white muslin in stiff white folds full of satin bows and ribbons and white lace. They had to be tried on; and Horieneke stood there, for the first time in her life, all in white, like an angel. But the happiness lasted only for a spell: there came a noise and every one in the room fled and the clothes were hastily taken off and put away.
Every day, when the boys were at school and father in the fields, neighbours came to look at the clothes. Piece after piece was carefully taken out of the press and spread out for show on the great bed. The wives felt and tested the material, examined the tucks and seams and the knots and the lining, the bows and ribbons and clapped their hands together in admiration. It became known all over the village that Horieneke would be the finest of all in the church.
The counted days crept slowly by, the sun climbed higher every day and the mornings and evenings lengthened. Things out of doors changed and grew as you looked: the young green stood twinkling on every hand; the fields lay like coloured carpets, sharply outlined; and the trees grew long, pale branches with leaves which stood out like stately plumes against the sky, so full of youth and freshness and free from dust as yet and tender. In course of time, white buds came peeping, gleaming amid the delicate young leaves, till all looked like a spotted altar-cloth: a promising splendour of white blossoms. Here and there in the garden an early flower came creeping out. Yonder, in the dark-blue wood, patches of brown and of pale colour stood out clearly, with a whole variety of vivid hues. And it had all come so unexpectedly, all of a sudden, as though, by some magic of the night, it was all set forth to adorn and grace a great festival.
In the fields, the folk were hard at work. The land was turned up and torn and broken by the gleaming plough and lay steaming in purple clods in the sun's life-giving rays. Everything swarmed with life and movement. The houses were done up and coated with fresh whitewash, the shutters painted green, till it all shouted from afar in a glad mosaic, with the blue of the sky and the young leafage of the trees, under the brown, moss-grown roofs.
And the days crept on, each counted and marked off: so many white stripes on the rafters and black stripes on the almanack; they fell away one by one and the Saturday came, the long-expected eve of the great Sunday. Quite early, before sunrise, the linen hung outside, the white smocks and shirts waving, like fluttering pennons, from the clothes-lines in the white orchard. Horieneke also was up betimes and helping mother in her work. From top to bottom everything had to be altered and done over again and cleansed. It was only with difficulty that she got to school. The last time! To-day, the great examination of conscience, the general confession and the communion-practice; and, to-night, everything to be laid out ready for to-morrow morning: all this kept running anyhow through her head and among the lines of her lesson-book.
Half-way through the morning they went to church. The children there all looked so glad, so happy and so clean and neat in their second-best clothes and so nicely washed. They now made their confessions for the last time; and it all went so pleasantly: they had done no wrong for such a long while and all their sins had already been forgiven two or three times over, yesterday and the day before. They sat in two long rows waiting their turns and thinking over, right away back to their far-off babyhood, whether nothing had been forgotten or omitted: their little hearts must be quite stainless now and pure. When they were tired of examining their consciences, they fell to praying, with their eyes fixed upon the saint who stood before them on his pedestal, or else watched the other youngsters going in and out by turns.
The little church looked its best, neat as a new pin: the floor was freshly scrubbed and the chairs placed side by side in straight rows; the brasswork shone like gold; and a new communion-cloth hung, like a snow-white barrier, in front of the sanctuary. The velvet banners were stripped of their linen covers; and the blue vases, with bright flowers and silver bunches of grapes, were put out on the altar, as on feast-days. And all of this was for to-morrow! And for them!
All the time it was deathly still, with not a sound but that of the youngsters going in and out of the creaking confessional. Now and then the church-door flapped open and banged to, when one of the children had finished and went away. Their little souls were white as new-fallen snow and bedight with indulgences and prayers. On their faces lay the fresh innocence of babes brought to baptism or of laughing angels' heads and in their wide eyes everything was reflected festively and at its best; they felt so light and lived on little but longing and a holy fear of their own worthiness: that great, incredible thing of the morrow was suddenly going to change them from children into grown-up people!
They just gave themselves time to have their dinners in a hurry; and then back to school, where they were to learn how to receive communion. A few benches placed next to one another represented the communion-rails; and there they practised the whole afternoon: with studied piety, their hands folded and their heads bowed, they learnt how to genuflect, how to rise, how to approach in ranks and return at a sign from the old nun, who tapped with a key on the arm of her chair each time that a new row of youngsters had to start, kneel or go back. In a short time this went as exactly, as evenly as could be, just like soldiers drilling. Finally, they had to recite once more their acts of faith, adoration and thanksgiving; and Horieneke and the first of the little boys had to write out on large sheets of paper the preparation and thanks which they had learnt by heart, to be read to-morrow in church. After that, they were drawn up in line and silently and mysteriously led into the convent.
The children held their breath and walked carefully down long passages, between high, white walls, past closed doors with inscriptions in Gothic letters and a smell of clean linen and apples: ever on and on, through more passages, till they reached a large hall full of chairs where Mother Prioress—a fat and stately nun, with her great big head covered by her cap and her hands in her sleeves—sat upon a throne. They had to file past her, one by one, with a low bow, and then sit down.
Mother Prioress settled herself in her seat, coughed and, in a rich, throaty voice, began by telling the youngsters how they were to address Our Lord; told stories of children who had become saints; and she ended by slowly and cautiously producing a little glass case in which a thorn out of Our Lord's crown lay exposed on a red-velvet cushion. And then they were sent home.
On the way, Horieneke came upon her brothers playing in the sand. They had scooped it up in their wooden shoes and poured it into a heap in the middle of the road and then wetted it; and now they were boring all sorts of holes in it and tunnels and passages and making it into a rats'-castle. She let them be, gathered up her little skirts, so as not to dirty them, and passed by on one side.
Mother was up to her elbows in the golden dough of the cakebread, stirring and beating and patting the jumble of eggs and flour and milk. Horieneke took the crying baby out of the cradle, shaking and tossing it in the air, and went into the garden just outside the door. The golden afternoon sun lay all around and everything was radiant with translucid green. The little path lay neatly raked and the yellow daffodils stood, like brass trumpets, closely ranked on their stalks; under the shrubs bright violets peeped out with raised eyebrows, like the grinning faces of little old wives. The whole garden was filled with a scent of fresh jasmine and a cool fragrance of cherry-blossom and peach.
It was all so still and peaceful that Horieneke, who had begun to sing, stopped in the middle and stood listening to the chaffinches and siskins chattering pell-mell.
From there she went to her little bedroom, laid the child on her bed and drew the curtains before the window which let in the sun in a thousand slender beams of dusty light. The pictures and images gleamed on the wall and the saints seemed to smile with happiness in that cool air, fragrant of gillyflowers and white jasmine. She took out her new prayer-book, flicked the silver clasp open and shut and played with the little shaft of light which the gilt edge sent running all round the white walls. Then she stood musing for a long time, gazing out through the little curtains at those white trees in blossom, around and above which the golden pollen danced, and at all that huge green field and the everlasting sun and all the blue on the horizon. And, feeling tired, she laid her head on the bed beside the baby and lingered there, dreaming of all the delight and beauty of the morrow.
Mother called her and Horieneke came down. Mam'selle Julie was there, who had promised to come and curl the child's hair. Mam'selle put on a great apron and began to undress Horieneke; then a great tub of rain-water was carried in and the girl was scrubbed and washed with scented soap till the whole tub was full of suds. Her head was washed as well and her hair plaited into little braids, which were rolled up one by one and wound in curl-papers and fastened to her head, under a net. Her cheeks and neck shone like transparent china with the rosy blood coursing underneath. When she was done, Mam'selle Julie went off to the other communicants.
The boys were lying on their backs, under the walnut-tree, talking, when Horieneke came past. They looked at the funny twists on her head and went on talking: Wartje longed most of all to put on his new breeches; Fonske was glad that Uncle Petrus was coming to-morrow and Aunt Stanske and Cousin Isidoor; Bertje because of the dog-cart and the dogs and the chance of a ride; Wartje because of all that aunt would bring with her in her great wicker basket; and Dolfke longed for father to come home from work, so that he might help to clean the rabbits.
 The Flemish low-wheeled cart drawn by dogs.
The sun played with the gold in the leaves of the walnut-tree; and the radiant tree-top was all aswarm and astir and little golden shafts were shooting in all directions. The first butterfly of the year rocked like a white flower through the air.
"I smell something!" said Dolfke.
They all sniffed and:
"Mates! They're taking the cake-bread out of the oven!"
They rushed indoors one on top of the other. On the table lay four golden-yellow brown-crusted loaves, as big as cart-wheels, steaming till the whole house smelt of them.
"First let it cool! Then you can eat it," said mother and gave each of them a flat scone.
And they trotted round the kitchen holding their treasures high above their heads and screaming with delight.
Behind the elder-hedge they heard father's voice humming:
When the sorrel shows, 'Tis then the month of May, O!...
They ran to him, took the tools out of his hands and:
"Father, the rabbits! The rabbits now, father?"
"Will it be fine weather to-morrow?" asked Horieneke.
"For sure, child: just see how clear the sun is setting."
He pointed to the west; and the boys stood on tip-toe to see the sinking, dull-glowing disk hang glittering in its gulf of orange cloud-reefs, pierced through and through with bright rays that melted away high in the pale blue and grey, while that disk hung there so calmly, as though frozen into the sky for ever.
Father had one or two things to do and then the boys might come along to the rabbits.
"The two white ones, eh, father?"
Father nodded yes; and Sarelke and Dolfke skipped along the boards to the hutch and came back each carrying a long white rabbit by the ears.
Dolfke held his close to the ground, hidden behind a tree, so that it shouldn't see the other's blood and foresee its own death. While father was sharpening his knife, Fonske took a cord and tied the hind-legs of Sarelke's rabbit and hung it, head down, on a nail under the eaves. Father struck it behind the ears so that it was dazed and, rolling its eyes, remained hanging stock-still. Before it had time to scream, the knife was in its neck and the throat was cut open. A little stream of dark blood trickled to the ground and clotted; and some of it hung like an icicle from the beard, which dripped incessantly with red drops.
Fonske carefully put his finger to the rabbit's nose and licked off a drop of blood.
"It's going home," said Sarelke.
"Is it dead, father?" sighed Wartje.
"Stone-dead, my boy."
He ripped one buttock with his knife and pulled off the skin; then the other, so that the blue flesh was laid bare and the little purple veins. One more tug and the creature hung disfigured beyond all knowledge, in its bare buttocks and its fat, bulging paunch, with its head all over blood and its eyes sticking out. The belly and breast were cut open from end to end and the guts removed; the gall-bladder was flung into the cess-pool; two bits of stick, to keep the hind-legs and the skin of the stomach apart, and the thing was done. The other was treated likewise; and the two rabbits hung skinned and cleaned, stiffening high up on the gable-end.
Meanwhile mother had got supper ready: a heap of steaming potatoes soaking in melted butter and, after that, bread-and-butter and a pan of porridge. Horieneke, by way of a treat, got a couple of eggs and a slice of the new cakebread; and she sat enjoying this at the small table. After supper, the boys had to be washed and cleaned. They started undressing here and undressing there; serge breeches and jackets flew over the floor; and one after the other they were taken in hand by mother, beside a kettle of water, where they were rubbed and rinsed with foaming soap-suds. Then each was given a clean shirt; and away to bed with them! They jumped and, with their shirt-tails waving behind them, skipped about and smacked one another until father came along and stopped their game. Mother had still her floor to scrub; and Horieneke read out evening prayers while the boys knelt beside their bed.
Now all grew still. Father smoked a pipe and took a stroll in the moonlight through the orchard, where he had always something to look after or to do. Indoors the broom went steadily over the floor; whole kettlefuls of water were poured out and swept away and rubbed dry. Then the stove was lit; and, while mother blacked the shoes, father made the coffee. They mumbled a bit together—about to-morrow's doings, about the children, the work, the hard times and their troublesome landlord, the farmer of the woodside—when there came a noise from the little bedroom and the door creaked softly. Horieneke suddenly appeared in the middle of the floor in her little nightgown; and, before father and mother had got over their surprise, the child was on her knees, asking:
"Forgive me, father and mother, for all the wrong that I have done you in my life; and I promise you now to be always good and obedient...."
Mother was furious at first; and then, at the sight of the kneeling figure and the sound of the tearful little voice, her anger fell and she felt like crying. Father hated all that sentimental rubbish:
"Come, you baggage, quick to bed!... Forgive you? What for?... Nonsense, nonsense!"
The child kept on weeping:
"Father, please, it's my first communion to-morrow and we must first receive forgiveness: Sister at school said so...."
"The sisters at school are mad! And they'll make you mad too! To bed with you now, d'you hear?"
Mother could stand it no longer; she sobbed aloud, took Horieneke under the arms and lifted her to her breast. She felt a lump in her throat and could hardly get out her words:
"It's all forgiven, my darling. God bless you and keep you! And now go quick to bed; you have to be up early to-morrow."
Horieneke put her arm over mother's shoulders and whispered softly in her ear:
"I have something else to ask you, mother. All the children's parents are going to communion to-morrow: shall you too, mother?"
"Make your heart easy, dear; it'll be all right."
"Mother, will you call me in good time to-morrow morning?"
"Yes, yes; go to bed."
The house grew quiet as the grave; and soon a manifold snoring and grunting sounded all through the bedroom and the loft. Outside it was twilight and the blossoms shone pale white in the orchard. The crickets chirped far and near....
This was the last evening and morning: when it was once more so late and dark, everything would be over and done! All those days, all that long array of light and darkness, of learning and repeating lessons—a good time nevertheless—was past and gone; and, now that the great thing, always so remote, so inaccessible, was close at hand, she was almost sorry that the longing and the aching were to cease and she almost felt afraid. Should she dare to sleep to-night? No. 'Twas so good to lie awake thinking; and she had still so much praying to do: her heart was still far from ready and prepared.
"O God, I am a poor little child and Thou art willing to come to me.... Dear Virgin Mary, make my soul as pure as snow, so that it may become a worthy dwelling-place for thy Divine Son."
The white dress now lay spread out upon the best bed in the big bedroom and her wreath too, with all the rest. She already saw herself clad in all that white wealth like a little queen, standing laughing through her golden curls! She felt the little knots of paper on her head; to-morrow they would be released and would open into a cloud of ringlets; and the people, who would all look at her; and aunt.... Now just to recite her words once more for to-morrow in church.... And that pretty picture which the priest would give her.... Was she sure that nothing was forgotten? Just let her think again: and her candle-cloth? Yes, that was there too.... What could the time be? The clock was ticking like a heavy chap's footstep downstairs in the kitchen. It was deathly quiet everywhere. Now she would lie and wait until the clock struck, so that she might know how long it would be before it grew light. Her eyes were so tired and all sorts of things were walking higgledy-piggledy up the white wall....
Then, in the solemn stillness, the nightingale began to sing. Three clear notes rang out from the echoing coppice; it was like the voice of the organ in a great church. It sounded over the fields, to die away in a low, hushed fluting. Now, louder and staccato, like a spiral stair of metallic sound, the notes rang out, high and low alternately, in quickening time, a running, rustling and rioting, with long-drawn pipings, wonderfully sweet, that rose in a storm of bell-like tinklings, limpid as water, with a strength, a violence, a precision exceeding the music of a hundred thousand tipsy carrillons pealing through the silent night. And now again the notes were softly weaving their fabric of sound: bewitchingly quiet, intimately sweet, musingly careful, like the music of tiny glass bells; and once more they were louder and again they fainted away, borne on the still wind like the murmur of angels praying.
The blue velvety canopy was stretched on high, studded with twinkling stars; and all about the country-side the trees stood white. On the winding paths, among the pinks, anemones, guelder-roses and jasmine-bushes, walked stately white figures in trailing garments, with wreaths of white roses and yellow flowers gleaming on their golden tresses, which they shook out over their white shoulders. All the world was one pure vista full of blue, curling mist and fresh, untasted fragrance. A soft melody of dreamy song was wafted through the air. And Horieneke saw herself also playing in that great garden, an angel among angels. Ropes hung stretched from tree to tree; and they swung upon them and rocked with streaming hair and fluttering garments, floating high above the tree-tops, light as the wind, in a shower of white blossoms. They sang all together, with those who lay on the beds of white lilies and violets: a song of unheard sweetness. Not one spoke of leaving off or going home; they only wished to stay like that, without rain or darkness; there was a continual happy frolic, a glad gaiety, in those spacious halls where, in spite of the singing and the music, all things were yet so deliciously, languidly still, still as the moonlight.
Yonder, by the dark wood, the steady swish of a sickle was heard; and this made a fearsome noise in the tenuous night. A gigantic man stood there; his head looked over the trees and his wide-stretched arms swung the sickle and a pick-hook; and, stroke by stroke, the foliage and the flowers fell beneath his hands as he passed. The singing gradually ceased, the swings fell slack and the frolic changed into an anxious waiting, as before thunder. One and all stood in terror and dismay staring at that giant approaching. The blue of the sky darkened and the angels vanished, like lamps that were blown out. The flowers were faded and the whole plain lay mown flat, like a stricken wilderness; and that fellow with his sickle, who now drew himself up to contemplate his finished work, was ... her father!
She started awake and trembled with fright. It had been so beautiful that she sighed at the thought of it; and outside was the twilight of advancing dawn. It was daylight! Sunday! She jumped out of bed in a flash and pulled open the window. The trees were there still and the flowers too and all the white of last night, but so pale, dim and colourless beside the glittering brightness of a moment ago ... and never an angel! She gave a sigh. The sky was hung with a thick grey shroud; and in the east a long thin cleft had been torn in the grey; and behind that, deep down, was a dull-golden glow, gleaming like a great brazen serpent. A keen wind shook the cherry-blossom and blew a cold, fragrant air into the window. All the green distance lay dead as yet, half-hidden, asleep in the morning mist; and neither man nor beast was visible, nor even a wreath of smoke from a chimney.
What was the time? She threw a wrap over her shoulders, which were getting chilled, and went carefully down the bedroom steps. It was still dark in the kitchen. She groped, found and lit a sulphur match and lifted the flame to the clock. Four! She was so much used to seeing the hands in that position in the afternoon and they now looked so silly that she stood for a long time thinking, foolishly, what she ought to do: call mother or creep back into bed and sleep. She felt so uncomfortably cold and it was still so dark: she went up again and stood looking out.
The birds twittered in the trees and the wide cleft in the east yawned wider and wider. Was it going to be a fine day after all? Everything for which she had waited so long was there now and so strange, so totally different from what she had imagined: instead of that leaping gladness there was something like fear and nervous trembling; she could have wept; and, merely for the sake of doing something, she went down on her knees beside the bed and said the prayers which she had learnt by heart:
"Lord God, I give Thee my heart. Deign to make Thyself a worthy dwelling in it and to abide there all the days of my life...."
The clock struck; it was half-past four and no one yet astir.
Now she went downstairs again. In the room lay her white dress, her wreath, her prayer-book: it was all ready; if only somebody would wake! Dared she call? They lay sleeping side by side: father was snoring, with his mouth open, and mother's fat stomach and breasts rose and fell steadily.
And then she pulled at the coverlet and cried repeatedly, a little louder each time:
"Mother! Mother!! Mother!!!"
That was better. Mother turned on her side, lifted her head and rubbed her eyes with her hands.