Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Eric Eldred, Thomas Berger,
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THE PATH OF LIFE
Translated From The West-Flemish By
ALEXANDER TEIXEIRA DE MATTOS
* * * * *
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
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
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
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
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
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
Then, for another long while, nothing more, nothing but sand, green and
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
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
"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
* * * * *
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
* * * * *
* * * * *
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,
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
'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.
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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 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
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,
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
"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
And then she pulled at the coverlet and cried repeatedly, a little louder
"Mother! Mother!! Mother!!!"
That was better. Mother turned on her side, lifted her head and rubbed
her eyes with her hands.
"Mother, it's nearly five; we shall be late!"
Mother, drunk with sleep, kept on looking at the window and yawning:
"Yes, child, I'll come at once."
She got up and came out in her short blue petticoat stretched round her
fat hips, with an open slit behind, and her loose jacket and wooden shoes
on. She lit the stove. Horieneke read her morning prayers. Mother's heavy
shoes clattered over the floor outside and in again; she put on and took
off the iron pots with the goats' food, drew fresh water and made the
Mam'selle Julie was coming along the rough road.
"You're in good time!" cried mother from the doorway.
"Good-morning, Frazie. Up already, Horieneke? It'll be a fine day
She took off her hooded cloak, put on a clean apron and turned up her
sleeves. Horieneke was washed all over again while mother poured out the
coffee. Then they sat down. Horieneke kept her lips tight-closed so as
not to forget that she must remain fasting. She slowly pulled on her new
stockings and stretched out her hand to the bench on which the white
slippers lay. She took off her sleeping-jacket and her little skirt and
stood waiting in her shift. When the tongs were well warmed, Mam'selle
Julie seized the little paper twists in the hot iron and opened them out.
From each fold a curled tress came rolling down; and at last, combed out
and bound up with blue-silk ribbon, it all stood about her head in a
light mist of pale-gold silk, like a wreath of light around her bright,
fresh face. Her dirty shift was dragged off downwards and mother fetched
the new scapular and laid it over the child's bare shoulders. The
first-communion chemise was of fine white linen and trimmed with crochet
lace. Julie took out the folds and drew it over Horieneke's head. Then
came white petticoats, bodices and skirts. The child stood passively, in
the middle of the floor, with her arms wide apart to give free room to
Julie, who crept round on her knees, sticking in a pin here, smoothing a
crease there. Mother fetched the things as they were wanted. There was a
constant discussing, approving, asking if it wouldn't meet or if it hung
too wide, all in a whisper, so as not to wake the boys.
There came a scrabbling overhead and down the stairs; and, before any one
suspected it, Bertje stood dancing round Horieneke in his shirt.
"Jesu-Maria! Oo, you rascal!"
And the corset which mother held in her hand was sent flying up the
stairs after the boy, who in three jumps was gone and up above. The
others lay laughing in bed when Bertje told them that he had seen
Horieneke all in white, with a bunch of red-gold curls round her head,
and that mother had thrown something at him.
The corset was laced up and Mam'selle Julie told the child to hold her
breath to let them get her body tighter. Now for the white frock: the
skirt was slipped down over her head until it stood out in light, stiff
pleats; the white bodice encased her body firmly and stuck out above the
shoulders, its puffed sleeves trimmed with little white-satin bows and
ribbons at every seam and fold. Over it hung the veil, which shrouded her
as in a white cloud. The wreath was put on, looked at from a distance and
put on again until it was right at last, with the glittering beads in
front, shining among the auburn curls, and the long streamer of threaded
lilies of the valley behind, nestling in the tresses on her back. The
white gloves, her prayer-book and candle-cloth, a few pennies in her bead
purse; and 'twas done.
The child was constantly twisted and turned and examined from every side.
She did not know herself in all her splendour: the Horieneke of
yesterday, in her blue bird's-eye bib and black frock was a poor thing
compared with the present Horieneke, something far removed from this
white apparition, something quite forgotten. She stood stiff as a post in
the middle of the kitchen, without daring to look round or stir; she felt
so light and airy in those rustling folds and pleats and all that muslin
that she seemed not to touch the ground. She did not know what to do with
her arms, how to tread with her feet; and her thoughts were straying: the
part she had to play was all gone out of her head; she would be as fine
as this all day long, but oh, so uncomfortable!
Mother put on stockings and shoes, donned her cap, turned her apron,
threw her cloak over her shoulders; she called her husband; then:
"There, boys, we're off; don't forget your drop of holy water, all of
The door fell back into the latch with a bang; and the three of them were
on the road. A gust of wind laden with white blossoms out of the orchard
greeted them. Horieneke held the tips of her veil closed against the wind
and stepped out like a little maid in a procession. The two women came
behind and had no eyes for anything but Horieneke: the fall of those
white folds, the whirling of the veil and the dancing of the lilies of
the valley in the auburn locks. They said nothing.
The sky still hung grey with its yawning cleft widening in the east; and
out of it there beamed a sober, uncertain light, which fell upon
everything with a dead gleam: it was like noonday in winter. Over the
fields and in the trees drifted thin wisps of mist, like floating blue
veils blown on by the wind. Below in the meadow the cock had started
crowing amid his flock of peacefully pecking pullets. It was very fresh,
rather cold indeed, out on the high road.
All the little paths led to the church; and in every direction, along the
flat fields, came people in their very best, with little white maids. The
wind played in their white veils and set them waving and flapping like
"The children'll have good weather," said Mam'selle Julie; and, a little
later, to Horieneke, "What are you going to ask of Our Lord now, dear?"
"Oh, so much, so much, Mam'selle Julie! I myself hardly know.... For
father and mother and all the family and that I may always be a good girl
and stay at home with them and not fall among wicked people and that we
may all live a long time and go to Heaven...."
"And that the harvest may succeed and we be able to pay the rent ... and
for the farmer ... and that father may keep in health and be fit to
work," mother ordered.
They reached the village. Mother remained waiting among the folk in the
street; Horieneke, with the other youngsters, went through the
school-gates where their wax tapers stood burning above the bunches of
gold flowers and leaves shining in the warm light. The children looked at
one another's clothes, whispered in one another's ears what theirs had
cost and wrangled as to which looked the prettiest. The boys vied with
one another in showing their bright pennies and their steel watch-chains.
The procession filed out: first the acolytes, in scarlet, with gleaming
crucifix, brass candle-sticks and censer, followed by boys and girls
symbolically dressed, a lilting dance of flags and banners in brilliant
colours. Next came the priest, in a gorgeous vestment stiff with silk and
silver thread and gold tracery; and, in two rows, on either side of the
street, preceded by four little angels with gold wings, the
first-communicants, really such on this occasion, in their proper
clothes, with the great wax tapers in their white-gloved hands and a glow
in their faces and laughter in their eyes. All the people crowded after
them, through the street to the church. The bells rang out, the priest
sang with the sacristan and the whole procession triumphantly entered the
wide church-doors. There was a mighty stamping and pushing to get near
and to see the children sitting in straight rows on the front benches of
the nave. The girls settled in their clothes and the boys looked down at
their stiff, wide cloth breeches and their new shoes, or shoved their
fingers up their noses or into their tight collar-bands. The organ droned
out a mighty prelude; the priest, all in gold, stood at the altar; the
ceremony began; the people were silent and prayed over their
The sun appeared! And green and red and yellow shafts of light slanted
through the stained-glass panes and mingled with the blue
incense-wreaths. They made the corners of the brasswork shine and brought
smiles to the faces of the saints in their niches. A splash of gold fell
on the curly heads of the children, dark and fair; and tiny rays flashed
upon the gilt edges of their prayer-books. The congregation prayed
diligently and the full voices sang the joyful _Gloria in excelsis_ with
After the Gospel, the priest hung up his chasuble on the stand and
mounted the pulpit. After a noisy shifting of chairs and dragging of feet
and coughing, the people sat still, with their faces turned to the
priest. He began by reading out the notices in a snuffling tone: the
intentions of the masses for the ensuing week; the names of those about
to be married or lately deceased. Then he waited, cast his eyes over that
level multitude of raised heads, pulled up his white sleeves and turned
his face towards the children. His drawling voice wished them
It was the first time in their lives that the youngsters saw that face
turned expressly towards them from a pulpit and also the first time that
they listened to the sermon with attention. They kept their eyes fixed on
the priest so as not to lose a word. The great day had arrived; a few
moments more and they would be completing the solemn task, they, small
children, the task that was denied to the pure angels in heaven.
"And that work must be the foundation on which all your future life is
based. Your souls are now so clean, so pure, they are shining like clear
water and are quite spotless. For years we have taught and instructed and
prepared you in order to teach your virgin hearts, this day, now, in this
beautiful chapel, to receive that strengthening food, that miracle of
God's love. Remember it always: this is the happiest day of your lives!
You are still innocent and about to receive the Bread that raises the
dead, cleanses sinners and purifies the fallen. You are still in your
first youth, without experience of life, and are already allowed to
approach the Holy Table and share the strengthening food that supports
men and women in the trials of life. This also is the propitious moment,
the mighty hour in which Our Lord can refuse you nothing that you ask
Him. So make use of it, ask Him much, ask Him everything: for your
parents and your masters, who have done so much for you, for your
pastors, your village and especially for yourselves, that He may keep you
from sin and continue to dwell in your hearts and allow you to grow up
into stout champions of the faith and of your religion. It is the
happiest day of your lives. You are here now, to-day, with your bright,
clear eyes, young and beautiful as angels; we have watched over you,
sheltered you against all that could have harmed or offended your
innocence, far from the corrupt world of whose existence you have not
even known. But to-morrow you will enter the wide world, with only your
weak flesh to fight against life's dangers: depravity, falsehood, lies
and sin. Now life will begin for you, now for the first time will you be
called upon to fight, to show courage and to stand firm. How many of
those who once sat where you are now sitting and who were pure and
innocent as yourselves have now, alas, become lost sinners, Judases who
have rejected their God, devils as roaring lions going about seeking whom
they may devour! Be strong, listen to your good parents: it is to them
alone that you will have to listen henceforth...."
He turned round to the other side and, continuing with the same rise and
fall in his voice, the same gestures of his thin right arm, with the
flowing white sleeve, and the same movement of his sharp profile high up
above the congregation, he began once more:
"To you, fathers and mothers, I also wish a cordial _proficiat_; for you
also this is a glad and memorable day. How long is it not since you were
kneeling there! And yet that day always lingers in your memory. Since
that time you have been plunged into the world, have had to struggle and
have perhaps fallen and more than once have known your courage fail you.
Now your children are sitting there! For years you have left them to our
care and to-day we give them back to you, instructed, enriched and
supplied with all that they can need to pass onward. You receive them
this day from our hands pure and innocent as on the day of their baptism.
It is for you henceforth to preserve and to maintain that virtue and
purity in them; it is for you to bring up these children so that later
they may be exemplary Christians. See to it that your own conduct edifies
them: it is according to you and all your actions that they will order
their lives and take example. Admonish them in good season and chastise
them when necessary: 'He that spareth the rod hateth his son,' says the
Holy Ghost. And keep your eyes open, for God will ask an account of your
stewardship and will reward or punish you according as you have brought
them up well or ill. A good son, a virtuous daughter are the joy and the
comfort of their parents."
The congregation were greatly impressed. The mothers wept: the priest was
such a good, worthy old man, whom they had known all their lives; and
they liked hearing him say all those beautiful things: that reference to
their own childhood and to their youngsters, whom they now saw sitting
there so good and saintlike, waiting to receive Our Lord, brought the
tears to their eyes; and it did them good to feel their hearts throb, to
feel that lump in their throats; and they let the tears flow: after all,
it was from gladness.
The organ played softly and the changing tones mingled with the blue
wreaths that ascended from the sanctuary in a fragrant cloud, lingering
over the congregation. The celebrant offered the bread and wine to Our
Father in Heaven. And all this took time; the children were tired by
their tense concentration; their prayers had all been said two and three
times over; and they were now vacantly waiting and longing, looking at
their clothes, at the stained-glass windows in the choir or St. Anne in
her crimson cloak, or counting the stars that were painted high up on the
The altar-bell tinkled twice and thrice in succession; the _Sanctus_ was
sung; and after that the organ was silenced. A hush fell over the
congregation and all heads dropped, as though mown down, in deep
reverence: not one dared look up. The priest genuflected, the bell
sounded repeatedly and, amid that great hush, thrice three notes of the
great church-bell droned through the church and rang out over the distant
fields. Outside, it was all blue and sunshine and silence; everything was
bowed in anxious expectation; it was as though there were nothing erect
and alive in the world except that little church and that bell. In the
farthest houses in the village the mothers were now kneeling and beating
their breasts, with their thoughts on Our Lord. The God of Heaven and
Earth had descended and was filling all things with His awful presence.
Carefully, slowly, almost timidly came the _Adoro te_; and the people
little by little raised their heads and sighed, as though relieved and
still quite awed by what had happened or was going to happen.
And now the ceremony began. After the _Agnus Dei_ and the three tinkles
of the bell at the _Domine, non sum dignus_, the four little angels came
with hands folded and heads bowed, with their gold-paper wings carefully
furled behind them, and walked reverently to the front of the church.
Horieneke stood up, took her great sheet of paper and, in her clear
voice, read out her piece so that all the congregation could hear, though
she stopped to find her words at times and faltered here and there
because her heart was beating so violently and she had such a catch in
"Then Thou wilt come to us, Almighty God! To us poor little sheep who,
hardly knowing what we did, have so often offended Thee. We are not
worthy to receive Thee, unless Thou say but the word that our souls may
be healed. And, as Thou hast ordained, we will, in fear and confidence,
approach Thee as poor little children approaching their kind Father. We
have nothing wherewith to repay the great love which Thou bearest us; we
are needy in all things; and all things must come from Thee. We are still
very young and have already gone astray, but we repent and are heartily
sorry to have caused Thee any grief. And, now that Thou art so
unspeakably good to us, we wish to be wholly loyal to Thee and to belong
to Thee with heart and soul; dispose of us henceforth as Thy servants and
we shall be filled with joy. Come then, O Jesus; our hearts pant with
longing, our souls are now prepared; we have begged Mary, our dear
Mother, our guardian angels and our blessed patron saints to make us
worthy habitations for Thy majesty."
The silence was so great that one could hear a leaf fall. The
congregation wriggled where they knelt to see and held their breaths,
full of expectation. The nun struck her key on the back of her chair. Two
little angels went, step by step, to the communion-bench and the first
row of boys and girls followed. The little ones now looked very serious.
They held their heads bowed and their hands clasped; and their faces
shone with heavenly light and silent inner happiness. Horieneke was now
like a white flower; her transparent little waxen face, her delicately
chiselled nose and closed pink lips looked so angelic under her sunny
curls and the white of her veil. The children approached the choir
silently and slowly: 'twas as though they were floating. At the second
tap of the key, they knelt; one more ... and their hands were under the
lace communion-cloth. From the organ-loft the _Magnificat_ resounded. The
priest took the ciborium, gave the benediction and with stately tread
descended the altar-steps. In his slender fingers he held the Sacred
Host, that small white disk which stood out sharply above the silver
vessel against the rich violet of his chasuble. The children's heads by
turn dropped backwards and fell upon their breasts, in ecstacy. The bells
rang out; the choristers shouted their hymn of praise; the priest
"_Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christ ..._"
The key tapped; and the angels kept leading new rows to the Holy Table
and bringing the others away again. And the great work went on in solemn
silence amid all that jubilant music. The congregation were lifted up,
their hearts throbbed and their tears welled with happiness and
The last row had come back; and they were all now kneeling in adoration
when the head boy read out:
"What shall we return Thee, O Lord, for what Thou hast done for us! But
now we were mute, prostrate in adoration, amazed and awed by Thy mighty
presence in our hearts, bowed down in the dust of our humility; now at
last we dare raise our heads and thank Thee. We beseech Thee that Thou
wilt continue to dwell in our hearts, to reign there and to pour forth
Thy mercies there abundantly. We are frail creatures; and, were it not
that Thou, in Thy compassion, dost uphold us, we should continually and
at every moment fall and succumb in the rude gusts of life. We put our
trust in Thee and we know that Thou wilt succour us and that we shall
enter the life everlasting. Amen."
It was over; and the congregation looked round impatiently to see how
they could get out of church quickest. Their tears were dried and their
thoughts were once more fixed on clothes, home, coffee and cakebread.
After the last sign of the cross, the men crowded outside; the mothers