Part 2 out of 3
sought their youngsters, kept them out of the crush for fear of accidents
and marched triumphantly through the two rows of sightseers that stood on
either side of the church-door. Now was the moment for showing-off, for
congratulation and admiration on every side, till the children did not
know which way to turn or what to say; and they were very hungry. All now
went with their friends to the tavern for a drop of Hollands; and from
there mother went home with two or three wives of the neighbourhood.
Horieneke walked behind. She was all by herself and wrapped in
contemplation: that great miracle was now over, all of a sudden, and she
could hardly believe it. Instead of enjoying all the happiness for which
she had waited so long, her heart was full of distress and she felt
inclined to cry. She had been so uneasy in church, so shy and frightened:
there was the reading of that paper before all those people; and directly
after, amid all the confusion, Our Lord had come. Hastily and very
distractedly she had said her prayers, had spoken, asked and prayed and
then waited for the miracle, waiting for Our Lord, Who now, living in
her, would speak. And nothing had happened, nothing: she had done her
very best to listen amidst the bustle outside and around her ... and yet
nothing, nothing! Meanwhile she had raised her head to breathe ... and
the people were leaving and she had to go with them: it was finished! It
had all been so matter-of-fact, just like the communion-practice of
yesterday, when she had merely swallowed a morsel of bread. Her heart
beat in perplexity and she feared that she had made an unworthy
The wind blew under her veil, which flew up in the air behind her. She
was so pure, so unspotted in all that white; and, cudgel her brains as
she would, she could not remember any fault or sin which she had omitted
to confess. Though Our Lord had not spoken to her, He had been there all
the same and she had not heard Him because of all that was happening
around her. She ought to have been alone there, in a silent church. Even
here, outside, by the trees, would have been better.
The wives were asked in to coffee and they stood and waited for Horieneke
at the garden-gate. Indoors everything was anyhow: Fonske was going about
in his shirt, Bertje had one leg in his breeches and Dolfke sat on the
floor, playing with Trientje. Father had made coffee and stood with the
bottles and glasses ready, looking dumbfounded at his child, now that he
saw her for the first time in her white clothes. The boys crowded round
shyly; they no longer knew their sister in this great lady; they kept
hold of one another shyly, with their fingers in their mouths; they were
unable to speak a word. Mother threw off her cloak and began cutting
currant-bread and butter. Horieneke was made to take off her veil and
gloves and a towel was fastened under her chin. The wives and youngsters
sat down. First a drop to each; all drank to the health of the little
first-communicant; they touched glasses. Father poured out and Horieneke
had to drink too: she put the stuff to her lips, pulled a wry face and
pushed the glass away. The boys dipped and soaked the bread in their
coffee; and the wives started talking about their young days and about
clothes and the old ways and the fine weather and the fruit-crop. Mother
did nothing but cut fresh slices of bread-and-butter, which were snatched
away and gobbled up on every side.
"Eat away!" said father.
The hostess of "The Four Winds" had been unable to take her eyes off
Horieneke all through mass.
"Damned pretty, like a little angel!" said Stiene Sagaer.
"And a curly head of hair like a ball of gold! It made one's mouth water!
And that wreath!" squealed the farmer's wife from the Rent Farm.
"Mam'selle Julie had a hand in it."
"And such pretty manners! Well, dear, Our Lord will be mighty pleased
"And how nicely she read that piece!" said Stiene. "My blood crept when I
heard it. Look here, Wanne Vandoorn was sitting beside me; and, you can
take my word, the good soul couldn't control herself and we both cried
till we sobbed."
"I felt it too," said mother. "Such things are cruel hearing. And the
"Ah, he knows how to talk, that holy man! He's a pure soul."
"You'll regret it all your days, Ivo, that you weren't there to see it."
Father nodded and took another slice of bread-and-butter.
"It'll take me all the week to tell about it at home," said the farmer's
The boys sat making fun among themselves of Stiene Sagaer's crooked nose
and the squeaky voice of the farmer's wife. When the wives had done
eating, they stood up and went.
When they had gone some little way, they turned round again and cried
against the wind:
"It's going to be fine to-day, Ivo!"
"And warm!" piped the farmer's wife. "Beautiful weather!"
They went down the sand-path, each wending her own way home.
The boys were now dressed and father, stripped to the waist, went out to
wash his face under the trees at the pump. His freshly-ironed white shirt
was brought out and his shiny boots and his blue smock-frock and
black-silk cap. After much fuss and turning and seeking, he got ready and
the boys too. Mother was busy with the baby in the cradle; Horieneke was
showing her new holy pictures to Trientje; and Bertje and the other boys
had gone out to play in the road. The bells rang again, this time for
high mass. Many small things had still to be rummaged out, clothes to be
pinned and buttoned; and the boys, with their Sunday penny in their
pocket, marched up the wide road to high mass.
The wind had dropped and the sun blazed in the clear blue of the sky,
which hung full of unravelled white cloud-threads, showing gold at the
edges. A gay light lay over all the young green; the huge fields were
full of waving corn, which swayed and bowed and straightened again,
shining in streaks as under clear, transparent water. The trees stood
turned to the sun, as though painted, so bright that from a distance one
saw all the leaves, finely drawn, gleaming against the shadows that lay
below. Here they stood in close hedges on either side of the road, trunk
after trunk, making a dark wall with a dense roof of leafage, which
presently opened out in a rift at the turn of the road, where four
tree-trunks stood out against the sky; and then the trees turned away to
the left and were drawn up in two new rows, which stretched out beside
the road right across the plain. Here and there a few other trees stood
lonely in the fields, gathered in small clumps, with the light playing
between them; and far away at the edge of the bright expanse, in a wealth
of mingled green, amid the tufted foliage with its changing hues and
shadows, the little pointed church showed above the uneven, red-tiled
roofs. It was all like a restful dream, made up of Sunday peace. Above
and around, all the air was sounding with the gay tripping music of the
three bells as they rang together: a laughing song in the glad sunshine,
summoning from afar the people who came from every side, clad in their
best. The boys, in their new red-brown, fustian breeches, standing stiff
with the tailor's crease in them, and their thick, wide jackets and shiny
hats, held father's hand or skipped round Horieneke, whom they could not
admire enough. In the village square they hid themselves and went to the
booth to see how they could best spend their pennies.
The people stayed in the street, looking about, and did not go into the
church until the little bell tolled out its tinkling summons and the last
little maid had been looked at and had disappeared. Then the men knocked
out their pipes against the tips of their shoes and sauntered in through
the wide church-door.
The incense still hung about the aisles and the sun sifted its golden
dust through the stained-glass windows right across the church. The
congregation stood crowded and crammed together behind their chairs,
looking at the gilt of the flowers and at the great mountain of votive
candles that were burning before the altar. The organ had all its pipes
wide open; and music streamed forth in great gusts that resounded in the
street outside. The priest sang and rough men's voices chanted the
responses with the full power of their throats. And the high mass
proceeded slowly with its pomp of movement and song. The congregation
prayed from their books or, overcome by the heat, sat yawning or gazing
at the incense-wreaths or started nodding on their chairs. The saints
stood stock-still, smiling from their pedestals and proud in their high
day finery. When the singing ceased, one heard through the dreamy murmur
of the organ the spluttering of the burning candles and the clatter on
the brass dish of the sacristan making the collection. The priest once
more mounted the pulpit and, with the same gestures and action, delivered
the same admonitions as earlier in the morning. Again the people sat
listening and weeping; others slept. More organ-music and singing and
praying and the mass came to an end and the priest turned to the
congregation and gave the blessing. They streamed out of church in a
thick crowd and stood in the road again to see the youngsters pass. Then
all of them made their several ways to the taverns. The
first-communicants had to call on aunts and cousins and friends; and the
poorer children went to show their clothes and asked for pennies.
Horieneke and father and the brothers went straight home to await the
visitors. Before they reached the door, they smelt the butter burning in
the pan, the roast and the vegetables. The stove roared softly; and on
the flat pipe stood earthen and iron pots and pans simmering and fretting
and sending up clouds of steam to the rafters. Amidst it all, mother
hurried to and fro in her heavy wooden shoes. Her body still waggled in
her wide jacket and blue petticoat. Her face shone with grease and
perspiration. She puffed and sighed in the intolerable heat. The blue
chequered cloth lay spread on the table; and all around were the plates
with the freshly tinned spoons and forks and little beer-glasses.
Outside, the boys sat in the top of the walnut-tree, waiting and peering
for any one coming. Father had taken off his blue smock and turned up his
shirt-sleeves and now went to see to his birds. That was his great hobby
and his work on Sunday every week. All the walls were hung with cages: in
that big one were two canaries, pairing; in the next, a hen-canary
sitting on her eggs; and in a little wire castle lived a linnet and a
cock-canary and three speckled youngsters. The finches were in a long row
of darkened cages and moulting-boxes. When he put out his hands, the
whole pack started singing and whistling; they sprang and fluttered
against the bars and pecked at his fingers. He took the cages down one by
one, put them on the table and whistled and talked to his birds, cleaned
the trays and filled the troughs with fresh water and seed. The
canary-bird got a lump of white sugar and the linnet half an egg, because
of her young ones. Then he stood and watched them washing their beaks and
wings and splashing in the water, pecking at their troughs now full of
seed and at their sugar and cheerfully hopping on and off their perches.
Then, when they were all hung up again in their places on the wall, they
all started whistling together till the kitchen rang with it. The baby
screamed in its cradle. Trientje cried and mother stamped across the
floor in her heavy wooden shoes.
 The West-Flemings brew a beer so extremely strong that it is
served in quite small glasses, not more than half the size of an
"Hi, mates, I see something!" Fonske called from the walnut-tree.
The boys stretched their necks and so did father: it was jogging along in
the distance, coming nearer and nearer.
"Uncle Petrus and Aunt Stanse in the dog-cart!"
They slithered out of the tree like cats and ran down the road as fast as
they could. The others now plainly heard the wheels rattling and saw the
great dogs tugging and leaping along as if possessed. High up in the car
sat uncle, with his tall hat on his round head, bolt upright in his
glossy black-broadcloth coat; and beside him broad-bodied Aunt Stanse,
with coloured ribbons fluttering round her cap and a glitter of beads
upon her breast. In between them sat Cousin Isidoor, half-hidden, waving
his handkerchief. They came nearer still, jolting up and down through the
streaks of shade and sunlight between the trees. Uncle Petrus flourished
his hand, pushed his hat back and urged the dogs on; aunt sat with her
face aflame and the drops of sweat on her chubby cheeks, laughing, with
her hands on her hips, because of the shaking of her fat stomach. The
dogs barked and leapt right and left at the boys. Petrus jumped nimbly
out of the cart, ran along the shafts and led the team with a stylish
turn out of the road, through the gate, into the little garden, where it
pulled up in front of the door. The dogs stood still, panting and lolling
out their tongues. Mother was there too and cried, "Welcome," and took
Doorke under the armpits and lifted him out of the cart. Aunt began by
handing out baskets, parcels and bundles. Then, sticking out her fat
legs, in their white stockings, she climbed out of the cart and looked
round at the youngsters, who already stood hankering to know what was in
"Well, bless me, Frazie, I needn't ask you how it goes with the chickens!
There's a whole band of them and all sound and well: just look at them!
Oh, you fatty!" And she pinched Bertje's red cheeks. "And you too,
"Look at the state I'm in!" said mother, sticking her hands under the
apron stretched tight across her fat stomach and looking down at her bare
legs. "Such a heap to do, no time to dress yet."
"You're all right as you are, Frazie; you've no need to hide your legs
nor t'other either: you've a handsome allowance of both," said Uncle
Petrus, chaffingly. "I'd like a drop of water for the dogs, though."
Father sent the bucket toppling down the well and turned the handle till
it rose filled. The dogs stuck their heads into the bucket and lapped and
gulped greedily. Cousin stood staring bashfully amid all those
peasant-lads and all that jollity, while Bertje, Fonske and the others
too did not come near, but stood looking at the little gentleman with his
fine clothes and his thin, peaky face; they trotted and turned, whispered
to one another, went outside and came back again, laughed and said
"But the first-communicant! Where's Horieneke?" asked Stanse, suddenly.
From the little green arbour, in between the trees, a golden curly-head
came peeping, followed by a little white body and little Trientje too,
holding a great bunch of yellow daffodils in her hand. Stanse stuck out
her arms in the air:
"Oh, you little butterfly! Come along here, you're as lovely as an
And she lifted Horieneke from among the flowers, right up to her beaded
breast, and pressed her thick lips to the child's forehead with a
"Godmother, godmother," whimpered Trientje.
"Yes, you too, my duck!"
And the child forthwith received two fat kisses on its little cheeks.
The dogs were now unharnessed and father and Petrus had gone for a stroll
in the orchard. The boys stood crowding against the table, looking at
aunt undoing her parcels. In one were sweet biscuits, in another
brandy-balls, peppermints, pear-drops and toffy. All this was carefully
divided into little stacks and each child was given his share, with the
strict injunction not to eat any before noon. Fonske hid his in the
drawer, next to the canary-seed, Dolfke his in the cupboard and Bertje
shoved his portion into his pockets. It was not long before three or four
of them were fighting like thieves and robbers, while Stanse and Frazie
went to look at the baby, which lay sleeping quietly in the cradle.
First one more drop of cherry-gin apiece and then to dinner. The soup
stood ready ladled out, steaming in the plates. Horieneke sat demurely in
the middle, next to Doorke, with uncle and aunt on either side and, lower
down, father and all the children: mother had to keep moving to and fro,
waiting on them, snatching a mouthful now and again betweenwhiles. When
every one was served and Trientje had stammered out her Our Father aloud,
father once more stood up, as the master of the house, and said:
"You are all of you welcome and I wish you a good appetite."
The spoons began to clatter and the tongues to wag: uncle praised the
delicious leek-soup, so did aunt; and then came endless questions from
every side about the news of the district and all that had happened
during the last ten or twelve years, ever since Frazie had married and
left her home.
The children sat staring with wide-open eyes, now at their plates, now at
aunt with her fat cheeks and her diamond cross that hung glittering at
the end of a gold chain on her enormous breast; they counted the rings
that were spitted on her fingers right up to the knuckles; they gazed at
her earrings.... As the soup went down, the faces began to shine and
mother pulled at her jacket and complained of the dreadful heat. Father
pushed up the window and opened the back-door. The wind and the scented
air, with pollen from the cherry-trees, now blew across the table and
played refreshingly in their necks and ears. Mother kept on running about
and serving: it was hot carrots now and boiled beef. Father took the
flowered milk-jug and filled the little tumblers with beer. Slices of
meat and fat were cut off with the big carving-knife and distributed;
each received his plateful of glistening carrots; and the forks went
bravely to work. After that, the great iron pot was set on the table,
with the rabbits, which, roasted brown, lay outstretched in the
appetizing, simmering gravy that smelt so good; and beside it a dish of
steaming potatoes. The little tumblers were emptied and filled again; in
between the loud talking you could hear the crunching of the teeth and
the cracking of the bones; the children sat smeared to their eyes and
picked the food in their plates with their hands. Uncle's eyes began to
twinkle and he started making jokes, so much so that aunt had every
moment to stop eating for laughing; then her broad head would fall
backwards and her cheeks, which bloomed like ripe peaches, creased up and
displayed two rows of gleaming ivory teeth. It all turned to a noisy
giggling; and the general merriment could be heard far away in the other
Uncle Petrus enjoyed teasing his sister and made her cry out each time he
declared that, for all her waiting at table and running about, she had
eaten more than he and Brother Ivo put together and that it was no wonder
she had grown such a body and bred such fine youngsters. The mighty din
woke the baby and started it crying loudly in its cradle. Fonske took it
out and put it in mother's lap. It was as fresh and pink as a rose-bud;
it kicked its little legs about and shoved its fists into its eyes.
"Yes, darling, you're hungry too, I expect."
And she unbuttoned her jacket and from behind her shift produced her
great right breast. The baby stuck its hands into that wealth of
whiteness, seized the proffered nipple in its mouth and started greedily
sucking. After the first eager gulps it gradually quieted, closed its
eyes and lay softly drinking, rocked on mother's heaving lap. Isidoorke
kept looking at this as at something very strange that alarmed him.
Horieneke, noticing it, held up a rabbit-leg to him and told him of those
pretty white rabbits which she had seen slaughtered yesterday. The other
youngsters had now eaten their fill and began to feel terribly bored at
table. Bertje gave Fonske a kick on the shin and they went outside
together, whispering like boys with some roguery in view. Wartje, Dolfke
and the others followed them outside. When it was all well planned, they
beckoned behind the door to Doorke; and, when the little man came out at
"Is it true, Doorke? Do you dare go among the dogs?"
And they led him on gently by his velvet jacket, behind the house to the
bake-house, where the dogs lay blinking in the shade, with their heads
stretched on their paws.
Doorke nodded; and, to show how well-behaved they were, he went close up
to them and stroked their backs.
"And is it also true," asked Bertje, with mischievous innocence, "that
you know how to harness them?"
Doorke looked surprised and again nodded yes.
"Let's see if you dare!"
"Hoo, hoo, Baron!" said Doorke.
And he took the dog by the collar, put the girths on him and fastened the
traces while Fonske held up the cart.
"And that other one too?"
Doorke did the same with the other dog and with the third; and they were
now all three harnessed. Bertje took the cart by the shafts and drew it
very softly, without a sound, under the windows and through the little
gate into the road. The other boys bit their fingers, held their breaths
and followed on tip-toe. Then they all crept into the cart; and, when
they were comfortably seated, Bertje took the reins and:
Wartje struck the dogs with the handle of the whip and they leapt forward
lustily and the cart rolled along through the clouds of dust rising from
the sandy road.
Horieneke had come up too and watched this silent sport; and she now
stood alone with Doorke, looking along the trees, where the cart was
disappearing towards the edge of the wood. When there was nothing more to
see, they both went indoors.
Uncle and aunt and father were now talking quietly and earnestly, over
three cups of coffee. Mother still sat with the baby on her lap, where it
had fallen asleep while sucking. Aunt was constantly wiping the
glistening perspiration from her forehead; and she unbuttoned her silk
dress because she had eaten too much and her heart was beginning to
"Shouldn't we be better out of doors?" she asked.
Mother tucked in her breast, buttoned her jacket and laid the child
carefully in the cradle, near Trientje, who sat sleeping in her little
baby-chair. They left everything as it was: table and plates and pots and
glasses. Father and uncle filled their pipes and went outside under the
elder-tree, in the shade. The wives tucked their clothes between their
legs and lay down in the grass. Aunt had carefully rolled up her silk
skirt and was in her white petticoat.
They now went on talking: an incessant tattle about getting children and
bringing them up, about housekeeping and about land and sand and parish
news, until, overcome by the heat and the weight of their bodies, they
let their heads fall and closed their eyes and seemed to sleep. Uncle and
father stood looking at them a little longer and then, in their white
shirt-sleeves, with their thumbs in their tight trouser-bands, went up
the narrow little path, in the blazing sun, to look at the wheat and the
flax, which were already high.
Horieneke and Doorke were now left looking at each other. Horieneke began
to tire of this; and she took the boy by the hand and led him into the
house and up to her room. There she showed him her holy pictures on the
wall and her little statues; they sat down side by side on the bed; and
Horieneke told him the whole of her life and the doings of the last few
days, all that she had longed for and to-day's happiness. The boy
listened to her gladly; he looked at her with his big, brown eyes and sat
still closer to her on the bed. He had now to see her pretty clothes; and
they went together to the best bedroom where the veil lay and the wreath
and her prayer-book and earrings. She must next really show him what she
had looked like that morning in church; and he helped her put on the
veil, placed the wreath on her curls and then took a few steps backwards
to see. He thought her very pretty; and they smiled happily. Then
everything was taken off again; and they went hand in hand, like a
brother and sister who had not seen each other for some time, to walk in
the little flower-garden. Here they looked at every leaf and named every
flower that was about to open. When everything had been thoroughly
inspected, they sat and chatted in the box arbour, very seriously, like
grown-up people. Then they also became tired and Horieneke put her arm
over Doorke's shoulder, allowed her golden curls to play in his eyes and
in this way they walked out, down the road, towards the wood. Here they
were all alone with the birds twittering in the trees and the crickets
chirping in the grass beside the ditch.
Everywhere, as far as they could see, was corn and green fields and
sunshine and stillness. They strolled down the long, cheerful road.
Doorke held his arm round Horieneke's tight-laced little waist and
listened to all the new things which his cousin described so prettily;
and she too felt a great delight in having this boy, with his brown eyes
and his lean shoulder-blades, beside her, listening to her and looking at
her and understanding her ever so much better than her rough little
brothers did. She would have liked to walk on all her life like this, in
that golden sunshine, telling him how she had read that beautiful prayer
in church this morning ... and about the priest's sermon ... and those
pretty angels with their gold wings, who had walked up and down so calmly
and placidly; about her dread during the communion-mass and her fear and
sorrow because Our Lord had not spoken in her little heart. And so,
talking and listening, they came to the wood. It looked so pleasant under
those pollard alders in the shade and farther on in the dark, among the
spruces, where the light filtered through in meagre rays, after that long
walk in the blinding sun.
"Let's go in!" said Doorke and was on the point of going down the little
path that ran beside the ditch, in among the trees.
"We mustn't!" said Horieneke; and she clutched him by the arm.
Her face grew very serious and she wrinkled her forehead:
And she pointed through a gap between the trees down to the valley where,
above the tall trunks, they could see the whole expanse of a big
homestead, with the long thatched roofs of stable and barn and the tiles
and slates of the house and turrets. She put her mouth to his ear and
"That's where the rent-farmer lives ... and he's a bad, bad man. He does
wicked things to the little girls who go into the wood; and mother says
that then they fall ill and die and then they go to Hell!"
Doorke did not understand very well, but he saw from Horieneke's
wide-open eyes that it was serious. They sat down together on the edge of
the ditch, with their legs in the grass, played with the daisies and
listened to the thrushes gurgling deep down in the wood. They sat there
for a long time. The sun sank to the top of the oak; the sky was flecked
with white clouds which shot through the heavens in long diverging
shafts, like a huge peacock's tail upon an orange field.
The children mused:
"I should like to fall down dead, here and now," said Horieneke.
Doorke looked up in surprise:
"Then I should be in Heaven at once."
They again sat thinking a little:
"Playing with the angels!... Have you ever seen angels, Doorke?"
"Yes, in the procession, Horieneke."
"Ah, but I mean live ones! I saw some last night, live ones; and they
were in white, Doorke, with long trains and golden hair and diamond
crowns, and they were singing in a beautiful garden!..."
With raised eyebrows and earnest gestures of her little forefinger, she
told him all her dream of the angels and the swings and the singing and
the music ... and of father with his sickle.
Doorke hung upon her words.
The thrush started anew and they sat listening.
"What will you do when you grow up, Doorke?"
And she put her arm round the boy's neck again and looked fondly into his
"Will you get married, Doorke?"
Doorke shook his head.
"Not even to me?"
And she looked at him with such a roguish smile that the boy felt
ashamed. Then, to comfort him, she said:
"Nor I either, Doorke. Do you know what I'm going to do?"
"Listen, Doorke, I'll tell you all about it, but promise on your soul not
to tell anybody: Bertje, Fonske and all the rest mustn't know."
"Father wanted me to go into service down there, with all those wicked
people. Then I cried for days and days and prayed to Our Lord; and mother
told father that I was dying; and then she said that I might ... Try and
Doorke made no attempt to guess. Then she drew him closer to her and
"Mother said I might stay at home and help her ... and afterwards, when I
am grown up ... I shall become a nun, Doorke, in a convent; but first
mother must get another baby, a new Horieneke.... And you?"
The boy didn't know.
"And you, Doorke, must learn to be a priest; then you and I will both go
Behind them, on the road, came a noise and a rush and an outcry so great
that the children started up in fright. Look! It was Bertje and all the
little brothers in the dog-cart, which was coming back home through the
sand. When they saw cousin and Horieneke, they raised a mighty shout of
joy and stopped. Bertje stood erect and issued his commands: all the boys
must get out; he would remain sitting on the front seat, with Horieneke
and Doorke side by side behind him, between two leafy branches, like a
bride and bridegroom! Fonske cut two branches from an alder-tree and
fastened them to either side of the cart. Then they set out, amid the
shouting and cheering of the boys running in front and behind:
The dogs gave an angry jerk forward and the cart went terribly fast and
Doorke clutched Horieneke with one hand and with the other warded off the
hanging willow-twigs that lashed their faces.
The sun had gone down and a red light was glowing in the west, high up in
the tender blue. The air had turned cooler and a cold, clammy damp was
falling over the fields, which now lay steaming deadly still in the
rising mist that already shrouded the trees in blue and darkened the
At the turn of the road, the children stepped out of the cart and put it
away carefully behind the bake-house, tied up the panting dogs and
sauntered into the house.
"Father, we've been out with cousin," said Bertje.
They had to take their coffee and their cakebread-and-butter in a hurry:
it was time to put the dogs in, said uncle.
Doorke said they were put in.
Frazie helped her sister on with her things:
"You'll find the looking-glass hanging in the window, Stanse. I must go
and put on another skirt too and come a bit of the way with you."
The boys were to stay at home; they got the rest of the sweets and were
ordered to bed at once. Horieneke was told to take off her best clothes;
it was evening and the goats had still to be fed. She went to her little
room reluctantly and could have cried because it was all over now and
because it was so melancholy in the dark. She felt ashamed when she came
down again and glanced askance at Doorke, who would think her so plain in
her week-day clothes. The boy looked at her and said nothing; then he
jumped into the cart and drove off slowly. Mother with Stanse and father
with uncle came walking behind.
It was still light; the evening was falling slowly, slowly, as though the
daylight would never end. In the west the sky was hung with white and
gold tapestry against an orange background. On the other side, the moon,
very wan still, floated in the pale-blue all around it. Beside the bluey
trees long purple stripes of shadow now lay, with fallen clusters of
branches, on the plain. You could hardly tell if day or night were at
Uncle and aunt were extremely pleased with their visit; uncle looked
contentedly into the distance and boasted that he had never seen such an
evening nor such fine weather so early in the year, while Frazie at each
step flung her arms into the air and stopped to say things to Stanse,
whose good-natured laugh rang out over the plain and along the road. In
front of them, Doorke, like a little black shadow, danced up and down in
his cart to the jolting of the wheels as he jogged quietly along. The
crickets chirped in the ditch; and from high up in the trees came the
dying twitter of birds about to go to sleep.
Father wanted to drink a parting glass of beer in the Swan; Doorke could
drive along slowly.
"Just five minutes then," said Petrus.
There were many people in the inn and much loud merriment. The new
arrivals were soon sitting among the others, staying on and listening to
all the jolly songs; and, when this had gone on for some time, they
forgot the hour and the parting. Aunt Stanse held her stomach with
laughing; she was not behindhand when the glasses had to be emptied or
when her turn came to sing a song. Amid the turmoil, the rent-farmer came
up to Frazie, took her impudently by the arm, laughingly wished her
_proficiat_ with her pretty daughter and, after slyly looking about him
for confirmation, said, half in earnest:
"We're planting potatoes to-morrow at the Rent Farm, we shall want lots
of hands; missie may as well come too."
And with that he went back to his game of cards.
This time, the leave-taking was genuine. Petrus got up; and it was
good-bye till next year, when Doorke would make his first communion.
The cart was waiting outside the door; they stepped in, uncle took the
"A safe ride home!"
"Thanks for the pleasant visit! And to our next merry meeting!"
"God speed!... Good-night!"
The dogs sprang forward, the cart rumbled along and soon the whole thing
had become a shapeless black patch among the black trees. In the still
night they could just hear the wheels rattling over the cobbles; and then
Ivo and Frazie went home again.
A breeze came playing through the garden, sighing now and again with a
sound as soft as silk; the moon shone upon the dark trees and its light
played like golden snow-flakes dancing and fluttering down upon the
gleaming crests of the green bushes and the milk-white plain. The air was
heavy and stifling, full of warm damp; and strong-scented gusts of fresh,
rain-laden perfumes blew across the road.
They stepped hurriedly on the legs of their long shadows and did not
speak. There came a new rustling in the trees and a few big, cool drops
of rain pattered on the sand, one here, one there and gradually quicker.
Ivo and Frazie hastened their pace; but, when the great drops began to
fall on them thick as hail and around them in the sand, till the rain
streaked through the air and rattled tremendously over their heads,
mother held her body with both hands to prevent its shaking, Ivo tied his
red handkerchief over his silk cap and they started running.
"It was main hot for the time of year."
"And the flowers smelt too strong and the thrush sang so loud."
It went on raining: a wholesome, cleansing downpour, a slow descent in
slanting lines that glittered in the moonlight, bringing health to the
earth. The air was fragrant with the wet grass and the white flowers: it
was like a rich garden. At home, everything was put away, the table
cleared and wiped; the lamp was alight and all the doors open. The boys
were in bed. Horieneke had read evening prayers to them and then hurried
to her little room, to be alone; and there she had lain thinking of all
that had happened during that long day: her jaws ached from the constant
smiling; and she felt dead-tired and sad.
Father took off his wet blouse and mother stirred up the fire: they would
have one more cup of coffee, with a drop of something, and then go to
bed. Ivo lit his pipe and stretched out his legs to dry beside the stove.
They drank their coffee and listened to the steady breathing of the boys
and the dripping of the gutters on the cobbles outside. Father made a
remark or two about uncle and aunt and about their village, but got only
half-answers from his wife. Then, all of a sudden, he asked:
"What did the farmer come and say to you?"
"They're planting potatoes to-morrow and we were to go and work; and
Horieneke was to come too."
"But she'll stay here!"
"What do you mean, stay here?"
"Yes, she's got her work to do at home."
"All right; but if she has to go?"
And mother stood with her arms akimbo, looking at her husband, waiting
for his answer.
"And if he turns us out and leaves us without work!"
"And suppose our child comes home with a present ... from that beast of a
Ivo knocked out his pipe:
"Pooh, that could happen to her anywhere; and, after all, she won't be
tied to her mother's apron-strings all her life long!... When you live in
a man's house and eat his bread, you've got to work for it and do his
will: the master is the master. Come, let's go to bed; we've a lot to do
Suppressed sobs came from the little bedroom. Mother looked in. Horieneke
lay with her hands before her eyes, crying convulsively.
"Well, what's the matter?"
The child pressed her head to the wall and wept harder than ever.
"Come along, wife, damn it! It's time that all this foolery was over, or
she'll lose her senses altogether."
Mother grew impatient, bit her teeth:
"Oh, you blessed cry-baby!"
And angrily she thumped the child on the hip with her clenched fist and
left her lying there.
"A nice thing, getting children: one'd rather bring up puppies any day!"
She turned out the light and it was now dark and still; outside, the thin
rain dripped and the white blossoms blew from the trees and the whole air
smelt wonderfully good. In the distance, the nightingale hidden in the
wood jugged and gurgled without stopping; and it was like the pealing of
a church-organ all night long.
* * * * *
The weather had broken up and the day dawned with a melancholy drizzle
and a cold wind. The sky remained grey, discharging misty raindrops which
soaked into everything and hung trembling like strung pearls on the
leaves of the beech-hedge and on the grass and on the cornstalks in the
fields. It was suddenly winter again. On the hilly field the people stood
black, wrapped up, with their caps drawn over their ears and their red
handkerchiefs round their necks. The hoes went up in the air one after
the other and struck the moist earth, which opened into straight furrows
from one end to the other of the field. Here wives walked barefoot, bent,
with baskets on their arm from which they kept taking potatoes and laying
them, at a foot's distance, in the open trench. In a corner of the field
stood the farmer, his big body leaning on a stick; and his dark eyes
watched his labourers.
There, in the midst of them, was Horieneke, bent also like the others, in
her coarse workaday clothes, with a basket of seed-potatoes on her arm;
and her red-gold curls now hung, like long corkscrews, wet against her
face; and every now and then she would draw herself up, tossing her head
back to keep them out of her eyes.
* * * * *
IN THE SQUALL
* * * * *
IN THE SQUALL
At noon, under the blazing sun, all three started for the wood, after
Trientje was in her cotton pinafore, with a straw hat on her head and a
wicker basket on her arm. Lowietje stood in his worn breeches and his
torn shirt; in his pocket he had a new climbing-cord. Each dragged
Poentje by one hand, Poentje who still went about in his little shirt
and, with his wide-straddling little bare legs, trotted on between
brother and sister.
They went along narrow, winding foot-paths, between the cornfields, high
as a man, through the flax-meadows and the yellow blinking
mustard-flower. The sun bit into Lowietje's bare head and sent the sweat
trickling down his cheeks.
They went always on, with their eyes fixed upon that thick crowd of blue
trees full of blithe green and of dark depths behind the farthermost
Poentje became tired and let himself be dragged along by his hands. When
he began to cry, they sat down in the ditch beside the corn to rest.
Trientje opened her basket and they ate up all their bread-and-butter.
Near them, in the grass, ants crept in and out of a little hole. Lowietje
poked with a stick and the whole nest came crawling out. The children sat
looking to see all those beasties swarm about and run away with their
All three stood up and went past the old mill, then through the meadow
and so, at last, they came to the wood and into the cool shade. On the
banks of the deep, hollowed path, it all stood thick as hail and black
with the brambleberries. Lowietje picked, never stopped picking, and put
them one by one in his mouth; and his nose and cheeks were smeared with
red, like blood. Trientje steadily picked her whole basket full and
Poentje sat playing on the way-side grass with a bunch of cornflowers.
In the wood, everything was still: the trees stood firmly in the blaze of
the sun and the young leaves hung gleaming, without stirring. A bird sat
very deep down whistling and its song rang out as in a great church.
Turtle-doves cooed far away. Round the children's ears hummed big fat
bees, buzzing from flower to flower. When the bank was stripped, they
went deeper into the wood, Lowietje going ahead to show the way. They
crept through the trees where it twilighted and where the sun played so
prettily with little golden arrows in the leafage; from there they came
into the high pine-wood. Look, look! There were other boys ... and they
knew where birds lived!
"Listen, Trientje," said Lowietje. "You stay here with Poentje: I'll come
back at once and bring your pinafore full of birds' eggs ... and young
He fetched out his climbing-cord and, in a flash, all the boys were gone,
behind the trees. Trientje heard them shout and yell and, a little later,
she saw her little brother sitting high up on the slippery trunk of a
beech. She put her hands to her mouth and screamed:
It echoed three or four times over the low shoots and against the tall
trees, but Lowietje did not hear.
A man now came striding down the path; he carried a gun on his shoulder.
The boys had only just seen him and, on every side, they came scrambling
out of the tree-tops, slid down the trunks and darted into the underwood.
Breathless, bewildered and scared to death, Lowietje came to his sister
and, with his two hands, held the rents of his trousers together:
"There were eight eggs there, Trientje, but the keeper came and, in the
sliding, my trousers...."
And he let a strip fall. They were torn from end to end, from top to
bottom, in each leg.
"Mother will be angry," said Trientje, very earnestly.
She took some pins from her frock and fastened the tears, so that the
skin did not show.
Suddenly fell a rumbling thunder-clap that droned through all the wood
and died away in a long chain of rough sounds. The children looked at one
another and then at the trees and the sky. All stood black now, the sun
was gone and a warm wind came working through the boughs, by gusts. It
grew dark as night and at times most terribly silent.
And now--they all crossed themselves--a ball of fire flew through the sky
and it cracked and broke and it tore all that was in the wood. The wind
came up, the branches rocked and writhed and the leaves fluttered and
tugged and heavy drops beat into the sand.
"Quick, quick!" said Trientje. "It's going to lighten!"
Lowietje said nothing and Poentje cried. Each took the child by one hand
and they ran as fast as they could to get from under the trees.
They dashed their hands before their eyes and stood still: a golden snake
twisted round a tree and all the wood was bright with fire and there came
a droning and a rumbling and a banging as of stones together and a
hundred thousand branches burst asunder. Shivering, not daring to look
up, they crossed themselves again and all three crept under the branches,
deep down in a ditch. Trientje tied her pinafore over the little one's
face and they sat there huddled together, shuddering and peeping through
their fingers and saying loud Our Fathers.
"You must not look, Lowietje: the lightning would strike you blind."
The trees wrung their heavy boughs and everything squeaked and rustled
terribly. The water rained and poured from the leafy vault on Trientje's
straw hat, on Lowietje's bare head and right through his little torn
shirt. And clap and clap of thunder fell; the sky opened and belched fire
like a hot oven. The children sat nestling into each other's
arms--Poentje down under the other two--and only when it had kept still
for long did they all, trembling and terrified, dare to put out their
"I wish we were home now!" sighed Lowietje.
Once more the sky was all on fire and rumbling and breaking and crackling
till the earth quaked and shook.
"O God, O God, help us get out of the wood and home to mother!" whined
When they opened their eyes again, they saw below them, in the bottom, a
huge beech with a bough struck off and the white splinters bare, with
leaves awkwardly twisted right round: it stood there like a fellow with
one arm off.
The rain now fell steadily in straight stripes; the noise grew fainter
and the sky broke open.
Soaked through with the wet, the children came creeping out of the ditch
and now, holding their breaths, stood looking at that tree which was so
awesomely cleft and at that crippled bough which hung swinging over
space. The thunder still rumbled, but it was very far away, like heavy
waggons rattling over hard stones. Lowietje caught his little brother up
on his back and they made straight for the opening of the drove, where
they saw a clear sky. They must get out of the wood, away from those
trees where such fearful things happened and where it cracked so and
where it was so dark.
Outside, the heaven hung full of gold-edged clouds and the sun drove its
bright darts through the sky. The rain fell in lovely gleaming drops and
all looked so new, so fresh and so strangely glad as after a fit of
weeping, when the glistening tears hang in laughing eyes. 'Twas all so
peaceful here and 'twas far behind them that the trees were twisted and
bent. Here and there flew birds; and the cuckoo sat calling in a
cornfield. Lowietje's shirt was glued to his skin; his trousers hung
heavily from his limbs and his hair fell in dripping tresses, sticking
along his cheeks. The white spots on Trientje's pinafore were run through
with the black; and wet cornstalks whipped her little thin skirt. Poentje
splashed with his naked little feet in the puddles and asked for mother.
"We're almost home, child," said Trientje, to soothe him.
They went through the wet grass and fragrant cornfields along the
slippery footpaths to a big road.
Look, there, behind the turning, came mother: she had a sack-cloth over
her head and two umbrellas under her arm; she looked angry and ugly.
"We shall get a beating," sighed Lowietje.
* * * * *
A PIPE OR NO PIPE
* * * * *
A PIPE OR NO PIPE
He dropped his wheel-barrow, strode from between the shafts and went and
looked into the great window of the tobacco-shop. His eyes were all full,
as far as they could carry: an abundance and a splendour to dream about.
He came a step nearer and rested his two elbows on the stone window-sill,
to see more comfortably.
Two stacks of motley cigar-boxes stood on either side and ran together at
the top into a rounded arch, from which hung long, long pipes,
cinnamon-wood pipes, as thick as your arm, with green strings to them and
huge, big bowls, artfully carved into the heads of the King, of hideous
niggers, or of pretty girls with beads for eyes.
On thick, transparent glass slips lay whole files of meerschaum pipes,
furnished with clear curved-amber mouthpieces: fishes' heads,
lobster-claws holding an eggshell, horses' heads, cows' hoofs; rich
cigar-holders of meerschaum, all over silver stars and gold bands. Heaps
and heaps and lots and lots of every kind, as far as he could see; and
all this was multiplied in two enormous mirrors, in which, yonder, far
back among all this smoking-gear, he saw his own face staring at him out
of his great, astonished eyes.
He sighed. It was all so beautiful, so rich! And now if mother had only
He went over it once more. Down below, in little plush-lined trays, lay
the small pipes, the boys' stuff. They lay scattered higgledy-piggledy,
whole handfuls of them, crooked and straight, brown and black. His eyes
thieved round voluptuously in those trays and they read with eager
curiosity the neatly-written figures which informed the world how much
each pipe cost.
Here, they were crooked, comical little things of black cocus-wood;
there, they were motley, speckled round bowls, like birds' eggs, with
white stems; but they cost too much. And yet they were so charitably
beautiful! Now his eyes remained hankering after a splendid varnished
bowl. It was almost tucked out of sight, but it glittered so temptingly
and had a lovely brown ring at the edge, shading downwards to a pale
gold-yellow: there was a little cup for the oil to sweat into and a fat
cinnamon stem, with a horn mouthpiece. He examined it on every side and
would have liked to turn it over with his eyes. Inside the bowl stood, in
"1 _fr_. 50."
That was the one he wanted, that was his. She had promised him a pipe if
she got work to-day. If only she had brought work with her!
After one last look and one more ... he went on.
He caught up his barrow and pushed it, over the wide road, straight to
There he had to wait.
He loitered round the dreary, deserted yard. The noon sun bit the naked
stones; and everything, hiding and shrinking from that glowing sun-fire,
seemed dead. The drivers sat slumbering on the boxes of their cabs; the
horses stood on three legs, their heads down, crookedwise between the
shafts, and now and then they gave a short stamp, to keep off the flies,
which were terribly active. A group of loafers lay sleeping on their
stomachs in the shade. A slow-moving vehicle drove past and disappeared
round the corner. A dog came stepping up lazily and went and lay under
the sunflowers near the signal-box, blinking his eyes.
There was nothing more that moved.
At last the train came gliding in very gently, without noise, and it sent
a gulp or two of white smoke into the quivering blue sky.
Now the boy stood stretching his neck through the railings, on the
look-out for his mother, whom he already saw in his thoughts, coming
bent, with a heavily-laden bag of weaving-stuff; and the pipe was in his
pocket ... or else nothing, nothing at all!
'Twas a fat gentleman that got out first; then a tall, thin one; then a
woman; then another woman; always others; and now, now it was mother. She
stuck out her thin leg, groping from the high foot-board to find the
ground, and ... she had an empty blue-and-white canvas bag on her
shoulder. His lower lip dropped sadly and he turned slowly to his barrow:
"No work yet. God better it!"
The mother threw her bag on the wheel-barrow and they went on, without
Straight opposite the tobacco-shop, the boy gave a sidelong glance at the
great window, with all those rich things displayed behind it, and he
whistled a little tune.
They had still far, very far to go, before they two were at home, in
their village. And the sun was burning.
* * * * *
* * * * *
In his Sunday best! A red-and-yellow flowered scarf was tied round his
sun-burnt neck and the two ends blew over his shoulders; a small
brown-felt hat with a curly brim was drawn down upon his head and, from
under it, came here and there a wisp of flaxen hair. He wore a small,
open jacket, with a short waistcoat, from under which a clean blue shirt
bulged out; and his long, much too long trousers fell in wide folds over
his big cossack shoes. Under his arm he carried a bundle knotted into
a red handkerchief, while with the other hand he twirled a switch.
 Hob-nailed shoes fastened with straps.
He was a growing youngster, a well-set-up cowherd, with a brown, freckled
face, small, pale-grey eyes, under milk-white eyebrows, and bony knees
and elbows: a sturdy fellow in the making.
'Twas heavenly, grand Sunday weather: it shone with light and life and it
was all green, pale, splendid green, against a clear blue sky in the
middle of the afternoon.
He stepped on bravely, along the wide drove of elms, twisting his switch,
and looked into the free sky with his young, grey-blue eyes. He
thought ... of what? Of nothing! Truly, of nothing: what does a cowherd
think of? Wait a bit, though; he was thinking: 'twas Sunday! It was
Sunday once more, the glad Sunday! And there were so few Sundays in those
long, long weeks. And he was going home for a few hours: yes, home; and
from there to Stafke's and to Stafke's pigeons.
He was hard-worked at the farm: twenty-nine cow-beasts, which were always
hungry and always wanted fattening; furthermore, a whole herd of calves
and hogs: 'twas a drudging without end or bottom, from early morning to
late at night, until his limbs hung lame.
The farmer was good but strict and could not abide sluggards; he looked
for work, hard work; and this the lad was glad to give, but only while
looking forward to the everlasting Sunday, in which lay all his happiness
He quickened his steps; and the elms pushed by, one by one, and at last,
ahead, very far down that dark hedge of stems and leafage, came a tiny
opening where the trees seemed to touch one another.
Look! There, beside the little village church, stood Farmer Willems'
homestead, with its little slate turret and the great poplars and, beside
it, close together and quite hidden in the green, two little cottages.
'Twas there that he was brought up and had grown up; there, in one of
those cottages. In the other lived Stafke's father and mother. The
children had led the half-wild life of the country there: two little boys
together. They had clambered up those mighty trees, weltered in the sand
of the drove and coursed like foals in the meadow. The farm was a free
domain to them; they were at home in it; they went daily to the little
door of the wash-house to fetch their slice of rye-bread-and-butter and,
in the morning, an apple or a pear. They had lain and rolled in the
hay-loft, like fish in the water; but all that had passed so quickly, so
very quickly. The parish-priest came; and, for six months, six long
months, they had had to go to school and church. Then, on a certain
Monday morning, father said:
"Lad, you're coming along to the farm to-day, to bind corn."
Play was over, the free play of the country! They were pressed into
labour, were saddled with the labourer's heavy burden. Since then, it had
been an endless roving after work, from one farm to another, with his
bundle under his arm.
Stafke had remained serving at Willems', with father, and he, on Sunday
afternoons, had not so far to go, under the burning sun, in order to get
The way was long for an unthinking lad; and they seemed endless, those
never-changing rows of tree-trunks, those uncounted yellow, blinking
cornfields ... and never a creature on the road. It was something very
much out of the way when a pigeon flew through the azure sky; the lad
stood still and, turning round, followed the great ring which it made
until it dropped far away, yonder among the houses of the village. Then
he went on, pondering, as he went, that there was nothing, absolutely
nothing lovelier than a milk-white pigeon in a pale-blue sky; and he
"Perhaps it's Stafke's pigeon."
On reaching home, he laid down his bundle; his baby sister came running
up to him, with her little arms wide open, and held him by his legs; and
he lifted her twice, three times above his head. He handed mother his
earnings; and then, out of the door, to Stafke's!
"Roz'lie, is he in?"
"Oh, yes, he's up in the loft, with the pigeons."
He climbed up the ladder, in three steps and as carefully as he could, to
the dovecote. Behind a swarm of half-stretched and loose-hanging clouts
and canvas things, a lad sat on an overturned tub, his fair-haired curly
head in his hands, his elbows on his knees, peering through a sort of
lattice-work. Jaak sat down at the other side, on a bundle of maize, in
just the same attitude, and looked too....
There were white, snow-white, mottled, blue, slate-blue, russet,
speckled, grey, black-flecked, striped and spotted pigeons, doves,
pouters--some cocks, the rest hens--a motley crowd all mixed up together.
There were some that sat murmuring one to the other, softly--oh, so
softly--and nodding their heads for sheer kindliness. Others cooed
loudly, angrily or indifferently and tripped round one another. Others
sat huddled, meditating, lonely and forlorn, blinking their bright little
Through the holes, from the resting-board, new ones came walking in with
shy feet and sought a little place for themselves; others passed out
through the narrow opening and, flapping their wings, rose into the sky.
'Twas a humming and muttering without end, a murmuring and whispering
loud and soft and a restless stir and movement: a little world full of
neatly-dressed damsels, who were all so lightly, so prettily decked out
and who knew how to manage their trains and their fine clothes so
demurely and so comically. They carefully combed and cleaned their black
velvet ruffs, smoothed their sharp-striped feathers one by one, fondled
and rubbed their downy breasts till they shone like new-blown roses....
And Jaak and Stafke sat watching this, sat watching this, like two steel
statues, sweating in that warm loft. They did not stir nor speak a single
And that lasted and went on....
It grew dusk. From every side the pigeons came flying in, whole troops of
them, and sought their well-known roosts. They stood two and two, closely
crowded together on the perches or huddled in the holes. They drew their
heads into their feathered throats and slept. The rumour diminished to
just a soft mumbling; and then nothing more. The pigeon that sat over
there, squatting low on her eggs, faded from sight in her dark corner;
and the whole upper row vanished in the dusk of the rafters.
The boys still sat on.
The dovecote became a pale-grey twilight thing, with drab and black
patches here and there. The soft humming passed into a faint buzz that
died away quite; and all was silence.
They both together stood up straight, gave a long-drawn sigh and went
"It's getting dark," said Jaak, wiping the sweat from his face. "The cows
will be waiting."
"Yes," said Stafke. "It gets evening all at once. Well, Jaak, till
And Jaak went away, through the now moonlit drove, with a new bundle
under his arm and thinking of the farm, of his twenty-nine cow-beasts and
of Sunday and of Stafke's pigeons....
* * * * *
_Il y a des malheurs qui arrivent
d'un pas si lent et si sur qu'ils
paraissent faire partie de la vie
* * * * *
He had been half awake several times already, but each time he had
slipped back into an uneasy doze, a restless, wearisome sojourn in a
strange, drowsy world, in which he struggled with stupid, silly
dream-spectres, all jumbled together in a huddled mass of incoherent,
impossible thoughts and actions; a blank world in which all his workaday
doings were forgotten; an after-life of tiring sleep following on the
carouse of yesterday. He lay half-suffocated in the stifling heat of that
tiled garret, lay tossing on a straw mattress. And suddenly, with a jolt
that jerked him sleeping like a beast of burden. And now why couldn't he
take life as it came, like his mates, who just went through it anyhow,
without any calculating, callously and cheerfully, something like a
machine which, when the sun comes out and it is daylight, begins to move
arms and legs, to twist and turn the whole day long and, when it is
evening again and dark, falls down and remains lying dead, for a few
hours, with all the other things?
He drew himself up, thrust his thin legs into his trousers, his arms into
a dirty jacket and let his weary limbs carry him below. His mother had
buttoned up the linen satchel with his two slices of bread-and-butter and
had ladled out his porridge. He went out followed by a "God guard you,
lad!" and the little woman looked after her boy till he had vanished out
of the alley. She was so fond of him, he knew it; yes, he knew all about
that tender love, which he so often rejected in a moment of churlish
impatience; but still he was sorry afterwards, even though he never
showed it. That prim, old-fashioned little woman, with her cramped ways,
was his mother; his father had been a drunkard and had been killed at his
work: that was his parentage; it was their fault that he led this
He walked on, without looking up at all the swarming life around him,
went step by step over the slippery cobbles, straight to his work. His
work: why must he work, always that everlasting toiling, while others
lived and enjoyed their lives without doing anything? He too had once
thought--but it was only a dream--of becoming something; he had felt
something stirring just there, inside him, and that seed would have
sprouted and blossomed if they had only tended it; but they had
ruthlessly repelled him, had refused to take him up with them on the
heights; and he had remained in the mud, alone, all alone.
There it rose before him: a mighty edifice in building, with behind it a
radiant summer sun that blazed forth high above the framework of the roof
in the morning sky and made that giant structure stand black in its own
That was his work. All that mass of bricks he had seen grow into the
mighty whole; and there it stood now, a huge block, with heavy, massive
outlines, contained--held upright, it seemed--by a jumble of dirty-white
stakes and posts, crossed and criss-crossed with planks. Out of a dirty
hodge-podge of crazy houses, walls black with smoke, little inner rooms
which for the first time saw the white light of day, with ragged strips
of wall-paper and whitewash among rotten beams and rafters straight and
askew, all of which his stubborn labour had made to fall and disappear,
and out of those deep-dug foundations, out of that drudging in the dirty
ground, those stout walls had grown stone by stone, had risen high into
the sky--oh, the hard work of it!--and, tapering by degrees, had shot up
to form that mighty building. Wall by wall, wrought at and toiled at,
held together by pillars running beside narrow pointed windows to those
peaked gable-steps, running into a forest of masts, of slanting beams
that had to bear the roof, the whole of that sprawling monster had
gradually acquired a sense and a meaning and become the splendid
masterpiece that now stood there, solidly fixed against the blue sky like
a magic crystallized phrase.
That beginning all over again, day after day, at the same work; all that
busy stir of men and stones, now high in the air, now deep below; that
incessant climbing up and down those swaying ladders: all this had made
such a deep impression on him, had implanted itself into him so firmly
that at the first sight of it he felt smitten with impotence, with a
mechanical discouragement that gripped his whole being and made him work
throughout the day as though urged by an all-ruling deity set there in
the symbolic shape of that giant colossus at which he toiled. It seemed
to him that he was an indispensable little part of that great building, a
small moving thing with but a tiny atom of intelligence--sometimes--and
fatally dragged along in that whirling circle, under the behest of the
masters, who knew their way through every stroke and line of the great
plan, who had all that great work in their heads and on paper and who
possessed the power to bring all that complicated machine into operation.
And he just went to work like a dog, set going by the mournful knocking
of the stone-chopper, the shrill screech of the toothless iron marble-saw
and all the banging and knocking and hewing up yonder at the top of
things. He took his wooden hod, filled it with bricks and slowly climbed
the ladder. He was once more the dismal noodle of last week, the
hypnotized bag-o'-nerves that let himself be swept along in the whirlwind
of habit and vexation, dazed by that awful hugeness which he was helping
to complete and driven on by the ever-pursuing pair of eyes of his strict
foreman. And his head ached so; and he felt so sick; and his legs bent
under the load.
On he had to go and on. His head no longer took part in the work; his
legs kept on going up and down the rungs with those bricks, those
everlasting bricks: he did not know how many, just hauled them up,
It seemed to him sometimes that the whole mass of walls and scaffolding,
labourers and foremen made but a single being: a sort of fearsome deity,
something like an unwieldy monster with inhuman, cruel feelings,
something which had to be fed with all that workmen's sweat; and all this
feverish activity seemed to him the whirling along of a crowd of
unfortunates who had stepped into the fatal circle marked out for them,
never to leave it again. Everything seemed so unsteady to-day: those
walls on which he had to walk tottered; and he took such a pleasure in
looking, in looking for a long time down below, yonder where the men and
women were like ants and the great blocks of freestone became little
bricks. It gave him such a delicious wriggling in the bowels, a tickling
in his blood; and he felt his hair tingling on his head. Was not this the
way to obtain release from that hard labour, to get out of that
Then he held on to a post until he recovered his senses; and he went down
again for more bricks. It came from all that beer.
Yesterday had been a holiday. The wooden framework of the roof was
finished; and they had nailed the May-bough to the top, the joyous emblem
of difficulties vanquished. It showed up grandly there, with its bright
green leaves so high in the air. The masters had granted the men a day
off and given them plenty of beer. All that warm day they had made merry,
drinking and singing and loafing about the streets like happy savages. He
too had revelled with the rest, had been overcome by the drink and joined
in everything, from the horseplay in the open air to the bestial
amusements in those dark holes where the populace seeks its pleasure,
that stimulant for the work of the morrow. Then that brutal drunkenness
had come, with the loss of all his senses, till he found himself,
dog-tired, sick and feverish, up in his garret under the tiles.
To-day the work was twice as irksome. That rising warmth which, in the
morning, while it is still cool, forebodes the stifling, paralysing heat
of the scorching noon-day, tortured his throat and his bowels; he
couldn't go on.
"Slacker!" was the first word flung at his head. He stood on the high
gable-steps and set down his load of bricks. That "Slacker!" played about
in his head like the smarting pain of a lash. He stood looking aimlessly
into space, indifferent to all that moved and lived around him. A shudder
ran through his body. The wall tottered ... and he was so high up, all
alone, seen by nobody: such a small creature in that blue sky, in that
endless space. In a clear vision he saw his own figure in all its lean
wretchedness, cut out like a paper silhouette, standing out sharply
against the sky, such a miserable little object: two thin legs, like
laths, a little stomach, two little sticks of arms and that small,
everyday, vulgar head. Was that he, that tiny atom of this mighty,
colossal building, that ant on the back of this behemoth ... which had
only to move to shake him off, ever so low down!
Ah, here's that delicious wriggling in the bowels again! He has looked
down. Once more. That's capital: something like a feeling of wanting to
jump down, such an airy, irresponsible joy, like flying in a dense, blue
sky, falling very gently and slowly--oh, what fun!--and then being rid of
all one's troubles!... And yet there was a certain fear about it. He
mustn't look any more. Or just this once ... that was grand! Once more
that awful depth, with all those tiny figures, yawned below him; and it
was the little wall that kept him up there so high, only that little
wall.... One movement, the least little yielding, the least bending over:
oh, what bliss ... and how frightful!... He became drunk with delight,
filled with the pleasure of it; he gasped, his eyes became unseeing; it
was like being wafted along, a gentle flight through the air and ... he
Bumping against a scaffold, clutching with hands and feet; a breaking
plank, a ghastly yell ... and then a body with arms and legs outspread in
space, a thunderbolt ... a thud as of a bag of earth ... and there he
lay, stretched at full length, like a man asleep. That scream of
distress, that terrible shriek, that farewell cry of one who is going
away for good had sent something like an electric shock through all
around; work ceased and they scrambled down and stood in a great circle
around that body ... looking. And a great silence followed, that silence
which is so heavy and oppressive after the sudden stop of so much
activity. People came rushing up, pushing to get closer ... and to see.
They tore the poor devil's clothes open to find out where he was hurt,
others ran for help, while fresh swarms of folk came crowding up and the
silence died in an uproar of questions and tramping and the wailing of
women. He lay there, with his peaceful face turned to one side, lay on
his back, seemingly uninjured; a few drops of blood trickled from his
mouth. His eyes were closed like those of a man asleep.
"Such a height to fall!... So young, only a boy!"
Others stood chattering loudly, indifferently, as though about an
everyday occurrence, or looked up at the wall and showed one another from
where he had tumbled down.
There was a sudden movement in the crowd; people jostled one another.
"His mother's coming!" somebody whispered.
They pressed closer and closer to watch the effect upon her, the women
with an anguished consciousness of what she must be suffering, that
mother-pain which they understood so well. The men pushed to see what
happened, because everybody was looking. All eyes were fixed on the
little woman who came running along, with those elderly little hurried
steps, those two anxious eyes which showed all the dread of the tragedy
they suspected. The people made way respectfully, as before one who is
privileged to approach and look upon what is hers. Those who could not
move back she dragged away mercilessly, gripping them with her hooked
fingers, which she thrust out at every side in order to see closer. It
was her ... her ... her son lying there, her own son; and she must get to
She saw him. He lay there and he was dead, the son, the child whom she
had seen leaving that morning alive and well. She stood aghast, out of
breath after the great effort of hurrying, her throat pinched with
distress and sorrow and shock, her soul filled with all the pent-up
tempest that was seeking an outlet. Her flat chest heaved and all her
thin, frail little body quivered; her legs shook beneath her. Slowly and
painfully the sobs came welling up.
The people waited in silence, more or less disappointed, saddened by all
that silent grief. Her eyes, the eyes of a mother, stared at the dead
body; and he did not look at her and he slept on and ... and he was
asleep for ever, gone for ever: he would never see her again! This last
cut into her soul; a shrill scream came from her throat, she flung her
lean brown hands together high above her head, wrung the crooked, gnarled
fingers convulsively and then, with her fists clenched in her lap, sank
impotently to her knees, with her head against his.
"Oh, it's such a pity, oh, it's such a pity!" she moaned; and the words
contained all the awful depth of her woe, all the concentrated sorrow.
"Oh, it's such a pity, such a pity!" she kept on repeating, finding no
other words to express her grief and lending them power by force of
He remained lying there ... and she remained kneeling; and all that crowd
of people stood silently looking on, startled and impressed by that
sacred, solemn mourning. And the impressive hush, the silence of all
those people, the desperate helplessness of those folk, she alone
suffering and crying and unable to help her child and the people
unwilling to help him: that impotence pierced her soul; and the patient
suffering changed into a frenzied madness, a raging fury. With a terrible
scream, like that of a goaded beast, a hoarse yell that came grating out
of her parched throat, she thrust her arms, stiff with pain, like two
steel rods, under the arms of that limp corpse and, with a superhuman
effort, with Herculean strength exalted by suffering, she lifted the
corpse, pressed it to her body, raised it with her outstretched arms and
dragged it, with its legs trailing behind it, hurrying along at a mad
pace, with the one idea of getting home with her child, her only child,
away, far away from that callous crowd which desecrated her sorrow: there
she would weep, sob out all her grief and find words, sweet words which
must throb through her child and wake him and bring him back to life!
All that packed crowd had first followed her with their eyes, struck
by the sudden outburst of that mad rage; and then they had gone
after her, inquisitively. And it did not last long before the
police-constables--those phlegmatic posts with which any outbreak of
undue human emotion must always in the end collide--stopped them; they
pulled those bony arms from round the corpse and took the little mother,
now hanging slack and limp, one on either side by the arm and led her
away. The body was carried to the mortuary.
With a resounding oath the foreman drove his folk back to work and set
all that rolling activity going once more.
The passers-by hastened away; and the saw screeched, the chisel tapped,
the hammer banged, the bricks were hauled up on high and the gorgeous
building, the pride of a metropolis, stood resplendent in the glaring
white mid-day sun, as if nothing had happened.
* * * * *
* * * * *
Her life flowed on as a little brook flows under grass on a Sunday noon
in summer, flowed on in calm seclusion, far from the bustle of the crowd,
secretly, steadily, uninterrupted save by ever-recurring little
incidents, peacefully approaching old age. She sat in her little white
room, behind the muslin curtains, making lace. Her cottage stood a little
way back from the street, shining behind a neatly-raked flower-garden.
The door was always shut and the curtains carefully drawn. Inside,
everything was very clean: smooth, bare walls and the ceiling washed with
milk-white chalk through which shone a soft touch of blue; and this
bright cleanliness contrasted soberly with the things that hung on the
wall. The chairs and furniture stood placed with care, as though nailed
to the floor; over the mantel hung the copper Christ, a thin, elongated
figure of Our Lord, with its sharp projections which shone when the sun
touched them: a little figure which, so long dead, hung there so firmly
nailed and looked so calmly from out of the small dark shadow-lines of
The stove stood freshly blackened, with the waved white sand on its
polished pipe. Over the door of the bedroom steps hung the glass case
with the waxen image of Our Lady, a girlish figure clad in broad white
folds, with bright-red, cherry cheeks, smiling sweetly upon a doll which
she carried in her arms. On the other wall was a glaring framed print, in
which a Child Jesus romped with curly-headed angels in a motley green
wood, with behind it a sunny perspective gleaming with paradisian
 The Flemish stove is connected with the chimney by a flat pipe,
on which the plates and other utensils are heated. On Sundays, the
stove, the pipe and all are blacked and polished with black-lead and
turpentine; and it is an old custom of neat house-wives to powder the
stove-pipe with white sand from the dunes. The sand is allowed to run
through a little opening in the hand in a series of fine wavy lines,
forming a delicate pattern on the black pipe.
From the ceiling, in a white cage, hung the canary, which hopped from one
perch to the other, all day long, without ever singing. On the
window-seat, behind the little curtains, blossomed tall geraniums and
phlox, which, through the mesh of the muslin curtains, sent a blissful
fragrance through the room.
Life went its monotonous gait, measured by the slow tick of the hanging
clock, that big, stupid, laughing face which so pitilessly turned its two
unequal fingers round and round. Outside, close by, went the steel blows
of the smith's hammer or the biting file that grated against her wall.
The sun that laughed so pleasantly through the windows and came and put
all those things in a white gleaming light beamed right through into her
little white soul: it was yet like that of a child, had remained
innocent, never been soiled or troubled; and, now that the bad storm-time
was over, it lay still in the passionless restfulness of waning life,
quite taken up with all manner of harmless occupations, devotions and
acquired ways of an old, god-fearing woman-person. Her face, which was
wreathed in a round white goffered cap, had the smooth, yellow, waxen
pallor of the statue of Our Lady, in church, and her features the severe,
sober kindliness of nuns'. She was dressed in modest, stiffly-falling
folds of unrumpled lilac silk, like the queens in old prints.
She spent those long, quiet days at her lace-pillow. That was her only
amusement, her treasure: this half-rounded arch of smooth, blue paper on
the wooden pillow-stool, occupied by a swarm of copper pins, with
coloured-glass heads, and of finely-turned wooden bobbins, with slender
necks and notched bodies, hanging side by side from fine white threads or
heaped up behind a steel bodkin. All this array of pins, holes, drawers
and trays had for her its own form and meaning, a small world in which
she knew her way so well. Her deft white fingers knew how to throw,
change, catch and pick up those bobbins so nimbly, so swiftly; she stuck
her pins, which were to give the thread its lie and form, so accurately
and surely; and, under her hand, the lace grew slowly and imperceptibly
into a light thread network, grew with the leaves and flowers of her
geraniums and phlox and the silent course of time.
'Twas quite a feast when, in the evening, she wound off the ravelled end
and carefully examined the white web. She closely followed all the knots,
curves and twists of those transparent little veins; and 'twas with
regret that she rolled up the lace again and put it away in the drawer.
When all her peaceful thoughts had been fully pondered, when all that
life of every day, all that even round of happenings, like little white
flakes floating in the sunny sky, had drifted by through the
thought-chambers of her soul and when the light began to fail out of
doors and in, she took her rosary and prayed, for hours on end, slowly
telling the smooth beads between her fingers until, when it grew quite
dark, she started awake and became aware that for some time she had been
telling the strokes of the smith's hammer on the other side of the wall.
Then she laid herself between the white sheets and tried to sleep.
Two days ago the grid of her stove broke and today she had taken it to be
mended; she had been to the smith's and now she could not get out of her
mind what she had seen there: a black cave, like an oven, down three
steps; a dark hole hung and filled on every side with black iron tools;
and, amid all this jumble, an anvil and, in the red glow from the dancing
light of the smithy fire, a small, stunted, black little fellow, hidden
out of knowledge in that gloom; a bent, thin little man wound in a
leathern apron and with a black face, from which a pair of good-humoured
eyes peered out at her, through the shining glasses of his copper-rimmed
spectacles, like two little lights in the dark. She had gone down those
three steps, looking round shyly, afraid of getting dirty; had explained
her business to that impish little chap; and had then hastily fled from
that hell. Now it seemed to her that those two eyes had looked at her so
kindly; and she wondered how any one could live in such a hole and be a
Christian creature ... and yet that smith looked as if he had a good
Next day, she was thinking again of the little man and his dark, haunted
hole; and she sniffed the scent of her geraniums with a new pleasure and
looked with more gladness at her trim little dwelling and her
lace-pillow. She now enjoyed, realized, with all the sensual luxury of
her soul, that peaceful life of hers, something like that of the yellow,
waxen Virgin high up there on the wall, under her glass shade. And yet
she was sorry for her good neighbour: it must be so dreary alone, amid
all that dirt.... She worked at her lace, prayed and tried to think of
He brought the new grid home himself. At first, she was shy with the man:
she got up, went to the stove, turned back again and only now and then
dared look at the smith from under her eyes. He was wrapped up in his
work, stood bending over the stove, trying to fix the grid. Seen like
that in the light, the little chap looked quite different to her eyes: he
was no longer young, his breath came quickly; but in all that he did
there was something so friendly, so kindly, something almost
well-mannered, that went oddly with his dirty clothes and his black face.
The little smith was known in the village as a lively person, who led a
lonely life, but who was able also to divert a company: he knew his
customers and knew how to manage them all. Here he took good care not to
dirty the floor: he spat his tobacco-juice into the coal-box and touched
nothing with his hands. When at last the grid was fixed, he stayed
talking a little: he spoke of her nice little life among all those white
things; paid her a compliment on her pretty flowers and shining copper;
and then came close to look at her lace-pillow. Lastly, seeing that she
was not at her ease, that she answered his remarks so shortly and
hesitatingly, he gave a push to his cap, refused to say what she owed him
and was gone with a skip and a jump.
One Sunday, after vespers, he came again, bowed politely, fetched a bit
of paper out of his waistcoat-pocket and sat down on a chair by the
stove. This visit annoyed her: with the quickness with which small-minded
people weigh and think over a matter, her eyes went to the window to see
if anybody had observed him come in and was likely to set evil tongues
a-clacking. It was almost bound to be so; and, to keep her honour safe,
she opened her door, mumbling something about "warm weather" and "the
tobacco-smoke which made her cough."
She went to her room, fetched some money and paid the bill. The smith sat
where he was, knocked out his little stone pipe and put it in his inside
pocket; he did not look at his money and, in his hoarse little voice,
began to talk of quite common things: of wind and weather and the current
news of the village; always chatting in the same tone, a jumble of long,
breathless statements. From this he went on to his dreary, lonely life,
the monotonous quiet of it and the danger of thieves, sickness and sudden
death. She said not a word, but, against the bright window-curtains, the
sharp, heavy profile of her face, together with the flutes of her white
cap, went up and down in a continual nodding assent to everything he
said. At the end, she took pleasure in hearing him talk, nor now looked
upon that clean-washed face of his as at all so ugly. It even did her
good to see some one sitting there who came to enliven the monotony of
that long Sunday evening. By her leave, he had lighted a fresh pipe; and
she now sat sniffing up that unaccustomed smell, which rose in little
puffs from behind the stove and floated round the room, filling it with
long rows of blue curls. 'Twas as if she were overcome by that quite new
smell of tobacco and she felt inclined to sleep; she stood up, to get rid
of that slackness, shut the front-door and, without thinking what she was
doing, asked if he would have some coffee. He nodded, gladly.
She put the kettle on and got the coffee-pot ready, fetched out her best
cups and spoons and the white sugar. When the steam came rushing from the
spout, she poured water on the coffee and they sat down, one on each side
of the table, to sip the savoury drink in tiny draughts. 'Twas long since
she had felt so comfortable and for the first time she thought with
dislike of her lonely life. 'Twas late when he went home; she came with
him to the door ... and saw black figures that strolled past in the
street and perhaps had seen him leave. She had bad dreams all night: the
people pointed their fingers at her and slanderous tongues spread ugly
things about her. The whole of the next day her thoughts were in the
smithy; she swept the pavement more carefully and farther than usual,
went now and then and looked out of window; and her little curtains were
left open with a split in the middle. Yesterday, she had forgotten to
give the canary fresh water to drink. The people looked at her in the
street; two or three god-fearing gossips had let her walk home alone.
This gave her great pain; 'twas as though a heavy load were weighing day
and night on her breast; and yet she was not sorry for what had happened.
All these trifles could not make her forget her content. She said her
prayers and performed her little duties with as much care as before and
lived on, alone.
On Sunday, she went to church very early and prayed long: it did her so
much good, that delightful whispering with God, that sweet kind Lord Who
listened to her so patiently and always sent her away with fresh courage,
strengthened to walk on bravely along life's irksome way. Sometimes she
was frightened at her behaviour! She was gnawed by a reproachful thought:
that she had left the straight path, that she no longer lived for God
alone, that she was forgetting her dear saints and busy with sinful
thoughts. And yet, when she carefully considered everything, nothing had
happened that seemed to her blameworthy; all that change in her life had
come as of itself and in spite of herself; and really, after all, there
was no harm in it. She prayed for that good man, who certainly needed her
spiritual aid: he went so seldom to church and lived in such a dreary
black hole. Her prayers and interest would for sure bring him to a better
frame of mind. And yet she must watch, keep strong, avoid the dangers:
her honour was a tender thing; and people were wicked. She stayed longer
than usual in the confessional and offered special prayers to every saint
in the church.
When she was back at home, she began her little Sunday duties: the
lace-pillow was put away that day and she did nothing but arrange things,
put things in their places, gather a fresh nosegay for the porcelain vase
before Our Lady's statue and see to her cooking. She picked the withered
leaves from the geraniums, bound the branches of the phlox to the trellis
and gave them fresh water from a little flowered can. She was specially
fond of her little pot of musk: it stood on the window-seat, opposite her
chair, carefully set in a rush cage stuck into the earth and fastened at
the top with a thread. Sometimes she took it on her lap, bent her face
over it and sniffed the pleasant smell in long draughts, until she was
almost drunk with it.
In the afternoon, she sat down at the window and read her Thomas a
Kempis. Then all was quite still: no hammering behind the wall, no boys
in the street, only the soft tapping of the canary in his food-trough and
the tick of the pendulum; everything was quiet as though in an enchanted
sleep. The sun glowed through the geranium-leaves and cast on the
red-tiled floor a broad, round shadow which took the whole afternoon to
creep from the legs of the stove to the front-door.
The flies buzzed round on the rafters of the ceiling or ran along the
cracks of the white-scoured table. Her thoughts wandered wearily and
lazily through the wise maxims of her book and she sometimes sat peering
at the funny shape of a coloured initial which, after long looking,
became such a silly figure, one that no longer looked in the least like a
letter, but was rather something in the form of a vice.... The lines of
print ran into one another, the maxims said all sorts of foolish things,
her eyes closed, her head nodded and she sank, with all those peaceful
things, into perfect rest.
After dinner, the smith had had a sleep; then he washed his face, put on
his best clothes and went past her window to vespers. In the evening, she
saw him again when he went to the customers for a pot of beer: this time
he gave her a friendly nod.
For her, Sunday passed like all the other days; she prayed longer and
closed her shutter earlier for fear of the drunkards. After saying a long
row of graces which she knew by heart, she went to her bedroom. In the
stuffy air of that closed upper chamber, she lay thinking. She was not
sleepy and it was nice, in the evening stillness, covered in her white
sheets, to lie with her eyes looking through the split in the white
curtains at the moon which hung shining outside.
Now she gave free scope to her thoughts, until all of that had again been
pondered round and pondered out. Then it became so funny to her: 'twas as
if she were long dead now and floating in a pale and scented air in the
company of sweet saints and angels. But it was oh, so hazy and
indistinct! It always escaped her when she wanted to enjoy it more
closely and to give the thing a name.
It was night when the smith came home, a little tipsy, deceived by his
great thirst and the double effect of the beer in that warm weather. He
was very cheery, without really knowing why; something like a soft
buzzing fire ran through all his body and made him tingle with happiness.
They had chaffed him that evening about the old maid next door and he now
felt inclined just to tell her about it.
Wasn't it a shame for two people to lie here so quietly and drearily,
parted by a bit of a wall, when they could have been amusing each
other?... His white neighbour was sure to be asleep by now ... and, if he
only dared ... and, quicker indeed than he intended, he gave three little
taps on the wall and lay listening, all agog.... Three like little taps
answered! This was so unexpected that at first he sat wondering whether
he could believe his ears; then he began to swim and sprawl in his bed,
bit his teeth so as not to shout out his overflowing delight and started
banging on the wall, this time with his fists. It was too late to-night:
to-morrow, he would go to her and ask her ... and then they would
both ... and he would no longer be alone, always alone, and would have
some one to care for him, to look after him.... In all this happiness he
drowsed off gently, rocked in another world, like a little wax doll in a
pale-blue paper box.
She had started out of her sleep at those three taps and had answered,
not knowing why; then she had got frightened at that wild man behind her
wall, had jumped out of bed and struck a light and sat waiting until the
noise stopped; then she commended her soul into the Lord's hands and fell
The first time that he went to see her, he found the door shut. Once,
when he met her in the street, she kept her eyes carefully cast down and
passed him without a sign of greeting. Her curtains remained drawn and
she never came to the door now. He went home and sat musing on his anvil.
All his plan was blown to bits; he found himself sadly duped and turned
red with anger when folk spoke of his dear neighbour. He hammered and
filed from morning till night; and she must now be making her lace.
Time pushed past, divided into even days, along a smooth road that led
down the mountain-slope of summer. The leaves fell from the geraniums and
the phlox. The neatly-cut-out paper fly-catcher was put away and the lamp
hung up in its place. With the sad, short days came the grey, misty sky,
the dismal, dripping rain and the white snow. The village lay dead for
half the day, dark, with here and there a little ray of light gleaming
through the shutters.
And it became gradually drearier for her: that calm rest, in which she
had once found such a pure delight, was now a heavy weariness. She longed
for change, for something different which she could not justly define, or
else to live again as before, alone and with nothing but herself. She had
struggled and fought to rid herself of that obsession, but it followed
her everywhere: she saw him go by, even when her eyes were fixed on the
lace-pillow, the stove, or the chair on which he had sat; and there was
that constant hammering and scratching behind her wall: everywhere she
saw those two kind eyes behind the copper rims of his spectacles; and she
sometimes caught herself contentedly tracing the good-natured features of
his little black face. She had prayed more than ever and evoked quite new
saints; and now she let herself drift along at God's pleasure, no longer
even thinking of her weakness. Perhaps she was the instrument of a
Blessed Providence, destined blindly to do good.
The little curtains had long been pushed apart again; and, each time that
she heard approaching footsteps, her heart went beating and her eyes
looked eagerly to see if by chance ... it was not he.
Sometimes, an anxious fluttering drove her to the front-door, where she
stood looking round for a while and then, ashamed of herself, went
indoors again. Quite against her habit, she now made use of her glass: in
the middle of her work, she went to see if the two glossy black tresses
lay neatly on her forehead and if the ribbons of her cap were properly
tied and fastened. She put on her clothes more carefully and folded and
refolded her kerchief till it enclosed her body in a pretty shape. From
before the moment of starting for church, her heart began to beat; she
shut her garden-gate more noisily and stepped loudly along the pavement
until she came to the smith's first window, firmly resolved this time at
least to look up and say good-morning; but she always met some one who
noticed her; and she was in church by the time that, with a sigh, she had
put off her intention until next day.
At night, in bed, she lay thinking over all these little events; and it
was a glad day or a sad day for her according as she had more or less
often caught sight of the little smith.
One evening, after benediction, she saw him come walking under the trees
of the churchyard. Not a soul saw them. Now she really must have courage;
but again the blood came to her throat and she felt that once again it
would lead to nothing. He had just looked round before she came up to him
and then he sat down on the stone step before the Calvary, as though he
wanted to chat with her there at his ease:
"Good-evening, Sofie," he said, with a smile. "Have you been to say your
prayers. Don't you ever say a little one for me? I want it so badly: my
soul's as black as my apron and I can't even read a prayer-book...."
He made all this speech in a soft, fondling little tone and then sat
smirking to see what she would say. There was nothing that she longed for
more than to save his soul:
"Can you say the Rosary?" she asked.
"Yes, but I haven't one."
"Would you like me to give you one?"
"Oh, rather ... if you'll be so good!"
She bent close to him and whispered in his ear:
"Come and fetch it, to-morrow evening, when it's dark."
They walked together through the peaceful twilit churchyard and, with a
cordial "Good-evening," went home well pleased with themselves.
For her it was an endless day; all the time she stood considering what
she should say to him. He was coming and would sit smoking there again
behind the stove. Already she heard his pleasant, whispering talk and saw
his kind, upturned glance. She moved about restlessly to set everything
in order. The shutters were closed quite early and the lamp burning. Now
she went and had one more look outside and it was pitch-dark, with never
a moon. On the stroke of eight, the door opened: he was there, with his
Sunday jacket on, his red scarf and his leather shoes. She was most
friendly, but did not at first know how to begin the conversation.
He lit his pipe and snuffled some news of the village and of people who
were married, sick or dead. She made coffee, turned up the lamp and
opened her bedroom door to give an outlet to the tobacco-smoke. Straight
opposite him, deep in the half-darkness, he saw all that show of white:
against the wall stood the bed, under a white canopy of curtains hanging
in folds, set off with a white ball-fringe; also a praying-desk with
velvet cushions, above which was an image of the Sacred Heart, with gold
flowers, and, hanging from a brass chain, a perpetual light glimmering in
a little red glass; and, all around, on the white walls, little statues
and pictures, like a devout little tabernacle ashine with cleanliness.
They drank their fragrant cup of coffee and nibbled lumps of white sugar.
"And my rosary?" he asked.
She fetched it out of the drawer of her lace pillow and came and sat
close to him to teach him how to say it:
"Here, at the little cross, the I Believe in God the Father; then, at
each big bead, an Our Father; and, at the little ones, a Hail Mary."
He sat with his legs drawn under his chair, with one hand at his chin,
listening good-humouredly and, with a smile, repeating all she taught
him. Her eyes shone with happiness. Now the talk went easily on church
matters and all the things of her pious little life; she showed him the
pictures in her prayer-book, explained all the attributes of the saints
and told long stories of their lives and martyrdoms.
He, also, told her of his youth, when he made his first communion and was
the best little man in the whole village. It was striking ten when he
went home; and he had promised to come and listen to her again.
Every evening, when it grew dark, he sat peeping to see if there was no
one in the street and then cautiously crept in through her gate. He
brought her old books from his loft; and, while he smoked his pipe, she
lit the candle before the statue of Our Lady and started talking, very
gently, so as not to be heard outside. She read whole chapters out of
Thomas a Kempis and _The Pious Pilgrim_, _The Dove amongst the Rocks_,
_The Spiritual Bridegroom_, or _The Sacred Meditations_. They sat there
for hours at a time gazing at each other and smiling. When it grew late,
she went and looked outside and, when the moment was favourable, she
carefully let him out. She thanked Our Lord for making her so happy and
often prayed that it might last and she win the smith's soul for Heaven
and that their doing might all the same be kept hidden from wicked
St. Eloi's Day is the holiday of smiths and husbandmen. In the morning,
the farmers all went together to mass and thence, after a glass, to
settle their yearly reckoning at the smith's. At noon there was a big
dinner at the inn. They ate much and drank more; and, from afternoon till
late in the evening, the smiths' men and the peasants loafed along the
streets and sang ribald songs. The steadiest of them walked about
talking, from one tavern to the other. They were nearly all drunk. She
sat peeping at it from behind her curtain and was vexed at all this
wantonness and rather glad that she had not yet seen "him" anywhere. She
said her evening prayers and was just going to bed when she heard the
door open and the smith stepped in.
He carried his pipe upside down in his mouth, his eyes looked wild and
his speech was incoherent. She had never seen him like that; and she was
frightened at his strange gestures. She wanted him to sit down, but he
came up to her with his arms open, as if to catch hold of her. She
stepped back in affright, pushed him away from her. His breath stank of
drink and his thin legs tottered under him. She began to beseech him,
that it was late and that he should go home and that people would
know.... But his eyes looked at her roguishly and, with bent head and
outstretched arms, he kept on trying to come closer. Filled with dread,
she wavered away behind the tables and chairs, whimpering:
"If you please, if you please, Sander, go home; you frighten me!"
Suddenly, he nipped out the flame of the lamp with his fingers. It was
"Sander! Sander! What do you want? Heavens! He's drunk! And I'm here all
alone! Lord God, St. Catherine, help!"
He still spoke not a word, but uttered ugly growls; and she heard his
hands rub and grope along the wall, against herself. She pulled open the
door of her bedroom and fled up the stairs and fell in a heap in the
corner beside her bed. There she sat waiting, out of breath.... Yes, his
heavy shoes had found the steps; and, still growling, he entered the
room. He felt the bed, lay down flat on his stomach and reached out with
his arms; then he found her sitting sighing. She felt those two weedy
arms grasp her and was caught in them as in an iron band. She moaned and
screamed for help. His dirty, slimy mouth pressed her lips ... and then
she felt herself sink away, out of the world. The people who heard the
cries came to see what was the matter. They hauled the drunkard outside
and laid her on the bed. When they saw that she was better, they went
She lay stretched out slackly in the dark. First, still quite overcome,
as though drunk with sleep, she slowly, through that dim whirl of stormy
thoughts, came to understand what had happened: all her misfortune, which
yawned before her like a deep, black well. She was ashamed, disgusted
with herself and felt a great aversion, a loathing for all the world:
people were a pack of lustful pigs.... And he too: that was over now,
suddenly over, for good and all.... And he ... no, he had deceived her,
grievously defiled her. And now to have to go on living like that! It was
done past recall: she was punished for her trustfulness ... and those
same kind eyes and that friendly face; only yesterday, they had said
their evening prayers together and so devoutly! Oh, 'twas such a pity!
And what would people say?... And the priest?... And Our Lord and all His
dear saints?... She fell into ever-deepening despair and saw never a way
out. Very far away shone her pure little life of former days, her white
and peaceful little soul floating in that unruffled blue sanctity, in
that fragrant twilight of evening after evening ... and all this he had
now crushed in one second and stamped to pieces. And he was dead to her,
he with whom she had dreamed so sweetly and lived in glad expectation. In
her wretchedness, she was left stark alone, abandoned like a poor babe in
the snow. She plunged her face into the white sheets and cried. She would
have liked to pine away there, in that kindly darkness, and never, never
to see daylight again.
* * * * *
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