"Now, why could n't you have done that long ago, you addlepated old fool," he said mildly to Netteke. "You have made no end of trouble for us, and gained nothing for yourself! Now I am afraid we shan't get beyond the German lines before dark. We may even have to spend the night in dangerous territory, and all because you're just as mulish as–as a mule," he finished helplessly.
Joseph laughed. "Can't you think of anything mulisher than a mule ?" he said.
"There is n't a thing," answered his father. [Page 146]
"Well," answered Joseph, "there are a whole lot of other things beside balky mules in this world that I wish had never been made. There are spiders, and rats, and Germans. They are all pests. I don't see why they were ever born."
Father De Smet became serious at once.
"Son," he said sternly, "don't ever let me hear you say such a thing again. There are spiders, and rats, and balky mules, and Germans, and it does n't do a bit of good to waste words fussing because they are here. The thing to do is to deal with them !"
Father De Smet was so much in earnest that he boomed these words out in quite a loud voice. Joseph seized his hand.
"Hush !" he whispered.
Father De Smet looked up. There, standing right in front of them in the tow-path, was a German soldier !
"Halt !" shouted the soldier.
But Netteke was now just as much bent upon going as she had been before upon [Page 147] standing still. She paid no attention whatever to the command, but walked stolidly along the tow-path directly toward the soldier.
"Halt !" cried the soldier again.
But Netteke had had no military training, and she simply kept on. In one more step she would have come down upon the soldier's toes, if he had not moved aside just in time. He was very angry.
"Why didn't you stop your miserable old mule when I told you to ?" he said to Father De Smet.
"It's a balky mule," replied Father De Smet mildly, "and very obstinate."
"Indeed !" sneered the soldier; "then I suppose you have named him Albert after your pig-headed King !"
"No," answered Father De Smet, "I think too much of my King to name my mule after him."
"Oh, ho !" said the German; "then perhaps you have named him for the Kaiser ! "
Netteke had marched steadily along dur- [Page 148] ing this conversation, and they were now past the soldier.
"No," Father De Smet called back, "I didn't name her after the Kaiser. I think too much of my mule! "
The soldier shook his fist after them. "I'll make you pay well for your impudence !" he shouted. "You and I will meet again ! "
"Very likely," muttered Father De Smet under his breath. He was now more than ever anxious to get beyond the German lines before dark, but as the afternoon passed it became certain that they would not be able to do it. The shadows grew longer and longer as Netteke plodded slowly along, and at last Mother De Smet called to her husband over the boat-side.
"I think we shall have to stop soon and feed the mule or she will be too tired to get us across the line at all. I believe we should save time by stopping for supper. Besides, I want to send over there,"–she [Page 149] pointed to a farmhouse not a great distance from the river,–" and get some milk and eggs."
"Very well," said her husband; "we'll stop under that bunch of willows."
The bunch of willows beside the river which he pointed out proved to be a pleasant, sheltered spot, with grassy banks sloping down to the water. A turn in the river enabled them to draw the "Old Woman" up into their shadows, and because the trees were green and the boat was green, the reflections in the water were also green, and for this reason the boat seemed very well hidden from view.
"I don't believe we shall be noticed here," said Father De Smet.
"It's hot on the boat. It would be nice to take the babies ashore while we eat," said Mother De Smet, running out the gangplank. "I believe we'll have supper on the grass. You hurry along and get the milk and eggs, and I'll cook some onions while you are gone." [Page 150]
Jan and Marie ran over the plank at once, and Mother De Smet soon followed with the babies. Then, while Marie watched them, she and Jan brought out the onions and a pan, and soon the air was heavy with the smell of frying onions. Joseph and Jan slipped the bridle over Netteke's collar and allowed her to eat the rich green grass at the river's edge. When Father De Smet returned, supper was nearly ready. He [Page 151] sniffed appreciatively as he appeared under the trees.
"Smells good," he said as he held out the milk and eggs toward his wife.
"Sie haben recht !" (You are right!), said a loud voice right behind him !
Father De Smet was so startled that he dropped the eggs. He whirled about, and there stood the German soldier who had told Netteke to halt. With him were six other men.
"Ha ! I told you we should meet again !" shouted the soldier to Father De Smet. "And it was certainly thoughtful of you to provide for our entertainment. Comrades, fall to !"
The onions were still cooking over a little blaze of twigs and dry leaves, but Mother De Smet was no longer tending them. The instant she heard the gruff voice she had dropped her spoon, and, seizing a baby under each arm, had fled up the gangplank on to the boat. Marie followed at top speed. Father De Smet faced the intruders. [Page 152]
"What do you want here ?" he said.
"Some supper first," said the soldier gayly, helping himself to some onions and passing the pan to his friends. "Then, perhaps, a few supplies for our brave army. There is no hurry. After supper will do; [Page 153] but first we'll drink a health to the Kaiser, and since you are host here, you shall propose it ! "
He pointed to the pail of milk which Father De Smet still held.
"Now," he shouted, "lift your stein and say, ' Hoch der Kaiser.' "
Father De Smet looked them in the face and said not a word. Meanwhile Jan and Joseph, to Mother De Smet's great alarm, had not followed her on to the boat. Instead they had flown to Netteke, who was partly hidden from the group by a bunch of young willows near the water's edge, and with great speed and presence of mind had slipped her bridle over her head and gently started her up the tow-path.
"Oh," murmured Joseph, "suppose she should balk !" But Netteke had done her balking for the day, and, having been refreshed by her luncheon of green grass, she was ready to move on. The river had now quite a current, which helped them, and while the soldiers were still having their [Page 154] joke with Father De Smet the boat moved quietly out of sight. As she felt it move, Mother De Smet lifted her head over the boat's rail behind which she and the children were hiding, and raised the end of the gangplank so that it would make no noise by scraping along the ground. She was beside herself with anxiety. If she screamed or said anything to the boys, the attention of the soldiers would immediately be directed toward them. Yet if they should by any miracle succeed in getting away, there was her husband left alone to face seven enemies. She wrung her hands.
"Maybe they will stop to eat the onions," she groaned to herself. She held to the gangplank and murmured prayers to all the saints she knew, while Jan and Joseph trotted briskly along the tow-path, and Netteke, assisted by the current, made better speed than she had at any time during the day.
Meanwhile his captors were busy with Father De Smet. "Come! Drink to the [Page 155] Kaiser !" shouted the first soldier, "or we'll feed you to the fishes! We want our supper, and you delay us." Still Father De Smet said nothing. "We'll give you just until I count ten," said the soldier, pointing his gun at him, "and if by that time you have not found your tongue–"
But he did not finish the sentence. From an unexpected quarter a shot rang out. It struck the pail of milk and dashed it over the German and over Father De Smet too. Another shot followed, and the right arm of the soldier fell helpless to his side. One of his companions gave a howl and fell to the ground. Still no one appeared at whom the Germans could direct their fire. "Snipers !" shouted the soldiers, instantly lowering their guns, but before they could even fire in the direction of the unseen enemy, there was such a patter of bullets about them that they turned and fled.
Father De Smet fled, too. He leaped over the frying-pan and tore down the river-bank after the boat. As he over- [Page 156] took it, Mother De Smet ran out the gangplank. "Boys !" shouted Father De Smet. "Get aboard ! Get aboard !" Joseph and Jan instantly stopped the mule and, dropping the reins, raced up the gangplank, almost before the end of it rested safely on the ground. Father De Smet snatched up the reins. On went the boat at Netteke's best speed, which seemed no better than a snail's pace to the fleeing family. Sounds of the skirmish continued to reach their ears, even when they had gone some distance down the river, and it was not until twilight had deepened into dusk, and they were hidden in its shadows, that they dared hope the danger was passed. It was after ten o'clock at night when the "Old Woman" at last approached the twinkling lights of Antwerp, and they knew that, for the time being at least, they were safe.
They were now beyond the German lines in country still held by the Belgians. Here, in a suburb of the city, Father De Smet decided to dock for the night. A distant [Page 157] clock struck eleven as the hungry but thankful family gathered upon the deck of the "Old Woman" to eat a meager supper of bread and cheese with only the moon to light their repast. Not until they had finished did Father De Smet tell them all that had happened to him during the few terrible moments when he was in the hands of the enemy.
"They overreached themselves," he said. "They meant to amuse themselves by prolonging my misery, and they lingered just a bit too long." He turned to Jan and Joseph. "You were brave boys! If you had not started the boat when you did, it is quite likely they might have got me, after all, and the potatoes too. I am proud of you.
"But, Father," cried Joseph, "who could have fired those shots? We didn't see a soul."
"Neither did I," answered his father; "and neither did the Germans for that matter. There was no one in sight." [Page 158]
"Oh," cried Mother De Smet, "it was as if the good God himself intervened to save you !"
"As I figure it out," said Father De Smet, "we must have stopped very near the trenches, and our own men must have seen the Germans attack us. My German friend had evidently been following us up, meaning to get everything we had and me too. But the smell of the onions was too much for him ! If he had n't been greedy, he might have carried out his plan, but he wanted our potatoes and our supper too; and so he got neither !" he chuckled. "And neither did the Kaiser get a toast from me ! Instead, he got a salute from the Belgians." He crossed himself reverently. "Thank God for our soldiers," he said, and Mother De Smet, weeping softly, murmured a devout "Amen."
Little did Jan and Marie dream as they listened, that this blessing rested upon their own father, and that he had been one of the Belgian soldiers, who, firing from the [Page 159] trenches, had delivered them from the hands of their enemies. Their father, hidden away in the earth like a fox, as little dreamed that he had helped to save his own children from a terrible fate.