"How in the world did you get the mule on to the boat !" gasped Jan, when he saw her.
"Led her right up the gangplank just like folks," answered Father De Smet. "I could n't leave her behind and I wanted to get to the Antwerp docks as soon as possible. This was the quickest way. You see," [Page 164] he went on, "I don't know where I shall be going next, but I know it won't be up the Dyle, so I am going to keep Netteke right where I can use her any minute."
There was no time for further questions, for Father De Smet had to devote his attention to the tiller. Soon they were safely in dock and Father De Smet was unloading his potatoes and selling them to the market-men, who swarmed about the boats to buy the produce which had been brought in from the country.
"There !" he said with a sigh of relief as he delivered the last of his cargo to a purchaser late in the afternoon; "that load is safe from the Germans, anyway."
"How did you find things up the Dyle ?" asked the merchant who had bought the potatoes.
Father De Smet shook his head.
"Could n't well be worse," he said. "I 'm not going to risk another trip. The Germans are taking everything they can lay their hands on, and are destroying what they [Page 165] can't seize. I nearly lost this load, and my life into the bargain. If it had n't been that, without knowing it, we stopped so near the Belgian line of trenches that they could fire on the German foragers who tried to take our cargo, I should n't have been here to tell this tale."
"God only knows what will become of Belgium if this state of things continues," groaned the merchant. "Food must come from somewhere or the people will starve."
"True enough," answered Father De Smet. "I believe I'll try a trip north through the back channels of the Scheldt and see what I can pick up."
"Don't give up, anyway," urged the merchant. "If you fellows go back on us, I don't know what we shall do. We depend on you to bring supplies from somewhere, and if you can't get them in Belgium, you'll have to go up into Holland."
Mother De Smet leaned over the boat-rail and spoke to the two men who were standing on the dock. [Page 166]
"You 'd better believe we'll not give up," she said. "We don't know the meaning of the word."
"Well," said the merchant sadly, "maybe you don't, but there are others who do. It takes a stout heart to have faith that God has n't forgotten Belgium these days."
"It's easy enough to have faith when things are going right," said Mother De Smet, "but to have faith when things are going wrong is n't so easy." Then she remembered Granny. "But a sick heart won't get you anywhere, and maybe a stout one will," she finished.
"That's a good word," said the merchant.
"It was said by as good a woman as treads shoe-leather," answered Mother De Smet.
"You are safe while you stay in Antwerp, anyway," said the merchant as he turned to say good-bye. "Our forts are the strongest in the world and the Germans will never be able to take them. There's [Page 167] comfort in that for us." Then he spoke to his horses and turned away with his load.
"Let us stay right here to-night," said Mother De Smet to her husband as he came on board the boat. "We are all in need of rest after yesterday, and in Antwerp we can get a good night's sleep. Besides, it is so late in the day that we could n't get out of town before dark if we tried."
Following this plan, the whole family went to bed at dusk, but they were not destined to enjoy the quiet sleep they longed for. The night was warm, and the cabin small, so Father De Smet and Joseph, as well as the Twins, spread bedding on the deck and went to sleep looking up at the stars.
They had slept for some hours when they were suddenly aroused by the sound of a terrific explosion. Instantly they sprang to their feet, wide awake, and Mother De Smet came rushing from the cabin with the babies screaming in her arms. [Page 168]
"What is it now? What is it?" she cried.
"Look ! Look !" cried Jan.
He pointed to the sky. There, blazing with light, like a great misshapen moon, was a giant airship moving swiftly over the city. As it sailed along, streams of fire fell from it, and immediately there followed the terrible thunder of bursting bombs. When it passed out of sight, it seemed as if the voice of the city itself must rise in anguish at the terrible destruction left in its wake.
Just what that destruction was, Father De Smet did not wish to see. "This is a good place to get away from," he said to the frightened group cowering on the deck of the "Old Woman" after the bright terror had disappeared. When morning came he lost no time in making the best speed he could away from the doomed city of Antwerp which they had thought so safe.
When they had left the city behind them and the boat was slowly making its way through the quiet back channels of the [Page 169]
Scheldt, the world once more seemed really peaceful to the wandering children. Their way lay over still waters and beside green pastures, and as they had no communication with the stricken regions of Belgium, they had no news of the progress of the war, until, some days later, the boat docked [Page 170] at Rotterdam, and it became necessary to decide what should be done next. There they learned that they had barely escaped the siege of Antwerp, which had begun with the Zeppelin raid.
Father De Smet was now obliged to confront the problem of what to do with his own family, for, since Antwerp was now in the hands of the enemy, he could no longer earn his living in the old way. Under these changed conditions he could not take care of Jan and Marie, so one sad day they said good-bye to good Mother De Smet, to Joseph and the babies, and went with Father De Smet into the city of Rotterdam.
They found that these streets were also full of Belgian refugees, and here, too, they watched for their mother. In order to keep up her courage, Marie had often to feel of the locket and to say to herself: "She will find us. She will find us." And Jan–Jan had many times to say to himself, "I am now a man and must be brave," or he would have cried in despair. [Page 171]
But help was nearer than they supposed. Already England had begun to organize for the relief of the Belgian refugees, and it was in the office of the British Consul at Rotterdam that Father De Smet finally took leave of Jan and Marie. The Consul took them that night to his own home, and, after a careful record had been made of their names and their parents' names and all the facts about them, they were next day placed upon a ship, in company with many other homeless Belgians, and sent across the North Sea to England.