Madame Dujardin prepared a bath and said to Marie: "You may have the first turn in the tub because you're a girl. In America the girls have the best of everything"–she laughed at Jan, as she spoke. "I will help you undress. Jan, you may get ready and wait for your turn in your own room." She unbuttoned Marie's dress, slipped off her clothes, and held up the gay little wrapper for her to put her arms into, and just then she noticed the locket on her neck. "We'll take this off, too," she said, beginning to unclasp it.
But Marie clung to it with both hands. "No, no," she cried. "Mother said I was [Page 188] never, never to take it off. It has her picture in it."
"May I see it, dear?" asked Madame Dujardin. "I should like to know what your mother looks like." Marie nestled close to her, and Madame Dujardin opened the locket.
For a moment she gazed at the picture in complete silence, her eyes staring at it like two blue lights. Then she burst into a wild fit of weeping, and cried out, "Léonie ! Léonie ! It is not possible ! My own sister's children !" She clasped the bewildered Marie in her arms and kissed her over and over again. She ran to the door and brought in Jan and kissed him; and then she called her husband. When he came in and saw her with her arms around both children at once, holding the locket in her hands, and laughing and crying both together, he, too, was bewildered.
"What in the world is the matter, Julie ?" he cried.
For answer, she pointed to the face in [Page 189] the locket. "Léonie! Léonie!" she cried. "They are my own sister's children ! Surely the hand of God is in this!"
Her husband looked at the locket. "So it is ! So it is !" he said in astonishment. "I thought at first you had gone crazy."
"See !" cried his wife. "It 's her wedding-gown, and afterward she gave me those very beads she has around her neck! I have them yet!" She rushed from the room and returned in a moment with the beads in her hand.
Meanwhile Jan and Marie had stood still, too astonished to do more than stare from one amazed and excited face to the other, as their new father and mother gazed, first at them, and then at the locket, and last at the beads, scarcely daring to believe the testimony of their own eyes. "To think," cried Madame Dujardin at last, "that I should not have known ! But there are many Van Hoves in Belgium, and it never occurred to me that they could be my own flesh and blood. It is years since I have heard from [Page 190] Léonie. In fact, I hardly knew she had any children–our lives have been so different. Oh, it is all my fault," she cried, weeping again. "But if I have neglected her, I will make it up to her children ! It may be–oh, it is just possible–that she is still alive– and that she may yet write to me–after all these years ! Sorrow sometimes bridges wide streams ! "
Then she turned more quietly to the children.
"You see, dears," she said, "I left Belgium many years ago, and came with your uncle to this country. We were poor when we came, but your uncle has prospered as one can in America. At first Léonie and I wrote regularly to each other. Then she grew more and more busy, and we seemed to have no ties in common, so that at last we lost sight of each other altogether." She opened her arms to Marie and Jan as she spoke, and held them for some time in a close embrace.
Finally she lifted her head and laughed. [Page 191]
"This will never do !" she exclaimed. "You must have your baths, even if you are my own dear niece and nephew. The water must be perfectly cold by this time!"
She went into the bathroom, turned on more hot water, and popped Marie into the tub. In half an hour both children had said their prayers and were tucked away for the night in their clean white beds.
Wonderful days followed for Jan and Marie. They began to go to school; they had pretty clothes and many toys, and began to make friends among the little American children of the neighborhood. But in the midst of these new joys they did not forget their mother, still looking for them, or their father, now fighting, as they supposed, in the cruel trenches of Belgium. But at last there came a day when Aunt Julie received a letter with a foreign postmark. She opened it, with trembling fingers, and when she saw that it began, "My dear Sister Julie," she wept so for joy that she could [Page 192] not see to read it, and her husband had to read it for her.
This was the letter:–
You will perhaps wonder at hearing from me after the long years of silence that have passed, but I have never doubted the goodness of your heart, my Julie, nor your love for your poor Léonie, even though our paths in life have led such different ways. And now I must tell you of the sorrows which have broken my heart. Georges was obliged to go into the army at a moment's notice when the war broke out. A few days later the Germans swept through Meer, driving the people before them like chaff before the wind. As our house was on the edge of the village, I was the first to see them coming. I hid the children in the vegetable cellar, but before I could get to a hiding-place for myself, they swept over the town, driving every man, woman, and child before them. To turn back then was impossible, and it was only after weeks of [Page 193] hardship and danger that I at last succeeded in struggling through the territory occupied by Germans to the empty city of Malines, and the deserted village where we had been so happy ! On the kitchen door of our home I found a paper pinned. On it was printed, "Dear Mother–We have gone to Malines to find you–Jan and Marie." Since then I have searched every place where there seemed any possibility of my finding my dear children, but no trace of them can I find. Then, through friends in Antwerp, I learned that Georges had been wounded and was in a hospital there and I went at once to find him. He had lost an arm in the fighting before Antwerp and was removed to Holland after the siege began. Here we have remained since, still hoping God would hear our prayers and give us news of our dear children. It would even be a comfort to know surely of their death, and if I could know that they were alive and well, I think I should die of joy. Georges can fight no more; our home is [Page 194] lost; we are beggars until this war is over and our country once more restored to us. I am now at work in a factory, earning what keeps body and soul together. Georges must soon leave the hospital–then, God knows what may befall us. How I wish we had been wise like you, my Julie, and your Paul, and that we had gone with you to America years ago ! I might then have my children with me in comfort. If you get this letter, write to your heart-brokenIt was not a letter that went back that very day; it was a cablegram, and it said:
Jan and Marie are safe with me. Am sending money with this to the Bank of Holland, for your passage to America. Come at once. JULIE.People do not die of joy, or I am sure that Father and Mother Van Hove would never have survived the reading of that message. Instead it put such new strength [Page 195] and energy into their weary souls and bodies that two days later they were on their way to England, and a week later still they stood on the deck of the Arabia as it steamed into New York Harbor. Jan and Marie with Uncle Paul and Aunt Julie met them at the dock, and there are very few meetings, this side of heaven, like the reunion of those six persons on that day.
The story of that first evening together can hardly be told. First, Father and Mother Van Hove listened to Jan and Marie as they told of their wanderings with Fidel, of the little old eel-woman, of Father and Mother De Smet, of the attack by Germans and of the friends they found in Holland and in England; and when everybody had cried a good deal about that, Father Van Hove told what had happened to him; then Mother Van Hove told of her long and perilous search for her children; and there were more tears of thankfulness and joy, until it seemed as if their hearts were filled to the brim and running over. But when, [Page 196]
last of all, Uncle Paul told of the plans which he and Aunt Julie had made for the family, they found there was room in their hearts for still more joy.
"I have a farm in the country," said Uncle Paul. "It is not very far from New York. There is a good house on it; it is [Page 197] already stocked. I need a farmer to take care of the place for me, and trustworthy help is hard to get here. If you will manage it for me, Brother Georges, I shall have no further anxiety about it, and shall expect to enjoy the fruits of it as I have never yet been able to do. Léonie shall make some of her good butter for our city table, and the children" –here he pinched Marie's cheek, now round and rosy once more– "the children shall pick berries and help on the farm all summer. In winter they can come back to Uncle Paul and Aunt Julie and go to school here, for they are our children now, as well as yours."
Father Van Hove rose, stretched out his one hand, and, grasping Uncle Paul's, tried to thank him, but his voice failed.
"Don't say a word, old man," said Uncle Paul, clasping Father Van Hove's hand with both of his. "All the world owes a debt to Belgium which it can never pay. Her courage and devotion have saved the rest of us from the miseries she has borne [Page 198] so bravely. If you got your just deserts, you'd get much more than I can ever give you."
In the end it all came about just as Uncle Paul had said, and the Van Hoves are living in comfort and happiness on that farm this very day.