FOR some time the little village of Meer slept quietly in the moonlight. There was not a sound to break the stillness, except once when Mother Van Hove's old rooster caught a glimpse of the waning moon through the window of the chicken-house, and crowed lustily, thinking it was the sun. The other roosters of the village, wiser than he, made no response to his call, and in a moment he, too, returned to his interrupted slumbers. But though there was as yet no sound to tell of their approach, the moon looked down upon three horsemen galloping over the yellow ribbon of road from Malines toward the little village. Soon the sound of the horses' hoofs beating upon the hardened earth throbbed through the village itself, and Fidel sat up on the kitchen [Page 34] doorstep, pricked up his ears, and listened. He heard the hoof-beats and awakened the echoes with a sharp bark.
Mother Van Hove sat up in bed and listened; another dog barked, and another, and now she, too, heard the hoof-beats. Nearer they came, and nearer, and now she could hear a voice shouting. She shook her husband. "Wake up!" she whispered in his ear, "something is wrong ! Fidel barks, and I hear strange noises about. Wake up ! "
"Fidel is crazy," said Father Van Hove sleepily. "He thinks some weasel is after the chickens very likely. Fidel will attend to it. Go to sleep."
He sank back again upon his pillows, but his wife seized his arm and pulled him up. "Listen !" she said. "Oh, listen ! Weasels do not ride on horseback ! There are hoof-beats on the road ! "
"Some neighbor returning late from Malines," said Father Van Hove, yawning. "It does not concern us."
But his wife was already out of bed [Page 35] and at the window. The horsemen were now plainly visible, riding like the wind, and as they whirled by the houses their shout thrilled through the quiet streets of the village: "Burghers, awake ! Awake ! Awake ! "
Wide awake at last, Father Van Hove sprang out of bed and hastily began putting on his clothes. His wife was already nearly dressed, and had lighted a candle. Other lights sparkled from the windows of other houses. Suddenly the bell in the church-steeple began to ring wildly, as though it, too, were shaken with a sudden terror. "It must be a fire," said Father Van Hove.
Still fastening her clothing, his wife ran out of the door and looked about in every direction. "I see no fire," she said, "but the village street is full of people running to the square! Hurry! Hurry! We must take the children with us; they must not be left here alone."
She ran to wake the children, as she spoke, and, helped by her trembling fingers, [Page 36]
they, too, were soon dressed, and the four ran together up the road toward the village church. The bell still clanged madly from the steeple, and the vibrations seemed to shake the very flesh of the trembling children as they clung to their mother's hands and tried to keep up with their father's rapid strides.
They found all the village gathered in front of the little town-hall. On its steps stood the Burgomeister and the village priest, and near them, still sitting astride [Page 37] his foam-flecked steed, was one of the soldiers who had brought the alarm. His two companions were already far beyond Meer, flying over the road to arouse the villages which lay farther to the east. The church-bell suddenly ceased its metallic clatter, and while its deep tones still throbbed through the night air, the wondering and frightened people crowded about the steps in breathless suspense.
The Burgomeister raised his hand. Even in the moonlight it could be seen that he was pale. He spoke quickly. "Neighbors," he said, "there is bad news ! the German army is on our borders ! It is necessary for every man of military age and training to join the colors at once in case the army is needed for defense. There is not a moment to lose. This messenger is from headquarters. He will tell you what you are to do."
The soldier now spoke for the first time. "Men of Belgium," he cried, "your services are needed for your country and your [Page 38] King! The men of Meer are to report at once to the army headquarters at Malines. Do not stop even to change your clothing ! We are not yet at war, and our good King Albert still hopes to avert it by an armed peace, but the neutrality of Belgium is at stake, and we must be ready to protect it at any cost, and at an instant's notice. Go at once to the Brussels gate of Malines. An officer will meet you there and tell you what to do. I must ride on to carry the alarm to Putte." He wheeled his horse as he spoke, and, turning in his saddle, lifted his sword and cried, "Vive le Roi ! "
"Vive le Roi ! Vive la Belgique !" came in an answering shout from the people of Meer, and he was gone.
There was a moment of stunned silence as he rode away; then a sound of women weeping. The Burgomeister came down from the steps of the town-hall, said farewell to his wife and children, and took his place at the head of the little group of men which was already beginning to [Page 39] form in marching order. The priest moved about among his people with words of comfort.
Father Van Hove turned to his wife, and to Jan and Marie, who were clinging to her skirts. "It is only a bad dream, my little ones," he said, patting their heads tenderly; "we shall wake up some day. And you, my wife, do not despair ! I shall soon return, no doubt ! Our good King will yet save us from war. You must finish the harvest alone– but–" "Fall in !" cried the voice of the Burgomeister, and Father Van Hove kissed his wife and children and stepped forward.
Mother Van Hove bravely checked her rising sobs. "We shall go with you to Malines, at any rate," she said firmly. And as the little group of men started forward along the yellow road, she and many more women and children of the village marched away with them in the gray twilight which precedes the coming of the dawn. The priest went with his people, praying for [Page 40] them as he walked, in a voice that shook with feeling.
The sky was red in the east and the larks were already singing over the quiet fields when the men of Meer, followed by their wives and children, presented themselves at the Brussels gate of the city.