"To-day we must begin to gather the potatoes," said Mother Van Hove after breakfast. "Jan, you get the fork and hoe and put them in the wagon, while I milk the cow and Marie puts up some bread and cheese for us to take to the field." She started across the road to the pasture, with Fidel at her heels, as she spoke. In an instant she was back again, her eyes wide with horror. "Look ! Look !" she cried. [Page 74]
The dazed children looked toward the east as she pointed. There in the distance, advancing like a great tidal wave, was a long gray line of soldiers on horseback. Already they could hear the sound of music and the throb of drums; already the sun glistened upon the shining helmets and the cruel points of bayonets. The host stretched away across the plain as far as the eye could reach, and behind them the sky was thick with the smoke of fires.
"The church ! the church !" cried Mother Van Hove. "No, there is not time. Hide in here, my darlings. Quickly ! Quickly ! "
She tore open the door of the earth-covered vegetable cellar as she spoke, and thrust Jan and Marie inside. Fidel bolted in after them. "Do not move or make a sound until all is quiet again," she cried as she closed the door.
There was not room for her too, in the cellar, and if there had been, Mother Van Hove would not have taken it, for it was necessary to close the door from the out- [Page 75]
side. This she did, hastily, throwing some straw before it. Then she rushed into the house and, snatching up her shining milk-pans, flung them upon the straw, as if they were placed there to be sweetened by the sun. No one would think to look under a pile of pans for hidden Belgians, she felt sure.
Nearer and nearer came the hosts, and [Page 76] now she could hear the sound of singing as from ten thousand brazen throats. "Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles," roared the mighty chorus, and in another moment the little village of Meer was submerged in the terrible gray flood.
At last, after what seemed to the imprisoned children like a year of darkness and dread, and of strange, terrifying noises of all kinds, the sound of horses' hoofs and marching feet died away in the distance, and Jan ventured to push open the door of the cavern a crack, just intending to peep out. Immediately there was a crash of falling tinware. Jan quickly drew back again into the safe darkness and waited. As nothing further happened, he peeped out again. This time Fidel, springing forward, flung the doors wide open, and dashed out into the sunshine with a joyous bark.
In a moment more Jan and Marie also crawled out of their hiding-place after him. For an instant, as they came out into the daylight, it seemed to the children as if [Page 77] they had awakened from a dreadful dream. There stood the farmhouse just as before, with the kitchen door wide open and the sun streaming in upon the sanded floor. There were only the marks of many feet in the soft earth of the farmyard, an empty pigpen, and a few chicken feathers blowing about the henhouse, to show where the invaders had been and what they had carried away with them. Jan and Marie, followed by Fidel, ran through the house. From the front door, which opened on the road, they could see the long gray line sweeping across the fields toward Malines.
"The storm has passed," cried Marie, sobbing with grief, "just as Mynheer Pastoor said it would ! Mother ! Mother, where are you ?" They ran from kitchen to bedroom and back again, their terror increasing at every step, as no voice answered their call. They searched the cellar and the loft; they looked in the stable and barn, and even in the dog-house. Their mother was nowhere to be found ! [Page 78]
"I know where she must be," cried Jan, at last. "You know Mynheer Pastoor said, if anything happened, we should hide in the church." Led by this hope, the two children sped, hand in hand, toward the village. "Bel is gone !" gasped Jan, as they passed the pasture bars. "Pier, too," sobbed Marie. Down the whole length of the deserted village street they flew, with Fidel following close at their heels. When they came to the little church, they burst open the door and looked in. The cheerful sun streamed through the windows, falling in brilliant patches of light upon the floor, but the church was silent and empty. It was some time before they could realize that there was not a human being but themselves in the entire village; all the others had been driven away like sheep, before the invading army. When at last the terrible truth dawned upon them, the two frightened children sat down upon the church steps in the silence, and clung, weeping, to each other. Fidel whined and licked their [Page 79]
hands, as though he, too, understood and felt their loneliness.
"What shall we do ? What shall we do ?" moaned Marie.
"There's nobody to tell us what to do," sobbed Jan. "We must just do the best we can by ourselves."
"We can't stay here alone !" said Marie.
"But where can we go ?" cried Jan. "There's no place for us to go to! "
For a few minutes the two children wept their hearts out in utter despair, but hope [Page 80] always comes when it is most needed, and soon Marie raised her head and wiped her eyes.
"Don't you remember what Mother said when she put the locket on my neck, Jan ?" she asked. "She said that she would find us, even if she had to swim the sea ! She said no matter what happened we should never despair, and here we are despairing as hard as ever we can."
Jan threw up his chin, and straightened his back. "Yes," he said, swallowing his sobs," and she said I was now a man and must take care of myself and you."
"What shall we do, then ?" asked Marie.
Jan thought hard for a moment. Then he said: "Eat! It must be late, and we have not had a mouthful to-day."
Marie stood up. "Yes," said she; "we must eat. Let us go back home."
The clock in the steeple struck eleven as the two children ran once more through the deserted street and began a search for food in their empty house. [Page 81]
They found that the invaders had been as thorough within the house as without. Not only had they carried away the grain which their mother had worked so hard to thresh, but they had cleaned the cupboard as well. The hungry children found nothing but a few crusts of bread, a bit of cheese, and some milk in the cellar, but with these and two eggs, which Jan knew where to look for in the straw in the barn, they made an excellent breakfast. They gave Fidel the last of the milk, and then, much refreshed, made ready to start upon a strange and lonely journey the end of which they did not know. They tied their best clothes in a bundle, which Jan hung upon a stick over his shoulder, and were just about to leave the house, when Marie cried out, "Suppose Mother should come back and find us gone !"
"We must leave word where we have gone, so she will know where to look for us, of course," Jan answered capably.
"Yes, but how ?" persisted Marie. "There's no one to leave word with !" [Page 82]
This was a hard puzzle, but Jan soon found a way out. "We must write a note and pin it up where she would be sure to find it," he said.
"The very thing," said Marie.
They found a bit of charcoal and a piece of wrapping-paper, and Jan was all ready to write when a new difficulty presented itself " What shall I say ?" he said to Marie. "We don't know where we are going !" [Page 83]
"We don't know the way to any place but Malines," said Marie; "so we'll have to go there, I suppose."
"How do you spell Malines ?" asked Jan, charcoal in hand.
"Oh, you stupid boy !" cried Marie. "M-a-l-i-n-e-s, of course ! "
Jan put the paper down on the kitchen floor and got down before it on his hands and knees. He had not yet learned to write; but he managed to print upon it in great staggering letters:–
WE HAVE GONE TO MALINES TO FIND YOU.
JAN AND MARIE."
This note they pinned upon the inside of the kitchen door.
"Now we are ready to start," said Jan; and, calling Fidel, the two children set forth. They took a short cut from the house across the pasture to the potato-field. Here they dug a few potatoes, which they put in their [Page 84] bundle, and then, avoiding the road, slipped down to the river, and, following the stream, made their way toward Malines.
It was fortunate for them that, screened by the bushes and trees which fringed the bank of the river, they saw but little of the ruin and devastation left in the wake of the German hosts. There were farmers who had tried to defend their families and homes from the invaders. Burning houses and barns marked the places where they had lived–and died. But the children, thinking only of their lost mother, and of keeping themselves as much out of sight as possible in their search for her, were spared most of these horrors. Their progress was slow, for the bundle was heavy, and the river path less direct than the road, and it was nightfall before the two little waifs, with Fidel at their heels, reached the well-remembered Brussels gate.
Their hearts almost stopped beating when they found it guarded by a German soldier. "Who goes there ?" demanded the guard [Page 85] gruffly, as he caught sight of the little figures.
"If you please, sir, it's Jan and Marie," said Jan, shaking in his boots.
"And Fidel, too," said Marie.
The soldier bent down and looked closely at the two tear-stained little faces. It may be that some remembrance of other little faces stirred within him, for he only said stiffly, "Pass, Jan and Marie, and you, too, Fidel." And the two children and the dog hurried through the gate and up the first street they came to, their bundle bumping along behind them as they ran.
The city seemed strangely silent and deserted, except for the gray-clad soldiers, and armed guards blocked the way at intervals. Taught by fear, Jan and Marie soon learned to slip quietly along under cover of the gathering darkness, and to dodge into a doorway or round a corner, when they came too near one of the stiff, helmeted figures.
At last, after an hour of aimless wander- [Page 86] ing, they found themselves in a large, open square, looking up at the tall cathedral spires. A German soldier came suddenly out of the shadows, and the frightened children, scarcely knowing what they did, ran up the cathedral steps and flung themselves against the door. When the soldier had passed by, they reached cautiously up, and by dint of pulling with their united strength succeeded at last in getting the door open. They thrust their bundle inside, pushed Fidel in after it, and then slipped through themselves. The great door closed behind them on silent hinges and they were alone in the vast stillness of the cathedral. Timidly they crept toward the lights of the altar, and, utterly exhausted, slept that night on the floor near the statue of the Madonna, with their heads pillowed on Fidel's shaggy side.