HE midnight music had ceased for some time, and The Little Street Of The Holy Ghost was very quiet and deserted, as indeed it had been all the evening. But presently any one looking up it might have seen a man moving swiftly along. He did not walk like honest folk, but trod softly on the narrow flagstones close to the tall old houses, and seemed to try to keep within their shadows; and his eyes were all the while alertly watching everything about him.
As he came in front of the little yellow house the moon was slowly sinking behind a high gable across the street, but a last ray of silvery light fell across the doorstep, and just touched the edge of the porringer as it stood where Karen had placed it.
The man's keen eyes caught the gleam of something there, and though he could not tell exactly what it was, as the moonlight was waning fast, he nevertheless stooped quickly, and seizing the porringer in his hand, thrust it into the great pocket of his ragged coat. Then he hurried on and turned the corner and soon was lost in the shadows of a narrow passageway between two old houses.
"the man's keen eyes caught the gleam of something there."
Now, this man was known among evil-doers as "Hans the Robber," and many times the watchmen of Bruges had tried to catch him and punish him because he had stolen so many things from honest folk.
But always he managed to get away from them; or, if they came to the miserable hut where he lived at the edge of the city, he had some story to tell that deceived them so they could prove nothing against him, or else he contrived to hide until they got tired searching for him.
But people suspected him and shunned him as much as possible. On this night he had gone out hoping that while many were in the churches attending the midnight mass, he might find a chance to creep into some house and rob the owner of whatever he could. But he had not had good success in his dishonest work. To be sure, he had stolen a silver cup from one place; but then he had been frightened off before he could secure more, and so he had decided to try another and quieter part of the city; and as he came along the deserted Little Street Of The Holy Ghost and saw the porringer on the doorstep, he took it, because he always took everything he could.
When, after dropping it into his pocket, he went around the corner and into the passage-way, he reached his hand stealthily through the half closed shutters of a tall house beside him and tried to unfasten the window so that he might steal in. But just then he heard some one stirring within, and angrily muttering to himself, he fled away.
Here and there, as he hurried along, the waning moonbeams still shed a lingering light; and besides, it was getting so near dawn time that at last he decided that it was no use trying to get in anywhere else that night; and so he went back to his hut. When he reached this, he first carefully hid the silver cup he had stolen, by putting it in a cranny under a loose board in the floor; then throwing himself down on a rude bed of straw heaped in a corner, he soon fell into a heavy sleep.
When Hans the Robber awoke next morning, the hut was cold and cheerless. He rose from his wretched bed, and found a few billets of wood with which he kindled some fire on the untidy hearth.
In the bare cupboard he found little save crusts of black bread; and as he ate these he sat down on a rickety bench, which he pulled close to the fire, and drew his ragged coat closer around him.
Everything looked very dreary and desolate to him; and, as he heard the Christmas bells beginning to ring, a bitter look came into his face, for it had been many years since Christmas had meant anything to Robber Hans. He shrugged his shoulders, and thrust both hands into the pockets of his coat. As he did so, he felt something in one of them which he had forgotten all about; and then drawing out the little porringer, which still held the two Christmas cakes, he stared at it in surprise.
"Now, where could I have picked up that?" he said to himself, as he set it down on the bench beside him. Then he remembered how he had taken some object from the doorstep of a little yellow house that stood on a corner.
He took up one of the little cakes and broke it, and, as he was hungry, in two bites he had eaten it. As he took the other one in his fingers, he began to look at it curiously and to think.
Robber Hans had not eaten a little cake like that for years and years. All at once, with a start, old memories began to waken in his mind; for the little cake made him think of when he was a little boy and his mother had made just such wonderful little ginger cakes full of orange-peel and red cherries. And then, as he looked at the empty porringer, he stared at it with an almost startled look, for he remembered how he used to eat his bread and milk from a porringer exactly like that; only instead of a little girl painted in the bowl, in his was a little boy. Robber Hans could remember precisely how that little boy looked in his blue blouse and wooden shoes, and on his head a broad-brimmed hat of Breton straw, with a red ribbon on it.
For Robber Hans as a child had lived in the old seaport town of Quiberon, in Brittany, where his father was a fisherman. His mother's home before she married had been in Bruges, and so it was that at holiday time she always made for the little family of children the Christmas cakes like that which Robber Hans now held in his hand.
As he remembered all these things he forgot all about being cold and hungry. Presently, laying down the little cake, he took up the porringer and looked closely at the little girl holding the red rose in her hand.
Robber Hans in those far-away days had had a little sister whom he dearly loved; and the more he looked at the little girl in the porringer, the more he thought of his little sister Emschen, till presently he was sure that the face looking up at him from under the stiff white cap was the face of Emschen. It did not matter whether it looked like the little sister or not, for before the eyes of Robber Hans memory was bringing back her face so clearly that to him it seemed really there. Yes, and he was quite sure, too, that Emschen had worn a little apron like that; and there was the rose in her hand, and he remembered how she had loved roses!
It all came back to him how when they were children together he had made a little flower bed for her, close by their cottage door, and how both of them had carried white scallop shells from the edge of the sea and laid them around it, making a pretty border; and how pleased Emschen had been when her first little rosebush had a blossom, and how wonderfully it had flourished in the salt sea air, as do all the roses of Brittany.
And then more and more things came back to his memory, and the longer he looked and thought, his own face began gradually to soften, till, by and by, the oddest thing happened—a great tear fell into the porringer and lay there like a drop of dew on one of the painted rose-trees!
At this he roused himself, and, quickly brushing his hand across his eyes, he angrily thrust the porringer from him, and the bitter look came back into his face. For his memory, having started, would not stop with the pleasant days when he was a little boy in Quiberon, but went on and on, bringing freshly back to him how father, mother, and Emschen, all were gone; the father drowned in the stormy Breton sea, and the mother and Emschen sleeping in the wind-swept God's acre of Quiberon, with no one to lay on their graves even so much as a green holly leaf at Christmas time, or a wild poppy flower on Midsummer day. He saw in memory his brothers grown up and scattered from the old home, and himself become a sailor roving the sea to many lands; and then later on drifting ashore in the Flemish country, and overtaken by misfortune after misfortune, till at last he had fallen so low that here in Bruges, his mother's old home, he was known only as Robber Hans!
He rose to his feet, and, in a fit of sudden anger, because of his wasted and unhappy life, he seized the little porringer which had reminded him of what he had lost, and was about to dash it to pieces on the bricks of the hearth. But, just as he raised his hand, something seemed to stop him. He could not tell why, but instead of breaking the porringer he slowly walked over to the empty cupboard and placed it on the shelf. Then, bewildered by his own action, he stood a moment and stared at it.
Presently, as his unhappy thoughts came crowding back again, his bitterness and anger rose as before, and he wanted to be rid of the porringer. But instead of trying to break it this time, another idea occurred to him. "There!" he muttered gruffly to himself, as he turned away from the cupboard, "It can stay there till to-morrow, and then I will take it with the silver cup and sell it at the thieves' market!"
That was a place in the old city where those who lived by stealing from others were accustomed to dispose of their spoils; and so among themselves they called it the "thieves' market." The dealer who kept the place and who bought their stolen articles knew how to send them around quietly and sell them, usually in other cities, where there was less danger of their being discovered by their rightful owners.
Robber Hans had many times before disposed of his dishonestly gotten things to the keeper of the thieves' market; and so when he made up his mind to sell the porringer along with the silver cup, he knew very well where to take them. But he knew, too, that he would have to wait till the next day, for the dealer would probably not be in his place until Christmas was over.
Having thus made up his mind how to rid himself of the porringer, and meantime having nothing to do in the hut, he thrust on his battered cap, and pulling it down over his eyes, he strode out into the street.
After wandering aimlessly about for some time, at last he made his way to a certain quay, or open space, on the edge of one of the many old canals of the city. There were numbers of these embankments which had been made, in the days of Bruges' prosperity, as mooring places for the freighted barges that carried her commerce. And though the barges had long since deserted all but a few of the quiet waterways, still the quays bore their old Flemish names. Thus, the one to which Hans had wandered was called the Quai du Rosaire. Here a moss-grown stone bridge crossed the water, and in a paved square near by and in a tumbledown old brown house facing the square, for three days of every week a fish market was held. And here, on holidays, the rougher folk of Bruges would gather to amuse themselves.
Robber Hans crossed the paved square and entered the old house, where he was greeted boisterously as he joined the noisy company. But somehow their rough talk and rude actions did not please him as they had often done before. He was silent and moody, and at last the others taunted him so with his sour looks, that he got up from a bench where he was sitting beside a tipsy fishmonger, and, flinging back some scornful words, he left the place and went out.
Again he wandered aimlessly along the snowy streets; till after a while the wintry wind blew through his ragged coat and he shivered with cold. He was, by this time, near the great square where the belfry rose from the Halles, and making his way to this, he crept into the shelter of its entrance. Then, in a little while, he ventured inside and dropped down on the long, wooden seat between its tall windows. And though many who came and went through the Halles looked at him suspiciously, no one cared to make him go away, for it was the blessed Christmas day, and so the hearts of all were kindlier for the while.
As he leaned back against the wall, by and by the warmth of the room made him drowsy and he fell asleep. And, as he slept, there flitted through his brain a great many confused dreams; and with almost all of them the thoughts started by the little porringer seemed somehow to be connected. Sometimes he dreamed he was a little boy again, in Quiberon; and then Emschen would seem to be running toward him with a red rose in her hand; but always when she came near to him, though she put out her hands to him, he could not touch her, and the red rose faded and fell apart. And then the dreams trailed off so dim and shadowy that when at last he awakened Hans could not remember just what it was that he had been dreaming. He only vaguely knew that it had something to do with the porringer and that it had made him unhappy; and as he stumbled to his feet and set out for his hut, he again determined to get rid of it as soon as he could.