At the Rag-Market
HILE the fishing vessel was going up and down the Flemish coast, and every little while coming back to the quay at Bruges, the winter was wearing away, and along the water-courses and open squares of the city the chestnut and willow trees were putting on their April greenery.
Crocuses and hyacinths were blooming in many little nooks by the lazy canals where the white swans and ducks sailed happily, guiding their downy flocks of young. Sweeping the placid mirror of the Minne-Water out by the ancient city gateway, the stately elms were hung with pale green tassels, and, hidden among these, nightingales fluted all night long. While in the gardens by the tall brown houses in the older parts of the city, cuckoos and starlings sang all day from blossoming apple and cherry boughs.
Though on The Little Street Of The Holy Ghost the dwellings stood close to the cobblestones, and so had no dooryards for grass or flowers, nevertheless through the open windows of the little yellow house the spring wind blew in softly, laden with April fragrance. But by the window in the living-room Grandmother could not be seen bending over her lace-making as for so many years before. Instead, she lay propped up in her bed, too ill and weak to guide the bobbins full of delicate thread that hung idly from the pillow near by.
Poor Grandmother had been unable to work for several weeks; and, though better of her illness, strength came back but slowly to her trembling hands. Karen had had a sad and sorry time, too; for she was only a little girl, and every day there was so much work to do. Their neighbor folk had been good and kind, and had done all they could to help take care of Grandmother; but the little savings she had laid away were almost gone, and her great fear now was that she would be forced to go to one of the God's Houses; for besides those for children, there were many other almshouses in Bruges that bore this name. There were many of these because poverty lay heavily on the poorer people, and if they fell ill it meant bitter suffering.
Grandmother wished passionately to be able to stay in the little home where she had always lived, and to keep Karen with her.
So long as she could work at her lace-pillow she could manage this; but now her hands were idle, and Karen too young and her little fingers as yet untrained save for the simplest stitches; and so the pinch of want had come upon them, and with all Grandmother's pride it seemed no longer possible to live unless help came in some way.
Madame Koerner would no doubt have befriended them had she known their need. But Madame Koerner was not then in Bruges. She had been called to the city of Ghent by the illness of her own mother, and, in her anxiety for her, she did not know of the sore straits to which Grandmother and Karen had come.
As Grandmother now lay in her bed, she was thinking hard of how they might get a little money to keep them in food until she could gain enough strength to work again.
Presently, "Karen!" she called to the little girl who was in the living-room bending over her lace-pillow and trying hard to make some of the stitches she had been taught last. But the thread was so fine and it was so hard to manage the bobbins exactly right that her forehead was all puckered and the tears lay very near her eyes.
"Yes, Grandmother," she answered, as she laid down the bobbins, and jumping up from her stool went and stood by the bedside.
"Karen," said Grandmother, in a weak voice, "I have been thinking that to-day is the day for the rag-market down by the Quai Vert, and neighbor Radenour told me yesterday that she had some extra cloth from her weaving and she means to take it there to sell. And, Karen,"—Grandmother's voice was very low and sad, but she went bravely on,—"canst not thou go with her and take the two brass candlesticks? It may be thou canst sell them for a fair price, and we are sorely in need of money. Frau Radenour will help thee and see that none cheat thee. Run now and ask if thou canst go with her." And Grandmother shut her eyes and lay back on her pillow.
Karen listened with her blue eyes wide open, for she had not known how close they were to want. Grandmother had never told her how little she had been able to save; and, anyway, Karen had but small idea of the value of money. But now she realized that they must be terribly poor, or Grandmother would never part with the brass candlesticks of which she had always been very proud. These were really beautiful in their simple but good design and their honest workmanship; both were ornamented with a pattern of beaten work, and with them went a tiny, pointed snuffer; they had been made by hand, long before, and had been in Grandmother's family for many generations. Grandmother prized the candlesticks very highly, and so did Karen, who knew how to polish them till they fairly shone. For even among the poorer folk of old Bruges many things of household use were made of brass or copper, and every one kept these things scoured and polished with the greatest care.
As Karen passed through the living-room on her way to ask Frau Radenour she looked at the treasured candlesticks shining from the dresser shelf, and the tears; filled her eyes just as they did Grandmother's, who was weeping quietly as she lay back in her bed.
In a few minutes Karen came back and told Grandmother that Frau Radenour would gladly take her along to the market and look after her, and that she must be ready to start in just a little while.
"Stay close to her, Karen," warned Grandmother, "and do with thy wares whatever way she thinks best, for she is a good bargainer and will see that thou art dealt with fairly. Now, bring the candlesticks for me to see them once more before thou must take them away."
As Karen, lifting them from the dresser, brought them to her bed, Grandmother's thin fingers caressed them lovingly; for both had belonged to her mother and her mother's mother before her, and were the most treasured of the few possessions she had hoped to hand down to Karen. But they must have bread; and so with a sigh presently she withdrew her hands and folded them over the coverlet.
Karen placed the candlesticks carefully in her blue apron, and, holding up its hem tightly in one hand, she kissed Grandmother and smoothed her covers, and then she went over to Frau Radenour's house and together they set out for the rag-market.
Bruges has always been a city of many kinds of markets; and this one whither they were going was held every week or two on an open plot of ground on the banks of one of the quiet old canals and near the Quai Vert. It was called the rag-market because there on the grass under the double row of gnarled chestnut trees, dealers and humble folk of the poorer class spread out their wares.
Some brought only rags; though oftentimes others, driven by want, offered for sale something really beautiful: perhaps a bit of lace or a piece of old copper or brass handed down, as were Karen's wares, from the days when the poorer people were less poor and when in the making of even the simplest things for use in their homes the workmen had put their loving thought and skill.
When Karen and Fran Radenour reached the place, a number of people were already there arranging the things they had brought. Fran Radenour, who often came to the market, knew almost everyone, and with a smile and a "good day!" to those about her, she chose a place and spread out the bits of cloth she had for sale. "Do thou sit down here beside me," she said kindly to Karen, "and place thy things so," and she pointed to a spot in front of them.
As Karen placed her precious candlesticks on the ground, the polished brass gleamed in the fresh green grass like a cluster of yellow crocuses. Karen's face looked like a little spring flower, too, only very pale, and her eyes had a pathetic droop, as she sat under the flickering shadows of the young chestnut leaves. The cap that covered her plaited hair was very stiff and white, and as she smoothed her little blue apron over the black dress she wore, she looked wonderingly around at the people who were beginning to loiter along the path between the trees and now and then to stop and price or perhaps buy some of the wares for sale.
Karen had once or twice before been to the rag-market with Grandmother; but that was to buy and not to sell, and she thought it a very different matter now.
Presently one, and then another woman stopped and looked at the candlesticks in front of Karen. But when they asked the price and Frau Radenour, who took charge of the matter, insisted on ten francs, they shook their heads and turned away. The poor little girl's eyes filled with tears, but Frau Radenour, who was a shrewd bargainer, said: "Cheer up, little one, thy wares are worth the price, and we will not give them to the first one who asks!"
Karen, though, was quite sure that no one else would come; and while she hated the thought of parting with the pretty candlesticks, neither did she wish to go back to Grandmother without carrying her the money, which she knew they must need so dreadfully. And so, that Frau Radenour might not see her tears, she turned away her face.
The sunlight glinting between the trees touched the quiet water of the canal near by and flecked it with silver. By the mossy piers of the picturesque old bridge that spanned it a family of black and white ducks were swimming about, every now and then dipping their broad, yellow bills into the water and spattering it in twinkling drops over their glossy feathers. And quite near to Karen a beautiful white swan drifted along arching her neck proudly and looking toward Karen as if she expected the happy smile and "Good day!" with which the little girl always greeted these stately white birds she so admired.
But poor Karen had no heart to talk to even her beloved swans; yet she put up her hand and brushed away the tears, and tried to be interested as Frau Radenour, after a little bargaining, sold her bits of cloth to a woman in a black dress with a fringed kerchief crossed over her shoulders. The woman was making a piece of rag carpet at home and needed a few more strips of cloth to finish it, and she found Frau Radenour's to her liking.
Just as the bargain was finished, a man came strolling along smoking a pipe. He seemed to have no special business there but just to smoke his pipe and enjoy the spring air as it blew softly between the chestnut trees. Now and then he stopped and glanced at some of the wares spread out for sale on either side of the path; but more often his eyes wandered down the length of the canal to a little gap between the brown roofs of the old houses that fringed its winding course. For through this little gap one could see the tall masts of a cluster of schooners moored at a quay beyond a not far distant bend.
The reason these interested the man more than anything else was because he was a sailor; and as his boat happened to be waiting for some cargo to be made ready, he was taking a little stroll in the meantime. But the reason that the sailor stopped still when he came to Frau Radenour and Karen, and looked hard at the little girl, was because he happened to be none other than Hans.
Now, Hans still had the little porringer, and though he had been back in Bruges several times since he went to live on Captain Helmgar's boat, he had not perhaps taken so much pains as he might to restore it. He had always meant to take it back, but always there was something to do that seemed to interfere, and perhaps, too, he had been almost glad of one excuse or another to delay returning it; for still the longer he had it, the more he hated to part with it. And, curiously enough, although he had stolen it, he somehow felt that if it had not been for it he would still be Robber Hans, and he found an honest life very much better and more agreeable than he had thought. And then, too, since he was leading a life in which he could respect himself once more, the memories which the porringer awakened no longer pained and angered him as they had done at first when he had tried to destroy it. For though he had thought then that it was with the porringer, it was really with himself that he had been angry, because he had made his life so worthless that he did not like to compare it with the happier days of his childhood that the porringer had recalled to him. But now he liked to look at it and think of the old Quiberon days; and still the little pictured face of Emschen smiled up at him from its bowl and spurred him on to do the best he could.
But though Hans still kept the porringer, he knew very well that he ought to return it to the little girl he had seen sweeping the steps of the yellow house on the corner; and notwithstanding he had delayed so long, he still honestly meant to try to find a chance to restore it to her.
Now, as he saw her sitting there on the grass beside Frau Radenour, he knew her at once, though he thought her face looked thinner and less rosy than when he had seen her before. As he stared at Karen, presently Frau Radenour looked up curiously at him, and "Good day, Ma'm!" said Hans awkwardly, taking the pipe from his mouth.
"Good day!" replied Frau Radenour, and Karen looked up, too. But though she half remembered Hans' face, she could not place him; for it had been only a minute or two that he had stopped at the doorstep that day he had spoken to her, and then he had looked much more closely at her than she at him.
"Hast thou something to sell?" asked Hans, looking down at the candlesticks still nestling in the grass in front of the little girl.
"Yes," spoke up Frau Radenour, "the price is ten francs for the pair, and any one can see that is little enough for them!"
"They are good work," said Hans, still awkwardly, as he stooped down and lifted them in his hands. And, indeed, Hans in his robber days had taken enough things to be a judge of values.
"Yes, sir," ventured Karen in a low voice, as he admired the candlesticks, "I think they are pretty, and we would not sell them only Grandmother is sick and we must have the money."
It was the first time Karen had spoken, and "Hush, child!" said Frau Radenour aside to her. "Let me manage the bargaining!"
But Hans had already set the candlesticks down, and was searching his pockets, his face red with confusion and mortification. He would have given anything to be able to buy them and at a much larger price than that asked, for he thought vaguely that he might thus make up to the little girl for having taken the porringer which of course was worth only a few sous. But he did not possess the ten francs! Again he felt desperately in his pockets, but scarcely half that sum was all he could muster.
The fact was Hans had not been wasting his earnings as a sailor, but had spent some of his first honest money to buy himself the decent clothes of which he was sorely in need; and then afterward he had used all he could spare to pay some old debts which he was ashamed to think had stood so long against him. His wages on the fishing vessel were not large, and so it had taken some time to do these things, and now barely five francs was all Hans possessed in the world.
As he thus stood confusedly, wishing with all his heart that he had more money to offer for the candlesticks, it happened that another man came along and began to look at them. This man was the owner of a little shop in the city and dealt in brass and copper wares, and he knew the rag-market and often picked up beautiful things very cheaply there; for the poor people who brought them for sale did not expect to receive the full value of their wares, but, pressed sharply by their need, had to be content to sell them for what they could.
As the dealer now examined Karen's candlesticks he quickly saw that they were of beautiful workmanship and that, as Frau Radenour declared, ten francs was little enough for them. But though he felt perfectly sure that he could sell them from his shop for a great deal more, he was unwilling to pay the ten francs until Frau Radenour had exhausted all her skill as a saleswoman. At last, slowly drawing the francs from his purse, he handed them over and carried off the candlesticks; and though Frau Radenour insisted that he had bought them for but half their value, she knew it was probably the best they could have hoped for in the rag-market.
While this chaffering was going on, Karen had sat mute and sad-eyed, and Hans, too, had not moved away, but still stood helplessly, not quite knowing what to do. But when the dealer had walked off, he drew a step nearer Karen, and, again turning very red with confusion, he extended to her his hand in which lay the five francs, and, "Little girl," he stammered, "won't you please take these? They are all I have."
At this Karen drew back timidly and looked up at him in bewilderment, while Frau Radenour stared with surprise. In a moment, however, the latter recovered herself and said, with a touch of sharpness in her voice, "Many thanks, sir, but keep your money; the child is no beggar!" Indeed, with the sturdy pride of the hard-working poor, Frau Radenour resented Hans' well-meant offer, and she knew, too, that Karen's Grandmother would be greatly displeased had she allowed Karen to accept the charity of a stranger.
But as she took the little girl's hand and they both rose to their feet and started off for home, she wondered over and over why the strange sailor had stared so at Karen and had wanted to give her all his money.
As they walked away, Hans, on his part, looked gloomily after them as he reluctantly replaced the five francs in his pocket.
He was deeply disappointed that he had not been able to give them to Karen, for he now realized that she and her Grandmother must be much poorer than he had supposed. The little yellow house looked comfortable, and better than those of most of the lace-makers, and Hans had not before thought that the two who lived there had found life a hard struggle.
As this began to sink into his mind he began to wake up. Indeed, Hans' better nature had been asleep so long while he was leading his evil life that it took quite a while for it to waken entirely; though every day for those three months past he had been rousing up more and more.
As he now turned again and strode along the path by the old canal, "What if it were Emschen?" he kept saying to himself. "She isn't even so big as Emschen was, and the Grandmother is sick and they have no one to work for them!" And then another idea came into the mind of Hans, and it interested him so that he forgot to finish smoking his pipe and he almost ran into a great, shaggy dog harnessed to a little cart full of brass milk cans.
"Look out!" cried the woman trudging along beside the cart. "Thou art a great clumsy fellow!"
And Hans, muttering a shame-faced apology, turned up a narrow street and made his way back to the quay where the fishing vessels were moored.