The Christmas Porringer by  Evaleen Stein

Robber Hans and the Porringer

T HE next morning Hans thrust in his pocket the silver cup and the porringer, which he took pains not to look at again, and went out to find the dealer to whom he might sell them.

He threaded his way through the narrow, crooked streets till by and by he came to a rickety wooden house standing behind some tall old warehouses that fronted on a canal. These had once been piled high with rich stuffs in the great days of Bruges, but now they were deserted and falling into decay.

Hans, after looking cautiously about him, quickly approached the rickety house and knocked in an odd way, which was his signal, so that the dealer within would know it was not one of the officers of the city come to arrest him. For, of course, it was against the law to buy stolen goods; though the laws then in Bruges were not so well looked after as they should have been. And so the dishonest trade within the old house had been carried on for some time undisturbed.

As Hans now entered the heavy wooden door, which he quickly closed and barred behind him, he found himself in a dimly lighted room where the brown rafters showed hung thick with cobwebs. This was the place known to him and his kind as the "thieves' market." Around the walls were a number of shelves and on these were arranged all manner of things; some of them costly and others of little value, but all stolen from one place or another; for this was a favorite spot for evil-doers to dispose of their plunder.

As Hans strode to the middle of the room and stood before a narrow counter that divided it, a little old man, who was busy sorting some wares behind a pile of boxes, turned around with "Good day, Robber Hans! And what hast thou brought to Father Deaf-and-Blind?" For so the little old man, with his cunning eyes and hard, wicked face, was called by those who dealt with him; because he always pretended that he neither saw nor heard that the things they brought to sell had been stolen from their rightful owners.

But Hans was in no mood for talk as sullenly he drew from his pocket the silver cup and without a word placed it on the counter.

"Ah!" cried the little old man, greedily seizing the cup and looking closely at it. "This mark must come off; yes, and this coat-of-arms! Hm, 'twill be some trouble to do that skillfully!" And then turning it round again and considering the coat-of-arms, "Let me see," he went on inquiringly, still looking at it. "There! now I have it! 'Tis the mark of the Groene family. Have they 'presented' this to thee lately, or is it one of the 'gifts' of last month, when several families were so generous to thee, eh?"

This pretending that they were presents was the usual way in which Father Deaf-and-Blind asked about stolen goods; and as now he chuckled and fixed his shrewd eyes upon Hans, the latter muttered a low reply, and, after some chaffering, the old man took a bag from an iron box under the counter and counted out a sum of silver, which Hans swept into his pocket. Then he took out the porringer and set it beside the cup.

"Ho," said the old man contemptuously, "I'll warrant such peasant gear was never sheltered under the same roof as this silver cup!" For in the stately old homes of Bruges, such as that of the Groene family, where things had been handed down from generation to generation, even the pots and pans in the kitchens were of fine and costly workmanship. And the moment he looked at it, Father Deaf-and-Blind knew very well that the little earthenware porringer had been made by peasant folk for the use of humble people like themselves.

And so the old dealer, giving it another brief glance, added: "Thou must have picked up that while paying a visit to the children's God's-House!" For so the people of Bruges called the almshouse where the homeless children of the poor were sheltered and cared for.

Hans had turned away his eyes when he set the porringer down, for he did not want to see it again and have the old memories come back to haunt him. But now, before he knew what he was doing, he looked down in the bowl, straight into the face of the little girl; and immediately it became the face of Emschen, and her eyes looked up so mournfully into the eyes of Robber Hans, and the little smile on her lips was so sad it was as if her heart was breaking! And Hans, turning very white, scarcely knew what he did as he put out his hand tremblingly and carefully lifted the porringer from the counter.

"Hold!" cried Father Deaf-and-Blind, who was surprised at Hans' action, and who really thought the porringer a quaint and pretty bit of earthenware, " 'tis not so bad for some burgher customer. I will give five sous for it."

But Hans had already replaced the porringer in his pocket, and without another word he turned, and going straight to the door, he unbarred it and went out.

As the old man swiftly crossed the room to refasten the door, he muttered to himself, "I wonder what ails friend Hans this morning? He is as cross as a fishwife when the catch is bad, and he acts as if he had been robbed of his wits or else left them behind in his miserable hut!" And then he went back to the counter and began to weigh the silver cup and consider how he could best smooth away the tell-tale marks.

As for Robber Hans, when again he found himself walking the snowy streets, he walked as one in a dream. It was no use trying to avoid it; the sad little face of Emschen seemed to hover before his eyes wherever he turned; and another thing, of which he had not before thought, began to trouble him. Old Father Deaf-and-Blind's chance speech about the children's God's-House had reminded him that the porringer he had stolen must have belonged to some poor child and, for the first time in a great many years, Hans really began to feel ashamed of himself. He tried again to remember just where he had picked up the porringer; and though it had not occurred to him at the time he took it, now he said to himself: "Why was it outside on the doorstep? 'Twas a queer place to find it!"

Hans wished with all his heart that he had let it stay there, since it was making him so uncomfortable and seemed so impossible to get rid of, or even to get it out of his thoughts! For still his mind went on puzzling to account for the porringer having been on the doorstep. Finally, however, he decided that as it was on the night before Christmas that he had taken it, probably it was a gift that some friend had brought for a child who must live in the little yellow house; and perhaps no one had been at home to open the door, and so the porringer had been left on the step.

Having explained it to himself in this way, for the first time such an idea had troubled him since he had become a robber, the feeling came to him that he ought to take it back where it belonged—it seemed so shameful to rob a child, and a poor child at that! But, he thought, he could not take it back in broad daylight! No, he decided, if he did so, it must be after night, when no one could see him.

As he was thinking all this over, without noticing where he was going, his steps had brought him to the part of the city where there were a number of shops, and he remembered that he was hungry, for he had had no breakfast. He went into one of the shops and asked for some food. The shopkeeper looked at him suspiciously. "Thou art a burly beggar!" he said. "There are far too many needy poor in Bruges to give to such as thou!"

"I am no beggar!" said Hans, angrily, displaying one of his silver coins. "Here is silver for thy meat and bread, and see to it thou dost not cheat me!"

The shopkeeper, muttering to himself, supplied a dish of food; though he was glad when Hans had finished eating it and left the shop, for he did not think that he looked like an honest man or that he had come by the silver honestly. Now, on Hans' part, when in order to pay the shopkeeper he had put his hand in his pocket for a piece of the silver he had received for the stolen cup, his fingers touched the porringer first; and, he could not have told why, he took the rest of the silver out and put it in the pocket on the other side of his coat.

Perhaps, in some vague way, he did not quite like to have that ill-gotten money right there with the picture of Emschen; for to his mind the little girl in the porringer had become so bound up with Emschen that it might as well have really been her picture.

And then as Hans went farther along the street, he did another queer thing; he deliberately turned down a narrow way that led to one of the many old quays of the city, and began to look at the ships that were lying moored close beside it.

In the days of the bygone glory of Bruges, her harbor, now choked up with sand, and her many canals, had been thronged with vessels from all over the world, and every quay had been a place of busy work all day long and often through the night. And now, though most of them were deserted and moss-grown, still on the banks of one canal, which connected Bruges with the not far distant sea-port city of Ostend, there were several quays to which came small fishing vessels and various ships that traded along the coast of Flanders.

It happened that on that day there were two or three schooners lying at the quay to which Hans had come. He had come there because with all the thoughts of his childhood that had been stirred to life by the little porringer, there had wakened the memory of the sea as it rolled and surged beyond the grey rocks of the Quiberon coast. He began to long for the familiar tang of the fresh salt air blowing over the curling green waves, and to sail over these as he had once done in the old days when he had first set out to make his way in the world. For, like most of the folk of the Breton coast, Hans seemed to belong to the sea. And he had been a good sailor in those days. But though he had drifted away from that old life and his old friends, and had for so long a while gained his living by robbery that all thought of the past seemed dead within him, as he now looked at the vessels rocking on the water by the quay, stronger and stronger grew his newly awakened longing for the sea, till at last it swept over him like a fierce gust of the north wind that he had often seen dashing the white-capped waves against the crags of Quiberon.

And along with this great longing, all the while stronger and stronger grew another wish; though, curiously enough, Hans himself could not for the life of him have told that he had it. It was a wish to lead an honest life once more; it had really always been down in the bottom of his heart, but it had gotten so covered up and hidden by all sorts of robber thoughts that now it was like a ray of light trying to shine through a window all covered with dust and cobwebs. And so all Hans knew about it was that he wanted more than anything else to be a sailor on one of those vessels.

Hans walked along the quay till he came alongside the nearest of the schooners he had been watching, and then he hailed the captain, who was standing on the deck.

"What do you want?" asked the captain, looking at Hans, and not with favor.

"Do you need another hand on your boat?" asked Hans.

"No," answered the captain shortly, and turned away contemptuously without paying any further attention.

Hans' temper began to rise as he strode along toward where the next vessel lay. Two of her crew were unloading her cargo under the direction of the captain. After looking at them a moment, "Ho!" called Hans abruptly to the men, "you handle that gear like the veriest landlubbers! Give me a chance, and I'll show you how to unload yonder bales in a quarter the time it is taking you!"

Of course this was a very poor way to go about it if he wanted to get work on that boat; but Hans had little tact at best, and moreover he had been stung by the manner of the captain of the other vessel, and so his ill humor had gotten the better of him.

At his speech, the two men looked up in surprise, and seeing Hans' ragged figure, one of them, who knew him by sight, cried out jeeringly, "Hold thy tongue, thou impudent beggar! I'll warrant thou couldst lighten one of these bales in a twinkling couldst thou but get thy thieving fingers upon it! Begone!"

Hans' eyes blazed, and he strode forward with fist clenched to strike the man. But the latter was too nimble; for the two, having finished their work, ran up the gang-plank and drew it in, so that Hans could not reach them, and they laughed scornfully as they taunted him from their place on the deck.

Hans was very angry and his heart full of bitterness. He turned on his heel and half started away from the quay. But, like many other people of strong will, to be crossed in what he wished to do only made Hans more unwilling to give it up. And so the harder it seemed to be to get a place on one of those vessels the more he wanted it. And turning back again, he determined to try once more.

This time he went to the far end of the quay, where a fishing vessel was moored. The captain was standing on the bank near the side of the boat, and Hans, walking up to him, said: "I am going to ship as sailor on this vessel."

Captain Helmgar, for this was his name, gave a short laugh as he looked at the man in front of him. "Ho," he said, "not so fast, my man! I am owner of this craft, and I choose my own crew! I'll wager thou dost not know the tiller from the forecastle!"

"Just try me!" cried Hans eagerly. "Your craft is in fair order, but yonder sail was shrouded by a bungling hand!" and Hans pointed to one of the masts of the vessel, where the sail was furled in a way that his practiced eye at once saw was clumsy.

At this the captain opened his eyes and stared at Hans; for it was perfectly true that one of the crew was a lazy, ignorant fellow who had no fondness for the sea and who bungled everything he touched, and Captain Helmgar was really anxious to replace him with an experienced sailor. As he now began to question Hans, he soon discovered that he knew all about ships and shipping, as did almost all the men brought up on the coast of Brittany; and then, too, Hans' experience as sailor had been chiefly on fishing vessels.

The captain did not like Hans' raggedness and unkempt looks, and, though he knew nothing about him, was rather suspicious of his honesty. But then he needed a man, and Hans certainly seemed to know his trade. Captain Helmgar, moreover, was a good-hearted man, and thought to himself, "There is little on a fishing vessel he could steal, even if he is a thief." The captain, too, rather liked Hans' determination to ship with him; so after thinking a few minutes, he said "Well, my man, we leave for a week's cruise to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, and, if you report on time, I will take you on trial."

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