Off for Antwerp
F OR several days the children stayed with the little old woman in her tiny cottage on the edge of the river. Each morning they crossed the bridge and stationed themselves by the Antwerp road to watch the swarm of sad-faced Belgians as they hurried through Boom on their way to the frontier and to safety in Holland.
Each day they hoped that before the sun went down they should see their mother among the hurrying multitudes, but each day brought a fresh disappointment, and each night the little old woman comforted them with fresh hope for the morrow.
"You see, my darlings," said she, "it may take a long time and you may have to go a long way first, but I feel in my bones that you will find her at last. And of course, if you do, every step you take is a step toward her, no matter how far round you go."
Jan and Marie believed every word that Granny said. How could they help it when she had been so good to them! Her courage and faith seemed to make an isle of safety about her where the children rested in perfect trust. They saw that neither guns nor Germans nor any other terror could frighten Granny. In the midst of a thousand alarms she calmly went her accustomed way, and every one who met her was the better for a glimpse of the brave little brown face under its snowy cap. Early each morning she rose with the larks, covered the bottom of her barrow with clean white sand, and placed in it the live eels which had been caught for her and brought to the door by small boys who lived in the neighborhood. Then, when she had wakened the Twins, and the three had had their breakfast together, away she would trudge over the long, dusty road to Malines, wheeling the barrow with its squirming freight in front of her.
Jan and Marie helped her all they could. They washed the dishes and swept the floor of the tiny cottage and made everything tidy and clean before they went to take up their stand beside the Antwerp road.
When the shadows grew long in the afternoon, how glad they were to see the sturdy little figure come trudging home again! Then they would run to meet her, and Jan would take the wheelbarrow from her tired hands and wheel it for her over the bridge to the little cottage under the willow trees on the other side of the river.
Then Marie's work was to clean the barrow, while Jan pulled weeds in the tiny garden back of the house, and Granny got supper ready. Supper-time was the best of all, for every pleasant evening they ate at a little table out of doors under the willow trees.
One evening, when supper had been cleared away, they sat there together, with Fidel beside them, while Granny told a wonderful tale about the King of the Eels who lived in a crystal palace at the bottom of the river.
"You can't quite see the palace," she said, "because, when you look right down into it, the water seems muddy. But sometimes, when it is still, you can see the Upside-Down Country where the King of the Eels lives. There the trees all grow with their heads down and the sky is 'way, 'way below the trees. You see the sky might as well be down as up for the eels. They aren't like us, just obliged to crawl around on the ground without ever being able to go up or down at all. The up-above sky belongs to the birds and the down-below sky belongs to the fishes and eels. And I am not sure but one is just as nice as the other."
Marie and Jan went to the river, and, getting down on their hands and knees, looked into the water.
"We can't see a thing!" they cried to Granny.
"You aren't looking the right way," she answered. "Look across it toward the sunset."
"Oh! Oh!" cried Marie, clasping her hands; "I see it! I see the down-below sky, and it is all red and gold!"
"I told you so," replied Granny triumphantly. "Lots of folks can't see a thing in the river but the mud, when, if you look at it the right way, there is a whole lovely world in it. Now, the palace of the King of the Eels is right over in that direction where the color is the reddest. He is very fond of red, is the King of the Eels. His throne is all made of rubies, and he makes the Queen tie red bows on the tails of all the little eels."
Jan and Marie were still looking with all their eyes across the still water toward the sunset and trying to see the crystal palace of the eels, when suddenly from behind them there came a loud "Hee-haw, hee-haw." They jumped, and Granny jumped, too, and they all looked around to see where the sound came from. There, coming slowly toward them along the tow-path on the river-bank, was an old brown mule. She was pulling a low, green river-boat by a towline, and a small boy, not much bigger than Jan, was driving her. On the deck of the boat there was a little cabin with white curtains in the tiny windows and two red geraniums in pots standing on the sills. From a clothesline hitched to the rigging there fluttered a row of little shirts, and seated on a box near by there was a fat, friendly looking woman with two small children playing by her side. The father of the family was busy with the tiller.
"There come the De Smets, as sure as you live!" cried Granny, rising from the wheelbarrow, where she had been sitting. "I certainly am glad to see them." And she started at once down the river to meet the boat, with Jan and Marie and Fidel all following.
"Ship ahoy!" she cried gayly as the boat drew near. The boy who was driving the mule grinned shyly. The woman on deck lifted her eyes from her sewing, smiled, and waved her hand at Granny, while the two little children ran to the edge of the boat; and held out their arms to her.
"Here we are again, war or no war!" cried Mother De Smet, as the boat came alongside. Father De Smet left the tiller and threw a rope ashore. "Whoa!" cried the boy driving the mule. The mule stopped with the greatest willingness, the boy caught the rope and lifted the great loop over a strong post on the river-bank, and the "Old Woman"—for that was the name of the boat—was in port.
Soon a gangplank was slipped from the boat to the little wooden steps on the bank, and Mother De Smet, with a squirming baby under each arm, came ashore. "I do like to get out on dry land and shake my legs a bit now and then," she said cheerfully as she greeted Granny. "On the boat I just sit still and grow fat!"
"I shake my legs for a matter of ten miles every day," laughed Granny. "That's how I keep my figure!"
Mother De Smet set the babies down on the grass, where they immediately began to tumble about like a pair of puppies, and she and Granny talked together, while the Twins went to watch the work of Father De Smet and the boy, whose name was Joseph.
"I don't know whatever the country is coming to," said Mother De Smet to Granny. "The Germans are everywhere, and they are taking everything that they can lay their hands on. I doubt if we ever get our cargo safe to Antwerp this time. We've come for a load of potatoes, but I am very much afraid it is going to be our last trip for some time. The country looks quiet enough as you see it from the boat, but the things that are happening in it would chill your blood."
"Yes," sighed Granny; "if I would let it, my old heart would break over the sights that I see every day on my way to Malines. But a broken heart won't get you anywhere. Maybe a stout heart will."
"Who are the children you have with you?" asked Mother De Smet.
Then Granny told her how she had found Jan and Marie, and all the rest of the sad story. Mother De Smet wiped her eyes and blew her nose very hard as she listened.
"I wouldn't let them wait any longer by the Antwerp road, anyway," she said when Granny had finished. "There is no use in the world in looking for their mother to come that way. She was probably driven over the border long ago. You just leave them with me to‑morrow while you go to town. 'Twill cheer them up a bit to play with Joseph and the babies."
"Well, now," said Granny, "if that isn't just like your good heart!"
And that is how it happened that, when she trudged off with her barrow the next morning, the Twins ran down to the boat and spent the day rolling on the grass with the babies, and helping Father De Smet and Joseph to load the boat with bags of potatoes which had been brought to the dock in the night by neighboring farmers.
When Granny came trundling her barrow home in the late afternoon, she found the children and their new friends already on the best of terms; and that night, after the Twins were in bed, she went aboard the "Old Woman" and talked for a long time with Father and Mother De Smet. No one will ever know just what they said to each other, but it must be that they talked about the Twins, for when the children awoke the next morning, they found Granny standing beside their bed with their clothes all nicely washed and ironed in her hands.
"I'm not going to town this morning with my eels," she said as she popped them out of bed. "I'm going to stay at home and see you off on your journey!" She did not tell them that things had grown so terrible in Malines that even she felt it wise to stay away.
"Our journey!" cried the Twins in astonishment. "What journey?"
"To Antwerp," cried Granny. "Now, you never thought a chance like that would come to you, I'm sure, but some people are born lucky! You see the De Smets start back today, and they are willing to take you along with them!"
"But we don't want to leave you, dear, dear Granny!" cried the Twins, throwing their arms about her neck.
"And I don't want you to go, either, my lambs," said Granny; "but, you see, there are lots of things to think of. In the first place, of course you want to go on hunting for your mother. It may be she has gone over the border; for the Germans are already in trenches near Antwerp, and our army is nearer still to Antwerp and in trenches, too. There they stay, Father De Smet says, for all the world, like two tigers, lying ready to spring at each other's throats. He says Antwerp is so strongly fortified that the Germans can never take it, and so it is a better place to be in than here. The De Smets will see that you are left in safe hands, and I'm sure your mother would want you to go." The children considered this for a moment in silence.
At last Jan said, "Do you think Father De Smet would let me help drive the mule?"
"I haven't a doubt of it," said Granny.
"But what about Fidel, our dear Fidel?" cried Marie.
"I tell you what I'll do;" said Granny. "I'll take care of Fidel for you! You shall leave him here with me until you come back again! You see, I really need good company, and since I can't have you, I know you would be glad to have Fidel stay here to protect me. Then you'll always know just where he is."
She hurried the children into their clothes as she talked, gave them a good breakfast, and before they had time to think much about what was happening to them, they had said good-bye to Fidel, who had to be shut in the cottage to keep him from following the boat, and were safely aboard the "Old Woman" and slowly moving away down the river.
They stood in the stern of the boat, listening to Fidel's wild barks, and waving their hands, until Granny's kind face was a mere round speck in the distance.