Granny and the Eels
W HEN the cathedral bells rang the next morning for early mass, the children were still sleeping the sleep of utter exhaustion. It was not until the bells had ceased to ring, and the door, opening from the sacristy near their resting place, creaked upon its hinges, that even Fidel was aroused. True to his watchdog instincts, he started to his feet with a low growl, letting the heads of Jan and Marie down upon the floor with a sudden bump. For an instant the awakened children could not remember where they were or what had happened to them. They sat up and rubbed their heads, but the habit of fear was already so strong upon them that they made no sound and instantly quieted Fidel. Again the door creaked, and through it there appeared a tall figure dressed in priestly robes. The children were so near that had they thrust their hands through the railing of the communion bank behind which they were concealed, they might have touched him as he passed before the altar of the Virgin and presented himself in front of the high altar to conduct the mass. His head, as he passed them, was bowed. His face was pale and thin, and marked with lines of deep sorrow.
"Oh," whispered Marie to Jan, "it must be the Cardinal himself. Mother told me about him."
The whisper made such a loud sound in the silence of the great cathedral aisles that Jan was afraid to reply. For answer he only laid his finger upon his lips and crept still farther back into the shadow. Fidel seemed to know that dogs were not allowed in church and that it was necessary for him to be quiet, too, for he crawled back with the children into the sheltering darkness.
There were only a few persons in the cathedral, and those few were near the door; so no one saw the children as they knelt with folded hands and bowed heads in their corner, reverently following the service as the Cardinal ate the sacred wafer and drank the communion wine before the altar. Later they were to know his face as the bravest and best beloved in all Belgium next to those of the King and Queen themselves.
When again he passed the kneeling little figures on his return to the sacristy, their lonely hearts so ached for care and protection, and his face looked so kind and pitiful, that they almost dared to make their presence known and to ask for the help they sorely needed. Marie, bolder than Jan, half rose as he passed, but Jan pulled her back, and in another instant the door had closed behind him and he was gone.
"Oh," sobbed Marie under her breath, "he looked so kind! He might have helped us. Why did you pull me back?"
"How could we let him see Fidel, and tell him that our dog had slept all night before the altar?" answered Jan. "I shouldn't dare! He is a great Prince of the Church!"
The sound of scraping chairs told them that the little congregation had risen from its knees and was passing out of the church. They waited until every one had disappeared through the great door, and then made a swift flight down the echoing aisle and out into the sunlight. For a moment they stood hand in hand upon the cathedral steps, clasping their bundle and waiting for the next turn of fortune's wheel.
The bright sunlight of the summer day, shining on the open square, almost blinded them, and what they saw in the square, when their eyes had become used to it, did not comfort them. Everywhere there were German soldiers with their terrible bayonets and pointed helmets and their terrible songs. Everywhere there were pale and desperate Belgians fleeing before the arrogant German invader.
"Oh, Jan," whispered Marie clinging to him, "there are so many people! How shall we ever find Mother? I didn't know there were so many people in the whole world."
"It isn't likely that we'll find her by just standing here, anyway," answered Jan. "We've got to keep going till we get somewhere."
He slung the bundle on his shoulder and whistled to Fidel, who had gone down the steps to bark at a homeless cat.
"Come along," he said to Marie. And once more the little pilgrims took up their journey. At the first corner they paused, not knowing whether to go to the right or to the left.
"Which way?" said Marie.
Jan stood still and looked first in one direction and then in the other.
"Here, gutter-snipes, what are you standing here for? Make way for your betters!" said a gruff voice behind them, and, turning, the children found themselves face to face with a German officer dressed in a resplendent uniform and accompanied by a group of swaggering young soldiers. Too frightened to move, the children only looked up at him and did not stir.
"Get out of the way, I tell you!" roared the officer, turning purple with rage;—"Orderly!" One of the young men sprang forward. He seized Jan by the arm and deftly kicked him into the gutter. Another at the same moment laid his hands on Marie. But he reckoned without Fidel, faithful Fidel, who knew no difference between German and Belgian, but knew only that no cruel hand should touch his beloved Marie, while he was there to defend her. With a fierce growl he sprang at the young orderly and buried his teeth in his leg. Howling with pain, the orderly dropped Marie, while another soldier drew his sword with an oath and made a thrust at Fidel. Fortunately Fidel was too quick for him. He let go his hold upon the leg of the orderly, tearing a large hole in his uniform as he did so, and flung himself directly between the legs of the other soldier who was lunging at him with the sword. The next instant the surprised German found himself sprawling upon the sidewalk, and saw Fidel, who had escaped without a scratch, dashing wildly up the street after Jan and Marie. Beside himself with rage, the soldier drew a revolver and fired a shot, which barely missed Fidel, and buried itself in the doorstep of the house past which he was running.
If Jan and Marie had not turned a corner just at that moment, and if Fidel had not followed them, there is no telling what might have happened next, for the young soldier was very angry indeed. Perhaps he considered it beneath his dignity to run after them, and perhaps he saw that Jan and Marie could both run like the wind and he would not be likely to catch them if he did. At any rate, he did not follow. He picked himself up and dusted his clothes, using very bad language as he did so, and followed the officer and his companions up the street.
Meanwhile the tired children ran on and on, fear lending speed to their weary legs. Round behind the great cathedral they sped, hoping to find some way of escape from the terrors of the town, but their way was blocked by the smoking ruins of a section of the city which the Germans had burned in the night, and there was no way to get out in that direction. Terrified and faint with hunger, they turned once more, and, not knowing where they were going, stumbled at last upon the street which led to the Antwerp gate.
"I remember this place;" cried Jan, with something like joy in his voice. "Don't you remember, Marie? It's where we stood to watch the soldiers, and Mother sang for us to march, because we were so tired and hungry."
"I'm tired and hungry now, too," said poor Marie.
"Let's march again," said Jan.
"Where to?" said Marie.
"That's the way Father went when he marched away with the soldiers," said Jan, pointing to the Antwerp gate. "Anything is better than staying here. Let's go that way." He started bravely forward once more, Marie and Fidel following.
They found themselves only two wretched atoms in one of the saddest processions in history, for there were many other people, as unhappy as themselves, who were also trying to escape from the city. Some had lived in the section which was now burning; others had been turned out of their homes by the Germans; and all were hastening along, carrying babies and bundles, and followed by groups of older children.
Jan and Marie were swept along with the hurrying crowd, through the city gate and beyond, along the river road which led to Antwerp. No one spoke to them. Doubtless they were supposed to belong to some one of the fleeing families, and it was at least comforting to the children to be near people of whom they were not afraid. But Jan and Marie could not keep pace with the swift-moving crowd of refugees. They trudged along the highway at their best speed, only to find themselves straggling farther and farther behind.
They were half a mile or more beyond the city gate when they overtook a queer little old woman who was plodding steadily along wheeling a wheelbarrow, in front of her.
She evidently did not belong among the refugees, for she was making no effort to keep up with them. She had bright, twinkling black eyes, and snow-white hair tucked under a snow-white cap. Her face was as brown as a nut and full of wrinkles, but it shone with such kindness and good-will that, when Jan and Marie had taken one look at her, they could not help walking along by her side.
"Maybe she has seen Mother," whispered Marie to Jan. "Let's ask her!"
The little old woman smiled down at them as they joined her. "You'll have to hurry, my dears, or you won't keep up with your folks," she said kindly.
"They aren't our folks," said Jan.
"They aren't?" said the little old woman, stopping short. "Then where are your folks?"
"We haven't any, not just now," said Jan. "You see our father is a soldier, and our mother, oh, have you seen our mother? She's lost!"
The little old woman gave them a quick, pitying glance. "Lost, is she?" she said. "Well, now, I can't just be sure whether I've seen her or not, not knowing what she looks like, but I wouldn't say I haven't. Lots of folks have passed this way. How did she get lost?" She sat down on the edge of the barrow and drew the children to her side. "Come, now," she said, "tell Granny all about it! I've seen more trouble than any one you ever saw in all your life before, and I'm not a mite afraid of it either."
Comforted already, the children poured forth their story.
"You poor little lambs!" she cried, when they had finished, "and you haven't had a bite to eat since yesterday! Mercy on us! You can never find your mother on an empty stomach!" She rose from the wheelbarrow, as she spoke, and trundled it swiftly from the road to the bank of the river, a short distance away. Here, in a sheltered nook, hidden from the highway by a group of willows, she stopped. "We'll camp right here, and I'll get you a dinner fit for a king or a duke, at the very least," she said cheerily. "Look what I have in my wheelbarrow!" She took a basket from the top of it as she spoke.
Fidel was already looking in, with his tail standing straight out behind, his ears pointed forward, and the hairs bristling on the back of his neck. There, on some clean white sand in the bottom of the wheelbarrow, wriggled a fine fat eel!
"Now I know why I didn't sell that eel," cried Granny. "There's always a reason for everything, you see, my darlings."
She seized the eel with a firm, well-sanded hand as she spoke, and before could spell your name backwards, she had skinned and dressed it, and had given the remnants to poor hungry Fidel. "Now, my boy," she said gayly to Jan as she worked, "you get together some twigs and dead leaves, and you, Big Eyes," she added to Marie, "find some stones by the river, and we'll soon have such a stove as you never saw before, and a fire in it, and a bit of fried eel, to fill your hungry stomachs."
Immensely cheered, the children flew on these errands. Then Marie had a bright thought. "We have some potatoes in our bundle," she said.
"Well, now," cried the little old woman, "wouldn't you think they had just followed up that eel on purpose? We'll put them to roast in the ashes. I always carry a pan and a bit of fat and some matches about with me when I take my eels to market," she explained as she whisked these things out of the basket, "and it often happens that I cook myself a bite to eat on my way home, especially if I'm late. You see, I live a long way from here, just across the river from Boom, and I'm getting lazy in my old age. Early every morning I walk to Malines with my barrow full of fine eels, and sell them to the people of the town. That's how I happen to be so rich!"
"Are you rich?" asked Marie wonderingly.
She had brought the stones from the river, and now she untied her bundle and took out the potatoes. Jan had already heaped a little mound of sticks and twigs near by, and soon the potatoes were cooking in the ashes, and a most appetizing smell of frying eel filled the air.
"Am I rich?" repeated the old woman. She looked surprised that any one could ask such a question. "Of course I'm rich. Haven't I got two eyes in my head, and a tongue, too, and it's lucky, indeed, that it's that way about, for if I had but one eye and two tongues, you see for yourself how much less handy that would be! And I've two legs as good as any one's, and two hands to help myself with! The Kaiser himself has no more legs and arms than I, and I doubt if he can use them half as well. Neither has he a stomach the more! And as for his heart"—she looked cautiously around as she spoke—"his heart, I'll be bound, is not half so good as mine! If it were, he could not find it in it to do all the cruel things he's doing here. I 'm sure of that."
For a moment the cheerfulness of her face clouded over; but she saw the shadow reflected in the faces of Jan and Marie, and at once spoke more gayly. "Bless you, yes—I'm rich," she went on; "and so are you! You've got all the things that I have and more, too, for your legs and arms are young, and you have a mother to look for. Not every one has that, you may depend! And one of these days you'll find her. Make no doubt of that."
"If we don't, she'll surely find us, anyway," said Jan. "She said she would!"
"Indeed and she will," said the old woman. "Even the Germans couldn't stop her; so what matter is it, if you both have to look a bit first? 'Twill only make it the better when you find each other again."
When the potatoes were done, the little old woman raked them out of the ashes with a stick, broke them open, sprinkled a bit of salt on them from the wonderful basket, and then handed one to each of the children, wrapped in a plantain leaf, so they should not burn their fingers. A piece of the eel was served to them in the same way, and Granny beamed with satisfaction as she watched her famished guests.
"Aren't you going to eat, too?" asked Marie with her mouth full.
"Bless you, yes," said Granny. "Every chance I get. You just watch me!" She made a great show of taking a piece of the eel as she spoke, but if any one had been watching carefully, they would have seen her slyly put it back again into the pan, and the children never knew that they ate her share and their own, too.
When they had eaten every scrap of the eel, and Fidel had finished the bones, the little old woman rose briskly from the bank, washed her pan in the river, packed it in her basket again, and led the way up the path to the highway once more.
Although they found the road still filled with the flying refugees, the world had grown suddenly brighter to Jan and Marie. They had found a friend and they were fed.
"Now, you come along home with your Granny," said the little old woman as they reached the Antwerp road and turned northward, "for I live in a little house by the river right on the way to wherever you want to go!"