I T was late in the afternoon of a long summer's day in Belgium. Father Van Hove was still at work in the harvest-field, though the sun hung so low in the west that his shadow, stretching far across the level, green plain, reached almost to the little red-roofed house on the edge of the village which was its home.
Another shadow, not so long, and quite a little broader, stretched itself beside his, for Mother Van Hove was also in the field, helping her husband to load the golden sheaves upon an old blue farm-cart which stood near by.
There were also two short, fat shadows which bobbed briskly about over the green meadow as their owners danced among the wheat-sheaves or carried handfuls of fresh grass to Pier, the patient white farm-horse, hitched to the cart. These gay shadows belonged to Jan and Marie, sometimes called by their parents Janke and Mie, for short. Jan and Marie were the twin son and daughter of Father and Mother Van Hove, and though they were but eight years old, they were already quite used to helping their father and mother with the work of their little farm.
They knew how to feed the chickens and hunt the eggs and lead Pier to water and pull weeds in the garden. In the spring they had even helped sow the wheat and barley, and now in the late summer they were helping to harvest the grain.
The children had been in the field since sunrise, but not all of the long bright day had been given to labor. Early in the morning their father's pitchfork had uncovered a nest of field mice, and the Twins had made another nest, as much like the first as possible, to put the homeless field babies in, hoping that their mother would find them again and resume her interrupted housekeeping.
Then they had played for a long time in the tiny canal which separated the wheat-field from the meadow, where Bel, their black and white cow, was pastured. There was also Fidel, the dog, their faithful companion and friend. The children had followed him on many an excursion among the willows along the river-bank, for Fidel might at any moment come upon the rabbit or water rat which he was always seeking, and what a pity it would be for Jan and Marie to miss a sight like that!
When the sun was high overhead, the whole family, and Fidel also, had rested under a tree by the little river, and Jan and Marie had shared with their father and mother the bread and cheese which had been brought from home for their noon meal.
Then they had taken a nap in the shade, for it is a long day that begins and ends with the midsummer sun. The bees hummed so drowsily in the clover that Mother Van Hove also took forty winks, while Father Van Hove led Pier to the river for a drink; and tied him where he could enjoy the rich meadow grass for a while.
And now the long day was nearly over. The last level rays of the disappearing sun glistened on the red roofs of the village, and the windows of the little houses gave back an answering flash of light. On the steeple of the tiny church the gilded cross shone like fire against the gray of the eastern sky.
The village clock struck seven and was answered faintly by the sound of distant chimes from the Cathedral of Malines, miles away across the plain.
For some time Father Van Hove had been standing on top of the load, catching the sheaves which Mother Van Hove tossed up to him, and stowing them away in the farm-wagon, which was already heaped high with the golden grain. As the clock struck, he paused in his labor, took off his hat, and wiped his brow. He listened for a moment to the music of the bells, glanced at the western sky, already rosy with promise of the sunset, and at the weather-cock above the cross on the church-steeple. Then he looked down at the sheaves of wheat, still standing like tiny tents across the field.
"It's no use, Mother," he said at last; "we cannot put it all in to‑night, but the sky gives promise of a fair day to‑morrow, and the weather-cock, also, points east. We can finish in one more load; let us go home now."
"The clock struck seven," cried Jan. "I counted the strokes."
"What a scholar is our Janke!" laughed his mother, as she lifted the last sheaf of wheat on her fork and tossed it at Father Van Hove's feet. "He can count seven when it is supper-time! As for me, I do not need a clock; I can tell the time of day by the ache in my bones; and, besides that, there is Bel at the pasture bars waiting to be milked and bellowing to call me."
"I don't need a clock either," chimed in Marie, patting her apron tenderly; "I can tell time by my stomach. It's a hundred years since we ate our lunch; I know it is."
"Come, then, my starvelings," said Mother Van Hove, pinching Marie's fat cheek, "and you shall save your strength by riding home on the load! Here, ma Mie, up you go!"
She swung Marie into the air as she spoke. Father Van Hove reached down from his perch on top of the load, caught her in his arms, and enthroned her upon the fragrant grain.
"And now it is your turn, my Janke!" cried Mother Van Hove, "and you shall ride on the back of old Pier like a soldier going to the wars!" She lifted Jan to the horse's back, while Father Van Hove climbed down to earth once more and took up the reins.
Fidel came back dripping wet from the river, shook himself, and fell in behind the wagon. "U—U!" cried Father Van Hove to old Pier, and the little procession moved slowly up the cart-path toward the shining windows of their red-roofed house.
The home of the Van Hoves lay on the very outskirts of the little hamlet of Meer. Beside it ran a yellow ribbon of road which stretched across the green plain clear to the city of Malines. As they turned from the cart-path into the road, the old blue cart became part of a little procession of similar wagons, for the other men of Meer were also late in coming home to the village from their outlying farms.
"Good-evening, neighbor," cried Father Van Hove to Father Maes, whose home lay beyond his in the village. "How are your crops coming on?"
"Never better," answered Father Maes; "I have more wheat to the acre than ever before."
"So have I, thanks be to the good God;" answered Father Van Hove. "The winter will find our barns full this year."
"Yes," replied Father Maes a little sadly; "that is, if we have no bad luck, but Jules Verhulst was in the city yesterday and heard rumors of a German army on our borders. It is very likely only an idle tale to frighten the women and children, but Jules says there are men also who believe it."
"I shall believe nothing of the sort," said Father Van Hove stoutly. "Are we not safe under the protection of our treaty? No, no, neighbor, there's nothing to fear! Belgium is neutral ground."
"I hope you may be right," answered Father Maes, cracking his whip, and the cart moved on.
Mother Van Hove, meanwhile, had hastened ahead of the cart to stir up the kitchen fire and put the kettle on before the others should reach home, and when Father Van Hove at last drove into the farmyard, she was already on the way to the pasture bars with her milk-pail on her arm. "Set the table for supper, ma Mie," she called back, "and do not let the pot boil over! Jan, you may shut up the fowls; they have already gone to roost."
"And what shall I do, Mother?" laughed Father Van Hove.
"You," she called back, "you may unharness Pier and turn him out in the pasture for the night! And I'll wager I shall be back with a full milk-pail before you've even so much as fed the pig, let alone the other chores—men are so slow!" She waved her hand gayly and disappeared behind the pasture bars, as she spoke.
"Hurry, now, my man," said Father Van Hove to Jan. "We must not let Mother beat us! We will let the cart stand right there near the barn, and to‑morrow we can store the grain away to make room for a new load. I will let you lead Pier to the pasture, while I feed the pig myself; by her squeals she is hungry enough to eat you up in one mouthful."