On the Tow‑Path
W HEN they could no longer see Granny, nor hear Fidel, the children sat down on a coil of rope behind the cabin and felt very miserable indeed.
Marie was just turning up the corner of
her apron to wipe her eyes, and Jan was looking at nothing at all
and winking very hard, when good Mother De Smet, came by with a
baby waddling along on each side of her. She gave the two dismal
little faces a quick glance and then said
"Jan, you run and see if you can't help Father with the tiller, and, Marie, would you mind playing with the babies while I put on the soup-kettle and fix the greens for dinner? They are beginning to climb everywhere now, and I am afraid they will fall overboard if somebody doesn't watch them every minute!"
Jan clattered at once across the deck to Father De Smet, and Marie gladly followed his wife to the open space in front of the cabin where the babies had room to roll about. Half an hour later, when Mother De Smet went back to get some potatoes for the soup, she found Jan proudly steering the boat by himself.
"Oh, my soul!" she cried in astonishment. "What a clever boy you must be to learn so quickly to handle the tiller. Where is Father De Smet?"
"Here!" boomed a loud voice behind her, and Father De Smet's head appeared above a barrel on the other side of the deck. "I'm trying to make the 'Old Woman' look as if she had no cargo aboard. If the Germans see these potatoes, they'll never let us get them to Antwerp," he shouted.
Father De Smet looked out over the quiet Belgian fields.
"There's nobody about that I can see," he said, "but I'll roar more gently next time."
There was a bend in the river just at this point, and Jan, looking fearfully about to see if he could see any Germans, for an instant forgot all about the tiller. There was a jerk on the tow-rope and a bump as the nose of the "Old Woman " ran into the river-bank. Netteke, the mule, came to a sudden stop, and Mother De Smet sat down equally suddenly on a coil of rope. Her potatoes spilled over the deck, while a wail from the front of the boat announced that one of the babies had bumped, too. Mother De Smet picked herself up and ran to see what was the matter with the baby, while Father De Smet seized a long pole and hurried forward. Joseph left the mule to browse upon the grass beside the tow-path and ran back to the boat. His father threw him a pole which was kept for such emergencies, and they both pushed. Joseph pushed on the boat and his father pushed against the river-bank. Meanwhile poor Jan stood wretchedly by the tiller knowing that his carelessness had caused the trouble, yet not knowing what to do to help.
"Never mind, son," said Mother De Smet kindly, when she came back for her potatoes and saw his downcast face. "It isn't the first time the 'Old Woman' has stuck her nose in the mud, and with older people than you at the tiller, too! We'll soon have her off again and no harm done."
The boat gave a little lurch toward the middle of the stream.
"Look alive there, Mate!" sang out Father De Smet. "Hard aport with the tiller! Head her out into the stream!"
Joseph flung his pole to his father and rushed back to Netteke, pulled her patient nose out of a delicious bunch of thistles and started her up the tow-path. Jan sprang to the tiller, and soon the "Old Woman" was once more gliding smoothly over the quiet water toward Antwerp.
When Father De Smet came back to the stern of the boat, Jan expected a scolding, but perhaps it seemed to the good-natured skipper that Jan had troubles enough already, for he only said mildly, "Stick to your job, son, whatever it is," and went on covering his potatoes with empty boxes and pieces of sailcloth. Jan paid such strict attention to the tiller after that that he did not even forget when Father De Smet pointed out a burning farmhouse a mile or so from the river and said grimly, "The Germans are amusing themselves again."
For the most part, however, the countryside seemed so quiet and peaceful that it was hard to believe that such dreadful things were going on all about them. While Father De Smet's eyes, under their bushy brows, kept close watch in every direction, he said little about his fears and went on his way exactly as he had done before the invasion.
It was quite early in the morning when they left Boom, and by ten o'clock Joseph was tired of trudging along beside Netteke. He hailed his father.
"May I come aboard now?" he shouted.
Father De Smet looked at Jan.
"Would you like to drive the mule awhile?" he asked.
"Oh, wouldn't I!" cried Jan.
"Have you ever driven a mule before?" Father De Smet asked again.
"Not a mule, exactly," Jail replied, "but I drove old Pier up from the field with a load of wheat all by myself. Mother sat on the load."
"Come along!" shouted Father De Smet to Joseph, and in a moment the gangplank was out and Jan and Joseph had changed places.
"May I go, too?" asked Marie timidly of Father De Smet as he was about to draw in the plank. "The babies are both asleep and I have nothing to do."
Father De Smet took a careful look in every direction. It was level, open country all about them, dotted here and there with farmhouses, and in the distance the spire of a village church rose above the clustering houses and pointed to the sky.
"Yes, yes, child. Go ahead," said Father De Smet. "Only don't get too near Netteke's hind legs. She doesn't know you very well and sometimes she forgets her manners."
Marie skipped over the gangplank and ran along the tow-path to Jan, who already had taken up Netteke's reins and was waiting for the signal to start. Joseph took his place at the tiller, and again the "Old Woman" moved slowly down the stream.
For some time Jan and Marie plodded along with Netteke. At first they thought it good fun, but by and by, as the sun grew hot, driving a mule on a tow-path did not seem quite so pleasant a task as they had thought it would be.
"I'm tired of this," said Jan at last to Marie. "That mule is so slow that I have to sight her by something to be sure that she is moving at all! I've been measuring by that farmhouse across the river for a long time, and she hasn't crawled up to it yet! I shouldn't wonder if she'd go to sleep some day and fall into the river and never wake up! Why, I am almost asleep myself."
"She'll wake up fast enough when it's time to eat, and so will you," said Marie, with profound wisdom.
"Let's see if we can't make her go a little faster, anyway," said Jan, ignoring Marie's remark. "I know what I'll do," he went on, chuckling; "I'll get some burrs and stick them in her tail, and then every time she slaps the flies off she'll make herself go faster."
Marie seized Jan's arm.
"You'll do nothing of the kind!" she cried. "Father De Smet told me especially to keep away from Netteke's hind legs."
"Pooh!" said Jan; "he didn't tell me that. I'm not afraid of any mule alive. I guess if I can harness a horse and drive home a load of grain from the field, there isn't much I can't do with a mule!" To prove his words he shouted "U—U" at Netteke and slapped her flank with a long branch of willow.
Now, Netteke was a proud mule and she wasn't used to being slapped. Father De Smet knew her ways, and knew also that her steady, even, slow pace was better in the long run than to attempt to force a livelier gait, and Netteke was well aware of what was expected of her. She resented being interfered with. Instead of going forward at greater speed, she put her four feet together, laid back her ears, gave a loud "hee-haw!" and stopped stock-still.
"U—U!" shouted Jan. In vain! Netteke would not move. Marie held a handful of fresh grass just out of reach of her mouth. But Netteke was really offended. She made no effort to get it. She simply stayed where she was. Father De Smet stuck his head over the side of the boat.
"What is the matter?" he shouted.
"Oh, dear!" said Jan to Marie. "I hoped he wouldn't notice that the boat wasn't moving."
"Netteke has stopped. She won't go at all. I think she's run down!" Marie called back.
"Try coaxing her," cried the skipper. "Give her something to eat. Hold it in front of her nose."
"I have," answered Marie, "but she won't even look at it."
"Then it's no use," said Father De Smet mournfully. "She's balked and that is all there is to it. We'll just have to wait until she is ready to go again. When she has made up her mind she is as difficult to persuade as a setting hen."
Mother De Smet's head appeared beside her husband's over the boat-rail.
"Oh, dear!" said she; "I hoped we should get to the other side of the line before dark, but if Netteke's set, she's set, and we must just make the best of it. It's lucky it's dinner-time. We'll eat, and maybe by the time we are through she'll be willing to start." Father De Smet tossed a bucket on to the grass.
"Give her a good drink," he said, "and come aboard yourselves."
Jan filled the bucket from the river and set it down before Netteke, but she was in no mood for blandishments. She kept her ears back and would not touch the water.
"All right, then, Crosspatch," said Jan. Leaving the pail in front of her, he went back to the boat. The gangplank was put out, and he and Marie went on board. They found dinner ready in the tiny cabin, and because it was so small and stuffy, and there were too many of them, anyway, to get into it comfortably, they each took a bowl of soup as Mother De Smet handed it to them and sat down on the deck in front of the cabin to eat it.
It was not until the middle of the afternoon that Netteke forgot her injuries, consented to eat and drink, and indicated her willingness to move on toward Antwerp.