In the last remnant of Belgium, a corner yet unconquered by the German horde, I saw a tall young man walking among the dunes, between the sodden lowland and the tumbling sea.
The hills where he trod were of sand heaped high by the western winds; and the growth over them was wire-grass and thistles, bayberry and golden broom and stunted pine, with many humble wild flowers--things of no use, yet beautiful.
The sky above was gray; the northern sea was gray; the southern fields were hazy gray over green; the smoke of shells bursting in the air was gray. Gray was the skeleton of the ruined city in the distance; gray were the shattered spires and walls of a dozen hamlets on the horizon; gray, the eyes of the young man who walked in faded blue uniform, in the remnant of Belgium. But there was an indomitable light in his eyes, by which I knew that he was a King.
"Sir," I said, "I am sure that you are his Majesty, the King of Belgium."
He bowed, and a pleasant smile relaxed his tired face.
"Pardon, monsieur," he answered, "but you make the usual mistake in my title. If I were only 'the King of Belgium,' you see, I should have but a poor kingdom now--only this narrow strip of earth, perhaps four hundred square miles of debris, just a _'pou sto,'_ a place to stand, enough to fight on, and if need be to die in."
His hand swept around the half-circle of dull landscape visible southward from the top of the loftiest dune, the _Hooge Blikker._ It was a land of slow-winding streams and straight canals and flat fields, with here and there a clump of woods or a slight rise of ground, but for the most part level and monotonous, a checker-board landscape--stretching away until the eyes rested on the low hills beyond Ypres. Now all the placid charm of Flemish fertility as gone from the land--it was scarred and marred and pitted. The shells and mines had torn holes in it; the trenches and barbed-wire entanglements spread over it like a network of scars and welts; the trees were smashed into kindling-wood; the farmhouses were heaps of charred bricks; the shattered villages were like mouths full of broken teeth. As the King looked round at all this, his face darkened and the slight droop of his shoulders grew more marked.
"But, no," he said, turning to me again, "that is not my kingdom. My real title, monsieur, is _King of the Belgians._ It was for their honor, for their liberty, that I was willing to lose my land and risk my crown. While they live and hold true, I stand fast."
Then ran swiftly through me the thought, of how the little Belgian army had fought, how the Belgian people had suffered, rather than surrender the independence of their country to the barbarians. The German cannonade was roaring along the Yser a few miles away; the air trembled with the overload of sound; but between the peals of thunder I could hear the brave song of the skylark climbing his silver stairway of music, undismayed, hopeful, unconquerable. I remembered how the word of this quiet man beside whom I stood had been the inspiration and encouragement of his people through the fierce conflict, the long agony: _"I have faith in our destiny; a nation which defends itself does not perish; God will be with us in that just cause."_
"Sir," I said, "you have a glorious kingdom which shall never be taken away. But as for your land, the fates have been against you. How will you ever get back to it? The Germans are strong as iron and they bar the way. Will you make a peace with them and take what they have so often offered you?"
"Never," he answered calmly; "that is not the way home, it is the way to dishonor. When God brings me back, my army and my Queen are going with me to liberate our people. There is only one way that leads there--the King's high way. Look, _monsieur,_ you can see the beginning of it down there. I hope you wish me well on that road, for I shall never take another."
So he bade me good afternoon very courteously and walked away among the dunes to his little cottage at La Panne.
Looking down through the light haze of evening I saw a strip of the straight white road leading eastward across the level land. At the beginning of it there was a broken bridge; in places it seemed torn up by shells; it disappeared in the violet dusk. But as I looked a vision came.
The bridge is restored, the road mended and built up, and on that highway rides the King in his faded uniform with the Queen in white beside him. At their approach ruined villages rejoice aloud and ancient towns break forth into singing.
In Bruges the royal comrades stand beside the gigantic monument in the centre of the Great Market, and above the shouting of the multitude the music of the old belfry floats unheard. Ghent and Antwerp have put on their glad raiment, and in their crooked streets and crowded squares joy flows like a river surging as it goes. Into Brussels I see this man and woman ride through a welcome that rises around them like the voice of many waters--the welcome of those who have waited and suffered, the welcome of those to whom liberty and honor were more dear than life. In the _Grande Place,_ the antique, carven, gabled houses are gay with fluttering banners; the people delivered from the cruel invader sing lustily the _Marseillaise_ and the old songs of Belgium.
In the midst, Albert and Elizabeth sit quietly upon their horses. They have come home. Not by the low road of cowardly surrender; not by the crooked road of compromise and falsehood; not by the soft road of ease and self-indulgence; but by the straight road of faith and courage and self-sacrifice--the King's High Way.
Return to the Henry van Dyke library , or . . . Read the next short story; The King's Jewel