After the Belgian soldier had marched away with Pierrot, hard times fell upon the little dairy farm of the Van Huyks. Soon the Germans came and drove off their one heifer, and there was no more milk or butter for them. They also took all of the wheat and most of the rye that was in the barn. There was still a little wheat in the field that Gran’père had not had time to bring in. They all turned out and gleaned every grain of this and Mère Marie hid it under the floor of the house together with what little had been left in the barn. All of their chickens were taken, too, and there was not much left for them to eat. The Germans were not rough with them and gave them a paper in payment for the things they had taken, but this would not buy food.
Mère Marie, fearing the German soldiers, kept Henri and Lisa closely indoors, and she herself seldom went far from home. Only old Gran’père went out and got the news and came back walking very proudly but with never anything good to tell. The Germans were still pressing on, but Gran’père did not despair. The Belgians had fought bravely, as Belgians should, and they would be delivered out of the hands of the despoiler. But Mère Marie was less hopeful. She very seldom got any sort of news of Père Jean, and so many women were mourning their dead that she became very sad and frightened, especially after she learned that Joseph Verbeeck had been killed by a bursting shell. She also heard other things from the lips of her panic-stricken neighbours which made her shudder and draw wee Lisa very close.
Again the Germans came a few weeks later and searched the house and outbuildings for anything they might find useful. They did not discover Mère Marie’s little hoard, and one of the soldiers, who seemed to be an officer, became very angry and talked very loud, though they could not understand him. When he went out to the barn he broke down the door with his foot, though Henri would have shown him how to open it.
But one of the soldiers was not so unkind. He stood apart, seeming to be standing guard at the door, and when the officer swore he appeared not to approve, though he said nothing. He was a young Bavarian, with a round, smooth-shaven face and eyes very far apart, and with the heavy red hands of a peasant. Something about him attracted little Lisa, and when Mère Marie was occupied with the other soldiers the child slipped out unnoticed and went up to him.
Nobody had ever had occasion to instruct wee Lisa as to the iniquity of staring, and she stood now with frankly curious eyes gazing full on the soldier’s broad face. He looked almost like an overgrown toy as he stood there so straight with his heels close together and his round red face appearing so abruptly above his gray coat with its shiny rows of brass buttons. She hesitated to break the spell that seemed to have turned this ruddy man into a wooden image, but the soldier could not long withstand her intent scrutiny and gradually his face relaxed into a smile.
It was a very pleasant smile and it gave Lisa a warm feeling inside. It suddenly occurred to her that this was the first genuine, unforced smile she had seen for some time. Surely these German soldiers weren’t such terrible monsters, after all. Indeed, one could easily learn to like this one.
Of course wee Lisa was not old enough to know that if all Germans were Bavarian peasants, and all Russians were Polish moujiks, there would be no war at all.
Gran’père had complained sometimes of being stiff in the joints, and Lisa wondered if this soldier might not be suffering from an acute attack of this affliction. She did not know just how to put her question, so she asked, in Flemish, “Do you bend?”
Lisa had a sweet little voice for one pitched in so high a key, and it made the soldier smile more broadly. He shook his head and uttered some extraordinarily gruff words that meant nothing to Lisa. She was satisfied that he did not bend, though somewhat reassured by the apparent mobility of his neck.
Her eye was attracted by a slight movement of his right hand, which hung by his side, and going quickly over to him she raised it and discovered that his arm, at least, was quite properly hung from the shoulder. Whereat the soldier laughed aloud, but checked himself very suddenly as his comrades and the officer appeared from around the house. Then Lisa heard her mother calling her, and hastened in.
After a final inspection of the house the officer called to the soldier in front and they all started off across the fields toward Madame Verbeeck’s house. As they passed the kitchen window bold little Lisa thrust her head out, and the Bavarian soldier brushed his lips across the top of her yellow head so quickly that no one saw, not even the vigilant officer nor anxious Mère Marie. Lisa called a shrill good-bye after him and waved her hand, but he marched straight ahead with the others without turning back. Perhaps he heard, though.
After the soldiers had failed to find the grain under the floor, Mère Marie felt quite safe, but she began to be worried about the small quantity. No one seemed to know how long the war would last. One said three years; another believed the English would be over in a few weeks, and then the Germans would go flying back home; others declared that, whatever happened, Belgium was doomed, and the sooner the poor people left the country the better.
Mère Marie did not know whom to believe, but she decided that it would be only prudent to husband her little store of grain so that it would last all winter. She estimated the amount on hand, and also the late cabbages and turnips and everything else she could count on for food, and divided the whole by the number of winter days. When she discovered how little that allowed for each day, with nothing extra for Sundays, she began to be frightened. She consulted Gran’père, and he agreed that they should restrict themselves to short rations.
Mère Marie explained this to the children as best she could, but little Lisa did not understand very well. So when she discovered how very little she might have to eat, even when she was most hungry, she would cry sometimes. But Henri, who was nearly nine years old now and had been learning much about the doctrine of courage from Gran’père, bore the deprivation without complaint and even shared his last few morsels with Lisa.
It would seem as though the Van Huyks had suffered enough for one family, but when you remember all the poor Belgian families that had been left starving or had been broken up or sent fleeing to strange lands or wiped out altogether, when you recall what happened about Aershot and Louvain, you will see that the Van Huyks still had something to be thankful for even when the worst came. For they were still all alive and well; even Père Jean had not yet been reported among the dead or missing; while all Belgium was lying prostrate beneath a load of want and sorrow and horrible dread. For war is cruel and winter is cruel, and the poor folk of Flanders and Brabant were without hope.
Late in October there came a banging of rifle-butts on the door and again a group of soldiers in green-blue overcoats invaded the little tile-roofed cottage on the Waterloo Road. They had been drinking and were very rude and boisterous. They ransacked the premises and cursed because they found so little. One of them struck old Gran’père across the face with the back of his hand and another seized Mère Marie and, in spite of her struggles, kissed her on the cheek. Worse things might have befallen them had not one of the soldiers, angered at the lack of loot, set fire to the house and the barn.
As the flames started up, brisk and crackling, the soldiers seemed to become suddenly sobered and alarmed. Perhaps they were not allowed to do such things. At any rate, they set off up the road, leaving the little homestead blazing behind them.
Mère Marie and Gran’père saved what they could of their humble belongings, the former working in a frenzy of grief, with the tears rolling down her cheeks, while Gran’père’s mild features were distorted by a look of defiant hatred. Out in the garden Henri and Lisa stood hand in hand, gazing in silent awe upon the terrible spectacle.
That night they slept under Madame Verbeeck’s roof, but she could not keep them; she was afraid to. So the next morning they started back, sad and despairing, to the smoking ruins of their home.
Out of such boards and tiles as he could find, Gran’père, with Henri’s help, built a little one-room shack near where the barn had been, while Mère Marie sought among the ruins for whatever of value might have been spared. Some bedding they had rescued, and Mère Marie found some pots and pans and a few other things that could be used. Her iron cook stove, too, though cracked, still hung together. But the hoarded grain and vegetables, alas! were burned and ruined; there was scarcely a bushel left that was fit for food.
Gran’père set up the stove in the shack and built a rude table and benches and bunks. He had a stout heart in his old breast, Gran’père had, and though he didn’t talk much he kept Mère Marie from breaking down. Then they all set to work gathering dried grass and weeds for their beds, and by nightfall their poor little home was furnished.
A few days later they heard again the tramp of marching feet on the road, and from their doorway watched a company of German soldiers file past. Mère Marie was not afraid of them now; it seemed to her that they had done their worst. Gran’père stood very erect and grim and silent, but wee Lisa suddenly ran out with a glad little cry, waving her arms. In the company she had recognized her Bavarian friend. He turned his head for a moment, but his face was expressionless, and he did not leave the ranks. So Lisa wept with disappointment.
But next day he came, quietly, after sundown. He was alone and he knocked softly before entering the shack. Without speaking he laid a half loaf of rye bread on the table and a small piece of bacon. Gran’père looked very proud and angry and was all for throwing them in his face, but Lisa ran up to him joyfully, and he smiled a little as he patted her head, so Gran’père allowed the food to remain. Then the soldier looked at Mère Marie with a very sad and tender expression in his eyes and strode away in the darkness.
“He has little ones of his own,” said Mère Marie.
Before long the weather grew very cold. Gran’père mended a spade and banked up the shack on all sides and put sods on the roof. There was plenty of fuel among the charred ruins of the house and outbuildings, so that they were able to keep fairly comfortable inside the shack, but all their warm winter clothing had been burned and they suffered from cold whenever they went out. Their shoes, too, were getting thin and worn, and all but one pair of Gran’père’s sabots had been burned.
Worst of all, there was little or nothing to do, and they had all been so industrious. This was bad for Mère Marie especially, and she took to brooding beside the stove and thinking of Père Jean and all the happy days gone by.
As the winter drew on and the snow came their life developed into a mere desperate struggle against hunger and cold. Several times Lisa’s Bavarian friend came stealthily and brought food, but they never knew what the next day might have in store for them. Many of their neighbours had fled, but Gran’père insisted on staying on their land, and indeed they knew of no place whither they might fly.
One day the young Bavarian came very hurriedly and threw a sack of bread upon the table. He could not explain where he had got it; perhaps he had stolen it. But he made them understand that he was ordered away to the west and could not come any more. They were all sad and troubled. Then the soldier picked up little Lisa and kissed her long and tenderly, and shook hands with the rest. Even Gran’père did not refuse him.
“Adieu,” said Mère Marie, “and God bless you!”
“Adieu,” said the soldier in queer-sounding French, and when he went out there were tears in the honest blue eyes.
“He has little ones at home,” said Mère Marie again. “I hope he will get back to them.”
Mère Marie took the bread and hid it and estimated the smallest amount that would keep body and soul together each day. Then they all sat down and waited. There was nothing else to do.