Antwerp Road (short story – Henry van Dyke)

from Henry van Dyke, Valley of Vision (1919, p. 17-35)


[OCTOBER, 1914]

A.LONG the straight, glistening road, through a dim arcade of drooping trees, a tunnel of faded  green and gold, dripping with the misty rain of a  late October afternoon, a human tide was flowing,  not swiftly, but slowly, with the patient, pathetic  slowness of weary feet, and numb brains, and heavy  hearts.

Yet they were in haste, all of these old men and women, fathers and mothers, and little children; they were flying as fast as they could; either away from something that they feared, or toward something that they desired. That was the strange thing the tide on the road flowed in two directions.

Some fled away from ruined homes to escape the perils of war. Some fled back to ruined homes to escape the desolation of exile. But all were fugitives, anxious to be gone, striving along the road one way or the other, and making no more speed than a creeping snail’s pace of unutterable fatigue. I saw many separate things in the tide, and remembered them without noting.

A boy straining to push a wheelbarrow with his pale mother in it, and his two little sisters trudging at his side. A peasant with his two girls driving their lean, dejected cows back to some unknown pasture. A bony horse tugging at a wagon heaped high with bedding and household gear, on top of which sat the wrinkled grandmother with the tiniest baby in her arms, while the rest of the family stumbled alongside and the cat was curled up on the softest coverlet in the wagon. Two panting dogs, with red tongues hanging out, and splayed feet clawing the road, tugging a heavy-laden cart while the master pushed behind and the woman pulled in the shafts. Strange, antique vehicles crammed with passengers. Couples and groups and sometimes larger companies of foot-travellers. Now and then a solitary man or woman, old and shabby, bundle on back, eyes on the road, plodding through the mud and the mist, under the high archway of yellowing leaves.

All these distinct pictures I saw, yet it was all one vision a vision of humanity with its dumb companions in flight infinitely slow, painful, pitiful flight !

I saw no tears, I heard no cries of complaint. But beneath the numb and patient haste on all those dazed faces I saw a question.”What have we done? Why has this thing come upon us and our children?”

Somewhere I heard a trumpet blown. The brazen spikes on the helmets of a little troop of German soldiers flashed for an instant, far down the sloppy road. Through the humid dusk came the dull, distant booming of the unseen guns of conquest in Flanders.That was the only answer. In the dark autumn of 1914 the City sprang up  almost in a night, as if by enchantment.

It was white magic that called it into being the deep, quiet, strong impulse of compassion and protection that moved the motherly heart of Holland when she saw the hundreds of thousands of Belgian fugitives pouring out of their bleeding, ravaged land, and running, stumbling, creeping on hands and knees, blindly, instinctively turning to her for safety and help.

“Come to me,” she said, like a good woman who holds out her arms and spreads her knees to make a lap for tired and frightened children, “come to me. I will take care of you. You shall be safe with me.”

All doors were open. The little brick farmhouses and cottages with their gayly painted window-shutters; the long rows of city houses with their steep gables; the prim and placid country mansions set among their high trees and formal flower-gardens all kinds of dwellings, from the poorest to the richest, welcomed these guests of sorrow and distress. Many a humble family drained its savings-bank reservoir to keep the stream of its hospitality flowing. Unused factories were turned into barracks. Deserted summer hotels were filled up. Even empty greenhouses were adapted to the need of human horticulture. All Holland was enrolled, formally or informally, in a big Comité voor Belgische Slachtoffers.

But soon it was evident that the impromptu methods of generosity could not meet the demands of the case. Private resources were exhausted. Poor people could no longer feed and clothe their poorer guests. Families were unhappily divided. In the huge flock of exiles driven out by the cruel German Terror there were goats as well as sheep, and some of them bewildered and shocked the orderly Dutch homes where they were sheltered, by their nocturnal habits and negligible morals. Something had to be done to bring order and system into the chaos of brotherly love. Otherwise the neat Dutch mind which is so close to the Dutch heart could not rest in its bed. This vast trouble which  the evil of German militarism had thrust upon a helpless folk must be helped out by a wise touch of military organization, which is a good thing even for the most peaceful people.

So it was that the City of Refuge (and others like it) grew up swiftly in the wilderness. It stands in the heathland that slopes and rolls from the wooded hills of Gelderland to the southern shore of the Zuider Zee a sandy country overgrown with scrub-oaks and pines and heather yet very healthy and well drained, and not unfertile under cultivation. You may see that in the little neighbor-village, where the trees arch over the streets, and the kitchen-gardens prosper, and the shrubs and flowers bloom abundantly.

The small houses and hotels of this tiny summer resort are of brick. It has an old, well-established look; a place of relaxation with restraint, not of ungirdled frivolity. The plain Dutch people love their holidays, but they take them serenely and by rule: long walks and bicycle-rides, placid and nourishing picnics in the woods or by the sea, afternoon tea-parties in sheltered arbors. One of their favorite names for a country-place is Wel Tevreden, “perfectly contented.” The commandant of the City of Refuge lives in  one of the little brick houses of the village. He is a portly, rosy old bachelor, with a curly brown beard and a military bearing; a man of fine education and wide experience, seasoned in colonial diplomacy. The ruling idea in his mind is discipline, authority. His official speech is abrupt and final, the manner of a martinet covering a heart full of kindness and generous impulses.

“Come,” he says, after a good breakfast, “I want you to see my camp. It is not as fine and fancy as the later ones. But we built it in a hurry and we had it ready on time.”A short ride over a sandy road brings you to the city gate an opening in the wire enclosure of perhaps two or three square miles among the dwarf pines and oaks. The guard-house is kept by a squad of Dutch soldiers. But it is in no sense a prison-camp, for people are coming and going freely all the time, and the only rules within are those of decency and good order.

” Capacity, ten thousand,” says the commandant,sweeping his hand around the open circle, “quite a city, niet waarf I will show you the various arrangements.”All the buildings are of wood, a mushroom city, but constructed with intelligence to meet the needs of the sudden, helpless population. You visit the big kitchen with its ever-simmering kettles; the dining-halls with their long tables and benches; the schoolhouses full of lively, irrepressible children; the wash-house where always talkative and jocose laundresses are scrubbing and wringing the clothes; the sewing-rooms where hundreds of women and girls are busy with garments and gossip; the chapel where religious services are held by the devoted pastors; the recreation-room which is the social centre of the city; the clothing storerooms where you find several American girls working for love. Then you go through the long family barracks where each family has a separate cubicle, more or less neat and comfortable, sometimes prettily decorated, according to the family taste and habit; the barracks for the single men; the barracks for the single women; the two hospitals, one general, the other for infectious diseases; and last of all, the house where the half-dozen disorderly women are confined, surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire and guarded by a sentry.

Poor, wretched creatures ! You are sorry for them. Why not put the disorderly men into a house of confinement, too?

“Ah,” says the commandant bluntly, “we find it easier and better to send the disorderly men to jail or hospital in some near town. We are easier with the women. I pity them. But they are full of poison. We can’t let them go loose in the camp for fear of infection.”

How many of the roots of human nature are uncovered in a place like this ! The branches and the foliage and the blossoms, too, are seen more clearly in this air where all things are necessarily open and in common.

The men are generally less industrious than the women. But they work willingly at the grading of roads and paths, the laying out and planting of flower-beds, the construction of ornamental designs, of doubtful taste but unquestionable sincerity. You read the names which they have given to  the different streets and barracks, and the passageways between the cubicles, and you understand the  strong, instinctive love which binds them to their  native Belgium. “Antwerp Avenue,” “Louvain Avenue,” “Malines Street,” “Liege Street,” and streets bearing the names of many ruined towns and villages of which you have never heard, but which are forever dear to the hearts of these exiles.

The names of the hero-king, Albert, and of his brave consort, Queen Elizabeth, are honored by inscriptions, and their pictures, cut from news-papers, decorate the schoolrooms and the little family cubicles.

The brutal power which reigns at Berlin may drive the Belgians out of Belgium by terror and oppression. But it cannot drive Belgium out of the hearts of the Belgians. While they live their country lives, and Albert is still their King.

But think of the unnatural conditions into which these thousands of human beings yes, and hundreds of thousands like them, torn from their homes, uprooted, dispersed, impoverished are forced by this bitter, cruel war. Think of the cold and ruined hearthstones, the scattered families, the shelterless children, the desolate and broken hearts. This is what Germany has inflicted upon mankind in order to realize her robber-dream ! Yet the City of Refuge, being human, has its bright spots and its bits of compensation.

Here is one, out of many.

The chief nurse, a young Dutch lady of charming face and manners, serving as a volunteer under the sacred sign of the Red Cross, comes in, one morning, to make her report to the commandant. “Well,” he says, disguising in his big voice of  command the warm admiration which he feels for the lady, “what is the trouble to-day? Speak up.””Nothing, sir,” she answers calmly. “Everything is going on pretty well. No new cases of measles those in hospital improving. The only thing that bothers me is the continual complaint about that Mrs. Van Orley you remember her, a thin, dark little person. She is melancholy and morose, quarrels all the time, says some one has stolen her children. The people near her in the barracks complain that she disturbs them at night, moans and talks aloud in her sleep, jumps up and runs down the corridor laughing or crying: ‘Here they are!’ They don’t believe she ever had any children. They think she is crazy and want her put out. But I don’t agree with that. I think she has had children, and now she has dreams.”

“Send her away,” growls the commandant ; “send her to a sanatorium! This camp is not a lunatic asylum.”

“But,” interposes the nurse in her most discreet voice, “she is really a very nice woman. If you would allow me to take her on as a housemaid in the general hospital, I think I could make something out of her; at least I should like to try.”

“Have your own way,” says the commandant, relenting; “you always do. Now tell me the next trouble. You have something more up your sleeve, I’m sure.”

“Babies,” she replies demurely; “two babies from Amsterdam. Lost, somehow or other, in the flight. No trace of their people. A. family in Zaandam has been taking care of them, but can’t afford it any longer. So the Amsterdam committee has sent them here.”

The commandant has listened, his cheeks growing redder and redder, his eyes rounder and more prominent. He springs up and paces the floor in wrath.

“Babies!” he cries stormily. “By all the gods, da those Amsterdammers ! Excuse me, but this is too much. Do they think this is a foundling asylum? or a nursing home? Babies! What in Heaven’s name am I to do with them? Babies! Where are those babies?”

“Just outside, and very nice babies indeed,” says the nurse, opening the hall door and giving a soft call.

Enter a slim black-haired boy of about three and a half years and a plump golden-haired girl about a year younger. They toddle to the nurse and snuggle against her blue dress and white apron.

Smiling she guides them toward the commandant and says: “Here they are, sir. How do you like them?”

That terrific personage has been suddenly transformed from haircloth into silk. He beams, and pulling out his fat gold watch, coos like a hoarse dove: “Look here, kinderen, come and hear the bells in my tick-tock ! ”

Presently he has one of them leaning against the inside of each knee, listening ardently to the watch.

“What do you think of that !” he says. “What is your name, youngster ? ”

“Hendrik,” answers the boy, looking up.

“Hendrik what? You have another name, haven’t you ? ”

The boy shakes his head and looks puzzled, as if the thought of two names were too much for him. “Hendrik,” he repeats more clearly and firmly.

“And what is her name?” asks the commandant, patting the little girl.

“Sooss,” answers the boy. “Mama say ‘ icicle angel.’ Hendrik say Sooss.” [ prob. “sooss” = “zus” (= sister, also used as a name) DW]

All effort to get any more information from the children was fruitless. They were too small to remember much, and what they did remember was of their own size only very little things, of no importance except to themselves. The commandant
looks at the nurse quizzically.

“Now, miss, you have unloaded these vague babies on me. What do you propose that I should do with them ? Adopt them ? ”

“Not yet, anyhow,” she answers, smiling broadly. “Let us take them up to the camp. I’ll bet we can find some one there to look after them. What do you say, sir?”

“Well, well,” he sighs, “have your own way as usual ! Just ring that bell for the automobile, als’t-blieft

In the busy sewing-room the two children are standing up on one of the tables. The commandant has an arm around each of them, for they are a little frightened by so much noise and so many eyes looking at them. The chatter dies down, as he speaks in his gruff authoritative voice, but with a twinkle in his eyes, rather like a middle-aged Santa Claus.

“Look here ! I’ve got two fine babies.”

A titter runs through the room.

“Ja, Men’eer,” says one of the women, “congratulations ! They are lievelingen darlings ! ”

“Silence!” growls the commandant amiably. “None of your impudence, you women. Look here ! These two children I want somebody to adopt them, or at least to take care of them. I will pay for them. Their names are Hendrik and ”

A commotion at the lower end of the room. A thin, dark little woman is standing up, waving her piece of sewing like a flag, her big eyes flaming with excitement.

“Stop!” she cries, hurrying and stumbling forward through the crowd of women and girls. “Oh, stop a minute ! They are mine I lost them mine, I tell you lost mine!”

She reaches the head of the table and flings her arms around the boy, crying: “My Hendrik !” The boy hesitates a second, startled by the sudden wildness of her caress. Then he presses his hot little face in her neck.

“Lieve moeder !” he murmurs. “Where was you? I looked.”

But the thin, dark little woman has fainted dead away.

The rest we will leave, as the wise commandant does, to the chief nurse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *