Joseph and his father were both on the tow-path when at last
Netteke decided to move. As she set her ears forward and took the
first step, Father De Smet heaved a sigh of relief.
"Now, why couldn't you have done that long ago, you addlepated
old fool," he said mildly to Netteke. "You have made no end of
trouble for us, and gained nothing for yourself! Now I am afraid
we shan't get beyond the German lines before dark. We may even
have to spend the night in dangerous territory, and all because
you're just as mulish as, as a mule," he finished helplessly.
Joseph laughed. "Can't you think of anything mulisher than a
mule?" he said.
"There isn't a thing," answered his father.
"Well," answered Joseph, "there are a whole lot of other things
beside balky mules in this world that I wish had never been made.
There are spiders, and rats, and Germans. They are all pests. I
don't see why they were ever born."
Father De Smet became serious at once.
"Son," he said sternly, "don't ever let me hear you say such a
thing again. There are spiders, and rats, and balky mules, and
Germans, and it doesn't do a bit of good to waste words fussing
because they are here. The thing to do is to deal with them!"
Father De Smet was so much in earnest that he boomed these words
out in quite a loud voice. Joseph seized his hand.
"Hush!" he whispered.
Father De Smet looked up. There, standing right in front of them
in the tow-path, was a German soldier!
"Halt!" shouted the soldier.
But Netteke was now just as much bent upon going as she had been
before upon standing still. She paid no attention whatever to the
command, but walked stolidly along the tow-path directly toward
"Halt!" cried the soldier again.
But Netteke had had no military training, and she simply kept on.
In one more step she would have come down upon the soldier's
toes, if he had not moved aside just in time. He was very angry.
"Why didn't you stop your miserable old mule when I told you to?"
he said to Father De Smet.
"It's a balky mule," replied Father De Smet mildly, "and very
"Indeed!" sneered the soldier; "then, I suppose you have named
him Albert after your pig-headed King!"
"No," answered Father De Smet, "I think too much of my King to
name my mule after him."
"Oh, ho!" said the German; "then perhaps you have named him for
Netteke had marched steadily along during this conversation, and
they were now past the soldier.
"No," Father De Smet called back, "I didn't name her after the
Kaiser. I think too much of my mule!"
The soldier shook his fist after them. "I'll make you pay well
for your impudence!" he shouted. "You and I will meet again!"
"Very likely," muttered Father De Smet under his breath. He was
now more than ever anxious to get beyond the German lines before
dark, but as the afternoon passed it became certain that they
would not be able to do it. The shadows grew longer and longer as
Netteke plodded slowly along, and at last Mother De Smet called
to her husband over the boatside.
"I think we shall have to stop soon and feed the mule or she will
be too tired to get us across the line at all. I believe we
should save time by stopping for supper. Besides, I want to send
over there," she pointed to a farmhouse not a great distance
from the river, "and get some milk and eggs."
"Very well," said her husband; "we'll stop under that bunch of
The bunch of willows beside the river which he pointed out proved
to be a pleasant, sheltered spot, with grassy banks sloping down
to the water. A turn in the river enabled them to draw the "Old
Woman" up into their shadows, and because the trees were green
and the boat was green, the reflections in the water were also
green, and for this reason the boat seemed very well hidden from
"I don't believe we shall be noticed here," said Father De Smet.
"It's hot on the boat. It would be nice to take the babies ashore
while we eat," said Mother De Smet, running out the gangplank. "I
believe we'll have supper on the grass. You hurry along and get
the milk and eggs, and I'll cook some onions while you are gone."
Jan and Marie ran over the plank at once, and Mother De Smet soon
followed with the babies. Then, while Marie watched them, she and
Jan brought out the onions and a pan, and soon the air was heavy
with the smell of frying onions. Joseph and Jan slipped the
bridle over Netteke's collar and allowed her to eat the rich
green grass at the river's edge. When Father De Smet returned,
supper was nearly ready. He sniffed appreciatively as he appeared
under the trees.
"Smells good," he said as he held out the milk and eggs toward
"Sie haben recht!" (You are right!), said a loud voice right
Father De Smet was so startled that he dropped the eggs. He
whirled about, and there stood the German soldier who had told
Netteke to halt. With him were six other men.
"Ha! I told you we should meet again!" shouted the soldier to
Father De Smet. "And it was certainly thoughtful of you to
provide for our entertainment. Comrades, fall to!"
The onions were still cooking over a little blaze of twigs aid
dry leaves, but Mother De Smet was no longer tending them. The
instant she heard the gruff voice she had dropped her spoon, and,
seizing a baby under each arm, had fled up the gangplank on to
the boat. Marie followed at top speed. Father De Smet faced the
"What do you want here?" he said.
"Some supper first," said the soldier gayly, helping himself to
some onions and passing the pan to his friends. "Then, perhaps, a
few supplies for our brave army. There is no hurry. After supper
will do; but first we'll drink a health to the Kaiser, and since
you are host here, you shall propose it!"
He pointed to the pail of milk which Father De Smet still held.
"Now," he shouted, "lift your stein and say, 'Hoch der Kaiser.'"
Father De Smet looked them in the face and said not a word.
Meanwhile Jan and Joseph, to Mother De Smet's great alarm, had
not followed her, on to the boat. Instead they had flown to
Netteke, who was partly hidden from the group by a bunch of young
willows near the water's edge, and with great speed and presence
of mind had slipped her bridle over her head and gently started
her up the tow-path.
"Oh," murmured Joseph, "suppose she should balk!" But Netteke had
done her balking for the day, and, having been refreshed by her
luncheon of green grass, she was ready to move on. The. river had
now quite a current, which helped them, and while the soldiers
were still having their joke with Father De Smet the boat moved
quietly out of sight. As she felt it move, Mother De Smet lifted
her head over the boat's rail behind which she and the children
were hiding, and raised the end of the gangplank so that it would
make no noise by scraping along the ground. She was beside
herself with anxiety. If she screamed or said anything to the
boys, the attention of the soldiers would immediately be directed
toward them. Yet if they should by any miracle succeed in getting
away, there was her husband left alone to face seven enemies. She
wrung her hands.
"Maybe they will stop to eat the onions," she groaned to herself.
She held to the gangplank and murmured prayers to all the saints
she knew, while Jan and Joseph trotted briskly along the tow-
path, and Netteke, assisted by the current, made better speed
than she had at any time during the day.
Meanwhile his captors were busy with Father De Smet. "Come! Drink
to the Kaiser!" shouted the first soldier, "or we'll feed you to
the fishes! We want our supper, and you delay us." Still Father
De Smet said nothing. "We'll give you just until I count ten,"
said the soldier, pointing his gun at him, "and if by that time
you have not found your tongue"
But he did not finish the sentence. From an unexpected quarter a
shot rang out. It struck the pail of milk and dashed it over the
German and over Father De Smet too. Another shot followed, and
the right arm of the soldier fell helpless to his side. One of
his companions gave a howl and fell to the ground. Still no one
appeared at whom the Germans could direct their fire. "Snipers!"
shouted the soldiers, instantly lowering their guns, but before
they could even fire in the direction of the unseen enemy, there
was such a patter of bullets about them that they turned and
Father De Smet fled, too. He leaped over the frying-pan and tore
down the river-bank after the boat. As he overtook it, Mother De
Smet ran out the gang. plank. "Boys!" shouted Father De Smet.
"Get aboard! Get aboard!" Joseph and Jan instantly stopped the
mule and, dropping the reins, raced up the gangplank, almost
before the end of it rested safely on the ground. Father De Smet
snatched up the reins. On went the boat at Netteke's best speed,
which seemed no better than a snail's pace to the fleeing family.
Sounds of the skirmish continued to reach their ears, even when
they had gone some distance down the river, and it was not until
twilight had deepened into dusk, and they were hidden in its
shadows, that they dared hope the danger was passed. It was after
ten o'clock at night when the "Old Woman" at last approached the
twinkling lights of Antwerp, and they knew that, for the time
being at least, they were safe.
They wore now beyond the German lines in country still held by
the Belgians. Here, in a suburb of the city, Father De Smet
decided to dock for the night. A distant clock struck eleven as
the hungry but thankful family gathered upon the deck of the "Old
Woman" to eat a meager supper of bread and cheese with only the
moon to light their repast. Not until they had finished did
Father De Smet tell them all that had happened to him during the
few terrible moments when he was in the hands of the enemy.
"They overreached themselves," he said. "They meant to amuse
themselves by prolonging my misery, and they lingered just a bit
too long." He turned to Jan and Joseph. "You were brave boys! If
you had not started the boat when you did, it is quite likely
they might have got me, after all, and the potatoes too. I am
proud of you."
"But, Father," cried Joseph, "who could have fired those shots?
We didn't see a soul."
"Neither did I," answered his father; "and neither did the
Germans for that matter. There was no one in sight."
"Oh," cried Mother De Smet, "it was as if the good God himself
intervened to save you!"
"As I figure it out," said Father De Smet, "we must have stopped
very near the trenches, and our own men must have seen the
Germans attack us. My German friend had evidently been following
us up, meaning to get everything we had and me too. But the smell
of the onions was too much for him! If he hadn't been greedy, he
might have carried out his plan, but he wanted our potatoes and
our supper too; and so he got neither!" he chuckled. "And neither
did the Kaiser get a toast from me! Instead, he got a salute from
the Belgians." He crossed himself reverently. "Thank God for our
soldiers," he said, and Mother De Smet, weeping softly, murmured
a devout "Amen."
Little did Jan and Marie dream as they listened, that this
blessing rested upon their own father, and that he had been one
of the Belgian soldiers, who, firing from the trenches, had
delivered them from the hands of their enemies. Their father,
hidden away, in the earth like a fox, as little dreamed that he
had helped to save his own children from a terrible fate.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics