ON THE TOW-PATH
When 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 kindly:
"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
"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.
"Sh-h-h! You mustn't talk so loud," whispered Mother De Smet.
"You roar like a foghorn on a dark night. The Germans won't have
any trouble in finding out about the potatoes if you shout the
news all over the landscape."
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
"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
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
"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-
"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.