|The Christmas Porringer|
|by Evaleen Stein|
|An earthenware porringer, bought by a little Flemish girl of Bruges as a gift for the Christ child and stolen by Robber Hans, finally brings much happiness to her and her grandmother, the lace maker. Ages 6-9 |
ROBBER HANS AND THE PORRINGER
HE next morning Hans thrust in his pocket the silver
cup and the porringer, which he took pains not to look
at again, and went out to find the dealer to whom he
might sell them.
He threaded his way through the narrow, crooked
streets till by and by he came to a rickety
wooden house standing behind some tall old warehouses
that fronted on a canal. These had
 once been piled high with rich stuffs in the great days
of Bruges, but now they were deserted and falling into
Hans, after looking cautiously about him, quickly
approached the rickety house and knocked in an odd way,
which was his signal, so that the dealer within would
know it was not one of the officers of the city come to
arrest him. For, of course, it was against the law to
buy stolen goods; though the laws then in Bruges were
not so well looked after as they should have been. And
so the dishonest trade within the old house had been
carried on for some time undisturbed.
As Hans now entered the heavy wooden door, which he
 quickly closed and barred behind him, he found himself
in a dimly lighted room where the brown rafters showed
hung thick with cobwebs. This was the place known to
him and his kind as the "thieves' market." Around
the walls were a number of shelves and on these were
arranged all manner of things; some of them costly and
others of little value, but all stolen from one place
or another; for this was a favorite spot for evil-doers
to dispose of their plunder.
As Hans strode to the middle of the room and stood
before a narrow counter that divided it, a little old
man, who was busy sorting some wares behind a pile of
boxes, turned around with "Good
 day, Robber Hans! And what hast thou brought to
Father Deaf-and-Blind?" For so the little old man, with
his cunning eyes and hard, wicked face, was called by
those who dealt with him; because he always pretended
that he neither saw nor heard that the things they
brought to sell had been stolen from their rightful
But Hans was in no mood for talk as sullenly he drew
from his pocket the silver cup and without a word
placed it on the counter.
"Ah!" cried the little old man, greedily seizing the
cup and looking closely at it. "This mark must come
off; yes, and this coat-of-arms! Hm, 'twill be some
trouble to do that skillfully!" And
 then turning it round again and considering the
coat-of-arms, "Let me see," he went on inquiringly,
still looking at it. "There! now
I have it! 'Tis the mark of the Groene family. Have
they 'presented' this to thee lately, or is it one of
the 'gifts' of last month, when several families were
so generous to thee, eh?"
This pretending that they were presents was the usual
way in which Father Deaf-and-Blind asked about stolen
goods; and as now he chuckled and fixed his shrewd eyes
upon Hans, the latter muttered a low reply, and, after
some chaffering, the old man took a bag from an iron
box under the counter and counted out a sum of silver,
which Hans swept into
 his pocket. Then he took out the porringer and set it
beside the cup.
"Ho," said the old man contemptuously, "I'll warrant
such peasant gear was never sheltered under the same
roof as this silver cup!" For in the stately old homes
of Bruges, such as that of the Groene family, where
things had been handed down from generation to
generation, even the pots and pans in the kitchens
were of fine and costly workmanship. And the moment he
looked at it, Father Deaf-and-Blind knew very well that
the little earthenware porringer had been made by
peasant folk for the use of humble people like
And so the old dealer, giving
 it another brief glance, added: "Thou must have picked
up that while paying a visit to the children's
God's-House!" For so the people of Bruges called the
almshouse where the homeless children of the poor were
sheltered and cared for.
Hans had turned away his eyes when he set the
porringer down, for he did not want to see it again and
have the old memories come back to haunt him. But now,
before he knew what he was doing, he looked down in
the bowl, straight into the face of the little girl;
and immediately it became the face of Emschen, and her
eyes looked up so mournfully into the eyes of Robber
Hans, and the little smile on her lips
 was so sad it was as if her heart was breaking! And
Hans, turning very white, scarcely knew what he did as
he put out his hand tremblingly and carefully lifted
the porringer from the counter.
"Hold!" cried Father Deaf-and-Blind, who was
surprised at Hans' action, and who really thought the
porringer a quaint and pretty bit of earthenware,
" 'tis not so bad for some burgher customer. I will give
five sous for it."
But Hans had already replaced the porringer in his
pocket, and without another word he turned, and going
straight to the door, he unbarred it and went out.
As the old man swiftly crossed
 the room to refasten the door, he muttered to himself,
"I wonder what ails friend Hans this morning? He
is as cross as a fishwife when the catch is bad, and he
acts as if he had been robbed of his wits or else left
them behind in his miserable hut!" And then he went
back to the counter and began to weigh the silver cup
and consider how he could best smooth away the
As for Robber Hans, when again he found himself
walking the snowy streets, he walked as one in a dream.
It was no use trying to avoid it; the sad little face
of Emschen seemed to hover before his eyes wherever he
turned; and another thing, of which he had not
 began to trouble him. Old Father Deaf-and-Blind's
chance speech about the children's God's-House had
reminded him that the porringer he had stolen must have
belonged to some poor child and, for the first time in
a great many years, Hans really began to feel ashamed
of himself. He tried again to remember just where he
had picked up the porringer; and though it had not
occurred to him at the time he took it, now he said to
himself: "Why was it outside on the doorstep? 'Twas
a queer place to find it!"
Hans wished with all his heart that he had let it stay
there, since it was making him so uncomfortable and
seemed so impossible to
 get rid of, or even to get it out of his thoughts! For
still his mind went on puzzling to account for the
porringer having been on the doorstep. Finally,
however, he decided that as it was on the night before
Christmas that he had taken it, probably it was a gift
that some friend had brought for a child who must live
in the little yellow house; and perhaps no one had been
at home to open the door, and so the porringer had been
left on the step.
Having explained it to himself in this way, for the
first time such an idea had troubled him since he had
become a robber, the feeling came to him that he ought
to take it back where it belonged—it seemed so shameful
to rob a
 child, and a poor child at that! But, he thought, he
could not take it back in broad daylight! No, he
decided, if he did so, it must be after night, when no
one could see him.
As he was thinking all this over, without noticing
where he was going, his steps had brought him to the
part of the city where there were a number of shops,
and he remembered that he was hungry, for he had had no
breakfast. He went into one of the shops and asked for
some food. The shopkeeper looked at him suspiciously.
"Thou art a burly beggar!" he said. "There are far too
many needy poor in Bruges to give to such as thou!"
"I am no beggar!" said Hans,
angrily, displaying one of his
 silver coins. "Here is silver for thy meat and bread,
and see to it thou dost not cheat me!"
The shopkeeper, muttering to himself, supplied a dish
of food; though he was glad when Hans had finished
eating it and left the shop, for he did not think that
he looked like an honest man or that he had come by the
silver honestly. Now, on Hans' part, when in order to
pay the shopkeeper he had put his hand in his pocket
for a piece of the silver he had received for the
stolen cup, his fingers touched the porringer first;
and, he could not have told why, he took the rest of
the silver out and put it in the pocket on the other
side of his coat.
 Perhaps, in some vague way, he did not quite like to
have that ill-gotten money right there with the picture
of Emschen; for to his mind the little girl in the
porringer had become so bound up with Emschen that it
might as well have really been her picture.
And then as Hans went farther along the street, he did
another queer thing; he deliberately turned down a
narrow way that led to one of the many old quays of the
city, and began to look at the ships that were lying
moored close beside it.
In the days of the bygone glory of Bruges, her harbor,
now choked up with sand, and her many canals, had been
 with vessels from all over the world, and every quay
had been a place of busy work all day long and often
through the night. And now, though most of them were
deserted and moss-grown, still on the banks of one
canal, which connected Bruges with the not far distant
sea-port city of Ostend, there were several quays to
which came small fishing vessels and various ships that
traded along the coast of Flanders.
It happened that on that day there were two or three
schooners lying at the quay to which Hans had
come. He had come there because with all the thoughts
of his childhood that had been stirred to life by the
little porringer, there had wakened the
 memory of the sea as it rolled and surged beyond the
grey rocks of the Quiberon coast. He began to long for
the familiar tang of the fresh salt air blowing over
the curling green waves, and to sail over these as he
had once done in the old days when he had first set out
to make his way in the world. For, like most of the
folk of the Breton coast, Hans seemed to belong to the
sea. And he had been a good
sailor in those days. But though he had drifted away
from that old life and his old friends, and had for so
long a while gained his living by robbery that all
thought of the past seemed dead within him, as he now
looked at the vessels rocking on the water
 by the quay, stronger and stronger grew his newly
awakened longing for the sea, till at last it swept
over him like a fierce gust of the north wind that he
had often seen dashing the white-capped waves
against the crags of Quiberon.
And along with this great longing, all the while
stronger and stronger grew another wish; though,
curiously enough, Hans himself could not for the life
of him have told that he had it. It was a wish to lead
an honest life once more; it had really always been
down in the bottom of his heart, but it had gotten so
covered up and hidden by all sorts of robber thoughts
that now it was like a ray of light trying to
 shine through a window all covered with dust and
cobwebs. And so all Hans knew about it was that he
wanted more than anything else to be a sailor on one of
Hans walked along the quay till he came alongside the
nearest of the schooners he had been watching, and then
he hailed the captain, who was standing on the deck.
"What do you want?" asked the captain, looking at Hans,
and not with favor.
"Do you need another hand on your boat?" asked Hans.
"No," answered the captain shortly, and turned away
contemptuously without paying any further attention.
 Hans' temper began to rise as he strode along toward
where the next vessel lay. Two of her crew were
unloading her cargo under the direction of the captain.
After looking at them a moment, "Ho!" called Hans
abruptly to the men, "you handle that gear like the
veriest landlubbers! Give me a chance, and I'll show
you how to unload yonder bales in a quarter the time it
is taking you!"
Of course this was a very poor way to go about it if
he wanted to get work on that boat; but Hans had
little tact at best, and moreover he had been stung by
the manner of the captain of the other vessel, and so
his ill humor had gotten the better of him.
 At his speech, the two men looked up in surprise, and
seeing Hans' ragged figure, one of them, who knew him
by sight, cried out jeeringly, "Hold thy tongue,
thou impudent beggar! I'll warrant thou couldst lighten
one of these bales in a twinkling couldst thou but get
thy thieving fingers upon it! Begone!"
Hans' eyes blazed, and he strode forward with fist
clenched to strike the man. But the latter was too
nimble; for the two, having finished their work, ran up
the gang-plank and drew it in, so that Hans could not
reach them, and they laughed scornfully as they
taunted him from their place on the deck.
Hans was very angry and his
 heart full of bitterness. He turned on his heel and
half started away from the quay. But, like many other
people of strong will, to be crossed in what he wished
to do only made Hans more unwilling to give it up.
And so the harder it seemed to be to get a place on
one of those vessels the more he wanted it. And turning
back again, he determined to try once more.
This time he went to the far end of the quay, where a
fishing vessel was moored. The captain was standing
on the bank near the side of the boat, and Hans,
walking up to him, said: "I am going to ship as sailor
on this vessel."
Captain Helmgar, for this was
 his name, gave a short laugh as he looked at the man in
front of him. "Ho," he said, "not so fast, my man! I
am owner of this craft, and I choose my own crew! I'll
wager thou dost not know the tiller from the
"Just try me!" cried Hans eagerly. "Your craft is in
fair order, but yonder sail was shrouded by a bungling
hand!" and Hans pointed to one of the masts of the
vessel, where the sail was furled in a way that his
practiced eye at once saw was clumsy.
At this the captain opened his eyes and stared at Hans;
for it was perfectly true that one of the crew was a
lazy, ignorant fellow who had no fondness for the sea
and who bungled everything he
 touched, and Captain Helmgar was really anxious to
replace him with an experienced sailor. As he now began
to question Hans, he soon discovered that he knew all
about ships and shipping, as did almost all the men
brought up on the coast of Brittany; and then, too,
Hans' experience as sailor had been chiefly on fishing
The captain did not like Hans' raggedness and unkempt
looks, and, though he knew nothing about him, was
rather suspicious of his honesty. But then he needed a
man, and Hans certainly seemed to know his trade.
Captain Helmgar, moreover, was a good-hearted man, and
thought to himself, "There is little on a
 fishing vessel he could steal, even if he is a thief."
The captain, too, rather liked Hans' determination to
ship with him; so after thinking a few minutes, he said
"Well, my man, we leave for a week's cruise to-morrow
morning at eight o'clock, and, if you report on time, I
will take you on trial."
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