Sample Pages from Andries by Hilda Van Stockum

The Little House and the Big House

IT WAS EARLY spring, one of those gentle Dutch springs when the air seems to whisper of wonders to come while the earth still lies under winter�s spell. The trees around the Big House, near the village of Lisse, were still bare though the buds were swelling. They were old trees, as old as the House with its ivy-clad walls and proud windows. It was a house that had seen better days, days when ladies with white parasols strolled in the carefully trimmed gardens and little children with striped stockings in high, buttoned boots whipped their hoops around the flower-beds. Now the huge gardens were deserted and no laughter sounded under the trees. No swings danced in the wind, no balls hid in the grass, no tin soldiers marched up and down the gray stone stoops. A tired family had ceased to grow, and for years now the only occupants of the Big House were an elderly bulb-farmer and his fat, lazy cook.
Of course the House was too proud to admit that anything was wrong. It wrapped itself closer in its cloak of ivy and lived over again the lovely golden days of the past. In summer, when the cook drew the blinds over the windows and the trees screened off the world with their leaves, it was easy to pretend that all was as it used to be. But when winter stripped the trees and peeled the window-eyes the Big House was forced to look straight at the little house, which had sprung up like a mushroom on the opposite side of the road, a messenger of change. At one time the road and all the lands across it had belonged to the Big House. In those days it was still a mansion; now it had become a farm, and impudent little houses were allowed to stick up their pert little chimneys and stare at it. Not that the little house was unfriendly; it was a cheerful enough little thing, though terribly common. It had a bright red roof and whitewashed walls, and in summer its little yard was full of flowers and blossoming trees. There were plenty of children running in and out of it, leaving their toys and playthings about, and above its low door hung a gilded wooden shoe, for it was the home of the village�s wooden-shoe maker. Such a thing for the Big House to gaze upon! And if only it had shown a proper respect for its august neighbor, but not a bit of it. It didn�t seem to care in the least what the Big House thought of it, but went on waving its line of clean diapers every other day as if it were the best manners in the world.
But what bothered the Big House most of all was the sounds that came blowing across the road all day, sounds of children laughing and crying and the pitter-patter of little wooden shoes. Those had a way of waking memories the Big House had long believed dead. Every scratch and nick made by children years ago seemed to smart again; a high chair, hidden in the attic under a lot of rubbish, would begin to ache all over and the sofa in the sitting-room would start to creak and throw up dust. In those moments the Big House faced the truth. What it missed was not so much past grandeur with its footmen and its fuss, but the children, just the children. And in its bitter loneliness it would hate the little house that was so bursting full with what the Big House lacked.
Mr. Verbeek, the present owner of the Big House, suspected nothing of all this. He was one of those people who didn�t believe houses could have, or ought to have, feelings. Besides, he wouldn�t have understood them even if he had known they were there. His own childhood was so far away he had forgotten all about it, and he didn�t like children. He always chased them away when he saw them on his fields. He was a quiet, dignified man who was interested in his bulbs and his books and wanted to be left in peace. He didn�t really care much for Cornelia, the cook, who was lazy and much too free with her tongue, but he disliked change so much that he�d rather keep her than try somebody else. There was no chance at all that he would ever marry, and so the Big House thought that it would have to give up all hope of feeling a child�s footsteps on its stairs again.
Perhaps houses can say prayers, like people. Or perhaps, when Saint Nicholas visits the chimneys they, too, are allowed to wish for something. At any rate, the day came when the miracle happened and the Big House�s secret desire was to be fulfilled. The old writing-desk knew about it first and told it to the arm-chair, which whispered it to the grandfather clock. Soon the whole House was filled with the news and a shiver went through it from cellar to attic, where a mirror, which had been balancing for years on an old rocking-chair, fell to the ground with a crash. It wasn�t a secret very long, for as soon as Cornelia heard about it the House resounded with her protests.
"Silly nonsense," the kitchen pans heard her mutter as she smashed the dishes in her anger. "What call has he to bring a child here? An orphanage is where it belongs. It�ll only upset the whole place. Duty? What duty has he to a sister who quarreled with him to marry a common zoo-keeper? What if they did die and leave a child? It happens hundreds of times and that�s what orphanages are for. I�ll give notice. It�s either the child or me. I won�t stand for it." But she never gave notice; she was too well off and she knew it. She dusted the passages and opened new rooms and changed some furniture. She grumbled as she did it and let the food burn in the oven.
"Well, I had so much extra work with this here boy expected," she said when Mr. Verbeek complained. "It�ll be worse when he comes," she added darkly. "You don�t know children."
Mr. Verbeek sighed. He didn�t want to change his peaceful, settled ways, but he had loved his sister dearly before he quarreled with her, and her death had come as a great shock to him. He could not refuse her last wish, and besides, even if she hadn�t asked him to look after her son, he would have found it hard to send his own nephew to an orphan asylum when his house was full of empty rooms. For though not a friendly man, Mr. Verbeek had at bottom a very good heart. So he answered Cornelia firmly.
"It is my duty and I wish to hear no more about it. If the work is too much for you we�ll get extra help. Meanwhile, have the place ready. I�m fetching the boy tonight."
"Did you hear that?" murmured the old table excitedly. "Tonight! Better times will begin tonight!"
"Or worse," grumbled the grandfather clock, who was always a pessimist. But the Big House paid no attention to his remark. It looked upon the little house for the first time without a qualm. "We, too, shall have a child," sang the smoke as it curled from the chimney. "We, too, have a future," rustled the ivy leaves. "We, too, shall be filled again with merry noises," murmured the old walls. But the little house was not in the least impressed. It never paid any attention to the Big House, which it considered an old bore. Nothing ever happened over there, anyway. And just as we take certain pictures on the wall for granted and never look at them, so the little house had long ago forgotten the existence of the Big House, though it loomed so large and dignified behind the bare old trees. For the little house the whole world was wrapped up in the wooden-shoe maker�s family. They were the most important people in Holland, from the bearded father to the dimpled baby. And since they were a healthy and vigorous family, full of conflicting wishes and tempers, the little house resounded with tears and rejoicings in swift succession every day. Therefore, while the Big House was trembling with excitement over the Great Event of its life, the little house was sympathizing with Mother Dykstra, the shoemaker�s wife, who had dinner all ready, with Father grumbling impatiently in his beard, and "those girls" not home yet.
"We�ll have to begin without them," she sighed. "Whatever can have happened to them?" As a matter of fact, at that moment "those girls" were running for their lives. They had ventured into Mr. Verbeek�s bulb-fields to see if there were any signs yet of flowers to come. The winter was so long, they could hardly wait for the first buds to open. But Mr. Verbeek had his big dog trained to chase out little intruders and that fierce creature soon had the girls flying for safety. Mother was just putting the potatoes on the table when they tumbled into the kitchen, their hair blowing about, their hands and knees grubby, their aprons torn.
"Mercy me, what happened to you?" gasped Mother.
"It was that old dog," panted Helga, brushing a golden strand of hair out of her face. She was a sturdy maiden of seven, with sparkling gray eyes and healthy pink cheeks in a round, childish face.
"Yes, and he wouldn�t even let us look at the flowers and I think I saw one that was just going to open�it had yellow inside�and then he came with his horrible face and great big noisy teeth," explained Miebeth, who was only five and as slim and dainty as Helga was sturdy and strong. Her eyes were large, of a velvety brown, shaded by long, black lashes. They were so soft and dreamy you never quite knew if she was looking at you or at a picture in her own mind. Her hair was lighter and more wispy than Helga�s and curled into two little shrimps of wheat-colored braids at the nape of her neck.
"Well, I�m glad you�re back," said Mother. "We were just going to start without you. But first wash, please, you�re a sight!" The girls went outside again to the pump in the yard, one swinging the creaking handle while the other rinsed her face and hands in the cool jets of water. Then they came back and stood at the table. There were chairs only for Father and Mother, there wasn�t much money in this family to spend on furniture, and besides, chairs were wasted on children, who�d just as soon be on their feet. Treeske, the baby, sat on Mother�s lap, ignorant of the beautiful high chair that was pining in the attic of the Big House for the feel of two chubby baby legs, exactly the kind of legs Treeske had, with a dimple on each knee.
The three older children stood with their forks in their hands, ready to pounce on the food, while Father opened the old leather Bible and read:
"Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith. Amen." Scarcely had he shut the book when the forks flashed across the table and each child pricked a potato from the dish, dipped it into the bowl with gravy, and popped it into his mouth.
Little Kobus had to stand on a footstool to be able to reach the food. He was only three years old and couldn�t keep up with his older sisters. He had a round little body and a round little face in which two round blue eyes gazed anxiously at the hill of potatoes that was growing smaller and smaller as the forks twinkled. He tried to swallow a potato whole but he wasn�t quite round enough for that and it stuck in his throat. If his father hadn�t grabbed him and slapped his back until the potato flew out he might have choked. But the others all went on calmly with their dinner. They were used to Kobus. Every day he narrowly escaped death in one form or another and his family accepted it as part of his character.
"I hear we�re going to get a new little neighbor," said Father when he had saved Kobus�s life. "It seems Mr. Verbeek is adopting his sister�s son."
"For pity�s sake," sighed Mother, pressing Treeske a little closer and praying secretly that she might never have to leave her children to the mercy of anyone as dour-looking as Mr. Verbeek. "Who�ll care for him then? A man can�t know about children."
"The cook, I suppose," said Father, quirking an eyebrow.
"That fat creature," Mother cried with a snort. "She is too lazy to look after herself, let alone a child."
"Maybe she�ll get thin," suggested Father humorously.
"Poor boy," muttered Mother, shaking her head. "Not that I think it isn�t right for Mr. Verbeek to take him. But it does seem a hollow kind of a place for a youngster."
Helga had listened round-eyed.
"I wish it was a girl," she said. "Boys are no use." And she pricked the last potato out of the dish.
"That was mine," cried Kobus. "I never get anything."
"Yes, you do, you had five, I counted them," argued Helga.
Kobus began to weep.
"Muvver, Muvver, where�s my appletite?" he wailed. "You pomised me an appletite, you did. Now where is it?"
Mother had to laugh.
"No, son, I only said that if you kept your hand out of the sugar-pot you�d have an appetite for your dinner."
"Well, where is it?" asked Kobus, and seeing the others laugh at him he grabbed the dish of gravy and ran off with it. "If you won�t give me my appletite I�ll drink all your gravy up, so there!" he cried furiously. Mother plucked him back by his shirt, took the dish, and put it out of his reach. Kobus howled, Helga jeered, Miebeth yelled, and Treeske crowed. Mother clapped her hands.
"Be quiet this minute or you all go to bed!" Dead silence. Even Treeske was so astonished at the sudden cessation of noise that she made an O with her lips and kept still.
"Heh," sighed Mother.
"Thank goodness," said Father, pushing back his chair and getting up. "Helga, you come to the shop with me, I have some shoes for you to deliver." Helga followed her father into the front room of the house, where shavings curled around her stockinged feet. Father took a bunch of wooden shoes from a nail in the wall. They were tied together with cords that ran through holes in the sides.
"Three pairs for the Burgomaster�s children, one for Mrs. Pietersen," Father explained. Helga shouldered the load, thinking to herself that she would first go to the Burgomaster�s house, for the Burgomaster�s wife had a pot with lovely cookies which she gave to small messengers.
"Wait, Helga, I�m coming with you!" cried Miebeth.
"Me too!" yelled Kobus, but Mother grabbed him by his pants.
"Lemme go! Lemme go!" he shouted.
"Not you, Mister, you�ve got to go to bed soon."
Kobus began to cry.
"I never may do anything," he sobbed, rubbing his fists into his eyes. Mother pitied him. Holding Treeske under one arm she reached with the other for the sugar-pot on the shelf and fished out a lump which she shoved in Kobus�s mouth. "There, that�s for a good boy," she said. Kobus�s face spread in a grin. With the tears still hot on his cheeks he lost himself in a rapture of sweetness. But much as he loved his sugar-plum he took it out of his mouth once to say warmly:
"You�re nice, Muvver!" after which he was silently happy for a long time.
Meanwhile the girls had followed the dirt road which meandered between pasture-lands and bulb-fields until it changed into a street paved with bricks of many colors with little houses to the right and left of it. Soon this opened up into a cobbled square, at the corner of which stood the dignified old Burgomaster�s house with its gray stone stoop. The children climbed its steps and pulled the brass bell-knob, shaped like a lion�s head. Hendrik, the Burgomaster�s five-year-old son, opened the door.
"Oh, there are the shoes!" he cried. "Which are mine?" and putting the three pairs on the floor he tried them in turn. When he had found his own pair he put them on, stamping up and down the tiled floor of the hall. He liked to imitate his stout father�s air of importance.
"They are only play-shoes," he told Helga, "in case the garden is muddy. I have leather shoes too."
"Huh," said Helga scornfully. "We wouldn�t want leather shoes, would we, Miebeth? Father makes all our shoes and they make much more noise than those dumb leather ones. Listen." And she and Miebeth beat a tattoo with their clogs on the Burgomaster�s stone stoop.
"I can do that too," said the boy, but the heavy shoes were unfamiliar to his feet and when he tried to lash out his legs like Helga he fell on his bottom. The girls laughed merrily. Hendrik scrambled up and stuck out his tongue to show the girls how he despised them. Helga was on the point of telling him what she thought of him when the Burgomaster�s wife came with the cookies.
"Here you are," she said, giving Helga and Miebeth each one. "Go inside, Hendrik, it�s time for your bath." The girls said, "Thank you" politely and then scowled at Hendrik, who was pulling faces at them from behind his mother�s back.
"That boy has very bad manners," remarked Helga sedately when the girls were on their way to Mrs. Pietersen, who lived in a narrow little street on the other side of the square. "I�m sure Mother wouldn�t want us to play with him, so don�t you do it, hear, Miebeth? Wipe that hair out of your eyes, you look awful. Wait, I�ll fix it." Helga fiddled for a moment with Miebeth�s rebellious wisps.
"Aren�t those cookies derlicious?" mumbled Miebeth, slowly nibbling at hers. "I wish Mother could taste this."
"You should keep a piece for her," advised Helga.
"Did you?" asked Miebeth.
"N-no, I ate mine all up," confessed Helga, blushing a little. "But your piece will do for both of us."
"Oh," said Miebeth, looking down dolefully at the beautiful morsel with the cherry on it that she had left till the last. They had by now reached Mrs. Pietersen�s store, a little "thread and tape shop," as it is called in Holland, where sewing materials, paper, and other small articles are for sale. It wasn�t closed yet. This was before the days of early closing, and the lamps were lit because of the gathering twilight. With a tinkle the door let the children in. Mrs. Pietersen was busy helping a customer match some knitting-wool. Meanwhile she was chatting about the latest news.
"I think this will do nicely, Miss Kolf," she was saying. "Yes, I pity the poor boy, losing his mother and father in one blow, so to speak. They say it was one of those new-fangled cars that ran over them. Automobiles, they call �em. They�re a real danger. I hope the Burgomaster will keep �em out of this village, at least."
"They say they�re all the rage in the city, but you can�t depend on them as you can on a horse," agreed Miss Kolf. "Well, it�s a sad thing for the boy. I hope Piet Verbeek is kind to him, I somehow can�t think of him as a mother. You could have knocked me down when I heard he was taking a child into his house. I thought he hated children."
"What chance had he ever to like them?" asked Mrs. Pietersen. "He never came close enough to one to say boo. I know what I�m talking about. I reared ten of �em, and it�s only when you�re up to your neck in work and worry over them that you learn to appreciate them properly. One hank of salmon pink then, Miss Kolf?"
"No, give me two. I don�t want to run short again. How much is that, Mrs. Pietersen?"
"Fifty cents," said Mrs. Pietersen, rolling the wool in tissue paper. "I hear the boy is arriving tonight."
"Well, I hope he�ll work out all right," said Miss Kolf. "Five, ten, fifty, here you are."
"Thank you, and mind your step," said Mrs. Pietersen as Miss Kolf groped her way out into the blue twilight. Mrs. Pietersen now turned her rosy face to the girls. The lamp behind her made a halo of her white hair.
"Oh, the shoes," she said, rummaging in a drawer.
"Mrs. Pietersen," said Helga, "you didn�t tell the truth, did she, Miebeth?" Miebeth shook her head.
"The truth?" asked Mrs. Pietersen. "Aren�t they the shoes?"
"Oh, yes, but you said that Mr. Verbeek never came near enough to a child to say boo and he has often said boo to us, hasn�t he, Miebeth?"
"It sounded like boo," agreed Miebeth. "And his dog says it too."
Mrs. Pietersen laughed heartily.
"It was only a figure of speech," she explained. "Here is the money for your father." Helga accepted the envelope with coins and pinned it carefully in her pocket. Meanwhile Mrs. Pietersen good-naturedly took two shop-soiled picture postcards from a stand. "One for each."
"Oh, thank you," cried the girls, skipping gaily out of the store. By the light of the window outside they examined the pictures.
"What did you get?" asked Helga.
"Sheep," said Miebeth. "Lots of sheep and a church. Let me see yours. Oh, Helga, yours is sweet!" For Helga�s picture had glossy forget-me-nots with hearts and leaves of gold. "Oh, yours is the nicest, I wish I had this one!"
"All right, I�ll change with you if you�ll give me the rest of your cooky," bargained Helga.
"But that�s for Mother," protested Miebeth. "You said so yourself!"
"Half of half of half of a cooky!" cried Helga scornfully. "Grown-ups are so big, they couldn�t even taste such a small piece. And your hands are dirty. Mother wouldn�t even want it. All right, then, you mayn�t have my picture." And she made a grab for it. Miebeth hastily handed her the cooky instead. Then, with a sigh of relief, she bent her head over her forget-me-nots.
"Come on, it�s time to go home, it�s getting very dark," urged Helga, swallowing her cooky in one gulp. "Come, Miebeth," and she dragged her absorbed sister with her. Soon they had left the village and were on the way home. A new moon, like the paring of a baby�s nail, stood shyly in the fading sky, and fields and trees were blurred by the black wing of night. Suddenly a carriage rolled past with a clatter of horses� hooves and a grinding of wheels over a pebbly road. The girls saw the outline of Mr. Verbeek�s square shoulders and beside him the slender, dusky shape of a boy. Helga pinched Miebeth�s arm.
"Look, look," she cried. "It�s Mr. Verbeek�s boy, he has come!"
"Oh," said Miebeth, gazing after the dwindling carriage with pensive eyes. "I�m sorry for him."
"Why?" asked Helga.
"Because he has to live forever and ever with Mr. Verbeek and that horrible dog!" said Miebeth. The girls both shuddered. Then Helga pointed at two merry squares of light that twinkled between the trees ahead. "Look," she cried. "Mother has lit the lamps, we�ll have to run!" and taking each other by the hand the girls galloped home.

Excerpted from Andries by Hilda Van Stockum
Copyright 1942, Used with permission from Bethlehem Books