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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Ex-Voto
By Georges Eekhoud (1854–1927)
 
From ‘The Massacre of the Innocents, and Other Tales by Belgian Writers’

THE COUNTRY I know and love best does not exist for the tourist, and neither guide nor doctor ever dreams of recommending it. This reassures me, for I love my country selfishly, exclusively. The land is ancient, flat, the home of fogs. With the exception of the Polder schorres, the district fertilized by the overflowing of the river, few districts are cultivated. A single canal from the Scheldt irrigates its fields and plains, and occasional railways connect its unfrequented towns.  1
  The politician execrates it, the merchant despises it, it intimidates and baffles legions of bad painters.  2
  Poets of the boudoir! virtuosi! This flat country will always elude your descriptions! For you, landscape painters, there is no inspiration to be gained here. O chosen land, neither thou nor thy secret can be seen at a glance! The degenerate folk who pass through this country feel nothing of its healthy, intoxicating charm, or are only wearied in the midst of this gray peaceful nature, unrelieved by hill or torrent; and still less sympathy have they with the country louts who stare at them with placid bovine eyes.  3
  The people remain robust, uncouth, obstinate, and ignorant. No music stirs me like the Flemish from their lips. They mouth it, drawl it, linger lovingly over the guttural syllables, while the harsh consonants fall heavily as their fists. They move slowly, swingingly, bent-shouldered and heavy-jawed; like bulls, they are at once fierce and taciturn. Never shall I meet more comely, firm-bosomed lassies, never see eyes more appealing, than those of this dear land of mine. Under their blue kiel the brawny lads swagger well content; though when in drink, if dispute arises, rivalry may drive them into fatal conflicts. The tierendar ends many a quarrel without further ado; and as the combatants cut and hack, their faces preserve that dogged smile of the old Germans who fought in the Roman arenas. During the kermesses they over-eat themselves, they get drunk, dance with a kind of gauche solemnity, embrace their sweethearts without much ceremony, and when the dance is over, gratify themselves with all manner of excesses.  4
  One and all, they are slow to give themselves away; but once gained, their affection is unalterable.  5
  Those who depict them thick-set, laughter-loving, misshapen boors, do not know this race. The Campine peasantry recall rather the brown shepherd folk of Jordaens than the pot-house scenes by Teniers, a great man who slandered his Perck rustics.  6
  They preserve the faith of past centuries, undertake pilgrimages, respect their pastoor, believe in the Devil, in the wizard, in the evil eye, that jettatura of the North. So much the better. These yokels fascinate me. I prefer their poetic traditions, the legends drawled out by an old pachteresse in the evening hours, to the liveliest tale of Voltaire, and their clan-narrowness and religious fanaticism stir me more than the patriotic declamations and the insipid civic rhodomontade of the journalist. Splendid and glorious rebels, these Vendéans of ours; may philosophy and civilization long forget them. When the day of equality, dreamed of by geometric minds, comes, they will disappear also, my superb brutes; hunted down, crushed by invasion, but to the end unyielding to Positivist influences. My brothers, utilitarianism will do away with you, you and your rude remote country!  7
  Meanwhile, I who have your hot rebel blood coursing in my veins, I who shall not survive you, am fain to steep my spirit in yours, to be at one with you in all that is rude and savage in you, to stupefy myself at great casks of brown ale at the fairs, with you to raise up my voice when the clouds of incense rise like smoke above your sacred processions, to seat myself in silence beside your smoky hearths or to wander alone across the desolate sand-dunes at the hour when the frogs croak, and when the distraught shepherd, become an incendiary and a lost man, grazes his flock of fire across the heaths….  8
  At the beginning of the June of 1865, I had just reached my eleventh birthday and made my first communion with the Frères de la Miséricorde at M——. One morning I was called into the parlor; there I found the father superior and my uncle, who told me that he would take me to Antwerp to see my father. At the idea of this unexpected holiday and the prospect of embracing my kind parent, who had been a widower for five years and to whom I was now everything, I did not notice my uncle’s serious looks nor the pitying glances of the monk.  9
  We set off. The train did not go fast enough for my liking. However, we arrived at last. To ring the door-bell of the simple little house; to embrace Yana the servant; to submit to the caresses of good Lion, a splendid brown spaniel, to race up-stairs with him four steps at a time, to bound into the familiar bedroom, then two words:—“Father!—George!”—to feel myself lifted up and pressed against his heart; to be devoured with kisses, my lips seeking his in the big fair beard: these actions followed one another rapidly; but transient as they were, they are forever graven on my memory. What a long time the dear man held me in his arms! He looked at me with tender admiration, repeating, “What a big boy you have grown, my Jurgen, my Krapouteki!” and he repeated a whole string of impossible but adorable pet names he had invented for me, and among which he interspersed caresses. It was still early in the morning.  10
  When I entered, followed by Lion, Yana, and finally by my uncle, the least member of the four, my father was in his dressing-gown, but was about to dress.  11
  He looked splendid to me. His color was fresh, but too flushed about the cheek-bones, I was told afterwards; his eyes sparkled—sparkled too much; his voice was a little hoarse, but sweet, caressing, despite its grave tone,—a tone never to be forgotten by me.  12
  He was then forty-six. I see his tall figure rise before me now, with his well-set limbs; and his kind face still smiles on me in my dreams.  13
  My uncle clasped his hand.  14
  “You see that I keep my word, Ferdinand. Here’s the little scamp himself!”  15
  “Thank you, Henry. Pardon the trouble I have caused you…. You will laugh at me; but if you had not brought him, I should have gone to the convent myself to-day…. I should have scorned the doctor’s régime and prescriptions…. You do not know, Georgie…. I have not been very well…. Oh, a mere nothing; a small ailment, a neglected cold…. A slight cold, was it not, Yana?… I have lost it, as you see…. Ah! my boy, what good it does me to see you!… What fun we shall have! We are going out into the country at once…. I have prepared a surprise for you.”  16
  I listened enchanted—oh the selfishness of childhood! The promise of this expedition made me deaf to his cough—a dry, convulsive cough which he tried to stifle by holding his silk handkerchief to his mouth. Neither did I notice—or rather I did notice but attached no importance to—the bottles of medicine and pill-boxes which stood on the chimney-piece and on the bed-table. A bottle of syrup had just been opened, and a drop remained in the silver spoon. Yana held a prescription in her hand, which had been written that morning. A heavy odor of opiates and other drugs filled the room. These details only recurred to me afterwards.  17
  My uncle took leave.  18
  “Above all, no imprudence!” he said to my father. “You promise me? Be back in town before the dew falls…. I will take George to school again to-morrow morning.”  19
  “Set your mind at rest; we will be wise!” replied my father, excited and preoccupied, thinking only of his child.  20
  I believe that he was not sorry to find himself alone with me, and as the prospect of returning to M——, evoked by the old officer, had saddened me, he took me on his knee.  21
  “Courage! little one,” he said. “It is not for long. I feel too lonely since the death of your poor mother. I have told my family that in the future I do not intend to be separated from you…. You have made your first communion,… you are big,… you shall go back to school for a week, just time to pack up and to settle in our new quarters…. Come, there, I am betraying the secret…. Never mind, after all, I may as well tell you everything now. I have bought a pretty little house, almost a farmstead, three miles from here…. We are going to live in the country, like peasants, to wear sabots and smocks. Hey? That will make you grow…. What do you say to it?… We shall be always together.”  22
  I clapped my hands, and jumped round the room.  23
  “What joy! Always we two, is that it? Then we shall be always together. Is it really true?”  24
  “Really true.”  25
  We sealed this understanding in a long embrace.  26
  An hour later my father, Yana, and I stepped into a landau at the door.  27
  It was one of those enervating equinoctial days when the warmth and the intense quietness affect one almost to tears. The sun, in a beautiful Flemish sky of pale, soft turquoise, had dispersed the morning mist.  28
  “Look at him, sir,” said Yana, pointing to me; “he is as happy as a king!”  29
  “Now is the time to take in a plentiful supply of air,” remarked my father; “one only needs to open one’s mouth!”  30
  I opened mine quite wide, as if I were yawning.  31
  What a difference, too, between this air and the air at school; even that which one breathed out of doors in the cloistered court, shut in by four forbidding high walls, sweating with damp and decaying with mildew.  32
  Seated with my back to the coachman, my hands on my father’s knee, I uttered exclamations of surprise and besieged him with questions. He sat back in the carriage, shielded from the wind by his big overcoat. Yana sat beside him; Lion ran on in advance.  33
  Passing along the chief street of the suburb, we came out into the open country. The tufts of young leaves gave a sweet freshness to the hoary trunks of the great beech-trees which lined the road. In place of the yellow withered grass in the meadows, there was a vivid emerald carpet; splendid cows, with well-rounded flanks and dewlaps reaching the ground, nibbled the tender shoots. The full rows of young corn promised a plentiful harvest. Between a double hedge of weeping-willows and alders ran silvery waters, swollen by the melting of the late snows. When we passed a flower-garden the scent of lilac filled the dreamy air. Gates with gilt knobs opened on avenues of elms and oaks; sloping lawns led up to a castle, whose terrace was ornamented with clipped and modeled orange-trees. The majestic passing of a pair of big swans or the scurry of hare-brained ducks stirred the stagnant pond, and left wakes amid the flags and water-lilies.  34
  Moss-grown farmsteads, flanked by barns with green shutters fixed to the red bricks, draw-wells, chickens picking about on the manure-heaps,—these were my chief delight. Sometimes a countryman’s cart with its white awning stood on one side for us to pass.  35
  We drove through Deurne, then through Wyneghem.  36
  For the third time a slender spire lifted its gray-slated point into the opaline sky.  37
  “S’Gravenwezel tower!” exclaimed Yana.  38
  “S’Gravenwezel! But that is your village!” I cried. “Are we going to live there?”  39
  The good creature smiled in the affirmative.  40
  Some few moments later, the driver, directed by Yana, stopped in front of a lonely farm, a quarter of an hour away from the rest of the long, straggling village.  41
  “This is my parents’ home!” she said.  42
  I can still see the little one-storied farmhouse, with its overhanging thatched roof, festooned with stone-crop, a white chalk cross on the brickwork to protect it from lightning. At sound of the carriage, the whole household ran to the door. There was Yana’s father, a short, thick-set sexagenarian, bent but still healthy-looking, his face wrinkled like old parchment, with a stiff beard and bright eyes; the mother, a buxom woman about ten years younger, very active despite her stoutness; then a host of brothers and sisters, varying from twenty-five to fifteen; the boys bold, dark, curly-headed, muscular, square-set fellows; the girls fresh-looking, tanned by the sun, all like Yana their elder sister, who, to my mind, was the most charming boerine annversoise that one could imagine, with her dark hair, her big emerald-green eyes and sweeping lashes. In honor of S’Gravenwezel kermesse,—sounds of which could already be heard in the distance,—they said, but more in honor of our visit, the men wore their Sunday trousers, and bright blue smocks coquettishly gathered at the neck. The women had taken out their lace caps with big wings, the head-dresses with silver pins, woolen dresses, and large silk handkerchiefs which crossed over the breast and fell in a point behind. The good people complimented my father on his appearance. “That is Mynheer’s son,—Jonkheer Jorss!” In a few moments I had made friends with these simple cordial folk, and particularly with a fine lad of nineteen—“onze Jan” (our Jean), said Yana—on the eve of drawing lots for the conscription.  43
  When his sister laid the table,—for we were to stay to dinner there,—he offered to show me the orchard, the garden, and the stables. I accepted joyfully. I could no longer keep still. Jean, with my hand in his, took me first to the cows. As they lay down, chained up in their sheds, they lowed piteously. The dung-strewn bedding shone with bronze and old-gold, and the far end of the stable resembled a picture by Rembrandt—at least, it is thus that I recall to-day that reddish-brown half-light. That I might be better able to admire the animals, he roused them with a kick. They got up lazily, sulkily. He told me their names and their good points. That big black one, with the spot between her eyes, was Lottekè; this big glutton chewing the early clover was called La Blanche. Jan persuaded me to pat them. They rubbed their horns against the posts which divided them. The boy told me that they were excellent milkers. I counted six in all. A strong smell of milk filled the air, warm with all this breathing, heaving animality. Jan promised to take me to work in the fields with him when I came to live in the village. I should dig the ground and become a real peasant, a boer like himself. Boer Jorss, he called me, laughing. But I took this prospect of country life quite seriously; I admired the fine figure, the proud healthy bearing, of this young peasant. I in my turn should grow like that, I thought. A career such as his awaited me! That was better than wearing a frock-coat and a black hat, than growing pale and fevered over books and copies, and seeing nothing of beautiful nature except what can be found in a suburb: weeds growing over waste places and patches of sky amid spotted roofs! He took me also to the garden, an oblong inclosure with well-kept paths, and planted with sunflowers, peonies, and hollyhocks. The beds were edged with strawberry plants, the fruit just ripening. The kind lad promised me the first that were gathered.  44
  We were called back to the house, while I was making the acquaintance of Spits the watch-dog. The kermesse meal awaited us. At the express request of my father, who threatened to eat nothing, the family, at least the men, sat down with us. As to the women, they all pretended to wait on us. My eyes wandered with delight around this room, so new to me; the alcoves where the parents and older members of the family slept, receded into the wall and were hidden by flowered curtains; the wide chimney-piece was ornamented with a crucifix and plates imprinted with historical subjects; a branch of consecrated box hung below; then there were enormous spits and the imposing chimney-hook.  45
  Yana placed on the table a tureen of cabbage and bacon soup, the smell of which would have aroused the appetite of the dead.  46
  We all made the sign of the cross, bowed our heads and clasped our hands over the soup-basins, the savory smell from which rose towards the smoky beam like the perfume of incense. For some seconds nothing was audible save the lowing of the cows from the sheds, the buzzing of flies on the window-panes, and the striking of S’Gravenwezel clock, which rang out midday with the silvery, melancholy chimes of village bells.  47
  What a delicious meal we had! My father thought of all the most expressive adjectives in the patois to express the merits of the soup, I sang the praises of the eggs which served as a golden frame to the red-and-white slices of ham. A mountain of mealy potatoes disappeared beneath our lively forks. I had a healthy country appetite!  48
  Yana, who was touched, declared that her master had not eaten so much for a month.  49
  We were obliged to taste all the products of the farm: butter, milk, cream cheese, early vegetables, and fruit. I laughed at Yana, who had thought it necessary to bring provisions. She did not know the parental hospitality! But I no longer made fun of her forethought when she brought out the contents of the wonderful basket: two bottles of old wine and a plum tart of her own making, which she placed triumphantly in the middle of the table. They all drank to my father’s health, to mine, and to our happy stay in S’Gravenwezel.  50
  “It is settled, then, that in a week’s time you shall come to my house-warming, you hear, all of you!” said my father definitely…. “And now, Djodgy, we must be going, for you are longing to see our nest.”…  51
  Jan came with us. He walked behind with his sister. Lion ran backwards and forwards, showing his joy by his wild leaps and bounds, and chasing the small animals which he raised among the rye.  52
  Poppies and cornflowers already lit up the changing ears of corn with their bright color, and white or brown butterflies flitted above like animated flowers. We had followed a path which ran across the cornfields, behind Ambroes farm, to the left of the high road. Some minutes later we skirted a little oak wood, and immediately behind it my father pointed our home out to me.  53
  Simple cottage! you haunt me still, above all in springtime, when the air is warm and soft as on that memorable day…. Your white walls will ever be to me a sad though sweet and loving memory.  54
  The little house was simple and quiet as possible. There was one story only, and it contained but four rooms. An out-house with hen-roost, which would serve as a shed for the gardener, stood on one side. Yana’s brother had for the time being put into it a pretty white kid, which bleated loudly at our approach; he ran to set it free.  55
  Fruit-trees covered the wall facing south. The inclosure, encircled by a hedge of beech, was half orchard, half pleasure garden, and covered an area of three thousand metres. In front of the house was a square lawn, divided by a path from the gate to the front door. Leafy copses of plantain, chestnuts, American oaks, and birches, offered delightful retreats on either side of the house for reading or dreaming. As we went round the grounds, my father explained with animation the improvements which he projected. Here was to be a clump of rhododendrons, here a bed of Orléans roses, there a grove of lilacs. He consulted me with a feverish “Hey?” He was excited, unreserved; rarely had I seen him in such high spirits. Since the death of my mother his beautiful, sonorous, and contagious laugh had been heard no more.  56
  Chattering thus, we came to a mound at the bottom of the garden, from which we could see a corner of the village; the spire emerging from a screen of limes, the crossed sails of a silent mill perched on a grassy knoll, farms scattered among cornfields and meadows, until the plain was lost in the horizon.  57
  “Look, George,” he said, “this will be our world in future…. It will be good for us both to live here; for if I need solace, you will gain equally…. No more confinement, my dear little fellow; we are rich enough to live in the country as philosophers…. And when I am gone … for one must provide for everything….” He stopped. I remember that a broken-winded barrel organ ground out a polka behind the screen of limes which shut off the village.  58
  My father had suddenly become serious, and the solemnity of his last words moved me deeply. Then that distant melancholy air made me shudder. When he had finished speaking, he coughed for a long time.  59
  We were seated on the slope, our backs to the house, facing the vast plain, the silence of which was rendered more overwhelming by the jarring notes of the barrel organ.  60
  “Father,” I murmured, as if in prayer, “what do you mean?”  61
  In reply he drew me towards him, took my head in his hands and looked at me long, his eyes lost in mine; then he embraced me, attempted to smile, and said:—  62
  “It is nothing. I am well, am I not? Why do my family worry me with their advice? Indeed, they will frighten me with their long faces and perpetual visits…. To-day at least I have escaped from them…. We two are alone … free! Soon it will be always so!”  63
  Despite this reanimation, an inexpressible agony wrung my heart, and I made no effort to escape from this influence, which I felt to be due to our deep sympathy.  64
  Regret was already mingled with my delight; and on this exquisite afternoon there was that heart-rending sense of things which have been and will never be again—never.  65
  I threw my arms round my father’s neck, and made no other reply to his last words. It required a mutual effort to break the silence; neither of us made the effort. In the distance the organ continued to grind out the tune as if it too were choked with sobs.  66
  Thus we remained for long, until the day waned.  67
  “Is it not time to go back, sir?”  68
  Yana’s interruptions aroused us. Silently my father got up, and with my hand still in his we passed through the graying country, where the twilight already created fantastic shadows. At about a hundred yards from the house he turned round, and made me look once more at the little corner of earth, the hermitage which was to shelter us.  69
  “We will call it Mon Repos!” he said, and he moved on.  70
  Mon Repos! How he lingered over those three syllables. Even thus are certain nocturnes of Chopin prolonged.  71
  When we reached Ambroes farm, we took affectionate farewell of Yana’s family. My father thanked them for their welcome, and reminded them of his invitation. He gave Jan a few further instructions about the garden; the lad stood cap in hand, his dark eyes expressive of vivid sympathy.  72
  Yet another “au revoir”; then the carriage drove away, and we turned our backs on the dear village.  73
  Was it still the kermesse organ which obsessed me, lingering above all other sounds, growing fainter and fainter but never quite dying away? And why did I ceaselessly repeat to myself, whatever the music, these three unimportant syllables “Mon Repos”?  74
  The sun was setting when we reached the gates of the town. Country masons, white and dusty, with tools over their shoulder and tins hanging by their side, walked rapidly to the villages which we had left behind. Happy workmen! They were wise to go back to the village, and to leave the hideous slums of West Antwerp to their town comrades.  75
  A fresh breeze had risen which stirred the tops of the aspens. The purple light on the horizon beyond the ramparts grew faint. During the whole drive my father remained sunk in prostration; his hands, which I stroked, were moist; now burning, now icy. He roused himself from this painful torpor only to slip his hand through my hair, and to smile at me as never friend has smiled since.  76
  Yana too looked sad now, and pretended that it was the dust which caused her to wipe her eyes continually with her handkerchief.  77
  I was tired, overcome with so much open air, but I could not fall asleep that night. I dreamed with open eyes of the events of the day, of the farm, of good-natured Jan, of the happy meal, of the kid, of the coming day when I should be “boer Jorss,” as the kind fellow said…. I was happy, but from time to time a fit of terrible coughing from the next room stifled me, and then I recalled the scene in the garden, our silence against the jarring sound of the organ, and later these two words “Mon Repos.” I did not close my eyes until the morning.  78
  When I awoke, my uncle was already waiting for me. He was an old officer and adhered to military time only.  79
  “We must be off!” he said in his gruff, harsh voice. “You must go back to work, my lad.”  80
  Must I go away again? Why this week’s separation? What did my uncle’s authoritative tone mean in my father’s house, in our house? Why did Yana look at him respectfully but sullenly? I did not guess the horrible but absolute necessity for this intrusion; it exasperated me.  81
  What a bitter leave-taking! And that, too, for a week’s separation only. It was in vain that my uncle made fun of our tears. I clung to my beloved father, and he had not the strength to repel me. The impatient officer tore me at last from his embrace.  82
  “The train does not wait!” he grumbled. “Were there ever such chicken-hearted people!”  83
  I was indignant.  84
  “No, not at parting from you,” I said to my unsympathetic relation,… “but from him!”  85
  “Djodgy! Djodgy!” my father tried to say in a tone of reproach. “Forgive him, Henry…. Au revoir! In a week’s time!… Be good ever.”  86
  This time Yana no longer tried to hide her tears. Lion moved sadly from one to another, and his human eyes appeared to say, “Stay with him.”  87
  But nothing would move my obdurate uncle. We drove away in the same carriage which had taken us the day before to S’Gravenwezel.  88
  We waved to one another as long as the carriage was in the street.  89
  In a week I should see him again!  90
  In a week he was dead!  91
  But I have forgotten nothing.  92
  Thus it is, ever since then, that I love, I adore this Flemish country as my heritage from him who loved it above all others; from him, the sole human being who never wrought me any ill. These vast pale-blue horizons, often veiled with mist or fog, gleam before me again as that tearful smile which I caught for the last time upon his dear face.  93
 
 
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