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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Calm before the Storm
By Maarten Maartens (J. M. W. van der Poorten Schwartz) (1858–1915)
 
From ‘An Old Maid’s Love’

IT was on a golden summer evening—a long June sunset, soft and silent—that Mephisto crept into the quiet old heart of Suzanna Varelkamp.  1
  She was sitting in the low veranda of her cottage on the Wyker Road, with her gray knitting in her hands. She always had that gray knitting in her hands. If it rested on her knees for one brief moment, her friends could tell you that some singularly difficult question—probably of abstruse theology, or else about the linen-basket or the preserves—was troubling Suzanna’s mind. Suzanna was a woman of industrious repose. She loved her God and her store cupboard. She did not, as a rule, love her neighbor overmuch: little unpleasantnesses in connection with the overhanging apples, or Suzanna’s darling cat, were apt to intervene and stifle the seeds of dutifully nurtured benevolence. Nor did she love herself to any excess of unrighteousness; knowing, with a perfervid knowledge, that she was altogether abominable and corrupt, and “even as a beast before Thee,” from her mother’s womb upwards—a remote period.  2
  The gentle laburnum at her side was slowly gilding over in the sinking sunlight, fragile and drooping and a little lackadaisical, very unlike the natty old woman, bolt upright in her basket-chair. Just across the road a knot of poplars quivered to the still air; and in the pale, far heaven, companies of swallows circled with rapid, aimless swoops. Nature was slowly—very, very slowly, tranquilly, dreamingly, deliciously—settling itself to sleep; silent already but for a blackbird shrilling excitedly through the jasmine bushes by the porch.  3
  Another bird woke up at that moment, and cried out from Suzanna’s bedroom—through all the quiet little house—that it was half-past seven. Then he went to sleep again for exactly half an hour; for, like all man’s imitations of God’s works, he is too hideously logical to be artistic. And Mejuffrouw Varelkamp began to wonder why Betje did not bring out the ‘tea-water’; for every evening the sun went down at another moment.—Providence, being all-provident, was able to superintend such irregularities,—but every evening, at half-past seven to the minute, Mejuffrouw Varelkamp must have her ‘tea-water,’ or the little cosmos of her household arrangements could not survive the shock. “It is difficult enough for one woman to superintend one servant!” said Suzanna. “It is possible, but it is all-engrossing, and requires concentration of power and of will. And not being Providence, I cannot regulate disorder.” The regulation of “disorder,” as she called it,—the breaking away from straight lines and simple addition,—was one of Suzanna’s bugbears. And so Betje was efficiently superintended; none but she knew how engrossingly. And evening after evening, the cuckoo stepped over his threshold, and Betje out of her kitchen, so harmoniously that you might almost have fancied they walked in step.  4
  Somebody was coming up the quiet road—a Dutch road, straight and tidy, avenue-like, between its double border of majestic beeches; somebody whose walk sounded unrhythmic through the stillness;—two people, evidently, and not walking in step, these two: one with a light, light-hearted swing; the other with a melancholy thump, and a little skip to make it good again. But their whistling, the sweet low whistling of an old Reformed psalm-tune, was in better unison than their walking; though even here, perhaps, the softer voice seemed just a shade too low. Had there been all the falseness of a German band in that subdued music, Suzanna would not have detected it: her heart—and that far more than her ear—recognized with tranquil contentment the drawn-out melody, calm and plaintive; and her bright eye brightened, for just one little unnoticeable moment, at the accents of the clearer voice. That sudden brightening would flash every now and then over a face hard and cold enough by nature; nobody ever noticed it except Suzanna’s sister, the rich widow Barsselius,—not Suzanna herself, least of all the young scapegrace who was its only cause.  5
  Dutch psalm-singing leaves plenty of time for the singers to go to sleep and wake up again between each two succeeding notes. The whistlers came into sight before they had finished many lines. They stopped suddenly upon perceiving the old lady under the veranda, and both took off their hats.  6
  “Dominé,” said Suzanna, “how can you countenance whistling the Word of God?”  7
  The young man thus addressed looked up with a quiet twinkle in his eye. He had a pale face and a thoughtful smile; he was slightly deformed, and it was he that walked lame.  8
  “With pipe and with timbrel, Juffrouw,” he answered gayly. “Old Baas Vroom has just been telling me that he won’t give up smoking, in spite of the doctor, because he has read in his Bible how the people praised the Lord with their pipes.”  9
  Suzanna never smiled unless she approved of the joke. She reverenced the minister, and she patronized the young believer; it was difficult sometimes properly to blend the two feelings. But at the bottom of her tough old heart she thoroughly liked her nephew’s friend. “He will make a capital pastor,” she said to herself unconsciously, “when he has unlearned a little of his so-called morality and taken in good sound theology instead. Not the milk of the Word with Professor Wyfel’s unfiltered water, but strong meat with plenty of Old-Testament sap.”  10
  “Come in here,” she said severely: “I want to talk to you about that Vrouw Wede. I told her this morning that she could not have any more needlework from the Society unless she sent her son to the catechizing. She says the boy’s father won’t have him go, because it tires his head. And I warned her I should report her to the Dominé.” Mejuffrouw Varelkamp’s voice always dropped into exactly the same tone of hereditary reverence over that word. “Come in, Jakob, and you shall have a ‘cat’s tongue’ [a kind of biscuit], even though it isn’t Sunday.”  11
  Betje had brought out the tea things meanwhile, triumphantly, under cover of the minister’s presence: the shining copper peat stove, and the costly little Japanese teacups, not much larger than a thimble, on their lacquered tray. “Take away the tea-stove, Betje,” said Suzanna: “the peat smells.” She said so every now and then,—once a week, perhaps,—being firmly convinced of the truth of her assertion; and Betje, who never believed her, and who never smelled anything under carbolic acid, whisked away the bright pail and kettle from beside her mistress’s chair and brought them back again unaltered. “That is right, Betje,” said Mejuffrouw. “How often must I tell you that a stove which smells of peat is full proof in itself of an incompetent servant?”  12
  “Humph!” said Betje. For even the very best of housekeepers have their little failings and fancies and fads.  13
  “Come in, Jakob,” said Suzanna. “Not you, Arnout. You can go down to the village and fetch me a skein of my dark gray wool. The dark gray, mind, at twelve stivers. You know which.”  14
  “You know which!” The young man had grown up with the dark gray wool and the light gray wool and the blue wool for a border. Ten stivers, twelve stivers, fourteen stivers. He knew them better than his catechism, and he knew that very well too. He touched his hat slightly,—he was always courteous to his aunt, as who would not have been?—and he strolled away down the green highway into the shadows and the soft warm sunset, taking up as he went the old psalm-tune that had been on his lips before.  15
  It was the melody of the Fifty-first Psalm. Suzanna had good cause to remember it in after years.  16
  And it was into this calm green paradise of an old maid’s heart—a paradise of straight gravel paths, and clipped box-trees, and neat dahlia beds—that soft Mephisto crept.  17
 
 
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