“Put me down, dear father, I feel dizzy up here.” The burgomaster, with tears in his eyes, put his darling carefully back in her little chair, then left the room and went to his study. Maria followed him and asked “Is there no message yet from the Prince or the estates?”
He silently shrugged his shoulders.
“But they will not, dare not forget us?” cried the young wife eagerly.
“We are perishing and they leave us to die,” he answered in a hollow tone.
“No, no, they have pierced the dykes; I know they will help us.”
“When it is too late. One thing follows another, misfortune is heaped on misfortune, and on whom do the curses of the starving people fall? On me, me, me alone.”
“You are acting with the Prince’s commissioner.”
Peter smiled bitterly, saying: “He took to his bed yesterday. Bontius says it is the plague. I, I alone bear everything.”
“We bear it with you,” cried Maria. “First poverty, then hunger, as we promised.”
“Better than that. The last grain was baked today. The bread is exhausted.”
“We still have oxen and horses.”
“We shall come to them day after to-morrow. It was determined: Two pounds with the bones to every four persons. Bread gone, cows gone, milk gone. And what will happen then? Mothers, infants, sick people! And our Bessie!”
The burgomaster pressed his hands on his temples and groaned aloud. But Maria said: “Courage, Peter, courage. Hold fast to one thing, don’t let one thing go—hope.”
“Hope, hope,” he answered scornfully.
“To hope no longer,” cried Maria, “means to despair. To despair means in our case to open the gates, to open the gates means—”
“Who is thinking of opening the gates? Who talks of surrender?” he vehemently interrupted. “We will still hold firm, still, still——There is the portfolio, take it to the messenger.”
Bessie had eaten a piece of roast pigeon, the first morsel for several days, and there was as much rejoicing over it in the Van der Werff household, as if some great piece of good fortune had befallen the family. Adrian ran to the workshops and told the men, Peter went to the town-hall with a more upright bearing, and Maria, who was obliged to go out, undertook to tell Wilhelm’s mother of the good results produced by her son’s gift.
Tears ran down the old lady’s flabby cheeks at the story and, kissing the burgomaster’s wife, she exclaimed:
“Yes, Wilhelm, Wilhelm! If he were only at home now. But I’ll call his father. Dear me, he is probably at the town-hall too. Hark, Frau Maria, hark—what’s that?”
The ringing of bells and firing of cannon had interrupted her words; she hastily threw open the window, crying:
“From the Tower of Pancratius! No alarm-bell, firing and merry-ringing. Some joyful tidings have come. We need them! Ulrich, Ulrich! Come back at once and bring us the news. Dear Father in Heaven!