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Gerard Our Little
Belgian Cousin

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Our Little Belgian Cousin 

Chapter I

The Little Lace-Maker 

"GOOD-BY, my child, be a good girl, obey your Aunt Ursula in all things, and be sure that you do not lose your ticket."

Helda's mother, as she spoke, gave her little daughter a hasty kiss as she lifted Helda into the waiting train which was to carry her away on a visit to her Aunt Ursula. In another minute the chugging engine was pulling the train out of the little Belgian wayside station which was very near Helda's home.

Helda blinked hard to keep back the tears as she leaned out the car window and waved her handkerchief to her mother standing alone on  the platform. When her mother was actually out of sight Helda let a big wave of tears roll down her cheeks until she suddenly remembered that she had on her best Sunday dress; then she promptly dabbed her eyes dry and soon appeared quite a self-possessed little girl.

Helda's best dress was very fine indeed, and being Belgian was quite different from that usually worn by little English or American cousins. It was made of a rich, black cloth, very full and so long that it nearly touched the ground. The trimming was of black velvet, and over a bodice of the same material there was a kerchief of pale blue and green silk, while the skirt was nearly covered up by a blue silk apron with real lace at the pockets and hem. In addition, a string of gold beads circled Helda's neck, and on her head was a white cap with deep flaps framing in her rosy cheeks and flaxen hair. Her round little face was usually wreathed in smiles, but, on this occasion, her blue eyes were very, very red, though in spite of her sadness Helda was as pretty as a little Belgian maid could possibly be.

The car seats were of plain varnished wood and Helda sat uncomfortably on the very edge, not daring to lean back for fear of mussing up her stiffly starched bonnet. She clasped her ticket tightly in one little hot hand and felt as timid and miserable as only a little girl can feel when away from home alone for the first time.

Helda was really a little Flemish girl. She lived in that part of modern Belgium which was formerly known as Flanders. The country covered just about half of the Belgium of the present time, and Helda, like all the people of Flanders, was much more proud of being called a Fleming than a Belgian.

Tears welled up in Helda's eyes once and again despite all her efforts, and just as they were about to overflow again she felt such a tweak at her hair that she gave a frightened little jump and looked around only to find a rosy-faced baby crowing in its mother's arms in the seat behind, and reaching out its chubby little fingers to play with one of Helda's stray curls. Instead of crying Helda laughed, and the baby's mother, a kindly peasant woman, asked Helda to come and sit with them, for she saw that the little girl was very lonesome. She gave Helda a ginger cake from the big basket beside her, and asked many questions about her home and was so kind and pleasant that Helda was soon at her ease, chatting away as if she had never been the least homesick.

Helda told the woman that the little station where she had taken the train was just on the edge of her father's farm, and that you could see the red roof of their house far away over the flat fields. She told her that there were only her mamma and papa and a big brother at home, and that there was no baby, but that she wished there was  one just like that which sat crooning in its mother's lap.

"Are you going far, little one?" asked the baby's mother.

"I am going to Ghent," replied Helda, "to stay with my Aunt Ursula and learn how to make lace. Aunt Ursula is a Beguine," Helda said proudly. "She makes lovely lace, and is going to teach me how while I am staying with her in the Beguinage."

The baby's mother was very much impressed when she learned that Helda's aunt was a Beguine, and said she was sorry that she and the baby were not going to Ghent, too, that they might be company for Helda all of the way.

"But it is not far and you will soon reach there," the woman told Helda as she and the baby left the train a station or two beyond.

In spite of this good news Helda could not help feeling lonely again when the woman and the baby had gone. Suppose Aunt Ursula was not at the station to meet her when she arrived, thought Helda. What ever would she do? And would Aunt Ursula be glad to see her? Of this there was really no reason to doubt, but Helda stood rather in awe of her relative for, after all, she did not know her very well. Her aunt could rarely leave her work at Ghent to visit Helda's parents, and the last time that she had done so Helda was quite a baby.

You will wonder, perhaps, just what Helda meant when she said her aunt was a Beguine. Well, a Beguine is a good woman who occupies herself in doing all she possibly can for others. The Beguines of Ghent lead simple lives and do all the good they can by devoting their strength and talents to helping the poor, nursing the sick, and giving good counsel to any who may be in trouble or want. The Beguines live together in a little community, or settlement, of tiny dwellings, which is called a Beguinage. The society of Beguines has been known and recognized for the good works of its members for many hundreds of years and all of them are much respected and looked up to. From this you will readily understand just why it was that Helda was so proud in being able to say that her aunt was a Beguine.

As the train rolled swiftly on its way houses began to dot the landscape much more thickly until finally it came to a stop in the great glass-roofed station at Ghent. Before she knew it Helda found herself standing on the platform in the midst of a crowd of people, still tightly holding the basket in which she had her belongings, and feeling very much alone, indeed, quite lost, for she saw no one that she knew.

Just at that moment a loving arm was put about her and a gentle, sweet voice said: "I am very glad to see my little Helda again." Helda looked up and saw a tall, sweet-faced woman dressed all in black bending over her. All of Helda's homesickness vanished in a flash at the sight of the kindly face framed in its becoming white cap.

Aunt Ursula, for it was Aunt Ursula, sure enough, took Helda by the hand, and putting the basket over her own arm led her little niece out into the open square before the station and to a street car, or tram, as they are called all over Europe.

"We have not far to go," said Aunt Ursula. "But you must be tired after your journey." As they were riding along she asked Helda all about the home folks and about herself and her life in such a kindly way that by this time Helda was quite convinced that no little girl ever had an Aunt Ursula quite as nice as hers.

They soon left the tram car and turned down a quiet little street paved with great, round cobble stones and as clean as a swept floor, crossed a bridge over a canal and finally passed through a great stone gateway which opened into a courtyard surrounded by a number of buildings.

Some of these curiously built houses were large and some were small, but all were beautifully kept and set about with great trees. All was so spotlessly clean, so quiet and so far removed from the noise and bustle of the great city that Helda felt quite relieved to have come to such a calm and peaceful spot.

"This is the Beguinage, and yonder is my house," said Aunt Ursula as they crossed the courtyard. They stopped in front of one of the smallest of the houses and Helda's aunt took from the deep pocket of her gown an enormous key with which she unlocked the door.

It was a very tiny dwelling, one of a row all just alike, built of a dark grey stone with a steep roof of red tiles. The doorway was very low and arched, and so were the two small windows around which was carved a stone decoration which was really very beautiful. Over the doorway was carved the name of Helda's aunt; simply the word URSULA, this being the name by which she was known to all in connection with her good works. All of the other good women who lived in the Beguinage were also known by their first names, as had been the custom since the institution was founded some hundreds of years ago.

As they got inside Helda began to look curiously about her. How different it all was from everything at home, she thought. There were but two rooms, one a kitchen and living-room, and the other her aunt's bed-room. The rooms were as neatly kept and as clean as they could possibly be, with bare, whitewashed walls, and, on one side, a stove which could be used for both cooking and heating. This stove was partly made of blue porcelain tiles and entirely filled what had once been a great hooded chimney.

There was not much furniture, a cupboard that held some dishes and cooking utensils, a table and several high-backed chairs, a chest of drawers and a few religious pictures hanging on the wall. Helda noticed, too, by the window, a little work-table, covered carefully with a white cloth, and wondered what was under it.

"Here is where you will sleep, little Helda," said Aunt Ursula, as she pointed out a small bed beside her own. "Unpack your basket and hang up your things in this cupboard," she continued. "I hope you will be happy here, my dear. Now I will busy myself in getting you something to eat, and you shall help me, but first put on your every-day frock."

"Oh yes, I always help mamma at home to prepare the meals," said Helda, slipping off her dress. In a moment she was clad again in a dark blue homespun, which was almost entirely covered by a big apron.

"Now I am ready," she said, and Aunt Ursula showed her where the china was kept in the old oaken cupboard. Helda took out the curious blue plates and a big bowl for the soup which her aunt served from a big earthenware pot which stood on the back of the porcelain stove where it had been simmering all the morning. There is always a big pot of some kind of soup bubbling away in every Belgian kitchen, for soup often makes the biggest part of the dinner with the people of Belgium.

Helda remembered how hungry she really was as she sat down to the thick, savory vegetable soup with which her aunt filled her blue bowl. There were big slices of bread and butter to go with it, and afterwards a salad and some cheese. Then Aunt Ursula opened a tin box and brought out a loaf of gingerbread, rich and brown, with blanched almonds stuck all over the top. Helda thought it was quite the best gingerbread she had ever eaten, and any one would have thought the same, for the gingerbread of Ghent, as indeed that of all Belgium, is considered the best in the world. It was a simple little dinner, but good and satisfying, and as much as a Belgian family usually has for its midday meal.

"Is there where you make the lace?" asked Helda, timidly pointing to the little work-table by the window.

Aunt Ursula smiled and rising lifted off the cloth and showed Helda the big pillow on which the lace is made covered with a forest of pins with their bobbins hanging from their threads in all directions. Aunt Ursula was just now engaged on an elaborate piece of lace intended to be used for the christening robe of a royal baby. She explained it all to Helda and showed her the little roll of finished lace, and pointed out to her how slow the work was and how long she had already been engaged upon this particular piece. It had occupied her spare time for many weeks and it would take as many more before the robe was completed. It surprised Helda very much indeed to learn that it took a day to make one of the tiny flowers, and she naturally thought it was the loveliest lace she had ever seen.

"Oh, may I not begin to learn to make lace at once, Aunt Ursula?" Helda exclaimed. "And how long a time will it be before I can do as beautiful work as that?"

"No, my child, you must not think of undertaking to commence your lessons to-day," replied Aunt Ursula. "You are too tired from your journey. To-morrow you shall have your first lesson, and, dear child, though it will take much patience and hard work, I hope that some day you will be able to make as fine lace as any one; it all rests with yourself."

"Now we will get ready and make a little visit to the Beguinage," said Aunt Ursula, after Helda had helped her clear away and wash the dinner dishes.

"Why, the Beguinage is a little city in itself," was Helda's first exclamation after she and her aunt had strolled about a few minutes. And so it really was, just like an old-time, mediaeval city. There were streets and winding alleys, and tree-shaded squares and a little church. All around the settlement was a high wall, and the big gates by which one entered were closed at night.

Most of the Beguines whom Helda saw were dressed in the same simple costume as that of her aunt, a long black cloth gown with a very full skirt, wide sleeves and a white headdress that fastened under the chin and fell around the shoulders like a cape.

Aunt Ursula had a smile and a word for every one that they passed. "Those women to whom you spoke just now were dressed differently from the others," remarked Helda.

"Yes, my child, they are new-comers; they all live together in that large building yonder, and, after a while, they too will wear the real Beguine dress, and then, if they choose, they may come and live in one of the little houses. That young girl over there has just come to live in the Beguinage," Aunt Ursula added, as she pointed out a young girl with a wreath on her head.

Helda thought it looked very odd to see any one walking about with a wreath on their head and wondered how she would like it.

Helda was taken to see the Groot Jufvrouw, which means "the Great Lady." She was at the head of the Beguines. In the Groot Jufvrouw's room was a glass case full of the most beautiful lace which had been made by the Beguines, and which was kept there to sell to visitors, for many strangers from all parts of the world come to visit the famous Beguinage of Ghent. Helda thought all the lace marvellous; some of it seemed as fine as a cobweb and some of it, too, was the work of her aunt. When the good Jufvrouw heard that Helda had come thither to learn the art of lace-making she patted her on the cheek and said that she hoped that she would learn to make as fine a quality as that of her aunt.

"Oh, Aunt Ursula," cried Helda, as they were on their way back, "I am going to be a Beguine all my life and live in a little house like yours and make beautiful lace." Aunt Ursula only smiled and told her to wait until she was older before attempting to decide so great a question. But at the time Helda was quite sure that she would never change her mind and already had begun to wonder how she would look if she too had one of the young Beguine's wreaths bound about her head.

You may be sure that little Helda was tired after such a change from her quiet life in the country, and after her supper of a bowl of milk and rye bread she was very willing to curl up in her little white bed and fall asleep before it was really dark.

Helda awoke the next morning with a start and looked about wonderingly when her aunt called her. Her aunt's good-morning kiss brought it all back to her quickly enough, and she dressed quickly, remembering that she was to go to church, and at five o'clock was on the way with Aunt Ursula to the pretty, old Beguinage church. It was the custom in the Beguinage to go to church twice each day, once in the early morning and once in the afternoon.

As they came back Helda saw a milk cart standing before their door, and beside it a buxom country woman. This woman wore the usual work-a-day dress of the country women of Flanders, consisting of a full skirt of rough cloth, a black bodice with a colored cotton handkerchief crossed over the shoulders and a white linen cap covering the head. On her feet she wore heavy wooden shoes, or sabots.

"I wonder why the Vrouw Maes is here this morning; it is usually her little son who brings the milk," said Aunt Ursula. "Where is Gerard this morning?" she asked, as she greeted the milk-woman. Vrouw Maes explained that Gerard had sprained his wrist by lifting a very heavy milk can. "Yes," she said in further explanation, "it is heavy work for Gerard, but he must do his part." She went on to say, too, that there was never a cause of complaint with Gerard, that he was a good boy and always ready to do his share, and that he was very much worried by the fact that he was forced to be idle for a time. The good Vrouw talked on and on as she measured out Aunt Ursula's milk.

"He grieves, too; I dare say," said Aunt Ursula, "that he can not play his violin."

"Ah, yes, the boy is music mad," exclaimed his mother.

Aunt Ursula was truly sorry to hear of Gerard's accident for the little boy was a great favorite of hers, as he was of every one, so, when the Vrouw was ready to leave, she brought out a remedy for the sprained wrist and told her if she rubbed the liquid well into the sprain that the wrist would soon be well again.

"Now for our first lesson in lace-making," said Aunt Ursula when they had finished their breakfast of coffee and rye bread. "You see I have all your materials ready for you," she said as she went over to the great chest of drawers and took out a lace-maker's pillow, a set of bobbins and the necessary thread. "You may always keep them here, and I will also give you a white linen cloth in which to wrap them, for the first thing to learn about lace-making is to take great care to keep the work clean. Now wash your hands well and we will begin by winding the bobbins."

"Oh," said Helda, as she sighed with delight and sat down on a low stool beside her aunt's chair, her lace pillow on her knee and the polished wooden bobbins and the spools of thread beside her in a box.

"Now your best plan, my child, will be to watch me work this morning," said Helda's aunt, after she had wound all her bobbins. "I will show you just how the bobbins are to be used," and she uncovered her own pillow with its piece of lace already begun and sat down to work.

It fascinated Helda to watch her aunt's nimble fingers fly around among the bobbins. "Click-clack, click-clack," went the bobbins; it was indeed like magic to one who knew nothing about the work to see how deftly and rapidly the bobbins and their threads were moved about among the pins stuck in the pillow.

While the bobbins danced about, Aunt Ursula explained that the christening robe of the royal baby had been entrusted to the Beguines to make and was considered a great compliment; all their best lace-makers were at work on it at the present time, each doing a certain part.

It was real "rose-point," as the finest Belgian lace is called, and Aunt Ursula was making the fine net foundation as well as the flower design, and she explained to Helda that this was such a very costly method of making lace that but very small quantities were actually made in this way to-day.

This variety of lace is called "Brussels lace," because so much of it is now made in Brussels, the capital city of Belgium.

"Once upon a time," went on Aunt Ursula, "all of this lace was made by the workers in their own homes, as we are making it here today in the Beguinage, but now there are thousands of women and girls working in big, noisy factories, instead of quietly and comfortably in their own houses, and the lace is cheapened in quality and price because the owners of the great factories are anxious to produce and sell large quantities in order to make money fast. Not much of the modern lace is as well made as when I first learned the art, at an age," continued Aunt Ursula, "considerably less than yours, Helda." 

"Nobody's lace could possibly be lovelier than yours, Aunt Ursula," said Helda warmly. "Ah, well," answered her aunt, modestly, "it is true that my lace has had much praise, and I may tell you, my dear, without being too proud, that the biggest factory in Brussels wanted me to come to them and take charge of all their work-women, and I could have made, oh, I don't know how much money, but I would not leave my dear Beguinage to go and work in a factory for all the money in Brussels!" And with this Aunt Ursula settled herself back in her chair with a determined air.

After the midday meal Aunt Ursula pinned an easy little pattern on Helda's pillow, and the little girl began her first lace-making lesson in earnest.  Poor little Helda's troubles now commenced.  What seemed so easy with her aunt's deft fingers became a hopeless tangle when she tried to accomplish the same thing. The bobbins and threads seemed to mix themselves up into knots and tangles of themselves and again and again Helda had to search out the way to unravel them. The day wore on and Helda had not even made the beginning of her design.

"Oh, Aunt Ursula, I shall never, never learn," cried Helda, very nearly in despair after a dozen trials.


"Patience, my dear child, patience; it is only by patience that you will ever learn; you must try again," said Aunt Ursula more than once as she helped Helda straighten out the knotted threads.

Just then another of the Beguine women came to the door and called her aunt away on some business and poor Helda was left alone with her troubles. Her cheeks burned and she felt as if her fingers were all thumbs and the tears were ready to fall from her eyes. Finally she gave a violent jerk and all the pins in her pillow marking the pattern went flying on to the floor. This was the last straw. Helda flung her pillow across the room and dashed out of the house upsetting her box of threads as she went.

Fearful that some one might stop and question her Helda slipped into an alley and just ahead spied a gateway which led out on to the canal bank. There was no one in sight and she threw herself down on the grassy bank, pulled her apron over her head and cried as if her heart would break. She knew this was very wrong, too, for she had been told by her aunt never to leave the Beguinage alone, or unless she was sent for, but now she did not care in the least. She hated Ghent, she hated the Beguinage, and, above all, she hated lace-making. She really could not bring herself to thinking that she hated her good, kind Aunt Ursula, but she did think that she had been cruel to her by making her work so hard. She knew she was a wicked little girl, but she liked being wicked, at least so she tried to make herself believe.

Oh, what a wretched day it had been. Oh, why had she ever left her dear home and her kind papa and mamma who thought that there was no one like their own little girl? She would tell her aunt that she must go home to-morrow, and at the thought of home she buried her face deeper in her apron and wept more bitterly than ever.

Just then Helda heard a mocking laugh and felt something strike her. She threw off her apron from her head and saw a great ball of mud on her nice clean dress, and across the canal was a big boy with a fishing rod in his hand who was laughing at her and just getting ready to throw another missile.

Much frightened Helda jumped up and crept back to the Beguinage. How late it was! Had her aunt missed her? Perhaps she would think that her little niece had fallen into the canal and was drowned. Helda almost wished she had. This had been the hatefulest day in all her life. As she made her way back to the house Helda tried to rub the mud off her dress, hoping all the time that her aunt had not returned. But Aunt Ursula was already at the door, peering anxiously up and down the little street. Helda saw her as soon as she turned the corner.

"My dear child," cried Aunt Ursula, opening her arms wide, "I should not have left you alone in the house; it was all my fault." There was not a word of blame for her from her aunt, not a question as to where she had been, even. Helda threw herself sobbing into her aunt's arms, and all she could say was that she was a very naughty girl.

Aunt Ursula took the child indoors, and sitting in her high oak chair by the window she held her on her knee and soothed her as if she had been a baby. Aunt Ursula knew well enough that it was only an attack of homesickness and the strangeness of everything about her that had so upset the little girl. She well remembered how she herself had felt the first time she left home to go among strangers, and she remembered that, after all, she was practically a stranger to the little girl.

When Helda's tears were dried she was persuaded to eat some of the tempting little supper which Aunt Ursula had prepared. There were big strawberries, such as one finds in Belgium where the strawberries are famous, and a nice cream cheese flavored with tiny green herbs, which though new to Helda was thought by her to be quite a delicacy, as indeed it was.

After swallowing a few mouthfuls of her supper Helda began to feel much better and her tears were quite over by the time she had finished.

After supper Aunt Ursula took her again on her knee and told her of her own early struggles learning to make lace. Many a good cry she had had over her many blunders. "And a strict teacher I had, too," she said. "You may think your old aunt cross, my dear, but teachers were much more strict in the old days than now."

"I remember," continued Aunt Ursula, smiling to herself, " that sometimes my teacher used to prick my fingers with one of the lace pins when I tangled up my threads."

"Oh, how cruel," cried out Helda, "you could never, never do a thing like that, dear Aunt Ursula."

"No," said her aunt, and she laughed softly to herself. "Perhaps that was carrying things a bit too far, but I must have been a trial to the dear old lady who taught me; I had a temper in those days; it runs in our family, as you see," she continued, with a twinkle in her eye.

Helda's head drooped. How horribly ashamed of herself she had become.

The next day things went much better and little by little Helda learned to use her bobbins without snarling them up until soon her daily task over her lace pillow became the pleasantest duty of the day. Her troubles were not wholly over by any means, but she was learning patience and perseverance as well as lace-making under the loving care of Aunt Ursula. And now, at last, more than ever, she was glad that she had come to Ghent.

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