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GERARD'S DOG TEAM
IT was Helda's duty each morning, when the tinkle-tinkle of the bells of the milk wagon were heard, to go to the door with a stone jug for the milk. Little girls in America would think it very strange to have the milk brought to their doors by a cart drawn by dogs. Dog carts are used in Belgium for many trades. There are milk carts, vegetable carts, laundry carts, bakers' carts and many others which are drawn over the cobbled streets of the towns and over the country roads as well, sometimes for great distances, by dogs. The dogs are harnessed in much the same way that a pony would be at home. The dogs almost entirely take the place of horses for light work of this kind, especially in Flanders.
One morning, after Helda had been nearly two weeks at the Beguinage, she opened the door as she heard the bells of the milk cart and saw a little boy sitting jauntily on the side of the cart calling out to one of his dogs who was seemingly trying to turn around in his harness. The boy wore a grey linen blouse, belted in at the waist, black knee trousers, tied at the knee with black ribbons, and coarse, grey, knitted stockings covered his sturdy calves while big, yellow, wooden sabots took the place of shoes.
"Good morning," he called out smilingly, jumping up when he saw Helda, and touching his high peaked cap with a sort of military salute that is, he said what is Flemish for good morning.
"You are the little girl from Bruges, I suppose."
"And you are the little boy who sprained his wrist," ventured Helda, with a glance at his wrist, which was still bandaged.
"Little! Pooh! How many boys of twelve are as big as I?" cried the boy, broadening his shoulders and standing on tiptoe. "Why, I am taller than Hubert," he continued, "and he is fourteen."
"And I am almost ten," answered Helda proudly. And then feeling that the acquaintanceship was not beginning happily she added politely, "I hope your wrist is better."
"Oh, it's nearly well now," said the boy, as he took his measure, which hung beside the brightly polished brass milk jugs, and filled it with milk, which he poured into Helda's pitcher. "You see I am obliged to begin my rounds again because my mother is too busy to do the work herself, and besides I am the man of the house, and my mother depends upon me."
"Ah! there is Gerard; I wondered why the milk was so slow in arriving this morning. You little folks are chatting away as if there was nothing else to think of," said Aunt Ursula as she appeared at the door. She gave a look at Gerard's bad wrist, and told him to be careful for some time yet, and bade him leave his cart and come inside and have a cup of coffee and some bread with them.
"Here is something for the dogs, too; you may give it to them, Helda," said her aunt as she took a bowl of scraps from a shelf.
"They are looking for it already, the rascals; they know that they are never forgotten here," laughed Gerard, pointing to the dogs who had turned and dragged the cart almost through the open door. The milk-cart dogs of Flanders are usually well treated at the houses of their customers, so they naturally look forward to the morning round with pleasure in spite of their hard work.
"Watch Bouts, the younger dog, the one on the outside," said Gerard to Helda. "Hugo, the old dog, has taught him his place, and that he must wait his turn."
Bouts had jumped forward as if he hoped to free himself from his harness, but Hugo only had to show his teeth once and give a low growl when he quieted down as meekly as a lamb and waited until the older dog had taken his choice, when he was allowed to have what remained.
"Bouts is only a year old, while Hugo is almost as old as I," explained Gerard. "Poor old Hugo, he is getting almost too old to work, but we must keep on, old fellow," continued Gerard.
Gerard was a universal favorite and his customers were all glad to see him back again.
"Gerard comes a long way," explained Aunt Ursula, "and has to rise every morning at four o'clock."
Gerard and Helda, as may be imagined, became great friends. He told her all about his life on the farm just outside of Ghent, and how he milked the cows and helped with the vegetable garden, for his mother also grew vegetables in great quantities for the city markets. His mother brought these vegetables herself to market on certain days of the week and worked very hard, while Saskia, Gerard's little sister, did her share, too.
"Saskia is only eight, and is at school every day, but next week, when she has a holiday, I will bring her around to see you," said Gerard to Helda.
In return Helda told Gerard about her own home and her papa and mamma and her big brother Dirk, who was in Antwerp at the Commercial Institute studying so that he might become a great merchant.
Helda's papa was a flax-grower and sold his flax to the great factories in Ghent, where they made it into fine linen, for in Ghent, and many other towns in Flanders, was made some of the finest linen cloth known to the world.
Helda thought that hers was the prettiest house in Flanders, sitting as it did in the midst of the flax fields. It was built of red brick and had a blue slate roof and heavy wooden shutters painted a bright green.
Helda and Gerard thus exchanged confidences every morning. But it was about his band of boy musicians that Gerard talked more than anything else. Next to his mother and little Saskia Gerard most loved music, and the band which he had organized was the pride of his life. Each little Belgian boy and girl can play on some instrument or sing, and more often than not can do both, and each little Belgian village has its own bands and orchestras and singing classes.
Gerard played the violin very well indeed. At first the school-master had taught him what he knew, but Gerard soon outdistanced him. After practising at home alone for a time Gerard finally got several of his boy friends in the neighborhood to meet at his house that they might practise together, each helping one another with good advice, though it was easy to see that it was Gerard who was the real leader. After the formation of the band the next step was to choose a name, for all the bands, or "circles" as they are called in Flanders, have a name.
After many suggestions they decided to call themselves the "Circle Leuw van Vlaanderen," which is Flemish for the "Lion of Flanders." This was a big-sounding name and that is one of the reasons why it was taken, and also because the lion is the emblem of Belgium.
Gerard confided to Aunt Ursula and Helda that it was the dream of his life to become a great violinist, and how he would like to study at some great Conservatory of Music, but that he could not leave his mother, for since his father had died he had to be the "man at home."
Helda sympathized with his ambitions and told him in turn about the singing classes of boys and girls to which she belonged, and how they met every Thursday afternoon at the school-house for practice, and how every little while they would give a concert and invite their home folks.
The following week Gerard brought his sister to the Beguinage. She was a chubby, round-faced little girl, so shy and stiff in her holiday dress and white cap that she looked almost like a jointed wooden doll. But after Helda had showed off her lace-work, and Aunt Ursula had cut her off a big slice of gingerbread, she felt more at home and acted quite naturally so that when she left she invited Helda to come out to the farm and see her white guinea pigs.
In the days that followed Helda would carry her aunt's basket as she went about on her charitable works, and would often take some simple toy or a bouquet of flowers to some sick child herself.
Aunt Ursula, on their walks, would tell Helda stories of old Ghent, and point out to her many celebrated old buildings. She told her that Ghent was once famous for glove-making, and that the name Ghent (or Gand) meant glove, and how to-day the glove-making industry had fallen far behind those of linen and fine lace.
Helda saw the great bleaching grounds where the manufactured linen was whitened by the sun and dew, and wondered very much if any that she saw was made from her father's flax.
When the chimes rang out from the tall town belfry Helda would recall the tale told her by her aunt of how these forty-four big bells used to ring out in the old days to call the people of the city to arms, or to let them know of a victory for their soldiery.
The belfries of Flanders are famous; there is one to be found in all the old cities and towns. The most celebrated is at Bruges, which Helda had seen and heard its great bells peal, but she did not know what every little American cousin ought to know, that the poet Longfellow wrote some beautiful verses about it called "The Belfry of Bruges."
"I must take some things to a sick person and you can help me carry them, and we can stop at Vrouw Maes on our way," said Aunt Ursula to Helda one bright morning.
They took the tramway near the great gate of the Beguinage and had soon left the city behind and were following along by the side of the open road. The country roundabout was perfectly flat, there were no great forests and not many single trees, only a few grouped here and there about the scattered farmhouses. Flanders is very much like Holland, which is its next door neighbor, as you will know if you
have read " Our Little Dutch Cousin." There are long, sluggish canals crossing the country in every direction, crossed by many little bridges which can be turned to allow the canal-boats and barges to pass.
"Here we are at last at the lane leading to Vrouw Maes," said Aunt Ursula as they got off the tram, and turned off the highroad towards the farm.
"And here is Saskia," cried Helda, as the little girl came running up to meet them. Saskia slipped her hand in Helda's and the two little girls skipped on before Aunt Ursula. Saskia had just come from school and pointed out the school-house to Helda across the fields. Really it was not far away, but by the road it was at least two miles, and Saskia walked there and back every day and did not mind it in the least.
Saskia chatted with Helda about her school, and the singing class and how she was being taught to sew. When not at school she helped her mother about the house and in the vegetable garden, and she told Helda that when there was nothing else to do she was in the habit of taking one of the cows out to graze by the roadside, leading it on a rope that it might not stray into the neighboring fields.