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THE MILK INSPECTION
"GERARD, my son, you know you must get up an hour earlier to-day," called out Vrouw Maes one morning from the foot of the ladder-like stairs which led to Gerard's attic.
"Yes, mother, I hear you," answered Gerard, sleepily, as he tumbled out of bed and began to dress.
He rushed with his breakfast, swallowing his coffee while it was still very hot, and munching his rye bread spread with cold goose-grease (which took the place of butter), hurriedly.
To-day the milk carts and their wares were to be inspected. The laws which govern the sale of milk in Belgium are very strict, and the officials were also expected to report on the general appearance of the carts, particularly with respect to the dogs and their harness. Almost all Belgian dogs work, and you will see how very good the people are to their animals when you know that they are inspected and cared for by government officials. In Belgium there are very few dogs kept merely as house pets, and little Saskia and her school-mates always looked upon one little girl in their class with awe because at home her people had a dog which had nothing to do but sleep on the door mat and bark at strangers.
There were of course many dogs that were not treated as well as those of Gerard. Some dogs, like Hubert's, were often beaten and given loads too heavy for them to draw without injury to their health, but, as a general thing, the dogs that drew the milk carts had a very good time of it.
Hugo and Bouts came bounding up at Gerard's whistle as he crossed the courtyard, and were soon harnessed up and hitched to the cart. The harness buckles were nicely polished, and Gerard had repainted the cart, the body bright yellow and the wheels red.
Vrouw Maes and Saskia filled the two big, brass milk-jugs with fresh, creamy milk and gave them a final rub which made them so brilliant that little Saskia could see her face in them as in a looking-glass.
The dogs and their cart looked very jaunty as they trotted off, Gerard running beside them cracking his whip, while Hugo and Bouts, their red tongues hanging out of their mouths, took great pleasure in setting the pace.
The Kooter, or public square, was the liveliest place you could have found in Ghent that morning. It was full of carts and brass jugs, all brilliantly sparkling in the morning sun, and dogs were leaping about and tangling themselves up in each other's harness in most confusing fashion, barking, biting and yelping across at each other and making such a noise that one would have thought it was a dog show that was going on instead of a milk inspection.
The dogs' owners were having a busy time of it, too. Women and girls in their bright dresses and shawls and white caps, and boys in their grey blouses and their queer wooden shoes were trying to separate their dogs and keep them from fighting.
At last all the carts had arrived and the inspectors began their march down the lines. They would look into the jugs and taste the milk to find out if it was sweet and had not been watered. They looked to see that none of the harness chafed the dogs, and that they were well cared for, and were very particular that each cart carried a piece of carpet for the dogs to lie on when resting, so that they should not be obliged to lie on the cold, wet ground or stones. Besides this each cart was obliged to carry a bowl from which the dogs might have a drink from time to time. From this you will see that the Belgians really do take great care of even their working dogs.
Gerard watched the inspectors as they came down the line with a light heart; he knew that his little outfit was in good condition. The inspectors scolded a few of the dog owners, showed others where their harness was badly arranged and told still others that their dogs looked a bit thin and overworked, but no one was actually fined.
Gerard was nearly at the end of the line and as the inspector came up he touched his cap politely.
"Ah, everything looks all right here, my little friend," said the chief inspector, glancing appreciatively at the spick and span little team, and giving a good-natured nod, for he always remembered Gerard's bright face.
"We'll just give a look in," the inspector continued, and uncovering one of Gerard's jugs he tasted the milk.
As Gerard watched him he saw him frown. He tasted again. "Humph," said the inspector, "this milk is watered, my little man."
Gerard felt as if the whole Kooter and all that was in it was whirling around and around. "Oh! Mynheer; it can not be so; we would never do such a thing; ask anybody who knows me," cried Gerard, looking wildly around for one friendly face.
The inspectors whispered together; they were sorry for they had never before made any complaints against the milk from Vrouw Maes' dairy. Finally they told Gerard that they must fine him, no matter how much they might hate to do so. It might well have been an accident, to be sure, but it would be unfair to the other milk-dealers for them to pass it over. They would, however, make the fine a small one as the reputation of his milk had hitherto been so good. They felt, too, that whatever may have been the reason for it that it would never happen again.
Poor Gerard could only protest. He could not possibly imagine how water could by any means have got into his milk; he had seen his mother bring it directly from the cows and pour it into the jugs. More than all it was the disgrace which hurt Gerard so much. He felt that he should never be able to hold up his head again, and for such a thing to have happened on the crowded Kooter before everybody was almost too much for him to bear.
"I have no money with me," stammered Gerard, miserably conscious that everybody was staring at him.
"I am sorry, my little fellow; then we must take possession of your cart until you can bring us the money for the fine," said the inspector, kindly but firmly.
"I will pay the fine. How much is it?" said a voice close at hand. It was Aunt Ursula who, just observing Gerard and overhearing the conversation, had come to his rescue. She and Helda had seen from a distance that something was wrong and had made their way through the crowd to Gerard's aid.
"Oh, Jufvrouw, tell them I did not do this thing," cried Gerard, his heart bounding again with hope at the sight of his friends.
"Of course you did not, Gerard; everybody knows that you would not do such a thing," exclaimed Helda, who felt almost as badly as did Gerard himself.
Aunt Ursula paid the fine and spoke seriously to the inspector, warmly praising Gerard and his mother and declaring her belief in their innocence. Other customers of Gerard now began to come up, and they took the little milk-man's part, saying that the milk from the Maes' dairy had always been found good and pure.
Gerard, half choking with tears, thanked his good friend, the Beguine, again and again for her kindness, and told her that he would pay her back the money next day.
"No, it is a little present which I make to you. I was going to make you a gift at Christmas, but, instead, I will give it to you now. It is the same thing, is it not? So do not thank me again, dear boy, but hurry home and tell your mother not to worry either, for every one must know it was not of your doing."
It was a sorrowful little group that gathered around the Maes' supper table that night at the farm. No one had any appetite. It was Saskia who suddenly remembered that she had seen some one slip behind the dairy as she crossed the courtyard at dusk the evening before. She thought at the time that it was one of the band who had just come down from the practice room.
"It was Hubert. I am sure it must have been Hubert. It was just his height. Mamma, he may have slipped into the dairy and poured water into the empty jugs as they stood on their shelf," exclaimed Saskia, springing up from her chair.
"Gently, my child, gently, you must not accuse any one without knowing, but I do recall now that I left the dairy open while I was feeding the cows in their shed and any one might have gone in, it is true."
The children said no more, but Gerard felt in his heart that it was Hubert, and no other, who had done, them this injury.
However, the next day when Hubert met Gerard he seemed so sorry to hear of Gerard's trouble that the latter was ashamed of his suspicions and told Saskia she must have been mistaken. How the water got into the jugs was still a mystery.
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