Walter Pieterse - Chapter 2                           

 

Chapter II

Walter thought neither of the heroic age nor of Chinese cues. Without any feeling for the beauty of the landscape, he hurried along till he came to a bridge that spanned a marshy ditch. After looking about carefully to assure himself that he was alone, he selected this bridge for his reading-room, and proceeded at once to devour his robber undisturbed.

For a moment I felt tempted to make the reader a participant of Walter’s pleasure by giving a sketch of the immortal work that chained the boy’s attention. But aside from the fact that I am not very well versed in Glorioso—which fact of itself, though, would not prevent me from speaking about him—I have many other things of a more urgent nature to relate, and am compelled therefore to take the reader directly to the Hartenstraat, hoping that he will be able to find his way just as well as if he had crossed the Ouwebrug—the old bridge.

Suffice it to say that Walter found the book “very nice.” The virtuous Amalia, in the glare of flaring torches, at the death-bed of her revered mother, in the dismal cypress valley, swearing that her ardent love for the noble robber—through the horrible trapdoor, the rusty chains, her briny tears—in a word, it was stirring! And there was more morality in it, too, than in all the insipid imitations. All the members of the band were married and wore gloves. In the cave was an altar, with wax tapers; and those chapters in which girls were abducted always ended with a row of most decorous periods, or with mysterious dashes—which Walter vainly held up to the light in his effort to learn more about it.

He read to: “Die, betrayer!” Then it was dark, and he knew that it was time to go home. He was supposed to be taking a walk with the Halleman boys,—who were “such respectable children.” With regret he closed the precious volume and hurried away as fast as he could, for he was afraid he was going to get a whipping for staying away so long.

“You will never get permission again”—thus he was always threatened on such occasions. But he understood, of course, that they didn’t mean it. He knew too well that people like to get rid of the children for a while when they are a little short of space at home. And then the little Hallemans were “such extraordinarily respectable children; they lived next to a house with a portico, and recently they had taken off their little caps so politely.”

Now, I don’t believe that the Hallemans were any more respectable than other boys of Walter’s acquaintance; and, as I would like to give some reasons for my belief, I am going to relate an incident that had happened some time before this.

Walter never got any pocket-money. His mother considered this unnecessary, because he got at home everything that he needed. It mortified him to have to wait for an invitation to join in a game of ball with his companions, and then be reminded that he had contributed nothing towards buying the ball. In Walter’s time that useful instrument of sport cost three doits—just a trifle. Now I suppose they are more expensive—but no, cheaper, of course, on account of Political Economy.

On many occasions he was depressed by reason of this lack of money. We shall see later whether what his mother said was true, or not: that he received at home everything he needed. It is certain that at home he never had the privilege of doing with some little thing as he pleased, which is very nice for children. And for grown-up people, too.

The Hallemans—who were so especially respectable—gave him to understand that they had no desire to bear all the expenses. Franz calculated that Walter’s friendship had already cost them nine stivers, which I find high—not for the friendship, but merely as an estimate. Gustave said it was still more; but that is a detail. Gustave, too, had let him have four slate pencils, that he might court “the tall Cecilia,” who wouldn’t have anything to do with him because he wore a jacket stuck in his trousers—the kind small boys wore then. She accepted the pencils, and then made Gustave a present of them for a kiss.

The reproaches of the little Hallemans, who were so very respectable, almost drove Walter to despair.

“I have told my mother, but she won’t give me anything.”

The little Hallemans, who were so respectable, said: “What’s that you’re giving us? You’re a parasite.”

This was the first time Walter had ever heard the word, but he knew what it meant. Nothing sharpens the wits like bitterness of heart.

“A parasite, a parasite—I’m a parasite,” and he ran off screaming, making a detour in order to avoid the street where Cecilia’s father had a second-hand store. Oh, if she had seen him running through the street crying like a baby—that would have been worse than the breeches pulled up over his jacket!

A parasite, a parasite!

He met lots of grown-up people who perhaps were parasites, but they were not bawling on this account.

Parasite!

He saw a policeman, and caught his breath when he got by him, surprised that the man hadn’t arrested him.

Parasite!

Then came a street-sweeper with his cart, who seemed to rattle that hateful word after him.

Our little sufferer remembered that the Halleman boys had once told him what a fortune could be made by peddling peppermint drops. For twenty-four stivers one could buy a big sack full. By selling so and so many for a doit, the profit would be enormous. If one only had the capital to begin! The Hallemans had calculated everything very exactly; for they were not only very respectable, but also very cunning. Cunningness and respectability usually go hand in hand. They had said, all that was needed was the capital. They would attend to laying in the stock, and would assume all responsibility for the sale of the same. If Walter would chip in just a florin, they could raise the rest and all would go well.

Parasite.... Parasite....

Walter slipped a florin from his mother’s box of savings and brought it to the Halleman boys, who were so remarkably respectable.

“Where did you get it?” asked Gustave, but careful not to give Walter time to answer, or to fall into an embarrassing silence.

“Where did you get it?”—without any interrogation point—“fine! Franz and I will each add one like it. That’ll make twenty-four, and then we’ll buy the peppermints. There’s a factory on the Rosengracht—such a sack for four shillings. Franz and I will do everything. We’ll have more opportunity at school, you understand. Christian Kloskamp has already ordered twelve; he’ll pay after the holidays. We’ll take all the trouble; you needn’t do anything, Walter—and then an equal divide. You can depend upon it.”

Walter went home and dreamed of unheard-of wealth. He would put a dollar in his mother’s savings-bank, and buy for Cecilia a lead pencil from the man who had picked holes in the wood-work of his wagon with them. So strong were they! That would be something entirely different from those slate pencils; and if the tall Cecilia still wouldn’t have him, then—but Walter did not care to think further. There are abysses along the path of fancy that we do not dare to sound. We see them instinctively, close the eyes and—I only know that on that evening Walter fell asleep feeling good, expecting soon to have a good conscience over his little theft and hoping that Cecilia would give him a happy heart.

Alas, alas! Little Walter had made his calculations without taking into consideration the slyness and respectability of the Hallemans. They lay in wait for him the next day as he came from school. Walter, who had painted to himself how they would be panting under the weight of the great sack; Walter, who was so anxious to know if Christian Kloskamp had taken what he had ordered; Walter, who was burning with curiosity as to the success of the venture—oh, he was bitterly disappointed. Gustave Halleman not only carried no sack of peppermints. What’s more, he had a very grave face. And little Franz looked like virtue itself.

“Well, how is everything?” Walter asked, but without saying a word. He was too curious not to ask, and too fearful to express the question otherwise than by opening his mouth and poking out his face.

“Don’t you know, Walter, we’ve been thinking about the matter; and there’s a lot to be said against the plan.”

Poor Walter! In that moment both his heart and his conscience suffered shipwreck. Away with your dreams of ethical vindication, away with the gaping money-boxes of mothers—away, lead pencil that was to bore a hole in the hard heart of the tall Cecilia—gone, gone, gone, everything lost.

“You see, Walter, the mint-drops might melt.”

“Y-e-s,” sobbed Walter.

“And Christian Kloskamp, who ordered twelve—don’t you know——”

“Y-e-s.”

I wonder if Christian was likely to melt too.

“He is leaving school, and will certainly not return after the holidays.”

“H-e-e i-i-s?”

“Yes, and for that reason, and also because there are not anything like so many to the pound as we had thought. Mint-drops are heavy. We’ve calculated everything, Franz and I.”

“Yes,” added little Franz, with the seriousness of one giving important advice in a time of great danger, “the things are very heavy at present. Feel this one; but you must give it back to me.”

Walter weighed the mint-drop on his finger and returned it conscientiously.

He found it heavy. Ah, in this moment he was so depressed that he would have found everything heavy.

Franz stuck the piece of candy into his mouth, and sucking at it continued:

“Yes, really, very heavy. These are the English drops, you know. And then there is something else, too, isn’t there, Gustave? The propriety, the respectability! Tell him, Gustave.”

“The respectability,” cried Gustave, significantly.

“We mean the respectability of it,” repeated Franz, as if he were explaining something.

Walter looked first from one to the other, and did not seem to comprehend.

“You tell him, Gustave.”

“Yes, Walter, Franz will tell you,” said Gustave.

“Walter, our papa is a deacon, and carries a portfolio, and there where we live is a——”

“Yes,” cried Gustave, “there on the Gracht, you know, lives M’neer Krulewinkel. He has a villa——”

“With a portico,” added Franz.

“It’s just on account of our standing—don’t you see, Walter? And when a visitor comes our mother brings out the wine.”

“Yes, Maderia, Maderia! And our tobacco-box is silver, and——”

“No, Franz, it isn’t silver; but, Walter, it looks just like silver.”

Our poor little sinner understood all of this, but he failed to see what bearing it might have on his own disappointed hopes. He stuttered: “Yes, Gustave—yes, Franz—but the peppermint——”

“We just wanted to tell you that we are very respectable, don’t you see?”

“Yes, Gustave.”

“And well-behaved.”

“Y-e-e-s, Franz.” Poor Walter!

“And then as you said you never got any pocket-money——”

“Yes, Walter—and don’t you know? Because our papa is so respectable—when winter comes you can see how he looks after the orphans.”

“Yes, and he rings at every door. And—and—we are afraid, that you——”

“That you——”

“The florin——”

“The florin! You understand?”

“That you didn’t get it——”

“That you didn’t get it honestly. That’s it,” said Franz, sticking another mint-drop into his mouth, perhaps to brace himself up.

It was out at last. Poor, miserable Walter. [17]

“And on that account, Walter, we would rather not keep the money, but just divide now—equally, as we all agreed.”

“Yes,” cried Gustave, “divide equally. The work—we—you understand?”

They divided the profits. And the Hallemans were sleek about it. Twenty-four stivers; three into twenty-four goes eight times, therefore——

Walter received eight stivers.

“Don’t you see,” explained Gustave, “we couldn’t do it, because our papa is a deacon.”

“Yes—and our tobacco-box, even if it isn’t pure silver, it’s just like silver.”

My lack of faith in the extreme respectability of the Hallemans is based upon the foregoing story; and I am inclined to think that all this “respectability” of which Walter heard so much at home was only an excuse on his mother’s part to get him out of the way. For there was a lack of room. If she had wanted to use Walter about the house, it is questionable if she had discovered anything especially respectable about those boys.

Many laws and most customs have their origin in a “lack of room”—in the intellect, in one’s character, in the house or flat, in the fields, in the city.

This applies to the preference for the right hand—a result of crowding at the table—to the institution of marriage, and to many things lying between these extremes.

 

 

Walter Pieterse - Chapter 2