Maarten Maartens.

Brothers all; more stories of Dutch peasant life online

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W 55 •







"TF I were rich — a thing I never shall be — I
I should chuck up the whole thing to-
morrow." The speaker was a man in middle
life — Dante's five-and-thirty — pale-faced and
nervous, the sort of man who lives by ploughing
and harrowing his own brains. He was a fairly
successful journalist and writer. At this moment
he lay back, tired, in an easy-chair at his club.

The other man, also in an easy-chair, also
tired, also a journalist, looked up lazily, watching
the blue smoke of his cigar.

"Have you ever reflected," he asked, "what
you would do instead ?"

"A score of times."

"Do you know, I never have. It has never
occurred to me that I could, by any possibility,
become rich. In fact, I know I can't."

" Nor can I. It is quite as impossible for me.
That constitutes the chief charm of thinking it

" I don't quite understand, but I suppose you
have more imagination than I have."



" I have plenty of imagination of a kind. But
I have to be the hero of my own imaginings. I
don't run to a novel or a play."

"You could live a drama, but you couldn't
get one acted by other people." The voice in-
dicated banter. " In other words, you are a
strictly subjective genius."

The middle-aged man — he was a good deal
the younger of the two — didn't like banter. " I
am not a genius at all," he answered shortly.
" Would you pass me a light ? "

" H'm ; I'm not so sure," said the elder man,
complying. " Well, tell me, Kortum, if you came
into a fortune to-morrow, what would you do?
Chuck up all the writing. Get away from the
treadmill. Naturally — and then ? "

" I should live absolutely and entirely for
myself henceforth."

" In these altruistic days that sounds frankly
refreshing. You mean you would spend all
your money in having an unmitigated good


" Like the once famous Jubilee Plunger ? "

" No, not a bit like that. My enjoyments, as
you can realize, Hackner, if you choose, would
be largely intellectual. Not only so. They
would also be sensuous."

".Invite me, please."

"You wilfully misunderstand. My chief
delight would be to escape at once, and for ever,
from this grey town, from this chill country,


from the whole bleak, ugly North. I should
never again, during this brief life, leave sunshine
and orange-groves, blue seas and Oriental colour.
That, I admit, is merely sensuous— up to a point.
For there is more artistic enjoyment in a month
of Spain or Italy than in a cycle of— Cathay."

"You know the South?"

"Know it? No. I have glimpsed at it—
twice, in a tourist's trip— seen its possibilities,
like a hungry boy at a pastry-cook's window.
Seen just enough to keep a craving at my heart
for ever. Oh, what's the use of talking ? I say,
isn't this a beastly glum hole, this murky, native
city of ours ? Wouldn't you be precious glad to
escape from it ? "

"Well, I don't know," replied the elder man,
musingly watching his rings of smoke. " It
is a beastly place, but I suppose I've got past
wanting to leave it."

"Not I. Every year makes it worse — and
the horrible grind. However, this sort of talk
isn't much good. I'm out of sorts to-night.
Something's happened to upset me. A fellow
had much better simply play the game."

The grey-haired man looked kindly at the
black-haired one. "At your age," he said,
" there's always a chance of something turning

" Oh, no. And it's a poor sort of chap who
hopes for that ! Besides, I once had an only
chance — a sort of a chance — and lost it. That's
as much as would fall to the lot of any man." He


shook himself together. " Please don't think,
Hackner, that I'm the sort of fool who goes
through life grumbling, and playing in a lottery,
or helping old bodies over crossings in hopes of
a legacy. You know me better than that."

"I know you better than that, dear boy. It
was I that set you building your castles in the
air. I assure you I built plenty in my day,
if not on the impossible chance of a fortune ; but
my castles, like many an older one, are —
ruins. I am sorry something has occurred to
put you out."

"Oh, it's nothing; only I suppose it was that
set me talking about money. You know the
rich paper-manufacturer, Ostlar ? "

" By sight. I hear he is very ill."

" He is dying. I met his doctor this morning.
He can't live through the night, the doctor said."

"Well, I suppose he is one of the richest
men in the City. His mills and his money will
go to some distant relatives, Heaven knows

" Or perhaps to a charity ? " said Kortum.

" Possibly. One never heard of his having
any relations. And it is quite in accordance
with the present craze for vast philanthropic

" I hate," said Kortum, " this parade of charity
nowadays. What a sickening thing is all our
philanthropic notoriety, in the papers after death,
and on the platforms before ! I am burning to
write a series of articles on it, showing the


people up. Any villain nowadays can earn
universal respect by large public donations ; any
fool can make himself interesting by talking
about the poor. And the meanest of all are
those that wait to disgorge some of their ill-
gotten gains till they're dead."

"Tis easiest for those that have nothing to
disgorge, or to leave behind them, to any one."

Kortum remembered that his companion was
a married man with a family. He edged away
from what might become delicate ground.

"The public like articles abusing the rich,"
he said. " That's the strangest thing about our
time ; they like them, because they think they're
deserved. Never, I suppose, not even in Juvenal's
day, has money been so entirely the one thing
desired and desirable. In the Rome of the
Decline, in the Byzantine corruption, there were
always a great many superstitions, and a good
many class distinctions, left ; we have absolutely
nothing but the greed, and the recognition, of
gold. Yet, at the same time, even in my day,
since I was a boy, there has come up an uncom-
fortable feeling that the new religion is a base
religion, that great wealth is a thing to be
ashamed of—the very wealthy themselves are
ashamed of it, and try to apologise, as it were, by
making some sort of philanthropic stir. I mean
the intellects among them ; of course, there are
plenty of hereditary fools that just fool along."

" Yes, I suppose that is true," said the other
thoughtfully, a little comforted about his own


poverty, as Kortum, perhaps, had intended he
should be.

" Now, if I were rich," continued Kortum, " I
should resist all that modern affectation. It
wouldn't touch me. I should use my money, as
intended, rationally, for myself."

" That's why you don't get it."

"That, if correct — which it isn't (look around
you!) — would only prove what a blind idiot is
Fortune. Spending money is a far better way
of diffusing it than giving it — far more beneficial
to the community. All this talk about charity,
luxury, the simpler life, is rutfMsJi, economically
and socially unsound."

" Old Ostlar made all his money for himself,
and kept it to himself, and now he is leaving it
behind him," moralized the older man, the poorer
man, the man with children.

" What we need," said Kortum, not heeding
him, " is to get away from all this maudlin con-
trolling of each other's actions. The whole world
just now is conscience to its neighbour. We
want to get back to ' Every man for himself, and
the State to see fair play.' "

" Well, that's a generous attitude, at any rate,
in a man as — unwealthy as yourself. The social
conscience of most of us have-nots is just wanting
to get at the haves."

Kortum laughed. " I treat of these things
theoretically," he said. "As a matter of fact, I
am really quite happy as I am. The work's
interesting enough, though one abuses it, and


I've always a spare coin for a cigar or a drink, to
a friend. Yes, I'm happy enough. I should be
awfully bored, say, with a large business, or as
a thieving lawyer, or in a dozen other positions
that one sees men happy in. A thousand a year
and Italy; that's my ideal. Old Ostlar set me
thinking about rich and poor."

"But why should the thought of him put
you out ? "

Kortum reflected a moment. "Why shouldn't
I tell you? It's really of little importance. You
were saying he had no known relatives. But
you've heard, I suppose, of his friend ? "

"No. Who was he?"

" Dear me, I thought everybody knew about
that business. How we exaggerate our own
importance ! Well, it's long ago. For the first
quarter of a century of their lives, Ostlar and my
father, living side by side in the same village,
and then, working together in the same foreign
surroundings, were inseparable comrades. At
the age of fifteen they ran away from home to
the same ship. They slept together in the same
berth a-top of each other ; they used to lie under
alternate nights. As a grown man, Ostlar fell
violently in love with a young woman ; he
worked long for her, got engaged to her; then
my father stole her away from him. I'm afraid
my father — didn't behave very well. But my
mother was worth it. She told Ostlar she
couldn't love any one but my father. He never
spoke to either of them again, nor took any


farther notice of them. They tried several times
to make up, but he never answered."

" Probably he couldn't trust himself. It was
better so," said Hackner, with a sympathetic
whiff of his pipe.

" I dare say. But you know, he grew into a
dreadful old curmudgeon ; his temper was awful.
All his workpeople hated him, I believe. When
I was born, they — my parents — asked him to
let bygones be bygones, and come and stand
godfather. That was the only time he ever took
any notice or made any reply."

"What did he do?"askedthe otherwith interest.

"Sent them the will, torn across, which he
had made before his engagement, in his early
days, by which he left the little he then possessed
to my mother — or to my father, if she died with-
out heirs."

Hackner, the worn man with the kindly eyes,
looked straight in front of him, and, as the silence
deepened, he remarked : " It was hardly judicious,
perhaps, however well meant — that asking him
to be your godfather."

" I suppose not. But, you see, I seem to have
missed somehow being, either by my mother or
my father, old Ostlar's ultimate heir."

" In rather a topsy-turvy manner — don't you

Kortum broke into a peal of merriment.
" Well, yes. I didn't mean to be literal. Talking
of money, do you know the Chief told me the
other day he was going to raise my salary ? "


"He ought to have done it long ago. They
have been underpaying you for years."

" Do you think so ? I'm so glad you think so !
If it has to be one or the other— and I suppose
it mostly has— I for one would much rather be
under- than over-paid. At least " — and again he
laughed — " I would much rather have my friends,
my colleagues, take that view." And then they
talked on of "the Shop/' as they called it— the
office of the great morning and evening daily,
with the incessant worry through most hours of
the twenty-four. They talked on, as men do
who have great part of their life in common;
dozens of petty interests cropping up along the
road, as they talked on.

" Please, sir, you're wanted at the telephone,"
said a noiseless waiter at Kortum's elbow.

"Nine o'clock!" cried Hackner, at the same
time, rising. " Dear me, I must hurry home." -

Kortum had taken up a review. "It's only
my landlady," he said, " wanting to know whether
she must still keep my dinner. I had told her I
should dine at home to-night. Just speak to her
as you go down, will you ? — that's a good fellow !
— and tell her I shan't dine at all."

"For a man who is going to live in luxury
some day, you are wonderfully abstemious at
present," said Hackner.

" I should go to my dinner fast enough if it
were a particularly good one." He settled him-
self in his deep leather chair. " It is the thought
that one will never be able to command a very


much better meal which is so depressing; it
keeps one from enjoying this."

" Fie, Kortum ! And just now you were
saying you were contented "

Kortum looked up from his " Quarterly " with
the shine in his dark eyes that every one who
knew him liked. "Are you always consistent?"
he said. " Besides, if I may say so, I shouldn't
care about ordering the banquet unless I could
get somebody to share it." He had not read
many pages of an article on Labour Colonies in
Roumania when Hackner once more stood be-
tween him and the light.

"It's not your landlady who wants you," he
said, " but Rosberg, the lawyer."

"Well, what does he want? I don't know
him. I suppose I must go." Kortum rose.

" He asked whether you could come round to
see him. I said you would, unless I telephoned

" I don't know where he lives. Somewhere
on the Heerengracht ? "

"Yes. He gave the number — eighty-seven.
Well, good night. I must get home to my wife."

" Good night. I suppose it is some tiresome
charity business. But they won't get me on to
any more of their committees. I had enough of
the last."

Meditating on the follies and iniquities of
charity bazaars, concerts, and balls, Hans Kortum
started for the Heerengracht. It was a bitterly
cold winter evening. The east wind whistled


along the blackness of the gloomy streets.
People hurried past, wrapped close, as if eager
to get away from the weather. At a corner a
child held out its hand. " Get away ! " said Hans ;
" it's very wrong to beg." The child ran beside
him whining. "Get away!" he said; "it's very
wrong to give to beggars." The child ran beside
him whining. He gave it a silver piece. He
turned on to the Heerengracht, which is a sombre,
a stately, a cold canal. He passed one of the
biggest mansions upon it, and looked up at the
dead stone front. " Old Ostlar's house," he said
to himself. " I must be getting near the lawyer's
number." He looked under the next street lan-
tern. Ninety-nine. He retraced his steps.
Eighty-seven was Old Ostlar's.

He rang ; the bell sounded away into the
hollow stillness with a foolishly persistent clang.
The whole front of the house was dark. After a
wait there approached a feeble shuffling, bolts
were drawn back, and by the light of a flickering
candle, an old woman appeared in a great empty
marble hall.

"This— this is not Mr. Rosberg's?" said
Kortum, lamely. " Could you direct me where
he lives ? "

" It's all right, sir," replied the old crone in a
shrill voice. " Are you Mr. Kortum? Come in.
He is waiting to speak to you." And she flung
open a heavy oak door and stood aside.

Hans Kortum entered a lofty dining-room,
the walls of which were covered with Italian


landscape, over oaken wainscotting, in the Dutch
manner of the eighteenth century. Unlike the
hall, this handsome room was well lighted by
Japanese bronze oil-lamps, and on one half of
the broad table silver and glass had been laid out
for a meal. A decanter of wine stood there, and
the lawyer had helped himself to its contents.

" Yes," said Rosberg, a little old notary, with
a brisk, impertinent manner, " I had to speak to
you at once, and it was best we should meet here.
Old Ostlar is dead. Did you know him?"

" No," replied Kortum.

" So much the simpler. Well, he has left you
all his money."

" Good Heavens ! "

" You may well say so. So should I, if Provi-
dence had acted so well by me; but it hasn't.
He has made you not only his sole heir, but his
executor. I have the will here " — he leant with
his hand on a long blue document. "There
are one or two things you must do to-night,
and do here. That's why I asked you to come

" Can I read the will ? " asked Hans.

" By all means. Shall I read it to you?"

" I think, if you don't mind, I should like to
read it by myself."

" By all means," replied the lawyer, offended.
" Well, yes ; he says a thing or two— but I dare
say you will understand. Would you like to do
everything else by yourself, too ? "

" Is there anything very special ? "


" Well, perhaps not to-night. There will be
formalities to-morrow. But he wishes you to
stay in the house to-night." The lawyer
replenished his glass. " It is perhaps hardly
a festive occasion. Still, you must allow me
to drink to your good fortune, Mr. "

" Oh, not to-night ! Not here ! " cried Hans.

The lawyer emptied his glass in silence.
Then he said : u It's a very fair claret," wished
Kortum a curt "Good night," and took his

Hans sat down in the nearest chair — a fine old
bit of flowered Utrecht velvet— and stared around
like a man demented. In the deadly silence he
gazed at the splendid room, and then at the bit of
blue paper which, the lawyer had said, gave all
this to him. All this ? A great deal more. He
was one of the richest men in the town.

Then he thought of the dead man lying
upstairs, with whom he had never exchanged
a word in his life, whom he only knew by sight.
He supposed he must go and see him now, for
the last time — near, for the first — a curious thrill
of unwillingness ran through him. The lawyer
had said there were things he must do at once.
He drew the document towards him.

It was simply worded. It said that Hans
Kortum's mother had been the hope and the joy
and the ruin of Ostlar's life. He could not for-
give her and he could not leave off loving her.
He told this to her son. And after her death,
her husband being dead also — only a few years


ago — the old man had made this will, leaving all
he possessed to her only child.

He asked Hans to come, immediately upon
the news of his death, into the house no Kortum
had ever entered, and not to leave it till after the
funeral. " I have lived alone ; I shall die alone,"
he wrote. He was evidently anxious that his
heir should protect the remains and see that they
were treated decently. Moreover, he asked him
to burn, unread, within twelve hours, a parcel of
letters, and to place on the dead breast, before it
was cold, a portrait and a lock of hair.

Kortum rang at once. The old woman con-
ducted him to the death-chamber. It was a
sombre room, with green hangings. He stood
looking at the cold, yellow face. In an escritoire
he found the things as described ; he recognised
the girl-portrait of his mother. At the moment
when he took the keys from the dead man's table,
he felt that the change in his own life came true.
By the light of his solitary candle he crept down-
stairs again. He remembered now that old Ostlar
had taken over this whole house, with all the
furniture, in a bankruptcy which he himself had
brought about. He had lived in it with the old
charwoman-housekeeper and a slavey.

In the dining-room he found the old woman
placing several dishes, cold, all of them — an aspic,
a French pate, a fruit jelly — a luxurious, if some-
what peculiar repast. "He said I was to get
them from the pastry-cook's for you," remarked
the old woman. " He told me to spend twenty


florins on them. He must have been wandering
in his mind. But I done it. He never spent five
on a meal for himself in his life."

Something rose up in Hans Kortum's throat
and choked him for a moment. It was all the
mourning old Ostlar had.

Hans ate some of the good things, and that
cleared his mind wonderfully. He leant back in
his chair and surveyed the situation.

Well, he was rich now, suddenly rich beyond
his wildest dreams. A little too rich, he was
afraid, but he mustn't mind that. He could do
all he had ever wanted to do. And he had written
his last unwilling article ! Oh, joy ! he had written
his last unwilling article !

Within a fortnight he would leave for Italy ;
would leave all his old, murky world behind him ;
would leave, and begin a new life. At last he
would enjoy to the full his long pent-up love for
all that is beautiful. Here, in this northern city,
everything was ugly. Oh, yes, of course, there
were a few beautiful pictures in the Museum, and
you could occasionally hear very beautiful music.
But that does not make life beautiful. The city
itself was monstrous, the streets, the shops, the
clothes, the factories — everything he could think
of— the faces, the climate (winter and summer),
the ideals, the conversations, the money-making,
the vulgar newspapers. Especially the news-
papers. All life was a persistent nightmare of
ugliness and vulgarity. In a fortnight he would
be away from it all.


His eyes rested on the temples and nymphs of
the painted landscape around him. The walls of
the room were a blaze of sunlight and a maze
of revelry. In this way the old seventeenth-
century Dutchmen endeavoured to escape from
the grey platitude of their daily lives. Soon
he would be amidst the real thing. Dear me,
these Italian landscapes were very well done ;
so well, they really might be Moucherons. He
took up a lamp to examine them. What a sen-
suous delight of colour and movement! What
happiness ! What a joy of living, unknown in
these latitudes! He wondered — were they
Moucherons ? Admirably done.

And suddenly a desire seized him to discover
what other treasures the house possessed that
had now become his. What was behind those
two finely carved folding-doors ? He flung them
open, and stood, lamp in hand, on the threshold
of a white and gold Louis XV. saloon. The
furniture and hangings were dark blue and silver
silk. Against the walls hung a number of pictures
in gilt frames. Modern art, as he saw at a glance.
He advanced towards the nearest. An Israels !
The great living Dutch painter of pathos in
humble life. A poor woman by an empty cradle
in the grey sorrow of the lonely room.

He went on quickly to the next. A fisher-
woman by her open door, looking out to the
stormy sea. An Israels. A very fine one. Full
of subdued anguish and stress in sea and sky.
The next. Two old peasants in the dull, drab


cottage at their all too scanty meal. Under this
a title : " Their Daily Crust." He stood looking
at it a long time; as he turned away, his eyes
were soft. He remembered now having heard
that the man on whom Ostlar had foreclosed had
been a great art connoisseur, and had wasted his
money buying pictures. Why, every one of these
paintings must now be worth many thousands of
pounds !

Another large picture arrested him as he
turned. A splendid thing. A sick child in the
cupboard-bedstead at the side ; in the middle,
father and mother by the table, his pockets inside
out, a few coppers on the board. And near to
this another sadly simple, impressive scene. A
young man, neat* and poor, in front of a closed
door, in the dark drizzle, turning away, look-
ing straight at you with despair in his eyes.
Under this also a title, though unnecessary : " No
Work." The whole room seemed to be hung with
Israels; the pinched poverty stared out too
terribly against the mass of heavy gilding and

He went back to the dining-room and sat for
a long time thoughtful, his head between his
hands. He must spend the whole night in this
house, by the dead man's will. He had no wish
to go to bed; he knew he would not sleep.
When he lifted his face, his eyes were still full
of the pictures in the dark room behind him. He
did not see the Italian landscapes. " It is a
beautiful emotion ! " he said, and laughed at


himself. And he went back to the pictures again
and spent another hour with them.

At midnight a knock came to the dining-room
door, startling him. A man entered, evidently
an artisan of the most superior class.

" I beg your pardon, sir," said the man. u I
understand you are the new master. I arranged
with the housekeeper to watch here while she
lay down."

" Oh, yes, quite right. But how do you mean
— master? Are you" — Kortum looked dubious
— " a servant of ? "

The man smiled. " I've been foreman at the
paper-mills for thirty years," he said.

" Oh, of course ! The paper-mills ! " exclaimed

"Begging your pardon, sir, this is a very
important event for all of us, sir. There's eight

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Online LibraryMaarten MaartensBrothers all; more stories of Dutch peasant life → online text (page 1 of 18)