At the beginning of the last century, the road that led through the then Leidsche gate from Amsterdam to neighboring Amstelveen was lined by beautiful, large country estates, in which the Amsterdam patricians spent the summer. Now the gardens are gone and turned into meadows; here and there the name of a peasant house, painted in white letters on a green wooden fence, only recalls the estate of which it takes the place; the environs of the capital have been robbed of their former splendor, the city penetrates deeper and deeper into the country, where once the country life could be enjoyed undisturbed a short distance from the city walls; a new construction, new rows of houses bordered the beginning of the road; further on, it first becomes apparent how robbed and bare the wreckers of those delightful country estates left the country. The woods have been felled, nothing provides any shade between the vast meadows and polders like here and there the shaded yard of a farm and the avenue that cuts through the flat land in an almost straight line with only a double elbow bend; but who knows how soon these trees too will be doomed if the indispensable vehicle of our age, the steam-car must set out on this road![ 150 ]
But when in the early years of the 18th the All had an entirely different century; the walk along the alternating row of outside was quite a bit more pleasant, the Kalfjeslaan was not yet linked to the memory of a bloody deed; the heavy carriages of Amsterdam’s dignified families rode up and down on the main road, people visited each other or went on rides.
At that time, a little beyond the Kalfjeslaan stretched a considerable estate, of which no trace is now left; a stately and graceful iron gate separated it from the main road; the distaste of those days was perhaps expressed somewhat in the lavish multitude of curls and streamers, which adorn the richly decorated letters of the inscription „ Amstelvreugd” surrounded. This gate gave access to a garden laid out in the latest French taste, which would now appear stiff and poppy to us, but was then firmly lauded as an example of landscaping à la Nôtre. A shaven avenue led from the gate to the stately, genteel main building; the ground was strewn with snow-white sand, and on either side on a smooth-shaven strip of grass stood fringes with orange trees from distance to distance; to the left and right was the garden with its ponds and caves, its shell garden and maze, its mathematically shaped beds, its palm bushes pruned in the form of birds and dragons, its sunflowers and stocks, which garden was bounded as if by gigantic walls from the free growing beech trees, forming the boundary on both sides of the estate.
Those beeches lifted their stately crowns and looked contemptuously at the manners to which nature was condemned at their feet. Under their shade the grass had full freedom to shoot high and to the wild flowers a hospitable[ 151 ]to provide shelter; it was right there, cool and crisp under the trees on this warm July afternoon.
There seemed to be a feast on the pretty outside; just now a large number of young and merry company had feasted in the dome on the water’s edge with the refreshments served by the generous, friendly lady of the house, Mrs. van Starenwijck, to her young friends; now the guests walked in pairs or in groups through the straight, palm-hedged paths of the French garden. It was a so-called rural festival, but no one would have guessed it, it lacked all the ease and freedom that one usually considers inseparable from ruralness. Only now and then a merry quip or a loud laugh broke the dignified tone that must have involuntarily reigned in the rigidly landscaped garden; at once, however, the measured, main conversation resumed, and the less witty, then calm banter, which seemed to do only the amusement of the young people. A few couples had fled the French garden and had gone under the tall beech trees, as if they offered a more suitable place for their sustenance.
He was a stout young man of just twenty years old, his olive complexion betrayed that blood other than the pure Nordic ran through his veins, but his regular features left it uncertain to which country he belonged; his dress was simple though stately and rich, his figure lithe and pliable, a little above the mediocre, but what attracted the attention above all were his eyes, dark fiery eyes, which shone darker and more fiery where they were surrounded by the pale , green apples from the other guests, or through merry brown binoculars, which, however, lacked the inward glow which could fill his own.[ 152 ]
Now, however, this glow was as melted in tenderness; they shone, but as the velvet shines in contact with the sunbeams; they seemed to be softened by the sweet, lovely, somewhat reproachful look that met them from the blue eyes of the young girl, whom he addressed urgently as if to ask something of her; she was a beautiful blond child, a true daughter of the North. She kept turning her head away from him and making feeble efforts to free her left hand from his right.
“Here we are free for a few moments, Digna; soon our fellow guests will come, we will have to join their game, we will have to watch our eyes, weigh our words, tell me soon that you forgive me, that you are no longer angry.”
“Oh Robert, you promised me that it would be the last time. Can I never count on you?”
“Ah, Digna, I am so weak, but if you were always by my side, I would be different. When will we never be parted again, Digna?”
“Will it ever happen?” she asked with a sigh.
„It will happen, I tell you, it will happen. As soon as my father has recovered, I will reveal to him our sweet secret, and then he will come to your mother, I want to say your parents, ask your hand for me. What can Mrs. van Starenwijck have against a union between her daughter and the son of the wealthy, generally esteemed Mr. van Reijn?”
“You forget I’m more than half engaged.”
“To a man whom you have never seen, who dwells beyond the sea, and to whom but a promise from your stepfather binds you; your mother loves me…”[ 153 ]
“Certainly, otherwise I would not dare to accept your love.”
“You take them Digna, you take them and you forgive me!”
She looked up at him with a mischievous smile that dug two dimples in her softly blushing cheeks.
“This time, Robert, and then never again, you understand? Fie, how shall I have the courage to go through life with such a tomboy?”
And he pressed her to him and quickly kissed her in the dimples of the cheeks. “You will see how I will change, my dear, if I may kiss those dimples daily.”
“Oh, no! If you don’t, I’ll be angry again,” and she quickly swung away, but it was clear in her eyes that she did not consider the petty theft an unforgivable offense.
“Robert, Digna!” was suddenly called out, “where are you?” The girl and the young man gave one another one last look, one last, then he quickly seized her hand and pressed it fervently to his lips, but she withdrew and motioned to him that they should now proceed at a respectful distance from one another.
“I have yet to exercise patience,” he said half-loudly, “but it won’t be long, Digna, or no power in the world will part me a straw from you.”
“And will you work diligently, Robert?” she asked.
“Because you want it, yes, Digna! how much does it cost me? I abhor the trade, you know it and my father experienced it, see you soon. Now, however, I shall henceforth be the most zealous of uncle’s clerks, believe me!”
Thus talking they approached the fringe of the forest, conversing like a few good friends, nothing more; he caressed[ 154 ]her only with his eyes, and though she kept hers downcast, yet she felt how much love, yes, almost adoration, he put into that caress.
The others met them, and gay questions greeted them everywhere.
“Where have you been?”
“Have you caught butterflies?”
“Or picked flowers?”
“Show us the beautiful places you have visited.”
Only a few said nothing, it was the girls who could not understand how Robert van Reijn could find something beautiful in the insignificant stepdaughter of their host, or the boys who were annoyed that such a beautiful girl like Digna could have such a decided preference. tones for that foolish lad, brown as a heathen; they were quite a bit more attractive with their pale faces and freshly powdered hair.
“We have sought the place,” said Digna, with her innocent eyes surveying her guests, “where we could play blind man! It is just appropriate.”
Few could hear but a mocking laugh; most of them cheered, clapped their hands and exclaimed:
“Then we may start at once!”
“Sure, it’s all right here under the trees. You can’t trample hedges or knock down vases, or get entangled in a shaven palm, much less drown in a pond.”
All formality vanished, and soon they frolicked and played under the lofty trees as free and merry as the youth, no matter what age or country, always do when left to themselves amuse themselves in God’s free nature![ 155 ]
There was no end to the cheering and the laughing, the romping and the shouting; sometimes the poor blind man was grievously deceived, sometimes he made too daring use of his privilege as a blind man, when he seized one of the merry maiden round the waist, and to recognize her, touched her and eyes, yea, even her forehead with his lips. touched; and when she cried out indignantly at such liberty, the blind man usually guessed whom he held in his power.
Digna led the game, composed, calm yet kind and cheerful; once only she was seen to lose that composure for a moment, but only for a moment, it was when Robert van Reijn was the blind one and threatened to bump into a thick tree in his fast pace; she rushed up in terror and placed herself before him; then it was she whom he touched, and, wondrously, nothing more was needed to make him guess her name:
“Digna,” he cried, and at once tore the band from his eyes.
Just then, Lord van Starenwijck came into the woods.
“Where is the young lord van Reijn?” he asked.
“By Digna, of course,” said a small, angry-faced man who stood closest to him.
A cloud passed over Heer van Starenwijck’s forehead and his mouth took on a sullen look, but at once he cried aloud:
“Robert van Reyn!”
The summoned man, who was just busy tying Digna the cloth around his blond hair, and had to do it a little longer than others, went ahead quickly and asked:
“Are you looking for me, sir?”
“Yes, you, I am very sorry to disturb your pleasure, for you are enjoying yourselves wonderfully, I suppose, but there is a servant [ 156 ]come from the city with the message that your father immediately demands your presence.”
‘Then he is ill, my good father, otherwise he would not have called me! Is there anything disturbing, sir, tell me?”
“It is true, the servant spoke of indisposition! He came on horseback.”
“So hurry up! Oh God!”
The game had ceased, the young men had all come nearer, their color still bore the traces of the excitement and heat of the game, with interest or curiosity they listened or looked at Robert’s face, which only all lacked blush; not yet, there was a face even paler than his. Digna stood beside him as though this place belonged to her by right; participating, her gaze sought his.
“I’m going at once, I’ll have my horse saddled. Farewell, friends! God grant that it be a premature message!”
“Your horse is saddled, young man!” said van Starenwijck stiffly, “I immediately gave this order as I understood what your decision would be.”
“Thank you, thank you!” and the young man pressed with the fire which he laid in each of his movements the hand which was given to him coolly, and then bowing to Digna he whispered:
“Farewell, my dearest angel! Pray that the worst trial may not come upon me!”
“I’m going to the house with you Robert,” she said, without heeding the disgruntled look of her stepfathers or the mocking remarks of her friends.
Robert passed through the French garden, between Digna and his host, the others following at a distance; the game, it seemed, had lost its appeal to all.[ 157 ]
Mrs. van Starenwijck and a few other guests stood on the platform; she met Robert cordially.
“Poor boy!” she said kindly, „I am afraid that painful hours await you. Take heart! Think that there is One who disposes of life and death and guides us not in our ways but in His. Remember, His will is to be praised now and always!”
“Thank you madam! thank you!” said the young man, placing her hand deeply moved to his lips.
“And always remember that you have good and faithful friends on Amstelvreugd,” she continued.
Digna also reached out to him; he cast her a long, tender look, as if he wanted to imprint her sweet figure in his mind forever, greeted Heer van Starenwijck and the other guests, mounted a horse and rode away.
The feast went on, but the genuine merriment was gone; the young hostess remained silent and sad, as if she had lost all charm to her.
In her mind she followed the young man on his sad ride, perhaps imagining hearing what he cried out grievously when, coming before a stately house on Keizersgracht, he quickly dismounted from his horse and plunged into the vestibule.
“My father!” he asked anxiously.
The old gray servant who received him answered nothing, but his eyes were red with tears, and his cheeks were pale.
“I know enough! My father is no more!” exclaimed Robert in despair.