Amsterdam, January – February 1532
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares…Heb 13:2
Just as suddenly as Adriaen had come, he was gone. He had arrived unexpectedly, like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day; and now loneliness returned. The winter hours grew long, her thoughts kept going in circles; from Adriaen, to the fanatical faith he lived for, to scrutinizing the Roman Catholic religion, to her future, to her past, then back again. The children became increasingly bored, and often annoying, with their whining and petty quarreling. None of the little daily household tasks she did lifted her spirits. Day after day passed the same as the one before, and she wished for some diversion to break the monotony.
It was nearing the end of January, with at least two more months of winter before she could take the little ones outside on a regular basis. She hadn’t lived in Amsterdam long enough to make many friends, even if she had been more outgoing. Nobody ever visited.
She often found herself praying to God for stronger faith, almost as much as to the saints. She had no idea whether or not God even heard her. No heavenly vision came to her with an answer. Her soul didn’t feel any different. She prayed for Adriaen’s safety and for his return to her, and she prayed for strength to any captured Anabaptists to hold their tongues and not to betray him. She prayed that he was warm and had enough to eat, and she prayed to accept God’s will for her life and for Adriaen’s. Maybe he only needed his faith to live for and had no room in his heart for another woman.
Her attendance at the Catholic church grew gradually further and further apart. When she did go, her thoughts kept wandering to that gathering in the moonlit forest and how enchanting that experience had been. She wanted to know more about Adriaen’s faith, and she wanted him to tell her about it. Out of habit she went sometimes to Mass, and to avoid coming under suspicion by the Court officers, not because it brought her any peace.
She did not need the sharp-eyed Father Hendricks asking questions and casting doubts on her faithfulness. The Catholic clergy were on a sharp lookout for signs of heresy as the number of their congregation dwindled, and they spared no efforts to drag unfaithful ones back to their church.
Anna asked herself what the church wanted most -- to save the souls of their congregation, or collect their money with their tithes. Quickly, she stifled the traitorous thought. The church needed tithes for the glory of God, to build shrines and honor the relics of the saints. As a symbol of homage, God’s cathedral must be made magnificent with costly ornaments. No expense should be spared, and since the soul was more important than the body, members must be willing to sacrifice everything to maintain the splendor of their cathedral. If the peasants lived in squalor, yet paid the tithes, their place in heaven was assured.
Anna drove herself nearly insane as she compared these extravagant ideas to the simple piety she had witnessed at Anabaptist meetings. The radicals owned next to nothing when it came to worldly goods, let alone a building for holding services, yet she had seen them worship the Lord with grateful hearts and rapturous faces. She searched for the answers in prayers to every saint she could think of, and to God as well. All to no avail; peace would not come. Her thoughts kept spinning along the same paths, like the wool she was spinning into cloth. Trijntgen was fast outgrowing her clothes, and soon they could be passed down to Bettke.
After one particularly long day, she decided her melancholy came from her lack of faithful church attendance. The sun was out the following Sunday morning, and the wind had stopped its incessant blowing, so a stroll in the fresh air would work wonders for her and the children. Hopefully the little ones would be absorbed with the church and the congregation, and stay quiet. She sponged their hands and faces and put clean clothes on them. She put a shiny coin into each little palm, to put in the collection box. Teaching them to give to the church would not do any harm, regardless which church they ended up joining. After bundling everyone in cloaks and blankets, she hustled them out the door and packed them in the sled. Dirk was finally walking, though not outdoors in the snow.
Anna felt better already. The children’s eyes glowed with pleasure, and Anna breathed in the glorious crisp air. Along the street, over the bridge to the Dam square she strode, pulling the sled, and squinting in the bright sunshine. Only a few other people were out who were heading in the same direction. Father Hendricks would draw his brows together in displeasure and no doubt report his faithless members to the Court officers.
At least they would be so busy with those not present, that they would pay no attention to Anna. The unfinished Nieuwe Kerk on the square might never need to be completed if too many people turned Anabaptist. She shivered as she walked past the Stadthaus, a place she hoped never to visit again. She reached the door of the Church of St. Nicholas, or the Oude Kerk, in time to see the sneaky little Court servant slip inside. Pleasant company, Anna thought, hunching into her cloak.
She was struck anew by the opulence of the church’s interior. Instead of the awe and holiness she was used to feeling there, the exquisitely painted scenes on the altarpiece seemed a little vulgar, with nearly nude men and women swirling in a vision of red, blue and gold. The stained-glass scenes of the Last Supper on the windows were lovely today, with the sun shining through. But Anna could not admire them as much as she usually did, though she tried hard. The picture of a snowy clearing in the cedars kept intruding into her mind. The high stone arches were as impressive as ever, hung as they were with all kinds of banners and coats-of-arms. Still, it irritated Anna that she could only see them as pretentious, while remembering the fragrant arches of cedar branches beside a path through the woods.
The churchgoers seemed more distant, and their devotion more contrived than ever before. Anna held Dirk, and Trijntgen and Bettke clung to her skirts, thumbs in mouth. If Anna was less than entranced, the children made up for it. Their eyes were blue circles of amazement when the priest began his chants, though they understand not a word of the Latin he spoke. The hair on the back of Anna’s neck rose when she noticed the sneaky little servant standing nearby, partly hidden by a column. He stared at her with narrowed eyes. Maybe she wasn’t as secure here as she’d hoped, even though she was obediently attending the Catholic church.
Afterwards, on the way home, Anna couldn’t shake the feeling of being followed. When she glanced back over her shoulder, she saw no one, yet out of the corner of her eyes, she kept seeing a flitting shadow in the doorways. With some relief, she reached home without incident, content to stay indoors once more.
About a week later, on a freezing cold February night, after Anna and the children were all tucked in their beds, Anna suddenly bolted upright. What was that sound? Those bumps and thumps against her door? Thank goodness it was bolted. Was it only a half-frozen stray dog trying to find shelter, or something else? Goosebumps formed on her body and she hugged herself. Did she hear a faint shout or was it only the wind? When she heard the sound again, she got out of bed, shivering, and wrapped a blanket around her body. She lit a candle with shaking fingers and trembled from head to toe as she walked to the door.
The floor was icy cold for her stockinged feet as she fumbled with the latch. The fierce wind pelted a billow of snow into the kitchen as it blew inwards, nearly ripping the door out of her hands and instantly extinguishing the candle’s flame. Something large fell onto the floor in front of her with a hard thump and a groan. She stifled a scream. She felt, rather than saw, another figure enter the room. It too fell on the floor. She struggled mightily with the door until finally she was able to re-fasten the latch.
The blanket lay somewhere on the floor behind her. Anna shook violently with cold and fear. Stepping carefully around the bodies on the floor, she felt her way to the fireplace to relight her candle. She put more wood on the fire and got a roaring blaze going before she found the courage to turn around and see what the wind blew in.
By flickering candlelight, she crept over to the still figures on the floor. She felt dizzy. Adriaen? Two nearly frozen men lay there, one mumbling incoherently, the other too far gone for that. After a quick check, she was both disappointed and relieved. No Adriaen. She grabbed one of the men under the arms, and, with much effort, dragged him closer to the fire. He groaned and shifted himself onto his side. At least he was alive.
She was panting and shaking, but she had to get the other one over to the fire too. Somehow, she managed it. This one was only a young boy, certainly smaller and lighter than the other. He made no stir. Now what? She found her blanket and wrapped it tightly around the boy. By rummaging in a chest, she found another blanket for the man. She removed their boots and rubbed their icy feet with her hands. There was sure to be frostbite.
Who were these men? What were they doing here? And most important, were they friend or foe? She’d find out when they revived enough to talk. She warmed some water in the kettle above the fire until it was no longer ice cold, then filled a bowl and placed their hands in the water, one freezing blue hand at a time. After what seemed like hours, but might have been minutes, the heavy-set man finally came around and looked about with wondering eyes.
“Is this the right place? You are Anna?” Anna started in surprise. How did this stranger know her name? She hugged her arms around herself.
“Yes, I am. How do you know my name?”
“Adriaen sent us with a letter,” he replied. “Can you lodge us until the weather allows us to travel farther?” He winced, rubbing his hands together. “That blizzard is terrible. We almost didn’t make it.”
Anna was speechless. Happy as she was to find out Adriaen was alive, she was alarmed that these men asked to stay here. They must be quite desperate for shelter. Had they run out of safe homes to hide in?
“My name is Willem, by the way. Sorry for intruding.”
Anna just shivered. Willem peered with concern at the young man who was finally beginning to show some signs of life. “Poor fellow, he’s about done in.” Anna knelt beside the boy, alternately rubbing his feet, then his hands. She was worried about him, but she wanted Adriaen’s message, and she wanted it now.
“How is Adriaen doing?” She tried not to sound too eager. Really, the important thing was reviving this young man; supposedly, the message could wait.
“He was at Antwerp when last I saw him. There is quite a large following there. However,” Willem continued, “persecution is becoming quite severe. The dungeons are full, and so are all the other places the authorities use to confine them. I fear they will soon execute large numbers to make room for others.”
Anna’s chest constricted. This man could not know what unbearable pain he was inflicting on her. She clenched her fists and her temple throbbed. The smoke of the fire brought tears to her eyes.
“But…but…Adriaen? He is safe?” She did not want to hear that he had been captured, now or ever.
“As safe as a Dienaar can be. He was thinking of going to spread the word in Germany, which is safer than Antwerp. Not that any place is safe for the Brethren, mind you.” Anna was well aware of that. It was only a matter of time, she knew. Somehow the authorities always seemed to figure out who the leaders were, usually by unsavoury methods.
But Germany! To Anna, it seemed like an ill omen. It was a place she had left behind gladly, and she hoped Adriaen wouldn’t be staying there for long.
“Oh, where is the letter he sent…?” Willem sat up and patted his pockets. “Now, where did it go?” He reached inside his right coat pocket, then his left, and his brow furrowed. “I know I put it in here somewhere.” He checked every pocket but found nothing. Anna stared at him, her eyes narrowed. He had better find it.
“It musta fallen out when I had my hands in my pockets to warm ’em. I’m so sorry.” He looked stricken. “I hope there was nothing important in it, lest it fall into the wrong hands.”
Yes, just produce it and put it into the right hands; mine! Anna was crushed. How dare the man lose something so important? For an instant, she was so angry she wished he had froze to death—a thought, she realized, she would need to confess to Father Hendricks. Or would she? The Anabaptists wouldn’t. They confessed their sins to God only.
“Can you check just one more time?” The result was the same. He didn’t have it.
“Perhaps your friend has it?” Anna knew it was a useless question, but it was beyond aggravating that this man had lost something so precious. They searched the younger man’s pockets and found a collection of items, but no letter. For over a month, Anna had been watching and waiting every day for some word of Adriaen, and to have it snatched away like this was too much. She fought back tears of rage and disappointment as she continued to work over the boy, and tried to forgive the man.
When dawn arrived, the storm had abated, and the sun shone its weak rays through the storm-blown window. Anna got a better look at her guests, and guessed the younger man to be about twenty, though he was so small and slim it was no wonder she thought he was only a boy. His cheeks were sunken and pale, and he looked exhausted. He had a small beard and reddish hair in an unkempt tangle above his high, white forehead. His eyes had to be green to match, but he hadn’t opened them yet.
The other man was tall and probably in his forties, with the wide shoulders and muscular appearance of someone used to heavy labor. His dark hair was streaked with gray, and his dark blue eyes were wide-set above a rather large nose. He wore the rough clothes of a peasant farmer, while the other looked as though he had stepped out of a university hall, with smooth hands and well-made clothing. An odd-looking pair to be sure.
Willem huddled in the blanket and shivered, but his concern for his companion was obvious. He knelt beside the man on the opposite side of Anna.
“Jan, my friend, wake up.” He shook him gently, but only the blue eyelids fluttered to indicate life. Anna found another blanket for him and added more wood to the fire.
When the children woke up, Trijntgen jumped up from the furs near the fireplace. “Father!” she cried. But she stopped short when she saw the strangers, and slowly backed away. She ran sobbing to Anna and buried her face in her apron. “I want my Father!”
“I know, schatje, I know. We all do.” She smoothed the little girl’s hair with her gentle, work-worn hands. “Would you like to give the man some bread and cheese?” Trijntgen shook her head. She was having none of this man who was not her father.
“No?” Anna handed the food to Willem, which she had prepared along with some ale. “You must be very hungry.”
He nodded and nearly grabbed the food out of her hands, before gobbling it down, smacking his lips and slurping his ale. Anna watched him warily. She chewed on some bread herself and gave some to the children. They crowded to her side with solemn blue eyes staring at the newcomers, fascinated. At least they forgot their quibbling since they had some entertainment.
As the morning went on, Willem became increasingly restless. His companion was taking a long time to come around. He opened his eyes a few times, looked around with a glassy stare, then went back to sleep.
“Poor boy, he’s had a rough time of it. He ain’t used to bein’ out in the cold like me. I’m afraid I pushed him too far last night, even if I did carry him on my back for the last few miles.”
“How long have you been travelling?”
“I’ve lost track of time, but it must have been a couple weeks since we left Antwerp.”
“Have you been out in the cold all that time?”
“We slept at an inn the first two nights, but the second night we almost got caught. The innkeeper kept looking at us, suspicious-like, and Jan saw him whispering to his servant, then he slipped out the back door. We left right away, but had a difficult time escaping them soldiers. We hid in a barn for the rest of the night, and since then we haven’t risked an inn. We slept in forests during the day, and travelled by night.” He looked at her questioningly. “Do you know where the Brethren are to be found in this town? We have been sent to gather them and strengthen them in the truth.”
Anna could tell him very little. She had not learned the names of the people she’d seen in the forest that night so long ago with Adriaen. She mentioned the baker as a man who could be trusted; other than that, she could give no information.
“I’ll go see him if you don’t mind me leaving Jan with you.”
Anna nodded. The children gathered around the sleeping man, whispering and wondering. She smiled as they crept closer and closer, their curiosity overcoming their shyness.
“Barbli? Is that you, Barbli?” They were all startled when he started mumbling in confusion. The children’s chatter must have awakened him. Anna laid down the wool she had picked up to wind and rushed to his side.
“Jan! Wake up!” She smoothed the reddish hair away from his forehead with a cool hand and washed his face with a cloth dipped in warm water. He mumbled something that sounded like “mother.” She fed him a bit of warm water with a spoon, which he managed to swallow. He opened his eyes, they were green, and looked around in bewilderment and dismay.
“Where am I? And where is Willem?”
“Don’t worry. You are safe here.” Anna hoped this was true. The more she was involved with these people, the less safe they all became.
“I thought I heard my little sister talking.” His voice was weak and hoarse, but he was alive. He spotted Trijntgen, Bettke and Dirk staring at him with awestruck faces, and smiled sadly. “I thought I was in Heaven with my little sister Barbli.”
Anna swallowed. He did look almost angelic, with his sweet, sad smile and perfect features. She helped him sit up, bundled in the two blankets. The wind was still howling outside, though not as fiercely as the night before. She wondered if Willem found his way to the baker. He seemed to be a man who could never keep still.
“Are you in any pain?”
He wiggled his toes. “The feeling is coming back, and it hurts. There might be frostbite.” He smiled ruefully, which brightened his pale face. “I’m not sure how I came to be here, or where I am. The last thing I remember is Willem slinging me over his shoulder like a sack of wheat, and the terrible cold and the wind. How he managed to find you is a miracle of God. We could not see a foot in front of our face.” His eyes closed again, and he laid himself back on the floor and fell back to sleep.
Frenzied thoughts began rushing through Anna’s mind as she plucked at her wool winding. She was fast reaching the point of no return. In the eyes of the law, she would already be a condemned heretic for the meeting she had attended—her presence in church notwithstanding-- and now she was sheltering fugitives. They were Anabaptist leaders actively seeking converts, no less. If she didn’t take her information to the authorities before they found out about her, her life was over.
She looked at the children playing quietly on the floor near the sleeping man. She had them to think about, not only herself. If anything happened to her, where would they go? The authorities would be gratified and pay a good reward for reporting these two. Not only could she use the money, but reporting these so-called heretics would safeguard her own future, and that of the children, for a long time to come. The thought made her feel sick inside. It would be like betraying her own family.
On the other hand, neither did she want to be caught giving refuge to outlaws, and suffer imprisonment and a cruel death. In fact, she didn’t want to think of death at all, not for a long time. It was a mystery to her how the Anabaptists went to their fiery and watery deaths with joyfulness and song, as she had already witnessed in Germany. They must be expecting a great reward in Heaven, and she wanted that assurance for herself. She was beginning to doubt that she would burn eternally if she turned to the Anabaptists. Her parents would be amazed and pleased if they knew their papist daughter was softening her stance against the Anabaptists.
The more Anabaptists she saw, including Adriaen and Maeyken, Elizabeth and Claes, the more Anna became convinced that they held a secret she wanted to know for herself. No amount of deprivation or danger seemed to shake their precious peace. They put all their trust in God, and in the saving blood of Jesus, and would hear nothing of the pompous priest’s or the venerable saints’ intervention for them. They refused to accept the Scriptures the way the Catholic church taught them, and insisted their own interpretation was the right one and the only one that mattered.
Little did they care for the rules and decrees of popes, kings or magistrates if they interfered with their beliefs. They would rather suffer cruel deaths than stray one step from the path of what they read in the Gospel. In one thing Anna agreed with the authorities- these people were obstinate, no doubt about that. Whatever else they were, they were still human beings, and if she betrayed them, she would be no better than a murderer. Whatever she became for defying authority, nothing could compel her to send innocent people to slaughter.
Anna didn’t know how much longer she could keep up the charade of being a faithful Catholic. She wanted to know more about these Brethren, who seemed so much more real and approachable than any priest. They dressed simply and talked plainly. It was incredible how they could have their sins forgiven just by praying to God. Probably their sins were not very great to begin with. Not like those who were filled with unholy rage when someone lost a letter.
Anger bubbled up in her heart again, just by thinking about such rank carelessness. Besides the bitter disappointment, there was the danger of the wrong person getting it into their hands, which would betray Adriaen, and probably herself. She knew that she would have guarded such a letter with her life.
And where was Willem anyway? He had shown such concern for his friend before, and now he had vanished. She hoped he hadn’t been caught.
Jan stayed awake in the afternoon for a few hours. He was quite attracted to the children, and they to him, after they got over their shyness. He explained to Anna that he had several younger brothers and sisters at home in Switzerland, besides Barbli who had died in the fall, and he was also a schoolteacher. So, she had guessed correctly when she thought he looked like he came out of a university hall.
He entertained the children with stories and even some songs in a beautiful tenor voice. The children were disappointed when Anna made him sleep some more, but he still looked so tired. Anna smiled to see how the children kept leaning over and peeking into his face, hoping he wouldn’t sleep too long. She loved this young man like a brother already; his loving nature just shone through. He awoke in time for the evening meal, though he didn’t eat much.
Jan got up and started pacing the floor afterwards, stopping frequently to gaze out the window, where he looked left, then right, shook his head and sighed. Anna hoped Willem would come back before dark; she had no desire for another fright tonight.
Twilight fell, and the man had not returned. Black night descended and still he had not returned.
In the morning, Jan straightened his shoulders and announced that he was going to find out what happened. He swayed a little as he bundled himself up and headed for the door, steadying himself as he opened it.
“Please wait until you’re a little stronger,” Anna entreated, but he wouldn’t listen. This young man had already come to feel like a brother to her, the brother she had lost. Tears welled in her eyes. Nobody could ever take the place of Heinrich, but this lad came close. He was just one of those people who instantly won the hearts of everyone with his cheerful outlook and easy smile.
“I must go.”
“Be careful!” Anna warned him, wringing her apron. “Please don’t get caught.”