Harlingen, March 1532
I can do all things in Him who strengthens me…Philippians 4:13
A shadow crossed her line of vision. She jumped up, ready to race for her life, but when she saw the man, she nearly fell backwards onto the pile of wheat. This must be a dream.
“Surprised to see me?” Adriaen grinned.
Anna was struck wordless. It was not at all like she had imagined it if she ever saw him again. For one thing, she could not comprehend that he was standing there instead of wasting away in a prison tower or dungeon, waiting for the end. She was bedraggled and tear-swept, her cap askew, her nose running. She was homeless, scared and guilty, and hiding in a strange place many miles from home without a farthing to her name.
“Adriaen,” she finally whispered, her fingers tangling in her straggly hair as she tried to tame the mess. Giving up the attempt to make herself presentable, she straightened her cap, and realized it didn’t matter. What mattered was that Adriaen was there, alive and well. Her heart rejoiced, and she couldn’t stop herself from glowing like a sunbeam. “I thought you were in prison.”
Adriaen shook his head. “We need to talk. Come with me, I know a place where we should be safe.”
Anna hesitated. Talk? About what? That she had lost his children? All of a sudden, she wasn’t sure this was a good idea. She couldn’t bear to think of his friendliness turning to anger and sorrow when she confessed what had happened.
“I have to find Cornelia.”
“Cornelia? Who is she?”
“A very good friend of mine, to whom I owe my life. You must meet her; I’m certain you would adore her.”
He held out a hand, which she hardly trusted herself to touch. Slowly, she reached out, and the warmth and strength of his fingers closing around hers was a tonic to her soul.
“Let’s go find her then,” he said.
“And Jan. We have to rescue Jan.” They had the street to themselves, everyone else must have joined the mob at the Town Hall. Anna let go of Adriaen’s hand, taking care to keep some space between them as they walked.
“Is that, by any chance, the young prisoner with a face like oatmeal and hair the color of a carrot you were staring at?” Adriaen teased her.
Anna blushed, embarrassed at his insinuation. “Jan is quite pale and has red hair. If I was staring, it’s because I’m worried about him, and every one of the captured ones.”
Adriaen sobered. “Yes, it is most unfortunate. And there is already a big fire burning on the shore, with the Bibles and tracts we were waiting on, serving as the fuel.”
“That’s a terrible loss. Why does the government object to the populace reading the Bible?”
Adriaen peered over his shoulder before whispering, “They don’t want people to find out what the Bible really says. They know they have been teaching their subjects lies, the better to control them.”
“What kind of lies?”
“Mostly striking fear into their hearts by telling them the prince-bishops are passing messages to them directly from God, forcing their vassals to serve them, and somehow ending up with most of their money and assets. The money is used for buying every kind of expensive adornment for their castles and their cathedrals, disregarding the hunger and poverty of the people. The clergy convince them that God wants them to sacrifice every earthly comfort, and honor and obey those who are so nearly like God, if they want to go to Heaven. Now when the commoners read the Bible, they find out it’s just not true.”
Anna frowned. What possessed these rulers? Weren’t they afraid for their own souls? Or did they believe they were above reproach from ordinary mortals, and even above the judgment of God?
“I must say I was pleased to see you in the crowd, and I hoped you’d see me wave. When you ran away, I had to follow you.”
“You waved?” Anna said. “I had no idea you were in the country. I didn’t know whether you even lived, since the last I heard you were cast into some dark dungeon.”
“You didn’t get my letter? And the money?”
Anna seethed with rage and disappointment all over again at his question. “Willem lost it,” she said through her teeth. “And he never said anything about money.” It was dreadful of her to think so badly of Willem, but still, losing something so important really was unforgivable. “He and Jan, the young man you saw, came to my house nearly frozen to death one night, and he had lost it somewhere in the storm.”
Adriaen’s face wrinkled in concern. “I hope it didn’t fall into the wrong hands. I tried not to write anything condemning, but it might condemn you because your name was on it.”
“Oh, Adriaen, there’s more bad news, something I must tell you before we take another step.” She turned to face him. Must she once again be the one to inflict pain into those trustful brown eyes?
“Adriaen, the children are gone.” She looked at the ground, not daring and not wishing to see the anger in his face.
“Gone where? I assumed they would be here in Harlingen with you.”
Anna related the tale with anguish in her voice and eyes; how she had fled with Jan to the bush, leaving the children at home alone, how they had nearly frozen by the time Cornelia found them, the long weeks in the hut and finally going back to Amsterdam only to hear the shocking news of the children’s deaths.
Slowly, Adriaen’s eyes grew dull as baked mud. “I see,” he said, swallowing hard. He continued walking in silence, but his shoulders seemed to droop, and his face had turned a grayish hue. “And did you find out where they…” he gulped and finished on a hoarse sob, “buried them?”
“No, Adriaen, I’m sorry. Unfortunately, we were not given that information. I cannot believe they are gone, and I will never forgive myself for abandoning them.” Anna’s eyes blurred with tears, but she must not break down in front of Adriaen. He was the one in need of sympathy, not her. He had lost too much—his wife, his home, his livelihood, and now his children.
“But you must forgive yourself. I don’t deny this is hard news to stomach, but it is the price to pay for becoming a True Soldier of Christ. I pray they didn’t suffer for long. I believe they are with their mother now, in a happier place than this sad world. If I cling to that hope, I can not wish them back.”
Anna puzzled over this, and finally concluded that Adriaen’s position was a selfless way to view the loss. Apart from what they may have suffered, the innocent little ones were now in Heaven with Jesus, where suffering and pain are no more. This observation made the children’s demise a trifle more tolerable. She also comforted her still-partly-Catholic heart with the knowledge that they had been baptized, not that Adriaen would count that as any gain. And unbeknownst to him, his only possible remaining child, Anneken, had been secretly baptized by her. And it certainly could do no harm, she thought.
“If Claes and Elizabeth could be found, you may still have Anneken. I heard they are in Harlingen.”
“I haven’t heard anything about them for some time, but yes, let us pray Anneken still lives.” Adriaen said. “As soon as I can get away, I will try to find her.” He paused, then turned to look at Anna. He lifted his flat cap off his dark hair, then settled it again on his head. “If you didn’t get the letter, how did you happen to come to Harlingen? I mentioned in my letter that I’ll be here by March, but I was astonished to see you.”
“I guess God must have led us here then. But why would He lead us here, only to have Jan arrested?” Anna shivered. “He doesn’t deserve to be in a dungeon. I really should be searching for Cornelia, and thinking of a way to free Jan.”
“Oh yes. Cornelia. Where did you last see her?”
“I lost her in the crowd of vultures over by the Town Hall. We were unaware that the ship was smuggling Bibles until we got here. I even helped load them in Amsterdam.”
“I must say I’m amazed Captain Clement let you on the ship. He doesn’t usually take passengers, especially not women. It’s a dangerous thing he was doing, and he will probably have to answer with his life now. But he and his crew would have been arrested, regardless whether or not he had any women on board.”
“He did say women on board were bad luck, and it must be true. Cornelia managed to get us on there, and without paying a penny.”
Adriaen whistled. “I didn’t think Clement would fall for the charms of a pretty woman. I must meet the beautiful Cornelia.” Anna smiled to herself. He was in for quite a surprise, although it irked her that he was so eager to meet a pretty woman.
“Do you want to go now?” Adriaen asked.
“I really would, if you don’t mind. I am concerned about Cornelia, even if she is self-sufficient. I’d hate to see her harmed.”
Changing direction, they headed back to the centre of town. The square in front of the Town Hall was unoccupied now, except for some pigeons on the ground pecking at kernels of grain. Down by the shore, there was an uproar from the crowd, while the fire raged high. The air was filled with smoke. Officers on horseback rode around the area, their swords at the ready in case the mob turned ugly. As Anna and Adriaen watched, people grabbed books out of the flames and tossed them into the crowd. Not everyone wanted these books burned!
Cornelia was nowhere in sight. Adriaen led Anna down a narrow street with tall buildings crowded together shoulder to shoulder. A woman in an upstairs room of one house was chatting with a woman in the upstairs room of the house across the way.
“Watch out!” Anna leaped aside just in time as a pail of slop emptied above her head. It splattered down into the street, and the hem of her long skirt was splashed with some of the vile smelling liquid. She choked back the furious words that rose to her throat. Women must not display unseemly temper, but it was hard.
They continued surveying some back streets, hoping for a glimpse of Cornelia, then came out through a narrow alley to the place where the weavers lived and had their shops. Anna could hear the hum of their looms as they passed dim doorways.
“Would you mind coming with me to my sister’s house?” Adriaen asked. “We’ll get some refreshment and search again afterwards.”
“I didn’t know you have a sister. Certainly, I would like to meet her.” Adriaen led her to the last house in the row, a modest slate-roofed stone house with a clean look about it. The small yard was swept spotless and some early red and yellow tulips grew in a patch beside the packed earth path leading up to the doorway.
A plump, smiling woman came bustling to the door, bringing with her the wonderful aroma of baking bread. She wiped pudgy hands on her apron and bade them come inside. Two little boys tussled with a mangy looking dog on the floor, laughing and squealing. Anna felt tears rising and quickly looked away. It seemed like a long time since she’d smelled the comfort of baking bread or had the pleasure of watching children at their happy play.
“I have a visitor for you, Susanna.” He turned to Anna. “This is Anna, the woman who took care of my poor motherless children when I had to leave so unexpectedly.”
Anna smiled. She knew she was going to love Susanna, a woman with the same dark hair and brown eyes as Adriaen.
“Come on in,” Susanna welcomed them. “You’re just in time for some warm bread and butter.” Anna’s stomach rumbled in pleasure. Susanna made them sit by the table while she swiftly cut generous slices of bread and slathered them with butter, serving it on a platter along with foaming cups of buttermilk.
“Anything new in town today?” Susanna asked.
Adriaen set down his slice of bread, and Anna held hers halfway to her mouth, unable to take a bite.
“As a matter of fact,” Adriaen said. “There are a few things, but aside from finding Anna, it is unhappy news.” He bent his head, and Anna noticed moisture glistening in his eyes. For a few minutes there was silence, even the little boys scrabbling on the floor stopped their play, sensing some sorrowful news to come.
“Did the Vrijheid come in today, with the precious cargo?” Susanna prompted.
“She did,” Adriaen said, “and immediately the ship was swarmed by officers of the Court. All the crew has been arrested, and the cargo is warming the shore.”
“Oh!” Susanna clapped a hand to her mouth, her eyes round with dismay. “This is terrible! Surely not more prisoners! And so many Brethren were looking forward to that shipment.”
“I know, but it appears it wasn’t meant to be.”
“There’s worse.” Anna wanted to hide under the table. Adriaen was too good a man to blame her about the children, but she had seriously betrayed his trust. And now they were gone. She should be the one who had perished, not them. Adriaen needed the children after having lost his wife, but he didn’t need her.
Adriaen told his sister in as few words as possible, and she plunked down on a chair with a dazed expression on her face. “Gone! Trijntgen and Bettke and Dirk. And the baby, you have no idea where she is either. Adriaen, this is grievous news indeed. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“You can shelter Anna and keep her safe if possible. Other than that, everything is in God’s hands. He is my comfort, a comfort which can never be taken away.”
“I don’t know exactly what happened to the children, not even where they are buried.” Anna turned tragic eyes to Susanna.
“Oh, this is heartbreaking news indeed. But, Anna, I’m not blaming you.” Susanna said. “I know you only did what you had to do. God needed more angels, I presume, and the children are perhaps fortunate they don’t have to be here to see all the misery that may be coming to us.”
A cloud crossed Adriaen’s handsome features, his brown eyes darkening in pain. “Yes, I have faith that God looked after them here on earth, and now they reside with Him in Heaven. It’s not your fault, Anna. These are turbulent times and there is no safe place for the likes of us. The only safe place is in Christ the Lord, and He will not forsake us. You do believe that, Anna?”
Anna shrugged and looked down at the smoothly sanded oak floorboards. “I see no sense in this constant turmoil. I don’t know what to believe.”
“I will pray for you. As will you, my sister, is that not so?”
Susanna nodded. “Of course. That goes without saying.”
They talked a little longer, until Susanna motioned to the narrow stairway at the end of the room. “Come, you must be exhausted.” She inspected Anna’s rather tall frame with kindly eyes. “I’m afraid I have no dress to offer you that will fall below your knees. But there is water up there if you want to clean up a bit.”
“I would love to, but I have to find Cornelia.”
“I can ask around if you will trust me,” Adriaen offered.
It was very tempting to lay her weary body down. But Adriaen did not know whom he was looking for, not if he was on the lookout for a beautiful young woman.
“I feel like I should go myself.”
“You won’t do anyone any good if you collapse. I can make a few inquiries while you rest. You have been through quite an ordeal,” Adriaen said, setting down his empty cup.
“Your offer is too inviting. I suppose you can’t miss Cornelia. She will probably be somewhere casting her spells.” Anna looked at Adriaen and pleaded, “Can you also try to find out what is happening with Jan? He is not very strong, and I’m afraid he won’t last long in prison.”
Adriaen looked at her keenly. “You care a lot for this man, don’t you?”
“We endured much together for a few weeks this past winter, so yes. I do care for him very much.”
She didn’t tell Adriaen that she loved Jan like a brother, nothing more, that she’d had the opportunity to become more, and still hadn’t given Jan her negative answer. It was better if Adriaen thought her interests lay with Jan. That way he might somehow miss the fact that she loved him. There was no sense in him figuring that out, since it could come to nothing. Before, there was only her appearance to disgust him, now there was so much more.
Anna was so tired. She forced herself to quit thinking these unprofitable thoughts. She lay down on the straw mattress, murmured a few scattered prayers, relaxed her weary body, and soon sleep overtook her.
She was awakened by the sound of excited voices downstairs. Surely not another capture, she thought. This had to stop. It was difficult to be alert all the time and to constantly fear the authorities, whose job it was to protect its citizens, instead of pursuing them unto death.
She jerked upright when she heard Cornelia’s cackling voice downstairs. Throwing the covers aside, she took to the stairs in joyful bounds. If the police were there, Cornelia would tell them a thing or two about the way the country was being run.
Cornelia was safe and sound, wrapped in her shawls and an extra blanket, sipping some hot tea by the glowing fire, regaling the family with the retelling of her escapades.
“…and I told the officer if he didn’t let go of me, I would cast a spell on his cattle so they’d all run into the sea and drown.” Adriaen looked amused.
“I’m surprised he didn’t drown you then and there. You admitted to being a witch, after all.”
“An escaped witch is a very terrible thing, you know. They have twice the power of other witches. He decided not to take the risk.”
Anna chuckled. “Cornelia, I don’t think you’re going to be a very good Anabaptist. They don’t believe in the power of witches, so your spells will get you nowhere.”
Cornelia glared at Anna. “I can tell you know nothing about Anabaptists. They are not cruel, but serve God only, with love and mercy. There is no need to frighten them with threats of spells.”
Anna sobered. It was the truth. As a people, she couldn’t fault them for their honesty, charity and love to others. The problem was their refusal to give in to the authorities, yet they also refused to fight for their beliefs, but chose rather to flee, since Jesus said, ‘If they persecute you in one city, flee to another.’ But if they refused to fight, what made them so dangerous?
Did God want so many of them to die for what they believed to be true? Was it the only way for them to get their point across? To be driven to their deaths by the hundreds? Did there have to be so much bloodshed? How long would this struggle last and how many more lives would it cost?
“Did you hear any news about the sailors they captured today?” Anna asked.
They all turned to look at her. Adriaen gazed at her thoughtfully.
“The inquisitors have been summoned. I hear they will arrive tomorrow,” he said.
“Oh no!” Anna protested. “That means they have to escape tonight. Who will help me?” She held out both hands in supplication.
“Anna, I don’t think there’s anything you can do, except pray to God to be content with His divine will.”
“I can do more than that. I am going out there and praying to God that He will show me how to get Jan and the others out of the tower.”
Adriaen’s eyebrows rose. “You can’t be serious.” How could a lone woman free anyone from a guarded prison, his voice implied.
“Where is your faith in God?” Anna challenged him. “I believe He can do this. I thought the Anabaptists believe that faith can move mountains?”
She headed for the door, grabbing her cloak on her way out and swinging it around her shoulders. She was so tired of adding guilt onto guilt. It was time to do something about it, and she would start by rescuing Jan.