Harlingen, March 1532
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God…Eph 2:8
Anna walked briskly down the street, elated to be out and about instead of being tied to a chair all day. She passed through the marketplace, and it brought a sharp pang to her heart. It reminded her too much of Simon, her former employer, who had died in prison, feeble and alone. How she longed to return to those simple, happy days when her biggest concern was whether the bread would rise or whether the butter would clabber, but those days could come no more. Simon and his house were gone.
The marketplace was noisy and crowded, and smelled of fish, freshly butchered pork, onions, and cheese. Shoppers haggled for lower prices and peasant wives whined for more money. The coppersmiths clanged their pots and pans together for attention to their wares; at the goldsmith’s booth, a foppishly dressed young man with a tall powdered wig and a flourishing mustache was berating the inferior quality of the golden chains, claiming his bride would scorn such slapdash workmanship.
An escaped pig ran helter-skelter, with two screaming boys racing along behind it, as it jumped over baskets of eggs, overturning one and leaving the other tottering precariously, leaving the farmer’s daughter screeching in high indignation, half her day’s wages lost. Some withered apples in a battered basket were wilting further in the sun beside a woven, wooden cage where three speckled hens and a bantam rooster pecked disappointedly at the ground underneath.
Anna pushed through the pack, trying to figure out where the cobbler had his stall. She longed to see a familiar face, though the busy marketplace was the last place a fugitive was likely to go. Finally, she found the cobbler, a long, thin man with a straggly gray beard and a dirty, ragged coat, standing in his stall between those of the tinsmith and the cooper. His faded blue eyes watched half a dozen tattered young boys playing an exuberant game on the ground. They all looked the same except for their size. No wonder he looked so tired.
Anna handed him the boots and he looked at them sadly. “I fear I cannot repair them. They have a large hole here,” he turned the boot over, “and here the sole has nearly come off.” He picked up the other one and repeated the same melancholy story for it.
“Can you make a new pair instead?”
The cobbler brightened perceptibly, and nearly smiled. It must be drudgery to always be looking at old boots, which people wanted him to make new for practically nothing. Anna thought it would make her sad too.
When she was done dealing with him, she left the old boots for the cobbler so he could cut the usable pieces out of them to use as patches on someone else’s old boots. She struggled her way out of the milling, sweaty pack of people, determined to find at least one of her lost men. She was standing at the edge of the crowd, trying to decide which way to go, when one of the cobbler’s little boys ran up to her, waving a piece of rolled-up old leather, which he thrust into her hands before dashing back through the milling crowd.
She looked at the odd piece in her hands, completely bewildered. She turned it over and unrolled it. A note! Could this be a message from Jan? Or one of the others? Excitedly she read: ’The miller’s wife would like to talk to you about an important matter.’
Anna looked around, mystified. Where and who was the miller’s wife? Obviously, a miller’s wife would live near a mill. All she had to do was find the mill. A mill was built by a river, so she headed in that direction. Once she reached the river, it wasn’t too hard to find the mill. Beside the mill squatted a small, comfortable looking cottage with wild crocuses growing beside the path. Anna walked up to the door and knocked. A pretty young girl took her inside without asking her business. By the fireside an old woman knitted, while carrying on a conversation with someone huddled on the floor covered in blankets.
The red hair gave him away.
“Jan!” she cried, running across the small room, “Is it really you? She knelt beside him, overjoyed to see his familiar pale face.
He smiled a warm welcome. “It’s me. On the floor sleeping as usual.” There were dark shadows beneath his still twinkling green eyes. Cornelia would have to fix him some strengthening potions, and the sooner the better. “Are you uninjured?”
“Oh yes. Good as new. Greta and her Grandmother have adopted me, and I’ve never been so spoiled in my life.” He smiled his charming smile at the girl, who blushed prettily. She hovered close by, with her hands clasped at her waist and her blue eyes sparkling with anxiety.
“Are you comfortable, Jan? Would you like some more broth?” Greta asked.
He shook his head. “It was delicious, Greta. The best I ever ate, but I can’t eat any more.”
She smiled, dimpling her rosy pink cheeks and her hips swayed as she took his empty bowl away. Clearly, she was a flirt. Jan was licking up the attention like a puppy with a bowl of milk, and Anna found herself inexplicably irritated at the two of them. But why did it even matter to her? She just didn’t want Jan throwing himself away on a simpering miller’s daughter, that’s all.
Anna hadn’t had a chance to decline Jan’s proposal, and here he was, basking in the devotion of this miller girl. A private conversation with Jan seemed unlikely to happen in this house. She wanted to hear all about his great escape, and she supposed it would be safe to discuss it with these people, seeing that he was here. Yet she’d rather have him to herself. What was the matter with her? Jan did not belong to her and she had no right to make demands on him.
Jan was like a brother to her, she reminded herself. She cared for him like the brother she once had. A sharp pain pierced Anna’s heart, as she remembered how she and Heinrich used to run in the sweet meadows, playing tag while they watched the sheep on the hills. Heinrich, a year younger than herself, had always been her playmate as a child, and became her closest friend and confidante as they grew older. And now… Anna didn’t want to think about it, but now those days had turned to ashes.
She shook herself. Jan would be such a nice husband for someone, if he managed to hang on to his life. If he was content with a giddy miller’s daughter, so be it. He was old enough to decide for himself. Though he had proposed to her, she had yet to find an opportunity to give her answer. Probably Jan had forgotten all about it. If Jan married someone else, she would miss his companionship, but she reminded herself it would be a lot worse for her heart if this were Adriaen falling in love with Greta.
Anna rearranged Jan’s blankets and his pillow, wondering if they came off the girl’s bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Sleepy.” He grinned.
“How did you end up here? And where are the others? Did the sailors get their brother out?” Anna could wait no longer to hear his story, audience or not. Sleepy or not.
Jan sat up, throwing aside his covers. “You women have spoiled me long enough. I have to get my blood flowing again.” He winked at Anna. “Yes, the sailors got their brother out. It’s surprising they cared enough about him to pull it off. God does work in mysterious ways. They just remembered him lying in prison and decided it had gone on long enough, so they set about freeing him, without further ado. Their brother and his fellow prisoners were awakened by a rock hitting their window, followed by a length of stout rope.”
“Were you in that same cell?”
“No, I was in a different part of the prison.” Amusement was written on his face. “After the first man had let himself down with a rope, another rock came flying through the window. There was a note attached, with orders that a certain pale-faced redhead was to be rescued without fail. So they had to break me out of my solitary cell.”
Anna was touched that the sailors had gone to so much trouble, and she could never thank them enough. In fact, she might never see them again. “How many got out?”
Jan’s eyes clouded. “There were five men in the brother’s cell, but one of them refused to leave, saying he is old, ready for death and ready to join his Maker.” A tear slipped from beneath Jan’s red-tinged eyelashes and slid down his colorless cheek. “God bless him. He gave his life for my worthless one. There was no time for another to escape. I was the last one.”
He was silent for a minute.
“The guards returned as we were slinking away. They were so close we could hear them talking. What did you do to get their attention?” He looked at Anna curiously.
She blushed. “Why do you ask? I got their attention; isn’t that all that matters?”
“It’s just that they said there was some lover’s quarrel, and the woman screamed like she was insane. Then the man and woman ran away holding hands. This wasn’t you, was it?”
Anna’s face grew as hot as a blacksmith’s tongs. Is that what it had looked like? It was scandalous. She found she could not answer the question honestly. If she were an Anabaptist, she would tell the truth unflinchingly, but it embarrassed her to hear what the guards thought was happening. Lover’s quarrel indeed!
“I heard a woman scream, saving me from having to do it.” Anna was ashamed of her bare-faced lie, yet there was no way she was going to disclose Adriaen’s part in this. She wasn’t ready to relate the incident to anyone. She could never do so without revealing how she felt about Adriaen, and it would be unthinkable to relate it to others before she had the smallest hope of winning his heart.
“Where are the others who escaped? Has anyone come looking for them? Are you far enough away? Your red hair is a dead giveaway. I’m afraid you’re not safe here.” Anna peppered him with questions, anything to distract him from that screaming woman.
“Hold on, hold on! One question at a time.” Jan held up a long white hand. “First of all, I do not know where the others went, but they are far away from Harlingen by now, I believe. The authorities may come searching for me, but they were hot on the trail of the others, so by the time they start searching closer to home, I’ll be long gone.”
“Oh, I hope they all got away safely!”
“I expect they did. The Brethren know of hideouts where they won’t be easily found, Lord willing.”
“But where will you go? Will you always have to keep running and hiding?” Anna’s eyes were full of concern. What an unstable life.
Jan gazed at her gently. “Anna, the Lord will take care of me. I will go wherever He leads me until He finds me worthy to die. Can you not trust God to know what is best for me? If I die, I hope to win the crown of eternal life, so why should I fear death?”
“But Jan, you are not strong enough to go on the rack. I couldn’t bear it.”
“My strength is in the Lord. He forsakes not the smallest creature, and He will not forsake me, whatever comes.”
“But are you not afraid of the pain?”
“Fear not, sayeth the Lord. For though ye walk through the valley of death, thou art not alone. I will never leave thee nor forsake thee,” he quoted.
Anna felt the words cover her soul like balm on a wound. The words comforted and soothed. She relaxed her stiff shoulders. Jan was not afraid because he knew the Comforter. Death would not be a horrible thing to him, like it would be to her. Was it possible that death had not been as horrible for her family as she had always imagined? If they had the same sense of peace as Jan did, they would have found comfort in the hope of eternal peace in Heaven instead of fighting their imminent deaths. She longed to have that same comfort and peace in her soul, to trust God to be her Comforter, in any kind of suffering and hardship.
“Jan, if you were being executed by fire, would your comfort in God’s presence be sufficient to take away the pain?” Anna asked.
“I have not been tested, but if God grants me faith like the Brethren who have been martyred, singing with joy and anticipation at the stake, I fully believe this is possible. Is there anything troubling you?”
Through all the days huddled in Cornelia’s hut, Anna had never trusted herself to talk about her parents and siblings. But now, a torrent of pent-up grief and guilt poured out into Jan’s sympathetic ears, cleansing her heart and soul of all the turmoil she had carried for so long.
“Anna, I am so sorry. I did not know you have suffered so much.” Jan touched her arm. “You do not need to bear this burden alone any longer. Accept Jesus into your heart. He will be with you always, and never ever forsake thee. And from what you have just told me, I am certain your family believed this too, and clung to Him in their last moments. The short time they may have suffered was worth it, in exchange for a crown in heaven.”
Finally, Anna accepted there was no need to torment herself, or dwell on what her loved ones had suffered. God was already taking care of them, so much better than she ever could, and He always had been. Anna had been spared for a reason, and could the reason be that she hadn’t been ready to meet her Maker, and thus she was given more time?
Jan watched her, all the love in his heart reflected in the deep green pools of his eyes. Anna’s aching soul filled with a love more profound than anything she had ever known. Not a romantic kind of love, but a heavenly love with a tiny glimpse of a golden eternity. Finally, she could begin to see how the Anabaptists faced cruel deaths with hearts full of joy and a song on their lips. Heaven would be worth it all, and God would never forsake them.
Greta and the old grandmother went quietly about their chores, caught up in the wonder of a soul wavering on the brink of a great new truth.
Anna whispered, “Jan, I need to pray to God for forgiveness for my many sins, but I don’t know how. Will you help me?”
“Gladly.” He bowed his head and so did Anna. “Dear God, humbly we come before Thee to ask forgiveness for all our sins, and we thank Thee for sending your Son to die on the cross, so that henceforth, we may be washed clean by Thy blood. Amen.”
Anna’s tears fell unheeded down her cheeks, washing away all the despair, all the worry, and all the fear; the love of God taking it all away and replacing it with a peace and comfort found nowhere else.