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Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates(Chapter9)

2006-09-08 21:23

  Chapter 9. The Festival of Saint Nicholas

  We all know how, before the Christmas tree began to flourish in the home life of our country, a certain "right jolly old elf," with "eight tiny reindeer," used to drive his sleigh-load of toys up to our housetops, and then bounded down the chimney to fill the stockings so hopefully hung by the fireplace. His friends called his Santa Claus, and those who were most intimate ventured to say "Old Nick." It was said that he originally came from Holland. Doubtless he did, but, if so, he certainly, like many other foreigners, changed his ways very much after landing upon our shores. In Holland, Saint Nicholas is a veritable saint and often appears in full costume, with his embroidered robes, glittering with gems and gold, his miter, his crosier, and his jeweled gloves. Here Santa Claus comes rollicking along, on the twenty-fifth of December, our holy Christmas morn. But in Holland, Saint Nicholas visits earth on the fifth, a time especially appropriated to him. Early on the morning of the sixth, he distributes his candies, toys, and treasures, then vanishes for a year.

  Christmas Day is devoted by the Hollanders to church rites and pleasant family visiting. It is on Saint Nicholas's Eve that their young people become half wild with joy and expectation. To some of them it is a sorry time, for the saint is very candid, and if any of them have been bad during the past year, he is quite sure to tell them so. Sometimes he gives a birch rod under his arm and advises the parents to give them scoldings in place of confections, and floggings instead of toys.

  It was well that the boys hastened to their abodes on that bright winter evening, for in less than an hour afterward, the saint made his appearance in half the homes of Holland. He visited the king's palace and in the selfsame moment appeared in Annie Bouman's comfortable home. Probably one of our silver half-dollars would have purchased all that his saintship left at the peasant Bouman's; but a half-dollar's worth will sometimes do for the poor what hundreds of dollars may fail to do for the rich; it makes them happy and grateful, fills them with new peace and love.

  Hilda van Gleck's little brothers and sisters were in a high state of excitement that night. They had been admitted into the grand parlor; they were dressed in their best and had been given two cakes apiece at supper. Hilda was as joyous as any. Why not? Saint Nicholas would never cross a girl of fourteen from his list, just because she was tall and looked almost like a woman. On the contrary, he would probably exert himself to do honor to such an august-looking damsel. Who could tell? So she sported and laughed and danced as gaily as the youngest and was the soul of all their merry games. Her father, mother, and grandmother looked on approvingly; so did her grandfather, before he spread his large red handkerchief over his face, leaving only the top of his skullcap visible. This kerchief was his ensign of sleep.

  Earlier in the evening all had joined in the fun. In the general hilarity there had seemed to be a difference only in bulk between grandfather and the baby. Indeed, a shade of solemn expectation, now and then flitting across the faces of the younger members, had made them seem rather more thoughtful than their elders.

  Now the spirit of fun reigned supreme. The very flames danced and capered in the polished grate. A pair of prim candles that had been staring at the astral lamp began to wink at other candles far away in the mirrors. There was a long bell rope suspended from the ceiling in the corner, made of glass beads netted over a cord nearly as thick as your wrist. It is generally hung in the shadow and made no sign, but tonight it twinkled from end to end. Its handle of crimson glass sent reckless dashes of red at the papered wall, turning its dainty blue stripes into purple. Passersby halted to catch the merry laughter floating, through curtain and sash, into the street, then skipped on their way with a startled consciousness that the village was wide-awake. At last matters grew so uproarious that the grandsire's red kerchief came down from his face with a jerk. What decent old gentleman could sleep in such a racket! Mynheer van Gleck regarded his children with astonishment. The baby even showed symptoms of hysterics. It was high time to attend to business. Madame suggested that if they wished to see the good Saint Nicholas, they should sing the same loving invitation that had brought him the year before.

  The baby stared and thrust his fist into his mouth as mynheer put him down upon the floor. Soon he sat erect and looked with a sweet scowl at the company. With his lace and embroideries and his crown of blue ribbon and whalebone (for he was not quite past the tumbling age), he looked like the king of the babies.

  The other children, each holding a pretty willow basket, formed a ring at once, and moved slowly around the little fellow, lifting their eyes, for the saint to whom they were about to address themselves was yet in mysterious quarters.

  Madame commenced playing softly upon the piano. Soon the voices rose——gentle, youthful voices——rendered all the sweeter for their tremor:

  "Welcome, friend! Saint Nicholas, welcome! Bring no rod for us tonight! While our voices bid thee welcome, Every heart with joy is light!

  Tell us every fault and failing, We will bear thy keenest railing, So we sing——so we sing—— Thou shalt tell us everything!

  Welcome, friend! Saint Nicholas, welcome! Welcome to this merry band! Happy children greet thee, welcome! Thou art glad'ning all the land!

  Fill each empty hand and basket, 'Tis thy little ones who ask it, So we sing——so we sing—— Thou wilt bring us everything!"

  During the chorus sundry glances, half in eagerness, half in dread, had been cast toward the polished folding doors. Now a loud knocking was heard. The circle was broken in an instant. Some of the little ones, with a strange mixture of fear and delight, pressed against their mother's knee. Grandfather bent forward with his chin resting upon his hand; Grandmother lifted her spectacles; Mynheer van Gleck, seated by the fireplace, slowly drew his meerschaum from his mouth while Hilda and the other children settled themselves beside him in an expectant group.

  The knocking was heard again.

  "Come in," said madame softly.

  The door slowly opened, and Saint Nicholas, in full array, stood before them.

  You could have heard a pin drop.

  Soon he spoke. What a mysterious majesty in his voice! What kindliness in his tones!

  "Karel van Gleck, I am pleased to greet thee, and thy honored vrouw Kathrine, and thy son and his good vrouw Annie!

  "Children, I greet ye all! Hendrick, Hilda, Broom, Katy, Huygens, and Lucretia! And thy cousins, Wolfert, Diedrich, Mayken, Voost, and Katrina! Good children ye have been, in the main, since I last accosted ye. Diedrich was rude at the Haarlem fair last fall, but he has tried to atone for it since. Mayken has failed of late in her lessons, and too many sweets and trifles have gone to her lips, and too few stivers to her charity box. Diedrich, I trust, will be a polite, manly boy for the future, and Mayken will endeavor to shine as a student. Let her remember, too, that economy and thrift are needed in the foundation of a worthy and generous life. Little Katy has been cruel to the cat more than once. Saint Nicholas can hear the cat cry when its tail is pulled. I will forgive her if she will remember from this hour that the smallest dumb creatures have feelings and must not be abused."

  As Katy burst into a frightened cry, the saint graciously remained silent until she was soothed.

  "Master Broom," he resumed, "I warn thee that the boys who are in the habit of putting snuff upon the foot stove of the schoolmistress may one day be discovered and receive a flogging——"

  Master Broom colored and stared in great astonishment.

  "But thou art such an excellent scholar, I shall make thee no further reproof."

  "Thou, Hendrick, didst distinguish thyself in the archery match last spring, and hit the Doel *{Bull's-eye.} though the bird was swung before it to unsteady thine eye. I give thee credit for excelling in manly sport and exercise, though I must not unduly countenance thy boat racing, since it leaves thee little time for thy proper studies.

  "Lucretia and Hilda shall have a blessed sleep tonight. The consciousness of kindness to the poor, devotion in their souls, and cheerful, hearty obedience to household rule will render them happy.

  "With one and all I avow myself well content. Goodness, industry, benevolence, and thrift have prevailed in your midst. Therefore, my blessing upon you——and may the new year find all treading the paths of obedience, wisdom, and love. Tomorrow you shall find more substantial proofs that I have been in your midst. Farewell!"

  With these words came a great shower of sugarplums, upon a linen sheet spread out in front of the doors. A general scramble followed. The children fairly tumbled over each other in their eagerness to fill their baskets. Madame cautiously held the baby down in their midst, till the chubby little fists were filled. Then the bravest of the youngsters sprang up and burst open the closed doors. In vain they peered into the mysterious apartment. Saint Nicholas was nowhere to be seen.

  Soon there was a general rush to another room, where stood a table, covered with the finest and whitest of linen damask. Each child, in a flutter of excitement, laid a shoe upon it. The door was then carefully locked, and its key hidden in the mother's bedroom. Next followed goodnight kisses, a grand family procession to the upper floor, merry farewells at bedroom doors, and silence, at last, reigned in the Van Gleck mansion.

  Early the next morning the door was solemnly unlocked and opened in the presence of the assembled household, when lo! a sight appeared, proving Saint Nicholas to be a saint of his word!

  Every shoe was filled to overflowing, and beside each stood many a colored pile. The table was heavy with its load of presents——candies, toys, trinkets, books, and other articles. Everyone had gifts, from the grandfather down to the baby.

  Little Katy clapped her hands with glee and vowed inwardly that the cat should never know another moment's grief.

  Hendrick capered about the room, flourishing a superb bow and arrows over his head. Hilda laughed with delight as she opened a crimson box and drew forth its glittering contents. The rest chuckled and said "Oh!" and "Ah!" over their treasures, very much as we did here in America on last Christmas Day.

  With her glittering necklace in her hands, and a pile of books in her arms, Hilda stole towards her parents and held up her beaming face for a kiss. There was such an earnest, tender look in her bright eyes that her mother breathed a blessing as she leaned over her.

  "I am delighted with this book. Thank you, Father," she said, touching the top one with her chin. "I shall read it all day long."

  "Aye, sweetheart," said mynheer, "you cannot do better. There is no one like Father Cats. If my daughter learns his 'Moral Emblems' by heart, the mother and I may keep silent. The work you have there is the Emblems——his best work. You will find it enriched with rare engravings from Van de Venne."

  Considering that the back of the book was turned away, mynheer certainly showed a surprising familiarity with an unopened volume, presented by Saint Nicholas. It was strange, too, that the saint should have found certain things made by the elder children and had actually placed them upon the table, labeled with parents' and grandparents' names. But all were too much absorbed in happiness to notice slight inconsistencies. Hilda saw, on her father's face, the rapt expression he always wore when he spoke of Jakob Cats, so he put her armful of books upon the table and resigned herself to listen.

  "Old Father Cats, my child, was a great poet, not a writer of plays like the Englishman, Shakespeare, who lived in his time. I have read them in the German and very good they are——very, very good——but not like Father Cats. Cats sees no daggers in the air; he has no white women falling in love with dusky Moors; no young fools sighing to be a lady's glove; no crazy princes mistaking respectable old gentlemen for rats. No, no. He writes only sense. It is great wisdom in little bundles, a bundle for every day of your life. You can guide a state with Cats's poems, and you can put a little baby to sleep with his pretty songs. He was one of the greatest men of Holland. When I take you to The Hague, I will show you the Kloosterkerk where he lies buried. THERE was a man for you to study, my sons! He was good through and through. What did he say?

  "O Lord, let me obtain this from Thee To live with patience, and to die with pleasure!

  *{O Heere! laat my daat van uwen hand verwerven, Te leven met gedult, en met vermaak te sterven.}

  "Did patience mean folding his hands? No, he was a lawyer, statesman, ambassador, farmer, philosopher, historian, and poet. He was keeper of the Great Seal of Holland! He was a——Bah! there is too much noise here, I cannot talk." And mynheer, looking with great astonishment into the bowl of his meerschaum, for it had gone out, nodded to his vrouw and left the apartment in great haste.

  The fact is, his discourse had been accompanied throughout with a subdued chorus of barking dogs, squeaking cats, and bleating lambs, to say nothing of a noisy ivory cricket that the baby was whirling with infinite delight. At the last, little Huygens, taking advantage of the increasing loudness of mynheer's tones, had ventured a blast on his new trumpet, and Wolfert had hastily attempted an accompaniment on the drum. This had brought matters to a crisis, and it was good for the little creatures that it had. The saint had left no ticket for them to attend a lecture on Jakob Cats. It was not an appointed part of the ceremonies. Therefore when the youngsters saw that the mother looked neither frightened nor offended, they gathered new courage. The grand chorus rose triumphant, and frolic and joy reigned supreme.

  Good Saint Nicholas! For the sake of the young Hollanders, I, for one, am willing to acknowledge him and defend his reality against all unbelievers.

  Carl Schummel was quite busy during that day, assuring little children, confidentially, that not Saint Nicholas but their own fathers and mothers had produced the oracle and loaded the tables. But WE know better than that.

  And yet if this were a saint, why did he not visit the Brinker cottage that night? Why was that one home, so dark and sorrowful, passed by?

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