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Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates(Chapter44)

2006-09-08 21:38

  Chapter 44. The Race

  The twentieth of December came at last, bringing with it the perfection of winter weather. All over the level landscape lay the warm sunlight. It tried its power on lake, canal, and river, but the ice flashed defiance and showed no sign of melting. The very weathercocks stood still to enjoy the sight. This gave the windmills a holiday. Nearly all the past week they had been whirling briskly; now, being rather out of breath, they rocked lazily in the clear, still air. Catch a windmill working when the weathercocks have nothing to do!

  There was an end to grinding, crushing, and sawing for that day. It was a good thing for the millers near Broek. Long before noon they concluded to take in their sails and go to the race. Everybody would be there——already the north side of the frozen Y was bordered with eager spectators. The news of the great skating match had traveled far and wide. Men, women, and children in holiday attire were flocking toward the spot. Some wore furs and wintry cloaks or shawls, but many, consulting their feelings rather than the almanac, were dressed as for an October day.

  The site selected for the race was a faultless plain of ice near Amsterdam, on that great arm of the Zuider Zee, which Dutchmen, of course, must call the Eye. The townspeople turned out in large numbers. Strangers to the city deemed it a fine chance to see what was to be seen. Many a peasant from the northward had wisely chosen the twentieth as the day for the next city trading. It seemed that everybody, young and old, who had wheels, skates, or feet at command had hastened to the scene.

  There were the gentry in their coaches, dressed like Parisians, fresh from the boulevards; Amsterdam children in charity uniforms; girls from the Roman Catholic Orphan House, in sable gowns and white headbands; boys from the Burgher Asylum, with their black tights and short-skirted, harlequin coats. *{This is not said in derision. Both the boys and girls of this institution wear garments quartered in red and black, alternately. By making the dress thus conspicuous, the children are, in a measure, deterred from wrongdoing while going about the city. The Burgher Orphan Asylum affords a comfortable home to several hundred boys and girls. Holland is famous for its charitable institutions.} There were old-fashioned gentlemen in cocked hats and velvet knee breeches; old-fashioned ladies, too, in stiff quilted skirts and bodices of dazzling brocade. These were accompanied by servants bearing foot stoves and cloaks. There were the peasant folk arrayed in every possible Dutch costume, shy young rustics in brazen buckles; simple village maidens concealing their flaxen hair under fillets of gold; women whose long, narrow aprons were stiff with embroidery; women with short corkscrew curls hanging over their foreheads; women with shaved heads and close-fitting caps; and women in striped skirts and windmill bonnets. Men in leather, in homespun, in velvet, and in broadcloth; burghers in model European attire, and burghers in short jackets, wide trousers, and steeple-crowned hats.

  There were beautiful Friesland girls in wooden shoes and coarse petticoats, with solid gold crescents encircling their heads, finished at each temple with a golden rosette and hung with lace a century old. Some wore necklaces, pendants, and earrings of the purest gold. Many were content with gilt or even with brass, but it is not an uncommon thing for a Friesland woman to have all the family treasure in her headgear. More than one rustic lass displayed the value of two thousand guilders upon her head that day.

  Scattered throughout the crowd were peasants from the Island or Marken, with sabots, black stockings, and the widest of breeches; also women from Marken with short blue petticoats, and black jackets, gaily figured in front. They wore red sleeves, white aprons, and a cap like a bishop's miter over their golden hair.

  The children often were as quaint and odd-looking as their elders. In short, one-third of the crowd seemed to have stepped bodily from a collection of Dutch paintings.

  Everywhere could be seen tall women and stumpy men, lively-faced girls, and youths whose expression never changed from sunrise to sunset.

  There seemed to be at least one specimen from every known town in Holland. There were Utrecht water bearers, Gouda cheesemakers, Delft pottery men, Schiedam distillers, Amsterdam diamond cutters, Rotterdam merchants, dried-up herring packers, and two sleepy-eyes shepherds from Texel. Every man of them had his pipe and tobacco pouch. Some carried what might be called the smoker's complete outfit——a pipe, tobacco, a pricker with which to clean the tube, a silver net for protecting the bowl, and a box of the strongest brimstone matches.

  A true Dutchman, you must remember, is rarely without his pipe on any possible occasion. He may for a moment neglect to breathe, but when the pipe is forgotten, he must be dying indeed. There were no such sad cases here. Wreaths of smoke were rising from every possible quarter. The more fantastic the smoke wreath, the more placid and solemn the smoker.

  Look at those boys and girls on stilts! That is a good idea. They can see over the heads of the tallest. It is strange to see those little bodies high in the air, carried about on mysterious legs. They have such a resolute look on their round faces, what wonder that nervous old gentlemen with tender feet wince and tremble while the long-legged little monsters stride past them.

  You will read in certain books that the Dutch are a quiet people——so they are generally. But listen! Did you ever hear such a din? All made up of human voices——no, the horses are helping somewhat, and the fiddles are squeaking pitifully (how it must pain fiddles to be tuned!), but the mass of the sound comes from the great vox humana that belongs to a crowd.

  That queer little dwarf going about with a heavy basket, winding in and out among the people, helps not a little. You can hear his shrill cry above all the other sounds, "Pypen en tabac! Pypen en tabac!"

  Another, his big brother, though evidently some years younger, is selling doughnuts and bonbons. He is calling on all pretty children far and near to come quickly or the cakes will be gone.

  You know quite a number among the spectators. High up in yonder pavilion, erected upon the border of the ice, are some persons whom you have seen very lately. In the center is Madame van Gleck. It is her birthday, you remember; she has the post of honor. There is Mynheer van Gleck, whose meerschaum has not really grown fast to his lips——it only appears so. There are Grandfather and Grandmother, whom you met at the Saint Nicholas fete. All the children are with them. It is so mild, they have brought even the baby. The poor little creature is swathed very much after the manner of an Egyptian mummy, but it can crow with delight and, when the band is playing, open and shut its animated mittens in perfect time to the music.

  Grandfather, with his pipe and spectacles and fur cap, makes quite a picture as he holds baby upon his knee. Perched high upon their canopied platforms, the party can see all that is going on. No wonder the ladies look complacently at the glassy ice; with a stove for a foot stool one might sit cozily beside the North Pole.

  There is a gentleman with them who somewhat resembles Saint Nicholas as he appeared to the young Van Glecks on the fifth of December. But the saint had a flowing white beard, and this face is as smooth as a pippin. His saintship was larger around the body, too, and (between ourselves) he had a pair of thimbles in his mouth, which this gentleman certain has not. It cannot be Saint Nicholas after all.

  Nearby, in the next pavilion, sit the Van Holps with their son and daughter (the Van Gends) from The Hague. Peter's sister is not one to forget her promises. She has brought bouquets of exquisite hothouse flowers for the winners.

  These pavilions, and there are others besides, have all been erected since daylight. That semicircular one, containing Mynheer Korbes's family, is very pretty and proves that the Hollanders are quite skilled at tentmaking, but I like the Van Glecks' best——the center one——striped red and white and hung with evergreens.

  The one with the blue flags contains the musicians. Those pagodalike affairs, decked with seashells and streamers of every possible hue, are the judges' stands, and those columns and flagstaffs upon the ice mark the limit of the race course. The two white columns twined with green, connected at the top by that long, floating strip of drapery, form the starting point. Those flagstaffs, half a mile off, stand at each end of the boundary line, which is cut sufficiently deep to be distinct to the skaters, though not deep enough to trip them when they turn to come back to the starting point.

  The air is so clear that is seems scarcely possible that the columns and the flagstaffs are so far apart. Of course, the judges' stands are but little nearer together.

  Half a mile on the ice, when the atmosphere is like this, is but a short distance after all, especially when fenced with a living chain of spectators.

  The music has commenced. How melody seems to enjoy itself in the open air! The fiddles have forgotten their agony, and everything is harmonious. Until you look at the blue tent it seems that the music springs from the sunshine, it is so boundless, so joyous. Only when you see the staid-faced musicians do you realize the truth.

  Where are the racers? All assembled together near the white columns. It is a beautiful sight. Forty boys and girls in picturesque attire darting with electric swiftness in and out among each other, or sailing in pairs and triplets, beckoning, chatting, whispering in the fullness of youthful glee.

  A few careful ones are soberly tightening their straps; others halting on one leg, with flushed, eager faces, suddenly cross the suspected skate over their knee, give it an examining shake, and dart off again. One and all are possessed with the spirit of motion. They cannot stand still. Their skates are a part of them, and every runner seems bewitched.

  Holland is the place for skaters, after all. Where else can nearly every boy and girl perform feats on the ice that would attract a crowd if seen in Central Park? Look at Ben! He is really astonishing the natives; no easy thing to do in the Netherlands. Save your strength, Ben, you will need it soon. Now other boys are trying! Ben is surpassed already. Such jumping, such poising, such spinning, such India-rubber exploits generally! That boy with a red cap is the lion now; his back is a watch spring, his body is cork——no, it is iron, or it would snap at that! He's a bird, a top, a rabbit, a corkscrew, a sprite, a fleshball, all in an instant. When you think he's erect, he is down, and when you think he is down, he is up. He drops his glove on the ice and turns a somersault as he picks it up. Without stopping he snatches the cap from Jacob Poot's astonished head and claps it back again "hindside before." Lookers-on hurrah and laugh. Foolish boy! It is arctic weather under your feet, but more than temperate over head. Big drops already are rolling down your forehead. Superb skater as you are, you may lose the race.

  A French traveler, standing with a notebook in his hand, sees our English friend, Ben, buy a doughnut of the dwarf's brother and eat it. Thereupon he writes in his notebook that the Dutch take enormous mouthfuls and universally are fond of potatoes boiled in molasses.

  There are some familiar faces near the white columns. Lambert, Ludwig, Peter, and Carl are all there, cool and in good skating order. Hans is not far off. Evidently he is going to join in the race, for his skates are on——the very pair that he sold for seven guilders! He had soon suspected that his fairy godmother was the mysterious "friend" who bought them. This settled, he had boldly charged her with the deed, and she, knowing well that all her little savings had been spent in the purchase, had not had the face to deny it. Through the fairy godmother, too, he had been rendered amply able to buy them back again. Therefore Hans is to be in the race. Carl is more indignant than ever about it, but as three other peasant boys have entered, Hans is not alone.

  Twenty boys and twenty girls. The latter, by this time, are standing in front, braced for the start, for they are to have the first "run." Hilda, Rychie, and Katrinka are among them——two or three bend hastily to give a last pull at their skate straps. It is pretty to see them stamp, to be sure that all is firm. Hilda is speaking pleasantly to a graceful little creature in a red jacket and a new brown petticoat. Why, it is Gretel! What a difference those pretty shoes make, and the skirt and the new cap. Annie Bouman is there, too. Even Janzoon Kolp's sister has been admitted, but Janzoon himself has been voted out by the directors, because he killed the stork, and only last summer was caught in the act of robbing a bird's nest, a legal offence in Holland.

  This Janzoon Kolp, you see, was——There, I cannot tell the story just now. The race is about to commence.

  Twenty girls are formed in a line. The music has ceased.

  A man, whom we shall call the crier, stands between the columns and the first judges' stand. He reads the rules in a loud voice: "The girls and boys are to race in turn, until one girl and one boy have beaten twice. They are to start in a line from the united columns, skate to the flagstaff line, turn, and then come back to the starting point, thus making a mile at each run."

  A flag is waved from the judges' stand. Madame van Gleck rises in her pavilion. She leans forward with a white handkerchief in her hand. When she drops it, a bugler is to give the signal for them to start.

  The handkerchief is fluttering to the ground! Hark!

  They are off!

  No. Back again. Their line was not true in passing the judges' stand.

  The signal is repeated.

  Off again. No mistake this time. Whew! How fast they go!

  The multitude is quiet for an instant, absorbed in eager, breathless watching.

  Cheers spring up along the line of spectators. Huzza! Five girls are ahead. Who comes flying back from the boundary mark? We cannot tell. Something red, that is all. There is a blue spot flitting near it, and a dash of yellow nearer still. Spectators at this end of the line strain their eyes and wish they had taken their post nearer the flagstaff.

  The wave of cheers is coming back again. Now we can see. Katrinka is ahead!

  She passes the Van Holp pavilion. The next is Madame van Gleck's. That leaning figure gazing from it is a magnet. Hilda shoots past Katrinka, waving her hand to her mother as she passes. Two others are close now, whizzing on like arrows. What is that flash of red and gray? Hurray, it is Gretel! She, too, waves her hand, but toward no gay pavilion. The crowd is cheering, but she hears only her father's voice. "Well done, little Gretel!" Soon Katrinka, with a quick, merry laugh, shoots past Hilda. The girl in yellow is gaining now. She passes them all, all except Gretel. The judges lean forward without seeming to lift their eyes from their watches. Cheer after cheer fills the air; the very columns seem rocking. Gretel has passed them. She has won.

  "Gretel Brinker, one mile!" shouts the crier.

  The judges nod. They write something upon a tablet which each holds in his hand.

  While the girls are resting——some crowding eagerly around our frightened little Gretel, some standing aside in high disdain——the boys form a line.

  Mynheer van Gleck drops the handkerchief this time. The buglers give a vigorous blast! The boys have started!

  Halfway already! Did ever you see the like?

  Three hundred legs flashing by in an instant. But there are only twenty boys. No matter, there were hundreds of legs, I am sure! Where are they now? There is such a noise, one gets bewildered. What are the people laughing at? Oh, at that fat boy in the rear. See him go! See him! He'll be down in an instant; no, he won't. I wonder if he knows he is all alone; the other boys are nearly at the boundary line. Yes, he knows it. He stops! He wipes his hot face. He takes off his cap and looks about him. Better to give up with a good grace. He has made a hundred friends by that hearty, astonished laugh. Good Jacob Poot!

  The fine fellow is already among the spectators, gazing as eagerly as the rest.

  A cloud of feathery ice flies from the heels of the skaters as they "bring to" and turn at the flagstaffs.

  Something black is coming now, one of the boys——it is all we know. He has touched the vox humana stop of the crowd; it fairly roars. Now they come nearer——we can see the red cap. There's Ben——there's Peter——there's Hans!

  Hans is ahead! Young Madame van Gend almost crushes the flowers in her hand; she had been quite sure that Peter would be first. Carl Schummel is next, then Ben, and the youth with the red cap. A tall figure darts from among them. He passes the red cap, he passes Ben, then Carl. Now it is an even race between him and Hans. Madame van Gend catches her breath.

  It is Peter! He is ahead! Hans shoots past him. Hilda's eyes fill with tears. Peter MUST beat. Annie's eyes flash proudly. Gretel gazes with clasped hands——four strokes more will take her brother to the columns.

  He is there! Yes, but so was young Schummel just a second before. At the last instant Carl, gathering his powers, had whizzed between them and passed the goal.

  "Carl Schummel, one mile!" shouts the crier.

  Soon Madame van Gleck rises again. The falling handkerchief starts the bugle, and the bugle, using its voice as a bowstring, shoots of twenty girls like so many arrows.

  It is a beautiful sight, but one has not long to look; before we can fairly distinguish them they are far in the distance. This time they are close upon one another. it is hard to say as they come speeding back from the flagstaff which will reach the columns first. There are new faces among the foremost——eager, glowing faces, unnoticed before. Katrinka is there, and Hilda, but Gretel and Rychie are in the rear. Gretel is wavering, but when Rychie passes her, she starts forward afresh. Now they are nearly beside Katrinka. Hilda is still in advance, she is almost "home." She has not faltered since that bugle note sent her flying; like an arrow still she is speeding toward the goal. Cheer after cheer rises in the air. Peter is silent, but his eyes shine like stars. "Huzza! Huzza!"

  The crier's voice is heard again.

  "Hilda van Gleck, one mile!"

  A loud murmur of approval runs through the crowd, catching the music in its course, till all seems one sound, with a glad rhythmic throbbing in its depths. When the flag waves all is still.

  Once more the bugle blows a terrific blast. It sends off the boys like chaff before the wind——dark chaff I admit, and in big pieces.

  It is whisked around at the flagstaff, driven faster yet by the cheers and shouts along the line. We begin to see what is coming. There are three boys in advance this time, and all abreast. Hans, Peter, and Lambert. Carl soon breaks the ranks, rushing through with a whiff! Fly, Hans; fly, Peter; don't let Carl beat again. Carl the bitter. Carl the insolent. Van Mounen is flagging, but you are strong as ever. Hans and Peter, Peter and Hans; which is foremost? We love them both. We scarcely care which is the fleeter.

  Hilda, Annie, and Gretel, seated upon the long crimson bench, can remain quiet no longer. They spring to their feet——so different and yet one in eagerness. Hilda instantly reseats herself. None shall know how interested she is, none shall know how anxious, how filled with one hope. Shut your eyes then, Hilda——hide our face rippling with joy. Peter has beaten.

  "Peter van Holp, one mile!" calls the crier.

  The same buzz of excitement as before, while the judges take notes, the same throbbing of music through the din; but something is different. A little crowd presses close about some object, near the column. Carl has fallen. He is not hurt, though somewhat stunned. if he were less sullen he would find more sympathy in these warm young hearts. As it is they forget him as soon as he is fairly on his feet again.

  The girls are to skate their third mile.

  How resolute the little maidens look as they stand in a line! Some are solemn with a sense of responsibility, some wear a smile half bashful, half provoked, but one air of determination pervades them all.

  This third mile may decide the race. Still, if neither Gretel nor Hilda wins, there is yet a chance among the rest for the silver skates.

  Each girl feels sure that this time she will accomplish the distance in one half of the time. How they stamp to try their runners! How nervously they examine each strap! How erect they stand at last, every eye upon Madame van Gleck!

  The bugle thrills through them again. With quivering eagerness they spring forward, bending, but in perfect balance. Each flashing stroke seems longer than the last.

  Now they are skimming off in the distance.

  Again the eager straining of eyes, again the shouts and cheering, again the thrill of excitement as, after a few moments, four or five, in advance of the rest, come speeding back, nearer, nearer to the white columns.

  Who is first? Not Rychie, Katrinka, Annie, nor Hilda, nor the girl in yellow, but Gretel——Gretel, the fleetest sprite of a girl that ever skated. She was but playing in the earlier races, NOW she is in earnest, or rather, something within her has determined to win. That lithe little form makes no effort, but it cannot stop——not until the goal is passed!

  In vain the crier lifts his voice. He cannot be heard. He has no news to tell——it is already ringing through the crowd. GRETEL HAS WON THE SILVER SKATES!

  Like a bird she has flown over the ice, like a bird she looks about her in a timid, startled way. She longs to dart to the sheltered nook where her father and mother stand. GRETEL HAS WON THE SILVER SKATES! But Hans is beside her——the girls are crowding round. Hilda's kind, joyous voice breathes in her ear. From that hour, none will despise her. Goose girl or not, Gretel stands acknowledged queen of the skaters!

  With natural pride Hans turns to see if Peter van Holp is witnessing his sister's triumph. Peter is not looking toward them at all. He is kneeling, bending his troubled face low, and working hastily at his skate strap. Hans is beside him at once.

  "Are you in trouble, mynheer?"

  "Ah, Hans, that you? Yes, my fun is over. I tried to tighten my strap——to make a new hole——and this botheration of a knife has cut it nearly in two."

  "Mynheer," said Hans, at the same time pulling off a skate, "you must use my strap!"

  "Not I, indeed, Hans Brinker," cried Peter, looking up, "though I thank you warmly. Go to your post, my friend, the bugle will be sounding in another minute."

  "Mynheer," pleaded Hans in a husky voice, "you have called me your friend. Take this strap——quick! There is not an instant to lose. I shall not skate this time. Indeed, I am out of practice. Mynheer, you MUST take it." And Hans, blind and deaf to any remonstrance, slipped his strap into Peter's skate and implored him to put it on.

  "Come, Peter!" cried Lambert from the line. "We are waiting for you."

  "For madame's sake," pleaded Hans, "be quick. She is motioning to you to join the racers. There, the skate is almost on. Quick, mynheer, fasten it. I could not possibly win. The race lies between Master Schummel and yourself."

  "You are a noble fellow, Hans!" cried Peter, yielding at last. He sprang to his post just as the white handkerchief fell to the ground. The bugle sends forth its blast——loud, clear, and ringing.

  Off go the boys!

  "Mine Gott," cries a tough old fellow from Delft. "They beat everything, these Amsterdam youngsters. See them!"

  See them, indeed! They are winged Mercuries, every one of them. What mad errand are they on? Ah, I know. They are hunting Peter van Holp. He is some fleet-footed runaway from Olympus. Mercury and his troop of winged cousins are in full chase. They will catch him! Now Carl is the runaway. The pursuit grows furious——Ben is foremost!

  The chase turns in a cloud of mist. It is coming this way. Who is hunted now? Mercury himself. It is Peter, Peter van Holp; fly, Peter——Hans is watching you. He is sending all his fleetness, all his strength into your feet. Your mother and sister are pale with eagerness. Hilda is trembling and dares not look up. Fly, Peter! The crowd has not gone deranged, it is only cheering. The pursuers are close upon you! Touch the white column! It beckons——it is reeling before you——it——

  "Huzza! Huzza! Peter has won the silver skates!"

  "Peter van Holp!" shouted the crier. But who heard him? "Peter van Holp!" shouted a hundred voices, for he was the favorite boy of the place. "Huzza! Huzza!"

  "Now the music was resolved to be heard. It struck up a lively air, then a tremendous march. The spectators, thinking something new was about to happen, deigned to listen and to look.

  The racers formed in single file. Peter, being tallest, stood first. Gretel, the smallest of all, took her place at the end. Hans, who had borrowed a strap from the cake boy, was near the head.

  Three gaily twined arches were placed at intervals upon the river facing the Van Gleck pavilion.

  Skating slowly, and in perfect time to the music, the boys and girls moved forward, led on by Peter.

  It was beautiful to see the bright procession glide along like a living creature. It curved and doubled, and drew its graceful length in and out among the arches——whichever way Peter, the head, went, the body was sure to follow. Sometimes it steered direct for the center arch, then, as if seized with a new impulse, turned away and curled itself about the first one, then unwound slowly and, bending low, with quick, snakelike curvings, crossed the river, passing at length through the furthest arch.

  When the music was slow, the procession seemed to crawl like a thing afraid. It grew livelier, and the creature darted forward with a spring, gliding rapidly among the arches, in and out, curling, twisting, turning, never losing form until, at the shrill call of the bugle rising above the music, it suddenly resolved itself into boys and girls standing in a double semicircle before Madam van Gleck's pavilion.

  Peter and Gretel stand in the center in advance of the others. Madame van Gleck rises majestically. Gretel trembles but feels that she must look at the beautiful lady. She cannot hear what is said, there is such a buzzing all around her. She is thinking that she ought to try and make a curtsy, such as her mother makes to the meester, when suddenly something so dazzling is placed in her hand that she gives a cry of joy.

  Then she ventures to look about her. Peter, too, has something in his hands. "Oh! Oh! How splendid!" she cries, and "Oh! How splendid!" is echoed as far as people can see.

  Meantime the silver skates flash in the sunshine, throwing dashes of light upon those two happy faces.

  Mevrouw van Gend sends a little messenger with her bouquets. One for Hilda, one for Carl, and others for Peter and Gretel.

  At sight of the flowers the queen of the skaters becomes uncontrollable. With a bright stare of gratitude, she gathers skates and bouquets in her apron, hugs them to her bosom, and darts off to search for her father and mother in the scattering crowd.

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