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Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates(Chapter6)

2006-09-08 21:21

  Chapter 6. Sunbeams

  Dame Brinker was startled at her children's emotion; glad, too, for it proved how loving and true they were.

  Beautiful ladies in princely homes often smile suddenly and sweetly, gladdening the very air around them, but I doubt if their smile be more welcome in God's sight than that which sprang forth to cheer the roughly clad boy and girl in the humble cottage. Dame Brinker felt that she had been selfish. Blushing and brightening, she hastily wiped her eyes and looked upon them as only a mother can.

  "Hoity! Toity! Pretty talk we're having, and Saint Nicholas's Eve almost here! What wonder the yarn pricks my fingers! Come, Gretel, take this cent, *{The Dutch cent is worth less than half of an American cent.} and while Hans is trading for the skates you can buy a waffle in the marketplace."

  "Let me stay home with you, Mother," said Gretel, looking up with eyes that sparkled through their tears. "Hans will buy me the cake."

  "As you will, child, and Hans——wait a moment. Three turns of this needle will finish this toe, and then you may have as good a pair of hose as ever were knitted (owning the yarn is a grain too sharp) to sell to the hosier on the Harengracht. *{A street in Amsterdam.} That will give us three quarter-guilders if you make good trade; and as it's right hungry weather, you may buy four waffles. We'll keep the Feast of Saint Nicholas after all."

  Gretel clapped her hands. "That will be fine! Annie Bouman told me what grand times they will have in the big houses tonight. But we will be merry too. Hans will have beautiful new skates——and then there'll be the waffles! Oh! Don't break them, brother Hans. Wrap them well, and button them under your jacket very carefully."

  "Certainly," replied Hans, quite gruff with pleasure and importance.

  "Oh! Mother!" cried Gretel in high glee, "soon you will be busied with the father, and now you are only knitting. Do tell us all about Saint Nicholas!"

  Dame Brinker laughed to see Hans hang up his hat and prepare to listen. "Nonsense, children," she said. "I have told it to you often."

  "Tell us again! Oh, DO tell us again!" cried Gretel, throwing herself upon the wonderful wooden bench that her brother had made on the mother's last birthday. Hans, not wishing to appear childish, and yet quite willing to hear the story, stood carelessly swinging his skates against the fireplace.

  "Well, children, you shall hear it, but we must never waste the daylight again in this way. Pick up your ball, Gretel, and let your sock grow as I talk. Opening your ears needn't shut your fingers. Saint Nicholas, you must know, is a wonderful saint. He keeps his eye open for the good of sailors, but he cares most of all for boys and girls. Well, once upon a time, when he was living on the earth, a merchant of Asia sent his three sons to a great city, called Athens, to get learning."

  "Is Athens in Holland, Mother?" asked Gretel.

  "I don't know, child. Probably it is."

  "Oh, no, Mother," said Hans respectfully. "I had that in my geography lessons long ago. Athens is in Greece."

  "Well," resumed the mother, "what matter? Greece may belong to the king, for aught we know. Anyhow, this rich merchant sent his sons to Athens. While they were on their way, they stopped one night at a shabby inn, meaning to take up their journey in the morning. Well, they had very fine clothes——velvet and silk, it may be, such as rich folks' children all over the world think nothing of wearing——and their belts, likewise, were full of money. What did the wicked landlord do but contrive a plan to kill the children and take their money and all their beautiful clothes himself. So that night, when all the world was asleep, he got up and killed the three young gentlemen."

  Gretel clasped her hands and shuddered, but Hans tried to look as if killing and murder were everyday matters to him.

  "That was not the worst of it," continued Dame Brinker, knitting slowly and trying to keep count of her stitches as she talked. "That was not near the worst of it. The dreadful landlord went and cut up the young gentlemen's bodies into little pieces and threw them into a great tub of brine, intending to sell them for pickled pork!"

  "Oh!" cried Gretel, horror-stricken, though she had often heard the story before. Hans was still unmoved and seemed to think that pickling was the best that could be done under the circumstances.

  "Yes, he pickled them, and one might think that would have been the last of the young gentlemen. But no. That night Saint Nicholas had a wonderful vision, and in it he saw the landlord cutting up the merchant's children. There was no need of his hurrying, you know, for he was a saint, but in the morning he went to the inn and charged the landlord with murder. Then the wicked landlord confessed it from beginning to end and fell down on his knees, begging forgiveness. He felt so sorry for what he had done that he asked the saint to bring the young masters to life."

  "And did the saint do it?" asked Gretel, delighted, well knowing what the answer would be.

  "Of course he did. The pickled pieces flew together in an instant, and out jumped the young gentlemen from the brine tub. They cast themselves at the feet of Saint Nicholas, and he gave them his blessing, and——oh! mercy on us, Hans, it will be dark before you get back if you don't start this minute!"

  By this time Dame Brinker was almost out of breath and quite out of commas. She could not remember when she had seen the children idle away an hour of daylight in this manner, and the thought of such luxury quite appalled her. By way of compensation she now flew about the room in extreme haste. Tossing a block of peat upon the fire, blowing invisible fire from the table, and handing the finished hose to Hans, all in an instant. . .

  "Comes, Hans," she said as her boy lingered by the door. "What keeps thee?"

  Hans kissed his mother's plump cheek, rosy and fresh yet, in spite of all her troubles.

  "My mother is the best in the world, and I would be right glad to have a pair of skates, but"——and as he buttoned his jacket he looked, in a troubled way, toward a strange figure crouching by the hearthstone——"if my money would bring a meester *{Doctor (dokter in Dutch), called meester by the lower class.} from Amsterdam to see the father, something might yet be done."

  "A meester would not come, Hans, for twice that money, and it would do no good if he did. Ah, how many guilders I once spent for that, but the dear, good father would not waken. It is God's will. Go, Hans, and buy the skates."

  Hans started with a heavy heart, but since the heart was young and in a boy's bosom, it set him whistling in less than five minutes. His mother had said "thee" to him, and that was quite enough to make even a dark day sunny. Hollanders do not address each other, in affectionate intercourse, as the French and Germans do. But Dame Brinker had embroidered for a Heidelberg family in her girlhood, and she had carried its thee and thou into her rude home, to be used in moments of extreme love and tenderness.

  Therefore, "What keeps thee, Hans?" sang an echo song beneath the boy's whistling and made him feel that his errand was blest.

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