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Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates(Chapter15)

2006-09-08 21:26

  Chapter 15. Homes

  It must not be supposed that our young Dutchmen had already forgotten the great skating race which was to take place on the twentieth. On the contrary, they had thought and spoken of it very often during the day. Even Ben, though he had felt more like a traveler than the rest, had never once, through all the sight-seeing, lost a certain vision of silver skates which, for a week past, had haunted him night and day.

  Like a true "John Bull," as Jacob had called him, he never doubted that his English fleetness, English strength, English everything, could at any time enable him, on the ice, to put all Holland to shame, and the rest of the world too, for that matter. Ben certainly was a superb skater. He had enjoyed not half the opportunities for practicing that had fallen to his new comrades but he had improved his share to the utmost and was, besides, so strong of frame, so supple of limb, in short, such a tight, trim, quick, graceful fellow in every way that he had taken to skating as naturally as a chamois to leaping or an eagle to soaring.

  Only to the heavy heart of poor Hans had the vision of the silver skates failed to appear during that starry winter night and the brighter sunlit day.

  Even Gretel had seen them flitting before her as she sat beside her mother through those hours of weary watching——not as prizes to be won, but as treasures passing hopelessly beyond her reach.

  Rychie, Hilda, and Katrinka——why, they had scarcely known any other thought than "The race, the race. It will come off on the twentieth!"

  These three girls were friends. Though of nearly the same age, talent, and station, they were as different as girls could be.

  Hilda van Gleck, as you already know, was a warm-hearted, noble girl of fourteen. Rychie Korbes was beautiful to look upon, far more sparkling and pretty than Hilda but not half so bright and sunny within. Clouds of pride, of discontent, and envy had already gathered in her heart and were growing bigger and darker every day. Of course, these often relieved themselves very much after the manner of other clouds. But who saw the storms and the weeping? Only her maid or her father, mother, and little brother——those who loved her better than all. Like other clouds, too, hers often took queer shapes, and what was really but mist and vapory fancy assumed the appearance of monster wrongs and mountains of difficulty. To her mind, the poor peasant girl Gretel was not a human being, a God-created creature like herself——she was only something that meant poverty, rags, and dirt. Such as Gretel had no right to feel, to hope; above all, they should never cross the paths of their betters——that is, not in a disagreeable way. They could toil and labor for them at a respectful distance, even admire them, if they would do it humbly, but nothing more. If they rebel, put them down; if they suffer, "Don't trouble me about it" was Rychie's secret motto. And yet how witty she was, how tastefully she dressed, how charmingly she sang; how much feeling she displayed (for pet kittens and rabbits), and how completely she could bewitch sensible, honest-minded lads like Lambert van Mounen and Ludwig van Holp!

  Carl was too much like her, within, to be an earnest admirer, and perhaps he suspected the clouds. He, being deep and surly and always uncomfortably in earnest, of course preferred the lively Katrinka, whose nature was made of a hundred tinkling bells. She was a coquette in her infancy, a coquette in her childhood, and now a coquette in her school days. Without a thought of harm she coquetted with her studies, her duties, even her little troubles. She coquetted with her mother, her pet lamb, her baby brother, even with her own golden curls——tossing them back as if she despised them. Everyone liked her, but who could love her? She was never in earnest. A pleasant face, a pleasant heart, a pleasant manner——these satisfy for an hour. Poor happy Katrinka! She tinkled, tinkled so merrily through their early days, but life is so apt to coquette with them in turn, to put all their sweet bells out of tune or to silence them one by one!

  How different were the homes of these three girls from the tumbling old cottage where Gretel dwelt. Rychie lived in a beautiful house near Amsterdam, where the carved sideboards were laden with services of silver and gold and where silken tapestries hung in folds from ceiling to floor.

  Hilda's father owned the largest mansion in Broek. Its glittering roof of polished tiles and its boarded front, painted in half a dozen various colors, were the admiration of the neighborhood.

  Katrinka's home, not a mile distant, was the finest of Dutch country seats. The garden was so stiffly laid out in little paths and patches that the birds might have mistaken it for a great Chinese puzzle with all the pieces spread out ready for use. But in summer it was beautiful; the flowers made the best of their stiff quarters, and, when the gardener was not watching, glowed and bent about each other in the prettiest way imaginable. Such a tulip bed! Why, the queen of the fairies would never care for a grander city in which to hold her court! But Katrinka preferred the bed of pink and white hyacinths. She loved their freshness and fragrance and the lighthearted way in which their bell-shaped blossoms swung in the breeze.

  Carl was both right and wrong when he said that Katrinka and Rychie were furious at the very idea of the peasant Gretel joining in the race. He had heard Rychie declare that it was "Disgraceful, shameful, too bad!" which in Dutch, as in English, is generally the strongest expression an indignant girl can use; and he had seen Katrinka nod her pretty head and heard her sweetly echo, "Shameful, too bad!" as nearly like Rychie as tinkling bells can be like the voice of real anger. This had satisfied him. He never suspected that had Hilda, not Rychie, first talked with Katrinka upon the subject, the bells would have jingled as willing an echo. She would have said, "Certainly, let her join us," and would have skipped off thinking no more about it. But now Katrinka with sweet emphasis pronounced it a shame that a goose-girl, a forlorn little creature like Gretel, should be allowed to spoil the race.

  Rychie Korbes, being rich and powerful (in a schoolgirl way), had other followers besides Katrinka who were induced to share her opinions because they were either too careless or too cowardly to think for themselves.

  Poor little Gretel! Her home was sad and dark enough now. Raff Brinker lay moaning upon his rough bed, and his vrouw, forgetting and forgiving everything, bathed his forehead, his lips, weeping and praying that he might not die. Hans, as we know, had started in desperation for Leyden to search for Dr. Boekman and induce him, if possible, to come to their father at once. Gretel, filled with a strange dread, had done the work as well as she could, wiped the rough brick floor, brought peat to build up the slow fire, and melted ice for her mother's use. This accomplished, she seated herself upon a low stool near the bed and begged her mother to try to sleep awhile.

  "You are so tired," she whispered. "Not once have you closed your eyes since that dreadful hour last night. See, I have straightened the willow bed in the corner, and spread everything soft upon it I could find, so that the mother might lie in comfort. Here is your jacket. Take off that pretty dress. I'll fold it away very carefully and put it in the big chest before you go to sleep."

  Dame Brinker shook her head without turning her eyes from her husband's face.

  "I can watch, mother," urged Gretel, "and I'll wake you every time the father stirs. You are so pale, and your eyes are so red! Oh, mother, DO!"

  The child pleaded in vain. Dame Brinker would not leave her post.

  Gretel looked at her in troubled silence, wondering whether it were very wicked to care more for one parent than for the other, and sure——yes, quite sure——that she dreaded her father while she clung to her mother with a love that was almost idolatry.

  Hans loves the father so well, she thought, why cannot I? Yet I could not help crying when I saw his hand bleed that day, last month, when he snatched the knife——and now, when he moans, how I ache, ache all over. Perhaps I love him, after all, and God will see that I am not such a bad, wicked girl as I thought. Yes, I love the poor father——almost as Hans does——not quite, for Hans is stronger and does not fear him. Oh, will that moaning go on forever and ever! Poor mother, how patient she is; SHE never pouts, as I do, about the money that went away so strangely. If he only could, for one instant, open his eyes and look at us, as Hans does, and tell us where mother's guilders went, I would not care for the rest. Yes, I would care; I don't want the poor father to die, to be all blue and cold like Annie Bouman's little sister. I KNOW I don't. Dear God, I don't want Father to die.

  Her thoughts merged into a prayer. When it ended the poor child scarcely knew. Soon she found herself watching a little pulse of light at the side of the fire, beating faintly but steadily, showing that somewhere in the dark pile there was warmth and light that would overspread it at last. A large earthen cup filled with burning peat stood near the bedside; Gretel had placed it there to "stop the father's shivering," she said. She watched it as it sent a glow around the mother's form, tipping her faded skirt with light and shedding a sort of newness over the threadbare bodice. It was a relief to Gretel to see the lines in that weary face soften as the firelight flickered gently across it.

  Next she counted the windowpanes, broken and patched as they were, and finally, after tracing every crack and seam in the walls, fixed her gaze upon a carved shelf made by Hans. The shelf hung as high as Gretel could reach. It held a large leather-covered Bible with brass clasps, a wedding present to Dame Brinker from the family at Heidelberg.

  Ah, how handy Hans is! If he were here, he could turn the father some way so the moans would stop. Dear, dear! If this sickness lasts, we shall never skate anymore. I must send my new skates back to the beautiful lady. Hans and I will not see the race. And Gretel's eyes, that had been dry before, grew full of tears.

  "Never cry, child," said her mother soothingly. "This sickness may not be as bad as we think. The father has lain this way before."

  Gretel sobbed now.

  "Oh, mother, it is not that alone——you do not know all. I am very, very bad and wicked!"

  "YOU, Gretel! you so patient and good!" and a bright, puzzled look beamed for an instant upon the child. "Hush, lovey, you'll wake him."

  Gretel hid her face in her mother's lap and tried not to cry.

  Her little hand, so thin and brown, lay in the coarse palm of her mother's, creased with many a hard day's work. Rychie would have shuddered to touch either, yet they pressed warmly upon each other. Soon Gretel looked up with that dull, homely look which, they say, poor children in shanties are apt to have, and said in a trembling voice, "The father tried to burn you——he did——I saw him, and he was LAUGHING!"

  "Hush, child!"

  The mother's words came so suddenly and sharply that Raff Brinker, dead as he was to all that was passing around him, twitched slightly upon the bed.

  Gretel said no more but plucked drearily at the jagged edge of a hole in her mother's holiday gown. It had been burned there. Well for Dame Brinker that the gown was woolen.

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