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Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates(Chapter5)

2006-09-08 21:21

  Chapter 5. Shadows in the Home

  Good Dame Brinker! As soon as the scanty dinner had been cleared away that noon, she had arrayed herself in her holiday attire in honor of Saint Nicholas. It will brighten the children, she thought to herself, and she was not mistaken. This festival dress had been worn very seldom during the past ten years; before that time it had done good service and had flourished at many a dance and kermis, when she was known, far and wide, as the pretty Meitje Klenck. The children had sometimes been granted rare glimpses of it as it lay in state in the old oaken chest. Faded and threadbare as it was, it was gorgeous in their eyes, with its white linen tucker, now gathered to her plump throat and vanishing beneath the trim bodice of blue homespun, and its reddish-brown skirt bordered with black. The knitted woolen mitts and the dainty cap showing her hair, which generally was hidden, made her seem almost like a princess to Gretel, while Master Hans grew staid and well-behaved as he gazed.

  Soon the little maid, while braiding her own golden tresses, fairly danced around her mother in an ecstasy of admiration.

  "Oh, Mother, Mother, Mother, how pretty you are! Look, Hans! Isn't it just like a picture?"

  "Just like a picture," assented Hans cheerfully. "JUST like a picture——only I don't like those stocking things on the hands."

  "Not like the mitts, brother Hans! Why, they're very important. See, they cover up all the red. Oh, Mother, how white your arm is where the mitt leaves off, whiter than mine, oh, ever so much whiter. I declare, Mother, the bodice is tight for you. You're growing! You're surely growing!"

  Dame Brinker laughed.

  "This was made long ago, lovey, when I wasn't much thicker about the waist than a churn dasher. And how do you like the cap?" she asked, turning her head from side to side.

  "Oh, EVER so much, Mother. It's b-e-a-u-tiful! See, the father is looking!"

  Was the father looking? Alas! only with a dull stare. His vrouw turned toward him with a start, something like a blush rising to her cheeks, a questioning sparkle in her eye. The bright look died away in an instant.

  "No, no." She sighed. "He sees nothing. Come, Hans"——and the smile crept faintly back again——"don't stand gaping at me all day, and the new skates waiting for you at Amsterdam."

  "Ah, Mother," he answered, "you need so many things. Why should I buy skates?"

  "Nonsense, child. The money was given to you on purpose, or the work was——it's all the same thing. Go while the sun is high."

  "Yes, and hurry back, Hans!" laughed Gretel. "We'll race on the canal tonight, if the mother lets us."

  At the very threshold he turned to say, "Your spinning wheel wants a new treadle, Mother."

  "You can make it, Hans."

  "So I can. That will take no money. But you need feathers and wool and meal, and——"

  "There, there! That will do. Your silver cannot buy everything. Ah! Hans, if our stolen money would but come back on this bright Saint Nicholas's Eve, how glad we would be! Only last night I prayed to the good saint——"

  "Mother!" interrupted Hans in dismay.

  "Why not, Hans? Shame on you to reproach me for that! I'm as true a Protestant, in sooth, as any fine lady that walks into church, but it's no wrong to turn sometimes to the good Saint Nicholas. Tut! It's a likely story if one can't do that, without one's children flaring up at it——and he the boys' and girls' own saint. Hoot! Mayhap the colt is a steadier horse than the mare?"

  Hans knew his mother too well to offer a word in opposition when her voice quickened and sharpened as it did now (it was often sharp and quick when she spoke of the missing money), so he said gently, "And what did you ask of good Saint Nicholas, Mother?"

  "Why, never to give the thieves a wink of sleep till they brought it back, to be sure, if he has the power to do such things, or else to brighten our wits that we might find it ourselves. Not a sight have I had of it since the day before the dear father was hurt——as you well know, Hans."

  "That I do, Mother," he answered sadly, "though you have almost pulled down the cottage in searching."

  "Aye, but it was of no use," moaned the dame. "'HIDERS make best finders.'"

  Hans started. "Do you think the father could tell aught?"

  "Aye, indeed," said Dame Brinker, nodding her head. "I think so, but that is no sign. I never hold the same belief in the matter two days. Mayhap the father paid it off for the great silver watch we have been guarding since that day. But, no——I'll never believe it."

  "The watch was not worth a quarter of the money, Mother."

  "No, indeed, and your father was a shrewd man up to the last moment. He was too steady and thrifty for silly doings."

  "Where did the watch come from, I wonder," muttered Hans, half to himself.

  Dame Brinker shook her head and looked sadly toward her husband, who sat staring blankly at the floor. Gretel stood near him, knitting.

  "That we shall never know, Hans. I have shown it to the father many a time, but he does not know it from a potato. When he came in that dreadful night to supper, he handed the watch to me and told me to take good care of it until he asked for it again. Just as he opened his lips to say more, Broom Klatterboost came flying in with word that the dike was in danger. Ah! The waters were terrible that Pinxter-week! My man, alack, caught up his tools and ran out. That was the last I ever saw of him in his right mind. He was brought in again by midnight, nearly dead, with his poor head all bruised and cut. The fever passed off in time, but never the dullness——THAT grew worse every day. We shall never know."

  Hans had heard all this before. More than once he had seen his mother, in hours of sore need, take the watch from its hiding place, half resolved to sell it, but she had always conquered the temptation.

  "No, Hans," she would say, "we must be nearer starvation than this before we turn faithless to the father!"

  A memory of some such scene crossed her son's mind now, for, after giving a heavy sigh, and flipping a crumb of wax at Gretel across the table, he said, "Aye, Mother, you have done bravely to keep it——many a one would have tossed it off for gold long ago."

  "And more shame for them!" exclaimed the dame indignantly. "I would not do it. Besides, the gentry are so hard on us poor folks that if they saw such a thing in our hands, even if we told all, they might suspect the father of——"

  Hans flushed angrily.

  "They would not DARE to say such a thing, Mother! If they did, I'd. . ."

  He clenched his fist and seemed to think that the rest of his sentence was too terrible to utter in her presence.

  Dame Brinker smiled proudly through her tears at this interruption.

  "Ah, Hans, thou'rt a true, brave lad. We will never part company with the watch. In his dying hour the dear father might wake and ask for it."

  "Might WAKE, Mother!" echoed Hans. "Wake——and know us?"

  "Aye, child," almost whispered his mother, "such things have been."

  By this time Hans had nearly forgotten his proposed errand to Amsterdam. His mother had seldom spoken so familiarly to him. He felt himself now to be not only her son, but her friend, her adviser:

  "You are right, Mother. We must never give up the watch. For the father's sake we will guard it always. The money, though, may come to light when we least expect it."

  "Never!" cried Dame Brinker, taking the last stitch from her needle with a jerk and laying the unfinished knitting heavily upon her lap. "There is no chance! One thousand guilders——and all gone in a day! One thousand guilders. Oh, what ever DID become of them? If they went in an evil way, the thief would have confessed it on his dying bed. he would not dare to die with such guilt on his soul!"

  "He may not be dead yet," said Hans soothingly. "Any day we may hear of him."

  "Ah, child," she said in a changed tone, "what thief would ever have come HERE? It was always neat and clean, thank God, but not fine, for the father and I saved and saved that we might have something laid by. 'Little and often soon fills the pouch.' We found it so, in truth. Besides, the father had a goodly sum already, for service done to the Heernocht lands, at the time of the great inundation. Every week we had a guilder left over, sometimes more; for the father worked extra hours and could get high pay for his labor. Every Saturday night we put something by, except the time when you had the fever, Hans, and when Gretel came. At last the pouch grew so full that I mended an old stocking and commenced again. Now that I look back, it seems that the money was up to the heel in a few sunny weeks. There was great pay in those days if a man was quick at engineer work. The stocking went on filling with copper and silver——aye, and gold. You may well open your eyes, Gretel. I used to laugh and tell the father it was not for poverty I wore my old gown. And the stocking went on filling, so full that sometimes when I woke at night, I'd get up, soft and quiet, and go feel it in the moonlight. Then, on my knees, I would thank our Lord that my little ones could in time get good learning, and that the father might rest from labor in his old age. Sometimes, at supper, the father and I would talk about a new chimney and a good winter room for the cow, but my man had finer plans even than that. 'A big sail,' says he, 'catches the wind——we can do what we will soon,' and then we would sing together as I washed my dishes. Ah, 'a smooth wind makes an easy rudder.' Not a thing vexed me from morning till night. Every week the father would take out the stocking and drop in the money and laugh and kiss me as we tied it up together. Up with you, Hans! There you sit gaping, and the day a-wasting!" added Dame Brinker tartly, blushing to find that she had been speaking too freely to her boy. "It's high time you were on your way."

  Hans had seated himself and was looking earnestly into her face. He arose and, in almost a whisper, asked, "Have you ever tried, Mother?"

  She understood him.

  "Yes, child, often. But the father only laughs, or he stares at me so strange that I am glad to ask no more. When you and Gretel had the fever last winter, and our bread was nearly gone, and I could earn nothing, for fear you would die while my face was turned, oh! I tried then! I smoothed his hair and whispered to him soft as a kitten, about the money——where it was, who had it? Alack! He would pick at my sleeve and whisper gibberish till my blood ran cold. At last, while Gretel lay whiter than snow, and you were raving on the bed, I screamed to him——it seemed as if he MUST hear me——'Raff, where is our money? Do you know aught of the money, Raff? The money in the pouch and the stocking, in the big chest?' But I might as well have talked to a stone. I might as——"

  The mother's voice sounded so strange, and her eye was so bright, that Hans, with a new anxiety, laid his hand upon her shoulder.

  "Come, Mother," he said, "let us try to forget this money. I am big and strong. Gretel, too, is very quick and willing. Soon all will be prosperous with us again. Why, Mother, Gretel and I would rather see thee bright and happy than to have all the silver in the world, wouldn't we, Gretel?"

  "The mother knows it," said Gretel, sobbing.

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