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Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates(Chapter33)

2006-09-08 21:31

  Chapter 33. Gretel and Hilda

  It was recess hour. At the first stroke of the schoolhouse bell, the canal seemed to give a tremendous shout and grow suddenly alive with boys and girls.

  Dozens of gaily clad children were skating in and out among each other, and all their pent-up merriment of the morning was relieving itself in song and shout and laughter. There was nothing to check the flow of frolic. Not a thought of schoolbooks came out with them into the sunshine. Latin, arithmetic, grammar——all were locked up for an hour in the dingy schoolroom. The teacher might be a noun if he wished, and a proper one at that, but THEY meant to enjoy themselves. As long as the skating was as perfect as this, it made no difference whether Holland were on the North Pole or the equator; and, as for philosophy, how could they bother themselves with inertia and gravitation and such things when it was as much as they could do to keep from getting knocked over in the commotion.

  In the height of the fun, one of the children called out, "What is that?"

  "What? Where?" cried a dozen voices.

  "Why, don't you see? That dark thing over there by the idiot's cottage."

  "I don't see anything," said one.

  "I do," shouted another. "It's a dog."

  "Where's any dog?" put in a squeaky voice that we have heard before. "It's no such thing——it's a heap of rags."

  "Pooh! Voost," retorted another gruffly, "that's about as near the fact as you ever get. It's the goose girl, Gretel, looking for rats."

  "Well, what of it?" squeaked Voost. "Isn't SHE a bundle of rags, I'd like to know?"

  "Ha! ha! Pretty good for you, Voost! You'll get a medal for wit yet, if you keep on."

  "You'd get something else, if her brother Hans were here. I'll warrant you would!" said a muffled-up little fellow with a cold in his head."

  As Hans was NOT there, Voost could afford to scout the insinuation.

  "Who cares for HIM, little sneezer? I'd fight a dozen like him any day, and you in the bargain."

  "You would, would you? I'd like to catch you all at it," and, by way of proving his words, the sneezer skated off at the top of his speed.

  Just then a general chase after three of the biggest boys of the school was proposed——and friend and foe, frolicsome as ever, were soon united in a common cause.

  Only one of all that happy throng remembered the dark little form by the idiot's cottage. Poor, frightened little Gretel! She was not thinking of them, though their merry laughter floated lightly toward her, making her feel like one in a dream.

  How loud the moans were behind the darkened window! What if those strange men were really killing her father!

  The thought made her spring to her feet with a cry of horror.

  "Ah, no!" She sobbed, sinking upon the frozen mound of earth where she had been sitting. Mother is there, and Hans. They will care for him. But how pale they were. And even Hans was crying!

  Why did the cross old meester keep him and send me away? she thought. I could have clung to the mother and kissed her. That always makes her stroke my hair and speak gently, even after she has scolded me. How quiet it is now! Oh, if the father should die, and Hans, and the mother, what WOULD I do? And Gretel, shivering with cold, buried her face in her arms and cried as if her heart would break.

  The poor child had been tasked beyond her strength during the past four days. Through all, she had been her mother's willing little handmaiden, soothing, helping, and cheering the half-widowed woman by day and watching and praying beside her all the long night. She knew that something terrible and mysterious was taking place at this moment, something that had been too terrible and mysterious for even kind, good Hans to tell.

  Then new thoughts came. Why had not Hans told her? It was a shame. It was HER father as well as his. She was no baby. She had once taken a sharp knife from the father's hand. She had even drawn him away from the mother on that awful night when Hans, as big as he was, could not help her. Why, then, must she be treated like one who could do nothing? oh, how very still it was——how bitter, bitter cold! If Annie Bouman had only stayed home instead of going to Amsterdam, it wouldn't be so lonely. How cold her feet were growing! Was it the moaning that made her feel as if she were floating in the air?

  This would not do——the mother might need her help at any moment!

  Rousing herself with an effort, Gretel sat upright, rubbing her eyes and wondering——wondering that the sky was so bright and blue, wondering at the stillness in the cottage, more than all, at the laughter rising and falling in the distance.

  Soon she sank down again, the strange medley of thought growing more and more confused in her bewildered brain.

  What a strange lip the meester had! How the stork's nest upon the roof seemed to rustle and whisper down to her! How bright those knives were in the leather case——brighter perhaps than the silver skates. If she had but worn her new jacket, she would not shiver so. The new jacket was pretty——the only pretty thing she had ever worn. God had taken care of her father so long. He would do it still, if those two men would but go away. Ah, now the meesters were on the roof, they were clambering to the top——no——it was her mother and Hans——or the storks. It was so dark, who could tell? And the mound rocking, swinging in that strange way. How sweetly the birds were singing. They must be winter birds, for the air was thick with icicles——not one bird but twenty. Oh! hear them, Mother. Wake me, Mother, for the race. I am so tired with crying, and crying——

  A firm hand was laid upon her shoulder.

  "Get up, little girl!" cried a kind voice. "This will not do, for you to lie here and freeze."

  Gretel slowly raised her head. She was so sleepy that it seemed nothing strange to her that Hilda van Gleck should be leaning over her, looking with kind, beautiful eyes into her face. She had often dreamed it before.

  But she had never dreamed that Hilda was shaking her roughly, almost dragging her by main force; never dreamed that she heard her saying, "Gretel! Gretel Brinker! You MUST wake!"

  This was real. Gretel looked up. Still the lovely delicate young lady was shaking, rubbing, fairly pounding her. It must be a dream. No, there was the cottage——and the stork's nest and the meester's coach by the canal. She could see them now quite plainly. Her hands were tingling, her feet throbbing. Hilda was forcing her to walk.

  At last Gretel began to feel like herself again.

  "I have been asleep," she faltered, rubbing her eyes with both hands and looking very much ashamed.

  "Yes, indeed, entirely too much asleep"——laughed Hilda, whose lips were very pale——"but you are well enough now. Lean upon me, Gretel. There, keep moving, you will soon be warm enough to go by the fire. Now let me take you into the cottage."

  "Oh, no! no! no! jufvrouw, not in there! The meester is there. He sent me away!"

  Hilda was puzzled, but she wisely forebore to ask at present for an explanation. "Very well, Gretel, try to walk faster. I saw you upon the mound, some time ago, but I thought you were playing. That is right, keep moving."

  All this time the kindhearted girl had been forcing Gretel to walk up and down, supporting her with one arm and, with the other, striving as well as she could to take off her own warm sacque.

  Suddenly Gretel suspected her intention.

  "Oh, jufvrouw! jufvrouw!" she cried imploringly. "PLEASE never think of such a thing as THAT. Oh! please keep it on, I am burning all over, jufvrouw! I really am burning. Not burning exactly, but pins and needles pricking all over me. Oh, jufvrouw, don't!"

  The poor child's dismay was so genuine that Hilda hastened to reassure her.

  "Very well, Gretel, move your arms then——so. Why, your cheeks are as pink as roses, already. I think the meester would let you in now, he certainly would. Is your father so very ill?"

  "Ah, jufvrouw," cried Gretel, weeping afresh, "he is dying, I think. There are two meesters in with him at this moment, and the mother has scarcely spoken today. Can you hear him moan, jufvrouw?" she added with sudden terror. "The air buzzes so I cannot hear. He may be dead! Oh, I do wish I could hear him!"

  Hilda listened. The cottage was very near, but not a sound could be heard.

  Something told her that Gretel was right. She ran to the window.

  "You cannot see there, my lady," sobbed Gretel eagerly. "The mother has oiled paper hanging inside. But at the other one, in the south end of the cottage, you can look in where the paper is torn."

  Hilda, in her anxiety, ran around, past the corner where the low roof was fringed with its loosened thatch.

  A sudden thought checked her.

  "It is not right for me to peep into another's house in this way," she said to herself. Then, softly calling to Gretel, she added in a whisper, "You may look——perhaps he is only sleeping."

  Gretel tried to walk briskly toward the spot, but her limbs were trembling. Hilda hastened to her support.

  "You are sick, yourself, I fear," she said kindly.

  "No, not sick, jufvrouw, but my heart cries all the time now, even when my eyes are as dry as yours. Why, jufvrouw, your eyes are not dry! Are you crying for US? Oh, jufvrouw, if God sees you! Oh! I know father will get better now." And the little creature, even while reaching to look through the tiny window, kissed Hilda's hand again and again.

  The sash was sadly patched and broken; a torn piece of paper hung halfway down across it. Gretel's face was pressed to the window.

  "Can you see anything?" whispered Hilda at last.

  "Yes——the father lies very still, his head is bandaged, and all their eyes are fastened upon him. Oh, jufvrouw!" almost screamed Gretel, as she started back and, by a quick, dexterous movement shook off her heavy wooden shoes. "I MUST go in to my mother! Will you come with me?"

  "Not now, the bell is ringing. I shall come again soon. Good-bye!"

  Gretel scarcely heard the words. She remembered for many a day afterward the bright, pitying smile on Hilda's face as she turned away.

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