D AME BRINKER earned a scant support for her family by raising vegetables, spinning and knitting. Once she had worked on board the barges plying up and down the canal, and had occasionally been harnessed with other women to the towing rope of a pakschuyt plying between Broek and Amsterdam. But when Hans had grown strong and large, he had insisted on doing all such drudgery in her place. Besides, her husband had become so very helpless of late, that he required her constant care. Although not having as much intelligence as a little child, he was yet strong of arm and very hearty, and Dame Brinker had sometimes great trouble in controlling him.
"Ah! children, he was so good and steady," she would sometimes say, "and as wise as a lawyer. Even the Burgomaster would stop to ask him a question, and now, alack! he doesn't know his wife and little ones. You remember the father, Hans, when he was himself—a great brave man—Don't you?"
"Yes, indeed, mother, he knew everything, and could do anything under the sun—and how he would sing! why, you used to laugh and say it was enough to set the windmills dancing."
"So I did. Bless me! how the boy remembers! Gretel, child, take
that knitting needle from your father, quick; he'll get it in his
eyes may be; and put the shoe on him. His poor feet are like ice
half the time, but I can't keep 'em covered
all I can
Nearly all the outdoor work, as well as the household labor, was performed by Hans and Gretel. At certain seasons of the year the children went out day after day to gather peat, which they would stow away in square, brick-like pieces, for fuel. At other times, when home-work permitted, Hans rode the towing-horses on the canals, earning a few stivers a day; and Gretel tended geese for the neighboring farmers.
Hans was clever at carving in wood, and both he and Gretel were good gardeners. Gretel could sing and sew and run on great, high, home-made stilts better than any other girl for miles around. She could learn a ballad in five minutes, and find, in its season, any weed or flower you could name; but she dreaded books, and often the very sight of the figuring-board in the old school-house would set her eyes swimming. Hans, on the contrary, was slow and steady. The harder the task, whether in study or daily labor, the better he liked it. Boys who sneered at him out of school, on account of his patched clothes and scant leather breeches, were forced to yield him the post of honor in nearly every class. It was not long before he was the only youngster in the school who had not stood at least once in the corner of horrors, where hung a dreaded whip, and over it this motto:
"Leer, leer! jou luigaart, of dit endje touw zal je leeren!"
It was only in winter that Gretel and Hans could be spared to attend school; and for the past month they had been kept at home because their mother needed their services. Raff Brinker required constant attention, and there was black bread to be made, and the house to be kept clean, and stockings and other things to be knitted and sold in the marketplace.
While they were busily assisting their mother on this cold December morning, a merry troop of girls and boys came skimming down the canal. There were fine skaters among them, and as the bright medley of costumes flitted by, it looked from a distance as though the ice had suddenly thawed, and some gay tulip bed were floating along on the current.
There was the rich burgomaster's daughter, Hilda van Gleck, with her costly furs and loose-fitting velvet sacque; and, near by, a pretty peasant girl, Annie Bouman, jauntily attired in a coarse scarlet jacket and a blue skirt just short enough to display the gray homespun hose to advantage. Then there was the proud Rychie Korbes, whose father, Mynheer van Korbes, was one of the leading men of Amsterdam; and, flocking closely around her, Carl Schummel, Peter and Ludwig van Holp, Jacob Poot, and a very small boy rejoicing in the tremendous name of Voostenwalbert Schimmelpenninck. There were nearly twenty other boys and girls in the party, and one and all seemed full of excitement and frolic.
Up and down the canal, within the space of a half mile, they skated, exerting their racing powers to the utmost. Often the swiftest among them was seen to dodge from under the very nose of some pompous law-giver or doctor, who with folded arms was skating leisurely toward the town; or a chain of girls would suddenly break at the approach of a fat old burgomaster who, with gold-headed cane poised in air, was puffing his way to Amsterdam. Equipped in skates wonderful to behold, with their superb strappings, and dazzling runners curving over the instep and topped with gilt balls, he would open his fat eyes a little if one of the maidens chanced to drop him a curtesy, but would not dare to bow in return for fear of losing his balance.
Not only pleasure-seekers and stately men of note were upon the canal. There were work-people, with weary eyes, hastening to their shops and factories; market-women with loads upon their heads; peddlers bending with their packs; barge-men with shaggy hair and bleared faces, jostling roughly on their way; kind-eyed clergymen speeding perhaps to the bedsides of the dying; and, after a while, groups of children, with satchels slung over their shoulders, whizzing past toward the distant school. One and all wore skates except, indeed, a muffled-up farmer whose queer cart bumped along on the margin of the canal.
Before long our merry boys and girls were almost lost in the confusion of bright colors, the ceaseless motion, and the gleaming of skates flashing back the sunlight. We might have known no more of them had not the whole party suddenly come to a standstill and, grouping themselves out of the way of the passers-by, all talked at once to a pretty little maiden, whom they had drawn from the tide of people flowing toward the town.
"Oh, Katrinka!" they cried, in one breath, "have you heard of it? The race—We want you to join!"
"What race?" asked Katrinka, laughing—"Don't all talk at once, please, I can't understand."
Every one panted and looked at Rychie Korbes, who was their acknowledged spokeswoman.
"Why," said Rychie, "we are to have a grand skating match on the twentieth, on Mevrouw van Gleck's birthday. It's all Hilda's work. They are going to give a splendid prize to the best skater."
"Yes," chimed in half-a-dozen voices, "a beautiful pair of silver skates—perfectly magnificent! with, oh! such straps and silver bells and buckles!"
"Who said they had bells?" put in a small voice of the boy with the big name.
"I say so, Master Voost," replied Rychie.
"Well, you don't any of you know a single thing about
it; they haven't a sign of a bell on them,
"Oh! oh!" and the chorus of conflicting opinion broke forth again.
"The girls' pair is to have bells," interposed Hilda, quietly, "but there is to be another pair for the boys with an arrow engraved upon the sides."
"There! I told you so!" cried nearly all the youngsters in one breath.
Katrinka looked at them with bewildered eyes.
"Who is to try?" she asked.
"All of us," answered Rychie. "It will be such fun! And you must, too, Katrinka. But it's school time now, we will talk it all over at noon. Oh! you will join of course."
Katrinka, without replying, made a graceful pirouette, and
laughing out a
All started, pell-mell, at this challenge, but they tried in vain to catch the bright-eyed, laughing creature who, with golden hair streaming in the sunlight, cast back many a sparkling glance of triumph as she floated onward.
Beautiful Katrinka! Flushed with youth and health, all life and mirth and motion, what wonder thine image, ever floating in advance, sped through one boy's dreams that night! What wonder that it seemed his darkest hour when, years afterward, thy presence floated away from him forever!