Edited by William Patten.
THE RACE FOR THE SILVER SKATES
By Mary Mapes Dodge
The 20th of December came at last, bringing with it the perfection of winter weather. All over the level landscape lay the warm sunlight.
It tried its power on lake, canal, and river; but the ice flashed defiance, and showed no sign of melting. The very weather-cocks stood still to enjoy the sight. This gave the windmills a holiday. Nearly all the past week they had been whirling briskly: now, being rather out of breath, they rocked lazily in the clear, still air. Catch a windmill working when the weather-cocks have nothing to do!
There was an end to grinding, crushing, and sawing for that day. It was a good thing for the millers near Broek. Long before noon, they concluded to take in their sails, and go to the race. Everybody would be there. Already the north side of the frozen Y was bordered with eager spectators: the news of the great skating-match had travelled far and wide. Men, women, and children, in holiday attire, were flocking toward the spot. Some wore furs, and wintry cloaks or shawls; but many, consulting their feelings rather than the almanac, were dressed as for an October day.
The site selected for the race was a faultless plain of ice near Amsterdam, on that great _arm_ of the Zuyder-Zee, which Dutchmen, of course, must call the Eye. The townspeople turned out in large numbers. Strangers in the city deemed it a fine chance to see what was to be seen. Many a peasant from the northward had wisely chosen the 20th as the day for the next city-trading. It seemed that everybody, young and old, who had wheels, skates, or feet at command, had hastened to the scene.
There were the gentry in their coaches, dressed like Parisians fresh from the Boulevards; Amsterdam children in charity uniforms; girls from the Roman-Catholic Orphan-House, in sable gowns and white headbands; boys from the Burgher Asylum, with their black tights and short-skirted, harlequin coats. [Footnote: This is not said in derision. Both the boys and girls of this institution wear garments quartered in red and black alternately. By making the dress thus conspicuous, the children are, in a measure, deterred from wrong-doing while going about the city. The Burgher Orphan-Asylum affords a comfortable home to several hundred boys and girls. Holland is famous for its charitable institutions.] There were old-fashioned gentlemen in cocked hats and velvet knee-breeches; old-fashioned ladies, too, in stiff, quilted skirts, and bodices of dazzling brocade. These were accompanied by servants bearing foot-stoves and cloaks. There were the peasant-folk arrayed in every possible Dutch costume--shy young rustics in brazen buckles; simple village-maidens concealing their flaxen hair under fillets of gold; women whose long, narrow aprons were stiff with embroidery; women with short corkscrew curls hanging over their foreheads; women with shaved heads and close-fitting caps; and women in striped skirts and windmill bonnets; men in leather, in homespun, in velvet and broadcloth; burghers in model European attire, and burghers in short jackets, wide trousers, and steeple-crowned hats.
There were beautiful Friesland girls in wooden shoes and coarse petticoats, with solid gold crescents encircling their heads, finished at each temple with a golden rosette, and hung with lace a century old. Some wore necklaces, pendants, and ear-rings of the purest gold.
Many were content with gilt, or even with brass; but it is not an uncommon thing for a Friesland woman to have all the family treasure in her head-gear. More than one rustic lass displayed the value of two thousand guilders upon her head that day.
Scattered throughout the crowd were peasants from the Island of Marken, with sabots, black stockings, and the widest of breeches; also women from Marken, with short blue petticoats, and black jackets gayly figured in front. They wore red sleeves, white aprons, and a cap like a bishop's mitre over their golden hair.
The children, often, were as quaint and odd-looking as their elders.
In short, one-third of the crowd seemed to have stepped bodily from a collection of Dutch paintings.
Everywhere could be seen tall women, and stumpy men, lively-faced girls, and youths whose expression never changed from sunrise to sunset.
There seemed to be at least one specimen from every known town in Holland. There were Utrecht water-bearers, Gouda cheese-makers, Delft pottery-men, Schiedam distillers, Amsterdam diamond-cutters, Rotterdam merchants, dried-up herring-packers, and two sleepy-eyed shepherds from Texel. Every man of them had his pipe and tobacco-pouch. Some carried what might be called the smoker's complete outfit,--a pipe, tobacco, a pricker with which to clean the tube, a silver net for protecting the bowl, and a box of the strongest of brimstone-matches.
A true Dutchman, you must remember, is rarely without his pipe on any possible occasion. He may, for a moment, neglect to breathe; but, when the pipe is forgotten, he must be dying, indeed. There were no such sad cases here. Wreaths of smoke were rising from every possible quarter. The more fantastic the smoke-wreath, the more placid and solemn the smoker.
Look at those boys and girls on stilts! That is a good idea. They can see over the heads of the tallest. It is strange to see those little bodies high in the air, carried about on mysterious legs. They have such a resolute look on their round faces, what wonder that nervous old gentlemen, with tender feet, wince and tremble while the long-legged little monsters stride past them!
You will read, in certain books, that the Dutch are a quiet people: so they are generally. But listen! did ever you hear such a din? All made up of human voices--no, the horses are helping somewhat, and the fiddles are squeaking pitifully (how it must pain fiddles to be tuned!); but the mass of the sound comes from the great _vox humana_ that belongs to a crowd.
That queer little dwarf, going about with a heavy basket, winding in and out among the people, helps not a little. You can hear his shrill cry above all the other sounds, "Pypen en tabac! Pypen en tabac!"
Another, his big brother, though evidently some years younger, is selling doughnuts and bon-bons. He is calling on all pretty children, far and near, to come quickly, or the cakes will be gone.
You know quite a number among the spectators. High up in yonder pavilion, erected upon the border of the ice, are some persons whom you have seen very lately. In the centre is Madame van Gleck. It is her birthday, you remember: she has the post of honor. There is Mynheer van Gleck, whose meerschaum has not really grown fast to his lips: it only appears so. There are grandfather and grandmother, whom you meet at the St. Nicholas _fete_. All the children are with them.
It is so mild, they have brought even the baby. The poor little creature is swaddled very much after the manner of an Egyptian mummy; but it can crow with delight, and, when the band is playing, open and shut its animated mittens in perfect time to the music.
Grandfather, with his pipe and spectacles and fur cap, makes quite a picture as he holds baby upon his knee. Perched high upon their canopied platforms, the party can see all that is going on. No wonder the ladies look complacently at the glassy ice: with a stove for a footstool, one might sit cosily beside the North Pole.
There is a gentleman with them who somewhat resembles St. Nicholas as he appeared to the young Van Glecks, on the fifth of December. But the saint had a flowing white beard; and this face is as smooth as a pippin. His saintship was larger around the body, too, and (between ourselves) he had a pair of thimbles in his mouth, which this gentleman certainly has not. It cannot be St. Nicholas, after all.
Near by, in the next pavilion, sit the Van Holps, with their son and daughter (the Van Gends) from The Hague. Peter's sister is not one to forget her promises.
She has brought bouquets of exquisite hot-house flowers for the winners.
These pavilions, and there are others beside, have all been erected since daylight. That semicircular one, containing Mynheer Korbes's family, is very pretty, and proves that the Hollanders are quite skilled at tent-making; but I like the Van Gleck's best,--the centre one,--striped red and white, and hung with evergreens.
The one with the blue flags contains the musicians. Those pagoda-like affairs, decked with sea-shells, and streamers of every possible hue, are the judges' stands; and those columns and flagstaffs upon the ice mark the limit of the race-course. The two white columns, twined with green, connected at the top by that long, floating strip of drapery, form the starting-point. Those flagstaffs, half a mile off, stand at each end of the boundary line, cut sufficiently deep to be distinct to the skaters, though not enough so to trip them when they turn to come back to the starting-point.
The air is so clear, it seems scarcely possible that the columns and flagstaffs are so far apart. Of course, the judges' stands are but little nearer together.
Half a mile on the ice, when the atmosphere is like this, is but a short distance, after all, especially when fenced with a living chain of spectators.
The music has commenced. How melody seems to enjoy itself in the open air! The fiddles have forgotten their agony; and every thing is harmonious. Until you look at the blue tent, it seems that the music springs from the sunshine, it is so boundless, so joyous. Only when you see the staid-faced musicians, you realize the truth.
Where are the racers? All assembled together near the white columns.
It is a beautiful sight,--forty boys and girls in picturesque attire, darting with electric swiftness in and out among each other, or sailing in pairs and triplets, beckoning, chatting, whispering, in the fulness of youthful glee.
A few careful ones are soberly tightening their straps: others, halting on one leg, with flushed, eager faces, suddenly cross the suspected skate over their knee, give it an examining shake, and dart off again. One and all are possessed with the spirit of motion. They cannot stand still. Their skates are a part of them; and every runner seems bewitched.
Holland is the place for skaters, after all. Where else can nearly every boy and girl perform feats on the ice that would attract a crowd if seen on Central Park? Look at Ben! I did not see him before.
He is really astonishing the natives; no easy thing to do in the Netherlands. Save your strength, Ben, you will need it soon. Now other boys are trying! Ben is surpassed already. Such jumping, such poising, such spinning, such india-rubber exploits generally! That boy with a red cap is the lion now: his back is a watch-spring, his body is cork--no, it is iron, or it would snap at that. He is a bird, a top, a rabbit, a corkscrew, a sprite, a flesh-ball, all in an instant. When you think he's erect, he is down; and, when you think he is down, he is up. He drops his glove on the ice, and turns a somerset as he picks it up. Without stopping, he snatches the cap from Jacob Poot's astonished head, and claps it back again "hindside before." Lookers-on hurrah and laugh. Foolish boy! It is arctic weather under your feet, but more than temperate overhead. Big drops already are rolling down your forehead. Superb skater, as you are, you may lose the race.
A French traveller, standing with a note-book in his hand, sees our English friend, Ben, buy a doughnut of the dwarf's brother, and eat it. Thereupon he writes in his note-book, that the Dutch take enormous mouthfuls, and universally are fond of potatoes boiled in molasses.
There are some familiar faces near the white columns. Lambert, Ludwig, Peter, and Carl are all there, cool, and in good skating-order. Hans is not far off. Evidently he is going to join in the race, for his skates are on,--the very pair that he sold for seven guilders. He had soon suspected that his fairy godmother was the mysterious "friend"
who had bought them. This settled, he had boldly charged her with the deed; and she, knowing well that all her little savings had been spent in the purchase, had not had the face to deny it. Through the fairy godmother, too, he had been rendered amply able to buy them back again. Therefore Hans is to be in the race. Carl is more indignant than ever about it; but, as three other peasant-boys have entered, Hans is not alone.
Twenty boys and twenty girls. The latter, by this time, are standing in front, braced for the start; for they are to have the first "run."
Hilda, Rychie, and Katrinka are among them. Two or three bend hastily to give a last pull at their skate-straps. It is pretty to see them stamp to be sure that all is firm. Hilda is speaking pleasantly to a graceful little creature in a red jacket and a new brown petticoat.
Why, it is Gretel! What a difference those pretty shoes make, and the skirt, and the new cap! Annie Bouman is there, too. Even Janzoon Kolp's sister has been admitted; but Janzoon himself has been voted out by the directors, because he killed the stork, and only last summer, was caught in the act of robbing a bird's nest,--a legal offence in Holland.
This Janzoon Kolp, you see, was--There, I cannot tell the story just now. The race is about to commence.
Twenty girls are formed in a line. The music has ceased.
A man, whom we shall call the crier, stands between the columns and the first judges' stand. He reads the rules in a loud voice:--
"THE GIRLS AND BOYS ARE TO RACE IN TURN, UNTIL ONE GIRL AND ONE BOY HAS BEATEN TWICE. THEY ARE TO START IN A LINE FROM THE UNITED COLUMNS, SKATE TO THE FLAGSTAFF LINE, TURN, AND THEN COME BACK TO THE STARTING-POINT; THUS MAKING A MILE AT EACH RUN."
A flag is waved from the judges' stand. Madame van Gleck rises in her pavilion. She leans forward with a white handkerchief in her hand.
When she drops it, a bugler is to give the signal for them to start.
The handkerchief is fluttering to the ground. Hark!
They are off!
No. Back again. Their line was not true in passing the judges' stand.