"Come, Peter!" cried Lambert from the line: "we are waiting for you."
"For madame's sake," pleaded Hans, "be quick! She is motioning to you to join the racers. There, the skate is almost on: quick, mynheer, fasten it. I could not possibly win. The race lies between Master Schummel and yourself."
"You are a noble fellow, Hans!" cried Peter, yielding at last. He sprang to his post just as the white handkerchief fell to the ground.
The bugle sends forth its blast, loud, clear, and ringing.
Off go the boys.
"Mein Gott!" cries a tough old fellow from Delft. "They beat every thing,--these Amsterdam youngsters. See them!"
See them, indeed! They are winged Mercuries, every one of them. What mad errand are they on?
Ah, I know: they are hunting Peter van Holp. He is some fleet-footed runaway from Olympus. Mercury and his troop of winged cousins are in full chase. They will catch him! Now Carl is the runaway. The pursuit grows furious. Ben is foremost.
The chase turns in a cloud of mist. It is coming this way. Who is hunted now? Mercury himself. It is Peter, Peter van Holp! Fly, Peter!
Hans is watching you. He is sending all his fleetness, all his strength, into your feet. Your mother and sister are pale with eagerness. Hilda is trembling, and dare not look up. Fly, Peter! The crowd has not gone deranged: it is only cheering. The pursuers are close upon you. Touch the white column! It beckons; it is reeling before you--it--
"Huzza! Huzza! Peter has won the silver skates!"
"PETER VAN HOLP!" shouted the crier. But who heard him? "Peter van Holp!" shouted a hundred voices; for he was the favorite boy of the place. "Huzza! Huzza!"
Now the music was resolved to be heard. It struck up a lively air, then a tremendous march. The spectators, thinking something new was about to happen, deigned to listen and to look.
The racers formed in single file. Peter, being tallest, stood first.
Gretel, the smallest of all, took her place at the end. Hans, who had borrowed a strap from the cake-boy, was near the head.
Three gayly-twined arches were placed at intervals upon the river, facing the Van Gleck pavilion.
Skating slowly, and in perfect time to the music, the boys and girls moved forward, led on by Peter. It was beautiful to see the bright procession glide along like a living creature. It curved and doubled, and drew its graceful length in and out among the arches: whichever way Peter, the head, went, the body was sure to follow. Sometimes it steered direct for the centre arch; then, as if seized with a new impulse, turned away and curled itself about the first one; then unwound slowly, and bending low, with quick, snake-like curvings, crossed the river, passing at length through the farthest arch.
When the music was slow, the procession seemed to crawl like a thing afraid: it grew livelier, and the creature darted forward with a spring, gliding rapidly among the arches, in and out, curling, twisting, turning, never losing form, until at the shrill call of the bugle rising above the music, it suddenly resolved itself into boys and girls standing in double semicircle before Madame van Gleck's pavilion.
Peter and Gretel stand in the centre, in advance of the others. Madame van Gleck rises majestically. Gretel trembles, but feels that she must look at the beautiful lady. She cannot hear what is said, there is such a buzzing all around her. She is thinking that she ought to try and make a courtesy, such as her mother makes to the _meester_, when suddenly something so dazzling is placed in her hand that she gives a cry of joy.
Then she ventures to look about her. Peter, too, has something in his hands. "Oh, Oh! how splendid!" she cries; and "Oh! how splendid!" is echoed as far as people can see.
Meantime the silver skates flash in the sunshine, throwing dashes of light upon those two happy faces.
Mevrouw van Gend sends a little messenger with her bouquets,--one for Hilda, one for Carl, and others for Peter and Gretel.
At sight of the flowers, the Queen of the Skaters becomes uncontrollable. With a bright stare of gratitude, she gathers skates and bouquet in her apron, hugs them to her bosom, and darts off to search for her father and mother in the scattering crowd.
By Louisa M. Alcott
Nelly sat beside her mother picking lint; but while her fingers flew, her eyes often looked wistfully out into the meadow, golden with buttercups, and bright with sunshine. Presently she said, rather bashfully, but very earnestly, "Mamma, I want to tell you a little plan I've made, if you'll please not laugh."
"I think I can safely promise that, my dear," said her mother, putting down her work that she might listen quite respectfully.
Nelly looked pleased, and went on confidingly.
"Since brother Will came home with his lame foot, and I've helped you tend him, I've heard a great deal about hospitals, and liked it very much. To-day I said I wanted to go and be a nurse, like Aunt Mercy; but Will laughed, and told me I'd better begin by nursing sick birds and butterflies and pussies before I tried to take care of men. I did not like to be made fun of, but I've been thinking that it would be very pleasant to have a little hospital all my own, and be a nurse in it, because, if I took pains, so many pretty creatures might be made well, perhaps. Could I, mamma?"
Her mother wanted to smile at the idea, but did not, for Nelly looked up with her heart and eyes so full of tender compassion, both for the unknown men for whom her little hands had done their best, and for the smaller sufferers nearer home, that she stroked the shining head, and answered readily:
"Yes, Nelly, it will be a proper charity for such a young Samaritan, and you may learn much if you are in earnest. You must study how to feed and nurse your little patients, else your pity will do no good, and your hospital become a prison. I will help you, and Tony shall be your surgeon."
"O mamma, how good you always are to me! Indeed, I am in truly earnest; I will learn, I will be kind, and may I go now and begin?"
"You may, but tell me first where will you have your hospital?"
"In my room, mamma; it is so snug and sunny, and I never should forget it there," said Nelly.
"You must not forget it anywhere. I think that plan will not do. How would you like to find caterpillars walking in your bed, to hear sick pussies mewing in the night, to have beetles clinging to your clothes, or see mice, bugs, and birds tumbling downstairs whenever the door was open?" said her mother.
Nelly laughed at that thought a minute, then clapped her hands, and cried: "Let us have the old summer-house! My doves only use the upper part, and it would be so like Frank in the storybook. Please say yes again, mamma."
Her mother did say yes, and, snatching up her hat, Nelly ran to find Tony, the gardener's son, a pleasant lad of twelve, who was Nelly's favorite playmate. Tony pronounced the plan a "jolly" one, and, leaving his work, followed his young mistress to the summer-house, for she could not wait one minute.
"What must we do first?" she asked, as they stood looking in at the dim, dusty room, full of garden tools, bags of seeds, old flower-pots, and watering-cans.
"Clear out the rubbish, miss," answered Tony.
"Here it goes, then," and Nelly began bundling everything out in such haste that she broke two flower-pots, scattered all the squash-seeds, and brought a pile of rakes and hoes clattering down about her ears.
"Just wait a bit, and let me take the lead, miss. You hand me things, I'll pile 'em in the barrow and wheel 'em off to the barn; then it will save time, and be finished up tidy."
Nelly did as he advised, and very soon nothing but dust remained.
"What next?" she asked, not knowing in the least.
"I'll sweep up while you see if Polly can come and scrub the room out.
It ought to be done before you stay here, let alone the patients."
"So it had," said Nelly, looking very wise all of a sudden. "Will says the wards--that means the rooms, Tony--are scrubbed every day or two, and kept very clean, and well venti--something--I can't say it; but it means having a plenty of air come in. I can clean windows while Polly mops, and then we shall soon be done."
Away she ran, feeling very busy and important. Polly came, and very soon the room looked like another place. The four latticed windows were set wide open, so the sunshine came dancing through the vines that grew outside, and curious roses peeped in to see what frolic was afoot. The walls shone white again, for not a spider dared to stay; the wide seat which encircled the room was dustless now,--the floor as nice as willing hands could make it; and the south wind blew away all musty odors with its fragrant breath.
"How fine it looks!" cried Nelly, dancing on the doorstep, lest a foot-print should mar the still damp floor.
"I'd almost like to fall sick for the sake of staying here," said Tony, admiringly. "Now, what sort of beds are you going to have, miss?"
"I suppose it won't do to put butterflies and toads and worms into beds like the real soldiers where Will was?" answered Nelly, looking anxious.