Dame Brinker earned a little money for her family by raising vegetables, spinning, and knitting. But nearly all the outdoor work and household labor was performed by her son Hans and daughter Gretel.
At certain seasons of the year the children went out each day to gather peat, which they stored in bricklike pieces for fuel. At other times, Hans rode the towing-horses on the canals, and Gretel tended geese for the neighboring farmers.
Hans was clever at carving in wood. Both he and Gretel were good gardeners. Gretel could sing and sew and run on tall homemade stilts. Hans, on the other hand, was slow and steady. The harder the task, whether in study or daily labor, the better he liked it.
It was only in winter that Gretel and Hans could attend school. For the past month, they had been kept at home because their mother needed their services. Their father, who was ill, needed constant attention. There was black bread to be made, and the house to be kept clean. Stockings and other things had to be knitted and sold in the marketplace.
While they were busily helping their mother on this cold December morning, a merry troop of girls and boys came skimming down the canal. They were fine skaters. As the bright costumes flitted by, it looked from a distance as though the ice had suddenly thawed and a colorful tulip bed were floating along on the current. There were nearly twenty other boys and girls in the party, and they all seemed full of excitement.
Up and down the canal within the space of a half mile they skated.
There were also workpeople, with weary eyes, hurrying to their shops and factories. Market women carried loads upon their heads. Peddlers passed bending with their packs. Bargemen with shaggy hair and tired faces pushed roughly on their way. After a while, groups of children with satchels slung over their shoulders whizzed past toward the distant school. One and all wore skates.
Before long our merry boys and girls were almost lost in the confusion of bright colors, the ceaseless motion, and the gleaming of skates. The whole party suddenly came to a standstill and all talked at once to a pretty little maiden who was just passing.
“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.”
“Why, we are to have a grand skating match on the twentieth. 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—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,” replied Rychie.
“The girls’ pair is to have bells,” said Hilda quietly, “but there is to be another pair for the boys with an arrow engraved on 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 schooltime now, we will talk about it at noon. Oh! you will join, of course.”
Katrinka, without replying, made a graceful spin. “Don’t you hear the last bell? Catch me!” She darted off toward the schoolhouse.
All the children started after her, but they could not catch the bright-eyed, laughing girl who, with golden hair streaming in the sunlight, looked back with a sparkling smile of triumph as she floated onward.
Beautiful Katrinka! Full of youth and health, all life and joy and motion, speeding through one boy’s dreams that night! What wonder that it seemed his darkest hour when, years afterward, Katrinka’s presence floated away from him forever.
Source: Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates
By Mary Mapes Dodge
By Mary Mapes Dodge, excerpt from Hans Brinker, Gutenberg.org, Public Domain