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
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
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 fête. 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
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
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
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.
The signal is repeated.
Off again. No mistake this time. Whew! how fast they go!
The multitude is quiet for an instant, absorbed in eager, breathless
Cheers spring up along the line of spectators. Huzza! five girls are
ahead. Who comes flying back from the boundary-mark? We cannot tell.
Something red, that is all. There is a blue spot flitting near it, and
a dash of yellow nearer still. Spectators at this end of the line
strain their eyes, and wish they had taken their post nearer the
The wave of cheers is coming back again. Now we can see. Katrinka is
She passes the Van Holp pavilion. The next is Madame van Gleck's. That
leaning figure gazing from it is a magnet. Hilda shoots past Katrinka,
waving her hand to her mother as she passes. Two others are close now,
whizzing on like arrows. What is that flash of red and gray? Hurrah,
it is Gretel! She, too, waves her hand, but toward no gay pavilion.
The crowd is cheering; but she hears only her father's voice,—"Well
done, little Gretel!" Soon Katrinka, with a quick, merry laugh, shoots
past Hilda, The girl in yellow is gaining now. She passes them
all,—all except Gretel. The judges lean forward without seeming to
lift their eyes from their watches. Cheer after cheer fills the air:
the very columns seem rocking. Gretel has passed them. She has won.
"GRETEL BRINKER, ONE MILE!" shouts the crier.
The judges nod. They write something upon a tablet which each holds in
While the girls are resting,—some crowding eagerly around our
frightened little Gretel, some standing aside in high disdain,—the
boys form in line.
Mynheer van Gleck drops the handkerchief, this time. The buglers give
a vigorous blast.
The boys have started.
Halfway already. Did ever you see the like!
Three hundred legs flashing by in an instant. But there are only
twenty boys. No matter: there were hundreds of legs, I am sure. Where
are they now? There is such a noise, one gets bewildered. What are the
people laughing at? Oh! at that fat boy in the rear. See him go! See
him! He'll be down in an instant: no, he won't. I wonder if he knows
he is all alone: the other boys are nearly at the boundary-line. Yes,
he knows it. He stops. He wipes his hot face. He takes off his cap,
and looks about him. Better to give up with a good grace. He has made
a hundred friends by that hearty, astonished laugh. Good Jacob Poot!
The fine fellow is already among the spectators, gazing as eagerly as
A cloud of feathery ice flies from the heels of the skaters as they
"bring to" and turn at the flagstaffs.
Something black is coming now, one of the boys: it is all we know. He
has touched the vox humana stop of the crowd: it fairly roars.
Now they come nearer: we can see the red cap. There's Ben, there's
Peter, there's Hans!
Hans is ahead. Young Madame van Gend almost crushes the flowers in her
hand: she had been quite sure that Peter would be first. Carl Schummel
is next, then Ben, and the youth with the red cap. The others are
pressing close. A tall figure darts from among them. He passes the red
cap, he passes Ben, then Carl. Now it is an even race between him and
Hans. Madame van Gend catches her breath.
It is Peter! He is ahead! Hans shoots past him. Hilda's eyes fill with
tears: Peter must beat. Annie's eyes flash proudly. Gretel
gazes with clasped hands: four strokes more will take her brother to
He is there! Yes; but so was young Schummel just a second before. At
the last instant, Carl, gathering his powers, had whizzed between
them, and passed the goal.
"CARL SCHUMMEL, ONE MILE!" shouts the crier.
Soon Madame van Gleck rises again. The falling handkerchief starts the
bugle; and the bugle, using its voice as a bow-string, shoots off
twenty girls like so many arrows.
It is a beautiful sight; but one has not long to look: before we can
fairly distinguish them, they are far in the distance. This time they
are close upon one another. It is hard to say, as they come speeding
back from the flagstaff, which will reach the columns first. There are
new faces among the foremost,—eager, glowing faces, unnoticed before.
Katrinka is there, and Hilda; but Gretel and Rychie are in the rear.
Gretel is wavering, but, when Rychie passes her, she starts forward
afresh. Now they are nearly beside Katrinka. Hilda is still in
advance: she is almost "home." She has not faltered since that
bugle-note sent her flying: like an arrow, still she is speeding
toward the goal. Cheer after cheer rises in the air. Peter is silent;
but his eyes shine like stars. "Huzza! Huzza!"
The crier's voice is heard again.
"HILDA VAN GLECK, ONE MILE!"
A loud murmur of approval runs through the crowd, catching the music
in its course, till all seems one sound, with a glad rhythmic
throbbing in its depths. When the flag waves, all is still.
Once more the bugle blows a terrific blast. It sends off the boys like
chaff before the wind,—dark chaff, I admit, and in big pieces.
It is whisked around at the flagstaff, driven faster yet by the cheers
and shouts along the line. We begin to see what is coming. There are
three boys in advance, this time, and all abreast,—Hans, Peter, and
Lambert. Carl soon breaks the ranks, rushing through with a whiff.
Fly, Hans; fly, Peter: don't let Carl beat again!—Carl the bitter,
Carl the insolent. Van Mounen is flagging; but you are as strong as
ever. Hans and Peter, Peter and Hans: which is foremost? We love them
both. We scarcely care which is the fleeter.
Hilda, Annie, and Gretel, seated upon the long crimson bench, can
remain quiet no longer. They spring to their feet, so different! and
yet one in eagerness. Hilda instantly reseats herself: none shall know
how interested she is; none shall know how anxious, how filled with
one hope. Shut your eyes, then, Hilda, hide your face rippling with
joy. Peter has beaten.
"PETER VAN HOLP, ONE MILE!" calls the crier.
The same buzz of excitement as before, while the judges take notes,
the same throbbing of music through the din; but something is
different. A little crowd presses close about some object near the
column. Carl has fallen. He is not hurt, though somewhat stunned. If
he were less sullen, he would find more sympathy in these warm young
hearts. As it is, they forget him as soon as he is fairly on his feet
The girls are to skate their third mile.
How resolute the little maidens look as they stand in a line! Some are
solemn with a sense of responsibility; some wear a smile half-bashful,
half-provoked: but one air of determination pervades them all.
This third mile may decide the race. Still, if neither Gretel nor
Hilda win, there is yet a chance among the rest for the silver skates.
Each girl feels sure, that, this time, she will accomplish the
distance in one-half the time. How they stamp to try their runners!
How nervously they examine each strap! How erect they stand at last,
every eye upon Madame van Gleck!
The bugle thrills through them again. With quivering eagerness they
spring forward, bending, but in perfect balance. Each flashing stroke
seems longer than the last.
Now they are skimming off in the distance.
Again the eager straining of eyes; again the shouts and cheering;
again the thrill of excitement, as, after a few moments, four or five,
in advance of, the rest, come speeding back, nearer, nearer, to the
Who is first? Not Rychie, Katrinka, Annie, nor Hilda, nor the girl in
yellow, but Gretel,—Gretel, the fleetest sprite of a girl that ever
skated. She was but playing in the earlier race: now she is in
earnest, or, rather, something within her has determined to win. That
lithe little form makes no effort; but it cannot stop,—not until the
goal is passed!
In vain the crier lifts his voice: he cannot be heard. He has no news
to tell: it is already ringing through the crowd,—Gretel has won
the silver skates!
Like a bird, she has flown over the ice; like a bird, she looks about
her in a timid, startled way. She longs to dart to the sheltered nook
where her father and mother stand. But Hans is beside her: the girls
are crowding round. Hilda's kind, joyous voice breathes in her ear.
From that hour, none will despise her. Goose-girl, or not, Gretel
stands acknowledged Queen of the Skaters.
With natural pride, Hans turns to see if Peter van Holp is witnessing
his sister's triumph. Peter is not looking toward them at all. He is
kneeling, bending his troubled face low, and working hastily at his
skate-strap. Hans is beside him at once.
"Are you in trouble, mynheer?"
"Ah, Hans! that you? Yes, my fun is over. I tried to tighten my strap,
to make a new hole; and this botheration of a knife has cut it nearly
"Mynheer," said Hans, at the same time pulling off a skate, "you must
use my strap!"
"Not I, indeed, Hans Brinker!" cried Peter, looking up, "though I
thank you warmly. Go to your post, my friend: the bugle will sound in
"Mynheer!" pleaded Hans in a husky voice. "You have called me your
friend. Take this strap—quick! There is not an instant to lose. I
shall not skate this time; indeed, I am out of practice. Mynheer, you
must take it;" and Hans, blind and deaf to any remonstrance, slipped
his strap into Peter's skate, and implored him to put it on.
"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
"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
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.