1. On a bright December morning long ago, two thinly clad children were kneeling upon the bank of a frozen canal in Holland.
2. The sun had not yet appeared, but the gray sky was parted near the horizon, and its edges shone crimson with the coming day. Most of the good Hollanders were enjoying a placid morning nap.
3. Meanwhile, with many a vigorous puff and pull, the brother and sister, for such they were, seemed to be fastening something to their feet—not skates, certainly, but clumsy pieces of wood narrowed and smoothed at their lower edge, and pierced with holes, through which were threaded strings of rawhide.
4. These queer-looking affairs had been made by the boy Hans. His mother was a poor peasant woman, too poor even to think of such a thing as buying skates for her little ones. Rough as these were, they had afforded the children many a happy hour upon the ice.
5. In a moment, the boy arose and, with a pompous swing of the arms and a careless “Come on, Gretel,” glided easily across the canal.
6. “Ah, Hans,” called his sister plaintively, “this foot is not well yet. The strings hurt me on last market day, and now I cannot bear them tied in the same place.”
7. “Tie them higher up, then,” answered Hans, as without looking at her he performed a wonderful cat’s cradle step on the ice.
8. “How can I? The string is too short.”
9. Giving vent to a good-natured Dutch whistle, the English translation of which was that girls were troublesome creatures, he steered toward her.
10. “You are foolish to wear such shoes, Gretel, when you have a stout leather pair. Your wooden shoes would be better than these.”
11. “Why, Hans! Do you forget? The father threw my beautiful new shoes in the fire. Before I knew what he had done, they were all curled up in the midst o the burning peat. I can skate with these, but not with my wooden ones. Be careful now—”
12. Hans had taken a string from his pocket. Humming a tune as he knelt beside her, he proceeded to fasten Gretel’s skate with all the force of his strong young arm.
13. “Oh! Oh!” she cried in real pain.
14. With an impatient jerk, Hans unwound the string. He would have cast it on the ground, in true big-brother style, had he not just then spied a tear trickling down his sister’s cheek.
15. “I’ll fix it—never fear,” he said with sudden tenderness, “but we must be quick. The mother will need us soon.”
16. His eye suddenly brightened as, with the air of a fellow who knew what he was about, he took off his cap and, removing the tattered lining, adjusted it in a smooth pad over the top of Gretel’s worn-out shoe.
17. “Now,” he cried triumphantly, at the same time arranging the strings as briskly as his benumbed fingers would allow, “can you bear some pulling?”
18. Gretel drew up her lips as if to say, “Hurt away,” but made no further response.
19. In another moment, they were all laughing together, as hand in hand, they flew along the canal, never thinking whether the ice would bear them or not, for, in Holland, ice is generally an all winter affair. It settles itself upon the water in a determined kind of way, and so far from growing thin and uncertain every time the sun is a little severe upon it, it gathers its forces day by day and flashes defiance to every beam.
20. Presently, squeak! squeak! sounded something beneath Hans’ feet. Next, his strokes grew shorter, ending of times with a jerk, and finally, he lay sprawling upon the ice, kicking against the air with many a fantastic flourish.
21. “Ha! ha!” laughed Gretel. “That was a fine tumble!” But a tender heart was beating under her coarse blue jacket, and even as she laughed, she came, with a graceful sweep, close to her prostrate brother.
22. “Are you hurt, Hans? Oh, you are laughing! Catch me now!” And she darted away, shivering no longer, but with cheeks, all aglow and eyes sparkling with fun.
23. Hans sprang to his feet and started in brisk pursuit, but it was no easy thing to catch Gretel. Before she had traveled very far, her skates, too, began to squeak.
24. Believing that discretion was the better part of valor, she turned suddenly and skated into her pursuer’s arms.
25. “Ha! Ha! I’ve caught you!” cried Hans.
26. “Ha! Ha! I caught YOU,” she retorted, struggling to free herself.
27. Just then, a clear, quick voice was heard calling, “Hans! Gretel!”
28. “It’s the mother,” said Hans, looking solemn in an instant.