"Ah, no!" She sobbed, sinking upon the frozen mound of earth where she had been sitting. Mother is there, and Hans. They will care for him. But how pale they were. And even Hans was crying!
Why did the cross old meester keep him and send me away? she thought. I could have clung to the mother and kissed her. That always makes her stroke my hair and speak gently, even after she has scolded me. How quiet it is now! Oh, if the father should die, and Hans, and the mother, what WOULD I do? And Gretel, shivering with cold, buried her face in her arms and cried as if her heart would break.
The poor child had been tasked beyond her strength during the past four days. Through all, she had been her mother's willing little handmaiden, soothing, helping, and cheering the half-widowed woman by day and watching and praying beside her all the long night. She knew that something terrible and mysterious was taking place at this moment, something that had been too terrible and mysterious for even kind, good Hans to tell.
Then new thoughts came. Why had not Hans told her? It was a shame. It was HER father as well as his. She was no baby. She had once taken a sharp knife from the father's hand. She had even drawn him away from the mother on that awful night when Hans, as big as he was, could not help her. Why, then, must she be treated like one who could do nothing? oh, how very still it was--how bitter, bitter cold! If Annie Bouman had only stayed home instead of going to Amsterdam, it wouldn't be so lonely. How cold her feet were growing! Was it the moaning that made her feel as if she were floating in the air?
This would not do--the mother might need her help at any moment!
Rousing herself with an effort, Gretel sat upright, rubbing her eyes and wondering--wondering that the sky was so bright and blue, wondering at the stillness in the cottage, more than all, at the laughter rising and falling in the distance.
Soon she sank down again, the strange medley of thought growing more and more confused in her bewildered brain.
What a strange lip the meester had! How the stork's nest upon the roof seemed to rustle and whisper down to her! How bright those knives were in the leather case--brighter perhaps than the silver skates. If she had but worn her new jacket, she would not shiver so. The new jacket was pretty--the only pretty thing she had ever worn. God had taken care of her father so long. He would do it still, if those two men would but go away. Ah, now the meesters were on the roof, they were clambering to the top--no--it was her mother and Hans--or the storks. It was so dark, who could tell? And the mound rocking, swinging in that strange way. How sweetly the birds were singing. They must be winter birds, for the air was thick with icicles--not one bird but twenty. Oh! hear them, Mother. Wake me, Mother, for the race. I am so tired with crying, and crying--