"True! Of course it is," said Lambert. "I have given you the story just as Mother told it to me, years ago. Why, there is not a child in Holland who does not know it. And, Ben, you may not think so, but that little boy represents the spirit of the whole country. Not a leak can show itself anywhere either in its politics, honor, or public safety, that a million fingers are not ready to stop it, at any cost."
"Whew!" cried Master Ben. "Big talking that!"
"It's true talk anyway," rejoined Lambert, so very quietly that Ben wisely resolved to make no further comment.
The skating season had commenced unusually early; our boys were by no means alone upon the ice. The afternoon was so fine that men, women, and children, bent upon enjoying the holiday, had flocked to the grand canal from far and near. Saint Nicholas had evidently remembered the favorite pastime; shining new skates were everywhere to be seen. Whole families were skimming their way to Haarlem or Leyden or the neighboring villages. The ice seemed fairly alive. Men noticed the erect, easy carriage of women, and their picturesque variety of costume. There were the latest fashions, fresh from Paris, floating past dingy, moth-eaten garments that had seen service through two generations; coal-scuttle bonnets perched over freckled faces bright with holiday smiles; stiff muslin caps with wings at the sides, flapping beside cheeks rosy with health and contentment; furs, too, encircling the whitest of throats; and scanty garments fluttering below faces ruddy with exercise. In short, every quaint and comical mixture of dry goods and flesh that Holland could furnish seemed sent to enliven the scene.
There were belles from Leyden, and fishwives from the border villages; cheese women from Gouda, and prim matrons from beautiful country seats on the Haarlemmer Meer. Gray-headed skaters were constantly to be seen; wrinkled old women with baskets upon their heads, and plump little toddlers on skates clutching at their mothers' gowns. Some women carried their babies upon their backs, firmly secured with a bright shawl. The effect was pretty and graceful as they darted by or sailed slowly past, now nodding to an acquaintance, now chirruping and throwing soft baby talk to the muffled little ones they carried.
Boys and girls were chasing each other and hiding behind the one-horse sleds that, loaded high with peat or timber, pursued their cautious way along the track marked out as "safe." Beautiful, queenly women were there, enjoyment sparkling in their quiet eyes. Sometimes a long file of young men, each grasping the coat of the one before him, flew by with electric speed; and sometimes the ice squeaked under the chair of some gorgeous old dowager, or rich burgomaster's lady, who, very red in the nose and sharp in the eyes, looked like a scare-thaw invented by old Father Winter for the protection of his skating grounds. The chair would be heavy with foot stoves and cushions, to say nothing of the old lady. Mounted upon shining runners, it slid along, pushed by the sleepiest of servants, who, looking neither to the right nor the left, bent himself to his task while she cast direful glances upon the screaming little rowdies who invariably acted as bodyguard.
As for the men, they were pictures of placid enjoyment. Some were attired in ordinary citizen's dress, but many looked odd enough with their short woolen coats, wide breeches, and big silver buckles. These seemed to Ben like little boys who had, by a miracle, sprung suddenly into manhood and were forced to wear garments that their astonished mothers had altered in a hurry. He noticed, too, that nearly all the men had pipes as they passed him, whizzing and smoking like so many locomotives. There was every variety of pipes, from those of common clay to the most expensive meerschaums mounted in silver and gold. Some were carved into extraordinary and fantastic shapes, representing birds, flowers, heads, bugs, and dozens of other things; some resembled the "Dutchman's pipe" that grows in our American woods; some were red and many were of a pure, snowy white; but the most respectable were those which were ripening into a shaded brown. The deeper and richer the brown, of course, the more honored the pipe, for it was proof that the owner, if honestly shading it, was deliberately devoting his manhood to the effort. What pipe would not be proud to be the object of such a sacrifice!
For a while Ben skated on in silence. There was so much to engage his attention that he almost forgot his companions. Part of the time he had been watching the iceboats as they flew over the great Haarlemmer Meer (or lake), the frozen surface of which was now plainly visible from the canal. These boats had very large sails, much larger, in proportion, than those of ordinary vessels, and were set upon a triangular frame furnished with an iron "runner" at each corner--the widest part of the triangle crossing the bow, and its point stretching beyond the stem. They had rudders for guiding and brakes for arresting their progress and were of all sizes and kinds, from small, rough affairs managed by a boy, to large and beautiful ones filled with gay pleasure parties and manned by competent sailors, who, smoking their stumpy pipes, reefed and tacked and steered with great solemnity and precision.