Strange Stories Of Colonial Days - Part 9

Part 9



A Story of Old New York

Clean, snug, and picturesque as a Holland town was our city of New York for some years after it had dropped its juvenile name of New Amsterdam and adopted its present name; but not so suddenly could it change its nature and Dutch ways. Dutch neatness and the Dutch tongue still reigned supreme. Substantial wooden houses turned gable ends of black and yellow Holland bricks to the front, until Pearl Street appeared like a triumphal procession of chess-boards; while no mansion in that then fashionable quarter could boast more big doors and small windows than that of the worthy burgher Van Twinkle, and the little weatherc.o.c.k on the roof was as giddy as any of its neighbors, and as undecided as to which way the wind actually did blow.

An air of festivity pervaded this residence on a certain winter's day in the early part of the eighteenth century; windows were thrown open, and Gretel, the eldest daughter of the family, followed by black Sophy, armed with brooms, mops, and pails, entered that _sanctum sanctorum_, the best parlor, to scrub and scour with unwonted energy; for to-morrow would be that greatest of Knickerbocker holidays, _Nieuw Jaar_, or New Year, when every good Hollander would consider it his duty to call upon his friends and neighbors, and the front door with its great bra.s.s knocker would swing from morning till night to admit the well-wishers of the season.

In the big kitchen also active preparations were going forward. A royal fire blazed in the wide chimney, and the Vrouw Van Twinkle, in short gown and petticoat, was cutting out and boiling those lightest and richest of krullers for which she was famous among the good housewives of the town: real Dutch krullers, brown as nuts, and crisp as pie-crust.

"Out of the way, youngsters!" cried the dame to a boy and girl lounging near to watch the boiling, "or spattered will you be with the hog's fat.

Take thy sister, Jan, and off with her to the Flatten Barrack. She would enjoy a good sledding this fine day, and that I know."

"Rather would I go to the skating on the Salt River," said Jan.

"But that you must not. It I forbid, for very unsafe is it now, thy father did observe only this morning."

"Foolishness, though, was that, mother," argued Jan, "for last night Tunis Vanderbeck from Breucklyn came over on the ice, and told me that firm was it as any rock, and smooth as thy soft, pink cheek."

"Thou flatterer!" laughed his mother; "but not so canst thou pull the wool over my eyes; so away with you both to the sledding, and here are two stivers with which to buy New-Year cakes at Peter Clopper's bake-house." And diving in the patchwork pocket hung at her side, Madam Van Twinkle produced the coins, which sent the children off with smiling faces to the hill at the end of Garden Street, stopping on the way to invest in the sweet New-Year cakes, stamped with a crown and breeches.

Jan made short work of his; but Katrina had scarce begun to nibble her fluted oval when she spied an aged man, with a long gray beard, begging for charity.

"See, Jan," she cried, "the poor, miserable old beggar! How cold and hungry he looks!"

"Then to work should he go."

"But it may be no work he has to do. Ach! the sight of him makes my heart to ache, and help him will I all I can." So saying, the kind-hearted girl darted to the mendicant's side and slipped her cake into his hand.

"A thousand thanks, little lady!" exclaimed the man, fervently; "for I am near to starving, or I would not be here; and you are the first who has heeded me to-day."

He was evidently English; but Katrina cared not for that, and, carried away by her feelings, added a guilder, given her at Christmas, to her gift of the New-Year cake, thereby calling forth a shower of benedictions, although the old fellow seemed strangely nervous meanwhile, glancing in a frightened manner at each pa.s.ser-by. As soon as the little maid's back was turned he slunk into a dark alley and out of sight.

"A silly noodle art thou, Katrina, thus to throw away thy presents,"

said Jan, as they hurried on. But his sister only shook her head, and smiled as though quite satisfied, while her heart beat a happy roundelay all the short December afternoon as she slid on her wooden sled and frolicked with the little Dutch Vans and Vanders on the Flatten-Barrack Hill.

Twilight was falling when the young Van Twinkles wended their way home, to find their bread and b.u.t.termilk ready for them by the kitchen fire, and their father and mother and Gretel gone to a supper of soft waffles and chocolate and a New-Year's-Eve dance at the Van Corlear Bouwerie.

"The best parlor, does it look fine and gay, Sophy?" asked Katrina, as she finished her evening meal.

"Dat it do," replied the old slave woman; "for waved am de sand on de floor like white clouds, and de bra.s.s chair-nails shine jest like little missy's eyes. 'Spect de ole mynheer and his vrouw come down and dance dis night for sure."

"What mynheer, Sophy?" asked Jan.

"De great mynheer in de portrait--your gran'fader, ob course. Hab you chillens neber heard how on New-Year Eve, when de clock strike twelve, down come all de pictur' folkses to shake hands and wish each oder 'Happy New-Year,' and den, if nuffin disturb 'em, mebbe dey dance in de firelight."

"Really, Sophy, do they?" asked the little girl.

"Yah, dey do. Master Jan may laugh if he please, but right am I. My ole moeder hab so tole me, and wif her own eyes hab she seen de ghostes dances."

"A rare sight it must be! I wish that I could see it," said Katrina; and later, when she went in to inspect the parlor, she gazed up with increased respect at her stolid-faced Holland ancestors.

"Much would I love to see them tread a minuet!" sighed Katrina again, and even after her head was laid on her pillow the idea haunted her dreams, until, as the tall clock in the hall struck eleven, she started up wide-awake, with the feeling that something eventful was about to happen.

"Almost spent is the old year!" she thought, "and soon down the picture folk will come to greet the new. Oh, I must, I must them see!" and although the household was by this time asleep, she crept out of bed, slipped on her clothes, and stole noiselessly down-stairs.

"Still are they yet," she whispered, glancing up at the pictured faces.

"But near the hour draws, and hide I must, or they may not come down, for Sophy says that spectators they do not love. Ah, there is just the place!" and running to the linen chest she lifted the lid, and clambering lightly in, nestled down among the lavender-scented sheets and table-cloths.

"A very comfortable hiding-spot, truly!" exclaimed Katrina, as she placed a book beneath the cover to hold it slightly open; and so cosey did it prove that she grew a bit drowsy before the midnight bells chimed the knell of another twelvemonth. Then indeed, however, she was on the alert in an instant and peering eagerly out. Her corner was in shadow, but the ruddy glow from the hickory logs revealed the portraits still unmoved, and she was about to utter an exclamation of disappointment, when she was startled to see a door leading to the rear of the house suddenly swing open and the figure of a man carrying a lantern enter with slow and stealthy tread. An old man, apparently, with gray hair and beard, and a sack thrown across his shoulders. "'Tis the Old Year himself!" thought the fanciful girl; but the next moment she almost betrayed herself by a scream as she recognized the beggar to whom she had given her New-Year cake that very afternoon.

Slowly the midnight marauder approached, and then, all at once, a wonderful transformation took place. The bent form became straight, the gray beard and hair were torn off, and a younger and not unhandsome man stood before the little watcher's astonished gaze.

She was too dumfounded to do anything but tremble and stare, as the intruder seated himself at the table and ate and drank, almost s.n.a.t.c.hing the viands in his eagerness. His appet.i.te appeased, however, he seemed to hesitate; but then, with a muttered, "Well, what must be must, and here's for home and Emily!" he seized a silver bowl and dropped it into his bag, following it up with the porringers and plates, that were the very apple of the Dutch house-mother's eye.

Too frightened to speak, poor little Katrina watched these proceedings; but when the thief laid hands on a certain old and beautifully engraved flagon, she murmured: "The loving-cup! the dear loving-cup! Oh, my father's heart 'twill break to lose that!"

"Plenty of the needful here!" chuckled the burglar; but a moment later he had his surprise, for out of the shadows suddenly emerged a small, slight figure, and a stern voice cried, "Stop!"

With a startled exclamation the man fell back, and then, as Katrina exclaimed, "The loving-cup that is so old--ah, take not that!" he dropped into a chair, ejaculating, "By St. George, 'tis the little lady of the cake herself!"

"That is so," said Katrina.

The man reddened. "Believe me, miss," he said, "I did not know this was your home, or naught would have tempted me here; and this is the first time I have ever soiled my fingers with such work as this."

"Then why begin now?" asked Katrina.

"Because I was down on my luck, and there seemed no other way. Listen!

For two years I have served as a soldier in the British army, and no more honest one ever entered the province. I did not mind hard work, but my health gave out, and at last the rude fare and the homesickness I could stand no longer, and three days ago I deserted from the English fort down yonder. The officers are on my track, but, so far, disguised as an old beggar, I have escaped detection beneath their very noses. If caught I shall be flogged within an inch of my life, and, it may be, shot. Just over the water my wife and a blue-eyed la.s.s like you are longing for my return, but, saving your guilder, I was penniless, and so, for the first time, determined to take what was not my own."

"Poor man!" sighed Katrina, the tears starting.

"To-morrow night the _Golden Lion_ sails for England. Her crew, after the New-Year festivities, will be dazed at least, so I can readily conceal myself until the ship is out at sea. Then ho! for home and my little Jeanie!"

"And as a bad, wicked robber will you go to her?" asked the girl.

"No; indeed no!" cried the man, emptying his sack. "You have saved me from that, little lady, as well as from starvation to-day, for I would not steal from you or yours. Give me but these krullers to eat while I am a stowaway, and all the plate I will leave."

"Yes, that will I do," said Katrina, rejoiced, and she herself dropped the crisp cakes into the man's bag. "Now at once go, and G.o.dspeed."

"But first you must promise to mention this meeting to no one until after the _Golden Lion_ weighs anchor at seven o'clock on New-Year's night."

"To my mother may I not?" asked Katrina.

"No, no, to n.o.body! Oh, remember my life is in your hands! Promise, I beg."