The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel
скачать книгу бесплатно
Diogenes merely bowed his head this time in acknowledgment.
"It showed, sir," resumed Nicolaes after a slight pause, "that you are chivalrous to a fault, brave and kindly: and these are just the three qualities which I – even like your illustrious namesake – have oft sought for in vain."
"Shall we add, also for the sake of truth, sir," said Diogenes pleasantly, "that I am obviously penniless, presumably unscrupulous and certainly daring, and that these are just the three qualities which you … and your friend … most require at the present moment in the man whom you wish to pay for certain services."
"You read my thoughts, sir."
"Have I not said that I have eyes at the back of my head?"
And Nicolaes Beresteyn wondered if that second pair of eyes were as merry and mocking and withal as inscrutable as those that met his now.
"Well," he said as if with suddenly conceived determination, "again I see no cause why I should deny it. Yes, sir, you have made a shrewd guess. I have need of your services, of your chivalry and of your valour and … well, yes," he added after an instant's hesitation, "of your daring and your paucity of scruples too. As for your penury, why, sir, if you like, its pangs need worry you no longer."
"It all sounds very tempting, sir," said Diogenes with his most winning smile, "suppose now that we put preliminaries aside and proceed more directly with our business."
"As you will."
Nicolaes Beresteyn now took the other chair and brought it close to his interlocutor. Then he sat down and sinking his voice to a whisper he began:
"I will be as brief and to the point as I can, sir. There are secrets as you know the knowledge of which is oft-times dangerous. Such an one was spoken of in the cathedral last night after watch-night service by six men who hold their lives in their hands and are ready to sacrifice it for the good of their country and of their faith."
"In other words," interposed Diogenes with dry humour, "six men in the cathedral last night decided to murder some one for the good of this country and of their faith and for the complete satisfaction of the devil."
"'Tis false!" cried Beresteyn involuntarily.
"Be not angered, sir, I was merely guessing – and not guessing methinks very wide of the mark. I pray you proceed. You vastly interest me. We left then six men in the cathedral after watch-night service plotting for the welfare of Holland and the established Faith."
"Their lives, sir," resumed Beresteyn more calmly, "depend on the inviolability of their secret. You are good at guessing – will you guess what would happen to those six men if their conversation last night had been overheard and their secret betrayed."
"The scaffold," said Diogenes laconically.
"Of course. Holland always has taken the lead in civilization of late."
"Torture and death, sir," reiterated Beresteyn vehemently."There are six men in this city to-day whose lives are at the mercy of one woman."
"Oho! 'twas a woman then who surprised those six men in their endeavour to do good to Holland and to uphold the Faith."
"Rightly spoken, sir! To do good to Holland and to uphold the Faith! those are the two motives which guide six ardent patriots in their present actions and cause them to risk their lives and more, that they may bring about the sublime end. A woman has surprised their secret, a woman pure and good as the stars but a woman for all that, weak in matters of sentiment and like to be swayed by a mistaken sense of what she would call her duty. A woman now, sir, holds the future happiness of Holland, the triumph of Faith and the lives of six stalwart patriots in the hollow of her hand."
"And 'tis with the lives of six stalwart patriots that we are most concerned at the moment, are we not?" asked Diogenes blandly.
"Put it as you will, sir. I cannot expect you – a stranger – to take the welfare of Holland and of her Faith so earnestly as we Dutchmen do. Our present concern is with the woman."
"Is she young?"
"I don't know. The fact might influence mine actions. For of course you wish to put the woman out of the way."
"Only for a time and from my soul I wish her no harm. I only want to place her out of the reach of doing us all a grievous wrong. Already she has half threatened to speak of it all to my father. The idea of it is unthinkable. I want her out of the way for a few days, not more than ten days at most. I want her taken out of Haarlem, to a place of safety which I will point out to you anon, and under the care of faithful dependents who would see that not a hair on her head be injured. You see, sir, that what I would ask of you would call forth your chivalry and need not shame it; it would call forth your daring and your recklessness of consequences and if you will undertake to do me service in this, my gratitude and that of my friends as well as the sum of 2,000 guilders will be yours to command."
"About a tenth part of the money in fact which your father, sir, doth oft give for a bulb."
"Call it 3,000, sir," said Nicolaes Beresteyn, "we would still be your debtors."
"You are liberal, sir."
"It means my life and that of my friends, and most of us are rich."
"But the lady – I must know more about her. Ah sir! this is a hard matter for me – A lady – young – presumably fair – of a truth I care naught for women, but please God I have never hurt a woman yet."
"Who spoke of hurting her, man?" queried Nicolaes haughtily.
"This abduction – the State secret – the matter of life and death – the faithful dependent – how do I know, sir, that all this is true?"
"On the word of honour of a gentleman!" retorted Beresteyn hotly.
"A gentleman's honour is easily attenuated where a woman is concerned."
"The lady is my own sister, sir."
Diogenes gave a long, low whistle.
"Your sister!" he exclaimed.
"My only sister and one who is dearly loved. You see, sir, that her safety and her honour are dearer to me than mine own."
"Yet you propose entrusting both to me," said Diogenes with a mocking laugh, "to me, a nameless adventurer, a penniless wastrel whose trade lies in his sword and his wits."
"Which must prove to you, sir, firstly how true are my instincts, and secondly how hardly I am pressed. My instinct last night told me that in this transaction I could trust you. To-day I have realized more fully than I did last night that my sister is a deadly danger to many, to our country and to our Faith. She surprised a secret, the knowledge of which had she been a man would have meant death then and there in the chapel of the cathedral. Had it been a brother of mine instead of a sister who surprised our secret, my friends would have killed him without compunction and I would not have raised a finger to save him. Being a woman she cannot pay for her knowledge with her life; but her honour and her freedom are forfeit to me because I am a man and she a woman. I am strong and she is weak; she has threatened to betray me and my friends and I must protect them and our cause. I have decided to place her there where she cannot harm us, but some one must convey her thither, since I must not appear before her in this matter. Therefore hath my choice fallen on you, sir, for that mission, chiefly because of that instinct which last night told me that I could trust you. If my instinct should prove me wrong, I would kill you for having cheated me, but I would even then not regret what I had done."
He paused and for a moment looked straight into the laughter-loving face of the man in whose keeping he was ready to entrust with absolute callousness the safety and honour of one whom he should have protected with his life. The whole face, even now seemed still to laugh, the eyes twinkled, the mouth was curled in a smile.
The next moment the young adventurer had risen to his full height. He picked up his hat which lay on the platform close beside him and with it in his hand he made an elaborate and deep bow to Nicolaes Beresteyn.
"Sir?" queried the latter in astonishment.
"At your service, sir," said Diogenes gaily, "I am saluting a greater blackguard than I can ever hope to be myself."
"Insolent!" exclaimed Nicolaes hotly.
"Easy, easy, my good sir," interposed the other calmly, "it would not suit your purpose or mine that we should cut one another's throat. Let me tell you at once and for the appeasing of your anxiety and that of your friends that I will, for the sum of 4,000 guilders, take Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn from this city to any place you may choose to name. This should also ease your pride, for it will prove to you that I also am a consummate blackguard and that you therefore need not stand shamed before me. I have named a higher sum than the one which you have offered me, not with any desire to squeeze you, sir, but because obviously I cannot do this work single-handed. The high roads are not safe. I could not all alone protect the lady against the army of footpads that infest them, I shall have to engage and pay an escort for her all the way. But she shall reach the place to which you desire me to take her, to this I pledge you my word. Beyond that … well! you have said it yourself, by her knowledge of your secret she has forfeited her own safety; you – her own brother – choose to entrust her to me. The rest lies between you and your honour."
An angry retort once more rose to Nicolaes Beresteyn's lips, but commonsense forced him to check it. The man was right in what he said. On the face of it his action in entrusting his own sister into the keeping of a knight of industry, a nameless wastrel whose very calling proclaimed him an unscrupulous adventurer, was the action of a coward and of a rogue. Any man with a spark of honour in him – would condemn Nicolaes Beresteyn as a blackguard for this deed. Nevertheless there was undoubtedly something in the whole personality of this same adventurer that in a sense exonerated Nicolaes from the utter dishonour of his act.
On the surface the action was hideous, monstrous, and cowardly, but beneath that surface there was the undercurrent of trust in this one man, the firm belief born of nothing more substantial than an intuition that this man would in this matter play the part of a gentleman.
But it is not my business to excuse Nicolaes Beresteyn in this. What guided him solely in his present action was that primary instinct of self-preservation, that sense which animals have without the slightest knowledge or experience on their part and which has made men play at times the part of a hero and at others that of a knave. Stoutenburg who was always daring and always unscrupulous where his own ambitious schemes were at stake had by a careful hint shown him a way of effectually silencing Gilda during the next few days. Beresteyn's mind filled to over-flowing with a glowing desire for success and for life had readily worked upon the hint.
And he did honestly believe – as hundreds of misguided patriots have believed before and since – that Heaven was on his side of the political business and had expressly led along his path this one man of all others who would do what was asked of him and whom he could trust.