Emma Orczy.

The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel



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"You will have to wander back to Spain."

"Yes," she said sullenly, "as soon as I have earned a little money and father is able to move, neither of which seems very likely just now."

"Ah!" he said cheerily, "that is, wench, where I proclaim thee wrong! I do not know when thy father will be able to move, but I can tell thee at this very moment where and how thou canst earn fifty guilders which should take thee quite a long way toward Spain."

She looked up at him and once more that glance of joy and of surprise crept into her eyes which had seemed so full of vindictive anger just now. With the surprise and the joy there also mingled the admiration, the sense of well-being in his presence.

Already he had filled the bare, squalid room with his breezy personality, with his swagger and with his laughter; his ringing voice had roused the echoes that slept in the mouldy rafters and frightened the mice that dwelt in the wainscotting and now scampered hurriedly away.

"I," she said with obvious incredulity, "I to earn fifty guilders! I have not earned so much in any six months of my life."

"Perhaps not," he rejoined gaily. "But I can promise thee this; that the fifty guilders will be thine this evening, if thou wilt render me a simple service."

"Render thee a service," she said, and her low voice sounded quite cooing and gentle, "I would thank God on my knees if I could render thee a service. Didst thou not save my life…"

"By thy leave we'll not talk of that matter. 'Tis over and done with now. The service I would ask of thee, though 'tis simple enough to perform, I could not ask of anyone else but thee. An thou'lt do it, I shall be more than repaid."

"Name it, sir," she said simply.

"Dost know the bank of the Oude Gracht?" he asked.

"Well," she replied.

"Dost know the Oudenvrouwenhuis situated there?"

"Yes!"

"Next to its outer walls there is a narrow passage which leads to the Remonstrant Chapel of St. Pieter."

"There is, sir. I know it."

"This evening at seven o'clock then thou'lt take thy stand at the corner of this passage facing the Oude Gracht; and there thou wilt remain to ask alms from the passers-by. Thou'rt not afraid?"

"Afraid of what, sir?"

"The spot is lonely, the passage leads nowhere except to the chapel, which has been deserted these past five years."

"I am not afraid."

"That's brave! After evensong is over at the cathedral, one or two people will no doubt come thy way. Thou'lt beg them for alms in the usual way. But anon a lady will come accompanied by a duenna and preceded by two serving men carrying lanthorns. From her thou must ask insistently, and tell her as sad a tale of woe as thou canst think on, keeping well within the narrow passage and inducing her to follow thee."

"How shall I know the lady? There may be others who go past that way, and who might also be escorted by a woman and two serving men."

"The men wear green and purple livery, with peaked green caps trimmed with fur.

Thou canst not mistake them even in the dark, for the light of the lanthorns which they carry will be upon them. But I will be in the passage close behind thee. When I see her coming I will warn thee."

"I understand," she said, nodding her head slowly once or twice as if she were brooding over what she thought. "But surely that is not all that I can do for thee."

"Indeed it is, and therefore none too difficult. Having drawn the lady into the shadow by thy talk, contrive to speak to her, telling her of thy troubles. If anything occurs after that to surprise or mayhap frighten thee, pay no heed to it, but take at once to thy heels and run straight home here, without looking to right or left. No one will molest thee, I give thee my word."

"I understand!" she reiterated once more.

"And wilt thou do as I ask?"

"Of course. My life is thine; thou didst save it twice. Thou hast but to command and I will obey."

"We'll call it that," he said lightly, "since it seems to please thee. To-night then at seven o'clock, I too, will be on the spot to place the fifty guilders in thy hand."

"Fifty guilders!" she exclaimed almost with ecstasy, and pressed her hands to her breast. "My father and I need not starve or be homeless the whole of this winter."

"Thou'lt make tracks for Spain very soon," he rejoined carelessly, for he had accomplished his business and was making ready to go.

She threw him a strange look, half defiant yet almost reproachful.

"Perhaps!" she said curtly.

He took leave of her in his usual pleasant, airy manner, smiling at her earnestness and at her looks that reminded him of a starving dog which he had once picked up in the streets of Prague and kept and fed for a time, until he found it a permanent home. When he gave the dog away to some kindly people who promised to be kind to it, it threw him, at parting, just such a look as dwelt in the dark depths of this girl's eyes now.

The old cripple on the bed had fallen into a torpor-like sleep. Diogenes cast a compassionate glance on him.

"Thou canst take him to better quarters in a day or two," he said, "and mayhap give him some good food… Dondersteen!" he exclaimed suddenly, "what art doing, girl?"

She had stooped and kissed his hand. He drew it away almost roughly, but at the timid look of humble apology which she raised to him, he said gently:

"By St. Bavon thou'rt a funny child! Well? what is it now?" he asked, for she stood hesitating before him, with a question obviously hovering on her lips.

"I dare not," she murmured.

"Art afraid of me then?"

"A little."

"Yet there is something thou desirest to ask?"

"Yes."

"What is it? Quickly now, for I must be going."

She waited for a moment or two trying to gain courage, whilst he watched her, greatly amused.

"What is it?" he reiterated more impatiently.

Then a whispered murmur escaped her lips.

"The lady?"

"Yes. What of her?"

"Thou dost love her?" she stammered, "and wilt abduct her to-night because of thy love for her?"

For a second or two he looked on her in blank amazement, marvelling if he had entrusted this vital business to a semi-imbecile. Then seeing that indeed she appeared in deadly earnest, and that her great, inquiring but perfectly lucid eyes were fixed upon him with mute insistence, he threw back his head and laughed till the very rafters of the low room shook with the echo of his merriment.

"Dondersteen!" he said as soon as he felt that he could speak again, "but thou truly art a strange wench. Whatever did put that idea into thy head?"

"Thou dost propose to abduct her, I know that," she said more firmly. "I am no fool, and I understand I am to be the decoy. The dark passage, the lonely spot, thy presence there … and then the occurrence, as thou saidst, that might surprise or frighten me… I am no fool," she repeated sullenly, "I understand."

"Apparently," he retorted dryly.

"Thou dost love her?" she insisted.

"What is it to thee?"

"No matter; only tell me this, dost thou love her?"

"If I said 'yes,'" he asked with his whimsical smile, "wouldst refuse to help me?"

"Oh, no!"

"And if I said 'no'?"

"I should be glad," she said simply.

"Then we'll say 'no!'" he concluded lightly, "for I would like to see thee glad."

And he had his wish, for quite a joyous smile lit up her small, pinched face. She tripped quite briskly to the door and held it open for him.

"If thou desirest to speak with me again," she said, as he finally took his leave, "give four raps on the door at marked intervals. I would fly to open it then."

He thanked her and went down stairs, humming a lively tune and never once turning to look on her again. And yet she was leaning over the ricketty banisters watching his slowly descending figure, until it disappeared in the gloom.

CHAPTER XIV
AFTER EVENSONG

Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn had spent many hours in church this New Year's Day, 1624. In spite of the inclemency of the weather she had attended Morning Prayer and Holy Communion and now she was back again for Evensong.

The cathedral was not very full for it. Most people were making merry at home to celebrate the festival; so Gilda had a corner of the sacred building all to herself, where she could think matters over silently and with the help of prayer. The secret of which she had gained knowledge was weighing heavily on her soul; and heart-rending doubts had assailed her all night and throughout the day.

How could she know what was the right thing to do? – to allow a crime of which she had fore-knowledge, to be committed without raising a finger to prevent it? or to betray her own brother and his friends – a betrayal which would inevitably lead them to the scaffold?

Her father was of course her great refuge, and to-night through Evensong she prayed to God to guide her, as to whether she should tell everything to her father or not. She had warned Nicolaes that she might do so, and yet her very soul shrank from the act which to many would seem so like betrayal. Cornelius Beresteyn was a man of rigid principles and unyielding integrity. What he might do with the knowledge of the conspiracy in which his own son was taking a leading part, no one – not even his daughter – could foresee. In no case would she act hurriedly. She hoped against all hope that mayhap Nicolaes would see his own treachery in its true light and turn from it before it was too late, or that God would give her some unmistakable sign of what He willed her to do.

Perplexed and wretched she stayed long on her knees and left the church after every one else. The night was dark and though the snow had left off falling momentarily, the usual frosty mist hung over the city. Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn wrapped her fur-lined cloak closely round her shoulders and started on her homeward walk, with Maria by her side and Jakob and Piet on in front carrying their lanthorns.

Her way took her firstly across the Groote Markt then down the Hout Straat until she reached the Oude Gracht. Here her two serving men kept quite close in front of her for the embankment was lonely and a well-known resort for evil doers who found refuge in the several dark passages that run at right angles from the canal and have no outlet at their further end.

Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn followed rapidly in the wake of her lanthorn bearers and keeping Maria – who was always timorous on dark nights and in lonely places – quite close to her elbow. Every footstep of the way was familiar to her. Now the ground was frozen hard and the covering of snow crisp beneath her feet as she walked, but in the autumn and the spring the mud here was ankle-deep, save on one or two rare spots in front of the better houses or public buildings where a few stones formed a piece of dry pavement. Such a spot was the front of the Oudenvrouwenhuis with its wide oaken gateway and high brick walls. The unmade road here was always swept neatly and tidily; during the rainy seasons the mud was washed carefully away and in the winter it was kept free from snow.

Beyond it was a narrow passage which led to the Chapel of St. Pieter, now disused since the Remonstrants had fallen into such bad odour after the death of Olden Barneveld and the treachery of his sons. The corner of this passage was a favourite haunt for beggars, but only for the humbler ones – since there is a hierarchy even amongst beggars, and the more prosperous ones, those known to the town-guard and the night-watchmen, flocked around the church porches. In this spot where there were but a few passers-by, only those poor wretches came who mayhap had something to hide from the watchful eyes of the guardians of this city, those who had been in prison or had deserted from the army, or were known to be rogues and thieves.

Gilda Beresteyn, who had a soft heart, always kept a few kreutzers in the palm of her hand ready to give to any of these poor outcasts who happened to beg for alms along the embankment, but she never liked to stop here in order to give those other alms, which she knew were oft more acceptable than money – the alms of kindly words.

To-night, however, she herself felt miserable and lonely and the voice that came to her out of the darkness of the narrow passage which leads to the Chapel of St. Pieter was peculiarly plaintive and sweet.

"For the love of Christ, gentle lady," murmured the voice softly.

Gilda stopped, ready with the kreutzers in her hand. But it was very dark just here and the snow appeared too deep to traverse; she could not see the melancholy speaker, though she knew of course that it was a woman.

"Bring the lanthorn a little nearer, Jakob," she said.

"Do not stop, mejuffrouw, to parley with any of these scamps," said Maria as she clung fearsomely to her mistress's cloak.

"For the love of Christ, gentle lady!" sighed the pitiable voice out of the darkness again.

Jakob brought the lanthorn nearer.

Some half a dozen steps up the passage a pathetic little figure appeared to view, the figure of a woman – a mere girl – with ragged shift and bare legs half buried in the depths of the snow.

Gilda without hesitation went up to her, money in hand, her own feet sinking in ankle deep into the cold, white carpet below. The girl retreated as the kind lady advanced, apparently scared by the two men who had paused one at each corner of the passage holding their lanthorns well above their heads.

"Don't be frightened, girl," said Gilda Beresteyn gently, "here's a little money. You look so cold, poor child!"

The next moment a double cry behind her caused her to turn in a trice: she had only just time to take in the terrifying fact that Piet and Jakob had dropped their lanthorns to the ground even as thick dark cloths were thrown over their heads – before she found herself firmly seized round the waist by a powerful arm whilst some kind of scarf was wound quickly round her face.

She had not the time to scream, the enveloping scarf smothered her cry even as it formed in her throat. The last thing of which she was clearly conscious was of a voice – which strangely enough sounded familiar – saying hurriedly:

"Here, take thy money, girl, and run home now as fast as thy feet will take thee."

After that, though she was never totally unconscious, she was only dimly aware of what happened to her. She certainly felt herself lifted off the ground and carried for some considerable distance. What seemed to her a long, long time afterwards she became aware that she was lying on her back and that there was a smell of sweet hay and fresh straw around her. Close to her ear there was the sound of a woman moaning. The scarf still covered her face, but it had been loosened so that she could breathe, and presently when she opened her eyes, she found that the scarf only covered her mouth.

As she lay on her back she could see nothing above her. She was not cold for the straw around her formed a warm bed, and her cloak had been carefully arranged so as to cover her completely, whilst her feet were wrapped up snugly in a rug.

It was only when complete consciousness returned to her that she realized that she was lying in an object that moved: she became conscious of the jingling of harness and of occasional unpleasant jolting, whilst the darkness overhead was obviously caused by the roof of a vehicle.

She tried to raise herself on her elbow, but she discovered that loose, though quite efficient bonds held her pinioned down; her arms, however, were free and she put out her hand in the direction whence came the muffled sound of a woman moaning.

"Lord! God Almighty! Lord in Heaven!" and many more appeals of a like character escaped the lips of Gilda's companion in misfortune.

"Maria! Is it thou?" said Gilda in a whisper. Her hand went groping in the dark until it encountered firstly a cloak, then an arm and finally a head apparently also enveloped in a cloth.

"Lord God Almighty!" sighed the other woman feebly through the drapery. "Is it mejuffrouw?"

"Yes, Maria, it is I!" whispered Gilda, "whither are they taking us, thinkest thou?"

"To some lonely spot where they can conveniently murder us!" murmured Maria with a moan of anguish.

"But what became of Piet and Jakob?"

"Murdered probably. The cowards could not defend us."

Gilda strained her ears to listen. She hoped by certain sounds to make out at least in which direction she was being carried away. Above the rattle and jingle of the harness she could hear at times the measured tramp of horses trotting in the rear, and she thought at one time that the sleigh went over the wooden bridge on the Spaarne and then under the echoing portals of one of the city gates.

Her head after awhile began to ache terribly and her eyes felt as if they were seared with coal. Of course she lost all count of time: it seemed an eternity since she had spoken to the girl in the dark passage which leads to the chapel of St. Pieter.

Maria who lay beside her moaned incessantly for awhile like a fretful child, but presently she became silent.

Perhaps she had gone to sleep. The night air which found its way through the chinks of the hood came more keen and biting against Gilda's face. It cooled her eyes and eased the throbbing of her head. She felt very tired and as if her body had been bruised all over.

The noises around her became more monotonous, the tramping of the horses in the rear of the sleigh sounded muffled and subdued. Drowsiness overcame Gilda Beresteyn and she fell into a troubled, half-waking sleep.

CHAPTER XV
THE HALT AT BENNEBROCK

For a long time she had been half-awake, ever since the vehicle had stopped, which must have been ages and ages ago. She had lain in a kind of torpor, various sounds coming to her ear as through the veil of dreams: there was Maria snoring contentedly close by, and the horses champing their bits and pawing the hard-frozen ground, also there was the murmur of voices, subdued and muffled – but she could not distinguish words.

Not for a long time at any rate – an interminably long time!

Her body and limbs felt quite numb, pleasantly warm under the rugs and cloaks, only her face rejoiced in the cold blast that played around it and kept her forehead and eyes cool.

Once it seemed to her as if out of the darkness more than one pair of eyes were looking down on her, and she had the sense as of a warm rapid breath that mingled with the pure frosty air. After which some one murmured:

"She is still unconscious."

"I think not," was the whispered reply.

She lay quite still, in case those eyes came to look on her again. The murmuring voices sounded quite close to the sleigh now, and soon she found that by holding her breath, and straining her every listening faculty she could detach the words that struck her ear from all the other sounds around her.

Two men, she thought, were speaking, but their voices were never once raised above a whisper.

"You are satisfied?" she heard one of these saying quite distinctly.

"Entirely!" was the response.

"The letter to Ben Isaje?"

"I am not like to lose it."

"Hush! I heard a sound from under the hood."

"'Tis only the old woman snoring."

"I wish you could have found a more comfortable sledge."

"There was none to be had in Haarlem to-day. But we'll easily get one in Leyden."

In Leyden! Gilda's numbed body quivered with horror. She was being taken to Leyden and further on still by sleigh! Her thoughts at present were still chaotic but gradually she was sorting them out, one or two becoming more clear, more insistent than the rest.

"I would like the jongejuffrouw to have something to eat and drink," came once more in whispers from out the darkness. "I fear that she will be faint!"

"No! no!" came the prompt, peremptory reply, "it would be madness to let her realize so soon where she is. She knows this place well."

A halt on the way to Leyden! and thence a further journey by sledge! Gilda's thoughts were distinctly less chaotic already. She was beginning to marshal them up in her mind, together with her recollections of the events of the past twenty-four hours. The darkness around her, which was intense, and the numbness of her body all helped her to concentrate her faculties on these recollections first and on the obvious conclusions based upon her position at the present moment.

She was being silenced effectually because of the knowledge which she had gained in the cathedral last night. The Lord of Stoutenburg, frightened for his plans, was causing her to be put out of his way. Never for a moment did she suspect her own brother in this. It was that conscienceless, ambitious, treacherous Stoutenburg! at most her brother was blindly acquiescent in this infamy.

Gilda was not afraid. Not even when this conviction became fully matured in her mind. She was not afraid for herself, although for one brief moment the thought did cross her mind that mayhap she had only been taken out of Haarlem in order that her death might be more secretly encompassed.

But she was cast in a firmer mould than most women of her rank and wealth would be. She came of a race that had faced misery, death and torture for over a century for the sake of its own independence of life and of faith, and was ready to continue the struggle for another hundred years if need be for the same ideals, and making the same sacrifices in order to attain them. Gilda Beresteyn gave but little thought to her own safety. Life to her, if Stoutenburg's dastardly conspiracy against the Stadtholder was successful and involved her own brother, would be of little value to her. Nicolaes' act of treachery would break her father's heart; what matter if she herself lived to witness all that misery or not.



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