The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernelскачать книгу бесплатно
No! it was her helplessness at this moment that caused her the most excruciating soul-agony. She had been trapped and was being cast aside like a noxious beast, that is in the way of men. Like a child that is unruly and has listened at the keyhole of the door, she was being punished and rendered harmless.
Indeed she had no fear for her safety; the few words which she had heard, the presence of Maria, all tended to point out that there would be no direct attempt against her life. It was only of that awful crime that she thought, that crime which she had so fondly hoped that she might yet frustrate: it was of the Stadtholder's safety that she thought and of her brother's sin.
She also thought of her poor father who, ignorant of the events which had brought about this infamous abduction, would be near killing himself with sorrow at the mysterious disappearance of his only daughter. Piet and Jakob would tell how they had been set on in the dark – footpads would be suspected, the countryside where they usually have their haunts would be scoured for them, but the high road leading to Leyden would never mayhap be watched, and certainly a sleigh under escort would never draw the attention of the guardians of the peace.
While these thoughts whirled wildly in her brain it seemed that preparations had been and were being made for departure. She heard some whispered words again:
"Where will you put up at Leyden?"
"At the 'White Goat.' I know the landlord well."
"Will he be awake at so late an hour?"
"I will ride ahead and rouse his household. They shall be prepared for our coming."
"You seem to forget, sir," came in somewhat louder tones, "that all the arrangements for this journey were to be left entirely to my discretion."
For the moment Gilda could catch no further words distinctly: whether a quarrel had ensued or not she could not conjecture, but obviously the two speakers had gone some little distance away from the sledge. All that she could hear was – after a brief while of silence – a quaint muffled laugh which though it scarce was distinguishable from the murmur of the wind, so soft was it, nevertheless betrayed to her keenly sensitive ear an undercurrent of good-humoured irony.
Again there seemed something familiar to her in the sound.
After this there was renewed tramping of heavy feet on the snow-covered ground, the clang of bits and chains, the creaking of trace, the subdued call of encouragement to horses:
"Forward!" came a cheery voice from the rear.
Once more they were on the move; on the way to Leyden – distant six leagues from her home. Gilda could have cried out now in her misery. She pictured her father – broken-hearted all through the night, sending messengers hither and thither to the various gates of the city, unable no doubt to get satisfactory information at this late hour: she pictured Nicolaes feigning ignorance of the whole thing, making pretence of anxiety and grief.
Torturing thoughts kept her awake, though her body was racked with fatigue. The night was bitterly cold, and the wind, now that they had reached open country, cut at times across her face like a knife.
The sledge glided along with great swiftness now, over the smooth, thick carpet of snow that covered the long, straight road. Gilda knew that the sea was not far off: but she also knew that every moment now she was being dragged further and further away from the chance of averting from her father and from her house the black catastrophe of disgrace which threatened them.
It seemed that from some church tower far away a clock struck the hour of midnight when the sledge at last came to a halt.
Worn out with nerve-racking thoughts, as well as with the cruel monotony of the past four hours, Gilda felt her soul and body numb and lifeless as a stone. There was much running and shouting round the vehicle, of horses' hoofs resounding against rough cobble-stones, of calls for ostler and landlord.
Then for awhile comparative quietude. Maria still snored unperturbed, and Gilda, wide-eyed and with beating heart, awaited further events. Firstly the hood of the sledge in which she lay was lifted off: she could hear the ropes and straps being undone, the tramp of feet all round her and an occasional volley of impatient oaths. Then out of the darkness a pleasant voice called her somewhat peremptorily by name.
She did not reply, but lay quite still, with wide-open eyes like a bird that has been tracked and knows that it is watched. Maria uttered a loud groan and tried to roll over on her side.
"Where have those murderers taken us to now?" she muttered through the veil that still enveloped her mouth.
The pleasant voice close to Gilda's ear, now called out more loudly:
"Here, Pythagoras, Socrates! lift the mevrouw out of the sleigh and carry her up to the room which the landlord hath prepared for the ladies."
Maria immediately gave vent to violent shrieks of protest.
"How dare ye touch me!" she screamed at the top of her voice, "ye murdering devils dare but lay a finger on a respectable woman and God will punish you with pestilence and dislocation and …"
It must be presumed that neither Pythagoras nor Socrates were greatly upset by the mevrouw's curses, for Gilda, who was on the alert for every movement and for every sound, was well aware that Maria's highly respectable person was presently seized by firm hands, that the shawl round her face was pressed more tightly against her mouth – for her screams sounded more muffled – and that despite her struggles, her cries and her kicking she was lifted bodily out of the sledge.
When these disquieting sounds had died down the same pleasant voice broke in once again on Gilda's obstinate silence.
"Mejuffrouw Beresteyn!" it reiterated once again.
"Dondersteen! but 'tis no use lying mum there, and pretending to be asleep," it continued after awhile, since Gilda certainly had taken no notice of the call, "that old woman made enough noise to wake the dead."
Still not a sound from Gilda, who – more like a cowering bird than ever – was trying with widely-dilated eyes to pierce the darkness around her, in order to see something of the enemy. She saw the outline of a plumed hat like a patch of ink against the sky above, and also a pair of very broad shoulders that were stooping toward the floor of the sledge.
"Hey!" shouted the enemy with imperturbable cheerfulness, "leave that door wide open, I'll carry the jongejuffrouw in myself. She seems to be unconscious."
The words roused Gilda out of her attitude of rigid silence, – the words which she looked on as an awful threat, and also the sensation that the loose bonds which had pinioned her down to the vehicle were being undone.
"I am not unconscious," she said aloud and quite calmly, "and was quite aware just now that you laid rough hands on a helpless woman. Since I am equally helpless and in your power I pray you to command what I must do."
"Come! that's brave! I knew that you could not be asleep," rejoined the enemy with inveterate good-humour, "but for the moment, mejuffrouw, I must ask you to descend from this sleigh. It has been a vastly uncomfortable vehicle for you to travel in, I fear me, but it was the best that we could get in Haarlem on New Year's day. An you will deign to enter this humble hostelry you will find the mevrouw there, a moderately good supper and something resembling a bed, all of which I am thinking will be highly acceptable to you."
While the enemy spoke, Gilda had a few seconds in which to reflect. Above all things she was a woman of sense and one who valued her own dignity; she knew quite well that the making of a scene outside an inn in a strange town and at this hour of the night could but result in a loss of that dignity which she so highly prized, seeing that she was entirely at the mercy of men who were not likely to yield either to her protests or to her appeals.
Therefore, when she felt that she was free to move, she made every effort to raise herself; uncomfortably these long hours of weary motionless lying on her back, had made her limbs so numb that they refused her service. She made one or two brave attempts to hide her helplessness, but when she wanted to draw up her knees, she nearly cried with the pain of trying to move them out of their cramped position.
"It were wiser methinks," quoth the enemy with a slight tone of mockery in his cheerful voice, "it were wiser to accept the help of my arms. They are strong, firm and not cramped. Try them, mejuffrouw, you will have no cause to regret it."
Quite involuntarily – for of a truth she shrank from the mere touch of this rascal who obviously was in the pay of Stoutenburg, and doing the latter's infamous work for him – quite involuntarily then, she placed her hand upon the arm which he had put out as a prop for her.
It was as firm as a rock. Leaning on it somewhat heavily she was able to struggle to her knees. This made her venturesome. She tried to stand up; but fatigue, the want of food, the excitement and anxiety which she had endured, combined with the fact that she had been in a recumbent position for many hours, caused her to turn desperately giddy. She swayed like a young sapling under the wind, and would have fallen but that the same strong arm firm as a rock was there to receive her ere she fell.
I suppose that dizziness deprived her of her full senses, else she would never have allowed that knave to lift her out of the sledge and then to carry her into a building, and up some narrow and very steep stairs. But this Diogenes did do, with but scant ceremony; he thought her protests foolish, and her attempts at lofty disdain pitiable. She was after all but a poor, helpless scrap of humanity, so slight and frail that as he carried her into the house, there was grave danger of his crushing her into nothingness as she lay in his arms.
Despite her pride and her aloofness he found it in his heart to pity her just now. Had she been fully conscious she would have hated to see herself pillowed thus against the doublet of so contemptible a knave; and here she was absolutely handed over body and soul to a nameless stranger, who in her sight, was probably no better than a menial – and this by the cynical act of one who next to her father was her most natural protector.
Yes, indeed he did pity her, for she seemed to him more than ever like that poor little song-bird whom a lout had tortured for his own pleasure by plucking out its feathers one by one. It seemed monstrous that so delicate a creature should be the victim of men's intrigues and passions. Why! even! her breath had the subtle scent of tulips as it fanned his cheeks and nostrils when he stooped in order to look on her.
In the meanwhile he had been as good as his word. He had pushed on to Leyden in advance of the cort?ge, had roused the landlord of this hostelry and the serving wenches, and scattered money so freely that despite the lateness of the hour a large square room – the best in the house, and scrupulously clean as to the red-tiled floor and walnut furniture – was at once put at the disposal of the ladies of so noble a travelling company.
The maids were sent flying hither and thither, one into the kitchen to make ready some hot supper, the other to the linen press to find the finest set of bed linen all sweetly laid by in rosemary.
Diogenes, still carrying Gilda, pushed the heavy panelled door open with his foot, and without looking either to right or left of him made straight for the huge open hearth, wherein already logs of pinewood had been set ablaze, and beside which stood an armchair, covered with Utrecht velvet.
Into its inviting and capacious depths he deposited his inanimate burden, and only then did he become aware of two pairs of eyes, which were fixed upon him with very different expression. A buxom wench in ample wide kirtle of striped duffle, had been busy when he entered in spreading clean linen sheets upon the narrow little bed built in the panelling of the room. From under her quaint winged cap of starched lace a pair of very round eyes, blue as the Ryn, peeped in na?ve undisguised admiration on the intruder, whilst from beneath her disordered coif Maria threw glances of deadly fury upon him.
Could looks but kill, Maria certes would have annihilated the low rascal who had dared to lay hands upon the noble jongejuffrouw. But our friend Diogenes was not a man to be perturbed either by admiring or condemning looks. He picked up a footstool from under the table and put it under the jongejuffrouw's feet; then he looked about him for a pillow, and with scant ceremony took one straight out of the hands of the serving wench who was just shaking it up ready for the bed. His obvious intention was to place it behind the jongejuffrouw's head, but at this act of unforgivable presumption Maria's wrath cast aside all restraint. Like a veritable fury she strode up to the insolent rascal, and snatched the pillow from him, throwing on him such a look of angry contempt as should have sent him grovelling on his knees.
"Keep thy blood cool, mevrouw," he said with the best of humour, "thy looks have already made a weak-kneed coward of me."
With the dignity of an offended turkey hen, Maria arranged the pillow herself under her mistress's head, having previously shaken it and carefully dusted off the blemish caused upon its surface by contact with an unclean hand. As for the footstool, she would not even allow it to remain there where that same unclean hand had placed it; she kicked it aside with her foot and drew up her small, round stature in a comprehensive gesture of outraged pride.
Diogenes made her a low bow, sweeping the floor with his plumed hat. The serving wench had much ado to keep a serious countenance, so comical did the mevrouw look in her wrath, and so mirth-provoking the gentleman with his graceful airs and unruffled temper. Anon laughter tickled her so that she had to run quickly out of the room, in order to indulge in a fit of uncontrolled mirth, away from the reproving glances of mevrouw.
It was the pleasant sound of that merry laughter outside the door that caused the jongejuffrouw to come to herself and to open wide, wondering eyes. She looked around her, vaguely puzzled, taking in the details of the cosy room, the crackling fire, the polished table, the inviting bed that exhaled an odour of dried rosemary.
Then her glance fell on Diogenes, who was standing hat in hand in the centre of the room, with the light from the blazing logs playing upon his smiling face, and the immaculate whiteness of his collar.
She frowned. And he who stood there – carelessly expectant – could not help wondering whether with that swift contemptuous glance which she threw on him, she had already recognized him.
"Mejuffrouw," he said, thus checking with a loud word the angry exclamation which hovered on her lips, "if everything here is not entirely in accordance with your desires, I pray you but to command and it shall be remedied if human agency can but contrive to do so. As for me, I am entirely at your service – your major domo, your servant, your outrider, anything you like to name me. Send but for your servant if you have need of aught; supper will be brought up to you immediately, and in the meanwhile I beg leave to free you from my unwelcome company."
Already there was a goodly clatter of platters, and of crockery outside, and as the wench re-entered anon bearing a huge tray on which were set out several toothsome things, Diogenes contrived to make his exit without encountering further fusillades of angry glances.
He joined his friends in the tap-room downstairs, and as he was young, vigorous and hungry he set to with them and ate a hearty supper. But he spoke very little and the rough jests of his brother philosophers met with but little response from him.
At one hour after midnight the summons came.
Maria, majestic and unbending, sailed into the tap-room where Pythagoras and Socrates were already stretched out full-length upon a couple of benches fast asleep and Diogenes still struggling to keep awake.
"The noble Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn desires your presence," she said addressing the latter with lofty dignity.
At once he rose to his feet, and followed Maria up the stairs and into the lady's room. From this room an inner door gave on another smaller alcove-like chamber, wherein a bed had been prepared for Maria.
Gilda somewhat curtly ordered her to retire.
"I will call you, Maria," she said, "when I have need of you."
Diogenes with elaborate courtesy threw the inner door open, and stood beside it plumed hat in hand while the mevrouw sailed past him, with arms folded across her ample bosom, and one of those dignified glances in her round eyes that should have annihilated this impious malapert, whose face – despite its airs of deference, was wreathed in an obviously ironical smile.
It was only when the heavy oaken door had fallen to behind her duenna that Gilda with an imperious little gesture called Diogenes before her.
He advanced hat in hand as was his wont, his magnificent figure very erect, his head with its wealth of untamed curls slightly bent. But he looked on her boldly with those laughter-filled, twinkling eyes of his and since he was young and neither ascetic nor yet a misanthrope, we may take it that he had some considerable pleasure in the contemplation of the dainty picture which she presented against the background of dull gold velvet: her small head propped against the cushions, and feathery curls escaping from under her coif and casting pearly, transparent shadows upon the ivory whiteness of her brow. Her two hands were resting each on an arm of the chair, and looked more delicate than ever now in the soft light of the tallow candles that burned feebly in the pewter candelabra upon the table.
Diogenes for the moment envied his friend Frans Hals for the power which the painter of pictures has of placing so dainty an image on record for all time. His look of bold admiration, however, caused Gilda's glance to harden, and she drew herself up in her chair in an attitude more indicative of her rank and station and of her consciousness of his inferiority.
But not with a single look or smile did she betray whether she had recognized him or not.
"Your name?" she asked curtly.
His smile broadened – self-deprecatingly this time.
"They call me Diogenes," he replied.
"A strange name," she commented, "but 'tis of no consequence."
"Of none whatever," he rejoined, "I had not ventured to pronounce it, only that you deigned to ask."
Again she frowned: the tone of gentle mockery had struck unpleasantly on her ear and she did not like that look of self-satisfied independence which sat on him as if to the manner born, when he was only an abject menial, paid to do dirty work for his betters.
"I have sent for you, sir," she resumed after a slight pause, "because I wished to demand of you an explanation of your infamous conduct. Roguery and vagabondage are severely punished by our laws, and you have brought your neck uncommonly near the gallows by your act of highway robbery. Do you hear me?" she asked more peremptorily, seeing that he made no attempt at a reply.
"I hear you, mejuffrouw."
"And what is your explanation?"
"That is my trouble, mejuffrouw. I have none to offer."
"Do you refuse then to tell me what your purpose is in thus defying the laws of the land and risking the gallows by laying hands upon me and upon my waiting woman in the open streets, and by taking me away by brute force from my home?"
"My purpose, mejuffrouw, is to convey you safely as far as Rotterdam, where I will hand you over into the worthy keeping of a gentleman who will relieve me of further responsibility with regard to your precious person."
"In Rotterdam?" she exclaimed, "what should I do in Rotterdam?"
"Nothing, I imagine," replied Diogenes dryly, "for you would not remain there longer than is necessary. I am the bearer of written orders to that same gentleman in Rotterdam that he shall himself conduct you under suitable escort – of which I no doubt will still form an integral part – to his private residence, which I am told is situate outside the city and on the road to Delft."
"A likely story indeed!" she rejoined vehemently, "I'll not believe it! Common theft and robbery are your purpose, nothing less, else you had not stolen my purse from me nor the jewels which I wore."
"I had to take your purse and your jewels from you, mejuffrouw," he said with perfect equanimity, "else you might have used them for the purpose of slipping through my fingers. Wenches at wayside inns are easily amenable to bribes, so are the male servants at city hostelries. But your purse and the trinkets which you wore are safely stowed away in my wallet. I shall have the honour of returning them to you when we arrive in Rotterdam."
"Of returning them to me," she said with a contemptuous laugh, "do knaves like you ever return stolen property?"скачать книгу бесплатно