Emma Orczy.

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



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"Seldom, I admit," he replied still with unruffled good-humour. "Nevertheless an exception hath often proved a rule. Your purse and trinkets are here," he added.

And from his wallet he took out a small leather purse and some loose jewellery which he showed to her.

"And," he added ere he once more replaced them in his wallet, "I will guard them most carefully until I can return them to you in Rotterdam, after which time 'twill be some one else's business to see that you do not slip through his fingers."

"And you expect me to believe such a senseless tale," she rejoined contemptuously.

"There are many things in this world and the next, mejuffrouw," he said lightly, "that are true though some of us believe them not."

"Nay! but this I do believe on the evidence of mine own eyes – that you stole my money and my jewels and have no intention of returning them to me."

"Your opinion of me, mejuffrouw, is already so low that it matters little surely if you think me a common thief as well."

"My opinion of you, sir, is based upon your actions."

"And these I own stand in formidable array against me."

She bit her lip in vexation and her slender fingers began to beat a tattoo on the arm of her chair. This man's placidity and inveterate good-humour were getting on her nerves. It is hard when one means to wound, to find the surest arrows falling wide of the mark. But now she waited for a moment or two lest her irritation betrayed itself in the quiver of her voice; and it was only when she felt quite sure that it would sound as trenchant and hard as she intended that it should, that she said abruptly:

"Who is paying you, sir, for this infamy?"

"One apparently who can afford the luxury," he replied airily.

"You will not tell me?"

"Do you think, mejuffrouw, that I could?"

"I may guess."

"It should not be difficult," he assented.

"And you, sir," she continued more vehemently, "are one of the many tools which the Lord of Stoutenburg doth use to gain his own political ends."

"The Lord of Stoutenburg?"

It was impossible for Gilda Beresteyn to gauge exactly whether the astonishment expressed in that young villain's exclamation was real or feigned. Certainly his mobile face was a picture of puzzlement, but this may have been caused only by his wondering how she could so easily have guessed the name of his employer. For as to this she was never for a moment in doubt. It was easy enough for her to piece together the series of events which had followed her parting from her brother at the cathedral door. Stoutenburg, burning with anxiety and glowing with his ardent desire for vengeance against the Stadtholder, had feared that she – Gilda – would betray the secret which she held, and he had paid this knave to take her out of the way. Stoutenburg and his gang! it could be no one else! she dared not think that her own brother would have a share in so dastardly an outrage.

It was Stoutenburg of course! and this smiling knave knew it well! aye! even though he murmured again and this time to the accompaniment of smothered oaths:

"Stoutenburg? Bedonderd!"

"Aye!" she said loftily, "you see that I am not deceived! 'tis the Lord of Stoutenburg who gave you money to play this trick on me. He paid you! paid you, I say, and you, a man who should be fighting for your country, were over ready to make war upon a woman. Shame on you! shame I say! 'tis a deed that should cause you to blush, if indeed you have a spark of honesty in you, which of a truth I do gravely doubt."

She had worked herself up into an outburst of indignation and flung insult upon insult on him in the vague hope indeed of waking some slumbering remnant of shame in his heart, and mayhap ruffling that imperturbable air of contentment of his, and that impudent look of swagger most unbecoming in a menial.

But by naming Stoutenburg, she had certainly brought to light many things which Diogenes had only vaguely suspected. His mind – keen and shrewd despite his follies – recalled his interview with Nicolaes Beresteyn in the studio of Frans Hals; all the details of that interview seemed suddenly to have gained significance as well as lucidity. The lofty talk anent the future of Holland and the welfare of the Faith was easily understandable in this new light which the name of Stoutenburg had cast upon it. Stoutenburg and the welfare of Holland! a secret the possession of which meant death to six selfless patriots or the forfeiture mayhap of her good name and her honour to this defenceless girl! Stoutenburg at the bottom of it all! Diogenes could have laughed aloud with triumph so clear now was the whole scheme to him! There was no one living who did not think that at some time or other Stoutenburg meant to come back and make yet one more attempt to wipe a blood-stain from the annals of his country by one equally foul.

One of Barneveld's sons had already paid for such an attempt with his life; the other had escaped only in order to intrigue again, to plot again, and again to fail. And this poor girl had by a fortuitous mishap overheard the discussion of the guilty secret. Stoutenburg had come back and meant to kill the Stadtholder: Nicolaes Beresteyn was his accomplice and had callously sacrificed his innocent sister to the success of his friend's schemes.

If out of this network of intrigues a sensible philosopher did not succeed in consolidating his independence with the aid of a substantial fortune, then he was neither so keen nor so daring as his friends and he himself supposed!

And Gilda wondered what went on in his mind for those twinkling eyes of his never betrayed any deeper thought: but she noticed with great mortification that the insults which she had heaped upon him so freely had not shamed him at all, for the good-humoured smile was not effaced from his lips, rather did the shapely hand wander up to the moustache in order to give it – she thought – a more provoking curl.

"I still await your answer," she said haughtily, seeing that his prolonged silence savoured of impertinence.

"I humbly crave your pardon, mejuffrouw," he said pleasantly, "I was absorbed in wonderment."

"You marvelled, sir, how easily I saw behind your schemes, and saw the hand which drove you in harness?"

"Your pardon, mejuffrouw. I was pondering on your own words. You deigned to say just now that I – a man should be fighting for my country."

"And you are worthy, sir, to be called a man."

"Quite so," he said whimsically. "But even if I did lay claim to the title, mejuffrouw, how could I fight for my country when my country doth not happen to be at war just now."

"Your country? What pray might your country be? Not that this concerns me in the least," she added hastily.

"Of course not," he rejoined blandly.

"What is your country, sir?"

"England."

"I do not like the English."

"Nor do I, mejuffrouw. But I was unfortunately not consulted as to my choice of a fatherland: nor doth it change the fact that King James of England is at peace just now with all the world."

"So you preferred to earn a dishonest living by abducting innocent women, to further the intrigues of your paymaster."

"It is a harsh exposition," he said blandly, "of an otherwise obvious fact."

"And you are not ashamed."

"Not more than is necessary for my comfort."

"And cannot I move you, sir," she said with sudden warmth, "cannot an appeal to you from my lips rouse a feeling of manhood within you. My father is a rich man," she continued eagerly, "he hath it in his power to reward those who do him service; he can do so far more effectually than the Lord of Stoutenburg. Sir! I would not think of making an appeal to your heart! no doubt long ago you have taught it to remain cold to the prayers of a woman in distress: but surely you will listen to the call of your own self-interest. My father must be nigh heart-broken by now. The hours have sped away and he knows not where to find me."

"No! I have taken very good care of that, mejuffrouw. We are at Leyden now, but we left Haarlem through the Groningen gate. We travelled North first, then East, then only South… Mynheer Beresteyn would require a divining rod wherewith to find you now."

It seemed unnecessary cruelty to tell her that, when already despair had seized on her heart, but she would not let this abominable rogue see how deeply she was hurt. She feigned not to have noticed the purport of his words and continued with the same insistent eagerness:

"Torn with anxiety, sir, he will be ready with a rich reward for one who would bring his only daughter safely home to him. I know not what the Lord of Stoutenburg hath promised you for doing his abominable work for him, but this I do assure you that my father will double and treble whatever sum you choose to name. Take me back to him, sir, now, this night, and to-morrow morning you could count yourself one of the rich men of Haarlem."

But Diogenes with half-closed eyes and gentle smile slowly shook his head.

"Were I to present myself before Mynheer Beresteyn to-night, he would summon the town guard and I should count myself as good as hanged to-morrow."

"Do you measure other men's treachery then by your own?"

"I measure other men's wrath by mine, mejuffrouw – and if a rogue had stolen my daughter, I should not rest until I had seen him hanged."

"I pledge you my word – " she began hotly.

"And I mine, mejuffrouw," he broke in a little more firmly than he had spoken hitherto, "that I will place you safely and I pray God in good health, into the care of a certain gentleman in Rotterdam. To this is my word of honour pledged and even such a mean vagabond as I is bound by a given word."

To this she made no reply. Perhaps she felt that in his last words there lurked a determination which it were useless to combat. Her pride too was up in arms. How could she plead further to this rascal who met the most earnest appeal with a pert jest? who mocked at her distress, and was impervious alike to prayers and to insults?

"I see," she said coldly, "that I do but waste my time in calling on your honour to forego this infamous trickery. Where there is no chivalry, there can be neither honour nor pity. I am in your hands, helpless because I am a woman. If it is the will of God that I should so remain, I cannot combat brute force with my feeble strength. No doubt He knows best! and also I believe doth oft give the devil power to triumph in the sight of men. After this night, sir, I will no longer defame my lips by speaking to you. If you have a spark of compassion left in your heart for one who hath never wronged you, I but ask you to relieve me of your presence as much as you can during the weary hours of this miserable journey."

"Have I your leave to go at once?" he said with unalterable cheerfulness and made haste to reach the door.

"Only one moment more must I detain you," she rejoined haughtily. "I wish you to understand that from this hour forth until such time as it pleaseth God to free me from this humiliating position, I will follow your commands to the best of my ability; not because I recognize your right to dictate them but because I am helpless to oppose you. If I and my waiting woman obey your orders meekly, if we rise when so ordered, are ready to start on the way whenever so compelled, get in or out of the vehicle at the first word from you, can we at least rest assured that we shall be spared further outrage?"

"Do you mean, mejuffrouw, that I must no longer attempt to lift you out of a coach or to carry you up to your chamber, even if as to-night you are faint and but half-conscious?" he asked with whimsical earnestness.

"I desire, sir, that you and those who help you in this shameful work, do in future spare me and my woman the insult of laying hands upon our persons."

He gave a long, low whistle.

"Dondersteen," he exclaimed flippantly, "I had no thought that so much hatred and malice could lurk in the frail body of a woman … 'tis true," he added with a shrug of the shoulders, "that a rogue such as I must of necessity know very little of the workings of a noble lady's mind."

"Had you known aught of mine, sir," she retorted coldly, "you would have understood that it is neither hatred nor malice which I feel for you and for those who are paying you to do this infamy … what I feel is only contempt."

"Is that all?" he queried blandly. "Ah, well, mejuffrouw, then am I all the more indebted to you for the great honour which you have done me this hour past."

"Honour? I do not understand. It was not in my mind to do you honour."

"I am sure not. You did it quite unconsciously and the honour was enhanced thereby. You honoured me, mejuffrouw," he said while a tone of earnestness crept into his merry voice, "by trusting me – the common thief, the cut-throat, the hired brigand, alone in your presence for a whole hour, while the entire household here was abed and your duenna snoring contentedly in a room with locked door close by. During that hour your tongue did not spare my temper for one moment. For this recognition of manly forbearance and chivalry – even though you choose to deny their existence – do I humbly thank you. Despite – or perhaps because of your harsh estimate of me – you made me feel to-night almost a gentleman."

With his habitual elegance of gesture he swept her a deep bow, then without another word or look, and with firm, ringing steps he walked quickly out of the room.

CHAPTER XVIII
THE START

Once the door safely closed behind him, he heaved a deep sigh as if of intense relief and he passed his hand quickly across his brow.

"By St. Bavon," he murmured, "my friend Diogenes, thou hast had to face unpleasantness before now – those arquebusiers at Magdeburg were difficult to withstand, those murderous blackguards in the forests of Prague nearly had thy skin, but verdommt be thou, if thou hast had to hold thy temper in bounds like this before. Dondersteen! how I could have crushed that sharp-tongued young vixen till she cried for mercy … or silenced those venomous lips with a kiss!.. I was sore tempted indeed to give her real cause for calling me a knave…"

In the tap-room downstairs he found Pythagoras and Socrates curled up on the floor in front of the hearth. They were fast asleep, and Diogenes did not attempt to wake them. He had given them their orders for the next day earlier in the evening and with the promise of 500 golden guilders to be won by implicit obedience the two worthies were not like to disobey.

He himself had his promise to his friend Hals to redeem … the flight along the frozen waterways back to Haarlem, a few hours spent in the studio in the Peuselaarsteeg, then the return flight to rejoin his compeers and the jongejuffrouw at the little hamlet of Houdekerk off the main road; thither he had ordered them to proceed in the early morning there to lie perdu until his return. Houdekerk lay to the east of Leyden and so well off the beaten track that the little party would be safely hidden there during the day; – he intended to be with them again well before midnight of the next day. For the nonce he collected a few necessary provisions which he had ordered to be ready for him – a half bottle of wine, some meat and bread, then he made his way out of the little hostelry and across the courtyard to the stables where the horses had been put up. The night was singularly clear: the waning moon after she had emerged from a bank of low-lying clouds, lit up the surrounding landscape with a radiance that was intensely blue.

Groping his way about in the stables Diogenes found his saddle which he himself had lifted off his horse, and from out the holster he drew a pair of skates. With these hanging by their straps upon his arm, he left the building behind him and turned to walk in the direction of the river.

The little city lay quite peaceful and still under the weird brilliancy of the moon which threw many-hued reflections on the snow-covered surfaces of roofs and tall gables. It was piercingly cold, the silver ribbon of the Rhyn wound its graceful course westward to the North Sea and from beyond its opposite bank a biting wind swept across the dykes and over the flat country around, chasing myriads of crisp snowflakes from their rest and driving them in wanton frolic round and round into little whirlpools of mist that glistened like the facets of diamonds.

Diogenes had walked briskly along; the skates upon his arm clicked at every one of his movements with a pleasing metallic sound. He chose a convenient spot on the river bank whereon to squat on the ground, and fastened on his skates.

After which he rose and for a moment stood looking straight out northwards before him. But a few leagues – half a dozen at most – lay between him and Haarlem. The Rhyn as well as the innumerable small polders and lakes had left – after the autumn floods – their usual trail of narrow waterways behind them which, frozen over now, joining, intersecting and rejoining again formed a perfect, uninterrupted road from hence to the northern cities. It had been along these frozen ways that the daring and patriotic citizens of Leyden had half a century ago kept up communication with the outer world during the memorable siege which had lasted throughout the winter, and it was by their help that they were able to defy the mighty investing Spanish army by getting provisions into the beleaguered city.

A young adventurer stood here now calmly measuring in his mind the distance which he would have to traverse in the teeth of a piercing gale and at dead of night in order to satisfy the ambition of a friend. It was not the first time in his hazardous career that he had undertaken such a journey. He was accustomed to take all risks in life with indifference and good humour, the only thing that mattered was the ultimate end: an exciting experience to go through, a goodly competence to earn, a promise to fulfil.

Up above, the waning moon seemed to smile upon his enterprise; she lay radiant and serene on her star-studded canopy of mysterious ethereal indigo. Diogenes looked back on the little hostelry, which lay some little distance up the street at right angles to the river bank. Was it his fancy or one of those many mysterious reflections thrown by the moon? but it certainly seemed to him as if a light still burned in one of the upper windows.

The unpleasant interview with the jongejuffrouw had evidently not weighed his spirits down, for to that distant light he now sent a loud and merry farewell.

Then deliberately facing the bitter blast he struck out boldly along the ice and started on his way.

CHAPTER XIX
IN THE KINGDOM OF THE NIGHT

Heigh-ho! for that run along the ice – a matter of half a dozen leagues or so – at dead of night with a keen north-easterly wind whipping up the blood, and motion – smooth gliding motion – to cause it to glow in every vein.

Heigh-ho! for the joy of living, for the joy in the white, ice-covered world, the joy in the night, and in the moon, and in those distant lights of Leyden which gradually recede and diminish – tiny atoms now in the infinite and mysterious distance!

What ho! a dark and heavy bank of clouds! whence come ye, ye disturbers of the moon's serenity? Nay! but we are in a hurry, the wind drives us at breathless speed, we cannot stay to explain whence we have come.

Moon, kind moon, come out again! ah, there she is, pallid through the frosty mist, blinking at this white world scarce less brilliant than she.

On, on! silently and swiftly, in the stillness of the night, the cruel skates make deep gashes on the smooth skin of the ice, long even strokes now, for the Meer is smooth and straight, and the moon – kind moon! – marks an even silvery track, there where the capricious wind has swept it free of snow.

Hat in hand, for the wind is cool and good, and tames the hot young blood which a woman's biting tongue has whipped into passion.

"The young vixen," shouts a laughing voice through the night, "was she aware of her danger? how I could have tamed her, and cowed her and terrified her! Did she play a cat and mouse game with me I wonder… Dondersteen! if I thought that…"

But why think of a vixen now, of blue eyes and biting tongues, when the night with unerring hand clothes the landscape with glory. One word to the north-east wind and he sweeps the track quite clear and causes myriads of diamonds to fly aimlessly about, ere they settle like tiny butterflies on tortuous twigs, and rough blades of coarse grass. One call to the moon and she partially hides her face, painting the haze around her to a blood-red hue; now a touch of blue upon the ice, further a streak of emerald, and then the tender mauves of the regal mantle of frost.

Then the thousand sounds that rise all around: the thousand sounds which all united make one vast, comprehensive silence: the soughing of the wind in the bare poplar trees, the rattle of the tiny dead twigs and moaning of the branches; from far away the dull and ceaseless rumble which speaks of a restless sea, and now and again the loud and melancholy boom of the ice, yielding to the restless movements of the water beneath.



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