Emma Orczy.

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



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The sounds which make up silence – silence and loneliness, nature's perfect repose under its downy blanket of snow, the vast embrace of the night stretching out into infinity in monotonous flatnesses far away, to the mysterious mists which lie beyond the horizon.

Oh! for the joy of it all! the beauty of the night, the wind and the frost! and the many landmarks which loom out of the darkness one by one, to guide that flying figure on its way; the square tower of old Katwyk-binnen church, the group of pollard willows at the corner of Veenenburg Polder, the derelict boats on the bank of the Haarlemer Meer, and always from the left that pungent smell of the sea, the brine and the peculiar odour which emanates from the dykes close by, from the wet clay and rotting branches of willows that protect man against the encroachment of the ocean.

On, on, thou sole inhabitant of this kingdom of the night! fly on thy wings of metal – hour after hour – midnight – one – two – three – where are the hours now? There are no hours in the kingdom of the night! On, on, for the moon's course is swift and this will be a neck to neck race. Ah! the wicked one! down she goes, lower and lower in her career, and there is a thick veil of mist on the horizon in the west! Moon! art not afraid? the mists will smother thee! Tarry yet awhile! tarry ere thou layest down on the cold, soft bed! thy light! give it yet awhile! – two hours! one hour until thou hast outlined with silver the openwork tower of Haarlem's Groote Kirk.

On, on, for a brief hour longer how can one pause even to eat or drink? there is no hunger in the kingdom of night, no thirst, no fatigue! and this is a neck to neck race with the moon.

Ah Dondersteen! but thou art beaten, fair moon! Let the mists embrace thee now! sink! fall! die as thou list, there is the tower of St. Bavon! and we defy the darkness now!

Here it comes creeping like a furtive and stealthy creature wiping out with thick black cloth here a star and there the tip of a tall poplar tree, there a shrub, there a clump of grass! Take care, traveller, take care! that was not just the shadow from the bank, it was a bunch of reeds that entangle the feet and bring the skater down on to his face and will drag him, if he be not swift and alert, right under, into the water under the ice.

Take care! there is danger everywhere now in this inky blackness! danger on the ice, and upon the bank, danger in the shadows that are less dark than the night!

Darker and darker still, until it seemed as if the night's brush could not hold a more dense hue. The night – angered that she hath been so long defied – has overtaken the flying skater at last. She grips him, she holds him, he dare not advance, he will not retreat. Haarlem is there not one whole league away and he cannot move from where he is, in the midst of the Meer, on her icy bosom, with shadows as tangible as human bodies hemming him in on every side.

Haarlem is there! the last kiss of the moon before she fell into that bed of mist, was for St.

Bavon's tower, which then seemed so near. Since then the night had wiped out the tower, and the pointed gables which cluster around, and the solitary skater is a prisoner in the fastnesses of the night.

CHAPTER XX
BACK AGAIN IN HAARLEM

They were terribly weary hours, these last two which the soldier of fortune, the hardened campaigner had to kill before the first streak of pallid, silvery dawn would break over the horizon beyond the Zuyder Zee.

Until then it meant the keeping on the move, ceaselessly, aimlessly, in order to prevent the frost from biting the face and limbs, it meant wearily waiting in incessant, nerve-racking movement for every quarter of an hour tolled by the unseen cathedral clock; it meant counting these and the intervening minutes which crawled along on the leaden stilts of time, until the head began to buzz and the brain to ache with the intensity of monotony and of fatigue. It meant the steeling of iron nerves, the bracing of hardy sinews, the keeping the mind clear and the body warm.

Two hours to kill under the perpetual lash of a tearing north wind, gliding up and down a half league of frozen way so as not to lose the track in the darkness and with a shroud of inky blackness to envelop everything around!

The hardened campaigner stood the test as only a man of abnormal physique and body trained to privations could have stood it. As soon as the thin grey light began to spread over the sky and picked out a few stunted snow-covered trees, one by one, he once more started on his way.

He had less than a league to cover now, and when at last the cathedral tower boomed out the hour of seven he was squatting on the back of the Oude Gracht in Haarlem, and with numbed fingers and many an oath was struggling with the straps of his skates.

A quarter of an hour later he was installed in his friend's studio in front of a comfortable fire and with a mug of hot ale in front of him.

"I didn't think that you really meant to come," Frans Hals had said when he admitted him into his house in response to his peremptory ring.

"I mean to have some breakfast now at any rate, my friend," was the tired wayfarer's only comment.

The artist was too excited and too eager to get to work to question his sitter further. I doubt if in Diogenes' face or in his whole person there were many visible traces of the fatigues of the night.

"What news in Haarlem?" he asked after the first draught of hot ale had put fresh life into his veins.

"Why? where have you been that you've not heard?" queried Hals indifferently.

"Away on urgent business affairs," replied the other lightly; "and what is the news?"

"That the daughter of Cornelius Beresteyn, the rich grain merchant and deputy burgomaster of this city, was abducted last night by brigands and hath not to my knowledge been found yet."

Diogenes gave a long, low whistle of well-feigned astonishment.

"The fact doth not speak much for the guardians of the city," he remarked dryly.

"The outrage was very cleverly carried out, so I've heard said; and it was not until close upon midnight that the scouts sent out by Mynheer Beresteyn in every direction came back with the report that the brigands left the city by the Groningen gate and were no doubt well on their way north by then."

"And what was done after that?"

"I have not heard yet," replied Hals. "It is still early. When the serving woman comes she will tell us the latest news. I am afraid I can't get to work until the light improves. Are you hungry? Shall I get you something more solid to eat?"

"Well, old friend," rejoined the other gaily, "since you are so hospitable…"

By eight o'clock he was once more ensconced on the sitter's platform, dressed in a gorgeous doublet and sash, hat on head and hand on hip, smiling at his friend's delight and eagerness in his work.

Hals in the meanwhile had heard further news of the great event which apparently was already the talk of Haarlem even at this early hour of the day.

"There seems no doubt," he said, "that the outrage is the work of those vervloekte sea-wolves. They have carried Gilda Beresteyn away in the hope of extorting a huge ransom out of her father."

"I hope," said Diogenes unctuously, "that he can afford to pay it."

"He is passing rich," replied the artist with a sigh. "A great patron of the arts … it was his son you saw here yesterday, and the portrait which I then showed you was that of the unfortunate young lady who has been so cruelly abducted."

"Indeed," remarked Diogenes ostentatiously smothering a yawn as if the matter was not quite so interesting to him – a stranger to Haarlem – as it was to his friend.

"The whole city is in a tumult," continued Hals, who was busily working on his picture all the while that he talked, "and Mynheer Beresteyn and his son Nicolaes are raising a private company of Waardgelders to pursue the brigands. One guilder a day do they offer to these volunteers and Nicholaes Beresteyn will himself command the expedition."

"Against the sea-wolves?" queried the other blandly.

"In person. Think of it, man! The girl is his own sister."

"It is unthinkable," agreed Diogenes solemnly.

All of which was, of course, vastly interesting to him, since what he heard to-day would be a splendid guidance for him as to his future progress southwards to Rotterdam. Nicolaes Beresteyn leading an expedition of raw recruits in the pursuit of his sister was a subject humorous enough to delight the young adventurer's sense of fun; moreover it was passing lucky that suspicion had at once fallen on the sea-wolves – a notorious band of ocean pirates whose acts of pillage and abduction had long since roused the ire of all northern cities that suffered from their impudent depredations. Diogenes congratulated himself on the happy inspiration which had caused him to go out of Haarlem by its north gate and to have progressed toward Groningen for a quarter of an hour or so, leaving traces behind him which Nicolaes Beresteyn would no doubt know how to interpret in favour of the "sea-wolves" theory. He could also afford to think with equanimity now of Pythagoras and Socrates in charge of the jongejuffrouw lying comfortably perdu at a wayside inn, situated fully thirteen leagues to the south of the nearest inland lair, which was known to be the halting place of the notorious sea-robbers.

Indeed, his act of friendship in devoting his day to the interests of Frans Hals had already obtained its reward, for he had gathered valuable information, and his journey to Rotterdam would in consequence be vastly more easy to plan.

No wonder that Frans Hals as he worked on the picture felt he had never had such a sitter before; the thoughts within redolent of fun, of amusement at the situation, of eagerness for the continuation of the adventure seemed to bubble and to sparkle out of the eyes, the lines of quiet humour, of gentle irony appeared ever mobile, ever quivering around the mouth.

For many hours that day hardly a word passed between the two men while the masterpiece was in progress, which was destined to astonish and delight the whole world for centuries to come. They hardly paused a quarter of an hour during the day to snatch a morsel of food; Hals, imbued with the spirit of genius, begrudged every minute not spent in work and Diogenes, having given his time to his friend, was prepared that the gift should be a full measure.

Only at four o'clock when daylight faded, and the twilight began to merge the gorgeous figure of the sitter into one dull, grey harmony, did the artist at last throw down brushes and palette with a sigh of infinite satisfaction.

"It is good," he said, as with eyes half-closed he took a final survey of his sitter and compared the living model with his own immortal work.

"Have you had enough of me?" asked Diogenes.

"No. Not half enough. I would like to make a fresh start on a new portrait of you at once. I would try one of those effects of light of which Rembrandt thinks that he hath the monopoly, but which I would show him how to treat without so much artificiality."

He continued talking of technicalities, rambling on in his usual fretful, impatient way, while Diogenes stretched out his cramped limbs, and rubbed his tired eyes.

"Can I undress now?"

"Yes. The light has quite gone," said the artist with a sigh.

Diogenes stood for a long time in contemplation of the masterpiece, even as the shadows of evening crept slowly into every corner of the studio and cast their gloom over the gorgeous canvas in its magnificent scheme of colour.

"Am I really as good looking as that?" he asked with one of his most winning laughs.

"Good looking? I don't know," replied Hals, "you are the best sitter I have ever had. To-day has been one of perfect, unalloyed enjoyment to me."

All his vulgar, mean little ways had vanished, his obsequiousness, that shifty look of indecision in the eyes which proclaimed a growing vice. His entire face flowed with the enthusiasm of a creator who has had to strain every nerve to accomplish his work, but having accomplished it, is entirely satisfied with it. He could not tear himself away from the picture, but stood looking at it long after the gloom had obliterated all but its most striking lights.

Then only did he realise that he was both hungry and weary.

"Will you come with me to the 'Lame Cow,'" he said to his friend, "we can eat and drink there and hear all the latest news. I want to see Cornelius Beresteyn if I can; he must be deeply stricken with grief and will have need of the sympathy of all his well-wishers. What say you? Shall we get supper at the 'Lame Cow'?"

To which proposition Diogenes readily agreed. It pleased his spirit of adventure to risk a chance encounter in the popular tavern with Nicolaes Beresteyn or the Lord of Stoutenburg, both of whom must think him at this moment several leagues away in the direction of Rotterdam. Neither of these gentlemen would venture to question him in a public place; moreover it had been agreed from the first that he was to be given an absolutely free hand with regard to his plans for conducting the jongejuffrouw to her ultimate destination.

Altogether the afternoon and evening promised to be more amusing than Diogenes had anticipated.

CHAPTER XXI
A GRIEF-STRICKEN FATHER

Frans Hals had not been guilty of exaggeration when he said that the whole city was in a turmoil about the abduction of Gilda Beresteyn by that impudent gang of ocean-robbers who called themselves the sea-wolves.

On this subject there were no two opinions. The sea-wolves had done this deed as they had done others of a like nature before. The abduction of children of rich parents was one of their most frequent crimes: and many a wealthy burgher had had to pay half his fortune away in ransom for his child. The fact that a covered sledge escorted by three riders who were swathed in heavy mantles had been seen to go out of the city by the northern gate at seven o'clock last evening, was held to be sufficient proof that the unfortunate jongejuffrouw was being conveyed straightway to the coast where the pirates had their own lairs and defied every effort which had hitherto been made for their capture.

On this the 2nd day of January, 1624 – rather less than twenty-four hours after the abduction of Gilda Beresteyn, the tapperij of the "Lame Cow" presented an appearance which was almost as animated as that which had graced it on New Year's night. Everyone who took an interest in the terrible event went to the "Lame Cow" in the hope of finding another better informed than himself.

Men and women sat round the tables or leaned against the bars discussing the situation: every one, of course, had a theory to put forward, or a suggestion to offer.

"'Tis time the old law for the raising of a corps of Waardgelders by the city were put into force once more," said Mynheer van der Meer the burgomaster, whose words carried weight. "What can a city do for the preservation of law and order if it has not the power to levy its own military guard?"

"My opinion is," said Mynheer van Zeller, who was treasurer of the Oudemannenhuis and a personage of vast importance, "that we in this city ought to close out gates against all this foreign rabble who infest us with their noise and their loose ways. Had there not been such a crowd of them here for the New Year you may depend on it that Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn would not have had to suffer this dastardly abomination."

Others on the other hand thought that the foreign mercenaries now within the city could be utilised for the purpose of an expedition against the sea-wolves.

"They are very daring and capable fighters," suggested Mynheer van Beerenbrock – a meek, timid but vastly corpulent gentleman of great consideration on the town council, "and more able to grapple with desperate brigands than were a levy of raw recruits from among our young townsfolk."

"Set a rogue to fight a rogue, say I," assented another pompous burgher.

Cornelius Beresteyn sat at a table with his son and surrounded by his most influential friends. Those who knew him well declared that he had aged ten years in the past few hours. His devotion to his daughter was well known and it was pitiable to see the furrows in his cheeks wet with continuously falling tears. He sat huddled up within himself, his elbows resting on the table, his head often buried in his hands when emotion mastered him, and he felt unable to restrain his tears. He looked like a man absolutely dazed with the immensity of his grief, as if some one had dealt him a violent blow on the head which had half-addled his brain.

Throughout the day his house had been positively invaded by the frequent callers who, under a desire to express their sympathy, merely hid their eagerness to learn fresh details of the outrage. Cornelius Beresteyn, harassed by this well-meaning and very noisy crowd and feeling numb in mind and weary in body, had been too feeble to withstand the urgent entreaties of his friends who had insisted on dragging him to the "Lame Cow," where the whole situation – which had become of almost national importance – could be fully and comprehensively discussed.

"You want to get your daughter back, do you not, old friend?" urged Mynheer van der Meer the burgomaster.

"Of course," assented Beresteyn feebly.

"And you want to get her back as quickly as possible," added the pompous treasurer of the Oudemannenhuis.

"As quickly as possible," reiterated Beresteyn vaguely.

"Very well then," concluded the burgomaster, in tones of triumph which suggested that he had gained a great victory over the obstinate will of his friend, "what you must do, my good Beresteyn, is to attend an informal council which I have convened for this afternoon at the 'Lame Cow' and whereat we will listen to all the propositions put forward by our fellow-townsmen for the speedy capture of those vervloekte brigands and the liberation of your beloved daughter."

In the meanwhile an untoward accident had momentarily arrested the progress of the original band of volunteers who, under the leadership of Nicolaes Beresteyn, had started quite early in the morning on the Groningen route in pursuit of the sea-wolves. Nicolaes, namely, on remounting his horse after a brief halt at Bloemendal, had slipped on the snow covered ground; his horse jumped aside and reared and, in so doing, seriously wrenched Nicolaes' right arm, almost dislocating his shoulder and causing him thereby such excruciating pain that he nearly fainted on the spot.

Further progress on horseback became an impossibility for him, and two of the volunteers had much difficulty in conveying him back to Haarlem, where, however, he displayed the utmost fortitude by refusing to waste his time in being examined and tended by the bone-setter, and declaring that since he could not take an active part in the campaign against the vervloekte malefactors he would give every moment of his time and every faculty he possessed for the organisation of an effective corps of soldiery capable of undertaking a successful punitive expedition.

He joined his father in the tap-room of the "Lame Cow," and though he was obviously in great pain with his arm and shoulder which he had hastily and perfunctorily tied up with his sash, he was untiring in his suggestions, his advice, his offers of money and of well-considered plans.

Unbeknown to anyone save to him, the Lord of Stoutenburg sat in a dark recess of the tapperij deeply interested in all that was going on. He knew, of course, every detail of the plot which Nicolaes Beresteyn had hatched at his instigation and – hidden as he was in his obscure corner – it pleased his masterful mind to think that the tangled skein of this affair which these solemn and pompous burghers were trying to unravel had been originally embroiled by himself.

He listened contemptuously and in silence to the wild and oft senseless talk which went on around him; but when he caught sight of Diogenes swaggering into the room in the wake of the painter Frans Hals he very nearly betrayed himself.

Nicolaes Beresteyn too was dumbfounded. For the moment he literally gasped with astonishment, and was quite thankful that his supposedly dislocated shoulder furnished a good pretext for the string of oaths which he uttered. But Diogenes, sublimely indifferent to the astonishment of his patron, took a seat beside his friend at one of the vacant tables and ordered a substantial supper with a bottle of very choice wine wherewith to wash it down, all of which he evidently meant to pay for with Nicolaes' money. The latter could do nothing but sit by in grim silence while the man whom he had paid to do him service ate and drank heartily, cracked jokes and behaved for all the world as if he were a burgher of leisure plentifully supplied with money.

Time was going on: the subject of the expedition against the sea-wolves had been fully discussed and certain resolutions arrived at, which only lacked the assent of the burgomaster sitting in council and of Cornelius Beresteyn – the party chiefly interested in the affair – in order to take effect on the morrow.



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