Gradually the tap-room became less and less full: one by one the eager and inquisitive townsfolk departed in order to impart what news they had gleaned to their expectant families at home.
Nicolaes Beresteyn, inwardly fuming and fretting with rage, had been quite unable to stay on quietly while Diogenes sat not twenty paces away from him, wasting his patron's time and money and apparently in the best of humours, for his infectious laugh rang from end to end of the raftered room; he had soon assembled a small crowd of boon-companions round his table, whom he treated to merry jests as well as to Mynheer Beek's most excellent wine; but when he leaned forward bumper in hand and actually had the audacity loudly to pledge the noble Beresteyn family and to wish the heroic Nicolaes speedy mending of his broken bones, the latter rose with a muttered curse and, having taken a curt farewell from his friends, he strode glowering out of the room.
The Lord of Stoutenburg – as unobtrusive and silent as was his wont – rose quietly a few minutes later and followed in the wake of his friend.
Cornelius Beresteyn had now only a few of his most intimate friends beside him, and when Frans Hals had finished his supper he ventured to approach the rich patron of arts and to present his own most respectful expressions of sympathy.
Softened by grief the old man was more than usually gracious to the artist.
"'Tis a bitter blow, my good Hals," he said dully.
"Please God, those devils have only an eye on your money, mynheer," said the artist consolingly. "They will look on the jongejuffrouw as a valuable hostage and treat her with the utmost deference in the hopes of getting a heavy ransom from you."
"May you be speaking truly," sighed Cornelius with a disconsolate shake of the head, "but think what she must be suffering now, while she is uncertain of her own fate, poor child!"
"This delay is killing me, Hals," continued the old man, who in the midst of his more pompous friends seemed instinctively drawn to the simple nature of this humble painter of pictures. "The burgomaster means well but his methods are slow and ponderous. All my servants and dependents have joined the first expedition toward Groningen, but God knows how they will get on, now that Nicolaes no longer leads them. They have had no training in such matters, and will hardly know how to proceed."
"You really want some one who is daring and capable, mynheer, some one who will be as wary as those vervloekte sea-wolves and beat them at their own game. 'Tis not so much the numbers that you want as the one brain to direct and to act."
"True! true, my good Hals! But our best men are all at the war fighting for our religious and political liberties, while we – the older citizens of our beloved country with our wives and our daughters – are left a prey to the tyranny of malefactors and of pirates.
"But surely there are young men left in Haarlem whom wanton mischief such as this would cause to boil with indignation."
"There are few young men left in Haarlem, my friend," rejoined Beresteyn sadly, "the Stadtholder hath claimed the best of them. Those who are left behind are too much engrossed in their own affairs to care greatly about the grief of an old man, or a wrong done to an innocent girl."
"I'll not believe it," said Hals hotly.
"Alas, 'tis only too true! Men nowadays – those at any rate who are left in our cities – no longer possess that spirit of chivalry or of adventure which caused our forebears to give their life's blood for justice and for liberty."
"You wrong them, mynheer," protested the artist.
"I think not. Think on it, Hals. You know Haarlem well; you know most people who live in the city. Can you name me one man who would stand up before me to-day and say boldly: 'Mynheer, you have lost your daughter: evil-doers have taken her from her home. Here am I ready to do you service, and by God do I swear that I will bring your daughter back to you!' So would our fathers have spoken, my good Hals, before commerce and prosperity had dulled the edge of reckless gallantry. By God! they were fine men in those days – we are mere pompous, obese, self-satisfied shopkeepers now."
There was a great deal of bitter truth in what Cornelius Beresteyn had said: Hals – the artist – who had listened to the complacent talk that had filled this room awhile ago – who knew of the commercial transactions that nowadays went by the name of art-patronage – he knew that the old man was not far wrong in his estimate of his fellow-countrymen in these recent prosperous times.
It was the impulsive, artistic nature in him which caused him to see what he merely imagined – chivalry, romance, primeval notions of bravery and of honour.
He looked round the room – now almost deserted – somewhat at a loss for words that would soothe Beresteyn's bitter spirit of resentment, and casually his glance fell on the broad figure of his friend Diogenes, who, leaning back in his chair, his plumed hat tilted rakishly across his brow, had listened to the conversation between the two men with an expression of infinite amusement literally dancing in his eyes. And it was that same artistic, impulsive nature which caused Frans Hals then to exclaim suddenly:
"Well, mynheer! since you call upon me and on my knowledge of this city, I can give you answer forthwith. Yes! I do know a man, now in Haarlem, who hath no thought of commerce or affairs, who possesses that spirit of chivalry which you say is dead among the men of Holland. He would stand up boldly before you, hat in hand and say to you: 'Mynheer, I am ready to do you service, and by God do I swear that I will bring your daughter back to you, safe and in good health!' I know such a man, mynheer!"
"Bah! you talk at random, my good Hals!" said Beresteyn with a shrug of the shoulders.
"May I not present him to you, mynheer?"
"Present him? Whom?.. What nonsense is this?" asked the old man, more dazed and bewildered than before by the artist's voluble talk. "Whom do you wish to present to me?"
"The man who I firmly believe would out of pure chivalry and the sheer love of adventure do more toward bringing the jongejuffrouw speedily back to you than all the burgomaster's levies of guards and punitive expeditions."
"You don't mean that, Hals? – 'twere a cruel jest to raise without due cause the hopes of a grief-stricken old man."
"'Tis no jest, mynheer!" said the artist, "there sits the man!"
And with a theatrical gesture – for Mynheer Hals had drunk some very good wine after having worked at high pressure all day, and his excitement had gained the better of him – he pointed to Diogenes, who had heard every word spoken by his friend, and at this d?nouement burst into a long, delighted, ringing laugh.
"Ye gods!" he exclaimed, "your Olympian sense of humour is even greater than your might."
At an urgent appeal from Hals he rose and, hat in hand, did indeed approach Mynheer Beresteyn, looking every inch of him a perfect embodiment of that spirit of adventure which was threatening to be wafted away from these too prosperous shores. His tall figure looked of heroic proportions in this low room and by contrast with the small, somewhat obese burghers who still sat close to Cornelius, having listened in silence to the latter's colloquy with the artist. His bright eyes twinkled, his moustache bristled, his lips quivered with the enjoyment of the situation. The grace and elegance of his movements, born of conscious strength, added dignity to his whole personality.
"My friend hath name Diogenes," said Frans Hals, whose romantic disposition revelled in this presentation, "but there's little of the philosopher about him. He is a man of action, an invincible swordsman, a – "
"Dondersteen, my good Hals!" ejaculated Diogenes gaily, "you'll shame me before these gentlemen."
"There's naught to be ashamed of, sir, in the eulogy of a friend," said Cornelius Beresteyn with quiet dignity, "and 'tis a pleasure to an old man like me to look on one so well favoured as yourself. Ah, sir! 'tis but sorrow that I shall know in future… My daughter … you have heard…?"
"I know the trouble that weighs on your soul, mynheer," replied Diogenes simply.
"You have heard then what your friend says of you?" continued the old man, whose tear-dimmed eyes gleamed with the new-born flicker of hope. "Our good Hals is enthusiastic, romantic … mayhap he hath exaggerated … hath in fact been mistaken…"
It was sadly pathetic to see the unfortunate father so obviously hovering 'twixt hope and fear, his hands trembled, there was an appeal in his broken voice, an appeal that he should not be deceived, that he should not be thrown back from the giddy heights of hope to the former deep abyss of despair.
"My daughter, sir …" he murmured feebly, "she is all the world to me … her mother died when she was a baby … she is all the world to me … they have taken her from me … she is so young, sir … so beautiful … she is all the world to me … I would give half my fortune to have her back safely in my arms…"
There was silence in the quaint old-world place after that – silence only broken by the suppressed sobs of the unfortunate man who had lost his only daughter. The others sat round the table, saying no word, for the pathos evoked by Beresteyn's grief was too great for words. Hals' eyes were fixed on his friend, and he tried in vain to read and understand the enigmatical smile which hovered in every line of that mobile face. The stillness only lasted a few seconds: the next moment Diogenes' ringing voice had once more set every lurking echo dancing from rafter to rafter.
"Mynheer!" he said loudly, "you have lost your daughter. Here am I to do you service, and by God I swear that I will bring your daughter safely back to you."
Frans Hals heaved a deep sigh of satisfaction. Cornelius Beresteyn, overcome by emotion, could not at first utter a word. He put out his hand, groping for that of the man who had fanned the flames of hope into living activity.
Diogenes, solemnly trying to look grave and earnest, took the hand thus loyally offered to him. He could have laughed aloud at the absurdity of the present situation. He – pledged by solemn word of honour to convey Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn to Rotterdam and there to place her into the custody of Ben Isaje, merchant of that city, he – carrying inside his doublet an order to Ben Isaje to pay him 3,000 guilders, he – known to the jongejuffrouw as the author of the outrage against her person, he was here solemnly pledging himself to restore her safely into her father's arms. How this was to be fulfilled, how he would contrive to earn that comfortable half of a rich Haarlem merchant's fortune, he had – we may take it – at the present moment, not the remotest idea: for indeed, the conveying of the jongejuffrouw back to Haarlem would be no difficult matter, once his promise to Nicolaes Beresteyn had been redeemed. The question merely was how to do this without being denounced by the lady herself as an impudent and double-dealing knave, which forsooth she already held him to be.
Cornelius and his friends, however, gave him no time now for further reflection. All the thinking out would have to be done presently – no doubt on the way between Haarlem and Houdekerk, and probably in a mist of driving snow – for the nonce he had to stand under the fire of unstinted eulogy hurled at him from every side.
"Well spoken, young man!"
"'Tis gallant bearing forsooth!"
"Chivalry, indeed, is not yet dead in Holland."
"Are you a Dutchman, sir?"
To this direct query he gave reply:
"My father was one of those who came in English Leicester's train, whose home was among the fogs of England and under the shadow of her white, mysterious cliffs. My mother was Dutch and he broke her heart…"
"Not an unusual story, alas, these times!" quoth a sober mynheer with a sigh. "I know of more than one case like your own, sir. Those English adventurers were well favoured and smooth tongued, and when they gaily returned to their sea-girt island they left a long trail behind them of broken hearts – of sorrowing women and forsaken children."
"My mother, sir, was a saint," rejoined Diogenes earnestly, "my father married her in Amsterdam when she was only eighteen. She was his wife, yet he left her homeless and his son fatherless."
"But if he saw you, sir, as you are," said Cornelius Beresteyn kindly, "he would surely make amends."
"But he shall not see me, sir," retorted Diogenes lightly, "for I hate him so, because of the wrong he did to my mother and to me. He shall never even hear of me unless I succeed in carving mine own independent fortune, or contrive to die like a gentleman."
"Both of which, sir, you will surely do," now interposed Beresteyn with solemn conviction. "Your acts and words do proclaim you a gentleman, and therefore you will die one day, just as you have lived. In the meanwhile, I am as good as my word. My daughter's safety, her life and her honour are worth a fortune to me. I am reputed a wealthy man. My business is vast, and I have one million guilders lying at interest in the hands of Mynheer Bergansius the world-famed jeweller of Amsterdam. One-half that money, sir, shall be yours together with my boundless gratitude, if you deliver my daughter out of the hands of the malefactors who have seized her person and bring her back safe and sound to me."
"If life is granted me, sir," rejoined Diogenes imperturbably, without a blush or a tremor, "I will find your daughter and bring her safely to you as speedily as God will allow me."
"But you cannot do this alone, sir …" urged Cornelius, on whom doubt and fear had not yet lost their hold. "How will you set to work?"
"That, mynheer, is my secret," rejoined Diogenes placidly, "and the discussion of my plans might jeopardise their success."
"True, sir; but remember that the anxiety which I suffer now will be increased day by day, until it brings me on the threshold of the grave."
"I will remember that, mynheer, and will act as promptly as may be; but the malefactors have twenty-four hours start of me. I may have to journey far ere I come upon their track."
"But you will have companions with you, sir? Friends who will help and stand by you. Those sea-wolves are notorious for their daring and their cruelty … they may be more numerous too than you think…"
"The harder the task, mynheer," said Diogenes with his enigmatical smile, "the greater will be my satisfaction if I succeed in fulfilling it."
"But though you will own to no kindred, surely you have friends?" insisted Beresteyn.
"Two faithful allies, and my sword, the most faithful of them all," replied the other.
"You will let me furnish you with money in advance, I hope."
"Not till I have earned it, mynheer."
"You are proud, sir, as well as chivalrous," retorted Cornelius.
"I pray you praise me not, mynheer. Greed after money is my sole motive in undertaking this affair."
"This I'll not believe," concluded Beresteyn as he now rose to go. "Let me tell you, sir, that by your words, your very presence, you have put new life, new hope into me. Something tells me that I can trust you … something tells me that you will succeed… Without kith or kindred, sir, a man may rise to fortune by his valour: 'tis writ in your face that you are such an one. With half a million guilders so earned a man can aspire to the fairest in the land," he added not without significance, "and there is no father who would not be proud to own such a son."
He then shook Diogenes warmly by the hand. He was a different man to the poor grief-stricken rag of humanity who had entered this tavern a few hours ago. His friends also shook the young man by the hand and said a great many more gracious and complimentary words to him which he accepted in grave silence, his merry eyes twinkling with the humour of it all.
The worthy burghers filed out of the tap-room one by one, in the wake of Cornelius. It was bitterly cold and the snow was again falling: they wrapped their fur-lined mantles closely round them ere going out of the warm room, but their hats they kept in their hands until the last, and were loth to turn their backs on Diogenes as they went. They felt as if they were leaving the presence of some great personage.
It was only when the heavy oaken door had fallen to for the last time behind the pompous soberly-clad figures of the mynheers and Diogenes found himself alone in the tapperij with his friend Frans Hals that he at last gave vent to that overpowering sense of merriment which had all along threatened to break its bonds. He sank into the nearest chair:
"Dondersteen! Dondersteen!" he exclaimed between the several outbursts of irrepressible laughter which shook his powerful frame and brought the tears to his eyes, "Gods in Olympia! have you ever seen the like? Verrek jezelf, my good Hals, you should go straight to Paradise when you die for having brought about this heaven-born situation. Dondersteen! Dondersteen! I had promised myself two or three hours' sleep, but we must have a bottle of Beek's famous wine on this first!"
And Frans Hals could not for the life of him understand what there was in this fine situation that should so arouse Diogenes' mirth.
But then Diogenes had always been an irresponsible creature, who was wont to laugh even at the most serious crisis of his life.
"Come to my lodgings, Nicolaes. I have good news for you, and you do no good by cooling your temper here in the open."
Stoutenburg, coming out of his lodgings half an hour later to look for his friend, had found Beresteyn in the Hout Straat walking up and down like a caged beast in a fury.
"The vervloekte Keerl! the plepshurk! the smeerlap!" he ejaculated between his clenched teeth. "I'll not rest till I have struck him in the face first and killed him after!"
But he allowed Stoutenburg to lead him down the street to the narrow gabled house where he lodged. Neither of them spoke, however; fury apparently beset them both equally, the kind of fury which is dumb, and all the more fierce because it finds no outlet in words.
Stoutenburg led the way up the wooden stairs to a small room at the back of the house. There was no light visible anywhere inside the building, and Nicolaes, not knowing his way about, stumbled upwards in the dark keeping close to the heels of his friend. The latter had pushed open the door of his room. Here a tallow candle placed in a pewter sconce upon a table shed a feeble, flickering light around. The room by this scanty glimmer looked to be poorly but cleanly furnished; there was a curtained bed in the panelling of the wall, and a table in the middle of the room with a few chairs placed in a circle round it.
On one of these sat a man who appeared to be in the last stages of weariness. His elbows rested on the table and his head was buried in his folded arms. His clothes looked damp and travel-stained; an empty mug of ale and a couple of empty plates stood in front of him, beside a cap made of fur and a pair of skates.
At the sound made by the opening of the door and the entrance of the two men, he raised his head and seeing the Lord of Stoutenburg he quickly jumped to his feet.
"Sit down, Jan," said Stoutenburg curtly, "you must be dog-tired. Have you had enough to eat and drink?"
"I thank you, my lord, I have eaten my fill," replied Jan, "and I am not so tired now that I have had some rest."
"Sit down," reiterated Stoutenburg peremptorily, "and you too, my good Nicolaes," he added as he offered a chair to his friend. "Let me just tell you the news which Jan has brought, and which should make you forget even your present just wrath, so glorious, so important is it."
He went up to a cabinet which stood in one corner of the room, and from it took a bottle and three pewter mugs. These he placed on the table and filled the mugs with wine. Then he drew another chair close to the table and sat down.
"Jan," he resumed, turning to Beresteyn, "left the Stadtholder's camp at Sprang four days ago. He has travelled the whole way along the frozen rivers and waterways only halting for the nights. The news which he brings carries for the bearer of such splendid tidings its own glorious reward; Jan, I must tell you, is with us heart and soul and hates the Stadtholder as much as I do. Is that not so, Jan?"
"My father was hanged two years ago," replied Jan simply, "because he spoke disparaging words of the Stadtholder. Those words were called treason, and my father was condemned to the gallows merely for speaking them."
Stoutenburg laughed, his usual harsh, mirthless laugh.
"Yes! that is the way justice is now administered in the free and independent United Provinces," he said roughly; "down on your knees, ye lumbering Dutchmen! lick the dust off the boots of His Magnificence Maurice of Nassau Prince of Orange! kiss his hand, do his bidding! give forth fulsome praise of his deeds!.. How long, O God? how long?" he concluded with a bitter sigh.