The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel
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"Only for a few more days, my lord," said Jan firmly. "The Stadtholder left his camp the same day as I did. But he travels slowly, in his sledge, surrounded by a bodyguard of an hundred picked men. He is sick and must travel slowly. Yesterday he had only reached Dordrecht, to-day – if my information is correct – he should sleep at Ijsselmunde. But to-morrow he will be at Delft where he will spend two days at the Prinsenhof."
"At Delft!" exclaimed Stoutenburg as he brought his clenched fist down upon the table. "Thank God! I have got him at last."
He leaned across nearer still to Nicolaes and in his excitement clutched his friend's wrists with nervy trembling fingers, digging his nails into the other man's flesh till Beresteyn could have screamed with pain.
"From Delft," he murmured hoarsely, "the only way northwards is along the left bank of the Schie, the river itself is choked with ice-floes which renders it impassable. Just before Ryswyk the road crosses to the right bank of the river over a wooden bridge which we all know well. Half a league to the south of the bridge is the molens which has been my headquarters ever since I landed at Scheveningen three weeks ago; there I have my stores and my ammunition. Do you see it all, friend?" he queried whilst a feverish light glowed in his eyes. "Is it not God who hath delivered the tyrant into my hands at last? I start for Ryswyk to-night with you to help me, Nicolaes, with van Does and all my friends who will rally round me, with the thirty or forty men whom they have recruited for placing at my disposal. The molens to the south of the wooden bridge which spans the Schie is our rallying point. In the night before the Stadtholder starts on his way from Delft we make our final preparations. I have enough gunpowder stowed away at the mill to blow up the bridge. We'll dispose it in its place during that night. Then you Nicolaes shall fire the powder at the moment when the Stadtholder's escort is half way across the bridge… In the confusion and panic caused by the explosion and the collapse of the bridge our men can easily overpower the Prince's bodyguard – whilst I, dagger in hand, do fulfil the oath which I swore before the altar of God, to kill the Stadtholder with mine own hand."
Gradually as he spoke his voice became more hoarse and more choked with passion; his excitement gained upon his hearers until both Nicolaes Beresteyn his friend and Jan the paid spy and messenger felt their blood tingling within their veins, their throats parched, their eyes burning as if they had been seared with living fire. The tallow-candle flickered in its socket, a thin draught from the flimsily constructed window blew its flame hither and thither, so that it lit up fitfully the faces of those three men drawn closely together now in a bond of ambition and of hate.
"'Tis splendidly thought out," said Beresteyn at last with a sigh of satisfaction. "I do not see how the plan can fail."
"Fail?" exclaimed Stoutenburg with a triumphant laugh, "of course it cannot fail! There are practically no risks even.The place is lonely, the molens a splendid rallying point. We can all reach it by different routes and assemble there to-morrow eve or early the next day. That would give us another day and night at least to complete our preparations. I have forty barrels of gunpowder stowed away at the mill, I have new pattern muskets, cullivers, swords and pistols … gifts to me from the Archduchess Isabella … enough for our coup… Fail? How can we fail when everything has been planned, everything thought out? and when God has so clearly shown that He is on our side?"
Jan said nothing for the moment; he lowered his eyes not caring just then to encounter those of his leader, for the remembrance had suddenly flashed through his mind of that other day – not so far distant yet – when everything too had been planned, everything thought out and failure had brought about untold misery and a rich harvest for the scaffold.
Beresteyn too was silent now. Something of his friend's enthusiasm was also coursing through his veins, but with him it was only the enthusiasm of ambition, of discontent, of a passion for intrigue, for plots and conspiracies, for tearing down one form of government in order to make room for another – but his enthusiasm was not kept at fever-heat by that all-powerful fire of hate which made Stoutenburg forget everything save his desire for revenge.
The latter had pushed his chair impatiently aside and now was pacing up and down the narrow room like some caged feline creature waiting for its meal. Beresteyn's silence seemed to irritate him for he threw from time to time quick, furtive glances on his friend.
"Nicolaes, why don't you speak?" he said with sudden impatience.
"I was thinking of Gilda," replied the other dully.
"Gilda? Why of her?"
"That knave has betrayed me I am sure. He has hidden her away somewhere, not meaning to stick to his bargain with me, and then has come back to Haarlem in order to see if he can extort a large ransom for her from my father."
"Bah! He wouldn't dare…!"
"Then why is he here?" exclaimed Beresteyn hotly. "Gilda should be in his charge! If he is here, where is Gilda?"
"Good God, man!" ejaculated Stoutenburg, pausing in his restless walk and looking somewhat dazed on his friend, as if he were just waking from some feverish sleep. "Good God! you do not think that…"
"That her life is in danger from that knave?" rejoined Beresteyn quietly. "Well, no! I do not think that… I do not know what to think … but there is a hint of danger in that rascal's presence here in Haarlem to-day."
He rose and mechanically re-adjusted his cloak and looked round for his hat.
"What are you going to do?" asked Stoutenburg.
"Find the knave," retorted the other, "and wring his neck if he does not give some satisfactory account of Gilda."
"No! no! you must not do that … not in a public place at any rate … the rascal would betray you if you quarrelled with him … or worse still you would betray yourself. Think what it would mean to us now – at this moment – if it were known that you had a hand in the abduction of your sister … if she were traced and found! think what that would mean – denunciation – failure – the scaffold for us all!"
"Must I leave her then at the mercy of a man who is proved to be both a liar and a cheat?"
"No! you shall not do that. Let me try and get speech with him. He does not know me; and I think that I could find out what double game he is playing and where our own danger lies. Let me try and find him."
"How can you do that?"
"You remember the incident on New Year's Eve, when you and I traced that cursed adventurer to his own doorstep?"
"Then you remember the Spanish wench and the old cripple to whom our man relinquished his lodgings on that night."
"Certainly I do."
"Well! yesterday when the hour came for the rascal to seize Gilda, I could not rest in this room. I wanted to see, to know what was going on. Gilda means so much to me, that remorse I think played havoc with my prudence then and I went out into the Groote Markt to watch her come out of church. I followed her at a little distance and saw her walking rapidly along the bank of the Oude Gracht. She was accosted by a woman who spoke to her from out the depths of the narrow passage which leads to the disused chapel of St. Pieter. Gilda was quickly captured by the brute whom you had paid to do this monstrous deed, and I stood by like an abject coward, not raising a hand to save her from this cruel outrage."
He paused a moment and passed his hand across his brow as if to chase away the bitter and insistent recollection of that crime of which he had been the chief instigator.
"Why do you tell me all that?" queried Beresteyn sombrely. "What I did, I did for you and for the triumph of your cause."
"I know, I know," replied Stoutenburg with a sigh, "may Heaven reward you for the sacrifice. But I merely acted for mine own selfish ends, for my ambition and my revenge. I love Gilda beyond all else on earth, yet I saw her sacrificed for me and did not raise a finger to save her."
"It is too late for remorse," retorted Beresteyn roughly, "if Gilda had been free to speak of what she heard in the cathedral on New Year's Eve, you and I to-day would have had to flee the country as you fled from it once before, branded as traitors, re-captured mayhap, dragged before the tribunal of a man who has already shown that he knows no mercy. Gilda's freedom would have meant for you, for me, for Heemskerk, van Does and all the others, torture first and a traitor's death at the last."
"You need not remind me of that," rejoined Stoutenburg more calmly. "Gilda has been sacrificed for me and by God I will requite her for all that she has endured! My life, my love are hers and as soon as the law sets me free to marry she will have a proud position higher than that of any other woman in the land."
"For the moment she is at the mercy of that blackguard…"
"And I tell you that I can find out where she is."
"The woman who accosted Gilda last night, who acted for the knave as a decoy, was the Spanish wench whom he had befriended the night before."
"You saw her?"
"Quite distinctly. She passed close to me when she ran off after having done her work. No doubt she is that rascal's sweetheart and will know of his movements and of his plans. Money or threats should help me to extract something from her."
"But where can you find her?"
"At the same lodgings where she has been these two nights, I feel sure."
"It is worth trying," mused Beresteyn.
"And in the meanwhile we must not lose sight of our knave. Jan, my good man, that shall be your work. Mynheer Beresteyn will be good enough to go with you as far as the tapperij of the 'Lame Cow,' and there point out to you a man whom it will be your duty to follow step by step this evening until you find out where he intends to pitch his tent for the night. You understand?"
"Yes, my lord," said Jan, smothering as best he could an involuntary sigh of weariness.
"It is all for the ultimate triumph of our revenge, good Jan," quoth Stoutenburg significantly, "the work of watching which you will do this night is at least as important as that which you have so bravely accomplished these past four days. The question is, have you strength left to do it?"
Indeed the question seemed unnecessary now. At the word "revenge" Jan had already straightened out his long, lean figure and though traces of fatigue might still linger in his drawn face, it was obvious that the spirit within was prepared to fight all bodily weaknesses.
"There is enough strength in me, my lord," he said simply, "to do your bidding now as always for the welfare of Holland and the triumph of our faith."
After which Stoutenburg put out the light, and with a final curt word to Jan and an appeal to Beresteyn he led the way out of the room, down the stairs and finally into the street.