The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel
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"Which is quite unnecessary. All I want is the knowledge of where he keeps the lady whom he has outraged."
"I cannot help you, mynheer, in that."
"Thou wilt not!" he cried.
"I cannot," she reiterated gently. "I do not know where she is."
"Will fifty guilders help thy memory?" he sneered.
"Fifty guilders would mean ease and comfort to my father and to me for many months to come. I would do much for fifty guilders but I cannot tell that which I do not know."
"An hundred guilders, girl, and the safety of thy lover. Will that not tempt thee?"
"Indeed, indeed, gracious sir," she moaned piteously, "I swear to you that I do not know."
"Then dost perjure thyself and wilt rue it, wench," he exclaimed as he jumped to his feet, and with a loud curse kicked the chair away from him.
The Lord of Stoutenburg was not a man who had been taught to curb his temper; he had always given way to his passions, allowing them as the years went on to master every tender feeling within him; for years now he had sacrificed everything to them, to his ambition, to his revenge, to his loves and hates. Now that this fool of a girl tried to thwart him as he thought, he allowed his fury against her full rein, to the exclusion of reason, of prudence, or ordinary instincts of chivalry. He stooped over her like a great, gaunt bird of prey and his thin claw-like hand fastened itself on her thin shoulder.
"Thou liest, girl," he said hoarsely, "or art playing with me? Money thou shalt have. Name thy price. I'll pay thee all that thou wouldst ask. I'll not believe that thou dost not know! Think of thy lover under torture, on the rack, burnt at the stake. Hast ever seen a man after he has been broken on the wheel? his limbs torn from their sockets, his chest sunken under the weights – and the stake? hast seen a heretic burnt alive…?"
She gave a loud scream of agony: her hands went up to her ears, her eyes stared out of her head like those of one in a frenzy of terror.
"Pity! pity! my lord, have pity! I swear that I do not know."
"Verdomme!" he cried out in the madness of his rage as with a cruel twist of his hand he threw the wretched girl off her balance and sent her half-fainting, cowering on the floor.
"Verdommt be thou, plepshurk," came in a ringing voice from behind him.
The next moment he felt as if two grapnels made of steel had fastened themselves on his shoulders and as if a weight of irresistible power was pressing him down, down on to his knees. His legs shook under him, his bones seemed literally to be cracking beneath that iron grip, and he had not the power to turn round in order to see who his assailant was. The attack had taken him wholly by surprise and it was only when his knees finally gave way under him, and he too was down on the ground, licking the dust of the floor – as he had forced the wretched girl to do – that he had a moment's respite from that cruel pressure and was able to turn in the direction whence it had come.
Diogenes with those wide shoulders of his squared out to their full breadth, legs apart and arms crossed over his mighty chest was standing over him, his eyes aflame and his moustache bristling till it stood out like the tusks of a boar.
"Dondersteen!" he exclaimed as he watched the other man's long, lean figure thus sprawling on the ground, "this is a pretty pass to which to bring this highly civilized and cultured country.Men are beginning to browbeat and strike the women now! Dondersteen!"
Stoutenburg, whose vocabulary of oaths was at least as comprehensive as that of any foreign adventurer, had – to its accompaniment – struggled at last to his feet.
"You …" he began as soon as he had partially recovered his breath. But Diogenes putting up his hand hastily interrupted him:
"Do not speak just now, mynheer," he said with his wonted good-humour. "Were you to speak now, I feel that your words would not be characterized by that dignity and courtesy which one would expect from so noble a gentleman."
"Smeerlap! – " began Stoutenburg once more.
"There now," rejoined the other with imperturbable bonhomie, "what did I tell you? Believe me, sir, 'tis much the best to be silent if pleasant words fail to reach one's lips."
"A truce on this nonsense," quoth Stoutenburg hotly, "you took me unawares – like a coward…"
"Well said, mynheer! Like a coward – that is just how I took you – in the act of striking a miserable atom of humanity – who is as defenceless as a sparrow."
"'Tis ludicrous indeed to see a man of your calling posing as the protector of women," retorted Stoutenburg with a sneer. "But enough of this. You find me unarmed at this moment, else you had already paid for this impudent interference."
"I thank you, sir," said Diogenes as he swept the Lord of Stoutenburg a deep, ironical bow, "I thank you for thus momentarily withholding chastisement from my unworthiness. When may I have the honour of calling on your Magnificence in order that you might mete unto me the punishment which I have so amply deserved?"
"That chastisement will lose nothing by waiting, since indeed your insolence passes belief," quoth Stoutenburg hotly. "Now go!" he added, choosing not to notice the wilfully impertinent attitude of the other man, "leave me alone with this wench. My business is with her."
"So is mine, gracious lord," rejoined Diogenes with a bland smile, "else I were not here. This room is mine – perhaps your Magnificence did not know that – you would not like surely to remain my guest a moment longer than you need."
"Of a truth I knew that the baggage was your sweetheart – else I had not come at all."
"Leave off insulting the girl, man," said Diogenes whose moustache bristled again, a sure sign that his temper was on the boil, "she has told you the truth, she knows nothing of the whereabouts of the noble lady who has disappeared from Haarlem. An you desire information on that point you had best get it elsewhere."
But Stoutenburg had in the meanwhile succeeded in recovering – at any rate partially – his presence of mind. All his life he had been accustomed to treat these foreign adventurers with the contempt which they deserved. In the days of John of Barneveld's high position in the State, his sons would never have dreamed of parleying with the knaves, and if – which God forbid! – one of them had dared then to lay hands on any member of the High Advocate's family, hanging would certainly have been the inevitable punishment of such insolence.
Something of that old haughtiness and pride of caste crept into the attitude of the Lord of Stoutenburg now, and prudence also suggested that he should feign to ignore the rough usage which he had received at the hands of this contemptible rascal. Though he was by no means unarmed – for he never went abroad these days without a poniard in his belt – he had, of a truth, no mind to engage in a brawl with this young Hercules whose profession was that of arms and who might consequently get easily the better of him.
He made every effort therefore to remain calm and to look as dignified as his disordered toilet would allow.
"You heard what I said to this girl?" he queried, speaking carelessly.
"You screamed loudly enough," replied Diogenes lightly. "I heard you through the closed door. I confess that I listened for quite a long while: your conversation greatly interested me. I only interfered when I thought it necessary."
"So then I need not repeat what I said," quoth the other lightly. "Hanging for you, my man, unless you tell me where you have hidden Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn."
"I? What have I to do with that noble lady, pray?"
"It is futile to bandy words with me. I know every circumstance of the disappearance of the lady, and could denounce you to the authorities within half an hour, and see you hanged for the outrage before sunrise."
"Then I do wonder," said Diogenes suavely, "that your Magnificence doth not do this, for of a truth you must hate me fairly thoroughly by now."
"Hate you, man? I'd gladly see you hang, or better still broken on the wheel. But I must know from you first where you have hidden the jongejuffrouw."
"If I am to hang anyway, sir, why should I trouble to tell you?"
"The lady is my affianced wife," said Stoutenburg haughtily, "I have every right to demand an explanation from you, why you are here when by the terms of your contract with my friend Nicolaes Beresteyn you should at this moment be on your way to Rotterdam, escorting the jongejuffrouw to the house of Ben Isaje, the banker… You see that I am well informed," he added impatiently, seeing that Diogenes had become suddenly silent, and that a curious shadow had spread over his persistently smiling face.
"So well informed, sir," rejoined the latter after a slight pause, and speaking more seriously than he had done hitherto, "so well informed that I marvel you do not know that by the terms of that same contract I pledged my word to convey the jongejuffrouw safely to a certain spot and with all possible speed, but that further actions on my part were to remain for mine own guidance. I also pledged my word of honour that I would remain silent about all these matters."
"Bah!" broke in Stoutenburg roughly, "knaves like you have no honour to pledge."
"No doubt, sir, you are the best judge of what a knave would do."
"Insolent … do you dare…?"
"If you like it better, sir, I'll say that I have parleyed long enough with you to suit my temper. This room is mine," he added, speaking every whit as haughtily as did the other man. "I have business with this wench, and came here, desirous to speak with her alone, so I pray you go! this roof is too lowly to shelter the Lord of Stoutenburg."
At mention of his name Stoutenburg's sunken cheeks took on the colour of lead, and with a swift, instinctive gesture, his hand flew to the hilt of the dagger under his doublet. During this hot and brief quarrel with this man, the thought had never entered his mind that his identity might be known to his antagonist, that he – a fugitive from justice and with a heavy price still upon his head – was even now at the mercy of this contemptible adventurer whom he had learnt to hate as he had never hated a single human soul before now.
Prudence, however, was quick enough to warn him not to betray himself completely. The knave obviously suspected his identity – how he did that, Stoutenburg could not conjecture, but after all he might only have drawn a bow at a venture: it was important above all not to let him see that that bow had struck home. Therefore after the first instant of terror and surprise he resumed as best he could his former haughty attitude, and said with well-feigned carelessness:
"The Lord of Stoutenburg? Do you expect his visit then? What have you to do with him? 'Tis dangerous, you know, to court his friendship just now."
"I do not court his friendship, sir," replied Diogenes with his gently ironical smile; "the Lord of Stoutenburg hath many enemies these days; and, methinks, that if it came to a question of hanging he would stand at least as good a chance of the gallows as I."
"No doubt, an you knew how to lay hands on him; you would be over ready to denounce him to the Stadtholder for the sake of the blood-money which you would receive for this act."
"Well played, my lord," retorted Diogenes with a ringing laugh. "Dondersteen! but you apparently think me a fool as well as a knave. Lay my hands on the Lord of Stoutenburg did you say? By St. Bavon, have I not done so already? aye! and made him lick the dust, too, at my feet? I could sell him to the Stadtholder without further trouble – denounce him even now to the authorities only that I do not happen to be a vendor of swine-flesh – or else…"
A double cry interrupted the flow of Diogenes' wrathful eloquence: a cry of rage from Stoutenburg and one of terror from the girl, who all this while – not understanding the cause and purport of the quarrel between the two men – had been cowering in a remote corner of the room anxious only to avoid observation, fearful lest she should be seen.
But now she suddenly ran forward, swift as a deer, unerring as a cat, and the next moment she had thrown herself on the upraised arm of Stoutenburg in whose hand gleamed the sharp steel of his dagger.
"Murder!" she cried in a frenzy of borrow. "Save thyself! he will murder thee!"
Diogenes, as was his wont, threw back his head and sent his merry laugh echoing through the tumble-down house from floor to floor, until, in response to that light-heartedness which had burst forth in such a ringing laugh, pallid faces were lifted wearily from toil, and around thin, pinched lips the reflex of a smile came creeping over the furrows caused by starvation and misery.
"Let go his arm, wench," he cried gaily; "he'll not hurt me, never fear. Hatred has drawn a film over his eyes and caused his hand to tremble. Put back your poniard, my lord," he added lightly, "the penniless adventurer and paid hireling is unworthy of your steel. Keep it whetted for your own defence and for the protection of the gracious lady who has plighted her troth to you."
"Name her not, man!" cried Stoutenburg, whose arm had dropped by his side, but whose voice was still hoarse with the passion of hate which now consumed him.
"Is her name polluted through passing my lips? Yet is she under my protection, placed there by those who should have guarded her honour with their life."
"Touch my future wife but with the tips of thy fingers, plepshurk, and I'll hang thee on the nearest tree with mine own hands."
"Wait to threaten, my lord, until you have the power: until then go your way. I – the miserable rascal whom you abhor, the knave whom you despise – do give you your life and your freedom which, as you well know, I hold at this moment in the hollow of my hand. But remember that I give it you only because to my mind one innocent woman has already suffered quite enough because of you, without having to mourn the man whom she loves and being widowed ere she is a wife. Because of that you may go out of this room a free man – free to pursue your tortuous aims and your ambitious scheme. They are naught to me and I know nothing about them. But this I do know – that a woman has been placed in my charge by one who should deem her honour more sacred than his own; in this infamy I now see that you too, my lord, have had a hand. The lady, you say, is your future wife, yet you placed her under my care – a knave, a rascal – miserable plepshurk was the last epithet which you applied to me – you! who also should have guarded her good name with your very life. To suit your own ends, you entrusted her to me! Well! to suit mine own I'll not let you approach her, until – having accomplished the errand for which I am being paid – I will myself escort the lady back to her father. To this am I also pledged! and both these pledges do I mean to fulfil and you, my lord, do but waste your time in arguing with me."
The Lord of Stoutenburg had not attempted to interrupt Diogenes in his long peroration. All the thoughts of hatred and revenge that sprang in his mind with every word which this man uttered, he apparently thought wisest to conceal for the moment.
Now that Diogenes, after he had finished speaking, turned unceremoniously on his heel and left Stoutenburg standing in the middle of the room, the latter hesitated for a few minutes longer. Angry and contemptuous words were all ready to his lips, but Diogenes was paying no heed to him; he had drawn the girl with him to the bedside of the cripple, and there began talking quietly in whispers to her. Stoutenburg saw that he gave the wench some money.
Smothering a final, comprehensive oath the noble lord went quietly out of the room.
"How that man doth hate thee," whispered the girl in awe-struck tones, as soon as she saw that the door had closed behind him. "And I hate him, too," she added, as she clenched her thin hands, "he is cruel, coarse and evil."
"Cruel, coarse and evil?" said Diogenes with a shrug of his wide shoulders, "and yet there is a delicate, innocent girl who loves him well enough to forget all his crimes and to plight her troth to him. Women are strange creatures, wench – 'tis a wise philosopher who steers widely clear of their path."