The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernelскачать книгу бесплатно
"It is unthinkable, as you say," cried Beresteyn vehemently, "but the situation is not so hopeless as you seem to think. I can go at once to my father and denounce the rogue to him. I can tell him that I have reason to believe that the man to whom he has just promised a fortune for the return of Gilda is the very man who hath abducted her."
"Impossible," said Stoutenburg calmly.
"Your father would have the man arrested, he would be searched, and papers and letters writ by you to Ben Isaje of Rotterdam will be found in his possession. These papers would proclaim you the prime mover in the outrage against your sister."
"True! I had not thought of that. But, instead of going to my father, I could denounce the rascal to the city magistrate on suspicion of having abducted my sister. Van der Meer would give me the command of the town guard sent out to arrest him, I could search him myself and take possession of all his papers ere I bring him before the magistrate."
"Bah! the magistracy of Haarlem moves with ponderous slowness. While that oaf, Van der Meer, makes preparations for sending out the town guard, our rogue will slip through our fingers, and mayhap be back in Haarlem with Gilda ere we find him again."
"Let me have Jan and one or two of Heemskerk's mercenaries," urged Beresteyn, "we could seize him and his papers to-night as soon as he leaves the city gates."
"Then, out of revenge," said Stoutenburg, "he will refuse to tell us what he hath done with Gilda."
"Bah!" retorted Beresteyn cynically, "here in Haarlem we can always apply torture."
"Then, if he speaks, Gilda can be back here in time to denounce us all. No, no, my friend," continued Stoutenburg firmly, "let us own at once that by trusting that scoundrel we have run our heads into a noose out of which only our wits can extricate us. We must meet cunning with cunning, treachery if need be with treachery. Gilda – of course – must not remain at the mercy of brigands, but she must not be given her freedom to do us the harm which she hath already threatened. Remember this, Nicolaes," he added, placing his hand upon his friend's shoulder and forcing him to look straight into his own feverishly glowing eyes, "remember that, when all these troubles are over, Gilda will become my wife. The devotion of my entire life shall then compensate her for the slight wrong which fate compels us to do her at this moment. Will you remember that, my friend?"
"I do remember it," replied the other, "but…"
"And will you try and trust me as you would yourself?"
"I do trust you, Willem, as I would trust myself; only tell me what you want to do."
"I want to bring that knave to the gallows without compromising you and the success of our cause," said Stoutenburg firmly.
"But how can you do it?"
"That I do not know yet; I have only vague thoughts in my mind. But hate, remember, is a hard and very efficient task-master, and I hate that man, Nicolaes, almost as much as I hate the Prince of Orange.
But 'tis the Prince's death which I want first; because of this my hatred of the rascal must lie dormant just a few days. But it shall lose nothing by waiting, and already I see before me visions of an exemplary revenge which shall satisfy you and gratify my hate."
"Can I help you in any way?"
"Not at present; I have no definite plans just now. All I know is that we must possess ourselves of the rascal's person as well as of Gilda without the risk of compromising ourselves. In this, of course, we have now Jan's valuable help; he is a splendid leader and entirely trustworthy where the cause of his own hatred against the Prince is served."
"And, of course, you have the thirty or forty men – mercenaries and louts – whom Heemskerk, van Does and the others have been recruiting for you."
"Exactly. I can easily detail half a dozen of them to follow Jan. That is our first move, my good Beresteyn," he added emphatically, "to gain possession of Gilda, and to capture the rascal. Only tell me this, what are the papers now in that knave's possession which might compromise you if they were found?"
"I had to write a letter to Ben Isaje, telling him to convince himself that Gilda was safe and in good health, ere he paid the rascal a sum of 3,000 guilders. This letter is writ in mine own hand and signed with my name. Then there is a formal order to Ben Isaje to pay over the money, but that was writ in the usual way by the public scrivener and is signed with the cypher which I always use in all monetary transactions with the Jew. He keeps these formal documents in his archives and all his clients use a cypher in the same way."
"How is that formal order worded?"
"As far as I remember it runs thus: 'In consideration of valuable services rendered to me by the bearer of this note, I desire you to pay him the sum of 3,000 guilders out of my monies which lie with you at interest.' The cypher signature consists of the words 'Schwarzer Kato' surmounted by a triangle."
"And is that cypher known to anyone save to Ben Isaje?"
"Alas! it is known to my father. We both use it for private business transactions."
"But to Gilda?" insisted Stoutenburg. "Would Gilda know it if she saw it?"
"She could not be certain of it … though, of course, she might guess. 'Schwarzer Kato' is the name of a tulip raised by my father, and the triangle is a sign used sometimes by our house in business. But it would be mere conjecture on her part."
"Then everything will still be for the best, never fear, my good Beresteyn," exclaimed Stoutenburg, whose hard, cruel face was glowing with excitement. "Chance indeed has been on our side throughout this business. An you will trust me to finish it now; you'll have no cause for anxiety or regrets. Come! let us find Jan at once! I have a few orders to give him, and then mean to be on my way to Ryswyk to-night."
He rose to his feet and now the glitter in his hollow eyes appeared almost inhuman. He was a man whose whole soul fed upon hatred, upon vengeance planned and accomplished, upon desire for supreme power; and at this moment his scheme for murdering the Stadtholder was backed by one for obtaining possession of the woman he loved, and being revenged on the man who had insulted and jeered at him.
Beresteyn, always ready to accept the leadership of his friend, followed him in silence down the street. After awhile they once more came upon Jan, who apparently had never moved all this while from his post of observation.
"Well?" asked Stoutenburg in a scarce audible whisper, "has he not gone yet?"
"Not yet," replied Jan.
Stoutenburg cast a quick, almost furtive glance in the direction of the house where he had experienced such dire humiliation a brief half hour ago. A curious whistling sound escaped through his clenched teeth, a sound such as many a wild beast makes when expectant of prey. Then he drew Jan further away from the house, fearful lest his words were wafted toward it on the wind.
"Keep him in sight, Jan," he commanded, "until he goes to the house of Mynheer Hals in the Peuselaarsteg, whither he means to go for supper. There you may safely leave him for an hour, and go directly to the house of my Lord of Heemskerk whom you know. Ask him for half a dozen of his foreign mercenaries; tell him they are for my immediate service. These men will then help you to keep our knave in sight. He will leave Haarlem at moonrise, and you must never lose his track for a moment. Presently he should be escorting a lady in the direction of Rotterdam. If he does this – if he travel south toward that city, do not molest him, only keep him in sight, and the moment he arrives at Rotterdam come and report to me at Ryswyk. But," he added more emphatically, "if at any time it appears to you that he is turning back with the lady toward Haarlem come upon him at once with your men and seize him together with any companions he may have with him. You understand?"
"Perfectly, my lord. While he travels southwards with the lady, we are only to keep him in sight; when he and the lady arrive at Rotterdam we must report to you at Ryswyk, but the moment he turns back toward Haarlem we are to fall on him and seize him and his companions."
"The lady you will treat with the utmost respect," resumed Stoutenburg with an approving nod, "the rascal and his companions you may mishandle as much as you like, without, however, doing them mortal injury. But, having taken the whole party prisoner, you will forthwith convey them to the molens at Ryswyk, where you will find me. Now is all that clear?"
"Nothing could be clearer, my lord," repeated Jan firmly. "We follow him while he travels south, but seize him with his company and the lady if he turn back toward Haarlem. Nothing could be easier."
"You will not let him slip through your fingers, Jan?" said Stoutenburg earnestly.
Jan laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"You said that this work would help to forward our cause," he said simply. "I ask no questions. I believe you and obey."
"That's brave! And you will take great care of the lady, when she falls into your hands?"
"I understand that she is my lord's future lady," rejoined Jan, with the same calm simplicity which makes the perfect soldier and the perfect servant, and which promised obedience without murmur and without question.
"Yes, Jan. The lady is my future wife," said Stoutenburg. "Treat her as such. As for the man … I want him alive … do not kill him, Jan, even if he provoke you. And he will do that by his insolence, I know."
"My lord shall have his enemy alive," said Jan, "a helpless prisoner … but alive."
"Then good luck to you, Jan," concluded Stoutenburg with a sigh of satisfaction. "I am well pleased with you. In the near future I shall be happy to remember that the high offices of State and those around my person must be filled by those who have well deserved of them."
He put out his thin, nervy hand and Jan fell on one knee in order to kiss it with fervour and respect. The son of John of Barneveld could still count on the loyalty of a few who believed in him, and who looked on his crimes as a necessary means to a glorious end.
A few moments later Beresteyn and Stoutenburg had disappeared in the darkness of the narrow street, and Jan remained alone at his post of observation.
BACK TO HOUDEKERK
And now back once more in the kingdom of the night and of the frost, of the darkness and of silence, back along the ice ways on a swift and uninterrupted flight.
The moon is less kind now, fitful and coy; she will not peep out from behind the banks of clouds save at rare intervals; and the clouds are heavy; great billows, clumsy in shape as if weighted with lead; the moon plays a restless game of hide and seek amongst them for the bewilderment of the skater, to whom last night she was so kind.
They come tumbling in more and more thickly from the south – those clouds – driven more furiously by the gusty wind. Brother north-easter has gone to rest, it is the turn of the south wind now – not the soft south wind of summer, but a turbulent and arrogant fellow who bellows as loudly as he can, and who means to have a frolic in this world of ice and snow from which his colder brethren have exiled him until now.
Straight at the head of the skater, it expended the brunt of its fury, sending his hat flying in one direction and in wanton delight leading him into a mad chase after it; then when once more he was on his way – hat in hand this time – it tore with impish glee at his hair, impeded his movements, blew doublet and sash awry.
What a chase! what a fight! what a run! But Dondersteen! we do defy thee, O frolicsome south wind! aye, and the darkness too! Back to Houdekerk, the first stage on the road to fortune.
It is not nearly so cold now that brother north-easter has yielded to his madcap brother from the south! gusty and rough and a hand-to-hand fight for progress all the time, with tears running down the cheeks, and breath coming in gasps from the chest! It is not so cold, and the ice is less crisp, its smooth skin is furrowed and wrinkled, soft and woolly beneath the touch of the steel blades; but the snow still lies thickly upon the low-lying ground, and holds in its luminous embrace all the reflections which the capricious moon will lend it.
For the first half hour, while the moon was still very brilliant and the night air very still, it seemed to Diogenes as if the loneliness around him was only fictitious, as if somewhere – far away mayhap – men moved in the same way as he did, swiftly and silently over the surface of the ice. It seemed to him in fact that he was being followed.
He tried to make sure of this, straining his ears to listen, and now and then he caught very distinctly the sound of the metallic click of several pairs of skates. His senses, trained to over-acuteness through years of hard fighting and of campaigning, could not easily be deceived; and presently there was no doubt in his mind that Nicolaes Beresteyn or the Lord of Stoutenburg had set spies upon his track.
This knowledge caused him only to set his teeth, and to strike out more vigorously and more rapidly than before; those who followed him were fairly numerous – over half a dozen he reckoned – the only chance of evading them was, therefore, in flight. He took to noting the rolling banks of cloud with a more satisfied eye, and when, after the first hour or so, the light of the waning moon became more dim and even at times disappeared completely, he took the first opportunity that presented itself of making a d?tour over a backwater of the Meer, which he knew must bewilder his pursuers.
Whether the pursuit was continued after that, he could not say. His eyes trying to pierce the gloom could tell him nothing; but there were many intricate little by-ways just south of the Meer over backwaters and natural canals, which he knew well, and over these he started on an eccentric and puzzling career which was bound to baffle the spies on his track.
Whenever he spoke subsequently of the many adventures which befell him during the first days of this memorable New Year, he never was very explicit on the subject of this night's run back to Houdekerk.
As soon as he had rid himself – as he thought – of his pursuers, he allowed his mind to become more and more absorbed in the great problem which confronted him since he had pledged his word to Mynheer Beresteyn to bring the jongejuffrouw safely back to him.
He now moved more mechanically over the iceways, taking no account of time or space or distance, only noting with the mere eye of instinct the various landmarks which loomed up from time to time out of the fast gathering darkness.
This coming darkness he welcomed, for he knew his way well, and it would prove his staunch ally against pursuit. For the rest he was conscious neither of cold, of hunger nor of fatigue. Pleasant thoughts helped to cheer his spirits and to give strength to his limbs. His brief visit to Haarlem had indeed been fruitful of experiences. A problem confronted him which he had made up his mind to solve during his progress across the ice in the night. How to keep his word to Nicolaes Beresteyn, and yet bring the jongejuffrouw safely back to her father.
She would not, of course, willingly follow him, and his would once again be the uncongenial task of carrying her off by force if he was to succeed in his new venture.
A fortune if he brought her back! That sounded simple enough, and the thought of it caused the philosopher's blood to tingle with delight.
A fortune if he brought her back! It would have to be done after he had handed her over into the care of Mynheer Ben Isaje at Rotterdam. He was pledged to do that, but once this was accomplished – his word to Nicolaes Beresteyn would be redeemed.
A fortune if he brought her back! And when he had brought her back she would tell of his share in her abduction, and instead of the fortune mayhap the gallows would be meted out to him.
'Twas a puzzle, a hard nut for a philosopher to crack. It would be the work of an adventurer, of a man accustomed to take every risk on the mere chance of success.
But Gilda's image never left him for one moment while his thoughts were busy with that difficult problem. For the first time now he realized the utter pathos of her helplessness. The proud little vixen, as he had dubbed her a while ago, was after all but a poor defenceless girl tossed hither and thither just to suit the ambitions of men. Did she really love that unscrupulous and cruel Stoutenburg, he wondered. Surely she must love him, for she did not look the kind of woman who would plight her troth against her will. She loved him and would marry him, her small white hand, which had the subtle fragrance of tulips, would be placed in one which was deeply stained with blood.
Poor young vixen, with the sharp tongue that knew how to hurt and the blue eyes that could probe a wound like steel! It was strange to think that their soft glances were reserved for a man whose heart was more filled with hate for men than with love for one woman.
"If I loved you, little vixen," he once murmured apostrophizing the elusive vision which lightened the darkness around him, "if I loved you, I would break my word to that dastard who is your brother … I would not take you to Rotterdam to further his ambition, but I would carry you off to please myself. I would take you to some distant land, mayhap to my unknown father's home in England, where the sounds of strife and hatred amongst men would only come as a faint and intangible echo. I would take you to where roses bloom in profusion, and where in the spring the petals of apple-blossoms would cover you like a mantle of fragrant snow. There I would teach that sharp tongue of yours to murmur words of tenderness and those perfect blue eyes to close in the ecstasy of a kiss. But," he added with his habitual light-hearted laugh, "I do not love you, little vixen, for heigh-ho! if I did 'twere hard for my peace of mind."
When Diogenes neared the town of Leyden he heard its church clocks ring out the hour of three. Close by the city walls he took off his skates, preferring to walk the short league which lay between him and Houdekerk.
He was more tired than he cared to own even to himself, and the last tramp along the road was inexpressibly wearisome. But he had seen or heard nothing more of his pursuers; he was quite convinced that they had lost track of him some hours ago. The south wind blew in heavy gusts from over the marshlands far away, and the half-melted snow clung sticky and dank against the soles and heels of his boots. A smell of dampness in the air proclaimed the coming triumph of the thaw. The roads, thought Diogenes, would be heavy on the morrow, impassable mayhap to a sledge, and the jongejuffrouw would have to travel in great discomfort in a jolting vehicle.
At last in the near distance a number of tiny lights proclaimed the presence of a group of windmills. It was in one of these that Pythagoras and Socrates had been ordered to ask for shelter – in the fifth one down the road, which stood somewhat isolated from the others; even now its long, weird arms showed like heavy lines of ink upon the black background of the sky.
Diogenes almost fell up against the door; he could hardly stand. But the miller was on the look-out for him, having slept only with half an eye, waiting for the stranger whose emissaries had already paid him well. He carried a lanthorn and a bunch of keys; his thin, sharp head was surmounted with a cotton nightcap and his feet were encased in thick woollen hose.
It took him some time to undo the many heavy bolts which protected the molens against the unwelcome visits of night marauders, and before he pushed back the final one, he peered through a tiny judas in the door and in a querulous voice asked the belated traveller's name.
"Never mind my name," quoth Diogenes impatiently, "and open thy door, miller, ere I break it in. I am as tired as a nag, as thirsty as a dog and as hungry as a cat. The jongejuffrouw is I trust safe: I am her major domo and faithful servant, so open quickly, or thy shoulder will have to smart for the delay."
I have Diogenes' own assurance that the miller was thereupon both obedient and prompt. He – like all his compeers in the neighborhood – found but scanty living in the grinding of corn for the neighbouring peasantry, there was too much competition nowadays and work had not multiplied in proportion. Optimists said that in a few years time the paralysing effects of the constant struggle against Spain would begin to wear off, that the tilling of the soil would once more become a profitable occupation and that the molens which now stood idle through many days in the year would once more become a vast storehouse of revenue for those who had continued to work them.
But in the meanwhile the millers and their families were oft on the verge of starvation, and some of them eked out a precarious livelihood by taking in wayfarers who were on their way to and from the cities and had sundry reasons – into which it was best not to inquire – for preferring to sleep and eat at one of these out-of-the-way places rather than in one of the city hostelries.скачать книгу бесплатно