The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel
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Then she drew back the bolt.
"May I not come in?" said Mynheer Beresteyn gaily, for she remained standing on the threshold.
"Well no, father!" she replied, "my room is very untidy … I was just getting into bed…"
"Just getting into bed," he retorted with a laugh, "why, child, you have not begun to undress."
"I wished to undress in the dark. My head aches terribly … it must be the spring air … Good-night, dear."
"Good-night, little one!" said Beresteyn, as he kissed his daughter tenderly. "Nicolaes has just come home," he added, "he wanted to see you too."
"Ask him to wait till to-morrow then. My head feels heavy. I can scarcely hold it up."
"You are not ill, little one?" asked the father anxiously.
"No, no … only oppressed with this first hot breath of spring."
"Why is not Maria here to undress you? I'll send her."
"Not just now, father. She will come presently. Her chattering wearied me and I sent her away."
"Well! good-night again, my girl. God bless you. You will not see Nicolaes?"
"Not to-night, father. Tell him I am not well. Good-night."
Mynheer Beresteyn went away at last, not before Gilda feared that she must drop or faint under the stress of this nerve-racking situation.
Even now when at last she was alone, when once again she was able to close and bolt the door, she could scarcely stand. She leaned against the wall with eyes closed, and heart that beat so furiously and so fast that she thought she must choke.
The sound of her father's footsteps died away along the corridor. She heard him opening and shutting a door at the further end of the passage, where there were two or three living rooms and his own sleeping chamber. For awhile now the house was still, so still that she could almost hear those furious heart-beats beneath her gown. Then only did she dare to move. With noiseless steps she crossed the room to that recess in the wall hidden by the gay-flowered cotton curtains.
She paused close beside these.
"My lord!" she called softly.
"My lord! my father has gone! you are in no danger for the moment!"
Still no answer, and as she paused, straining her ears to listen, she caught the sound of slow and regular breathing. Going back to the table she took up the candle, then with it in her hand she returned to the recess and gently drew aside the curtain. The light from the candle fell full upon Stoutenburg's face. Inexpressibly weary, exhausted both bodily and mentally, not even the imminence of present danger had succeeded in keeping him awake. The moment that he felt the downy pillow under his head, he had dropped off to sleep as peacefully as he used to do years ago before the shadow of premeditated crime had left its impress on his wan face.
Gilda looking down on him sought in vain in the harsh and haggard features, the traces of those boyish good looks which had fascinated her years ago; she tried in vain to read on those thin, set lips those words of passionate affection which had so readily flown from them then.
She put down the candle again and drew a chair close to the bed, then she sat down and waited.
And he slept on calmly, watched over by the woman whom he had so heartlessly betrayed.All love for him had died out in her heart ere this, but pity was there now, and she was thankful that it had been in her power to aid him at the moment of his most dire peril.
But that danger still existed of course. The household was still astir and the servants not yet all abed. Gilda could hear Jakob, the old henchman, making his rounds, seeing that all the lights were safely out, the bolts pushed home and chains securely fastened, and Maria might come back at any moment, wondering why her mistress had not yet sent for her. Nicolaes too was at home, and had already said that he wished to see his sister.
She tried to rouse the sleeping man, but he lay there like a log. She dared not speak loudly to him or to call his name, and all her efforts at shaking him by the shoulder failed to waken him.
Lonely and seriously frightened now Gilda fell on her knees beside the bed. Clasping her hands she tried to pray. Surely God could not leave a young girl in such terrible perplexity, when her only sin had been an act of mercy. The candle on the bureau close by burnt low in its socket and its flickering light outlined her delicate profile and the soft tendrils of hair that escaped from beneath her coif. Her eyes were closed in the endeavour to concentrate her thoughts, and time flew by swiftly while she tried to pray. She did not perceive that after awhile the Lord of Stoutenburg woke and that he remained for a long time in mute contemplation of the exquisite picture which she presented, clad all in white, with the string of pearls still round her throat, her hands clasped, her lips parted breathing a silent prayer.
"How beautiful you are, Gilda!" he murmured quite involuntarily at last.
Then – as suddenly startled and terrified – she tried to jump up quickly, away from him, he put out his hand and succeeded in capturing her wrists and thus holding her pinioned and still kneeling close beside him.
"An angel of goodness," he said, "and exquisitely beautiful."
At his words, at the renewed pressure of his hand upon her wrists she made a violent effort to recover her composure.
"I pray you, my lord, let go my hands. They were clasped in prayer for your safety. You slept so soundly that I feared I could not wake you in order to tell you that you must leave this house instantly."
"I will go, Gilda," he said quietly, making no attempt to move or to relax his hold on her, "for this brief interval of sleep, your kind ministrations and the food you gave me have already put new strength into me. And the sight of you kneeling and praying near me has put life into me again."
"Then, since you are better," she rejoined coldly, "I pray you rise, my lord, and make ready to go. The garden is quite lonely, the Oude Gracht at its furthest boundary is more lonely still. The hour is late and the city is asleep … you would be quite safe now."
"Do not send me away yet, Gilda, just when a breath of happiness – the first I have tasted for four years – has been wafted from heaven upon me. May I not stay here awhile and live for a brief moment in a dream which is born of unforgettable memories?"
"It is not safe for you to stay here, my lord," she said coldly.
"My lord? You used to call me Willem once."
"That was long ago, my lord, ere you gave Walburg de Marnix the sole right to call you by tender names."
"She has deserted me, Gilda. Fled from me like a coward, leaving me to bear my misery alone."
"She shared your misery for four years, my lord; it was your disgrace that she could not endure."
"You knew then that she had left me?"
"My father had heard of it."
"Then you know that I am a free man again?"
"The law no doubt will soon make you so."
"The law has already freed me through Walburg's own act of desertion. You know our laws as well as I do, Gilda. If you have any doubt ask your own father whose business it is to administer them. Walburg de Marnix has set me free, free to begin a new life, free to follow at last the dictates of my heart."
"For the moment, my lord," she retorted coldly, "you are not free even to live your old life."
"I would not live it again, Gilda, now that I have seen you again. The past seems even now to be falling away from me. Dreams and memories are stronger than reality. And you, Gilda … have you forgotten?"
"I have forgotten nothing, my lord."
"Our love – your vows – that day in June when you yielded your lips to my kiss?"
"Nor that dull autumnal day, my lord, when I heard from the lips of strangers that in order to further your own ambitious schemes you had cast me aside like a useless shoe, and had married another woman who was richer and of nobler birth than I."
She had at last succeeded in freeing herself from his grasp, and had risen to her feet, and retreated further and further away from him until she stood up now against the opposite wall, her slender, white form lost in the darkness, her whispered words only striking clearly on his ear.
He too rose from the bed and drew up his tall lean figure with a gesture still expressive of that ruthless ambition with which Gilda had taunted him.
"My marriage then was pure expediency, Gilda," he said with a shrug of the shoulders. "My father, whose differences with the Stadtholder were reaching their acutest stage, had need of the influence of Marnix de St. Aldegonde; my marriage with Walburg de Marnix was done in my father's interests and went sorely against my heart … it is meet and natural that she herself should have severed a tie which was one only in name. A year hence from now, the law grants me freedom to contract a new marriage tie; my love for you, Gilda, is unchanged."
"And mine for you, my lord, is dead."
He gave a short, low laugh in which there rang a strange note of triumph.
"Dormant mayhap, Gilda," he said as he groped his way across the darkened room and tried to approach her. "Your ears have been poisoned by your father's hatred of me. Let me but hold you once more in my arms, let me but speak to you once again of the past, and you will forget all save your real love for me."
"All this is senseless talk, my lord," she said coldly, "your life at this moment hangs upon the finest thread that destiny can weave. Human bloodhounds you said were upon your track; they have not wholly lost the scent, remember."
Her self-possession acted like a fall of icy-cold water upon the ardour of his temper. Once more that hunted look came into his face; he cast furtive, frightened glances around him, peering into the gloom, as if enemies might be lurking in every dark recess.
"They shall not have me," he muttered through set teeth, "not to-night … not now that life again holds out to me a cup brimful of happiness. I will go, Gilda, just as you command … they shall not find me … I have something to live for now … you and revenge… My father, my brother, my friends, I shall avenge them all – that treacherous Stadtholder shall not escape from my hatred the second time. Then will I have power, wealth, a great name to offer you. Gilda, you will remember me?"
"I will remember you, my lord, as one who has passed out of my life. My playmate of long ago, the man whom I once loved is dead to me. He who would stain his hands with blood is hateful in my sight. Go, go, my lord, I entreat you, ere you make my task of helping you to life and safety harder than I can bear."
She ran to the window and threw it open, then pointed out into the night.
"There lies your way, my lord. God only knows if I do right in not denouncing you even now to my father."
"You will not denounce me, Gilda," he said, drawing quite near to her, now that he could see her graceful figure silhouetted against the starlit sky, "you will not denounce me for unknown mayhap even to yourself, your love for me is far from dead. As for me I feel that I have never loved as I love you now. Your presence has intoxicated me, your nearness fills my brain as with a subtle, aromatic wine. All thought of my own danger fades before my longing to hold you just for one instant close to my heart, to press for one brief yet eternal second my lips against yours. Gilda, I love you!"
His arms quickly closed round her, she felt his hot breath against her cheek. For one moment did she close her eyes, for she felt sick and faint, but the staunch valour of that same Dutch blood which had striven and fought and endured and conquered throughout the ages past gave her just that courage, just that presence of mind which she needed.
"An you do not release me instantly," she said firmly, "I will rouse the house with one call."
Then, as his arms instinctively dropped away from her and he drew back with a muttered curse:
"Go!" she said, once more pointing toward the peaceful and distant horizon now wrapped in the veil of night. "Go! while I still have the strength to keep silent, save for a prayer for your safety."
Her attitude was so firm, her figure so rigid, that he knew that inevitably he must obey. His life was in danger, not hers; and she had of a truth but little to fear from him. He bowed his head in submission and humility, then he bent the knee and raising her gown to his lips he imprinted a kiss upon the hem. The next moment he had swung himself lightly upon the window sill, from whence he dropped softly upon the ground below.
For a few minutes longer she remained standing beside the open window, listening to his footfall on the flagged path. She could just distinguish his moving form from the surrounding gloom, as he crept along the shadows towards the boundary of the garden. Then as for one brief minute she saw his figure outlined above the garden wall, she closed the window very slowly and turned away from it.
The next moment she was lying in a swoon across the floor of her room.