Emma Orczy.

The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel



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"There is but one condition, sir, which enjoins me to keep a watchful eye on the jongejuffrouw once she is under my roof: to set a watch over her and her movements, and never, if possible, to let her out of my sight; he suggests that she might at any time make an attempt at escape, which he strictly commands me to frustrate, and in point of fact he desires me to look upon his sister as a prisoner of war not even to be let out on parole."

Diogenes' low, prolonged whistle was his only comment on what he had just heard.

"Mynheer Beresteyn also suggests to me, sir," continued the Jew with marked affability, "the advisability of keeping a watchful eye over you until such time as the jongejuffrouw is safely housed under my roof."

"You will find that injunction somewhat more difficult to follow, my friend, than you imagine," retorted Diogenes with a ringing laugh, "an you'll take my advice you will have extra watchmen posted outside your door."

"I have valuable things as well as monies stored in this house, sir," rejoined the Jew simply. "I have a picked guard of ten men sleeping here every night, and two watchmen outside my door until dawn."

Once more a long, low whistle escaped from the philosopher's lips.

"You are careful, my friend!" he said lightly.

"One has to be careful, sir, against thieves and house-breakers."

"And will your picked guard of ten men escort the jongejuffrouw to your private house this night?"

But the other slowly shook his head in response.

"The lady and her escort," he said "must, I fear me, accept the hospitality of this hovel for to-night."

"But…"

"My wife is away, sir, visiting her father in Dordrecht. She will only be home to-morrow. In the meanwhile my house is empty, and I am spending my nights here as well as my days."

"But…"

"It will not be a great hardship for the jongejuffrouw, sir," broke in the Jew again, "she will be made as comfortable for the night as maybe – she and her attendant too. I have a serving woman here who will see to the beds and the supper. Then to-morrow I can send a messenger to my private house to prepare my wife the moment she arrives, against the coming of the jongejuffrouw. 'Tis situate but half a league from here, and she would then be sure of a welcome equal to her worth."

Then as Diogenes was silent – since he felt perplexed and anxious at this unlooked-for turn of events and this first check to his plans – Ben Isaje continued with even greater affability than heretofore:

"Indeed, sir, and is it not better for the lady's own comfort? She will be over-fatigued when she arrives, and delighted – I know – at finding a nice bed and supper ready for her. Is it not all for the best?" he reiterated pleasantly.

But Diogenes was not satisfied. He did not like the idea of losing sight of Gilda altogether, quite so soon.

"I do not care to leave the jongejuffrouw," he said, "until I see her safely on her way to your house."

"Nor need you leave her, sir.

There is a small room at the back of this shop, to which you are heartily welcome for the night. It is usually occupied by some of my guard, but they can dispose themselves in other rooms in the house. They are sturdy fellows, sir, and well-armed," continued the Jew, not without significance, "and I trust that they will not disturb you with their noise. Otherwise, sir, you are most welcome to sleep and sup under this roof."

Diogenes murmured vague thanks. Indeed, he was not a little troubled in his mind. The plans which he had formed for the second abduction of Gilda would prove more difficult of execution than he had supposed. The Jew had more than the customary prudence of his race, and Beresteyn had made that prudence and the measures which it suggested a condition of payment.

Between the prudence of Beresteyn and that of Ben Isaje, it was difficult to see how an adventurous plan could succeed. Three philosophers against a picked guard of ten men, with two more to keep watch outside the door, did not seem a promising venture. But Diogenes would not have been the happy-go-lucky soldier of fortune that he was, had he paused for long at this juncture in order to brood over likely failure, or had he not been willing to allow Chance a goodly share in the working out of his destiny.

It certainly was useless to argue any of these matters further with Ben Isaje; fate had willed it that the philosopher should spend this night under the same roof as the jongejuffrouw with a watch of twelve picked men – not counting the Jew himself – set over him, and to rebel against that fate now were puerile and useless.

So he murmured more audible thanks for the proffered hospitality, and put on as good-humoured an air over the matter as he could.

From the distance now there came the sound of jingling bells and the clatter of horses' hoofs upon the cobble-stones of the streets.

"'Tis the jongejuffrouw," exclaimed Diogenes, springing to his feet.

"The sledge cannot turn into this narrow way," rejoined Ben Isaje, "will you go meet the lady, sir, at the top of the street where she must needs dismount, and escort her hither, while I go to give orders to the serving woman. Your men," he added, as Diogenes at once rose and went to the door, "and the horses can put up at the hostelry close by where no doubt they have halted even now."

But already Diogenes was half way down the passage; soon he was at the front door fumbling in the dark for the heavy bolts. Ben Isaje followed him more deliberately, lanthorn in hand. He unlocked the door, and the next moment Diogenes was once more out in the street, walking rapidly in the direction whence came the occasional pleasing sound of the tinkling of sleigh-bells.

CHAPTER XXIX
CHECK AGAIN

Though the jongejuffrouw seemed inexpressibly tired and weak, her attitude toward Diogenes lost nothing of its cold aloofness. She was peeping out under the hood of the sledge when he approached it, and at sight of him she immediately drew in her head.

"Will you deign to descend, mejuffrouw," he said with that slight tone of good-humoured mockery in his voice which had the power to irritate her. "Mynheer Ben Isaje, whose hospitality you will enjoy this night, lives some way up this narrow, insalubrious street, and he has bidden me to escort you to his house."

Silently, and with a great show of passive obedience, Gilda made ready to step out of the sledge.

"Come, Maria," she said curtly.

"The road is very slippery, mejuffrouw," he added warningly, "will you not permit me – for your own convenience' sake – to carry you as far as Ben Isaje's door?"

"It would not be for my convenience, sir," she retorted haughtily, "an you are so chivalrously inclined perhaps you would kindly convey my waiting woman thither in your arms."

"At your service, mejuffrouw," he said with imperturbable good temper.

And without more ado, despite her screams and her struggles, he seized Maria round her ample waist and round her struggling knees at the moment that she was stepping out of the sledge in the wake of her mistress.

The lamp outside the hostel at the corner illumined for a moment Gilda's pale, wearied face, and Diogenes saw that she was trying her best to suppress an insistent outburst of laughter.

"Hey there!" he shouted, "Pythagoras, Socrates, follow the jongejuffrouw at a respectful distance and see that no harm come to her while I lead the way with this featherweight in my arms."

Nor did he deposit Maria to the ground until he reached the door of Ben Isaje's house; here, when the mevrouw began to belabour him with her tongue and with her fists, he turned appealingly to Gilda:

"Mejuffrouw," he said merrily, "is this abuse not unmerited? I did but obey your behests and see how I must suffer for mine obedience."

But Gilda vouchsafed him no reply, and in the darkness he could not see if her face looked angered or smiling.

Ben Isaje, hearing the noise that went on outside his house, had already hastened to open the door. He welcomed the jongejuffrouw with obsequious bows. Behind him in the dark passage stood a lean and towzled-looking serving woman of uncertain years who was as obsequious as her master. When Gilda, confused and wearied, and mayhap not a little tired, advanced timorously into the narrow passage, the woman rushed up to her, and almost kneeling on the floor in the lowliness of her attitude, she kissed the jongejuffrouw's hand.

Diogenes saw nothing more of Gilda and Maria after that. They vanished into the gloom up the ladder-like staircase, preceded by the towzled but amiable woman, who by her talk and clumsy attempts at service had already earned Maria's fulsome contempt.

"You, too, must be hungry, sir," murmured a smooth affable voice close to Diogenes' elbow. "There is a bite and a drink ready for you; will you sup, sir, ere you go to bed?"

Before, however, following Ben Isaje into the shop Diogenes exchanged a few words with his brother philosophers, who, impassive and unquestioning, had escorted the jongejuffrouw to the door, and now stood there awaiting further orders. Diogenes suggested their getting supper and a bed in the hostelry at the top of the street in company with their driver; the horses too should all be stabled there.

"I am going to spend the night under this tumble-down roof," he said, "but remember to sleep with one eye open and be prepared for a summons from me at any hour of the night or morning. Until that comes, however, do not leave the hostel. Care well for the horses, we may have need of them to-morrow. Good-night! pleasant dreams! Do not forget that to-morrow five hundred guilders will fill each of your pockets. In the meanwhile here is the wherewithal to pay for bed and supper."

He gave them some money and then watched the two quaint figures, the long one and the round one, until they were merged in the blackness of the narrow street. Then he went within. Ben Isaje once more closed and bolted the front door and the two men then went together into the shop.

Here an appetizing supper had been laid ready upon the table and a couple of tallow candles burned in pewter sconces.

Ben Isaje at once invited his guest to eat and drink.

"Not before we have settled our business together, master," said the latter as he dragged a chair towards him, and sitting astride upon it, with his shapely legs thrust well out before him, he once more drew a paper from out the lining of his doublet.

"You are satisfied," he resumed after a slight pause, "that the lady whom I have had the honour of bringing into your house is indeed the Jongejuffrouw Gilda Beresteyn, sister of your client Mynheer Nicolaes Beresteyn of Haarlem?"

"I am quite satisfied on that point," replied the Jew, whose thin, bent form under the rigid folds of the black kaftan looked curiously weird in the feeble yellow light. His face was narrow and also waxlike in hue and the flickering candle-light threw quaint, distorted shadows around his long hooked nose.

"Then," said Diogenes blandly while he held out a folded paper to Ben Isaje, "here is the bond signed by Mynheer Beresteyn wherein he orders you to pay me the sum of 3,000 guilders in consideration of the services which I have rendered him."

But Ben Isaje did not take the paper thus held out to him.

"It is too late," he said quietly, "to transact business to-night."

"Too late!" exclaimed Diogenes with a blunt oath. "What in thunder do you mean?"

"I mean, sir, that you must try and curb your natural impatience until to-morrow."

"But I will not curb mine impatience another moment, plepshurk," cried the philosopher in a rage, "I have fulfilled my share of a bargain, 'tis only a verdommte Keerl who would shirk paying his own share on the nail."

"Nor would Mynheer Beresteyn desire me to shirk his responsibilities, I assure you," rejoined the Jew suavely, "and believe me, sir, that you will not lose one grote by waiting until the morrow. Let a good supper and a comfortable bed freely offered you atone for this unimportant delay. You still hold Mynheer Beresteyn's bond: to-morrow at the first business hour you shall be paid."

"But why any delay at all?" thundered Diogenes, who indeed misliked this way of doing business. "Why not pay me the money now? – at once, I will gladly forego the supper and sit all night upon your doorstep, but have my money in my pocket."

"Unfortunately, sir," said Ben Isaje with imperturbable amiability, "I am quite helpless in the matter. I am not the sole master of this business, my wife's brother shares my profits and my obligations. Neither of us is at liberty to pay out a large sum of money, save in the presence of the other."

"You and your partner know how to trust one another," said Diogenes with a laugh.

The Jew made no comment on this, only shrugged his shoulders in that calm manner peculiar to his race, which suggests the Oriental resignation to compelling fate.

Diogenes – inwardly fuming – thought over the matter very quietly for a few moments: it was obviously as useless to argue this matter out with Ben Isaje, as it had been to combat his dictum anent the jongejuffrouw spending the night under his roof, and as usual the wholesome lesson of life which the philosopher had learnt so thoroughly during his adventurous career stood him in good stead now: the lesson was the one which taught him never to waste time, temper or words over a purposeless argument.

That one shrug of Isaje's shoulders had told him with dumb eloquence that no amount of persuasion on his part would cause the banker to swerve from his determination. The money would be forthcoming on the morrow but not before, and there were ten picked men somewhere in the house at the present moment to prevent Diogenes from settling this matter in a primitive and efficient way by using his fists.

So in this instance too – disappointed though he was – he quickly regained his good humour. After all, the Jew was right: a night's delay would not spell a loss, and was well compensated for by a good supper and cosy bed.

With his habitual light-hearted laugh and careless shrug of the shoulders, he folded the paper up again and once more slipped it carefully into the inner lining of his doublet.

"You are right, sir," he said, "'twere foolish to allow choler to spoil the appetite. I am as hungry as the dog of a Spaniard. By your leave I'll test the strength of your ale and to-morrow ere I leave your house you shall pay me over the money in the presence of your trusting brother-in-law. Until then the bond remains with me, and I hold myself responsible for the safety of the jongejuffrouw. So I pray you be not surprised if I forbid her removal from this house until I have exchanged this bond for the sum of 3,000 guilders."

After which he drew his chair close to the table, and fell to all its good cheer with a hearty will. Ben Isaje, hospitable and affable to the last, waited on him with his own hands.

CHAPTER XXX
A NOCTURNE

It was only natural that, though tired as he was and enjoying an unusually contented mind, Diogenes was nevertheless unable to get to sleep.

He had had a very good supper and had parted at an early hour from his host. Ben Isaje had been amiable even deferential to the last, and indeed there had been nothing in the Jew's demeanour to arouse misgivings in the most suspicious mind.

The lean and towzled serving woman had prepared a clean and comfortable bed in the narrow alcove within the wall panelling of the small room which adjoined the shop, but though the weary philosopher wooed sleep with utmost persistence, it resolutely refused to be lured to his pillow. At first the arrival of the night watchmen had kept him awake: for they made their entrance with much jangling of swords and loud and lusty talk. There was apparently a good solid partition between his room and the shop because as soon as the watchmen were settled at their post their voices only reached Diogenes' ear like a muffled murmur.

A door gave from this room on the passage and this he had carefully locked; but it hung loosely on its hinges and the slightest noise in the house – a heavy footfall overhead or in the shop – would cause it to rattle with a weird, intermittent sound which sent sleep flying baffled away.

There were thoughts too which crowded in upon him – pleasant thoughts as well as others that were a trifle sad – the immediate future with its promise of a possible fortune loomed brightly enough, but the means to that happy end was vaguely disturbing the light-hearted equanimity of this soldier of fortune accustomed hitherto to grip Chance by the hair whenever she rushed past him in her mad, whirling career, and without heeding those who stood in his way.

But suddenly the whole thing seemed different, and Diogenes himself could not have told you why it was so. Thoughts of the future and of the promises which it held disturbed when they should have elated him: there was a feeling in him which he could not analyse, a feeling wherein a strange, sweet compassion seemed to form the main ingredient. The philosopher who had hitherto viewed life through the rosy glasses of unalterable good-humour, who had smiled at luck and ill-luck, laughed at misfortune and at hope, suddenly felt that there was something in life which could not be dismissed light-heartedly, something which really counted, though it was so intangible and so elusive that even now he could not give it a name.

The adventurer, who had slept soundly and dreamlessly in camp and on the field, in the streets of a sacked town or the still smouldering battlements of a fortress, could find no rest in the comfortable bed so carefully prepared for him in the house of Ben Isaje the Jew. The murmur of voices from the shop, low and monotonous, irritated his nerves, the rattling of the door upon its hinges drove him well-nigh distracted.

He heard every noise in the house as they died out one by one; the voice of the serving woman bidding the jongejuffrouw "good-night," the shuffling footsteps of the old Jew, the heavy tread of Maria overhead, and another, light and swift which – strangely enough – disturbed him more completely than the louder sounds had done.

At last he could stand his present state no longer, he felt an unpleasant tingling to the very tips of his fingers and the very roots of his hair; it seemed to him as if soft noiseless steps wandered aimlessly outside his door; furtive tiny animals with feet of velvet must have run down the stairs and then halted, breathless and terrified, on the other side of those rattling wooden panels.

He sat up in bed and groping for his tinder he struck a light; then he listened again. Not a sound now stirred inside the house, only the wind soughed through the loose tiles of the roof and found out the chinks and cracks of the ill-fitting window, through which it blew with a sharp, whistling sound. From the shop there came the faint murmur of some of the watchmen snoring at their post.

Beyond that, nothing. And yet Diogenes, whose keen ear was trained to catch the flutter of every twig, the movement of every beast, could have sworn that someone was awake at this moment, in this house besides himself – someone who breathed and trembled on the other side of the door.

Without a moment's hesitation he slipped on his clothes as quickly as he could, then he pulled the curtains across in front of the alcove and paused for one second longer in order to listen.

He had certainly not been mistaken. Through the stillness of the house he heard the soughing of the wind, the snoring of the watchmen, and that faint, palpitating sound outside in the passage – that sound which was as the breathing of some living, frightened thing.

Then he walked as noiselessly as he could up to the door, and with a sudden simultaneous turn of key and handle he opened it suddenly.

It opened outwards, and the passage beyond was pitch dark, but there in front of him now, white as a ghost, white as the garment which she wore, white as the marble statue of the Madonna which he had seen in the cathedral at Prague, stood the jongejuffrouw.

The candle which she carried flickered in the draught, and thus flickering it lit up her large blue eyes which she kept fixed upon him with an expression half defiant yet wholly terrified.

Frankly he thought at first that this was an apparition, a vivid embodiment of the fevered fancies which had been haunting him. No wonder therefore that he made no movement toward her, or expressed the slightest astonishment at seeing her there, all alone, in the middle of the night, not five paces away from him.

Thus they stood looking at one another for some time in absolute silence; she obviously very frightened, hesitating betwixt audacity and immediate flight, and he puzzled and with a vague sense of unreality upon him, a sense as of a dream which yet had in it the pulsating vividness of life.

She was the first to break this silence which was beginning to be oppressive. Gilda Beresteyn was not a timid woman nor was hers a character which ever vacillated once her mind was made up. The step which she had taken this night – daring and unconventional as it was – had been well thought out: deliberately and seriously she had weighed every danger, every risk which she ran, even those which in her pure-minded innocence she was not able fully to appreciate. Now though she was scared momentarily, she had no thought of turning back.



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