The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel
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The old stiff-necked haughtiness of her race did not desert her for a moment, even though she was obviously at a disadvantage in this instance, and had come here as a suppliant.
"I wished to speak with you, sir," she said, and her voice had scarce a tremor in it, "my woman was too timorous to come down and summon you to my presence, as I had ordered her to do; so I was forced to come myself."
Though she looked very helpless, very childlike in her innocence, she had contrived to speak to him like a princess addressing a menial, holding her tiny head very high and making visible efforts to still the quivering of her lips.
There was something so quaint in this proud attitude of hers under the present circumstances, that despite its pathos Diogenes' keen sense of humour was not proof against it, and that accustomed merry smile of his crept slowly over every line of his face.
"I am ever at your service, mejuffrouw," he said as gravely as he could, "your major domo, your valet … I always await your commands."
"Then I pray you take this candle," she said coldly, "and stand aside that I may enter. What I have to say cannot be told in this passage."
He took the candle from her, since she held it out to him, and then stepped aside just as she had commanded, keeping the door wide open for her to pass through into the room. She was holding herself very erect, and with perfect self-possession she now selected a chair whereon to sit. She wore the same white gown which she had on when first he laid hands on her in the streets of Haarlem, and the fur cloak wherein she had wrapped herself had partially slid from her shoulders.
Having sat down, close to the table, with one white arm resting upon it, she beckoned peremptorily to him to close the door and to put the candle down; all of which he did quite mechanically, for the feeling had come back to him that the white figure before him was only a vision – or mayhap a dream – from which, however, he hoped not to awaken too soon.
"At your command, mejuffrouw," was all that he said, and he remained standing quite close to the door, with half the width of the room between himself and her.
But to himself he murmured under his breath:
"St. Bavon and the Holy Virgin, do ye both stand by me now!"
"I do not know, sir," she began after awhile, "if my coming here at this hour doth greatly surprise you, but in truth the matter which brings me is so grave that I cannot give a thought to your feelings or to mine own."
"And mine, mejuffrouw, are of such little consequence," he said good-humouredly seeing that she appeared to wait for a reply, "that it were a pity you should waste precious time in considering them."
"Nor have I come to talk of feelings, sir. My purpose is of deadly earnestness. I have come to propose a bargain for your acceptance."
"Yes. A bargain," she reiterated. "One I hope and think that you will find it worth while to accept."
"Then may I crave the honour of hearing the nature of that bargain, mejuffrouw?" he asked pleasantly.
She did not give him an immediate reply but remained quite still and silent for a minute or even two, looking with wide-open inquiring eyes on the tall figure of the man who had – to her mind – done her such an infinite wrong.She noted and acknowledged quite dispassionately the air of splendour which became him so well – splendour of physique, of youth and of strength, and those laughing eyes that questioned and that mocked, the lips that always smiled and the straight brow with its noble sweep which hid the true secret of his personality. And once again – as on that evening at Leyden – she fell almost to hating him, angered that such a man should be nothing better than a knave, a mercenary rogue paid to lend a hand in unavowable deeds.
He stood her scrutiny as best he could, answering her look of haughty condescension with one of humble deference; but the smile of gentle irony never left his lips and tempered the humility of his attitude.
"You have owned to me, sir," resumed Gilda Beresteyn at last, "that you have been paid for the infamous work which you are doing now; for laying hands on me in the streets of Haarlem and for keeping me a prisoner at the good will of your employer. To own to such a trade, sir, is to admit oneself somewhat below the level of honest men. Is that not so?"
"Below the level of most men, mejuffrouw, I admit," he replied imperturbably.
"Had it not been for that admission on your part, I would never have thought of coming to you with a proposal which…"
"Which you never would have put before an honest man," he broke in with perfect equanimity, seeing that she hesitated.
"You anticipate my thought, sir: and I am glad to find that you will make my errand even easier than I had hoped. Briefly then let me tell you – as I told you at Leyden – that I know who your paymaster is. A man has thought fit to perpetrate a crime against me, for a reason which no doubt he deemed expedient and which probably he has not imparted to you. Reasons and causes I imagine, sir, are no concern of yours. You take payment for your deeds and do not inquire into motives. Is that not so?"
This time Diogenes only made a slight bow in acknowledgment of her question. He was smiling to himself more grimly than was his wont, for he had before him the recollection of the Lord of Stoutenburg – cruel, coarse, and evil, bullying and striking a woman – and of Nicolaes Beresteyn – callous and cynical, bartering his sister's honour and safety to ensure his own. To the one she had plighted her troth, the other was her natural protector, dear to her through those sweet bonds of childhood which bind brother and sister in such close affection. Yet both are selfish, unscrupulous rogues, thought the philosopher, though both very dear to her, and both honest men in her sight.
"That being so, sir," she resumed once more, "meseems that you should be equally ready to do me service and to ask me no questions, provided that I pay you well."
"That, mejuffrouw," he said quietly, "would depend on the nature of the service."
"It is quite simple, sir. Let me explain. While my woman and I were having supper upstairs, the wench who served us fell to gossiping, telling us the various news of the day which have filtered through into Rotterdam. Among other less important matters, sir, she told us that the Prince of Orange had left his camp at Sprang in order to journey northwards to Amsterdam. Yesterday he and his escort of one hundred men-at-arms passed close to this city; they were making for Delft where the Prince means to spend a day or two before proceeding further on his journey. He sleeps at the Prinzenhof in Delft this night."
"Yes, mejuffrouw?" he said, for suddenly her manner had changed; something of its coolness had gone from it, even if the pride was still there. While she spoke a warm tinge of pink flooded her cheeks; she was leaning forward, her eyes bright and glowing were fixed upon him with a look of eagerness and almost of appeal, and her lips were moist and trembling, whilst the words which she wished to speak seemed to be dying in her throat.
"What hath the progress of the Prince of Orange to do with your most humble and most obedient servant?" he asked again.
"I must speak with the Prince of Orange, sir," she said while her voice now soft and mellow fell almost like a prayer on his ear. "I must go to him to Delft not later than to-morrow. Oh! you will not refuse me this … you cannot … I…"
She had clasped her hands together, her eyes were wet with tears, and as she pleaded, she bent forward so low in her chair, that it seemed for a moment as if her knees would touch the ground. In the flickering candle-light she looked divinely pretty thus, with all the cold air of pride gone from her childlike face. A gentle draught stirred the fair curls round her head, the fur cloak had completely slipped down from her shoulders and her white dress gave her more than ever the air of that Madonna carved in marble which he had seen once in the cathedral at Prague.
The philosopher passed a decidedly shaking hand across his forehead: the room was beginning to whirl round him, the floor to give way under his feet. He fell to thinking that the mild ale offered to him by Ben Isaje had been more heady than he had thought.
"St. Bavon," he murmured to himself, "where in Heaven's name are ye now? I asked you to stand by me."
It was one of those moments – perfect in themselves – when a man can forget everything that pertains to the outer world, when neither self-interest nor ordinary prudence will count, when he is ready to jeopardize his life, his career, his future, his very soul for the ecstasy which lies in the one heaven-born minute. Thus it was with this philosopher, this man of the moment, the adventurer, the soldier of fortune; the world which he had meant to conquer, the fortune which he had vowed to win seemed to slip absolutely away from him. This dream – for it was after all only a dream, it was just too beautiful to be reality – the continuance of this dream seemed to him to be all that mattered, this girl – proud and pleading – a Madonna, a saint, a child of innocence, was the only perfect, desirable entity in this universe.
"St. Bavon, you rogue! you are playing me false!" he murmured, as the last vestige of self-control and of prudence threatened to fall away from him.
"Madonna," he said as with a quick movement he came forward and bent the knee before her, "I entreat you to believe that whatever lies in my power to do in your service, that will I gladly do. How can I refuse," he added whilst that immutable smile, gentle, humourous, faintly ironical, once more lit up his face as he looked straight into hers, "how can I refuse to obey since you deign to plead to me with those lips? how can I withstand your appeal when it speaks to me through your eyes?"
"You will let me do what I ask?" she exclaimed with a little cry of joy, for his attitude was very humble and his voice yielding and kind; he was kneeling at some little distance from her, which was quite becoming in a mercenary knave.
"If it be in my power, Madonna!" he said simply.
"Then will I pay you well," she continued eagerly. "I have thought it all out. I am rich you know, and my bond is as good as that of any man. Do you but bring me inkhorn and paper, I will give you a bond for 4,000 guilders on Mynheer Ben Isaje himself, he hath monies of mine own in trust and at interest. But if 4,000 guilders are not enough, I pray you name your price; it shall be what you ask."
"What do you desire me to do, Madonna?"
"I desire you to escort me to Delft so that I may speak with the Prince of Orange."
"The Prince of Orange is well guarded. No stranger is allowed to enter his presence."
"I am not a stranger to him. My father is his friend; a word from me to him, a ring of mine sent in with a request for an audience and he will not refuse."
"And having entered the presence of the Stadtholder, mejuffrouw, what do you propose to say to him?"
"That, sir, is naught to you," she retorted coldly.
"I pray you forgive me," he said, still humbly kneeling, "but you have deigned to ask my help, and I'll not give it unless you will tell me what your purpose is."
"You would not dare…"
"To make conditions for my services?" he said speaking always with utmost deference, "this do I dare, mejuffrouw, and my condition is for your acceptance or refusal – as you command."
"I did not ask for your help, sir," she said curtly. "I offered to pay you for certain services which I desire you to render me."
Already her look of pleading had gone. She had straightened herself up, prouder and more disdainful than before. He dared to make conditions! he! the mercenary creature whom anyone could buy body and soul for money, who took payment for doing such work as would soil an honest man's hands! It was monstrous! impossible, unthinkable. She thought that her ears had deceived her or that mayhap he had misunderstood.
In a moment at her words, at the scornful glance which accompanied them, he had risen to his feet. The subtle moment had gone by; the air was no longer oppressive, and the ground felt quite steady under him. Calm, smiling, good-tempered, he straightened out his massive figure as if to prepare himself for those shafts which her cruel little tongue knew so well how to deal.
And inwardly he offered up a thanksgiving to St. Bavon for this cold douche upon his flaming temper.
"I did not misunderstand you, mejuffrouw," he said lightly, "and I am ready to do you service – under a certain condition."
She bit her lip with vexation. The miserable wretch was obviously not satisfied with the amount which she had named as payment for his services, and he played some weak part of chivalry and of honour in order to make his work appear more difficult, and to extract a more substantial reward from her. She tried to put into the glance which she now threw on him all the contempt which she felt and which truly nauseated her at this moment. Unfortunately she had need of him, she could not start for Delft alone, marauders and footpads would stop her ever reaching that city. Could she have gone alone she were not here now craving the help of a man whom she despised.
"Meseems," she said coldly after a slight pause, "that you do wilfully misunderstand our mutual positions. I am not asking you to do anything which could offend your strangely susceptible honour, whose vagaries, I own, I am unable to follow. Will 10,000 guilders satisfy your erratic conscience? or did you receive more than that for laying hands on two helpless women and dragging one – who has never done you any wrong – to a depth of shame and sorrow which you cannot possibly fathom?"
"My conscience, mejuffrouw," he replied, seemingly quite unperturbed at her contemptuous glance and insulting speech, "is, as you say, somewhat erratic. For the moment it refuses to consider the possibility of escorting you to Delft unless I know what it is that you desire to say to the Prince of Orange."
"If it is a question of price…"
"It is not a question of price, mejuffrouw," he broke in firmly, "let us, an you will allow it, call it a question of mine erratic conscience."
"I am rich, sir … my private fortune…"
"Do not name it, mejuffrouw," he said jovially, "the sound of it would stagger a poor man who has to scrape up a living as best he can."
"Forty thousand guilders, sir," she said pleading once more eagerly, "an you will take me to Delft to-morrow."
"Were it ten hundred thousand, mejuffrouw, I would not do it unless I knew what you wished to say to the Stadtholder."
"Sir, can I not move you," she implored, "this means more to me than I can hope to tell you." Once again her pride had given way before this new and awful fear that her errand would be in vain, that she had come here as a suppliant before this rogue, that she had humbled her dignity, entreated him, almost knelt to him, and that he, for some base reason which she could not understand, meant to give himself the satisfaction of refusing the fortune which she did promise him.
"Can I not move you," she reiterated, appealing yet more earnestly, for, womanlike, she could not forget that moment awhile ago, when he had knelt instinctively before her, when the irony had gone from his smile, and the laughter in his mocking eyes had yielded to an inward glow.
He shook his head, but remained unmoved.
"I cannot tell you, sir," she urged plaintively, "what I would say to the Prince."
"Is it so deadly a secret then?" he asked.
"Call it that, an you will."
"A secret that concerns his life?"
"That I did not say."
"No. It was a guess. A right one methinks."
"Then if you think so, sir, why not let me go to him?"
"So that you may warn him?"
"You were merely guessing, sir…"
"That you may tell him not to continue his journey," he insisted, speaking less restrainedly now, as he leaned forward closer to her, her fair curls almost brushing against his cheek as they fluttered in the draught.
"I did not say so," she murmured.
"Because there is a trap laid for him … a trap of which you know…"
"No, no!" she cried involuntarily.
"A trap into which he may fall … unknowingly … on his way to the north."
"You say so, sir," she moaned, "not I…"
"Assassins are on his track … an attempt will be made against his life … the murderers lie in wait for him … even now … and you, mejuffrouw, who know who those murderers are…"
A cry of anguish rose to her lips.
"No, no, no," she cried, "it is false … you are only guessing … remember that I have told you nothing."
But already the tense expression on his face had gone. He drew himself up to his full height once more and heaved a deep breath which sounded like a sigh of satisfaction.
"Yet in your candour, mejuffrouw, you have told me much," he said quietly, "confirmed much that I only vaguely guessed. The Stadtholder's life is in peril and you hold in your feeble little hands the threads of the conspiracy which threatens him … is that not why you are here, mejuffrouw … a prisoner, as you say, at the good-will of my employer? I am only guessing, remember, but on your face, meseems that I can read that I do guess aright."
"Then you will do what I ask?" she exclaimed with a happy little gasp of renewed hope.
"That, mejuffrouw, is I fear me impossible," he said quietly.
"Impossible? But – just now…"
"Just now," he rejoined with affected carelessness, "I said, mejuffrouw, that I would on no account escort you to Delft without knowing what your purpose is with the Prince of Orange. Even now I do not know, I merely guessed."
"But," she entreated, "if I do own that you have guessed aright – partly at any rate – if I do tell you that the Stadtholder's life might be imperilled if I did not give him a timely word of warning, if…"
"Even if you told me all that, mejuffrouw," he broke in lightly, "if you did bring your pride down so far as to trust a miserable knave with a secret which he might sell for money on the morrow – even then, I fear me, I could not do what you ask."
"But why not?" she insisted, her voice choking in her throat in the agony of terrible doubt and fear.
"Because the man of whom you spoke just now, the man whom you love, mejuffrouw, has been more far-seeing, more prudent than you or I. He hath put it out of my power to render you this service."
"By warning Mynheer Ben Isaje against any attempt at escape on your part, against any attempt at betrayal on mine. Mynheer Ben Isaje is prepared: he hath a guard of ten picked men on the watch, and two more men outside his door. If you tried to leave this house with me without his consent he would prevent you, and I am no match alas! for twelve men."
"Why should he guard me so?"
"Because he will not be paid if he keep not watch over you."
"But I'll swear to return straightway from Delft. I'll only speak with the Prince and return immediately… Money! always money!" she cried with sudden vehemence, "a great man's life, the honour of a house, the salvation of the land, are these all to be sacrificed because of the greed and cupidity of men?"
"Shall I call Mynheer Ben Isaje?" asked Diogenes placidly, "mayhap, mejuffrouw, that you could persuade him more easily than me!"
But at this she rose to her feet as suddenly as if she had been stung: the colour in her cheeks deepened, the tears were dry in her eyes.
"You," she exclaimed, and there was a world of bitter contempt in the tone of her voice, "persuade you who have tricked and fooled me, even while I began to believe in you? You, who for the past half hour have tried to filch a secret from me bit by bit! with lying words you led me into telling you even more than I should! and I, poor fool I thought that I had touched your heart, or that at least there was some spark of loyalty in you which mayhap prompted you to guess that the Prince was in danger. Fool that I was! miserable, wretched fool! to think for a moment that you would lend a hand in aught that was noble and chivalrous! I would I had the power to raise the blush of shame in your cheeks, but alas! the shame is only for me, who trusting in your false promises and your lies have allowed my tongue to speak words which I would give my life now to unsay – for me who thought that there was in you one feeble spark of pity or of honour. Fool! fool that I was! when I forgot for one brief moment that it was your greed and cupidity that were the props without which this whole edifice of infamy had tottered long ago; persuade you to do a selfish deed! you the abductor of women, the paid varlet and mercenary rogue who will thieve and outrage and murder for money!"
She sank back in her chair and, resting her arms upon the table, she buried her face in them, for she had given way at last to a passionate fit of weeping. The disappointment was greater than she could bear after the load of sorrow which had been laid on her these past few days.
When she heard through the chatterings of a servant that the Stadtholder was at Delft this very night, the memory of every word which she had heard in the cathedral on New Year's Eve came back to her with renewed vividness. Delft! she remembered that name so well and Ryswyk close by, the only possible way for a northward journey! Then the molens which Stoutenburg had said were his headquarters, where he stored arms and ammunition and enough gunpowder to blow up the wooden bridge which spans the Schie and over which the Stadtholder and his bodyguard must pass.
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