Emma Orczy.

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



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Every word that Stoutenburg and her brother and the others had spoken that night, rang now in her ears like a knell: Delft, Ryswyk, the molens, the wooden bridge! Delft, Ryswyk, the molens, the wooden bridge! Delft…

Delft was quite near, less than four leagues away … the Stadtholder was there now … he could be warned before it was too late … and she could warn him without compromising her brother and his friends… Then it was that she remembered that in the room below there slept a knave who would do anything for gold.

Thus she had run down to him full of eagerness and full of hope. And now he had refused to help her, and worse still had guessed at a secret which, if he bartered or sold it, meant death to her brother and his friends.

Contempt and hate had broken down her spirit. Smothering both, she was even now ready to fall on her knees, to plead with him, to pray, to implore … if only that could have moved him … if only it meant safety for the Stadtholder, and not merely a useless loss of pride and of dignity.

Anger and misery and utter hopelessness! they were causing her tears, and she hated this man who had her in his power and mocked her in her misery: and there was the awful thought that the Stadtholder was so near – less than four leagues away! Why! had she been free she could have run all the way to him – that hideous crime, that appalling tragedy in which her brother would bear a hand, could be averted even now if she were free! Oh! the misery of it! the awful, wretched helplessness! in a few days – hours mayhap – the Stadtholder would be walking straight into the trap which his murderers had set for him … the broken bridge! the explosion! the assassin at the carriage door! She saw it all as in a vision of the future, and her brother in the midst of it all with hands deeply stained in blood.

And she could avert it all – the crime, the sorrow, the awful, hideous shame if only she were free.

She looked up at last, ashamed of her tears, ashamed that a rogue should have seen how keenly she suffered.

She looked up and turned to him once more. The flickering light of the candles fell full upon his splendid figure and upon his face: it was the colour of ashes, and there was no trace of his wonted smile around his lips: the eyes too looked sunken and their light was hid beneath the drooping lids. Her shafts which she had aimed with such deadly precision had gone home at last: in the bitterness of her heart she apparently had found words which had cut him like a lash.

Satisfied at least in this she rose to go.

"There is nothing more to say," she said as calmly as she could, trying to still the quivering of her lips: "as you say, Mynheer Ben Isaje has carefully taken the measure of your valour and it cannot come up to a dozen picked men, even though life and honour, country and faith might demand at least an effort on their behalf. I pray you open the door. I would – for mine own sake as well as your own – that I had not thought of breaking in on your rest."

Without a word he went to the door, and had his hand on the latch ready to obey her, when something in his placid attitude irritated her beyond endurance.

Woman-like she was not yet satisfied: perhaps a thought of remorse at her cruelty fretted her, perhaps she pitied him in that he was so base.

Be that as it may, she spoke to him again:

"Have you nothing then to say?" she asked.

"What can I say, mejuffrouw?" he queried in reply, as the ghost of his wonted smile crept swiftly back into his pale face.

"Methought no man would care to be called a coward by a woman, and remain silent under the taunt."

"You forget, mejuffrouw," he retorted, "that I am so much less than a man … a menial, a rogue, a vagabond – so base that not even the slightest fear of me did creep into your heart … you came to me, here, alone at dead of night with an appeal upon your lips, yet you were not afraid, then you struck me in the face like you would a dog with a whip, and you were no more afraid of me than of the dog whom you had thrashed. So base am I then that words of mine are not worthy of your ear. Whatever I said, I could not persuade you that for one man to measure his strength against twelve others were not an act of valour, but one of senseless foolishness. I might tell you that bravery lies oft in prudence but seldom in foolhardiness, but this I know you are not in a mood now to believe. I might even tell you," he continued with a slight return to his wonted light-hearted carelessness, "I might tell you that certain acts of bravery cannot be accomplished without the intervention of protecting saints, and that I have found St. Bavon an admirable saint to implore in such cases, but this I fear me you are not like to understand. So you see, mejuffrouw, that whatever I said I could not prove to you that I am less of a blackguard than I seem."

"You could at least prove it to this extent," she retorted, "by keeping silence over what you may have guessed."

"You mean that I must not sell the secret which you so nearly betrayed … have no fear, mejuffrouw, my knowledge of it is so scanty that the Stadtholder would not give me five guilders for it."

"Will you swear…"

"Such a miserable cur as I am, mejuffrouw," he said lightly, "is surely an oath-breaker as well as a liar and a thief – what were the good of swearing?.. But I'll swear an you wish …" he added gaily.

"Surely you …" she began.

But with a quick gesture he interrupted her.

"Dondersteen, mejuffrouw," he said more firmly than he had yet spoken before, "if beauty in you is tempered with pity, I entreat you to spare me now: even knaves remember become men sometimes and my patron Saint Bavon threatens to leave me in the lurch."

He held open the door for her to pass through, and gravely held out one of the pewter candles to her. She could not help but take it, though indeed she felt that the last word between that rogue and herself had not by any means been spoken yet. But she hardly looked at him as she sailed past him out of the room, her heavy skirt trailing behind her with a soft hissing sound.

As soon as she heard the door shut to behind her, she ran up the stairs back to her own room with all speed, like a frightened hare.

Had she remained in the passage one instant longer she would have heard a sound which would have terrified her; it was the sound of a prolonged and ringing laugh which roused the echoes of this sleeping house, but which had neither mirth nor joy in its tone, and had she then peeped through a keyhole she would have seen a strange sight. A man who in the flickering candle-light looked tall and massive as a giant took up one of the wooden chairs in the room, and after holding it out at arm's length for a few seconds, he proceeded to smash it viciously bit by bit until it lay a mass of broken d?bris at his feet.

CHAPTER XXXI
THE MOLENS

Less than half a league to the southeast of Ryswyk – there where the Schie makes a sharp curve up toward the north – there is a solitary windmill – strange in this, that it has no companions near it, but stands quite alone with its adjoining miller's hut nestling close up against it like a tiny chick beside the mother hen, and dominates the mud flats and lean pastures which lie for many leagues around.

On this day which was the fourth of the New Year, these mud flats and the pasture land lay under a carpet of half-melted snow and ice which seemed to render the landscape more weird and desolate, and the molens itself more deserted and solitary. Yet less than half a league away the pointed gables and wooden spires of Ryswyk break the monotony of the horizon line and suggest the life and movement pertaining to a city, however small. But life and movement never seem to penetrate as far as this molens; they spread their way out toward 'S Graven Hage and the sea.

Nature herself hath decreed that the molens shall remain solitary and cut off from the busy world, for day after day and night after night throughout the year a mist rises from the mud flats around and envelops the molens as in a shroud. In winter the mist is frosty, in summer at times it is faintly tinged with gold, but it is always there and through it the rest of the living world – Ryswyk and 'S Graven Hage and Delft further away only appear as visions on the other side of a veil.

Just opposite the molens, some two hundred paces away to the east, the waters of the Schie rush with unwonted swiftness round the curve; so swiftly in fact that the ice hardly ever forms a thick crust over them, and this portion of an otherwise excellent waterway is – in the winter – impracticable for sleighs.

Beyond this bend in the river, however, less than half a league away, there is a wooden bridge, wide and strongly built, across which it is quite easy for men and beasts to pass who have come from the south and desire to rejoin the great highway which leads from Delft to Leyden.

In the morning of that same fourth day in the New Year, two men sat together in what was once the weighing-room of the molens; their fur coats were wrapped closely round their shoulders, for a keen north-westerly wind had found its way through the chinks and cracks of tumble-down doors and ill-fitting window frames.

Though a soft powdery veil – smooth as velvet to the touch and made up of flour and fine dust-lay over everything, and the dry, sweet smell of corn still hung in the close atmosphere, there was little else in this room now that suggested the peaceful use for which it had been originally intended.

The big weighing machines had been pushed into corners, and all round the sloping walls swords, cullivers and muskets were piled in orderly array, also a row of iron boxes standing a foot or so apart from one another and away from any other objects in the room.

The silence which reigned over the surrounding landscape did not find its kingdom inside this building, for a perpetual hum, a persistent buzzing noise as of bees in their hives, filtrated through the floor and the low ceiling of this room. Men moved and talked and laughed inside the molens, but the movement and the laughter were subdued as if muffled in that same mantle of mist which covered the outside world.

The two men in the weighing-room were sitting at a table on which were scattered papers, inkhorns and pens, a sword, a couple of pistols and two or three pairs of skates. One of them was leaning forward and talking eagerly:

"I think you can rest satisfied, my good Stoutenburg," he said, "our preparations leave nothing to be desired. I have just seen Jan, and together we have despatched the man Lucas van Sparendam to Delft. He is the finest spy in the country, and can ferret out a plan or sift a rumour quicker than any man I know. He will remain at Delft and keep the Prinzenhof under observation: and will only leave the city if anything untoward should happen, and then he will come straight here and report to us. He is a splendid runner, and can easily cover the distance between Delft and this molens in an hour. That is satisfactory is it not?"

"Quite," replied Stoutenburg curtly.

"Our arrangements here on the other hand are equally perfect," resumed Beresteyn eagerly, "we have kept the whole thing in our own hands … Heemskerk and I will be at our posts ready to fire the gunpowder at the exact moment when the advance guard of the Prince's escort will have gone over the bridge … you, dagger in hand, will be prepared to make a dash for the carriage itself … our men will attack the scattered and confused guard at a word from van Does… What could be more simple, more perfect than that? Yourself, Heemskerk, van Does and I … all of one mind … all equally true, silent and determined… You seem so restless and anxious… Frankly I do not understand you."

"It is not of our preparations or of our arrangements that I am thinking, Nicolaes," said Stoutenburg sombrely, "these have been thought out well enough. Nothing but superhuman intervention or treachery can save the Stadtholder – of that am I convinced. Neither God nor the devil care to interfere in men's affairs – we need not therefore fear superhuman intervention. But 'tis the thought of treachery that haunts me."

"Bah!" quoth Beresteyn with a shrug of the shoulders, "you have made a nightmare of that thought. Treachery? there is no fear of treachery. Yourself, van Does, Heemskerk and I are the only ones who know anything at this moment of our plans for to-morrow. Do you suspect van Does of treachery, or Heemskerk, or me?"

"I was not thinking of Heemskerk or of van Does," rejoined Stoutenburg, "and even our men will know nothing of the attack until the last moment. Danger, friend, doth not lie in or around the molens; it lurks at Rotterdam and hath name Gilda."

"Gilda! What can you fear from Gilda now?"

"Everything. Have you never thought on it, friend? Jan, remember, lost track of that knave soon after he left Haarlem. At first he struck across the waterways in a southerly direction and for awhile Jan and the others were able to keep him in sight. But soon darkness settled in and along many intricate backwaters our rogue was able to give them the slip."

"I know that," rejoined Beresteyn somewhat impatiently. "I was here in the early morning when Jan reported to you. He also told you that he and his men pushed on as far as Leyden that night and regained the road to Rotterdam the following day. At Zegwaard and again at Zevenhuizen they ascertained that a party consisting of two women in a sledge and an escort of three cavaliers had halted for refreshments at those places and then continued their journey southwards. Since then Jan has found out definitely that Gilda and her escort arrived early last night at the house of Ben Isaje of Rotterdam, and he came straight on here to report to you. Frankly I see nothing in all this to cause you so much anxiety."

"You think then that everything is for the best?" asked Stoutenburg grimly, "you did not begin to wonder how it was that – as Jan ascertained at Zegwaard and at Zevenhuizen – Gilda continued her journey without any protest. According to the people whom Jan questioned she looked sad certainly, but she was always willing to restart on her way. What do you make of that, my friend?"

Once more Beresteyn shrugged his shoulders.

"Gilda is proud," he said. "She hath resigned herself to her fate."

Stoutenburg laughed aloud.

"How little you – her own brother – know her," he retorted. "Gilda resigned? Gilda content to let events shape themselves – such events as those which she heard us planning in the Groote Kerk on New Year's Eve? Why, my friend, Gilda will never be resigned, she will never be content until she hath moved earth and heaven to save the Stadtholder from my avenging hand!"

"But what can she do now? Ben Isaje is honest in business matters. It would not pay him to play his customers false. And I have promised him two thousand guilders if he keeps her safely as a prisoner of war, not even to be let out on parole. Ben Isaje would not betray me. He is too shrewd for that."

"That may be true of Ben Isaje himself; but what of his wife? his sons or daughters if he have any? his serving wenches, his apprentices and his men? How do you know that they are not amenable to promises of heavy bribes?"

"But even then…"

"Do you not think that at Rotterdam every one by now knows the Prince's movements? He passed within half a league of the town yesterday; there is not a serving wench in that city at this moment who does not know that Maurice of Nassau slept at Delft last night and will start northwards to-morrow."

"And what of that?" queried Beresteyn, trying to keep up a semblance of that carelessness which he was far from feeling now.

"Do you believe then that Gilda will stay quietly in the house of Ben Isaje, knowing that the Prince is within four leagues of her door?.. knowing that he will start northwards to-morrow … knowing that my headquarters are here – close to Ryswyk … knowing in fact all that she knows?"

"I had not thought on all that," murmured Beresteyn under his breath.

"And there is another danger too, friend, greater perhaps than any other," continued Stoutenburg vehemently.

"Good G – d, Stoutenburg, what do you mean?"

"That cursed foreign adventurer – "

"What about him?"

"Have you then never thought of him as being amenable to a bribe from Gilda."

"In Heaven's name, man, do not think of such awful eventualities!"

"But we must think of them, my good Beresteyn. Events are shaping themselves differently to what we expected. We must make preparations for our safety accordingly, and above all realise the fact that Gilda will move heaven and earth to thwart us in our plans."

"But she can do nothing," persisted Beresteyn sullenly, "without betraying me. In Haarlem it was different. She might have spoken to my father of what she knew, but she would not do so to a stranger, knowing that with one word she can send me first and all of you afterwards to the scaffold."

Stoutenburg with an exclamation of angry impatience brought his clenched fist crashing down upon the table.

"Are you a child, Beresteyn," he cried hotly, "or are you wilfully blind to your danger and to mine? I tell you that Gilda will never allow me to kill the Prince of Orange without raising a finger to save him."

"But what can I do?"

"Send for Gilda at once, to-night," urged Stoutenburg, "convey her under escort hither … in all deference … in all honour … she would be here under her brother's care."

"A woman in this place at such a moment," cried Beresteyn; "you are mad, Stoutenburg."

"I shall go mad if she is not here," rejoined the other more calmly, "the fear has entered into my soul, Nicolaes, that Gilda will yet betray us at the eleventh hour. That fear is an obsession … call it premonition if you will, but it unmans me, friend."

Beresteyn was silent now. He drew his cloak closer round his shoulders, for suddenly he felt a chill which seemed to have crept into his bones.

"But it is unpractical, man," he persisted with a kind of sullen despair. "Gilda and another woman here … to-morrow … when not half a league away…"

"Justice will be meted out to a tyrant and an assassin," broke in Stoutenburg quietly. "Gilda is not a woman as other women are, though in her soul now she may be shrinking at the thought of this summary justice, she will be strong and brave when the hour comes. In any case," he added roughly, "we can keep her closely guarded, and in the miller's hut, with the miller and his wife to look after her, she will be as safe and as comfortable as circumstances will allow. We should have her then under our own eyes and know that she cannot betray us."

As usual Beresteyn was already yielding to the stronger will, the more powerful personality of his friend. His association with Stoutenburg had gradually blunted his finer feelings; like a fly that is entangled in the web of a spider, he tried to fight against the network of intrigue and of cowardice which hemmed him in more and more closely with every step that he took along the path of crime. He was filled with remorse at thought of the wrong which he had done to Gilda, but he was no longer his own master. He was being carried away by the tide of intrigue and by the fear of discovery, away from his better self.

"You should have thought on all that sooner, Stoutenburg," he said in final, feeble protest, "we need never have sent Gilda to Rotterdam in the company of a foreign adventurer of whom we knew nothing."

"At the time it seemed simple enough," quoth Stoutenburg impatiently, "you suggested the house of Ben Isaje the banker and it seemed an excellent plan. I did not think of distance then, and it is only since we arrived at Ryswyk that I realized how near all these places are to one another, and how easy it would be for Gilda to betray us even now."

Beresteyn was silent after that. It was easy to see that his friend's restless anxiety was eating into his own soul. Stoutenburg watched him with those hollow glowing eyes of his that seemed to send a magnetic current of strong will-power into the weaker vessel.

"Well! perhaps you are right," said Beresteyn at last, "perhaps you are right. After all," he added half to himself, "perhaps I shall feel easier in my conscience when I have Gilda near me and feel that I can at least watch over her."

Stoutenburg, having gained his point, jumped to his feet and drew a deep breath of satisfaction.

"That's bravely said," he exclaimed. "Will you go yourself at once to Rotterdam? with two or three of our most trusted men you could bring Gilda here with absolute safety; you only need to make a slight d?tour when you near Delft so as to avoid the city. You could be here by six o'clock this evening at the latest, and Jan in the meanwhile with a contingent of our stalwarts shall try and find that abominable plepshurk again and bring him here too without delay."

"No, no," said Beresteyn quickly, "I'll not go myself. I could not bear to meet Gilda just yet. I will not have her think that I had a hand in her abduction and my presence might arouse her suspicions."



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