Emma Orczy.

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



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Stoutenburg laughed unconcernedly.

"You would rather that she thought I had instigated the deed. Well!" he added with a careless shrug, "my shoulders are broad enough to bear the brunt of her wrath if she does. An you will not go yourself we will give full instructions to Jan. He shall bring Gilda and her woman hither with due respect and despatch, and lay the knave by the heels at the same time. Ten or a dozen of our men or even more can easily be spared to-day, there is really nothing for them to do, and they are best out of mischief by being kept busy. Now while I go to give Jan his instructions do you write a letter to Ben Isaje, telling him that it is your wish that Gilda should accompany the bearer of your sign-manual."

"But…"

"Tush, man!" exclaimed Stoutenburg impatiently, while a tone of contempt rang through his harsh voice, "you can so word the letter that even if it were found it need not compromise you in any way. You might just have discovered that your sister was in the hands of brigands, and be sending an escort to rescue her; Gilda will be grateful to you then and ready to believe in you. Write what you like, but for God's sake write quickly. Every moment's delay drives me well-nigh distraught."

With jerky, feverish movements he pushed paper and inkhorn nearer to Beresteyn, who hesitated no longer and at once began to write. Stoutenburg went to the door and loudly called for Jan.

Ten minutes later the letter was written, folded and delivered into Jan's keeping, who was standing at attention and recapitulating the orders which had been given him.

"I take a dozen men with me," he said slowly, "and we follow the course of the Schie as far as Rotterdam. Fortunately it is passable practically the whole of the way."

Stoutenburg nodded in approval.

"I present this letter to Mynheer Ben Isaje, the banker," continued Jan, "and ask him at once to apprise the jongejuffrouw that she deign to accompany us."

"Yes. That is right," quoth Stoutenburg, "but remember that I want you above all things to find that foreigner again. You said that he was sleeping last night in Mynheer Ben Isaje's house."

"So I understood, my lord."

"Well! you must move heaven and earth to find him, Jan. I want him here – a prisoner – remember! Do not let him slip through your fingers this time. It might mean life or death to us all. By fair means or foul you must lay him by the heels."

"It should not be difficult, my lord," assented Jan quietly. "I will pick my men, and I have no doubt that we shall come across the foreigner somewhere in the neighbourhood. He cannot have gone far, and even if he left the city we will easily come on his track."

"That's brave, Jan. Then come straight back here; two or three of your men can in the meanwhile escort the jongejuffrouw, who will travel by sledge. You must avoid Delft of course, and make a d?tour there."

"I had best get horses at Rotterdam, my lord; the sledge can follow the left bank of the Schie all the way, which will be the best means of avoiding Delft."

"And remember," concluded Stoutenburg in his most peremptory manner, "that you must all be back here before ten o'clock to-night.

The jongejuffrouw first and you with the foreigner later. It is not much more than eight o'clock now; you have the whole day before you. Let the sledge pull up outside the miller's hut, everything will be ready there by then for the jongejuffrouw's reception; and let your watchwords be 'Silence, discretion, speed!' – you understand?"

"I understand, my lord," replied Jan simply as he gave a military salute, then quietly turned on his heel and went out of the room.

The two friends were once more alone, straining their ears to catch every sound which came to them now from below. Muffled and enveloped in the mist, the voice of Jan giving brief words of command could be distinctly heard, also the metallic click of skates and the tramping of heavily-booted feet upon the ground. But ten minutes later all these sounds had died away. Jan and his men had gone to fetch Gilda – the poor little pawn moved hither and thither by the ruthless and ambitious hands of men.

Beresteyn had buried his head in his hands, in a sudden fit of overpowering remorse. Stoutenburg looked on him silently for awhile, his haggard face appeared drawn and sunken in the pale grey light which found its way through the tiny window up above. Passion greater than that which broke down the spirit of his friend, was tearing at his heart-strings; ambition fought with love, and remorse with determination. But through it all the image of Gilda flitted before his burning eyes across this dimly-lighted room, reproachful and sweet and tantalizingly beautiful. The desire to have her near him in the greatest hour of his life on the morrow, had been the true mainspring which had prompted him to urge Beresteyn to send for her. It seemed to him that Gilda's presence would bring him luck in his dark undertaking so heavily fraught with crime, and with a careless shrug of the shoulders he was ready to dismiss all thoughts of the wrong which he had done her, in favour of his hopes, his desire, his certainty that a glorious future in his arms would compensate her for all that he had caused her to endure.

CHAPTER XXXII
A RUN THROUGH THE NIGHT

That same morning of this fourth day of the New Year found Gilda Beresteyn sitting silent and thoughtful in the tiny room which had been placed at her disposal in the house of Mynheer Ben Isaje, the banker.

A few hours ago she had come back to it, running like some frightened animal who had just escaped an awful – but unknown – danger, and had thrown herself down on the narrow bed in the alcove in an agony of soul far more difficult to bear than any sorrow which had assailed her during the last few days.

A great, a vivid ray of hope had pierced the darkness of her misery, it had flickered low at first, then had glowed with wonderful intensity, flickered again and finally died down as hope itself fell dying once more in the arms of despair.

The disappointment which she had endured then amounted almost to physical pain; her heart ached and beat intolerably and with that disappointment was coupled a sense of hatred and of humiliation, different to any suffering she had ever had to bear before.

A man could have helped her and had refused: he could have helped her to avert a crime more hideous than any that had ever blackened the pages of this country's history. With that one man's help she could have stopped that crime from being committed and he had refused … nay more! he had first dragged her secret from her, word by word, luring her into thoughts of security with the hope that he dangled before her.

He knew everything now: she had practically admitted everything save the identity of those whose crime she wished to avert. But even that identity would be easy for the man to guess. Stoutenburg, of course, had paid him to lay hands on her … but her brother Nicolaes was Stoutenburg's friend and ally, and his life and that of his friends were now in the hands of that rogue, who might betray them with the knowledge which he had filched from her.

No wonder that hour after hour she lay prostrate on the bed, while these dark thoughts hammered away in her brain. The Prince of Orange walking unknowingly straight to his death, or Nicolaes – her brother – and his friends betrayed to the vengeance of that Prince. Ghosts of those who had already died – victims to that same merciless vengeance – flitted in the darkness before her feverish fancy: John of Barneveld, the Lord of Gr?neveld, the sorrowing widows and fatherless children … and in their trail the ghost of the great Stadtholder, William the Silent murdered – as his son would be – at Delft, close to Ryswyk and the molens, where even now Nicolaes her brother was learning the final lesson of infamy.

When in the late morning Maria came into the room to bring her mistress some warm milk and bread, and to minister to her comforts, she found her dearly loved jongejuffrouw wide-eyed and feverish.

But not a word could she get out of Gilda while she dressed her hair, except an assurance that their troubles – as far as Maria could gauge them – would soon be over now, and that in twenty-four hours mayhap they would be escorted back to Haarlem.

"When, I trust, that I shall have the joy of seeing three impudent knaves swing on gibbets in the market place," quoth Maria decisively, "and one of them – the most impudent of the lot – drawn and quartered, or burnt at the stake!" she added with savage insistence.

When Gilda was ready dressed, she asked for leave to speak with Mynheer Ben Isaje. The Jew, obsequious and affable, received her with utmost deference, and in a few words put the situation before her. Mevrouw Isaje, he said, was from home: he had not been apprised of the jongejuffrouw's coming, or his wife would have been ready to receive her at his private house, which was situated but half a league out of Rotterdam. But Mevrouw Isaje would return from the visit which she had been paying to her father in the course of the afternoon, until that hour Mynheer Ben Isaje begged that the jongejuffrouw would look upon this miserable hovel as her property and would give what orders she desired for the furtherance of her comfort. In the afternoon, he concluded, an escort would once more be ready to convey the jongejuffrouw to that same private house of his, where there was a nice garden and a fine view over the Schie instead of the confined outlook on squalid houses opposite, which was quite unworthy of the jongejuffrouw's glance.

Gilda did not attempt to stay the flow of Ben Isaje's eloquence: she thanked him graciously for everything that he had already done for her comfort.

Maria – more loquacious, and bubbling over with indignation – asked him when this outrageous confinement of her person and that of her exalted mistress at the hands of brigands would cease, and if Mynheer Ben Isaje was aware that such confinement against the jongejuffrouw's will would inevitably entail the punishment of hanging.

But thereupon Mynheer Ben Isaje merely rubbed his thin hands together and became as evasive first and then as mute as only those of his race can contrive to be.

Then Gilda – making an effort to speak unconcernedly – asked him what had become of the men who had brought her hither from Haarlem.

"They spent half the night eating and drinking at the tavern, mejuffrouw," said the Jew blandly.

"Ah!" rejoined Gilda quietly, "methought one of them had found hospitality under your roof."

"So he had, mejuffrouw. But this morning when I called him – for I had some business to transact with him – I found his room already empty. No doubt he had gone to join his companions at the tavern. But the rascal's movements need not disturb the jongejuffrouw for one moment. After to-day she need never set eyes on him again."

"Save when he is hanging on a gibbet in the Groote Markt," broke in Maria viciously. "I for one never go to see such sights, but when that rascal hangs it shall be a holiday for me to go and get a last look at him."

Later on in the day, Ben Isaje, more affable and obsequious than he had ever been, came to announce to the jongejuffrouw that her sledge was awaiting her at the top of the street.

Silently and resignedly as had been her wont these past two days Gilda Beresteyn, wrapping her cloak and hood closely round her, followed Mynheer Ben Isaje out of the house. Maria walked immediately behind her, muttering imprecations against brigands, and threatening dire punishments against every Jew.

Though it was only three o'clock in the afternoon, it was already quite dark in this narrow street, where tall gables almost touched one another at the top: only from the tiny latticed windows feeble patches of yellow light glimmered weirdly through the fog.

The sledge was waiting at the top of the street, as Mynheer Ben Isaje had said. Gilda shuddered as soon as she caught sight of it again; it represented so much that was vivid and tangible of her present anxiety and sorrow. It stood upon an open market-place, with the driver sitting up at his post and three horses harnessed thereto. The small tavern was at the corner on the left, and as Gilda walked rapidly up to the sledge, she saw two of the men who had been escorting her hitherto, the thin man with the abnormally long legs, and the fat one with the red nose and round eyes: but of the third tall, splendid figure she did not catch one glimpse.

The two men nudged one another as she passed, and whispered excitedly to one another, but she could not hear what they said, and the next moment she found herself being handed into the vehicle by Ben Isaje, who thereupon took humble leave of her.

"You are not coming with us, mynheer?" she asked in astonishment.

"Not … not just yet, mejuffrouw," murmured the Jew somewhat incoherently, "it is too early yet in the afternoon … er … for me to … to leave my business… I have the honour to bid the jongejuffrouw 'Godspeed.'"

"But," said Gilda, who suddenly misliked Ben Isaje's manner, yet could not have told you why, "the mevrouw – your wife – she is ready to receive me?"

"Of a truth – certainly," replied the man. Gilda would have given much to question him further. She was quite sure that there was something strange in his manner, something that she mistrusted; but just as she was about to speak again, there was a sudden command of "Forward!" the driver cracked his whip, the harness jingled, the sledge gave a big lurch forward and the next moment Gilda found herself once more being rushed at great speed through the cold night air.

She could not see much round her, for the fog out in the open seemed even more dense than it was inside the city and the darkness of the night crept swiftly through the fog. All that she knew for certain was that the city was very soon left behind, that the driver was urging his horses on to unusual speed, and that she must be travelling along a river bank, because when the harness rattled and jingled less loudly than usual, she could hear distinctly the clink of metal skates upon the ice, as wayfarers no doubt were passing to and fro.

Solitary as she was – for Maria and her eternal grumblings were poor company – she fell to thinking again over the future, as she had done not only last night but through the past few interminable days; it almost seemed as if she had never, never thought of anything else, as if those same few days stretched out far away behind her into dim and nebulous infinity.

During those days she had alternately hoped and feared and been disappointed only to hope again: but the disappointment of last night was undoubtedly the most bitter that she had yet experienced. So bitter had it been that for a time – after its intense poignancy had gone – her faculties and power of thinking had become numbed, and now – very gradually, unknown at first even to herself, hope shook itself free from the grip of disappointment and peeped up at her out of the abyss of her despair.

Did that unscrupulous knave really have the last word in the matter? had his caprice the power to order the destiny of this land and the welfare of its faith?

Bah! the very thought was monstrous and impossible. Was the life of the Prince of Orange to be sacrificed because a rascal would not help her to give him that word of warning which might save him even now at the eleventh hour?

No! Gilda Beresteyn refused to believe that God – who had helped the armies of the Netherlands throughout their struggle against the might of Spain – would allow a rogue to have so much power. After all, she was not going to be shut up in prison! she was going to the house of ordinary, respectable burghers; true, they were of alien and of despised faith, but they were well-to-do, had a family, serving women and men.

Surely among these there would be one who – amenable to cajoleries or to promises – would prove to be the instrument sent by God to save the Stadtholder from an assassin's dagger!

Gilda Beresteyn, wrapped in this new train of thought, lost count of time, of distance and of cold: she lived during one whole hour in the happiness of this newly-risen hope, making plans, conjecturing, rehearsing over in her mind what she would say, how she would probe the loyalty, the kindness of those who would be around her to-night.

Delft was so near! and after all even Maria might be bribed to forget her fears and her grievances and to become that priceless instrument of salvation of which Gilda dreamed as the sledge flew swiftly along through the night.

It was Maria who roused her suddenly out of these happy fancies. Maria who said plaintively:

"Shall we never get to that verdommte house. The Jew said that it was only situate half a league from Rotterdam."

"We must be close to it," murmured Gilda.

"Close to it!" retorted Maria, "we seem to be burning the ground under the horses' hoofs – we have left Rotterdam behind us this hour past… It is the longest half league that I have ever known."

"Peep out under the hood, Maria. Cannot you see where we are?"

Maria peeped out as she was bid.

"I can see the lights of a city far away on our right," she said. "From the direction in which we have been going and the ground which we have covered I should guess that city to be Delft."

"Delft!" exclaimed Gilda, smothering a louder scream.

The driver had just pulled up his horses, allowing them to go at a walk so as to restore their wind and ease them for awhile. Gilda tried her best to peer through the darkness. All that she could see were those lights far away on the right which proclaimed the distant city.

A chill struck suddenly to her heart. Ben Isaje had lied! Why? She was not being taken to his house which was situate half a league outside Rotterdam … then whither was she being taken? What new misery, what new outrage awaited her now?

The lights of the distant city receded further and further away from her view, the driver once more put his horses at a trot, the sledge moved along more smoothly now: it seemed as if it were going over the surface of the river. Delft was being left behind, and the sledge was following the course of the Schie … on toward Ryswyk…

The minutes sped on, another quarter of an hour, another half hour, another hour in this dread suspense. The driver was urging his horses unmercifully: he gave them but little rest. It was only when for a few brief moments he put them at walking pace, that Gilda heard – all around her as it seemed – that metallic click of skates which told her that the sledge was surrounded by men who were there to watch over her and see that she did not escape.

CHAPTER XXXIII
THE CAPTIVE LION

Beresteyn was sitting at the table in the weighing-room of the molens: his elbows rested on the table, and his right hand supported his head; in the feeble light of the lanthorn placed quite close to him, his face looked sullen and dark, and his eyes, overshadowed by his frowning brows, were fixed with restless eagerness upon the narrow door.

Stoutenburg, with hands crossed over his chest, with head bare and collar impatiently torn away from round his neck, was pacing up and down the long, low room like a caged beast of prey.

"Enter!" he shouted impatiently in response to a loud knock on the door. Then as Jan entered, and having saluted, remained standing by the door, he paused in his feverish walk, and asked in a curiously hoarse voice, choked with anxiety:

"Is everything all right, Jan?"

"Everything, my lord."

"The jongejuffrouw?.."

"In the hut, my lord. There is a good fire there and the woman is preparing some hot supper for the lady."

"How does she seem?"

"She stepped very quietly out of the sledge, my lord, the moment I told her that we had arrived. She asked no questions, and walked straight into the hut. Meseemed that the jongejuffrouw knew exactly where she was."

"The woman will look after her comforts well?"

"Oh, yes, my lord, though she is only a rough peasant, she will try and do her best, and the jongejuffrouw has her own waiting woman with her as well."

"And the horses?"

"In the shed behind the hut."

"Look after them well, Jan: we may want to use them again to-morrow."

"They shall be well looked after, my lord."

"And you have placed the sentry outside the hut?"

"Two men in the front and two in the rear, as you have commanded, my lord."

Stoutenburg drew a deep breath of satisfaction: but anxiety seemed to have exhausted him, for now that his questions had been clearly answered, he sank into a chair.

"All well, Nicolaes," he said more calmly as he placed a re-assuring hand upon his friend's shoulder.

But Nicolaes groaned aloud.

"Would to God," he said, "that all were well!"

Smothering an impatient retort Stoutenburg once more turned to Jan.

"And what news of the foreigner?" he queried eagerly.

"We have got him, my lord," replied Jan.

"By G – d!" exclaimed Stoutenburg, "how did you do it?"

His excitement was at fever pitch now. He was leaning forward, and his attitude was one of burning expectancy. His hollow eyes were fixed upon Jan's lips as if they would extract from them the glad news which they held. Whatever weakness there was in Stoutenburg's nature, one thing in him was strong – and that was hatred. He could hate with an intensity of passion worthy of a fine cause. He hated the Stadtholder first, and secondly the nameless adventurer who had humiliated him and forced him to lick the dust: wounded in his vanity and in his arrogance he was consumed with an inordinate desire for revenge. The hope that this revenge was now at last in sight – that the man whom he hated so desperately was now in his power – almost caused the light of mania to dance in his glowing eyes.



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