Emma Orczy.

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



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"How did you do it, Jan?" he reiterated hoarsely.

"It was not far from the molens," said Jan simply, "until then he gave us the slip, though we spied him just outside Delft on our way to Rotterdam this morning. My impression is that he went back to Rotterdam then, and that he followed the jongejuffrouw's sledge practically all the way. Close to the molens he was forced to draw a little nearer as it was getting very dark and probably he did not know his way about. I am convinced that he wished to ascertain exactly whither we were taking the jongejuffrouw. At any rate, I and some of our fellows who had lagged in the rear caught sight of him then…"

"And you seized him?" cried Stoutenburg with exultant joy.

"He was alone, my lord," replied Jan with a placid smile, "and there were seven of us at the time. Two or three of the men, though, are even now nursing unpleasant wounds. I myself fared rather badly with a bruised head and half-broken collar-bone… The man is a demon for fighting, but there were seven of us."

"Well done, Jan!" cried Beresteyn now, for Stoutenburg had become speechless with the delight of this glorious news; "and what did you do with the rogue?"

"We tied him securely with ropes and dragged him along with us. Oh! we made certain of him, my lord, you may be sure of that. And now I and another man have taken him down into the basement below and we have fastened him to one of the beams, where I imagine the north-west wind will soon cool his temper."

"Aye, that it will!" quoth Stoutenburg lustily. "Take the lanthorn, Jan, and let us to him at once. Beresteyn, friend, will you come too? Your hand like mine must be itching to get at the villain's face."

The two men took good care to wrap their cloaks well round their shoulders and to pull their fur caps closely round their ears. Thus muffled up against the bitterness of the night, they went out of the molens, followed by Jan, who carried the lanthorn.

Outside the door, steep, ladder-like steps led to the ground. The place referred to by Jan as "the basement" was in reality the skeleton foundations on which the molens rested. These were made up of huge beams – green and slimy with age, and driven deep down into the muddy flat below. Ten feet up above, the floor of the molens sat towering aloft. Darkness like pitch reigned on this spot, but as Jan swung his lanthorn along, the solid beams detached themselves one by one out of the gloom, their ice-covered surface reflected the yellow artificial light, and huge icicles of weird and fantastic shapes like giant arms and fingers stretched out hung down from the transverse bars and from the wooden framework of the molens above.

To one of the upright beams a man was securely fastened with ropes wound round about his body. His powerful muscles were straining against the cords which tied his arms behind his back. A compassionate hand had put his broad-brimmed hat upon his head, to protect his ears and nose against the frost, but his mighty chest was bare, for doublet and shirt had been torn in the reckless fight which preceded final capture.

Jan held up the lanthorn and pointed out to my lord the prisoner whom he was so proud to have captured.

The light fell upon the pinioned figure, splendid in its air of rebellious helplessness. Here was a man, momentarily conquered it is true, but obviously not vanquished, and though the ropes now cut into his body, though the biting wind lashed his bare chest, and dark stains showed upon his shirt, the spirit within was as free and untrammelled as ever – the spirit of independence and of adventure which is willing to accept the knockdown blows of fate as readily and cheerfully as her favours.

Despite the torn shirt and the ragged doublet there was yet an air of swagger about the whole person of the man, swagger that became almost insolent as the Lord of Stoutenburg approached. He threw back his head and looked his sworn enemy straight in the face, his eyes were laughing still, and a smile of cool irony played round his lips.

"Well done, Jan!" quoth Stoutenburg with a deep sigh of satisfaction.

He was standing with arms akimbo and legs wide apart, enjoying to the full the intense delight of gazing for awhile in silence on his discomfited enemy.

"Ah! but it is good," he said at last, "to look upon a helpless rogue."

"'Tis a sight then," retorted the prisoner lightly, "which your Magnificence hath often provided for your friends and your adherents."

"Bah!" rejoined Stoutenburg, who was determined to curb his temper if he could, "your insolence now, my man, hath not the power to anger me. It strikes me as ludicrous – even pathetic in its senselessness. An I were in your unpleasant position, I would try by submission to earn a slight measure of leniency from my betters."

"No doubt you would, my lord," quoth Diogenes dryly, "but you see I have up to now not yet come across my betters. When I do, I may take your advice."

"Verdommte Keerl! What say you, Beresteyn," added Stoutenburg turning to his friend, "shall we leave him here to-night to cool his impudence, we can always hang him to-morrow."

Beresteyn made no immediate reply, his face was pale and haggard, and his glance – shifty and furtive – seemed to avoid that of the prisoner.

"You must see that the fellow is well guarded, Jan," resumed Stoutenburg curtly, "give him some food, but on no account allow him the slightest freedom."

"My letters to Ben Isaje," murmured Beresteyn, as Stoutenburg already turned to go. "Hath he perchance got them by him still?"

"The letters! yes! I have forgotten!" said the other. "Search him, Jan!" he commanded.

Jan put down the lanthorn and then proceeded to lay rough hands upon the captive philosopher; he had a heavy score to pay off against him – an aching collar-bone and a bruised head, and the weight of a powerful fist to avenge. He was not like to be gentle in his task. He tore at the prisoner's doublet and in his search for a hidden pocket he disclosed an ugly wound which had lacerated the shoulder.

"Some of us took off our skates," he remarked casually, "and brought him down with them. The blades were full sharp, and we swung them by their straps; they made excellent weapons thus; the fellow should have more than one wound about him."

"Three, my good Jan, to be quite accurate," said Diogenes calmly, "but all endurable. I had ten about me outside Prague once, but the fellows there were fighting better than you, and in a worthier cause."

Jan's rough hands continued their exhaustive search; a quickly smothered groan from the prisoner caused Stoutenburg to laugh.

"That sound," he said, "was music to mine ear."

Jan now drew a small leather wallet and a parchment roll both from the wide flap of the prisoner's boot. Stoutenburg pounced upon the wallet, and Beresteyn with eager anxiety tore the parchment out of Jan's hand.

"It is the formal order to Ben Isaje," he said, "to pay over the money to this knave. Is there anything else, Jan?" he continued excitedly, "a thinner paper? – shaped like a letter?"

"Nothing else, mynheer," replied Jan.

"Did you then deliver my letter to Ben Isaje, fellow?" queried Beresteyn of the prisoner.

"My friend Jan should be able to tell you that," he replied, "hath he not been searching the very folds of my skin."

In the meanwhile Stoutenburg had been examining the contents of the wallet.

"Jewellery belonging to the jongejuffrouw," he said dryly, "which this rogue hath stolen from her. Will you take charge of them, Nicolaes? And here," he added, counting out a few pieces of gold and silver, "is some of your own money."

He made as if he would return this to Beresteyn, then a new idea seemed to strike him, for he put all the money back into the wallet and said to Jan:

"Put this wallet back where you found it, Jan, and, Nicolaes," he added turning back to his friend, "will you allow me to look at that bond?"

While Jan obeyed and replaced the wallet in the flap of the prisoner's boot, Beresteyn handed the parchment to Stoutenburg. The latter then ordered Jan to hold up the lanthorn so that by its light he might read the writing.

This he did, twice over, with utmost attention; after which he tore off very carefully a narrow strip from the top of the document.

"Now," he said quietly, "this paper, wherever found, cannot compromise you in any way, Nicolaes. The name of Ben Isaje who alone could trace the cypher signature back to you, we will scatter to the winds."

And he tore the narrow strip which he had severed from the document into infinitesimal fragments, which he then allowed the wind to snatch out of his hand and to whirl about and away into space. But the document itself he folded up with ostentatious care.

"What do you want with that?" asked Beresteyn anxiously.

"I don't know yet, but it might be very useful," replied the other. "So many things may occur within the next few days that such an ambiguously worded document might prove of the utmost value."

"But … the signature …" urged Beresteyn, "my father…"

"The signature, you told me, friend, is one that you use in the ordinary way of business whilst the wording of the document in itself cannot compromise you in any way; it is merely a promise to pay for services rendered. Leave this document in my keeping; believe me, it is quite safe with me and might yet be of incalculable value to us. One never knows."

"No! one never does know," broke in the prisoner airily, "for of a truth when there's murder to be done, pillage or outrage, the Lord of Stoutenburg never knows what other infamy may come to his hand."

"Insolent knave!" exclaimed Stoutenburg hoarsely, as with a cry of unbridled fury he suddenly raised his arm and with the parchment roll which he held, he struck the prisoner savagely in the face.

"Take care, Stoutenburg," ejaculated Beresteyn almost involuntarily.

"Take care of what," retorted the other with a harsh laugh, "the fellow is helpless, thank God! and I would gladly break my riding whip across his impudent face."

He was livid and shaking with fury. Beresteyn – honestly fearing that in his blind rage he would compromise his dignity before his subordinates – dragged him by the arm away from the presence of this man whom he appeared to hate with such passionate intensity.

Stoutenburg, obdurate at first, almost drunk with his own fury, tried to free himself from his friend's grasp. He wanted to lash the man he hated once more in the face, to gloat for awhile longer on the sight of his enemy now completely in his power. But all around in the gloom he perceived figures that moved; the soldiers and mercenaries placed at his disposal by his friends were here in numbers: some of them had been put on guard over the prisoner by Jan, and others had joined them, attracted by loud voices.

Stoutenburg had just enough presence of mind left in him to realize that the brutal striking of a defenceless prisoner would probably horrify these men, who were fighters and not bullies, and might even cause them to turn from their allegiance to him.

So with desperate effort he pulled himself together and contrived to give with outward calm some final orders to Jan.

"See that the ropes are securely fastened, Jan," he said, "leave half a dozen men on guard, then follow me."

But to Beresteyn, who had at last succeeded in dragging him away from this spot, he said loudly:

"You do not know, Nicolaes, what a joy it is to me to be even with that fellow at last."

A prolonged laugh, that had a note of triumph in it, gave answer to this taunt, whilst a clear voice shouted lustily:

"Nay! we never can be quite even, my lord; since you were not trussed like a capon when I forced you to lick the dust."

CHAPTER XXXIV
PROTESTATIONS

Half-an-hour later, the Lord of Stoutenburg was in Gilda's presence. He was glad enough that Nicolaes Beresteyn – afraid to meet his sister – had refused to accompany him. He, too, felt nervous and anxious at thought of meeting her face to face at last. He had not spoken to her since that day in March when he was a miserable fugitive – in a far worse plight than was the wounded man tied with cords to a beam. He had been a hunted creature then, every man's hand raised against him, his life at the mercy of any passer-by, and she had given him shelter freely and fearlessly – shelter and kind words – and her ministrations had brought him luck, for he succeeded in reaching the coast after he parted from her, and finding shelter once more in a foreign land.

Since then her image had filled his dreams by night and his thoughts by day. His earlier love for her, smothered by ambition, rose up at once more strong, more insistent than before; it became during all these months of renewed intrigues and plots the one ennobling trait in his tortuous character. His love for Gilda was in itself not a selfish feeling; neither ambition nor the mere gratification of obstinate desire entered in its composition. He loved Gilda for herself alone, with all the adoration which a pious man would have given to his God, and while one moment of his life was occupied in planning a ruthless and dastardly murder, the other was filled with hopes of a happier future, with Gilda beside him as his idolized wife. But though his love was in itself pure and selfless, he remained true to his unscrupulous nature in the means which he adopted in order to win the object of his love.

Even now, when he entered her presence in the miserable peasant's hut where he chose to hold her a prisoner, he felt no remorse at the recollection of what she must have suffered in the past few days; his one thought was – now that he had her completely under his control – how he could best plead his cause first, or succeed in coercing her will if she proved unkind.

She received him quite calmly, and even with a gracious nod of the head, and he thought that he had never seen her look more beautiful than she did now, in her straight white gown, with that sweet, sad face of hers framed by a wealth of golden curls. In this squalid setting of white-washed walls and rafters blackened with age, she looked indeed – he thought – like one of those fairy princesses held prisoner by a wicked ogre – of whom he used to read long ago when he was a child, before sin and treachery and that insatiable longing for revenge had wholly darkened his soul.

With bare head and back bent nearly double in the depth of his homage he approached his divinity.

"It is gracious of you, mejuffrouw, to receive me," he said forcing his harsh voice to tones of gentleness.

"I had not the power to refuse, my lord," she replied quietly, "seeing that I am in your hands and entirely at your commands."

"I entreat you do not say that," he rejoined eagerly, "there is no one here who has the right to command save yourself. 'Tis I am in your hands and your most humble slave."

"A truce to this farce, my lord," she retorted impatiently. "I were not here if you happened to be my slave, and took commands from me."

"'Tis true mayhap that you would not be here, now, mejuffrouw," he said blandly, "but I could only act for the best, and as speedily as I could. The moment I heard that you were in the hands of brigands I moved heaven and earth to find out where you were. I only heard this morning that you were in Rotterdam…"

"You heard that I was in the hands of brigands," she murmured, almost gasping with astonishment, "you heard this morning that I was in Rotterdam…?"

"I sent spies and messengers in every direction the moment I heard of the abominable outrage against your person," he continued with well-feigned vehemence. "I cannot even begin to tell you what I endured these past three days, until at last, by dint of ruse and force, I was able to circumvent the villains who held you captive, and convey you hither in safety and profound respect until such time as I can find a suitable escort to take you back to your father."

"If what you say is true, my lord, you could lend me an escort at once, that I might return to my dear father forthwith. Truly he must have broken his heart by now, weeping for me."

"Have I not said that I am your slave?" he rejoined gently, "an you desire to return to Haarlem immediately, I will see about an escort for you as quickly as may be. The hour is late now," he added hypocritically, "but a man can do much when his heart's desire lies in doing the behests of a woman whom he worships."

Though she frowned at these last words of his, she leaned forward eagerly to him.

"You will let me go … at once … to-night?"

"At once if it lies in my power," he replied unblushingly, "but I fear me that you will have to wait a few hours; the night is as dark as pitch. It were impossible to make a start in it. To-morrow, however…"

"To-morrow?" she cried anxiously, "'Tis to-night that I wish to go."

"The way to Haarlem is long …" he murmured.

"'Tis not to Haarlem, my lord, but to Delft that I long to go."

"To Delft?" he exclaimed with a perfect show of astonishment.

She bit her lip and for the moment remained silent. It had, indeed, been worse than folly to imagine that he – of all men in the world – would help her to go to Delft. But he had been so gentle, so kind, apparently so ready to do all that she asked, that for the moment she forgot that he and he alone was the mover of that hideous conspiracy to murder which she still prayed to God that she might avert.

"I had forgotten, my lord," she said, as tears threatened to choke her voice, "I had forgotten."

"Forgotten? What?" he asked blankly.

"That you are not like to escort me to Delft."

"Why not to Delft, an you wish to go there?"

"But …" she murmured, "the Stadtholder…"

"Ah!" he exclaimed, "now I understand. You are thinking of what you overheard in the cathedral of Haarlem."

"Indeed, how could I forget it?"

"Easily now, Gilda," he replied with solemn earnestness. "The plans which my friends and I formed on that night have been abandoned."

"Abandoned?"

"Yes! Your brother was greatly impressed by all that you said to him. He persuaded us all to think more lengthily over the matter. Then came the news of the outrage upon your person, and all thoughts of my ambition and of my revenge faded before this calamity, and I have devoted every hour of mine existence since then to find you and to restore you to your home."

Bewildered, wide-eyed, Gilda listened to him. In all her life hitherto, she had never come into contact with lying and with deceit: she had never seen a man lying unblushingly, calmly, not showing signs of confusion or of fear. Therefore, the thought that this man could be talking so calmly, so simply, so logically, and yet be trying to deceive her, never for one moment entered her head. The events of the past few days crowded in upon her brain in such a maddening array, that, as she sat here now, face to face with the man whom she had been so ready to suspect, she could not disentangle from those events one single fact that could justify her suspicions.

Even looking back upon the conversation which she had had with that impudent rogue in Leyden and again last night, she distinctly remembered now that he had never really said a single thing that implicated the Lord of Stoutenburg or anyone else in this villainy.

She certainly was bewildered and very puzzled now: joy at the thought that after all the Stadtholder was safe, joy that her brother's hand would not be stained with murder, or his honour with treachery, mingled with a vague sense of mistrust which she was powerless to combat, yet felt ashamed to admit.

"Then, my lord," she murmured at last, "do you really tell me that the outrage of which I have been the victim was merely planned by villains, for mercenary motives?"

"What else could have prompted it?" he asked blandly.

"Neither you … nor … nor any of your friends had a hand in it?" she insisted.

"I?" he exclaimed with a look of profound horror. "I?.. to do you such a wrong! For what purpose, ye gods?"

"To … to keep me out of the way…"

"I understand," he said simply. "And you, Gilda, believed this of me?"

"I believed it," she replied calmly.

"You did not realize then that I would give every drop of my blood to save you one instant's pain?"

"I did not realize," she said more coldly, "that you would give up your ambition for any woman or for anything."

"You do not believe then, that I love you?"

"Speak not of love, my lord," she retorted, "it is a sacred thing. And you methinks do not know what love is."

"Indeed you are right, Gilda," he said, "I do not know what is the love of ordinary men. But if to love you, Gilda, means that every thought, every hope, every prayer is centred upon you, if it means that neither sleep nor work, nor danger can for one single instant chase your image from my soul, if to love you means that my very sinews ache with the longing to hold you in my arms, and that every moment which keeps me from your side is torture worse than hell; if love means all that, Gilda, then do I know to mine own hurt what love is."

"And in your ambition, my lord, you allowed that love to be smothered," she retorted calmly. "It is too late now to speak of it again, to any woman save to Walburg de Marnix."



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