The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernelскачать книгу бесплатно
"I'll speak of it to you, Gilda, while the breath in my body lasts. Walburg de Marnix is no longer my wife. The law of our country has already set me free."
"The law of God binds you to her. I pray you speak no more of such things to me."
"You are hard and cruel, Gilda."
"I no longer love you."
"You will love again," he retorted confidently, "in the meanwhile have I regained your trust?"
"Not even that, wholly," she replied.
"Let me at least do one thing in my own justification," he pleaded. "Allow me to prove to you now and at once that – great though my love is for you, and maddening my desire to have you near me – I could not be guilty of such an outrage, as I know that in your heart you do accuse me of."
"I did accuse you of it, my lord, I own. But how can you prove me wrong now and at once?"
"By bringing before you the only guilty person in this network of infamy," he replied hotly.
"You know him then?"
"For these three days now I and my faithful servants have tracked him. I have him here now a prisoner at last. His presence before you will prove to you that I at least bore no share in the hideous transaction."
"Of whom do you speak, my lord?" she asked.
"Of the man who dared to lay hands upon you in Haarlem…"
"He is here – now?" she exclaimed.
"A helpless prisoner in my hands," he replied, "to-morrow summary justice shall be meted out to him, and he will receive the punishment which his infamy deserves."
"But he did not act on his own initiative," she said eagerly, "another man more powerful, richer than he prompted him – paid him – tempted him…"
Stoutenburg made a gesture of infinite contempt.
"So, no doubt, he has told you, Gilda. Men of his stamp are always cowards at heart, even though they have a certain brutish instinct for fighting – mostly in self-defence. He tried to palliate his guilt before you by involving me in its responsibility."
"You," she whispered under her breath, "or one of your friends."
"You mean your brother Nicolaes," he rejoined quietly. "Ah! the man is even a more arrant knave than I thought. So! he has tried to fasten the responsibility for this outrage against your person, firstly on me who worship the very ground you walk on, secondly on the brother whom you love?"
"No, no," she protested eagerly, "I did not say that. It was I who…"
"Who thought so ill of me," broke in Stoutenburg with gentle reproach, "of me and of Nicolaes. You questioned the rogue, and he did not deny it, nay more he enlarged upon the idea, which would place all the profits of this abominable transaction in his hands and yet exonerate him from guilt. But you shall question him yourself, Gilda. By his looks, by his answers, by his attitude you will be able to judge if I or Nicolaes – or any of our friends, have paid him to lay hands upon you. Remember however," he added significantly, "that such a low-born knave will always lie to save his skin, so this do I entreat of you on my knees: judge by his looks more than by his words, and demand a proof of what he asserts."
"I will judge, my lord, as I think best," she retorted coldly.
"And now, I pray you, send for the man. I would like to hear what he has to say."
Stoutenburg immediately turned to obey: there was a guard outside the door, and it was easy to send one of the men with orders to Jan to bring the prisoner hither.
Within himself he was frankly taken aback at Gilda's ready acquiescence – nay obvious desire to parley with the foreigner. A sharp pang of jealousy had shot through his heart when he saw her glowing eyes, her eagerness to defend the knave. The instinct that guided his fierce love for Gilda, had quickly warned him that here was a danger of which he had never even dreamed.
Women were easily swayed, he thought, by a smooth tongue and a grand manner, both of which – Stoutenburg was bound to admit – the rogue possessed in no scanty measure. Fortunately the mischief – if indeed mischief there was – had only just begun: and of a truth reason itself argued that Gilda must loathe and despise the villain who had wronged her so deeply: moreover Stoutenburg had every hope that the coming interview if carefully conducted would open Gilda's eyes more fully still to the true character of the foreign mercenary with the unctuous tongue and the chivalrous ways.
In any case the Lord of Stoutenburg himself had nothing to fear from that interview, and he felt that his own clever words had already shaken the foundations of Gilda's mistrust of him. Mayhap in desiring to parley with the knave, she only wished to set her mind at rest finally on these matters, and also with regard to her own brother's guilt. Stoutenburg with an inward grim smile of coming triumph passed his hand over his doublet where – in an inner pocket – reposed the parchment roll which was the last proof of Beresteyn's connivance.
Gilda did not know the cypher-signature, and the knave would have some difficulty in proving his assertion, if indeed, he dared to name Nicolaes at all: whilst if he chose to play the chivalrous part before Gilda, then the anonymous document would indeed prove of incalculable value. In any case the complete humiliation of the knave who had succeeded in gaining Gilda's interest, if nothing more, was Stoutenburg's chief aim when he suggested the interview, and the document with the enigmatical signature could easily become a powerful weapon wherewith to make that humiliation more complete.
And thus musing, speculating, scheming, the Lord of Stoutenburg sent Jan over to the molens with orders to bring the prisoner under a strong guard to the jongejuffrouw's presence, whilst Gilda, silent and absorbed, sat on in the tiny room of the miller's hut.
In spite of her loyalty, her love for her brother, in spite of Stoutenburg's smooth assertions, a burning anxiety gnawed at her heart – she felt wretchedly, miserably lonely, with a sense of treachery encompassing her all round.
But there was a strange glow upon her face, which of a truth anxiety could not have brought about; rather must it have been inward anger, which assailed her whenever thoughts of the rogue whom she so hated intruded themselves upon her brain.
No doubt too, the heat of the fire helped to enhance that delicate glow which lent so much additional beauty to her face and such additional brilliance to her eyes.
THE WITNESS FOR THE DEFENCE
The Lord of Stoutenburg was the first to enter: behind him came Jan, and finally a group of soldiers above whose heads towered another broad white brow, surmounted by a wealth of unruly brown hair which now clung matted against the moist forehead.
At a word of command from Stoutenburg, Jan and the other soldiers departed, leaving him and the prisoner only before Gilda Beresteyn.
The man had told her on that first night at Leyden that his name was Diogenes – a name highly honoured in the history of philosophy. Well! – philosophy apparently was standing him in good stead, for truly it must be responsible for the happy way in which he seemed to be bearing his present unhappy condition.
They had tied his arms behind his back and put a pinion through them, his clothes were torn, his massive chest was bare, his shirt bore ugly, dark stains upon it, but his face was just the same, that merry laughing face with the twinkling eyes, and the gentle irony that lurked round the lines of the sensitive mouth: at any rate when Gilda – overcome with pity – looked up with sweet compassion on him, she saw that same curious, immutable smile that seemed even now to mock and to challenge.
"This is the man, mejuffrouw," began Stoutenburg after awhile, "who on New Year's day at Haarlem dared to lay hands upon your person. Do you recognize him?"
"I do recognize him," replied Gilda coldly.
"I imagine," continued Stoutenburg, "that he hath tried to palliate his own villainies by telling you that he was merely a paid agent in that abominable outrage."
"I do not think," she retorted still quite coldly, "that this … this … person told me that he was being paid for that ugly deed: though when I did accuse him of it he did not deny it."
"Do you hear, fellow?" asked Stoutenburg, turning sharply to Diogenes, "it is time that all this lying should cease. By your calumnies and evil insinuations you have added to the load of crimes which already have earned for you exemplary punishment; by those same lies you have caused the jongejuffrouw an infinity of pain, over and above the horror which she has endured through your cowardly attack upon her. Therefore I have thought it best to send for you now so that in her exalted presence at least you may desist from further lying and that you may be shamed into acknowledging the truth. Do you hear, fellow?" he reiterated more harshly as Diogenes stood there, seemingly not even hearing what the Lord of Stoutenburg said, for his eyes in which a quaint light of humour danced were fixed upon Gilda's hands that lay clasped upon her lap.
The look in the man's face, the soft pallor on the girl's cheek, exasperated Stoutenburg's jealous temper beyond his power of control.
"Do you hear?" he shouted once more, and with a sudden grip of the hand he pulled the prisoner roughly round by the shoulder. That shoulder had been torn open with a blow dealt by a massive steel blade which had lacerated it to the bone; even a philosopher's endurance was not proof against this sudden rending of an already painful wound. Diogenes' pale face became the colour of lead: the tiny room began dancing an irresponsive saraband before his eyes, he felt himself swaying, for the ground was giving way under him, when a cry, gentle and compassionate, reached his fading senses, and a perfume of exquisite sweetness came to his nostrils, even as his pinioned arms felt just enough support to enable him to steady himself.
"Gilda," broke in Stoutenburg's harsh voice upon this intangible dream, "I entreat you not to demean yourself by ministering to that rogue."
"My poor ministry was for a wounded man, my lord," she retorted curtly.
Then she turned once more to the prisoner.
"You are hurt, sir," she asked as she let her tender blue eyes rest with kind pity upon him.
"Hurt, mejuffrouw?" he replied with a laugh, which despite himself had but little merriment in it. "Ask his Magnificence there, he will tell you that such knaves as I have bones and sinews as tough as their skins. Of a truth I am not hurt, mejuffrouw … only overcome with the humour of this situation. The Lord of Stoutenburg indignant and reproachful at thought that another man is proficient in the art of lying."
"By heaven," cried Stoutenburg who was white with fury. "Insolent varlet, take…"
He had seized the first object that lay close to his hand, the heavy iron tool used for raking the fire out of the huge earthenware stove; this he raised above his head; the lust to kill glowed out of his eyes, which had become bloodshot, whilst a thin red foam gathered at the corners of his mouth. The next moment the life of a philosopher and weaver of dreams would have been very abruptly ended, had not a woman's feeble hand held up the crashing blow.
"Hatred, my lord, an you will," said Gilda with perfect sangfroid as she stood between the man who had so deeply wronged her and the upraised arm of his deadly enemy, "hatred and fair fight, but not outrage, I pray you."
Stoutenburg, smothering a curse, threw the weapon away from him: it fell with a terrific crash upon the wooden floor. Gilda, white and trembling now after the agonizing excitement of the past awful moment, had sunk half-swooning back against a chair. Stoutenburg fell on one knee and humbly raised her gown to his lips.
"Your pardon, Madonna," he whispered, "the sight of your exquisite hands in contact with that infamous blackguard made me mad. I was almost ready to cheat the gallows of their prey. I gratefully thank you in that you saved me from the indignity of staining my hand with a vile creature's blood."
Quietly and dispassionately Gilda drew her skirts away from him.
"An you have recovered your temper, my lord," she said coldly, "I pray you ask the prisoner those questions which you desired to put to him. I am satisfied that he is your enemy, and if he were not bound, pinioned and wounded he would probably not have need of a woman's hand to protect him."
Stoutenburg rose to his feet. He was angered with himself for allowing his hatred and his rage to get the better of his prudence, and tried to atone for his exhibition of incontinent rage by a great show of dignity and of reserve.
"I must ask you again, fellow – and for the last time," he said slowly turning once more to Diogenes, "if you have realized how infamous have been your insinuations against mine honour, and that of others whom the jongejuffrouw holds in high regard? Your calumnies have caused her infinite sorrow more bitter for her to bear than the dastardly crime which you did commit against her person. Have you realized this, and are you prepared to make amends for your crime and to mitigate somewhat the grave punishment which you have deserved by speaking the plain truth before the jongejuffrouw now?"
"And what plain truth doth the jongejuffrouw desire to hear?" asked Diogenes with equal calm.
Stoutenburg would have replied, but Gilda broke in quietly:
"Your crime against me, sir, I would readily forgive, had I but the assurance that no one in whom I trusted, no one whom I loved had a hand in instigating it."
The ghost of his merry smile – never very distant – spread over the philosopher's pale face.
"Will you deign to allow me, mejuffrouw," he said, "at any rate to tell you one certain, unvarnished truth, which mayhap you will not even care to believe, and that is that I would give my life – the few chances, that is, that I still have of it – to obliterate from your mind the memory of the past few days."
"That you cannot do, sir," she rejoined, "but you would greatly ease the load of sorrow which you have helped to lay upon me, if you gave me the assurance which I ask."
The prisoner did not reply immediately, and for one brief moment there was absolute silence in this tiny room, a silence so tense and so vivid that an eternity of joy and sorrow, of hope and of fear seemed to pass over the life of these three human creatures here. All three had eyes and ears only for one another: the world with its grave events, its intrigues and its wars fell quite away from them: they were the only people existing – each for the other – for this one brief instant that passed by.
The fire crackled in the huge hearth, and slowly the burning wood ashes fell with a soft swishing sound one by one. But outside all was still: not a sound of the busy life around the molens, of conspiracies and call to arms, penetrated the dense veil of fog which lay upon the low-lying land.
At last the prisoner spoke.
"'Tis easily done, mejuffrouw," he said, and all at once his whole face lit up with that light-hearted gaiety, that keen sense of humour which would no doubt follow him to the grave, "that assurance I can easily give you. I was the sole criminal in the hideous outrage which brought so much sorrow upon you. Had I the least hope that God would hear the prayer of so despicable a villain as I am I would beg of Him to grant you oblivion of my deed. As for me," he added and now real laughter was dancing in his eyes: they mocked and challenged and called back the joy of life, "as for me, I am impenitent. I would not forget one minute of the last four days."
"To-morrow then you can take the remembrance with you to the gallows," said Stoutenburg sullenly.
Though a sense of intense relief pervaded him now, since by his assertions Diogenes had completely vindicated him as well as Nicolaes in Gilda's sight, his dark face showed no signs of brightening. That fierce jealousy of this nameless adventurer which had assailed him awhile ago was gnawing at his heart more insistently than before; he could not combat it, even though reason itself argued that jealousy of so mean a knave was unworthy, and that Gilda's compassion was only the same that she would have extended to any dog that had been hurt.
Even now – reason still argued – was it not natural that she should plead for the villain just as any tender-natured woman would plead even for a thief. Women hate the thought of violent death, only an amazon would desire to mete out death to any enemy: Gilda was warm-hearted, impulsive, the ugly word "gallows" grated no doubt unpleasantly on her ear. But even so, and despite the dictates of reason, Stoutenburg's jealousy and hatred were up in arms the moment she turned pleading eyes upon him.
"My lord," she said gently, "I pray you to remember that by this open confession this … this gentleman has caused me infinite happiness. I cannot tell you what misery my own suspicions have caused me these past two days. They were harder to bear than any humiliation or sorrow which I had to endure."
"This varlet's lies confirmed you in your suspicions, Gilda," retorted Stoutenburg roughly, "and his confession – practically at the foot of the gallows – is but a tardy one."
"Do not speak so cruelly, my lord," she pleaded, "you say that … that you have some regard for me … let not therefore my prayer fall unheeded on your ear…"
"Your prayer, Gilda?"
"My prayer that you deal nobly with an enemy, whose wrongs to me I am ready to forgive…"
"By St. Bavon, mejuffrouw," here interposed the prisoner firmly, "an mine ears do not deceive me you are even now pleading for my life with the Lord of Stoutenburg."
"Indeed, sir, I do plead for it with my whole heart," she said earnestly.
"Ye gods!" he exclaimed, "and ye do not interfere!"
"My lord!" urged Gilda gently, "for my sake…"
Her words, her look, the tears that despite her will had struggled to her eyes, scattered to the winds Stoutenburg's reasoning powers. He felt now that nothing while this man lived would ever still that newly-risen passion of jealousy. He longed for and desired this man's death more even than that of the Prince of Orange. His honour had been luckily white-washed before Gilda by this very man whom he hated. He had a feeling that within the last half-hour he had made enormous strides in her regard. Already he persuaded himself that she was looking on him more kindly, as if remorse at her unjust suspicions of him had touched her soul on his behalf.
Everything now would depend on how best he could seem noble and generous in her sight; but he was more determined than ever that his enemy should stand disgraced before her first and die on the gallows on the morrow.
Then it was that putting up his hand to the region of his heart, which indeed was beating furiously, it encountered the roll of parchment which lay in the inner pocket of his doublet. Fate, chance, his own foresight, were indeed making the way easy for him, and quicker than lightning his tortuous brain had already formed a plan upon which he promptly acted now.
"Gilda," he said quietly, "though God knows how ready I am to do you service in all things, this is a case where weakness on my part would be almost criminal, for indeed it would be to a hardened and abandoned criminal that I should be extending that mercy for which you plead."
"Indeed, my lord," she retorted coldly, "though only a woman, I too can judge if a man is an abandoned criminal or merely a misguided human creature who doth deserve mercy since his confession was quite open and frank."
"Commonsense did prompt him no doubt to this half-confession," said Stoutenburg dryly, "or a wise instinct to win leniency by his conduct, seeing that he had no proofs wherewith to substantiate his former lies. Am I not right, fellow?" he added once more turning to the prisoner, "though you were forced to own that you alone are responsible for the outrage against the jongejuffrouw, you have not told her yet that you are also a forger and a thief."
Diogenes looked on him for a moment or two in silence, just long enough to force Stoutenburg's shifty eyes to drop with a sudden and involuntary sense of shame, then he rejoined with his usual good-humoured flippancy:
"It was a detail which had quite escaped my memory. No doubt your Magnificence is fully prepared to rectify the omission."
"Indeed I wish that I could have spared you this additional disgrace," retorted Stoutenburg, whose sense of shame had indeed been only momentary, "seeing that anyhow you must hang to-morrow. But," he added once more to the jongejuffrouw, "I could not bear you to think, Gilda, that I could refuse you anything which it is in my power to grant you. Before you plead for this scoundrel again, you ought to know that he has tried by every means in his power – by lying and by forgery – to fasten the origin of all this infamy upon your brother."
"Upon Nicolaes," she cried, "I'll not believe it. A moment ago he did vindicate him freely."
"Only because I had at last taken away from him the proofs which he had forged."
"The proofs? what do you mean, my lord?"скачать книгу бесплатно