The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel
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"When my men captured this fellow last night, they found upon him a paper – a bond which is an impudent forgery – purported to have been written by Nicolaes and which promised payment to this knave for laying hands upon you in Haarlem."
"A bond?" she murmured, "signed by Nicolaes?"
"I say it again, 'tis an impudent forgery," declared Stoutenburg hotly, "we – all of us who have seen it and who know Nicolaes' signature could see at a glance that this one was counterfeit. Yet the fellow used it, he obtained money on the strength of it, for beside the jewelry which he had filched from you, we found several hundred guilders upon his person. Liar, forger, thief!" he cried, "in Holland such men are broken on the wheel. Hanging is thought merciful for such damnable scum as they!"
And from out the pocket of his doublet he drew the paper which had been writ by the public scrivener and was signed with Nicolaes' cypher signature: he handed it to Gilda, even whilst the prisoner, throwing back his head, sent one of his heartiest laughs echoing through the raftered room.
"Well played, my lord!" he said gaily, "nay! but by the devils whom you serve so well, you do indeed deserve to win."
In the meanwhile Gilda, wide-eyed and horrified, not knowing what to think, nor yet what to believe, scarcely dared to touch the infamous document whose very presence in her lap seemed a pollution. She noticed that some portion of the paper had been torn off, but the wording of the main portion of the writing was quite clear as was the signature "Schwarzer Kato" with the triangle above it. On this she looked now with a curious mixture of loathing and of fear. Schwarzer Kato was the name of the tulip which her father had raised and named: the triangle was a mark which the house of Beresteyn oft used in business.
"O God, have mercy upon me!" she murmured inwardly, "what does all this treachery mean?"
She looked up from one man to the other. The Lord of Stoutenburg, dark and sullen, was watching her with restless eyes; the prisoner was smiling, gently, almost self-deprecatingly she thought, and as he met her frightened glance it seemed as if in his merry eyes there crept a look of sadness – even of pity.
"What does all this treachery mean?" she murmured again with pathetic helplessness, and this time just above her breath.
"It means," said Stoutenburg roughly, "that at last you must be convinced that this man on whom you have wasted your kindly pity is utterly unworthy of it. That bond was never written by your brother, it was never signed by him. But we found it on this villain's person; he has been trading on it, obtaining money on the strength of his forgery. He has confessed to you that he had no accomplice, no paymaster in his infamies, then ask him whence came this bond in his possession, whence the money which we found upon him. Ask him to deny the fact that less than twenty-four hours after he had laid hands on you, he was back again in Haarlem, bargaining with your poor, stricken father to bring you back to him."
He ceased speaking, almost choked now by his own eloquence, and the rapidity with which the lying words escaped his lips.And Gilda slowly turned her head toward the prisoner, and met that subtly-ironical, good-humoured glance again.
"Is this all true, sir?" she asked.
"What, mejuffrouw?" he retorted.
"That this bond promising you payment for the cruel outrage upon me is a forgery?"
"His Magnificence says so, mejuffrouw," he replied quietly, "surely you know best if you can believe him."
"But this is not my brother's signature?" she asked: and she herself was not aware what an infinity of pleading there was in her voice.
"No!" he replied emphatically, "it is not your brother's signature."
"Then it's a forgery?"
"We will leave it at that, mejuffrouw," he said, "that it is a forgery."
A sigh, hoarse and passionate in its expression of infinite relief, escaped the Lord of Stoutenburg's lips. Though he knew that the man in any case could have no proof if he accused Nicolaes, yet there was great satisfaction in this unqualified confession. Slowly the prisoner turned his head and looked upon his triumphant enemy, and it was the man with the pinioned arms, with the tattered clothes and the stained shirt who seemed to tower in pride, in swagger and in defiance while the other looked just what he was – a craven and miserable cur.
Once more there was silence in the low-raftered room. From Gilda's eyes the tears fell slowly one by one. She could not have told you herself why she was crying at this moment. Her brother's image stood out clearly before her wholly vindicated of treachery, and a scoundrel had been brought to his knees, self-confessed as a liar, a forger and a thief; the Lord of Stoutenburg was proved to have been faithful and true, and yet Gilda felt such a pain in her heart that she thought it must break.
The Lord of Stoutenburg at last broke the silence which had become oppressive.
"Are you satisfied, Gilda?" he asked tenderly.
"I feel happier," she replied softly, "than I have felt these four days past, at thought that my own brother at least – nor you, my lord – had a hand in all this treachery."
She would not look again on the prisoner, even though she felt more than she saw, that a distinctly humorous twinkle had once more crept into his eyes. It seemed however, as if she wished to say something else, something kind and compassionate, but Stoutenburg broke in impatiently:
"May I dismiss the fellow now?" he asked. "Jan is waiting for orders outside."
"Then I pray you call to Jan," she rejoined stiffly.
"The rogue is securely pinioned," he added even as he turned toward the door. "I pray you have no fear of him."
"I have no fear," she said simply.
Stoutenburg strode out of the room and anon his harsh voice was heard calling to Jan.
For a moment then Gilda was alone – for the third time now – with the man whom she had hated more than she had ever hated a human creature before. She remembered how last night and again at Leyden she had been conscious of an overpowering desire to wound him with hard and bitter words. But now she no longer felt that desire, since Fate had hurt him more cruelly than she had wished to do. He was standing there now before her, in all the glory of his magnificent physique, yet infinitely shamed and disgraced, self-confessed of every mean and horrible crime that has ever degraded manhood.
Yet in spite of this shame he still looked splendid and untamed: though his arms were bound to a pinion behind his back, his broad chest was not sunken, and he held himself very erect with that leonine head of his thrown well back and a smile of defiance, almost of triumph, sat upon every line of his face.
Anon she met his eyes; their glance compelled and held her own. There was nothing but kindly humour within their depths. Humour, ye gods! whence came the humour of the situation! Here was a man condemned to death by an implacable enemy who was not like to show any mercy, and Gilda herself – remembering all his crimes – could no longer bring herself to ask for mercy for him, and yet the man seemed only to mock, to smile at fate, to take his present desperate position as lightly and as airily as another would take a pleasing turn of fortune's wheel.
Conscious at last that his look of unconquerable good-humour was working upon her nerves, Gilda forced herself to break the spell of numbness which had so unaccountably fallen upon her.
"I should like to say to you, sir," she murmured, "how deeply I regret the many harsh words I spoke to you at Leyden and … and also last night … believe me there was no feeling in me of cruelty toward you when I spoke them."
"Indeed, mejuffrouw," he rejoined placidly, whilst the gentle mockery in his glance became more accentuated, "indeed I am sure that your harshness towards me was only dictated by your kindliness. Believe me," he added lightly, "your words that evening at Leyden, and again last night were most excellent discipline for my temper: for this do I thank you! they have helped me to bear subsequent events with greater equanimity."
She bit her lip, feeling vexed at his flippancy. A man on the point of death should take the last hours of his life more seriously.
"It grieved me to see," she resumed somewhat more stiffly, "that one who could on occasions be so brave, should on others stoop to such infamous tricks."
"Man is ever a creature of opportunity, mejuffrouw," he said imperturbably.
"But I remembered you – you see – on New Year's Eve in the Dam Straat when you held up a mob to protect an unfortunate girl; oh! it was bravely done!"
"Yet believe me, mejuffrouw," he said with a whimsical smile, "that though I own appearances somewhat belie me, I have done better since."
"I wish I could believe you, sir. But since then … oh! think of my horror when I recognized you the next day – at Leyden – after your cowardly attack upon me."
"Indeed I have thought of it already, mejuffrouw. Dondersteen! I must have appeared a coward before you then!"
He gave a careless shrug of the shoulders, and very quaintly did that carelessness sit on him now that he was pinioned, wounded and in a relentless enemy's hands.
"Perhaps I am a coward," he added with a strange little sigh, "you think so; the Lord of Stoutenburg declares that I am a miserable cur. Does man ever know himself? I for one have never been worth the study."
"Nay, sir, there you do wrong yourself," she said gently, "I cannot rightly gauge what temptations did beset you when you lay hands upon a defenceless woman, or when you forged my brother's name … for this you did do, did you not?" she asked insistently.
"Have I not confessed to it?" he retorted quietly.
"Alas! And for these crimes must I despise you," she added quaintly. "But since then my mind hath been greatly troubled. Something tells me – and would to God I saw it all more clearly – that much that you so bravely endure just now, is somehow because of me. Am I wrong?"
He laughed, a dry, gentle, self-mocking laugh.
"That I have endured much because of you, mejuffrouw," he said gaily, "I'll not deny; my worthy patron St. Bavon being singularly slack in his protection of me on two or three memorable occasions; but this does not refer to my present state, which has come about because half a dozen men fell upon me when I was unarmed and pounded at me with heavy steel skates, which they swung by their straps. The skates were good weapons, I must own, and have caused one or two light wounds which are but scraps of evil fortune that a nameless adventurer like myself must take along with kindlier favours. So I pray you, mejuffrouw, have no further thought of my unpleasant bodily condition. I have been through worse plights than this before, and if to-morrow I must hang…"
"No, no!" she interrupted with a cry of horror, "that cannot and must not be."
"Indeed it can and must, mejuffrouw. Ask the Lord of Stoutenburg what his intentions are."
"Oh! but I can plead with him," she declared. "He hath told me things to-day which have made me very happy. My heart is full of forgiveness for you, who have wronged me so, and I would feel happy in pleading for you."
Something that she said appeared to tickle his fancy, for at her words he threw his head right back and laughed immoderately, loudly and long.
"Ye gods!" he cried, while she – a little frightened and puzzled – looked wide-eyed upon him – "let me hear those words ringing in mine ears when the rope is round my neck. The Lord of Stoutenburg hath the power to make a woman happy! the words he speaks are joy unto her heart! Oh! ye gods, let me remember this and laugh at it until I die!"
His somewhat wild laugh had not ceased to echo in the low-raftered room nor had Gilda time to recover her composure, before the door was thrown violently open and the Lord of Stoutenburg re-entered, followed by Jan and a group of men.
He threw a quick, suspicious glance on Gilda and on Diogenes, the latter answered him with one of good-humoured irony, but Gilda – pale and silent – turned her head away.
Stoutenburg then pointed to Diogenes.
"Here is your prisoner," he said to Jan, "take him back to the place from whence you brought him. Guard him well, Jan, for to-morrow he must hang and remember that your life shall pay for his if he escapes."
Jan thereupon gave a brief word of command, the men ranged themselves around the prisoner, whose massive figure was thus completely hidden from Gilda's view; only – towering above the heads of the soldiers – the wide sweep of the brow caught a glimmer of light from the flickering lamp overhead.
Soon the order was given. The small knot of men turned and slowly filed out. The Lord of Stoutenburg was the last to leave. He bowed nearly to the ground when he finally left Gilda's presence.
And she remained alone, sitting by the fire, and staring into the smouldering ashes. She had heard news to-night that flooded her soul with happiness. Her brother whom she loved was innocent of crime, and God Himself had interfered. He had touched the heart of the Lord of Stoutenburg and stopped the infamous plot against the Stadtholder's life. Yet Gilda's heart was unaccountably heavy, and as she sat on, staring into the fire, heavy tears fell unheeded from her eyes.