The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernelскачать книгу бесплатно
Close beside his feet is the lanthorn so that he may have a last look at his friends, and some few paces away his naked sword which Jan took from him when the men brought him down.
He has listened to the whispered conversation – he knows that his brother philosophers are here. May the God of rogues and villains bless them for their loyalty.
"And now St. Bavon show me the best way to make use of them!"
There is still something to be done, which hath been left undone, a word hath been given and that pledge must be fulfilled, and the promised fortune still awaits him who will bring the jongejuffrouw safely to her father!
"My God, if it were not for that broken shoulder and that torn hip! … there are many hours yet before the morrow."
"Old compeer!" came in a hoarse whisper close to his ear, "how did you come to such a pass?"
"They came and took the jongejuffrouw away from Rotterdam," he replied also speaking in a whisper. "I had just returned from Delft, where I had business to transact and I recognized Jan beside the sledge into which the jongejuffrouw was stepping even then. He had ten or a dozen men with him. I felt that they meant mischief – but I had to follow … I had to find out whither they were taking her…"
"Verdommt!" growled Socrates under his breath. "Why did you not take us along?"
"I meant to come back for you, as soon as I knew … but in the dark … and from behind, seven of these fellows fell upon me … they used their skates like javelins … mine were still on my feet … I had only Bucephalus… A blow from one of the heaviest blades cracked my shoulder, another caught me on the hip. There were seven of them," he reiterated with a careless laugh, "it was only a question of time, they were bound to bring me down in the end."
"But who has done this?" queried Pythagoras with an oath.
"A lucky rogue on whom God hath chosen to smile. But," he added more seriously and sinking his voice to the lowest possible whisper, "never mind about the past. Let us think of the future, old compeers."
"We are ready," they replied simultaneously.
"A knife?" he murmured, "can you cut these confounded ropes?"
"They took everything from us," growled Socrates, "ere they let us approach you."
"Try with your hands to loosen the knots."
"What ho! you brigands, what are you doing there?"
In a moment the circle around broke up. A crowd of angry faces were gathered closely round the philosophers, and more than one pair of rough hands were laid upon their shoulders.
"Play fair, you two!" cried Piet the Red, who was in command, "or we'll tie you both to the nearest beams and await my lord's commands."
"Easy, easy, friend," quoth Diogenes with a pleasant laugh, "my nose was itching and my compeer held on to my arm while he tried to reach my nose in order to scratch it."
"Then if it itch again," retorted the man with an equally jovial laugh, "call for my services, friend.
And now, you two scarecrows! the five minutes are over. Jan will be here in a moment."
But they formed up the circle once more, kind and compassionate. Jan was not yet here, and the rogues had had a warning: they were not like to be at their tricks again.
"Never mind about me," whispered Diogenes hurriedly as Pythagoras and Socrates, baffled and furious, were giving forth samples of their choicest vocabularies. "You see that Chance alone can favour me an she choose, if not … 'tis no matter. What you can do for me is far more important than cheating the gallows of my carcase."
"What is it?" they asked simply.
"The jongejuffrouw," he said, "you know where she is?"
"In the hut – close by," replied Socrates, "we saw the sledge draw up there…"
"But the house is well guarded," murmured Pythagoras.
"Nor would I ask you to run your heads in the same noose wherein mine will swing to-morrow. But keep the hut well in sight. At any hour – any moment now there may be a call of sauve qui peut. Every man for himself and the greatest luck to the swiftest runner."
"Never mind why. It is sure to happen. Any minute you may hear the cry … confusion, terror … a scramble and a rush for the open."
"And our opportunity," came in a hoarse whisper from Socrates. "I think that I begin to understand."
"We lie low for the present and when sauve qui peut is called we come straight back here and free you … in the confusion they will have forgotten you."
"If the confusion occurs in time," quoth Diogenes with his habitual carelessness, "you may still find me here trussed like a fowl to this verdommte beam. But I have an idea that the Lord of Stoutenburg will presently be consumed with impatience to see me hang … he has just finished some important work by the bridge on the Schie … he won't be able to sleep and the devil will be suggesting some mischief for his idle hands to do. There will be many hours to kill before daylight, one of them might be well employed in hanging me."
"Then we'll not leave you an instant," asserted Pythagoras firmly.
"What can you do, you two old scarecrows, against the Lord of Stoutenburg who has thirty men here paid to do his bidding?"
"We are not going to lie low and play the part of cowards while you are being slaughtered."
"You will do just what I ask, faithful old compeers," rejoined Diogenes more earnestly than was his wont. "You will lie very low and take the greatest possible care not to run your heads into the same rope wherein mayhap mine will dangle presently. Nor will you be playing the part of cowards, for you have not yet learned the A B C of that part, and you will remember that on your safety and freedom of action lies my one chance, not so much of life as of saving my last shred of honour."
"What do you mean?"
"The jongejuffrouw – " he whispered, "I swore to bring her back to her father and I must cheat a rascal of his victory. In the confusion – at dawn to-morrow – think above all of the jongejuffrouw… In the confusion you can overpower the guard – rush the miller's hut where she is … carry her off … the horses are in the shed behind the hut … you may not have time to think of me."
"Silence – they listen…"
"One of us with the jongejuffrouw – the other to help you – "
"Silence … I may be a dead man by then – the jongejuffrouw remember – make for Ryswyk with her first of all – thence straight to Haarlem – to her father – you can do it easily. A fortune awaits you if you bring her safely to him. Fulfil my pledge, old compeers, if I am not alive to do it myself. I don't ask you to swear – I know you'll do it – and if I must to the gallows first I'll do so with a cry of triumph."
"Silence!" he murmured again peremptorily, but more hoarsely this time for fatigue and loss of blood and tense excitement are telling upon his iron physique at last – he is well-nigh spent and scarce able to speak. "Silence – I can hear Jan's footsteps. Here! quick! inside my boot … a wallet? Have you got it?" he added with a brief return to his habitual gaiety as he felt Socrates' long fingers groping against his shins, and presently beheld his wallet in his compeer's hand. "You will find money in there – enough for the journey. Now quick into the night, you two – disappear for the nonce, and anon when sauve qui peut rings in the air – to-night or at dawn or whenever this may be, remember the jongejuffrouw first of all and when you are ready give the cry we all know so well – the cry of the fox when it lures its prey. If I am not dangling on a gibbet by then, I shall understand. But quick now! – Jan comes! – Disappear I say!.."
Quietly and swiftly Socrates slipped the wallet with some of the money back into his friend's boot, the rest he hid inside his own doublet.
Strange that between these men there was no need of oaths. Pythagoras and Socrates had said nothing: silent and furtive they disappeared into the darkness. Diogenes' head sank down upon his breast with a last sigh of satisfaction. He knew that his compeers would do what he had asked. Jan's footsteps rang on the hard-frozen ground – silently the living circle had parted and the philosophers were swallowed up by the gloom.
Jan looks suspiciously at the groups of men who now stand desultorily around.
"Who was standing beside the prisoner just now?" he asks curtly.
"When, captain?" queries one of the men blandly.
"A moment ago. I was descending the steps. The lanthorn was close to the prisoner; I saw two forms – that looked unfamiliar to me – close to him."
"Oh!" rejoined Piet the Red unblushingly, "it must have been my back that you saw, captain. Willem and I were looking to see that the ropes had not given way. The prisoner is so restless…"
Jan – not altogether re-assured – goes up to the prisoner. He raises the lanthorn and has a good and comprehensive look at all the ropes. Then he examines the man's face.
"What ho!" he cries, "a bottle of spiced wine from my wallet. The prisoner has fainted."
What a commotion when dawn breaks at last; it comes grey, dull, leaden, scarce lighter than the night, the haze more dense, the frost more biting. But it does break at last after that interminable night of excitement and sleeplessness and preparations for the morrow.
Jan has never closed an eye, he has scarcely rested even, pacing up and down, in and out of those gargantuan beams, with the molens and its secrets towering above his head. Nor I imagine did those noble lords and mynheers up there sleep much during this night; but they were tired and lay like logs upon straw paillasses, living over again the past few hours, the carrying of heavy iron boxes one by one from the molens to the wooden bridge, the unloading there, the unpacking in the darkness, and the disposal of the death-dealing powder, black and evil smelling, which will put an end with its one mighty crash – to tyranny and the Stadtholder's life.
Tired they are but too excited to sleep: the last few hours are like a vivid dream; the preparation of the tinder, the arrangements, the position to be taken up by Beresteyn and Heemskerk, the two chosen lieutenants who will send the wooden bridge over the Schie flying in splinters into the air.
Van Does too has his work cut out. General in command of the forces – foreign mercenaries and louts from the country – he has Jan for able captain. The mercenaries and the louts know nothing yet of what will happen to-morrow – when once the dawn has broken – but they are well prepared; like beasts of the desert they can scent blood in the air; look at them polishing up their swords and cleaning their cullivers! they know that to-morrow they will fight, even though to-night they have had no orders save to see that one prisoner tied with ropes to a beam and fainting with exposure and loss of blood does not contrive to escape.
But the Lord of Stoutenburg is more wakeful than all. Like a caged beast of prey he paces up and down the low, narrow weighing-room of the molens, his hands tightly clenched behind his back, his head bare, his cloak cast aside despite the bitter coldness of the night.
Restless and like a beast of prey; his nostrils quiver with the lust of hate and revenge that seethes within his soul. Two men doth he hate with a consuming passion of hatred, the Stadtholder Prince of Orange, sovereign ruler of half the Netherlands, and a penniless adventurer whose very name is unknown.
Both these men are now in the power of the Lord of Stoutenburg. The bridge is prepared, the powder laid, to-morrow justice will be meted out to the tyrant; God alone could save him now, and God, of a surety, must be on the side of a just revenge. The other man is helpless and a prisoner; despite his swagger and his insolence, justice shall be meted out to him too; God alone could save him, and God, of a surety, could not be on the side of an impudent rogue.
These thoughts, which were as satisfying to the Lord of Stoutenburg as food placed at an unattainable distance is to a starving beast, kept him awake and pacing up and down the room after he had finished his work under the bridge.
He could not sleep for thinking of the prisoner, of the man's insolence, of the humiliation and contempt wherewith every glance he had brought shame to his cheeks. The Lord of Stoutenburg could not sleep also for thinking of Gilda, and the tender, pitying eyes wherewith she regarded the prisoner, the gentle tone of her voice when she spoke to him, even after proof had been placed before her that the man was a forger and a thief.
The Lord of Stoutenburg could not sleep and all the demons of jealousy, of hatred and of revenge were chasing him up and down the room and whispering suggestions of mischief to be wrought, of a crime to be easily committed.
"While that man lives," whispered the demon of hate in his ear, "thou wilt not know a moment's rest. To-morrow when thy hand should be steady when it wields the dagger against the Stadtholder, it will tremble and falter, for thoughts of that man will unsettle thy nerves and cause the blood to tingle in thy veins."
"While that man lives," whispered the demon of revenge, "thou wilt not know a moment's rest. Thou wilt think of him and of his death, rather than of thy vengeance against the Stadtholder."
"While that man lives," whispered the demon of jealousy more insistently than did the other evil spirits, "Gilda will not cease to think of him, she will plead for him, she will try mayhap to save him and then – "
And the Lord of Stoutenburg groaned aloud in the silence of the night, and paused in his restless walk. He drew a chair close to the table, and sat down; then resting his elbows upon the table, he buried his head in his hands, and remained thus motionless but breathing heavily like one whose soul is fighting a losing battle.
The minutes sped on. He had no means of gauging the time. It was just night, black impenetrable night. From down below came the murmur of all the bustle that was going on, the clang of arms, the measured footsteps which told of other alert human creatures who were waiting in excitement and tense expectancy for that dawn which still was far distant.
The minutes sped on, on the leaden feet of time. How long the Lord of Stoutenburg had sat thus, silent and absorbed, he could not afterwards have said. Perhaps after all he had fallen asleep, overcome with fatigue and with the constant sleeplessness of the past few days. But anon he was wide awake, slightly shivering with the cold. The tallow candle was spluttering, almost dying out. With a steady hand the Lord of Stoutenburg snuffed the smouldering wick, the candle flickered up again. Then he rose and quietly walked across the room. He pulled open the door and loudly called for Jan.
A few minutes later Jan was at the door, silent, sullen, obedient as usual.
"My lord called?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Stoutenburg, "what hour is it?"
"Somewhere near six I should say, my lord. I heard the tower-clock at Ryswyk strike five some time ago."
"How long is it before the dawn?"
"Two hours, my lord."
"Time to put up a gibbet, Jan? and to hang a man?"
"Plenty of time for that, my lord," replied Jan quietly.
"Then see to it, Jan, as speedily as you can. I feel that that man down below is our evil genius. While he lives Chance will be against us, of that I am as convinced as I am of the justice of our cause. If that man lives, Jan, the Stadtholder will escape us; I feel it in my bones: something must have told me this in the night – it is a premonition that comes from above."
"Then the man must not live, my lord," said Jan coldly.
"You recognize that too, Jan, do you not?" rejoined Stoutenburg eagerly. "I am compelled in this – I won't say against my will, but compelled by a higher, a supernatural power. You, too, believe in the supernatural, do you not, my faithful Jan?"
"I believe, my lord, first and foremost in the justice of our cause. I hate the Stadtholder and would see him dead. Nothing in the world must place that great aim of ours in jeopardy."
Stoutenburg drew a deep breath of satisfaction.
"Then see to the gibbet, my good Jan," he said in a firm almost lusty voice, "have it erected on the further side of the molens so that the jongejuffrouw's eyes are not scandalized by the sight. When everything is ready come and let me know, and guard him well until then, Jan, guard him with your very life; I want to see him hang, remember that! Come and tell me when the gallows are ready and I'll go to see him hang … I want to see him hang…"
And Jan without another word salutes the Lord of Stoutenburg and then goes out.
And thus it is that a quarter of an hour later the silence of the night is broken by loud and vigorous hammering. Jan sees to it all and a gibbet is not difficult to erect.
Then men grumble of course; they are soldiers and not executioners, and their hearts for the most have gone out to that merry compeer – the Laughing Cavalier – with his quaint jokes and his cheerful laugh. He has been sleeping soundly too for several hours, but now he is awake. Jan has told him that his last hour has come: time to put up a gibbet with a few stiff planks taken from the store-room of the molens and a length of rope.
He looks round him quite carelessly. Bah! death has no terrors for such a splendid soldier as he is. How many times hath he faced death ere this? – why he was at Prague and at Madgeburg where few escaped with their lives. He bears many a fine scar on that broad chest of his and none upon his back. A splendid fighter, if ever there was one!
But hanging? Bah!
The men murmur audibly as plank upon plank is nailed. Jan directs operations whilst Piet the Red keeps guard over the prisoner. Two or three of the country louts know something of carpentering. They do the work under Jan's watchful eye. They grumble but they work, for no one has been paid yet, and if you rebel you are like to be shot, and in any case you lose your pay.
And Diogenes leaning up against the beam watches with lazy quaintly smiling eyes the preparations that are going on not a hundred paces away from him. After a while the darkness all around is beginning to yield to the slow insistence of dawn. It rises slowly behind the veils of mist which still envelop the distant East. Gradually an impalpable greyness creeps around the molens, objects begin to detach themselves one by one out of the gloom, the moving figures of the mercenaries, the piles of arms heaped up here and there out of the damp, the massive beams slimy and green which support the molens, and a little further on the tall erection with a projecting arm round which great activity reigns.
Diogenes watches it all with those same lazy eyes, and that same good-humoured smile lingering round his lips. That tall erection over there which still looks ghostlike through the mist is for him. The game of life is done and he has lost. Death is there at the end of the projecting arm on which even now Jan is fixing a rope.
"Death in itself matters but little," mused the philosopher with his gently ironical smile. "I would have chosen another mode than hanging … but after all 'tis swift and sure; and of course now she will never know."
Know what, O philosopher? What is it that she – Gilda – with the fair curls and the blue eyes, the proud firm mouth and round chin – what is it that she will never know?
She will never know that a nameless, penniless soldier of fortune has loved her with every beat of his heart, every thought of his brain, with every sinew and every aspiration. She will never know that just in order to remain near her, when she was dragged away out of Rotterdam he affronted deliberately the trap into which he fell. She will never know that for her dear sake, he has borne humiliation against which every nerve of his splendid nature did inwardly rebel, owning to guilt and shame lest her blue eyes shed tears for a brother's sin. She will never know that the warning to the Stadtholder came from him, and that he was neither a forger nor a thief, only just a soldier of fortune with a contempt for death, and an unspoken adoration for the one woman who seemed to him as distant from him as the stars.
But there were no vain regrets in him now; no regret of life, for this he always held in his own hand ready to toss it away for a fancy of an ideal – no regret of the might-have-been because he was a philosopher, and the very moment that love for the unattainable was born in his heart he had already realized that love to him could only mean a memory.
Therefore when he watched the preparations out there in the mist, and heard the heavy blows upon the wooden planks and the murmurs of his sympathizers at their work, he only smiled gently, self-deprecatingly, but always good-humouredly.
If the Lord of Stoutenburg only knew how little he really cared.
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