Emma Orczy.

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



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CHAPTER XXXVIII
THE HOUR

A curiously timid voice roused the philosopher from his dreams.

"Is there aught I can do for you, sir? Alas! my friend the Lord Stoutenburg is deeply angered against you. I could do nothing with him on your behalf."

Diogenes turned his head in the direction whence had come the voice. He saw Nicolaes Beresteyn standing there in the cold grey mist, with his fur cloak wrapped closely up to his chin, and his face showing above the cloak, white and drawn.

The situation was not likely to escape Diogenes' irrepressible sense of humour.

"Mynheer Beresteyn," he exclaimed; "Dondersteen! what brings your Mightiness here at this hour? A man on the point of death, sir, has no call for so pitiable a sight as is your face just now."

"I heard from my Lord Stoutenburg what happened in the hut last night," said Beresteyn in a faltering voice, and determined not to heed the other's bantering tone. "You exonerated me before my sister … sir, this was a noble act … I would wish to thank you…"

"And do so with quaking voice and shaking knees," quoth Diogenes with unalterable good-humour, through which there pierced however an obvious undercurrent of contempt. "Ye gods!" he added with a quaint sigh, "these men have not even the courage of their infamy!"

The words, the tone, the shrug of the shoulders which accompanied these, stung Nicolaes Beresteyn's dormant dignity to the quick.

"I do not wonder," he said more firmly, "that you feel bitter contempt for me now. Your generosity for which I did not crave hath placed me momentarily at a disadvantage before you. Yet believe me I would not be outdone by you in generosity; were it not for my allegiance to the Lord Stoutenburg I would go straight to my sister now and confess my guilt to her… You believe me I trust," he added, seeing that Diogenes' merry eyes were fixed mockingly upon him, "did fate allow it I would gladly change places with you even now."

"I am about to hang, sir," quoth Diogenes lightly.

"Alas!"

"And you are forced, you say, to play a craven's part; believe me, sir, I would not change places with you for a kingdom."

"I do believe you, sir," rejoined Beresteyn earnestly, "yet I would have you think of me as something less of a coward than I seem. Were I to make full confession to my sister now, I should break her heart – but it would not save your neck from the gallows."

"And a rogue's neck, sir, is of such infinitely less value than a good woman's heart. So I pray you say no more about it. Death and I are old acquaintances, oft hath he nodded to me en passant, we are about to become closer friends, that is all."

"Some day my sister shall know, sir, all that you have done for her and for me."

The ghost of a shadow passed over the Laughing Cavalier's face.

"That, sir, I think had best remain 'twixt you and me for all times. But this I would have you know, that when I accepted the ignoble bargain which you proposed to me in my friend Hals' studio, I did so because I thought that the jongejuffrouw would be safer in my charge then than in yours!"

Beresteyn was about to retort more hotly when Jan, closely followed by half a dozen men, came with swift, firm footsteps up to the prisoner.

He saluted Beresteyn deferentially as was his wont.

"Your pardon, mynheer," he said, "my lord hath ordered that the prisoner be forthwith led to execution."

Nicolaes' pale face became the colour of lead.

"One moment, Jan," he said, "one moment. I must speak with my lord … I…"

"My lord is with the jongejuffrouw," said Jan curtly, "shall I send to tell him that you desire to speak with him?"

"No – no – that is I … I …" stammered Nicolaes who, indeed, was fighting a cruel battle with his own weakness, his own cowardice now. It was that weakness which had brought him to the abject pass in which he now stood, face to face with the man he had affected to despise, and who was about to die, laden with the crimes which he Nicolaes had been the first to commit.

Stoutenburg's influence over him had been paramount, through it he had lost all sense of justice, of honour and of loyalty; banded with murderers he had ceased to recognize the very existence of honesty, and now he was in such a plight morally, that though he knew himself to be playing an ignoble r?le, he did not see the way to throw up the part and to take up that of an honest man. One word from him to Gilda, his frank confession of his own guilt, and she would so know how to plead for the condemned man that Stoutenburg would not dare to proceed with this monstrous act.

But that word he had not the courage to speak.

With dull eyes and in sullen silence he watched Piet the Red untying under Jan's orders the ropes which held the prisoner to the beam, and then securing others to keep his arms pinioned behind his back. The mist now was of a faint silvery grey, and the objects around had that mysterious hushed air which the dawn alone can lend. The men, attracted by the sight of a fellow creature in his last living moments, had gathered together in close knots of threes and fours. They stood by, glowering and sombre, and had not Jan turned a wilfully deaf ear to their murmurings he would have heard many an ugly word spoken under their breath.

These were of course troublous and fighting times, when every man's hand was against some other, when every able-bodied man was firstly a soldier and then only a peaceable citizen. Nor was the present situation an uncommon one: the men could not know what the prisoner had done to deserve this summary punishment. He might have been a spy – an informer – or merely a prisoner of war. It was no soldier's place to interfere, only to obey orders and to ask no questions.

But they gave to the splendid personality of the condemned man the tribute of respectful silence. Whilst Jan secured the slender white hands of the prisoner, and generally made those awful preparations which even so simple a death as hanging doth demand, jests and oaths were stilled one by one among these rough fighting men, not one head but was uncovered, not a back that was not straightened, not an attitude that was not one of deference and attention. Instinct – that unerring instinct of the soldier – had told them that here was no scamp getting his just reward, but a brave man going with a careless smile to his death.

"Has mynheer finished with the prisoner," asked Jan when he saw that Piet had finished his task and that the prisoner was ready to be led away. "Is there aught your greatness would still desire to say to him?"

"Only this," said Beresteyn firmly, "that were his hands free I would ask leave to grasp them."

A look of kindly amusement fell from the prisoner's eyes upon the pale face of the young man.

"I have never known you, sir, save by a quaint nick-name," continued Beresteyn earnestly, "but surely you have kith and kin somewhere. Have you no father or mother living whom you will leave to mourn?"

The prisoner made no immediate reply, the smile of kindly amusement still lingered round his lips, but presently with an instinctive gesture of pride, he threw back his head and looked around him, as one who has nothing to fear and but little to regret. He met the sympathetic glance cast on him by the man who had done him – was still doing him – an infinite wrong, and all round those of his mute and humble friends who seemed to be listening eagerly now for the answer which he would give to Mynheer. Then with a quick sweep his eyes suddenly rested on the wooden erection beyond the molens that loomed out so tragically through the mist, pointing with its one weird arm to some infinite distance far away.

Something in the gentle pathos of this humble deference that encompassed him, something mayhap in the solemnity of that ghostly arm suddenly seemed to melt the thin crust of his habitual flippancy. He looked back on Beresteyn and said softly:

"I have a friend, Frans Hals – the painter of pictures – tell him when next you see him that I am glad his portrait of me is finished, and that I asked God to bless him for all his goodness has meant to me in the past."

"But your father, sir," urged Beresteyn, "your kindred…"

"My father, sir," replied Diogenes curtly, "would not care to hear that his son had died upon the gallows."

Beresteyn would have spoken again but Jan interposes once more, humbly but firmly.

"My lord's orders," he now says briefly, "and time presses, mynheer."

Beresteyn stands back, smothering a sigh. Jan on ahead, then Piet the Red and the six soldiers with the prisoner between them. A few steps only divide them from the gruesome erection that looms more solidly now out of the mist. Beresteyn, wrapping his head up in his cloak to shut out sound and sight, walks rapidly away in the opposite direction.

CHAPTER XXXIX
"SAUVE QUI PEUT"

Then it is that, out of the thickness of the fog a figure suddenly emerges running and panting: a man has fallen up against the group of soldiers who have just halted beside the gibbet.

"It is Lucas of Sparendam come back from Delft," they cry as soon as they recognize the stained face, wet with the frost and the mist.

Already Jan – who with Piet's help was busy with the rope – has heard the name. His wan, thin face has become the colour of ashes.

"Lucas of Sparendam back from Delft," he murmurs, "the Lord save us all!"

Lucas of Sparendam was sent yesterday to Delft by the Lord of Stoutenburg to spy and to find out all that was going on inside the Prinzenhof where slept the Stadtholder and his bodyguard of one hundred men-at-arms: and now he has come back running and panting: his clothes torn, his face haggard and spent. He has run all the way from Delft – a matter of a league and a half! Why should a man half kill himself by endeavouring to cover a league and a half in one hour?

"A drop of hot wine for Lucas," cries one of the soldiers. "He is faint."

The other men – there are close on forty all told – crowd round the gibbet now, those in charge of the prisoner have much ado to keep the space clear. They don't say anything just yet, but there is a strange, restless look in their eyes and their lips tremble with all the unspoken questions. Only two men remain calm and silent, Jan has never ceased in his task of adjusting the ropes, and the prisoner stands quite still, bound with cords, and neither looking on Lucas nor yet on the gibbet above him. His eyes are half closed and there is a strained look on his merry face as if he were trying to listen to something that was too far off to hear.

But one man in the meanwhile is ready with the bottle of spiced wine, the best cordial there is for a fainting man. The others make way for him so that he can minister to Lucas. And Lucas drinks the wine eagerly, then he opens his eyes.

"We are betrayed," he murmurs.

"Great God!" exclaims Jan dully.

"Betrayed!"

"What does it mean?"

No one heeds the prisoner now. They all crowd around Lucas. Jan calls out his orders in vain: Piet the Red alone listens to what he says, the others all want to know what Lucas means. They had been in the thick of a plot of course, they all knew that: a guet-apens had been prepared by the Lord of Stoutenburg for the Stadtholder whom he hates. The heavy boxes of course – gunpowder … to blow up the wooden bridge when the Stadtholder and his escort are half way across!

Of course they had all guessed it, thought on it all through the night while they polished the arms – the swords and the pistols and the cullivers – which had been served out to them. They had guessed of course – the foreign mercenaries who were always in the thick of every conspiracy and well paid for being so – they had been the first to guess and they had told the country louts who only grinned enjoying the prospect of the fun.

But now they were betrayed. Lucas of Sparendam had come back with the news, and even Jan stopped in his hideous task in order to listen to what he had to say.

"It all happened yesterday," quoth Lucas as soon as he had recovered his breath, "the rumour began in the lower quarters of the town. Nobody knows who began it. Some say that a foreigner came into the city in the early morning and sat down at one of the taverns to eat and drink with the Prince's soldiers."

"A foreigner?"

Jan turns to look on the prisoner and encounters his mocking glance. Smothering a curse he resumes his task of adjusting the rope upon the gibbet, but his fingers are unsteady and his work doth not progress.

"Yes, a foreigner," continued Lucas volubly, "though it all has remained very mysterious. The Prince's soldiers spoke of it amongst themselves … the foreigner had said something about a guet-apens, a plot against the Stadtholder's life on his way to the North … then one of the officers heard the rumour and carried it to one of his superiors… By the evening it had reached the Stadtholder's ears."

"Then what happened?" they all asked eagerly.

"Nothing for some hours," replied Lucas, "but I know that spies were sent round in every direction, and that by midnight there was general talk in the city that the Stadtholder would not continue his journey to the North. When the captain of the guard came to him for orders the Prince said curtly: 'We do not start to-morrow!' As soon as I heard of this I made preparations. It was then an hour after midnight. I was still alert and listening: all around me – as I made ready to leave the city – I heard rumours among the soldiers and spies of the Stadtholder, of their knowledge of a lonely spot – a deserted molens – near Ryswyk where they declared many men did lately congregate. I heard too that soon after dawn the Prince's guard would make straight for the molens, so I put on my snow shoes and started to run, despite the darkness and the fog, for we are all betrayed and the Stadtholder's soldiers will be on us in a trice."

Hardly are the words out of Lucas Sparendam's mouth than the commotion begins, the disbanding; there is a roar and a bustle and a buzz: metal clashing, men rushing, cries of "we are betrayed! sauve qui peut!"

At first there is a general stampede for the places where the arms are kept – the muskets, the swords and cullivers – but these are thrown down almost as soon as they are picked up. They are no use now and worse than useless in a flight. But pistols are useful, in case of pursuit. "Quick, turn, fire!.. so where are the pistols?.. Jan, where are those pistols?"

There are not enough to go round: about a dozen were served out last night, and there are forty pairs of hands determined to possess one at least. So they begin to fight for them, tearing one another to pieces, shouting execrations, beating round with bare fists, since the other arms have already been laid down.

Now the confusion becomes worse than any that might reign among a herd of animals who are ready to rend one another: they tear the clothes off one another's back, the skin off one another's face: fear – hideous, overwhelming, abject fear, has made wild beasts of these men. The mist envelops them, it is barely light in this basement beneath the molens: lanthorns have long ago been kicked into extinction. The hot breath of forty panting throats mingles with the mist, and the heat of human bodies fever-heated with passion, fights against the strength of the frost. The frozen ground yields under the feet, clots of mud are thrown up by the stampede, from the beams up aloft the heavy icicles melt and drip monotonously, incessantly down upon those faces, red and perspiring in an agony of demented fear.

Jan and Piet the Red stand alone beside the prisoner: a sense of duty, of decency hath kept their blood cool. Until they are relieved from their post of guarding this man by orders from their lord, they will not move. Let the others rage and scream and tumble over one another, there must be at least a few soldiers among this rabble.

And the prisoner looks on all this confusion with eyes that dance and sparkle with the excitement of what is yet to come. Torn rags and broken accoutrements soon lie in a litter in the mud, trampled in by forty pairs of feet. There is not one face now that is not streaked with blood, not one throat that is not hoarse with terror – the terror of the unknown.

In vain Jan from his post beside the prisoner shouts, harangues, appeals, threatens! A fight? yes! defeat? why not? but betrayal!.. no, no, let's away. The Stadtholder is fiercer than any Inquisitor of Spain … his cruelty last February almost turned the nation against him. But now – this second conspiracy – Stoutenburg again! what hope for his followers?

The horrors of last February perpetrated in the Gevangen Poort of 'S Graven Hage still cause many a rough cheek to blanch at their recollection. Men had gone mad who had heard the cries which pierced those stone walls then. One executioner had thrown down his bloody tools and fled from the place like one possessed! Van Dyk and Korenwinder, Slatius and the rest had been in hell ere a merciful death at last released them from the barbaric cruelty of the Prince of Orange.

"No, no! such a fate cannot be risked. We are betrayed! let us fly!"

Suddenly one man starts to run.

"I am for the coast!" he shouts, and incontinently takes to his heels.

"Sauve qui peut!"

Like irresponsible creatures they throw down the very weapons for which they have been fighting. The one man has given the signal for the run. Everything now is thrown aside, there is no thought save for flight.

A splashing of the mud, a general shout, a scramble, a clatter – they run – they run – crying to those who are behind to follow and run too.

In five minutes the dark basement is clear of noise – a litter of broken arms lies in one heap close by, others are scattered all over the ground in the mud, together with torn clothing, rags of leather and of cloth and great red pools that mingle with the melted ice.

The mist surrounds it all, this abandoned battle field wherein fear was the victor over man. The swiftly flying figures are soon swallowed up by the grey wall which lies dense and heavy over the lowland around; for a time they appear like ghosts with blurred outlines of torn doublets and scraps of felt hats placed awry; then the outline gets more dim as they run, and the kindly mist hides them from view.

Under the molens all is silent now. Jan and Piet the Red guard the prisoner alone. The gallows are ready or nearly so, but there is no one to send to the Lord of Stoutenburg to tell him this – as he hath commanded – so that he may see this man hang whom he hates. And it would not be safe to leave the prisoner unguarded. Only from time to time Jan looks to see that the ropes still hold fast, but for the most part his eyes are fixed upon the mist on his left, for that way lies Delft, and from thence will loom out by and by the avenging hordes sent by the Prince of Orange.

Now that all those panting, perspiring human creatures have gone, the frost is more bitter, more biting than before; but neither Piet nor Jan seem to heed it, though their flesh is blue with the cold. Overhead there is a tramp of feet; the noble mynheers must have heard the confusion, they must have seen the flight; they are even now preparing to do in a slightly more dignified way what the foreign mercenaries and the louts from the country have done so incontinently.

The prisoner, hearing this tramp of feet over his head, looks more alertly around him. He sees that Jan and Piet have remained on guard even whilst the others have fled. He also sees the pile of heaped-up arms, the broken metal, the rags and the mud, and through the interstices of the wooden steps the booted feet of the mynheers running helter-skelter down; and a mad, merry laugh – that holds a world of joy in its rippling tones – breaks from his lips.

The next moment from far away comes a weird cry through the mist. A fox on the alert tries to lure his prey with that quaint cry of his, which appeals to the young birds and encourages them to come. What should a fox be doing on these ice-covered tracks? he must have strayed from very far, from over the moor mayhap beyond Gonda; hunger no doubt hath made a wanderer of him, an exile from his home.

Jan listens – greatly astonished – what should a fox be doing here? Piet is impassive, he knows nothing of the habits of foxes; sea-wolves are more familiar to him. With his eyes Jan instinctively questions the prisoner:

"What should a fox be doing here on these ice-bound flats?" he mutely asks.

But the prisoner apparently cares nothing about the marvels of nature, cares nothing about exiled foxes. His head is erect, his eyes dance with glee, a happy smile lights up his entire face.

Jan remembered that the others last night had called the wounded man the Laughing Cavalier. A Cavalier he looked, every inch of him; the ropes mattered nothing, nor the torn clothing; proud, triumphant, happy, he was laughing with all the light-hearted gaiety which pertains to youth.

The Laughing Cavalier forsooth. Lucky devil! if he can laugh! Jan sighed and marvelled when the Lord of Stoutenburg would relieve him from his post.



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