The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernelскачать книгу бесплатно
She was spent now, and had no strength for more; a great numbness, an overpowering fatigue seemed to creep into her limbs. She even allowed him to take her hand and to raise it to his lips, for she was quite powerless to resist him; only when she felt those burning lips against her flesh a shudder of infinite loathing went right through her body.
Soon he turned on his heel and strode out of the room. She heard the thin wooden door fall to with a bang behind him; but she could no longer see, a kind of darkness had fallen over her eyes, a darkness, in which only one figure appeared clearly – the figure of a man upon a gibbet. All else was blackness around her, impenetrable blackness, almost tangible in its intensity, and out of the blackness which seemed like that of a dungeon there came cries as of human creatures in hell.
"Lord have mercy upon him!" her lips, cold and white, murmured vaguely and insistently, "Lord have mercy upon him! Lord have mercy upon us all!"
"VENGEANCE IS MINE"
It was like a man possessed of devils that the Lord of Stoutenburg ran out through the mist toward the molens.
The grey light of this winter's morning had only vaguely pierced the surrounding gloom, and the basement beneath the molens still looked impenetrably dark. Dark and silent! the soldier – foreign mercenaries and louts – had vanished in the fog, arms hastily thrown down littered the mud-covered ground, swords, pistols, muskets, torn clothing, here and there a neck-cloth, a steel bonnet, a bright coloured sash. Stoutenburg saw it all, right through the gloom, and he ground his teeth together to smother a cry of agonised impotence.
Only now and then a ghostly form flitted swift and silent among the intricate maze of beams, a laggard left behind in the general scramble for safety, or a human scavenger on the prowl for loot. Now and then a groan or a curse came from out the darkness, and a weird, shapeless, moving thing would crawl along in the mud like some creeping reptile seeking its lair. But Stoutenburg looked neither to right nor left. He paid no heed to these swiftly fleeting ghostlike forms. He knew well enough that he would find silence here, that three dozen men – cowards and mercenaries all – had been scattered like locusts before a gale. Overhead he heard the tramping of feet, his friends – Beresteyn, Heemskerk, van Does – were making ready for flight. His one scheme of vengeance – that for which he had thirsted and plotted and sinned – had come to nought, but he had yet another in his mind – one which, if successful, would give him no small measure of satisfaction for the failure of the other.
And ahead the outline of the hastily improvised gallows detached itself out of the misty shroud, and from the Lord of Stoutenburg's throat there came a fierce cry of joy which surely must have delighted all the demons in hell.
He hurried on, covering with swift eager steps the short distance that separated him from the gibbet.
He called loudly to Jan, for it seemed to him as if the place was unaccountably deserted.
He could not see Jan nor yet the prisoner, and surely Piet the Red had not proved a coward.
The solid beams above and around him threw back his call in reverberating echoes. He called again, and from far away a mocking laugh seemed alone to answer him.
Like a frightened beast now he bounded forward. There were the gallows not five paces away from him; the planks hastily hammered together awhile ago were creaking weirdly, buffeted by the wind, and up aloft the rope was swinging, beating itself with a dull, eerie sound against the wood.
The Lord of Stoutenburg – dazed and stupefied – looked on this desolate picture like a man in a dream.
The voice came feebly from somewhere close by.
"My lord! for pity's sake!"
It was Jan's voice of course. The Lord of Stoutenburg turned mechanically in the direction from whence it came. Not far from where he was standing he saw Jan lying on the ground against a beam, with a scarf wound loosely round his mouth and his arms held with a cord behind his back. Stoutenburg unwound the scarf and untied the cord, then he murmured dully:
"Jan? What does this mean?"
"The men all threw down their arms, my lord," said Jan as soon as he had struggled to his feet, "they ran like cowards when Lucas of Sparendam brought the news."
"I knew that," said Stoutenburg hoarsely, "curse them all for their miserable cowardice. But the prisoner, man, the prisoner? What have you done with him? Did I not order you to guard him with your life?"
"Then is mine own life forfeit, my lord," said Jan simply, "for I did fail in guarding the prisoner."
A violent oath broke from Stoutenburg's trembling lips. He raised his clenched fist, ready to strike in his blind, unreasoning fury the one man who had remained faithful to him to the last.
Jan slowly bent the knee.
"Kill me, my lord," he said calmly, "I could not guard the prisoner."
Stoutenburg was silent for a moment, then his upraised arm fell nervelessly by his side.
"How did it happen?" he asked.
"I scarce can tell you, my lord," replied Jan, "the attack on us was so quick and sudden. Piet and I did remain at our post, but in the rush and the panic we presently were left alone beside the prisoner. Two men – who were his friends – must have been on the watch for this opportunity, they fell on us from behind and caught us unawares. We called in vain for assistance; it was a case of sauve qui peut and every one for himself, in a trice the cords that bound the prisoner were cut, and three men had very quickly the best of us. Piet, though wounded in the leg, contrived to escape, but it almost seemed as if those three demons were determined to spare me. Though by God," added Jan fervently, "I would gladly have died rather than have seen all this shame! When they had brought me down they wound a scarf round my mouth and left me here tied to a beam, while they disappeared in the fog."
Stoutenburg made no comment on this brief narrative, even the power of cursing seemed to have deserted him. He left Jan kneeling there on the frozen ground, and without a word he turned on his heel and made his way once more between the beams under the molens back toward the hut.
Vengeance indeed had eluded his grasp. The two men whom on earth he hated most had remained triumphant while he himself had been brought down to the lowest depths of loneliness and misery. Friendless, kinless now, life indeed, as he had told Gilda, was at an end for him. Baffled vengeance would henceforth make him a perpetual exile and a fugitive with every man's hand raised against him, a price once more upon his head.
The world doth at times allow a man to fail in the task of his life, it will forgive that one failure and allow the man to try again. But a second failure is unforgivable, men turn away from the blunderer in contempt. Who would risk life, honour and liberty in a cause that has twice failed?
Stoutenburg knew this. He knew that within the next hour his friends would already have practically deserted him. Panic-stricken now they would accompany him as far as the coast, they would avail themselves of all the measures which he had devised for their mutual safety, but in their innermost hearts they would already have detached themselves from his future ill-fortunes; and anon, in a few months mayhap, when the Stadtholder had succumbed to the disease which was threatening his life, they would all return to their homes and to their kindred and forget this brief episode wherein their leader's future had been so completely and so irretrievably wrecked.
They would forget, only he – Stoutenburg – would remain the pariah, the exile, that carries the brand of traitor for ever upon the pages of his life.
And now the hut is once more in sight, and for one brief instant an inward light flickers up in Stoutenburg's dulled eyes. Gilda is there, Gilda whom he loves, and whose presence in the sorrow-laden years that are to come would be a perpetual compensation for all the humiliation and all the shame which he had endured.
To-day mayhap she would follow him unwillingly, but Stoutenburg's passion was proof against her coldness. He felt that he could conquer her, that he could win her love, when once he had her all to himself in a distant land, when she – kinless too and forlorn – would naturally turn to him for protection and for love. He had little doubt that he would succeed, and vaguely in his mind there rose the pale ray of hope that her love would then bring him luck, or at any rate put renewed energy in him to begin his life anew.
THE FIGHT IN THE DOORWAY
It seemed to Stoutenburg that from the back of the hut there came the sound of bustle and activity: he thought that mayhap Beresteyn had had the good idea of making the sledge ready for departure, and he called out loudly to his friend.
It was a mocking voice, however, that rose in response:
"Was your Magnificence perchance looking for me?"
Out of the mist which still hung round the small building Diogenes' tall figure suddenly loomed before the Lord of Stoutenburg. He was standing in the doorway of the hut, with his back to it; one hand – the right one – was thrust inside his doublet, the left was on the hilt of his sword; his battered hat was tilted rakishly above his brow and he was regarding his approaching enemy with a look of keen amusement and of scorn.
At first Stoutenburg thought that his fevered fancy was playing his eyes a weird and elusive trick, then as the reality of what he saw fully burst upon his senses he uttered a loud and hoarse cry like a savage beast that has been wounded.
"Plepshurk! smeerlap!" he cried fiercely.
"Rogue! Villain! Menial! Varlet! and all that you care to name me, my lord!" quoth the philosopher lightly, "and entirely at your service."
"Jan!" cried Stoutenburg, "Jan! In the name of hell where are you?"
"Not very far, my lord," rejoined the other. "Jan is a brave soldier but he was no match for three philosophers, even though one of them at first was trussed like a fowl. Jan stuck to his post, my lord, remember that," he added more seriously, "even when all your other followers and friends were scattered to the winds like a crowd of mice at the approach of a cat. We did not hurt Jan because he is a brave soldier, but we tied him down lest he ran to get assistance whilst assistance was still available."
"You insolent knave…"
"You speak rightly, my lord: I am an insolent knave, and do so rejoice in mine insolence that I stayed behind here – while my brother philosophers accomplish the task which I have put upon them – on purpose to exercise some of that insolence upon you, and to see what power a man hath to curb his temper and to look pleasant, whilst an insolent knave doth tell him to his face that he is an abject and degraded cur."
"Then by Heaven, you abominable plepshurk," cried Stoutenburg white with passion, "since you stayed here to parley with me, I can still give you so complete a retort that your final insolence will have to be spoken in hell. But let me pass now. I have business inside the hut."
"I know you have, my lord," rejoined Diogenes coolly, "but I am afraid that your business will have to wait until two philosophers named respectively Pythagoras and Socrates have had time to finish theirs."
"What do you mean? Let me pass, I tell you, or…"
"Or the wrath of your Magnificence will once more be upon mine unworthy head. Dondersteen! what have I not suffered already from that all-powerful wrath!"
"You should have been hanged ere this…"
"It is an omission, my lord, which I fear me we must now leave to the future to rectify."
"Stand aside, man," cried Stoutenburg, who was hoarse with passion.
"No! not just yet!" was the other's calm reply.
"Stand aside!" reiterated Stoutenburg wildly.
He drew his sword and made a quick thrust at his enemy; he remembered the man's wounded shoulder and saw that his right hand was temporarily disabled.
"Ah, my lord!" quoth Diogenes lightly, as with his left he drew Bucephalus out of its scabbard, "you had forgotten or perhaps you never knew that during your follower's scramble for safety my sword remained unheeded in an easily accessible spot, and also that it is as much at home in my left hand as in my right."
Like a bull goaded to fury Stoutenburg made a second and more vigorous thrust at his opponent. But Diogenes was already on guard: calm, very quiet in his movements in the manner of the perfect swordsman. Stoutenburg, hot with rage, impetuous and clumsy, was at once at a disadvantage whilst this foreign adventurer, entirely self-possessed and good-humoured, had the art of the sword at his finger-tips – the art of perfect self-control, the art of not rushing to the attack, the supreme art of waiting for an opportunity.
No feint or thrust at first, only on guard, quietly on guard, and Bucephalus seemed to be infinitely multiplied at times so quickly did the bright steel flash out in the grey light and then subside again.
Stoutenburg was at once conscious of his own disadvantage. He was no match for this brilliant sword play; his opponent did indeed appear to be only playing with him, but Stoutenburg felt all the time that the abominable knave might disarm him at any moment if he were so minded.
Nor could he see very clearly: the passionate blood in him had rushed to his head and was beating furiously in his temples, whilst the other man with the additional advantage of a good position against the wall, kept up a perfect fusillade of good-humoured comments.
"Well attacked, my lord!" he cried gaily, "Dondersteen! were I as fat as your Magnificence supposes, your sword would ere now have made a hole in my side. Pity I am not broader, is it not? or more in the way of your sword. There," he added as with a quick and sudden turn of the wrist he knocked his opponent's weapon out of his hand, "allow me to return you this most useful sword."
He had already stooped and picked up Stoutenburg's sword, and now was holding it with slender finger tips by the point of its blade, and smiling, urbane and mocking, he held it out at arm's length, bowing the while with courtly, ironical grace.
"Shall we call Jan, my lord," he said airily, "or one of your friends to aid you? Some of them I noticed just now seemed somewhat in a hurry to quit this hospitable molens, but mayhap one or two are still lingering behind."
Stoutenburg, blind with rage, had snatched his sword back out of the scoffer's hand. He knew that the man was only playing with him, only keeping him busy here to prevent his going to Gilda. This thought threw him into a frenzy of excitement and not heeding the other's jeers he cried out at the top of his voice:
"Jan! Jan! Nicolaes! What-ho!"
And the other man putting his hand up to his mouth also shouted lustily:
"Jan! Nicolaes! What ho!"
Had Stoutenburg been less blind and deaf to aught save to his own hatred and his own fury, he would have heard not many paces away, the sound of horses' hoofs upon the hard ground, the champing of bits, the jingle of harness. But of this he did not think, not just yet. His thoughts were only of Gilda, and that man was holding the door of the hut because he meant to dispute with him the possession of Gilda. He cast aside all sense of pride and shame. He was no match with a foreign mercenary, whose profession was that of arms; there was no disgrace in his want of skill. But he would not yield the ground to this adventurer who meant to snatch Gilda away from him. After all the man had a wounded shoulder and a lacerated hip; with the aid of Jan and of Nicolaes he could soon be rendered helpless.
New hope rose in the Lord of Stoutenburg's heart, giving vigour to his arm. Now he heard the sound of running footsteps behind him; Jan was coming to his aid and there were others; Nicolaes no doubt and Heemskerk.
"My lord! my lord!" cried Jan, horrified at what he saw. He had heard the clang of steel against steel and had caught up the first sword that came to his hand. His calls and those of Stoutenburg as well as the more lusty ones of Diogenes reached the ears of Beresteyn, who with his friend Heemskerk was making a final survey of the molens, to search for compromising papers that might have been left about. They too heard the cries and the clash of steel; they ran down the steps of the molens, only to meet Jan who was hurrying toward the hut with all his might.
"I think my lord is being attacked," shouted Jan as he flew past, "and the jongejuffrouw is still in the hut."
These last words dissipated Nicolaes Beresteyn's sudden thoughts of cowardice. He too snatched up a sword and followed by Heemskerk he ran in Jan's wake.
The stranger, so lately a prisoner condemned to hang, was in the doorway of the hut, with his back to it, his sword in his left hand keeping my Lord of Stoutenburg at arm's length. Jan, Nicolaes and Heemskerk were on him in a trice.
"Two, three, how many of you?" queried Diogenes with a laugh, as with smart riposte he met the three blades which suddenly flashed out against him. "Ah, Mynheer Beresteyn, my good Jan, I little thought that I would see you again."
"Let me pass, man," cried Beresteyn, "I must to my sister."
"Not yet, friend," he replied, "till I know what your intentions are."
For one instant Beresteyn appeared to hesitate. The kindly sentiment which had prompted him awhile ago to speak sympathetic words to a condemned man who had taken so much guilt upon his shoulders, still fought in his heart against his hatred for the man himself. Since that tragic moment at the foot of the gallows which had softened his mood, Beresteyn had learnt that it was this man who had betrayed him and his friends to the Stadtholder, and guessed that it was Gilda who had instigated or bribed him into that betrayal. And now the present position seemed to bring vividly before his mind the picture of that afternoon in the "Lame Cow" at Haarlem, when the knave whom he had paid to keep Gilda safely out of the way was bargaining with his father to bring her back to him.
All the hatred of the past few days – momentarily lulled in the face of a tragedy – rose up once more with renewed intensity in his heart. Here was the man who had betrayed him, and who, triumphant, was about to take Gilda back to Haarlem and receive a fortune for his reward.
While Heemskerk, doubtful and hesitating, marvelled if 'twere wise to take up Stoutenburg's private quarrels rather than follow his other friends to Scheveningen where safety lay, Jan and Beresteyn vigorously aided by Stoutenburg made a concerted attack upon the knave.
But it seemed as easy for Bucephalus to deal with three blades as with one: now it appeared to have three tongues of pale grey flame that flashed hither and thither; – backwards, forwards, left, right, above, below, parry, riposte, an occasional thrust, and always quietly on guard.
Diogenes was in his greatest humour laughing and shouting with glee. To anyone less blind with excitement than were these men it would soon have been clear that he was shouting for the sole purpose of making a noise, a noise louder than the hammerings, the jinglings, the knocking that was going on at the back of the hut.
To right and left of the front of the small building a high wooden paling ran for a distance of an hundred paces or so enclosing a rough yard with a shed in the rear. It was impossible to see over the palings what was going on behind them and so loudly did the philosopher shout and laugh, and so vigorously did steel strike against steel that it was equally impossible to perceive the sounds that came from there.
But suddenly Stoutenburg was on the alert: something had caught his ear, a sound that rose above the din that was going on in the doorway … a woman's piercing shriek. Even the clang of steel could not drown it, nor the lusty shouts of the fighting philosopher.
For a second he strained his ear to listen. It seemed as if invisible hands were suddenly tearing down the wooden palisade that hid the rear of the small building from his view; before his mental vision a whole picture rose to sight. A window at the back of the hut broken in, Gilda carried away by the friends of this accursed adventurer – Jan had said that two came to his aid at the foot of the gallows – Maria screaming, the sledge in wait, the horses ready to start.
"My God, I had not thought of that," he cried, "Jan! Nicolaes! in Heaven's name! Gilda! After me! quick!"
And then he starts to run, skirting the palisade in the direction whence come now quite distinctly that ceaseless rattle, that jingle and stamping of the ground which proclaims the presence of horses on the point of departure.
"Jan, in Heaven's name, follow me!" cries Stoutenburg, pausing one instant ere he rounds the corner of the palisade. "Nicolaes, leave that abominable knave! Gilda, I tell you! Gilda! They are carrying her away!"
Jan already has obeyed, grasping his sword he does not pause to think. My lord has called and 'tis my lord whom he follows. He runs after Stoutenburg as fast as his tired limbs will allow. Heemskerk, forgetting his own fears in the excitement of this hand-to-hand combat, follows in their wake.скачать книгу бесплатно