The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel
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Nicolaes, too, at Stoutenburg's call, is ready to follow him.
He turns to run when a grasp of iron falls upon his arm, holding it like a vice. He could have screamed with the pain, and the sword which he held falls out of his nerveless fingers. The next moment he feels himself dragged by that same iron grasp through the open door into the hut, and hears the door slammed to and locked behind him.
"Your pardon if I have been rough, mynheer," said Diogenes' pleasant voice, "but there was no time to argue outside that door and you seemed in such a mighty hurry to run straight into that yawning abyss of disgrace."
The grasp upon his arm had not relaxed, but it no longer hurt. Yet it was so firm and so absolute that Nicolaes felt powerless to wrench himself away.
"Let me go!" he cried hoarsely.
"Not just yet, mynheer," rejoined Diogenes coolly, "not while this hot temper is upon you. Let the Lord of Stoutenburg and our friend Jan fight to their heart's content with a fat philosopher who is well able to hold his own against them, while the other who is lean and a moderately good coachman sees that a pair of horses do not rear and bolt during the fray."
"Let me go, man, I tell you," cried Beresteyn who was making frantic efforts to free himself from that slender white grapnel which held his arm as in a vice.
"One moment longer, mynheer, and you shall go. The horses of which I speak are harnessed to a sledge wherein is the jongejuffrouw your sister."
"Yes! verdommte Keerl! let me get to her or…"
"As soon as the fat philosopher has disposed of the Lord of Stoutenburg and of Jan he too will jump into the sledge and a minute later will be speeding on its way to Haarlem."
"And there will be three of us left here to hang you to that same gallows on which you should have dangled an hour ago," exclaimed Beresteyn savagely.
"Possibly," retorted Diogenes dryly, "but even so your sister will be on the way to Haarlem rather than to exile – whither the Lord of Stoutenburg and you – her brother – would drag her."
"And what is it to you, you abominable plepshurk, whither I go with my sister and my friend?"
"Only this, mynheer, that yesterday in this very room I proclaimed myself a forger, a liar and a thief before the jongejuffrouw in order that her love for her only brother should not receive a mortal wound. At that moment I did greatly care for that lie," he added with his wonted flippancy, "but time hath lent it enchantment: It is on the whole one of the finest lies I ever told in my life; moreover it carried conviction; the jongejuffrouw was deceived. Now I will not see that pet lie of mine made fruitless by the abominable action which you have in contemplation."
Beresteyn made no immediate reply. Easily swayed as he always was by a character stronger than his own, the words spoken by the man whom he had always affected to despise, could not fail to move him. He knew that that same abominable action of which he was being accused had indeed been contemplated not only by Stoutenburg but also by himself.It had only required one word from Stoutenburg – "Gilda of course comes with us" – one hint that her presence in Holland would be a perpetual menace to his personal safety, and he had been not only willing but fully prepared to put this final outrage upon the woman whom he should have protected with his life.
Therefore now he dared not meet the eager, questioning glance of this adventurer, in whose merry eyes the look of irrepressible laughter was momentary veiled by one of anxiety. He looked around him restlessly, shiftily; his wandering glance fell on the narrow inner door which stood open, and he caught a glimpse of a smaller room beyond, with a window at the further end of it. That window had been broken in from without, the narrow frame torn out of its socket and the mullion wrenched out of its groove.
Through the wide breach thus made in the lath and mud walls of the hut, Beresteyn suddenly saw the horses and the sledge out there in the open. The fight of awhile ago by the front door had now been transferred to this spot. A short fat man with his back to the rear of the sledge was holding the Lord Stoutenburg and Heemskerk at a couple of arm's lengths with the point of his sword. Jan was apparently not yet on the scene.
Another man, lean and tall, was on the box of the sledge, trying with all his might to hold a pair of horses in, who frightened by the clang of steel against steel, by the movement and the shouting, were threatening to plunge and rear at any moment.
Diogenes laughed aloud.
"My friend Pythagoras seems somewhat hard pressed," he said, "and those horses might complicate the situation at any moment. I must to them now, mynheer. Tell me then quickly which you mean to do; behave like an honest man or like a cur?"
"What right have you to dictate to me?" said Beresteyn sullenly. "I have no account to give to you of mine own actions."
"None I admit," rejoined the philosopher placidly, "but let me put the situation a little more clearly before you. On the one hand you must own that I could at this moment with very little trouble and hardly any scruples render you physically helpless first, then lock you up in this room, and go and join my friends outside. On the other hand you could leave this room sound in body and at heart an honest man, jump into the sledge beside your sister and convey her yourself safely back to the home from whence you – her own brother – should never have allowed her to be taken."
"I cannot do it," retorted Beresteyn moodily, "I could not meet my father face to face after what has happened."
"Think you Gilda would tell him that his only son has played the part of traitor?"
"She loathes and despises me."
"She has a horror of that treacherous plot. But the plot has come to naught; and she will consider that you are punished enough for it already, and feel happy that you are free from Stoutenburg's clutches."
"I cannot leave Stoutenburg now, and she must go with him. She hates me for the outrage which was committed against her."
"She does not know your share in it," said Diogenes quickly, "have I not told you that I lied admirably? She believes me to be the only culprit and to have forged your name to hide mine own infamy."
A hot flush rose to Beresteyn's pale cheeks.
"I cannot bear to profit by your generosity," he said dully.
"Pshaw man!" rejoined the other not without a tone of bitterness, "what matters what my reputation is in her sight? She despises me so utterly already that a few sins more or less cannot lower me further in her sight."
"No! no! I cannot do it," persisted Beresteyn. "Go to your friends, man," he added fiercely, "the fat one is getting sorely pressed, the other cannot cope with the horses much longer! go to their aid! and kill me if you are so minded. Indeed I no longer care, and in any case I could not survive all this shame."
"Die by all means when and where you list," said Diogenes placidly, "but 'tis your place first of all to take your sister now under your own protection, to keep her in the knowledge that whatever sins you may have committed you were at least true and loyal to herself. By Heaven man, hath she not suffered enough already in her person, in her pride, above all in her affections? Your loyalty to her at this moment would be ample compensation for all that she hath suffered. Be an honest man and take her to her home."
"How can I? I have no home: and she is a menace to us all…"
"I am a menace to you, you weak-hearted craven," cried Diogenes whose moustache bristled with fury now, "for by Heaven I swear that you shall not leave this place with a whole skin save to do an honest man's act of reparation."
And as if to give greater emphasis to his words Diogenes gave the other man's arm a vigorous wrench which caused Beresteyn to groan and curse with pain.
"I may have to hurt you worse than this presently," said the philosopher imperturbably as he dragged Beresteyn – who by now felt dizzy and helpless – to the nearest chair and deposited him there. "Were you not her brother, I believe I should crack your obstinate skull; as it is … I will leave you here to take counsel with reason and honesty until I have finally disposed of my Lord of Stoutenburg."
He ran quickly to the outer door, pushed the bolts home, gave the key an extra turn and then pulled it out of the lock and threw it out of the window. Beresteyn – somewhat stunned with emotion, a little faint with that vigorous wrench on his arm, and prostrate with the fatigue and excitement of the past two days – made no attempt to stop him. No doubt he realized that any such attempt would indeed be useless: there was so much vitality, so much strength in the man that his tall stature appeared to Nicolaes now of giant-like proportions, and his powers to savour of the supernatural.
He watched him with dull, tired eyes, as he finally went out of the room through the inner door; no doubt that this too he locked behind him. Beresteyn did not know; he half lay, half sat in the chair like a log, the sound of the fight outside, of the shouts that greeted Diogenes' arrival, of the latter's merry laughter that went echoing through the mist, only reached his dull perceptions like a far-off dream.
But in his mind he saw it all: the walls of the hut were transparent before his mental vision, he saw now the unequal fight; a perfect swordsman against Stoutenburg's unreasoning attacks and Heemskerk's want of skill. Jan too will have joined them by now, but he was loutish and clumsy. The issue would have been a foregone conclusion even without the aid of the fat knave who had held his own already for nearly ten minutes. Yet, though his thoughts were not by any means all clear upon the subject, Beresteyn made no attempt to go to his own friend's assistance. Vaguely some pleasing visions began to float through space around him. It seemed as if the magic personality of a nameless adventurer still filled this narrow room with its vitality, with its joy and with its laughter. The optimistic breeziness which emanated from the man himself had lingered here after he was gone. His cheerful words still hung and reverberated upon the cold, wintry air.
"After all, why not?" mused Beresteyn.
Gilda knew of his share in the conspiracy against the Stadtholder of course. But that conspiracy had now aborted; Gilda would never betray her brother's share in it either to the Stadtholder's vengeance or to her father's wrath.
And she had been made to believe that he was not the mover in the outrage against her person.
"Then – why not?"
She had been forcibly dragged out of this hut: she knew that Stoutenburg meant to take her away with him into exile; even if she had been only partially conscious since she was taken to the sledge, she would know that a desperate fight had been going on around her. Then if he, Nicolaes, now appeared upon the scene – if he took charge of her and of the sledge, and with the help of one or other of those knaves outside sped away with her north to Haarlem, would she not be confirmed in her belief in his loyalty, would he not play a heroic r?le, make her happy and himself free?
"Then – why not?"
All the papers relating to the aborted conspiracy which might have compromised him he had upon his person even now. He and Heemskerk had themselves collected them in the weighing-room of the molens after Lucas of Sparendam had brought his terrible news.
"Then – why not?"
He rose briskly from his chair. The outer door of the hut was locked – he crossed to the inner door. That was just on the latch and he threw it open. Before him now was the broken window frame through which peeped the dull grey light of this misty winter's morning. Out in the open through the filmy veil of the fog he could see the final phases of an unequal fight. Stoutenburg and Heemskerk were both disarmed and Jan had just appeared upon the scene. More far-seeing than were the Lord of Stoutenburg and Mynheer Heemskerk, he had very quickly realized that sword in hand no one was a match for this foreigner and his invincible blade. When the fighting was transferred from the doorway of the hut to the open road-way in the rear, he had at first followed in the wake of his chief, then he had doubled back, swiftly running to the molens, and in the basement from out the scattered litter of arms hastily thrown down, he had quickly picked up a couple of pistols, found some ammunition, quietly loaded the weapons and with them in his hand started to run back to the hut.
All this had taken some few minutes while Pythagoras had borne the brunt of a vigorous attack from the Lord of Stoutenburg and Mynheer Heemskerk, whilst Diogenes parleyed with Beresteyn inside the hut.
Beresteyn saw the whole picture before him. He had thrown open the door, and looked through the broken window at the precise moment when the Lord of Stoutenburg's sword flew out of his hand. Then it was that Jan came running along, shouting to my lord. Stoutenburg turned quickly, saw his faithful lieutenant and caught sight of the pistols which he held. The next second he had snatched one out of Jan's hand, and the pale ray of a wintry sun penetrating through the mist found its reflection in a couple of steel barrels pointed straight at a laughing philosopher.
Beresteyn from within felt indeed as if his heart stood still for that one brief, palpitating second. Was Fate after all taking the decision for the future – Gilda's and his – out of his hands into her own? Would a bullet end that vigorous life and still that merry laugh and that biting tongue for ever, and leave Nicolaes to be swayed once more by the dark schemes and arbitrary will of his friend Stoutenburg?
Fate was ready, calmly spinning the threads of human destinies. But there are some men in the world who have the power and the skill to take their destinies in their own hands. The philosopher and weaver of dreams, the merry Laughing Cavalier was one of these.
What the Lord of Stoutenburg had seen that he perceived equally quickly; he, too, had caught sight of Jan, and of the two steel barrels simultaneously levelled at him; he too, realized that the most skilled swordsman is but a sorry match against a pair of bullets.
But while Beresteyn held his breath and Stoutenburg tried to steady the trembling of his hand, he raised Bucephalus above his head and with a wild shout pointed toward the southern horizon far away.
"The Stadtholder's guard!" he cried lustily, "they are on us! Sauve qui peut!"
Three cries of mad terror rent the air, there was a double detonation, a great deal of smoke. The horses in the sledge reared and plunged wildly, forcing those who were nearest to the vehicle to beat a precipitate retreat.
"At the horses' heads, you wooden-headed bladder," shouted Diogenes lustily. Pythagoras did his best to obey, while Socrates was nearly dragged off the box by the frightened horses. Heemskerk had already incontinently taken to his heels. Jan had dropped his weapon which Diogenes at once picked up. The Lord of Stoutenburg was preparing to fire again.
"Sauve qui peut, my lord!" cried Diogenes, "before I change my mind and put a hole through your heel, which will prevent your running away fast enough to escape the Stadtholder's wrath."
There was another detonation. The horses reared and plunged again. When Beresteyn once more obtained a clear view of the picture, he saw the Lord of Stoutenburg stretched out on his back upon the ground in a position that was anything but dignified and certainly very perilous, for Diogenes towering above him was holding him by both feet. The tall soldierly figure of the foreigner stood out clearly silhouetted against the grey, misty light: his head with its wealth of unruly brown curls was thrown back with a gesture that almost suggested boyish delight in some impish mischief, whilst his infectious laugh echoed and re-echoed against the walls of the molens and of the hut.
Jan was on his hands and knees crawling toward those two men – the conqueror and the conquered – with no doubt a vague idea that he might even now render assistance to my lord.
"Here, Pythagoras, old fat head," cried Diogenes gaily, "see that our friend here does not interfere with me: and that he hath not a concealed poniard somewhere about his person, then collect all pistols and swords that are lying about, well out of harm's way. In the meanwhile what am I to do with his Magnificence? he is kicking like a vicious colt and that shoulder of mine is beginning to sting like fury."
"Kill me, man, kill me!" cried Stoutenburg savagely, "curse you, why don't you end this farce?"
"Because, my lord," said Diogenes more seriously than was his wont, "the purest and most exquisite woman on God's earth did once deign to bestow the priceless jewel of her love upon you. Did she know of your present plight, she would even now be pleading for you: therefore," he added more flippantly, "I am going to give myself the satisfaction of making you a present of the last miserable shred of existence which you will drag on from this hour forth in wretchedness and exile to the end of your days. Take your life and freedom, my lord," he continued in response to the invectives which Stoutenburg muttered savagely under his breath, "take it at the hands of the miserable plepshurk whom you so despise. It is better methinks to do this rather than fall into the hands of the Stadtholder, whose mercy for a fallen enemy would be equal to your own."
Then he shouted to Pythagoras.
"Here, old compeer! search his Magnificence for concealed weapons, and then make ready to go. We have wasted too much time already."
Despite Stoutenburg's struggles and curses Pythagoras obeyed his brother philosopher to the letter. His lordship and Jan were both effectually disarmed now. Then only did Diogenes allow Stoutenburg to struggle to his feet. He had his sword in his left hand and Pythagoras stood beside him. Jan found his master's hat and cloak and helped him on with them, and then he said quietly:
"The minutes are precious, my lord, 'tis a brief run to Ryswyk: my Lord of Heemskerk has gone and Mynheer Beresteyn has disappeared. Here we can do nothing more."
"Nothing, my good Jan," said Diogenes more seriously, "you are a brave soldier and a faithful servant. Take his Magnificence away to safety. You have well deserved your own."
Stoutenburg gave a last cry of rage and of despair. For a moment it seemed as if his blind fury would still conquer reason and prudence and that he meant once more to make an attack upon his victorious enemy, but something in the latter's look of almost insolent triumph recalled him to the peril of his own situation: he passed his hand once or twice over his brow, like a man who is dazed and only just returning to consciousness, then he called loudly to Jan to follow him, and walked rapidly away northwards through the fog.
Beresteyn went up to the broken window and watched him till he was out of sight, then he looked on Diogenes. That philosopher also watched the retreating figure of the Lord of Stoutenburg until the fog swallowed it up, then he turned to his friend.
"Pythagoras, old compeer," he said with a shrug of his broad shoulders, "what would you take to be walking at this moment in that man's shoes?"
"I wouldn't do it, friend," rejoined Pythagoras placidly, "for the possession of a running river of home-brewed ale. And I am mightily dry at the present moment."
"Jump up then on the box beside Socrates, you old wine-tub, and get to Leyden as quickly as these horses will take you. A halt at Voorburg will refresh you all."
"But you?" queried Socrates from his post of vantage.
"I shall make my way to Ryswyk first and get a horse there. I shall follow you at a distance, and probably overtake you before you get to Leyden. But you will not see me after this … unless there is trouble, which is not likely."
"But the jongejuffrouw?" persisted Socrates.
"Hush! I shall never really lose sight of you and the sledge. But you must serve her as best you can. Someone will be with her who will know how to take care of her."
"Her own brother of course, Mynheer Beresteyn. Over the sill, mynheer!" he now shouted, calling to Nicolaes who still stood undecided, shamed, hesitating in the broken framework of the window, "over the sill, 'tis only three feet from the ground, and horses and men are quite ready for you."
He gave a lusty cheer of satisfaction as Beresteyn, throwing all final cowardly hesitations to the wind, suddenly made up his mind to take the one wise and prudent course. He swung himself through the window, and in a few moments was standing by Diogenes' side.
"Let me at least tell you, sir …" he began earnestly.
"Hush! – tell me nothing now …" broke in the other man quickly, "the jongejuffrouw might hear."
"But I must thank you – "
"If you say another word," said Diogenes, sinking his voice to a whisper, "I'll order Socrates to drive on and leave you standing here."
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