Emma Orczy.

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



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"I have no means of finding out, sir, if my father hath or hath not remorse for his wilful desertion of wife and child – England is a far-off country – I would not care to undertake so unprofitable a pilgrimage."

"Then why not let me do so, sir?" queried Cornelius Beresteyn calmly.

"You?"

"Yes. Why not?"

"Why should you trouble, mynheer, to seek out the father of such a vagabond as I?"

"Because I would like to give a man – an old man your father must be now – the happiness of calling you his son. You say he lives in England. I often go to England on business. Will you not at least tell me your father's name?"

"I have no cause to conceal it, mynheer," rejoined Diogenes carelessly. "In England they call him Blake of Blakeney; his home is in Sussex and I believe that it is a stately home."

"But I know the Squire of Blakeney well," said Cornelius Beresteyn eagerly, "my bankers at Amsterdam also do business for him. I know that just now he is in Antwerp on a mission from King James of England to the Archduchess. He hath oft told Mynheer Beuselaar, our mutual banker, that he was moving heaven and earth to find the son whom he had lost."

"Heaven and earth take a good deal of moving," quoth Diogenes lightly, "once a wife and son have been forsaken and left to starve in a foreign land. Mine English father wedded my mother in the church of St. Pieter at Haarlem. My friend Frans Hals – God bless him – knew my mother and cared for me after she died. He has all the papers in his charge relating to the marriage. It has long ago been arranged between us that if I die with ordinary worthiness, he will seek out my father in England and tell him that mayhap – after all – even though I have been a vagabond all my life – I have never done anything that should cause him to blush for his son."

Apparently at this juncture, Maria must have knocked at the door of the tapperij, for Gilda, whose heart was beating more furiously than ever, heard presently the well-known firm footsteps of her father as he rapidly ascended the stairs.

Two minutes later Gilda lay against her father's heart, and her hand resting in his she told him from beginning to end everything that she had suffered from the moment when after watch-night service in the Groote Kerk she first became aware of the murmur of voices, to that when she first realized that the man whom she should have hated, the knave whom she should have despised, filled her heart and soul to the exclusion of all other happiness in the world, and that he was about to pass out of her life for ever.

It took a long time to tell – for she had suffered more, felt more, lived more in the past five days than would fill an ordinary life – nor did she disguise anything from her father, not even the conversation which she had had at Rotterdam in the dead of night with the man who had remained nameless until now, and in consequence of which he had gone at once to warn the Stadtholder and had thus averted the hideous conspiracy which would have darkened for ever the destinies of many Dutch homes.

Of Nicolaes she did not speak; she knew that he had confessed his guilt to his father, who would know how to forgive in the fullness of time.

When she had finished speaking her father said somewhat roughly:

"But for that vervloekte adventurer down there, you would never have suffered, Gilda, as you did.

Nicolaes…"

"Nicolaes, father dear," she broke in quietly, "is very dear to us both. I think that his momentary weakness will endear him to us even more. But he was a tool in the hands of that unscrupulous Stoutenburg – and but for that nameless and penniless soldier whose hand you were proud to grasp just now, I would not be here in your arms at this moment."

"Ah!" said Cornelius Beresteyn dryly, "is this the way that the wind blows, my girl? Did you not know then that the rascal – the day after he dared to lay hands upon you – was back again in Haarlem bargaining with me to restore you to my arms in exchange for a fortune?"

"And two days later, father dear," she retorted, "he endured insults, injuries, cruelties from Stoutenburg, rather than betray Nicolaes' guilt before me."

"Hm!" murmured Cornelius, and there was a humorous twinkle in his eyes as he looked down upon his daughter's bowed head.

"And but for that same rascal, father," she continued softly, "you would at this moment be mourning a dead daughter and Holland a hideous act of treachery."

"Hush, my dear!" cried the old man impulsively, as he put his kind protecting arms round the child whom he loved so dearly.

"I would never have followed the Lord of Stoutenburg while I lived," she said simply.

"Please God," he said earnestly, "I would sooner have seen you in the crypt beside your mother."

"Then, father, hath not the rascal you speak of deserved well of us? Can we not guess that even originally he took me away from Haarlem, only because he knew that if he refused the bargain, proposed to him by mine own brother, Stoutenburg would have found some other means of ensuring my silence."

"You are a good advocate, my girl," rejoined Cornelius with a sly wink which brought the colour rushing up to Gilda's cheeks. "I think, by your leave, I'll go and shake that vervloekte Keerl once more by the hand… And … shall I tell him that you bear him no ill-will?" he added roguishly.

"Yes, father dear, tell him that," she said gently.

"Then will you go to bed, dear?" he asked, "you are overwrought and tired."

"I will sit by the window quietly for a quarter of an hour," she said, "after that I promise you that I will go peaceably to bed."

He kissed her tenderly, for she was very dear to him, but being a man of vast understanding and profound knowledge of men and things, the humorous twinkle did not altogether fade from his eyes as he finally bade his daughter "Good night," and then quietly went out of the room.

CHAPTER XLV
THE END

Diogenes sat beside the window in the tapperij listening with half an ear to the sounds in and about the hostelry which were dying out one by one. At first there had been a footfall in the room overhead which had seemed to him the sweetest music that man could hear. It had paced somewhat restlessly up and down and to the Laughing Cavalier, the gay and irresponsible soldier of fortune, it had seemed as if every creaking of a loose board beneath the featherweight of that footfall found its echo in his heart.

But anon Mynheer Cornelius Beresteyn was called away and then all was still in the room upstairs, and Diogenes burying his head in his hands evoked the picture of that room as he had seen it five days ago. The proud jongejuffrouw in her high-backed chair, looking on him with blue eyes which she vainly tried to render hard through their exquisite expression of appealing, childlike gentleness: and he groaned aloud with the misery of the inevitable which with stern finger bade him go and leave behind him all the illusions, all the dreams which he had dared to weave.

Had she not told him that she despised him, that his existence was as naught to her, that she looked on him as a menial and a knave, somewhat below the faithful henchmen who were in her father's service? Ye gods! he had endured much in his life of privations, of physical and mental pain, but was there aught on earth or in the outermost pits of hell to be compared with the agony of this ending to a dream.

The serving-wench came in just then. She scarcely dared approach the mynheer with the merry voice and the laughter-filled eyes who now looked so inexpressibly sad.

Yet she had a message for him. Mynheer Cornelius Beresteyn, she said, desired to speak with him once more. The wench had murmured the words shyly, for her heart was aching for the handsome soldier and the tears were very near her eyes. But hearing the message he had jumped up with alacrity and was immediately ready to follow her.

Mynheer Beresteyn had a room on the upper floor, she explained, as she led the way upstairs. The old man was standing on the narrow landing and as soon as Diogenes appeared upon the stairs, he said simply:

"There was something I did forget to say to you downstairs; may I trouble you, sir, to come into my room for a moment."

He threw open one of the doors that gave on the landing and politely stood aside that his visitor might pass through. Diogenes entered the room: he heard the door being closed behind him, and thought that Mynheer Beresteyn had followed him in.

The room was very dimly lighted by a couple of tallow candles that flickered in their sconces, and at first he could not see into the dark recesses of the room. But presently something moved, something ethereal and intangible, white and exquisite. It stirred from out the depths of the huge high-backed chair, and from out the gloom there came a little cry of surprise and of joy which was as the call of bird or angel.

He did not dare to move, he scarcely dared to breathe. He looked round for Mynheer Beresteyn who had disappeared.

Surely this could be only a dream. Nothing real on earth could be so exquisite as that subtle vision which he had of her now, sitting in the high-backed chair, leaning slightly forward toward him. Gradually his eyes became accustomed to the gloom: he could see her quite distinctly now, her fair curls round her perfect head, her red lips parted, her eyes fixed upon him with a look which he dared not interpret.

All around him was the silence and the darkness of the night, and he was alone with her just as he had been in this very room five days ago and then again at Rotterdam.

"St. Bavon, you rogue!" he murmured, "where are you? How dare you leave me in the lurch like this?"

Then – how it all happened he could not himself have told you – he suddenly found himself at her feet, kneeling beside the high-backed chair; his arms were round her shoulders and he could feel the exquisite perfume of her breath upon his cheek.

"St. Bavon," he cried exultingly to himself, "go away, you rogue! there's no need for your admonitions now."

Mynheer Beresteyn tiptoed quietly into the room. The roguish smile still played around his lips. He came up close to the high-backed chair and placed his hand upon his daughter's head.

Diogenes looked up, and met the kindly eyes of the old man fixed with calm earnestness upon him.

"Mynheer," he said, and laughter which contained a world of happiness as well as of joy danced and sparkled in every line of his face, "just now I refused one half of your fortune! But 'tis your greatest treasure I claim from you now."

"Nay! you rascal," rejoined Beresteyn, as he lifted his daughter's chin gently with one finger and looked into her deep blue eyes which were brimful of happiness, "methinks that that treasure is yours already!"

"Go back, good St. Bavon," cried the Laughing Cavalier in an ecstasy of joy, "your heaven – you rogue – is not more perfect than this."

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