Emma Orczy.

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



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"We are just beginning to enjoy ourselves," came in dulcet tones from the small man beside him.

"At them! at them! Papists! Spies!"

Once more a volley of stones.

"Dondersteen! but methinks we might vary the entertainment," cried Diogenes lustily.

Quicker than a flash of lightning he turned, and once more grasping Bucephalus in the partially disabled hand he tore with the other the resin torch out of its iron socket, and shouting to his two companions to hold their ground he, with the guttering lighted torch charged straight into the crowd.

A wild cry of terror was raised, which echoed and re-echoed from one end of the street to the other, reverberated against the cathedral walls, and caused all peaceable citizens who had found refuge in their homes to thank the Lord that they were safely within.

Diogenes, with fair hair fluttering over his brow, his twinkling eyes aglow with excitement, held the torch well in front of him, the sparks flew in all directions, the lustiest aggressors fled to right and left, shrieking with horror. Fire – that most invincible weapon – had accomplished what the finest steel never could have done; it sobered and terrified the crowd, scattered it like a flock of sheep, sent it running hither and thither, rendering it helpless by fear.

In the space of three minutes the circle round the three combatants was several metres wide, five minutes later the corner of the street was clear, except for the wounded who lay groaning on the ground and one or two hideous rags of flesh that lay scattered among heaps of stones, torn wallets, staves and broken sticks.

From the precincts of the Grootemarkt the town guard were heard using rough language, violent oaths and pikes and halberds against the stragglers that were only too eager now to go peaceably back to their homes. The fear of burnt doublets or kirtles had effectually sobered these over-flowing tempers. There had been enough Papist baiting to please the most inveterate seeker after excitement this night.

A few youths, who mayhap earlier in the evening had indulged too freely in the taverns of the Grootemarkt, were for resuming the fun after the panic had subsided. A score of them or so talked it over under the shadow of the cathedral, but a detachment of town guard spied their man?uvres and turned them all back into the market-place.

The bell of the cathedral slowly struck the last hour of this memorable year; and through the open portals of the sacred edifice the cathedral choir was heard intoning the First Psalm.

Like frightened hens that have been scared, and now venture out again, the worthy burghers of Haarlem sallied out from the by-streets into the Grootemarkt, on their way to watch-night service: Mynheer the burgomaster, and mynheer the town advocate, and the mevrouws their wives, and the town councillors and the members of the shooting guilds, and the governors and governesses of the Alms-houses.

With ponderous Bibles and prayer-books under their arms, and cloaks of fur closely wrapped round their shoulders, they once more filled the Grootemarkt with the atmosphere of their own solemnity. Their serving men carried the torches in front of them, waiting women helped the mevrouws in their unwieldy farthingales to walk on the slippery ground with becoming sobriety.

The cathedral bells sent forth a merry peal to greet the incoming year.

CHAPTER III
AN INTERLUDE

And at the corner of Dam Straat, where the low postern gate cuts into the tall stuccoed wall, there once more reigned silence as of the grave.

Those that were hurt and wounded had managed to crawl away, the town guard had made short work of it all; the laws against street brawling and noisy assemblies were over severe just now; it was best to hide a wound and go nurse it quietly at home. Fortunately the fog favoured the disturbers of the peace. Gradually they all contrived to sneak away, and later on in the night to sally forth again for watch-night revelries, looking for all the world as if nothing had happened.

"Tumult? Papist baiting? Was there really any Papist baiting this night? Ah! these foreign adventurers do fill our peaceful city with their noise."

In the Dam Straat the fog and the darkness reigned unchallenged. The second torch lay extinguished on the ground, trampled out under the heel of a heavy boot. And in the darkness three men were busy readjusting their mantles and trying to regain possession of their hats.

"A very unprofitable entertainment," growled Socrates.

"Total darkness, not a soul in sight, and cold! fit to chill the inner chambers of hell," assented Pythagoras.

"And no chance of adding anything to the stock of three guilders which must suffice us for to-night," concluded Diogenes airily.

He was carefully wiping the shining blade of Bucephalus with the corner of Pythagoras' mantle.

"Verrek jezelf! and what the d – l?" queried the latter in a high falsetto.

"My mantle is almost new," said Diogenes reproachfully; "thou would'st not have me soil it so soon?"

"I have a hole in my head fit to bury those three guilders in," murmured Socrates, with a sigh.

"And I a blow in the stomach which has chilled me to the marrow," sighed Pythagoras.

"And I a bruised shoulder," laughed Diogenes, "which hath engendered an unquenchable thirst."

"I wouldn't sell my thirst for any money this night," assented Pythagoras.

"To the 'Lame Cow,' then, O Pythagoras, and I'll toss thee for the first drink of hot ale."

"Ugh! but my head feels mightily hot and thick," said Socrates, somewhat huskily.

"Surely thou canst walk as far as the 'Lame Cow'?" queried Pythagoras, anxiously.

"I doubt me," sighed the other.

"Ale!" whispered Diogenes, encouragingly; "warm, sparkling, spicy ale!"

"Hm! hm!" assented the wounded man feebly.

"Easy! easy, my friend," said Diogenes, for his brother philosopher had fallen heavily against him.

"What are we to do?" moaned Pythagoras, in his dulcet tones. "I have a thirst … and we cannot leave this irresponsible fool to faint here in the fog."

"Hoist him up by the seat of his breeches, then on to my back," retorted Diogenes lightly. "The 'Lame Cow' is not far, and I too have a thirst."

Socrates would have protested. He did not relish the idea of being tossed about like a bale of goods on his friend's back. But he could only protest by word of mouth, to which the others paid no heed; and when he tried to struggle he rolled, dizzy and faint, almost to the ground.

"There's nothing for it," piped Pythagoras with consummate philosophy. "I couldn't carry him if I tried."

Diogenes bent his broad back and rested his hands on his thighs, getting as firm hold of the slippery ground as he could. Socrates for the moment was like a helpless log. There was much groping about in the darkness, a good deal of groaning, and a vast amount of swearing. Socrates had, fortunately, not fainted, and after a little while was able to settle down astride on his friend's back, his arms around the latter's neck, Pythagoras giving vigorous pushes from the rear.

When Diogenes, firmly grasping the wounded man's legs, was at last able to straighten himself out again, and did so to the accompaniment of a mighty groan and still more mighty oath, he found himself confronted by two lanthorns which were held up within a few inches of his nose.

"Dondersteen!" he ejaculated loudly, and nearly dropped his half-conscious and swaying burden on the ground.

"What is it now, Jakob?" queried a woman's voice peremptorily.

"I cannot see clearly, lady," replied one of the lanthorn-bearers – "two men I think."

"Then do thy thoughts proclaim thee a liar, friend," said Diogenes lightly; "there are three men here at this lady's service, though one is sick, the other fat, and the third a mere beast of burden."

"Let me see them, Jakob," ordered the woman. "I believe they are the same three men who…"

The lanthorn-bearers made way for the lady, still holding the lanthorns up so that the light fell fully on the quaint spectacle presented by the three philosophers. There was Socrates perched up aloft, his bird-like face smeared with blood, his eyes rolling in their effort to keep open, his thin back bent nearly double so that indeed he looked like a huge plucked crow the worse for a fight, and perched on an eminence where he felt none too secure. And below him his friend with broad shoulders bending under the burden, his plumed hat shading his brow, his merry, twinkling eyes fixed a little suspiciously on the four figures that loomed out of the fog in front of him, his mocking lips ready framed for a smile or an oath, his hands which supported the legs of poor wounded Socrates struggling visibly toward the hilt of his sword. And peeping round from behind him the short, rotund form of Pythagoras, crowned with a tall sugar-loaf hat which obviously had never belonged to him until now, for it perched somewhat insecurely above his flat, round face, with the small, upturned nose slightly tinged with pink and the tiny eyes, round and bright as new crowns.

Undoubtedly the sight was ludicrous in the extreme, and the woman who looked on it now burst into a merry peal of laughter.

"O Maria! dost see them?" she said, turning to her companion, an elderly woman in sober black gown and coif of tinsel lace. "Hast ever seen anything so quaint?"

She herself was young, and in the soft light of the two lanthorns appeared to the three philosophers to be more than passing fair.

"Socrates, thou malapert," said Diogenes sternly, "take my hat off my head at once, and allow me to make obeisance to the lady, or I'll drop thee incontinently on thy back."

Then, as Socrates half mechanically lifted the plumed hat from his friend's head, the latter bowed as well as he could under the circumstances and said gallantly:

"Thy servants, lady, and eternally grateful are we for a sight of thee at this moment when the world appeared peculiarly fog-ridden and unpleasant. Having been the fortunate cause of thy merriment, might we now crave thy permission to continue our way. The weight of my friend up there is greater than his importance warrants, and I don't want to drop him ere we reach a haven of refuge, where our priceless thirst will soon, I hope, find solace."

The delicate face of the young girl had suddenly become more grave.

"Your pardon, gentle sirs," she said, with a pretty mixture of imperiousness and humility; "my levity was indeed misplaced. I know ye now for the same three brave fellows who were fighting a few moments ago against overwhelming odds, in order to protect a woman against a rowdy crowd. Oh, it was a valorous deed! My men and I were on our way to watch-night service, and saw it all from a distance. We dared not come nigh, the rabble looked so threatening. All I could do was to shout for help, and summon the town guard to your aid. It was you, was it not?" she added, regarding with great wondering blue eyes the three curious figures who stood somewhat sheepishly before her.

"Yes, fair lady," piped Pythagoras, in his neatest falsetto, "we were the three men who, in the face of well-nigh overwhelming odds, did save a defenceless woman from the insolent rabble. My friend who is perched up there was severely wounded in the fray, I myself received so violent a blow in the stomach that a raging thirst has since taken possession of my throat, and – "

He stopped abruptly and murmured a comprehensive oath. He had just received a violent kick in the shins from Diogenes.

"What the h – ?" he muttered.

But Diogenes paid no heed to him; looking on the dainty picture before him, with eyes that twinkled whilst they did not attempt to conceal the admiration which he felt, he said, with elaborate gallantry, which his position under the burden of Socrates' swaying figure rendered inexpressibly droll:

"For the help rendered to us all at the moment of distress, deign to accept, mejuffrouw, our humble thanks. For the rest, believe me, our deed was not one of valour, and such as it was it is wholly unworthy of the praise thou dost deign to bestow upon it. I would tell thee more," he added, whimsically, "only that my friend behind me is violently kicking the calves of my legs, which renders the elegant flow of language well nigh impossible. I stopped him talking just now – he retaliates … it is but just."

"Gentle sir," said the girl, who obviously had much ado to preserve her gravity, "your modesty doth but equal your gallantry. This do I see quite plainly. But if at any time I can do aught to express in a more practical manner the real admiration which I feel for your worth I pray you command me. Alas! brave men are few these days! But my father's name is known throughout Holland; his wealth and influence are vast. I pray you tell me, can I do aught for you now?"

She spoke so artlessly and at the same time with such gentle dignity, it was small wonder that for the nonce even the most talkative of all philosophers was dumb, and that his habitual mocking banter failed to cross his lips. The girl was young and exquisitely pretty; the stiff, unwieldy costume of the time failed to conceal altogether the graceful slenderness of her figure, just as the prim coif of gold and silver tissue failed to hold the unruly golden curls in bondage. The light from the lanthorns fell full on her face, and round her throat, beneath her fur-lined cloak, there was a glimmer of starched linen and lace, whilst gems in her ears and on her breast lent her an air of elegance and even of splendour.

Pythagoras in the rear heaved a deep sigh; he drew in his breath preparatory to a long and comprehensive oration. "Can I do aught for ye?" the lady had said: a lady who was rich and influential and willing. Ye thunders and lightnings! when but three guilders stood between three philosophers and absolute penury! Ye hails and storms! what an opportunity! He would have approached the lady, only Diogenes' wide shoulders blocked him out from her view.

"Can I do aught for you now?" she reiterated gently.

"Raise thy hand to my lips," said Diogenes lightly; "momentarily I have not the use of mine own."

She hesitated, but only for a brief moment, then did just what he asked. She held her hand to his lips, mayhap one second longer than was absolutely necessary, and her eyes, large, deep and shy, looked for that one second into a pair of merry, mocking ones. Then she sighed, whether with satisfaction or embarrassment I would not undertake to say, and asked with a gracious smile:

"And what is your next wish, gentle sir?"

"Thy leave to continue our journey to the 'Lame Cow,'" he replied airily; "my friend up there is getting damnably heavy."

She drew back, visibly surprised and hurt.

"I do not detain ye," she said curtly, and without another word she turned to her lanthorn-bearers and ordered them to precede her; she also called to her duenna to follow; but she did not bestow another look on the three men, nor did she acknowledge the respectful farewell which came from the lips of the beast of burden.

The next moment she had already crossed the road toward the cathedral, and she and her escort were swallowed up by the fog.

"Well, of all the d – d idiots that ever…" swore Pythagoras, in his shrillest tones.

Even Socrates pulled himself together in order to declare emphatically that Diogenes was a confounded fool.

"I pray thee raise thy hand to my lips," mimicked Pythagoras mockingly. "Verrek jezelf!" he muttered under his breath.

"If you do not hold your tongue, O wise Pythagoras," retorted Diogenes with all his wonted merriment, "I'll even have to drop Socrates on the top of you in order to break your head."

"But 'tis a fortune – the promise of a fortune which you let slip so stupidly."

"There is a certain wisdom even in stupidity sometimes, Pythagoras, as you will discover one day, when your nose is less red and your figure less fat. Remember that I have three guilders in my pocket, and that our thirst hath not grown less. Follow me now, we've talked enough for to-night."

And he started walking down the street with long and rapid strides. Socrates up aloft swaying about like a dummy figure in carnival time, and Pythagoras – still muttering a series of diversified oaths – bringing up the rear.

CHAPTER IV
WATCH-NIGHT

And am I not proved fully justified in my statement that but for many seemingly paltry circumstances, the further events which I am about to place on record, and which have been of paramount importance to the history of no less than two great and worthy families, never would have shaped themselves as they did.

For who could assert that but for the presence of three philosophers on the Grootemarkt on the eve of the New Year, and their subsequent interference in the fray outside the Papist convent door in the Dam Straat, who could assert, I say, that but for these minor circumstances Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn would ever have condescended to exchange half a dozen words with three out-at-elbows, homeless, shiftless, foreign adventurers who happened to have drifted into Haarlem – the Lord only knew for what purpose and with what hopes.

Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn had been well and rigidly brought up; she was well educated, and possessed more knowledge than most young girls of her social standing or of her age. Mynheer Beresteyn, her father, was a gentleman of vast consideration in Haarlem, and as his two children had been motherless as soon as the younger one saw the light of day, he had been doubly careful in his endeavours that his daughter should in no way feel the lack of that tender supervision of which it had pleased God to deprive her.

Thus she had been taught early in life to keep herself aloof from all persons save those approved of by her father or her brother – a young man of sound understanding, some half dozen years older than herself. As for the strangers who for purposes of commerce or other less avowable motives filled the town of Haarlem with their foreign ways – which oft were immoral and seldom sedate – she had been strictly taught to hold these in abhorrence and never to approach such men either with word or gesture.

Was it likely, then, that she ever would have spoken to three thriftless knaves? – and this at a late hour of the night – but for the fact that she had witnessed their valour from a distance, and with queenly condescension hoped to reward them with a gracious word.

The kiss imprinted upon her hand by respectful, if somewhat bantering, lips had greatly pleased her: such she imagined would be the homage of a vassal proud to have attracted the notice of his lady paramount. The curtly expressed desire to quit her presence, in order to repair to a tavern, had roused her indignation and her contempt.

She was angered beyond what the circumstance warranted, and while the minister preached an admirable and learned watch-night sermon she felt her attention drifting away from the discourse and the solemnity of the occasion, whilst her wrath against a most unworthy object was taking the place of more pious and charitable feelings.

The preacher had taken for his text the sublime words from the New Testament: "The greatest of these is charity." He thought that the first day of the New Year was a splendid opportunity for the good inhabitants of Haarlem to cast off all gossiping and back-biting ways and to live from this day forth in greater amity and benevolence with one another. "Love thy neighbour as thyself," he adjured passionately, and the burghers, with their vrouws in their Sunday best, were smitten with remorse of past scandal-mongering, and vowed that in the future they would live in perfect accord and good-will.

Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn, too, thought of all her friends and acquaintances with the kindliest of feelings, and she had not a harsh thought for anyone in her heart … not for anyone, at any rate, who was good and deserving… As for that knavish malapert with the merry, twinkling eyes and the mocking smile, surely God would not desire her to be in charity with him; a more ungrateful, more impertinent wretch, she had never met, and it was quite consoling to think of all that Mynheer Beresteyn's influence could have done for those three ragamuffins, and how in the near future they must all suffer abominable discomfort, mayhap with shortage of food and drink, or absence of shelter, when no doubt one of them at least would remember with contrition the magnanimous offer of help made to him by gracious lips, and which he had so insolently refused.

So absorbed was Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn in these thoughts that she never even noticed that the watch-night service was over, and the minister already filing out with the clerk. The general exodus around her recalled her to herself and also to a sense of contrition for the absent way in which she had assisted at this solemn service.

She whispered to Maria to wait for her outside the church with the men.

"I must yet pray for a little while alone," she said. "I will join you at the north door in a quarter of an hour."

And she fell on her knees, and was soon absorbed in prayer.



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