Emma Orczy.

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



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"I heard," she said, speaking very slowly and very quietly, "that the Lord of Stoutenburg has returned, and is trying to drag you and others into iniquity to further his own ambitious schemes."

"You wrong him there, Gilda. The Lord of Stoutenburg has certain wrongs to avenge which cry aloud to Heaven."

"We will not argue about that, Nicolaes," she said coldly. "Murder is hideous, call it what you will. The brand of Cain doth defame a man and carries its curse with it. No man can justify so dastardly a crime. 'Tis sophistry to suggest it."

"Then in sending Barneveld to the scaffold did the Prince of Orange call that curse upon himself, a curse which – please the God of vengeance! – will come home to him now at last."

"'Tis not for you, Nicolaes, to condemn him, who has heaped favours, kindness, bounties upon our father and upon us. 'Tis not for you, the Stadtholder's debtor for everything you are, for everything that you possess, 'tis not for you to avenge Barneveld's wrongs."

"'Tis not for you, my sister," he retorted hotly, "to preach to me your elder brother. I alone am responsible for mine actions, and have no account to give to any one."

"You owe an account of your actions to your father and to me, Nicolaes, since your dishonour will fall upon us too."

"Take care, Gilda, take care!" he exclaimed hoarsely, "you speak of things which are beyond your ken, but in speaking them you presume on my forebearance … and on your sex."

"There is no one in sight," she said calmly, "you may strike me without fear. One crime more or less on your conscience will soon cease to trouble you."

"Gilda!" he cried with sudden passionate reproach.

At this involuntary cry – in which the expression of latent affection for her struggled with that of his rage and of his burning anxiety – all her own tender feelings for him, her womanliness, her motherly instincts were re-awakened in an instant. They had only been dormant for awhile, because of her horror of what she had heard. And that horror of a monstrous deed, that sense of shame that he – her brother – should be so ready to acquiesce in a crime had momentarily silenced the call of sisterly love. But this love once re-awakened was strong enough to do battle in her heart on his behalf: the tense rigidity of her attitude relaxed, her mouth softened, her eyes filled with tears. The next moment she had turned fully to him and was looking pleadingly into his face.

"Little brother," she murmured gently, "tell me that it is not true. That it was all a hideous dream."

He looked down on her for a moment. It pleased him to think that her affection for him was still there, that at any rate his personal safety might prove a potent argument against the slightest thought of indiscretion on her part. She tried to read his thoughts, but everything was dark around them both, the outline of his brow and mouth alone stood clearly out from the gloom: the expression of his eyes she could not fathom.

But womanlike she was ready to believe that he would relent. It is so difficult for a woman to imagine that one whom she loves is really prone to evil. She loved this brother dearly, and did not grasp the fact that he had reached a point in his life when a woman's pleading had not the power to turn him from his purpose. She did not know how deeply he had plunged into the slough of conspiracy, and that the excitement of it had fired his blood to the exclusion of righteousness and of loyalty. She hoped – in the simplicity of her heart – that he was only misled, that evil counsels had only temporarily prevailed. Like a true woman she still saw the child in this brother who had grown to manhood by her side.

Therefore she appealed and she pleaded, she murmured tender words and made fond suggestions, all the while that his heart was hard to everything except to the one purpose which she was trying to thwart.

Not unkindly but quite firmly he detached her clinging arms from round his neck.

"Let us call it a dream, little sister," he said firmly, "and do you try and forget it."

"That I cannot, Nicolaes," she replied, "unless you will promise me…"

"To betray my friends?" he sneered.

"I would not ask you to do that: but you can draw back … it is not too late… For our father's sake, and for mine, Nicolaes," she pleaded once more earnestly. "Oh think, little brother, think! It cannot be that you could countenance such a hideous crime, you who were always so loyal and so brave! I remember when you were quite a tiny boy what contempt you had for little Jakob Steyn because he told lies, and how you thrashed Frans van Overstein because he ill-treated a dog… Little brother, when our father was ruined, penniless, after that awful siege of Haarlem, which is still a hideous memory to him, the Prince of Orange helped him with friendship and money to re-establish his commerce, he stood by him loyally, constantly, until more prosperous days dawned upon our house. Little brother, you have oft heard our father tell the tale, think … oh, think of the blow you would be dealing him if you lent a hand to conspiracy against the Prince. Little brother, for our father's sake, for mine, do not let yourself be dragged into the toils of that treacherous Stoutenburg."

"You call him treacherous now, but you loved him once."

"It is because I loved him once," she rejoined earnestly, "that I call him treacherous now."

He made no comment on this, for he knew in his heart of hearts that what she said was true. He knew nothing of course of the events of that night in the early spring of the year when Gilda had sheltered and comforted the man who had so basely betrayed her; but for her ministration to him then, when exhausted and half-starved he sought shelter under her roof, in her very room – he would not have lived for this further plotting and this further infamy, nor yet to drag her brother down with him into the abyss of his own disgrace.

Of this nocturnal visit Gilda had never spoken to anyone, not even to Nicolaes who she knew was Stoutenburg's friend, least of all to her father, whose wrath would have fallen heavily on her had he known that she had harboured a traitor in his house.

"Stoutenburg lied to me, Nicolaes," she now said, seeing that still her brother remained silent and morose, "he lied to me when he stole my love, only to cast it away from him as soon as ambition called him from my side. And as he lied then, so will he lie to you, little brother, he will steal your allegiance, use you for his own ends and cast you ruthlessly from him if he find you no longer useful. Yes, I did love him once," she continued earnestly, "when he thought of staining his hands with murder my love finally turned to contempt. This new infamy which he plots hath filled the measure of my hate. Turn from him, little brother, I do entreat you with my whole soul. He has been false to his God, false to his prince, false to me! he will be false to you!"

"It is too late, Gilda," he retorted sombrely, "even if I were so minded, which please God! I am not."

"It is never too late to draw back from such an abyss of shame."

"Be silent, girl," he said more roughly, angered that he was making no headway against her obstinacy. "God-verdomme! but I am a fool indeed to stand and parley here with you, when grave affairs wait upon my time. You talk at random and of things you do not understand: I had no mind to argue this matter out with you."

"I do not detain you, Nicolaes," she said simply, with a sigh of bitter disappointment. "If you will but call Maria and the men who wait at the north door, I can easily relieve you of my presence."

"Yes, and you can go home to your pots and pans, to your sewing and your linen-chest, and remember to hold your tongue, as a woman should do, for if you breathe of what you have heard, if you betray Stoutenburg who is my friend, it is me – your only brother – whom you will be sending to the scaffold."

"I would not betray you, Nicolaes," she said.

"Or any of my friends?"

"Or any of your friends."

"You swear it?" he urged.

"There is no need for an oath."

"Yes, there is a pressing need for an oath, Gilda," he retorted sternly. "My friends expect it of you, and you must pledge yourself to them, to forget all that you heard to-night and never to breathe of it to any living soul."

"I cannot swear," she replied, "to forget that which my memory will retain in spite of my will: nor would I wish to forget, because I mean to exert all the power I possess to dissuade you from this abominable crime, and because I mean to pray to God with all my might that He may prevent the crime from being committed."

"You may pray as much as you like," he said roughly, "but I'll not have you breathe a word of it to any living soul."

"My father has the right to know of the disgrace that threatens him."

"You would not tell him?" he exclaimed hoarsely.

"Not unless…"

"Unless what?"

"I cannot say. 'Tis all in God's hands and I do not know yet what my duty is. As you say I am only a woman, and my place is with my pots and pans, my sewing and my spindle. I have no right to have thoughts of mine own. Perhaps you are right, and in that case my father must indeed be the one to act. But this I do swear to you, Nicolaes, that before you stain your hand with the blood of one who, besides being your sovereign lord, is your father's benefactor and friend, I will implore God above, that my father and I may both die ere we see you and ourselves so disgraced."

Before he could detain her by word or gesture she had slipped past him and turned to walk quickly toward the fa?ade of the cathedral. An outstanding piece of masonry soon hid her from his view. For the moment he had thoughts of following her. Nicolaes Beresteyn was not a man who liked being thwarted, least of all by a woman, and there was a sense of insecurity for him in what she had said at the last. His life and that of his friends lay in the hands of that young girl who had spoken some very hard words to him just now. He loved her as a brother should, and would not for his very life have seen her in any danger, but he had all a man's desire for mastery and hatred of dependence: she had angered and defied him, and yet remained in a sense his master.

He and his friends were dependent on her whim – he would not call it loyalty or sense of duty to be done – it was her whim that would hold the threads of a conspiracy which he firmly believed had the welfare of Holland and of religion for its object, and it was her whim that would hold the threat of the scaffold over himself and Stoutenburg and the others. The situation was intolerable.

He ground his heel upon the stone and muttered an oath under his breath. If only Gilda had been a man how simple would his course of action have been. A man can be coerced by physical means, but a woman … and that woman his own sister!

It was hard for Nicolaes Beresteyn, to have to think the situation out calmly, dispassionately, to procrastinate, to let the matter rest at any rate until the next day. But this he knew that he must do. He felt that he had exhausted all the arguments, all the reasonings that were consistent with his own pride; and how could he hope to coerce her into oaths or promises of submission here in the open street and with Maria and Jakob and Piet close by – eavesdropping mayhap?

Gilda was obstinate and had always been allowed more latitude in the way of thinking things out for herself than was good for any woman; but Nicolaes knew that she would not take any momentous step in a hurry. She would turn the whole of the circumstances over in her mind and as she said do some praying too. What she would do afterwards he dared not even conjecture.

For the moment he was forced to leave her alone, and primarily he decided to let his friends know at once how the matter stood.

He found them waiting anxiously for his return. I doubt if they had spoken much during his absence. A chorus of laconic inquiry greeted him as soon as his firm step rang out upon the flagstones.

"Well?"

"She has heard everything," he said quietly, "but, she will not betray us. To this I pledge ye my word."

CHAPTER VI
THE COUNSELS OF PRUDENCE

Neither Stoutenburg nor any of the others had made reply to Beresteyn's firmly spoken oath. They were hard-headed Dutchmen, every one of them: men of action rather than men of words: for good or ill the rest of the world can judge them forever after by their deeds alone.

Therefore when the spectre of betrayal and of subsequent death appeared so suddenly before them they neither murmured nor protested. They could not in reason blame Beresteyn for his sister's presence in the cathedral this night, nor yet that her thoughts and feelings in the matter of the enmity between the Stadtholder and the Barneveld family did not coincide with their own.

Silently they walked across the vast and lonely cathedral and filed one by one out of the western door where Perk still held faithful watch. Stoutenburg, their leader, had his lodgings in a small house situate at the top of the Kleine Hout Straat, close to the well-known hostelry at the sign of the "Lame Cow." This latter was an hostelry of unimpeachable repute and thither did the six friends decide to go ere finally going home for the night.

It had been decided between them some time ago that those who were able to do so would show themselves in public as much as possible during the next few days, so as to ward off any suspicion of intrigue which their frequent consorting in secluded places might otherwise have aroused.

Out in the open they thought it best to disperse, electing to walk away two and two rather than in a compact group which might call forth the close attention of the night watchmen.

Stoutenburg linked his arm in that of Beresteyn.

"Let the others go on ahead," he said confidentially, "you and I, friend, must understand one another ere we part for this night."

Then as Beresteyn made no immediate reply, he continued calmly:

"This will mean hanging for the lot of us this time, Nicolaes!"

"I pray to God …" exclaimed the other hoarsely.

"God will have nought to say in the matter, my friend," retorted Stoutenburg dryly, "'tis only the Stadtholder who will have his say, and do you think that he is like to pardon…"

"Gilda will never…"

"Oh, yes, she will," broke in Stoutenburg firmly; "be not deluded into thoughts of security. Gilda will think the whole of this matter over for four and twenty hours at the longest, after which, feeling herself in an impasse between her affection for you and her horror of me, she will think it her duty to tell your father all that she heard in the cathedral to-night."

"Even then," said Beresteyn, hotly, "my father would not send his only son to the gallows."

"Do you care to take that risk?" was the other man's calm retort.

"What can I do?"

"You must act decisively and at once, my friend," said Stoutenburg dryly, "an you do not desire to see your friends marched off to torture and the scaffold with yourself following in their wake."

"But how? how?" exclaimed Beresteyn.

His was by far the weaker nature of the two: easily led, easily swayed by a will stronger than his own. Stoutenburg wielded vast influence over him; he had drawn him into the net of his own ambitious schemes, and had by promises and cajolery won his entire allegiance. Now that destruction and death threatened Nicolaes through his own sister – whom he sincerely loved – he turned instinctively to Stoutenburg for help and for advice.

"It is quite simple," said the latter slowly. "Gilda must be temporarily made powerless to do us any harm."

"How?" reiterated Beresteyn helplessly.

"Surely you can think of some means yourself," retorted Stoutenburg somewhat impatiently. "Self-preservation is an efficient sharpener of wits as a rule, and your own life is in the hands of a woman now, my friend."

"You seem to forget that that woman is my sister. How can I conspire to do her bodily harm?"

"Who spake of bodily harm, you simpleton?" quoth Stoutenburg with a harsh laugh, "'tis you who seem to forget that if Gilda is your sister she is also the woman whom I love more than my life … more than my ambition … more even than my revenge…"

He paused a moment, for despite his usual self-control his passion at this moment threatened to master him. His voice rose harsh and quivering, and was like to attract the notice of passers-by. After a moment or two he conquered his emotion and said more calmly:

"Friend, we must think of our country and of our faith; we must think of the success of our schemes: and, though Gilda be dear to us both – infinitely dear to me – she must not be allowed to interfere with the great object which we hope to attain. Think out a way therefore of placing her in such a position that she cannot harm us: have her conveyed to some place where she can be kept a prisoner for a few days until I have accomplished what I have set out to do."

Then as Beresteyn said nothing, seeming to be absorbed in some new train of thought, Stoutenburg continued more persuasively:

"I would I could carry her away myself and hold her – a beloved prisoner – while others did my work for me. But that I cannot do: for 'twere playing the part of a coward and I have sworn before the altar of God that I would kill the Stadtholder with mine own hand. Nor would I have the courage so to offend her: for let me tell you this, Nicolaes, that soaring even above my most ambitious dreams, is the hope that when these have been realized, I may ask Gilda to share my triumph with me."

"Nor would I have the courage so to offend my sister … my father," said Beresteyn. "You speak of carrying her off, and holding her a prisoner for eight days perhaps, or even a fortnight. How can I, her own brother, do that? 'Tis an outrage she would never forgive: my father would curse me … disinherit me … turn me out of house and home…"

"And will he not curse you now, when he knows – when to-morrow mayhap, Gilda will have told him that you, his son, have joined hands with the Lord of Stoutenburg in a conspiracy to murder the Prince of Orange – will he not disinherit you then? turn you out of house and home?"

"Hold on for mercy's sake," exclaimed Beresteyn, who bewildered by the terrible alternative thus put ruthlessly before him, felt that he must collect his thoughts, and must – for the moment at any rate – put away from him the tempter who insinuated thoughts of cowardice into his brain.

"I'll say no more, then," said Stoutenburg quietly, "think it all over, Nicolaes. My life, your own, those of all our friends are entirely in your hands: the welfare of the State, the triumph of our faith depend on the means which you will devise for silencing Gilda for a few brief days."

After which there was silence between the two men. Beresteyn walked more rapidly along, his fur-lined cloak wrapped closely round him, his arms folded tightly across his chest and his hands clenched underneath his cloak. Stoutenburg on the other hand was also willing to let the matter drop and to allow the subtle poison which he had instilled into his friend's mind to ferment and bring forth such thoughts as would suit his own plans.

He knew how to gauge exactly the somewhat vacillating character of Nicolaes Beresteyn, and had carefully touched every string of that highly nervous organization till he left it quivering with horror at the present and deathly fear for the future.

Gilda was a terrible danger, of that there could be no doubt. Nicolaes had realized this to the full: the instinct of self-preservation was strong in him; he would think over Stoutenburg's bold suggestion and would find a way how to act on it. And at the bottom of his tortuous heart Stoutenburg already cherished the hope that this new complication which had dragged Gilda into the net of his own intrigues would also ultimately throw her – a willing victim – into his loving arms.

CHAPTER VII
THREE PHILOSOPHERS AND THEIR FRIENDS

Whereupon Chance forged yet another link in the chain of a man's destiny.

I pray you follow me now to the tapperij of the "Lame Cow." I had not asked you to accompany me thither were it not for the fact that the "Lame Cow" situate in the Kleine Hout Straat not far from the Cathedral, was a well-ordered and highly respectable tavern, where indeed the sober merry-makers of Haarlem as well as the gay and gilded youth of the city were wont to seek both pleasure and solace.

You all know the house with its flat fa?ade of red brick, its small windows and tall, very tall gabled roof that ends in a point high up above the front door. The tapperij is on your left as you enter. It is wainscotted with oak which was already black with age in the year 1623; above the wainscot the walls are white-washed, and Mynheer Beek, the host of the "Lame Cow," who is a pious man, has hung the walls round with scriptural texts, appropriate to his establishment, such as: "Eat, drink and be merry!" and "Drink thy wine with a merry heart!"

From which I hope that I have convinced you that the "Lame Cow" was an eminently orderly place of conviviality, where worthy burghers of Haarlem could drink ale and hot posset in the company of mevrouws, their wives.



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