The Laughing Cavalier: The Story of the Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel
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And it was to this highly praised and greatly respected establishment that three tired-out and very thirsty philosophers repaired this New Year's night, instead of attending the watch-night service at one of the churches.
Diogenes, feeling that three guilders still reposed safely in his wallet, declared his intention of continuing his career as a gentleman, and a gentleman of course could not resort to one of those low-class taverns which were usually good enough for foreign adventurers.
And thus did Fate have her will with him and brought him here this night.
Moreover the tap-room of the "Lame Cow" wore a very gay appearance always on New Year's night. It was noted for its client?le on that occasion, for the good Rhenish wine which it dispensed, and for the gay sight engendered by the Sunday gowns of the burghers and their ladies who came here after service for a glass of wine and multifarious relish.
As the night was fine, despite the hard frost, Mynheer Beek expected to be unusually busy. Already he had arranged on the polished tables the rows of pewter platters heaped up with delicacies which he knew would be in great request when the guests would begin to arrive: smoked sausage garnished with horseradish, roasted liver and slabs of cheese.
The serving wenches with the sleeves of their linen shifts tucked well up above their round red arms, their stolid faces streaming with perspiration, were busy polishing tables that already were over-polished and making pewter mugs to shine that already shone with a dazzling radiance.
For the nonce the place was still empty and the philosophers when they entered were able to select the table at which they wished to sit – one near the hearth in which blazed gigantic logs, and at which they could stretch out their limbs with comfort.
At Diogenes' suggestion they all made hasty repairs to their disordered toilet, and re-adjusted the set of their collars and cuffs with the help of the small mirror that hung close by against the wall.
Three strange forms of a truth that were thus mirrored in turns.
Socrates with a hole in his head, now freshly bandaged with a bit of clean linen by the sympathetic hand of a serving maid: his hooked nose neatly washed till it shone like the pewter handle of a knife, his pointed cranium but sparsely furnished with lanky black hair peeping out above the bandage like a yellow wurzel in wrappings of paper. His arms and legs were unusually long and unusually thin, and he had long lean hands and long narrow feet, but his body was short and slightly bent forward as if under the weight of his head, which also was narrow and long. His neck was like that of a stork that has been half-plucked, it rose from out the centre of his ruffled collar with a curious undulating movement, which suggested that he could turn it right round and look at the middle of his own back. He wore a brown doublet of duffle and brown trunks and hose, and boots that appeared to be too big even for his huge feet.
Beside him Pythagoras looked like the full stop in a semi-colon, for he was but little over five feet in height and very fat.His doublet of thick green cloth had long ago burst its buttons across his protuberent chest. His face, which was round as a full moon, was highly coloured even to the tip of his small upturned nose, and his forehead, crowned by a thick mass of red-brown hair which fell in heavy and lanky waves down to his eyebrows, was always wet and shiny. He had a habit of standing with legs wide apart, his abdomen thrust forward and his small podgy hands resting upon it. His eyes were very small and blinked incessantly. Below his double chin he wore a huge bow of starched white linen, which at this moment was sadly crumpled and stained, and his collar which also had seen more prosperous days was held together by a piece of string.
Like his friend Socrates, his trunk and hose were of worsted, and he wore high leather boots which reached well above the knee and looked to have been intended for a much taller person. The hat, with the tall sugar-loaf crown, which he had picked up after the fray in the Dam Straat, was much too small for his big round head. He tried, before the mirror, to adjust it at a becoming angle.
In strange contrast to these two worthies was their friend whom they called Diogenes. He himself, had you questioned him ever so closely, could not have told you from what ancestry or what unknown parent had come to him that air of swagger and of assurance which his avowed penury had never the power to subdue. Tall above the average, powerfully built and solidly planted on firm limbs he looked what he easily might have been, a gentleman to the last inch of him. The brow was fine and broad, the nose sensitive and well shaped, the mouth a perfect expression of gentle irony. The soft brown hair, abundant and unruly, lent perhaps a certain air of untamed wildness to the face, whilst the upturned moustache and the tiny tuft below the upper lip accentuated the look of devil-may-care independence which was the chief characteristic of the mouth.
But the eyes were the most remarkable feature of all. They shone with an unconquerable merriment, they twinkled and sparkled, and smiled and mocked, they winked and they beckoned. They were eyes to which you were obliged to smile in response, eyes that made you laugh if you felt ever so sad, eyes that jested even before the mouth had spoken, and the mouth itself was permanently curved into a smile.
Unlike his two companions, Diogenes was dressed not only with scrupulous care but with a show of elegance. His doublet though well-worn was fashioned of fine black cloth, the slashed sleeves still showed the remnants of gold embroidery, whilst the lace of his pleated collar was of beautiful design.
Having completed their toilet the three friends sat at their table and sipped their ale and wine in comparative silence for a time. Socrates, weary with his wound, soon fell asleep with his arms stretched out before him and his head resting in the bend of his elbow.
Pythagoras too nodded in his chair; but Diogenes remained wide awake, and no doubt Mynheer Beek's wine gave him pleasing thoughts, for the merry look never fled from his eyes.
Half an hour later you would scarce have recognised the tapperij from its previous orderly silence, for at about one o'clock it began to fill very fast. Mynheer Beek's guests were arriving.
It was still bitterly cold and they all came into the warm room clapping their hands together and stamping the frozen snow off their feet, loudly demanding hot ale or mulled wine, to be supplemented later on by more substantial fare.
The two serving wenches were more busy, hotter and more profusely streaming with moisture than they had ever been before. It was "K?thi here!" and "Luise, why don't you hurry?" all over the tapperij now; and every moment the noise became louder and more cheery.
Every corner of the low, raftered room was filled to over-flowing with chairs and tables. People sat everywhere where a perch was to be found – on the corners of the tables and on the window sill and many sat on the floor who could not find room elsewhere. The women sat on the men's knees, and many of them had children in their arms as well. For indeed, on watch-night, room had to be found for every one who wanted to come in; no one who wanted to drink and to make merry must be left to wander out in the cold.
A veritable babel of tongues made the white-washed walls echo from end to end, for Haarlem now was a mightily prosperous city, and there were a great many foreign traders inside her walls, and some of these had thought to make merry this night in the famed tap-room of the "Lame Cow." French merchants with their silks, English ones with fine cloths and paper, then there were the Jew dealers from Frankfurt and Amsterdam, and the Walloon cattle drovers from Flanders.
Here and there the splendid uniform of a member of one of the shooting guilds struck a note of splendour among the drabs and russets of worsted doublets and the brilliant crimson or purple sashes gleamed in the feeble light of the tallow candles which spluttered and flickered in their sconces.
Then amongst them all were the foreign mercenaries, from Italy or Brabant or Germany, or from God knows where, loud of speech, aggressive in appearance, carrying swords and wearing spurs, filling the place with their swagger and their ribaldry.
They had come to the Netherlands at the expiration of the truce with Spain, offering to sell their sword and their skin to the highest bidder. They seemed all to be friends and boon companions together, called each other queer, fantastic names and shouted their rough jests to one another across the width of the room. Homeless, shiftless, thriftless, they knew no other names save those which chance or the coarse buffoonery of their friends had endowed them with. There was a man here to-night who was called Wry-face and another who went by the name of Gutter-rat. Not one amongst them mayhap could have told you who his father was or who his mother, nor where he himself had first seen the light of day; but they all knew of one another's career, of one another's prowess in the field at Prague or Ghent or Magdeburg, and they formed a band of brothers – offensive and defensive – which was the despair of the town-guard whenever the law had to be enforced against anyone of them.
It was at the hour when Mynheer Beek was beginning to hope that his guests would soon bethink themselves of returning home and leaving him to his own supper and bed, that a party of these worthies made noisy interruption into the room. They brought with them an atmosphere of boisterous gaiety with their clanking spurs and swords, their loud verbiage and burly personality.
"Hech da!" yelled one of these in a stentorian voice, "whom have we there, snug and cosy in the warmest corner of this hole but our three well-beloved philosophers. Diogenes, old compeer," he shouted still louder than before, "is there room in your tub for your friends?"
"Plenty round this table, O noble Gutter-rat," shouted Diogenes in joyful response, "but let me give you warning that space as well as common funds are running short, and that every newcomer who wants to sit must stand the others a draught of ale apiece; that is the price of a corner of this bench on which ye may sit if ye have a mind."
"Done with you," agreed all the newcomers lustily, and with scant ceremony they pushed their way through the closely packed throng.
They took no notice of the mutterings of more sober customers, angered at seeing their mantles crushed or feeling their toes trodden on. It suddenly seemed as if the whole place belonged to these men and that the peaceful burghers of the city were only here on suffrance.
The three philosophers had already called for some old Rhenish wine on draught. K?thi and Luise brought pewter jugs and more goblets along. Soon Gutter-rat and his friends were installed at the table, squeezed against one another on the narrow wooden benches. Pythagoras had already rolled off his corner seat and was sitting on the floor; Diogenes was perched on the corner of the table.
Socrates roused by the noise, opened a pair of heavy eyes and blinked round him in astonishment. Gutter-rat deposited his bulky form close beside him and brought his large and grimy hand down on the shoulder of the sleepy philosopher.
"Hello, wise Socrates," he cried in his rough, husky voice, "I hope you have been having pleasant dreams."
"No, I have not," growled Socrates laconically.
"Take no heed of him," laughed Diogenes, "he has a hole in his head through which his good temper has been oozing out bit by bit. And yet if you'll all believe me he has been reposing there so peacefully and snoring so lustily that I thought he must be dreaming of Heaven and the last trumpet call."
"I was dreaming of all the chances which Pythagoras and I have missed to-night owing to your d – d nonsense," said Socrates, who was more sulky now than he had been before he went to sleep.
Pythagoras uttered a prolonged sigh and gazed meditatively down into the depths of his mug of ale. Gutter-rat and the others looked inquiringly from one philosopher to the other.
"Diogenes been at his tricks again?" asked Gutter-rat.
Socrates and Pythagoras nodded in their gloomy response.
"Gallantry, eh? some beauteous damsel, to succour whom we throw our life, our best chances away?" continued the other with ironical sympathy, the while Diogenes' entire face was wreathed in one huge, all-embracing smile. Gutter-rat admonished him with solemn voice and uplifted finger.
"Conduct unworthy a philosopher," he said.
"If he had only injured himself," growled Socrates.
"And let us enjoy the gifts which a beneficent goddess was ready to pour into our lap," added Pythagoras dulcetly from the floor.
"Let's hear the story," concluded Gutter-rat.
The others clapped their mugs against the table-top and shouted: "The story! the story!" to the accompaniment of din that drowned all other noises in the room.
Pythagoras from his lowly position began his narrative in a faint, injured tone of voice. He related the incidents of this night from the moment when the chance of possessing oneself with but little trouble of a tulip bulb worth fifteen thousand florins was so airily flouted, down to the awful moment when a young and beauteous lady made offers of influence and of money which were equally airily refused.
Gutter-rat and the others listened attentively. They specially relished the exciting incidents connected with the affray in Dam Straat, the breaking of Jan Tiele's nose and the dispersal of the mob with the aid of a lighted torch.
"Bravo! splendid!" they shouted at intervals and loudly expressed their regret at having missed such furious fun.
Socrates threw in a word or two now and then, when Pythagoras did not fully explain his own valorous position in the fight, but Diogenes said nothing at all; he allowed his comrade to tell the tale his own way; the recollection of it seemed to afford him vast amusement for he hummed a lively tune to himself all the while.
Pythagoras now was mimicking his friend, throwing into this performance all the disgust which he felt.
"Raise thy hand to my lips, mejuffrouw," he said mincing his words, "momentarily I have not the use of mine own."
His round, beady eyes appealed to his listeners for sympathy, and there is no doubt that he got that in plenty. Gutter-rat more especially highly disapproved of the d?nouement of what might have proved a lucrative adventure.
"The rich jongejuffrouw might even have fallen in love with you," he said sternly to Diogenes, "and endowed you with her father's wealth and influence."
"That's just my complaint," said Pythagoras, "but no! what else do you think he said earlier in the evening?"
"To-night we'll behave like gentlemen," quoted the other with ever-growing disgust, "and not like common thieves."
"Why to-night?" queried Gutter-rat in amazement. "Why more especially to-night?"
Pythagoras and Socrates both shrugged their shoulders and suggested no explanation. After which there was more vigorous clapping of mugs against the table-top and Diogenes was loudly summoned to explain.
"Why to-night? why to-night?" was shouted at him from every side.
Diogenes' face became for one brief moment quite grave – quite grave be it said, but for his eyes which believe me could not have looked grave had they tried.
"Because," he said at last when the shouts around him had somewhat subsided, "I had three guilders in my wallet, because my night's lodging is assured for the next three nights and because my chief creditor has died like a hero. Therefore, O comrades all! I could afford the luxury."
"What luxury?" sneered Gutter-rat in disgust, "to refuse the patronage of an influential burgher of this city, backed by the enthusiasm of the beauteous damsel, his daughter?"
"To refuse all patronage, good comrade," assented Diogenes with emphasis.
"Bah! for twenty-four hours!.."
"Yes! for twenty-four hours, friend Gutter-rat, while those three florins last and I have a roof over my head for which I have already paid … I can for those four and twenty hours afford the luxury of doing exactly and only what it pleases me to do."
He threw up his head and stretched out his massive limbs with a gesture of infinite satisfaction, his merry mocking glance sweeping over the company of watch-night revellers, out-at-elbows ragamuffins, and sober burghers with their respectable vrouws, all of whom were gaping on him open-mouthed.
"For four and twenty hours, my dear Gutter-rat," he continued after a long sigh of contentment, "that is during this day which has just dawned and the night which must inevitably follow it, I am going to give myself the luxury of speaking only when I choose and of being dumb if the fancy so takes me … while my three florins last and I know that I need not sleep under the stars, I shall owe my fealty only to my whim – I shall dream when and what I I like, sing what I like, walk in company or alone. For four and twenty hours I need not be the ivy that clings nor the hose that is ragged at the knee. I shall be at liberty to wear my sash awry, my shoes unbuckled, my hat tilted at an angle which pleases me best. Above all, O worthy rat of the gutter, I need not stoop for four and twenty hours one inch lower than I choose, or render aught to C?sar for C?sar will have rendered naught to me. On this the first day of the New Year there is no man or woman living who can dictate to me what I shall do, and to-night in the lodgings for which I have paid, when I am asleep I can dream that I am climbing up the heights toward a mountain top which mayhap doth not quite stretch as far as the clouds, but which I can reach alone. To-day and to-night I am a man and not a bit of ribbon that flutters at the breath of man or woman who has paid for the fluttering with patronage."
Gradually as he spoke and his fresh young voice, sonorous with enthusiasm rang clearly from end to end of the raftered room, conversation, laughter, bibulous songs were stilled and every one turned to look at the speaker, wondering who he could be. The good burghers of Haarlem had no liking for the foreign mercenaries for whom they professed vast contempt because of their calling, and because of the excesses which they committed at the storming of these very walls, which event was within the memory of most. Therefore, though they were attracted by the speaker, they were disgusted to find that he belonged to that rabble; but the women thought that he was goodly to look upon, with those merry, twinkling eyes of his, and that atmosphere of light-heartedness and a gaiety which he diffused around him. Some of the men who were there and who professed knowledge in such matters, declared that this man's speech betrayed him for an Englishman.
"I like not the race," said a pompous man who sat with wife and kindred round a table loaded with good things. "I remember the English Leicester and his crowd, men of loose morals and doubtful piety; braggarts and roisterers we all thought them. This man is very like some of them in appearance."
"Thou speakest truly, O wise citizen of this worthy republic," said Diogenes, boldly answering the man's low-spoken words, "my father was one of the roisterers who came in English Leicester's train. An Englishman he, of loose morals and doubtful piety no doubt, but your sound Dutch example and my mother's Dutch blood – Heaven rest her soul – have both sobered me since then."
He looked round at the crowd of faces, all of which were now turned toward him, kindly faces and angry ones, contemptuous eyes and good-natured ones, and some that expressed both compassion and reproof.
"By the Lord," he said, and as he spoke he threw back his head and burst into a loud and prolonged fit of laughter, "but I have never in my life seen so many ugly faces before."
There was a murmur and many angry words among the assembly. One or two of the men half rose from their seats, scowling viciously and clenching their fists. Master Beek perspiring with anxiety saw these signs of a possible fray. The thought drove him well-nigh frantic. An affray in his establishment on New Year's morning! it was unthinkable! He rushed round to his customers with a veritable dictionary of soothing words upon his tongue.
"Gentlemen! gentlemen," he entreated, "I beg of you to calm yourselves… I humbly beseech you to pay no heed to these men…"
"Plepshurk! Insolent rabble!" quoth a corpulent gentleman who was crimson with wrath.
"Yes, mynheer, yes, yes," stammered Beek meekly, "but they are foreigners … they … they do not understand our Dutch ways … but they mean no harm … they…"
Some of the younger men were not easily pacified.
"Throw them out, Beek," said one of them curtly.
"They make the place insufferable with their bragging and their insolence," muttered another.
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