Emma Orczy.

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



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Diogenes and his friends could not help but see these signs of latent storm, and Mynheer Beek's feeble efforts at pacifying his wrathful guests. Diogenes had laughed long and loudly, now he had to stop in order to wipe his eyes which were streaming; then quite casually he drew Bucephalus from its scabbard and thoughtfully examined its blade.

Almost simultaneously the fraternity of merry-makers at his table also showed a sudden desire to examine the blade of their swords and immediately half a dozen glints of steel caught the reflection of tallow candles.

I would not assert that order was restored because of these unconscious gestures on the part of the insolent rabble aforesaid, but certain it is that within the next few seconds decorum once more prevailed as if magic had called it forth.

Mynheer Beek heaved a sigh of relief.

"All that you said just now was well spoken, sir," broke in a firm voice which proceeded from a group of gentlemen who sat at a table next to the one occupied by the philosophers and their friends, "but 'twere interesting to hear what you propose doing on the second day of this New Year."

Diogenes was in no hurry to reply. The man who had just spoken sat directly behind him, and Bucephalus – so it seemed – still required his close attention. When he had once more replaced his faithful friend into its delicately wrought scabbard he turned leisurely round and from the elevated position which he still occupied on the corner of the table he faced his interlocutor.

"What I propose doing?" he quoth politely.

"Why yes. You said just now that for four and twenty hours you were free to dream and to act as you will, but how will it be to-morrow?"

"To-morrow, sir," rejoined Diogenes lightly, "I shall be as poor in pocket as the burghers of Haarlem are in wits, and then…"

"Yes? and then?"

"Why then, sir, I shall once more become an integral portion of that rabble to which you and your friends think no doubt that I rightly belong. I shall not have one silver coin in my wallet and in order to obtain a handful I shall be ready to sell my soul to the devil, my skin to the Stadtholder…"

"And your honour, sir?" queried the other with a sneer, "to whom will you sell that precious guerdon to-morrow?"

"To you, sir," retorted Diogenes promptly, "an you are short of the commodity."

An angry word rose to the other man's lips, but his eyes encountered those of his antagonist and something in the latter's look, something in the mocking eyes, the merry face, seemed to disarm him and to quench his wrath. He even laughed good-humouredly and said:

"Well spoken, sir. You had me fairly there with the point of your tongue. No doubt you are equally skilful with the point of your rapier…"

"It shall be at your service after to-morrow, sir," rejoined Diogenes lightly.

"You live by the profession of arms, sir? No offence, 'tis a noble calling, though none too lucrative I understand."

"My wits supply, sir, what my sword cannot always command."

"You are ambitious?"

"I told my friends just now wherein lay my ambition."

"Money – an independent competence … so I understand.

But surely at your age, and – if you will pardon mine outspokenness – with your looks, sir, women or mayhap one woman must play some part in your dreams of the future."

"Women, sir," retorted Diogenes dryly, "should never play a leading r?le in the comedy of a philosopher's life. As a means to an end – perhaps … the final d?nouement…"

"Always that one aim I see – a desire for complete independence which the possession of wealth alone can give."

"Always," replied the other curtly.

"And beyond that desire, what is your chief ambition, sir?"

"To be left alone when I have no mind to talk," said Diogenes with a smile which was so pleasant, so merry, so full of self-deprecating irony that it tempered the incivility of his reply.

Again the other bit his lip, checking an angry word; for some unexplained reason he appeared determined not to quarrel with this insolent young knave. The others stared at their friend in utter astonishment.

"What fly hath bitten Beresteyn's ear?" whispered one of them under his breath. "I have never known him so civil to a stranger or so unwilling to take offence."

Certainly the other man's good humour did not seem to have abated one jot; after an imperceptible moment's pause, he rejoined with perfect suavity:

"You do not belie your name, sir, I heard your friends calling you Diogenes, and I feel proud that you should look on me as Alexander and call on me to stand out of your sunshine."

"I crave your pardon, sir," said Diogenes somewhat more seriously, "my incivility is unwarrantable in the face of your courtesy. No doubt it had its origin in the fact that like my namesake I happened to want nothing at the moment. To-morrow, sir, an you are minded to pay for my services, to ask for my sword, my soul or my wits, and in exchange will offer me the chance of winning a fortune or of marrying a wife who is both rich and comely, why sir, I shall be your man, and will e'en endeavour to satisfy you with the politeness of my speech and the promptness and efficiency of my deeds. To-morrow, sir, you and the devil will have an equal chance of purchasing my soul for a few thousand guilders, my wits for a paltry hundred, my skin for a good supper and a downy bed – to-morrow the desire will seize me once again to possess wealth at any cost, and my friends here will have no cause to complain of my playing a part which becomes a penniless wastrel like myself so ill – the part of a gentleman. Until then, sir, I bid you good-night. The hour is late and Mynheer Beek is desirous of closing this abode of pleasure. As for me, my lodgings being paid for I do not care to leave them unoccupied."

Whereupon he rose and to Mynheer Beek – who came to him with that same ubiquitous smile which did duty for all the customers of the "Lame Cow" – he threw the three silver guilders which the latter demanded in payment for the wine and ale supplied to the honourable gentleman: then as he met the mocking glance of his former interlocutor he said with a recrudescence of gaiety:

"I still have my lodgings, gentle sir, and need not sell my soul or my skin until after I have felt a gnawing desire for breakfast."

With a graceful flourish of his plumed hat he bowed to the assembled company and walked out of the tap-room of the "Lame Cow" with swagger that would have befitted the audience chamber of a king.

In his wake followed the band of his boon companions, they too strode out of the place with much jingle of steel and loud clatter of heavy boots and accoutrements. They laughed and talked loudly as they left and gesticulated with an air of independence which once more drew upon them the wrathful looks and contemptuous shrugs of the sober townsfolk.

Diogenes alone as he finally turned once again in the doorway encountered many a timid glance levelled at him that were soft and kindly. These glances came from the women, from the young and from the old, for women are strange creatures of whims and of fancies, and there was something in the swaggering insolence of that young malapert that made them think of breezy days upon the sea-shore, of the song of the soaring lark, of hyacinths in bloom and the young larches on the edge of the wood.

And I imagine that their sluggish Dutch blood yielded to these influences and was greatly stirred by memories of youth.

CHAPTER VIII
THE LODGINGS WHICH WERE PAID FOR

And once again Chance set to with a will and forged yet another link in that mighty chain which she had in hand.

For was it not in the natural course of things that the three philosophers, weary and thirsty as they were, should go and seek solace and material comfort under the pleasing roof of the "Lame Cow" – which as I remarked before was reputed one of the best conducted hostelries in Haarlem, and possessing a cellar full of wines and ales which had not its equal even in Amsterdam.

And was it not equally natural since the Lord of Stoutenburg lodged not far from that self-same hostelry – again I repeat one of the soberest in Haarlem – that his friends should choose to join him in the tap-room there ere parting from one another on this eventful night.

Stoutenburg and his family were but little known in these parts and the hue and cry after the escaped traitor had somewhat abated these few months past: moreover he was well disguised with beard and cloak and he kept a broad-brimmed hat pulled well down over his brow. On watch-night too, the burghers and their vrouws as well as the civic and military dignitaries of the town had plenty to do to think on their own enjoyment and the entertainment of their friends: they certes were not on the look-out for conspiracies and dangerous enemies within their gates.

Stoutenburg had sat well screened from general observation within a dark recess of the monumental fireplace. Nicolaes Beresteyn, the most intimate of all his friends, sat close to him, but neither of them spoke much. Beresteyn was exceptionally moody; he appeared absorbed in thought and hardly gave answer to those who attempted to draw him into conversation. Stoutenburg, on the other hand affected a kind of grim humour, and made repeated allusions to scaffold or gallows as if he had already wholly resigned himself to an inevitable fate.

The others sipped their mulled wine and tried to cheat themselves out of the burning anxiety which Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn's presence in the cathedral had awakened in their hearts. They had made great efforts not to seem pre-occupied and to be outwardly at least as gay as any of the other watch-night revellers in the room.

But with their thoughts fixed upon that vision of awhile ago – a woman appearing before them within twenty paces of the spot where death to the Stadtholder had just been loudly proclaimed amongst them – with that vision fixed upon their minds, they found light conversation and ordinary manner very difficult to keep up.

The peroration of the young adventurer had proved a welcome diversion: it had immediately aroused Stoutenburg's interest. He it was who first drew Beresteyn's attention to it, and he again who checked the angry words which more than once rose to his friend's lips at the insolent attitude affected by the knave.

And now when the latter finally swaggered out of the room it was Stoutenburg who made a sign to Beresteyn and then immediately rose to go.

Beresteyn paid his account and went out too, in the wake of his friend.

With the advent of the small morning hours the snow once more began to fall in large sparse flakes that lay thick and glistening where they fell. At the end of the Kleine Hout Straat where the two men presently found themselves, the feeble light of a street lamp glimmered through this white fluttering veil: with its help the group of foreign mercenaries could be dimly seen in the distance as they took leave of one another.

The tall form of Diogenes, crowned with his plumed hat, was easily distinguishable amongst them. He with his two special friends, fat Pythagoras and lean Socrates, remained standing for a few moments at the corner of the street after the others had departed: then only did the three of them turn and walk off in the direction of the Oude Gracht.

For some reason, as unexplainable as that which had guided their conduct at the "Lame Cow," Beresteyn and Stoutenburg, quite unconscious of the cold, elected to follow.

Was it not Chance that willed it so? Chance who was busy forging a chain and who had need of these two men's extraordinary interest in a nameless adventurer in order to make the links of that chain fit as neatly as she desired.

At the bottom of the Kleine Hout Straat, where it abuts on the Oude Gracht, the three philosophers had again paused, obviously this time in order to take leave of one another. The houses here were of a peculiarly woe-begone appearance, with tiny windows which could not possibly have allowed either air or light to penetrate within, and doors that were left ajar and were creaking on their hinges, showing occasional glimpses of dark unventilated passages beyond and of drifts of snow heaped up against the skirting of the worm-eaten, broken-down wooden floors. They were miserable lodging-houses of flimsy construction and low rentals, which the close proximity of the sluggish canal rendered undesirable.

The ground floor was in most instances occupied by squalid-looking shops, from which fetid odours emanated through the chinks and cracks of the walls. The upper rooms were let out as night-lodgings to those who were too poor to afford better quarters.

Diogenes with all his swagger and his airs of an out-at-elbows gentleman evidently was one of those, for he was now seen standing on the threshold of one of these dilapidated houses and his two friends were finally bidding him good-night.

By tacit consent Beresteyn and Stoutenburg drew back further into the shadow of the houses opposite. There appeared to be some understanding between these two men, an understanding anent a matter of supremely grave import, which caused them to stand here on the watch with feet buried in the snow that lay thick in the doorways, silently taking note of every word spoken and of every act that occurred on the other side of this evil-smelling street.

There seemed to be no need for speech between them; for the nonce each knew that the other's thoughts were running in the same groove as his own; and momentarily these thoughts were centred into a desire to ascertain definitely if it was the tallest and youngest of those three knaves over there who lodged in that particular house.

It was only when the fat man and the lean one had finally turned away and left their comrade on the doorstep that the watchers appeared satisfied and nodding silently to one another made ready to go home. They had turned their steps once more toward the more salubrious and elegant quarter of the city, and had gone but a few steps in that direction when something occurred behind them which arrested their attention and caused them to look back once more.

The Something was a woman's cry, pitiful in the extreme: not an unusual sound in the streets of a prosperous city surely, and one which under ordinary circumstances would certainly not have aroused Stoutenburg's or Beresteyn's interest. But the circumstances were not ordinary; the cry came from the very spot where the two men had last seen the young stranger standing in the doorway of his lodgings and the appeal was obviously directed toward him.

"Kind sir," the woman was saying in a quavering voice, "half a guilder I entreat you for the love of Christ."

"Half a guilder, my good woman," Diogenes said in response, "'Tis a fortune to such as I. I have not a kreutzer left in my wallet, 'pon my honour!"

Whereupon the two men who watched this scene from the opposite side of the street saw that the woman fell on her knees, and that beside her there stood an old man who made ready to follow her example.

"It's no use wearing out your stockings on this snow-covered ground, my good girl," said Diogenes good-humouredly. "All the kneeling in the world will not put half a guilder into my pocket nor apparently into yours."

"And father and I must sleep under the canal bridge and it is so bitterly cold," the woman moaned more feebly.

"Distinctly an uncomfortable place whereat to spend a night," rejoined the philosopher, "I have slept there myself before now, so I know."

Seemingly he made an attempt to turn incontinently on his heel, for the woman put out her hands and held on to his cloak.

"Father is crippled with ague, kind sir, he will die if he sleeps out there to-night," she cried.

"I am afraid he will," said Diogenes blandly.

In the meanwhile, Pythagoras and Socrates, who evidently had not gone very far, returned in order to see what was going on, on their friend's doorstep. It was Pythagoras who first recognized the wench.

"Thunder and lightning," he exclaimed, "'tis the Papist!"

"Which Papist?" queried Diogenes.

"Yes, gentle sirs," said the woman piteously, "you rescued me nobly this evening from that awful, howling mob. My father and I were able to go to midnight mass in peace. May God reward you all. But," she added na?vely, "'twas no good preventing those horrid men from killing us, if we are to die from cold and hunger under the bridge of the canal."

All of which was not incomprehensible to the two men on the watch who had heard a graphic account of the affray in Dam Straat as it was told by Pythagoras in the tap-room of the "Lame Cow." And they both drew a little nearer so as not to lose a word of the scene which they were watching with ever growing interest. Neither of them attempted to interfere in it, however, though Beresteyn at any rate could have poured many a guilder in the hands of those two starving wretches, without being any the poorer himself and though he was in truth not a hard-hearted man.

"The wench is right," now said Diogenes firmly, "the life which we helped to save, we must not allow to be frittered away. I talked of stockings, girl," he added lightly, "but I see thy feet are bare… Brrr! I freeze when I look at thee…"

"For a quarter guilder father and I could find a lodging…"

"But Dondersteen!" he exclaimed, "did I not tell thee that I have not one kreutzer in my wallet, and unless my friends can help thee…"

"Diogenes thou speakest trash," interposed Pythagoras softly.

"We must both starve of cold this night," moaned the woman in despair.

"Nay ye shall not!" said Diogenes with sudden decision. "There is a room in this very house which has been paid for three nights in advance. Go to it, wench, 'tis at the very top of the stairs, crawl thither as fast as thou canst, dragging thy ramshackle parent in thy wake. What ho there!" he shouted at the top of his ringing voice, "what ho my worthy landlord! What ho!"

And with his powerful fists he began pounding against the panels of the door which swung loosely under the heavy blows.

Stoutenburg and Beresteyn drew yet a little nearer: they were more deeply interested than ever in all that was going on outside this squalid lodging house.

The three philosophers were making a sufficiency of noise to wake half the street and within a very few minutes they succeeded in their purpose. Through one or two of the narrow frames overhead heads appeared enveloped in shawls or cloaks, and anon the landlord of the house came shuffling down the passage, carrying a lighted, guttering taper.

The two silent watchers could not see this man, but they could hear him grumbling and scolding audibly in short jerky sentences which he appeared to throw somewhat tentatively at his rowdy lodger.

"Late hour of the night," they heard him muttering. "New Year's morning… Respectable house … noise to attract the town guard…"

"Hadst thou turned out of thy bed sooner, O well-beloved lord of this abode of peace," said Diogenes cheerily, "there would have been less noise outside its portals. Had I not loved thee as I do, I would not have wakened thee from thy sleep, but would have acted in accordance with my rights and without bringing to thy ken a matter which would vastly have astonished thee in the morning."

The man continued to mutter, more impatiently this time:

"New Year's morning … respectable citizen … work to do in the morning … undesirable lodgers…"

"All lodgers are desirable who pay for their lodging, O wise landlord," continued Diogenes imperturbably, "I have paid thee for mine, for three nights from this day and I herewith desire thee to place my palatial residence at the disposal of this jongejuffrouw and of mynheer her father."

The man's mutterings became still more distinct.

"Baggage … how do I know?.. not bound to receive them…"

"Nay! but thou art a liar, Master Landlord," quoth Diogenes still speaking quite pleasantly, "for the lodgings being mine, I have the right to receive in them anybody whom I choose. Therefore now do I give thee the option, either to show my guests straightway and with meticulous politeness into my room, or to taste the power and weight of my boot in the small of thy back and the hardness of my sword-hilt across thy shoulders."

This time the man's mutterings became inaudible. Nicolaes Beresteyn and Stoutenburg could only guess what was passing in the narrow corridor of the house opposite. The one moment there was a heart-rending howl, which suggested that the landlord's obduracy had lasted a few moments too long for the impatient temper of a philosopher; but the howl was not repeated and soon Diogenes' clear voice rang out lustily again:

"There! I knew that gentle persuasion would prevail. Dearly beloved landlord, now I pray thee guide the jongejuffrouw and mynheer her father to my sleeping chamber. It is at thy disposal, wench, for three nights," he added airily, "make the most of it; and if thou hast aught to complain of my friend the landlord, let me know. I am always to be found at certain hours of the day within the congenial four walls of the 'Lame Cow.' Good-night then and pleasant dreams."



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