Emma Orczy.

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



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What went on after that the watchers could, of course, not see. The wench and the old man had disappeared inside the house, where, if they had a spark of gratitude in them, they would undoubtedly be kneeling even now at the feet of their whimsical benefactor.

The next moment the interested spectators of this stirring little scene beheld the three philosophers once more standing together at the corner of the street under the feebly flickering lamp and the slowly falling snow; the door of the lodging-house had been slammed to behind them and the muffled heads had disappeared from out the framework of the windows above.

"And now, perhaps you will tell us what you are going to do," said Pythagoras in flute-like tones.

"There is not a bed vacant in the dormitory where I sleep," said Socrates.

"Nor would I desire to sleep in one of those kennels fit only for dogs which I cannot imagine how you both can stomach," quoth Diogenes lightly; "the close proximity of Pythagoras and yourself and of all those who are most like you in the world would chase pleasing sleep from mine eyelids. I prefer the Canal."

"You cannot sleep out of doors in this h – l of a cold night," growled Socrates.

"And I cannot go back to the 'Lame Cow' for I have not a kreutzer left in my wallet wherewith to pay for a sip."

"Then what the d – l are you going to do?" reiterated Pythagoras plaintively.

"I have a friend," said Diogenes after a slight pause.

"Hm?" was the somewhat dubious comment on this fairly simple statement.

"He will give me breakfast early in the morning."

"Hm!"

"'Tis but a few hours to spend in lonely communion with nature."

"Hm!"

"The cathedral clock has struck three, at seven my good Hals will ply me with hot ale and half his hunk of bread and cheese."

"Hals?" queried Socrates.

"Frans Hals," replied Diogenes; "he paints pictures and contrives to live on the proceeds. If his wife does not happen to throw me out, he will console me for the discomforts of this night."

"Bah!" ejaculated Pythagoras in disgust, "a painter of pictures!"

"And a brave man when he is sober."

"With a scold for a wife! Ugh! what about your playing the part of a gentleman now?"

"The play was short, O wise Pythagoras," retorted Diogenes with imperturbable good humour, "the curtain has already come down upon the last act. I am once more a knave, a merchant ready to flatter the customer who will buy his wares: Hech there, sir, my lord! what are your needs? My sword, my skin, they are yours to command! so many guilders, sir, and I will kill your enemy for you, fight your battles, abduct the wench that pleases you. So many guilders! and when they are safely in my pocket I can throw my glove in your face lest you think I have further need of your patronage."

"'Tis well to brag," muttered Pythagoras, "but you'll starve with cold this night."

"But at dawn I'll eat a hearty breakfast offered me by my friend Frans Hals for the privilege of painting my portrait."

"Doth he really paint thy portrait, O handsome Diogenes?" said Pythagoras unctuously.

"Aye! thou ugly old toad.

He has begun a new one, for which I have promised to sit. I'll pay for the breakfast he gives me, by donning a gorgeous gold embroidered doubtlet which he once stole from somewhere, by putting my hand on my hip, tilting my hat at a becoming angle, and winking at him by the hour whilst he paints away."

"Hm! after a night of wandering by the canal in the fog and snow and sharing the meagre breakfast of a half-starved painter, methinks the portrait will be that of a knight of the rueful countenance."

"Indeed not, old compeer," said Diogenes with a hearty laugh, "it shall be the portrait of a Laughing Cavalier."

CHAPTER IX
THE PAINTER OF PICTURES

After this episode Chance had little to do with the further events of this veracious chronicle.

Men took their destiny in their own hands and laughed at Fate and at the links of the chain which she had been forging so carefully and so patiently ever since she began the business on the steps of the Stadhuis a few short hours ago.

Beresteyn and Stoutenburg walking home together in the small hours of New Year's morning spoke very little together at first. They strode along side by side, each buried in his own thoughts, and only a few curt remarks passed at intervals between them.

But something lay on the minds of both – something of which each desired to speak to the other, yet neither of them seemed willing to be the first to broach the absorbing topic.

It was Stoutenburg who at last broke the silence.

"A curious personality, that knave," he said carelessly after awhile, "an unscrupulous devil as daring as he is reckless of consequences I should say … yet trustworthy withal … what think you?"

"A curious personality as you say," replied Beresteyn vaguely.

"He might have been useful to us had we cared to pay for his services … but now 'tis too late to think of further accomplices … new men won or bought for our cause only mean more victims for the gallows."

"You take a gloomy view of the situation," said Beresteyn sombrely.

"No! only a fatalistic one. With our secret in a woman's keeping … and that woman free and even anxious to impart it to one of my most bitter enemies … I can see nought that can ward off the inevitable."

"Except…"

"Yes, of course," rejoined Stoutenburg earnestly, "if you, Nicolaes, are ready to make the sacrifice which alone could save us all."

"It is a sacrifice which will involve my honour, my sister's love for me, my father's trust…"

"If you act wisely and circumspectly, my friend," retorted Stoutenburg dryly, "neither your father nor Gilda herself need ever know that you had a share in … in what you propose to do."

Beresteyn made no reply and he and his friend walked on in silence until they reached the small house close to the "Lame Cow" where Stoutenburg had his lodgings. Here they shook hands before parting and Stoutenburg held his friend's hand in his tightly grasped for a moment or two while he said earnestly:

"It is only for a few days, Nicolaes, a few days during which I swear to you that – though absent and engaged in the greatest task that any man can undertake on this earth – I swear to you that I will keep watch over Gilda and defend her honour with my life. If you will make the sacrifice for me and for our cause, Heaven and your country will reward you beyond your dreams. With the death of the Stadtholder my power in the Netherlands will be supreme, and herewith, with my hand in yours, I solemnly plight my troth to Gilda. She was the first woman I ever loved, and I have never ceased to love her. Now she fills my heart and soul even – at times – to the exclusion of my most ambitious hopes. Nicolaes – my friend – it is in your power to save my life as well as your own: an you will do it, there will be no bounds to my gratitude."

And Beresteyn replied calmly:

"The sacrifice which you ask of me I will make: I will take the risk for the sake of my country and of my faith. To-morrow at noon I will come to your lodgings and tell you in detail all the arrangements which I shall have made by then. I have no fear for Gilda. I believe that Heaven has guided my thoughts and footsteps to-night for the furtherance of our cause."

After which the two men took final leave of one another: Stoutenburg's tall lean form quickly disappeared under the doorway of the house, whilst Beresteyn walked rapidly away up the street.

Now it was close on ten o'clock of New Year's morning. Nicolaes Beresteyn had spent several hours in tossing restlessly under the warm eiderdown and between the fine linen sheets embroidered by his sister's deft hands. During these hours of sleeplessness a plan had matured in his mind which though it had finally issued from his own consciousness had really found its origin in the reckless brain of Willem van Stoutenburg.

Beresteyn now saw himself as the saviour of his friends and of their patriotic cause. He felt that in order to carry out the plan which he firmly believed that he himself had conceived, he was making a noble sacrifice for his country and for his faith, and he was proud to think that it lay in his power to offer the sacrifice. That this same sacrifice would have his own sister for victim, he cared seemingly very little. He was one of those men in whose hearts political aims outweigh every tender emotion, and he firmly believed that Gilda would be richly rewarded by the fulfilment of that solemn promise made by Stoutenburg.

Exquisite visions of satisfied ambition, of triumph and of glory chased away sleep: he saw his friend as supreme ruler of the State, with powers greater than the Princes of Orange had ever wielded: he saw Gilda – his sister – grateful to him for the part which he had played in re-uniting her to the man whom she had always loved, she too supreme in power as the proud wife of the new Stadtholder. And he saw himself as the Lord High Advocate of the Netherlands standing in the very shoes of that same John of Barneveld whose death he would have helped to avenge.

These and other thoughts had stirred Nicolaes Beresteyn's fancy while he lay awake during these the first hours of the New Year, and it was during those self-same hours that a nameless stranger whom his compeers called Diogenes had tramped up and down the snow-covered streets of Haarlem trying to keep himself warm.

I am very sorry to have to put it on record that during that time he swore more than once at his own softheartedness which had caused him to give up his hard but sheltered paillasse to a pair of Papists who were nothing to him and whom probably he would never see again.

"I begin to agree with that bloated puff-ball Pythagoras," he mused dejectedly once, when an icy wind, blowing straight from the North Sea, drove the falling snow into his boots, and under his collar, and up his sleeves, and nearly froze the marrow in his bones, "it is but sorry pleasure to play at being a gentleman. And I had not many hours of it either," he added ruefully.

Even the most leaden-footed hours do come to an end however. At one half after six Diogenes turned his steps toward the Peuselaarsteeg where dwelt his friend Frans Hals, the painter of pictures. Fortunately Mevrouw Hals was in a fairly good temper, the last portrait group of the officers of St. Joris' Shooting Guild had just been paid for, and there was practically a new commission to paint yet another group of these gentlemen.

And Mynheer van Zeller the deputy bailiff had brought the fancy picture too, for which that knave Diogenes had sat last year, so Mevrouw Hals was willing to provide the young man with a savoury and hot breakfast if he were willing once again to allow Frans to make a picture of his pleasant face.

Mevrouw Hals being in rare good humour, the breakfast was both substantial and savoury. Diogenes, who was starved with cold as well as with hunger, did great honour to all that was laid before him: he ate heartily while recounting his adventures of the past night to his friend.

"All that trouble for a Papist wench," said the painter as contemptuously as Pythagoras himself would have done, "and maybe a Spaniard too."

"Good-looking girl," quoth Diogenes dryly, "and would make you a good model, Frans. For a few kreutzers she'd be glad enough to do it."

"I'll have none of these vixens inside my house," interposed Mevrouw Hals decisively, "and don't you teach Frans any of your loose ways, my man."

Diogenes made no reply, he only winked at his friend. No doubt he thought that Hals no longer needed teaching.

The two men repaired to the studio, a huge bare room littered with canvases, but void of furniture, save for an earthenware stove in which fortunately a cheerful fire was blazing, a big easel roughly fashioned of deal, a platform for the model to stand on, and two or three rush-bottomed chairs: there was also a ramshackle dowry chest, black with age, which mayhap had once held the piles of homemade linen brought as a dowry by the first Mevrouw Hals: now it seemed to contain a heterogeneous collection of gaudy rags, together with a few fine articles of attire, richly embroidered relics of more prosperous days.

The artist went straight up to the chest and from out the litter he selected a bundle of clothes which he handed over to his friend.

"Slip into them as quickly as you can, old compeer," he said, "my fingers are itching to get to work."

And while he fixed the commenced picture on the easel and set out his palette, Diogenes threw off his shabby clothes and donned the gorgeous doubtlet and sash which the painter had given him.

CHAPTER X
THE LAUGHING CAVALIER

We all know every fold of that doubtlet now, with its magnificent sleeves, crimson-lined and richly embroidered, its slashings which afford peeps of snowy linen, and its accessories of exquisite lace; the immortal picture then painted by Frans Hals, and which he called the Laughing Cavalier, has put its every line on record for all times.

Diogenes wore it with delight. Its splendour suited his swaggering air to perfection: its fine black cloth, delicate lace and rich silk sash set off to perfection his well-proportioned massive figure.

A joy to the artist every bit of him, the tone, the pose, the line, the colour and that face full of life, of the joy of living, that merry twinkle in the eyes, that laugh that for ever hovers on the lips.

We all stand before it, marvelling at the artist's skill, for we know that the portrait is true to the life; we know that it is true, because we know the man; his whole character is there indelibly writ upon the canvas by the master-hand of a genius: – Diogenes the soldier of fortune is there, the man who bows to no will save to his own, too independent to bow to kindred or to power, the man who takes life as he finds it, but leavens it with his own gaiety and the priceless richness of his own humour: we know him for his light-hearted gaiety, we condone his swagger, we forgive his reckless disregard of all that makes for sobriety and respectability. The eyes twinkle at us, the mouth all but speaks, and we know and recognize every detail as true; only the fine, straight brow, the noble forehead, the delicate contour of the nose and jaw puzzle us at times, for those we cannot reconcile with the man's calling or with his namelessness, until we remember his boast in the tavern of the "Lame Cow" on New Year's morning: "My father was one of those who came in English Leicester's train."

So we see him now standing quite still, while the artist is absorbed in his work: his tall figure very erect, the head slightly thrown back, the well-shaped hand resting on the hip and veiled in folds of filmy lace. And so did Mynheer Nicolaes Beresteyn see him as he entered the artist's studio at ten o'clock of that same New Year's morning.

"A happy New Year to you, my good Hals," he said with easy condescension. "Vervloekte weather, eh – for the incoming year! there must be half a foot of snow in the by-streets by now."

With that same air of graciousness he acknowledged the artist's obsequious bow. His father Mynheer Councillor Beresteyn was an avowed patron of Frans Hals and the hour had not yet struck in civilized Europe when wealth would go hat in hand bowing to genius and soliciting its recognition. In this year of grace 1624 genius had still to hold the hat and to acknowledge if not to solicit the kindly favours of wealth.

Nicolaes Beresteyn did not know exactly how to greet the man with whom he had a few hours ago bandied arguments in the tap room of a tavern, and whom – to tell the truth – he had expressly come to find. The complaisant nod which he had bestowed on Frans Hals did not somehow seem appropriate for that swaggering young knight of industry, who looked down on him from the high eminence of the model's platform so that Nicolaes was obliged to look well up, if he wished to meet his glance at all.

It was the obscure soldier of fortune who relieved the pompous burgher of his embarrassment.

"Fate hath evidently not meant that we should remain strangers, sir," he said lightly, "this meeting after last night's pleasing amenities is indeed unexpected."

"And most welcome, sir, as far as I am concerned," rejoined Nicolaes pleasantly. "My name is Nicolaes Beresteyn and right glad am I to renew our acquaintance of last night. I had no idea that my friend Hals could command so perfect a model. No wonder that his pictures have become the talk of the town."

He turned back to Hals now with a resumption of his patronizing manner.

"I came to confirm my father's suggestion, my good Hals, that you should paint his portrait and at the price you named yourself. The officers of St. Joris' Guild are also desirous, as I understand, of possessing yet another group from your brush."

"I shall be honoured," said the artist simply.

"'Tis many an ugly face you'll have to paint within the next few months, my friend," added Diogenes lightly.

"My father is reckoned one of the handsomest men in Holland," retorted Beresteyn with becoming dignity.

"And the owner of the finest tulip bulbs in the land," said the other imperturbably. "I heard him tell last night that he had just given more florins for one bit of dried onion than I have ever fingered in the whole course of my life."

"Fortune, sir, has not dealt with you hitherto in accordance with your deserts."

"No! 'tis my sternest reproach against her."

"There is always a tide, sir, in a man's fortunes."

"Mine I feel, sir, is rising at your call."

There was a moment's pause now while the two men looked on one another eye to eye, appraising one another, each counting on his opponent's worth. Then Nicolaes suddenly turned back to Frans Hals.

"My good Hals," he said, "might I crave a favour from your friendship?"

"I am at your service, mynheer, now as always as you know," murmured the artist, who indeed was marvelling what favour so illustrious a gentleman could ask of a penniless painter of portraits.

"'Tis but a small matter to you," rejoined Nicolaes, "but it would be of great service to me. I desire to hold private conversation with this gentleman. Could I do so in your house without attracting anybody's attention?"

"Easily, sir. This room though none too comfortable is at your disposal. I have plenty of work to do in another part of my house. No one will come in here. You will be quite undisturbed."

"I am infinitely obliged to you. 'Tis but half-an-hour's privacy I desire … providing this gentleman will grant me the interview."

"Like my friend Hals," rejoined Diogenes suavely, "I am, sir, at your service. The tides are rising around me, I feel them swelling even as I speak. I have an overwhelming desire to ride on the crest of the waves, rather than to duck under them against my will."

"I hope this intrusion will not retard your work too much, my good Hals," said Beresteyn with somewhat perfunctory solicitude when he saw that the artist finally put his brushes and palette on one side, and in an abstracted manner began to dust a couple of ricketty chairs and then place them close to the stove.

"Oh!" interposed Diogenes airily, "the joy of being of service to so bountiful a patron will more than compensate Frans Hals for this interruption to his work. Am I not right, old friend?" he added with just a soup?on of seriousness in the mocking tones of his voice.

Hals murmured a few words under his breath which certainly seemed to satisfy Beresteyn for the latter made no further attempt at apology, and only watched with obvious impatience the artist's slow progress out of the room.

As soon as the heavy oaken door had fallen-to behind the master of this house, Beresteyn turned with marked eagerness to Diogenes.

"Now, sir," he said, "will you accord me your close attention for a moment. On my honour it will be to your advantage so to do."

"And to your own, I take it, sir," rejoined Diogenes, as he stepped down from the elevated platform and sat himself astride one of the ricketty chairs facing his interlocutor who had remained standing. "To your own too, sir, else you had not spent half an hour in that vervloekte weather last night pacing an insalubrious street in order to find out where I lodged."

Nicolaes bit his lip with vexation.

"You saw me?" he asked.

"I have eyes at the back of my head," replied the young man. "I knew that you followed me in company with a friend all the way from the door of the 'Lame Cow' and that you were not far off when I announced my intention of sleeping under the stars and asking my friend Frans Hals for some breakfast later on."

Beresteyn had quickly recovered his equanimity.

"I have no cause to deny it," he said.

"None," assented Diogenes.

"Something, sir, in your manner and your speech last night aroused my interest. Surely you would not take offence at that."

"Certainly not."

"And hearing you speak, a certain instinct prompted me to try and not lose sight of you if I could by some means ascertain where you lodged. My friend and I did follow you: I own it, and we witnessed a little scene which I confess did you infinite credit."



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