Chapter XIII -- THE SPANISH WENCH

An hour later in the tap-room of the "Lame Cow" Diogenes had finished explaining to his brother philosophers the work which ha had in hand and for which he required their help. The explanation had begun with the words filled with portentous charm:

"There will be 500 guilders for each of you at the end of our journey."

And they knew from many and varied experiences of adventures undertaken in amicable trilogy that Diogenes would be as good as these words.

For the rest they did not greatly trouble themselves. There was a lady to be conveyed with respect and with safety, out of Haarlem and as far as Rotterdam, and it was in Rotterdam that the 500 guilders would reward each man for his obedience to orders, his circumspection at all times and his valour if necessity arose. From this hour onwards and throughout the journey friend Diogenes would provide for everything and see that his faithful compeers lacked in nothing. Temperance and sober conduct would be the order paramount, but with that exception the adventure promised to be as exciting as it was lucrative.

It was good to hear the guilders jingling in Diogenes' wallet, and though he was sparing of them in the matter of heady ale or strong wines, he scattered them liberally enough on smoked sausage, fried livers and the many other delicacies for which his brother philosophers had a fancy and for which the kitchen of the "Lame Cow" was famous.

When they had all eaten enough and made merry on a little good ale and the prospects of the adventure, they parted on the doorstep of the tavern, Diogenes to attend to business, the other two to see the horses and the sleigh for this night. These were to be in readiness at the point where the street of the Holy Cross abuts on the left bank of the Oude Gracht. Three good saddle horses were wanted -- thick-set Flanders mares, rough shod against the slippery roads; also a covered sledge, with two equally reliable horses harnessed there to and a coachman of sober appearance on the box. Socrates and Pythagoras were required to scour the city for these, and to bespeak them for seven o'clock this evening, Diogenes undertaking to make payment for them in advance. There were also some warm rugs and wraps to be bought, for the night would be bitterly cold and the lady not prepared mayhap with a cloak sufficiently heavy for a lengthy journey.

All these matters having been agreed upon, Socrates and Pythagoras started to walk toward the eastern portion of the city where several posting inns were situated and where they hoped to find the conveyance which they required as well as the necessary horses. Diogenes on the other hand turned his steps deliberately southwards.

After a few minutes brisk walking he found himself at the further end of the Kleine Hout Straat, there where stood the ricketty, half-mildewed and wholly insalubrious house which had previously sheltered him. The door as usual was loose upon its hinges and swinging backwards and forwards in the draught with a squeaking, melancholy sound. Diogenes pushed it further open and went in. The same fetid smells, peculiar to all the houses in this quarter of the city, greeted his nostrils, and from the depths of the dark and dank passage a dog gave a perfunctory bark.

Without hesitation Diogenes now began the ascent of the creaking stairs, his heavy footfall echoing through the silent house. On one or two of the landings as he mounted he was greeted by pale, inquiring faces and round inquisitive eyes, whilst ghostlike forms emerged out of hidden burrows for a moment to look on the noisy visitor and then equally furtively vanished again.

On the topmost landing he halted; here a small skylight in the roof afforded a modicum of light. Two doors confronted him, he went up to one of them and knocked on it loudly with his fist.

Then he waited -- not with great patience but with his ear glued to the door listening to the sounds within. It almost seemed as if the room beyond was the abode of the dead, for not a sound reached the listener's ear. He knocked again, more loudly this time and more insistently. Still no response. At the other door on the opposite side of the landing a female figure appeared wrapped in a worsted rag, and head half hidden by a linen coif was thrust forward out of the darkness behind it.

"They's won't answer you," said the apparition curtly. "They are strangers . . . only came last night, but all this morning when the landlord or his wife knocked at the door they simply would not open it."

"But I am a friend," said Diogenes, "the best I fancy that these poor folk have."

"You used to lodge here until last night."

"Why yes. The lodgings are mine, I gave them up to these poor people who had nowhere else to go."

"They won't answer you," reiterated the female apparition dolefully and once more retired into its burrow.

The situation was becoming irritating. Diogenes put his mouth against the keyhole and shouted "What ho, there! Open!" as lustily as his powerful lungs would allow.

"Dondersteen!" he exclaimed, when even then he received no response.

But strange to relate no sooner was this expletive out of his mouth, than there came a cry like that of a frightened small animal, followed by a patter of naked feet upon a naked floor; the next moment the door was thrown invitingly open, and Diogenes was able to step across its thresh-hold.

"Dondersteen!" he ejaculated again, "hadst thou not opened, wench, I would within the next few seconds have battered in the door."

The woman stood looking at him with great, dark eyes in which joy, surprise and fear struggled for mastery. Her hair though still unruly was coiled around her head, her shift and kirtle were neatly fastened, but her legs and feet were bare and above the shift her neck and shoulders appeared colourless and attenuated. Eyes and hair were dark, and her skin had the olive tint of the south, but her lips at this moment looked bloodless, and there was the look of starvation in her wan face.

Diogenes walked past her into the inner room. The old man was lying on the bed, and on the coverlet close to him a much fingered prayer-book lay open. The woman slipped noiselessly past the visitor and quietly put the prayer-book away.

"You have come to tell us that we must go," she said in an undertone as she suddenly faced the newcomer.

"Indeed, that was not my purpose," he replied gaily, "I have come on the contrary to bring you good news, and it was foolish of you to keep me dangling on your doorstep for so long."

"The landlord hates us," she murmured, "because you forced him last night to take us in. He came thundering at the door early this morning, and threatened to eject us as vagabonds or to denounce us as Spanish spies. I would not open the door to him, and he shouted his threats at us through the keyhole. When you knocked just now I was frightened. I thought that he had come back."

Her voice was low and though she spoke Dutch fluently her throat had in it the guttural notes of her native land. A touch of the gipsy there must be in her, thought Diogenes as he looked with suddenly aroused interest on the woman before him, her dark skin, the long, supple limbs, the velvety eyes with their submissive, terrified look.

With embarrassed movements she offered the only chair in the room to her visitor, then cast shy, timorous glances on him as he refused to sit, preferring to lean his tall figure against the white-washed wall. She thought that never in her life had she seen any man so splendid and her look of bold admiration told him so without disguise.

"Well!" he said with his quaint smile, "I am not the landlord, nor yet an enemy. Art thou convinced of that?"

"Yes, I am!" she said with a little sigh, as she turned away from him in order to attend to the old man, who was moaning peevishly in bed.

"He has lost the use of speech," she said to Diogenes as soon as she had seen to the old man's wants, "and to-day he is so crippled that he can scarcely move. We ought never to have come to this horrible cold part of the country," she added with a sudden tone of fierce resentment. "I think that we shall both die of misery before we leave it again."

"Why did you come her then at all?" asked Diogenes.

"We wandered hither, because we heard that the people in this city were so rich. I was born not far from here, and so was my mother, but my father is a native of Spain. In France, in Brabant where we wandered before, we always earned a good living by begging at the church doors, but here the people are so hard. . . ."

"You will have to wander back to Spain."

"Yes," she said sullenly, "as soon as I have earned a little money and father is able to move, neither of which seems very likely just now."

"Ah!" he said cheerily, "that is, wench, where I proclaim thee wrong! I do not know when thy father will be able to move, but I can tell thee at this very moment where and how thou canst earn fifty guilders which should take thee quite a long way toward Spain."

She looked up at him and once more that glance of joy and of surprise crept into her eyes which had seemed so full of vindictive anger just now. With the surprise and the joy there also mingled the admiration, the sense of well-being in his presence.

Already he had filled the bare, squalid room with his breezy personality, with his swagger and with his laughter; his ringing voice had roused the echoes that slept in the mouldy rafters and frightened the mice that dwelt in the wainscoting and now scampered hurriedly away.

"I," she said with obvious incredulity, "I to earn fifty guilders! I have not earned so much in any six months of my life."

"Perhaps not," he rejoined gaily. "But I can promise thee this; that the fifty guilders will be thine this evening, if thou wilt render me a simple service."

"Render thee a service," she said, and her low voice sounded quite cooing and gentle, "I would thank God on my knees if I could render thee a service. Didst thou not save my life . . ."

"By thy leave we'll not talk of that matter. 'Tis over and done with now. The service I would ask of thee, though 'tis simple enough to perform, I could not ask of anyone else but thee. An thou'lt do it, I shall be more than repaid."

"Name it, sir," she said simply.

"Dost know the bank of the Oude Gracht?" he asked.

"Well," she replied.

"Dost know the Oudenvrouwenhuis situated there?"

"Yes!"

"Next to its outer walls there is a narrow passage which leads to the Remonstrant Chapel of St. Pieter."

"There is, sir. I know it."

"This evening at seven o'clock then thou'lt take thy stand at the corner of this passage facing the Oude Gracht; and there thou wilt remain to ask alms from the passers-by. Thou'rt not afraid?"

"Afraid of what, sir?"

"The spot is lonely, the passage leads nowhere except to the chapel, which has been deserted these past five years."

"I am not afraid."

"That's brave! After evensong is over at the cathedral, one or two people will no doubt come thy way. Thou'lt beg them for alms in the usual way. But anon a lady will come accompanied by a duenna and preceded by two serving men carrying lanthorns. From her thou must ask insistently, and tell her as sad a tale of woe as thou canst think on, keeping well within the narrow passage and inducing her to follow thee."

"How shall I know the lady? There may be others who go past that way, and who might also be escorted by a woman and two serving men."

"The men wear green and purple livery, with peaked green caps trimmed with fur. Thou canst not mistake them even in the dark, for the light of the lanthorns which they carry will be upon them. But I will be in the passage close behind thee. When I see her coming I will warn thee."

"I understand," she said, nodding her head slowly once or twice as if she were brooding over what she thought. "But surely that is not all that I can do for thee."

"Indeed it is, and therefore none too difficult. Having drawn the lady in the shadow by thy talk, contrive to speak to her, telling her of thy troubles. If anything occurs after that to surprise or mayhap frighten thee, pay no heed to it, but take at once to thy heels and run straight home here, without looking to right or left. No one will molest thee, I give thee my word."

"I understand!" she reiterated once more.

"And wilt thou do as I ask?"

"Of course. My life is thine; thou didst save it twice. Thou hast but to command and I will obey."

"We'll call it that," he said lightly, "since it seems to please thee. To-night then at seven o'clock, I too, will be on the spot to place the fifty guilders in thy hand."

"Fifty guilders!" she exclaimed almost with ecstasy, and pressed her hands to her breast. "My father and I need not starve or be homeless the whole of this winter."

"Thou'lt make tracks for Spain very soon," he rejoined carelessly, for he had accomplished his business and was making ready to go.

She threw him a strange look, half defiant yet almost reproachful.

"Perhaps!" she said curtly.

He took leave of her in his usual pleasant, airy manner, smiling at her earnestness and at her looks that reminded him of a starving dog which he had once picked up in the streets of Prague and kept and fed for a time, until he found it a permanent home. When he gave the dog away to some kindly people who promised to be kind to it, it threw him, at parting, just such a look as dwelt in the dark depths of this girl's eyes now.

The old cripple on the bed had fallen into a torpor-like sleep. Diogenes cast a compassionate glance on him.

"Thou canst take him to better quarters in a day or two," he said, "and mayhap give him some good food . . . Dondersteen!" he exclaimed suddenly, "what art doing, girl?"

She had stoop and kissed his hand. He drew it away almost roughly, but at the timid look of humble apology which she raised to him, he said gently:

"By St. Bavon thou'rt a funny child! Well? what is it now?" he asked, for she stood hesitating before him, with a question obviously hovering on her lips.

"I dare not," she murmured.

"Art afraid of me then?"

"A little."

"Yet there is something thou desirest to ask?"

"Yes."

"What is it? Quickly now, for I must be going."

She waited for a moment or two trying to gain courage, whilst he watched her, greatly amused.

"What is it?" he reiterated more impatiently.

Then a whispered murmur escaped her lips.

"The lady?"

"Yes. What of her?"

"Thou dost love her?" she stammered, "and wilt abduct her to-night because of thy love for her?"

For a second or two he looked on her in blank amazement, marvelling if he had entrusted this vital business to a semi-imbecile. Then seeing that indeed she appeared in deadly earnest, and that her great, inquiring but perfectly lucid eyes were fixed upon him with mute insistence, he threw back his head and laughed till the very rafters of the low room shook with the echo of his merriment.

"Dondersteen!" he said as soon as he felt that he could speak again, "but thou truly art a strange wench. Whatever did put that idea into thy head?"

"Thou dost propose to abduct her, I know that," she said more firmly. "I am no fool, and I understand I am to be the decoy. The dark passage, the lonely spot, thy presence there . . . and then the occurrence, as thou saidst, that might surprise or frighten me . . . I am no fool," she repeated sullenly, "I understand."

"Apparently," he retorted dryly.

"Thou dost love her?" she insisted.

"What is it to thee?"

"No matter; only tell me this, dost thou love her?"

"If I said 'yes' " he asked with his whimsical smile, "wouldst refuse to help me?"

"Oh no!"

"And if I said 'no'?"

"I should be glad," she said simply.

"Then we'll say 'no!' " he concluded lightly, "for I would like to see thee glad."

And he had his wish, for quite a joyous smile lit up her small, pinched face. She tripped quite briskly to the door and held it open for him.

"If thou desirest to speak with me again," she said, as he finally took his leave, "give four raps on the door at marked intervals. I would fly to open it then."

He thanked her and went down stairs, humming a lively tune and never once turning to look on her again. And yet she was learning over the ricketty banisters watching his slowly descending figure, until it disappeared in the gloom.