Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn had spent many hours in church this New Year's Day, 1624. In spite of the inclemency of the weather she had attended Morning Prayer and Holy Communion and now she was back again for Evensong.
The cathedral was not very full for it. Most people were making merry at home to celebrate the festival; so Gilda had a corner of the sacred building all to herself, where she could think matters over silently and with the help of prayer. The secret of which she had gained knowledge was weighing heavily on her soul; and heart-rending doubts had assailed her all night and throughout the day.
How could she know what was the right thing to do? -- to allow a crime of which she had fore-knowledge, to be committed without raising a finger to prevent it? or to betray her own brother and his friends -- a betrayal which would inevitably lead them to the scaffold?
Her father was of course her great refuge, and to-night through Evensong she prayed to God to guide her, as to whether she should tell everything to her father or not. She had warned Nicolaes that she might do so, and yet her very soul shrank from the act which to many would seem so like betrayal. Cornelius Beresteyn was a man of rigid principles and unyielding integrity. What he might do with the knowledge of the conspiracy in which his own son was taking a leading part, no one -- not even his daughter -- could foresee. In no case would she act hurriedly. She hoped against all hope that mayhap Nicolaes would see his own treachery in its true light and turn from it before it was too late, or that God would give her some unmistakable sign of what He willed her to do.
Perplexed and wretched she stayed long on her knees and left the church after every one else. The night was dark and though the snow had left off falling momentarily, the usual frosty mist hung over the city. Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn wrapped her fur-lined cloak closely round her shoulders and started on her homeward walk, with Maria by her side and Jakob and Piet on in front carrying their lanthorns.
Her way took her firstly across the Groote Markt then down the Hout Straat until she reached the Oude Gracht. Here her two serving men kept quite close in front of her for the embankment was lonely and a well-known resort for evil doers who found refuge in the several dark passages that run at right angles from the canal and have no outlet at their further end.
Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn followed rapidly in the wake of her lanthorn bearers and keeping Maria -- who was always timorous on dark nights and in lonely places -- quite close to her elbow. Every footstep of the way was familiar to her. Now the ground was frozen hard and the covering of snow crisp beneath her feet as she walked, but in the autumn and the spring the mud here was ankle-deep, save on one or two rare spots in front of the better houses or public buildings where a few stones formed a piece of dry pavement. Such a spot was the front of the Oudenvrouwenhuis with its wide oaken gateway and high brick walls. The unmade road here was always swept neatly and tidily; during the rainy seasons the mud was washed carefully away and in the winter it was kept free from snow.
Beyond it was a narrow passage which led to the Chapel of St. Pieter, now disused since the Remonstrants had fallen into such bad odour after the death of Olden Barneveld and the treachery of his sons. The corner of this passage was a favourite haunt for beggars, but only for the humbler ones -- since there is a hierarchy even amongst beggars, and the more prosperous ones, those known to the town-guard and the night-watchmen, flocked around the church porches. In this spot where there were but a few passers-by, only those poor wretches came who mayhap had something to hide from the watchful eyes of the guardians of this city, those who had been in prison or had deserted from the army, or were known to be rogues and thieves.
Gilda Beresteyn, who had a soft heart, always kept a few kreutzers in the palm of her hand ready to give to any of these poor outcasts who happened to beg for alms along the embankment, but she never liked to stop here in order to give those other alms, which she knew were oft more acceptable than money -- the alms of kindly words.
To-night, however, she herself felt miserable and lonely and the voice that came to her out of the darkness of the narrow passage which leads to the Chapel of St. Pieter was peculiarly plaintive and sweet.
"For the love of Christ, gentle lady," murmured the voice softly.
Gilda stopped, ready with the kreutzers in her hand. But it was very dark just here and the snow appeared too deep to traverse; she could not see the melancholy speaker, though she knew of course that it was a woman.
"Bring the lanthorn a little nearer, Jakob," she said.
"Do not stop, mejuffrouw, to parley with any of these scamps," said Maria as she clung fearsomely to her mistress's cloak.
"For the love of Christ, gentle lady!" sighed the pitiable voice out of the darkness again.
Jakob brought the lanthorn nearer.
Some half a dozen steps up the passage a pathetic little figure appeared to view, the figure of a woman -- a mere girl -- with ragged shift and bare legs half buried in the depths of the snow.
Gilda without hesitation went up to her, money in hand, her own feet sinking in ankle deep into the cold, white carpet below. The girl retreated as the kind lady advanced, apparently scared by the two men who had paused one at each corner of the passage holding their lanthorns well above their heads.
"Don't be frightened, girl," said Gilda Beresteyn gently, "here's a little money. You look so cold, poor child!"
The next moment a double cry behind her caused her to turn in a trice: she had only just time to take in the terrifying fact that Piet and Jakob had dropped their lanthorns to the ground even as thick dark cloths were thrown over their heads -- before she found herself firmly seized round the waist by a powerful arm whilst some kind of scarf was wound quickly round her face.
She had not the time to scream, the enveloping scarf smothered her cry even as it formed in her throat. The last thing of which she was clearly conscious was of a voice -- which strangely enough sounded familiar -- saying hurriedly:
"Here, take thy money, girl, and run home now as fast as thy feet will take thee."
After that, though she was never totally unconscious, she was only dimly aware of what happened to her. She certainly felt herself lifted off the ground and carried for some considerable distance. What seemed to her a long, long time afterwards she became aware that she was lying on her back and that there was a smell of sweet hay and fresh straw around her. Close to her ear there was the sound of a woman moaning. The scarf still covered her face, but it had been loosened so that she could breathe, and presently when she opened her eyes, she found that the scarf only covered her mouth.
As she lay on her back she could see nothing above her. She was not cold for the straw around her formed a warm bed, and her cloak had been carefully arranged so as to cover her completely, whilst her feet were wrapped up snugly in a rug.
It was only when complete consciousness returned to her that she realized that she was lying in an object that moved: she became conscious of the jingling of harness and of occasional unpleasant jolting, whilst the darkness overhead was obviously caused by the roof of a vehicle.
She tried to raise herself on her elbow, but she discovered that loose, though quite efficient bonds held her pinioned down; her arms, however, were free and she put out her hand in the direction whence came the muffled sound of a woman moaning.
"Lord! God Almighty! Lord in Heaven!" and many more appeals of a like character escaped the lips of Gilda's companion in misfortune.
"Maria! Is it thou?" said Gilda in a whisper. Her hand went groping in the dark until it encountered firstly a cloak, then an arm and finally a head apparently also enveloped in a cloth.
"Lord God Almighty!" sighed the other woman feebly through the drapery. "Is it mejuffrouw?"
"Yes, Maria, it is I!" whispered Gilda, "whither are they taking us, thinkest thou?"
"To some lonely spot where they can conveniently murder us!" murmured Maria with a moan of anguish.
"But what became of Piet and Jakob?"
"Murdered probably. The cowards could not defend us."
Gilda strained her ears to listen. She hoped by certain sounds to make out at least in which direction she was being carried away. Above the rattle and jingle of the harness she could hear at times the measured tramp of horses trotting in the rear, and she thought at one time that the sleigh went over the wooden bridge on the Spaarne and then under the echoing portals of one of the city gates.
Her head after awhile began to ache terribly and her eyes felt as if they were seared with coal. Of course she lost all count of time: it seemed an eternity since she had spoken to the girl in the dark passage which leads to the chapel of St. Pieter.
Maria who lay beside her moaned incessantly for awhile like a fretful child, but presently she became silent.
Perhaps she had gone to sleep. The night air which found its way through the chinks of the hood came more keen and biting against Gilda's face. It cooled her eyes and eased the throbbing of her head. She felt very tired and as if her body had been bruised all over.
The noises around her became more monotonous, the tramping of the horses in the rear of the sleigh sounded muffled and subdued. Drowsiness overcame Gilda Beresteyn and she fell into a troubled, half-waking sleep.