Chapter XV -- THE HALT AT BENNEBROCK

For a long time she had been half-awake, ever since the vehicle had stopped, which must have been ages and ages ago. She had lain in a kind of torpor, various sounds coming to her ear as through the veil of dreams: there was Maria snoring contentedly close by, and the horses champing their bits and pawing the hard-frozen ground, also there was the murmur of voices, subdued and muffled -- but she could not distinguish words.

Not for a long time at any rate -- an interminably long time!

Her body and limbs felt quite numb, pleasantly warm under the rugs and cloaks, only her face rejoiced in the cold blast that played around it and kept her forehead and eyes cool.

Once it seemed to her as if out of the darkness more than one pair of eyes were looking down on her, and she had the sense as of a warm rapid breath that mingled with the pure frosty air. After which some one murmured:

"She is still unconscious."

"I think not," was the whispered reply.

She lay quite still, in case those eyes came to look on her again. The murmuring voices sounded quite close to the sleigh now, and soon she found that by holding her breath, and straining her every listening faculty she could detach the words that struck her ear from all the other sounds around her.

Two men, she thought, were speaking, but their voices were never once raised above a whisper.

"You are satisfied?" she heard one of these saying quite distinctly.

"Entirely!" was the response.

"The letter to Ben Isaje?"

"I am not like to lose it."

"Hush! I heard a sound from under the hood."

" 'Tis only the old woman snoring."

"I wish you could have found a more comfortable sledge."

"There was not to be had in Haarlem to-day. But we'll easily get one in Leyden."

In Leyden! Gilda's numbed body quivered with horror. She was being taken to Leyden and further on still by sleigh! Her thoughts at present were still chaotic but gradually she was sorting them out, one or two becoming more clear, more insistent than the rest.

"I would like the jongejuffrouw to have something to eat and drink," came once more in whispers from out the darkness. "I fear that she will faint!"

"No! no!" came the prompt, peremptory reply, "it would be madness to let her realize so soon where she is. She knows this place well."

A halt on the way to Leyden! and thence a further journey by sledge! Gilda's thoughts were distinctly less chaotic already. She was beginning to marshal them up in her mind, together with her recollections of the events of the past twenty-four hours. The darkness around her, which was intense, and the numbness of her body all helped her to concentrate her faculties on these recollections first and on the obvious conclusions based upon her position at the present moment.

She was being silenced effectually because of the knowledge which she had gained in the cathedral last night. The Lord of Stoutenburg, frightened for his plans, was causing her to be put out of his way. Never for a moment did she suspect her own brother in this. It was that conscienceless, ambitious, treacherous Stoutenburg! at most her brother was blindly acquiescent in this infamy.

Gilda was not afraid. Not even when this conviction became fully matured in her mind. She was not afraid for herself, although for one brief moment the thought did cross her mind that mayhap she had only been taken out of Haarlem in order that her death might be more secretly encompassed.

But she was cast in a firmer mould than most women of her rank and wealth would be. She came of a race that had faced misery, death and torture of over a century for the sake of its own independence of life and of faith, and was ready to continue the struggle for another hundred years if need be for the same ideals, and making the same sacrifices in order to attain them. Gilda Beresteyn gave but little thought to her own safety. Life to her, if Stoutenburg's dastardly conspiracy against the Stadtholder was successful and involved her own brother, would be of little value to her. Nicolaes' act of treachery would break her father's heart; what matter if she herself lived to witness all that misery or not.

No! it was her helpless at this moment that caused her the most excruciating soul-agony. She had been trapped and was being cast aside like a noxious beast, that is in the way of men. Like a child that is unruly and has listened at the keyhole of the door, she was being punished and rendered harmless.

Indeed she had no fear for her safety; the few words which she had heard, the presence of Maria, all tended to point out that there would be no direct attempt against her life. It was only of that awful crime that she thought, the crime which she had so fondly hoped that she might yet frustrate: it was of the Stadtholder's safety that she thought and of her brother's sin.

She also thought of her poor father who, ignorant of the events which had brought about this infamous abduction, would be near killing himself with sorrow at the mysterious disappearance of his only daughter. Piet and Jakob would tell how they had been set on in the dark -- footpads would be suspected, the countryside where they usually have their haunts would be scoured for them, but the high road leading to Leyden would never mayhap be watched, and certainly a sleigh under escort would never draw the attention of the guardians of the peace.

While these thoughts whirled wildly in her brain it seemed that preparations had been and were being made for departure. She heard some whispered words again:

"Where will you put up at Leyden?"

"At the 'White Goat.' I know the landlord well."

"Will he be awake at so late an hour?"

"I will ride ahead and rouse his household. They shall be prepared for our coming."

"But . . ."

"You seem to forget, sir," came in somewhat louder tones, "that all the arrangements for this journey were to be left entirely to my discretion."

For the moment Gilda could catch no further words distinctly: whether a quarrel had ensued or not she could not conjecture, but obviously the two speakers had gone some little distance away from the sledge. All that she could hear was -- after a brief while of silence -- a quaint muffled laugh which though it scarce was distinguishable from the murmur of the wind, so soft was it, nevertheless betrayed to her keenly sensitive ear an undercurrent of good-humored irony.

Again there seemed something familiar to her in the sound.

After this there was renewed tramping of heavy feet on the snow-covered ground, the clang of bits and chains, the creaking of trace, the subdued call of encouragement to horses:

"Forward!" came a cheery voice from the rear.

Once more they were on the move; on the way to Leyden -- distant six leagues from her home. Gilda could have cried out now in her misery. She pictured her father -- broken-hearted all through the night, sending messengers hither and thither to the various gates of the city, unable no doubt to get satisfactory information at this late hour: she pictured Nicolaes feigning ignorance of the whole thing, making pretence of anxiety and grief. Torturing thoughts kept her awake, though her body was racked with fatigue. The night was bitterly cold, and the wind, now that they had reached open country, cut at times across her face like a knife.

The sledge glided along with great swiftness now, over the smooth, thick carpet of snow that covered the long, straight road. Gilda knew that the sea was not far off: but she also knew that every moment now she was being dragged further and further away from the chance of averting from her father and from her house the black catastrophe of disgrace which threatened them.