Chapter XVIII -- THE START

Once the door safely closed behind him, he heaved a deep sigh as if of intense relief and he passed his hand quickly across is brow.

"By St. Bavon," he murmured, "my friend Diogenes, thou hast had to face unpleasantness before now -- those arquebusiers at Magdeburg were difficult to withstand, those murderous blackguards in the forests of Prague nearly had thy skin, but verdommt be thou, if thou hast had to hold thy temper in bounds like this before. Dondersteen! how I could have crushed that sharp-tongued young vixen till she cried for mercy . . . or silenced those venomous lips with a kiss! . . . I was sore tempted indeed to give her real cause for calling me a knave. . . ."

In the tap-room downstairs he found Pythagoras and Socrates curled up on the floor in front of the hearth. They were fast asleep, and Diogenes did not attempt to wake them. He had given them their orders for the next day earlier in the evening and with the promise of 500 golden guilders to be won by implicit obedience the two worthies were not like to disobey.

He himself had his promise to his friend Hals to redeem . . . the flight along the frozen waterways back to Haarlem, a few hours spent in the studio in the Peuselaarsteeg, then the return flight to rejoin his compeers and the jongejuffrouw at the little hamlet of Houdekerk off the main road; thither he had ordered them to proceed in the early morning there to lie perdu until his return. Houdekerk lay to the east of Leyden and so well off the beaten track that the little party would be safely hidden there during the day; --he intended to be with them again well before midnight of the next day. For the nonce he collected a few necessary provisions which he had ordered to be ready for him -- a half bottle of wine, some meat and bread, then he made his way out of the little hostelry and across the courtyard to the stables where the horses had been put up. The night was singularly clear: the waning moon after she had emerged from a bank of low-lying clouds, lit up the surrounding landscape with a radiance that was intensely blue.

Groping his way about in the stables Diogenes found his saddle which he himself had lifted off his horse, and from out the holster he drew a pair of skates. With these hanging by their straps upon his arm, he left the building behind him and turned to walk in the direction of the river.

The little city lay quite peaceful and still under the weird brilliancy of the moon which threw many-hued reflections on the snow-covered surfaces of roofs and tall gables. It was piercingly cold, the silver ribbon of the Rhyn wound its graceful course westward to the North Sea and from beyond its opposite bank a biting wind swept across the dykes and over the flat country around, chasing myriads of crisp snowflakes from their rest and driving them in wanton frolic round and round into little whirlpools of mist that glistened like the facets of diamonds.

Diogenes had walked briskly along; the skates upon his arm clicked at every one of his movements with a pleasing metallic sound. He chose a convenient spot on the river bank whereon to squat on the ground, and fastened on his skates.

After which he rose and for a moment stood looking straight out northwards before him. But a few leagues -- half a dozen at most -- lay between him Haarlem. The Rhyn as well as the innumerable small polders and lakes had left -- after the autumn floods -- their usual trail of narrow waterways behind them which, frozen over now, joining, intersecting and rejoining again formed a perfect, uninterrupted road from hence to the northern cities. It had been along these frozen ways that the daring and patriotic citizens of Leyden had half a century ago kept up communication with the outer world during the memorable siege which had lasted throughout the winter, and it was by their help that they were able to defy the mighty investing Spanish army by getting provisions into the beleaguered city.

A young adventurer stood here now calmly measuring in his mind the distance which he would have to traverse in the teeth of a piercing gale and at dead of night in order to satisfy the ambition of a friend. It was not the first time in his hazardous career that he had undertaken such a journey. He was accustomed to take all risks in life with indifference and good humour, the only thing that mattered was the ultimate end: an exciting experience to go through, a goodly competence to earn, a promise to fulfil.

Up above, the waning moon seemed to smile upon his enterprise; she lay radiant and serene on her star-studded canopy of mysterious ethereal indigo. Diogenes looked back on the little hostelry, which lay some little distance up the street at right angles to the river bank. Was it his fancy or one of those many mysterious reflections thrown by the moon? but it certainly seemed to him as if a light still burned in one of the upper windows.

The unpleasant interview with the jongejuffrouw had evidently not weighed his spirits down, for to that distant light he now sent a loud and merry farewell.

Then deliberately facing the bitter blast he struck out boldly along the ice and started on his way.