Chapter XX -- BACK AGAIN IN HAARLEM

They were terribly weary hours, these last two which the soldier of fortune, the hardened campaigner had to kill before the first streak of pallid, silvery dawn would break over the horizon beyond the Zuyder Zee.

Until then it meant the keeping on the move, ceaselessly, aimlessly, in order to prevent the frost from biting the face and limbs, it meant wearily waiting in incessant, nerve-racking movement for every quarter of an hour tolled by the unseen cathedral clock; it meant counting these and the intervening minutes which crawled along on the leaden stilts of time, until the head began to buzz and the brain to ache with the intensity of monotony and of fatigue. It meant the steeling of iron nerves, the bracing of hardy sinews, the keeping the mind clear and the body warm.

Two hours to kill under the perpetual lash of a tearing north wind, gliding up and down a half league of frozen way so as not to lose the track in the darkness and with a shroud of inky blackness to envelop everything around!

The hardened campaigner stood the test as only a man of abnormal physique and body trained to privations could have stood it. As soon as the thin grey light began to spread over the sky and picked out a few stunted snow-covered trees, one by one, he once more started on his way.

He had less than a league to cover now, and when at last the cathedral tower boomed out the hour of seven he was squatting on the back of the Oude Gracht in Haarlem, and with numbed fingers and many an oath was struggling with the straps of his skates.

A quarter of an hour later he was installed in his friend's studio in front of a comfortable fire and with a mug of hot ale in front of him.

"I didn't think that you really meant to come," Frans Hals had said when he admitted him into his house in response to his peremptory ring.

"I mean to have some breakfast now at any rate, my friend," was the tired wayfarer's only comment.

The artist was too excited and too eager to get to work to question his sitter further. I doubt if in Diogenes' face or in his whole person there were man visible traces of the fatigues of the night.

"What news in Haarlem?" he asked after the first draught of hot ale had put fresh life into his veins.

"Why? where have you been that you've not heard?" queried Hals indifferently.

"Away on urgent business affairs," replied the other lightly; "and what is the news?"

"That the daughter of Cornelius Beresteyn, the rich grain merchant and deputy burgomaster of this city, was abducted last night by brigands and hath not to my knowledge been found yet."

Diogenes gave a long, low whistle of well-feigned astonishment.

"The fact doth not speak much for the guardians of the city," he remarked dryly.

"The outrage was very cleverly carried out, so I've heard said; and it was not until close upon midnight that the scouts sent out by Mynheer Beresteyn in every direction came back with the report that the brigands left the city by the Groningen gate and were no doubt well on their way north by then."

"And what was done after that?"

"I have not heard yet," replied Hals. "It is still early. When the serving woman comes she will tell us the latest news. I am afraid I can't get to work until the light improves. Are you hungry? Shall I get you something more solid to eat?"

"Well, old friend," rejoined the other gaily, "since you are so hospitable. . . ."

By eight o'clock he was once more ensconced on the sitter's platform, dressed in a gorgeous doublet and sash, hat on head and hand on hip, smiling at his friend's delight and eagerness in his work.

Hals in the meanwhile had heard further news of the great event which apparently was already the talk of Haarlem even at this early hour of the day.

"There seems to be no doubt," he said, "that the outrage is the work of those vervloekte sea-wolves. They have carried Gilda Beresteyn away in the hope of extorting a huge ransom out of her father."

"I hope," said Diogenes unctuously, "that he can afford to pay it."

"He is passing rich," replied the artist with a sigh. "A great patron of the arts . . . it was his son you saw here yesterday, and the portrait which I then showed you was that of the unfortunate young lady who has been so cruelly abducted."

"Indeed," remarked Diogenes ostentatiously smothering a yawn as if the matter was not quite so interesting to him -- a stranger to Haarlem -- as it was to his friend.

"The whole city is in a tumult," continued Hals, who was busily working on his picture all the while that he talked, "and Mynheer Beresteyn and his son Nicolaes are raising a private company of Waardgelders to pursue the brigands. One guilder a day do they offer to these volunteers and Nicolaes Beresteyn will himself command the expedition."

"Against the sea-wolves?" queried the other blandly.

"In person. Think of it, man! The girl is his own sister."

"It is unthinkable," agreed Diogenes solemnly.

All of which was, of course, vastly interesting to him, since what he heard to-day would be a splendid guidance for him as to his future progress southwards to Rotterdam. Nicolaes Beresteyn leading an expedition of raw recruits in pursuit of his sister was a subject humorous enough to delight the young adventurer's sense of fun; moreover it was passing lucky that suspicion had at once fallen on the sea-wolves -- a notorious band of ocean pirates whose acts of pillage and abduction had long since roused the ire of all northern cities that had suffered from their impudent depredations. Diogenes congratulated himself on the happy inspiration which had caused him to go out of Haarlem by its north gate and to have progressed toward Groningen for a quarter of an hour or so, leaving traces behind him which Nicolaes Beresteyn would no doubt know how to interpret in favour of the "sea-wolves" theory. He could also afford to think with equanimity now of Pythagoras and Socrates in charge of the jongejuffrouw lying comfortably perdu at a wayside inn, situated fully thirteen leagues to the south of the nearest inland lair, which was known to be the halting place of the notorious sea-robbers.

Indeed, his act of friendship in devoting his day to the interests of Frans Hals had already obtained its reward, for he had gathered valuable information, and his journey to Rotterdam would in consequence be vastly more easy to plan.

No wonder that Frans Hals as he worked on the picture felt that he had never had such a sitter before; the thoughts within redolent of fun, of amusement at the situation, of eagerness for the continuation of the adventure seemed to bubble and to sparkle out of the eyes, the lines of quiet humour, of gentle irony appeared ever mobile, ever quivering around the mouth.

For many hours that day hardly a word passed between the two men while the masterpiece was in progress, which was destined to astonish and delight the whole world for centuries to come. They hardly paused a quarter of an hour during the day to snatch a morsel of food; Hals, imbued with the spirit of genius, begrudged every minute not spent in work and Diogenes, having given his time to his friend, was prepared that the gift should be a full measure.

Only at four o'clock when daylight faded, and the twilight began to merge the gorgeous figure of the sitter into one dull, grey harmony, did the artist at last throw down brushes and palette with a sigh of infinite satisfaction.

"It is good," he said, as with eyes half-closed he took a final survey of his sitter and compared the living model with his own immortal work.

"Have you had enough of me?" asked Diogenes.

"No. Not half enough. I would like to make a fresh start on a new portrait of you at once. I would try one of those effects of light of which Rembrandt thinks that he hath the monopoly, but which I would show him how to treat without so much artificiality."

He continued talking of technicalities, rambling on in his usual fretful, impatient way, while Diogenes stretched out his cramped limbs, and rubbed his tired eyes.

"Can I undress now?"

"Yes. The light has quite gone," said the artist with a sigh.

Diogenes stood for a long time in contemplation of the masterpiece, even as the shadows of evening crept slowly into every corner of the studio and cast their gloom over the gorgeous canvas in its magnificent scheme of colour.

"Am I really as good looking as that?" he asked with one of his most winning laughs.

"Good looking? I don't know," replied Hals, "you are the best sitter I have ever had. To-day has been one of perfect, unalloyed enjoyment to me."

All his vulgar, mean little ways had vanished, his obsequiousness, that shifty look of indecision in the eyes which proclaimed a growing vice. His entire face flowed with the enthusiasm of a creator who has had to strain every nerve to accomplish his work, but having accomplished it, is entirely satisfied with it. He could not tear himself away from the picture, but stood looking at it long after the gloom had obliterated all but its most striking lights.

Then only did he realise that he was both hungry and weary.

"Will you come with me to the 'Lame Cow,' " he said to his friend, "we can eat and drink there and hear all the latest news. I want to see Cornelius Beresteyn if I can; he must be deeply stricken with grief and will have need of the sympathy of all his well-wishers. What say you? Shall we get supper at the 'Lame Cow'?"

To which proposition Diogenes readily agreed. It pleased his spirit of adventure to risk a chance a chance encounter in the popular tavern with Nicolaes Beresteyn or the Lord of Stoutenburg, both of whom must think him at this moment several leagues away in the direction of Rotterdam. Neither of these gentlemen would venture to question him in a public place; moreover it had been agreed from the first that he was to be given an absolutely free hand with regard to his plans for conducting the jongejuffrouw to her ultimate destination.

Altogether the afternoon and evening promised to be more amusing than Diogenes had anticipated.