Chapter XXI -- A GRIEF-STRICKEN FATHER

Frans Hals had not been guilty of exaggeration when he said that the whole city was in turmoil about the abduction of Gilda Beresteyn by that impudent gang of ocean-robbers who called themselves the sea-wolves.

On this subject there were no two opinions. The sea-wolves had done this deed as they had done others of a like nature before. The abduction of children of rich parents was one of their most frequent crimes: and many a wealthy burgher had had to pay half his fortune away in ransom for his child. The fact that a covered sledge escorted by three riders who were swathed in heavy mantles had been seen to go out of the city by the northern gate at seven o'clock last evening, was held to be sufficient proof that the unfortunate jongejuffrouw was being conveyed straightway to the coast where the pirates had their own lairs and defied every effort which had hitherto been made for their capture.

On this the 2nd day of January, 1624 -- rather less than twenty-four hours after the abduction of Gilda Beresteyn, the tapperij of the "Lame Cow" presented an appearance which was almost as animated as that which had graced it on New Year's night. Every one who took an interest in the terrible event went to the "Lame Cow" in the hope of finding another better informed than himself.

Men and women sat round the tables or leaned against the bars discussing the situation: every one, of course, had a theory to put forward, or a suggestion to offer.

" 'Tis time the old law for the raising of a corps of Waardgelders by the city were put into force once more," said Mynheer van der Meer the burgomaster, whose words carried weight. "What can a city do for the preservation of law and order if it has not the power to levy its own military guard?"

"My opinion is," said Mynheer van Zeller, who was treasurer of the Oudemannenhuis and a personage of vast importance, "that we in this city ought to close our gates against all this foreign rabble who infest us with their noise and their loose ways. Had there not been such a crowd of them here for the New Year you may depend on it that Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn would not have had to suffer this dastardly abomination."

Others on the other hand thought that the foreign mercenaries now within the city could be utilised for the purpose of an expedition against the sea-wolves.

"They are very daring and capable fighters," suggested Mynheer van Beerenbrock -- a meek, timid but vastly corpulent gentleman of great consideration on the town council, "and more able to grapple with desperate brigands than were a levy of raw recruits from among our young townsfolk."

"Set a rogue to fight a rogue, say I," assented another pompous burgher.

Cornelius Beresteyn sat at a table with his son and surrounded by his most influential friends. Those who knew him well declared that he had aged ten years in the past few hours. His devotion to his daughter was well known and it was pitiable to see the furrows in his cheeks wet with continuously falling tears. He sat huddled up within himself, his elbows resting on the table, his head often buried in his hands when emotion mastered him, and he felt unable to restrain his tears. He looked like a man absolutely dazed with the immensity of his grief, as if some one had dealt him a violent blow on the hand which had half-addled his brain.

Throughout the day his house had been positively invaded by the frequent callers who, under a desire to express their sympathy, merely hid their eagerness to learn fresh details of the outrage. Cornelius Beresteyn, harassed by this well-meaning and very noisy crowd and feeling numb in mind and weary in body, had been too feeble to withstand the urgent entreaties of his friends who had insisted on dragging him to the "Lame Cow," where the whole situation -- which had become of almost national importance -- could be fully and comprehensively discussed.

"You want to get your daughter back, do you not, old friend?" urged Mynheer van der Meer the burgomaster.

"Of course," assented Beresteyn feebly.

"And you want to get her back as quickly as possible," added the pompous treasurer of the Oudemannenhuis.

"As quickly as possible," reiterated Beresteyn vaguely.

"Very well then," concluded the burgomaster, in tones of triumph which suggested that he had gained a great victory over the obstinate will of his friend, "what you must do, my good Beresteyn, is to attend an informal council which I have convened for this afternoon at the 'Lame Cow' and whereat we will listen to all the propositions put forward by our fellow-townsmen for the speedy capture of those vervloekte brigands and the liberation of your beloved daughter."

In the meanwhile an untoward accident had momentarily arrested the progress of the original band of volunteers who, under the leadership of Nicolaes Beresteyn, had started quite early in the morning on the Groningen route in pursuit of the sea-wolves. Nicolaes, namely, on remounting his horse after a brief halt at Bloemendal, had slipped on the snow covered ground; his horse jumped aside and reared and, in so doing, seriously wrenched Nicolaes; right arm, almost dislocating his shoulder and causing him thereby such excruciating pain that he nearly fainted on the spot.

Further progress on horseback became an impossibility for him, and two of the volunteers had much difficulty in conveying him back to Haarlem, where, however, he displayed the utmost fortitude by refusing to waste his time in being examined and tended by the bone-setter, and declaring that since he could not take an active part in the campaign against the vervloekte malefactors he would give every moment of his time and every faculty he possessed for the organisation of an effective corps of soldiery capable of undertaking a successful punitive expedition.

He joined his father in the tap-room of the "Lame Cow," and though he was obviously in great pain with his arm and shoulder which he had hastily and perfunctorily tied up with his sash, he was untiring in his suggestions, his advice, his offers of money and of well-considered plans.

Unbeknown to anyone save to him, the Lord of Stoutenburg sat in the dark recess of the tapperij deeply interested in all that was going on. He knew, of course, every detail of the plot which Nicolaes Beresteyn had hatched at his instigation and -- hidden as he was in his obscure corner -- it pleased his masterful mind to think that the tangled skein of this affair which these solemn and pompous burghers were trying to unravel had been originally embroiled by himself.

He listened contemptuously and in silence to the wild and oft senseless talk which went on around him; but when he caught sight of Diogenes swaggering into the room in the wake of the painter Frans Hals he very nearly betrayed himself.

Nicolaes Beresteyn too was dumbfounded. For the moment he literally gasped with astonishment, and was quite thankful that his supposedly dislocated shoulder furnished a good pretext for the string of oaths which he uttered. But Diogenes, sublimely indifferent to the astonishment of his patron, took a seat beside his friend at one of the vacant tables and ordered a substantial super with a bottle of very choice wine wherewith to wash it down, all of which he evidently meant to pay for with Nicolaes' money. The latter could do nothing but sit by in grim silence while the man whom he had paid to do him service ate and drank heartily, cracked jokes and behaved for all the world as if he were a burgher of leisure plentifully supplied with money.

Time was going on: the subject of the expedition against the sea-wolves had been fully discussed and certain resolutions arrived at, which only lacked the assent of the burgomaster sitting in council and of Cornelius Beresteyn -- the party chiefly interested in the affair -- in order to take effect on the morrow.

Gradually the tap-room became less and less full: one by one the eager and inquisitive townsfolk departed in order to impart what news they had gleaned to their expectant families at home.

Nicolaes Beresteyn, inwardly fuming and fretting with rage, had been quite unable to stay on quietly while Diogenes sat not twenty paces away from him, wasting his patron's time and money and apparently in the best of humours, for his infectious laugh rang from end to end of the raftered room; he had soon assembled a small crowd of boon-companions round his table, whom he treated to merry jests as well as to Mynheer Beek's most excellent wine; but when he leaned forward bumper in hand and actually had the audacity loudly to pledge the noble Beresteyn family and to wish the heroic Nicolaes speedy mending of his broken bones, the latter rose with a muttered curse and, having taken a curt farewell from his friends, he strode glowering out of the room.

The Lord of Stoutenburg -- as unobtrusive and silent as was his wont -- rose quietly a few minutes later and followed in the wake of his friend.