CHAPTER XXV - AN ARRANT KNAVE


In the street below, not far from the house which he had just quitted, Stoutenburg came on Nicolaes and Jan ensconced in the dark against a wall.  Beresteyn quickly explained to his friend the reason of his presence here.


"I came with Jan," he said, "because I wished to speak with you without delay."


"Come as far as the cathedral then," said Stoutenburg curtly.  "I feel that in this vervloekte street the walls and windows are full of ears and prying eyes.  Jan," he added, turning to the other man, "you must remain here and on no account lose sight of that rascal when he leaves this house.  Follow him in and out of Haarlem, and if you do not see me again to-night, join me at Ryswyk as soon as you can, and come there prepared with full knowledge of his plans."


Leaving Jan in observation the two men made their way now in the direction of the Groote Markt.  It was still very cold, even though there was a slight suspicion in the air of a coming change in the weather: a scent as of the south wind blowing from over the estuaries, while the snow beneath the feet had lost something of its crispness and purity. The thaw had not yet set in, but it was coquetting with the frost, challenging it to a passage of arms, wherein either combatant might completely succumb.


As Stoutenburg had surmised the porch of the cathedral was lonely and deserted, even the beggars had all gone home for the night.  A tiny lamp fixed into the panelling of the wall flickered dimly in the draught.  Stoutenburg sat down on the wooden bench -- dark and polished with age, which ran alongside one of the walls, and with a brusque and febrile gesture drew his friend down beside him.


"Well?" he asked in that nervous, jerky way of his, "What is it?"


"Something that will horrify you, just as it did me," replied Beresteyn, who spoke breathlessly as if under stress of grave excitement.  "When I parted from you awhile ago, I did what you asked me to do.  I posted Jan outside the door of the tapperij after I had pointed out our rogue to him through the glass door.  Imagine my astonishment when I saw that at that moment our rascal was in close conversation with my father."


"With your father?"


"With my father," reiterated Beresteyn.  "That fool, Hals, was with him, and there were another half dozen busybodies sitting round the table.  Our man was evidently the centre of interest; I could not then hear what was said, but at one moment I saw that my father shook him cordially by the hand."


"Vervloekte Keerl!" exclaimed Stoutenburg.


"I didn't know at first what to do.  I didn't want to go into the tapperij and to show myself just then, but at all costs I wished to know what my father and that arrant rascal had to say to one another.  So, bidding Jan on no account to lose sight of the man, I made my way round to the service door behind the bar, and there bribed one of the wenches to let me stand under the lintel and to remain on the watch.  It was quite dark where I stood and I had a good view of the tapperij without fear of being seen, and as my father and that cursed adventurer were speaking loudly enough I could hear all that they said."


"Well?" queried Stoutenburg impatiently.


"Well, my friend," quoth Beresteyn with slow emphasis, "that vervloekte scoundrel was making a promise to my father to bring Gilda safely back to Haarlem, and my father was promising him a fortune as his reward."


"I am not surprised," remarked Stoutenburg calmly.


"But . . ."


"That man, my friend, is the most astute blackguard I have ever come across in the whole course of my life.  His English blood I imagine hath made him into a thorough-going rogue.  He has played you false -- always did mean to play you false if it suited his purpose!  By God, Nicolaes! what fools we were to trust one of these foreign adventurers.  They'll do anything for money, and this man instead of being -- as we thought -- an exception to the rule, is a worse scoundrel than any of his compeers.  He has simply taken Gilda a little way out of Haarlem, and then came back here to see what bargain he could strike with your father for her return."


"Gilda is some way out of Haarlem," rejoined Beresteyn thoughtfully.  "Jan and I heard that knave talking to his friend Hals later on.  Hals was asking him to sup and sleep at his house.  But he declined the proffered bed, though he accepted the supper:  'I have a journey before me this night,' he said, 'and I must leave the city at moonrise.'  It seemed to me that he meant to travel far."


"She may be still at Bennebrock, or mayhap at Leyden -- he could not have taken her further than that in the time.  Anyhow it would be quite easy for him to go back to her during the night, and bring her into Haarlem to-morrow.  Friend!" he added earnestly, "the situation is intolerable -- unthinkable!  After all that we have done, the risks which we have taken, Gilda's return now -- a certain denunciation from her -- and failure and death once more stare us in the face, and this time more insistently."


"It is unthinkable, as you say," cried Beresteyn vehemently, "but the situation is not so hopeless as you seem to think.  I can go at once to my father and denounce the rogue to him.  I can tell him that I have reason to believe that the man to whom he has just promised a fortune for the return of Gilda is the very man who hath abducted her."


"Impossible," said Stoutenburg calmly.


"Why?"


"Your father would have the man arrested, he would be searched, and papers and letters writ by you to Ben Isaje of Rotterdam will be found in his possession.  These papers would proclaim you the prime mover in the outrage against your sister."


"True!  I had not thought of that.  But, instead of going to my father, I could denounce the rascal to the city magistrate on suspicion of having abducted my sister.  Van der Meer would give me the command of the town guard sent out to arrest him, I could search him myself and take possession of all his papers ere I bring him before the magistrate."


"Ah! the magistracy of Haarlem moves with ponderous slowness.  While that oaf, Van der Meer, makes preparations for sending out the town guard, our rogue will slip through our fingers, and mayhap be back in Haarlem with Gilda ere we find him again."


"Let me have Jan and one or two of Heemskerk's mercenaries," urged Beresteyn, "we could seize him and his papers to-night as soon as he leaves the city gates."


"Then, out of revenge," said Stoutenburg, "he will refuse to tell us what he hath done with Gilda."


"Bah!" retorted Beresteyn cynically, "here in Haarlem we can always apply torture."


"Then, if he speaks, Gilda can be back here in time to denounce us all.  No, no, my friend," continued Stoutenburg firmly, "let us own at once that by trusting that scoundrel we have run our heads into a noose out of which only our wits can extricate us.  We must meet cunning with cunning, treachery if need be with treachery.  Gilda -- of course -- must not remain at the mercy of brigands, but she must not be given her freedom to do us the harm which she hath already threatened.  Remember this, Nicolaes," he added, placing his hand upon his friend's shoulder and forcing him to look straight into his own feverishly glowing eyes, "remember that, when all these troubles are over, Gilda will become my wife.  The devotion of my entire life shall then compensate her for the slight wrong which fate compels us to do her at this moment.  Will you remember that, my friend?"


"I do remember it," replied the other, "but . . ."


"And will you try and trust me as you would yourself?"


"I do trust you, Willem, as I would trust myself; only tell me what you want to do."


"I want to bring that knave to the gallows without compromising you and the success of our cause," said Stoutenburg firmly.


"But how can you do it?"


"That I do not know yet; I have only vague thoughts in my mind.  But hate, remember, is a hard and very efficient task-master, and I hate that man, Nicolaes, almost as much as I hate the Prince of Orange.  But 'tis the Prince's death which I want first; because of this my hatred of the rascal must lie dormant just a few days.  But it shall lose nothing by waiting, and already I see before me visions of an exemplary revenge which shall satisfy you and gratify my hate."


"Can I help you in any way?"


"Not at present; I have no definite plans just now.  All I know is that we must possess ourselves of the rascal's person as well as of Gilda without the risk of compromising ourselves.  In this, of course, we have now Jan's valuable help; he is a splendid leader and entirely trustworthy where the cause of his own hatred against the Prince is served."


"And, of course, you have the thirty or forty men -- mercenaries and louts -- whom Heemskerk, van Does and the others have been recruiting for you."


"Exactly.  I can easily detail half a dozen of them to follow Jan.  That is our first move, my good Beresteyn," he added emphatically, "to gain possession of Gilda, and to capture the rascal.  Only tell me this, what are the papers now in that knave's possession which might compromise you if they were found?"


"I had to write a letter to Ben Isaje, telling him to convince himself that Gilda was safe and in good health, ere he paid the rascal a sum of 3,000 guilders.  This letter is writ in mine own hand and signed with my name.  Then there is a formal order to Ben Isaje to pay over the money, but that was writ in the usual way by the public scrivener and is signed with the cypher which I always use in all monetary transactions with the Jew.  He keeps these formal documents in his archives and all his clients use a cypher in the same way."


"How is that formal order worded?"


"As far as I remember it runs thus:  'In consideration of valuable services rendered to me by the bearer of this note, I desire you to pay him the sum of 3,000 guilders out of my monies which lie with you at interest.'  The cypher signature consists of the words 'Schwarzer Kato' surmounted by a triangle."


"And is that cypher known to anyone save to Ben Isaje?"


"Alas! it is known to my father.  We both use it for private business transactions."


"But to Gilda" insisted Stoutenburg.  "Would Gilda know it if she saw it?"


"She could not be certain of it . . . though, of course, she might guess.  'Schwarzer Kato' is the name of a tulip raised by my father, and the triangle is a sign used sometimes by our house in business.  But it would be mere conjecture on her part."


"Then everything will still be for the best, never fear, my good Beresteyn," exclaimed Stoutenburg, whose hard, cruel face was glowing with excitement.  "Chance indeed has been on our side throughout this business.  An you will trust me to finish it now; you'll have no cause for anxiety or regrets.  Come! let us find Jan at once!  I have a few orders to give him, and then mean to be on my way to Ryswyk to-night."

He rose to his feet and now the glitter in his hollow eyes appeared almost inhuman.  He was a man whose whole soul fed upon hatred, upon vengeance planned and accomplished, upon desire for supreme power; and at this moment his scheme for murdering the Stadtholder was backed by one for obtaining possession of the woman he loved, and being revenged on the man who had insulted and jeered at him.

Beresteyn, always ready to accept the leadership of his friend, followed him in silence down the street.  After awhile they once more came upon Jan, who apparently had never moved all this while from his post of observation.

"Well?" asked Stoutenburg in a scarce audible whisper, "has he not gone yet?"

"Not yet," replied Jan.

Stoutenburg cast a quick, almost furtive glance in the direction of the house where he had experienced such dire humiliation a brief half hour ago.  A curious whistling sound escaped through his clenched teeth, a sound such as many a wild beast makes when expectant of prey.  Then he drew Jan further away from the house, fearful lest his words were wafted toward it on the wind.

"Keep him in sight, Jan," he commanded, "until he goes to the house of Mynheer Hals in the Peuselaarsteg, whither he means to go for supper.  There you may safely leave him for an hour, and go directly to the house of my Lord of Heemskerk whom you know.  Ask him for half a dozen of his foreign mercenaries; tell him they are for my immediate service.  These men will then help you to keep our knave in sight.  He will leave Haarlem at moonrise, and you must never lose his track for a moment.  Presently he should be escorting a lady in the direction of Rotterdam.  If he does this -- if he travel south toward that city, do not molest him, only keep him in sight, and the moment he arrives at Rotterdam come and report to me at Ryswyk.  But," he added more emphatically, "if at any time it appears to you that he is turning back with the lady toward Haarlem come upon him at once with your men and seize him together with any companions he may have with him.  You understand?"


"Perfectly, my lord.  While he travels southwards with the lady, we are only to keep him in sight; when he and the lady arrive at Rotterdam we must report to you at Ryswyk, but the moment he turns back toward Haarlem we are to fall on him and seize him and his companions."


"The lady you will treat with the utmost respect," resumed Stoutenburg with an approving nod, "the rascal and his companions you may mishandle as much as you like, without, however, doing them mortal injury.  But having taken the whole party prisoner, you will forthwith convey them to the molens at Ryswyk, where you will find me.  Now is all that clear?"


"Nothing could be clearer, my lord," repeated Jan firmly.  "We follow him while he travels south, but seize him with his company and the lady if he turn back toward Haarlem.  Nothing could be easier."


"You will not let him slip through your fingers, Jan?" said Stoutenburg earnestly.


Jan laughed and shrugged his shoulders.


"You said that this work would help to forward our cause," he said simply.  "I ask no questions.  I believe you and obey."


"That's brave!  And you will take great care of the lady, when she falls into your hands?"


"I understand that she is my lord's future lady," rejoined Jan, with the same simplicity which makes the perfect soldier and the perfect servant, and which promised obedience without murmur and without question.


"Yes, Jan.  The lady is my future wife," said Stoutenburg.  "Treat her as such.  As for the man . . . I want him alive . . . do not kill him, Jan, even if he provoke you.  And he will do that by his insolence, I know."


"My lord shall have his enemy alive," said Jan, "a helpless prisoner . . . but alive."


"Then good luck to you, Jan," concluded Stoutenburg with a sigh of satisfaction.  "I am well pleased with you.  In the near future I shall be happy to remember that the high offices of State and those around my person must be filled by those who have well deserved of them."


He put out his thin, nervy hand and Jan fell on one knee in order to kiss it with fervour and respect.  The son of John of Barneveld could still count on the loyalty of a few who believed in him, and who looked on his crimes as a necessary means to a glorious end.

A few moments later Beresteyn and Stoutenburg had disappeared in the darkness of the narrow street, and Jan remained alone at his post of observation.