CHAPTER XXVI - BACK TO HOUDEKERK


And now back once more in the kingdom of the night and of the frost, of the darkness and of silence, back along the ice ways on a swift and uninterrupted flight.


The moon is less kind now, fitful and coy; she will not peep out from behind the banks of clouds save at rare intervals; and the clouds are heavy; great billows, clumsy in shape as if weighted with lead; the moon plays a restless game of hide and seek amongst them for the bewilderment of the skater, to whom last night she was so kind.


They come tumbling in more and more thickly from the south -- those clouds -- driven more furiously by the gusty wind.  Brother north-easter has gone to rest, it is the turn of the south wind now -- not the soft south wind of summer, but a turbulent and arrogant fellow who bellows as loudly as he can, and who means to have a frolic in this world of ice and snow from which his colder brethren have exiled him until now.


Straight at the head of the skater, it expended the brunt of its fury, sending his hat flying in one direction and in wanton delight leading him into a mad chase after it; then when once more he was on his way -- hat in hand this time -- it tore with impish glee at his hair, impeded his movements, blew doublet and sash awry.


What a chase!  what a fight!  what a run!  But dondersteen! we do defy thee, O frolicsome south wind! aye, and the darkness too!  Back to Houdekerk, the first stage on the road to fortune.


It is not nearly so cold now that brother north-easter has yielded to his madcap brother from the south!  gusty and rough and a hand-to-hand fight for progress all the time, with tears running down the cheeks, and breath coming in gasps from the chest!  It is not so cold, and the ice is less crisp, its smooth skin is furrowed and wrinkled, soft and woolly beneath the touch of the steel blades; but the snow still lies thickly upon the low-lying ground, and holds in its luminous embrace all the reflections which the capricious moon will lend it.


For the first half hour, while the moon was still very brilliant and the night air very still, it seemed to Diogenes as if the loneliness around him was only fictitious, as if somewhere -- far away mayhap -- men moved in the same way as he did, swiftly and silently over the surface of the ice.  It seemed to him in fact that he was being followed.


He tried to make sure of this, straining his ears to listen, and now and then he caught very distinctly the sound of the metallic click of several pairs of skates.  His senses, trained to over-acuteness through years of hard fighting and of campaigning, could not easily be deceived; and presently there was no doubt in his mind that Nicolaes Beresteyn or the Lord of Stoutenburg had set spies upon his track.

This knowledge caused him only to set his teeth, and to strike out more vigorously and more rapidly than before; those who followed him were fairly numerous -- over half a dozen he reckoned -- the only chance of evading them was, therefore, in flight.  He took to noting the rolling banks of cloud with a more satisfied eye, and when, after the first hour or so, the light of the waning moon became more dim and even at times disappeared completely, he took the first opportunity that presented itself of making a détour over a backwater of the Meer, which he knew must bewilder his pursuers.


Whether the pursuit was continued after that, he could not say.  His eyes trying to pierce the gloom could tell him nothing; but there were many intricate little by-ways just south of the Meer over backwaters and natural canals, which he knew well, and over these he started on an eccentric and puzzling career which was bound to baffle the spies on his track.


Whenever he spoke subsequently of the many adventures which befell him during the first days of this memorable New Year, he never was very explicit on the subject of this night's run back to Houdekerk.


As soon as he had rid himself -- as he thought -- of his pursuers, he allowed his mind to become more and more absorbed in the great problem which confronted him since he had pledged his word to Mynheer Beresteyn to bring the jongejuffrouw safely back to him.


He now moved more mechanically over the iceways, taking no account of time or space or distance, only noting with the mere eye of instinct the various landmarks which loomed up from time to time out of the fast gathering darkness.


This coming darkness he welcomed, for he knew his way well, and it would prove his staunch ally against pursuit.  For the rest he was conscious neither of cold, of hunger nor of fatigue.   Pleasant thoughts helped to cheer his spirits and to give strength to his limbs.  His brief visit to Haarlem had indeed been fruitful of experiences.  A problem confronted him which he had made up his mind to solve during his progress across the ice in the night.  How to keep his word to Nicolaes Beresteyn, and yet bring the jongejuffrouw safely back to her father.

She would not, of course, willingly follow him, and his would once again be the uncongenial task of carrying her off by force if he was to succeed in his new venture.


A fortune if he brought her back!  That sounded simple enough, and the thought of it caused the philosopher's blood to tingle with delight.


A fortune if he brought her back!  It would have to be done after he had handed her over into the care of Mynheer Ben Isaje at Rotterdam.  He was pledged to do that, but once this was accomplished -- his word to Nicolaes Beresteyn would be redeemed.


A fortune if he brought her back!  And when he had brought her back she would tell of his share in her abduction, and instead of the fortune mayhap the gallows would be meted out to him.


'Twas a puzzle, a hard nut for a philosopher to crack.  It would be the work of an adventurer, of a man accustomed to take every risk on the mere chance of success.


But Gilda's image never left him for one moment while his thoughts were busy with that difficult problem.  For the first time now he realized the utter pathos of her helplessness.  The proud little vixen, as he had dubbed her a while ago, was after all but a poor defenceless girl tossed hither and thither just to suit the ambitions of men.  Did she really love that unscrupulous and cruel Stoutenburg, he wondered.  Surely she must love him, for she did not look the kind of woman who would plight her troth against her will.  She loved him and would marry him, her small white hand, which had the subtle fragrance of tulips, would be placed in one which was deeply stained with blood.


Poor young vixen, with the sharp tongue that knew how to hurt and the blue eyes that could probe a wound like steel!  It was strange to think that their soft glances were reserved for a man whose heart was more filled with hate for men than with love for one woman.


"If I loved you, little vixen," he once murmured apostrophizing the elusive vision which lightened the darkness around him, "if I loved you, I would break my word to that dastard who is your brother . . . I would not take you to Rotterdam to further his ambition, but I would carry you off to please myself.  I would take you to some distant land, mayhap to my unknown father's home in England, where the sounds of strife and hatred amongst men would only come as a faint and intangible echo.  I would take you to where roses bloom in profusion, and where in the spring the petals of apple-blossoms would cover you like a mantle of fragrant snow.  There I would teach that sharp tongue of yours to murmur words of tenderness and those perfect blue eyes to close in the ecstasy of a kiss.  But," he added with his habitual light-hearted laugh, "I do not love you, little vixen, for heigh-ho! if I did 'twere hard for my peace of mind."

When Diogenes neared the town of Leyden he heard its church clocks ring out the hour of three.  Close by the city walls he took off his skates, preferring to walk the short league which lay between him and Houdekerk.


He was more tired than he cared to own even to himself, and the last tramp along the road was inexpressibly wearisome.  But he had seen or heard nothing more of his pursuers; he was quite convinced that they had lost track of him some hours ago.  The south wind blew in heavy gusts from over the marshlands far away, and the half-melted snow clung sticky and dank against the soles and heels of his boots.  A smell of dampness in the air proclaimed the coming triumph of the thaw.  The roads, thought Diogenes, would be heavy on the morrow, impassable mayhap to a sledge, and the jongejuffrouw would have to travel in great discomfort in a jolting vehicle.


At last in the near distance a number of tiny lights proclaimed the presence of a group of windmills.  It was in one of these that Pythagoras and Socrates had been ordered to ask for shelter -- in the fifth one down the road, which stood somewhat isolated from the others; even now its long, weird arms showed like heavy lines of ink upon the black background of the sky.


Diogenes almost fell up against the door; he could hardly stand.  But the miller was on the look-out for him, having slept only with half an eye, waiting for the stranger whose emissaries had already paid him well.  He carried a lanthorn and a bunch of keys; his thin, sharp head was surmounted with a cotton nightcap and his feet were encased in thick woollen hose.


It took him some time to undo the many heavy bolts which protected the molens against the unwelcome visits of night marauders, and before he pushed back the final one, he peered through a tiny judas in the door and in a querulous voice asked the belated traveller's name.


"Never mind my name," quoth Diogenes impatiently, "and open thy door, miller, ere I break it in.  I am as tired as a nag, as thirsty as a dog and hungry as a cat.  The jongejuffrouw is I trust safe: I am her major domo and faithful servant, so open quickly, or thy shoulder will have to smart for the delay."


I have Diogenes' own assurance that the miller was thereupon both obedient and prompt.  He -- like all his compeers in the neighborhood -- found but scanty living in the grinding of corn for the neighbouring peasantry, there was too much competition nowadays and work had not multiplied in proportion.  Optimists said that in a few years time the paralysing effects of the constant struggle against Spain would begin to wear off, that the tilling of the soil would once more become a profitable occupation and that the molens which now stood idle through many days in the year would once more become a vast storehouse of revenue for those who had continued to work them.


But in the meanwhile the millers and their families were oft on the verge of starvation, and some of them eked out a precarious livelihood by taking in wayfarers who were on their way to and from the cities and had sundry reasons -- into which it was best not to inquire -- for preferring to sleep and eat at one of these out-of-the-way places rather than in one of the city hostelries.


Diogenes had made previous acquaintance with his present landlord; he knew him to be a man of discretion and of boundless cupidity, two very useful qualities when there is a secret to be kept and plenty of money wherewith to guard it.


Therefore did Diogenes order his companions to convey the jongejuffrouw to the molens of Mynheer Patz, and there to keep guard over her until his own return.


Patz looked well after his belated guest's material comfort.  There was some bread and cheese and a large mug of ale waiting for him in the wheel-house and a clean straw paillasse in a corner.  The place smelt sweetly of freshly ground corn, of flour and of dry barley and maize, and a thin white coating of flour -- soft to the touch as velvet -- lay over everything.


Diogenes ate and drank and asked news of the jongejuffrouw.  She was well but seemed over sad, the miller explained; but his wife had prepared a comfortable bed for her in the room next to the tiny kitchen.  It was quite warm there and Mevrouw Patz had spread her one pair of linen sheets over the bed.  The jongejuffrouw's serving woman was asleep on the kitchen floor; she declared herself greatly ill-used, and had gone to sleep vowing that she was so uncomfortable she would never be able to close an eye.


As for the two varlets who had accompanied the noble lady, they were stretched out on a freshly made bed of straw in the weighing-room.


Patz and his wife seemed to have felt great sympathy for the jongejuffrouw, and Diogenes had reason to congratulate himself that she was moneyless, else she would have found it easy enough to bribe the over-willing pair into helping her to regain her home.


He dreamt of her all night; her voice rang in his ear right through the soughing of the wind which beat against the ill-fitting windows of the wheel-house.  Alternately in his dream she reviled him, pleaded with him, heaped insults upon him, but he was securely bound and gagged and could not reply to her insults or repulse her pleadings.  He made frantic efforts to tear the gag from his mouth, for he wished to tell her that he had not lost his heart to her and cared nothing for the misery which she felt.