Less than half a league to the southeast of Ryswyk -- there where the Schie makes a sharp curve up toward the north -- there is a solitary windmill -- strange in this, that it has no companions near it, but stands quite alone with its adjoining miller's hut nestling close up against it like a tiny chick beside the mother hen, and dominates the mud flats and lean pastures which lie for many leagues around.
On this day which was the fourth of the New
Year, these mud flats and the pasture land lay under a carpet
of half-melted snow and ice which seemed to render the landscape
more weird and desolate, and the molens itself more deserted and
solitary. Yet less than half a league away the pointed gables
and wooden spires of Ryswyk break the monotony of the horizon
line and suggest the life and movement pertaining to a city, however
small. But life and movement never seem to penetrate as
far as this molens; they spread their way out toward 'S Graven
Hage and the sea.
Nature herself hath decreed that the molens
shall remain solitary and cut off from the busy world, for day
after day and night after night throughout the year a mist rises
from the mud flats around and envelops the molens as in a shroud.
In winter the mist is frosty, in summer at times it is faintly
tinged with gold, but it is always there and through it the rest
of the living world -- Ryswyk and 'S Graven Hage and Delft further
away only appear as visions on the other side of a veil.
Just opposite the molens, some two hundred
paces away to the east, the waters of the Schie rush with unwonted
swiftness round the curve; so swiftly in fact that the ice hardly
ever forms a thick crust over them, and this portion of an otherwise
excellent waterway is -- in the winter -- impracticable for sleighs.
Beyond this bend in the river, however, less
than half a league away, there is a wooden bridge, wide and strongly
built, across which it is quite easy for men and beasts to pass
who have come from the south and desire to rejoin the great highway
which leads from Delft to Leyden.
In the morning of that same fourth day in the
New Year, two men sat together in what was once the weighing-room
of the molens; their fur coats were wrapped closely round their
shoulders, for a keen north-westerly wind had found its way through
the chinks and cracks of tumble-down doors and ill-fitting window
Though a soft powdery veil -- smooth as velvet
to the touch and made up of a flour and fine dust -- lay over
everything, and the dry, sweet smell of corn still hung in the
close atmosphere, there was little else in this room now that
suggested the peaceful use for which it had been originally intended.
The big weighing machines had been pushed into
corners, and all round the sloping walls swords, cullivers and
muskets were piled in orderly array, also a row of iron boxes
standing a foot or so apart from one another and away from any
other objects in the room.
The silence which reigned over the surrounding
landscape did not find its kingdom inside this building, for a
perpetual hum, a persistent buzzing noise as of bees in their
hives, filtrated through the floor and the low ceiling of this
room. Men moved and talked and laughed inside the molens,
but the movement and the laughter were subdued as if muffled in
that same mantle of mist which covered the outside world.
The two men in the weighing-room were sitting
at a table on which were scattered papers, inkhorns and pens,
a sword, a couple of pistols and two or three pairs of skates.
One of them was leaning forward and talking eagerly:
"I think you can rest satisfied, my good
Stoutenburg," he said, "our preparations leave nothing
to be desired. I have just seen Jan, and together we have
despatched the man Lucas van Sparendam to Delft. He is the
finest spy in the country, and can ferret out a plan or sift a
rumour quicker than any man I know. He will remain at Delft
and keep the Prinzenhof under observation: and will only leave
the city if anything untoward should happen, and then he will
come straight here and report to us. He is a splendid runner,
and can easily cover the distance between Delft and this molens
in an hour. That is satisfactory is it not?"
"Quite," replied Stoutenburg curtly.
"Our arrangements here on the other hand
are equally perfect," resumed Beresteyn eagerly, "we
have kept the whole thing in our hands . . . Heemskerk and I will
be at our posts ready to fire the gunpowder at the exact moment
when the advance guard of the Prince's escort will have gone over
the bridge . . . you, dagger in hand, will be prepared to make
a dash for the carriage itself . . . our men will attack the scattered
and confused guard at a word from van Does. . . . What could
be more simple, more perfect than that? Yourself, Heemskerk,
van Does and I . . . all of one mind . . . all equally true, silent
and determined. . . . You seem so restless and anxious. . . .
Frankly I do not understand you."
"It is not of our preparations or of our
arrangements that I am thinking, Nicolaes," said Stoutenburg
sombrely, "these have been thought out well enough.
Nothing but superhuman intervention or treachery can save the
Stadtholder -- of that am I convinced. Neither God nor the
devil care to interfere in men's affairs -- we need not therefore
fear superhuman intervention. But 'tis the thought of treachery
that haunts me."
"Bah!" quoth Beresteyn with a shrug
of the shoulders, "you have made a nightmare of that thought.
Treachery? there is no fear of treachery. Yourself, van
Does, Heemskerk and I are the only ones who know anything at this
moment of our plans for to-morrow. Do you suspect van Does
of treachery, or Heemskerk, or me?"
"I was not thinking of Heemskerk or of
van Does," rejoined Stoutenburg, "and even our men will
know nothing of the attack until the last moment. Danger,
friend, doth not lie in or around the molens; it lurks at Rotterdam
and hath name Gilda."
"Gilda! What can you fear from Gilda
"Everything. Have you never thought
on it, friend? Jan, remember, lost track of that knave soon
after he left Haarlem. At first he struck across the waterways
in a southerly direction and for awhile Jan and the others were
able to keep him in sight. But soon darkness settled in
and along many intricate backwaters our rogue was able to give
them the slip."
"I know that," rejoined Beresteyn
somewhat impatiently. "I was here in the early morning
when Jan reported to you. He also told you that he and his
men pushed on as far as Leyden that night and regained the road
to Rotterdam the following day. At Zegwaard and again at
Zevenhuizen they ascertained that a party consisting of two women
in a sledge and an escort of three cavaliers had halted for refreshments
at those places and then continued their journey southwards.
Since then Jan has found out definitely that Gilda and her escort
arrived early last night at the house of Ben Isaje of Rotterdam,
and he came straight on here to report to you. Frankly I
see nothing in all this to cause you so much anxiety."
"You think then that everything is for
the best?" asked Stoutenburg grimly, "you did not begin
to wonder how it was that -- as Jan ascertained at Zegwaard and
at Zevenhuizen -- Gilda continued her journey without any protest.
According to the people whom Jan questioned she looked sad certainly,
but she was always willing to restart on her way. What do
you make of that, my friend?"
Once more Beresteyn shrugged his shoulders.
"Gilda is proud," he said.
"She hath resigned herself to her fate."
Stoutenburg laughed aloud.
"How little you -- her own brother --
know her," he retorted. "Gilda resigned?
Gilda content to let events shape themselves -- such events as
those which she heard us planning in the Groote Kerk on New Year's
Eve? Why, my friend, Gilda will never be resigned, she will
never be content until she hath moved earth and heaven to save
the Stadtholder from my avenging hand!"
"But what can she do now? Ben Isaje
is honest in business matters. It would not pay him to play
his customers false. And I have promised him two thousand
guilders if he keeps her safely as a prisoner of war, not even
to be let out on parole. Ben Isaje would not betray me.
He is too shrewd for that."
"That may be true of Ben Isaje himself;
but what of his wife? his sons or daughters if he have any?
his serving wenches, his apprentices and his men? How do
you know that they are not amenable to promises of heavy bribes?"
"But even then . . ."
"Do you not think that at Rotterdam every
one by now knows the Prince's movements? He passed within
half a league of the town yesterday; there is not a serving wench
in that city at this moment who does not know that Maurice of
Nassau slept at Delft last night and will start northwards to-morrow."
"And what of that?" queried Beresteyn,
trying to keep up a semblance of that carelessness which he was
far from feeling now.
"Do you believe then that Gilda will stay
quietly in the house of Ben Isaje, knowing that the Prince is
within four leagues of her door? . . . knowing that he will start
northwards to-morrow . . . knowing that my headquarters are here
-- close to Ryswyk . . . knowing in fact all that she knows?"
"I had not thought on all that,"
murmured Beresteyn under his breath.
"And there is another danger too, friend,
greater perhaps than any other," continued Stoutenburg vehemently.
"Good G--d, Stoutenburg, what do you mean?"
"That cursed foreign adventurer --"
"What about him?"
"Have you then never thought of him as
being amenable to a bribe from Gilda."
"In Heaven's name, man, do not think of
such awful eventualities!"
"But we must think of them, my good Beresteyn.
Events are shaping themselves differently to what we expected.
We must make preparations for our safety accordingly, and above
all realise the fact that Gilda will move heaven and earth to
thwart us in our plans."
"But she can do nothing," persisted
Beresteyn sullenly, "without betraying me. In Haarlem
it was different. She might have spoken to my father of
what she knew, but she would not do so to a stranger, knowing
that with one word she can send me first and all of you afterwards
to the scaffold."
Stoutenburg with an exclamation of angry impatience
brought his clenched fist crashing down upon the table.
"Are you a child, Beresteyn," he
cried hotly, "or are you willfully blind to your danger and
to mine? I tell you that Gilda will never allow me to kill
the Prince of Orange without raising a finger to save him."
"But what can I do?"
"Send for Gilda at once, to-night,"
urged Stoutenburg, "convey her under escort hither . . .
in all deference . . . in all honour . . . she would be here under
her brother's care."
"A woman in this place at such a moment,"
cried Beresteyn; "you are mad, Stoutenburg."
"I shall go mad if she is not here,"
rejoined the other more calmly, "the fear has entered into
my soul, Nicolaes, that Gilda will yet betray us at the eleventh
hour. That fear is an obsession . . . call it premonition
if you will, but it unmans me, friend."
Beresteyn was silent now. He drew his
cloak closer round his shoulders, for suddenly he felt a chill
which seemed to have crept into his bones.
"But it is unpractical, man," he
persisted with a kind of sullen despair. "Gilda and
another woman here . . . to-morrow . . . when not half a league
away . . ."
"Justice will be meted out to a tyrant
and an assassin," broke in Stoutenburg quietly. "Gilda
is not a woman as other women are, though in her soul now she
may be shrinking at the thought of this summary justice, she will
be strong and brave when the hour comes. In any case,"
he added roughly, "we can keep her closely guarded, and in
the miller's hut, with the miller and his wife to look after her,
she will be as safe and as comfortable as circumstances will allow.
We should have her then under our own eyes and know that she cannot
As usual Beresteyn was already yielding to
the stronger will, the more powerful personality of his friend.
His association with Stoutenburg had gradually blunted his finer
feelings; like a fly that is entangled in the web of a spider,
he tried to fight against the network of intrigue and of cowardice
which hemmed him in more and more closely with every step that
he took along the path of crime. He was filled with remorse
at thought of the wrong which he had done to Gilda, but he was
no longer his own master. He was being carried away by the
tide of intrigue and by the fear of discovery, away from his better
"You should have thought on all that sooner,
Stoutenburg," he said in final, feeble protest, "we
need never have sent Gilda to Rotterdam in the company of a foreign
adventurer of whom we knew nothing."
"At the time it seemed simple enough,"
quoth Stoutenburg impatiently, "you suggested the house of
Ben Isaje the banker and it seemed an excellent plan. I
did not think of distance then, and it is only since we arrived
at Ryswyk that I realized how near all these places are to one
another, and how easy it would be for Gilda to betray us even
Beresteyn was silent after that. It was
easy to see that his friend's restless anxiety was eating into
his own soul. Stoutenburg watched him with those hollow
glowing eyes of his that seemed to send a magnetic current of
strong will-power into the weaker vessel.
"Well! perhaps you are right," said
Beresteyn at last, "perhaps you are right. After all,"
he added half to himself, "perhaps I shall feel easier in
my conscience when I have Gilda near me and feel that I can at
least watch over her."
Stoutenburg, having gained his point, jumped
to his feet and drew a deep breath of satisfaction.
"That's bravely said," he exclaimed.
"Will you go yourself at once to Rotterdam? with two or three
of our most trusted men you could bring Gilda here with absolute
safety; you only need make a slight detour when you near Delft
so as to avoid the city. You could be here by six o'clock
this evening at the latest, and Jan in the meanwhile with a contingent
of our stalwarts shall try and find that abominable plepshurk
again and bring him here too without delay."
"No, no," said Beresteyn quickly,
"I'll not go myself. I could not bear to meet Gilda
just yet. I will not have her think that I had a hand in
her abduction and my presence might arouse her suspicions."
Stoutenburg laughed unconcernedly.
"You would rather that she thought I had
instigated the deed. Well!" he added with a careless
shrug, "my shoulders are broad enough to bear the brunt of
her wrath if she does. An you will not go yourself we will
give full instructions to Jan. He shall bring Gilda and
her woman hither with due respect and despatch, and lay the knave
by the heels at the same time. Ten or a dozen of our men
or even more can easily be spared to-day, there is really nothing
for them to do, and they are best out of mischief by being kept
busy. Now while I go to give Jan his instructions do you
write a letter to Ben Isaje, telling him that it is your wish
that Gilda should accompany the bearer of your sign-manual."
"But. . . ."
"Tush, man!" exclaimed Stoutenburg
impatiently, while a tone of contempt rang through his harsh voice,
"You can so word the letter that even if it were found it
need not compromise you in any way. You might just have
discovered that your sister was in the hands of brigands, and
be sending an escort to rescue her; Gilda will be grateful to
you then and ready to believe in you. Write what you like,
but for God's sake write quickly. Every moment's delay drives
me well-nigh distraught."
With jerky, feverish movements he pushed paper
and inkhorn nearer to Beresteyn, who hesitated no longer and at
once began to write. Stoutenburg went to the door and loudly
called for Jan.
Ten minutes later the letter was written, folded
and delivered into Jan's keeping, who was standing at attention
and recapitulating the orders which had been given him.
"I take a dozen men with me," he
said slowly, "and we follow the course of the Schie as far
as Rotterdam. Fortunately it is passable practically the
whole of the way."
Stoutenburg nodded in approval.
"I present this letter to Mynheer Ben
Isaje, the banker," continued Jan, "and ask him at once
to apprise the jongejuffrouw that she deign to accompany us."
"Yes. That is right," quoth
Stoutenburg, "but remember that I want you above all things
to find that foreigner again. You said that he was sleeping
last night in Mynheer Ben Isaje's house."
"So I understood, my lord."
"Well! you must move heaven and earth
to find him, Jan. I want him here -- a prisoner -- remember!
Do not let him slip through your fingers this time. It might
mean life or death to us all. By fair means or foul you
must lay him by the heels."
"It should not be difficult, my lord,"
assented Jan quietly. "I will pick my men, and I have
no doubt that we shall come across the foreigner somewhere in
the neighbourhood. He cannot have gone far, and even if
he left the city we will easily come on his track."
"That's brave, Jan. Then come straight
back here; two or three of your men can in the meanwhile escort
the jongejuffrouw, who will travel by sledge. You must avoid
Delft of course, and make a détour there."
"I had best get horses at Rotterdam, my
lord; the sledge can follow the left bank of the Schie all the
way, which will be the best means of avoiding Delft."
"And remember," concluded Stoutenburg
in his most peremptory manner, "that you must all be back
here before ten o-clock to-night. The jongejuffrouw first
and you with the foreigner later. It is not much more than
eight o'clock now; you have the whole day before you. Let
the sledge pull up outside the miller's hut, everything will be
ready there by then for the jongejuffrouw's reception; and let
your watchwords be 'Silence, discretion, speed!' -- you understand?"
"I understand, my lord," replied
Jan simply as he gave a military salute, then quietly turned on
his heel and went out of the room.
The two friends were once more alone straining
their ears to catch every sound which came to them now from below.
Muffled and enveloped in the mist, the voice of Jan giving brief
words of command could be distinctly heard, also the metallic
click of skates and the tramping of heavily-booted feet upon the
ground. But ten minutes later all these sounds had died
away. Jan and his men had gone to fetch Gilda -- the poor
little pawn moved hither and thither by the ruthless and ambitious
hands of men.
Beresteyn had buried his head in his hands, in a sudden fit of overpowering remorse. Stoutenburg looked on him silently for awhile, his haggard face appeared drawn and sunken in the pale grey light which found its way through the tiny window up above. Passion greater than that which broke down the spirit of his friend, was tearing at his heart-strings; ambition fought with love, and remorse with determination. But through it all the image of Gilda flitted before his burning eyes across this dimly-lighted room, reproachful and sweet and tantalizingly beautiful. The desire to have her near him in the greatest hour of his life on the morrow, had been the true mainspring which had prompted him to urge Beresteyn to send for her. It seemed to him that Gilda's presence would bring him luck in his dark undertaking so heavily fraught with crime, and with a careless shrug of the shoulders he was ready to dismiss all thoughts of the wrong which he had done her, in favour of his hopes, his desire, his certainty that a glorious future in his arms would compensate her for all that he had caused her to endure.