CHAPTER XXXI - THE MOLENS


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 frames.

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 now?"

"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 betray us."

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 self.

"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 now."

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.