CHAPTER XXXII - A RUN THROUGH THE NIGHT


That same morning of this forth day of the New Year found Gilda Beresteyn sitting silent and thoughtful in the tiny room which had been placed at her disposal in the house of Mynheer Ben Isaje, the banker.

A few hours ago she had come back to it, running like some frightened animal who had just escaped an awful -- but unknown -- danger, and had thrown herself down on the narrow bed in the alcove in an agony of soul far more difficult to bear than any sorrow which had assailed her during the last few days.

A great, a vivid ray of hope had pierced the darkness of her misery, it had flickered low at first, then had glowed with wonderful intensity, flickered again and finally died down as hope itself fell dying once more in the arms of despair.

The disappointment which she had endured then amounted almost to physical pain; her heart ached and beat intolerably and with that disappointment was coupled a sense of hatred and of humiliation, different to any suffering she had ever had to bear before.

A man could have helped her and had refused: he could have helped her to avert a crime more hideous than any that had ever blackened the pages of this country's history.  With that one man's help she could have stopped that crime from being committed and he had refused . . . nay more! he had first dragged her secret from her, word by word, luring her into thoughts of security with the hope that he dangled before her.

He knew everything now; she had practically admitted everything save the identity of those whose crime she wished to avert.  But even that identity would be easy for the man to guess.  Stoutenburg, of course, had paid him to lay hands on her . . . but her brother Nicolaes was Stoutenburg's friend and ally, and his life and that of his friends were now in the hands of that rogue, who might betray them with the knowledge which he had filched from her.

No wonder that hour after hour she lay prostrate on the bed, while these dark thoughts hammered away in her brain.  The Prince of Orange walking unknowingly straight to his death, or Nicolaes -- her brother -- and his friends betrayed to the vengeance of that Prince.  Ghosts of those who had already died -- victims to that same merciless vengeance -- flitted in the darkness before her feverish fancy: John of Barneveld, the Lord of Grneveld, the sorrowing widows and the fatherless children . . . and in their trail the ghost of the Stadtholder, William the Silent murdered -- as his son would be -- at Delft, close to Ryswyk and the molens, where even now Nicolaes her brother was learning the final lesson of infamy.

When in the late morning Maria came into the room to bring her mistress some warm milk and bread, and to minister to her comforts, she found her dearly loved jongejuffrouw wide-eyed and feverish.

But not a word could she get out of Gilda while she dressed her hair, except an assurance that their troubles -- as far as Maria could gauge them -- would
soon be over now, and that in twenty-four hours mayhap they would be escorted back to Haarlem.

"When, I trust, that I shall have the joy of seeing three impudent knaves swing on gibbets in the market place," quoth Maria decisively, "and one of them -- the most impudent of the lot -- drawn and quartered, or burnt at the stake!" she added with savage insistence.

When Gilda was ready dressed, she asked for leave to speak with Mynheer Ben Isaje. The Jew, obsequious and affable, received her with utmost deference, and in a few words put the situation before her.  Mevrouw Isaje, he said, was away from home: he had not been apprised of the jongejuffrouw's coming, or his wife would have been ready to receive her at his private house, which was situate but half a league out of Rotterdam.  But Mevrouw Isaje would return from the visit which she had been paying to her father in the course of the afternoon, until that hour Mynheer Ben Isaje begged that the jongejuffrouw would look upon this miserable hovel as her property and would give what orders she desired for the furtherance of her comfort.  In the afternoon, he concluded, an escort would once more be ready to convey the jongejuffrouw to that same private house of his, where there was a nice garden and a fine view over the Schie instead of the confined outlook on squalid houses opposite, which was quite unworthy of the jongejuffrouw's glance.

Gilda did not attempt to stay the flow of Ben Isaje's eloquence: she thanked him graciously for everything that he had already done for her comfort.

Maria -- more loquacious, and bubbling over with indignation -- asked him when this outrageous confinement of her person and that of her exalted mistress at the hands of brigands would cease, and if Mynheer Ben Isaje was aware that such confinement against the jongejuffrouw's will would inevitably entail the punishment of hanging.

But thereupon Mynheer Ben Isaje merely rubbed his thin hands together and became as evasive first and then as mute as only those of his race can contrive to be.

Then Gilda -- making an effort to speak unconcernedly -- asked him what had become of the men who had brought her hither from Haarlem.

"They spent half the night eating and drinking at the tavern, mejuffrouw," said the Jew blandly.

"Ah!" rejoined Gilda quietly, "methought one of them had found hospitality under your roof."

"So he had, mejuffrouw.  But this morning when I called him -- for I had some business to transact with him -- I found his room already empty.  No doubt he had gone to join his companions at the tavern.  But the rascal's movements need not disturb the jongejuffrouw for one moment.  After to-day she need never set eyes on him again."

"Save when he is hanging on a gibbet in the Groote Markt," broke in Maria viciously.  "I for one never go to see such sights, but when that rascal hangs it shall be a holiday for me to go and get a last look at him."

Later on in the day, Ben Isaje, more affable and obsequious than he had ever been, came to announce to the jongejuffrouw that her sledge was awaiting her at the top of the street.

Silently and resignedly as had been her wont these past two days Gilda Beresteyn, wrapping her cloak and hood closely round her, followed Mynheer Ben Isaje out of the house.  Maria walked immediately behind her, muttering imprecations against brigands, and threatening dire punishments against every Jew.

Though it was only three o'clock in the afternoon, it was already quite dark in this narrow street, where tall gables almost touched one another at the top: only from the tiny latticed windows feeble patches of yellow light glimmered weirdly through the fog.

The sledge was waiting at the top of the street, as Mynheer Ben Isaje had said.  Gilda shuddered as soon as she caught sight of it again; it represented so much that was vivid and tangible of her present anxiety and sorrow.  It stood upon an open market-place, with the driver sitting up at his post and three horses harnessed thereto.  The small tavern was at the corner on the left, and as Gilda walked rapidly up to the sledge, she saw two of the men who had been escorting her hitherto, the thin man with the abnormally long legs, and the fat one with the red nose and round eyes: but of the third tall, splendid figure she did not catch one glimpse.

The two men nudged one another as she passed, and whispered excitedly to one another, but she could not hear what they said, and the next moment she found herself being handed into the vehicle by Ben Isaje, who thereupon took humble leave of her.

"You are not coming with us, mynheer?" she asked in astonishment.

"Not . . . not just yet, mejuffrouw," murmured the Jew somewhat incoherently, "it is too early yet in the afternoon . . . er . . . for me to . . . to leave my business . . . I have the honour to bid the jongejuffrouw 'Godspeed.'"

"But," said Gilda, who suddenly misliked Ben Isaje's manner, yet could not have told you why, "the mevrouw -- your wife -- she is ready to receive me?"

"Of a truth -- certainly," replied the man.  Gilda would have given much to question him further.  She was quite sure that there was something strange in his manner, something that she mistrusted; but just as she was about to speak again, there was a sudden command of "Forward!" the driver cracked his whip, the harness jingled, the sledge gave a big lurch forward and the next moment Gilda found herself once more being rushed at great speed through the cold night air.

She could not see much round her, for the fog out in the open seemed even more dense than it was inside the city and the darkness of the night crept swiftly through the fog.  All that she knew for certain was that the city was very soon left behind, that the driver was urging his horses on to unusual speed, and that she must be travelling along a river bank, because when the harness rattled and jingled less loudly than usual, she could hear distinctly the clink of metal skates upon the ice, as wayfarers no doubt were passing to and fro.

Solitary as she was -- for Maria and her eternal grumblings were poor company -- she fell to thinking again over the future, as she had done not only last night but through the past few interminable days; it almost seemed as if she had never, never thought of anything else, as if those same few days stretched out far away behind her into dim and nebulous infinity.

During those days she had alternately hoped and feared and been disappointed only to hope again: but the disappointment of last night was undoubtedly the most bitter that she had yet experienced.  So bitter had it been that for a time -- after its intense poignancy had gone -- her faculties and power of thinking had become numbed, and now -- very gradually, unknown at first even to herself, hope shook itself free from the grip of disappointment and peeped up at her out of the abyss of her despair.

Did that unscrupulous knave really have the last word in the matter? had his caprice the power to order the destiny of this land and the welfare of its faith?

Bah! the very thought was monstrous and impossible.  Was the life of the Prince of Orange to be sacrificed because a rascal would not help her to give him that word of warning which might save him even now at the eleventh hour?

No!  Gilda Beresteyn refused to believe that God -- who had helped the armies of the Netherlands throughout their struggle against the might of Spain -- would allow a rogue to have so much power.  After all, she was not going to be shut up in prison! she was going to the house of ordinary, respectable burghers; true, they were of alien and of despised faith, but they were well-to-do, had a family, serving women and men.

Surely among these there would be one who -- amenable to cajoleries or to promises -- would prove to be the instrument sent by God to save the Stadtholder from an assassin's dagger!

Gilda Beresteyn, wrapped in this new train of thought, lost count of time, of distance and of cold: she lived during one whole hour in the happiness of this newly-risen hope, making plans, conjecturing, rehearsing over in her mind what she would say, how she would probe the loyalty, the kindness of those who would be around her to-night.

Delft was so near! and after all even Maria might be bribed to forget her fears and her grievances and to become that priceless instrument of salvation of which Gilda dreamed as the sledge flew swiftly along through the night.

It was Maria who roused her suddenly out of these happy fancies.  Maria who said plaintively:

"Shall we never get to that verdommte house.  The Jew said that it was only situate half a league from Rotterdam."

"We must be close to it," murmured Gilda.

"Close to it!" retorted Maria, "we seem to be burning the ground under the horses' hoofs -- we have left Rotterdam behind us this hour past. . . . It is the longest half league that I have ever known."

"Peep out under the hood, Maria.  Cannot you see where we are?"

Maria peeped out as she was bid.

"I can see the lights of a city far away on our right," she said.  "From the direction in which we have been going and the ground which we have covered I should guess that city to be Delft."

"Delft!" exclaimed Gilda, smothering a louder scream.

The driver had just pulled up his horses, allowing them to go at a walk so as to restore their wind and ease them for awhile.  Gilda tried her best to peer through the darkness.  All that she could see were those lights far away on the right which proclaimed the distant city.

A chill struck suddenly to her heart.  Ben Isaje had lied!  Why?  She was not being taken to his house which was situate half a league outside Rotterdam . . then whither was she being taken?  What new misery, what new outrage awaited her now?

The lights of the distant city receded further and further away from her view, the driver once more put his horses at a trot, the sledge moved along more smoothly now: it seemed as if it were going over the surface of the river.  Delft was being left behind, and the sledge was following the course of the Schie . . . on toward Ryswyk. . . .

The minutes sped on, another quarter of an hour, another half hour, another hour in this dread suspense.  The driver was urging his horses unmercifully: he gave them but little rest.  It was only when for a few brief moments he put them at walking pace, that Gilda heard -- all around her as it seemed -- that metallic click of skates which told her that the sledge was surrounded by men who were there to watch over her and see that she did not escape.