CHAPTER XXXIV - PROTESTATIONS


Half-an-hour later, the Lord of Stoutenburg was in Gilda's presence.  He was glad enough that Nicolaes Beresteyn -- afraid to meet his sister -- had refused to accompany him. He, too, felt nervous and anxious at thought of meeting her face to face at last.  He had not spoken to her since that day in March when he was a miserable fugitive -- in a far worse plight than was the wounded man tied with cords to a beam.  He had been a hunted creature then, every man's hand raised against him, his life at the mercy of any passer-by, and she had given him shelter freely and fearlessly -- shelter and kind words-- and her ministrations had brought him luck, for he succeeded in reaching the coast after he parted from her, and finding shelter once more in a foreign land.

Since then her image had filled his dreams by night and his thoughts by day.  His earlier love for her, smothered by ambition, rose up at once more strong, more insistent than before; it became during all these months of renewed intrigues and plots the one ennobling trait in his tortuous character.  His love for Gilda was in itself not a selfish feeling; neither ambition nor the mere gratification of obstinate desire entered in its composition.  He loved Gilda for herself alone, with all the adoration which a pious man would have given to his God, and while one moment of his life was occupied in planning a ruthless and dastardly murder, the other was filled with hopes of a happier future, with Gilda beside him as his idolized wife.  But though his love was in itself pure and selfless, he remained true to his unscrupulous nature in the means which he adopted in order to win the object of his love.

Even now, when he entered her presence in the miserable peasant's hut where he chose to hold her a prisoner, he felt no remorse at the recollection of what she must have suffered in the past few days; his one thought was -- now that he had her completely under his control -- how he could best plead his cause first, or succeed in coercing her will if she proved unkind.

She received him quite calmly, and even with a gracious nod of the head, and he thought that he had never seen her look more beautiful than she did now, in her straight white gown, with that sweet, sad face of hers framed by a wealth of golden curls.  In this squalid setting of white-washed walls and rafters blackened with age, she looked indeed -- he thought -- like one of those fairy princesses held prisoner by a wicked ogre -- of whom he used to read long ago when he was a child, before sin and treachery and that insatiable longing for revenge had wholly darkened his soul.

With bare head and back bent nearly double in the depth of his homage he approached his divinity.

"It is gracious of you, mejuffrouw, to receive me," he said forcing his harsh voice to tones of gentleness.

"I had not the power to refuse, my lord," she replied quietly, "seeing that I am in your hands and entirely at your commands."

"I entreat you do not say that," he rejoined eagerly, "there is no one here who has the right to command save yourself.  'Tis I am in your hands and your most humble slave."

"A truce to this farce, my lord," she retorted impatiently.  "I were not here if you happened to be my slave, and took commands from me."

"'Tis true mayhap that you would not be here, now, mejuffrouw," he said blandly, "but I could only act for the best, and as speedily as I could.  The moment I heard that you were in the hands of brigands I moved heaven and earth to find out where you were.  I only heard this morning that you were in Rotterdam . . ."

"You heard that I was in the hands of brigands," she murmured almost gasping with astonishment, "you heard this morning that I was in Rotterdam . . .?"

"I sent spies and messengers in every direction the moment I heard of the abominable outrage against your person," he continued with well-feigned vehemence.  "I cannot even begin to tell you what I endured these past three days, until at last, by dint of ruse and force, I was able to circumvent the villains who held you captive, and convey you hither in safety and profound respect until such time as I can find a suitable escort to take you back to your father."

"If what you say is true, my lord, you could lend me an escort at once, that I might return to my dear father forthwith.  Truly he must have broken his heart by now, weeping for me."

"Have I not said that I am your slave?" he rejoined gently, "an you desire to return to Haarlem immediately, I will see about an escort for you as quickly as may be.  The hour is late now," he added hypocritically, "but a man can do much when his heart's desire lies in doing the behests of a woman whom he worships."

Though she frowned at these last words of his, she leaned forward eagerly to him.

"You will let me go . . . at once . . . to-night?"

"At once if it lies in my power," he replied unblushingly, "but I fear me that you will have to wait a few hours; the night is as dark as pitch.  It were impossible to make a start in it.  To-morrow, however . . ."

"Tomorrow?" she cried anxiously, "'Tis to-night that I wish to go."

"The way to Haarlem is long . . ." he murmured.

"'Tis not to Haarlem, my lord, but to Delft that I long to go."

"To Delft?" he exclaimed with a perfect show of astonishment.

She bit her lip and for the moment remained silent.  It had, indeed, been worse than folly to imagine that he -- of all men in the world -- would help her to go to Delft.  But he had been so gentle, so kind, apparently so ready to do all that she asked, that for a moment she forgot that he and he alone was the mover of that hideous conspiracy to murder which she still prayed to God that she might avert.

"I had forgotten, my lord," she said, as tears threatened to choke her voice, "I had forgotten."

"Forgotten?  What?" he asked blankly.

"That you are not like to escort me to Delft."

"Why not to Delft, an you wish to go there?"

"But . . ." she murmured, "the Stadtholder. . . ."

"Ah!" he exclaimed, "now I understand.  You are thinking of what you overheard in the cathedral of Haarlem."

"Indeed, how could I forget it?"

"Easily now, Gilda," he replied with solemn earnestness.  "The plans which my friends and I formed on that night have been abandoned."

"Abandoned?"

"Yes!  Your brother was greatly impressed by all that you said to him.  He persuaded us all to think more lengthily over the matter.  Then came the news of the outrage upon your person, and all thoughts of my ambition and of my revenge faded before this calamity, and I have devoted every hour of mine existence since then to find you and to restore you to your home."

Bewildered, wide-eyed, Gilda listened to him.  In all her life hitherto, she had never come into contact with lying and with deceit: she had never seen a man lying unblushingly, calmly, not showing signs of confusion or of fear.  Therefore, the thought that this man could be talking so calmly, so simply, so logically, and yet be trying to deceive her, never for one moment entered her head.  The events of the past few days crowded in upon her brain in such a maddening array, that, as she sat here now, face to face with the man whom she had been so ready to suspect, she could not disentangle from those events one single fact that could justify her suspicions.

Even looking back upon the conversation which she had had with that impudent rogue in Leyden and again last night, she distinctly remembered now that he had never really said a single thing that implicated the Lord of Stoutenburg or any one else in this villainy.

She certainly was bewildered and very puzzled now: joy at the thought that after all the Stadtholder was safe, joy that her brother's hand would not be stained with murder, or his honour with treachery, mingled with a vague sense of mistrust which she was powerless to combat, yet felt ashamed to admit.

"Then, my lord," she murmured at last, "do you really tell me that the outrage of which I have been the victim was merely planned by villains, for mercenary motives?"

"What else could have prompted it?" he asked blandly.

"Neither you . . .nor . . . nor any of your friends had a hand in it?" she insisted.

"I?" he exclaimed with a look of profound horror.  "I? . . . to do you such a wrong!  For what purpose, ye gods?"

"To . . . to keep me out of the way . . ."

"I understand," he said simply.  "And you, Gilda, believed this of me?"

"I believed it," she replied calmly.

"You did not realize then that I would give every drop of my blood to save you one instant's pain?"

"I did not realize," she said more coldly, "that you would give up your ambition for any woman or for anything."

"You do not believe then, that I love you?"

"Speak not of love my lord," she retorted, "it is a sacred thing.  And you methinks do not know what love is."

"Indeed you are right, Gilda," he said, "I do not know what is the love of ordinary men.  But if to love you, Gilda, means that every thought, every hope, every prayer is centred upon you, if it means that neither sleep nor work, nor danger can for one single instant chase your image from my soul, if to love you means that my very sinews ache with the longing to hold you in my arms, and that every moment which keeps me from your side is torture worse than hell; if love means all that, Gilda, then do I know to mine own hurt what love is."

"And in your ambition, my lord, you allowed that love to be smothered," she retorted calmly.  "It is too late now to speak of it again, to any woman save to Walburg de Marnix."

"I'll speak of it to you, Gilda, while the breath in my body lasts.  Walburg de Marnix is no longer my wife.  The law of our country has already set me free."

"The law of God binds you to her.  I pray you speak no more of such things to me."

"You are hard and cruel, Gilda."

"I no longer love you."

"You will love again," he retorted confidently, "in the meanwhile have I regained your trust?"

"Not even that, wholly," she replied.

"Let me at least do one thing in my own justification," he pleaded.  "Allow me to prove to you now and at once that -- great though my love is for you, and maddening my desire to have you near me -- I could not be guilty of such an outrage, as I know that in your heart you do accuse me of."

"I did accuse you of it, my lord, I own.  But how can you prove me wrong now and at once?"

"By bringing before you the only guilty person in this network of infamy," he replied hotly.

"You know him then?"

"For these three days now I and my faithful servants have tracked him.  I have him here now a prisoner at last.  His presence before you will prove to you that I at least bore no share in the hideous transaction."

"Of whom do you speak, my lord?" she asked.

"Of the man who dared to lay hands upon you in Haarlem . . ."

"He is here -- now?" she exclaimed.

"A helpless prisoner in my hands," he replied, "to-morrow summary justice shall be meted out to him, and he will receive the punishment which his infamy deserves."

"But he did not act on his own initiative," she said eagerly, "another man more powerful, richer than he prompted him -- paid him -- tempted him . . ."

Stoutenburg made a gesture of infinite contempt.

"So, no doubt, he has told you, Gilda.  Men of his stamp are always cowards at heart, even though they have a certain brutish instinct for fighting -- mostly in self-defence.  He tried to palliate his guilt before you by involving me in its responsibility."

"You," she whispered under her breath, "or one of your friends."

"You mean your brother Nicolaes," he rejoined quietly.  "Ah! the man is even a more arrant knave than I thought.  So! he has tried to fasten the responsibility for this outrage against your person, firstly on me who worship the very ground you walk on, secondly on the brother whom you love?"

"No, no," she protested eagerly, "I did not say that.  It was I who . . ."

"Who thought so ill of me," broke in Stoutenburg with gentle reproach, "of me and of Nicolaes.  You questioned the rogue, and he did not deny it, nay more he enlarged upon the idea, which would place all the profits of this abominable transaction in his hands and yet exonerate him from guilt.  But you shall question him yourself, Gilda.  By his looks, by his answers, by his attitude you will be able to judge if I or Nicolaes -- or any of our friends, have paid him to lay hands upon you.  Remember however," he added significantly, "that such a low-born knave will always lie to save his skin, so this do I entreat of you on my knees: judge by his looks more than by his words, and demand a proof of what he asserts."

"I will judge, my lord, as I think best," she retorted coldly.  "And now, I pray you, send for the man.  I would like to hear what he has to say."

Stoutenburg immediately turned to obey: there was a guard outside the door, and it was easy to send one of the men with orders to Jan to bring the prisoner hither.

Within himself he was frankly taken aback at Gilda's ready acquiescence -- nay obvious desire to parley with the foreigner.  A sharp pang of jealousy had shot through his heart when he saw her glowing eyes, her eagerness to defend the knave.  The instinct that guided his fierce love for Gilda, had quickly warned him that here was a danger of which he had never even dreamed.

Women were easily swayed, he thought, by a smooth tongue and a grand manner, both of which -- Stoutenburg was bound to admit -- the rogue possessed in no scanty measure.  Fortunately the mischief -- if indeed mischief there was -- had only just begun: and of a truth reason itself argued that Gilda must loathe and despise the villain who had wronged her so deeply: moreover Stoutenburg had every hope that the coming interview if carefully conducted would open Gilda's eyes more fully still to the true character of the foreign mercenary with the unctuous tongue and the chivalrous ways.

In any case the Lord of Stoutenburg himself had nothing to fear from that interview, and he felt that his own clever words had already shaken the foundations of Gilda's mistrust of him.  Mayhap in desiring to parley with the knave, she only wished to set her mind at rest finally on these matters, and also with regard to her own brother's guilt.  Stoutenburg with an inward grim smile of coming triumph passed his hand over his doublet where -- in an inner pocket -- reposed the parchment roll which was the last proof of Beresteyn's connivance.

Gilda did not know the cypher-signature, and the knave would have some difficulty in proving his assertion, if indeed, he dared to name Nicolaes at all: whilst if he chose to play the chivalrous part before Gilda, then the anonymous document would indeed prove of incalculable value.  In any case the complete humiliation of the knave who had succeeded in gaining Gilda's interest, if nothing more, was Stoutenburg's chief aim when he suggested the interview, and the document with the enigmatical signature could easily become a powerful weapon wherewith to make that humiliation more complete.

And thus musing, speculating, scheming, the Lord of Stoutenburg sent Jan over to the molens with orders to bring the prisoner under a strong guard to the jongejuffrouw's presence, whilst Gilda, silent and absorbed, sat in the tiny room of the miller's hut.

In spite of her loyalty, her love for her brother, in spite of Stoutenburg's smooth assertions, a burning anxiety gnawed at her heart -- she felt wretchedly, miserably lonely, with a sense of treachery encompassing her all round.

But there was a strange glow upon her face, which of a truth anxiety could not have brought about; rather must it have been inward anger, which assailed her whenever thoughts of the rogue whom she so hated intruded themselves upon her brain.

No doubt too, the heat of the fire helped to enhance that delicate glow which lent so much additional beauty to her face and such additional brilliance to her eyes.