CHAPTER XXXV - THE WITNESS FOR THE DEFENCE


The Lord of Stoutenburg was the first to enter: behind him came Jan, and finally a group of soldiers above whose heads towered another broad white brow, surmounted by a wealth of unruly brown hair which now clung matted against the moist forehead.

At a word of command from Stoutenburg, Jan and the other soldiers departed, leaving him and the prisoner only before Gilda Beresteyn.

The man had told her on that first night at Leyden that his name was Diogenes -- a name highly honoured in the history of philosophy.  Well! -- philosophy apparently was standing him in good stead, for truly it must be responsible for the happy way in which he seemed to be bearing his present unhappy condition.

They had tied his arms behind his back and put a pinion through them, his clothes were torn, his massive chest was bare, his shirt bore ugly, dark stains upon it, but
his face was just the same that merry laughing face with the twinkling eyes, and the gentle irony that lurked round the lines of the sensitive mouth: at any rate when Gilda -- overcome with pity -- looked up with sweet compassion on him, she saw that same curious, immutable smile that seemed even now to mock and to challenge.

"This is the man, mejuffrouw," began Stoutenburg after awhile, "who on New Year's day at Haarlem dared to lay hands upon your person.  Do you recognize him?"

"I do recognize him," replied Gilda coldly.

"I imagine," continued Stoutenburg, "that he hath tried to palliate his own villainies by telling you that he was merely a paid agent in that abominable outrage."

"I do not think," she retorted still quite coldly, "that this . . . this . . . person told me that he was being paid for that ugly deed: though when I did accuse him of it he
did not deny it."

"Do you hear, fellow?" asked Stoutenburg, turning sharply to Diogenes, "it is time that all this lying should cease.  By your calumnies and evil insinuations you have added to the load of crimes which already have earned for you exemplary punishment; by those same lies you have caused the jongejuffrouw an infinity of pain, over and above the horror which she has endured through your cowardly attack upon her.  Therefore I have thought it best to send for you now so that in her exalted presence at least you may desist from further lying and that you may be shamed into acknowledging the truth.  Do you hear, fellow?" he reiterated more harshly as Diogenes stood there, seemingly not even hearing what the Lord of Stoutenburg said, for his eyes in which a quaint light of humour danced were fixed upon Gilda's hands that lay clasped upon her lap.

The look in the man's face, the soft pallor on the girl's cheek, exasperated Stoutenburg's jealous temper beyond his power of control.

"Do you hear?" he shouted once more, and with a sudden grip of the hand he pulled the prisoner roughly round by the shoulder.  That shoulder had been torn open with a blow dealt by a massive steel blade which had lacerated it to the bone; even a philosopher's endurance was not proof against this sudden rending of an already painful wound.  Diogenes' pale face became the colour of lead: the tiny room began dancing an irresponsive saraband before his eyes, he felt himself swaying, for the ground was giving way under him, when a cry, gentle and compassionate, reached his fading senses, and a perfume of exquisite sweetness came to his nostrils, even as his pinioned arms felt just enough support to enable him to steady himself.

"Gilda," broke in Stoutenburg's harsh voice upon this intangible dream, "I entreat you not to demean yourself by ministering to that rogue."

"My poor ministry was for a wounded man, my lord," she retorted curtly.

Then she turned once more to the prisoner.

"You are hurt, sir," she asked as she let her tender blue eyes rest with kind pity upon him.

"Hurt, mejuffrouw?" he replied with a laugh, which despite himself had but little merriment in it.  "Ask his Magnificence there, he will tell you that such knaves as I have bones and sinews as tough as their skins.  Of a truth I am not hurt, mejuffrouw . . . only overcome with the humour of this situation.  The Lord of Stoutenburg indignant and reproachful at thought that another man is proficient in the art of lying."

"By heaven," cried Stoutenburg who was white with fury.  "Insolent varlet, take . . ."

He had seized the first object that lay close to his hand, the heavy iron tool used for raking the fire out of the huge earthenware stove; this he raised above his head; the lust to kill glowed out of his eyes, which had become bloodshot whilst a thin red foam gathered at the corners of his mouth.  The next moment the life of a philosopher and weaver of dreams would have been very abruptly ended, had not a woman's feeble hand held up the crashing blow.

"Hatred, my lord, an you will," said Gilda with perfect sangfroid as she stood between the man who had so deeply wronged her and the upraised arm of his deadly enemy, "hatred and fair fight, but not outrage, I pray you."

Stoutenburg, smothering a curse, threw the weapon away from him: it fell with a terrific crash upon the wooden floor.  Gilda, white and trembling now after the agonizing excitement of the past awful moment, had sunk half-swooning back against a chair.  Stoutenburg fell on one knee and humbly raised her gown to his lips.

"Your pardon, Madonna," he whispered, "the sight of your exquisite hands in contact with that infamous blackguard made me mad.  I was almost ready to cheat the gallows of their prey.  I gratefully thank you in that you saved me from the indignity of staining my hand with a vile creature's blood."

Quietly and dispassionately Gilda drew her skirts away from him.

"An you have recovered your temper, my lord," she said coldly, "I pray you ask the prisoner those questions which you desired to put to him.  I am satisfied that he is your enemy, and if he were not bound, pinioned and wounded he would probably not have need of a woman's hand to protect him."

Stoutenburg rose to his feet.  He was angered with himself for allowing his hatred and his rage to get the better of his prudence, and tried to atone for his exhibition of incontinent rage by a great show of dignity and of reserve.

"I must ask you again, fellow -- and for the last time," he said slowly turning once more to Diogenes, "if you have realized how infamous have been your insinuations against mine honour, and that of others whom the jongejuffrouw holds in high regard?  Your calumnies have caused her infinite sorrow more bitter for her to bear than the dastardly crime which you did commit against her person.  Have you realized this, and are you prepared to make amends for your crime and to mitigate somewhat the grave punishment which you have deserved by speaking the plain truth before the jongejuffrouw now?"

"And what plain truth doth the jongejuffrouw desire to hear?" asked Diogenes with equal calm.

Stoutenburg would have replied, but Gilda broke in quietly:

"Your crime against me, sir, I would readily forgive, had I but the assurance that no one in whom I trusted, no one whom I loved had a hand in instigating it."

The ghost of his merry smile -- never very distant -- spread over the philosopher's pale face.

"Will you deign to allow me, mejuffrouw," he said, "at any rate to tell you one certain, unvarnished truth, which mayhap you will not even care to believe, and that is that I would give my life -- the few chances, that is, that I still have of it -- to obliterate from your mind the memory of the past few days."

"That you cannot do, sir," she rejoined, "but you would greatly ease the load of sorrow which you have helped to lay upon me, if you gave me the assurance which I ask."

The prisoner did not reply immediately, and for one brief moment there was absolute silence in this tiny room, a silence so tense and so vivid that an eternity of joy and sorrow, of hope and of fear seemed to pass over the life of these three human creatures here.  All three had eyes and ears only for one another: the world with its grave events, its intrigues and its wars fell quite away from them: they were the only people existing -- each for the other -- for this one brief instant that passed by.

The fire crackled in the huge hearth, and slowly the burning wood ashes fell with a soft swishing sound one by one.  But outside all was still: not a sound of the busy life around the molens, of conspiracies and call to arms, penetrated the dense veil of fog which lay upon the low-lying land.

At last the prisoner spoke.

"'Tis easily done, mejuffrouw," he said, and all at once his whole face lit up with that light-hearted gaiety, that keen sense of humour which would no doubt follow him to the grave, "that assurance I can easily give you.  I was the sole criminal in the hideous outrage which brought so much sorrow upon you.  Had I the least hope that God would hear the prayer of so despicable a villain as I am I would beg of Him to grant you oblivion of my deed.  As for me," he added and now real laughter was dancing in his eyes: they mocked and challenged and called back the joy of life, "as for me, I am impenitent.  I would not forget one minute of the last four days."

"To-morrow then you can take the remembrance with you to the gallows," said Stoutenburg sullenly.

Though a sense of intense relief pervaded him now, since by his assertions Diogenes had completely vindicated him as well as Nicolaes in Gilda's sight, his dark face showed no signs of brightening.  That fierce jealousy of this nameless adventurer which had assailed him awhile ago was gnawing at his heart more insistently than before; he could not combat it, even though reason itself argued that jealousy of so mean a knave was unworthy, and that Gilda's compassion was only the same that she would have extended to any dog that had been hurt.

Even now -- reason still argued -- was it not natural that she should plead even for a thief.  Women hate the thought of violent death, only an amazon would desire to mete out death to any enemy: Gilda was warm-hearted, impulsive, the ugly word "gallows" grated no doubt unpleasantly on her ear.  But even so, and despite the dictates of reason, Stoutenburg's jealousy and hatred were up in arms the moment she turned pleading eyes upon him.

"My lord," she said gently, "I pray you to remember that by this open confession this . . . this gentleman has caused be infinite happiness.  I cannot tell you what misery my own suspicions have caused me these past two days.  They were harder to bear than any humiliation or sorrow which I had to endure."

"This varlet's lies confirmed you in your suspicions, Gilda," retorted Stoutenburg roughly, "and his confession -- practically at the foot of the gallows -- is but a tardy one."

"Do not speak so cruelly, my lord," she pleaded, "you say that . . . that you have some regard for me . . . let not therefore my prayer fall unheeded on your ear . . ."

"Your prayer, Gilda?"

"My prayer that you deal nobly with an enemy, whose wrongs to me I am ready to forgive. . . ."

"By St. Bavon, mejuffrouw," here interposed the prisoner firmly, "an mine ears do not deceive me you are even now pleading for my life with the Lord of Stoutenburg."

"Indeed, sir, I do plead for it with my whole heart," she said earnestly.

"Ye gods!" he exclaimed, "and ye do not interfere!"

"My lord!" urged Gilda gently, "for my sake. . . ."

Her words, her look, the tears that despite her will had struggled to her eyes, scattered to the winds Stoutenburg's reasoning powers.  He felt now that nothing while this man lived would ever still that newly-risen passion of jealousy.  He longed for and desired this man's death more even than that of the Prince of Orange.  His honour had been luckily white-washed before Gilda by this very man whom he hated.  He had a feeling that within the last half-hour he had made enormous strides in her regard.  Already he persuaded himself that she was looking on him more kindly, as if remorse at her unjust suspicions of him had touched her soul on his behalf.

Everything now would depend on how best he could seem noble and generous in her sight; but he was more determined than ever that his enemy should stand disgraced before her first and die on the gallows on the morrow.

Then it was that putting up his hand to the region of his heart, which indeed was beating furiously, it encountered the roll of parchment which lay in the inner pocket of his doublet.  Fate, chance, his own foresight, were indeed making the way easy for him, and quicker than lightning his tortuous brain had already formed a plan upon which he promptly acted now.

"Gilda," he said quietly, "though God knows how ready I am to do you service in all things, this is a case where weakness on my part would be almost criminal, for indeed it would be to a hardened and abandoned criminal that I should be extending that mercy for which you plead."

"Indeed, my lord," she retorted coldly, "though only a woman, I too can judge if a man is an abandoned criminal or merely a misguided human creature who doth deserve mercy since his confession was quite open and frank."

"Commonsense did prompt him no doubt to this half-confession," said Stoutenburg dryly, "or a wise instinct to win leniency by his conduct, seeing that he had no proofs wherewith to substantiate his former lies.  Am I not right, fellow?" he added once more turning to the prisoner, "though you were forced to own that you alone are responsible for the outrage against the jongejuffrouw, you have not told her yet that you are also a forger and a thief."

Diogenes looked on him for a moment or two in silence, just long enough to force Stoutenburg's shifty eyes to drop with a sudden and involuntary sense of shame, then he rejoined with his usual good-humoured flippancy:

"It was a detail which had quite escaped my memory.  No doubt your Magnificence is fully prepared to rectify the omission."

"Indeed I wish that I could have spared you this additional disgrace," retorted Stoutenburg, whose sense of shame had indeed been only momentary, "seeing that anyhow you must hang to-morrow.  But," he added once more to the jongejuffrouw, "I could not bear you to think, Gilda, that I could refuse you anything which it is in my power to grant you.  Before you plead for this scoundrel again, you ought to know that he has tried by every means in his power -- by lying and by forgery -- to fasten the origin of all this infamy upon your brother."

"Upon Nicolaes," she cried, "I'll not believe it.  A moment ago he did vindicate him freely."

"Only because I had at last taken away from him the proofs which he had forged."

"The proofs? what do you mean, my lord?"

"When my men captured this fellow last night, they found upon him a paper -- a bond which is an impudent forgery -- purported to have been written by Nicolaes and which promised payment to this knave for laying hands upon you in Haarlem."

"A bond?" she murmured, "signed by Nicolaes?"

"I say it again, 'tis an impudent forgery," declared Stoutenburg hotly, "we -- all of us who have seen it and who know Nicolaes' signature could see at a glance that this one was counterfeit.  Yet the fellow used it, he obtained money on the strength of it, for beside the jewelry which he had filched from you, we found several hundred guilders upon his person.  Liar, forger, thief!" he cried, "in Holland such men are broken on the wheel.  Hanging is thought merciful for such damnable scum as they!"

And from out the pocket of his doublet he drew the paper which had been writ by the public scrivener and was signed with Nicolaes' cypher signature: he handed it to Gilda, even whilst the prisoner, throwing back his head, sent one of his heartiest laughs echoing through the raftered room.

"Well played, my lord!" he said gaily, "nay! but by the devils whom you serve so well, you do indeed deserve to win."

In the meanwhile Gilda, wide-eyed and horrified, not knowing what to think, nor yet what to believe, scarcely dared to touch the infamous document whose very presence in her lap seemed a pollution.  She noticed that some portion of the paper had been torn off, but the wording of the main portion of the writing was quite clear as was the signature "Schwarzer Kato" with the triangle above it.  On this she looked now with a curious mixture of loathing and of fear.  Schwarzer Kato was the name of the tulip which her father had raised and named: the triangle was a mark which the house of Beresteyn oft used in business.

"O God, have mercy upon me!" she murmured inwardly, "what does all this treachery mean?"

She looked up from one man to the other.  The Lord of Stoutenburg, dark and sullen, was watching her with restless eyes; the prisoner was smiling, gently, almost self-deprecatingly she thought, and as he met her frightened glance it seemed as if in his merry eyes there crept a look of sadness -- even of pity.

"What does all this treachery mean?" she murmured again with pathetic helplessness, and this time just above her breath.

"It means," said Stoutenburg roughly, "that at last you must be convinced that this man on whom you have wasted your kindly pity is utterly unworthy of it.  That bond was never written by your brother, it was never signed by him.  But we found it on this villain's person; he has been trading on it, obtaining money on the strength of his forgery.  He has confessed to you that he had no accomplice, no paymaster in his infamies, then ask him whence came this bond in his possession, whence the money which we found upon him.  Ask him to deny the fact that less than twenty-four hours after he had laid hands on you, he was back again in Haarlem, bargaining with your poor, stricken father to bring you back to him."

He ceased speaking, almost choked now by his own eloquence, and the rapidity with which the lying words escaped his lips.  And Gilda slowly turned her head toward the prisoner, and met that subtly-ironical, good-humoured glance again.

"Is this all true, sir?" she asked.

"What, mejuffrouw?" he retorted.

"That this bond promising you payment for the cruel outrage upon me is a forgery?"

"His Magnificence says so, mejuffrouw," he replied quietly, "surely you know best if you can believe him."

"But this is not my brother's signature?" she asked: and she herself was not aware what an infinity of pleading there was in her voice.

"No!" he replied emphatically, "it is not your brother's signature."

"Then it's a forgery?"

"We will leave it at that mejuffrouw," he said, "that it is a forgery."

A sigh, hoarse and passionate in its expression of infinite relief, escaped the Lord of Stoutenburg's lips.  Though he knew that the man in any case could have no proof if he accused Nicolaes, yet there was great satisfaction in this unqualified confession.  Slowly the prisoner turned his head and looked upon his triumphant enemy, and it was the man with the pinioned arms, with the tattered clothes and the stained shirt who seemed to tower in pride, in swagger and in defiance while the other looked just what he was -- a craven and miserable cur.

Once more there was silence in the low-raftered room.  From Gilda's eyes the tears fell slowly one by one.  She could not have told you herself why she was crying at this moment.  Her brother's image stood out clearly before her wholly vindicated of treachery, and a scoundrel had been brought to his knees, self-confessed as a liar, a forger and a thief; the Lord of Stoutenburg was proved to have been faithful and true, and yet Gilda felt such a pain in her heart that she thought it must break.

The Lord of Stoutenburg at last broke the silence which had become oppressive.

"Are you satisfied, Gilda?" he asked tenderly.

"I feel happier," she replied softly, "than I have felt these four days past, at thought that my own brother at least -- nor you, my lord -- had a hand in all this treachery."

She would not look again on the prisoner, even though she felt more than she saw, that a distinctly humorous twinkle had once more crept into his eyes. It seemed however, as if she wished to say something else, something kind and compassionate, but Stoutenburg broke in impatiently:

"May I dismiss the fellow now?" he asked.  "Jan is waiting for orders outside."

"Then I pray you call to Jan," she rejoined stiffly.

"The rogue is securely pinioned," he added even as he turned toward the door.  "I pray you have no fear of him."

"I have no fear," she said simply.

Stoutenburg strode out of the room and anon his harsh voice was heard calling to Jan.

For a moment then Gilda was alone -- for the third time now -- with the man whom she had hated more than she had ever hated a human creature before.  She remembered how last night and again at Leyden she had been conscious of an overpowering desire to wound him with hard and bitter words.  But now she no longer felt that desire, since Fate had hurt him more cruelly than she had wished to do.  He was standing there now before her, in all the glory of his magnificent physique, yet infinitely shamed and disgraced, self-confessed of every mean and horrible crime that has ever degraded manhood.

Yet in spite of this shame he still looked splendid and untamed: though his arms were bound to a pinion behind his back, his broad chest was not sunken, and he held himself very erect with that leonine head of his thrown well back and a smile of defiance, almost of triumph, sat upon every line of his face.

Anon she met his eyes; their glance compelled and held her own.  there was nothing but kindly humour within their depths.  Humour, ye gods! whence came the humour of the situation !  Here was a man condemned to death by an implacable enemy who was not like to show any mercy, and Gilda herself -- remembering all his crimes -- could no longer bring herself to ask for mercy for him, and yet the man seemed only to mock, to smile at fate, to take his present desperate position as lightly and as airily as another would take a pleasing turn of fortune's wheel.

Conscious at last that his look of unconquerable good-humour was working upon her nerves, Gilda forced herself to break the spell of numbness which had so unaccountably fallen upon her.

"I should like to say to you, sir," she murmured, "how deeply I regret the many harsh words I spoke to you at Leyden and . . . and also last night . . . believe me
there was no feeling in me of cruelty toward you when I spoke them."

"Indeed, mejuffrouw," he rejoined placidly, whilst the gentle mockery in his glance became more accentuated, "indeed I am sure that your harshness towards me was only dictated by your kindliness.  Believe me," he added lightly, "your words that evening at Leyden, and again last night were most excellent discipline for my temper: for this do I thank you!  they have helped me to bear subsequent events with greater equanimity."

She bit her lip, feeling vexed at his flippancy.  A man on the point of death should take the last hours of his life more seriously.

"It grieved me to see," she resumed somewhat more stiffly, "that one who could on occasions be so brave, should on others stoop to such infamous tricks."

"Man is ever a creature of opportunity, mejuffrouw," he said imperturbably.

"But I remembered you -- you see -- on New Year's Eve in the Dam Straat when you held up a mob to protect an unfortunate girl; oh! it was bravely done!"

"Yet believe me, mejuffrouw," he said with a whimsical smile, "that though I own appearances somewhat belie me, I have done better since."

"I wish I could believe you, sir.  But since then . . . oh! think of my horror when I recognized you the next day -- at Leyden -- after your cowardly attack upon me."

"Indeed I have thought of it already, mejuffrouw.  Dondersteen!  I must have appeared a coward before you then!"

He gave a careless shrug of the shoulders, and very quaintly did that carelessness sit on him now that he was pinioned, wounded and in a relentless enemy's hands.

"Perhaps I am a coward," he added with a strange little sigh, "you think so; the Loud of Stoutenburg declares that I am a miserable cur.  Does man ever know himself? I for one have never been worth the study."

"Nay, sir, there you do wrong yourself," she said gently, "I cannot rightly gauge what temptations did beset you when you lay hands upon a defenceless woman, or when you forged my brother's name . . . for this you did do, did you not?" she asked insistently.

"Have I not confessed to it?" he retorted quietly.

"Alas!  And for these crimes must I despise you," she added quaintly.  "But since then my mind hath been greatly troubled.  Something tells me -- and would to God I saw it all more clearly -- that much that you so bravely endure just now, is somehow because of me.  Am I wrong?"

He laughed, a dry, gentle, self-mocking laugh.

"That I have endured much because of you, mejuffrouw," he said gaily, "I'll not deny; my worthy patron St. Bavon being singularly slack in his protection of me on two or three memorable occasions; but this does not refer to my present state, which has come about because half a dozen men fell upon me when I was unarmed and pounded at me with heavy steel skates, which they swung by their straps.  The skates were good weapons, I must own, and have caused one or two light wounds which are but scraps of evil fortune that a nameless adventurer like myself must take along with kindlier favours.  So I pray you, mejuffrouw, have no further thought of my unpleasant bodily condition.  I have been through worse plights than this before, and if to-morrow I must hang. . . ."

"No, no!" she interrupted with a cry of horror, "that cannot and must not be."

"Indeed it can and must, mejuffrouw.  Ask the Lord of Stoutenburg what his intentions are."

"Oh! but I can plead with him," she declared.  "He hath told me things to-day which have made me very happy.  My heart is full of forgiveness for you, who have wronged me so, and I would feel happy in pleading for you."

Something that she said appeared to tickle his fancy, for at her words he threw his head right back and laughed immoderately, loudly and long.

"Ye gods!"  he cried, while she -- a little frightened and puzzled -- looked wide-eyed upon him -- "let me hear those words ringing in mine ears when the rope is round my neck.  The Lord of Stoutenburg hath the power to make a woman happy! the words he speaks are joy unto her heart!  Oh! ye gods, let me remember this and laugh at it until I die!"

His somewhat wild laugh had not ceased to echo in the low-raftered room, nor had Gilda time to recover her composure, before the door was thrown violently open and the Lord of Stoutenburg re-entered, followed by Jan and a group of men.

He threw a quick, suspicious glance on Gilda and on Diogenes, the latter answered him with one of good-humoured irony, but Gilda -- pale and silent -- turned her head away. 

Stoutenburg then pointed to Diogenes.

"Here is your prisoner," he said to Jan, "take him back to the place from whence you brought him.  Guard him well, Jan, for to-morrow he must hang and remember that your life shall pay for his if he escapes."

Jan thereupon gave a brief word of command, the men ranged themselves around the prisoner, whose massive figure was thus completely hidden from Gilda's view; only -- towering above the heads of the soldiers -- the wide sweep of the brow caught a glimmer of light from the flickering lamp overhead.

Soon the order was given.  The small knot of men turned and slowly filed out.  The Lord of Stoutenburg was the last to leave.  He bowed nearly to the ground when he finally left Gilda's presence.

And she remained alone, sitting by the fire, and staring into the smouldering ashes. She had heard news to-night that flooded her soul with happiness.  Her brother whom she loved was innocent of crime, and God Himself had interferred.  He had touched the heart of the Lord of Stoutenburg and stopped the infamous plot against the Stadtholder's life.  Yet Gilda's heart was unaccountably heavy, and as she sat on, staring into the fire, heavy tears fell unheeded from her eyes.