And now for the clang of arms, the movement, the bustle, the excitement of combat! There are swords to polish, pistols to clean, cullivers to see to! Something is in the air! We have not been brought hither all the way to this God-forsaken and fog-ridden spot in order to stare on a tumbledown molens, or watch a solitary prisoner ere he hang.
Jan knows of course, and Jan is eager and alert,
febrile in his movements, there is a glow in his hollow eyes.
And Jan always looks like that when fighting is in the air, when
he sniffs the scent of blood and hears the resonance of metal
against metal. Jan knows of course. He has no thought
of sleep, all night he wanders up and down the improvised camp.
No fires allowed and it is pitch dark, but an occasional glimmer
from a lanthorn lights up compact groups of men lying prone upon
the frozen ground, wrapped in thick coats, or huddled up with
knees to chin trying to keep warm.
A few lanthorns are allowed, far into the interior
of that weird forest of beams under the molens where slender protection
against a bitter north-westerly wind can alone be found.
Shoulder to shoulder, getting warmth one from
the other, we are all too excited to sleep. Something is
in the air, some fighting to be done, and yet there are only thirty
or forty of us at most: but swords and cullivers have been given
out, and half the night through my lord and his friends, served
only by Jan, have been carrying heavy loads from the molens out
toward the Schie and the wooden bridge that spans it.
Silently, always coming away with those heavy
loads from the molens, and walking with them away into the gloom,
always returning empty-handed, and served only by Jan. Bah,
we are no cullions! 'tis not mighty difficult to guess.
And by the saints! why all this mystery? Some of us are
paid to fight, what care we how we do it? in the open with muskets
or crossbows, or in the dark, with a sudden blow which no man
knows from whence it comes.
All night we sit and wait, and all night we
are under the eye of Jan. He serves his lord and helps him
to carry those heavy boxes from the molens to some unknown place
by the Schie, but he is always there when you least expect him,
watching to see that all is well, that there is not too much noise,
that no one has been tempted to light a fire, that we do not quarrel
too hotly among ourselves.
He keeps a watchful eye, too, upon the prisoner:
poor beggar! with a broken shoulder and a torn hip, and
some other wounds too, about his body. A good fighter no
doubt! but there were seven against him, and that was a good idea
to swing heavy skates by their straps and to bring him down with
them. His head was too high, else a blow from those sharp
blades might have ended his life more kindly than the Lord of
Stoutenburg hath planned to do.
A merry devil too! full of quaint jokes
and tales of gay adventure! By Gad! a real soldier of fortune!
devil-may-care! eat and drink and make merry for to-morrow we
may die. Jan has ordered him to be kept tied to a beam!
God-verdomme! but 'tis hard on a wounded man, but he seems tougher
than the beams, and laughter in his throat quickly smothers groans.
Tied to a beam, he is excellent company!
Ye gods, how his hands itch to grip his sword. Piet the
Red over there! let him feel the metal against his palms,
'twill ease his temper for sure! Jan is too severe: but 'tis my
lord's rage that was unbridled. Ugh! to strike a prisoner
in the face. 'Twas a dirty trick and many saw it.
Heigh-ho, but what matter! To-morrow
we fight, to-morrow he hangs! What of that?
To-morrow most of us mayhap will be lying stark and stiff upon
the frozen ground, staring up at next night's moon, with eyes
that no longer see! A rope round the neck, a hole in the
side, a cracked skull! what matters which mode Dame Death
will choose for our ultimate end. But 'tis a pity about
the prisoner! A true fighter if there was one, a stoic and
a philosopher. "The Cavalier" we pretty soon call
"What ho!" he shouts, "call
me the Laughing Cavalier!"
Poor devil! he tries not to show his hurts.
He suffers much what with that damnable wind and those ropes that
cut into his tough sinews, but he smiles at every twinge of pain;
smiles and laughs and cracks the broadest jokes that have e'er
made these worm-eaten beams ring with their echo.
The Laughing Cavalier in sooth!
There! now we can ease him somewhat.
Jan's back is turned: we dare not touch the ropes, but a cloak
put between his back and the beam, and another just against his
Is that not better, old compeer?
Aye! but is it not good to be a villain and
a rogue and herd with other villains and other rogues who are
so infinitely more kind and gentle than all those noble lords?
Diogenes -- his head propped against the rude
cushion placed there by the hand of some rough Samaritan -- has
fallen into a fitful doze.
Whispers around him wake him with a start.
Ye gods! was there even so black a night? The whispers become
more eager, more insistent.
"Let us but speak with him. We'll
do no harm!"
St. Bavon tell us how those two scare-crows
have got here! For they are here in the flesh, both of them,
Diogenes would have spotted his brother philosophers through darkness
darker than the blackest hell. Pythagoras rolling in fat
and Socrates lean and hungry-looking, peering like a huge gaunt
bird through the gloom. Someone is holding up a lanthorn
and Pythagoras' tip-tilted nose shines with a ruddy glow.
"But how did you get here, you old mushroom-face?"
asks one of the men.
"We had business with him at Rotterdam,"
quoth Socrates with one of his choicest oaths and nodding in the
direction of the prisoner. "All day we have wondered
what has become of him."
"Then in the afternoon," breaks in
Pythagoras, to the accompaniment of a rival set of expletives,
"we saw him trussed like a fowl and tied into a sledge drawn
by a single horse, which started in the wake of a larger one wherein
sat a lovely jongejuffrouw."
"Then what did you do?" queries some
"Do?" exclaimed the philosophers
simultaneously and in a tone of deep disgust.
"Followed on his trail as best we could,"
rejoins Socrates simply, "borrowed some skates, ran down
the Schie in the wake of the two sledges and their escort."
"And after that?"
"After that we traced him to this solitary
God-forsaken hole, but presently we saw that this molens was not
so deserted as it seemed, so we hung about until now . . .
then we ventured nearer . . . and here we are."
Here they were of course, but how was it possible
to contravene the orders of Jan? What could these scarecrows
have to say to the Laughing Cavalier?
"Just to ask him if there's anything we
can do," murmurs Socrates persuasively. "He's
like to hang to-morrow, you said, well! grant something then to
a dying man."
Grave heads shake in the gloom.
"Our orders are strict. . . ."
"'Tis a matter of life and death it seems.
. . ."
"Bah! quoth Pythagoras more insinuatingly
still, "we are two to your thirty! What have ye all
"Here! tie my hands behind my back,"
suggests Socrates. "I only want to speak with him.
How could we help him to escape?"
"We would not think of such a thing,"
murmurs Pythagoras piously.
Anxious glances meet one another in consultation.
More than one kindly heart beats beneath these ragged doublets.
Bah! the man is to hang to-morrow, why not give pleasure to a
If indeed it be a pleasure to look on such
hideous scarecrows a few hours before death.
Jan is not here. He is with my lord,
helping with those heavy boxes.
"Five minutes, you old mushroom-face,"
suggests he who has been left in charge.
And all the others nod approval.
But they will take no risks about the prisoner.
Pleasure and five minutes' conversation with his friends, yes!
but no attempt at escape. So the men make a wide circle
sitting out of ear-shot, but shoulder to shoulder the thirty of
them who happen to be awake. In the centre of the circle
is the Laughing Cavalier tied to a beam, trussed like a fowl since
he is to hang on the morrow.
Close beside his feet is the lanthorn so that
he may have a last look at his friends, and some few paces away
his naked sword which Jan took from him when the men brought him
He has listened to the whispered conversation
-- he knows that his brother philosophers are here. May
the God of rogues and villains bless them for their loyalty.
"And now St. Bavon show me the best way
to make use of them!"
There is still something to be done, which
hath been left undone, a word hath been given and that pledge
must be fulfilled, and the promised fortune still awaits him who
will bring the jongejuffrouw safely to her father!
"My God, if it were not for that broken
shoulder and that torn hip! . . . there are many hours yet before
"Old compeer!" came in a hoarse whisper
close to his ear, "how did you come to such a pass?"
"They came and took the jongejuffrouw
away from Rotterdam," he replied also speaking in a whisper.
"I had just returned from Delft, where I had business to
transact and I recognized Jan beside the sledge into which the
jongejuffrouw was stepping even then. He had ten or a dozen
men with him. I felt that they meant mischief -- but I had
to follow . . . I had to find out whither they were taking her.
. . ."
"Verdommt!" growled Socrates under
his breath. "Why did you not take us along?"
"I meant to come back for you, as soon
as I knew . . . but in the dark . . . and from behind, seven of
these fellows fell upon me . . . they used their skates like javelins.
. .mine were still on my feet . . . I had only Bucephalus. . .
. A blow from one of the heaviest blades cracked my shoulder,
another caught me on the hip. There were seven of them,"
he reiterated with a careless laugh, "it was only a question
of time, they were bound to bring me down in the end."
"But who has done this? queried Pythagoras
with an oath.
"A lucky rogue on whom God hath chosen
to smile. But," he added more seriously and sinking
his voice to the lowest possible whisper, "never mind about
the past. Let us think of the future, old compeers."
"We are ready," they replied simultaneously.
"A knife?" he murmured, "can
you cut these confounded ropes?"
"They took everything from us," growled
Socrates, "ere they let us approach you."
"Try with your hands to loosen the knots."
"What ho! you brigands, what are you doing
In a moment the circle around broke up.
A crowd of angry faces were gathered closely round the philosophers,
and more than one pair of rough hands were laid upon their shoulders.
"Play fair, you two!" cried Piet
the Red, who was in command, "or we'll tie you both to the
nearest beams and await my lord's commands."
"Easy, easy, friend," quoth Diogenes
with a pleasant laugh, "my nose was itching and my compeer
held on to my arm while he tried to reach my nose in order to
"Then if it itch again," retorted
the man with an equally jovial laugh, "call for my services,
friend. And now, you two scarecrows! the five minutes are
over. Jan will be here in a moment."
But they formed up the circle once more, kind
and compassionate. Jan was not yet here, and the rogues
had had a warning: they were not like to be at their tricks again.
"Never mind about me," whispered
Diogenes hurriedly as Pythagoras and Socrates, baffled and furious,
were giving forth samples of their choicest vocabularies.
"You see that Chance alone can favour me an she choose, if
not . . . 'tis no matter. What you can do for me is far
more important than cheating the gallows of my carcase."
"What is it?" they asked simply.
"The jongejuffrouw," he said, "you
know where she is?"
"In the hut -- close by," replied
Socrates, "we saw the sledge draw up there. . . ."
"But the house is well guarded,"
"Nor would I ask you to run your heads
in the same noose wherein mine will swing to-morrow. But
keep the hut well in sight. At any hour -- any moment now
there may be a call of sauve qui peut. Every man for himself
and the greatest luck to the swiftest runner."
"Never mind why. It is sure to happen.
Any minute you may hear the cry . . . confusion, terror . . .
a scramble and rush for the open."
"And our opportunity," came in a
hoarse whisper from Socrates. "I think that I begin
"We lie low for the present and when sauve
qui peut is called we come straight back here and free you . .
. in the confusion they will have forgotten you."
"If the confusion occurs in time,"
quoth Diogenes with his habitual carelessness, "you may still
find me here trussed like a fowl to this verdommte beam.
But I have an idea that the Lord of Stoutenburg will presently
be consumed with impatience to see me hang . . . he has just finished
some important work by the bridge on the Schie . . . he won't
be able to sleep and the devil will be suggesting some mischief
for his idle hands to do. There will be many hours to kill
before daylight, one of them might be well employed in hanging
"Then we'll not leave you an instant,"
asserted Pythagoras firmly.
"What can you do, you two old scarecrows,
against the Lord of Stoutenburg who has thirty men here paid to
do his bidding?"
"We are not going to lie low and play
the part of cowards while you are being slaughtered."
"You will do just what I ask, faithful
old compeers," rejoined Diogenes more earnestly than was
his wont. "You will lie very low and take the greatest
possible care not to run your heads into the same rope wherein
mayhap mine will dangle presently. Nor will you be playing
the part of cowards, for you have not yet learned the A B C of
that part, and you will remember that on your safety and freedom
of action lies my one chance, not so much of life as of saving
my last shred of honour."
"What do you mean?"
"The jongejuffrouw --" he whispered,
"I swore to bring her back to her father and I must cheat
a rascal of his victory. In the confusion -- at dawn to-morrow
-- think above all of the jongejuffrouw. . . . In the confusion
you can overpower the guard -- rush the miller's hut where she
is . . . carry her off . . . the horses are in the shed behind
the hut . . . you may not have time to think of me."
"But . . ."
"Silence -- they listen. . . ."
"One of us with the jongejuffrouw -- the
other to help you --"
"Silence . . . I may be a dead man by
then -- the jongejuffrouw remember -- make for Ryswyk with her
first of all -- thence straight to Haarlem -- to her father --
you can do it easily. A fortune awaits you if you bring
her safely to him. Fulfil my pledge, old compeers, if I
am not alive to do it myself. I don't ask you to swear --
I know you'll do it -- and if I must to the gallows first I'll
do so with a cry of triumph."
"But you . . ."
"Silence!" he murmured again peremptorily,
but more hoarsely this time for fatigue and loss of blood and
tense excitement are telling upon his iron physique at last--
he is well-nigh spent and scarce able to speak. "Silence
-- I can hear Jan's footsteps. Here! quick! inside my boot
. . . a wallet? Have you got it?" he added with a brief
return to his habitual gaiety as he felt Socrates' long fingers
groping against his shins, and presently beheld his wallet in
his compeer's hand. "You will find money in there --
enough for the journey. Now quick into the night, you two
-- disappear for the nonce, and anon when sauve qui peut rings
in the air -- to-night or at dawn or whenever this may be, remember
the jongejuffrouw first of all and when you are ready give the
cry we all know so well -- the cry of the fox when it lures its
prey. If I am not dangling on a gibbet by then, I shall
understand. But quick now! -- Jan comes! -- Disappear I
say! . . ."
Quietly and swiftly Socrates slipped the wallet
with some of the money back into his friend's boot, the rest he
hid inside his own doublet.
Strange that between these men there was no
need of oaths. Pythagoras and Socrates had said nothing:
silent and furtive they disappeared into the darkness. Diogenes'
head sank down upon his breast with a last sigh of satisfaction.
He knew that his compeers would do what he had asked.
Jan's footsteps rang on the hard-frozen ground -- silently the
living circle had parted and the philosophers were swallowed up
by the gloom.
Jan looks suspiciously at the groups of men
who now stand desultorily around.
"Who was standing beside the prisoner
just now?" he asks curtly.
"When, captain?" queries one of the
"A moment ago. I was descending
the steps. The lanthorn was close to the prisoner; I saw
two forms -- that looked unfamiliar to me -- close to him."
"Oh!" rejoined Piet the Red unblushingly,
"it must have been my back that you saw, captain. Willem
and I were looking to see that the ropes had not given way.
The prisoner is so restless. . . ."
Jan -- not altogether re-assured -- goes up
to the prisoner. He raises the lanthorn and has a good and
comprehensive look at all the ropes. Then he examines the
"What ho!" he cries, "a bottle of spiced wine from my wallet. The prisoner has fainted."