CHAPTER XXXVI - BROTHER PHILOSOPHERS


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 him.

"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 head.

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 one.

"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 to fear?"

"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 dying man?

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 down.

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 the morrow."

"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 there?"

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
scratch it."

"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," murmured Pythagoras.

"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."

"But why?"

"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 to understand."

"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 me."

"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 men blandly.

"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 man's face.

"What ho!" he cries, "a bottle of spiced wine from my wallet.  The prisoner has fainted."