What a commotion when dawn breaks at last; it comes grey, dull, leaden, scarce lighter than the night, the haze more dense, the frost more biting. But it does break at last after that interminable night of excitement and sleeplessness and preparations for the morrow.
Jan has never closed an eye, he has scarcely
rested even, pacing up and down, in and out of those gargantuan
beams, with the molens and its secrets towering above his head.
Nor I imagine did those noble lords and mynheers up there sleep
much during this night; but they were tired and lay like logs
upon straw paillasses, living over again the past few hours, the
carrying of heavy iron boxes one by one from the molens to the
wooden bridge, the unloading there, the unpacking in the darkness,
and the disposal of the death-dealing powder, black and evil smelling,
which will put an end with its one mighty crash -- to tyranny
and the Stadtholder's life.
Tired they are but too excited to sleep: the
last few hours are like a vivid dream; the preparation of the
tinder, the arrangements, the position to be taken up by Beresteyn
and Heemskerk, the two chosen lieutenants who will send the wooden
bridge over the Schie flying in splinters into the air.
Van Does too has his work cut out. General
in command of the forces -- foreign mercenaries and louts from
the country -- he has Jan for able captain. The Mercenaries
and the louts know nothing yet of what will happen to-morrow --
when once the dawn has broken -- but they are well prepared; like
beasts of the desert they can scent blood in the air; look at
them polishing up their swords and cleaning their cullivers! they
know that to-morrow they will fight, even though to-night they
have had no orders save to see that one prisoner tied with ropes
to a beam and fainting with exposure and loss of blood does not
contrive to escape.
But the Lord of Stoutenburg is more wakeful
than all. Like a caged beast of prey he paces up and down
the low, narrow weighing-room of the molens, his hands tightly
clenched behind his back, his head bare, his cloak cast aside
despite the bitter coldness of the night.
Restless and like a beast of prey; his nostrils
quiver with the lust of hate and revenge that seethes within his
soul. Two men doth he hate with a consuming passion of hatred,
the Stadtholder Prince of Orange, sovereign ruler of half the
Netherlands, and a penniless adventurer whose very name is unknown.
Both these men are now in the power of the
Lord of Stoutenburg. The bridge is prepared, the powder
laid, to-morrow justice will be meted out to the tyrant; God alone
could save him now, and God, of a surety, must be on the side
of a just revenge. The other man is helpless and a prisoner;
despite his swagger and his insolence, justice shall be meted
out to him too; God alone could save him, and God, of a surety,
could not be on the side of an impudent rogue.
These thoughts, which were as satisfying to
the Lord of Stoutenburg as food placed at an unattainable distance
is to a starving beast, kept him awake and pacing up and down
the room after he had finished his work under the bridge.
He could not sleep for thinking of the prisoner,
of the man's insolence, of the humiliation and contempt wherewith
every glance he had brought shame to his cheeks. The Lord
of Stoutenburg could not sleep also for thinking of Gilda, and
the tender, pitying eyes wherewith she regarded the prisoner,
the gentle tone of her voice when she spoke to him, even after
proof had been placed before her that the man was a forger and
The Lord of Stoutenburg could not sleep and
all the demons of jealousy, of hatred and of revenge were chasing
him up and down the room and whispering suggestions of mischief
to be wrought, of a crime to be easily committed.
"While that man lives," whispered
the demon of hate in his ear, "thou wilt not know a moment's
rest. Thou wilt think of him and of his death, rather than
of thy vengeance against the Stadtholder."
"While that man lives," whispered
the demon of jealousy more insistently than did the other evil
spirits, "Gilda will not cease to think of him, she will
plead for him, she will try mayhap to save him and then --"
And the Lord of Stoutenburg groaned aloud in
the silence of the night, and paused in his restless walk. He
drew a chair close to the table, and sat down; then resting his
elbows upon the table, he buried his head in his hands, and remained
thus motionless but breathing heavily like one whose soul is fighting
a losing battle.
The minutes sped on. He had no means
of gauging the time. It was just night, black impenetrable
night. From down below came the murmur of all the bustle
that was going on, the clang of arms, the measured footsteps which
told of other alert human creatures who were waiting in excitement
and tense expectancy for that dawn which still was far distant.
The minutes sped on, on the leaden feet of
time. How long the Lord of Stoutenburg had sat thus, silent and
absorbed, he could not afterwards have said. Perhaps after
all he had fallen asleep, overcome with fatigue and with the constant
sleeplessness of the past few days. But anon he was wide
awake, slightly shivering with the cold. The tallow candle
was spluttering, almost dying out. With a steady hand the
Lord of Stoutenburg snuffed the smouldering wick, the candle flickered
up again. Then he rose and quietly walked across the room.
He pulled open the door and loudly called for Jan.
A few minutes later Jan was at the door, silent,
sullen, obedient as usual.
"My lord called?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Stoutenburg, "what
hour is it?"
"Somewhere near six I should say, my lord.
I heard the tower-clock at Ryswyk strike five some time ago."
"How long is it before the dawn?"
"Two hours, my lord."
"Time to put up a gibbet, Jan? and to
hang a man?"
"Plenty of time for that, my lord,"
replied Jan quietly.
"Then see to it, Jan, as speedily as you
can. I feel that that man down below is our evil genius.
While he lives Chance will be against us, of that I am as convinced
as I am of the justice of our cause. If that man lives,
Jan, the Stadtholder will escape us; I feel it in my bones: something
must have told me this in the night -- it is a premonition that
comes from above."
"Then the man must not live, my lord,"
said Jan coldly.
"You recognize that too, Jan, do you not?"
rejoined Stoutenburg eagerly. "I am compelled in this
-- I won't say against my will, but compelled by a higher, a supernatural
power. You, too, believe in the supernatural, do you not,
my faithful Jan?"
"I believe, my lord, first and foremost
in the justice of our cause. I hate the Stadtholder and
would see him dead. Nothing in the world must place that
great aim of ours in jeopardy."
Stoutenburg drew a deep breath of satisfaction.
"Then see to the gibbet, my good Jan,"
he said in a firm almost lusty voice, "have it erected on
the further side of the molens so that the jongejuffrouw's eyes
are not scandalized by the sight. When everything is ready
come and let me know, and guard him well until then, Jan, guard
him with your very life; I want to see him hang, remember that!
Come and tell me when the gallows are ready and I'll go to see
him hang . . . I want to see him hang. . . ."
And Jan without another word salutes the Lord
of Stoutenburg and then goes out.
And thus it is that a quarter of an hour later
the silence of the night is broken by loud and vigorous hammering.
Jan sees to it all and a gibbet is not difficult to erect.
Then men grumble of course; they are soldiers
and not executioners, and their hearts for the most have gone
out to that merry compeer -- the Laughing Cavalier -- with his
quaint jokes and his cheerful laugh. He has been sleeping
soundly too for several hours, but now he is awake. Jan
has told him that his last hour has come: time to put up a gibbet
with a few stiff planks taken from the store-room of the molens
and a length of rope.
He looks round him quite carelessly.
Bah! death has no terrors for such a splendid soldier as he is.
How many times hath he faced death ere this? -- why he was at
Prague and at Madgeburg where few escaped with their lives.
He bears many a fine scar on that broad chest of this and none
upon his back. A splendid fighter, if ever there was one!
But hanging? Bah!
The men murmur audibly as plank upon plank
is nailed. Jan directs operations whilst Piet the Red keeps
guard over the prisoner. Two or three of the country louts
know something of carpentering. They do the work under Jan's
watchful eye. They grumble but they work, for no one has
been paid yet, and if you rebel you are like to be shot, and in
any case you lose your pay.
And Diogenes leaning up against the beam watches
with lazy quaintly smiling eyes the preparations that are going
on not a hundred paces away from him. After a while the
darkness all around is beginning to yield to the slow insistence
of dawn. It rises slowly behind the veils of mist which
still envelop the distant East. Gradually an impalpable
greyness creeps around the molens, objects begin to detach themselves
one by one out of the gloom, the moving figures of the mercenaries,
the piles of arms heaped up here and there out of the damp, the
massive beams slimy and green which support the molens, and a
little further on the tall erection with a projecting arm round
which great activity reigns.
Diogenes watches it all with those same lazy
eyes, and that same good-humoured smile lingering round his lips.
That tall erection over there which still looks ghostlike through
the mist is for him. The game of life is done and he has
lost. Death is there at the end of the projecting arm on
which even now Jan is fixing a rope.
"Death in itself matters but little,"
mused the philosopher with his gently ironical smile. "I
would have chosen another mode than hanging . . . but after all
'tis swift and sure; and of course now she will never know."
Know what, O philosopher? What is it
that she -- Gilda -- with the fair curls and the blue eyes, the
proud firm mouth and round chin -- what is it that she will never
She will never know that a nameless, penniless
soldier of fortune has loved her with every beat of his heart,
every thought of his brain, with every sinew and every aspiration.
She will never know that just in order to remain near her, when
she was dragged away out of Rotterdam he affronted deliberately
the trap into which he fell. She will never know that for
her dear sake, he has borne humiliation against which every nerve
of his splendid nature did inwardly rebel, owning to guilt and
shame lest her blue eyes shed tears from a brother's sin.
She will never know that the warning to the Stadtholder came from
him, and that he was neither a forger nor a thief, only just a
soldier of fortune with a contempt for death, and an unspoken
adoration for the one woman who seemed to him as distant from
him as the stars.
But there were no vain regrets in him now;
no regret of life, for this he always held in his own hand ready
to toss it away for a fancy of an ideal -- no regret of the might-have-been
because he was a philosopher, and the very moment that love for
the unattainable was born in his heart he had already realized
that love to him could only mean a memory.
Therefore when he watched the preparations
out there in the mist, and heard the heavy blows upon the wooden
planks and the murmurs of his sympathizers at their work, he only
smiled gently, self-deprecatingly, but always good-humouredly.
If the Lord of Stoutenburg only knew how little he really cared.