CHAPTER XXXVIII - THE HOUR


A curiously timid voice roused the philosopher from his dreams.

"Is there aught I can do for you, sir?  Alas! my friend the Lord Stoutenburg is deeply angered against you.  I could do nothing with him on your behalf."

Diogenes turned his head in the direction whence had come the voice.  He saw Nicolaes Beresteyn standing there in the cold grey mist, with this fur cloak wrapped closely up to his chin, and his face showing above the cloak, white and drawn.

The situation was not likely to escape Diogenes' irrepressible sense of humour.

"Mynheer Beresteyn, he exclaimed; "Dondersteen! what brings your Mightiness here at this hour?  A man on the point of death sir, has no call for so pitiable a sight as is your face just now."

"I heard from my Lord Stoutenburg what happened in the hut last night," said Beresteyn in a faltering voice, and determined not to heed the other's bantering tone.  "You exonerated me before my sister . . . sir, this was a noble act . . . I would wish to thank you . . ."

"And do so with quaking voice and shaking knees," quoth Diogenes with unalterable god-humour, through which there pierced however an obvious undercurrent of contempt.  "Ye gods!" he added with a quaint sigh, "these men have not even the courage of their infamy!"

The words, the tone, the shrug of the shoulders which accompanied these, stung Nicolaes Beresteyn's dormant dignity to the quick.

"I do not wonder," he said more firmly, "that you feel bitter contempt for me now.  Your generosity for which I did not crave hath placed me momentarily at a disadvantage before you.  Yet believe me I would not be outdone my you in generosity; were it not for my allegiance to the Lord Stoutenburg I would go straight to my sister now and confess my guilt to her . . . You believe me I trust," he added, seeing that Diogenes' merry eyes were fixed mockingly upon him, "did fate allow it I would gladly change places with you even now."

"I am about to hang, sir," quoth Diogenes lightly.

"Alas!"

"And you are forced, you say, to play a craven's part; believe me, sir, I would not change places with you for a kingdom."

"I do believe you, sir," rejoined Beresteyn earnestly, "yet I would have you think of me as something less of a coward than I seem.  Were I to make full confession to my sister now, I should break her heart -- but it would not save your neck from the gallows."

"And a rogue's neck, sir, is of such infinitely less value than a good woman's heart.  So I pray you say no more about it.  Death and I are old acquaintances, oft hath he nodded to me en passant, we are about to become closer friends, that is all."

"Some day my sister shall know, sir, all that you have done for her and for me."

The ghost of a shadow passed over the Laughing Cavalier's face.

"That sir, I think had best remain 'twixt you and me for all times.  But this I would have you know, that when I accepted the ignoble bargain which you proposed to me in my friend Hals' studio, I did so because I thought that the jongejuffrouw would be safer in my charge then than in yours!"

Beresteyn was about to retort more hotly when Jan, closely followed by half a dozen men, came with swift, firm footsteps up to the prisoner.  He saluted Beresteyn deferentially as was his wont.

"Your pardon, mynheer," he said, "my lord hath ordered that the prisoner be forthwith led to execution."

Nicolaes' pale face became the colour of lead.

"One moment, Jan," he said, "one moment.  I must speak with my lord . . . I . . ."

"My lord is with the jongejuffrouw," said Jan curtly, "shall I send to tell him that you desire to speak with him?"

"No -- no -- that is I . . . I  . . ." stammered Nicolaes who, indeed, was fighting a cruel battle with his own weakness, his own cowardice now.  It was that weakness which had brought him to the abject pass in which he now stood, face to face with the man he had affected to despise, and who was about to die, laden with the crimes which he Nicolaes had been the first to commit.

Stoutenburg's influence over him had been paramount, through it he had lost all sense of justice, of honour and of loyalty; banded with murderers he had ceased to recognize the very existence of honesty, and now he was in such a plight morally, that though he knew himself to be playing an ignoble rôle, he did not see the way to throw up the part and to take up that of an honest man.  One word from him to Gilda, his frank confession of his own guilt, and she would so know how to plead for the condemned man that Stoutenburg would not dare to proceed with this monstrous act.

But that word he had not the courage to speak.

With dull eyes and in sullen silence he watched Piet the Red untying under Jan's orders the ropes which held the prisoner to the beam, and then securing others to keep his arms pinioned behind his back.  The mist now was of a faint silvery grey, and the objects around had that mysterious hushed air which the dawn alone can lend.  The men, attracted by the sight of a fellow creature in his last living moments, had gathered together in close knots of threes and fours.  They stood by, glowering and sombre, and had not Jan turned a wilfully deaf ear to their murmurings he would have heard many an ugly word spoken under their breath.

These were of course troublous and fighting times, when every man's hand was against some other, when every able-bodied man was firstly a soldier and then only a peaceable citizen.  Nor was the present situation an uncommon one: the men could not know what the prisoner had done to deserve this summary punishment.  He might have been a spy -- an informer -- or merely a prisoner of war.  It was no soldier's place to interfere, only to obey orders and to ask no questions.

But they gave to the splendid personality of the condemned man the tribute of respectful silence.  Whilst Jan secured the slender white hands of the prisoner, and generally made those awful preparations which even so simple a death as hanging doth demand, jests and oaths were stilled one by one among these rough fighting men, not one head but was uncovered, not a back that was not straightened, not an attitude that was not one of deference and attention.  Instinct -- that unerring instinct of the soldier -- had told them that here was no scamp getting his just reward, but a brave man going with a careless smile to his death.

"Has mynheer finished with the prisoner?" asked Jan when he saw that Piet had finished his task and that the prisoner was ready to be led away.  "Is there aught your greatness would still desire to say to him?"

"Only this," said Beresteyn firmly, "that were his hands free I would ask leave to grasp them."

A look of kindly amusement fell from the prisoner's eyes upon the pale face of the young man.
 

"I have never known you, sir, save by a quaint nickname," continued Beresteyn earnestly, "but surely you have kith and kin somewhere.  Have you no father or mother living whom you will leave to mourn?"

The prisoner made no immediate reply, the smile of kindly amusement still lingered round his lips, but presently with an instinctive gesture of pride, he threw back his head and looked around him, as one who has nothing to fear and but little to regret.  He met the sympathetic glance cast on him by the man who had done him -- was still doing him -- an infinite wrong, and all round those of his mute and humble friends who seemed to be listening eagerly now for the answer which he would give to mynheer.  Then with a quick sweep his eyes suddenly rested on the wooden erection beyond the molens that loomed out so tragically through the mist, pointing with its one weird arm to some infinite distance away.

Something in the gentle pathos of this humble deference that encompassed him, something mayhap in the solemnity of that ghostly arm suddenly seemed to melt the thin crust of his habitual flippancy.  He looked back on Beresteyn and said softly:

"I have a friend, Frans Hals -- the painter of pictures -- tell him when next you see him that I am glad his portrait of me is finished, and that I asked God to bless him for all his goodness has meant to me in the past."

"But your father, sir," urged Beresteyn, "your kindred . . ."

"My father, sir," replied Diogenes curtly, "would not care to hear that his son had died upon the gallows."

Beresteyn would have spoken again but Jan interposes once more, humbly but firmly.

"My lord's orders," he now says briefly, "and time presses, mynheer."

Beresteyn stands back, smothering a sigh.   Jan on ahead, then Piet the Red and the six soldiers with the prisoner between them.  A few steps only divide them from the gruesome erection that looms more solidly now out of the mist.  Beresteyn, wrapping his head up in the cloak to shut out sound and sight, walks rapidly away in the opposite direction.