CHAPTER XXXIX - "SAUVE QUI PEUT"

Then it is that, out of the thickness of the fog a figure suddenly emerges running and panting: a man has fallen up against the group of soldiers who have just halted
beside the gibbet.

"It is Lucas of Sparendam come back from Delft," they cry as soon as they recognize the stained face, wet with the frost and the mist.

Already Jan -- who with Piet's help was busy with the rope -- has heard the name.  His wan, thin face has become the colour of ashes.

"Lucas of Sparendam back from Delft," he murmurs, "the Lord save us all!"

Lucas of Sparendam was sent yesterday to Delft by the Lord of Stoutenburg to spy and to find out all that was going on inside the Prinzenhof where slept the Stadtholder and his bodyguard of one hundred men-at-arms: and now he has come back running and panting: his clothes torn, his face haggard and spent.  He has run all the way from Delft -- a matter of a league and a half!  Why should a man half kill himself by endeavouring to cover a league and a half in one hour?

"A drop of hot wine for Lucas," cries one of the soldiers. "He is faint."

The other men -- there are close on forty all told -- crowd round the gibbet now, those in charge of the prisoner have much ado to keep the space clear.  They don't say anything just yet, but there is a strange, restless look in their eyes and their lips tremble with all the unspoken questions.

Only two men remain calm and silent, Jan has never ceased in his task of adjusting the ropes, and the prisoner stands quite still, bound with cords, and neither looking on Lucas nor yet on the gibbet above him.  His eyes are half closed and there is a strained look on his merry face as if he were trying to listen to something that was too far off to hear.

But one man in the meanwhile is ready with the bottle of spiced wine, the best cordial there is for a fainting man.  The others make way for him so that he can minister to Lucas.  And Lucas drinks the wine eagerly, then he opens his eyes.

"We are betrayed," he murmurs.

"Great God!" exclaims Jan dully.

"Betrayed!"

"What does it mean?"

No one heeds the prisoner now.  They all crowd around Lucas.  Jan calls out his orders in vain: Piet the Red alone listens to what he says, the others all want to know what Lucas means. They had been in the thick of a plot of course, they all knew that: a guet-apens had been prepared by the Lord of Stoutenburg for the Stadtholder whom he hates.  The heavy boxes of course -- gunpowder . . . to blow up the wooden bridge when the Stadtholder and his escort are half way across!

Of course they had all guessed it, thought on it all through the night while they polished the arms -- the swords and the pistols and the cullivers -- which had been served out to them.  They had guessed of course -- the foreign mercenaries who were always in the thick of every conspiracy and well paid for being so -- they had been the first to guess and they had told the country louts who only grinned enjoying the prospect of the fun.

But now they were betrayed.  Lucas of Sparendam had come back with the news, and even Jan stopped in his hideous task in order to listen to what he had to say.

"It all happened yesterday," quoth Lucas as soon as he had recovered his breath, "the rumour began in the lower quarters of the town.  Nobody knows who began it.  Some say that a foreigner came into the city in the early morning and sat down at one of the taverns to eat and drink with one of the Prince's soldiers."

"A foreigner?"

Jan turns to look on the prisoner and encounters his mocking glance.  Smothering a curse he resumes his task of adjusting the rope upon the gibbet, but his fingers are unsteady and his work doth not progress.

"Yes, a foreigner," continued Lucas volubly, "though it all has remained very mysterious.  The Prince's soldiers spoke of it amongst themselves . . . the foreigner had said something about a guet-apens, a plot against the Stadtholder's life on his way to the North . . . then one of the officers heard the rumour and carried it to one of his superiors . . . By the evening it had reached the Stadtholder's ears."

"Then what happened?" they all asked eagerly.

"Nothing for some hours," replied Lucas, "but I know that spies were sent round in every direction, and that by midnight there was general talk in the city that the Stadtholder would not continue his journey to the North.  When the captain of the guard came to him for orders the Prince said curtly: 'We do not start to-morrow!'  As soon as I heard of this I made preparations.  It was then an hour after midnight.  I was still alert and listening: all round me -- as I made ready to leave the city -- I heard rumours among the soldiers and spies of the Stadtholder, of their knowledge of a lonely spot -- a deserted molens -- near Ryswyk where they declared many men did lately congregate.  I heard too that soon after dawn the Prince's guard would make straight for the molens, so I put on my snow shoes and started to run, despite the darkness and the fog, for we are all betrayed and the Stadtholder's soldiers will be on us in a trice."

Hardly are the words out of Lucas Sparendam's mouth than the commotion begins, the disbanding; there is a roar and a bustle and a buzz: metal clashing, men rushing, cries of "we are betrayed! sauve qui peut!"

At first there is a general stampede for the places where the arms are kept -- the muskets, the swords and the cullivers -- but these are thrown down almost as soon as they are picked up.  They are no use now and worse than useless in a fight.  But pistols are useful, in case of pursuit.  "Quick, turn, fire! . . . so where are the pistols?  Jan, where are those pistols?"

There are not enough to go round: about a dozen were served out last night, and there are forty pairs of hands determined to possess one at least.  So they begin to fight for them, tearing one another to pieces, shouting execrations, beating round with bare fists, since the other arms have already been laid down.

Now the confusion becomes worse than any that might reign among a herd of animals who are ready to rend one another: they tear the clothes off one another's back, the skin off one another's face: fear -- hideous, overwhelming, abject fear, has made wild beasts of these men.  The mist envelops them, it is barely light in this basement beneath the molens: lanthorns have long ago been kicked into extinction.  The hot breath of forty panting throats mingles with the mist, and the heat of human bodies fever-heated with passion, fights against the strength of the frost.  The frozen ground yields under the feet, clots of mud are thrown up by the stampede, from the beams up aloft the heavy icicles melt and drip monotonously, incessantly down upon those faces, red and perspiring in an agony of demented fear.

Jan and Piet the Red stand alone beside the prisoner: a sense of duty, of decency hath kept their blood cool.  Until they are relieved from their post of guarding this man by orders from their lord, they will not move.  Let the others rage and scream and tumble over one another, there must be at least a few soldiers among this rabble.

And the prisoner looks on all this confusion with eyes that dance and sparkle with the excitement of what is yet to come.  Torn rags and broken accoutrements soon lie in a litter in the mud, trampled in by forty pairs of feet.  There is not one face now that is not streaked with blood, not one throat that is not hoarse with terror -- the terror of the unknown.

In vain Jan from his post beside the prisoner shouts, harangues, appeals, threatens!  A fight? yes! defeat? why not?  but betrayal! . . . no, no, let's away.  The Stadtholder is fiercer than any Inquisitor of Spain . . . his cruelty last February almost turned the nation against him.  But now -- this second conspiracy -- Stoutenburg again! What hope for his followers?

The horrors of last February perpetrated in the Gevangen Poort of 'S Graven Hage still cause many a rough cheek to blanch at their recollection.  Men had gone mad who had heard the cries which pierced those stone walls then.  One executioner had thrown down his bloody tools and fled from the place like one possessed!  Van Dyk and Korenwinder, Slatius and the rest had been in hell ere a merciful death at last released them from the barbaric cruelty of the Prince of Orange.

"No, no! such a fate cannot be risked.  We are betrayed! let us fly!"

Suddenly one man starts to run.

"I am for the coast!" he shouts, and incontinently takes to his heels.

"Sauve qui peut!"

Like irresponsible creatures they throw down the very weapons for which they have been fighting.  The one man has given the signal for the run.  Everything now is thrown aside, there is no thought save for flight.

A splashing of the mud, a general shout, a scramble, a clatter -- they run -- they run --crying to those who are behind to follow and run too.

In five minutes the dark basement is clear of noise -- a litter of broken arms lies in one heap close by, others are scattered all over the ground in the mud, together with torn clothing, rags of leather and of cloth and great red pools that mingle with the melted ice.

The mist surrounds it all, this abandoned battle field wherein fear was the victor over man.  The swiftly flying figures are soon swallowed up by the grey wall which lies dense and heavy over the lowland around; for the time they appear like ghosts with blurred outlines of torn doublets and scraps of felt hats placed awry; then the outline gets more dim as they run, and the kindly mist hides them from view.

Under the molens all is silent now.  Jan and Piet the Red guard the prisoner alone.  The gallows are ready or nearly so, but there is no one to send to the Lord of Stoutenburg to tell him this -- as he hath commanded -- so that he may see this man hang whom he hates.  And it would not be safe to leave the prisoner unguarded.  Only from time to time Jan looks to see that the ropes still hold fast, but for the most part his eyes are fixed upon the mist on his left, and by the avenging hordes sent by the Prince of Orange.

Now that all those panting, perspiring human creatures have gone, the frost is more bitter, more biting than before; but neither Piet nor Jan seem to heed it, though their flesh is blue with the cold.  Overhead there is a tramp of feet; the noble mynheers must have heard the confusion, they must have seen the flight; they are even now preparing to do in a slightly more dignified way what the foreign mercenaries and the louts from the country have done so incontinently.

The prisoner, hearing this tramp of feet over his head, looks more alertly around him.  He sees that Jan and Piet have remained on guard even whilst the others have fled.  He also sees the pile of heaped-up arms, the broken metal, the rags and the mud, and through the interstices of the wooden steeps the booted feet of the mynheers running helter-skelter down; and a mad, merry laugh -- that holds a world of joy in its rippling tones -- breaks from his lips.

The next moment from far away comes a weird cry through the mist.  A fox on the alert tries to lure his prey with that quaint cry of his, which appeals to the young birds and encourages them to come.  What should a fox be doing on these ice-covered tracks? he must have strayed from very far, from over the moor mayhap beyond Gonda; hunger no doubt hath made a wanderer of him, an exile from his home.

Jan listens -- greatly astonished -- what should a fox be doing here?  Piet is impassive, he knows nothing of the habits of foxes; sea-wolves are more familiar to him.  With his eyes Jan instinctively questions the prisoner:

"What should a fox be doing here on these ice-bound flats?" he mutely asks.

But the prisoner apparently cares nothing about the marvels of nature, cares nothing about exiled foxes.  His head is erect, his eyes dance with glee, a happy smile lights up his entire face.

Jan remembered that the others last night had called the wounded man the Laughing Cavalier.  A Cavalier he looked, every inch of him; the ropes mattered nothing, nor the torn clothing; proud, triumphant, happy, he was laughing with all the light-hearted gaiety which pertains to youth.

The Laughing Cavalier forsooth.   Lucky devil! if he can laugh!  Jan sighed and marvelled when the Lord of Stoutenburg would relieve him from his post.