And am I not proved fully justified in my statement that but for many seemingly paltry circumstances, the further events which I am about to place on record, and which have been of paramount importance to the history of no less than two great and worthy families, never would have shaped themselves as they did.
For who could assert that but for the presence of three philosophers on the Grootemarkt on the eve of the New Year, and their subsequent interference in the fray outside the Papist convent door in the Dam Straat, who could assert, I say, that but for these minor circumstances Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn would have condescended to exchange half a dozen words with three out-at-elbows, homeless, shiftless, foreign adventurers who happened to have drifted into Haarlem--the Lord only knew for what purpose with what hopes.
Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn had been well and rigidly brought up; she was well educated, and possessed more knowledge than most young girls of her social standing or of her age. Mynheer Beresteyn, her father, was a gentleman of vast consideration in Haarlem, and as his two children had been motherless as soon as the younger one saw the light of day, he had been doubly careful in his endeavours that his daughter should in no way feel the lack of that tender supervision of which it had pleased God to deprive her.
Thus she had been taught early in life to keep herself aloof from all persons save those approved of by her father or her brother--a young man of sound understanding, some half dozen ears older than herself. As for the strangers who for purposes of commerce of other less avowable motives filled the town of Haarlem with their foreign ways -- which oft were immoral and seldom sedate -- she had been strictly taught to hold these in abhorrence and never to approach such men either with word or gesture.
Was it likely, then, that she ever would have spoken to three thriftless knaves? -- and this at a late hour of the night -- but for the fact that she had witnessed their valour from a distance, and with queenly condescension hoped to reward them with a gracious word.
The kiss imprinted upon her hand by respectful, if somewhat bantering, lips had greatly pleased her: such she imagined would be the homage of a vassal proud to have attracted the notice of his lady paramount. The curtly expressed desire to quit her presence, in order to repair to a tavern, had roused her indignation and her contempt.
She was angered beyond what the circumstance warranted, and while the minister preached an admirable and learned watch-night sermon she felt her attention drifting away from the discourse and the solemnity of the occasion, whilst her wrath against a most unworthy object was taking the place of more pious and charitable feelings.
The preacher had taken for his text the sublime words from the New Testament: "The greatest of these is charity." He thought that the first day of the New Year was a splendid opportunity for the good inhabitants of Haarlem to cast of all gossiping and back-biting ways and to live from this day forth in greater amity and benevolence with one another. "Love thy neighbour as thyself," he adjured passionately, and the burghers, with their vrouws in their Sunday best, were smitten with remorse of past scandal-mongering, and vowed that in the future they would live in perfect accord and good-will.
Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn, too, thought of all her friends and acquaintances with the kindliest of feelings, and she had not a harsh thought for anyone in her heart . . . not for anyone, at any rate, who was good and deserving . . . As for that knavish malapert with the merry, twinkling eyes and the mocking smile, God would not desire her to be in charity with him; a more ungrateful, more impertinent wretch, she had never met, and it was quite consoling to think of all that Mynheer Beresteyn's influence could have done for those three ragamuffins, and how in the near future they must all suffer abominable discomfort, mayhap with shortage of food and drink, or absence of shelter, when no doubt one of them at least would remember with contrition the magnanimous offer of help made to him by gracious lips, and which he had so insolently refused.
So absorbed was Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn in these thoughts that she never even noticed that the watch-night service was over, and the minister already filing out with the clerk. The general exodus around her recalled her to herself and also to a sense of contrition for the absent way in which she had assisted at this solemn service.
She whispered to Maria to wait for her outside the church with the men.
"I must yet pray for a little while alone," she said. "I will join you at the north door in a quarter of an hour."
And she fell on her knees, and was soon absorbed in prayer.
Maria found the two serving men in the crowd, and transmitted to them her mistress's orders. The cathedral had been very full for the service, and the worshippers took a long time filing out; they lingered about in the aisles, exchanging bits of city gossip and wishing one another a happy New Year.
The verger had much ado to drive the goodly people out of the edifice, no sooner had he persuaded one group of chatterers to continue their conversation on the Groote-markt outside, than another batch seemed to loom out of the shadows, equally determined to conclude its gossip here in the warmth, before sallying forth once more into the foggy midnight air.
"I must close the cathedral for the night," the worthy man repeated piteously, "do you think that I don't want to get home and eat my watch-night supper at a reasonable hour. Move on there, my masters, move out please! My orders are to have the church closed before one o'clock."
He came on a group of men who sat together in the shadow of a heavy pillar close behind the pulpit.
"Now then, mynheers," he said, " 'tis closing time."
But those that were there made no sign to obey.
"All right, Perk," said one of them in a whisper, "we are not going just yet."
"Aye, but ye are," retorted the verger gruffly, for he was cross now and wanting his supper," what should I allow ye to stay for?"
"For the memory of Jan!" was the whispered response.
The verger's manner changed in an instant, the few words evidently bore some portentous meaning of which he held the key -- and I doubt not but that the key was made of silver.
"All right, mynheers, " he said softly, "the church will be clear in a few minutes now."
"Go round, Perk," said he who had first spoken, "and let us know when all is safe."
The verger touched his forelock and silently departed. Those that were there in the shadow by the great pillar remained in silence awaiting his return. The congregation was really dispersing now, the patter of leather shoes on the flagstones of the floor became gradually more faint; then it died out altogether. That portion of the Grote Kerk where is situate the magnificent carved pulpit was already quite dark and wholly deserted save for that group of silent, waiting figures that looked like shadows within the shadows.
Anon the verger returned. He had only been absent a few minutes.
"Quite safe now, mynheers," he said, "the last of them has just gone through the main door. I have locked all the doors save the West. If you want anything you will find me there. I can leave this one light for you, the others I must put out."
"Put them out, Perk, by all means," was the ready response. "We can find our way about in the dark."
The verger left them undisturbed; his shuffling steps were heard gliding along the flagstones until their murmur died away in the vastness of the sacred edifice.
The group of men who sat behind the pulpit against the heavy pillar, now drew their rush chairs closer to one another.
There were six of them altogether, and the light from the lamp above illumined their faces, which were stern looking, dark and of set determination. All six of them were young' only one amongst them might have been more than thirty years of age; that a great purpose brought them here to-night was obvious from their attitude, the low murmur of their voices, that air of mystery which hung round them, fostered by the dark cloaks which they held closely wrapped round their shoulders and the shadows from the pillar which they sought.
One of them appeared to be the centre of their interest, a man, lean and pallid-looking, with hollow purple-rimmed eyes, that spoke of night vigils or mayhap unavowed, consuming thoughts. The mouth was hard and thin, and a febrile excitement caused his lips to quiver and his hand to shake.
The others hung upon his words.
"Tell us some of your adventures, Stoutenburg!" said one of them eagerly.
Stoutenburg laughed harshly and mirthlessly.
"They would take years in telling," he said, "mayhap one day I'll write them down. They would fill many a volume."
"Enough that you did contrive to escape," said another man, "and that you are back here amongst us once more."
"Yes! in order to avenge wrongs that are
as countless by now as the grains of sand on the sea-shore,"
rejoined Stoutenburg earnestly.
"You know that you are not safe inside Holland," suggested he who had first spoken.
"Aye, my good Beresteyn, I know that well enough," said Stoutenburg with a long and bitter sigh. "Your own father would send me to the gallows if he had the chance, and you with me mayhap, for consorting with me."
"My father owes his position, his wealth, the prosperity of his enterprise to the Stadtholder," said Beresteyn, speaking with as much bitterness as his friend. "He looked upon the last conspiracy against the life of the Prince of Orange as a crime blacker than the blackest sin that ever deserved hell. . . . If he thought that I . . . at the present moment . . ."
"Yes I know. But he has not the power to make you false to me, has he, Nicolaes?" asked Stoutenburg anxiously. "You are still at one with us?"
"With you to the death!" replied Beresteyn fervently, "so are we all."
"Aye! That we are," said the four others with one accord, whilst one of them added dryly:
"And determined not to fail like the last time by trusting those paid hirelings, who will take your money and betray you for more."
"Last February we were beset with bunglers and self-seekers," said Stoutenburg, "my own brother Grneveld was half-hearted in everything save the desire to make money. Slatius was a vindictive boor, van Dyk was a busy-body and Korenwinder a bloated fool. Well! they have paid their penalty. Heaven have their souls! But for God's sake let us do the work ourselves this time."
"They say the Stadtholder is sick unto death," said one of the men sombrely. "Disease strikes with a surer hand sometimes than doth the poniard of an enemy."
"Bah! I have no time to waste waiting for his death," retorted Stoutenburg roughly, "there is an opportunity closer at hand and more swift than the wear watching for the slow ravages of disease. The Stadtholder comes to Amsterdam next week, the burghers of his beloved city have begged of him to be present at the consecration of the Western Kerk, built by Mynheer van Keyser, as well as at the opening of the East India Company's new hall. He plays up for popularity just now. The festivals in connection with the double event at Amsterdam have tempted him to undertake the long journey from the frontier, despite his failing health. His visit to this part of the country is a golden opportunity which I do not intend to miss."
"You will find it very difficult to get near the Stadtholder on such an occasion," remarked Beresteyn. "He no longer drives about unattended as he used to do."
"All the escort in the world will not save him from my revenge," said Stoutenburg firmly. "Our position now is stronger than it has ever been. I have adherents in every city of Holland and of Zealand, aye, and in the south too as far as Breda and in the east as far as Arnhem. I tell you, friends, that I have spread a net over this country out of which Maurice of Orange cannot escape. My organisation too is better than it was. I have spies within the camp at Sprang, a knot of determined men all along the line between Breda and Amsterdam, at Gouda, at Delft . . . especially at Delft."
"Why specially there?" asked Beresteyn.
"Because I have it in my mind that mayhap we need not take the risks of accomplishing our coup in Amsterdam itself. As you say it might be very difficult and very dangerous to et at the Stadtholder on a public occasion . . . But Delft is on the way . . . Maurice of Orange is certain to halt at Delft, if only in order to make a pilgrimage to the spot where his father was murdered. He will, I am sure, sleep more than one night at the Prinsenhof. . . . And from Delft the way leads northwards past Ryswyk -- Ryswyk close to which I have had my headquarters three weeks past -- Ryswyk, my friends!" he continued, speaking very rapidly almost incoherently in his excitement, "where I have arms and ammunition, Ryswyk, which is the rallying point for all my friends . . . the molens! You remember? . . . close to the wooden bridge which spans the Schie . . . I have enough gunpowder stored at that molens to blow up twenty wooden bridges . . . and the Stadtholder with his escort must cross the wooden bridge which spans the Schie not far from the molens where I have my headquarters. . . . I have it all in my mind already. . . . I only wait to hear news of the actual day when the Stadtholder leaves his camp. . . . I can tell you more to-morrow, but in the meanwhile I want to know if there are a few men about here on whom I can rely at a moment's notice . . . whom I can use as spies or messengers . . . or even to lend me a hand at Ryswyk in case of need . . . thirty or forty would be sufficient . . . if they are good fighting men. . . . I said something about this in my message to you all."
"And I for one acted on your suggestion at once," said one of the others. "I have recruited ten stout fellows: Germans and Swiss, who know not a word of our language. I pay them well and they ask no questions. They will fight for you, spy for you, run for you, do anything you choose, and can betray nothing, since they know nothing. They are at your disposal at any moment."
"That is good, and I thank you, my dear Heemskerk."
"I have half a dozen peasants on my own estate on whom I can rely," said another of Stoutenburg's friends. "They are good fighters, hard-headed and ready to go through fire and water for me. They are as safe as foreign mercenaries, for they will do anything I tell them and will do it without asking the reason why."
"I have another eight or ten foreigners to offer you," said a third, "they come from a part of Britain called Scotland so I understand. I picked them up a week ago when they landed at Scheveningen and engaged them in my service then and there."
"And I can lay my hand at any moment on a dozen or so young apprentices in my father's factory," added a fourth, "they are always ready for a frolic or a fight and ready to follow me to hell if need be."
"You see that you can easily count on three dozen men," concluded Beresteyn.
"Three dozen men ready to hand," said Stoutenburg, "for our present needs they should indeed suffice. Knowing that I can reckon on them I can strike the decisive blow when and how I think it best. It is the blow that counts," he continued between set teeth, "after that everything is easy enough. The waverers hang back until success is assured. But our secret adherents in Holland can be counted by the score, in Zealand and Utrecht by the hundred. When Maurice of Orange has paid with his own blood the penalty which his crimes have incurred, when I can proclaim myself over his dead body Stadtholder of the Northern Provinces, Captain and Admiral General of the State, thousands will rally round us and flock to our banner. Thousands feel as we do, think as we do, and know what we know, that John of Barneveld will not rest in his grave till I, his last surviving son, have avenged him. Who made this Republic what she is? My father. Who gave the Stadtholder the might which he possesses? My father. My father whose name was revered and honoured throughout the length and breadth of Europe and whom an ingrate's hand hath branded with the mark of traitor. The Stadtholder brought my father to the scaffold, heaping upon him accusations of treachery which he himself must have known were groundless. When the Stadtholder sent John of Barneveld to the scaffold he committed a crime which can only be atoned for by his own blood. Last year we failed. The mercenaries whom we employed betrayed us. My brother, our friends went the way my father led, victims all of them of the rapacious ambition, the vengeful spite of the Stadtholder. But I escaped as by a miracle! -- a miracle I say it was, my friends, a miracle wrought by the God of vengeance, who hath said: 'I will repay!' He hath also said that whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed! I am the instrument of his vengeance. Vengeance is mine! 'tis I who will repay!"
He had never raised his voice during this long peroration, but his diction had been none the less impressive because it was spoken under his breath. The others had listened in silence, awed, no doubt, by the bitter flood of hate which coursed through every vein of this man's body and poured in profusion from his lips. The death of father and brother and of many friends, countless wrongs, years of misery, loss of caste, of money and of home had numbed him against every feeling save that of revenge.
"This time I'll let no man do the work for me," he said after a moment's silence, "if you will all stand by me, I will smite the Stadtholder with mine own hand."
This time he had raised his voice, just enough to wake the echo that slept in the deserted edifice.
"Hush!" whispered one of his friends, "Hush! For God's sake!"
"Bah! The church is empty," retorted Stoutenburg, "and the verger too far away to hear. I'll say it again, and proclaim it loudly now in this very church before the altar of God: I will kill the Stadtholder with mine own hand!"
"Silence in the name of God!"
More than one muffled voice had uttered the warning and Beresteyn's hand fell heavily on Stoutenburg's arm.
"Hush, I say!" he whispered hoarsely, "there's something moving there in the darkness."
"A rat mayhap!" quoth Stoutenburg lightly.
"No, no . . . listen! . . . some one moves . . . some one has been there . . . all along. . . .
"A spy!" murmured the others under their breath.
In a moment every man there had his hand on his sword: Stoutenburg and Beresteyn actually drew theirs. They did not speak to one another for they had caught one another's swift glance, and the glance had in it the forecast of a grim resolve.
Whoever it was who thus moved silently out of the shadows -- spy or merely indiscreet listener -- would pay with his life for the knowledge which he had obtained. These men here could no longer afford to take any risks. The words spoken by Stoutenburg and registered by them all could be made the stepping stones to the scaffold if strange ears had caught their purport.
They meant death to someone, either to the speakers or to the eavesdropper; and six men were determined that it should be the eavesdropper who must pay for his presence here.
They forced their eyes to penetrate the dense gloom which surrounded them and one and all held their breath, like furtive animals that await their prey. They stood there silent and rigid, a tense look on every face; the one light fixed in the pillar above them played weirdly on their starched ruffs scarce whiter than the pallid hue of their cheeks.
Then suddenly a sound caught their ears, which caused each man to start and to look at his nearest companion with set inquiring eyes; it was the sound of a woman's skirt swishing against the stone-work of the floor. The seconds went by leaden-footed and full of portentous meaning. Each heart-beat beneath the vaulted roof of the cathedral to-night seemed like a knell from eternity.
How slow the darkness was in yielding up its secret!
At last as the conspirators gazed, they saw the form of a woman emerging out of the shadows. At first they could only see her starched kerchief and a glimmer of jewels beneath her cloak. Then gradually the figure -- ghostlike in this dim light -- came more fully into view; the face of a woman, her lace coif, the gold embroidery of her stomacher all became detached one by one, but only for a few seconds, for the woman was walking rapidly, nor did she look to right or left, but glided along the floor like a vision -- white, silent, swift -- which might have been conjured up by a fevered brain.
"A ghost!" whispered one of the young men hoarsely.
"No. A woman," said another, and the words came like a hissing sound through his teeth.
Beresteyn and Stoutenburg said nothing for a while. They looked silently on one another, the same burning anxiety glowing in their eyes, the same glance of mute despair passing from one to the other.
"Gilda!" murmured Stoutenburg at last.
The swish of the woman's skirt had died away in the distance; not one of the men had attempted to follow her or to intercept her passage.
Jongejuffrouw Beresteyn, no spy of course, just a chance eavesdropper! But possessed nevertheless now of a secret which meant death to them all!
"How much did she hear think you?" asked Stoutenburg at last.
He had replaced his sword in his scabbard with a gesture that expressed his own sense of fatality. He could not use his sword against a woman -- even had that woman not been Gilda Beresteyn.
"She cannot have heard much," said one of the others, "we spoke in whispers."
"If she had heard anything she would have known that only the west door was to remain open. Yet she has made straight for the north portal," suggested another.
"If she did not hear the verger speaking she could not have heard what we said," argued a third somewhat lamely.
Every one of them had some suggestion to put forward, some surmise to express, some hope to urge. Only Beresteyn said nothing. He had stood by, fierce and silent ever since he had first recognized his sister; beneath his lowering brows the resolve had not died out of his eyes, and he still held his sword unsheathed in his hand.
Stoutenburg now appealed directly to him.
"What do you think of it, Beresteyn?" he asked.
"I think that my sister did hear something of our conversation," he answered quietly.
"Great God!" ejaculated the others.
"But," added Beresteyn slowly, "I pledge you mine oath that she will not betray us."
"How will you make sure of that?" retorted Stoutenburg, not without a sneer.
"That is mine affair."
"And ours too. We can do nothing, decide on nothing until we are sure."
"Then I pray you wait for me here," concluded Beresteyn. "I will bring you a surety before we part this night."
"Let me go and speak to her," urged Stoutenburg.
"No, no, 'tis best that I should go."
Stoutenburg made a movement as if he would detain him, then seemed to think better of it, and finally let him go.
Beresteyn did not wait for further comment from his friends but quickly turned on his heel. The next moment he was speeding away across the vast edifice and his tall figure was soon swallowed up by the gloom.