CHAPTER XL - THE LOSER PAYS


Nicolaes Beresteyn had not gone far when Lucas of Sparendam came running with the news.  He heard it all, he saw the confusion, the first sights of sauve qui peut.

At first he was like one paralyzed with horror and with fear; he could not move, his limbs refused him service.  Then he thought of his friends -- some up in the molens, others at various posts on the road and by the bridge -- they might not hear the confusion and the tumult, they might not see the coming sauve qui peut; they might not hear that the Stadtholder's spies are on the alert, and that his bodyguard might be here at any time.

Just then the disbanding began.  Nicolaes Beresteyn pushed his way through the fighting, quarrelling crowd to where Lucas of Sparendam, still exhausted and weak, was leaning up against a beam.

"Their lordships up in the molens," he said in a voice still choked with fear, "and the Lord of Stoutenburg in the hut with the jongejuffrouw . . . Come and tell them at once all that you know."

And he dragged Lucas of Sparendam in his wake.

The Lord of Stoutenburg was at Gilda's feet when Beresteyn ran in with Lucas to tell him the news.

After he had given Jan the orders to prepare the gallows for the summary execution of the prisoner he had resumed his wild, restless pacing up and down the room.  There was no remorse in him for his inhuman and cowardly act, but his nerves were all on the jar, and that perpetual hammering which went on in the distance drove him to frantic exasperation.

A picture of the happenings in the basement down below would obtrude itself upon his mental vision; he saw the prisoner -- careless, contemptuous, ready for death; Jan sullen but obedient; the men murmuring and disaffected.  He felt as if the hammering was now directed against his own head, he could have screamed aloud with the agony of this weary, expectant hour.

Then he thought of Gilda.  Slowly the dawn was breaking, the hammering had ceased momentarily; silence reigned in the basement after the turbulence of the past hour.  The Lord of Stoutenburg did not dare conjecture what this silence meant.

The thought of Gilda became more insistent.  He snatched up a cloak and wrapping it closely round him, he ran out into the mist.  Quickly descending the steps, he at once turned his back on the basement where the last act of the supreme tragedy would be enacted presently.   He felt like a man pursued, with the angel of Nemesis close to his heels, hour-glass in hand to mark the hour of retribution.

He hoped to find rest and peace beside Gilda; he would not tell her that he had condemned the man to death.  Let her forget him peaceably and naturally; the events of to-day would surely obliterate other matters from her mind.  What was the life of a foreign vagabond beside the destinies of Holland which an avenging God would help to settle today?

The Lord of Stoutenburg had walked rapidly to the hut where he hoped to find Gilda ready to receive him.  He knocked at the door and Maria opened it to him.  To his infinite relief she told him that the jongejuffrouw had broken her fast and would gladly speak with him.

Gilda, he thought, looked very pale and fragile in the dim light of two or three tallow candles placed in sconces about the room.  There were dark circles round here eyes and a pathetic trembling of her lips proclaimed the near presence of tears.

But there was an atmosphere of peace in the tiny room, with its humble little bits of furniture and the huge earthenware stove from which the pleasing glow of a wood fire emanated and shed a cheerful radiance around.

The Lord of Stoutenburg felt that here in Gilda's presence he could forget his ambitions and his crimes, the man whom he was so foully putting to death, his jealousies and even his revenge.

He drew a low chair close to her and half-sitting half-kneeling, began speaking to her as gently, as simply as his harsh voice and impatient temperament would allow.  He spoke mostly about the future, only touching very casually on the pain which she had caused him by her unjust suspicions of him.

Gilda listened to him in silence for awhile.  She was collecting all her will-power, all her strength of purpose for the task which lay before her -- the task of softening a hardened and treacherous heart, of rousing in it a spark of chivalry and of honour so that it showed mercy there where it now threatened injustice, cruelty and almost inhuman cowardice.

A brave man's life was in the hands of this man, who professed love for her; and though Gilda rejected that love with contempt, she meant, womanlike, to use that love as a mainspring for the softened mood which she wished to call forth.

The first thought that had broken in upon her after a brief and troubled sleep was that a brave young life would be sacrificed to-day to gratify the petty spite of a fiend.  She had been persuaded yesterday that the man who -- though helpless and pinioned -- stood before her in all the splendour of manhood and of a magnificent personality was nothing but a common criminal -- a liar, a forger and a thief.

Though this thought should have made her contented, since by bringing guilt home to a man who was nothing to her, it exonerated her brother whom she loved, she had felt all night, right through the disturbing dreams which had floated through her consciousness, a leaden weight sitting upon her heart, like the sense of the committal of some great and irreparable wrong.  Indeed, she felt that if here in this very place which he had filled last night with his exuberant vitality, she had to think of him as silent and cold for all eternity, such a thought would drive her mad.

The Lord of Stoutenburg's honeyed words fell unheeded on her ear; his presence near her filled her with horror; she only kept up a semblance of interest in him, because he held the fate of another man in the hollow of his hand.

She was preparing in her mind what she was going to say to him, she rehearsed the words which were most likely to appeal to his callous nature.  Already she was nerving herself for the supreme effort of pleading for a brave man's life when suddenly the tramping of heavy feet outside the hut, confused shouts and clang of arms, caused Stoutenburg to jump to his feet.

The door was torn open, and Nicolaes Beresteyn stood for a moment on the threshold, pale, speechless, with body trembling and moisture thick upon his brow.  Lucas of Sparendam was close behind him equally pale and still.

At first sight of her brother Gilda had uttered a little cry of joy; but that cry soon died upon her lips.  Beresteyn had scarcely looked on her, his glance at once had found that of Stoutenburg, and the two men seemed to understand one another.

"We are betrayed?" cried Stoutenburg hoarsely.

Beresteyn nodded in reply.

"How?"

Lucas of Sparendam in short jerky sentences retold once more the tale of all that had happened at Delft: the Prince of Orange warned, the spies which he had sent broadcast, the bodyguard which even now was on its way.

"They know of this place," murmured Beresteyn between quivering lips, "they might be here at any moment."

Through the open door there came the noise of the men fighting, the cries of rage and of fear, the clatter of metal and the tramping of many feet.

"They are scared and half mad," said Lucas of Sparendam, "in five minutes the sauve qui peut will commence."

"We are quite near the coast," said Stoutenburg with outward calm, though is voice was choked and his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, "go you and tell the others, Beresteyn," he added, turning to his friend, "then collect all our papers that are in the molens.  Thank God there are only a few that might compromise us at all.
Heemskerk and van Does will help you, they are not like to be seized with panic.  We can then make quietly for Scheveningen, where the boats are ready.  There is a sledge here and a pair of horses which I shall need; but it is less than a league to Scheveningen, and you can all walk it easily.  Tell the others not to lose time and I will follow with the sledge as soon as may be.  There is no cause for a panic and we can all save ourselves."

Beresteyn made ready to go.  He took less pains than Stoutenburg to conceal his terror and his knees frankly shook under him.  At the door he paused.  He had suddenly remembered Gilda.

She had risen from her chair and stood now like a statue carved in stone, white to the lips, wide-eyed, her whole expression one of infinite horror.

It had all been lies then, all that Stoutenburg had told her yesterday!  He had concealed the monstrous truth, lying to her with every word he uttered.  Now he stood there pale and trembling, the traitor who in his turn has been betrayed.  Fear and blind rage were fighting their last deathly battle in his soul.  The edifice of his treachery was crumbling around him; God's hand -- through an unknown channel -- had set the limit to his crimes.  Twice a traitor, he had twice failed.  Already he could see the disbanding of his mercenary troops, the beginning of that mad, wild flight to the coast, and down the steps of the molens his friends too were running helter-skelter, without thought of anything save of their own safety.

It would be so immeasurably horrible to fall into the Stadtholder's hands.

And Gilda, pale and silent, stood between the two men who had lied to her, outraged her to the end.  Nicolaes was a traitor after all; he had cast the eternal shroud of shame over the honour and peace of his house.  An God did not help him now, his death would complete that shame.

She tried to hold his glance, but he would not look at her; she felt that his wrath of her almost bordered on hatred because he believed that she had betrayed them all.  His eyes were fixed upon his leader and friend, and all the anxiety which he felt was for that one man.

"You must not delay, Nicolaes," said Stoutenburg curtly, "go, warn the others and tell them to make for Scheveningen.  But do you wait for me -- we'll follow anon in the sledge and, of course, Gilda comes with us."

And Beresteyn said firmly:

"Of course, Gilda comes with us."

She was not afraid, even when he said this, even when his fierce glance rested upon her, and she was too proud to make an appeal to him.   It was her turn now to avert her glance from him; to the bottom of her soul she loathed his cowardice, and the contempt with which she regarded him now was almost cruel in its intensity.

He went out of the room followed by Lucas of Sparendam, and now she was once more alone with the Lord of Stoutenburg.

"Gilda," he cried with a fierce oath, "when did you do this?"

"It was not I, my lord," she replied calmly, "you and Nicolaes did all that lay in your power to render me helpless in this.  God knows I would not have betrayed you . . . it is His hand that hath pointed the way to one who was more brave than I."

"'Tis false," he exclaimed violently, "no one knew of our plans save those who now must flee because like us they have been betrayed.  No sane man would wilfully put his head in the halter; and there are no informers amongst us."

"You need not believe me, my lord," she rejoined coldly, "an you do not wish.  But remember that I have never learnt the art of lying, nor could I be the Judas to betray my own brother.  Therefore do I pledge you my word that I had no share in this decree of God."

"If not yourself," he retorted, "you spoke of it to some one . . . who went to the Stadtholder . . . and warned him! to some one . . . some one who . . . Ah!" he cried suddenly with a loud and ghoulish scream wherein rage, horror and fear and a kind of savage triumph too rang out, "I see that I have guess aright.  You did speak of what you knew . . . to the miserable knave whom Nicolaes paid to outrage you . .and you offered him money to betray your own brother."

"It is false!"

"It is true -- I can read it in your face.  That man went to Delft yesterday -- he was captured by Jan on his back to Rotterdam.  He had fulfilled your errand and warned the Prince of Orange and delivered me and all my friends into hands that never have known mercy."

He was blind with passion now and looked on her with bloodshot eyes that threatened to kill.  But Gilda was not cast in the same mould as was this traitor. 

Baffled in his crime, fear had completely unmanned him, but with every cry of rage uttered by Stoutenburg she became more calm and less afraid.

"Once more, my lord," she said quietly in the brief interval of Stoutenburg's ravings and while he was forced to draw breath, "do I pledge my word to you that I had no hand in saving the Stadtholder's life.  That God chose for this another instrument than I, I do thank Him on my knees."

While she spoke Stoutenburg had made a quick effort to regain some semblance of composure, and now he contrived to say quite calmly and with an evil sneer upon his face:

"That instrument of God is an I mistake not tied to a post with ropes like an ox ready for the butcher's hand.  Though I have but sorry chances of escape myself and every minute hath become precious, I can at least spend five in making sure that his fate at any rate be sorrier than mine."

Her face became if possible even paler than before.

"What do you mean to do?" she murmured.

"The man who has betrayed me to the Price of Orange is the same man who laid hands upon you in Haarlem -- is that not so?"

"I cannot say," she said firmly.

"The same man who was here in this room yesterday, bound and pinioned before you?" he insisted.

"I do not know."

"Will you swear then that you never spoke to him of the Prince of Orange, and of our plans?"

"Not of your plans . . ." she protested calmly.

"You see that you cannot deny it, Gilda," he continued with that same unnatural calm which seemed to her far more horrible than his rage had been before.  "Willingly or unwittingly you let that man know what you overheard in the Groote Kerk on New Year's Eve.  Then you bribed him into warning the Prince of Orange, since you could not do it yourself."

"It is false," she reiterated wildly.

Once more that evil sneer distorted his pale face.

"Well!" he said, "whether you bribed him or not matters to me but little.  I do believe that willingly you would not have betrayed Nicolaes or me or any of our friends to the Stadtholder, knowing what he is.  But you wanted to cross our plans, you wanted to warn the Stadtholder of his danger, and you -- not God -- chose that man for your instrument."

"It is not true -- I deny it," she repeated fearlessly.

"You may deny it with words, Gilda, but your whole attitude proclaims the truth.  Thank God!" he cried with a note of savage triumph in his voice, "that man is still a helpless prisoner in my hands."

"What do you mean?" she murmured.

"I mean that it is good to hold the life of one's deadliest enemy in the hollow of one's hand."

"But you would not slay a defenceless prisoner," she cried.

He laughed, a bitter, harsh, unnatural laugh.

"Slay him," he cried "aye that I will, if it is not already done.  Did you hear the hammering and the knocking awhile ago?  It was Jan making ready the gibbet.  And now -- though the men have run away like so many verdommde cowards, I know that Jan at any rate has remained faithful to his post.  The gibbet is still there, and Jan and I and Nicolaes, we have three pairs of hands between us, strong enough to make an enemy swing twixt earth and heaven, and three pairs of eyes wherewith to see an informer perish upon the gallows."

But already she had interrupted him with a loud cry of overwhelming horror.

"Are you a fiend to think of such a thing?"

"No" he replied, "only a man who has a wrong to avenge."

"The wrong was in your treachery," she retorted, even while indignation nearly choked the words in her throat, "no honest man could refuse to warn another that a murderous trap had been laid for him."

"Possibly.  But through that warning given by a man whom I hate, my life is practically at an end."

"Life can only be ended by death," she pleaded, "and yours is in no danger yet.  In a couple of hours as you say you will have reached the coast.  No doubt you have taken full measures for your safety.  The Stadtholder is sick.  He hath scarce a few months to live; when he dies everything will be forgotten, you can return and begin your life anew.  Oh! you will thank God then on your knees, that this last hideous crime doth not weigh upon your soul."

"A wrong unavenged would weigh my soul down with bitterness," he said sombrely.  "My life is done, Gilda.  Ambition, hope, success, everything that I care for has gone from me.  Nicolaes may begin his life anew; he is young and his soul is not like mine consumed with ambition and with hatred.  But for that one man, I were to-day Stadtholder of half our provinces and sole ruler of our United Netherlands, instead of which from this hour forth I shall be a fugitive, a pariah, an exile.  All this do I owe to one man," he added fiercely, "and I take my revenge, that is all."

He made a feint as if ready to go.  But Gilda with a moan of anguish had already held him back.  Despite the loathing which the slightest contact with such a fiend caused her, she clung with both her hands to his arm.

"My lord!" she entreated, "in the name of your dear mother, in the name of all that is yet good and pure and noble in you, do not allow this monstrous crime to add to the heavy load of sin which rests upon your soul.  God is just," she added earnestly, "God will punish us all if such an infamy is done now at this supreme hour when our destinies are being weighed in the balance."

But he looked down on her suddenly, with an evil leer which sent a chill right through her to her heart.

"Are you pleading for a man who mayhap hath sent your brother to the scaffold?" he asked.

His glance now was so dark and so cruel, the suspicion which lurked in it was so clear, that for the moment Gilda was overawed by this passion of hate and jealousy which she was unable to fathom.  The quick hot blood of indignation rushed to her pale cheeks.

"It was of Nicolaes that I was thinking," she said proudly, "if that man dies now, I feel that such a dastardly crime would remain a lasting stain upon the honour of our house."

"The crime is on you, Gilda," he retorted, "in that you did betray us all.  Willingly or unwittingly, you did deliver me into the hands of my most bitter enemy.  But I pray you, plead no more for a knave whom you surely must hate even more bitterly than I do hate him.  The time goes by, and every wasted minute becomes dangerous now.  I pray you make yourself ready to depart."

She had not given up all thoughts of pleading yet; though she knew that for the moment she had failed, there floated vaguely at the back of her mind a dim hope that God would not abandon her in this her bitterest need.  He had helped her in her direst trouble; He had averted the hideous treachery which threatened to stain her father's honoured name and her own with a hideous mark of shame; surely He would not allow this last most terrible crime to be committed.

No doubt that vague frame of mind, born of intense bodily and mental fatigue, betrayed itself in the absent expression in her eyes, for Stoutenburg reiterated impatiently:

"I can give you a quarter of an hour wherein to make ready."

"A quarter of an hour," she murmured vaguely, "to make ready? . . . for what?"

"For immediate departure with me and your brother for Belgium."

Still she did not understand.  A deep frown of puzzlement appeared between her brows.

"Departure? -- with you? -- what do you mean, my lord?" she asked.

"I mean," he replied roughly, "that out of the wreckage of all my ambitions, my desires and my hopes I will at least save something that will compensate me for all that I have lost. You said just now that life could only end in death.  Well! next to mine ambition and my desire for vengeance, you, Gilda, as you know, do fill my entire soul.  With you beside me I may try to begin life anew.  I leave for the coast in less than half an hour; Nicolaes will be with us and he will care for you.  But I will not go without you, so you must come with us."

"Never!" she said firmly.

But Stoutenburg only laughed with careless mockery.

"Who will protect you?" he said, "when I take you in my arms and carry you to the sledge, which in a quarter of an hour will be ready for you?  Who will protect you when I carry you in my arms from the sledge to the boat which awaits us at Scheveningen?"

"Nicolaes," she rejoined calmly, "is my brother -- he would not permit such an outrage."

An ironical smile curled the corners of his cruel lips.

"Do you really think, Gilda," he said, "that Nicolaes will run counter to my will?  I have but to persuade him that your presence in Holland will be a perpetual menace to our safety.  Besides, you heard what he said just now; that you, of course, would come with us."

"My dead body you can take with you," she retorted, "but I -- alive -- will never follow you."

"Then 'tis your dead body I'll take, Gilda," he said with a sneer, "I will be here to fetch you in a quarter of an hour, so I pray you make ready while I go to deal with that meddlesome instrument of God."

She was spent now, and had no strength for more; a great numbness, an overpowering fatigue seemed to creep into her limbs.  She even allowed him to take her hand and to raise it to his lips, for she was quite powerless to resist him; only when she felt those burning lips against her flesh a shudder of infinite loathing went right through her body.

Soon he turned on his heel and strode out of the room.  She heard the thin wooden door fall to with a bang behind him; but she could no longer see, a kind of darkness had fallen over her eyes, a darkness, in which only one figure appeared clearly -- the figure of a man upon a gibbet.  All else was blackness around her, impenetrable blackness, almost tangible in its intensity, and out of the blackness which seemed like that of a dungeon there came cries as of human creatures in hell.

"Lord have mercy upon him!" her lips, cold and white, murmured vaguely and insistently, "Lord have mercy upon him!  Lord have mercy upon us all!"