CHAPTER XLI - "VENGEANCE IS MINE"


It was like a man possessed of devils that the Lord of Stoutenburg ran out through the mist toward the molens.

The grey light of this winter's morning had only vaguely pierced the surrounding gloom, and the basement beneath the molens still looked impenetrably dark.  Dark and silent! the soldier -- foreign mercenaries and louts -- had vanished in the fog, arms hastily thrown down littered the mud-covered ground, swords, pistols, muskets, torn clothing, here and there a neck-cloth, a steel bonnet, a bright coloured sash.  Stoutenburg saw it all, right through the gloom, and he ground his teeth together to smother a cry of agonised impotence.

Only now and then a ghostly form flitted swift and silent among the intricate maze of beams, a laggard left behind in the general scramble for safety, or a human
scavenger on the prowl for loot.  Now and then a groan or a curse came from out the darkness, and a weird, shapeless, moving thing would crawl along in the mud like some creeping reptile seeking its lair.  But Stoutenburg looked neither to right nor left.  He paid no heed to these swiftly fleeting ghostlike forms. He knew well enough that he would find silence here, that three dozen men -- cowards and mercenaries all -- had been scattered like locusts before a gale.  Overhead he heard the tramping of feet, his friends -- Beresteyn, Heemskerk, van Does -- were making ready for flight.  His one scheme of vengeance -- that for which he had thirsted and plotted and sinned -- had come to nought, but he had yet another in his mind -- one which, if successful, would give him no small measure of satisfaction for the failure of the other.

And ahead the outline of the hastily improvised gallows detached itself out of the misty shroud, and from the Lord of Stoutenburg's throat there came a fierce cry of joy which surely must have delighted all the demons in hell.

He hurried on, covering with swift eager steps the short distance that separated him from the gibbet.

He called loudly to Jan, for it seemed to him as if the place was unaccountably deserted.  He could not see Jan nor yet the prisoner, and surely Piet the Red had not proved a coward.

The solid beams above and around him threw back his call in reverberating echoes.  He called again, and from far away a mocking laugh seemed alone to answer him.

Like a frightened beast now he bounded forward.  There were the gallows not five paces away from him; the planks hastily hammered together awhile ago were creaking weirdly, buffeted by the wind, and up aloft the rope was swinging, beating itself with a dull, eerie sound against the wood.

The Lord of Stoutenburg -- dazed and stupefied -- looked on this desolate picture like a man in a dream.

"My lord!"

The voice came feebly from somewhere close by.

"My lord! for pity's sake!"

It was Jan's voice of course.  The Lord of Stoutenburg turned mechanically in the direction from whence it came.  Not far from where he was standing he saw Jan lying on the ground against a beam, with a scarf wound loosely round his mouth and his arms held with a cord behind his back.  Stoutenburg unwound the scarf and untied the cord, then he murmured dully:

"Jan?  What does this mean?"

"The men all threw down their arms, my lord," said Jan as soon as he had struggled to his feet, "they ran like cowards when Lucas of Sparendam brought the news."

"I knew that," said Stoutenburg hoarsely, "curse them all for their miserable cowardice.  But the prisoner, man, the prisoner?  What have you done with him?  Did I not order you to guard him with your life?"

"Then is mine own life forfeit, my lord," said Jan simply, "for I did fail in guarding the prisoner."

A violent oath broke from Stoutenburg's trembling lips.  He raised his clenched fist, ready to strike in his blind, unreasoning fury the one man who had remained faithful to him to the last.

Jan slowly bent the knee.

"Kill me, my lord," he said calmly, "I could not guard the prisoner."

Stoutenburg was silent for a moment, then his upraised arm fell nervelessly by his side.

"How did it happen?" he asked.

"I scarce can tell you, my lord," replied Jan, "the attack on us was so quick and sudden.  Piet and I did remain at our post, but in the rush and the panic we presently were left alone beside the prisoner.  Two men -- who were his friends -- must have been on the watch for this opportunity, they fell on us from behind and caught us unawares.  We called in vain for assistance; it was a case of sauve qui peut and every one for himself, in a trice the cords that bound the prisoner were cut, and three men had very quickly the best of us.  Piet, though wounded in the leg, contrived to escape, but it almost seemed as if those three demons were determined to spare me.  Though by God," added Jan fervently, "I would gladly have died rather than have seen all this shame!  When they had brought me down they wound a scarf round my mouth and left me here tied to a beam, while they disappeared in the fog."

Stoutenburg made no comment on this brief narrative, even the power or cursing seemed to have deserted him.  He left Jan kneeling there on the frozen ground, and without a word he turned on his heel and made his way once more between the beams under the molens back toward the hut.

Vengeance indeed had eluded his grasp.  The two men whom on earth he hated most had remained triumphant while he himself had been brought down to the lowest depths of loneliness and misery.  Friendless, kinless now, life indeed, as he had told Gilda, was at an end for him.  Baffled vengeance would henceforth make him a perpetual exile and a fugitive with every man's hand raised against him, a price once more upon his head.

The world doth at times allow a man to fail in the task of his life, it will forgive that one failure and allow the man to try again.  But a second failure is unforgivable, men turn away from the blunderer in contempt.  Who would risk life, honour and liberty in a cause that has twice failed?

Stoutenburg knew this.  He knew that within the next hour his friends would already have practically deserted him.  Panic-stricken now they would accompany him as far as the coast, they would avail themselves of all the measures which he had devised for their mutual safety, but in their innermost hearts they would already have detached themselves from his further ill-fortunes; and anon, in a few months mayhap, when the Stadtholder had succumbed to the disease which was threatening his life, they would all return to their homes and to their kindred and forget this brief episode wherein their leader's future had been so completely and so irretrievably wrecked.

They would forget, only he -- Stoutenburg -- would remain the pariah, the exile, that carries the brand of traitor for ever upon the pages of his life.

And now the hut is once more in sight, and for one brief instant an inward light flickers up in Stoutenburg's dulled eyes.  Gilda is there, Gilda whom he loves, and whose presence in the sorrow-laden years that are to come would be a perpetual compensation for all the humiliation and all the shame which he had endured.

To-day mayhap she would follow him unwillingly, but Stoutenburg's passion was proof against her coldness.  He felt that he could conquer her, that he could win her love, when once he had her all to himself in a distant land, when she -- kinless too and forlorn -- would naturally turn to him for protection and for love.  He had little doubt that he would succeed, and vaguely in his mind there rose the pale ray of hope that her love would then bring him luck, or at any rate put renewed energy in him to begin his life anew.