CHAPTER XLII - THE FIGHT IN THE DOORWAY


It seemed to Stoutenburg that from the back of the hut there came the sound of bustle and activity: he thought that mayhap Beresteyn had had the good idea of making the sledge ready for departure, and he called out loudly to his friend.

It was a mocking voice, however, that rose in response:

"Was your Magnificence perchance looking for me?"

Out of the mist which still hung round the small building Diogenes' tall figure suddenly loomed before the Lord of Stoutenburg.  He was standing in the doorway of the hut, with his back to it; one hand -- the right one -- was thrust inside his doublet, the left was on the hilt of his sword; his battered hat was tilted rakishly above his brow and he was regarding his approaching enemy with a look of keen amusement and of scorn.

At first Stoutenburg thought that his fevered fancy was playing his eyes a weird and elusive trick, then as the reality of what he saw fully burst upon his senses he uttered a loud and hoarse cry like a savage beast that has been wounded.

"Plepshurk! smeerlap!' he cried fiercely.

"Rogue!  Villain!  Menial!  Varlet! and all that you care to name me, my lord!" quoth the philosopher lightly, "and entirely at your service."

"Jan!" cried Stoutenburg, "Jan! In the name of hell where are you?"

"Not very far, my lord," rejoined the other.  "Jan is a brave soldier but he was no match for three philosophers, even though one of them at first was trussed like a fowl.  Jan stuck to his post, my lord, remember that," he added more seriously, "even when all your other followers and friends were scattered to the winds like a crowd of mice at the approach of a cat.  We did not hurt Jan because he is a brave soldier, but we tied him down lest he ran to get assistance whilst assistance was still available."

"You insolent knave . . ."

"You speak rightly, my lord:  I am an insolent knave, and do so rejoice in mine insolence that I stayed behind here -- while my brother philosophers accomplish the task which I have put upon them -- on purpose to exercise some of that insolence upon you, and to see what power a man that to curb his temper and to look pleasant, whilst an insolent knave doth tell him to his face that he is an abject and degraded cur."

"Then by Heaven, you abominable plepshurk," cried Stoutenburg white with passion, "since you stayed here to parley with me, I can still give you so complete a retort that your final insolence will have to be spoken in hell.  But let me pass now.  I have business inside the hut."

"I know you have, my lord," rejoined Diogenes coolly,  "but I am afraid that your business will have to wait until two philosophers named respectively Pythagoras and Socrates have had time to finish theirs."

"What do you mean?  Let me pass, I tell you, or . . . "

"Or the wrath of your Magnificence will once more be upon mine unworthy head.  Dondersteen! what have I not suffered already from that all-powerful wrath!"

"You should have been hanged ere this . . ."

"It is an omission, my lord, which I fear me we must now leave to the future to rectify."

"Stand aside, man," cried Stoutenburg, who was hoarse with passion.

"No! not just yet!" was the other's calm reply.

"Stand aside!" reiterated Stoutenburg wildly.

He drew his sword and made a quick thrust at his enemy; he remembered the man's wounded shoulder and saw that his right hand was temporarily disabled.

"Ah, my lord!" quoth Diogenes lightly, as with his left he drew Bucephalus out of its scabbard, "You had forgotten or perhaps you never knew that during your follower's scramble for safety my sword remained unheeded in an easily accessible spot, and also that it is as much at home in my left hand as in my right."

Like a bull goaded to fury Stoutenburg made a second and more vigorous thrust at his opponent.  But Diogenes was already on guard: calm, very quiet in his movements in the manner of the perfect swordsman. Stoutenburg, hot with rage, impetuous and clumsy, was at once at a disadvantage whilst this foreign adventurer, entirely self-possessed and good-humoured, had the art of the sword at his finger-tips -- the art of perfect self-control, the art of not rushing to the attack, the supreme art of waiting for an opportunity.

No feint or thrust at first, only on guard, quietly on guard, and Bucephalus seemed to be infinitely multiplied at times so quickly did the bright steel flash out in the grey light and then subside again.

Stoutenburg was at once conscious of his own disadvantage.  He was no match for this brilliant sword play; his opponent did indeed appear to be only playing with him, but Stoutenburg felt all the time that the abominable knave might disarm him at any moment if he were so minded.

Nor could he see very clearly: the passionate blood in him had rushed to his head and was beating furiously in his temples, whilst the other man with the additional advantage of a good position against the wall, kept up a perfect fusillade of good-humoured comments.

"Well attacked, my lord!" he cried gaily,  "Dondersteen! were I as fat as your Magnificence supposes, your sword would ere now have made a hole in my side.  Pity I am not broader, is it not? or more in the way of your sword.  There," he added as with a quick and sudden turn of the wrist he knocked his opponent's weapon out of his hand, "allow me to return you this most useful sword."

He had already stooped and picked up Stoutenburg's sword, and now was holding it with slender finger tips by the point of its blade, and smiling, urbane and mocking, he held it out at arm's length, bowing the while with courtly, ironical grace.

"Shall we call Jan, my lord," he said airily, "or one of your friends to aid you?  Some of them I noticed just now seemed somewhat in a hurry to quit this hospitable molens, but mayhap one or two are still lingering behind."

Stoutenburg, blind with rage, had snatched his sword back out of the scoffer's hand.  He knew that the man was only playing with him, only keeping him busy here to prevent his going to Gilda.  This thought threw him into a frenzy of excitement and not heeding the other's jeers he cried out at the top of his voice:

"Jan!  Jan!  Nicolaes!  What-ho!"

And the other man putting his hand up to his mouth also shouted lustily:

"Jan!  Nicolaes!  What ho!"

Had Stoutenburg been less blind and deaf to aught save to his own hatred and his own fury, he would have heard not many paces away, the sound of horses' hoofs upon the hard ground, the champing of bits, the jingle of harness.  But of this he did not think, not just yet.  His thoughts were only of Gilda, and that man was holding the door of the hut because he meant to dispute with him the possession of Gilda.  He cast aside all sense of pride and shame.  He was no match with a foreign mercenary, whose profession was that of arms; there was no disgrace in his want of skill.  But he would not yield the ground to this adventurer who meant to snatch Gilda away from him.  After all the man had a wounded shoulder and a lacerated hip; with the aid of Jan and Nicolaes he could soon be rendered helpless.

New hope rose in the Lord of Stoutenburg's heart, giving vigour to his arm.  Now he heard the sound of running footsteps behind him; Jan was coming to his aid and there were others; Nicolaes no doubt and Heemskerk.

"My lord! my lord!" cried Jan, horrified at what he saw.  He had heard the clang of steel against steel and had caught up the first sword that came to his hand.  His calls and those of Stoutenburg as well as the more lusty ones of Diogenes reached the ears of Beresteyn, who with his friend Heemskerk was making a final survey of the molens, to search for compromising papers that might have been left about.  They too heard the cries and the clash of steel; they ran down the steps of the molens, only to meet Jan who was hurrying toward the hut with all his might.

"I think my lord is being attacked," shouted Jan as he flew past, "and the jongejuffrouw is still in the hut."

These last words dissipated Nicolaes Beresteyn's sudden thoughts of cowardice.  He too snatched up a sword and followed by Heemskerk he ran in Jan's wake.

The stranger, so lately a prisoner condemned to hang, was in the doorway of the hut, with his back to it, his sword in his left hand keeping my Lord of Stoutenburg at arm's length.  Jan, Nicolaes and Heemskerk were on him in a trice.

"Two, three, how many of you?" queried Diogenes with a laugh, as with smart riposte he met the three blades which suddenly flashed out against him. "Ah, Mynheer Beresteyn, my good Jan, I little thought that I would see you again."

"Let me pass, man," cried Beresteyn,  "I must to my sister."

"Not yet, friend," he replied, "till I know what your intentions are."

For one instant Beresteyn appeared to hesitate.  The kindly sentiment which had prompted him awhile ago to speak sympathetic words to a condemned man who had taken so much guilt upon his shoulders, still fought in his heart against his hatred for the man himself.  Since that tragic moment at the foot of the gallows which had softened his mood, Beresteyn had learnt that it was this man who had betrayed him and his friends to the Stadtholder, and guessed that it was Gilda who had instigated or bribed him into that betrayal.  And now the present position seemed to ring vividly before his mind the picture of that afternoon in the "Lame Cow" at Haarlem, when the knave whom he had paid to keep Gilda safely out of the way was bargaining with his father to bring her back to him.

All the hatred of the past few days -- momentarily lulled in the face of a tragedy -- rose up once more with renewed intensity in his heart.  Here was the man who had betrayed him, and who, triumphant, was about to take Gilda back to Haarlem and receive a fortune for his reward.

While Heemskerk, doubtful and hesitating, marvelled if 'twere wise to take up Stoutenburg's private quarrels rather than follow his other friends to Scheveningen where safety lay, Jan and Beresteyn vigorously aided by Stoutenburg made a concerted attack upon the knave.

But it seemed as easy for Bucephalus to deal with three blades as with one: now it appeared to have three tongues of pale grey flame that flashed hither and thither; -- backwards, forwards, left, right, above, below, parry, riposte, an occasional thrust, and always quietly on guard.

Diogenes was in his greatest humour laughing and shouting with glee.  To any one less blind with excitement than were these men it would soon have been clear that he was shouting for the sole purpose of making a noise, a noise louder than the hammerings, the jinglings, the knocking that was going on at the back of the hut.

To right and left of the front of the small building a high wooden paling ran for a distance of an hundred paces or so enclosing a rough yard with a shed in the rear.  It was impossible to see over the palings what was going on behind them and so loudly did the philosopher shout and laugh, and so vigorously did steel strike against steel that it was equally impossible to perceive the sounds that came from there.

But suddenly Stoutenburg was on the alert: something had caught his ear, a sound that rose above the din that was going on in the doorway . . . a woman's piercing shriek.  Even the clang of steel could not drown it, nor the lusty shouts of the fighting philosopher.

For a second he strained his ear to listen.  It seemed as if invisible hands were suddenly tearing down the wooden palisade that hid the rear of the small building from his view; before his mental vision a whole picture rose to sight.  A window at the back of the hut broken in, Gilda carried away by the friends of this accursed adventurer -- Jan had said that two came to his aid at the foot of the gallows -- Maria screaming, the sledge in wait, the horses ready to start.

"My God, I had not thought of that," he cried, "Jan!  Nicolaes!  in Heaven's name!  Gilda!  After me!  quick!"

And then he starts to run, skirting the palisade in the direction whence come now quite distinctly that ceaseless rattle, that jingle and stamping of the ground which proclaims the presence of horses on the point of departure.

"Jan, in Heaven's name, follow me!" cries Stoutenburg, pausing one instant ere he rounds the corner of the palisade.

"Nicolaes, leave that abominable knave!  Gilda, I tell you!  Gilda!  They are carrying her away!"

Jan already has obeyed, grasping his sword he does not pause to think.  My lord has called and 'tis my lord whom he follows.  He runs after Stoutenburg as fast as his tired limbs will allow.  Heemskerk, forgetting his own fears in the excitement of this hand-to-hand combat, follows in their wake.

Nicolaes, too, at Stoutenburg's call, is ready to follow him.

He turns to run when a grasp of iron falls upon his arm, holding it like a vice.  He could have screamed with the pain, and the sword which he held falls out of his nerveless fingers.  The next moment he feels himself dragged by that same iron grasp through the open door into the hut, and hears the door slammed to and locked behind him.

"Your pardon if I have been rough, mynheer," said Diogenes' pleasant voice, "but there was no time to argue outside that door and you seemed in such a mighty hurry to run straight into that yawning abyss of disgrace."

The grasp upon his arm had not relaxed, but it no longer hurt.  Yet it was so firm and so absolute that Nicolaes felt powerless to wrench himself away.

"Let me go!" he cried hoarsely.

"Not just yet, mynheer," rejoined Diogenes coolly, "not while this hot temper is upon you.  Let the Lord of Stoutenburg and our friend Jan fight to their heart's content with a fat philosopher who is well able to hold his own against them, while the other who is lean and a moderately good coachman sees that a pair of horses do not rear and bolt during the fray."

"Let me go, man, I tell you," cried Beresteyn who was making frantic efforts to free himself from that slender white grapnel which held his arm as in a vice.

"One moment longer, mynheer, and you shall go.  The horses of which I speak are harnessed to a sledge wherein is the jongejuffrouw your sister."

"Yes! verdommte Keerl! let me get to her or . . ."

"As soon as the fat philosopher has disposed of the Lord of Stoutenburg and of Jan he too will jump into the sledge and a minute later will be speeding on its way to Haarlem."

"And there will be three of us left here to hang you to that same gallows on which you should have dangled an hour ago," exclaimed Beresteyn savagely.

"Possibly," retorted Diogenes dryly, "but even so your sister will be on the way to Haarlem rather than to exile whither the Lord of Stoutenburg and you -- her brother -- would drag her."

"And what is it to you, you abominable plepshurk, whither I go with my sister and my friend?"

"Only this, mynheer, that yesterday in this very room I proclaimed myself a forger, a liar and a thief before the jongejuffrouw in order that her love for her only brother should not receive a mortal wound.  At that moment I did not greatly care for that lie," he added with his wonted flippancy, "but time hath lent it enchantment:  It is on the whole one of the finest lies I ever told in my life; moreover it carried conviction; the jongejuffrouw was deceived.  Now I will not see that pet lie of mine made fruitless by the abominable action which you have in contemplation."

Beresteyn made no immediate reply.  Easily swayed as he always was by a character stronger than his own, the words spoken by the man whom he had always affected to despise, could not fail to move him.  He knew that that same abominable action of which he was being accused had indeed been contemplated not only by Stoutenburg but also by himself.  It had only required one word from Stoutenburg -- "Gilda of course comes with us" -- one hint that her presence in Holland would be a perpetual menace to his personal safety, and he had been not only willing but fully prepared to put this final outrage upon the woman whom he should have protected with his life.

Therefore now he dared not meet the eager, questioning glance of this adventurer, in whose merry eyes the look of irrepressible laughter was momentarily veiled by one of anxiety.  He looked around him restlessly, shiftily; his wandering glance fell on the narrow inner door which stood open, and he caught a glimpse of a smaller room beyond, with a window at the further end of it.  That window had been broken in from without, the narrow frame torn out of its socket and the mullion wrenched out of its groove.

Through the wide breach thus made in the lath and mud walls of the hut, Beresteyn suddenly saw the horses and the sledge out there in the open.  The fight of awhile ago by the front door had now been transferred to this spot.  A short fat man with his back to the rear of the sledge was holding the Lord Stoutenburg and Heemskerk at a couple of arm's lengths with the point of his sword. Jan was apparently not yet on the scene.

Another man, lean and tall, was on the box of the sledge, trying with all his might to hold a pair of horses in, who frightened by the clang of steel against steel, by the movement and the shouting, were threatening to plunge and rear at any moment.

Diogenes laughed aloud.

"My friend Pythagoras seems somewhat hard pressed," he said, "and those horses might complicate the situation at any moment.  I must to them now, mynheer.  Tell me then quickly which you mean to do; behave like an honest man or like a cur?"

"What right have you to dictate to me?" said Beresteyn sullenly.  "I have no account to give you of mine own actions."

"None I admit," rejoined the philosopher placidly, "but let me put the situation a little more clearly before you.  On the one hand you must own that I could at this moment with very little trouble and hardly any scruples render you physically helpless first, then lock you up in this room, and go and join my friends outside.  On the other hand you could leave this room sound in body and at heart an honest man, jump into the sledge beside your sister and convey her yourself safely back to the home from whence you -- her own brother -- should never have allowed her to be taken."

"I cannot do it," retorted Beresteyn moodily,  "I could not meet my father face to face after what has happened."

"Think you Gilda would tell him that his only son has played the part of traitor?"

"She loathes and despises me."

"She has a horror of that treacherous plot.  But the plot has come to naught; and she will consider that you are punished enough for it already, and feel happy that you are free from Stoutenburg's clutches."

"I cannot leave Stoutenburg now, and she must go with him.  She hates me for the outrage which was committed against her."

"She does not know your share in it," said Diogenes quickly, "have I not told you that I lied admirably?  She believes me to be the only culprit and to have forged your name to hide mine own infamy."

A hot flush rose to Beresteyn's pale cheeks.

"I cannot bear to profit by your generosity," he said dully.

"Pshaw man!" rejoined the other not without a tone of bitterness, "what matters what my reputation is in her sight?  She despises me so utterly already that a few sins more or less cannot lower me further in her sight."

"No! no!  I cannot do it," persisted Beresteyn.  "Go to your friends, man," he added fiercely, "the fat one is getting sorely pressed, the other cannot cope with the horses much longer! go to their aid! and kill me if you are so minded.  Indeed I no longer care, and in any case I could not survive all this shame."

"Die by all means when and where you list," said Diogenes placidly, "but 'tis your place first of all to take your sister now under your own protection, to keep her in the knowledge that whatever sins you may have committed your were at least true and loyal to herself.  By Heaven man, hath she not suffered enough already in her person, in her pride, above all in her affections?  Your loyalty to her at this moment would be ample compensation for all that she hath suffered. Be an honest man and take her to her home."

"How can I?  I have no home: and she is a menace to us all . . ."

"I am a menace to you, you weak-hearted craven," cried Diogenes whose moustache bristled with fury now, "for by Heaven I swear that you shall not leave this place with a whole skin save to do an honest man's act of reparation."

And as if to give greater emphasis to his words Diogenes gave the other man's arm a vigorous wrench which caused Beresteyn to groan and curse with pain.

"I may have to hurt you worse than this presently," said the philosopher imperturbably as he dragged Beresteyn -- who by now felt dizzy and helpless -- to the nearest chair and deposited him there.  "Were you not her brother, I believe I should crack your obstinate skull; as it is . . . I will leave you here to take counsel with reason and honesty until I have finally disposed of my Lord of Stoutenburg."

He ran quickly to the outer door, pushed the bolts home, gave the key an extra turn and then pulled it out of the lock and threw it out of the window.  Beresteyn -- somewhat stunned with emotion, a little faint with that vigorous wrench on his arm, and prostrate with the fatigue and excitement of the past two days -- made no attempt to stop him.  No doubt he realized that any such attempt would indeed be useless: there was so much vitality, so much strength in the man that his tall stature appeared to Nicolaes now of giant-like proportions, and his powers to savour of the supernatural.

He watched him with dull, tired eyes, as he finally went out of the room through the inner door; no doubt this too he locked behind him.  Beresteyn did not know; he half lay, half sat in the chair like a log, the sound of the fight outside, of the shouts that greeted Diogenes' arrival, of the latter's merry laughter that went echoing through the mist, only reached his dull perceptions like a far-off dream.

But in his mind he saw it all: the walls of the hut were transparent before his mental vision, he saw now the unequal fight; a perfect swordsman against Stoutenburg's unreasoning attacks and Heemskerk's want of skill.  Jan too will have joined them by now, but he was loutish and clumsy.  The issue would have been a foregone conclusion even without the aid of the fat knave who had held his own already for nearly ten minutes. Yet, though his thoughts were not by any means all clear upon the subject, Beresteyn made no attempt to go to his own friend's assistance.  Vaguely some pleasing visions began to float through space around him.  It seemed as if the magic personality of a nameless adventurer still filled this narrow room with its vitality, with its joy and with its laughter.  The optimistic breeziness which emanated from the man himself had lingered here after he was gone.  His cheerful words still hung and reverberated upon the cold, wintry air.

"After all, why not?" mused Beresteyn.

Gilda knew of his share in the conspiracy against the Stadtholder of course.  But that conspiracy had now aborted; Gilda would never betray her brother's share in it either to the Stadtholder's vengeance or to her father's wrath.

And she had been made to believe that he was not the mover in the outrage against her person.

"Then -- why not?"

She had been forcibly dragged out of this hut; she knew that Stoutenburg meant to take her away with him into exile; even if she had been only partially conscious since she was taken to the sledge, she would know that a desperate fight had been going on around her.  Then if he, Nicolaes now appeared upon the scene -- if he took charge of her and of the sledge, and with the help of one or other of those knaves outside sped away with her north to Haarlem, would she not be confirmed in her belief in his loyalty, would he not play a heroic rôle, make her happy and himself free?

"Then -- why not?"

All the papers relating to the aborted conspiracy which might have compromised him he had upon his person even now.  He and Heemskerk had themselves collected the in the weighing-room of the molens after Lucas of Sparendam had brought his terrible news.

"Then -- why not?"

He rose briskly from his chair.  The outer door of the hut was locked -- he crossed to the inner door that was just on the latch and he threw it open.  Before him now was the broken window frame through which peeped the dull grey light of this misty winter's morning.  Out in the open through the filmy veil of the fog he could see the final phases of an unequal fight.  Stoutenburg and Heemskerk were both disarmed and Jan had just appeared upon the scene.  More far-seeing than were the Lord of Stoutenburg and Mynheer Heemskerk, he had very quickly realized that sword in hand no one was a match for this foreigner and his invincible blade.  When the fighting was transferred from the doorway of the hut to the open roadway in the rear, he had at first followed in the wake of his chief, then he had doubled back, swiftly running to the molens, and in the basement from out the scattered litter of arms hastily thrown down, he had quickly picked up a couple of pistols, found some ammunition, quietly loaded the weapons and with them in his hand started to run back to the hut.

All this had taken some few minutes while Pythagoras had borne the brunt of a vigorous attack from the Lord of Stoutenburg and Mynheer Heemskerk, whilst Diogenes parleyed with Beresteyn inside the hut.

Beresteyn saw the whole picture before him.  He had thrown open the door, and looked through the broken window at the precise moment when the Lord of Stoutenburg's sword flew out of his hand.  Then it was that Jan came running along, shouting to my lord.  Stoutenburg turned quickly, saw his faithful lieutenant and caught sight of the pistols which he held.  The next second he had snatched one out of Jan's hand, and the pale ray of a wintry sun penetrating through the mist found its reflection in a couple of steel barrels pointed straight at a laughing philosopher.

Beresteyn from within felt indeed as if his heart stood still for that one brief, palpitating second.   Was Fate after all taking the decision for the future -- Gilda's and his -- out of his hands into her own?  Would a bullet end that vigorous life and still that merry laugh and that biting tongue for ever, and leave Nicolaes to be swayed once more by the dark schemes and arbitrary will of his friend Stoutenburg?

Fate was ready, calmly spinning the threads of human destinies.  But there are some men in the world who have the power and the skill to take their destinies in their own hands. The philosopher and weaver of dreams, the merry Laughing Cavalier was one of these.

What the Lord of Stoutenburg had seen that he perceived equally quickly; he, too, had caught sight of Jan, he too, realized that the most skilled swordsman is but a sorry match against a pair of bullets.

But while Beresteyn held his breath and Stoutenburg tried to steady the trembling of his hand, he raised Bucephalus above his head and with a wild shout pointed toward the southern horizon far away.

"The Stadtholder's guard!" he cried lustily, "they are on us! Sauve qui peut!"

Three cries of mad terror rent the air, there was a double detonation, a great deal of smoke.  The horses in the sledge reared and plunged wildly, forcing those who were nearest to the vehicle to beat a precipitate retreat.

"At the horses' heads, you wooden-headed bladder," shouted Diogenes lustily.  Pythagoras did his best to obey, while Socrates was nearly dragged off the box by the frightened horses.  Heemskerk had already incontinently taken to his heels.  Jan had dropped his weapon which Diogenes at once picked up.  The Lord of Stoutenburg was preparing to fire again.

"Sauve qui peut, my lord!" cried Diogenes "before I change my mind and put a hole through you heel, which will prevent your running away fast enough to escape the Stadtholder's wrath."

There was another detonation.  The horses reared and plunged again.  When Beresteyn once more obtained a clear view of the picture, he saw the Lord of Stoutenburg stretched out on his back upon the ground in a position that was anything but dignified and certainly very perilous, for Diogenes was towering above him was holding him by both feet.  The tall soldierly figure of the foreigner stood out clearly silhouetted against the grey, misty light: his head with its wealthy of unruly brown curls was thrown back with a gesture that almost suggested boyish delight in some impish mischief, whilst his infectious laugh echoed and re-echoed against the walls of the molens and of the hut.

Jan was on his hands and knees crawling toward those two men -- the conqueror and the conquered -- with no doubt a vague idea that he might even now render assistance to my lord.

"Here, Pythagoras, old fat head," cried Diogenes gaily, "see that our friend here does not interfere with me: and that he hath not a concealed poniard somewhere about his person, then collect all pistols and swords that are lying about, well out of harm's way.  In the meanwhile what am I to do with his Magnificence? he is kicking like a vicious colt and that shoulder of mine is beginning to sting like fury."

"Kill me, man, kill me!" cried Stoutenburg savagely, "curse you, why don't you end this farce?"

"Because, my lord," said Diogenes more seriously that was his wont, "the purest and most exquisite woman on God's earth did once deign to bestow the priceless jewel of her love upon you.  Did she know of your present plight, she would even now be pleading for you: therefore," he added more flippantly, "I am going to give myself the satisfaction of making you a present of the last miserable shred of existence which you will drag on from this hour forth in wretchedness and exile to the end of your days.  Take your life and freedom, my lord," he continued in response to the invectives which Stoutenburg muttered savagely under his breath, "take it at the hands of the miserable plepshurk whom you so despise.  It is better methinks to do this rather than fall into the hands of the Stadtholder, whose mercy for a fallen enemy would be equal to your own."

Then he shouted to Pythagoras.

"Here, old compeer!  search his Magnificence for concealed weapons, and then make ready to go.  We have wasted too much time already."

Despite Stoutenburg's struggles and curses Pythagoras obeyed his brother philosopher to the letter.  His lordship and Jan were both effectually disarmed now.  Then only did Diogenes allow Stoutenburg to struggle to his feet.  He had his sword in his left hand and Pythagoras stood beside him.  Jan found his master's hat and cloak and helped him on with them, and then he said quietly:

"The minutes are precious, my lord, 'tis a brief run to Ryswyk: my Lord of Heemskerk has gone and Mynheer Beresteyn has disappeared.  Here we can do nothing more."

"Nothing, my good Jan," said Diogenes more seriously, "you are a brave soldier and a faithful servant.  Take his Magnificence away to safety.  You have well deserved your own."

Stoutenburg gave a last cry of rage and of despair.  For a moment it seemed as if his blind fury would still conquer reason and prudence and that he meant once more to make an attack upon his victorious enemy, but something in the latter's look of almost insolent triumph recalled him to the peril of his own situation: he passed his hand once or twice over his brow, like a man who is dazed and only just returning to consciousness, then he called loudly to Jan to follow him, and walked rapidly away northwards through the fog.

Beresteyn went up to the broken window and watched him till he was out of sight, then he looked on Diogenes.

That philosopher also watched the retreating figure of the Lord of Stoutenburg until the fog swallowed it up, then he turned to his friend.

"Pythagoras, old compeer," he said with a shrug of his broad shoulders, "what would you take to be walking at this moment in that man's shoes?"

"I wouldn't do it, friend," rejoined Pythagoras placidly, "for the possession of a running river of home-brewed ale.  And I am mightily dry at the present moment."

"Jump up then on the box beside Socrates, you old wine-tub, and get to Leyden as quickly as these horses will take you.  A halt at Voorburg will refresh you all."

"But you?" queried Socrates from his post of vantage.

"I shall make my way to Ryswyk first and get a horse there.  I shall follow you at a distance, and probably overtake you before you get to Leyden.  But you will not see me after this . . . unless there is trouble, which is not likely."

"But the jongejuffrouw?" persisted Socrates.

"Hush!  I shall never really lose sight of you and the sledge.  But you must serve her as best you can.  Someone will be with her who will know how to take care of her."

"Who?"

"Her own brother of course, Mynheer Beresteyn.  Over the sill, mynheer!"  he now shouted, calling to Nicolaes who still stood undecided, shamed, hesitating in the broken framework of the window, "over the sill, 'tis only three feet from the ground, and horses and men are quite ready for you."

He gave a lusty cheer of satisfaction as Beresteyn, throwing all final cowardly hesitations to the wind, suddenly made up his mind to take the one wise and prudent course.  He swung himself through the window, and in a few moments was standing by Diogenes' side.

"Let me at last tell you, sir . . ." he began earnestly.

"Hush! -- tell me nothing now . . ." broke in the other man quickly, "the jongejuffrouw might hear."

"But I must thank you --"

"If you say another word," said Diogenes, sinking his voice to a whisper, "I'll order Socrates to drive on and leave you standing here."

"But . . ."

"Into the sledge, man, in Heaven's name.  The jongejuffrouw is unconscious, her woman daft with fear. When the lady regains consciousness let her brother's face be the first sight to comfort her.  Into the sledge man," he added impatiently, "or by Heaven I'll give the order to start."

And without more ado, he hustled Nicolaes into the sledge.  The latter bewildered, really not clear with himself as to what he ought to do, peeped tentatively beneath the cover of the vehicle.  He saw his sister lying there prone upon the wooden floor of the sledge, her head rested against a bundle of rugs hastily put together for her comfort.  Maria was squatting beside her, her head and ears muffled in a cloak, her hands up to her eyes; she was moaning incoherently to herself.

Gilda's eyes were closed, and her face looked very pale: Beresteyn's heart ached at the pitiful sight.  She looked so wan and so forlorn that a sharp pang of remorse for all his cruelty to her shot right through his dormant sensibilities.

There was just room for him under the low cover of the sledge; he hesitated no longer now, he felt indeed as if nothing would tear him away from Gilda's side until she was safely home again in their father's arms.

A peremptory order:  "En avant," struck upon his ear, a shout from the driver to his horses, the harness rattled, the sledge creaked upon its framework and then slowly began to move: Beresteyn lifted the flap of the hood at the rear of the vehicle and looked out for the last time upon the molens and the hut, where such a tragic act in his life's drama had just been enacted.

He saw Diogenes still standing there, waving his hat in farewell: for a few moments longer his splendid figure stood out clearly against the flat grey landscape beyond, then slowly the veil of mist began to envelop him, at first only blurring the outline of his mantle or his sash, then it grew more dense and the sledge moved away more rapidly.

The next moment the Laughing Cavalier had disappeared from view.