CHAPTER XLIII - LEYDEN ONCE MORE


After that Gilda had lived as in a dream: only vaguely conscious that good horses and a smoothly gliding vehicle were conveying her back to her home. Of this fact she was sure Nicolaes was sitting quite close under the hood of the sledge and when first she became fully aware of the reality of his presence, he had raised her hand to his lips and had said in response to a mute appeal from her eyes:

"We are going home."

After that a quiet sense of utter weariness pervaded her being, and she fell into a troubled sleep.  She did not heed what went on around her, she only knew that once or twice during the day there was a halt for food and drink.

The nearness of her brother, his gentleness toward her, gave her a sense of well-being, even though her heart felt heavy with a great sorrow which made the whole future appear before her like an interminable vista of blank and grey dullness.

It was at her suggestion that arrangements were made for an all night halt at Leyden, which city they reached in the early part of the afternoon.  She begged Nicolaes that they might put up at the hostelry of the "White Goat" on the further side of the town, and that from thence a messenger might be sent to her father, asking him to come and meet her there on the morrow.

Though Nicolaes was not a little astonished at this suggestion of Gilda's -- seeing that surely she must be longing to be home again and that Haarlem could easily have been reached before night -- he did not wish to run counter to her will.  True enough, he dreaded the meeting with his father, but he knew that it had to come, and felt that whatever might be the future consequences of it all -- he could not possibly bear alone the burden of remorse and of shame which assailed him every time he encountered Gilda's tear-stained eyes, and saw how wearied and listless she looked.

So he called a halt at the "White Goat" and as soon as he saw his sister safely installed, with everything ordered for her comfort, and a tasteful supper prepared, he sent a messenger on horseback at once to Haarlem to his father.

Gilda had deliberately chosen to spend the night at the hostelry of the "White Goat" because she felt that in that quaint old building with its wide oak staircase -- over which she had been carried five days ago, dizzy and half fainting -- the blackened rafters would mayhap still echo with the sound of a merry laughter which she would never hear again.

But when the sledge finally turned in under the low gateway and drew up in the small courtyard of the inn -- when with wearied feet and shaking knees she walked up those oaken stairs, it seemed to her that the vivid memories which the whole place recalled were far harder to bear than those more intangible ones which -- waking and sleeping -- had tortured her up to now.

The bedroom too, with the smaller one leading out of it, was the same in which she had slept.  As the obsequious waiting-wench threw open the door for the noble jongejuffrouw to pass through she saw before her the wide open hearth with its crackling fire, the high-backed chair wherein she had sat, the very footstool which he had put to her feet.

It seemed to her at first as if she could not enter, as if his splendid figure would suddenly emerge out of the semi-darkness to confront her with his mocking eyes and his smiling face.  She seemed to see him everywhere, and she had to close her eyes to chase away that all to insistent vision.

The waiting-wench did not help matters either, for she asked persistently and shyly about the handsome mynheer who had such an irresistible fund of laughter in him.  Maria too, in her mutterings and grumblings, contrived -- most unwittingly, since she adored Gilda -- to inflict a series of tiny pin-pricks on an already suffering heart.

Tired in body and in mind, Gilda could not sleep that night.  She was living over again every second of the past five days: the interview with that strangely winning person -- a stranger still to her then -- here in this room! how she had hated him at first! how she had tried to shame and wound him with her words, trying all the while to steel her heart against that irresistible gaiety and good humour which shone from him like a radiance: then that second interview in Rotterdam! did she still hate him them? and if not when was hatred first changed into the love which now so completely filled her soul?

Looking back on those days, she could not tell.  All that she knew was that when he was brought before her helpless and pinioned she already loved him, and that since that moment love had grown and strengthened until her whole heart was given to that same nameless soldier of fortune whom she had first despised.

To live over again those few brief days which seemed now like an eternity was a sweet, sad pleasure which Gilda could endure, but what became intolerable in the darkness and in the silence of the night was the remembrance of the immediate past.

Clearly cut out before her mental vision were the pictures of her life this morning in the hut beside the molens: and indeed, it was a lifetime that had gone by in those few hours.

Firstly Stoutenburg's visit in the early morning, his smooth words and careless chatter! she, poor fool! under the belief all the time that the treacherous plot had been abandoned, and that she would forthwith be conveyed back to her father.  Her thoughts of pleading for the condemned man's life: then the tramping of feet, the cries of terror, her brother's appearance bringing the awful news of betrayal.  She lived over again those moments of supreme horror when she realized how Stoutenburg had deceived her, and that Nicolaes himself was but a traitor and a miserable liar.

She knew then that it was the adventurer, the penniless soldier of fortune whom she had tried to hate and to despise, who had quietly gone to warn the Stadtholder, and that his action had been the direct working of God's will in a brave and loyal soul: she knew also by a mysterious intuition which no good woman has ever been able to resist, that the man who had stood before her -- self-convicted and self-confessed -- had accepted that humiliation to save her the pain of fearing and despising her own brother.

The visions now became more dim and blurred.  She remembered Stoutenburg's fury, his hideous threats of vengeance on the man who had thrown himself across his treacherous path.  She remembered pleading to that monster, weeping, clinging to his arm in a passionate appeal.  She remembered the soul agony which she felt when she realized that that appeal had been in vain.

Then she had stood for a moment silent and alone in the hut.  Stoutenburg had left her in order to accomplish that hideous act of revenge.

After that she remembered nothing clearly.  She could only have been half-conscious and all round her there was a confusion of sounds, of shouts and clash of arms: she thought that she was being lifted out of the chair into which she had fallen in a partial swoon, that she heard Maria's cries of terror, and that she felt the cold damp morning air striking upon her face.

Presently she knew that Nicolaes was beside her, and that she was being taken home.  All else was a blank or a dream. 

Now she was tossing restlessly upon the lavender-scented bed in this hostelry so full of memories.  Her temples were throbbing, her eyes felt like pieces of glowing charcoal in her head.  The blackness around her weighed upon her soul until she felt that she could not breathe.

Outside the silence of the night was being gravely disturbed: there was the sound of horses' hoofs upon the cobblestones of the yard, the creaking of a vehicle brought to a standstill, the usual shouts for grooms and ostlers.  A late arrival had filled the tranquil inn with its bustle and its noise.

Then once again all was still, and Gilda turned her aching head upon the pillow.  Though the room was not hot, and the atmosphere outside heavy with frost, she felt positively stifled.

After a while this feeling of oppression became intolerable, she rose, and in the darkness she groped for her fur-lined cloak which she wrapped closely around her.  Then she found her way across to the window and drew aside the curtain.  No light penetrated through the latticed panes: the waning moon which four nights ago had been at times so marvellously brilliant, had not yet risen above the horizon line.  As Gilda's fingers fumbled for the window-latch she heard a distant church clock strike the midnight hour.

She threw open the casement.  The sill was low and she leaned out peering up and down the narrow street.  It was entirely deserted and pitch dark save where on the wall opposite the light from a window immediately below her threw its feeble reflection. Vaguely she wondered who was astir in the small hostelry.  No doubt it was the tap-room which was there below her, still lighted up, and apparently with its small casement also thrown open, like the one out of which she was leaning.

For now, when the reverberating echo of the chiming clock had entirely died away, she was conscious of a vague murmur of voices coming up from below, confused at first and undistinguishable, but presently she heard a click as if the casement had been pushed further open or mayhap a curtain pulled aside, for after that the sound of the voices became more distinct and clear.

With beating heart and straining ears Gilda leaned as far out of the window as she could, listening intently: she had recognized her father's voice, and he was speaking so strangely that even as she listened she felt all the blood tingling in her veins.

"My son, sir," he was saying, "had, I am glad to say, sufficient pride and manhood in him not to bear the full weight of your generosity any longer.  He sent a special messenger on horseback out to me this afternoon.  As soon as I knew that my daughter was here I came as fast as sleigh and the three best horses in my stables could bring me.  I had no thought, of course, of seeing you here."

"I had no thought that you should see me, sir," said a voice which by its vibrating tones had the power of sending the hot blood rushing to the listener's neck and cheeks.  "Had I not entered the yard just as your sledge turned in under the gateway, you had not been offended by mine unworthy presence."

"I would in that case have searched the length and breadth of this land to find you, sir," rejoined Cornelius Beresteyn earnestly, "for half an hour later my son had told me the whole circumstances of his association with you."

"An association of which Mynheer Nicolaes will never be over-proud, I'll warrant," came in slightly less flippant accents than usual from the foreigner.  "Do I not stand self-confessed as a liar, a forger and abductor of helpless women?  A fine record forsooth: and ere he ordered me to be hanged by Lord of Stoutenburg did loudly proclaim me as such before his friends and before his followers."

"His friends, sir, are the sons of my friends.  I will loudly proclaim you what you truly are: a brave man, a loyal soldier, a noble gentleman!  Nicolaes has told me every phase of his association with you, from his shameful proposal to you in regard to his own sister, down to this moment when you still desired that Gilda and I should remain in ignorance of his guilt."

"What is the good, mynheer, of raking up all this past?" said the philosopher lightly, "I would that Mynheer Nicolaes had known how to hold his tongue."

"Thank God that he did not," retorted Cornelius Beresteyn hotly, "had he done so I stood in peril of failing -- for the first time in my life -- in an important
business obligation."

"Not towards me, mynheer, at any rate."

"Yes, sir, towards you," affirmed Beresteyn decisively.  "I promised you five hundred thousand guilders if you brought my daughter safely back to me.  I know from mine own son, sir, that I owe her safety to no one but to you."

"Ours was an ignoble bargain, mynheer," said Diogenes with his wonted gaiety, and though she could not see him, Gilda could picture his face now alive with merriment and suppressed laughter.  "The humour of the situation appealed to me -- it proved irresistible -- but the bargain in no way binds you seeing that it was I who had been impious enough to lay hands upon your daughter."

"At my son's suggestion I know," rejoined Beresteyn quietly, "and from your subsequent acts, sir, I must infer that you only did it because you felt that she was safer under your charge than at the mercy of her own brother and his friends . . . Nay! do not protest," he added earnestly, "Nicolaes, as you see, is of the same opinion."

"May Heaven reward you, sir, for that kindly thought of me," said Diogenes more seriously, "it will cheer me in the future, when I and all my doings will have faded from your ken."

"You are not leaving Holland, sir?"

"Not just now, mynheer, while there is so much fighting to be done.  The Stadtholder hath need of soldiers . . ."

"And he will, sir, find none better than you throughout the world.  And with a goodly fortune to help you. . . ."

"Speak not of that, mynheer," he said firmly, "I could not take your money.  If I did I should never know a happy hour again."

"Oh!"

"I am quite serious, sir, though indeed you might not think that I can ever be serious.  For six days now I have had a paymaster: Mynheer Nicolaes' money has burned a hole in my good humour, it has scorched my hands, wounded my shoulder and lacerated my hip, it has brought on me all the unpleasant sensations which I have so carefully avoided hitherto, remorse, humiliation, and one or two other sensations which will never leave me until my death.  It changed temporarily the shiftless, penniless soldier of fortune into a responsible human being, with obligations and duties.  I had to order horses, bespeak lodgings, keep accounts.  Ye gods, it made a slave of me!  Keep your money, sir, it is more fit for you to handle than for me.  Let me go back to my shiftlessness, my penury, my freedom, eat my fill to-day, starve to-morrow, and one day look up at the stars from the lowly earth, with a kindly bullet in my chest that does not mean to blunder.  And if in the days to come your thoughts ever do revert to me, I pray you think of me as happy or nearly so, owning no master save my whim, bending my back to none, keeping my hat on my head when I choose, and ending my days in a ditch or in a palace, the carver of mine own destiny, the sole arbiter of my will.  And now I pray you seek that rest of which you must be sorely in need.  I start at daybreak to-morrow: mayhap we shall never meet again, save in Heaven, if indeed, there be room there for such a thriftless adventurer as I."

"But whither do you mean to go, sir?"

"To the mountains of the moon, sir," rejoined the philosopher lightly, "or along the milky way to the land of the Might-Have-Been."

"Before we part, sir, may I shake you by the hand?"

There was silence down below after that.  Gilda listened in vain, no further words reached her ears just then.  She tiptoed as quietly as she could across the room, finding her way with difficulty in the dark.  At last her fumbling fingers encountered the latch of the door of the inner room where Maria lay snoring lustily.

It took Gilda some little time to wake the old woman, but at last she succeeded, and then ordered her, very peremptorily, to strike a light.

"Are you ill, mejuffrouw?" queried Maria anxiously even though she was but half awake.

"No," replied Gilda curtly, "but I want my dress -- quick now," she added, for Maria showed signs of desiring to protest.

The jongejuffrouw was in one of those former imperious moods of hers when she exacted implicit obedience from her servants.  Alas! the last few days had seen that mood submerged into an ocean of sorrow and humiliation, and Maria -- though angered at having been wakened out of a first sleep -- was very glad to see her darling looking so alert and so brisk.

Indeed -- the light being very dim -- Maria could not see the brilliant glow that lit up the jongejuffrouw's cheeks as with somewhat febrile gestures she put on her dress and smoothed her hair.

"Now put on your dress too, Maria," she said when she was ready, "and tell my father, who is either in the tap-room down below or hath already retired to his
room, that I desire to speak with him."

And Maria, bewildered and flustered, had no option but to obey.