Chapter IX -- The Painter of Pictures

After this episode Chance had little to do with the further events of this veracious chronicle.

Men took their destiny in their own hands and laughed at Fate and at the links of the chain which she had been forging so carefully and so patiently ever since she began the business on the steps of the Stadhuis a few short hours ago.

Beresteyn and Stoutenburg walking home together in the small hours of New Year's morning spoke very little together at first. They strode along side by side, each buried in his own thoughts, and only a few curt remarks passed at intervals between them.

But something lay on the minds of both -- something of which each desired to speak to the other, yet neither of them seemed willing to be the first to broach the absorbing topic.

It was Stoutenburg who at last broke the silence.

"A curious personality, that knave," he said carelessly after awhile, "an unscrupulous devil as daring as he is reckless of consequences I should say . . . yet trustworthy withal . . . what think you?"

"A curious personality as you say," replied Beresteyn vaguely.

"He might have been useful to us had we cared to pay for his services . . . but now 'tis too late to think of further accomplices . . . new men won or bought for our cause only mean more victims for the gallows."

"You take a gloomy view of the situation," said Beresteyn sombrely.

"No! only a fatalistic one. With our secret in a woman's keeping . . . and that woman free and even anxious to impart it to one of my most bitter enemies . . . I can see nought that can ward off the inevitable."

"Except. . . ."

"Yes, of course,' rejoined Stoutenburg earnestly. "If you, Nicolaes, are ready to make the sacrifice which alone could save us all."

"It is a sacrifice which will involve my honour, my sister's love for me, my father's trust. . . ."

"If you act wisely and circumspectly, my friend," retorted Stoutenburg dryly, "neither your father nor Gilda herself need ever know that you had a share in . . . in what you propose to do."

Beresteyn made no reply and he and his friend walked on in silence until they reached the small house close to the "Lame Cow" where Stoutenburg had his lodgings. Here they shook hands before parting and Stoutenburg held his friend's hand in his tightly grasped for a moment or two while he said earnestly:

"It is only for a few days, Nicolaes, a few days during which I swear to you that -- though absent and engaged in the greatest task that any man can undertake on this earth -- I swear to you that I will keep watch over Gilda and defend her honour with my life. If you will make the sacrifice for me and for my cause, Heaven and your country will reward you beyond your dreams. With the death of the Stadtholder my power in the Netherlands will be supreme, and herewith, with my hand in yours, I solemnly plight my troth to Gilda. She was the first woman I ever loved, and I have never ceased to love her. Now she fills my heart and soul even -- at times -- to the exclusion of my most ambitious hopes. Nicolaes -- my friend -- it is in your power to save my life as well as your own: an you will do it, there will be no bounds to my gratitude."

And Beresteyn replied calmly:

"The sacrifice which you ask of me I will make: I will take the risk for the sake of my country and of my faith. To-morrow at noon I will come to your lodgings and tell you in detail all the arrangements which I shall have made by then. I have no fear for Gilda. I believe that Heaven has guided my thoughts and footsteps to-night for the furtherance of our cause."

After which the two men took final leave of one another: Stoutenburg's tall lean form quickly disappeared under the doorway of the house, whilst Beresteyn walked rapidly away up the street.

Now it was close on ten o'clock of New Year's morning. Nicolaes Beresteyn had spent several hours in tossing restlessly under the warm eiderdown and between the fine linen sheets embroidered by his sister's deft hands. During these hours of sleeplessness a plan had matured in his mind which though it had finally issued from his own consciousness had really found its origin in the reckless brain of Willem van Stoutenburg.

Beresteyn now saw himself as the saviour of his friends and of their patriotic cause. He felt that in order to carry out the plan which he firmly believed that he himself had conceived, he was making a noble sacrifice for his country and for his faith, and he was proud to think that it lay in his power to offer the sacrifice. That this same sacrifice would have his own sister for victim, he cared seemingly very little. He was one of those men in whose hearts political aims outweigh every tender emotion, and he firmly believed that Gilda would be richly rewarded by the fulfilment of that solemn promise made by Stoutenburg.

Exquisite visions of satisfied ambition, of triumph and of glory chased away sleep: he saw his friend as supreme ruler of the State, with powers greater than the Princes of Orange had ever wielded: he saw Gilda -- his sister-- grateful to him for the part which he had played in re-uniting her to the man whom she had always loved, she too supreme in power as the proud wife of the new Stadtholder. And he saw himself as the Lord High Advocate of the Netherlands standing in the very shoes of that same John of Barneveld whose death he would have helped to avenge.

These and other thoughts had stirred Nicolaes Beresteyn's fancy while he lay awake during these the first hours of the New Year, and it was during those self-same hours that a nameless stranger whom his compeers called Diogenes had tramped up and down the snow-covered streets of Haarlem trying to keep himself warm.

I am very sorry to have to put it on record that during that time he swore more than once at his own softheartedness which had caused him to give up his hard but sheltered paillasse to a pair of Papists who were nothing to him and whom probably he would never see again.

"I begin to agree with that bloated puff-ball Pythagoras," he mused dejectedly once, when an icy wind, blowing straight from the North Sea, drove the falling snow into his boots, and under his collar, and up his sleeves, and nearly froze the marrow in his bones, "it is but sorry pleasure to play at being a gentleman. And I had not many hours of it either," he added ruefully.

Even the most leaden-footed hours do come to an end however. At one half after six Diogenes turned his steps toward the Peuselaarsteeg where dwelt his friend Frans Hals, the painter of pictures. Fortunately Mevrouw Hals was in a fairly good temper, the last portrait group of the officers of St. Joris' Shooting Guild had just been paid for, and there was practically a new commission to paint yet another group of these gentlemen.

And Mynheer van Zeller the deputy bailiff had bought the fancy picture too, for which that knave Diogenes had sat last year, so Mevrouw Hals was willing to provide the young man with a savoury and hot breakfast if he were willing once again to allow Frans to make a picture of his pleasant face.

Mevrouw Hals being in rare good humour, the breakfast was both substantial and savoury. Diogenes, who was starved with cold as well as with hunger, did great honour to all that was laid before him: he ate heartily while recounting his adventures of the past night to his friend.

"All that trouble for a Papist wench," said the painter as contemptuously as Pythagoras himself would have done, "and maybe a Spaniard too."

"Good-looking girl," quoth Diogenes dryly, "and would make you a good model, Frans. For a few kreutzers she'd be glad enough to do it."

"I'll have none of these vixens inside my house," interposed Mevrouw Hals decisively, "and don't you teach Frans any of your loose ways, my man."

Diogenes made no reply, he only winked at his friend. No doubt he thought that Hals no longer needed teaching.

The two men repaired to the studio, a huge bare room littered with canvases, but void of furniture, save for an earthenware stove in which fortunately a cheerful fire was blazing, a big easel roughly fashioned of deal, a platform for the model to stand on, and two or three rush-bottomed chairs: there was also a ramshackle dowry chest, black with age, which mayhap had once held the piles of homemade linen brought as a dowry by the first Mevrouw Hals: now it seemed to contain a heterogeneous collection of gaudy rags, together with a few fine articles of attire, richly embroidered relics of more prosperous days.

The artist went straight up to the chest and from out the litter he selected a bundle of clothes which he handed over to his friend.

"Slip into them as quickly as you can, old compeer," he said, "my fingers are itching to get to work,"

And while he fixed the commenced picture on the easel and set out his palette, Diogenes threw off his shabby clothes and donned the gorgeous doublet and sash which the painter had given him.