THE PROLOGUE

HAARLEM--MARCH 29th, 1623

The day had been spring-like---even hot; a very unusual occurrence in Holland at this time of year.
    
Gilda Beresteyn had retired early to her room. She had dismissed Maria, whose chatterings grated upon her nerves, with the promise that she would call her later. Maria had arranged a tray of dainties on the table, a jug of milk, some fresh white bread and a little roast meat on a plate, for Gilda had eaten very little supper and it might happen that she would feel hungry later on.
    
It would have been useless to argue with the old woman about this matter. She considered Gilda's health to be under her own special charge, ever since good Mevrouw Beresteyn had placed her baby girl in Maria's strong, devoted arms ere she closed her eyes in the last long sleep.
    
Gilda Berensteyn, glad to be alone, threw open the casement of the window and peered out into the night.
    
The shadow of the terrible tragedy--the concluding acts of which were being enacted day by day in the Gevangen Poort of 'S Graven Hage-- had even touched the distant city of Haarlem with its gloom. The eldest son of John of Barneveld was awaiting final trial and inevitable condemnation, his brother Stoutenburg was a fugitive, and their accomplices Korenwinder, van Dyk, the redoubtable Slatius and others were giving away under torture the details of the aborted conspiracy against the life of Maurice of Nassau, Stadtholder of Holland, Gelderland, Utrecht, and Overyssel, Captain and Admiral-General of the State, Prince of Orange, and virtual ruler of Protestant and republican Netherlands.
    
Traitors all of them-- would-be assassins-- the Stadtholder whom they had planned to murder was showing them no mercy. As he had sent John of Barneveld to the scaffold to assuage his own thirst for supreme power and satisfy his own ambitions, so he was ready to send John of Barneveld's sons to death and John of Barneveld's widow to sorrow and loneliness.
   
The sons of John of Barneveld had planned to avenge their father's death by the committal of a cruel and dastardly murder: fate and the treachery of mercenary accomplices had intervened, and now Groeneveld was on the eve of condemnation, and Stoutenburg was a wanderer on the face of the earth with a price put upon his head.
    
Gilda Beresteyn could not endure the thought of it all. All the memories of her childhoodwere linked with the Barnevelds. Stoutenburg had been her brother Nicolaes' most intimate friend, and had been the first man to whisper words of love in her ears, ere his boundless devotion and his unscrupulous egoism drove him into another more profitable marriage.
    
Gilda's face flamed up with shame even now at recollection of his treachery, and the deep humiliation which she had felt when she saw the first budding blossom of her girlish love so carelessly tossed aside by the man whom she had trusted.
    
A sense of oppression weighed her spirits down to-night. It almost seemed as if the tragedy which had encompassed the entire Barneveld family was even now hovering over the peaceful house of Mynheer Beresteyn, deputy burgomaster and chief civic magistrate of the town of Haarlem. The air itself felt heavy as if with the weight of impending doom.
   
 The little city lay quiet and at peace; a soft breeze from the south lightly fanned the girl's cheeks. She leaned her elbowson the window-sill and rested her chin in her hands. The moon was not yet up and yet it was not dark; a mysterious light stil lingered on the horizon far away where earth and sea met in a haze of purple and indigo.
   
 From the little garden down below there rose the subtle fragrance of early spring--of wet earth and budding trees, and the dim veiled distance was full of strange sweet sounds, the call of night-birds, the shriek of sea-gulls astray ffrom their usual haunts.
    
Gilda looked out and listened--unable to understand this vague sense of oppression and foreboding: when she put her finger up to her eyes, she found them wet with tears.
    
Memories rose from out the past, sad phantoms that hovered in the scent of the spring. Gilda had never wholly forgotten the man who had once filled her heart with his personality, much less could she chase away his image frim her mind now that a future of misery and disgrace was all that was left to him.
    
She did not know what had become of him, and dared not ask for news. Mynheer Beresteyn, loyal to the House of Nassau and to its prince, had cast out of his heart the sons of John of Barneveld whom he had once loved. Assassins and traitors, he would with his own lips have condemned them to the block, or denounced them to the vengence of the Stadtholder for their treachery against him.
    
The feeling of uncertainty as to Stoutenburg's fate softened Gilda's heart toward him. She knew that he had become a wanderer on the face of the earth, Cain-like, homeless, friendless, practically kinless; she pitied him far more than she did Groeneveld or the others who were looking death quite closely in the face.
    
She was infinitely sorry for him, for him and for his wife, for whose sake he had been false to his first love. The gentle murmur of the breeze, the distant call of the waterfowl, seemed to bring back to Gilda's ears those whisperings of ardent passion which had come from Stoutenburg's lips years ago. She had listened to them with joy then, with glowing eyes cast down and cheeks that flamed up at his words.
   
 And as she listened to these dream-sounds others more concrete mingled with the mystic ones far away: the sound of stealthy footsteps upon the flagged path of the garden, and of a human being breathing and panting somewhere close by, still hidden by the gathering shadows of the night.
    
She held her breath to listen--not at all frightened, for the sound of those footsteps, the presence of that human creature close by, were in tune with her mood of expectancy of something that was foredoomed to come.
    
Suddenly the breeze brought to her ear the murmur of her name, whispered as if in an agony of pleading:
   
"Gilda!"