She leaned right out of the window. Her
eyes, better accustomed to the dim evening light, perceived a
human figure that crouched against the yew hedge, in the fantastic
shadow cast by the quaintly shaped peacock at the corner close
to the house.
"Gilda!" came the murmur again, more insistent this time.
"Who goes there?" she called in response: and it was an undefinable instinct stronger than her will that caused her to drop her own voice also to a whisper.
"A fugitive hunted to his death," came the response scarce louder than the breeze. "Give me shelter, Gilda--human bloodhounds are on my track."
Gilda's heart seemed to stop its beating; the human figure out there in the shadows had crept stealthily nearer. The window out of which she leaned was only a few feet from the ground; she stretched out her hand into the night.
"There is a projection in the wall just there," she whispered hurriedly, "and the ivy stems will help you...Come!"
The fugitive grasped the hand that was stretched out to him in pitying helpfulness. With the aid of the projection in the wall and of the stems of the century-old ivy, he soon cleared the distance which separated him from the windowsill. The next moment he had jumped into the room.
Gilda in this impulsive act of mercy had not paused to consider either the risks or the cost. She had recognised the voice of the man
whom she had once loved, that voice called to her out of the depths of boundless misery; it was the call of a man at bay, a human quarry hunted and exhausted, with the hunters close upon his heels. She could not have resisted that call even if she had allowed her reason to fight her instinct then.
But now that he stood before her in rough fisherman's clothes, stained and torn, his face covered with blood and grime, his eyes red and swollen, the breath coming quick, short gasps through his blue, cracked lips, the first sense of fear at what she had done seized hold of her heart.
At first he took no notice of her, but threw himself into the nearest chair and passed his hands across his face and brow.
"My God," he murmured, "I thought they would have me to-night."
She stood in the middle of the room, feeling helpless and bewildered; she was full of pity for the man, for ther is nothing more unutterably pathetic than the hunted human creature in its final stage of apathetic exhaustion, but she was just beginning to co-ordinate her thoughts and they for the moment were being invaded by fear.
She felt more than she saw, that presently he turned his hollow, purple-rimmed eyes upon her, and that in them there was a glow half of passionate will-power and half of anxious, agonizing doubt.
"Of what are you afraid, Gilda?" he asked suddenly, "surely not of me?"
"Not of you, my lord," she replied quietly,"only for you."
"I am a miserable outlaw now, Gilda," he rejoined bitterly, "four thousand golden guilders await any lout who chooses to sell me for a competence."
"I know that, my lord... and marvel why you are here? I heard that you were safe--in Belgium."
He laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"I was safe there," he said, "but I could not rest. I came back a
few days ago, thinking I could help my brother to escape. Bah!" he added
roughly, "he is a snivelling coward...."
"Hush! for pity's sake," she exclaimed, "someone will hear you."
"Close that window and lock the door," he murmured hoarsely. "I am spent-- and could not resist a child if it chose to drag me at this moment to the Stadtholder's spies."
Gilda obeyed him mechanically. First she closed the window; then she went to the door listening against the panel with all her senses on the alert. At the further end of the passage was the living-room where her father must still be sitting after his supper, poring over a book on horticulture, or mayhap attending to his tulip bulbs. If he knew that the would-be murderer of the Stadtholder, the prime mover and instigator of the dastardly plot was here in his house, in his daughter's chamber... Gilda shuddered, half-fainting with terror, and her trembling fingers fumbled with the lock.
"Is Nicolaes home?" asked Stoutenburg, suddenly.
"Not just now," she replied, "but he, too, will be home anon... My father is at home..."
"Ah!...Nicolaes is my friend...I counted on seeing him here...he would help me I know...but your father, Gilda, would drag me to the gallows with his own hand if he knew that I am here."
"You must not count on Nicolaes either, my lord," she pleaded, "nor must you stay here a moment longer...I heard my father's step in the passage already. He is sure to come and bid me good-night before he goes to bed...."
"I am spent, Gilda, " he murmured, and indeed his breath came in such feeble gasps that he could scarce speak. "I have not touched food for two days. I landed at Scheveningen a week ago, and for five days have hung about the Gevangen Poort of S' Graven Hage trying to get speech with my brother. I had gained the good will of an important offical in the prison, but Groeneveld is too much of a coward to make a fight for freedom. Then I was recognized by a group of workmen outside my dead father's house. I read recognition in their eyes--knowledge of me and knowledge of the money which that recognition might mean to them. They feigned indifference at first, but I had read their thoughts. They drew together to concert over their future actions and I took to my heels. It was yesterday at noon, and I have been running ever since, running, running, with but brief intervals to regain my breath and beg for a drink of water--when thirst became more unendurable than the thought of capture. I did not even know which way I was running till I saw the spires of Haarlem rising from out the evening haze; then I thought of you, Gilda, and of this house. You would not sell me, Gilda, for you are rich, and you loved me once," he added hoarsely, while his thin, grimy hands clutched the arms of the chair and he half-raised himself from his seat, as if ready to spring up and to start running again; running, running until he dropped.