Now that of a grandee has never been a cheap profession; indeed, as many a pauper peer knows to-day, rank without resources is a terrific burden. Montalvo had the rank, for he was a well-born man, whose sole heritage was an ancient tower built by some warlike ancestor in a position admirably suited to the purpose of the said ancestor, namely, the pillage of travellers through a neighbouring mountain pass. When, however, travellers ceased to use that pass, or for other reasons robbery became no longer productive, the revenues of the Montalvo family declined till at the present date they were practically nil. Thus it came about that the status of the last representative of this ancient stock was that of a soldier of fortune of the common type, endowed, unfortunately for himself, with grand ideas, a gambler's fatal fire, expensive tastes, and more than the usual pride of race.
Although, perhaps, he had never defined them very clearly, even to himself, Juan de Montalvo had two aims in life: first to indulge his every freak and fancy to the full, and next—but this was secondary and somewhat nebulous—to re-establish the fortunes of his family. In themselves they were quite legitimate aims, and in those times, when fishers of troubled waters generally caught something, and when men of ability and character might force their way to splendid positions, there was no reason why they should not have led him to success. Yet so far, at any rate, in spite of many opportunities, he had not succeeded although he was now a man of more than thirty. The causes of his failures were various, but at the bottom of them lay his lack of stability and genuineness.
A man who is always playing a part amuses every one but convinces nobody. Montalvo convinced nobody. When he discoursed on the mysteries of religion with priests, even priests who in those days for the most part were stupid, felt that they assisted in a mere intellectual exercise. When his theme was war his audience guessed that his object was probably love. When love was his song an inconvenient instinct was apt to assure the lady immediately concerned that it was love of self and not of her. They were all more or less mistaken, but, as usual, the women went nearest to the mark. Montalvo's real aim was self, but he spelt it, Money. Money in large sums was what he wanted, and what in this way or that he meant to win.
Now even in the sixteenth century fortunes did not lie to the hand of every adventurer. Military pay was small, and not easily recoverable; loot was hard to come by, and quickly spent. Even the ransom of a rich prisoner or two soon disappeared in the payment of such debts of honour as could not be avoided. Of course there remained the possibility of wealthy marriage, which in a country like the Netherlands, that was full of rich heiresses, was not difficult to a high-born, handsome, and agreeable man of the ruling Spanish caste. Indeed, after many chances and changes the time had come at length when Montalvo must either marry or be ruined. For his station his debts, especially his gaming debts, were enormous, and creditors met him at every turn. Unfortunately for him, also, some of these creditors were persons who had the ear of people in authority. So at last it came about that an intimation reached him that this scandal must be abated, or he must go back to Spain, a country which, as it happened, he did not in the least wish to visit. In short, the sorry hour of reckoning, that hour which overtakes all procrastinators, had arrived, and marriage, wealthy marriage, was the only way wherewith it could be defied. It was a sad alternative to a man who for his own very excellent reasons did not wish to marry, but this had to be faced.
Thus it came about that, as the only suitable partie in Leyden, the Count Montalvo had sought out the well-favoured and well-endowed Jufvrouw Lysbeth van Hout to be his companion in the great sledge race, and taken so much trouble to ensure to himself a friendly reception at her house.
So far, things went well, and, what was more, the opening of the chase had proved distinctly entertaining. Also, the society of the place, after his appropriation of her at a public festival and their long moonlight tete-a-tete, which by now must be common gossip's talk, would be quite prepared for any amount of attention which he might see fit to pay to Lysbeth. Indeed, why should he not pay attention to an unaffianced woman whose rank was lower if her means were greater than his own? Of course, he knew that her name had been coupled with that of Dirk van Goorl. He was perfectly aware also that these two young people were attached to each other, for as they walked home together on the previous night Dirk, possibly for motives of his own, had favoured him with a semi-intoxicated confidence to that effect. But as they were not affianced what did that matter? Indeed, had they been affianced, what would it matter? Still, Dirk van Goorl was an obstacle, and, therefore, although he seemed to be a good fellow, and he was sorry for him, Dirk van Goorl must be got out of the way, since he was convinced that Lysbeth was one of those stubborn-natured creatures who would probably decline to marry himself until this young Leyden lout had vanished. And yet he did not wish to be mixed up with duels, if for no other reason because in a duel the unexpected may always happen, and that would be a poor end. Certainly also he did not wish to be mixed up with murder; first, because he intensely disliked the idea of killing anybody, unless he was driven to it; and secondly, because murder has a nasty way of coming out. One could never be quite sure in what light the despatching of a young Netherlander of respectable family and fortune would be looked at by those in authority.
Also, there was another thing to be considered. If this young man died it was impossible to know exactly how Lysbeth would take his death. Thus she might elect to refuse to marry or decide to mourn him for four or five years, which for all practical purposes would be just as bad. And yet while Dirk lived how could he possibly persuade her to transfer her affections to himself? It seemed, therefore, that Dirk ought to decease. For quite a quarter of an hour Montalvo thought the matter over, and then, just as he had given it up and determined to leave things to chance, for a while at least, inspiration came, a splendid, a heaven-sent inspiration.
Dirk must not die, Dirk must live, but his continued existence must be the price of the hand of Lysbeth van Hout. If she was half as fond of the man as he believed, it was probable that she would be delighted to marry anybody else in order to save his precious neck, for that was just the kind of sentimental idiotcy of which nine women out of ten really enjoyed the indulgence. Moreover, this scheme had other merits; it did every one a good turn. Dirk would be saved from extinction for which he should be grateful: Lysbeth, besides earning the honour of an alliance, perhaps only temporary, with himself, would be able to go through life wrapped in a heavenly glow of virtue arising from the impression that she had really done something very fine and tragic, while he, Montalvo, under Providence, the humble purveyor of these blessings, would also benefit to some small extent.
The difficulty was: How could the situation be created? How could the interesting Dirk be brought to a pass that would give the lady an opportunity of exercising her finer feelings on his behalf? If only he were a heretic now! Well, by the Pope why shouldn't he be a heretic? If ever a fellow had the heretical cut this fellow had; flat-faced, sanctimonious-looking, and with a fancy for dark-coloured stockings—he had observed that all heretics, male and female, wore dark-coloured stockings, perhaps by way of mortifying the flesh. He could think of only one thing against it, the young man had drunk too much last night. But there were certain breeds of heretics who did not mind drinking too much. Also the best could slip sometimes, for, as he had learned from the old Castilian priest who taught him Latin, humanum est, etc.
This, then, was the summary of his reflections. (1) That to save the situation, within three months or so he must be united in holy matrimony with Lysbeth van Hout. (2) That if it proved impossible to remove the young man, Dirk van Goorl, from his path by overmatching him in the lady's affections, or by playing on her jealousy (Query: Could a woman be egged into becoming jealous of that flounder of a fellow and into marrying some one else out of pique?), stronger measures must be adopted. (3) That such stronger measures should consist of inducing the lady to save her lover from death by uniting herself in marriage with one who for her sake would do violence to his conscience and manipulate the business. (4) That this plan would be best put into execution by proving the lover to be a heretic, but if unhappily this could not be proved because he was not, still he must figure in that capacity for this occasion only. (5) That meanwhile it would be well to cultivate the society of Mynheer van Goorl as much as possible, first because he was a person with whom, under the circumstances, he, Montalvo, would naturally wish to become intimate, and secondly, because he was quite certain to be an individual with cash to lend.
Now, these researches after heretics invariably cost money, for they involved the services of spies. Obviously, therefore, friend Dirk, the Dutch Flounder, was a man to provide the butter in which he was going to be fried. Why, if any Hollander had a spark of humour he would see the joke of it himself—and Montalvo ended his reflections as he had begun them, with a merry peal of laughter, after which he rose and ate a most excellent breakfast.
It was about half-past five o'clock that afternoon before the Captain and Acting-Commandant Montalvo returned from some duty to which he had been attending, for it may be explained that he was a zealous officer and a master of detail. As he entered his lodgings the soldier who acted as his servant, a man selected for silence and discretion, saluted and stood at attention.
"Is the woman here?" he asked.
"Excellency, she is here, though I had difficulty enough in persuading her to come, for I found her in bed and out of humour."
"Peace to your difficulties. Where is she?"
"In the small inner room, Excellency."
"Good, then see that no one disturbs us, and—stay, when she goes out follow her and note her movements till you trace her home."
The man saluted, and Montalvo passed upstairs into the inner room, carefully shutting both doors behind him. The place was unlighted, but through the large stone-mullioned window the rays of the full moon poured brightly, and by them, seated in a straight-backed chair, Montalvo saw a draped form. There was something forbidding, something almost unnatural, in the aspect of this sombre form perched thus upon a chair in expectant silence. It reminded him—for he had a touch of inconvenient imagination—of an evil bird squatted upon the bough of a dead tree awaiting the dawn that it might go forth to devour some appointed prey.
"Is that you, Mother Meg?" he asked in tones from which most of the jocosity had vanished. "Quite like old times at The Hague—isn't it?"
The moonlit figure turned its head, for he could see the light shine upon the whites of the eyes.
"Who else, Excellency," said a voice hoarse and thick with rheum, a voice like the croak of a crow, "though it is little thanks to your Excellency. Those must be strong who can bathe in Rhine water through a hole in the ice and take no hurt."
"Don't scold, woman," he answered, "I have no time for it. If you were ducked yesterday, it served you right for losing your cursed temper. Could you not see that I had my own game to play, and you were spoiling it? Must I be flouted before my men, and listen while you warn a lady with whom I wish to stand well against me?"
"You generally have a game to play, Excellency, but when it ends in my being first robbed and then nearly drowned beneath the ice—well, that is a game which Black Meg does not forget."
"Hush, mother, you are not the only person with a memory. What was the reward? Twelve florins? Well, you shall have them, and five more; that's good pay for a lick of cold water. Are you satisfied?"
"No, Excellency. I wanted the life, that heretic's life. I wanted to baste her while she burned, or to tread her down while she was buried. I have a grudge against the woman because I know, yes, because I know," she repeated fiercely, "that if I do not kill her she will try to kill me. Her husband and her young son were burnt, upon my evidence mostly, but this is the third time she has escaped me."
"Patience, mother, patience, and I dare say that everything will come right in the end. You have bagged two of the family—Papa heretic and Young Hopeful. Really you should not grumble if the third takes a little hunting, or wonder that in the meanwhile you are not popular with Mama. Now, listen. You know the young woman whom it was necessary that I should humour yesterday. She is rich, is she not?"
"Yes, I know her, and I knew her father. He left her house, furniture, jewellery, and thirty thousand crowns, which are placed out at good interest. A nice fortune for a gallant who wants money, but it will be Dirk van Goorl's, not yours."
"Ah! that is just the point. Now what do you know about Dirk van Goorl?"
"A respectable, hard-working burgher, son of well-to-do parents, brass-workers who live at Alkmaar. Honest, but not very clever; the kind of man who grows rich, becomes a Burgomaster, founds a hospital for the poor, and has a fine monument put up to his memory."
"Mother, the cold water has dulled your wits. When I ask you about a man I want to learn what you know against him."
"Naturally, Excellency, naturally, but against this one I can tell you nothing. He has no lovers, he does not gamble, he does not drink except a glass after dinner. He works in his factory all day, goes to bed early, rises early, and calls on the Jufvrouw van Hout on Sundays; that is all."
"Where does he attend Mass?"
"At the Groote Kerke once a week, but he does not take the Sacrament or go to confession."
"That sounds bad, mother, very bad. You don't mean to say that he is a heretic?"
"Probably he is, Excellency; most of them are about here."
"Dear me, how very shocking. Do you know, I should not like that excellent young woman, a good Catholic too, like you and me, mother, to become mixed up with one of these dreadful heretics, who might expose her to all sorts of dangers. For, mother, who can touch pitch and not be defiled?"
"You waste time, Excellency," replied his visitor with a snort. "What do you want?"
"Well, in the interests of this young lady, I want to prove that this man is a heretic, and it has struck me that—as one accustomed to this sort of thing—you might be able to find the evidence."
"Indeed, Excellency, and has it struck you what my face would look like after I had thrust my head into a wasp's nest for your amusement? Do you know what it means to me if I go peering about among the heretics of Leyden? Well, I will tell you; it means that I should be killed. They are a strong lot, and a determined lot, and so long as you leave them alone they will leave you alone, but if you interfere with them, why then it is good night. Oh! yes, I know all about the law and the priests and the edicts and the Emperor. But the Emperor cannot burn a whole people, and though I hate them, I tell you," she added, standing up suddenly and speaking in a fierce, convinced voice, "that in the end the law and the edicts and the priests will get the worst of this fight. Yes, these Hollanders will beat them all and cut the throats of you Spaniards, and thrust those of you who are left alive out of their country, and spit upon your memories and worship God in their own fashion, and be proud and free, when you are dogs gnawing the bones of your greatness; dogs kicked back into your kennels to rot there. Those are not my own words," said Meg in a changed voice as she sat down again. "They are the words of that devil, Martha the Mare, which she spoke in my hearing when we had her on the rack, but somehow I think that they will come true, and that is why I always remember them."
"Indeed, her ladyship the Mare is a more interesting person than I thought, though if she can talk like that, perhaps, after all, it would have been as well to drown her. And now, dropping prophecy and leaving posterity to arrange for itself, let us come to business. How much? For evidence which would suffice to procure his conviction, mind."
"Five hundred florins, not a stiver less, so, Excellency, you need not waste your time trying to beat me down. You want good evidence, evidence on which the Council, or whoever they may appoint, will convict, and that means the unshaken testimony of two witnesses. Well, I tell you, it isn't easy to come by; there is great danger to the honest folk who seek it, for these heretics are desperate people, and if they find a spy while they are engaged in devil-worship at one of their conventicles, why—they kill him."
"I know all that, mother. What are you trying to cover up that you are so talkative? It isn't your usual way of doing business. Well, it is a bargain—you shall have your money when you produce the evidence. And now really if we stop here much longer people will begin to make remarks, for who shall escape aspersion in this censorious world? So good-night, mother, good-night," and he turned to leave the room.
"No, Excellency," she croaked with a snort of indignation, "no pay, no play; I don't work on the faith of your Excellency's word alone."
"How much?" he asked again.
"A hundred florins down."
Then for a while they wrangled hideously, their heads held close together in the patch of moonlight, and so loathsome did their faces look, so plainly was the wicked purpose of their hearts written upon them, that in that faint luminous glow they might have been mistaken for emissaries from the under-world chaffering over the price of a human soul. At last the bargain was struck for fifty florins, and having received it into her hand Black Meg departed.
"Sixty-seven in all," she muttered to herself as she regained the street. "Well, it was no use holding out for any more, for he hasn't got the cash. The man's as poor as Lazarus, but he wants to live like Dives, and, what is more, he gambles, as I learned at The Hague. Also, there's something queer about his past; I have heard as much as that. It must be looked into, and perhaps the bundle of papers which I helped myself to out of his desk while I was waiting"—and she touched the bosom of her dress to make sure that they were safe—"may tell me a thing or two, though likely enough they are only unpaid bills. Ah! most noble cheat and captain, before you have done with her you may find that Black Meg knows how to pay back hot water for cold!"
THE DREAM OF DIRK
On the day following Montalvo's interview with Black Meg Dirk received a message from that gentleman, sent to his lodging by an orderly, which reminded him that he had promised to dine with him this very night. Now he had no recollection of any such engagement. Remembering with shame, however, that there were various incidents of the evening of the supper whereof his memory was most imperfect, he concluded that this must be one of them. So much against his own wishes Dirk sent back an answer to say that he would appear at the time and place appointed.
This was the third thing that had happened to annoy him that day. First he had met Pieter van de Werff, who informed him that all Leyden was talking about Lysbeth and the Captain Montalvo, to whom she was said to have taken a great fancy. Next when he went to call at the house in the Bree Straat he was told that both Lysbeth and his cousin Clara had gone out sleighing, which he did not believe, for as a thaw had set in the snow was no longer in a condition suitable to that amusement. Moreover, he could almost have sworn that, as he crossed the street, he caught sight of Cousin Clara's red face peeping at him from between the curtains of the upstairs sitting-room. Indeed he said as much to Greta, who, contrary to custom, had opened the door to him.
"I am sorry if Mynheer sees visions," answered that young woman imperturbably. "I told Mynheer that the ladies had gone out sleighing."
"I know you did, Greta; but why should they go out sleighing in a wet thaw?"
"I don't know, Mynheer. Ladies do those things that please them. It is not my place to ask their reasons."
Dirk looked at Greta, and was convinced that she was lying. He put his hand in his pocket, to find to his disgust that he had forgotten his purse. Then he thought of giving her a kiss and trying to melt the truth out of her in this fashion, but remembering that if he did, she might tell Lysbeth, which would make matters worse than ever, refrained. So the end of it was that he merely said "Oh! indeed," and went away.
"Great soft-head," reflected Greta, as she watched his retreating form, "he knew I was telling lies, why didn't he push past me, or—do anything. Ah! Mynheer Dirk, if you are not careful that Spaniard will take your wind. Well, he is more amusing, that's certain. I am tired of these duck-footed Leydeners, who daren't wink at a donkey lest he should bray, and among such holy folk somebody a little wicked is rather a change." Then Greta, who, it may be remembered, came from Brussels, and had French blood in her veins, went upstairs to make a report to her mistress, telling her all that passed.
"I did not ask you to speak falsehoods as to my being out sleighing and the rest. I told you to answer that I was not at home, and mind you say the same to the Captain Montalvo if he calls," said Lysbeth with some acerbity as she dismissed her.
In truth she was very sore and angry, and yet ashamed of herself because it was so. But things had gone so horribly wrong, and as for Dirk, he was the most exasperating person in the world. It was owing to his bad management and lack of readiness that her name was coupled with Montalvo's at every table in Leyden. And now what did she hear in a note from the Captain himself, sent to make excuses for not having called upon her after the supper party, but that Dirk was going to dine with him that night? Very well, let him do it; she would know how to pay him back, and if necessary was ready to act up to any situation which he had chosen to create.
Thus thought Lysbeth, stamping her foot with vexation, but all the time her heart was sore. All the time she knew well enough that she loved Dirk, and, however strange might be his backwardness in speaking out his mind, that he loved her. And yet she felt as though a river was running between them. In the beginning it had been a streamlet, but now it was growing to a torrent. Worse still the Spaniard was upon her bank of the river.
After he had to some extent conquered his shyness and irritation Dirk became aware that he was really enjoying his dinner at Montalvo's quarters. There were three guests besides himself, two Spanish officers and a young Netherlander of his own class and age, Brant by name. He was the only son of a noted and very wealthy goldsmith at The Hague, who had sent him to study certain mysteries of the metal worker's art under a Leyden jeweller famous for the exquisite beauty of his designs. The dinner and the service were both of them perfect in style, but better than either proved the conversation, which was of a character that Dirk had never heard at the tables of his own class and people. Not that there was anything even broad about it, as might perhaps have been expected. No, it was the talk of highly accomplished and travelled men of the world, who had seen much and been actors in many moving events; men who were not overtrammelled by prejudices, religious or other, and who were above all things desirous of making themselves agreeable and instructive to the stranger within their gates. The Heer Brant also, who had but just arrived in Leyden, showed himself an able and polished man, one that had been educated more thoroughly than was usual among his class, and who, at the table of his father, the opulent Burgomaster of The Hague, from his youth had associated with all classes and conditions of men. Indeed it was there that he made the acquaintance of Montalvo, who recognising him in the street had asked him to dinner.
After the dishes were cleared, one of the Spanish officers rose and begged to be excused, pleading some military duty. When he had saluted his commandant and gone, Montalvo suggested that they should play a game of cards. This was an invitation which Dirk would have liked to decline, but when it came to the point he did not, for fear of seeming peculiar in the eyes of these brilliant men of the world.
So they began to play, and as the game was simple very soon he picked up the points of it, and what is more, found them amusing. At first the stakes were not high, but they doubled themselves in some automatic fashion, till Dirk was astonished to find that he was gambling for considerable sums and winning them. Towards the last his luck changed a little, but when the game came to an end he found himself the richer by about three hundred and fifty florins.
"What am I do to with this?" he asked colouring up, as with sighs, which in one instance were genuine enough, the losers pushed the money across to him.
"Do with it?" laughed Montalvo, "did anybody ever hear such an innocent! Why, buy your lady-love, or somebody else's lady-love, a present. No, I'll tell you a better use than this, you give us to-morrow night at your lodging the best dinner that Leyden can produce, and a chance of winning some of this coin back again. Is it agreed?"
"If the other gentlemen wish it," said Dirk, modestly, "though my apartment is but a poor place for such company."
"Of course we wish it," replied the three as with one voice, and the hour for meeting having been fixed they parted, the Heer Brant walking with Dirk to the door of his lodging.
"I was going to call on you to-morrow," he said, "to bring to you a letter of introduction from my father, though that should scarcely be needed as, in fact, we are cousins—second cousins only, our mothers having been first cousins."
"Oh! yes, Brant of The Hague, of whom my mother used to speak, saying that they were kinsmen to be proud of, although she had met them but little. Well, welcome, cousin; I trust that we shall be friends."
"I am sure of it," answered Brant, and putting his arm through Dirk's he pressed it in a peculiar fashion that caused him to start and look round. "Hush!" muttered Brant, "not here," and they began to talk of their late companions and the game of cards which they had played, an amusement as to the propriety of which Dirk intimated that he had doubts.
Young Brant shrugged his shoulders. "Cousin," he said, "we live in the world, so it is as well to understand the world. If the risking of a few pieces at play, which it will not ruin us to lose, helps us to understand it, well, for my part I am ready to risk them, especially as it puts us on good terms with those who, as things are, it is wise we should cultivate. Only, cousin, if I may venture to say it, be careful not to take more wine than you can carry with discretion. Better lose a thousand florins than let drop one word that you cannot remember."
"I know, I know," answered Dirk, thinking of Lysbeth's supper, and at the door of his lodgings they parted.
Like most Netherlanders, when Dirk made up his mind to do anything he did it thoroughly. Thus, having undertaken to give a dinner party, he determined to give a good dinner. In ordinary circumstances his first idea would have been to consult his cousins, Clara and Lysbeth. After that monstrous story about the sleighing, however, which by inquiry from the coachman of the house, whom he happened to meet, he ascertained to be perfectly false, this, for the young man had some pride, he did not feel inclined to do. So in place of it he talked first to his landlady, a worthy dame, and by her advice afterwards with the first innkeeper of Leyden, a man of resource and experience. The innkeeper, well knowing that this customer would pay for anything which he ordered, threw himself into the affair heartily, with the result that by five o'clock relays of cooks and other attendants were to be seen streaming up Dirk's staircase, carrying every variety of dish that could be supposed to tempt the appetite of high-class cavaliers.
Dirk's apartment consisted of two rooms situated upon the first floor of an old house in a street that had ceased to be fashionable. Once, however, it had been a fine house, and, according to the ideas of the time, the rooms themselves were fine, especially the sitting chamber, which was oak-panelled, low, and spacious, with a handsome fireplace carrying the arms of its builder. Out of it opened his sleeping room—which had no other doorway—likewise oak-panelled, with tall cupboards, not unlike the canopy of a tomb in shape and general appearance.
The hour came, and with it the guests. The feast began, the cooks streamed up and down bearing relays of dishes from the inn. Above the table hung a six-armed brass chandelier, and in each of its sockets guttered a tallow candle furnishing light to the company beneath, although outside of its bright ring there was shadow more or less dense. Towards the end of dinner a portion of the rush wick of one of these candles fell into the brass saucer beneath, causing the molten grease to burn up fiercely. As it chanced, by the light of this sudden flare, Montalvo, who was sitting opposite to the door, thought that he caught sight of a tall, dark figure gliding along the wall towards the bedroom. For one instant he saw it, then it was gone.
"Caramba, my friend," he said, addressing Dirk, whose back was turned towards the figure, "have you any ghosts in this gloomy old room of yours? Because, if so, I think I have just seen one."
"Ghosts!" answered Dirk, "no, I never heard of any; I do not believe in ghosts. Take some more of that pasty."
Montalvo took some more pasty, and washed it down with a glass of wine. But he said no more about ghosts—perhaps an explanation of the phenomenon had occurred to him; at any rate he decided to leave the subject alone.
After the dinner they gambled, and this evening the stakes began where those of the previous night left off. For the first hour Dirk lost, then the luck turned and he won heavily, but always from Montalvo.
"My friend," said the captain at last, throwing down his cards, "certainly you are fated to be unfortunate in your matrimonial adventures, for the devil lives in your dice-box, and his highness does not give everything. I pass," and he rose from the table.
"I pass also," said Dirk following him into the window place, for he wished to take no more money. "You have been very unlucky, Count," he said.
"Very, indeed, my young friend," answered Montalvo, yawning, "in fact, for the next six months I must live on—well—well, nothing, except the recollection of your excellent dinner."
"I am sorry," muttered Dirk, confusedly, "I did not wish to take your money; it was the turn of those accursed dice. See here, let us say no more about it."
"Sir," said Montalvo, with a sudden sternness, "an officer and a gentleman cannot treat a debt of honour thus; but," he added with a little laugh, "if another gentleman chances to be good enough to charge a debt of honour for a debt of honour, the affair is different. If, for instance, it would suit you to lend me four hundred florins, which, added to the six hundred which I have lost to-night, would make a thousand in all, well, it will be a convenience to me, though should it be any inconvenience to you, pray do not think of such a thing."
"Certainly," answered Dirk, "I have won nearly as much as that, and here at my own table. Take them, I beg of you, captain," and emptying a roll of gold into his hand, he counted it with the skill of a merchant, and held it towards him.
Montalvo hesitated. Then he took the money, pouring it carelessly into his pocket.
"You have not checked the sum," said Dirk.
"My friend, it is needless," answered his guest, "your word is rather better than any bond," and again he yawned, remarking that it was getting late.
Dirk waited a few moments, thinking in his coarse, business-like way that the noble Spaniard might wish to say something about a written acknowledgment. As, however, this did not seem to occur to him, and the matter was not one of ordinary affairs, he led the way back to the table, where the other two were now showing their skill in card tricks.
A few minutes later the two Spaniards took their departure, leaving Dirk and his cousin Brant alone.
"A very successful evening," said Brant, "and, cousin, you won a great deal."
"Yes," answered Dirk, "but all the same I am a poorer man than I was yesterday."
Brant laughed. "Did he borrow of you?" he asked. "Well, I thought he would, and what's more, don't you count on that money. Montalvo is a good sort of fellow in his own fashion, but he is an extravagant man and a desperate gambler, with a queer history, I fancy—at least, nobody knows much about him, not even his brother officers. If you ask them they shrug their shoulders and say that Spain is a big kettle full of all sorts of fish. One thing I do know, however, that he is over head and ears in debt; indeed, there was trouble about it down at The Hague. So, cousin, don't you play with him more than you can help, and don't reckon on that thousand florins to pay your bills with. It is a mystery to me how the man gets on, but I am told that a foolish old vrouw in Amsterdam lent him a lot till she discovered—but there, I don't talk scandal. And now," he added, changing his voice, "is this place private?"
"Let's see," said Dirk, "they have cleared the things away, and the old housekeeper has tidied up my bedroom. Yes, I think so. Nobody ever comes up here after ten o'clock. What is it?"
Brant touched his arm, and, understanding the truth, Dirk led the way into the window-place. There, standing with his back to the room, and his hands crossed in a peculiar fashion, he uttered the word, "Jesus," and paused. Brant also crossed his hands and answered, or, rather, continued, "wept." It was the password of those of the New Religion.
"You are one of us, cousin?" said Dirk.
"I and all my house, my father, my mother, my sister, and the maiden whom I am to marry. They told me at The Hague that I must seek of you or the young Heer Pieter van de Werff, knowledge of those things which we of the Faith need to know; who are to be trusted, and who are not to be trusted; where prayer is held, and where we may partake of the pure Sacrament of God the Son."
Dirk took his cousin's hand and pressed it. The pressure was returned, and thenceforward brother could not have trusted brother more completely, for now between them was the bond of a common and burning faith.
Such bonds the reader may say, tie ninety out of every hundred people to each other in the present year of grace, but it is not to be observed that a like mutual confidence results. No, because the circumstances have changed. Thanks very largely to Dirk van Goorl and his fellows of that day, especially to one William of Orange, it is no longer necessary for devout and God-fearing people to creep into holes and corners, like felons hiding from the law, that they may worship the Almighty after some fashion as pure as it is simple, knowing the while that if they are found so doing their lot and the lot of their wives and children will be the torment and the stake. Now the thumbscrew and the rack as instruments for the discomfiture of heretics are relegated to the dusty cases of museums. But some short generations since all this was different, for then a man who dared to disagree with certain doctrines was treated with far less mercy than is shown to a dog on the vivisector's table.
Little wonder, therefore, that those who lay under such a ban, those who were continually walking in the cold shadow of this dreadful doom, clung to each other, loved each other, and comforted each other to the last, passing often enough hand-in-hand through the fiery gates to that country in which there is no more pain. To be a member of the New Religion in the Netherlands under the awful rule of Charles the Emperor and Philip the King was to be one of a vast family. It was not "sir" or "mistress" or "madame," it was "my father" and "my mother," or "my sister" and "my brother;" yes, and between people who were of very different status and almost strangers in the flesh; strangers in the flesh but brethren in spirit.
It will be understood that in these circumstances Dirk and Brant, already liking each other, and being already connected by blood, were not slow in coming to a complete understanding and fellowship.
There they sat in the window-place telling each other of their families, their hopes and fears, and even of their lady-loves. In this, as in every other respect, Hendrik Brant's story was one of simple prosperity. He was betrothed to a lady of The Hague, the only daughter of a wealthy wine-merchant, who, according to his account, seemed to be as beautiful as she was good and rich, and they were to be married in the spring. But when Dirk told him of his affair, he shook his wise young head.
"You say that both she and her aunt are Catholics?" he asked.
"Yes, cousin, this is the trouble. I think that she is fond of me, or, at any rate, she was until a few days since," he added ruefully, "but how can I, being a 'heretic,' ask her to plight her troth to me unless I tell her? And that, you know, is against the rule; indeed, I scarcely dare to do so."
"Had you not best consult with some godly elder who by prayer and words may move your lady's heart till the light shines on her?" asked Brant.
"Cousin, it has been done, but always there is the other in the way, that red-nosed Aunt Clara, who is a mad idolator; also there is the serving-woman, Greta, whom I take for little better than a spy. Therefore, between the two of them I see little chance that Lysbeth will ever hear the truth this side of marriage. And yet how dare I marry her? Is it right that I should marry her and therefore, perhaps, bring her too to some dreadful fate such as may wait for you or me? Moreover, now since this man Montalvo has crossed my path, all things seem to have gone wrong between me and Lysbeth; indeed but yesterday her door was shut on me."
"Women have their fancies," answered Brant, slowly; "perhaps he has taken hers; she would not be the first who walked that plank. Or, perhaps, she is vexed with you for not speaking out ere this; for, man, not knowing what you are, how can she read your mind?"
"Perhaps, perhaps," said Dirk, "but I know not what to do," and in his perplexity he struck his forehead with his hand.
"Then, brother, in that case what hinders that we should ask Him Who can tell you?" said Brant, calmly.
Dirk understood what he meant at once. "It is a wise thought, and a good one, cousin. I have the Holy Book; first let us pray, and then we can seek wisdom there."
"You are rich, indeed," answered Brant; "sometime you must tell me how and where you came by it."
"Here in Leyden, if one can afford to pay for them, such goods are not hard to get," said Dirk; "what is hard is to keep them safely, for to be found with a Bible in your pocket is to carry your own death-warrant."
Brant nodded. "Is it safe to show it here?" he asked.
"As safe as anywhere, cousin; the window is shuttered, the door is, or will be, locked, but who can say that he is safe this side of the stake in a land where the rats and mice carry news and the wind bears witness? Come, I will show you were I keep it," and going to the mantelpiece he took down a candle-stick, a quaint brass, ornamented on its massive oblong base with two copper snails, and lit the candle. "Do you like the piece?" he asked; "it is my own design, which I cast and filed out in my spare hours," and he gazed at the holder with the affection of an artist. Then without waiting for an answer, he led the way to the door of his sitting-room and paused.
"What is it?" asked Brant.
"I thought I heard a sound, that is all, but doubtless the old vrouw moves upon the stairs. Turn the key, cousin, so, now come on."
They entered the sleeping chamber, and having glanced round and made sure that it was empty, and the window shut, Dirk went to the head of the bed, which was formed of oak-panels, the centre one carved with a magnificent coat-of-arms, fellow to that in the fireplace of the sitting-room. At this panel Dirk began to work, till presently it slid aside, revealing a hollow, out of which he took a book bound in boards covered with leather. Then, having closed the panel, the two young men returned to the sitting-room, and placed the volume upon the oak table beneath the chandelier.
"First let us pray," said Brant.
It seems curious, does it not, that two young men as a finale to a dinner party, and a gambling match at which the stakes had not been low; young men who like others had their weaknesses, for one of them, at any rate, could drink too much wine at times, and both being human doubtless had further sins to bear, should suggest kneeling side by side to offer prayers to their Maker before they studied the Scriptures? But then in those strange days prayer, now so common (and so neglected) an exercise, was an actual luxury. To these poor hunted men and women it was a joy to be able to kneel and offer thanks and petitions to God, believing themselves to be safe from the sword of those who worshipped otherwise. Thus it came about that, religion being forbidden, was to them a very real and earnest thing, a thing to be indulged in at every opportunity with solemn and grateful hearts. So there, beneath the light of the guttering candles, they knelt side by side while Brant, speaking for both of them, offered up a prayer—a sight touching enough and in its way beautiful.
The words of his petition do not matter. He prayed for their Church; he prayed for their country that it might be made strong and free; he even prayed for the Emperor, the carnal, hare-lipped, guzzling, able Hapsburg self-seeker. Then he prayed for themselves and all who were dear to them, and lastly, that light might be vouchsafed to Dirk in his present difficulty. No, not quite lastly, for he ended with a petition that their enemies might be forgiven, yes, even those who tortured them and burnt them at the stake, since they knew not what they did. It may be wondered whether any human aspirations could have been more thoroughly steeped in the true spirit of Christianity.
When at length he had finished they rose from their knees.
"Shall I open the Book at a hazard," asked Dirk, "and read what my eye falls on?"
"No," answered Brant, "for it savours of superstition; thus did the ancients with the writings of the poet Virgilius, and it is not fitting that we who hold the light should follow the example of those blind heathen. What work of the Book, brother, are you studying now?"
"The first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which I have never read before," he answered.
"Then begin where you left off, brother, and read your chapter. Perhaps we may find instruction in it; if not, no answer is vouchsafed to us to-night."
So from the black-letter volume before him Dirk began to read the seventh chapter, in which, as it chances, the great Apostle deals with the marriage state. On he read, in a quiet even voice, till he came to the twelfth and four following verses, of which the last three run: "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now they are holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases; but God has called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?" Dirk's voice trembled, and he paused.
"Continue to the end of the chapter," said Brant, so the reader went on.
There is a sound. They do not hear it, but the door of the bedchamber behind them opens ever so little. They do not see it, but between door and lintel something white thrusts itself, a woman's white face crowned with black hair, and set in it two evil, staring eyes. Surely, when first he raised his head in Eden, Satan might have worn such a countenance as this. It cranes itself forward till the long, thin neck seems to stretch; then suddenly a stir or a movement alarms it, and back the face draws like the crest of a startled snake. Back it draws, and the door closes again.
The chapter is read, the prayer is prayed, and strange may seem the answer to that prayer, an answer to shake out faith from the hearts of men; men who are impatient, who do not know that as the light takes long in travelling from a distant star, so the answer from the Throne to the supplication of trust may be long in coming. It may not come to-day or to-morrow. It may not come in this generation or this century; the prayer of to-day may receive its crown when the children's children of the lips that uttered it have in their turn vanished in the dust. And yet that Divine reply may in no wise be delayed; even as our liberty of this hour may be the fruit of those who died when Dirk van Goorl and Hendrik Brant walked upon the earth; even as the vengeance that but now is falling on the Spaniard may be the reward of the deeds of shame that he worked upon them and upon their kin long generations gone. For the Throne is still the Throne, and the star is still the star; from the one flows justice and from the other light, and to them time and space are naught.
Dirk finished the chapter and closed the Book.
"It seems that you have your answer, Brother," said Brant quietly.
"Yes," replied Dirk, "it is written large enough:—'The unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband . . . how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?' Had the Apostle foreseen my case he could not have set the matter forth more clearly."
"He, or the Spirit in him, knew all cases, and wrote for every man that ever shall be born," answered Brant. "This is a lesson to us. Had you looked sooner you would have learned sooner, and mayhap much trouble might have been spared. As it is, without doubt you must make haste and speak to her at once, leaving the rest with God."
"Yes," said Dirk, "as soon as may be, but there is one thing more; ought I tell her all the truth?"
"I should not be careful to hide it, friend, and now, good night. No, do not come to the door with me. Who can tell, there may be watchers without, and it is not wise that we should be seen together so late."
When his cousin and new-found friend had gone Dirk sat for a while, till the guttering tallow lights overhead burned to the sockets indeed. Then, taking the candle from the snail-adorned holder, he lit it, and, having extinguished those in the chandeliers, went into his bedroom and undressed himself. The Bible he returned to its hiding-place and closed the panel, after which he blew out the light and climbed into the tall bed.
As a rule Dirk was a most excellent sleeper; when he laid his head on the pillow his eyes closed nor did they open again until the appointed and accustomed hour. But this night he could not sleep. Whether it was the dinner or the wine, or the gambling, or the prayer and the searching of the Scriptures with his cousin Brant, the result remained the same; he was very wakeful, which annoyed him the more as a man of his race and phlegm found it hard to attribute this unrest to any of these trivial causes. Still, as vexation would not make him sleep, he lay awake watching the moonlight flood the chamber in broad bars and thinking.
Somehow as Dirk thought thus he grew afraid; it seemed to him as though he shared that place with another presence, an evil and malignant presence. Never in his life before had he troubled over or been troubled by tales of spirits, yet now he remembered Montalvo's remark about a ghost, and of a surety he felt as though one were with him there. In this strange and new alarm he sought for comfort and could think of none save that which an old and simple pastor had recommended to him in all hours of doubt and danger, namely, if it could be had, to clasp a Bible to his heart and pray.
Well, both things were easy. Raising himself in bed, in a moment he had taken the book from its hiding-place and closed the panel. Then pressing it against his breast between himself and the mattress he lay down again, and it would seem that the charm worked, for presently he was asleep.
Yet Dirk dreamed a very evil dream. He dreamed that a tall black figure leaned over him, and that a long white hand was stretched out to his bed-head where it wandered to and fro, till at last he heard the panel slide home with a rattling noise.
Then it seemed to him that he woke, and that his eyes met two eyes bent down over him, eyes which searched him as though they would read the very secrets of his heart. He did not stir, he could not, but lo! in this dream of his the figure straightened itself and glided away, appearing and disappearing as it crossed the bars of moonlight until it vanished by the door.
A while later and Dirk woke up in truth, to find that although the night was cold enough the sweat ran in big drops from his brow and body. But now strangely enough his fear was gone, and, knowing that he had but dreamed a dream, he turned over, touched the Bible on his breast, and fell sleeping like a child, to be awakened only by the light of the rising winter sun pouring on his face.
Then Dirk remembered that dream of the bygone night, and his heart grew heavy, for it seemed to him that this vision of a dark woman searching his face with those dreadful eyes was a portent of evil not far away.
THE BETROTHAL OF LYSBETH
On the following morning when Montalvo entered his private room after breakfast, he found a lady awaiting him, in whom, notwithstanding the long cloak and veil she wore, he had little difficulty in recognising Black Meg. In fact Black Meg had been waiting some while, and being a person of industrious habits she had not neglected to use her time to the best advantage.
The reader may remember that when Meg visited the gallant Captain Montalvo upon a previous occasion, she had taken the liberty of helping herself to certain papers which she found lying just inside an unlocked desk. These papers on examination, as she feared might be the case, for the most part proved to be quite unimportant—unpaid accounts, military reports, a billet or two from ladies, and so forth. But in thinking the matter over Black Meg remembered that this desk had another part to it, which seemed to be locked, and, therefore, just in case they should prove useful, she took with her a few skeleton keys and one or two little instruments of steel and attended the pleasure of her noble patron at an hour when she believed that he would be at breakfast in another room. Things went well; he was at breakfast and she was left alone in the chamber with the desk. The rest may be guessed. Replacing the worthless bundle in the unlocked part, by the aid of her keys and instruments she opened the inner half. There sure enough were letters hidden, and in a little drawer two miniatures framed in gold, one of a lady, young and pretty with dark eyes, and the other of two children, a boy and a girl of five or six years of age. Also there was a curling lock of hair labelled in Montalvo's writing—"Juanita's hair, which she gave me as a keepsake."
Here was treasure indeed whereof Black Meg did not fail to possess herself. Thrusting the letters and other articles into the bosom of her dress to be examined at leisure, she was clever enough, before closing and re-locking the desk, to replace them with a dummy bundle, hastily made up from some papers that lay about.
When everything had been satisfactorily arranged she went outside and chattered for a while with the soldier on guard, only re-entering the room by one door as Montalvo appeared in it through the other.
"Well, my friend," he said, "have you the evidence?"
"I have some evidence, Excellency," she answered. "I was present at the dinner that you ate last night, although none of it came my way, and—I was present afterwards."
"Indeed. I thought I saw you slip in, and allow me to congratulate you on that; it was very well thought out and done, just as folk were moving up and down the stairs. Also, when I went home, I believe that I recognised a gentleman in the street whom I have been given to understand you honour with your friendship, a short, stout person with a bald head; let me see, he was called the Butcher at The Hague, was he not? No, do not pout, I have no wish to pry into the secrets of ladies, but still in my position here it is my business to know a thing or two. Well, what did you see?"
"Excellency, I saw the young man I was sent to watch and Hendrik Brant, the son of the rich goldsmith at The Hague, praying side by side upon their knees."
"That is bad, very bad," said Montalvo shaking his head, "but——"
"I saw," she went on in her hoarse voice, "the pair of them read the Bible."
"How shocking!" replied Montalvo with a simulated shudder. "Think of it, my orthodox friend, if you are to be believed, these two persons, hitherto supposed to be respectable, have been discovered in the crime of consulting that work upon which our Faith is founded. Well, those who could read anything so dull must, indeed, as the edicts tell us, be monsters unworthy to live. But, if you please, your proofs. Of course you have this book?"
Then Black Meg poured forth all her tale—how she had watched and seen something, how she had listened and heard little, how she had gone to the secret panel, bending over the sleeping man, and found—nothing.
"You are a poor sort of spy, mother," commented the captain when she had done, "and, upon my soul, I do not believe that even a Papal inquisitor could hang that young fellow on your evidence. You must go back and get some more."
"No," answered Black Meg with decision, "if you want to force your way into conventicles you had best do it yourself. As I wish to go on living here is no job for me. I have proved to you that this young man is a heretic, so now give me my reward."
"Your reward? Ah! your reward. No, I think not at present, for a reward presupposes services—and I see none."
Black Meg began to storm.
"Be silent," said Montalvo, dropping his bantering tone. "Look, I will be frank with you. I do not want to burn anybody. I am sick of all this nonsense about religion, and for aught I care every Netherlander in Leyden may read the Bible until he grows tired. I seek to marry that Jufvrouw Lysbeth van Hout, and to do this I desire to prove that the man whom she loves, Dirk van Goorl, is a heretic. What you have told me may or may not be sufficient for my purpose. If it is sufficient you shall be paid liberally after my marriage; if not—well, you have had enough. As for your evidence, for my part I may say that I do not believe a word of it, for were it true you would have brought the Bible."
As he spoke he rang a bell which stood upon a table, and before Meg could answer the soldier appeared.
"Show this good woman out," he said, adding, in a loud voice, "Mother, I will do my best for you and forward your petition to the proper quarter. Meanwhile, take this trifle in charity," and he pressed a florin into her hand. "Now, guard, the prisoners, the prisoners. I have no time to waste—and listen—let me be troubled with no more beggars, or you will hear of it."
That afternoon Dirk, filled with a solemn purpose, and dressed in his best suit, called at the house in the Bree Straat, where the door was again opened by Greta, who looked at him expectantly.
"Is your mistress in?" he stammered. "I have come to see your mistress."
"Alas! Mynheer," answered the young woman, "you are just too late. My mistress and her aunt, the Vrouw Clara, have gone away to stay for a week or ten days as the Vrouw Clara's health required a change."
"Indeed," said Dirk aghast, "and where have they gone?"
"Oh! Mynheer, I do not know that, they did not tell me," and no other answer could he extract from her.
So Dirk went away discomfited and pondering. An hour later the Captain Montalvo called, and strange to say proved more fortunate. By hook or by crook he obtained the address of the ladies, who were visiting, it appeared, at a seaside village within the limits of a ride. By a curious coincidence that very afternoon Montalvo, also seeking rest and change of air, appeared at the inn of this village, giving it out that he proposed to lodge there for a while.
As he walked upon the beach next day, whom should he chance to meet but the Vrouw Clara van Ziel, and never did the worthy Clara spend a more pleasant morning. So at least she declared to Lysbeth when she brought her cavalier back to dinner.
The reader may guess the rest. Montalvo paid his court, and in due course Montalvo was refused. He bore the blow with a tender resignation.
"Confess, dear lady," he said, "that there is some other man more fortunate."
Lysbeth did not confess, but, on the other hand, neither did she deny.
"If he makes you happy I shall be more than satisfied," the Count murmured, "but, lady, loving you as I do, I do not wish to see you married to a heretic."
"What do you mean, Senor?" asked Lysbeth, bridling.
"Alas!" he answered, "I mean that, as I fear, the worthy Heer Dirk van Goorl, a friend of mine for whom I have every respect, although he has outstripped me in your regard, has fallen into that evil net."
"Such accusations should not be made," said Lysbeth sternly, "unless they can be proved. Even then——" and she stopped.
"I will inquire further," replied the swain. "For myself I accept the position, that is until you learn to love me, if such should be my fortune. Meanwhile I beg of you at least to look upon me as a friend, a true friend who would lay down his life to serve you."
Then, with many a sigh, Montalvo departed home to Leyden upon his beautiful black horse, but not before he had enjoyed a few minutes' earnest conversation with the worthy Tante Clara.
"Now, if only this old lady were concerned," he reflected as he rode away, "the matter might be easy enough, and the Saints know it would be one to me, but unhappily that obstinate pig of a Hollander girl has all the money in her own right. In what labours do not the necessities of rank and station involve a man who by disposition requires only ease and quiet! Well, my young friend Lysbeth, if I do not make you pay for these exertions before you are two months older, my name is not Juan de Montalvo."
Three days later the ladies returned to Leyden. Within an hour of their arrival the Count called, and was admitted.
"Stay with me," said Lysbeth to her Aunt Clara as the visitor was announced, and for a while she stayed. Then, making an excuse, she vanished from the room, and Lysbeth was left face to face with her tormentor.
"Why do you come here?" she asked; "I have given you my answer."
"I come for your own sake," he replied, "to give you my reasons for conduct which you may think strange. You remember a certain conversation?"
"Perfectly," broke in Lysbeth.
"A slight mistake, I think, Jufvrouw, I mean a conversation about an excellent friend of yours, whose spiritual affairs seem to interest you."
"What of it, Senor?"
"Only this; I have made inquiries and——"
Lysbeth looked up unable to conceal her anxiety.
"Oh! Jufvrouw, let me beg of you to learn to control your expression; the open face of childhood is so dangerous in these days."
"He is my cousin."
"I know; were he anything more, I should be so grieved, but we can most of us spare a cousin or two."
"If you would cease amusing yourself, Senor——"
"And come to the point? Of course I will. Well, the result of my inquiries has been to find out that this worthy person is a heretic of the most pernicious sort. I said inquiries, but there was no need for me to make any. He has been——"
"Not denounced," broke in Lysbeth.
"Oh! my dear lady, again that tell-tale emotion from which all sorts of things might be concluded. Yes—denounced—but fortunately to myself as a person appointed under the Edict. It will, I fear, be my duty to have him arrested this evening—you wish to sit down, allow me to hand you a chair—but I shall not deal with the case myself. Indeed, I propose to pass him over to the worthy Ruard Tapper, the Papal Inquisitor, you know—every one has heard of the unpleasant Tapper—who is to visit Leyden next week, and who, no doubt, will make short work of him."
"What has he done?" asked Lysbeth in a low voice, and bending down her head to hide the working of her features.
"Done? My dear lady, it is almost too dreadful to tell you. This misguided and unfortunate young man, with another person whom the witnesses have not been able to identify, was seen at midnight reading the Bible."
"The Bible! Why should that be wrong?"
"Hush! Are you also a heretic? Do you not know that all this heresy springs from the reading of the Bible? You see, the Bible is a very strange book. It seems that there are many things in it which, when read by an ordinary layman, appear to mean this or that. When read by a consecrated priest, however, they mean something quite different. In the same way, there are many doctrines which the layman cannot find in the Bible that to the consecrated eye are plain as the sun and the moon. The difference between heresy and orthodoxy is, in short, the difference between what can actually be found in the letter of this remarkable work, and what is really there—according to their holinesses."
"Almost thou persuadest me——" began Lysbeth bitterly.
"Hush! lady—to be, what you are, an angel."
There came a pause.
"What will happen to him?" asked Lysbeth.
"After—after the usual painful preliminaries to discover accomplices, I presume the stake, but possibly, as he has the freedom of Leyden, he might get off with hanging."
"Is there no escape?"
Montalvo walked to the window, and looking out of it remarked that he thought it was going to snow. Then suddenly he wheeled round, and staring hard at Lysbeth asked,
"Are you really interested in this heretic, and do you desire to save him?"
Lysbeth heard and knew at once that the buttons were off the foils. The bantering, whimsical tone was gone. Now her tormentor's voice was stern and cold, the voice of a man who was playing for great stakes and meant to win them.
She also gave up fencing.
"I am and I do," she answered.
"Then it can be done—at a price."
"Yourself in marriage within three weeks."
Lysbeth quivered slightly, then sat still.
"Would not my fortune do instead?" she asked.
"Oh! what a poor substitute you offer me," Montalvo said, with a return to his hateful banter. Then he added, "That offer might be considered were it not for the abominable laws which you have here. In practice it would be almost impossible for you to hand over any large sum, much of which is represented by real estate, to a man who is not your husband. Therefore I am afraid I must stipulate that you and your possessions shall not be separated."
Again Lysbeth sat silent. Montalvo, watching her with genuine interest, saw signs of rebellion, perchance of despair. He saw the woman's mental and physical loathing of himself conquering her fears for Dirk. Unless he was much mistaken she was about to defy him, which, as a matter of fact, would have proved exceedingly awkward, as his pecuniary resources were exhausted. Also on the very insufficient evidence which he possessed he would not have dared to touch Dirk, and thus to make himself a thousand powerful enemies.
"It is strange," he said, "that the irony of circumstances should reduce me to pleading for a rival. But, Lysbeth van Hout, before you answer I beg you to think. Upon the next movements of your lips it depends whether that body you love shall be stretched upon the rack, whether those eyes which you find pleasant shall grow blind with agony in the darkness of a dungeon, and whether that flesh which you think desirable shall scorch and wither in the furnace. Or, on the other hand, whether none of these things shall happen, whether this young man shall go free, to be for a month or two a little piqued—a little bitter—about the inconstancy of women, and then to marry some opulent and respected heretic. Surely you could scarcely hesitate. Oh! where is the self-sacrificing spirit of the sex of which we hear so much? Choose."
Still there was no answer. Montalvo, playing his trump card, drew from his vest an official-looking document, sealed and signed.
"This," he said, "is the information to be given to the incorruptible Ruard Trapper. Look, here written on it is your cousin's name. My servant waits for me in your kitchen. If you hesitate any longer, I call him and in your presence charge him to hand that paper to the messenger who starts this afternoon for Brussels. Once given it cannot be recalled and the pious Dirk's doom is sealed."
Lysbeth's spirit began to break. "How can I?" she asked. "It is true that we are not affianced; perhaps for this very reason which I now learn. But he cares for me and knows that I care for him. Must I then, in addition to the loss of him, be remembered all his life as little better than a light-of-love caught by the tricks and glitter of such a man as you? I tell you that first I will kill myself."
Again Montalvo went to the window, for this hint of suicide was most disconcerting. No one can marry a dead woman, and Lysbeth was scarcely likely to leave a will in his favour. It seemed that what troubled her particularly was the fear lest the young man should think her conduct light. Well, why should she not give him a reason which he would be the first to acknowledge as excellent for breaking with him? Could she, a Catholic, be expected to wed a heretic, and could he not be made to tell her that he was a heretic?
Behold an answer to his question! The Saints themselves, desiring that this pearl of price should continue to rest in the bosom of the true Church, had interfered in his behalf, for there in the street below was Dirk van Goorl approaching Lysbeth's door. Yes, there he was dressed in his best burgher's suit, his brow knit with thought, his step hesitating; a very picture of the timid, doubtful lover.
"Lysbeth van Hout," said the Count, turning to her, "as it chances the Heer Dirk van Goorl is at your door. You will admit him, and this matter can be settled one way or the other. I wish to point out to you how needless it is that the young man should be left believing that you have treated him ill. All which is necessary is that you should ask whether or no he is of your faith. If I know him, he will not lie to you. Then it remains only for you to say—for doubtless the man comes here to seek your hand—that however much it may grieve you to give such an answer, you can take no heretic to husband. Do you understand?"
Lysbeth bowed her head.
"Then listen. You will admit your suitor; you will allow him to make his offer to you now—if he is so inclined; you will, before giving any answer, ask him of his faith. If he replies that he is a heretic, you will dismiss him as kindly as you wish. If he replies that he is a true servant of the Church, you will say that you have heard a different tale and must have time to make inquiries. Remember also that if by one jot you do otherwise than I have bid you, when Dirk van Goorl leaves the room you see him for the last time, unless it pleases you—to attend his execution. Whereas if you obey and dismiss him finally, as the door shuts behind him I put this Information in the fire and satisfy you that the evidence upon which it is based is for ever deprived of weight and done with."
Lysbeth looked a question.
"I see you are wondering how I should know what you do or do not do. It is simple. I shall be the harmless but observant witness of your interview. Over this doorway hangs a tapestry; you will grant me the privilege—not a great one for a future husband—of stepping behind it."
"Never, never," said Lysbeth, "I cannot be put to such a shame. I defy you."
As she spoke came the sound of knocking at the street door. Glancing up at Montalvo, for the second time she saw that look which he had worn at the crisis of the sledge race. All its urbanity, its careless bonhomie, had vanished. Instead of these appeared a reflection of the last and innermost nature of the man, the rock foundation, as it were, upon which was built the false and decorated superstructure that he showed to the world. There were the glaring eyes, there the grinning teeth of the Spanish wolf; a ravening brute ready to rend and tear, if so he might satisfy himself with the meat his soul desired.
"Don't play tricks with me," he muttered, "and don't argue, for there is no time. Do as I bid you, girl, or on your head will be this psalm-singing fellow's blood. And, look you, don't try setting him on me, for I have my sword and he is unarmed. If need be a heretic may be killed at sight, you know, that is by one clothed with authority. When the servant announces him go to the door and order that he is to be admitted," and picking up his plumed hat, which might have betrayed him, Montalvo stepped behind the arras.
For a moment Lysbeth stood thinking. Alas! she could see no possible escape, she was in the toils, the rope was about her throat. Either she must obey or, so she thought, she must give the man she loved to a dreadful death. For his sake she would do it, for his sake and might God forgive her! Might God avenge her and him!
Another instant and there came a knock upon the door. She opened it.
"The Heer van Goorl stands below," said the voice of Greta, "wishing to see you, madam."
"Admit him," answered Lysbeth, and going to a chair almost in the centre of the room, she seated herself.
Presently Dirk's step sounded on the stair, that known, beloved step for which so often she had listened eagerly. Again the door opened and Greta announced the Heer van Goorl. That she could not see the Captain Montalvo evidently surprised the woman, for her eyes roamed round the room wonderingly, but she was too well trained, or too well bribed, to show her astonishment. Gentlemen of this kidney, as Greta had from time to time remarked, have a faculty for vanishing upon occasion.
So Dirk walked into the fateful chamber as some innocent and unsuspecting creature walks into a bitter snare, little knowing that the lady whom he loved and whom he came to win was set as a bait to ruin him.
"Be seated, cousin," said Lysbeth, in a voice so forced and strained that it caused him to look up. But he saw nothing, for her head was turned away from him, and for the rest his mind was too preoccupied to be observant. By nature simple and open, it would have taken much to wake Dirk into suspicion in the home and presence of his love and cousin, Lysbeth.
"Good day to you, Lysbeth," he said awkwardly; "why, how cold your hand is! I have been trying to find you for some time, but you have always been out or away, leaving no address."
"I have been to the sea with my Aunt Clara," she answered.
Then for a while—five minutes or more—there followed a strained and stilted conversation.
"Will the booby never come to the point?" reflected Montalvo, surveying him through a join in the tapestry. "By the Saints, what a fool he looks!"
"Lysbeth," said Dirk at last, "I want to speak to you."
"Speak on, cousin," she answered.
"Lysbeth, I—I—have loved you for a long while, and I—have come to ask you to marry me. I have put it off for a year or more for reasons which I hope to tell you some day, but I can keep silent no longer, especially now when I see that a much finer gentleman is trying to win you—I mean the Spanish Count, Montalvo," he added with a jerk.
She said nothing in reply. So Dirk went on pouring out all his honest passion in words that momentarily gathered weight and strength, till at length they were eloquent enough. He told her how since first they met he had loved her and only her, and how his one desire in life was to make her happy and be happy with her. Pausing at length he began to speak of his prospects—then she stopped him.
"Your pardon, Dirk," she said, "but I have a question to ask of you," and her voice died away in a kind of sob. "I have heard rumours about you," she went on presently, "which must be cleared up. I have heard, Dirk, that by faith you are what is called a heretic. Is it true?"
He hesitated before answering, feeling that much depended on that answer. But it was only for an instant, since Dirk was far too honest a man to lie.
"Lysbeth," he said, "I will tell to you what I would not tell to any other living creature, not being one of my own brotherhood, for whether you accept me or reject me, I know well that I am as safe in speaking to you as when upon my knees I speak to the God I serve. I am what you call a heretic. I am a member of that true faith to which I hope to draw you, but which if you do not wish it I should never press upon you. It is chiefly because I am what I am that for so long I have hung back from speaking to you, since I did not know whether it would be right—things being thus—to ask you to mix your lot with mine, or whether I ought to marry you, if you would marry me, keeping this secret from you. Only the other night I sought counsel of—well, never mind of whom—and we prayed together, and together searched the Word of God. And there, Lysbeth, by some wonderful mercy, I found my prayer answered and my doubts solved, for the great St. Paul had foreseen this case, as in that Book all cases are foreseen, and I read how the unbelieving wife may be sanctified by the husband, and the unbelieving husband by the wife. Then everything grew clear to me, and I determined to speak. And now, dear, I have spoken, and it is for you to answer."
"Dirk, dear Dirk," she replied almost with a cry, "alas! for the answer which I must give you. Renounce the error of your ways, make confession, and be reconciled to the Church and—I will marry you. Otherwise I cannot, no, and although I love you, you and no other man"—here she put an energy into her voice that was almost dreadful—"with all my heart and soul and body; I cannot, I cannot, I cannot!"
Dirk heard, and his ruddy face turned ashen grey.
"Cousin," he replied, "you seek of me the one thing which I must not give. Even for your sake I may not renounce my vows and my God as I behold Him. Though it break my heart to bid you farewell and live without you, here I pay you back in your own words—I cannot, I cannot, I cannot!"
Lysbeth looked at him, and lo! his short, massive form and his square-cut, honest countenance in that ardour of renunciation had suffered a change to things almost divine. At that moment—to her sight at least—this homely Hollander wore the aspect of an angel. She ground her teeth and pressed her hands upon her heart. "For his sake—to save him," she muttered to herself—then she spoke.
"I respect you for it, I love you for it more than ever; but, Dirk, it is over between us. One day, here or hereafter, you will understand and you will forgive."
"So be it," said Dirk hastily, stretching out his hand to find his hat, for he was too blind to see. "It is a strange answer to my prayer, a very strange answer; but doubtless you are right to follow your lights as I am sure that I am right to follow mine. We must carry our cross, dear Lysbeth, each of us; you see that we must carry our cross. Only I beg of you—I don't speak as a jealous man, because the thing has gone further than jealousy—I speak as a friend, and come what may while I live you will always find me that—I beg of you, beware of the Spaniard, Montalvo. I know that he followed you to the coast; I have heard too he boasts that he will marry you. The man is wicked, although he took me in at first. I feel it—his presence seems to poison the air, yes, this very air I breathe. But oh! and I should like him to hear me say it, because I am sure that he is at the bottom of all this, his hour will come. For whatever he does he will be paid back; he will be paid back here and hereafter. And now, good-bye. God bless you and protect you, dear Lysbeth. If you think it wrong you are quite right not to marry me, and I know that you will keep my secret. Good-bye, again," and lifting her hand Dirk kissed it. Then he stumbled from the room.
As for Lysbeth she cast herself at full length, and in the bitterness of her heart beat her brow upon the boards.
When the front door had shut behind Dirk, but not before, Montalvo emerged from his hiding place and stood over the prostrate Lysbeth. He tried to adopt his airy and sarcastic manner, but he was shaken by the scene which he had overheard, shaken and somewhat frightened also, for he felt that he had called into being passions of which the force and fruits could not be calculated.
"Bravo! my little actress," he began, then gave it up and added in his natural voice, "you had best rise and see me burn this paper."
Lysbeth struggled to her knees and watched him thrust the document between two glowing peats.
"I have fulfilled my promise," he said, "and that evidence is done with, but in case you should think of playing any tricks and not fulfilling yours, please remember that I have fresh evidence infinitely more valuable and convincing, to gain which, indeed, I condescended to a stratagem not quite in keeping with my traditions. With my own ears I heard this worthy gentleman, who is pleased to think so poorly of me, admit that he is a heretic. That is enough to burn him any day, and I swear that if within three weeks we are not man and wife, burn he shall."
While he was speaking Lysbeth had risen slowly to her feet. Now she confronted him, no longer the Lysbeth whom he had known, but a new being filled like a cup with fury that was the more awful because it was so quiet.
"Juan de Montalvo," she said in a low voice, "your wickedness has won and for Dirk's sake my person and my goods must pay its price. So be it since so it must be, but listen. I make no prophecies about you; I do not say that this or that shall happen to you, but I call down upon you the curse of God and the execration of men."
Then she threw up her hands and began to pray. "God, Whom it has pleased that I should be given to a fate far worse than death; O God, blast the mind and the soul of this monster. Let him henceforth never know a peaceful hour; let misfortune come upon him through me and mine; let fears haunt his sleep. Let him live in heavy labour and die in blood and misery, and through me; and if I bear children to him, let the evil be upon them also."
She ceased. Montalvo looked at her and tried to speak. Again he looked and again he tried to speak, but no words would come.
Then the fear of Lysbeth van Hout fell upon him, that fear which was to haunt him all his life. He turned and crept from the room, and his face was like the face of an old man, nor, notwithstanding the height of his immediate success, could his heart have been more heavy if Lysbeth had been an angel sent straight from Heaven to proclaim to him the unalterable doom of God.
HENDRIK BRANT HAS A VISITOR
Nine months had gone by, and for more then eight of them Lysbeth had been known as the Countess Juan de Montalvo. Indeed of this there could be no doubt, since she was married with some ceremony by the Bishop in the Groote Kerk before the eyes of all men. Folk had wondered much at these hurried nuptials, though some of the more ill-natured shrugged their shoulders and said that when a young woman had compromised herself by long and lonely drives with a Spanish cavalier, and was in consequence dropped by her own admirer, why the best thing she could do was to marry as soon as possible.
So the pair, who looked handsome enough before the altar, were wed, and went to taste of such nuptial bliss as was reserved for them in Lysbeth's comfortable house in the Bree Straat. Here they lived almost alone, for Lysbeth's countrymen and women showed their disapproval of her conduct by avoiding her company, and, for reasons of his own, Montalvo did not encourage the visiting of Spaniards at his house. Moreover, the servants were changed, while Tante Clara and the girl Greta had also disappeared. Indeed, Lysbeth, finding out the false part which they had played towards her, dismissed them both before her marriage.
It will be guessed that after the events that led to their union Lysbeth took little pleasure in her husband's society. She was not one of those women who can acquiesce in marriage by fraud or capture, and even learn to love the hand which snared them. So it came about that to Montalvo she spoke very seldom; indeed after the first week of marriage she only saw him on rare occasions. Very soon he found out that his presence was hateful to her, and turned her detestation to account with his usual cleverness. In other words, Lysbeth bought freedom by parting with her property—in fact, a regular tariff was established, so many guilders for a week's liberty, so many for a month's.
This was an arrangement that suited Montalvo well enough, for in his heart he was terrified of this woman, whose beautiful face had frozen into a perpetual mask of watchful hatred. He could not forget that frightful curse which had taken deep root in his superstitious mind, and already seemed to flourish there, for it was true that since she spoke it he had never known a quiet hour. How could he when he was haunted night and day by the fear lest his wife should murder him?
Surely, if ever Death looked out of a woman's eyes it looked out of hers, and it seemed to him that such a deed might trouble her conscience little; that she might consider it in the light of an execution, and not as a murder. Bah! he could not bear to think of it. What would it be to drink his wine one day and then feel a hand of fire gripping at his vitals because poison had been set within the cup; or, worse still, if anything could be worse, to wake at night and find a stiletto point grating against his backbone? Little wonder that Montalvo slept alone and was always careful to lock his door.
He need not have taken such precautions; whatever her eyes might say, Lysbeth had no intention of killing this man. In that prayer of hers she had, as it were, placed the matter in the hand of a higher Power, and there she meant to leave it, feeling quite convinced that although vengeance might tarry it would fall at last. As for her money, he could have it. From the beginning her instinct told her that her husband's object was not amorous, but purely monetary, a fact of which she soon had plentiful proof, and her great, indeed her only hope was that when the wealth was gone he would go too. An otter, says the Dutch proverb, does not nest in a dry dyke.
But oh! what months those were, what dreadful months! From time to time she saw her husband—when he wanted cash—and every night she heard him returning home, often with unsteady steps. Twice or thrice a week also she was commanded to prepare a luxurious meal for himself and some six or eight companions, to be followed by a gambling party at which the stakes ruled high. Then in the morning, before he was up, strange people would arrive, Jews some of them, and wait till they could see him, or catch him as he slipped from the house by a back way. These men, Lysbeth discovered, were duns seeking payment of old debts. Under such constant calls her fortune, which if substantial was not great, melted rapidly. Soon the ready money was gone, then the shares in certain ships were sold, then the land and the house itself were mortgaged.
So the time went on.
Almost immediately after his refusal by Lysbeth, Dirk van Goorl had left Leyden, and returned to Alkmaar, where his father lived. His cousin and friend, however, Hendrik Brant, remained there studying the jeweller's art under the great master of filigree work, who was known as Petrus. One morning, as Hendrik was sitting at breakfast in his lodging, it was announced that a woman who would not give her name, wished to see him. Moved more by curiosity than by any other reason, he ordered her to be admitted. When she entered he was sorry, for in the gaunt person and dark-eyed face he recognised one against whom he had been warned by the elders of his church as a spy, a creature who was employed by the papal inquisitors to get up cases against heretics, and who was known as Black Meg.
"What is your business with me?" Brant asked sternly.
"Nothing to your hurt, worthy Heer, believe me, nothing to your hurt. Oh! yes, I know that tales are told against me, who only earn an honest living in an honest way, to keep my poor husband, who is an imbecile. Once alas! he followed that mad Anabaptist fool, John of Leyden, the fellow who set up as a king, and said that men might have as many wives as they wished. That was what sent my husband silly, but, thanks be to the Saints, he has repented of his errors and is reconciled to the Church and Christian marriage, and now, I, who have a forgiving nature, am obliged to support him."
"Your business?" said Brant.
"Mynheer," she answered, dropping her husky voice, "you are a friend of the Countess Montalvo, she who was Lysbeth van Hout?"
"No, I am acquainted with her, that is all."
"At least you are a friend of the Heer Dirk van Goorl who has left this town for Alkmaar; he who was her lover?"
"Yes, I am his cousin, but he is not the lover of any married woman."
"No, no, of course not; love cannot look through a bridal veil, can it? Still, you are his friend, and, therefore, perhaps, her friend, and—she isn't happy."
"Indeed? I know nothing of her present life: she must reap the field which she has sown. That door is shut."
"Not altogether perhaps. I thought it might interest Dirk van Goorl to learn that it is still ajar."
"I don't see why it should. Fish merchants are not interested in rotten herrings; they write off the loss and send out the smack for a fresh cargo."
"The first fish we catch is ever the finest, Mynheer, and if we haven't quite caught it, oh! what a fine fish is that."
"I have no time to waste in chopping riddles. What is your errand? Tell it, or leave it untold, but be quick."
Black Meg leant forward, and the hoarse voice sank to a cavernous whisper.
"What will you give me," she asked, "if I prove to you that the Captain Montalvo is not married at all to Lysbeth van Hout?"
"It does not much matter what I would give you, for I saw the thing done in the Groote Kerk yonder."
"Things are not always done that seem to be done."
"Look here, woman, I have had enough of this," and Brant pointed to the door.
Black Meg did not stir, only she produced a packet from the bosom of her dress and laid it on the table.
"A man can't have two wives living at once, can he?"
"No, I suppose not—that is, legally."
"Well, if I show you that Montalvo has two wives, how much?"
Brant became interested. He hated Montalvo; he guessed, indeed he knew something of the part which the man had played in this infamous affair, and knew also that it would be a true kindness to Lysbeth to rid her of him.
"If you proved it," he said, "let us say two hundred florins."
"It is not enough, Mynheer."
"It is all I have to offer, and, mind you, what I promise to pay."
"Ah! yes, the other promises and doesn't pay—the rogue, the rogue," she added, striking a bony fist upon the table. "Well, I agree, and I ask no bond, for you merchant folk are not like cavaliers, your word is as good as your paper. Now read these," and she opened the packet and pushed its contents towards him.
With the exception of two miniatures, which he placed upon one side, they were letters written in Spanish and in a very delicate hand. Brant knew Spanish well, and in twenty minutes he had read them all. They proved to be epistles from a lady who signed herself Juanita de Montalvo, written to the Count Juan de Montalvo, whom she addressed as her husband. Very piteous documents they were also, telling a tale that need not be set out here of heartless desertion; pleading for the writer's sake and for the sake of certain children, that the husband and father would return to them, or at least remit them means to live, for they, his wife and family, were sunk in great poverty.
"All this is sad enough," said Brant with a gesture of disgust as he glanced at the miniature of the lady and her children, "but it proves nothing. How are we to know that she is the man's wife?"
Black Meg put her hand into the bosom of her dress and produced another letter dated not more than three months ago. It was, or purported to be, written by the priest of the village where the lady lived, and was addressed to the Captain the Count Juan de Montalvo at Leyden. In substance this epistle was an earnest appeal to the noble count from one who had a right to speak, as the man who had christened him, taught him, and married him to his wife, either to return to her or to forward her the means to join him. "A dreadful rumour," the letter ended, "has reached us here in Spain that you have taken to wife a Dutch lady at Leyden named Van Hout, but this I do not believe, since never could you have committed such a crime before God and man. Write, write at once, my son, and disperse this black cloud of scandal which is gathering on your honoured and ancient name."
"How did you come by these, woman?" asked Brant.
"The last I had from a priest who brought it from Spain. I met him at The Hague, and offered to deliver the letter, as he had no safe means of sending it to Leyden. The others and the pictures I stole out of Montalvo's room."
"Indeed, most honest merchant, and what might you have been doing in his Excellency's room?"
"I will tell you," she answered, "for, as he never gave me my pay, my tongue is loosed. He wished for evidence that the Heer Dirk van Goorl was a heretic, and employed me to find it."
Brant's face hardened, and he became more watchful.
"Why did he wish such evidence?"
"To use it to prevent the marriage of Jufvrouw Lysbeth with the Heer Dirk van Goorl."
Meg shrugged her shoulders. "By telling his secret to her so that she might dismiss him, I suppose, or more likely by threatening that, if she did not, he would hand her lover over to the Inquisitors."
"I see. And did you get the evidence?"
"Well, I hid in the Heer Dirk's bedroom one night, and looking through a door saw him and another young man, whom I do not know, reading the Bible, and praying together."
"Indeed; what a terrible risk you must have run, for had those young men, or either of them, chanced to catch you, it is quite certain that you would not have left that room alive. You know these heretics think that they are justified in killing a spy at sight, and, upon my word, I do not blame them. In fact, my good woman," and he leaned forward and looked her straight in the eyes, "were I in the same position I would have knocked you on the head as readily as though you had been a rat."
Black Meg shrank back, and turned a little blue about the lips.
"Of course, Mynheer, of course, it is a rough game, and the poor agents of God must take their risks. Not that the other young man had any cause to fear. I wasn't paid to watch him, and—as I have said—I neither know nor care who he is."
"Well, who can say, that may be fortunate for you, especially if he should ever come to know or to care who you are. But it is no affair of ours, is it? Now, give me those letters. What, do you want your money first? Very well," and, rising, Brant went to a cupboard and produced a small steel box, which he unlocked; and, having taken from it the appointed sum, locked it again. "There you are," he said; "oh, you needn't stare at the cupboard; the box won't live there after to-day, or anywhere in this house. By the way, I understand that Montalvo never paid you."
"Not a stiver," she answered with a sudden access of rage; "the low thief, he promised to pay me after his marriage, but instead of rewarding her who put him in that warm nest, I tell you that already he has squandered every florin of the noble lady's money in gambling and satisfying such debts as he was obliged to, so that to-day I believe that she is almost a beggar."
"I see," said Brant, "and now good morning, and look you, if we should chance to meet in the town, you will understand that I do not know you."
"I understand, Mynheer," said Black Meg with a grin and vanished.
When she had gone Brant rose and opened the window. "Bah!" he said, "the air is poisoned. But I think I frightened her, I think that I have nothing to fear. Yet who can tell? My God! she saw me reading the Bible, and Montalvo knows it! Well, it is some time ago now, and I must take my chance."
Ah! who could tell indeed?
Then, taking the miniatures and documents with him, Brant started to call upon his friend and co-religionist, the Heer Pieter van de Werff, Dirk van Goorl's friend, and Lysbeth's cousin, a young man for whose judgment and abilities he had a great respect. As a result of this visit, these two gentlemen left that afternoon for Brussels, the seat of Government, where they had very influential friends.
It will be sufficient to tell the upshot of their visit. Just at that time the Government of the Netherlands wished for its own reasons to stand well with the citizen class, and when those in authority learned of the dreadful fraud that had been played off upon a lady of note who was known to be a good Catholic, for the sole object of robbing her of her fortune, there was indignation in high places. Indeed, an order was issued, signed by a hand which could not be resisted—so deeply was one woman moved by the tale of another's wrong—that the Count Montalvo should be seized and put upon his trial, just as though he were any common Netherland malefactor. Moreover, since he was a man with many enemies, no one was found to stand between him and the Royal decree.
Three days later Montalvo made an announcement to Lysbeth. For a wonder he was supping at home alone with his wife, whose presence he had commanded. She obeyed and attended, sitting at the further end of the table, whence she rose from time to time to wait upon him with her own hands. Watching him the while with her quiet eyes, she noticed that he was ill at ease.
"Cannot you speak?" he asked at last and savagely. "Do you think it is pleasant for a man to sit opposite a woman who looks like a corpse in her coffin till he wishes she were one?"
"So do I," answered Lysbeth, and again there was silence.
Presently she broke it. "What do you want?" she asked. "More money?"
"Of course I want money," he answered furiously.
"Then there is none; everything has gone, and the notary tells me that no one will advance another stiver on the house. All my jewellery is sold also."
He glanced at her hand. "You have still that ring," he said.
She looked at it. It was a hoop of gold set with emeralds of considerable value which her husband had given her before marriage and always insisted upon her wearing. In fact, it had been bought with the money which he borrowed from Dirk van Goorl.
"Take it," she said, smiling for the first time, and drawing off the ring she passed it over to him. He turned his head aside as he stretched his hand towards the trinket lest his face should betray the shame which even he must feel.
"If your child should be a son," he muttered, "tell him that his father had nothing but a piece of advice to leave him; that he should never touch a dice-box."
"Are you going away then?" she asked.
"For a week or two I must. I have been warned that a difficulty has arisen, about which I need not trouble you. Doubtless you will hear of it soon enough, and though it is not true, I must leave Leyden until the thing blows over. In fact I am going now."
"You are about to desert me," she answered; "having got all my money, I say that you are going to desert me who am—thus! I see it in your face."
Montalvo turned away and pretended not to hear.
"Well, thank God for it," Lysbeth added, "only I wish that you could take your memory and everything else of yours with you."
As these bitter words passed her lips the door opened, and there entered one of his own subalterns, followed by four soldiers and a man in a lawyer's robe.
"What is this?" asked Montalvo furiously.
The subaltern saluted as he entered:
"My captain, forgive me, but I act under orders, and they are to arrest you alive, or," he added significantly, "dead."
"Upon what charge?" asked Montalvo.
"Here, notary, you had best read the charge," said the subaltern, "but perhaps the lady would like to retire first," he added awkwardly.
"No," answered Lysbeth, "it might concern me."
"Alas! Senora, I fear it does," put in the notary. Then he began to read the document, which was long and legal. But she was quick to understand. Before ever it was done Lysbeth knew that she was not the lawful wife of Count Juan de Montalvo, and that he was to be put upon his trial for his betrayal of her and the trick he had played the Church. So she was free—free, and overcome by that thought she staggered, fell, and swooned away.