"Oh! my young friend, you have given me a nasty fright," thought Ramiro to himself, "but it is over now, and if I don't pay you out before I have done with you, my sweet boy, your name is not Adrian."
Ramiro rose, dusted his garments, seated himself deliberately, and began to talk with great earnestness. It will be sufficient to summarise his arguments. First of all, with the most convincing sincerity, he explained that when he had made use of him, Adrian, he had no idea that he was his son. Of course this was a statement that will not bear a moment's examination, but Ramiro's object was to gain time, and Adrian let it pass. Then he explained that it was only after his mother had, not by his wish, but accidentally, seen the written evidence upon which her husband was convicted, that he found out that Adrian van Goorl was her child and his own. However, as he hurried to point out, all these things were now ancient history that had no bearing on the present. Owing to the turbulent violence of the mob, which had driven him from his post and fortress, he, Ramiro, was in temporary difficulties, and owing to other circumstances, he, Adrian, was, so far as his own party and people were concerned, an absolutely dishonoured person. In this state of affairs he had a suggestion to make. Let them join forces; let the natural relationship that existed between them, and which had been so nearly severed by a sword thrust that both must have regretted, become real and tender. He, the father, had rank, although it suited him to sink it; he had wide experience, friends, intelligence, and the prospect of enormous wealth, which, of course, he could not expect to enjoy for ever. On the other side, he, the son, had youth, great beauty of person, agreeable and distinguished manners, a high heart, the education of a young man of the world, ambition and powers of mind that would carry him far, and for the immediate future an object to gain, the affection of a lady whom all acknowledged to be as good as she was charming, and as charming as she was personally attractive.
"She hates me," broke in Adrian.
"Ah!" laughed Ramiro, "there speaks the voice of small experience. Oh! youth, so easily exalted and so easily depressed! Joyous, chequered youth! How many happy marriages have I not known begin with such hate as this? Well, there it is, you must take my word for it. If you want to marry Elsa Brant, I can manage it for you, and if not, why, you can leave it alone."
Adrian reflected, then as his mind had a practical side, he put a question.
"You spoke of the prospect of enormous wealth; what is it?"
"I will tell you, I will tell you," whispered his parent, looking about him cautiously; "it is the vast hoard of Hendrik Brant which I intend to recover; indeed, my search for it has been at the root of all this trouble. And now, son, you can see how open I have been with you, for if you marry Elsa that money will legally be your property, and I can only claim whatever it may please you to give me. Well, as to that question, in the spirit of the glorious motto of our race, 'Trust to God and me,' I shall leave it to your sense of honour, which, whatever its troubles, has never yet failed the house of Montalvo. What does it matter to me who is the legal owner of the stuff, so long as it remains in the family?"
"Of course not," replied Adrian, loftily, "especially as I am not mercenary."
"Ah! well," went on Ramiro, "we have talked for a long while, and if I continue to live there are affairs to which I ought to attend. You have heard all I have to say, and you have the swords in your hand, and, of course, I am—only your prisoner on parole. So now, my son, be so good as to settle this matter without further delay. Only, if you make up your mind to use the steel, allow me to show you where to thrust, as I do not wish to undergo any unnecessary discomfort"—and he stood before him and bowed in a very courtly and dignified fashion.
Adrian looked at him and hesitated. "I don't trust you," he said; "you have tricked me once and I daresay that you will trick me again. Also I don't think much of people who masquerade under false names and lay such traps as you laid to get my evidence against the rest of them. But I am in a bad place and without friends. I want to marry Elsa and recover my position in the world; also, as you know well, I can't cut the throat of my own father in cold blood," and he threw down one of the swords.
"Your decision is just such as I would have expected from my knowledge of your noble nature, son Adrian," remarked Ramiro as he picked up his weapon and restored it to the scabbard. "But now, before we enter upon this perfect accord, I have two little stipulations to make on my side."
"What are they?" asked Adrian.
"First, that our friendship should be complete, such as ought to exist between a loving father and son, a friendship without reservations. Secondly—this is a condition that I fear you may find harder—but, although fortune has led me into stony paths, and I fear some doubtful expedients, there was always one thing which I have striven to cherish and keep pure, and that in turn has rewarded me for my devotion in many a dangerous hour, my religious belief. Now I am Catholic, and I could wish that my son should be Catholic also; these horrible errors, believe me, are as dangerous to the soul as just now they happen to be fatal to the body. May I hope that you, who were brought up but not born in heresy, will consent to receive instruction in the right faith?"
"Certainly you may," answered Adrian, almost with enthusiasm. "I have had enough of conventicles, psalm-singing, and the daily chance of being burned; indeed, from the time when I could think for myself I always wished to be a Catholic."
"Your words make me a happy man," answered Ramiro. "Allow me to unbolt the door, I hear our hosts. Worthy Simon and Vrouw, I make you parties to a solemn and joyful celebration. This young man is my son, and in token of my fatherly love, which he has been pleased to desire, I now take him in my arms and embrace him before you," and he suited the action to the word.
But Black Meg, watching his face in astonishment from over Adrian's shoulder, saw its one bright eye suddenly become eclipsed. Could it be that the noble Master had winked?
MARTHA PREACHES A SERMON AND TELLS A SECRET
Two days after his reconciliation with his father, Adrian was admitted as a member of the Catholic Church. His preparation had been short; indeed, it consisted of three interviews with a priest who was brought to the house at night. The good man found in his pupil so excellent a disposition and a mind so open to his teaching that, acting on a hint given him by Ramiro, who, for reasons of his own not altogether connected with religion, was really anxious to see his son a member of the true and Catholic Church, he declared it unnecessary to prolong the period of probation. Therefore, on the third day, as the dusk of evening was closing, for in the present state of public feeling they dared not go out while it was light, Adrian was taken to the baptistry of the Groote Kerke. Here he made confession of his sins to a certain Abbe known as Father Dominic, a simple ceremony, for although the list of them which he had prepared was long, its hearing proved short. Thus all his offences against his family, such as his betrayal of his stepfather, were waived aside by the priest as matters of no account; indeed, crimes of this nature, he discovered, to the sacerdotal eye wore the face of virtue. Other misdoings also, such as a young man might have upon his mind, were not thought weighty. What really was considered important proved to be the earnestness of his recantation of heretical errors, and when once his confessor was satisfied upon that point, the penitent soul was relieved by absolution full and free.
After this came the service of his baptism, which, because Ramiro wished it, for a certain secret reason, was carried out with as much formal publicity as the circumstances would allow. Indeed, several priests officiated at the rite, Adrian's sponsors being his father and the estimable Hague Simon, who was paid a gold piece for his pains. While the sacrament was still in progress, an untoward incident occurred. From its commencement the trampling and voices of a mob had been heard in the open space in front of the church, and now they began to hammer on the great doors and to cast stones at the painted windows, breaking the beautiful and ancient glass. Presently a beadle hurried into the baptistery, and whispered something in the ear of the Abbe which caused that ecclesiastic to turn pale and to conclude the service in a somewhat hasty fashion.
"What is it?" asked Ramiro.
"Alas! my son," said the priest, "these heretic dogs saw you, or our new-found brother, I know not which—enter this holy place, and a great mob of them have surrounded it, ravening for our blood."
"Then we had best begone," said Ramiro.
"Senor, it is impossible," broke in the sacristan; "they watch every door. Hark! hark! hark!" and as he spoke there came the sound of battering on the oaken portals.
"Can your reverences make any suggestions?" asked Ramiro, "for if not—" and he shrugged his shoulders.
"Let us pray," said one of them in a trembling voice.
"By all means, but I should prefer to do so as I go. Fool, is there any hiding place in this church, or must we stop here to have our throats cut?"
Then the sacristan, with white lips and knocking knees, whispered:
"Follow me, all of you. Stay, blow out the lights."
So the candles were extinguished, and in the darkness they grasped each other's hands and were led by the verger whither they knew not. Across the wide spaces of the empty church they crawled, its echoing silence contrasting strangely with the muffled roar of angry voices without and the dull sound of battering on the doors. One of their number, the fat Abbe Dominic, became separated from them in the gloom, and wandered away down an arm of the vast transept, whence they could hear him calling to them. The sacristan called back, but Ramiro fiercely bade him to be silent, adding:
"Are we all to be snared for the sake of one priest?"
So they went on, till presently in that great place his shouts grew fainter, and were lost in the roar of the multitude without.
"Here is the spot," muttered the sacristan, after feeling the floor with his hands, and by a dim ray of moonlight which just then pierced the windows of the choir, Adrian saw that there was a hole in the pavement before him.
"Descend, there are steps," said their guide. "I will shut the stone," and one by one they passed down six or seven narrow steps into some darksome place.
"Where are we?" asked a priest of the verger, when he had pulled the stone close and joined them.
"In the family vault of the noble Count van Valkenburg, whom your reverence buried three days ago. Fortunately the masons have not yet come to cement down the stone. If your Excellencies find it close, you can get air by standing upon the coffin of the noble Count."
Adrian did find it close, and took the hint, to discover that in a line with his head was some filigree stonework, pierced with small apertures, the front doubtless of the marble tomb in the church above, for through them he could see the pale moon rays wavering on the pavement of the choir. As he looked the priest at his side muttered:
"Hark! The doors are down. Aid us, St. Pancras!" and falling upon his knees he began to pray very earnestly.
Yielding at last to the blows of the battering-beam, the great portals had flown open with a crash, and now through them poured the mob. On they came with a rush and a roar, like that of the sea breaking through a dyke, carrying in their hands torches, lanterns hung on poles, axes, swords and staves, till at length they reached the screen of wonderful carved oak, on the top of which, rising to a height of sixty feet above the floor of the church, stood the great Rood, with the images of the Virgin and St. John on either side. Here, of a sudden, the vastness and the silence of the holy place which they had known, every one, from childhood, with its echoing aisles, the moonlit, pictured windows, its consecrated lamps twinkling here and there like fisher lights upon the darkling waters, seemed to take hold of them. As at the sound of the Voice Divine sweeping down the wild waves at night, the winds ceased their raving and the seas were still, so now, beneath the silent reproach of the effigy of the White Christ standing with uplifted hand above the altar, hanging thorn-crowned upon the Rood, kneeling agonised within the Garden, seated at the Holy Supper, on His lips the New Commandment, "As I have loved you, so ye also love one another," their passions flickered down and their wrath slept.
"They are not here, let us be going," said a voice.
"They are here," answered another voice, a woman's voice with a note of vengeance in it. "I tracked them to the doors, the Spanish murderer Ramiro, the spy Hague Simon, the traitor Adrian, called van Goorl, and the priests, the priests, the priests who butcher us."
"Let God deal with them," said the first voice, which to Adrian sounded familiar. "We have done enough. Go home in peace."
Now muttering, "The pastor is right. Obey the Pastor Arentz," the more orderly of the multitude turned to depart, when suddenly, from the far end of the transept, arose a cry.
"Here's one of them. Catch him! catch him!" A minute more and into the circle of the torchlight rushed the Abbe Dominic, his eyes starting from his head with terror, his rent robe flapping on the ground. Exhausted and bewildered he cast himself down, and grasping the pedestal of an image began to cry for mercy, till a dozen fierce hands dragged him to his feet again.
"Let him go," said the voice of the Pastor Arentz. "We fight the Church, not its ministers."
"Hear me first," she answered who had spoken before, and men turned to see standing above them in the great pulpit of the church, a fierce-eyed, yellow-toothed hag, grey-haired, skinny-armed, long-faced like a horse, and behind her two other women, each of whom held a torch in her right hand.
"It is the Mare," roared the multitude. "It is Martha of the Mere. Preach on, Martha. What's your text?"
"Whoso sheddeth man's blood by man shall his blood be shed," she answered in a ringing, solemn voice, and instantly a deep silence fell upon the place.
"You call me the Mare," she went on. "Do you know how I got that name? They gave it me after they had shrivelled up my lips and marred the beauty of my face with irons. And do you know what they made me do? They made me carry my husband to the stake upon my back because they said that a horse must be ridden. And do you know who said this? That priest who stands before you."
As the words left her lips a yell of rage beat against the roof. Martha held up her thin hand, and again there was silence.
"He said it—the holy Father Dominic; let him deny it if he can. What? He does not know me? Perchance not, for time and grief and madness and hot pincers have changed the face of Vrouw Martha van Muyden, who was called the Lily of Brussels. Ah! look at him now. He remembers the Lily of Brussels. He remembers her husband and her son also, for he burned them. O God, judge between us. O people, deal with that devil as God shall teach you.
"Who are the others? He who is called Ramiro, the Governor of the Gevangenhuis, the man who years ago would have thrust me beneath the ice to drown had not the Vrouw van Goorl bought my life; he who set her husband, Dirk van Goorl, the man you loved, to starve to death sniffing the steam of kitchens. O people, deal with that devil as God shall teach you.
"And the third, the half-Spaniard, the traitor Adrian called van Goorl, he who has come here to-night to be baptised anew into the bosom of the Holy Church; he who signed the evidence upon which Dirk was murdered"—here, again, the roar of hate and rage went up and beat along the roof—"upon which too his brother Foy was taken to the torture, whence Red Martin saved him. O people, do with that devil also as God shall teach you.
"And the fourth, Hague Simon the spy, the man whose hands for years have smoked with innocent blood; Simon the Butcher—Simon the false witness——"
"Enough, enough!" roared the crowd. "A rope, a rope; up with him to the arm of the Rood."
"My friends," cried Arentz, "let the man go. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and I will repay."
"Yes, but we will give him something on account," shouted a voice in bitter blasphemy. "Well climbed, Jan, well climbed," and they looked up to see, sixty feet above their heads, seated upon the arm of the lofty Rood, a man with a candle bound upon his brow and a coil of rope upon his back.
"He'll fall," said one.
"Pish!" answered another, "it is steeplejack Jan, who can hang on a wall like a fly."
"Look out for the ends of the rope," cried the thin voice above, and down they came.
"Spare me," screamed the wretched priest, as his executioners caught hold of him.
"Yes, yes, as you spared the Heer Jansen a few months ago."
"It was to save his soul," groaned Dominic.
"Quite so, and now we are going to save yours; your own medicine, father, your own medicine."
"Spare me, and I will tell you where the others are."
"Well, where are they?" asked the ringleader, pushing his companions away.
"Hidden in the church, hidden in the church."
"We knew that, you traitorous dog. Now then for the soul-saving. Catch hold there and run away with it. A horse should be ridden, father—your own saying—and an angel must learn to fly."
Thus ended the life of the Abbe Dominic at the hands of avenging men. Without a doubt they were fierce and bloody-minded, for the reader must not suppose that all the wickedness of those days lies on the heads of the Inquisition and the Spaniards. The adherents of the New Religion did evil things also, things that sound dreadful in our ears. In excuse of them, however, this can be urged, that, compared to those of their oppressors, they were as single trees to a forest full; also that they who worked them had been maddened by their sufferings. If our fathers, husbands and brothers had been burned at the stake, or done to death under the name of Jesus in the dens of the Inquisition, or slaughtered by thousands in the sack of towns; if our wives and daughters had been shamed, if our houses had been burned, our goods taken, our liberties trampled upon, and our homes made a desolation, then, my reader, is it not possible that even in these different days you and I might have been cruel when our hour came? God knows alone, and God be thanked that so far as we can foresee, except under the pressure, perhaps, of invasion by semi-barbarian hordes, or of dreadful and sudden social revolutions, civilized human nature will never be put to such a test again.
Far aloft in the gloom there, swinging from the arm of the Cross, whose teachings his life had mocked, like some mutinous sailor at the yard of the vessel he had striven to betray, the priest hung dead, but his life did not appease the fury of the triumphant mob.
"The others," they cried, "find the others," and with torches and lanterns they hunted round the great church. They ascended the belfry, they rummaged the chapels, they explored the crypt; then, baffled, drew together in a countless crowd in the nave, shouting, gesticulating, suggesting.
"Get dogs," cried a voice; "dogs will smell them out;" and dogs were brought, which yapped and ran to and fro, but, confused by the multitude, and not knowing what to seek, found nothing. Then some one threw an image from a niche, and next minute, with a cry of "Down with the idols," the work of destruction began.
Fanatics sprang at the screens and the altars, "all the carved work thereof they break down with hatchet and hammer," they tore the hangings from the shrines, they found the sacred cups, and filling them with sacramental wine, drank with gusts of ribald laughter. In the centre of the choir they built a bonfire, and fed it with pictures, carvings, and oaken benches, so that it blazed and roared furiously. On to it—for this mob did not come to steal but to work vengeance—they threw utensils of gold and silver, the priceless jewelled offerings of generations, and danced around its flames in triumph, while from every side came the crash of falling statues and the tinkling of shattered glass.
The light of that furnace shone through the lattice stonework of the tomb, and in its lurid and ominous glare Adrian beheld the faces of those who refuged with him. What a picture it was; the niches filled with mouldering boxes, the white gleam of human bones that here and there had fallen from them, the bright furnishings and velvet pall of the coffin of the newcomer on which he stood—and then those faces. The priests, still crouched in corners, rolling on the ground, their white lips muttering who knows what; the sacristan in a swoon, Hague Simon hugging a coffin in a niche, as a drowning man hugs a plank, and, standing in the midst of them, calm, sardonic and watchful, a drawn rapier in his hand, his father Ramiro.
"We are lost," moaned a priest, losing control of himself. "We are lost. They will kill us as they have killed the holy Abbe."
"We are not lost," hissed Ramiro, "we are quite safe, but, friend, if you open that cursed mouth of yours again it shall be for the last time," and he lifted his sword, adding, "Silence; he who speaks, dies."
How long did it last? Was it one hour, or two or three? None of them knew, but at length the image-breaking was done, and it came to an end. The interior of the church, with all its wealth and adornments, was utterly destroyed, but happily the flames did not reach the roof, and the walls could not catch fire.
By degrees the iconoclasts wearied; there seemed to be nothing more to break, and the smoke choked them. Two or three at a time they left the ravaged place, and once more it became solemn and empty; a symbol of Eternity mocking Time, of Peace conquering Tumult, of the Patience and Purpose of God triumphant over the passions and ravings of Man. Little curls of smoke went up from the smouldering fire; now and again a fragment of shattered stonework fell with an echoing crash, and the cold wind of the coming winter sighed through the gaping windows. The deed was done, the revenge of a tortured multitude had set its seal upon the ancient fane in which their forefathers worshipped for a score of generations, and once more quiet brooded upon the place, and the shafts of the sweet moonlight pierced its desecrated solitudes.
One by one, like ghosts arising at a summons of the Spirit, the fugitives crept from the shelter of the tomb, crept across the transepts to the little door of the baptistery, and with infinite peeping and precaution, out into the night, to vanish this way and that, hugging their hearts as though to feel whether they still beat safely in their bosoms.
As he passed the Rood Adrian looked up, and there, above the broken carvings and the shattered statue of the Virgin, hung the calm face of the Saviour crowned with thorns. There, too, not far from it, looking small and infinitely piteous at that great height, and revolving slowly in the sharp draught from the broken windows, hung another dead face, the horrid face of the Abbe Dominic, lately the envied, prosperous dignitary and pluralist, who not four hours since had baptised him into the bosom of the Church, and who now himself had been born again into the bosom of whatever world awaited him beyond the Gates. It terrified Adrian; no ghost could have frightened him more, but he set his teeth and staggered on, guided by the light gleaming faintly on the sword of Ramiro—to whatever haven that sword should lead him.
Before dawn broke it had led him out of Leyden.
It was after ten o'clock that night when a woman, wrapped in a rough frieze coat, knocked at the door of the house in the Bree Straat and asked for the Vrouw van Goorl.
"My mistress lies between life and death with the plague," answered the servant. "Get you gone from this pest-house, whoever you are."
"I do not fear the plague," said the visitor. "Is the Jufvrouw Elsa Brant still up? Then tell her that Martha, called the Mare, would speak with her."
"She can see none at such an hour," answered the servant.
"Tell her I come from Foy van Goorl."
"Enter," said the servant wondering, and shut the door behind her.
A minute later Elsa, pale-faced, worn, but still beautiful, rushed into the room, gasping, "What news? Does he live? Is he well?"
"He lives, lady, but he is not well, for the wound in his thigh has festered and he cannot walk, or even stand. Nay, have no fear, time and clean dressing will heal him, and he lies in a safe place."
In the rapture of her relief Elsa seized the woman's hand, and would have kissed it.
"Touch it not, it is bloodstained," said Martha, drawing her hand away.
"Blood? Whose blood is on it?" asked Elsa, shrinking back.
"Whose blood?" answered Martha with a hollow laugh; "why that of many a Spanish man. Where, think you, lady, that the Mare gallops of nights? Ask it of the Spaniards who travel by the Haarlemer Meer. Aye, and now Red Martin is with me and we run together, taking our tithe where we can gather it."
"Oh! tell me no more," said Elsa. "From day to day it is ever the same tale, a tale of death. Nay, I know your wrongs have driven you mad, but that a woman should slay——"
"A woman! I am no woman; my womanhood died with my husband and my son. Girl, I tell you that I am no woman; I am a Sword of God myself appointed to the sword. And so to the end I kill, and kill and kill till the hour when I am killed. Go, look in the church yonder, and see who hangs to the high arm of the Rood—the fat Abbe Dominic. Well, I sent him there to-night; to-morrow you will hear how I turned parson and preached a sermon—aye, and Ramiro and Adrian called van Goorl, and Simon the spy, should have joined him there, only I could not find them because their hour has not come. But the idols are down and the paintings burnt, and the gold and silver and jewels are cast upon the dung-heap. Swept and garnished is the temple, made clean and fit for the Lord to dwell in."
"Made clean with the blood of murdered priests, and fit by the smoke of sacrilege?" broke in Elsa. "Oh! woman, how can you do such wicked things and not be afraid?"
"Afraid?" she answered. "Those who have passed through hell have no more fear; death I seek, and when judgment comes I will say to the Lord: What have I done that the Voice which speaks to me at night did not tell me to do? Look down, the blood of my husband and my son still smokes upon the ground. Hearken, Lord God, it cries to Thee for vengeance!" and as she spoke she lifted her blackened hands and shook them. Then she went on.
"They murdered your father, why do you not kill them also? You are small and weak and timid, and could not run by night and use the knife as I do, but there is poison. I can brew it and bring it to you, made from marsh herbs, white as water and deadly as Death itself. What! You shrink from such things? Well, girl, once I was beautiful as you and as loving and beloved, and I can do them for my love's sake—for my love's sake. Nay, I do not do them, they are done through me. The Sword am I, the Sword! And you too are a sword, though you know it not, though you see it not, you, maiden, so soft and white and sweet, are a Sword of Vengeance working the death of men; I, in my way, you in yours, paying back, back, back, full measure pressed down and running over to those appointed to die. The treasure of Hendrik Brant, your treasure, it is red with blood, every piece of it. I tell you that the deaths that I have done are but as a grain of sand to a bowlful compared to those which your treasure shall do. There, maid, I fright you. Have no fear, it is but Mad Martha, who, when she sees, must speak, and through the flames in the kirk to-night I saw visions such as I have not seen for years."
"Tell me more of Foy and Martin," said Elsa, who was frightened and bewildered.
At her words a change seemed to come over this woman, at once an object of pity and of terror, for the scream went out of her voice and she answered quietly,
"They reached me safe enough five days ago, Red Martin carrying Foy upon his back. From afar I saw him, a naked man with a named sword, and knew him by his size and beard. And oh! when I heard his tale I laughed as I have not laughed since I was young."
"Tell it me," said Elsa.
And she told it while the girl listened with clasped hands.
"Oh! it was brave, brave," she murmured. "Red Martin forcing to the door and Foy, weak and wounded, slaying the warder. Was there ever such a story?"
"Men are brave and desperate with the torture pit behind them," answered Martha grimly; "but they did well, and now they are safe with me where no Spaniard can find them unless they hunt in great companies after the ice forms and the reeds are dead."
"Would that I could be there also," said Elsa, "but I tend his mother who is very sick, so sick that I do not know whether she will live or die."
"Nay, you are best here among your people," answered Martha. "And now that the Spaniards are driven out, here Foy shall return also so soon as it is safe for him to travel; but as yet he cannot stir, and Red Martin stays to watch him. Before long, however, he must move, for I have tidings that the Spaniards are about to besiege Haarlem with a great army, and then the Mere will be no longer safe for us, and I shall leave it to fight with the Haarlem folk."
"And Foy and Martin will return?"
"I think so, if they are not stopped."
"Stopped?"—and she put her hand upon her heart.
"The times are rough, Jufvrouw Elsa. Who that breathes the air one morning can know what breath will pass his nostrils at the nightfall? The times are rough, and Death is king of them. The hoard of Hendrik Brant is not forgotten, nor those who have its key. Ramiro slipped through my hands to-night, and doubtless by now is far away from Leyden seeking the treasure."
"The treasure! Oh! that thrice accursed treasure!" broke in Elsa, shivering as though beneath an icy wind; "would that we were rid of it."
"That you cannot be until it is appointed, for is this not the heritage which your father died to save? Listen. Do you know, lady, where it lies hid?" and she dropped her voice to a whisper.
Elsa shook her head, saying:
"I neither know nor wish to know."
"Still it is best that you should be told, for we three who have the secret may be killed, every one of us—no, not the place, but where to seek a clue to the place."
Elsa looked at her questioningly, and Martha, leaning forward, whispered in her ear:
"It lies in the hilt of the Sword Silence. If Red Martin should be taken or killed, seek out his sword and open the hilt. Do you understand?"
Elsa nodded and answered, "But if aught happens to Martin the sword may be lost."
Martha shrugged her shoulders. "Then the treasure will be lost also, that is if I am gone. It is as God wills; but at least in name you are the heiress, and you should know where to find its secret, which may serve you or your country in good stead in time to come. I give you no paper, I tell you only where to seek a paper, and now I must be gone to reach the borders of the Mere by daybreak. Have you any message for your love, lady?"
"I would write a word, if you can wait. They will bring you food."
"Good; write on and I will eat. Love for the young and meat for the old, and for both let God be thanked."
THE RED MILL
After a week's experience of that delectable dwelling and its neighbourhood, Adrian began to grow weary of the Red Mill. Nine or ten Dutch miles to the nor'west of Haarlem is a place called Velsen, situated on the borders of the sand-dunes, to the south of what is known to-day as the North Sea Canal. In the times of which this page of history tells, however, the canal was represented by a great drainage dyke, and Velsen was but a deserted village. Indeed, hereabouts all the country was deserted, for some years before a Spanish force had passed through it, burning, slaying, laying waste, so that few were left to tend the windmills and repair the dyke. Holland is a country won from swamps and seas, and if the water is not pumped out of it, and the ditches are not cleaned, very quickly it relapses into primeval marsh; indeed, it is fortunate if the ocean, bursting through the feeble barriers reared by the industry of man, does not turn it into vast lagoons of salt water.
Once the Red Mill had been a pumping station, which, when the huge sails worked, delivered the water from the fertile meadows into the great dyke, whence it ran through sluice gates to the North Sea. Now, although the embankment of this dyke still held, the meadows had gone back into swamps. Rising out of these—for it was situated upon a low mound of earth, raised, doubtless, as a point of refuge by marsh-dwellers who lived and died before history began, towered the wreck of a narrow-waisted windmill, built of brick below and wood above, of very lonesome and commanding appearance in its gaunt solitude. There were no houses near it, no cattle grazed about its foot; it was a dead thing in a dead landscape. To the left, but separated from it by a wide and slimy dyke, whence in times of flood the thick, brackish water trickled to the plain, stretched an arid area of sand-dunes, clothed with sparse grass, that grew like bristles upon the back of a wild hog. Beyond these dunes the ocean roared and moaned and whispered hungrily as the wind and weather stirred its depths. In front, not fifty paces away, ran the big dyke like a raised road, secured by embankments, and discharging day by day its millions of gallons of water into the sea. But these embankments were weakening now, and here and there could be seen a spot which looked as though a giant ploughshare had been drawn up them, for a groove of brown earth scarred the face of green, where in some winter flood the water had poured over to find its level, cutting them like cheese, but when its volume sank, leaving them still standing, and as yet sufficient for their purpose.
To the right again and behind, were more marshes, broken only in the distance by the towers of Haarlem and the spires of village churches, marshes where the snipe and bittern boomed, the herons fed, and in summer the frogs croaked all night long.
Such was the refuge to which Ramiro and his son, Adrian, had been led by Hague Simon and Black Meg, after they had escaped with their lives from Leyden upon the night of the image-breaking in the church, that ominous night when the Abbe Dominic gave up the ghost on the arm of the lofty Rood, and Adrian had received absolution and baptism from his consecrated hand.
On the journey hither Adrian asked no questions as to their destination; he was too broken in heart and too shaken in body to be curious; life in those days was for him too much of a hideous phantasmagoria of waste and blackness out of which appeared vengeful, red-handed figures, out of which echoed dismal, despairing voices calling him to doom.
They came to the place and found its great basement and the floors above, or some of them, furnished after a fashion. The mill had been inhabited, and recently, as Adrian gathered, by smugglers, or thieves, with whom Meg and Simon were in alliance, or some such outcast evil-doers who knew that here the arm of the law could not reach them. Though, indeed, while Alva ruled in the Netherlands there was little law to be feared by those who were rich or who dared to worship God after their own manner.
"Why have we come here—father," Adrian was about to add, but the word stuck in his throat.
Ramiro shrugged his shoulders and looked round him with his one criticising eye.
"Because our guides and friends, the worthy Simon and his wife, assure me that in this spot alone our throats are for the present safe, and by St. Pancras, after what we saw in the church yonder I am inclined to agree with them. He looked a poor thing up under the roof there, the holy Father Dominic, didn't he, hanging up like a black spider from the end of his cord? Bah! my backbone aches when I think of him."
"And how long are we to stop here?"
"Till—till Don Frederic has taken Haarlem and these fat Hollanders, or those who are left of them, lick our boots for mercy," and he ground his teeth, then added: "Son, do you play cards? Good, well let us have a game. Here are dice; it will serve to turn our thoughts. Now then, a hundred guilders on it."
So they played and Adrian won, whereon, to his amazement, his father paid him the money.
"What is the use of that?" asked Adrian.
"Gentlemen should always pay their debts at cards."
"And if they cannot?"
"Then they must keep score of the amount and discharge it when they are able. Look you, young man, everything else you may forget, but what you lose over the dice is a debt of honour. There lives no man who can say that I cheated him of a guilder at cards, though I fear some others have my name standing in their books."
When they rose from their game that night Adrian had won between three and four hundred florins. Next day his winnings amounted to a thousand florins, for which his father gave him a carefully-executed note of hand; but at the third sitting the luck changed or perhaps skill began to tell, and he lost two thousand florins. These he paid up by returning his father's note, his own winnings, and all the balance of the purse of gold which his mother had given to him when he was driven from the house, so that now he was practically penniless.
The rest of the history may be guessed. At every game the stakes were increased, for since Adrian could not pay, it was a matter of indifference to him how much he wagered. Moreover, he found a kind of mild excitement in playing at the handling of such great sums of money. By the end of a week he had lost a queen's dowry. As they rose from the table that night his father filled in the usual form, requested him to be so good as to sign it, and a sour-faced woman who had arrived at the mill, Adrian knew not whence, to do the household work, to put her name as witness.
"What is the use of this farce?" asked Adrian. "Brant's treasure would scarcely pay that bill."
His father pricked his ears.
"Indeed? I lay it at as much again. What is the use? Who knows—one day you might become rich, for, as the great Emperor said, 'Fortune is a woman who reserves her favours for the young,' and then, doubtless, being the man of honour that you are, you would wish to pay your old gambling debts."
"Oh! yes, I should pay if I could," answered Adrian with a yawn. "But it seems hardly worthy while talking about, does it?" and he sauntered out of the place into the open air.
His father rose, and, standing by the great peat fire, watched him depart thoughtfully.
"Let me take stock of the position," he said to himself. "The dear child hasn't a farthing left; therefore, although he is getting bored, he can't run away. Moreover, he owes me more money than I ever saw; therefore, if he should chance to become the husband of the Jufvrouw Brant, and the legal owner of her parent's wealth, whatever disagreements may ensue between him and me I shall have earned my share of it in a clean and gentlemanly fashion. If, on the other hand, it should become necessary for me to marry the young lady, which God forbid, at least no harm is done, and he will have had the advantage of some valuable lessons from the most accomplished card-player in Spain.
"And now what we need to enliven this detestable place is the presence of Beauty herself. Our worthy friends should be back soon—bringing their sheaves with them, let us hope, for otherwise matters will be complicated. Let me see: have I thought of everything, for in such affairs one oversight—He is a Catholic, therefore can contract a legal marriage under the Proclamations—it was lucky I remembered that point of law, though it nearly cost us all our lives—and the priest, I can lay my hands on him, a discreet man, who won't hear if the lady says No, but filled beyond a question with the power and virtue of his holy office. No, I have nothing to reproach myself with in the way of precaution, nothing at all. I have sown the seed well and truly, it remains only for Providence to give the increase, or shall I say—no, I think not, for between the general and the private familiarity is always odious. Well, it is time that you met with a little success and settled down, for you have worked hard, Juan, my friend, and you are getting old—yes, Juan, you are getting old. Bah! what a hole and what weather!" and Montalvo established himself by the fireside to doze away his ennui.
When Adrian shut the door behind him the late November day was drawing to its close, and between the rifts in the sullen snow clouds now and again an arrow from the westering sun struck upon the tall, skeleton-like sails of the mill, through which the wind rushed with a screaming noise. Adrian had intended to walk on the marsh, but finding it too sodden, he crossed the western dyke by means of a board laid from bank to bank, and struck into the sand-dunes beyond. Even in the summer, when the air was still and flowers bloomed and larks sang, these dunes were fantastic and almost unnatural in appearance, with their deep, wind-scooped hollows of pallid sand, their sharp angles, miniature cliffs, and their crests crowned with coarse grasses. But now, beneath the dull pall of the winter sky, no spot in the world could have been more lonesome or more desolate, for never a sign of man was to be seen upon them and save for a solitary curlew, whose sad note reached Adrian's ears as it beat up wind from the sea, even the beasts and birds that dwelt there had hidden themselves away. Only the voices of Nature remained in all their majesty, the drear screams and moan of the rushing wind, and above it, now low and now voluminous as the gale veered, the deep and constant roar of the ocean.
Adrian reached the highest crest of the ridge, whence the sea, hidden hitherto, became suddenly visible, a vast, slate-coloured expanse, twisted here and there into heaps, hollowed here and there into valleys, and broken everywhere with angry lines and areas of white. In such trouble, for, after its own fashion, his heart was troubled, some temperaments might have found a kind of consolation in this sight, for while we witness them, at any rate, the throes and moods of Nature in their greatness declare a mastery of our senses, and stun or hush to silence the petty turmoil of our souls. This, at least, is so with those who have eyes to read the lesson written on Nature's face, and ears to hear the message which day by day she delivers with her lips; gifts given only to such as hold the cypher-key of imagination, and pray for grace to use it.
In Adrian's case, however, the weirdness of the sand-hills and the grandeur of the seascape with the bitter wind that blew between and the solitude which brooded over all, served only to exasperate nerves that already were strained well nigh to breaking.
Why had his father brought him to this hideous swamp bordered by a sailless sea? To save their lives from the fury of the mob? This he understood, but there was more in it than that, some plot which he did not understand, and which the ruffian, Hague Simon, and that she-fiend, his companion, had gone away to execute. Meanwhile he must sit here day after day playing cards with the wretch Ramiro, whom, for no fault of his own, God had chosen out to be his parent. By the way, why was the man so fond of playing cards? And what was the meaning of all that nonsense about notes of hand? Yes, here he must sit, and for company he had the sense of his unalterable shame, the memory of his mother's face as she spurned and rejected him, the vision of the woman whom he loved and had lost, and—the ghost of Dirk van Goorl.
He shivered as he thought of it; yes, his hair lifted and his lip twitched involuntarily, for to Adrian's racked nerves and distorted vision this ghost of the good man whom he had betrayed was no child of phantasy. He had woken in the night and seen it standing at his bedside, plague-defiled and hunger-wasted, and because of it he dreaded to sleep alone, especially in that creaking, rat-haunted mill, whose very board seemed charged with some tale of death and blood. Heavens! At this very moment he thought he could hear that dead voice calling down the gale. No, it must be the curlew, but at least he would be going home. Home—that place home—with not even a priest near to confess to and be comforted!
Thanks be to the Saints! the wind had dropped a little, but now in place of it came the snow, dense, whirling, white; so dense indeed that he could scarcely see his path. What an end that would be, to be frozen to death in the snow on these sand-hills while the spirit of Dirk van Goorl sat near and watched him die with those hollow, hungry eyes. The sweat came upon Adrian's forehead at the thought, and he broke into a run, heading for the bank of the great dyke that pierced the dunes half a mile or so away, which bank must, he knew, lead him to the mill. He reached it and trudged along what had been the towpath, though now it was overgrown with weeds and rushes. It was not a pleasant journey, for the twilight had closed in with speed and the thick flakes, that seemed to heap into his face and sting him, turned it into a darkness mottled with faint white. Still he stumbled forward with bent head and close-wrapped cloak till he judged that he must be near to the mill, and halted staring through the gloom.
Just then the snow ceased for a while and light crept back to the cold face of the earth, showing Adrian that he had done well to halt. In front of where he stood, within a few paces of his feet indeed, for a distance of quite twenty yards the lower part of the bank had slipped away, washed from the stone core with which it was faced at this point, by a slow and neglected percolation of water. Had he walked on therefore, he would have fallen his own height or more into a slough of mud, whence he might, or might not have been able to extricate himself. As it was, however, by such light as remained he could crawl upon the coping of the stonework which was still held in place with old struts of timber that, until they had been denuded by the slow and constant leakage, were buried and supported in the vanished earthwork. It was not a pleasant bridge, for to the right lay the mud-bottomed gulf, and to the left, almost level with his feet, were the black and peaty waters of the rain-fed dyke pouring onwards to the sea.
"Next flood this will go," thought Adrian to himself, "and then the marsh must become a mere which will be bad for whomever happens to be living in the Red Mill." He was on firm ground again now, and there, looming tall and spectral against the gloom, not five hundred yards away, rose the gaunt sails of the mill. To reach it he walked on six score paces or more to the little landing-quay, where a raised path ran to the building. As he drew near to it he was astonished to hear the rattle of oars working in rollocks and a man's voice say:
"Steady, here is the place, praise the Saints! Now, then, out passengers and let us be gone."
Adrian, whom events had made timid, drew beneath the shadow of the bank and watched, while from the dim outline of the boat arose three figures, or rather two figures arose, dragging the third between them.
"Hold her," said a voice that seemed familiar, "while I give these men their hire," and there followed a noise of clinking coin, mingled with some oaths and grumbling about the weather and the distance, which were abated with more coin. Then again the oars rattled and the boat was pushed off, whereon a sweet voice cried in agonised tones:
"Sirs, you who have wives and daughters, will you leave me in the hands of these wretches? In the name of God take pity upon my helplessness."
"It is a shame, and she so fair a maid," grumbled another thick and raucous voice, but the steersman cried, "Mind your business, Marsh Jan. We have done our job and got our pay, so leave the gentry to settle their own love affairs. Good night to you, passengers; give way, give way," and the boat swung round and vanished into the gloom.
For a moment Adrian's heart stood still; then he sprang forward to see before him Hague Simon, the Butcher, Black Meg his wife, and between them a bundle wrapped in shawls.
"What is this?" he asked.
"You ought to know, Heer Adrian," answered Black Meg with a chuckle, "seeing that this charming piece of goods has been brought all the way from Leyden, regardless of expense, for your especial benefit."
The bundle lifted its head, and the faint light shone upon the white and terrified face of—Elsa Brant.
"May God reward you for this evil deed, Adrian, called van Goorl," said the pitiful voice.
"This deed! What deed?" he stammered in answer. "I know nothing of it, Elsa Brant."
"You know nothing of it? Yet it was done in your name, and you are here to receive me, who was kidnapped as I walked outside Leyden to be dragged hither with force by these monsters. Oh! have you no heart and no fear of judgment that you can speak thus?"
"Free her," roared Adrian, rushing at the Butcher to see a knife gleaming in his hand and another in that of Black Meg.
"Stop your nonsense, Master Adrian, and stand back. If you have anything to say, say it to your father, the Count. Come, let us pass, for we are cold and weary," and taking Elsa by the elbows they brushed past him, nor, indeed, even had he not been too bewildered to interfere, could Adrian have stayed them, for he was unarmed. Besides, where would be the use, seeing that the boat had gone and that they were alone on a winter's night in the wind-swept wilderness, with no refuge for miles save such as the mill house could afford. So Adrian bent his head, for the snow had begun to fall again, and, sick at heart, followed them along the path. Now he understood at length why they had come to the Red Mill.
Simon opened the door and entered, but Elsa hung back at its ill-omened threshold. She even tried to struggle a little, poor girl, whereon the ruffian in front jerked her towards him with an oath, so that she caught her foot and fell upon her face. This was too much for Adrian. Springing forward he struck the Butcher full in the mouth with his fist, and next moment they were rolling over and over each other upon the floor, struggling fiercely for the knife which Simon held.
During all her life Elsa never forgot that scene. Behind her the howling blackness of the night and the open door, through which flake by flake the snow leapt into the light. In front the large round room, fashioned from the basement of the mill, lit only by the great fire of turfs and a single horn lantern, hung from the ceiling that was ribbed with beams of black and massive oak. And there, in this forbidding, naked-looking place, that rocked and quivered as the gale caught the tall arms of the mill above, seated by the hearth in a rude chair of wood and sleeping, one man, Ramiro, the Spanish sleuth-hound, who had hunted down her father, he whom above every other she held in horror and in hate; and two, Adrian and the spy, at death-grips on the floor, between them the sheen of a naked knife.
Such was the picture.
Ramiro awoke at the noise, and there was fear on his face as though some ill dream lingered in his brain. Next instant he saw and understood.
"I will run the man through who strikes another blow," he said, in a cold clear voice as he drew his sword. "Stand up, you fools, and tell me what this means."
"It means that this brute beast but now threw Elsa Brant upon her face," gasped Adrian as he rose, "and I punished him."
"It is a lie," hissed the other; "I pulled the minx on, that is all, and so would you have done, if you had been cursed with such a wild-cat for four-and-twenty hours. Why, when we took her she was more trouble to hold than any man."
"Oh! I understand," interrupted Ramiro, who had recovered his composure; "a little maidenly reluctance, that is all, my worthy Simon, and as for this young gentleman, a little lover-like anxiety—doubtless in bygone years you have felt the same," and he glanced mockingly at Black Meg. "So do not be too ready to take offence, good Simon. Youth will be youth."
"And Youth will get a knife between its ribs if it is not careful," grumbled Hague Simon, as he spat out a piece of broken tooth.
"Why am I brought here, Senor," broke in Elsa, "in defiance of laws and justice?"
"Laws! Mejufvrouw, I did not know that there were any left in the Netherlands; justice! well, all is fair in love and war, as any lady will admit. And the reason why—I think you must ask Adrian, he knows more about it than I do."
"He says that he knows nothing, Senor."
"Does he, the rogue? Does he indeed? Well, it would be rude to contradict him, wouldn't it, so I for one unreservedly accept his statement that he knows nothing, and I advise you to do the same. No, no, my boy, do not trouble to explain, we all quite understand. Now, my good dame," he went on addressing the serving-woman who had entered the place, "take this young lady to the best room you have above. And, listen, both of you, she is to be treated with all kindness, do you hear, for if any harm comes to her, either at your hands or her own, by Heaven! you shall pay for it to the last drop of your blood. Now, no excuses and—no mistakes."
The two women, Meg and the other, nodded and motioned to Elsa to accompany them. She considered a moment, looking first at Ramiro and next at Adrian. Then her head dropped upon her breast, and turning without a word she followed them up the creaking oaken stair that rose from a niche near the wall of the ingle-nook.
"Father," said Adrian when the massive door had closed behind her and they were left alone—"father—for I suppose that I must call you so."
"There is not the slightest necessity," broke in Ramiro; "facts, my dear son, need not always be paraded in the cold light of day—fortunately. But, proceed."
"What does all this mean?"
"I wish I could tell you. It appears to mean, however, that without any effort upon your part, for you seem to me a young man singularly devoid of resource, your love affairs are prospering beyond expectation."
"I have had nothing to do with the business; I wash my hands of it."
"That is as well. Some sensitive people might think they need a deal of washing. You young fool," he went on, dropping his mocking manner, "listen to me. You are in love with this pink and white piece of goods, and I have brought her here for you to marry."
"And I refuse to marry her against her will."
"As to that you can please yourself. But somebody has got to marry her—you, or I."
"You—you!" gasped Adrian.
"Quite so. The adventure is not one, to be frank, that attracts me. At my age memories are sufficient. But material interests must be attended to, so if you decline—well, I am still eligible and hearty. Do you see the point?"
"No, what is it?"
"It is a sound title to the inheritance of the departed Hendrik Brant. That wealth we might, it is true, obtain by artifice or by arms; but how much better that it should come into the family in a regular fashion, thereby ousting the claim of the Crown. Things in this country are disturbed at present, but they will not always be disturbed, for in the end somebody must give way and order will prevail. Then questions might be asked, for persons in possession of great riches are always the mark of envy. But if the heiress is married to a good Catholic and loyal subject of the king, who can cavil at rights sanctified by the laws of God and man? Think it over, my dear Adrian, think it over. Step-mother or wife—you can take your choice."
With impotent rage, with turmoil of heart and torment of conscience, Adrian did think it over. All that night he thought, tossing on his rat-haunted pallet, while without the snow whirled and the wind beat. If he did not marry Elsa, his father would, and there could be no doubt as to which of these alternatives would be best and happiest for her. Elsa married to that wicked, cynical, devil-possessed, battered, fortune-hunting adventurer with a nameless past! This must be prevented at any cost. With his father her lot must be a hell; with himself—after a period of storm and doubt perhaps—it could scarcely be other than happy, for was he not young, handsome, sympathetic, and—devoted? Ah! there was the real point. He loved this lady with all the earnestness of which his nature was capable, and the thought of her passing into the possession of another man gave him the acutest anguish. That the man should be Foy, his half-brother, was bad enough; that it should be Ramiro, his father, was insupportable.
At breakfast the following morning, when Elsa did not appear, the pair met.
"You look pale, Adrian," said his father presently. "I fear that this wild weather kept you awake last night, as it did me, although at your age I have slept through the roar of a battle. Well, have you thought over our conversation? I do not wish to trouble you with these incessant family matters, but times presses, and it is necessary to decide."
Adrian looked out of the lattice at the snow, which fell and fell without pause. Then he turned and said:
"Yes. Of the two it is best that she should marry me, though I think that such a crime will bring its own reward."
"Wise young man," answered his father. "Under all your cloakings of vagary I observe that you have a foundation of common-sense, just as the giddiest weathercock is bedded on a stone. As for the reward, considered properly it seems to be one upon which I can heartily congratulate you."
"Peace to that talk," said Adrian, angrily; "you forget that there are two parties to such a contract; her consent must be gained, and I will not ask it."
"No? Then I will; a few arguments occur to me. Now look here, friend, we have struck a bargain, and you will be so good as to keep it or to take the consequences—oh! never mind what they are. I will bring this lady to the altar—or, rather, to that table, and you will marry her, after which you can settle matters just exactly as you please; live with her as your wife, or make your bow and walk away, which, I care nothing so long as you are married. Now I am weary of all this talk, so be so good as to leave me in peace on the subject."
Adrian looked at him, opened his lips to speak, then changed his mind and marched out of the house into the blinding snow.
"Thank Heaven he is gone at last!" reflected his father, and called for Hague Simon, with whom he held a long and careful interview.
"You understand?" he ended.
"I understand," answered Simon, sulkily. "I am to find this priest, who should be waiting at the place you name, and to bring him here by nightfall to-morrow, which is a rough job for a Christian man in such weather as this."
"The pay, friend Simon, remember the pay."
"Oh! yes, it all sounds well enough, but I should like something on account."
"You shall have it—is not such a labourer worthy of his hire?" replied his employer with enthusiasm, and producing from his pocket the purse which Lysbeth had given Adrian, with a smile of peculiar satisfaction, for really the thing had a comic side, he counted a handsome sum into the hand of this emissary of Venus.
Simon looked at the money, concluded, after some reflection, that it would scarcely do to stand out for more at present, pouched it, and having wrapped himself in a thick frieze coat, opened the door and vanished into the falling snow.
THE BRIDEGROOM AND THE BRIDE
The day passed, and through every hour of it the snow fell incessantly. Night came, and it was still falling in large, soft flakes that floated to the earth gently as thistledown, for now there was no wind. Adrian met his father at meals only; the rest of the day he preferred to spend out of doors in the snow, or hanging about the old sheds at the back of the mill, rather than endure the society of this terrible man; this man of mocking words and iron purpose, who was forcing him into the commission of a great crime.
It was at breakfast on the following morning that Ramiro inquired of Black Mag whether the Jufvrouw Brant had sufficiently recovered from the fatigues of her journey to honour them with her presence. The woman replied that she absolutely refused to leave her room, or even to speak more than was necessary.
"Then," said Ramiro, "as it is important that I should have a few words with her, be so good as to tell the young lady, with my homage, that I will do myself the honour of waiting on her in the course of the forenoon."
Meg departed on her errand, and Adrian looked up suspiciously.
"Calm yourself, young friend," said his father, "although the interview will be private, you have really no cause for jealousy. At present, remember, I am but the second string in the bow-case, the understudy who has learnt the part, a humble position, but one which may prove useful."
At all of which gibes Adrian winced. But he did not reply, for by now he had learned that he was no match for his father's bitter wit.
Elsa received the message as she received everything else, in silence.
Three days before, as after a fearful illness during which on several occasions she was at the very doors of death, Lysbeth van Goorl had been declared out of danger, Elsa, her nurse, ventured to leave her for a few hours. That evening the town seemed to stifle her and, feeling that she needed the air of the country, she passed the Morsch poort and walked a little way along the banks of the canal, never noticing, poor girl, that her footsteps were dogged. When it began to grow dusk, she halted and stood a while gazing towards the Haarlemer Meer, letting her heart go out to the lover who, as she thought and hoped, within a day or two would be at her side.
Then it was that something was thrown over her head, and for a while all was black. She awoke to find herself lying in a boat, and watching her, two wretches, whom she recognised as those who had assailed her when first she came to Leyden from The Hague.
"Why have you kidnapped me, and where am I going?" she asked.
"Because we are paid to do it, and you are going to Adrian van Goorl," was the answer.
Then she understood, and was silent.
Thus they brought her to this lonesome, murderous-looking place, where sure enough Adrian was waiting for her, waiting with a lie upon his lips. Now, doubtless, the end was at hand. She, who loved his brother with all her heart and soul, was to be given forcibly in marriage to a man whom she despised and loathed, the vain, furious-tempered traitor, who, for revenge, jealousy, or greed, she knew not which, had not hesitated to send his benefactor, and mother's husband, to perish in the fires of the Inquisition.
What was she to do? Escape seemed out of the question, imprisoned as she was on the third story of a lofty mill standing in a lonely, snow-shrouded wilderness, cut off from the sight of every friendly face, and spied on hour after hour by two fierce-eyed women. No, there was only one escape for her—through the gate of death. Even this would be difficult, for she had no weapon, and day and night the women kept guard over her, one standing sentinel, while the other slept. Moreover, she had no mind to die, being young and healthy, with a love to live for, and from her childhood up she had been taught that self-slaughter is a sin. No, she would trust in God, and overwhelming though it was, fight her way through this trouble as best she might. The helpless find friends sometimes. Therefore, that her strength might be preserved, Elsa rested and ate of her food, and drank the wine which they brought to her, refusing to leave the room, or to speak more than she was obliged, but watching everything that passed.
On the second morning of her imprisonment Ramiro's message reached her, to which, as usual, she made no answer. In due course also Ramiro himself arrived, and stood bowing in the doorway.
"Have I your permission to enter, Jufvrouw?" he asked. Then Elsa, knowing that the moment of trial had come, steeled herself for the encounter.
"You are master here," she answered, in a voice cold as the falling snow without, "why then do you mock me?"
He motioned to the women to leave the room, and when they had gone, replied:
"I have little thought of such a thing, lady; the matter in hand is too serious for smart sayings," and with another bow he sat himself down on a chair near the hearth, where a fire was burning. Whereon Elsa rose and stood over against him, for upon her feet she seemed to feel stronger.
"Will you be so good as to set out this matter, Senor Ramiro? Am I brought here to be tried for heresy?"
"Even so, for heresy against the god of love, and the sentence of the Court is that you must expiate your sin, not at the stake, but at the altar."
"I do not understand."
"Then I will explain. My son Adrian, a worthy young man on the whole—you know that he is my son, do you not?—has had the misfortune, or I should say the good fortune, to fall earnestly in love with you, whereas you have the bad taste—or, perhaps, the good taste—to give your affections elsewhere. Under the circumstances, Adrian, being a youth of spirit and resource, has fallen back upon primitive methods in order to bring his suit to a successful conclusion. He is here, you are here, and this evening I understand that the priest will be here. I need not dwell upon the obvious issue; indeed, it is a private matter upon which I have no right to intrude, except, of course, as a relative and a well-wisher."
Elsa made an impatient movement with her hand, as though to brush aside all this web of words.
"Why do you take so much trouble to force an unhappy girl into a hateful marriage?" she asked. "How can such a thing advantage you?"
"Ah!" answered Ramiro briskly, "I perceive I have to do with a woman of business, one who has that rarest of gifts—common sense. I will be frank. Your esteemed father died possessed of a very large fortune, which to-day is your property as his sole issue and heiress. Under the marriage laws, which I myself think unjust, that fortune will pass into the power of any husband whom you choose to take. Therefore, so soon as you are made his wife it will pass to Adrian. I am Adrian's father, and, as it happens, he is pecuniarily indebted to me to a considerable amount, so that, in the upshot, as he himself has pointed out more than once, this alliance will provide for both of us. But business details are wearisome, so I need not enlarge."
"The fortune you speak of, Senor Ramiro, is lost."
"It is lost, but I have reason to hope that it will be found."
"You mean that this is purely a matter of money?"
"So far as I am concerned, purely. For Adrian's feelings I cannot speak, since who knows the mystery of another's heart?"
"Then, if the money were forthcoming—or a clue to it—there need be no marriage?"
"So far as I am concerned, none at all."
"And if the money is not forthcoming, and I refuse to marry the Heer Adrian, or he to marry me—what then?"
"That is a riddle, but I think I see an answer at any rate to half of it. Then the marriage would still take place, but with another bridegroom."
"Another bridegroom! Who?"
"Your humble and devoted adorer."
Elsa shuddered and recoiled a step.
"Ah!" he said, "I should not have bowed, you saw my white hairs—to the young a hateful sight."
Elsa's indignation rose, and she answered:
"It is not your white hair that I shrink from, Senor, which in some would be a crown of honour, but——"
"In my case suggests to you other reflections. Be gentle and spare me them. In a world of rough actions, what need to emphasise them with rough words?"
For a few minutes there was silence, which Ramiro, glancing out of the lattice, broke by remarking that "The snowfall was extraordinarily heavy for the time of year." Then followed another silence.
"I understood you just now, dear lady, to make some sort of suggestion which might lead to an arrangement satisfactory to both of us. The exact locality of this wealth is at present obscure—you mentioned some clue. Are you in a position to furnish such a clue?"
"If I am in a position, what then?"
"Then, perhaps, after a few days visit to an interesting, but little explored part of Holland, you might return to your friends as you left them—in short as a single woman."
A struggle shook Elsa, and do what she would some trace of it appeared in her face.
"Do you swear that?" she whispered.
"Do you swear before God that if you have this clue you will not force me into a marriage with the Heer Adrian, or with yourself—that you will let me go, unharmed?"
"I swear it—before God."
"Knowing that God will be revenged upon you if you break the oath, you still swear?"
"I still swear. Why these needless repetitions?"
"Then—then," and she leant towards him, speaking in a hoarse whisper, "believing that you, even you, will not dare to be false to such an oath, for you, even you, must fear death, a miserable death, and vengeance, eternal vengeance, I give you the clue: It lies in the hilt of the sword Silence."
"The sword Silence? What sword is that?"
"The great sword of Red Martin."
Stirred out of his self-control, Ramiro struck his hand upon his knee.
"And to think," he said, "that for over twelve hours I had it hanging on the wall of the Gevangenhuis! Well, I fear that I must ask you to be more explicit. Where is this sword?"
"Wherever Red Martin is, that is all I know. I can tell you no more; the plan of the hiding-place is there."
"Or was there. Well, I believe you, but to win a secret from the hilt of the sword of the man who broke his way out of the torture-chamber of the Gevangenhuis, is a labour that would have been not unworthy of Hercules. First, Red Martin must be found, then his sword must be taken, which, I think, will cost men their lives. Dear lady, I am obliged for your information, but I fear that the marriage must still go through."
"You swore, you swore," she gasped, "you swore before God!"
"Quite so, and I shall leave—the Power you refer to—to manage the matter. Doubtless He can attend to His own affairs—I must attend to mine. I hope that about seven o'clock this evening will suit you, by which time the priest and—a bridegroom will be ready."
Then Elsa broke down.
"Devil!" she cried in the torment of her despair. "To save my honour I have betrayed my father's trust; I have betrayed the secret for which Martin was ready to die by torment, and given him over to be hunted like a wild beast. Oh! God forgive me, and God help me!"
"Doubtless, dear young lady, He will do the first, for your temptations were really considerable; I, who have more experience, outwitted you, that was all. Possibly, also, He may do the second, though many have uttered that cry unheard. For my own sake, I trust that He was sleeping when you uttered yours. But it is your affair and His; I leave it to be arranged between you. Till this evening, Jufvrouw," and he bowed himself from the room.
But Elsa, shamed and broken-hearted, threw herself upon the bed and wept.
At mid-day she arose, hearing upon the stair the step of the woman who brought her food, and to hide her tear-stained face went to the barred lattice and looked out. The scene was dismal indeed, for the wind had veered suddenly, the snow had ceased, and in place of it rain was falling with a steady persistence. When the woman had gone, Elsa washed her face, and although her appetite turned from it, ate of the food, knowing how necessary it was that she should keep her strength.
Another hour passed, and there came a knock on the door. Elsa shuddered, for she thought that Ramiro had returned to torment her. Indeed it was almost a relief when, instead of him, appeared his son. Once glance at Adrian's nervous, shaken face, yes, and even the sound of his uncertain step brought hope to her heart. Her woman's instinct told her that now she had no longer to do with the merciless and terrible Ramiro, to whose eyes she was but a pretty pawn in a game that he must win, but with a young man who loved her, and whom she held, therefore, at a disadvantage—with one, moreover, who was harassed and ashamed, and upon whose conscience, therefore, she might work. She turned upon him, drawing herself up, and although she was short and Adrian was tall, of a sudden he felt as though she towered over him.
"Your pleasure?" asked Elsa.
In the old days Adrian would have answered with some magnificent compliment, or far-fetched simile lifted from the pages of romancers. In truth he had thought of several such while, like a half-starved dog seeking a home, he wandered round and round the mill-house in the snow. But he was now far beyond all rhetoric or gallantries.
"My father wished," he began humbly—"I mean that I have come to speak to you about—our marriage."
Of a sudden Elsa's delicate features seemed to turn to ice, while, to his fancy at any rate, her brown eyes became fire.
"Marriage," she said in a strange voice. "Oh! what an unutterable coward you must be to speak that word. Call what is proposed by any foul title which you will, but at least leave the holy name of marriage undefiled."
"It is not my fault," he answered sullenly, but shrinking beneath her words. "You know, Elsa, that I wished to wed you honourably enough."
"Yes," she broke in, "and because I would not listen, because you do not please me, and you could not win me as a man wins a maid, you—you laid a trap and kidnapped me, thinking to get by brute force that which my heart withheld. Oh! in all the Netherlands lives there another such an abject as Adrian called van Goorl, the base-born son of Ramiro the galley slave?"
"I have told you that it is false," he replied furiously. "I had nothing to do with your capture. I knew nothing of it till I saw you here."
Elsa laughed a very bitter laugh. "Spare your breath," she said, "for if you swore it before the face of the recording Angel I would not believe you. Remember that you are the man who betrayed your brother and your benefactor, and then guess, if you can, what worth I put upon your words."
In the bitterness of his heart Adrian groaned aloud, and from that groan Elsa, listening eagerly, gathered some kind of hope.
"Surely," she went on, with a changed and softened manner, "surely you will not do this wickedness. The blood of Dirk van Goorl lies on your head; will you add mine to his? For be sure of this, I swear it by my Maker, that before I am indeed a wife to you I shall be dead—or mayhap you will be dead, or both of us. Do you understand?"
"I understand, but——"
"But what? Where is the use of this wickedness? For your soul's sake, refuse to have aught to do with such a sin."
"But if so, my father will marry you."
It was a chance arrow, but it went home, for of a sudden Elsa's strength and eloquence seemed to leave her. She ran to him with her hands clasped, she flung herself upon her knees.
"Oh! help me to escape," she moaned, "and I will bless you all my life."
"It is impossible," he answered. "Escape from this guarded place, through those leagues of melting snow? I tell you that it is impossible."
"Then," and her eyes grew wild, "then kill him and free me. He is a devil, he is your evil genius; it would be a righteous deed. Kill him and free me."
"I should like to," answered Adrian; "I nearly did once, but, for my soul's sake, I can't put a sword through my own father; it is the most horrible of crimes. When I confessed——"
"Then," she broke in, "if this farce, this infamy must be gone through, swear at least that you will treat it as such, that you will respect me."
"It is a hard thing to ask of a husband who loves you more than any woman in the world," he answered turning aside his head.
"Remember," she went on, with another flash of defiant spirit, "that if you do not, you will soon love me better than any woman out of the world, or perhaps we shall both settle what lies between us before the Judgment Seat of God. Will you swear?"
Oh! she reflected, what if he should answer—"Rather than this I hand you over to Ramiro"? What if he should think of that argument? Happily for her, at the moment he did not.
"Swear," she implored, "swear," clinging with her hands to the lappet of his coat and lifting to him her white and piteous face.
"I make it an offering in expiation of my sins," he groaned, "you shall go free of me."
Elsa uttered a sigh of relief. She put no faith whatever in Adrian's promises, but at the worst it would give her time.
"I thought that I should not appeal in vain——"
"To so amusing and egregious a donkey," said Ramiro's mocking voice speaking from the gloom of the doorway, which now Elsa observed for the first time had swung open mysteriously.
"My dear son and daughter-in-law, how can I thank you sufficiently for the entertainment with which you have enlivened one of the most dreary afternoons I remember. Don't look dangerous, my boy; recall what you have just told this young lady, that the crime of removing a parent is one which, though agreeable, is not lightly to be indulged. Then, as to your future arrangements, how touching! The soul of a Diana, I declare, and the self-sacrifice of a—no, I fear that the heroes of antiquity can furnish no suitable example. And now, adieu, I go to welcome the gentleman you both of you so eagerly expect."
He went, and a minute later without speaking, for the situation seemed beyond words, Adrian crept down the stairs after him, more miserable and crushed even than he had crept up them half an hour before.
Another two hours went by. Elsa was in her apartment with Black Meg for company, who watched her as a cat watches a mouse in a trap. Adrian had taken refuge in the place where he slept above. It was a dreary, vacuous chamber, that once had held stones and other machinery of the mill now removed, the home of spiders and half-starved rats, that a lean black cat hunted continually. Across its ceiling ran great beams, whereof the interlacing ends, among which sharp draughts whistled, lost themselves in gloom, while, with an endless and exasperating sound, as of a knuckle upon a board, the water dripped from the leaky roof.
In the round living-chamber below Ramiro was alone. No lamp had been lit, but the glow from the great turf fire played upon his face as he sat there, watching, waiting, and scheming in the chair of black oak. Presently a noise from without caught his quick ear, and calling to the serving woman to light the lamp, he went to the door, opened it, and saw a lantern floating towards him through the thick steam of falling rain. Another minute and the bearer of the lantern, Hague Simon, arrived, followed by two other men.
"Here he is," said Simon, nodding at the figure behind him, a short round figure wrapped in a thick frieze cloak, from which water ran. "The other is the head boatman."
"Good," said Ramiro. "Tell him and his companions to wait in the shed without, where liquor will be sent to them; they may be wanted later on."
Then followed talk and oaths, and at length the man retreated grumbling.
"Enter, Father Thomas," said Ramiro; "you have had a wet journey, I fear. Enter and give us your blessing."
Before he answered the priest threw off his dripping, hooded cape of Frisian cloth, revealing a coarse, wicked face, red and blear-eyed from intemperance.
"My blessing?" he said in a raucous voice. "Here it is, Senor Ramiro, or whatever you call yourself now. Curse you all for bringing out a holy priest upon one of your devil's errands in weather which is only fit for a bald-headed coot to travel through. There is going to be a flood; already the water is running over the banks of the dam, and it gathers every moment as the snow melts. I tell you there is going to be such a flood as we have not seen for years."
"The more reason, Father, for getting through this little business quickly; but first you will wish for something to drink."
Father Thomas nodded, and Ramiro filling a small mug with brandy, gave it to him. He gulped it off.
"Another," he said. "Don't be afraid. A chosen vessel should also be a seasoned vessel; at any rate this one is. Ah! that's better. Now then, what's the exact job?"
Ramiro took him apart and they talked together for a while.
"Very good," said the priest at length, "I will take the risk and do it, for where heretics are concerned such things are not too closely inquired into nowadays. But first down with the money; no paper or promises, if you please."
"Ah! you churchmen," said Ramiro, with a faint smile, "in things spiritual or temporal how much have we poor laity to learn of you!" With a sigh he produced the required sum, then paused and added, "No; with your leave we will see the papers first. You have them with you?"
"Here they are," answered the priest, drawing some documents from his pocket. "But they haven't been married yet; the rule is, marry first, then certify. Until the ceremony is actually performed, anything might happen, you know."
"Quite so, Father. Anything might happen either before or after; but still, with your leave, I think that in this case we may as well certify first; you might want to be getting away, and it will save so much trouble later. Will you be so kind as to write your certificate?"
Father Thomas hesitated, while Ramiro gently clinked the gold coins in his hand and murmured,
"I should be sorry to think, Father, that you had taken such a rough journey for nothing."
"What trick are you at now?" growled the priest. "Well, after all it is a mere form. Give me the names."
Ramiro gave them; Father Thomas scrawled them down, adding some words and his own signature, then said, "There you are, that will hold good against anyone except the Pope."
"A mere form," repeated Ramiro, "of course. But the world attaches so much importance to forms, so I think that we will have this one witnessed—No, not by myself, who am an interested party—by someone independent," and calling Hague Simon and the waiting-woman he bade them set their names at the foot of the documents.
"Papers signed in advance—fees paid in advance!" he went on, handing over the money, "and now, just one more glass to drink the health of the bride and bridegroom, also in advance. You will not refuse, nor you, worthy Simon, nor you, most excellent Abigail. Ah! I thought not, the night is cold."
"And the brandy strong," muttered the priest thickly, as this third dose of raw spirit took effect upon him. "Now get on with the business, for I want to be out of this hole before the flood comes."