"Quite so. Friends, will you be so good as to summon my son and the lady? The lady first, I think—and all three of you might go to escort her. Brides sometimes consider it right to fain a slight reluctance—you understand? On second thoughts, you need not trouble the Senor Adrian. I have a new words of ante-nuptial advice to offer, so I will go to him."
A minute later father and son stood face to face. Adrian leaped up; he shook his fist, he raved and stormed at the cold, impassive man before him.
"You fool, you contemptible fool!" said Ramiro when he had done. "Heavens! to think that such a creature should have sprung from me, a human jackass only fit to bear the blows and burdens of others, to fill the field with empty brayings, and wear himself out by kicking at the air. Oh! don't twist up your face at me, for I am your master as well as your father, however much you may hate me. You are mine, body and soul, don't you understand; a bond-slave, nothing more. You lost the only chance you ever had in the game when you got me down at Leyden. You daren't draw a sword on me again for your soul's sake, dear Adrian, for your soul's sake; and if you dared, I would run you through. Now, are you coming?"
"No," answered Adrian.
"Think a minute. If you don't marry her I shall, and before she is half an hour older; also—" and he leant forward and whispered into his son's ear.
"Oh! you devil, you devil!" Adrian gasped; then he moved towards the door.
"What? Changed your mind, have you, Mr. Weathercock? Well, it is the prerogative of all feminine natures—but, your doublet is awry, and allow me to suggest that you should brush your hair. There, that's better; now, come on. No, you go first, if you please, I'd rather have you in front of me."
When they reached the room below the bride was already there. Gripped on either side by Black Meg and the other woman, white as death and trembling, but still defiant, stood Elsa.
"Let's get through with this," growled the half-drunken, ruffian priest. "I take the willingness of the parties for granted."
"I am not willing," cried Elsa. "I have been brought here by force. I call everyone present to witness that whatever is done is against my will. I appeal to God to help me."
The priest turned upon Ramiro.
"How am I to marry them in the face of this?" he asked. "If only she were silent it might be done——"
"The difficulty has occurred to me," answered Ramiro. He made a sign, whereon Simon seized Elsa's wrists, and Black Meg, slipping behind her, deftly fastened a handkerchief over her mouth in such fashion that she was gagged, but could still breathe through the nostrils.
Elsa struggled a little, then was quiet, and turned her piteous eyes on Adrian, who stepped forward and opened his lips.
"You remember the alternative," said his father in a low voice, and he stopped.
"I suppose," broke in Father Thomas, "that we may at any rate reckon upon the consent, or at least upon the silence of the Heer bridegroom."
"You may reckon on his silence, Father Thomas," replied Ramiro.
Then the ceremony began. They dragged Elsa to the table. Thrice she flung herself to the ground, and thrice they lifted her to her feet, but at length, weary of the weight of her body, suffered her to rest upon her knees, where she remained as though in prayer, gagged like some victim on the scaffold. It was a strange and brutal scene, and every detail of it burned itself into Adrian's mind. The round, rude room, with its glowing fire of turfs and its rough, oaken furniture, half in light and half in dense shadow, as the lamp-rays chanced to fall; the death-like, kneeling bride, with a white cloth across her tortured face; the red-chopped, hanging-lipped hedge priest gabbling from a book, his back almost turned that he might not see her attitude and struggles; the horrible, unsexed women; the flat-faced villain, Simon, grinning by the hearth; Ramiro, cynical, mocking, triumphant, and yet somewhat anxious, his one bright eye fixed in mingled contempt and amusement upon him, Adrian—those were its outlines. There was something else also that caught and oppressed his sense, a sound which at the time Adrian thought he heard in his head alone, a soft, heavy sound with a moan in it, not unlike that of the wind, which grew gradually to a dull roar.
It was over. A ring had been forced on to Elsa's unwilling hand, and, until the thing was undone by some competent and authorised Court, she was in name the wife of Adrian. The handkerchief was unbound, her hands were loosed, physically, Elsa was free again, but, in that day and land of outrage, tied, as the poor girl knew well, by a chain more terrible than any that hemp or steel could fashion.
"Congratulations! Senora," muttered Father Thomas, eyeing her nervously. "I fear you felt a little faint during the service, but a sacrament——"
"Cease your mockings, you false priest," cried Elsa. "Oh! let the swift vengeance of God fall upon every one of you, and first of all upon you, false priest."
Drawing the ring from her finger, as she spoke she cast it down upon the oaken table, whence it sprang up to drop again and rattle itself to silence. Then with one tragic motion of despair, Elsa turned and fled back to her chamber.
The red face of Father Thomas went white, and his yellow teeth chattered. "A virgin's curse," he muttered, crossing himself. "Misfortune always follows, and it is sometimes death—yes, by St. Thomas, death. And you, you brought me here to do this wickedness, you dog, you galley slave!"
"Father," broke in Ramiro, "you know I have warned you against it before at The Hague; sooner or later it always breaks up the nerves," and he nodded towards the flagon of spirits. "Bread and water, Father, bread and water for forty days, that is what I prescribe, and——"
As he spoke the door was burst open, and two men rushed in, their eyes starting, their very beards bristling with terror.
"Come forth!" they cried.
"What has chanced?" screamed the priest.
"The great dyke has burst—hark, hark, hark! The floods are upon you, the mill will be swept away."
God in Heaven—it was true! Now through the open doorway they heard the roar of waters, whose note Adrian had caught before, yes, and in the gloom appeared their foaming crest as they rushed through the great and ever-widening breach in the lofty dyke down upon the flooded lowland.
Father Thomas bounded through the door yelling, "The boat, the boat!" For a moment Ramiro thought, considering the situation, then he said:
"Fetch the Jufvrouw. No, not you, Adrian; she would die rather than come with you. You, Simon, and you, Meg. Swift, obey."
They departed on their errand.
"Men," went on Ramiro, "take this gentleman and lead him to the boat. Hold him if he tries to escape. I will follow with the lady. Go, you fool, go, there is not a second to be lost," and Adrian, hanging back and protesting, was dragged away by the boatmen.
Now Ramiro was alone, and though, as he had said, there was little time to spare, again for a few moments he thought deeply. His face flushed and went pale; then entered into it a great resolve. "I don't like doing it, for it is against my vow, but the chance is good. She is safely married, and at best she would be very troublesome hereafter, and might bring us to justice or to the galleys since others seek her wealth," he muttered with a shiver, adding, "as for the spies, we are well rid of them and their evidence." Then, with swift resolution, stepping to the door at the foot of the stairs, Ramiro shut it and shot the great iron bolt!
He ran from the mill; the raised path was already three feet deep in water; he could scarcely make his way along it. Ah! there lay the boat. Now he was in it, and now they were flying before the crest of a huge wave. The dam of the cutting had given altogether, and fed from sea and land at once, by snow, by rain, and by the inrush of the high tide, its waters were pouring in a measureless volume over the doomed marshes.
"Where is Elsa?" screamed Adrian.
"I don't know. I couldn't find her," answered Ramiro. "Row, row for your lives! We can take her off in the morning, and the priest too, if he won back."
At length the cold winter sun rose over the watery waste, calm enough now, for the floods were out, in places ten and fifteen feet deep. Through the mists that brooded on the face of them Ramiro and his crew groped their way back to where the Red Mill should be. It was gone!
There stood the brick walls of the bottom story rising above the flood level, but the wooden upper part had snapped before the first great wave when the bank went bodily, and afterwards been swept away by the rushing current, swept away with those within.
"What is that?" said one of the boatmen, pointing to a dark object which floated among the tangled debris of sere weeds and woodwork collected against the base of the mill.
They rowed to the thing. It was the body of Father Thomas, who must have missed his footing as he ran along the pathway, and fallen into deep water.
"Um!" said Ramiro, "'a virgin's curse.' Observe, friends, how the merest coincidences may give rise to superstition. Allow me," and, holding the dead man by one hand, he felt in his pockets with the other, till, with a smile of satisfaction, he found the purse containing the gold which he had paid him on the previous evening.
"Oh! Elsa, Elsa," moaned Adrian.
"Comfort yourself, my son," said Ramiro as the boat put about, leaving the dead Father Thomas bobbing up and down in the ripple; "you have indeed lost a wife whose temper gave you little prospect of happiness, but at least I have your marriage papers duly signed and witnessed, and—you are her heir."
He did not add that he in turn was Adrian's. But Adrian thought of it, and even in the midst of his shame and misery wondered with a shiver how long he who was Ramiro's next of kin was likely to adorn this world.
Till he had something that was worth inheriting, perhaps.
WHAT ELSA SAW IN THE MOONLIGHT
It will be remembered that some weeks before Elsa's forced marriage in the Red Mill, Foy, on their escape from the Gevangenhuis, had been carried upon the naked back of Martin to the shelter of Mother Martha's lair in the Haarlemer Meer. Here he lay sick many days, for the sword cut in his thigh festered so badly that at one time his life was threatened by gangrene, but, in the end, his own strength and healthy constitution, helped with Martha's simples, cured him. So soon as he was strong again, accompanied by Martin, he travelled into Leyden, which now it was safe enough for him to visit, since the Spaniards were driven from the town.
How his young heart swelled as, still limping a little and somewhat pale from recent illness, he approached the well-known house in the Bree Straat, the home that sheltered his mother and his love. Presently he would see them again, for the news had been brought to him that Lysbeth was out of danger and Elsa must still be nursing her.
Lysbeth he found indeed, turned into an old woman by grief and sore sickness, but Elsa he did not find. She had vanished. On the previous night she had gone out to take the air, and returned no more. What had become of her none could say. All the town talked of it, and his mother was half-crazed with anxiety and fear, fear of the worst.
Hither and thither they went inquiring, seeking, tracking, but no trace of Elsa could they discover. She had been seen to pass the Morsch poort; then she disappeared. For a while Foy was mad. At length he grew calmer and began to think. Drawing from his pocket the letter which Martha had brought to him on the night of the church-burning, he re-read it in the hope of finding a clue, since it was just possible that for private reasons Elsa might have set out on some journey of her own. It was a very sweet letter, telling him of her deep joy and gratitude at his escape; of the events that had happened in the town; of the death of his father in the Gevangenhuis, and ending thus:
"Dear Foy, my betrothed, I cannot come to you because of your mother's sickness, for I am sure that it would be your wish, as it is my desire and duty, that I should stay to nurse her. Soon, however, I hope that you will be able to come to her and me. Yet, in these dreadful times who can tell what may happen? Therefore, Foy, whatever chances, I am sure you will remember that in life or in death I am yours only—yes, to you, dead or living, you dead and I living, or you living and I dead, while or wherever I have sense or memory, I will be true; through life, through death, through whatever may lie beyond our deaths, I will be true as woman may be to man. So, dear Foy, for this present fare you well until we meet again in the days to come, or after all earthly days are done with for you and me. My love be with you, the blessing of God be with you, and when you lie down at night and when you wake at morn, think of me and put up a prayer for me as your true lover Elsa does for you. Martha waits. Most loved, most dear, most desired, fare you well."
Here was no hint of any journey, so if such had been taken it must be without Elsa's own consent.
"Martin, what do you make of it?" asked Foy, staring at him with anxious, hollow eyes.
"Ramiro—Adrian—stolen away—" answered Martin.
"Why do you say that?"
"Hague Simon was seen hanging about outside the town yesterday, and there was a strange boat upon the river. Last night the Jufvrouw went through the Morsch poort. The rest you can guess."
"Why would they take her?" asked Foy hoarsely.
"Who can tell?" said Martin shrugging his great shoulders. "Yet I see two reasons. Hendrik Brant's wealth is supposed to be hers when it can be found; therefore, being a thief, Ramiro would want her. Adrian is in love with her; therefore, being a man, of course he would want her. These seem enough, the pair being what they are."
"When I find them I will kill them both," said Foy, grinding his teeth.
"Of course, so will I, but first we have got to find them—and her, which is the same thing."
"How, Martin, how?"
"I don't know."
"Can't you think, man?"
"I am trying to, master; it's you who don't think. You talk too much. Be silent a while."
"Well," asked Foy thirty seconds later, "have you finished thinking?"
"No, master, it's no use, there is nothing to think about. We must leave this and go back to Martha. If anyone can track her out she can. Here we can learn no more."
So they returned to the Haarlemer Meer and told Martha their sad tale.
"Bide here a day or two and be patient," she said; "I will go out and search."
"Never," answered Foy, "we will come with you."
"If you choose, but it will make matters more difficult. Martin, get ready the big boat."
Two nights had gone by, and it was an hour or more past noon on the third day, the day of Elsa's forced marriage. The snow had ceased falling and the rain had come instead, rain, pitiless, bitter and continual. Hidden in a nook at the north end of the Haarlemer Meer and almost buried beneath bundles of reeds, partly as a protection from the weather and partly to escape the eyes of Spaniards, of whom companies were gathering from every direction to besiege Haarlem, lay the big boat. In it were Red Martin and Foy van Goorl. Mother Martha was not there for she had gone alone to an inn at a distance, to gather information if she could. To hundreds of the boers in these parts she was a known and trusted friend, although many of them might not choose to recognise her openly, and from among them, unless, indeed, she had been taken right away to Flanders, or even to Spain, she hoped to gather tidings of Elsa's whereabouts.
For two weary nights and days the Mare had been employed thus, but as yet without a shadow of success. Foy and Martin sat in the boat staring at each other gloomily; indeed Foy's face was piteous to see.
"What are you thinking of, master?" asked Martin presently.
"I am thinking," he answered, "that even if we find her now it will be too late; whatever was to be done, murder or marriage, will be done."
"Time to trouble about that when we have found her," said Martin, for he knew not what else to say, and added, "listen, I hear footsteps."
Foy drew apart two of the bundles of reeds and looked out into the driving rain.
"All right," he said, "it is Martha and a man."
Martin let his hand fall from the hilt of the sword Silence, for in those days hand and sword must be near together. Another minute and Martha and her companion were in the boat.
"Who is this man?" asked Foy.
"He is a friend of mine named Marsh Jan."
"Have you news?"
"Yes, at least Marsh Jan has."
"Speak, and be swift," said Foy, turning on the man fiercely.
"Am I safe from vengeance?" asked Marsh Jan, who was a good fellow enough although he had drifted into evil company, looking doubtfully at Foy and Martin.
"Have I not said so," answered Martha, "and does the Mare break her word?"
Then Marsh Jan told his tale: How he was one of the party that two nights before had rowed Elsa, or at least a young woman who answered to her description, to the Red Mill, not far from Velzen, and how she was in the immediate charge of a man and a woman who could be no other than Hague Simon and Black Meg. Also he told of her piteous appeal to the boatmen in the names of their wives and daughters, and at the telling of it Foy wept with fear and rage, and even Martha gnashed her teeth. Only Martin cast off the boat and began to punt her out into deep water.
"Is that all?" asked Foy.
"That is all, Mynheer, I know nothing more, but I can explain to you where the place is."
"You can show us, you mean," said Foy.
The man expostulated. The weather was bad, there would be a flood, his wife was ill and expected him, and so forth. Then he tried to get out of the boat, whereon, catching hold of him suddenly, Martin threw him into the stern-sheets, saying:
"You could travel to this mill once taking with you a girl whom you knew to be kidnapped, now you can travel there again to get her out. Sit still and steer straight, or I will make you food for fishes."
Then Marsh Jan professed himself quite willing to sail to the Red Mill, which he said they ought to reach by nightfall.
All that afternoon they sailed and rowed, till, with the darkness, before ever the mill was in sight, the great flood came down upon them and drove them hither and thither, such a flood as had not been seen in those districts for a dozen years. But Marsh Jan knew his bearings well; he had the instinct of locality that is bred in those whose forefathers for generations have won a living from the fens, and through it all he held upon a straight course.
Once Foy thought that he heard a voice calling for help in the darkness, but it was not repeated and they went forward. At last the sky cleared and the moon shone out upon such a waste of waters as Noah might have beheld from the ark. Only there were things floating in them that Noah would scarcely have seen; hayricks, dead and drowning cattle, household furniture, and once even a coffin washed from some graveyard, while beyond stretched the dreary outline of the sand dunes.
"The mill should be near," said Marsh Jan, "let us put about." So they turned, rowing with weary arms, for the wind had fallen.
Let us go back a little. Elsa, on escaping from the scene of her mock marriage, fled to her room and bolted its door. A few seconds later she heard hands hammering at it, and the voices of Hague Simon and Black Meg calling to her to open. She took no note, the hammering ceased, and then it was that for the first time she became aware of a dreadful, roaring noise, a noise of many waters. Time passed as it passes in a nightmare, till suddenly, above the dull roar, came sharp sounds as of wood cracking and splitting, and Elsa felt that the whole fabric of the mill had tilted. Beneath the pressure of the flood it had given where it was weakest, at its narrow waist, and now its red cap hung over like a wind-laid tree.
Terror took hold of Elsa, and running to the door she opened it hoping to escape down the stairs. Behold! water was creeping up them, she could see it by the lantern in her hand—her retreat was cut off. But there were other stairs leading to the top storey of the mill that now lay at a steep angle, and along these she climbed, since the water was pouring through her doorway and there was nowhere else to go. In the very roof of the place was a manhole with a rotten hatch. She passed through this, to find herself upon the top of the mill just where one of the great naked arms of the sails projected from it. Her lantern was blown out by now, but she clung to the arm, and became aware that the wooden cap of the structure, still anchored to its brick foundation, lay upon its side rocking to and fro like a boat upon an angry sea. The water was near her; that she knew by its seethe and rush, although she could not see it, but as yet it did not even wet her feet.
The hours went by, how many, she never learned, till at length the clouds cleared; the moon became visible, and by its light she saw an awful scene. Everywhere around was water; it lapped within a yard, and it was rising still. Now Elsa saw that in the great beam she clasped were placed short spokes for the use of those who set the sails above. Up these she climbed as best she might, till she was able to pass her body between two of the vanes and support her breast upon the flat surface of one of them, as a person does who leans out of a window. From her window there was something to see. Quite near to her, but separated by fifteen or twenty feet of yellow frothing water, a little portion of the swelling shape of the mill stood clear of the flood. To this foam-lapped island clung two human beings—Hague Simon and Black Meg. They saw her also and screamed for help, but she had none to give. Surely it was a dream—nothing so awful could happen outside a dream.
The fabric of the mill tilted more and more; the space to which the two vile creatures hung grew less and less. There was no longer room for both of them. They began to quarrel, to curse and jibber at each other, their fierce, bestial faces not an inch apart as they crouched there on hands and knees. The water rose a little, they were kneeling in it now, and the man, putting down his bald head, butted at the woman, almost thrusting her from her perch. But she was strong and active, she struggled back again; she did more, with an eel-like wriggle she climbed upon his back, weighing him down. He strove to shake her off but could not, for on that heaving, rolling surface he dared not loose his hand-grip, so he turned his flat and florid face, and, seizing her leg between his teeth, bit and worried at it. In her pain and rage Meg screeched aloud—that was the cry which Foy had heard. Then suddenly she drew a knife from her bosom—Elsa saw it flash in the moonlight—and stabbed downwards once, twice, thrice.
Elsa shut her eyes. When she opened them again the woman was alone upon the little patch of red boarding, her body splayed out over it like that of a dead frog. So she lay a while till suddenly the cap of the Red Mill dipped slowly like a lady who makes a Court curtsey, and she vanished. It rose again and Meg was still there, moaning in her terror and water running from her dress. Then again it dipped, this time more deeply, and when the patch of rusty boarding slowly reappeared, it was empty. No, not quite, for clinging to it, yowling and spitting, was the half-wild black cat which Elsa had seen wandering about the mill. But of Black Meg there was no trace.
It was dreadfully cold up there hanging to the sail-bar, for now that the rain had finished, it began to freeze. Indeed, had it not chanced that Elsa was dressed in her warm winter gown with fur upon it, and dry from her head to her feet, it is probable that she would have fallen off and perished in the water. As it was gradually her body became numb and her senses faded. She seemed to know that all this matter of her forced marriage, of the flood, and of the end of Simon and Meg, was nothing but a dream, a very evil nightmare from which she would awake presently to find herself snug and warm in her own bed in the Bree Straat. Of course it must be a nightmare, for look, there, on the bare patch of boarding beneath, the hideous struggle repeated itself. There lay Hague Simon gnawing at his wife's foot, only his fat, white face was gone, and in place of it he wore the head of a cat, for she, the watcher, could see its glowing eyes fixed upon her. And Meg—look how her lean limbs gripped him round the body. Listen to the thudding noise as the great knife fell between his shoulders. And now, see—she was growing tall, she had become a giantess, her face shot across the gulf of water and swam upwards through the shadows till it was within a foot of her. Oh! she must fall, but first she would scream for help—surely the dead themselves could hear that cry. Better not have uttered it, it might bring Ramiro back; better go to join the dead. What did the voice say, Meg's voice, but how changed? That she was not to be afraid? That the thudding was the sound of oars not of knife thrusts? This would be Ramiro's boat coming to seize her. Of him and Adrian she could bear no more; she would throw herself into the water and trust to God. One, two, three—then utter darkness.
Elsa became aware that light was shining about her, also that somebody was kissing her upon the face and lips. A horrible doubt struck her that it might be Adrian, and she opened her eyes ever so little to look. No, no, how very strange, it was not Adrian, it was Foy! Well, doubtless this must be all part of her vision, and as in dream or out of it Foy had a perfect right to kiss her if he chose, she saw no reason to interfere. Now she seemed to hear a familiar voice, that of Red Martin, asking someone how long it would take them to make Haarlem with this wind, to which another voice answered, "About three-quarters of an hour."
It was very odd, and why did he say Haarlem and not Leyden? Next the second voice, which also seemed familiar, said:
"Look out, Foy, she's coming to herself." Then someone poured wine down her throat, whereupon, unable to bear this bewilderment any longer, Elsa sat up and opened her eyes wide, to see before her Foy, and none other than Foy in the flesh.
She gasped, and began to sink back again with joy and weakness, whereon he cast his arms about her and drew her to his breast. Then she remembered everything.
"Oh! Foy, Foy," she cried, "you must not kiss me."
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because—because I am married."
Of a sudden his happy face became ghastly. "Married!" he stammered. "Who to?"
"To—your brother, Adrian."
He stared at her in amazement, then asked slowly:
"Did you run away from Leyden to marry him?"
"How dare you ask such a question?" replied Elsa with a flash of spirit.
"Perhaps, then, you would explain?"
"What is there to explain? I thought that you knew. They dragged me away, and last night, just before the flood burst, I was gagged and married by force."
"Oh! Adrian, my friend," groaned Foy, "wait till I catch you, my friend Adrian."
"To be just," explained Elsa, "I don't think Adrian wanted to marry me much, but he had to choose between marrying me himself or seeing his father Ramiro marry me."
"So he sacrificed himself—the good, kind-hearted man," interrupted Foy, grinding his teeth.
"Yes," said Elsa.
"And where is your self-denying—oh! I can't say the word."
"I don't know. I suppose that he and Ramiro escaped in the boat, or perhaps he was drowned."
"In which case you are a widow sooner than you could have expected," said Foy more cheerfully, edging himself towards her.
But Elsa moved a little away and Foy saw with a sinking of the heart that, however distasteful it might be to her, clearly she attached some weight to this marriage.
"I do not know," she answered, "how can I tell? I suppose that we shall hear sometime, and then, if he is still alive, I must set to work to get free of him. But, till then, Foy," she added, warningly, "I suppose that I am his wife in law, although I will never speak to him again. Where are we going?"
"To Haarlem. The Spaniards are closing in upon the city, and we dare not try to break through their lines. Those are Spanish boats behind us. But eat and drink a little, Elsa, then tell us your story."
"One question first, Foy. How did you find me?"
"We heard a woman scream twice, once far away and once near at hand, and rowing to the sound, saw someone hanging to the arm of an overturned windmill only three or four feet above the water. Of course we knew that you had been taken to the mill; that man there told us. Do you remember him? But at first we could not find it in the darkness and the flood."
Then, after she had swallowed something, Elsa told her story, while the three of them clustered round her forward of the sail, and Marsh Jan managed the helm. When she had finished it, Martin whispered to Foy, and as though by a common impulse all four of them kneeled down upon the boards in the bottom of the boat, and returned thanks to the Almighty that this maiden, quite unharmed, had been delivered out of such manifold and terrible dangers, and this by the hands of her own friends and of the man to whom she was affianced. When they had finished their service of thanksgiving, which was as simple as it was solemn and heartfelt, they rose, and now Elsa did not forbid that Foy should hold her hand.
"Say, sweetheart," he asked, "is it true that you think anything of this forced marriage?"
"Hear me before you answer," broke in Martha. "It is no marriage at all, for none can be wed without the consent of their own will, and you gave no such consent."
"It is no marriage," echoed Martin, "and if it be, and I live, then the sword shall cut its knot."
"It is no marriage," said Foy, "for although we have not stood together before the altar, yet our hearts are wed, so how can you be made the wife of another man?"
"Dearest," replied Elsa, when they had all spoken, "I too am sure that it is no marriage, yet a priest spoke the marriage words over me, and a ring was thrust upon my hand, so, to the law, if there be any law left in the Netherlands, I am perhaps in some sort a wife. Therefore, before I can become wife to you these facts must be made public, and I must appeal to the law to free me, lest in days to come others should be troubled."
"And if the law cannot, or will not, Elsa, what then?"
"Then, dear, our consciences being clean, we will be a law to ourselves. But first we must wait a while. Are you satisfied now, Foy?"
"No," answered Foy sulkily, "for it is monstrous that such devil's work should keep us apart even for an hour. Yet in this, as in all, I will obey you, dear."
"Marrying and giving in marriage!" broke in Martha in a shrill voice. "Talk no more of such things, for there is other work before us. Look yonder, girl, what do you see?" and she pointed to the dry land. "The hosts of the Amalekites marching in their thousands to slaughter us and our brethren, the children of the Lord. Look behind you, what do you see? The ships of the tyrant sailing up to encompass the city of the children of the Lord. It is the day of death and desolation, the day of Armageddon, and ere the sun sets red upon it many a thousand must pass through the gates of doom, we, mayhap, among them. Then up with the flag of freedom; out with the steel of truth, gird on the buckler of righteousness, and snatch the shield of hope. Fight, fight for the liberty of the land that bore you, for the memory of Christ, the King who died for you, for the faith to which you are born; fight, fight, and when the fray is done, then, and not before, think of peace and love.
"Nay, children, look not so fearful, for I, the mad mere-wife, tell you, by the Grace of God, that you have naught to fear. Who preserved you in the torture den, Foy van Goorl? What hand was it that held your life and honour safe when you sojourned among devils in the Red Mill yonder and kept your head above the waters of the flood, Elsa Brant? You know well, and I, Martha, tell you that this same hand shall hold you safe until the end. Yes, I know it, I know it; thousands shall fall upon your right hand and tens of thousands upon your left, but you shall live through the hunger; the arrows of pestilence shall pass you by, the sword of the wicked shall not harm you. For me it is otherwise, at length my doom draws near and I am well content; but for you twain, Foy and Elsa, I foretell many years of earthly joy."
Thus spoke Martha, and it seemed to those who watched her that her wild, disfigured face shone with a light of inspiration, nor did they who knew her story, and still believed that the spirit of prophecy could open the eyes of chosen seers, deem it strange that vision of the things to be should visit her. At the least they took comfort from her words, and for a while were no more afraid.
Yet they had much to fear. By a fateful accident they had been delivered from great dangers only to fall into dangers greater still, for as it chanced, on this tenth of December, 1572, they sailed straight into the grasp of the thousands of the Spanish armies which had been drawn like a net round the doomed city of Haarlem. There was no escape for them; nothing that had not wings could pass those lines of ships and soldiers. Their only refuge was the city, and in that city they must bide till the struggle, one of the most fearful of all that hideous war, was ended. But at least they had this comfort, they would face the foe together, and with them were two who loved them, Martha, the "Spanish Scourge," and Red Martin, the free Frisian, the mighty man of war whom God had appointed to them as a shield of defence.
So they smiled on each other, these two lovers of long ago, and sailed bravely on to the closing gates of Haarlem.
Seven months had gone by, seven of the most dreadful months ever lived through by human beings. For all this space of time, through the frosts and snows and fogs of winter, through the icy winds of spring, and now deep into the heart of summer, the city of Haarlem had been closely beleaguered by an army of thirty thousand Spaniards, most of them veteran troops under the command of Don Frederic, the son of Alva, and other generals. Against this disciplined host were opposed the little garrison of four thousand Hollanders and Germans aided by a few Scotch and English soldiers, together with a population of about twenty thousand old men, women and children. From day to day, from week to week, from month to month, the struggle was waged between these unequal forces, marked on either side by the most heroic efforts and by cruelties that would strike our age as monstrous. For in those times the captive prisoner of war could expect no mercy; indeed, he was fortunate if he was not hung from a gibbet by the leg to die slowly within eyeshot of his friends.
There were battles without number, men perished in hecatombs; among the besieging armies alone over twelve thousand lost their lives, so that the neighbourhood of Haarlem became one vast graveyard, and the fish in the lake were poisoned by the dead. Assault, sortie, ambuscade, artifice of war; combats to the death upon the ice between skate-shod soldiers; desperate sea fights, attempts to storm; the explosion of mines and counter-mines that brought death to hundreds—all these became the familiar incidents of daily life.
Then there were other horrors; cold from insufficient fuel, pestilences of various sorts such as always attend a siege, and, worse of all for the beleaguered, hunger. Week by week as the summer aged, the food grew less and less, till at length there was nothing. The weeds that grew in the street, the refuse of tanneries, the last ounce of offal, the mice and the cats, all had been devoured. On the lofty steeple of St. Bavon for days and days had floated a black flag to tell the Prince of Orange in Leyden that below it was despair as black. The last attempt at succour had been made. Batenburg had been defeated and slain, together with the Seigneurs of Clotingen and Carloo, and five or six hundred men. Now there was no more hope.
Desperate expedients were suggested: That the women, children, aged and sick should be left in the city, while the able-bodied men cut a way through the battalions of their besiegers. On these non-combatants it was hoped that the Spaniard would have mercy—as though the Spaniard could have mercy, he who afterwards dragged the wounded and the ailing to the door of the hospital and there slaughtered them in cold blood; aye, and here and elsewhere, did other things too dreadful to write down. Says the old chronicler, "But this being understood by the women, they assembled all together, making the most pitiful cries and lamentations that could be heard, the which would have moved a heart of flint, so as it was not possible to abandon them."
Next another plan was formed: that all the females and helpless should be set in the centre of a square of the fighting men, to march out and give battle to the foe till everyone was slain. Then the Spaniards hearing this and growing afraid of what these desperate men might do, fell back on guile. If they would surrender, the citizens of Haarlem were told, and pay two hundred and forty thousand florins, no punishment should be inflicted. So, having neither food nor hope, they listened to the voice of the tempter and surrendered, they who had fought until their garrison of four thousand was reduced to eighteen hundred men.
It was noon and past on the fatal twelfth of July. The gates were open, the Spaniards, those who were left alive of them, Don Frederic at their head, with drums beating, banners flying, and swords sharpened for murder, were marching into the city of Haarlem. In a deep niche between two great brick piers of the cathedral were gathered four people whom we know. War and famine had left them all alive, yet they had borne their share of both. In every enterprise, however desperate, Foy and Martin had marched, or stood, or watched side by side, and well did the Spaniards know the weight of the great sword Silence and the red-headed giant who wielded it. Mother Martha, too, had not been idle. Throughout the siege she had served as the lieutenant of the widow Hasselaer, who with a band of three hundred women fought day and night alongside of their husbands and brothers. Even Elsa, who although she was too delicate and by nature timid and unfitted to go out to battle, had done her part, for she laboured at the digging of mines and the building of walls till her soft hands were rough and scarred.
How changed they were. Foy, whose face had been so youthful, looked now like a man on the wrong side of middle age. The huge Martin might have been a great skeleton on which hung clothes, or rather rags and a rent bull's hide, with his blue eyes shining in deep pits beneath the massive, projecting skull. Elsa too had become quite small, like a child. Her sweet face was no longer pretty, only pitiful, and all the roundness of her figure had vanished—she might have been an emaciated boy. Of the four of them Martha the Mare, who was dressed like a man, showed the least change. Indeed, except that now her hair was snowy, that her features were rather more horse-like, that the yellow, lipless teeth projected even further, and the thin nervous hands had become almost like those of an Egyptian mummy, she was much as she always had been.
Martin leaned upon the great sword and groaned. "Curses on them, the cowards," he muttered; "why did they not let us go out and die fighting? Fools, mad fools, who would trust to the mercy of the Spaniard."
"Oh! Foy," said Elsa, throwing her thin arms about his neck, "you will not let them take me, will you? If it comes to the worst, you will kill me, won't you? Otherwise I must kill myself, and Foy, I am a coward, I am afraid—to do that."
"I suppose so," he answered in a harsh, unnatural voice, "but oh! God, if Thou art, have pity upon her. Oh! God have pity."
"Blaspheme not, doubt not!" broke in the shrill voice of Martha. "Has it not been as I told you last winter in the boat? Have you not been protected, and shall you not be protected to the end? Only blaspheme not, doubt not!"
The niche in which they were standing was out of sight of the great square and those who thronged it, but as Martha spoke a band of victorious Spaniards, seven or eight of them, came round the corner and caught sight of the party in the nook.
"There's a girl," said the sergeant in command of them, "who isn't bad looking. Pull her out, men."
Some fellows stepped forward to do his bidding. Now Foy went mad. He did not kill Elsa as she had prayed him, he flew straight at the throat of the brute who had spoken, and next instant his sword was standing out a foot behind his neck. Then after him, with a kind of low cry, came Martin, plying the great blade Silence, and Martha after him with her long knife. It was all over in a minute, but before it was done there were five men down, three dead and two sore wounded.
"A tithe and an offering!" muttered Martha as, bounding forward, she bent over the wounded men, and their comrades fled round the corner of the cathedral.
There was a minute's pause. The bright summer sunlight shone upon the faces and armour of the dead Spaniards, upon the naked sword of Foy, who stood over Elsa crouched to the ground in a corner of the niche, her face hidden in her hands, upon the terrible blue eyes of Martin alight with a dreadful fire of rage. Then there came the sound of marching men, and a company of Spaniards appeared before them, and at their head—Ramiro and Adrian called van Goorl.
"There they are, captain," said a soldier, one of those who had fled; "shall we shoot them?"
Ramiro looked, carelessly enough at first, then again a long, scrutinising look. So he had caught them at last! Months ago he had learned that Elsa had been rescued from the Red Mill by Foy and Martin, and now, after much seeking, the birds were in his net.
"No," he said, "I think not. Such desperate characters must be reserved for separate trial."
"Where can they be kept, captain?" asked the sergeant sulkily.
"I observed, friend, that the house which my son and I have taken as our quarters has excellent cellars; they can be imprisoned there for the present—that is, except the young lady, whom the Senor Adrian will look after. As it chances, she is his wife."
At this the soldiers laughed openly.
"I repeat—his wife, for whom he has been searching these many months," said Ramiro, "and, therefore, to be respected. Do you understand, men?"
Apparently they did understand, at least no one made any answer. Their captain, as they had found, was not a man who loved argument.
"Now, then, you fellows," went on Ramiro, "give up your arms."
Martin thought a while. Evidently he was wondering whether it would not be best to rush at them and die fighting. At that moment, as he said afterwards indeed, the old saying came into his mind, "A game is not lost until it is won," and remembering that dead men can never have another chance of winning games, he gave up the sword.
"Hand that to me," said Ramiro. "It is a curious weapon to which I have taken a fancy."
So sword Silence was handed to him, and he slung it over his shoulder. Foy looked at the kneeling Elsa, and he looked at his sword. Then an idea struck him, and he looked at the face of Adrian, his brother, whom he had last seen when the said Adrian ran to warn him and Martin at the factory, for though he knew that he was fighting with his father among the Spaniards, during the siege they had never met. Even then, in that dire extremity, with a sudden flash of thought he wondered how it happened that Adrian, being the villain that he was, had taken the trouble to come and warn them yonder in Leyden, thereby giving them time to make a very good defence in the shot tower.
Foy looked up at his brother. Adrian was dressed in the uniform of a Spanish officer, with a breast-plate over his quilted doublet, and a steel cap, from the front of which rose a frayed and weather-worn plume of feathers. The face had changed; there was none of the old pomposity about those handsome features; it looked worn and cowed, like that of an animal which has been trained to do tricks by hunger and the use of the whip. Yet, through all the shame and degradation, Foy seemed to catch the glint of some kind of light, a light of good desire shining behind that piteous mask, as the sun sometimes shines through a sullen cloud. Could it be that Adrian was not quite so bad after all? That he was, in fact, the Adrian that he, Foy, had always believed him to be, vain, silly, passionate, exaggerated, born to be a tool and think himself the master, but beneath everything, well-meaning? Who could say? At the worst, too, was it not better that Elsa should become the wife of Adrian than that her life should cease there and then, and by her lover's hand?
These things passed through his brain as the lightning passes through the sky. In an instant his mind was made up and Foy flung down his sword at the feet of a soldier. As he did so his eyes met the eyes of Adrian, and to his imagination they seemed to be full of thanks and promise.
They took them all; with gibes and blows the soldiers haled them away through the tumult and the agony of the fallen town and its doomed defenders. Out of the rich sunlight they led them into a house that still stood not greatly harmed by the cannon-shot, but a little way from the shattered Ravelin and the gate which had been the scene of such fearful conflict—a house that was the home of one of the wealthiest merchants in Haarlem. Here Foy and Elsa were parted. She struggled to his arms, whence they tore her and dragged her away up the stairs, but Martin, Martha and Foy were thrust into a dark cellar, locked in and left.
A while later the door of the cellar was unbarred and some hand, they could not see whose, passed through it water and food, good food such as they had not tasted for months; meat and bread and dried herrings, more than they could eat of them.
"Perhaps it is poisoned," said Foy, smelling at it hungrily.
"What need to take the trouble to poison us?" answered Martin. "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die."
So like starving animals they devoured the food with thankfulness and then they slept, yes, in the midst of all their misery and doubts they slept.
It seemed but a few minutes later—in fact it was eight hours—when the door opened again and there entered Adrian carrying a lantern in his hand.
"Foy, Martin," he said, "get up and follow me if you would save your lives."
Instantly they were wide awake.
"Follow you—you?" stammered Foy in a choked voice.
"Yes," Adrian answered quietly. "Of course you may not escape, but if you stop here what chance have you? Ramiro, my father, will be back presently and then——"
"It is madness to trust ourselves to you," interrupted Martin, and Adrian seemed to wince at the contempt in his voice.
"I knew that you would think that," he answered humbly, "but what else is to be done? I can pass you out of the city, I have made a boat ready for you to escape in, all at the risk of my own life; what more can I do? Why do you hesitate?"
"Because we do not believe you," said Foy; "besides, there is Elsa. I will not go without Elsa."
"I have thought of that," answered Adrian. "Elsa is here. Come, Elsa, show yourself."
Then from the stairs Elsa crept into the cellar, a new Elsa, for she, too, had been fed, and in her eyes there shone a light of hope. A wild jealousy filled Foy's heart. Why did she look thus? But she, she ran to him, she flung her arms about his neck and kissed him, and Adrian did nothing, he only turned his head aside.
"Foy," she gasped, "he is honest after all; he has only been unfortunate. Come quickly, there is a chance for us; come before that devil returns. Now he is at a council of the officers settling with Don Frederic who are to be killed, but soon he will be back, and then——"
So they hesitated no more, but went.
They passed out of the house, none stopping them—the guard had gone to the sack. At the gate by the ruined Ravelin there stood a sentry, but the man was careless, or drunken, or bribed, who knows? At least, Adrian gave him a pass-word, and, nodding his head, he let them by. A few minutes later they were at the Mere side, and there among some reeds lay the boat.
"Enter and be gone," said Adrian.
They scrambled into the boat and took the oars, while Martha began to push off.
"Adrian," said Elsa, "what is to become of you?"
"Why do you trouble about that?" he asked with a bitter laugh. "I go back to my death, my blood is the price of your freedom. Well, I owe it to you."
"Oh! no," she cried, "come with us."
"Yes," echoed Foy, although again that bitter pang of jealousy gripped his heart, "come with us—brother."
"Do you really mean it?" Adrian asked, hesitating. "Think, I might betray you."
"If so, young man, why did you not do it before?" growled Martin, and stretching out his great, bony arm he gripped him by the collar and dragged him into the boat.
Then they rowed away.
"Where are we going?" asked Martin.
"To Leyden, I suppose," said Foy, "if we can get there, which, without a sail or weapons, seems unlikely."
"I have put some arms in the boat," interrupted Adrian, "the best I could get," and from a locker he drew out a common heavy axe, a couple of Spanish swords, a knife, a smaller axe, a cross-bow and some bolts.
"Not so bad," said Martin, rowing with his left hand as he handled the big axe with his right, "but I wish that I had my sword Silence, which that accursed Ramiro took from me and hung about his neck. I wonder why he troubled himself with the thing? It is too long for a man of his inches."
"I don't know," said Adrian, "but when last I saw him he was working at its hilt with a chisel, which seemed strange. He always wanted that sword. During the siege he offered a large reward to any soldier who could kill you and bring it to him."
"Working at the hilt with a chisel?" gasped Martin. "By Heaven, I had forgotten! The map, the map! Some wicked villain must have told him that the map of the treasure was there—that is why he wanted the sword."
"Who could have told him?" asked Foy. "It was only known to you and me and Martha, and we are not of the sort to tell. What? Give away the secret of Hendrik Brant's treasure which he could die for and we were sworn to keep, to save our miserable lives? Shame upon the thought!"
Martha heard, and looked at Elsa, a questioning look beneath which the poor girl turned a fiery red, though by good fortune in that light none could see her blushes. Still, she must speak lest the suspicion should lie on others.
"I ought to have told you before," she said in a low voice, "but I forgot—I mean that I have always been so dreadfully ashamed. It was I who betrayed the secret of the sword Silence."
"You? How did you know it?" asked Foy.
"Mother Martha told me on the night of the church burning after you escaped from Leyden."
Martin grunted. "One woman to trust another, and at her age too; what a fool!"
"Fool yourself, you thick-brained Frisian," broke in Martha angrily, "where did you learn to teach your betters wisdom? I told the Jufvrouw because I knew that we might all of us be swept away, and I thought it well that then she should know where to look for a key to the treasure."
"A woman's kind of reason," answered Martin imperturbably, "and a bad one at that, for if we had been finished off she must have found it difficult to get hold of the sword. But all this is done with. The point is, why did the Jufvrouw tell Ramiro?"
"Because I am a coward," answered Elsa with a sob. "You know, Foy, I always was a coward, and I never shall be anything else. I told him to save myself."
"From being married."
Adrian winced palpably, and Foy, noting it, could not resist pushing the point.
"From being married? But I understand—doubtless Adrian will explain the thing," he added grimly—"that you were forced through some ceremony."
"Yes," answered Elsa feebly, "I—I—was. I tried to buy myself off by telling Ramiro the secret, which will show you all how mad I was with terror at the thought of this hateful marriage"—here a groan burst from the lips of Adrian, and something like a chuckle from those of Red Martin. "Oh! I am so sorry," went on Elsa in confusion; "I am sure that I did not wish to hurt Adrian's feelings, especially after he has been so good to us."
"Never mind Adrian's feelings and his goodness, but go on with the story," interrupted Foy.
"There isn't much more to tell. Ramiro swore before God that if I gave him the clue he would let me go, and then—then, well, then, after I had fallen into the pit and disgraced myself, he said that it was not sufficient, and that the marriage must take place."
At this point Foy and Martin laughed outright. Yes, even there they laughed.
"Why, you silly child," said Foy, "what else did you expect him to say?"
"Oh! Martin, do you forgive me?" said Elsa. "Immediately after I had done it I knew how shameful it was, and that he would try to hunt you down, and that is why I have been afraid to tell you ever since. But I pray you believe me; I only spoke because, between shame and fear, I did not know right from wrong. Do you forgive me?"
"Lady," answered the Frisian, smiling in his slow fashion, "if I had been there unknown to Ramiro, and you had offered him this head of mine on a dish as a bribe, not only would I have forgiven you but I would have said that you did right. You are a maid, and you had to protect yourself from a very dreadful thing; therefore who can blame you?"
"I can," said Martha. "Ramiro might have torn me to pieces with red-hot pincers before I told him."
"Yes," said Martin, who felt that he had a debt to pay, "Ramiro might, but I doubt whether he would have gone to that trouble to persuade you to take a husband. No, don't be angry. 'Frisian thick of head, Frisian free of speech,' goes the saying."
Not being able to think of any appropriate rejoinder, Martha turned again upon Elsa.
"Your father died for that treasure," she said, "and Dirk van Goorl died for it, and your lover and his serving-man there went to the torture-den for it, and I—well, I have done a thing or two. But you, girl, why, at the first pinch, you betray the secret. But, as Martin says, I was fool enough to tell you."
"Oh! you are hard," said Elsa, beginning to weep under Martha's bitter reproaches; "but you forget that at least none of you were asked to marry—oh! I mustn't say that. I mean to become the wife of one man;" then her eyes fell upon Foy and an inspiration seized her; here, at least, was one of whom she could make a friend—"when you happen to be very much in love with another."
"Of course not," said Foy, "there is no need for you to explain."
"I think there is a great deal to explain," went on Martha, "for you cannot fool me with pretty words. But now, hark you, Foy van Goorl, what is to be done? We have striven hard to save that treasure, all of us; is it to be lost at the last?"
"Aye," echoed Martin, growing very serious, "is it to be lost at the last? Remember what the worshipful Hendrik Brant said to us yonder on that night at The Hague—that he believed that in a day to come thousands and tens of thousands of our people would bless the gold he entrusted to us."
"I remember it all," answered Foy, "and other things too; his will, for instance," and he thought of his father and of those hours which Martin and he had spent in the Gevangenhuis. Then he looked up at Martha and said briefly: "Mother, though they call you mad, you are the wisest among us; what is your counsel?"
She pondered awhile and answered: "This is certain, that so soon as Ramiro finds that we have escaped, having the key to it, he will take boat and sail to the place where the barrels are buried, knowing well that otherwise we shall be off with them. Yes, I tell you that by dawn, or within an hour of it, he will be there," and she stopped.
"You mean," said Foy, "that we ought to be there before him."
Martha nodded and answered, "If we can, but I think that at best there must be a fight for it."
"Yes," said Martin, "a fight. Well, I should like another fight with Ramiro. That fork-tongued adder has got my sword, and I want to get it back again."
"Oh!" broke in Elsa, "is there to be more fighting? I hoped that at last we were safe, and going straight to Leyden, where the Prince is. I hate this bloodshed; I tell you, Foy, it frightens me to death; I believe that I shall die of it."
"You hear what she says?" asked Foy.
"We hear," answered Martha. "Take no heed of her, the child has suffered much, she is weak and squeamish. Now I, although I believe that my death lies before me, I say, go on and fear not."
"But I do take heed," said Foy. "Not for all the treasures in the world shall Elsa be put in danger again if she does not wish it; she shall decide, and she alone."
"How good you are to me," she murmured, then she mused a moment. "Foy," she said, "will you promise something to me?"
"After your experience of Ramiro's oaths I wonder that you ask," he answered, trying to be cheerful.
"Will you promise," she went on, taking no note, "that if I say yes and we go, not to Leyden, but to seek the treasure, and live through it, that you will take me away from this land of bloodshed and murder and torments, to some country where folk may live at peace, and see no one killed, except it be now and again an evil-doer? It is much to ask, but oh! Foy, will you promise?"
"Yes, I promise," said Foy, for he, too, was weary of this daily terror. Who would not have been that had passed through the siege of Haarlem?
Foy was steering, but now Martha slipped aft and took the tiller from his hand. For a moment she studied the stars that grew clearer in the light of the sinking moon, then shifted the helm a point or two to port and sat still.
"I am hungry again," said Martin presently; "I feel as though I could eat for a week without stopping."
Adrian looked up from over his oar, at which he was labouring dejectedly, and said:
"There are food and wine in the locker. I hid them there. Perhaps Elsa could serve them to those who wish to eat."
So Elsa, who was doing nothing, found the drink and victuals, and handed them round to the rowers, who ate and drank as best they might with a thankful heart, but without ceasing from their task. To men who have starved for months the taste of wholesome provender and sound wine is a delight that cannot be written in words.
When at length they had filled themselves, Adrian spoke.
"If it is your good will, brother," he said, addressing Foy, "as we do not know what lies in front, nor how long any of us have to live, I, who am an outcast and a scorn among you, wish to tell you a story."
"Speak on," said Foy.
So Adrian began from the beginning, and told them all his tale. He told them how at the first he had been led astray by superstitions, vanity, and love; how his foolish confidences had been written down by spies; how he had been startled and terrified into signing them with results of which they knew. Then he told them how he was hunted like a mad dog through the streets of Leyden after his mother had turned him from her door; how he took refuge in the den of Hague Simon, and there had fought with Ramiro and been conquered by the man's address and his own horror of shedding a father's blood. He told them of his admission into the Roman faith, of the dreadful scene in the church when Martha had denounced him, of their flight to the Red Mill. He told them of the kidnapping of Elsa, and how he had been quite innocent of it although he loved her dearly; of how at last he was driven into marrying her, meaning her no harm, to save her from the grip of Ramiro, and knowing at heart that it was no marriage; of how, when the flood burst upon them, he had been hustled from the mill where, since she could no longer be of service to him and might work him injury, as he discovered afterwards, Ramiro had left Elsa to her fate. Lastly, in a broken voice, he told them of his life during the long siege which, so he said, was as the life of a damned spirit, and of how, when death thinned the ranks of the Spaniards, he had been made an officer among them, and by the special malice of Ramiro forced to conduct the executions and murders of such Hollanders as they took.
Then at last his chance had come. Ramiro, thinking that now he could never turn against him, had given him Elsa, and left him with her while he went about his duties and to secure a share of the plunder, meaning to deal with his prisoners on the morrow. So he, Adrian, a man in authority, had provided the boat and freed them. That was all he had to say, except to renounce any claim upon her who was called his wife, and to beg their forgiveness.
Foy listened to the end. Then, dropping his oar for a moment, he put his arm about Adrian's waist and hugged him, saying in his old cheery voice:
"I was right after all. You know, Adrian, I always stood up for you, notwithstanding your temper and queer ways. No, I never would believe that you were a villain, but neither could I ever have believed that you were quite such an ass."
To this outspoken estimate of his character, so fallen and crushed was he, his brother had not the spirit to reply. He could merely tug at his oar and groan, while the tears of shame and repentance ran down his pale and handsome face.
"Never mind, old fellow," said Foy consolingly. "It all went wrong, thanks to you, and thanks to you I believe that it will all come right again. So we will cry quits and forget the rest."
Poor Adrian glanced up at Foy and at Elsa sitting on the thwart of the boat by his side.
"Yes, brother," he answered, "for you and Elsa it may come right, but not for me in this world, for I—I have sold myself to the devil and—got no pay."
After that for a while no one spoke; all felt that the situation was too tragic for speech; even the follies, and indeed the wickedness, of Adrian were covered up, were blotted out in the tragedy of his utter failure, yes, and redeemed by the depth of his atonement.
The grey light of the summer morning began to grow on the surface of the great inland sea. Far behind them they beheld the sun's rays breaking upon the gilt crown that is set above the tower of St. Bavon's Church, soaring over the lost city of Haarlem and the doomed patriots who lay there presently to meet their death at the murderer's sword. They looked and shuddered. Had it not been for Adrian they would be prisoners now, and what that meant they knew. If they had been in any doubt, what they saw around must have enlightened them, for here and there upon the misty surface of the lake, or stranded in its shallows, were the half-burnt out hulls of ships, the remains of the conquered fleet of William the Silent; a poor record of the last desperate effort to relieve the starving city. Now and again, too, something limp and soft would cumber their oars, the corpse of a drowned or slaughtered man still clad perchance in its armour.
At length they passed out of these dismal remains of lost men, and Elsa could look about her without shuddering. Now they were in fleet water, and in among the islands whereon the lush summer growth of weeds and the beautiful marsh flowers grew as greenly and bloomed as bright as though no Spaniard had trampled their roots under foot during all those winter months of siege and death. These islets, scores and hundreds of them, appeared on every side, but between them all Martha steered an unerring path. As the sun rose she stood up in the boat, and shading her eyes with her hand to shut out its level rays, looked before her.
"There is the place," she said, pointing to a little bulrush-clad isle, from which a kind of natural causeway, not more than six feet wide, projected like a tongue among muddy shallows peopled by coots and water-hens with their red-beaked young.
Martin rose too. Then he looked back behind him and said;
"I see the cap of a sail upon the skyline. It is Ramiro."
"Without doubt," answered Martha calmly. "Well, we have the half of an hour to work in. Pull, bow oar, pull, we will go round the island and beach her in the mud on the further side. They will be less likely to see us there, and I know a place whence we can push off in a hurry."
ADRIAN COMES HOME AGAIN
They landed on the island, wading to it through the mud, which at this spot had a gravelly bottom; all of them except Elsa, who remained on the boat to keep watch. Following otter-paths through the thick rushes they came to the centre of the islet, some thirty yards away. Here, at a spot which Martha ascertained by a few hurried pacings, grew a dense tuft of reeds. In the midst of these reeds was a duck's nest with the young just hatching out, off which the old bird flew with terrified quackings.
Beneath this nest lay the treasure, if it were still there.
"At any rate the place has not been disturbed lately," said Foy. Then, even in his frantic haste, lifting the little fledglings—for he loved all things that had life, and did not wish to see them hurt—he deposited them where they might be found again by the mother.
"Nothing to dig with," muttered Martin, "not even a stone." Thereon Martha pushed her way to a willow bush that grew near, and with the smaller of the two axes, which she held in her hand, cut down the thickest of its stems and ran back with them. By the help of these sharpened stakes, and with their axes, they began to dig furiously, till at length the point of Foy's implement struck upon the head of a barrel.
"The stuff is still here, keep to it, friends," he said, and they worked on with a will till three of the five barrels were almost free from the mud.
"Best make sure of these," said Martin. "Help me, master," and between them one by one they rolled them to the water's edge, and with great efforts, Elsa aiding them, lifted them into the boat. As they approached with the third cask they found her staring white-faced over the tops of the feathery reeds.
"What is it, sweet?" asked Foy.
"The sail, the following sail," she answered.
They rested the barrel of gold upon the gunwale and looked back across the little island. Yes, there it came, sure enough, a tall, white sail not eight hundred yards away and bearing down straight upon the place. Martin rolled the barrel into position.
"I hoped that they would not find it," he said, "but Martha draws maps well, too well. Once, before she married, she painted pictures, and that is why."
"What is to be done?" asked Elsa.
"I don't know," he answered, and as he spoke Martha ran up, for she also had seen the boat. "You see," he went on, "if we try to escape they will catch us, for oars can't race a sail."
"Oh!" said Elsa, "must we be taken after all?"
"I hope not, girl," said Martha, "but it is as God wills. Listen, Martin," and she whispered in his ear.
"Good," he said, "if it can be done, but you must watch your chance. Come, now, there is no time to lose. And you, lady, come also, for you can help to roll the last two barrels."
Then they ran back to the hole, whence Foy and Adrian, with great toil, had just dragged the last of the tubs. For they, too, had seen the sail, and knew that time was short.
"Heer, Adrian," said Martin, "you have the cross-bow and the bolts, and you used to be the best shot of all three of us; will you help me to hold the causeway?"
Now Adrian knew that Martin said this, not because he was a good shot with the cross-bow, but because he did not trust him, and wished to have him close to his hand, but he answered:
"With all my heart, as well as I am able."
"Very good," said Martin. "Now let the rest of you get those two casks into the boat, leaving the Jufvrouw hidden in the reeds to watch by it, while you, Foy and Martha, come back to help us. Lady, if they sail round the island, call and let us know."
So Martin and Adrian went down to the end of the little gravelly tongue and crouched among the tall meadow-sweet and grasses, while the others, working furiously, rolled the two barrels to the water-edge and shipped them, throwing rushes over them that they might not catch the eye of the Spaniards.
The sailing boat drew on. In the stern-sheets of it sat Ramiro, an open paper, which he was studying, upon his knee, and still slung about his body the great sword Silence.
"Before I am half an hour older," reflected Martin, for even now he did not like to trust his thoughts to Adrian, "either I will have that sword back again, or I shall be a dead man. But the odds are great, eleven of them, all tough fellows, and we but three and two women."
Just then Ramiro's voice reached them across the stillness of the water.
"Down with the sail," he cried cheerily, "for without a doubt that is the place—there are the six islets in a line, there in front the other island shaped like a herring, and there the little promontory marked 'landing place.' How well this artist draws to be sure!"
The rest of his remarks were lost in the creaking of the blocks as the sail came down.
"Shallow water ahead, Senor," said a man in the bows sounding with a boat hook.
"Good," answered Ramiro, throwing out the little anchor, "we will wade ashore."
As he spoke the Spanish soldier with the boat-hook suddenly pitched head first into the water, a quarrel from Adrian's crossbow through his heart.
"Ah!" said Ramiro, "so they are here before us. Well, there can't be many of them. Now then, prepare to land."
Another quarrel whistled through the air and stuck in the mast, doing no hurt. After this no more bolts came, for in his eagerness Adrian had broken the mechanism of the bow by over-winding it, so that it became useless. They leaped into the water, Ramiro with them, and charged for the land, when of a sudden, almost at the tip of the little promontory, from among the reeds rose the gigantic shape of Red Martin, clad in his tattered jerkin and bearing in his hand a heavy axe, while behind him appeared Foy and Adrian.
"Why, by the Saints!" cried Ramiro, "there's my weather-cock son again, fighting against us this time. Well, Weather-cock, this is your last veer," then he began to wade towards the promontory. "Charge," he cried, but not a man would advance within reach of that axe. They stood here and there in the water looking at it doubtfully, for although they were brave enough, there was none of them but knew of the strength and deeds of the red Frisian giant, and half-starved as he was, feared to meet him face to face. Moreover, he had a position of advantage, of that there could be no doubt.
"Can I help you to land, friends?" said Martin, mocking them. "No, it is no use looking right or left, the mud there is very deep."
"An arquebus, shoot him with an arquebus!" shouted the men in front; but there was no such weapon in the boat, for the Spaniards, who had left in a hurry, and without expecting to meet Red Martin, had nothing but their swords and knives.
Ramiro considered a moment, for he saw that to attempt to storm this little landing-place would cost many lives, even if it were possible. Then he gave an order, "Back aboard." The men obeyed with alacrity. "Out oars and up anchor!" he cried.
"He is clever," said Foy; "he knows that our boat must be somewhere, and he is going to seek for it."
Martin nodded, and for the first time looked afraid. Then, as soon as Ramiro had begun to row round the islet, leaving Martha to watch that he did not return and rush the landing-stage, they crossed through the reeds to the other side and climbed into their boat. Scarcely were they there, when Ramiro and his men appeared, and a shout announced that they were discovered.
On crept the Spaniards as near as they dared, that is to within a dozen fathoms of them, and anchored, for they were afraid to run their own heavy sailing cutter upon the mud lest they might be unable to get her off again. Also, for evident reasons, being without firearms and knowing the character of the defenders, they feared to make a direct attack. The position was curious and threatened to be prolonged. At last Ramiro rose and addressed them across the water.
"Gentlemen and lady of the enemy," he said, "for I think that I see my little captive of the Red Mill among you, let us take counsel together. We have both of us made this expedition for a purpose, have we not—namely, to secure certain filthy lucre which, after all, would be of slight value to dead men? Now, as you, or some of you, know, I am a man opposed to violence; I wish to hurry the end of none, nor even to inflict suffering, if it can be avoided. But there is money in the question, to secure which I have already gone through a great deal of inconvenience and anxiety, and, to be brief, that money I must have, while you, on the other hand are doubtless anxious to escape hence with your lives. So I make you an offer. Let one of our party come under safe conduct on board your boat and search it, just to see if anything lies beneath those rushes for instance. Then, if it is found empty, we will withdraw to a distance and let you go, or the same if full, that is, upon its contents being unladen into the mud."
"Are those all your terms?" asked Foy.
"Not quite all, worthy Heer van Goorl. Among you I observe a young gentleman whom doubtless you have managed to carry off against his will, to wit, my beloved son, Adrian. In his own interests, for he will scarcely be a welcome guest in Leyden, I ask that, before you depart, you should place this noble cavalier ashore in a position where we can see him. Now, what is your answer?"
"That you may go back to hell to look for it," replied Martin rudely, while Foy added:
"What other answer do you expect from folk who have escaped out of your clutches in Haarlem?"
As he said the words, at a nod from Martin, Martha, who by now had crept up to them, under cover of his great form and of surrounding reeds, let go the stern of the boat and vanished.
"Plain words from plain, uncultivated people, not unnaturally irritated by the course of political events with which, although Fortune has mixed me up in them, I have nothing whatever to do," answered Ramiro. "But once more I beg of you to consider. It is probable that you have no food upon your boat, whereas we have plenty. Also, in due course, darkness will fall, which must give us a certain advantage; moreover, I have reason to hope for assistance. Therefore, in a waiting game like this the cards are with me, and as I think your poor prisoner, Adrian, will tell you, I know how to play a hand at cards."
About eight yards from the cutter, in a thick patch of water-lilies, just at this moment an otter rose to take air—an old dog-otter, for it was grey-headed. One of the Spaniards in the boat caught sight of the ring it made, and picking up a stone from the ballast threw it at it idly. The otter vanished.
"We have been seeking each other a long while, but have never come to blows yet, although, being a brave man, I know you would wish it," said Red Martin modestly. "Senor Ramiro, will you do me the honour to overlook my humble birth and come ashore with me for a few minutes, man against man. The odds would be in your favour, for you have armour and I have nothing but a worn bull's hide, also you have my good sword Silence and I only a wood-man's axe. Still I will risk it, and, what is more, trusting to your good faith, we are willing to wager the treasure of Hendrik Brant upon the issue."
So soon as they understood this challenge a roar of laughter went up from the Spaniards in the boat, in which Ramiro himself joined heartily. The idea of anyone voluntarily entering upon a single combat with the terrible Frisian giant, who for months had been a name of fear among the thousands that beleaguered Haarlem, struck them as really ludicrous.
But of a sudden they ceased laughing, and one and all stared with a strange anxiety at the bottom of their boat, much as terrier dogs stare at the earth beneath which they hear invisible vermin on the move. Then a great shouting arose among them, and they looked eagerly over the gunwales; yes, and began to stab at the water with their swords. But all the while through the tumult and voices came a steady, regular sound as of a person knocking heavily on the further side of a thick door.
"Mother of Heaven!" screamed someone in the cutter, "we are scuttled," and they began to tear at the false bottom of their boat, while others stabbed still more furiously at the surface of the Mere.
Now, rising one by one to the face of that quiet water, could be seen bubbles, and the line of them ran from the cutter towards the rowing boat. Presently, within six feet of it, axe in hand, rose the strange and dreadful figure of a naked, skeleton-like woman covered with mud and green weeds, and bleeding from great wounds in the back and sides.
There it stood, shaking an axe at the terror-stricken Spaniards, and screaming in short gasps,
"Paid back! paid back, Ramiro! Now sink and drown, you dog, or come, visit Red Martin on the shore."
"Well done, Martha," roared Martin, as he dragged her dying into the boat. While he spoke, lo! the cutter began to fill and sink.
"There is but one chance for it," cried Ramiro, "overboard and at them. It is not deep," and springing into the water, which reached to his neck, he began to wade towards the shore.
"Push off," cried Foy, and they thrust and pulled. But the gold was heavy, and their boat had settled far into the mud. Do what they might, she would not stir. Then uttering some strange Frisian oath, Martin sprang over her stern, and putting out all his mighty strength thrust at it to loose her. Still she would not move. The Spaniards came up, now the water reached only to their thighs, and their bright swords flashed in the sunlight.
"Cut them down!" yelled Ramiro. "At them for your lives' sake."
The boat trembled, but she would not stir.
"Too heavy in the bows," screamed Martha, and struggling to her feet, with one wild scream she launched herself straight at the throat of the nearest Spaniard. She gripped him with her long arms, and down they went together. Once they rose, then fell again, and through a cloud of mud might be seen struggling upon the bottom of the Mere till presently they lay still, both of them.
The lightened boat lifted, and in answer to Martin's mighty efforts glided forward through the clinging mud. Again he thrust, and she was clear.
"Climb in, Martin, climb in," shouted Foy as he stabbed at a Spaniard.
"By heaven! no," roared Ramiro splashing towards him with the face of a devil.
For a second Martin stood still. Then he bent, and the sword-cut fell harmless upon his leather jerkin. Now very suddenly his great arms shot out; yes, he seized Ramiro by the thighs and lifted, and there was seen the sight of a man thrown into the air as though he were a ball tossed by a child at play, to fall headlong upon the casks of treasure in the skiff prow where he lay still.
Martin sprang forward and gripped the tiller with his outstretched hand as it glided away from him.
"Row, master, row," he cried, and Foy rowed madly until they were clear of the last Spaniard, clear by ten yards. Even Elsa snatched a rollock, and with it struck a soldier on the hand who tried to stay them, forcing him to loose his grip; a deed of valour she boasted of with pride all her life through. Then they dragged Martin into the boat.
"Now, you Spanish dogs," the great man roared back at them as he shook the water from his flaming hair and beard, "go dig for Brant's treasure and live on ducks' eggs here till Don Frederic sends to fetch you."
The island had melted away into a mist of other islands. No living thing was to be seen save the wild creatures and birds of the great lake, and no sound was to be heard except their calling and the voices of the wind and water. They were alone—alone and safe, and there at a distance towards the skyline rose the church towers of Leyden, for which they headed.
"Jufvrouw," said Martin presently, "there is another flagon of wine in that locker, and we should be glad of a pull at it."
Elsa, who was steering the boat, rose and found the wine and a horn mug, which she filled and handed first to Foy.
"Here's a health," said Foy as he drank, "to the memory of Mother Martha, who saved us all. Well, she died as she would have wished to die, taking a Spaniard for company, and her story will live on."
"Amen," said Martin. Then a thought struck him, and, leaving his oars for a minute, for he rowed two as against Foy's and Adrian's one, he went forward to where Ramiro lay stricken senseless on the kegs of specie and jewels in the bows, and took from him the great sword Silence. But he strapped the Spaniard's legs together with his belt.
"That crack on the head keeps him quiet enough," he said in explanation, "but he might come to and give trouble, or try to swim for it, since such cats have many lives. Ah! Senor Ramiro, I told you I would have my sword back before I was half an hour older, or go where I shouldn't want one." Then he touched the spring in the hilt and examined the cavity. "Why," he said, "here's my legacy left in it safe and sound. No wonder my good angel made me mad to get that sword again."
"No wonder," echoed Foy, "especially as you got Ramiro with it," and he glanced at Adrian, who was labouring at the bow oar, looking, now that the excitement of the fight had gone by, most downcast and wretched. Well he might, seeing the welcome that, as he feared, awaited him in Leyden.
For a while they rowed on in silence. All that they had gone through during the last four and twenty hours and the seven preceding months of war and privation, had broken their nerve. Even now, although they had escaped the danger and won back the buried gold, capturing the arch-villain who had brought them so much death and misery, and their home, which, for the present moment at any rate, was a strong place of refuge, lay before them, still they could not be at ease. Where so many had died, where the risks had been so fearful, it seemed almost incredible that they four should be living and hale, though weary, with a prospect of continuing to live for many years.
That the girl whom he loved so dearly, and whom he had so nearly lost, should be sitting before him safe and sound, ready to become his wife whensoever he might wish it, seemed to Foy also a thing too good to be true. Too good to be true was it, moreover, that his brother, the wayward, passionate, weak, poetical-minded Adrian, made by nature to be the tool of others, and bear the burden of their evil doing, should have been dragged before it was over late, out of the net of the fowler, have repented of his sins and follies, and, at the risk of his own life, shown that he was still a man, no longer the base slave of passion and self-love. For Foy always loved his brother, and knowing him better than any others knew him, had found it hard to believe that however black things might look against him, he was at heart a villain.
Thus he thought, and Elsa too had her thoughts, which may be guessed. They were silent all of them, till of a sudden, Elsa seated in the stern-sheets, saw Adrian suddenly let fall his oar, throw his arms wide, and pitch forward against the back of Martin. Yes, and in place of where he had sat appeared the dreadful countenance of Ramiro, stamped with a grin of hideous hate such as Satan might wear when souls escape him at the last. Ramiro recovered and sitting up, for to his feet he could not rise because of the sword strap, in his hand a thin, deadly-looking knife.
"Habet!" he said with a short laugh, "habes, Weather-cock!" and he turned the knife against himself.
But Martin was on him, and in five more seconds he lay trussed like a fowl in the bottom of the boat.
"Shall I kill him?" said Martin to Foy, who with Elsa was bending over Adrian.
"No," answered Foy grimly, "let him take his trial in Leyden. Oh! what accursed fools were we not to search him!"
Ramiro's face turned a shade more ghastly.
"It is your hour," he said in a hoarse voice, "you have won, thanks to that dog of a son of mine, who, I trust, may linger long before he dies, as die he must. Ah! well, this is what comes of breaking my oath to the Virgin and again lifting my hand against a woman." He looked at Elsa and shuddered, then went on: "It is your hour, make an end of me at once. I do not wish to appear thus before those boors."
"Gag him," said Foy to Martin, "lest our ears be poisoned," and Martin obeyed with good will. Then he flung him down, and there the man lay, his back supported by the kegs of treasure he had worked so hard and sinned so deeply to win, making, as he knew well, his last journey to death and to whatever may lie beyond that solemn gate.
They were passing the island that, many years ago, had formed the turning post of the great sledge race in which his passenger had been the fair Leyden heiress, Lysbeth van Hout. Ramiro could see her now as she was that day; he could see also how that race, which he just failed to win, had been for him an augury of disaster. Had not the Hollander again beaten him at the post, and that Hollander—Lysbeth's own son by another father—helped to it by her son born of himself, who now lay there death-stricken by him that gave him life. . . . They would take him to Lysbeth, he knew it; she would be his judge, that woman against whom he had piled up injury after injury, whom, even when she seemed to be in his power, he had feared more than any living being. . . . And after he had met her eyes for the last time, then would come the end. What sort of an end would it be for the captain red-handed from the siege of Haarlem, for the man who had brought Dirk van Goorl to his death, for the father who had just planted a dagger between the shoulders of his son because, at the last, that son had chosen to be true to his own people, and to deliver them from a dreadful doom? . . . Why did it come back to him, that horrible dream which had risen in his mind when, for the first time after many years, he met Lysbeth face to face there in the Gevangenhuis, that dream of the pitiful little man falling, falling through endless space, and at the bottom of the gulf two great hands, hands hideous and suggestive, reaching through the shadows to receive him?
Like his son, Adrian, Ramiro was superstitious; more, his intellect, his reading, which in youth had been considerable, his observation of men and women, all led him to the conclusion that death is a wall with many doors in it; that on this side of the wall we may not linger or sleep, but must pass each of us through his appointed portal straight to the domain prepared for us. If so, what would be his lot, and who would be waiting to greet him yonder? Oh! terrors may attend the wicked after death, but in the case of some they do not tarry until death; they leap forward to him whom it is decreed must die, forcing attention with their eager, craving hands, with their obscure and ominous voices. . . . About him the sweet breath of the summer afternoon, the skimming swallows, the meadows starred with flowers; within him every hell at which the imagination can so much as hint.
Before he passed the gates of Leyden, in those few short hours, Ramiro, to Elsa's eyes, had aged by twenty years.
Their little boat was heavy laden, the wind was against them, and they had a dying man and a prisoner aboard. So it came about that the day was closing before the soldiers challenged them from the watergate, asking who they were and whither they went. Foy stood up and said:
"We are Foy van Goorl, Red Martin, Elsa Brant, a wounded man and a prisoner, escaped from Haarlem, and we go to the house of Lysbeth van Goorl in the Bree Straat."
Then they let them through the watergate, and there, on the further side, were many gathered who thanked God for their deliverance, and begged tidings of them.
"Come to the house in the Bree Straat and we will tell you from the balcony," answered Foy.
So they rowed from one cut and canal to another till at last they came to the private boat-house of the van Goorls, and entered it, and thus by the small door into the house.
Lysbeth van Goorl, recovered from her illness now, but aged and grown stern with suffering, sat in an armchair in the great parlour of her home in the Bree Straat, the room where as a girl she had cursed Montalvo; where too not a year ago, she had driven his son, the traitor Adrian, from her presence. At her side was a table on which stood a silver bell and two brass holders with candles ready to be lighted. She rang the bell and a woman-servant entered, the same who, with Elsa, had nursed her in the plague.
"What is that murmuring in the street?" Lysbeth asked. "I hear the sound of many voices. Is there more news from Haarlem?"
"Alas! yes," answered the woman. "A fugitive says that the executioners there are weary, so now they tie the poor prisoners back to back and throw them into the mere to drown."
A groan burst from Lysbeth's lips. "Foy, my son, is there," she muttered, "and Elsa Brant his affianced wife, and Martin his servant, and many another friend. Oh! God, how long, how long?" and her head sank upon her bosom.
Soon she raised it again and said, "Light the candles, woman, this place grows dark, and in its gloom I see the ghosts of all my dead."
They burned up—two stars of light in the great room.
"Whose feet are those upon the stairs?" asked Lysbeth, "the feet of men who bear burdens. Open the large doors, woman, and let that enter which it pleases God to send us."
So the doors were flung wide, and through them came people carrying a wounded man, then following him Foy and Elsa, and, lastly, towering above them all, Red Martin, who thrust before him another man. Lysbeth rose from her chair to look.
"Do I dream?" she said, "or, son Foy, hath the Angel of the Lord delivered you out of the hell of Haarlem?"
"We are here, mother," he answered.
"And whom," she said, pointing to the figure covered with a cloak, "do you bring with you?"
"Adrian, mother, who is dying."
"Then, son Foy, take him hence; alive, dying, or dead, I have done with——" Here her eyes fell upon Red Martin and the man he held, "Martin the Frisian," she muttered, "but who——"