He soon found out Peter Brandt's cottage; and there sat a girl in the doorway, plying her needle, and a stalwart figure leaned on a long bow and talked to her. Gerard felt an unaccountable pang at the sight of him. However, the man turned out to be past fifty years of age, an old soldier, whom Gerard remembered to have seen shoot at the butts with admirable force and skill. Another minute and the youth stood before them. Margaret looked up and dropped her work, and uttered a faint cry, and was white and red by turns. But these signs of emotion were swiftly dismissed, and she turned far more chill and indifferent than she would if she had not betrayed this agitation.
"What! is it you, Master Gerard? What on earth brings you here, I wonder?"
"I was passing by and saw you; so I thought I would give you good day, and ask after your father."
"My father is well. He will be here anon."
"Then I may as well stay till he comes."
"As you will. Good Martin, step into the village and tell my father here is a friend of his."
"And not of yours?"
"My father's friends are mine."
"That is doubtful. It was not like a friend to promise to wait for me, and then make off the moment my back was turned. Cruel Margaret you little know how I searched the town for you; how for want of you nothing was pleasant to me."
"These are idle words; if you had desired my father's company, or mine, you would have come back. There I had a bed laid for you, sir, at my cousin's, and he would have made much of you, and, who knows, I might have made much of you too. I was in the humour that day. You will not catch me in the same mind again, neither you nor any young man, I warrant me."
"Margaret, I came back the moment the Countess let me go; but you were not there."
"Nay, you did not, or you had seen Hans Cloterman at our table; we left him to bring you on."
"I saw no one there, but only a drunken man, that had just tumbled down."
"At our table? How was he clad?"
"Nay, I took little heed: in sad-coloured garb."
At this Margaret's face gradually warmed; but presently, assuming incredulity and severity, she put many shrewd questions, all of which Gerard answered most loyally. Finally, the clouds cleared, and they guessed how the misunderstanding had come about. Then came a revulsion of tenderness, all the more powerful that they had done each other wrong; and then, more dangerous still, came mutual confessions. Neither had been happy since; neither ever would have been happy but for this fortunate meeting.
And Gerard found a MS. Vulgate lying open on the table, and pounced upon it like a hawk. MSS. were his delight; but before he could get to it two white hands quickly came flat upon the page, and a red face over them.
"Nay, take away your hands, Margaret, that I may see where you are reading, and I will read there too at home; so shall my soul meet yours in the sacred page. You will not? Nay, then I must kiss them away." And he kissed them so often, that for very shame they were fain to withdraw, and, lo! the sacred book lay open at,
"An apple of gold in a network of silver."
"There, now," said she, "I had been hunting for it ever so long, and found it but even now—and to be caught!" and with a touch of inconsistency she pointed it out to Gerard with her white finger.
"Ay," said he, "but to-day it is all hidden in that great cap."
"It is a comely cap, I'm told by some."
"Maybe; but what it hides is beautiful."
"It is not: it is hideous."
"Well, it was beautiful at Rotterdam."
"Ay, everything was beautiful that day" (with a little sigh).
And now Peter came in, and welcomed Gerard cordially, and would have him to stay supper. And Margaret disappeared; and Gerard had a nice learned chat with Peter; and Margaret reappeared with her hair in her silver net, and shot a glance half arch, half coy, and glided about them, and spread supper, and beamed bright with gaiety and happiness. And in the cool evening Gerard coaxed her out, and she objected and came; and coaxed her on to the road to Tergou, and she declined, and came; and there they strolled up and down, hand in hand; and when he must go, they pledged each other never to quarrel or misunderstand one another again; and they sealed the promise with a long loving kiss, and Gerard went home on wings.
From that day Gerard spent most of his evenings with Margaret, and the attachment deepened and deepened on both sides, till the hours they spent together were the hours they lived; the rest they counted and underwent. And at the outset of this deep attachment all went smoothly. Obstacles there were, but they seemed distant and small to the eyes of hope, youth, and love. The feelings and passions of so many persons, that this attachment would thwart, gave no warning smoke to show their volcanic nature and power. The course of true love ran smoothly, placidly, until it had drawn these two young hearts into its current for ever.
One bright morning unwonted velvet shone, unwonted feathers waved, and horses' hoofs glinted and ran through the streets of Tergou, and the windows and balconies were studded with wondering faces. The French ambassador was riding through to sport in the neighbouring forest.
Besides his own suite, he was attended by several servants of the Duke of Burgundy, lent to do him honour and minister to his pleasure. The Duke's tumbler rode before him with a grave, sedate majesty, that made his more noble companions seem light, frivolous persons. But ever and anon, when respect and awe neared the oppressive, he rolled off his horse so ignobly and funnily, that even the ambassador was fain' to burst out laughing. He also climbed up again by the tail in a way provocative of mirth, and so he played his part. Towards the rear of the pageant rode one that excited more attention still—the Duke's leopard. A huntsman, mounted on a Flemish horse of giant prodigious size and power, carried a long box fastened to the rider's loins by straps curiously contrived, and on this box sat a bright leopard crouching. She was chained to the huntsman. The people admired her glossy hide and spots, and pressed near, and one or two were for feeling her, and pulling her tail; then the huntsman shouted in a terrible voice, "Beware! At Antwerp one did but throw a handful of dust at her, and the Duke made dust of him."
"I speak sooth. The good Duke shut him up in prison, in a cell under ground, and the rats cleaned the flesh off his bones in a night. Served him right for molesting the poor thing."
There was a murmur of fear, and the Tergovians shrank from tickling the leopard of their sovereign.
But an incident followed that raised their spirits again. The Duke's giant, a Hungarian seven feet four inches high, brought up the rear. This enormous creature had, like some other giants, a treble, fluty voice of little power. He was a vain fellow, and not conscious of this nor any defect. Now it happened he caught sight of Giles sitting on the top of the balcony; so he stopped and began to make fun of him.
"Hallo! brother!" squeaked he, "I had nearly passed without seeing thee."
"You are plain enough to see," bellowed Giles in his bass tones.
"Come on my shoulder, brother," squeaked Titan, and held out a shoulder of mutton fist to help him down.
"If I do I'll cuff your ears," roared the dwarf.
The giant saw the homuncule was irascible, and played upon him, being encouraged thereto by the shouts of laughter. For he did not see that the people were laughing not at his wit, but at the ridiculous incongruity of the two voices—the gigantic feeble fife, and the petty deep, loud drum, the mountain delivered of a squeak, and the mole-hill belching thunder.
The singular duet came to as singular an end. Giles lost all patience and self-command, and being a creature devoid of fear, and in a rage to boot, he actually dropped upon the giant's neck, seized his hair with one hand, and punched his head with the other. The giant's first impulse was to laugh, but the weight and rapidity of the blows soon corrected that inclination.
"He! he! Ah! ha! hallo! oh! oh! Holy saints! here! help! or I must throttle the imp. I can't! I'll split your skull against the—" and he made a wild run backwards at the balcony. Giles saw his danger, seized the balcony in time with both hands, and whipped over it just as the giant's head came against it with a stunning crack. The people roared with laughter and exultation at the address of their little champion. The indignant giant seized two of the laughers, knocked them together like dumb-bells, shook them and strewed them flat—Catherine shrieked and threw her apron over Giles—then strode wrathfully away after the party. This incident had consequences no one then present foresaw. Its immediate results were agreeable. The Tergovians turned proud of Giles, and listened with more affability to his prayers for parchment. For he drove a regular trade with his brother Gerard in this article. Went about and begged it gratis, and Gerard gave him coppers for it.
On the afternoon of the same day, Catherine and her daughter were chatting together about their favourite theme, Gerard, his goodness, his benefice, and the brightened prospects of the whole family.
Their good luck had come to them in the very shape they would have chosen; besides the advantages of a benefice such as the Countess Charolois would not disdain to give, there was the feminine delight at having a priest, a holy man, in their own family. "He will marry Cornelis and Sybrandt: for they can wed (good housewives), now, if they will. Gerard will take care of you and Giles, when we are gone."
"Yes, mother, and we can confess to him instead of to a stranger," said Kate.
"Ay, girl! and he can give the sacred oil to your father and me, and close our eyes when our time comes."
"Oh, mother! not for many, many years, I do pray Heaven. Pray speak not of that, it always makes me sad. I hope to go before you, mother dear. No; let us be gay to-day. I am out of pain, mother, quite out of all pain; it does seem so strange; and I feel so bright and happy, that—mother, Can you keep a secret?"
"Nobody better, child. Why, you know I can."
"Then I will show you something so beautiful. You never saw the like, I trow. Only Gerard must never know; for sure he means to surprise us with it; he covers it up so, and sometimes he carries it away altogether."
Kate took her crutches, and moved slowly away, leaving her mother in an exalted state of curiosity. She soon returned with something in a cloth, uncovered it, and there was a lovely picture of the Virgin, with all her insignia, and wearing her tiara over a wealth of beautiful hair, which flowed loose over her shoulders. Catherine, at first, was struck with awe.
"It is herself," she cried; "it is the Queen of Heaven. I never saw one like her to my mind before."
"And her eyes, mother: lifted to the sky, as if they belonged there, and not to a mortal creature. And her beautiful hair of burning gold."
"And to think I have a son that can make the saints live again upon a piece of wood!"
"The reason is, he is a young saint himself, mother. He is too good for this world; he is here to portray the blessed, and then to go away and be with them for ever."
Ere they had half done admiring it, a strange voice was heard at the door. By one of the furtive instincts of their sex they hastily hid the picture in the cloth, though there was no need, And the next moment in came, casting his eyes furtively around, a man that had not entered the house this ten years Ghysbrecht Van Swieten.
The two women were so taken by surprise, that they merely stared at him and at one another, and said, "The burgomaster!" in a tone so expressive, that Ghysbrecht felt compelled to answer it.
"Yes! I own the last time I came here was not on a friendly errand. Men love their own interest—Eli's and mine were contrary. Well, let this visit atone the last. To-day I come on your business and none of mine." Catherine and her daughter exchanged a swift glance of contemptuous incredulity. They knew the man better than he thought.
"It is about your son Gerard."
"Ay! ay! you want him to work for the town all for nothing. He told us."
"I come on no such errand. It is to let you know he has fallen into bad hands."
"Now Heaven and the saints forbid! Man, torture not a mother! Speak out, and quickly: speak ere you have time to coin falsehood: we know thee."
Ghysbrecht turned pale at this affront, and spite mingled with the other motives that brought him here. "Thus it is, then," said he, grinding his teeth and speaking very fast. "Your son Gerard is more like to be father of a family than a priest: he is for ever with Margaret, Peter Brandt's red-haired girl, and loves her like a cow her calf."
Mother and daughter both burst out laughing. Ghysbrecht stared at them.
"What! you knew it?"
"Carry this tale to those who know not my son, Gerard. Women are nought to him."
"Other women, mayhap. But this one is the apple of his eye to him, or will be, if you part them not, and soon. Come, dame, make me not waste time and friendly counsel: my servant has seen them together a score times, handed, and reading babies in one another's eyes like—you know, dame—you have been young, too."
"Girl, I am ill at ease. Yea, I have been young, and know how blind and foolish the young are. My heart! he has turned me sick in a moment. Kate, if it should be true?"
"Nay, nay!" cried Kate eagerly. "Gerard might love a young woman: all young men do: I can't find what they see in them to love so; but if he did, he would let us know; he would not deceive us. You wicked man! No, dear mother, look not so! Gerard is too good to love a creature of earth. His love is for our Lady and the saints. Ah! I will show you the picture there: if his heart was earthly, could he paint the Queen of Heaven like that—look! look!" and she held the picture out triumphantly, and, more radiant and beautiful in this moment of enthusiasm than ever dead picture was or will be, over-powered the burgomaster with her eloquence and her feminine proof of Gerard's purity. His eyes and mouth opened, and remained open: in which state they kept turning, face and all as if on a pivot, from the picture to the women, and from the women to the picture.
"Why, it is herself," he gasped.
"Isn't it!" cried Kate, and her hostility was softened. "You admire it? I forgive you for frightening us."
"Am I in a mad-house?" said Ghysbrecht Van Swieten thoroughly puzzled. "You show me a picture of the girl; and you say he painted it; and that is a proof he cannot love her. Why, they all paint their sweethearts, painters do."
"A picture of the girl?" exclaimed Kate, shocked. "Fie! this is no girl; this is our blessed Lady."
"No, no; it is Margaret Brandt."
"Oh blind! It is the Queen of Heaven."
"No; only of Sevenbergen village."
"Profane man! behold her crown!"
"Silly child! look at her red hair! Would the Virgin be seen in red hair? She who had the pick of all the colours ten thousand years before the world began."
At this moment an anxious face was insinuated round the edge of the open door: it was their neighbour Peter Buyskens.
"What is to do?" said he in a cautious whisper. "We can hear you all across the street. What on earth is to do?"
"Oh, neighbour! What is to do? Why, here is the burgomaster blackening our Gerard."
"Stop!" cried Van Swieten. "Peter Buyskens is come in the nick of time. He knows father and daughter both. They cast their glamour on him."
"What! is she a witch too?"
"Else the egg takes not after the bird. Why is her father called the magician? I tell you they bewitched this very Peter here; they cast unholy spells on him, and cured him of the colic: now, Peter, look and tell me who is that? and you be silent, women, for a moment, if you can; who is it, Peter?"
"Well, to be sure!" said Peter, in reply; and his eye seemed fascinated by the picture.
"Who is it?" repeated Ghysbrecht impetuously.
Peter Buyskens smiled. "Why, you know as well as I do; but what have they put a crown on her for? I never saw her in a crown, for my part."
"Man alive! Can't you open your great jaws, and just speak a wench's name plain out to oblige three people?"
"I'd do a great deal more to oblige one of you than that, burgomaster. If it isn't as natural as life!"
"Curse the man! he won't, he won't—curse him!"
"Why, what have I done now?"
"Oh, sir!" said little Kate, "for pity's sake tell us; are these the features of a living woman, of—of—Margaret Brandt?"
"A mirror is not truer, my little maid."
"But is it she, sir, for very certain?"
"Why, who else should it be?"
"Now, why couldn't you say so at once?" snarled Ghysbrecht.
"I did say so, as plain as I could speak," snapped Peter; and they growled over this small bone of contention so zealously, that they did not see Catherine and her daughter had thrown their aprons over their heads, and were rocking to and fro in deep distress. The next moment Elias came in from the shop, and stood aghast. Catherine, though her face was covered, knew his footstep.
"That is my poor man," she sobbed. "Tell him, good Peter Buyskens, for I have not the courage."
Elias turned pale. The presence of the burgomaster in his house, after so many years of coolness, coupled with his wife's and daughter's distress, made him fear some heavy misfortune.
"Richart! Jacob!" he gasped.
"No, no!" said the burgomaster; "it is nearer home, and nobody is dead or dying, old friend."
"God bless you, burgomaster! Ah! something has gone off my breast that was like to choke me. Now, what is the matter?"
Ghysbrecht then told him all that he told the women, and showed the picture in evidence.
"Is that all?" said Eli, profoundly relieved. "What are ye roaring and bellowing for? It is vexing—it is angering, but it is not like death, not even sickness. Boys will be boys. He will outgrow that disease: 'tis but skin-deep."
But when Ghysbrecht told him that Margaret was a girl of good character; that it was not to be supposed she would be so intimate if marriage had not been spoken of between them, his brow darkened.
"Marriage! that shall never be," said he sternly. "I'll stay that; ay, by force, if need be—as I would his hand lifted to cut his throat. I'd do what old John Koestein did t'other day."
"And what is that, in Heaven's name?" asked the mother, suddenly removing her apron.
It was the burgomaster who replied:
"He made me shut young Albert Koestein up in the prison of the Stadthouse till he knocked under. It was not long: forty-eight hours, all alone, on bread and water, cooled his hot stomach. 'Tell my father I am his humble servant,' says he, 'and let me into the sun once more—the sun is worth all the wenches in the world.'"
"Oh, the cruelty of men!" sighed Catherine.
"As to that, the burgomaster has no choice: it is the law. And if a father says, 'Burgomaster, lock up my son,' he must do it. A fine thing it would be if a father might not lock up his own son."
"Well, well! it won't come to that with me and my son. He never disobeyed me in his life: he never shall, Where is he? It is past supper-time. Where is he, Kate?"
"Alas! I know not, father."
"I know," said Ghysbrecht; "he is at Sevenbergen. My servant met him on the road."
Supper passed in gloomy silence. Evening descended—no Gerard! Eight o'clock came—no Gerard! Then the father sent all to bed, except Catherine.
"You and I will walk abroad, wife, and talk over this new care."
"Abroad, my man, at this time? Whither?"
"Why, on the road to Sevenbergen."
"Oh no; no hasty words, father. Poor Gerard! he never vexed you before."
"Fear me not. But it must end; and I am not one that trusts to-morrow with to-day's work."
The old pair walked hand in hand; for, strange is it may appear to some of my readers, the use of the elbow to couples walking was not discovered in Europe till centuries after this. They sauntered on a long time in silence. The night was clear and balmy. Such nights, calm and silent, recall the past from the dead.
"It is a many years since we walked so late, my man," said Catherine softly.
"Ay, sweetheart, more than we shall see again (is he never coming, I wonder?)"
"Not since our courting days, Eli."
"No. Ay, you were a buxom lass then."
"And you were a comely lad, as ever a girl's eye stole a look at. I do suppose Gerard is with her now, as you used to be with me. Nature is strong, and the same in all our generations."
"Nay, I hope he has left her by now, confound her, or we shall be here all night."
"I have been happy with you, sweetheart, for all our rubs—much happier, I trow, than if I had—been—a—a—nun. You won't speak harshly to the poor child? One can be firm without being harsh."
"Have you been happy with me, my poor Eli?"
"Why, you know I have. Friends I have known, but none like thee. Buss me, wife!"
"A heart to share joy and grief with is a great comfort to man or woman. Isn't it, Eli?"
"It is so, my lass.
'It doth joy double, And halveth trouble,'
runs the byword. And so I have found it, sweetheart. Ah! here comes the young fool."
Catherine trembled, and held her husband's hand tight.
The moon was bright, but they were in the shadow of some trees, and their son did not see them. He came singing in the moonlight, and his face shining.
While the burgomaster was exposing Gerard at Tergou, Margaret had a trouble of her own at Sevenbergen. It was a housewife's distress, but deeper than we can well conceive. She came to Martin Wittenhaagen, the old soldier, with tears in her eyes.
"Martin, there's nothing in the house, and Gerard is coming, and he is so thoughtless. He forgets to sup at home. When he gives over work, then he runs to me straight, poor soul; and often he comes quite faint. And to think I have nothing to set before my servant that loves me so dear."
Martin scratched his head. "What can I do?"
"It is Thursday; it is your day to shoot; sooth to Say, I counted on you to-day."
"Nay," said the soldier, "I may not shoot when the Duke or his friends are at the chase; read else. I am no scholar." And he took out of his pouch a parchment with a grand seal. It purported to be a stipend and a licence given by Philip, Duke of Burgundy, to Martin Wittenhaagen, one of his archers, in return for services in the wars, and for a wound received at the Dukes side. The stipend was four merks yearly, to be paid by the Duke's almoner, and the licence was to shoot three arrows once a week, viz., on Thursday, and no other day, in any of the Duke's forests in Holland, at any game but a seven-year-old buck or a doe carrying fawn; proviso, that the Duke should not be hunting on that day, or any of his friends. In this case Martin was not to go and disturb the woods on peril of his salary and his head, and a fine of a penny.
Margaret sighed and was silent.
"Come, cheer up, mistress," said he; "for your sake I'll peril my carcass; I have done that for many a one that was not worth your forefinger. It is no such mighty risk either. I'll but step into the skirts of the forest here. It is odds but they drive a hare or a fawn within reach of my arrow."
"Well, if I let you go, you must promise me not to go far, and not to be seen; far better Gerard went supperless than ill should come to you, faithful Martin."
The required promise given, Martin took his bow and three arrows, and stole cautiously into the wood: it was scarce a furlong distant. The horns were heard faintly in the distance, and all the game was afoot. "Come," thought Martin, "I shall soon fill the pot, and no one be the wiser." He took his stand behind a thick oak that commanded a view of an open glade, and strung his bow, a truly formidable weapon. It was of English yew, six feet two inches high, and thick in proportion; and Martin, broad-chested, with arms all iron and cord, and used to the bow from infancy, could draw a three-foot arrow to the head, and, when it flew, the eye could scarce follow it, and the bowstring twanged as musical as a harp. This bow had laid many a stout soldier low in the wars of the Hoecks and Cabbel-jaws. In those days a battlefield was not a cloud of smoke; the combatants were few, but the deaths many—for they saw what they were about; and fewer bloodless arrows flew than bloodless bullets now. A hare came cantering, then sat sprightly, and her ears made a capital V. Martin levelled his tremendous weapon at her. The arrow flew, the string twanged; but Martin had been in a hurry to pot her, and lost her by an inch: the arrow seemed to hit her, but it struck the ground close to her, and passed under her belly like a flash, and hissed along the short grass and disappeared. She jumped three feet perpendicular and away at the top of her speed. "Bungler!" said Martin. A sure proof he was not an habitual bungler, or he would have blamed the hare. He had scarcely fitted another arrow to his string when a wood-pigeon settled on the very tree he stood under. "Aha!" thought he, "you are small, but dainty." This time he took more pains; drew his arrow carefully, loosed it smoothly, and saw it, to all appearance, go clean through the bird, carrying feathers skyward like dust. Instead of falling at his feet, the bird, whose breast was torn, not fairly pierced, fluttered feebly away, and, by a great effort, rose above the trees, flew some fifty yards and dead at last; but where, he could not see for the thick foliage.
"Luck is against me," said he despondingly. But he fitted another arrow, and eyed the glade keenly. Presently he heard a bustle behind him, and turned round just in time to see a noble buck cross the open, but too late to shoot at him. He dashed his bow down with an imprecation. At that moment a long spotted animal glided swiftly across after the deer; its belly seemed to touch the ground as it went. Martin took up his bow hastily: he recognized the Duke's leopard. "The hunters will not be far from her," said he, "and I must not be seen. Gerard must go supperless this night."
He plunged into the wood, following the buck and leopard, for that was his way home. He had not gone far when he heard an unusual sound ahead of him—leaves rustling violently and the ground trampled. He hurried in the direction. He found the leopard on the buck's back, tearing him with teeth and claw, and the buck running in a circle and bounding convulsively, with the blood pouring down his hide. Then Martin formed a desperate resolution to have the venison for Margaret. He drew his arrow to the head, and buried it in the deer, who, spite of the creature on his back, bounded high into the air, and fell dead. The leopard went on tearing him as if nothing had happened.
Martin hoped that the creature would gorge itself with blood, and then let him take the meat. He waited some minutes, then walked resolutely up, and laid his hand on the buck's leg. The leopard gave a frightful growl, and left off sucking blood. She saw Martin's game, and was sulky and on her guard. What was to be done? Martin had heard that wild creatures cannot stand the human eye. Accordingly, he stood erect, and fixed his on the leopard: the leopard returned a savage glance, and never took her eye off Martin. Then Martin continuing to look the beast down, the leopard, brutally ignorant of natural history, flew at his head with a frightful yell, flaming eyes, and jaws and distended. He had but just time to catch her by the throat, before her teeth could crush his face; one of her claws seized his shoulder and rent it, the other, aimed at his cheek, would have been more deadly still, but Martin was old-fashioned, and wore no hat, but a scapulary of the same stuff as his jerkin, and this scapulary he had brought over his head like a hood; the brute's claw caught in the loose leather. Martin kept her teeth off his face with great difficulty, and griped her throat fiercely, and she kept rending his shoulder. It was like blunt reaping-hooks grinding and tearing. The pain was fearful; but, instead of cowing the old soldier, it put his blood up, and he gnashed his teeth with rage almost as fierce as hers, and squeezed her neck with iron force. The two pair of eyes flared at one another—and now the man's were almost as furious as the brute's. She found he was throttling her, and made a wild attempt to free herself, in which she dragged his cowl all over his face and blinded him, and tore her claw out of his shoulder, flesh and all; but still he throttled her with hand and arm of iron. Presently her long tail, that was high in the air, went down. "Aha!" cried Martin, joyfully, and gripped her like death; next, her body lost its elasticity, and he held a choked and powerless thing: he gripped it still, till all motion ceased, then dashed it to the earth; then, panting, removed his cowl: the leopard lay mute at his feet with tongue protruding and bloody paw; and for the first time terror fell on Martin. "I am a dead man: I have slain the Duke's leopard." He hastily seized a few handfuls of leaves and threw them over her; then shouldered the buck, and staggered away, leaving a trail of blood all the way his own and the buck's. He burst into Peter's house a horrible figure, bleeding and bloodstained, and flung the deer's carcass down.
"There—no questions," said he, "but broil me a steak on't, for I am faint."
Margaret did not see he was wounded; she thought the blood was all from the deer.
She busied herself at the fire, and the stout soldier stanched and bound his own wound apart; and soon he and Gerard and Margaret were supping royally on broiled venison.
They were very merry; and Gerard, with wonderful thoughtfulness, had brought a flask of Schiedam, and under its influence Martin revived, and told them how the venison was got; and they all made merry over the exploit.
Their mirth was strangely interrupted. Margaret's eye became fixed and fascinated, and her cheek pale with fear. She gasped, and could not speak, but pointed to the window with trembling finger. Their eyes followed hers, and there in the twilight crouched a dark form with eyes like glowworms.
It was the leopard.
While they stood petrified, fascinated by the eyes of green fire, there sounded in the wood a single deep bay. Martin trembled at it.
"They have lost her, and laid muzzled bloodhounds on her scent; they will find her here, and the venison. Good-bye, friends, Martin Wittenhaagen ends here."
Gerard seized his bow, and put it into the soldier's hands.
"Be a man," he cried; "shoot her, and fling her into the wood ere they come up. Who will know?"
More voices of hounds broke out, and nearer.
"Curse her!" cried Martin; "I spared her once; now she must die, or I, or both more likely;" and he reared his bow, and drew his arrow to the head.
"Nay! nay!" cried Margaret, and seized the arrow. It broke in half: the pieces fell on each side the bow. The air at the same time filled with the tongues of the hounds: they were hot upon the scent.
"What have you done, wench? You have put the halter round my throat."
"No!" cried Margaret. "I have saved you: stand back from the window, both! Your knife, quick!"
She seized his long-pointed knife, almost tore it out of his girdle, and darted from the room. The house was now surrounded with baying dogs and shouting men.
The glowworm eyes moved not.
Margaret cut off a huge piece of venison, and ran to the window and threw it out to the green eyes of fire. They darted on to it with a savage snarl; and there was a sound of rending and crunching: at this moment, a hound uttered a bay so near and loud it rang through the house; and the three at the window shrank together. Then the leopard feared for her supper, and glided swiftly and stealthily away with it towards the woods, and the very next moment horses and men and dogs came helter-skelter past the window, and followed her full cry. Martin and his companions breathed again: the leopard was swift, and would not be caught within a league of their house. They grasped hands. Margaret seized this opportunity, and cried a little; Gerard kissed the tears away.
To table once more, and Gerard drank to woman's wit: "'Tis stronger than man's force," said he.
"Ay," said Margaret, "when those she loves are in danger; not else."
To-night Gerard stayed with her longer than usual, and went home prouder than ever of her, and happy as a prince. Some little distance from home, under the shadow of some trees, he encountered two figures: they almost barred his way.
It was his father and mother.
Out so late! what could be the cause?
A chill fell on him.
He stopped and looked at them: they stood grim and silent. He stammered out some words of inquiry.
"Why ask?" said the father; "you know why we are here."
"Oh, Gerard!" said his mother, with a voice full of reproach yet of affection.
Gerard's heart quaked: he was silent.
Then his father pitied his confusion, and said to him:
"Nay, you need not to hang your head. You are not the first young fool that has been caught by a red cheek and a pair of blue eyes."
"Nay, nay!" put in Catherine, "it was witchcraft; Peter the Magician is well known for that."
"Come, Sir Priest," resumed his father, "you know you must not meddle with women folk. But give us your promise to go no more to Sevenbergen, and here all ends: we won't be hard on you for one fault."
"I cannot promise that, father."
"Not promise it, you young hypocrite!"
"Nay, father, miscall me not: I lacked courage to tell you what I knew would vex you; and right grateful am I to that good friend, whoever he be, that has let you wot. 'Tis a load off my mind. Yes, father, I love Margaret; and call me not a priest, for a priest I will never be. I will die sooner."
"That we shall see, young man. Come, gainsay me no more; you will learn what 'tis to disrespect a father."
Gerard held his peace, and the three walked home in gloomy silence, broken only by a deep sigh or two from Catherine.
From that hour the little house at Tergou was no longer the abode of peace. Gerard was taken to task next day before the whole family; and every voice was loud against him, except little Kate's and the dwarf's, who was apt to take his cue from her without knowing why. As for Cornelis and Sybrandt, they were bitterer than their father. Gerard was dismayed at finding so many enemies, and looked wistfully into his little sister's face: her eyes were brimming at the harsh words showered on one who but yesterday was the universal pet. But she gave him no encouragement: she turned her head away from him and said:
"Dear, dear Gerard, pray to Heaven to cure you of this folly!"
"What, are you against me too?" said Gerard, sadly; and he rose with a deep sigh, and left the house and went to Sevenbergen.
The beginning of a quarrel, where the parties are bound by affection though opposed in interest and sentiment, is comparatively innocent: both are perhaps in the right at first starting, and then it is that a calm, judicious friend, capable of seeing both sides, is a gift from Heaven. For the longer the dissension endures, the wider and deeper it grows by the fallibility and irascibility of human nature: these are not confined to either side, and finally the invariable end is reached—both in the wrong.
The combatants were unequally matched: Elias was angry, Cornelis and Sybrandt spiteful; but Gerard, having a larger and more cultivated mind, saw both sides where they saw but one, and had fits of irresolution, and was not wroth, but unhappy. He was lonely, too, in this struggle. He could open his heart to no one. Margaret was a high-spirited girl: he dared not tell her what he had to endure at home; she was capable of siding with his relations by resigning him, though at the cost of her own happiness. Margaret Van Eyck had been a great comfort to him on another occasion; but now he dared not make her his confidant. Her own history was well known. In early life she had many offers of marriage; but refused them all for the sake of that art, to which a wife's and mother's duties are so fatal: thus she remained single and painted with her brothers. How could he tell her that he declined the benefice she had got him, and declined it for the sake of that which at his age she had despised and sacrificed so lightly?
Gerard at this period bade fair to succumb. But the other side had a horrible ally in Catherine, senior. This good-hearted but uneducated woman could not, like her daughter, act quietly and firmly: still less could she act upon a plan. She irritated Gerard at times, and so helped him; for anger is a great sustainer of the courage: at others she turned round in a moment and made onslaughts on her own forces. To take a single instance out of many: one day that they were all at home, Catherine and all, Cornelis said: "Our Gerard wed Margaret Brandt? Why, it is hunger marrying thirst."
"And what will it be when you marry?" cried Catherine. "Gerard can paint, Gerard can write, but what can you do to keep a woman, ye lazy loon? Nought but wait for your father's shoon. Oh we can see why you and Sybrandt would not have the poor boy to marry. You are afraid he will come to us for a share of our substance. And say that he does, and say that we give it him, it isn't yourn we part from, and mayhap never will be."
On these occasions Gerard smiled slily, and picked up heart, and temporary confusion fell on Catherine's unfortunate allies. But at last, after more than six months of irritation, came the climax. The father told the son before the whole family he had ordered the burgomaster to imprison him in the Stadthouse rather than let him marry Margaret. Gerard turned pale with anger at this, but by a great effort held his peace. His father went on to say, "And a priest you shall be before the year is out, nilly-willy."
"Is it so?" cried Gerard. "Then, hear me, all. By God and St. Bavon I swear I will never be a priest while Margaret lives. Since force is to decide it, and not love and duty, try force, father; but force shall not serve you, for the day I see the burgomaster come for me, I leave Tergou for ever, and Holland too, and my father's house, where it seems I have been valued all these years, not for myself, but for what is to be got out of me."
And he flung out of the room white with anger and desperation.
"There!" cried Catherine, "that comes of driving young folks too hard. But men are crueller than tigers, even to their own flesh and blood. Now, Heaven forbid he should ever leave us, married or single."
As Gerard came out of the house, his cheeks pale and his heart panting, he met Reicht Heynes: she had a message for him: Margaret Van Eyck desired to see him. He found the old lady seated grim as a judge. She wasted no time in preliminaries, but inquired coldly why he had not visited her of late: before he could answer, she said in a sarcastic tone, "I thought we had been friends, young sir."
At this Gerard looked the picture of doubt and consternation.
"It is because you never told her you were in love," said Reicht Heynes, pitying his confusion.
"Silence, wench! Why should he tell us his affairs? We are not his friends: we have not deserved his confidence."
"Alas! my second mother," said Gerard, "I did not dare to tell you my folly."
"What folly? Is it folly to love?"
"I am told so every day of my life."
"You need not have been afraid to tell my mistress; she is always kind to true lovers."
"Madam—Reicht I was afraid because I was told..."
"Well, you were told—?"
"That in your youth you scorned love, preferring art."
"I did, boy; and what is the end of it? Behold me here a barren stock, while the women of my youth have a troop of children at their side, and grandchildren at their knee I gave up the sweet joys of wifehood and motherhood for what? For my dear brothers. They have gone and left me long ago. For my art. It has all but left me too. I have the knowledge still, but what avails that when the hand trembles. No, Gerard; I look on you as my son. You are good, you are handsome, you are a painter, though not like some I have known. I will not let you throw your youth away as I did mine: you shall marry this Margaret. I have inquired, and she is a good daughter. Reicht here is a gossip. She has told me all about it. But that need not hinder you to tell me."
Poor Gerard was overjoyed to be permitted to praise Margaret aloud, and to one who could understand what he loved in her.
Soon there were two pair of wet eyes over his story; and when the poor boy saw that, there were three.
Women are creatures brimful of courage. Theirs is not exactly the same quality as manly courage; that would never do, hang it all; we should have to give up trampling on them. No; it is a vicarious courage. They never take part in a bull-fight by any chance; but it is remarked that they sit at one unshaken by those tremors and apprehensions for the combatants to which the male spectator—feeble-minded wretch!—is subject. Nothing can exceed the resolution with which they have been known to send forth men to battle: as some witty dog says,
"Les femmes sont tres braves avec le peur d'autrui."
By this trait Gerard now profited. Margaret and Reicht were agreed that a man should always take the bull by the horns. Gerard's only course was to marry Margaret Brandt off-hand; the old people would come to after a while, the deed once done. Whereas, the longer this misunderstanding continued on its present footing, the worse for all parties, especially for Gerard.
"See how pale and thin they have made him amongst them."
"Indeed you are, Master Gerard," said Reicht. "It makes a body sad to see a young man so wasted and worn. Mistress, when I met him in the street to-day, I had liked to have burst out crying: he was so changed.
"And I'll be bound the others keep their colour; ah, Reicht? such as it is."
"Oh, I see no odds in them."
"Of course not. We painters are no match for boors. We are glass, they are stone. We can't stand the worry, worry, worry of little minds; and it is not for the good of mankind we should be exposed to it. It is hard enough, Heaven knows, to design and paint a masterpiece, without having gnats and flies stinging us to death into the bargain."
Exasperated as Gerard was by his father's threat of violence, he listened to these friendly voices telling him the prudent course was rebellion. But though he listened, he was not convinced.
"I do not fear my father's violence," he said, "but I do fear his anger. When it came to the point he would not imprison me. I would marry Margaret to-morrow if that was my only fear. No; he would disown me. I should take Margaret from her father, and give her a poor husband, who would never thrive, weighed down by his parent's curse. Madam! I sometimes think if I could marry her secretly, and then take her away to some country where my craft is better paid than in this; and after a year or two, when the storm had blown over, you know, could come back with money in my purse, and say, 'My dear parents, we do not seek your substance, we but ask you to love us once more as you used, and as we have never ceased to love you'—but, alas! I shall be told these are the dreams of an inexperienced young man."
The old lady's eyes sparkled.
"It is no dream, but a piece of wonderful common-sense in a boy; it remains to be seen whether you have spirit to carry out your own thought. There is a country, Gerard, where certain fortune awaits you at this moment. Here the arts freeze, but there they flourish, as they never yet flourished in any age or land."
"It is Italy!" cried Gerard. "It is Italy!"
"Ay, Italy! where painters are honoured like princes, and scribes are paid three hundred crowns for copying a single manuscript. Know you not that his Holiness the Pope has written to every land for skilful scribes to copy the hundreds of precious manuscripts that are pouring into that favoured land from Constantinople, whence learning and learned men are driven by the barbarian Turks?"
"Nay, I know not that; but it has been the dream and hope of my life to visit Italy, the queen of all the arts; oh, madam! But the journey, and we are all so poor."
"Find you the heart to go, I'll find the means. I know where to lay my hand on ten golden angels: they will take you to Rome: and the girl with you, if she loves you as she ought."
They sat till midnight over this theme. And, after that day, Gerard recovered his spirits, and seemed to carry a secret talisman against all the gibes and the harsh words that flew about his ears at home.
Besides the money she procured him for the journey, Margaret Van Eyck gave him money's worth. Said she, "I will tell you secrets that I learned from masters that are gone from me, and have left no fellow behind. Even the Italians know them not; and what I tell you now in Tergou you shall sell here in Florence. Note my brother Jan's pictures: time, which fades all other paintings, leaves his colours bright as the day they left the easel. The reason is, he did nothing blindly, in a hurry. He trusted to no hireling to grind his colours; he did it himself, or saw it done. His panel was prepared and prepared again—I will show you how—a year before he laid his colour on. Most of them are quite content to have their work sucked up and lost, sooner than not be in a hurry. Bad painters are always in a hurry. Above all, Gerard, I warn you use but little oil, and never boil it: boiling it melts that vegetable dross into its heart which it is our business to clear away; for impure oil is death to colour. No; take your oil and pour it into a bottle with water. In a day or two the water will turn muddy: that is muck from the oil. Pour the dirty water carefully away and add fresh. When that is poured away, you will fancy the oil is clear. You're mistaken. Reicht, fetch me that!" Reicht brought a glass trough with a glass lid fitting tight. "When your oil has been washed in bottle, put it into this trough with water, and put the trough in the sun all day. You will soon see the water turbid again. But mark, you must not carry this game too far, or the sun will turn your oil to varnish. When it is as clear as crystal, not too luscious, drain carefully, and cork it up tight. Grind your own prime colours, and lay them on with this oil, and they shall live. Hubert would put sand or salt in the water to clear the oil quicker. But Jan used to say, 'Water will do it best; give water time.' Jan Van Eyck was never in a hurry, and that is why the world will not forget him in a hurry."
This and several other receipts, quae nunc perscribere longum est, Margaret gave him with sparkling eyes, and Gerard received them like a legacy from Heaven, so interesting are some things that read uninteresting. Thus provided with money and knowledge, Gerard decided to marry and fly with his wife to Italy. Nothing remained now but to inform Margaret Brandt of his resolution, and to publish the banns as quietly as possible. He went to Sevenbergen earlier than usual on both these errands. He began with Margaret; told her of the Dame Van Eyck's goodness, and the resolution he had come to at last, and invited her co-operation.
She refused it plump.
"No, Gerard; you and I have never spoken of your family, but when you come to marriage—" She stopped, then began again. "I do think your father has no ill-will to me more than to another. He told Peter Buyskens as much, and Peter told me. But so long as he is bent on your being a priest (you ought have told me this instead of I you), I could not marry you, Gerard, dearly as I love you."
Gerard strove in vain to shake this resolution. He found it very easy to make her cry, but impossible to make her yield. Then Gerard was impatient and unjust.
"Very well!" he cried; "then you are on their side, and you will drive me to be a priest, for this must end one way or another. My parents hate me in earnest, but my lover only loves me in jest."
And with this wild, bitter speech, he flung away home again, and left Margaret weeping.
When a man misbehaves, the effect is curious on a girl who loves him sincerely. It makes her pity him. This, to some of us males, seems anything but logical. The fault is in our own eye; the logic is too swift for us. The girl argues thus:—"How unhappy, how vexed, how poor he must be to misbehave! Poor thing!"
Margaret was full of this sweet womanly pity, when, to her great surprise, scarce an hour and a half after he left her, Gerard came running back to her with the fragments of a picture in his hand, and panting with anger and grief.
"There, Margaret! see! see! the wretches! Look at their spite! They have cut your portrait to pieces."
Margaret looked, and, sure enough, some malicious hand had cut her portrait into five pieces. She was a good girl, but she was not ice; she turned red to her very forehead.
"Who did it?"
"Nay, I know not. I dared not ask; for I should hate the hand that did it, ay, till my dying day. My poor Margaret! The butchers, the ruffians! Six months' work cut out of my life, and nothing to show for it now. See, they have hacked through your very face; the sweet face that every one loves who knows it. Oh, heartless, merciless vipers!"
"Never mind, Gerard," said Margaret, panting. "Since this is how they treat you for my sake—Ye rob him of my portrait, do ye? Well, then, he shall have the face itself, such as it is."
"Yes, Gerard; since they are so cruel, I will be the kinder: forgive me for refusing you. I will be your wife: to-morrow, if it is your pleasure."
Gerard kissed her hands with rapture, and then her lips; and in a tumult of joy ran for Peter and Martin. They came and witnessed the betrothal; a solemn ceremony in those days, and indeed for more than a century later, though now abolished.
The banns of marriage had to be read three times, as in our days; with this difference, that they were commonly read on week-days, and the young couple easily persuaded the cure to do the three readings in twenty-four hours: he was new to the place, and their looks spoke volumes in their favour. They were cried on Monday at matins and at vespers; and, to their great delight, nobody from Tergou was in the church. The next morning they were both there, palpitating with anxiety, when, to their horror, a stranger stood up and forbade the banns, On the score that the parties were not of age, and their parents not consenting.
Outside the church door Margaret and Gerard held a trembling, and almost despairing consultation; but, before they could settle anything, the man who had done them so ill a turn approached, and gave them to understand that he was very sorry to interfere: that his inclination was to further the happiness of the young; but that in point of fact his only means of getting a living was by forbidding banns: what then? "The young people give me a crown, and I undo my work handsomely; tell the cure I was misinformed, and all goes smoothly."
"A crown! I will give you a golden angel to do this," said Gerard eagerly; the man consented as eagerly, and went with Gerard to the cure, and told him he had made a ridiculous mistake, which a sight of the parties had rectified. On this the cure agreed to marry the young couple next day at ten: and the professional obstructor of bliss went home with Gerard's angel. Like most of these very clever knaves, he was a fool, and proceeded to drink his angel at a certain hostelry in Tergou where was a green devoted to archery and the common sports of the day. There, being drunk, he bragged of his day's exploit; and who should be there, imbibing every word, but a great frequenter of the spot, the ne'er-do-weel Sybrandt. Sybrandt ran home to tell his father; his father was not at home; he was gone to Rotterdam to buy cloth of the merchants. Catching his elder brother's eye, he made him a signal to come out, and told him what he had heard.
There are black sheep in nearly every large family; and these two were Gerard's black brothers. Idleness is vitiating: waiting for the death of those we ought to love is vitiating; and these two one-idea'd curs were ready to tear any one to death that should interfere with that miserable inheritance which was their thought by day and their dream by night. Their parents' parsimony was a virtue; it was accompanied by industry, and its motive was love of their offspring; but in these perverse and selfish hearts that homely virtue was perverted into avarice, than which no more fruitful source of crimes is to be found in nature.
They put their heads together, and agreed not to tell their mother, whose sentiments were so uncertain, but to go first to the burgomaster. They were cunning enough to see that he was averse to the match, though they could not divine why.
Ghysbrecht Van Swieten saw through them at once; but he took care not to let them see through him. He heard their story, and putting on magisterial dignity and coldness, he said;
"Since the father of the family is not here, his duty falleth on me, who am the father of the town. I know your father's mind; leave all to me; and, above all, tell not a woman a word of this, least of all the women that are in your own house: for chattering tongues mar wisest counsels."
So he dismissed them, a little superciliously: he was ashamed of his confederates.
On their return home they found their brother Gerard seated on a low stool at their mother's knee: she was caressing his hair with her hand, speaking very kindly to him, and promising to take his part with his father and thwart his love no more. The main cause of this change of mind was characteristic of the woman. She it was who in a moment of female irritation had cut Margaret's picture to pieces. She had watched the effect with some misgivings, and had seen Gerard turn pale as death, and sit motionless like a bereaved creature, with the pieces in his hands, and his eyes fixed on them till tears came and blinded them. Then she was terrified at what she had done; and next her heart smote her bitterly; and she wept sore apart; but, being what she was, dared not own it, but said to herself, "I'll not say a word, but I'll make it up to him." And her bowels yearned over her son, and her feeble violence died a natural death, and she was transferring her fatal alliance to Gerard when the two black sheep came in. Gerard knew nothing of the immediate cause; on the contrary, inexperienced as he was in the ins and outs of females, her kindness made him ashamed of a suspicion he had entertained that she was the depredator, and he kissed her again and again, and went to bed happy as a prince to think his mother was his mother once more at the very crisis of his fate.
The next morning, at ten o'clock, Gerard and Margaret were in the church at Sevenbergen, he radiant with joy, she with blushes. Peter was also there, and Martin Wittenhaagen, but no other friend. Secrecy was everything. Margaret had declined Italy. She could not leave her father; he was too learned and too helpless. But it was settled they should retire into Flanders for a few weeks until the storm should be blown over at Tergou. The cure did not keep them waiting long, though it seemed an age. Presently he stood at the altar, and called them to him. They went hand in hand, the happiest in Holland. The cure opened his book.
But ere he uttered a single word of the sacred rite, a harsh voice cried "Forbear!" And the constables of Tergou came up the aisle and seized Gerard in the name of the law. Martin's long knife flashed out directly.
"Forbear, man!" cried the priest. "What! draw your weapon in a church, and ye who interrupt this holy sacrament, what means this impiety?"
"There is no impiety, father," said the burgomaster's servant respectfully. "This young man would marry against his father's will, and his father has prayed our burgomaster to deal with him according to the law. Let him deny it if he can."
"Is this so, young man?"
Gerard hung his head.
"We take him to Rotterdam to abide the sentence of the Duke."
At this Margaret uttered a cry of despair, and the young creatures, who were so happy a moment ago, fell to sobbing in one another's arms so piteously, that the instruments of oppression drew back a step and were ashamed; but one of them that was good-natured stepped up under pretence of separating them, and whispered to Margaret:
"Rotterdam? it is a lie. We but take him to our Stadthouse."
They took him away on horseback, on the road to Rotterdam; and, after a dozen halts, and by sly detours, to Tergou. Just outside the town they were met by a rude vehicle covered with canvas. Gerard was put into this, and about five in the evening was secretly conveyed into the prison of the Stadthouse. He was taken up several flights of stairs and thrust into a small room lighted only by a narrow window, with a vertical iron bar. The whole furniture was a huge oak chest.
Imprisonment in that age was one of the highroads to death. It is horrible in its mildest form; but in those days it implied cold, unbroken solitude, torture, starvation, and often poison. Gerard felt he was in the hands of an enemy.
"Oh, the look that man gave me on the road to Rotterdam. There is more here than my father's wrath. I doubt I shall see no more the light of day." And he kneeled down and commended his soul to God.
Presently he rose and sprang at the iron bar of the window, and clutched it. This enabled him to look out by pressing his knees against the wall. It was but for a minute; but in that minute he saw a sight such as none but a captive can appreciate.
Martin Wittenhaagen's back.
Martin was sitting, quietly fishing in the brook near the Stadthouse.
Gerard sprang again at the window, and whistled. Martin instantly showed that he was watching much harder than fishing. He turned hastily round and saw Gerard—made him a signal, and taking up his line and bow, went quickly off.
Gerard saw by this that his friends were not idle: yet had rather Martin had stayed. The very sight of him was a comfort. He held on, looking at the soldier's retiring form as long as he could, then falling back somewhat heavily wrenched the rusty iron bar, held only by rusty nails, away from the stone-work just as Ghysbrecht Van Swieten opened the door stealthily behind him. The burgomaster's eye fell instantly on the iron, and then glanced at the window; but he said nothing. The window was a hundred feet from the ground; and if Gerard had a fancy for jumping out, why should he balk it? He brought a brown loaf and a pitcher of water, and set them on the chest in solemn silence. Gerard's first impulse was to brain him with the iron bar and fly down the stairs; but the burgomaster seeing something wicked in his eye, gave a little cough, and three stout fellows, armed, showed themselves directly at the door.
"My orders are to keep you thus until you shall bind yourself by an oath to leave Margaret Brandt, and return to the Church, to which you have belonged from your cradle."
"With all my heart." And the burgomaster retired.
Martin went with all speed to Sevenbergen; there he found Margaret pale and agitated, but full of resolution and energy. She was just finishing a letter to the Countess Charolois, appealing to her against the violence and treachery of Ghysbrecht.
"Courage!" cried Martin on entering. "I have found him. He is in the haunted tower, right at the top of it. Ay, I know the place: many a poor fellow has gone up there straight, and come down feet foremost."
He then told them how he had looked up and seen Gerard's face at a window that was like a slit in the wall.
"Oh, Martin! how did he look?"
"What mean you? He looked like Gerard Eliassoen."
"But was he pale?"
"Looked he anxious? Looked he like one doomed?"
"Nay, nay; as bright as a pewter pot."
"You mock me. Stay! then that must have been at sight of you. He counts on us. Oh, what shall we do? Martin, good friend, take this at once to Rotterdam."
Martin held out his hand for the letter.
Peter had sat silent all this time, but pondering, and yet, contrary to custom, keenly attentive to what was going on around him.
"Put not your trust in princes," said he.
"Alas! what else have we to trust in?"
"Well-a-day, father! your learning will not serve us here."
"How know you that? Wit has been too strong for iron bars ere to-day.
"Ay, father; but nature is stronger than wit, and she is against us. Think of the height! No ladder in Holland might reach him."
"I need no ladder; what I need is a gold crown."
"Nay, I have money, for that matter. I have nine angels. Gerard gave them me to keep; but what do they avail? The burgomaster will not be bribed to let Gerard free."
"What do they avail? Give me but one crown, and the young man shall sup with us this night."
Peter spoke so eagerly and confidently, that for a moment Margaret felt hopeful; but she caught Martin's eye dwelling upon him with an expression of benevolent contempt.
"It passes the powers of man's invention," said she, with a deep sigh.
"Invention!" cried the old man. "A fig for invention. What need we invention at this time of day? Everything has been said that is to be said, and done that ever will be done. I shall tell you how a Florentine knight was shut up in a tower higher than Gerard's; yet did his faithful squire stand at the tower foot and get him out, with no other engine than that in your hand, Martin, and certain kickshaws I shall buy for a crown."
Martin looked at his bow, and turned it round in his hand, and seemed to interrogate it. But the examination left him as incredulous as before.
Then Peter told them his story, how the faithful squire got the knight out of a high tower at Brescia. The manoeuvre, like most things that are really scientific, was so simple, that now their wonder was they had taken for impossible what was not even difficult.
The letter never went to Rotterdam. They trusted to Peter's learning and their own dexterity.
It was nine o'clock on a clear moonlight night; Gerard, senior, was still away; the rest of his little family had been some time abed.
A figure stood by the dwarf's bed. It was white, and the moonlight shone on it.
With an unearthly noise, between a yell and a snarl, the gymnast rolled off his bed and under it by a single unbroken movement. A soft voice followed him in his retreat.
"Why, Giles, are you afeard of me?"
At this, Giles's head peeped cautiously up, and he saw it was only his sister Kate.
She put her finger to her lips. "Hush! lest the wicked Cornelis or the wicked Sybrandt hear us." Giles's claws seized the side of the bed, and he returned to his place by one undivided gymnastic.
Kate then revealed to Giles that she had heard Cornelis and Sybrandt mention Gerard's name; and being herself in great anxiety at his not coming home all day, had listened at their door, and had made a fearful discovery. Gerard was in prison, in the haunted tower of the Stadthouse. He was there, it seemed, by their father's authority. But here must be some treachery; for how could their father have ordered this cruel act? He was at Rotterdam. She ended by entreating Giles to bear her company to the foot of the haunted tower, to say a word of comfort to poor Gerard, and let him know their father was absent, and would be sure to release him on his return.
"Dear Giles, I would go alone, but I am afeard of the spirits that men say do haunt the tower; but with you I shall not be afeard."
"Nor I with you," said Giles. "I don't believe there are any spirits in Tergou. I never saw one. This last was the likest one ever I saw; and it was but you, Kate, after all."
In less than half an hour Giles and Kate opened the housedoor cautiously and issued forth. She made him carry a lantern, though the night was bright. "The lantern gives me more courage against the evil spirits," said she.
The first day of imprisonment is very trying, especially if to the horror of captivity is added the horror of utter solitude. I observe that in our own day a great many persons commit suicide during the first twenty-four hours of the solitary cell. This is doubtless why our Jairi abstain so carefully from the impertinence of watching their little experiment upon the human soul at that particular stage of it.
As the sun declined, Gerard's heart too sank and sank; with the waning light even the embers of hope went out. He was faint, too, with hunger; for he was afraid to eat the food Ghysbrecht had brought him; and hunger alone cows men. He sat upon the chest, his arms and his head drooping before him, a picture of despondency. Suddenly something struck the wall beyond him very sharply, and then rattled on the floor at his feet. It was an arrow; he saw the white feather. A chill ran through him—they meant then to assassinate him from the outside. He crouched. No more missiles came. He crawled on all fours, and took up the arrow; there was no head to it. He uttered a cry of hope: had a friendly hand shot it? He took it up, and felt it all over: he found a soft substance attached to it. Then one of his eccentricities was of grand use to him. His tinder-box enabled him to strike a light: it showed him two things that made his heart bound with delight, none the less thrilling for being somewhat vague. Attached to the arrow was a skein of silk, and on the arrow itself were words written.
How his eyes devoured them, his heart panting the while!
Well beloved, make fast the silk to thy knife and lower to us: but hold thine end fast: then count an hundred and draw up.
Gerard seized the oak chest, and with almost superhuman energy dragged it to the window: a moment ago he could not have moved it. Standing on the chest and looking down, he saw figures at the tower foot. They were so indistinct, they looked like one huge form. He waved his bonnet to them with trembling hand: then he undid the silk rapidly but carefully, and made one end fast to his knife and lowered it till it ceased to draw. Then he counted a hundred. Then pulled the silk carefully up: it came up a little heavier. At last he came to a large knot, and by that knot a stout whipcord was attached to the silk. What could this mean? While he was puzzling himself Margaret's voice came up to him, low but clear. "Draw up, Gerard, till you see liberty." At the word Gerard drew the whipcord line up, and drew and drew till he came to another knot, and found a cord of some thickness take the place of the whipcord. He had no sooner begun to draw this up, than he found that he had now a heavy weight to deal with. Then the truth suddenly flashed on him, and he went to work and pulled and pulled till the perspiration rolled down him: the weight got heavier and heavier, and at last he was well-nigh exhausted: looking down, he saw in the moonlight a sight that revived him: it was as it were a great snake coming up to him out of the deep shadow cast by the tower. He gave a shout of joy, and a score more wild pulls, and lo! a stout new rope touched his hand: he hauled and hauled, and dragged the end into his prison, and instantly passed it through both handles of the chest in succession, and knotted it firmly; then sat for a moment to recover his breath and collect his courage. The first thing was to make sure that the chest was sound, and capable of resisting his weight poised in mid-air. He jumped with all his force upon it. At the third jump the whole side burst open, and out scuttled the contents, a host of parchments.
After the first start and misgiving this gave him, Gerard comprehended that the chest had not burst, but opened: he had doubtless jumped upon some secret spring. Still it shook in some degree his confidence in the chest's powers of resistance; so he gave it an ally: he took the iron bar and fastened it with the small rope across the large rope, and across the window. He now mounted the chest, and from the chest put his foot through the window, and sat half in and half out, with one hand on that part of the rope which was inside. In the silent night he heard his own heart beat.
The free air breathed on his face, and gave him the courage to risk what we must all lose one day—for liberty. Many dangers awaited him, but the greatest was the first getting on to the rope outside. Gerard reflected. Finally, he put himself in the attitude of a swimmer, his body to the waist being in the prison, his legs outside. Then holding the inside rope with both hands, he felt anxiously with his feet for the outside rope, and when he had got it, he worked it in between the palms of his feet, and kept it there tight: then he uttered a short prayer, and, all the calmer for it, put his left hand on the sill and gradually wriggled out. Then he seized the iron bar, and for one fearful moment hung outside from it by his right hand, while his left hand felt for the rope down at his knees; it was too tight against the wall for his fingers to get round it higher up. The moment he had fairly grasped it, he left the bar, and swiftly seized the rope with the right hand too; but in this manoeuvre his body necessarily fell about a yard. A stifled cry came up from below. Gerard hung in mid-air. He clenched his teeth, and nipped the rope tight with his feet and gripped it with his hands, and went down slowly hand below hand. He passed by one huge rough stone after another. He saw there was green moss on one. He looked up and he looked down. The moon shone into his prison window: it seemed very near. The fluttering figures below seemed an awful distance. It made him dizzy to look down: so he fixed his eyes steadily on the wall close to him, and went slowly down, down, down.
He passed a rusty, slimy streak on the wall: it was some ten feet long. The rope made his hands very hot. He stole another look up.
The prison window was a good way off now.
The rope made his hands sore.
He looked up. The window was so distant, he ventured now to turn his eyes downward again; and there, not more than thirty feet below him, were Margaret and Martin, their faithful hands upstretched to catch him should he fall. He could see their eyes and their teeth shine in the moonlight. For their mouths were open, and they were breathing hard.
"Take care, Gerard oh, take care! Look not down."
"Fear me not," cried Gerard joyfully, and eyed the wall, but came down faster.
In another minute his feet were at their hands. They seized him ere he touched the ground, and all three clung together in one embrace.
"Hush! away in silence, dear one."
They stole along the shadow of the wall.
Now, ere they had gone many yards, suddenly a stream of light shot from an angle of the building, and lay across their path like a barrier of fire, and they heard whispers and footsteps close at hand.
"Back!" hissed Martin. "Keep in the shade."
They hurried back, passed the dangling rope, and made for a little square projecting tower. They had barely rounded it when the light shot trembling past them, and flickered uncertainly into the distance.
"A lantern!" groaned Martin in a whisper. "They are after us."
"Give me my knife," whispered Gerard. "I'll never be taken alive."
"No, no!" murmured Margaret; "is there no way out where we are?"
"None! none! But I carry six lives at my shoulder;" and with the word, Martin strung his bow, and fitted an arrow to the string: "in war never wait to be struck: I will kill one or two ere they shall know where their death comes from:" then, motioning his companions to be quiet he began to draw his bow, and, ere the arrow was quite drawn to the head, he glided round the corner ready to loose the string the moment the enemy should offer a mark.
Gerard and Margaret held their breath in horrible expectation: they had never seen a human being killed.
And now a wild hope, but half repressed, thrilled through Gerard, that this watchful enemy might be the burgomaster in person. The soldier, he knew, would send an arrow through a burgher or burgomaster, as he would through a boar in a wood.
But who may foretell the future, however near? The bow, instead of remaining firm, and loosing the deadly shaft, was seen to waver first, then shake violently, and the stout soldier staggered back to them, his knees knocking and his cheeks blanched with fear. He let his arrow fall, and clutched Gerard's shoulder.
"Let me feel flesh and blood," he gasped. "The haunted tower! the haunted tower!"
His terror communicated itself to Margaret and Gerard. They gasped rather than uttered an inquiry.
"Hush!" he cried, "it will hear you up the wall! it is going up the wall! Its head is on fire. Up the wall, as mortal creatures walk upon green sward. If you know a prayer, say it, for hell is loose to-night."
"I have power to exorcise spirits," said Gerard, trembling. "I will venture forth."
"Go alone then," said Martin; "I have looked on't once, and live."
The strange glance of hatred the burgomaster had cast on Gerard, coupled with his imprisonment, had filled the young man with a persuasion that Ghysbrecht was his enemy to the death, and he glided round the angle of the tower, fully expecting to see no supernatural appearance, but some cruel and treacherous contrivance of a bad man to do him a mischief in that prison, his escape from which could hardly be known.
As he stole forth, a soft but brave hand crept into his; and Margaret was by his side, to share this new peril.
No sooner was the haunted tower visible, than a sight struck their eyes that benumbed them as they stood. More than halfway up the tower, a creature with a fiery head, like an enormous glowworm, was steadily mounting the wall: the body was dark, but its outline visible through the glare from the head, and the whole creature not much less than four feet long.
At the foot of the tower stood a thing in white, that looked exactly like the figure of a female. Gerard and Margaret palpitated with awe.
"The rope! the rope! It is going up the rope," gasped Gerard.
As they gazed, the glowworm disappeared in Gerard's late prison, but its light illuminated the cell inside and reddened the window. The white figure stood motionless below.
Such as can retain their senses after the first prostrating effect of the supernatural are apt to experience terror in one of its strangest forms, a wild desire to fling themselves upon the terrible object. It fascinates them as the snake the bird. The great tragedian Macready used to render this finely in Macbeth, at Banquo's second appearance. He flung himself with averted head at the horrible shadow. This strange impulse now seized Margaret. She put down Gerard's hand quietly, and stood bewildered; then, all in a moment, with a wild cry, darted towards the spectre. Gerard, not aware of the natural impulse I have spoken of, never doubted the evil one was drawing her to her perdition. He fell on his knees.
"Exorcizo vos. In nomine beatae Mariae, exorcizo vos."
While the exorcist was shrieking his incantations in extremity of terror, to his infinite relief he heard the spectre utter a feeble cry of fear. To find that hell had also its little weaknesses was encouraging. He redoubled his exorcisms, and presently he saw the ghastly shape kneeling at Margaret's knees, and heard it praying piteously for mercy.
Kate and Giles soon reached the haunted tower. Judge their surprise when they found a new rope dangling from the prisoner's window to the ground.
"I see how it is," said the inferior intelligence, taking facts as they came. "Our Gerard has come down this rope. He has got clear. Up I go, and see."
"No, Giles, no!" said the superior intelligence, blinded by prejudice. "See you not this is glamour? This rope is a line the evil one casts out to wile thee to destruction. He knows the weaknesses of all our hearts; he has seen how fond you are of going up things. Where should our Gerard procure a rope? how fasten it in the sky like this? It is not in nature. Holy saints protect us this night, for hell is abroad."
"Stuff!" said the dwarf; "the way to hell is down, and this rope leads up. I never had the luck to go up such a long rope. It may be years ere I fall in with such a long rope all ready for me. As well be knocked on the head at once as never know happiness."
And he sprung on to the rope with a cry of delight, as a cat jumps with a mew on to a table where fish is. All the gymnast was on fire; and the only concession Kate could gain from him was permission to fasten the lantern on his neck first.
"A light scares the ill spirits," said she.
And so, with his huge arms, and his legs like feathers, Giles went up the rope faster than his brother came down it. The light at the nape of his neck made a glowworm of him. His sister watched his progress, with trembling anxiety. Suddenly a female figure started out of the solid masonry, and came flying at her with more than mortal velocity.
Kate uttered a feeble cry. It was all she could, for her tongue clove to her palate with terror. Then she dropped her crutches, and sank upon her knees, hiding her face and moaning:
"Take my body, but spare my soul!"
Margaret (panting). "Why, it is a woman!"
Kate (quivering). "Why, it is a woman!"
Margaret. "How you scared me!"
Kate. "I am scared enough myself. Oh! oh! oh!"
"This is strange! But the fiery-headed thing? Yet it was with you, and you are harmless! But why are you here at this time of night?"
"Nay, why are YOU?"
"Perhaps we are on the same errand? Ah! you are his good sister, Kate!"
"And you are Margaret Brandt."
"All the better. You love him; you are here. Then Giles was right. He has won free."
Gerard came forward, and put the question at rest. But all further explanation was cut short by a horrible unearthly noise, like a sepulchre ventriloquizing:
At each repetition, it rose in intensity. They looked up, and there was the dwarf, with his hands full of parchments, and his face lighted with fiendish joy and lurid with diabolical fire. The light being at his neck, a more infernal "transparency" never startled mortal eye. With the word, the awful imp hurled parchment at the astonished heads below. Down came records, like wounded wild-ducks; some collapsed, others fluttering, and others spread out and wheeling slowly down in airy circles. They had hardly settled, when again the sepulchral roar was heard—"Parchment—parchment!" and down pattered and sailed another flock of documents: another followed: they whitened the grass. Finally, the fire-headed imp, with his light body and horny hands, slid down the rope like a falling star, and (business before sentiment) proposed to his rescued brother an immediate settlement for the merchandise he had just delivered.
"Hush!" said Gerard; "you speak too loud. Gather them up, and follow us to a safer place than this."
"Will you come home with me, Gerard?" said little Kate.
"I have no home."
"You shall not say so. Who is more welcome than you will be, after this cruel wrong, to your father's house?
"Father! I have no father," said Gerard sternly. "He that was my father is turned my gaoler. I have escaped from his hands; I will never come within their reach again."
"An enemy did this, and not our father."
And she told him what she had overheard Cornelis and Sybrandt say. But the injury was too recent to be soothed. Gerard showed a bitterness of indignation he had hitherto seemed incapable of.
"Cornelis and Sybrandt are two ill curs that have shown me their teeth and their heart a long while; but they could do no more. My father it is that gave the burgomaster authority, or he durst not have laid a finger on me, that am a free burgher of this town. So be it, then. I was his son. I am his prisoner. He has played his part. I shall play mine. Farewell the burgh where I was born, and lived honestly and was put in prison. While there is another town left in creation, I'll never trouble you again, Tergou."
"Oh! Gerard! Gerard!"
Margaret whispered her: "Do not gainsay him now. Give his choler time to cool!"
Kate turned quickly towards her. "Let me look at your face?" The inspection was favourable, it seemed, for she whispered: "It is a comely face, and no mischief-maker's."
"Fear me not," said Margaret, in the same tone. "I could not be happy without your love, as well as Gerard's."
"These are comfortable words," sobbed Kate. Then, looking up, she said, "I little thought to like you so well. My heart is willing, but my infirmity will not let me embrace you."
At this hint, Margaret wound gently round Gerard's sister, and kissed her lovingly.
"Often he has spoken of you to me, Kate; and often I longed for this."
"You, too, Gerard," said Kate; "kiss me ere you go; for my heart lies heavy at parting with you this night."
Gerard kissed her, and she went on her crutches home. The last thing they heard of her was a little patient sigh. Then the tears came and stood thick in Margaret's eyes. But Gerard was a man, and noticed not his sister's sigh.
As they turned to go to Sevenbergen, the dwarf nudged Gerard with his bundle of parchments and held out a concave claw.
Margaret dissuaded Gerard. "Why take what is not ours?"
"Oh, spoil an enemy how you can."
"But may they not make this a handle for fresh violence?"
"How can they? Think you I shall stay in Tergou after this? The burgomaster robbed me of my liberty; I doubt I should take his life for it, if I could."
"Oh, fie! Gerard."
"What! Is life worth more than liberty? Well, I can't take his life, so I take the first thing that comes to hand."
He gave Giles a few small coins, with which the urchin was gladdened, and shuffled after his sister. Margaret and Gerard were speedily joined by Martin, and away to Sevenbergen.
Ghysbrecht Van Swieten kept the key of Gerard's prison in his pouch. He waited till ten of the clock ere he visited for he said to himself, "A little hunger sometimes does well it breaks 'em." At ten he crept up the stairs with a loaf and pitcher, followed by his trusty servant well armed. Ghysbrecht listened at the door. There was no sound inside. A grim smile stole over his features. "By this time he will be as down-hearted as Albert Koestein was," thought he. He opened the door.
Ghysbrecht stood stupefied.
Although his face was not visible, his body seemed to lose all motion in so peculiar a way, and then after a little he fell trembling so, that the servant behind him saw there was something amiss, and crept close to him and peeped over his shoulder. At sight of the empty cell, and the rope, and iron bar, he uttered a loud exclamation of wonder; but his surprise doubled when his master, disregarding all else, suddenly flung himself on his knees before the empty chest, and felt wildly all over it with quivering hands, as if unwilling to trust his eyes in a matter so important.
The servant gazed at him in utter bewilderment.
"Why, master, what is the matter?"
Ghysbrecht's pale lips worked as if he was going to answer; but they uttered no sound: his hands fell by his side, and he stared into the chest.
"Why, master, what avails glaring into that empty box? The lad is not there. See here! note the cunning of the young rogue; he hath taken out the bar, and—"
"GONE! GONE! GONE!"
"Gone! What is gone, Holy saints! he is planet-struck!"
"STOP THIEF!" shrieked Ghysbrecht, and suddenly turned, on his servant and collared him, and shook him with rage. "D'ye stand there, knave, and see your master robbed? Run! fly! A hundred crowns to him that finds it me again. No, no! 'tis in vain. Oh, fool! fool! to leave that in the same room with him. But none ever found the secret spring before. None ever would but he. It was to be. It is to be. Lost! lost!" and his years and infirmity now gained the better of his short-lived frenzy, and he sank on the chest muttering "Lost! lost!"
"What is lost, master?" asked the servant kindly.
"House and lands and good name," groaned Ghysbrecht, and wrung his hands feebly.
"WHAT?" cried the servant.
This emphatic word, and the tone of eager curiosity, struck on Ghysbrecht's ear and revived his natural cunning.
"I have lost the town records," stammered he, and he looked askant at the man like a fox caught near a hen-roost.
"Oh, is that all?"
"Is't not enough? What will the burghers say to me? What will the burghs do?" Then he suddenly burst out again, "A hundred crowns to him who shall recover them; all, mind, all that were in this box. If one be missing, I give nothing."
"'Tis a bargain, master: the hundred crowns are in my pouch. See you not that where Gerard Eliassoen is, there are the pieces of sheepskin you rate so high?"
"That is true; that is true, good Dierich: good faithful Dierich. All, mind, all that were in the chest."
"Master, I will take the constables to Gerard's house, and seize him for the theft."
"The theft? ay! good; very good. It is theft. I forgot that. So, as he is a thief now, we will put him in the dungeons below, where the toads are and the rats. Dierich, that man must never see daylight again. 'Tis his own fault; he must be prying. Quick, quick! ere he has time to talk, you know, time to talk."
In less than half an hour Dierich Brower and four constables entered the hosier's house, and demanded young Gerard of the panic-stricken Catherine.
"Alas! what has he done now?" cried she; "that boy will break my heart."
"Nay, dame, but a trick of youth," said Dierich. "He hath but made off with certain skins of parchment, in a frolic doubtless but the burgomaster is answerable to the burgh for their safe keeping, so he is in care about them; as for the youth, he will doubtless be quit for a reprimand."
This smooth speech completely imposed on Catherine; but her daughter was more suspicious, and that suspicion was strengthened by the disproportionate anger and disappointment Dierich showed the moment he learned Gerard was not at home, had not been at home that night.
"Come away then," said he roughly. "We are wasting time." He added vehemently, "I'll find him if he is above ground."
Affection sharpens the wits, and often it has made an innocent person more than a match for the wily. As Dierich was going out, Kate made him a signal she would speak with him privately. He bade his men go on, and waited outside the door. She joined him.
"Hush!" said she; "my mother knows not. Gerard has left Tergou."
"I saw him last night."
"Ay! Where?" cried Dierich eagerly.
"At the foot of the haunted tower."
"How did he get the rope?"
"I know not; but this I know; my brother Gerard bade me there farewell, and he is many leagues from Tergou ere this. The town, you know, was always unworthy of him, and when it imprisoned him, he vowed never to set foot in it again. Let the burgomaster be content, then. He has imprisoned him, and he has driven him from his birthplace and from his native land. What need now to rob him and us of our good name?"
This might at another moment have struck Dierich as good sense; but he was too mortified at this escape of Gerard and the loss of a hundred crowns.
"What need had he to steal?" retorted he bitterly.
"Gerard stole not the trash; he but took it to spite the burgomaster, who stole his liberty; but he shall answer to the Duke for it, he shall. As for these skins of parchment you keep such a coil about, look in the nearest brook or stye, and 'tis odds but you find them."
"Think ye so, mistress?—think ye so?" And Dierich's eyes flashed. "Mayhap you know 'tis so."
"This I know, that Gerard is too good to steal, and too wise to load himself with rubbish, going a journey."
"Give you good day, then," said Dierich sharply. "The sheepskin you scorn, I value it more than the skin of any in Tergou."
And he went off hastily on a false scent.
Kate returned into the house and drew Giles aside.
"Giles, my heart misgives me; breathe not to a soul what I say to you. I have told Dirk Brower that Gerard is out of Holland, but much I doubt he is not a league from Tergou."
"Why, where is he, then?"
"Where should he be, but with her he loves? But if so, he must not loiter. These be deep and dark and wicked men that seek him. Giles, I see that in Dirk Brower's eye makes me tremble. Oh, why cannot I fly to Sevenbergen and bid him away? Why am I not lusty and active like other girls? God forgive me for fretting at His will; but I never felt till now what it is to be lame and weak and useless. But you are strong, dear Giles," added she coaxingly; "you are very strong."
"Yes, I am strong," thundered Perpusillus; then, catching sight of her meaning, "but I hate to go on foot," he added sulkily.
"Alas! alas! who will help me if you will not? Dear Giles, do you not love Gerard?"
"Yes, I like him best of the lot. I'll go to Sevenbergen on Peter Buyskens his mule. Ask you him, for he won't lend her me."
Kate remonstrated. The whole town would follow him. It would be known whither he was gone, and Gerard be in worse danger than before.
Giles parried this by promising to ride out of the town the opposite way, and not turn the mule's head towards Sevenbergen till he had got rid of the curious.
Kate then assented and borrowed the mule. She charged Giles with a short but meaning message, and made him repeat it after her over and over, till he could say it word for word.
Giles started on the mule, and little Kate retired, and did the last thing now in her power for her beloved brother—prayed on her knees long and earnestly for his safety.
Gerard and Margaret went gaily to Sevenbergen in the first flush of recovered liberty and successful adventure. But these soon yielded to sadder thoughts. Gerard was an escaped prisoner, and liable to be retaken and perhaps punished; and therefore he and Margaret would have to part for a time. Moreover, he had conceived a hatred to his native place. Margaret wished him to leave the country for a while, but at the thought of his going to Italy her heart fainted. Gerard, on the contrary, was reconciled to leaving Margaret only by his desire to visit Italy, and his strong conviction that there he should earn money and reputation, and remove every obstacle to their marriage. He had already told her all that the demoiselle Van Eyck had said to him. He repeated it, and reminded Margaret that the gold pieces were only given him to go to Italy with. The journey was clearly for Gerard's interest. He was a craftsman and an artist, lost in this boorish place. In Italy they would know how to value him. On this ground above all the unselfish girl gave her consent; but many tender tears came with it, and at that Gerard, young and loving as herself, cried bitterly with her, and often they asked one another what they had done, that so many different persons should be their enemies, and combine, as it seemed, to part them.
They sat hand in hand till midnight, now deploring their hard fate, now drawing bright and hopeful pictures of the future, in the midst of which Margaret's tears would suddenly flow, and then poor Gerard's eloquence would die away in a sigh.
The morning found them resigned to part, but neither had the courage to say when; and much I doubt whether the hour of parting ever would have struck.
But about three in the afternoon, Giles, who had made a circuit of many miles to avoid suspicion, rode up to the door. They both ran out to him, eager with curiosity.
"Brother Gerard," cried he, in his tremendous tones, "Kate bids you run for your life. They charge you with theft; you have given them a handle. Think not to explain. Hope not for justice in Tergou. The parchments you took, they are but a blind. She hath seen your death in the men's eyes; a price is on your head. Fly! For Margaret's sake and all who love you, loiter not life away, but fly!"
It was a thunder-clap, and left two white faces looking at one another, and at the terrible messenger.
Then Giles, who had hitherto but uttered by rote what Catherine bade him, put in a word of his own.
"All the constables were at our house after you, and so was Dirk Brower. Kate is wise, Gerard. Best give ear to her rede, and fly!"
"Oh, yes, Gerard," cried Margaret wildly. "Fly on the instant. Ah! those parchments; my mind misgave me: why did I let you take them?"
"Margaret, they are but a blind: Giles says so. No matter: the old caitiff shall never see them again; I will not go till I have hidden his treasure where he shall never find it." Gerard then, after thanking Giles warmly, bade him farewell, and told him to go back and tell Kate he was gone. "For I shall be gone ere you reach home," said he. He then shouted for Martin; and told him what had happened, and begged him to go a little way towards Tergou, and watch the road.
"Ay!" said Martin, "and if I see Dirk Brower or any of his men, I will shoot an arrow into the oak-tree that is in our garden; and on that you must run into the forest hard by, and meet me at the weird hunter's spring. Then I will guide you through the wood."
Surprise thus provided against, Gerard breathed again. He went with Margaret, and while she watched the oak-tree tremblingly, fearing every moment to see an arrow strike among the branches, Gerard dug a deep hole to bury the parchments in.
He threw them in, one by one. They were nearly all charters and records of the burgh; but one appeared to be a private deed between Floris Brandt, father of Peter, and Ghysbrecht.
"Why, this is as much yours as his," said Gerard. "I will read this."
"Oh, not now, Gerard, not now," cried Margaret. "Every moment you lose fills me with fear; and see, large drops of rain are beginning to fall, and the clouds lower."
Gerard yielded to this remonstrance; but he put the deed into his bosom, and threw the earth in over the others, and stamped it down. While thus employed there came a flash of lightning followed by a peal of distant thunder, and the rain came down heavily. Margaret and Gerard ran into the house, whither they were speedily followed by Martin.
"The road is clear," said he, "and a heavy storm coming on."
His words proved true. The thunder came nearer and nearer till it crashed overhead: the flashes followed one another close, like the strokes of a whip, and the rain fell in torrents. Margaret hid her face not to see the lightning. On this, Gerard put up the rough shutter and lighted a candle. The lovers consulted together, and Gerard blessed the storm that gave him a few hours more with Margaret. The sun set unperceived, and still the thunder pealed, and the lightning flashed, and the rain poured. Supper was set; but Gerard and Margaret could not eat: the thought that this was the last time they should sup together choked them. The storm lulled a little. Peter retired to rest. But Gerard was to go at peep of day, and neither he nor Margaret could afford to lose an hour in sleep. Martin sat a while, too; for he was fitting a new string to his bow, a matter in which he was very nice.
The lovers murmured their sorrows and their love beside him.
Suddenly the old man held up his hand to them to be silent.
They were quiet and listened, and heard nothing. But the next moment a footstep crackled faintly upon the autumn leaves that lay strewn in the garden at the back door of the house. To those who had nothing to fear such a step would have said nothing; but to those who had enemies it was terrible. For it was a foot trying to be noiseless.
Martin fitted an arrow to his string and hastily blew out the candle. At this moment, to their horror, they heard more than one footstep approach the other door of the cottage, not quite so noiselessly as the other, but very stealthily—and then a dead pause.
Their blood froze in their veins.
"Oh, Kate, oh, Kate! You said fly on the instant." And Margaret moaned and wrung her hands in anguish and terror and wild remorse for having kept Gerard.
"Hush, girl!" said Martin, in a stern whisper.
A heavy knock fell on the door.
And on the hearts within.
As if this had been a concerted signal, the back door was struck as rudely the next instant. They were hemmed in. But at these alarming sounds Margaret seemed to recover some share of self-possession. She whispered, "Say he was here, but is gone." And with this she seized Gerard and almost dragged him up the rude steps that led to her father's sleeping-room. Her own lay next beyond it.
The blows on the door were repeated.
"Who knocks at this hour?"
"Open, and you will see!"
"I open not to thieves—honest men are all abed now."
"Open to the law, Martin Wittenhaagen, or you shall rue it."
"Why, that is Dirk Brower's voice, I trow. What make you so far from Tergou?"
"Open, and you will know."
Martin drew the bolt very slowly, and in rushed Dierich and four more. They let in their companion who was at the back door.
"Now, Martin, where is Gerard Eliassoen?"
"Gerard Eliassoen? Why, he was here but now!"
"Was here?" Dierich's countenance fell. "And where is he now?"
"They say he has gone to Italy. Why, what is to do?"
"No matter. When did he go? Tell me not that he went in such a storm as this!"
"Here is a coil about Gerard Eliassoen," said Martin contemptuously. Then he lighted the candle, and seating himself coolly by the fire, proceeded to whip some fine silk round his bow-string at the place where the nick of the arrow frets it.
"I'll tell you," said he carelessly. "Know you his brother Giles?—a little misbegotten imp, all head and arms? Well, he came tearing over here on a mule, and bawled out something, I was too far off to hear the creature's words, but only its noise. Any way, he started Gerard. For as soon as he was gone, there was such crying and kissing, and then Gerard went away. They do tell me he has gone to Italy—mayhap you know where that is, for I don't."
Dierich's countenance fell lower and lower at this account. There was no flaw in it, A cunninger man than Martin would perhaps have told a lie too many and raised suspicion. But Martin did his task well. He only told the one falsehood he was bade to tell, and of his own head invented nothing.
"Mates," said Dierich, "I doubt he speaks sooth. I told the burgomaster how 'twould be. He met the dwarf galloping Peter Buyskens's mule from Sevenbergen. 'They have sent that imp to Gerard,' says he, 'so, then, Gerard is at Sevenbergen.' 'Ah, master!' says I, ''tis too late now. We should have thought of Sevenbergen before, instead of wasting our time hunting all the odd corners of Tergou for those cursed parchments that we shall never find till we find the man that took 'em. If he was at Sevenbergen,' quoth I, 'and they sent the dwarf to him, it must have been to warn him we are after him. He is leagues away by now,' quoth I. Confound that chalk-faced girl! she has outwitted us bearded men; and so I told the burgomaster, but he would not hear reason. A wet jerkin apiece, that is all we shall get, mates, by this job."