"And my waiter thirty sous, besides his perquisites. He is a hantle richer than I am. And then to be insulted as well as pillaged. Last Sunday I went to church. It is a place I trouble not often. Didn't the cure lash the hotel-keepers? I grant you he hit all the trades, except the one that is a byword for looseness, and pride, and sloth, to wit, the clergy. But, mind you, he stripeit the other lay estates with a feather, but us hotel-keepers with a neat's pizzle: godless for this, godless for that, and most godless of all for opening our doors during mass. Why, the law forces us to open at all hours to travellers from another town, stopping, halting, or passing: those be the words. They can fine us before the bailiff if we refuse them, mass or no mass; and say a townsman should creep in with the true travellers, are we to blame? They all vow they are tired wayfarers; and can I ken every face in a great town like this? So if we respect the law our poor souls are to suffer, and if we respect it not, our poor lank purses must bleed at two holes, fine and loss of custom."
A man speaking of himself in general, is "a babbling brook;" of his wrongs, "a shining river."
"Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum."
So luckily for my readers, though not for all concerned, this injured orator was arrested in mid career. Another man burst in upon his wrongs with all the advantage of a recent wrong; a wrong red hot. It was Denys cursing and swearing and crying that he was robbed.
"Did those hussies pass this way? who are they? where do they bide? They have ta'en my purse and fifteen golden pieces: raise the hue and cry! ah! traitresses! vipers! These inns are all guet-apens."
"There now," cried the landlord to Gerard.
Gerard implored him to be calm, and say how it had befallen.
"First one went out on some pretence: then after a while the other went to fetch her back, and neither returning, I clapped hand to purse and found it empty: the ungrateful creatures, I was letting them win it in a gallop: but loaded dice were not quick enough; they must claw it all in a lump."
Gerard was for going at once to the alderman and setting the officers to find them.
"Not I," said Denys. "I hate the law. No: as it came so let it go."
Gerard would not give it up so.
At a hint from the landlord he forced Denys along with him to the provost-marshal. That dignitary shook his head. "We have no clue to occasional thieves, that work honestly at their needles, till some gull comes and tempts them with an easy booty, and then they pluck him.
"Come away," cried Denys furiously. "I knew what use a bourgeois would be to me at a pinch:" and he marched off in a rage.
"They are clear of the town ere this," said Gerard.
"Speak no more on't if you prize my friendship. I have five pieces with the bailiff, and ten I left with Manon, luckily; or these traitresses had feathered their nest with my last plume. What dost gape for so? Nay, I do ill to vent my choler on thee: I'll tell thee all. Art wiser than I. What saidst thou at the door? No matter. Well, then, I did offer marriage to that Manon."
Gerard was dumfounded.
"What? You offered her what?"
"Marriage. Is that such a mighty strange thing to offer a wench?"
"'Tis a strange thing to offer to a strange girl in passing."
"Nay, I am not such a sot as you opine. I saw the corn in all that chaff. I knew I could not get her by fair means, so I was fain to try foul. 'Mademoiselle,' said I, 'marriage is not one of my habits, but struck by your qualities I make an exception; deign to bestow this hand on me.'"
"And she bestowed it on thine ear.'"
"Not so. On the contrary she—Art a disrespectful young monkey. Know that here, not being Holland or any other barbarous state, courtesy begets courtesy. Says she, a colouring like a rose, 'Soldier, you are too late. He is not a patch on you for looks; but then—he has loved me a long time.'
"Why, he that was not too late.' Oh, that is the way they all speak, the loves; the she-wolves. Their little minds go in leaps. Think you they marshal their words in order of battle? Their tongues are in too great a hurry. Says she, 'I love him not; not to say love him; but he does me, and dearly; and for that reason I'd sooner die than cause him grief, I would.'"
"Now I believe she did love him."
"Who doubts that? Why she said so, round about, as they always say these things, and with 'nay' for 'ay.'
"Well one thing led to another, and at last, as she could not give me her hand, she gave me a piece of advice, and that was to leave part of my money with the young mistress. Then, when bad company had cleaned me out, I should have some to travel back with, said she. I said I would better her advice, and leave it with her. Her face got red. Says she, 'Think what you do. Chambermaids have an ill name for honesty.' 'Oh, the devil is not so black as he is painted,' said I. 'I'll risk it;' and I left fifteen gold pieces with her."
Gerard sighed. "I wish you may ever see them again. It is wondrous in what esteem you do hold this sex, to trust so to the first comer. For my part I know little about them; I never saw but one I could love as well as I love thee. But the ancients must surely know; and they held women cheap. 'Levius quid femina,' said they, which is but la Jeanneton's tune in Latin, 'Le peu que sont les femmes.' Also do but see how the greybeards of our own day speak of them, being no longer blinded by desire: this alderman, to wit."
"Oh, novice of novices," cried Denys, "not to have seen why that old fool rails so on the poor things! One day, out of the millions of women he blackens, one did prefer some other man to him: for which solitary piece of bad taste, and ten to one 'twas good taste, he doth bespatter creation's fairer half, thereby proving what? le peu que sont les hommes."
"I see women have a shrewd champion in thee," said Gerard, with a smile. But the next moment inquired gravely why he had not told him all this before.
Denys grinned. "Had the girl said 'Ay,' why then I had told thee straight. But 'tis a rule with us soldiers never to publish our defeats: 'tis much if after each check we claim not a victory."
"Now that is true," said Gerard. "Young as I am, I have seen this; that after every great battle the generals on both sides go to the nearest church, and sing each a Te Deum for the victory; methinks a Te Martem, or Te Bellonam, or Te Mercurium, Mercury being the god of lies, were more fitting."
"Pas si bete," said Denys approvingly. "Hast a good eye: canst see a steeple by daylight. So now tell me how thou hast fared in this town all day."
"Come," said Gerard, "'tis well thou hast asked me: for else I had never told thee." He then related in full how he had been arrested, and by what a providential circumstance he had escaped long imprisonment or speedy conflagration.
His narrative produced an effect he little expected or desired.
"I am a traitor," cried Denys. "I left thee in a strange place to fight thine own battles, while I shook the dice with those jades. Now take thou this sword and pass it through my body forthwith."
"What for in Heaven's name?" inquired Gerard.
"For an example," roared Denys. "For a warning to all false loons that profess friendship, and disgrace it."
"Oh, very well," said Gerard. "Yes. Not a bad notion. Where will you have it?"
"Here, through my heart; that is, where other men have a heart, but I none, or a Satanic false one."
Gerard made a motion to run him through, and flung his arms round his neck instead. "I know no way to thy heart but this, thou great silly thing."
Denys uttered an exclamation, then hugged him warmly—and, quite overcome by this sudden turn of youthful affection and native grace, gulped out in a broken voice, "Railest on women—and art—like them—with thy pretty ways. Thy mother's milk is in thee still. Satan would love thee, or—le bon Dieu would kick him out of hell for shaming it. Give me thy hand! Give me thy hand! May" (a tremendous oath) "if I let thee out of my sight till Italy."
And so the staunch friends were more than reconciled after their short tiff.
The next day the thieves were tried. The pieces de conviction were reduced in number, to the great chagrin of the little clerk, by the interment of the bones. But there was still a pretty show. A thief's hand struck off flagrante delicto; a murdered woman's hair; the Abbot's axe, and other tools of crime. The skulls, etc., were sworn to by the constables who had found them. Evidence was lax in that age and place. They all confessed but the landlord. And Manon was called to bring the crime home to him. Her evidence was conclusive. He made a vain attempt to shake her credibility by drawing from her that her own sweetheart had been one of the gang, and that she had held her tongue so long as he was alive. The public prosecutor came to the aid of his witness, and elicited that a knife had been held to her throat, and her own sweetheart sworn with solemn oaths to kill her should she betray them, and that this terrible threat, and not the mere fear of death, had glued her lips.
The other thieves were condemned to be hanged, and the landlord to be broken on the wheel. He uttered a piercing cry when his sentence was pronounced.
As for poor Manon, she became the subject of universal criticism. Nor did opinion any longer run dead in her favour; it divided into two broad currents. And strange to relate, the majority of her own sex took her part, and the males were but equally divided; which hardly happens once in a hundred years. Perhaps some lady will explain the phenomenon. As for me, I am a little shy of explaining things I don't understand. It has become so common. Meantime, had she been a lover of notoriety, she would have been happy, for the town talked of nothing but her. The poor girl, however, had but one wish to escape the crowd that followed her, and hide her head somewhere where she could cry over her "pendard," whom all these proceedings brought vividly back to her affectionate remembrance. Before he was hanged he had threatened her life; but she was not one of your fastidious girls, who love their male divinities any the less for beating them, kicking them, or killing them, but rather the better, provided these attentions are interspersed with occasional caresses; so it would have been odd indeed had she taken offence at a mere threat of that sort. He had never threatened her with a rival. She sobbed single-mindedly.
Meantime the inn was filled with thirsters for a sight of her, who feasted and drank, to pass away the time till she should deign to appear. When she had been sobbing some time, there was a tap at her door, and the landlord entered with a proposal. "Nay, weep not, good lass, your fortune it is made an you like. Say the word, and you are chambermaid of 'The White Hart.'"
"Nay, nay," said Manon with a fresh burst of grief. "Never more will I be a servant in an inn. I'll go to my mother."
The landlord consoled and coaxed her: and she became calmer, but none the less determined against his proposal.
The landlord left her. But ere long he returned and made her another proposal. Would she be his wife, and landlady of "The White Hart"?
"You do ill to mock me," said she sorrowfully.
"Nay, sweetheart. I mock thee not. I am too old for sorry jests. Say you the word, and you are my partner for better for worse."
She looked at him, and saw he was in earnest: on this she suddenly rained hard to the memory of "le pendard": the tears came in a torrent, being the last; and she gave her hand to the landlord of "The White Hart," and broke a gold crown with him in sign of plighted troth.
"We will keep it dark till the house is quiet," said the landlord.
"Ay," said she; "but meantime prithee give me linen to hem, or work to do; for the time hangs on me like lead."
Her betrothed's eye brightened at this housewifely request, and he brought her up two dozen flagons of various sizes to clean and polish.
She gathered complacency as she reflected that by a strange turn of fortune all this bright pewter was to be hers.
Meantime the landlord went downstairs, and falling in with our friends drew them aside into the bar.
He then addressed Denys with considerable solemnity. "We are old acquaintances, and you want not for sagacity: now advise me in a strait. My custom is somewhat declining: this girl Manon is the talk of the town; see how full the inn is to-night. She doth refuse to be my chambermaid. I have half a mind to marry her. What think you? shall I say the word?"
Denys in reply merely open his eyes wide with amazement.
The landlord turned to Gerard with a half-inquiring look,
"Nay, sir," said Gerard; "I am too young to advise my seniors and betters."
"No matter. Let us hear your thought."
"Well, sir, it was said of a good wife by the ancients, 'bene quae latuit, bene vixit,' that is, she is the best wife that is least talked of: but here 'male quae patuit' were as near the mark. Therefore, an you bear the lass good-will, why not club purses with Denys and me and convey her safe home with a dowry? Then mayhap some rustical person in her own place may be brought to wife her."
"Why so many words?" said Denys. "This old fox is not the ass he affects to be."
"Oh! that is your advice, is it?" said the landlord testily. "Well then we shall soon know who is the fool, you or me, for I have spoken to her as it happens; and what is more, she has said Ay, and she is polishing the flagons at this moment."
"Oho!" said Denys drily, "'twas an ambuscade. Well, in that case, my advice is, run for the notary, tie the noose, and let us three drink the bride's health, till we see six sots a-tippling."
"And shall. Ay, now you utter sense."
In ten minutes a civil marriage was effected upstairs before a notary and his clerk and our two friends.
In ten minutes more the white hind, dead sick of seclusion, had taken her place within the bar, and was serving out liquids, and bustling, and her colour rising a little.
In six little minutes more she soundly rated a careless servant-girl for carrying a nipperkin of wine awry and spilling good liquor.
During the evening she received across the bar eight offers of marriage, some of them from respectable burghers. Now the landlord and our two friends had in perfect innocence ensconced themselves behind a screen, to drink at their ease the new couple's health. The above comedy was thrown in for their entertainment by bounteous fate. They heard the proposals made one after another, and uninventive Manon's invariable answer—"Serviteur; you are a day after the fair." The landlord chuckled and looked good-natured superiority at both his late advisers, with their traditional notions that men shun a woman "quae patuit," i.e. who has become the town talk.
But Denys scarce noticed the spouse's triumph over him, he was so occupied with his own over Gerard. At each municipal tender of undying affection, he turned almost purple with the effort it cost him not to roar with glee; and driving his elbow into the deep-meditating and much-puzzled pupil of antiquity, whispered, "Le peu que sont les hommes."
The next morning Gerard was eager to start, but Denys was under a vow to see the murderers of the golden-haired girl executed.
Gerard respected his vow, but avoided his example.
He went to bid the cure farewell instead, and sought and received his blessing. About noon the travellers got clear of the town. Just outside the south gate they passed the gallows; it had eight tenants: the skeleton of Manon's late wept, and now being fast forgotten, lover, and the bodies of those who had so nearly taken our travellers' lives. A hand was nailed to the beam. And hard by on a huge wheel was clawed the dead landlord, with every bone in his body broken to pieces.
Gerard averted his head and hurried by. Denys lingered, and crowed over his dead foes. "Times are changed, my lads, since we two sat shaking in the cold awaiting you seven to come and cut our throats."
"Fie, Denys! Death squares all reckonings. Prithee pass on without another word, if you prize my respect a groat."
To this earnest remonstrance Denys yielded. He even said thoughtfully, "You have been better brought up than I."
About three in the afternoon they reached a little town with the people buzzing in knots. The wolves, starved by the cold, had entered, and eaten two grown-up persons overnight, in the main street: so some were blaming the eaten—"None but fools or knaves are about after nightfall;" others the law for not protecting the town, and others the corporation for not enforcing what laws there were.
"Bah! this is nothing to us," said Denys, and was for resuming their march.
"Ay, but 'tis," remonstrated Gerard.
"What, are we the pair they ate?"
"No, but we may be the next pair."
"Ay, neighbour," said an ancient man, "'tis the town's fault for not obeying the ducal ordinance, which bids every shopkeeper light a lamp o'er his door at sunset, and burn it till sunrise."
On this Denys asked him somewhat derisively, "What made him fancy rush dips would scare away empty wolves? Why, mutton fat is all their joy."
"'Tis not the fat, vain man, but the light. All ill things hate light; especially wolves and the imps that lurk, I ween, under their fur. Example; Paris city stands in a wood like, and the wolves do howl around it all night: yet of late years wolves come but little in the streets. For why, in that burgh the watchmen do thunder at each door that is dark, and make the weary wight rise and light. 'Tis my son tells me. He is a great voyager, my son Nicholas."
In further explanation he assured them that previously to that ordinance no city had been worse infested with wolves than Paris; a troop had boldly assaulted the town in 1420, and in 1438 they had eaten fourteen persons in a single month between Montmartre and the gate St. Antoine, and that not a winter month even, but September: and as for the dead, which nightly lay in the streets slain in midnight brawls, or assassinated, the wolves had used to devour them, and to grub up the fresh graves in the churchyards and tear out the bodies.
Here a thoughtful citizen suggested that probably the wolves had been bridled of late in Paris, not by candle-lights, but owing to the English having been driven out of the kingdom of France. "For those English be very wolves themselves for fierceness and greediness. What marvel then that under their rule our neighbours of France should be wolf-eaten?" This logic was too suited to the time and place not to be received with acclamation. But the old man stood his ground. "I grant ye those islanders are wolves; but two-legged ones, and little apt to favour their four-footed cousins. One greedy thing loveth it another? I trow not. By the same token, and this too I have from my boy Nicole, Sir Wolf dare not show his nose in London city; though 'tis smaller than Paris, and thick woods hard by the north wall, and therein great store of deer, and wild boars as rife as flies at midsummer."
"Sir," said Gerard, "you seem conversant with wild beasts, prithee advise my comrade here and me: we would not waste time on the road, an if we may go forward to the next town with reasonable safety.'
"Young man, I trow 'twere an idle risk. It lacks but an hour of dusk, and you must pass nigh a wood where lurk some thousands of these half-starved vermin, rank cowards single; but in great bands bold as lions. Wherefore I rede you sojourn here the night; and journey on betimes. By the dawn the vermin will be tired out with roaring and rampaging; and mayhap will have filled their lank bellies with flesh of my good neighbours here, the unteachable fools."
Gerard hoped not; and asked could he recommend them to a good inn.
"Humph! there is the 'Tete d'Or.' My grandaughter keeps it. She is a mijauree, but not so knavish as most hotel-keepers, and her house indifferent clean."
"Hey, for the 'Tete d'Or,'" struck in Denys, decided by his ineradicable foible.
On the way to it, Gerard inquired of his companion what a "mijauree" was?
Denys laughed at his ignorance. "Not know what a mijauree is? why all the world knows that. It is neither more nor less than a mijauree."
As they entered the "Tete d'Or," they met a young lady richly dressed with a velvet chaperon on her head, which was confined by law to the nobility. They unbonneted and louted low, and she curtsied, but fixed her eye on vacancy the while, which had a curious rather than a genial effect. However, nobility was not so unassuming in those days as it is now. So they were little surprised. But the next minute supper was served, and lo! in came this princess and carved the goose.
"Holy St. Bavon," cried Gerard. "'Twas the landlady all the while."
A young woman, cursed with nice white teeth and lovely hands: for these beauties being misallied to homely features, had turned her head. She was a feeble carver, carving not for the sake of others but herself, i.e. to display her hands. When not carving she was eternally either taking a pin out of her head or her body, or else putting a pin into her head or her body. To display her teeth, she laughed indifferently at gay or grave and from ear to ear. And she "sat at ease" with her mouth ajar.
Now there is an animal in creation of no great general merit; but it has the eye of a hawk for affectation. It is called "a boy." And Gerard was but a boy still in some things; swift to see, and to loath, affectation. So Denys sat casting sheep's eyes, and Gerard daggers, at one comedian.
Presently, in the midst of her minauderies, she gave a loud shriek and bounded out of her chair like hare from form, and ran backwards out of the room uttering little screams, and holding her farthingale tight down to her ankles with both hands. And as she scuttled out of the door a mouse scuttled back to the wainscot in a state of equal, and perhaps more reasonable terror. The guests, who had risen in anxiety at the principal yell, now stood irresolute awhile, then sat down laughing. The tender Denys, to whom a woman's cowardice, being a sexual trait, seemed to be a lovely and pleasant thing, said he would go comfort her and bring her back.
"Nay! nay! nay! for pity's sake let her bide," cried Gerard earnestly. "Oh, blessed mouse! sure some saint sent thee to our aid."
Now at his right hand sat a sturdy middle-aged burgher, whose conduct up to date had been cynical. He had never budged nor even rested his knife at all this fracas. He now turned on Gerard and inquired haughtily whether he really thought that "grimaciere" was afraid of a mouse.
"Ay. She screamed hearty."
"Where is the coquette that cannot scream to the life? These she tavern-keepers do still ape the nobles. Some princess or duchess hath lain here a night, that was honestly afeard of a mouse, having been brought up to it. And this ape hath seen her, and said, 'I will start at a mouse, and make a coil,' She has no more right to start at a mouse than to wear that fur on her bosom, and that velvet on her monkey's head. I am of the town, young man, and have known the mijauree all her life, and I mind when she was no more afeard of a mouse than she is of a man." He added that she was fast emptying the inn with these "singeries." "All the world is so sick of her hands, that her very kinsfolk will not venture themselves anigh them." He concluded with something like a sigh, "The 'Tete d'Or' was a thriving hostelry under my old chum her good father; but she is digging its grave tooth and nail.'
"Tooth and nail? good! a right merry conceit and a true," said Gerard. But the right merry conceit was an inadvertence as pure as snow, and the stout burgher went to his grave and never knew what he had done: for just then attention was attracted by Denys returning pompously. He inspected the apartment minutely, and with a high official air: he also looked solemnly under the table; and during the whole inquisition a white hand was placed conspicuously on the edge of the open door, and a tremulous voice inquired behind it whether the horrid thing was quite gone.
"The enemy has retreated, bag and baggage," said Denys: and handed in the trembling fair, who, sitting down, apologized to her guests for her foolish fears, with so much earnestness, grace, and seeming self-contempt, that, but for a sour grin on his neighbour's face, Gerard would have been taken in as all the other strangers were. Dinner ended, the young landlady begged an Augustine friar at her right hand to say grace. He delivered a longish one. The moment he began, she clapped her white hands piously together, and held them up joined for mortals to admire; 'tis an excellent pose for taper white fingers: and cast her eyes upward towards heaven, and felt as thankful to it as a magpie does while cutting off with your thimble.
After supper the two friends went to the street-door and eyed the market-place. The mistress joined them, and pointed out the town-hall, the borough gaol, St. Catherine's church, etc. This was courteous, to say the least. But the true cause soon revealed itself; the fair hand was poked right under their eyes every time an object was indicated; and Gerard eyed it like a basilisk, and longed for a bunch of nettles. The sun set, and the travellers, few in number, drew round the great roaring fire, and omitting to go on the spit, were frozen behind though roasted in front. For if the German stoves were oppressively hot, the French salles manger were bitterly cold, and above all stormy. In Germany men sat bareheaded round the stove, and took off their upper clothes, but in Burgundy they kept on their hats, and put on their warmest furs to sit round the great open chimney places, at which the external air rushed furiously from door and ill-fitting window. However, it seems their mediaeval backs were broad enough to bear it: for they made themselves not only comfortable but merry, and broke harmless jests over each other in turn. For instance, Denys's new shoes, though not in direct communication, had this day exploded with twin-like sympathy and unanimity. "Where do you buy your shoon, soldier?" asked one.
Denys looked askant at Gerard, and not liking the theme, shook it off. "I gather 'em off the trees by the roadside," said he surlily.
"Then you gathered these too ripe," said the hostess, who was only a fool externally.
"Ay, rotten ripe," observed another, inspecting them.
Gerard said nothing, but pointed the circular satire by pantomime. He slily put out both his feet, one after another, under Denys's eye, with their German shoes, on which a hundred leagues of travel had produced no effect. They seemed hewn out of a rock.
At this, "I'll twist the smooth varlet's neck that sold me mine," shouted Denys, in huge wrath, and confirmed the threat with singular oaths peculiar to the mediaeval military. The landlady put her fingers in her ears, thereby exhibiting the hand in a fresh attitude. "Tell me when he has done his orisons, somebody," said she mincingly. And after that they fell to telling stories.
Gerard, when his turn came, told the adventure of Denys and Gerard at the inn in Domfront, and so well, that the hearers were rapt into sweet oblivion of the very existence of mijauree and hands. But this made her very uneasy, and she had recourse to her grand coup. This misdirected genius had for a twelvemonth past practised yawning, and could do it now at any moment so naturally as to set all creation gaping, could all creation have seen her. By this means she got in all her charms. For first she showed her teeth, then, out of good breeding, you know, closed her mouth with three taper fingers. So the moment Gerard's story got too interesting and absorbing, she turned to and made yawns, and "croix sur la bouche."
This was all very fine: but Gerard was an artist, and artists are chilled by gaping auditors. He bore up against the yawns a long time; but finding they came from a bottomless reservoir, lost both heart and temper, and suddenly rising in mid narrative, said, "But I weary our hostess, and I am tired myself: so good night!" whipped a candle off the dresser, whispered Denys, "I cannot stand her," and marched to bed in a moment.
The mijauree coloured and bit her lips. She had not intended her byplay for Gerard's eye: and she saw in a moment she had been rude, and silly, and publicly rebuked. She sat with cheek on fire, and a little natural water in her eyes, and looked ten times comelier and more womanly and interesting than she had done all day. The desertion of the best narrator broke up the party, and the unassuming Denys approached the meditative mijauree, and invited her in the most flattering terms to gamble with him. She started from her reverie, looked him down into the earth's centre with chilling dignity, and consented, for she remembered all in a moment what a show of hands gambling admitted.
The soldier and the mijauree rattled the dice. In which sport she was so taken up with her hands, that she forgot to cheat, and Denys won an "ecu au soleil" of her. She fumbled slowly with her purse, partly because her sex do not burn to pay debts of honour, partly to admire the play of her little knuckles peeping between their soft white cushions. Denys proposed a compromise.
"Three silver franks I win of you, fair hostess. Give me now three kisses of this white hand, and we'll e'en cry quits."
"You are malapert," said the lady, with a toss of her head; "besides, they are so dirty. See! they are like ink!" and to convince him she put them out to him and turned them up and down. They were no dirtier than cream fresh from the cob and she knew it: she was eternally washing and scenting them.
Denys read the objection like the observant warrior he was, seized them and mumbled them.
Finding him so appreciative of her charm, she said timidly, "Will you do me a kindness, good soldier?"
"A thousand, fair hostess, an you will."
"Nay, I ask but one. 'Tis to tell thy comrade I was right sorry to lose his most thrilling story, and I hope he will tell me the rest to-morrow morning. Meantime I shall not sleep for thinking on't. Wilt tell him that—to pleasure me?"
"Ay, I'll tell the young savage. But he is not worthy of your condescension, sweet hostess. He would rather be aside a man than a woman any day."
"So would—ahem. He is right: the young women of the day are not worthy of him, 'un tas des mijaurees' He has a good, honest, and right comely face. Any way, I would not guest of mine should think me unmannerly, not for all the world. Wilt keep faith with me and tell him?"
"On this fair hand I swear it; and thus I seal the pledge."
"There; no need to melt the wax, though. Now go to bed. And tell him ere you sleep."
The perverse toad (I thank thee, Manon, for teaching me that word) was inclined to bestow her slight affections upon Gerard. Not that she was inflammable: far less so than many that passed for prudes in the town. But Gerard possessed a triple attraction that has ensnared coquettes in all ages. 1. He was very handsome. 2. He did not admire her the least. 3. He had given her a good slap in the face.
Denys woke Gerard and gave the message. Gerard was not enchanted "Dost wake a tired man to tell him that? Am I to be pestered with 'mijaurees' by night as well as day?"
"But I tell thee, novice, thou hast conquered her: trust to my experience: her voice sank to melodious whispers; and the cunning jade did in a manner bribe me to carry thee her challenge to Love's lists! for so I read her message."
Denys then, assuming the senior and the man of the world, told Gerard the time was come to show him how a soldier understood friendship and camaraderie. Italy was now out of the question. Fate had provided better; and the blind jade Fortune had smiled on merit for once. "The Head of Gold" had been a prosperous inn, would be again with a man at its head. A good general laid far-sighted plans; but was always ready to abandon them, should some brilliant advantage offer, and to reap the full harvest of the unforeseen: 'twas chiefly by this trait great leaders defeated little ones; for these latter could do nothing not cut and dried beforehand.
"Sorry friendship, that would marry me to a mijauree," interposed Gerard, yawning.
"Comrade, be reasonable; 'tis not the friskiest sheep that falls down the cliff. All creatures must have their fling soon, or late; and why not a woman? What more frivolous than a kitten? what graver than a cat?"
"Hast a good eye for nature, Denys," said Gerard, "that I proclaim.
"A better for thine interest, boy. Trust then to me; these little doves they are my study day and night; happy the man whose wife taketh her fling before wedlock, and who trippeth up the altar-steps instead of down 'em. Marriage it always changeth them for better or else for worse. Why, Gerard, she is honest when all is done; and he is no man, nor half a man, that cannot mould any honest lass like a bit of warm wax, and she aye aside him at bed and board. I tell thee in one month thou wilt make of this coquette the matron the most sober in the town, and of all its wives the one most docile and submissive. Why, she is half tamed already. Nine in ten meek and mild ones had gently hated thee like poison all their lives, for wounding of their hidden pride. But she for an affront proffers affection. By Joshua his bugle a generous lass, and void of petty malice. When thou wast gone she sat a-thinking and spoke not. A sure sign of love in one of her sex: for of all things else they speak ere they think. Also her voice did sink exceeding low in discoursing of thee, and murmured sweetly; another infallible sign. The bolt hath struck and rankles in her; oh, be joyful! Art silent? I see; 'tis settled. I shall go alone to Remiremont, alone and sad. But, pillage and poleaxes! what care I for that, since my dear comrade will stay here, landlord of the 'Tete d'Or,' and safe from all the storms of life? Wilt think of me, Gerard, now and then by thy warm fire, of me camped on some windy heath, or lying in wet trenches, or wounded on the field and far from comfort? Nay!" and this he said in a manner truly noble, "not comfortless or cold, or wet, or bleeding, 'twill still warm my heart to lie on my back and think that I have placed my dear friend and comrade true in the 'Tete d'Or,' far from a soldier's ills."
"I let you run on, dear Denys," said Gerard softly, "because at each word you show me the treasure of a good heart. But now bethink thee, my troth is plighted there where my heart it clingeth. You so leal, would you make me disloyal?"
"Perdition seize me, but I forgot that," said Denys.
"No more then, but hie thee to bed, good Denys. Next to Margaret I love thee best on earth, and value thy 'coeur d'or' far more than a dozen of these 'Tetes d'Or.' So prithee call me at the first blush of rosy-fingered morn, and let's away ere the woman with the hands be stirring."
They rose with the dawn, and broke their fast by the kitchen fire.
Denys inquired of the girl whether the mistress was about.
"Nay; but she hath risen from her bed: by the same token I am carrying her this to clean her withal;" and she filled a jug with boiling water, and took it upstairs.
"Behold," said Gerard, "the very elements must be warmed to suit her skin; what had the saints said, which still chose the coldest pool? Away, ere she come down and catch us."
They paid the score, and left the "Tete d'Or," while its mistress was washing her hands.
Outside the town they found the snow fresh trampled by innumerable wolves every foot of the road.
"We did well to take the old man's advice, Denys."
"Ay did we. For now I think on't, I did hear them last night scurrying under our window, and howling and whining for man's flesh in yon market-place. But no fat burgher did pity the poor vagabones, and drop out o' window."
Gerard smiled, but with an air of abstraction. And they plodded on in silence.
"What dost meditate so profoundly?"
Denys was anything but pleased at this answer. Amongst his oddities you may have observed that he could stand a great deal of real impertinence; he was so good-humoured. But would fire up now and then where not even the shadow of a ground for anger existed.
"A civil question merits a civil reply," said he very drily.
"Alas, I meant no other," said Gerard.
"Then why pretend you were thinking of my goodness, when you know I have no goodness under my skin?"
"Had another said this, I had answered, 'Thou liest.' But to thee I say, 'Hast no eye for men's qualities, but only for women's.' And once more I do defy thy unreasonable choler, and say I was thinking on thy goodness of overnight. Wouldst have wedded me to the 'Tete d'Or' or rather to the 'tete de veau doree,' and left thyself solitary."
"Oh, are ye there, lad?" said Denys, recovering his good humour in a moment. "Well, but to speak sooth, I meant that not for goodness; but for friendship and true fellowship, no more. And let me tell you, my young master, my conscience it pricketh me even now for letting you turn your back thus on fortune and peaceful days. A truer friend than I had ta'en and somewhat hamstrung thee. Then hadst thou been fain to lie smarting at the 'Tete d'Or' a month or so; yon skittish lass had nursed thee tenderly, and all had been well. Blade I had in hand to do't, but remembering how thou hatest pain, though it be but a scratch, my craven heart it failed me at the pinch." And Denys wore a look of humble apology for his lack of virtuous resolution when the path of duty lay so clear.
Gerard raised his eyebrows with astonishment at this monstrous but thoroughly characteristic revelation; however, this new and delicate point of friendship was never discussed; viz., whether one ought in all love to cut the tendon Achilles of one's friend. For an incident interposed.
"Here cometh one in our rear a-riding on his neighbour's mule," shouted Denys.
Gerard turned round. "And how know ye 'tis not his own, pray?"
"Oh, blind! Because he rides it with no discretion."
And in truth the man came galloping like a fury. But what astonished the friends most was that on reaching them the rustic rider's eyes opened saucer-like, and he drew the rein so suddenly and powerfully, that the mule stuck out her fore-legs, and went sliding between the pedestrians like a four-legged table on castors.
"I trow ye are from the 'Tete d'Or?'" They assented. "Which of ye is the younger?"
"He that was born the later," said Denys, winking at his companion.
"Gramercy for the news."
"Come, divine then!"
"And shall. Thy beard is ripe, thy fellow's is green; he shall be the younger; here, youngster." And he held him out a paper packet. "Ye left this at the 'Tete d'Or,' and our mistress sends it ye."
"Nay, good fellow, methinks I left nought." And Gerard felt his pouch. etc.
"Would ye make our burgess a liar," said the rustic reproachfully; "and shall I have no pourboire?" (still more reproachfully); "and came ventre a terre."
"Nay, thou shalt have pourboire," and he gave him a small coin.
"A la bonne heure," cried the clown, and his features beamed with disproportionate joy. "The Virgin go with ye; come up, Jenny!" and back he went "stomach to earth," as his nation is pleased to call it.
Gerard undid the packet; it was about six inches square, and inside it he found another packet, which contained a packet, and so on. At the fourth he hurled the whole thing into the snow. Denys took it out and rebuked his petulance. He excused himself on the ground of hating affectation.
Denys attested, "'The great toe of the little daughter of Herodias' there was no affectation here, but only woman's good wit. Doubtless the wraps contained something which out of delicacy, or her sex's lovely cunning, she would not her hind should see her bestow on a young man; thy garter, to wit."
"I wear none."
"Her own then; or a lock of her hair. What is this? A piece of raw silk fresh from the worm. Well, of all the love tokens!"
"Now who but thee ever dreamed that she is so naught as send me love tokens? I saw no harm in her—barring her hands."
"Stay, here is something hard lurking in this soft nest. Come forth, I say, little nestling! Saints and pikestaves! look at this!"
It was a gold ring with a great amethyst glowing and sparkling, full coloured, but pure as crystal.
"How lovely!" said Gerard innocently.
"And here is something writ; read it thou! I read not so glib as some, when I know not the matter beforehand."
Gerard took the paper. "'Tis a posy, and fairly enough writ." He read the lines, blushing like a girl. They were very naive, and may be thus Englished:—
'Youth, with thee my heart is fledde, Come back to the 'golden Hedde!' Wilt not? yet this token keepe Of hir who doeth thy goeing weepe. Gyf the world prove harsh and cold, Come back to 'the Hedde of gold.'"
"The little dove!" purred Denys.
"The great owl! To go and risk her good name thus. However, thank Heaven she has played this prank with an honest lad that will ne'er expose her folly. But oh, the perverseness! Could she not bestow her nauseousness on thee?" Denys sighed and shrugged. "On thee that art as ripe for folly as herself?"
Denys confessed that his young friend had harped his very thought. 'Twas passing strange to him that a damsel with eyes in her head should pass by a man, and bestow her affections on a boy. Still he could not but recognize in this the bounty of Nature. Boys were human beings after all, and but for this occasional caprice of women, their lot would be too terrible; they would be out of the sun altogether, blighted, and never come to anything; since only the fair could make a man out of such unpromising materials as a boy. Gerard interrupted this flattering discourse to beg the warrior-philosopher's acceptance of the lady's ring. He refused it flatly, and insisted on Gerard going back to the "Tete d'Or" at once, ring and all, like a man, and not letting a poor girl hold out her arms to him in vain.
"Her hands, you mean."
"Her hand, with the 'Tete d'Or' in it."
Failing in this, he was for putting the ring on his friend's finger. Gerard declined. "I wear a ring already."
"What, that sorry gimcrack? why, 'tis pewter, or tin at best: and this virgin gold, forbye the jewel."
"Ay, but 'twas Margaret gave me this one; and I value it above rubies. I'll neither part with it nor give it a rival," and he kissed the base metal, and bade it fear nought.
"I see the owl hath sent her ring to a goose," said Denys sorrowfully. However, he prevailed on Gerard to fasten it inside his bonnet. To this, indeed, the lad consented very readily. For sovereign qualities were universally ascribed to certain jewels; and the amethyst ranked high among these precious talismans.
When this was disposed of, Gerard earnestly requested his friend to let the matter drop, since speaking of the other sex to him made him pine so for Margaret, and almost unmanned him with the thought that each step was taking him farther from her. "I am no general lover, Denys. There is room in my heart for one sweetheart, and for one friend. I am far from my dear mistress; and my friend, a few leagues more, and I must lose him too. Oh, let me drink thy friendship pure while I may, and not dilute with any of these stupid females."
"And shalt, honey-pot, and shalt," said Denys kindly'. "But as to my leaving thee at Remiremont, reckon thou not on that! For" (three consecutive oaths) "if I do. Nay, I shall propose to thee to stay forty-eight hours there, while I kiss my mother and sisters, and the females generally, and on go you and I together to the sea."
"Denys nor me! 'Tis settled. Gainsay me not! or I'll go with thee to Rome. Why not? his Holiness the Pope hath ever some little merry pleasant war toward, and a Burgundian soldier is still welcome in his ranks."
On this Gerard opened his heart. "Denys, ere I fell in with thee, I used often to halt on the road, unable to go farther: my puny heart so pulled me back: and then, after a short prayer to the saints for aid, would I rise and drag my most unwilling body onward. But since I joined company with thee, great is my courage. I have found the saying of the ancients true, that better is a bright comrade on the weary road than a horse-litter; and, dear brother, when I do think of what we have done and suffered together! Savedst my life from the bear, and from yet more savage thieves; and even poor I did make shift to draw thee out of Rhine, and somehow loved thee double from that hour. How many ties tender and strong between us! Had I my will, I'd never, never, never, never part with my Denys on this side the grave. Well-a-day! God His will be done.
"No, my will shall be done this time," shouted Denys. "Le bon Dieu has bigger fish to fry than you or me. I'll go with thee to Rome. There is my hand on it."
"Think what, you say! 'Tis impossible. 'Tis too selfish of me."
"I tell thee, 'tis settled. No power can change me. At Remiremont I borrow ten pieces of my uncle, and on we go; 'tis fixed."
They shook hands over it. Then Gerard said nothing, for his heart was too full; but he ran twice round his companion as he walked, then danced backwards in front of him, and finally took his hand, and so on they went hand in hand like sweethearts, till a company of mounted soldiers, about fifty in number, rose to sight on the brow of a hill.
"See the banner of Burgundy," said Denys joyfully; "I shall look out for a comrade among these."
"How gorgeous is the standard in the sun," said Gerard "and how brave are the leaders with velvet and feathers, and steel breastplates like glassy mirrors!"
When they came near enough to distinguish faces, Denys uttered an exclamation: "Why, 'tis the Bastard of Burgundy, as I live. Nay, then; there is fighting a-foot since he is out; a gallant leader, Gerard, rates his life no higher than a private soldier's, and a soldier's no higher than a tomtit's; and that is the captain for me."
"And see, Denys, the very mules with their great brass frontlets and trappings seem proud to carry them; no wonder men itch to be soldiers;" and in the midst of this innocent admiration the troop came up with them.
"Halt!" cried a stentorian voice. The troop halted. The Bastard of Burgundy bent his brow gloomily on Denys: "How now, arbalestrier, how comes it thy face is turned southward, when every good hand and heart is hurrying northward?"
Denys replied respectfully that he was going on leave, after some years of service, to see his kindred at Remiremont.
"Good. But this is not the time for't; the duchy is disturbed. Ho! bring that dead soldier's mule to the front; and thou mount her and forward with us to Flanders."
"So please your highness," said Denys firmly, "that may not be. My home is close at hand. I have not seen it these three years; and above all, I have this poor youth in charge, whom I may not, cannot leave, till I see him shipped for Rome.
"Dost bandy words with me?" said the chief, with amazement, turning fast to wrath. "Art weary o' thy life? Let go the youth's hand, and into the saddle without more idle words."
Denys made no reply; but he held Gerard's hand the tighter, and looked defiance.
At this the bastard roared, "Jarnac, dismount six of thy archers, and shoot me this white-livered cur dead where he stands—for an example."
The young Count de Jarnac, second in command, gave the order, and the men dismounted to execute it.
"Strip him naked," said the bastard, in the cold tone of military business, "and put his arms and accoutrements on the spare mule We'll maybe find some clown worthier to wear them."
Denys groaned aloud, "Am I to be shamed as well as slain?"
"Oh, nay! nay! nay!" cried Gerard, awaking from the stupor into which this thunderbolt of tyranny had thrown him. "He shall go with you on the instant. I'd liever part with him for ever than see a hair of his dear head harmed Oh, sir, oh, my lord, give a poor boy but a minute to bid his only friend farewell! he will go with you. I swear he shall go with you."
The stern leader nodded a cold contemptuous assent. "Thou, Jarnac, stay with them, and bring him on alive or dead. Forward!" And he resumed his march, followed by all the band but the young count and six archers, one of whom held the spare mule.
Denys and Gerard gazed at one another haggardly. Oh, what a look!
And after this mute interchange of anguish, they spoke hurriedly, for the moments were flying by.
"Thou goest to Holland: thou knowest where she bides. Tell her all. She will be kind to thee for my sake."
"Oh, sorry tale that I shall carry her! For God's sake, go back to the 'Tete d'Or.' I am mad!"
"Hush! Let me think: have I nought to say to thee, Denys? my head! my head!"
"Ah! I have it. Make for the Rhine, Gerard! Strasbourg. 'Tis but a step. And down the current to Rotterdam. Margaret is there: I go thither. I'll tell her thou art coming. We shall all be together."
"My lads, haste ye, or you will get us into trouble," said the count firmly, but not harshly now.
"Oh, sir, one moment! one little moment!" panted Gerard.
"Cursed be the land I 'was born in! cursed be the race of man! and he that made them what they are!" screamed Denys.
"Hush, Denys, hush! blaspheme not! Oh, God forgive him, he wots not what he says. Be patient, Denys, be patient: though we meet no more on earth, let us meet in a better world, where no blasphemer may enter. To my heart, lost friend; for what are words now?" He held out his arms, and they locked one another in a close embrace. They kissed one another again and again, speechless, and the tears rained down their cheeks And the Count Jarnac looked on amazed, but the rougher soldiers, to whom comrade was a sacred name, looked on with some pity in their hard faces. Then at a signal from Jarnac, with kind force and words of rude consolation, they almost lifted Denys on to the mule; and putting him in the middle of them, spurred after their leader. And Gerard ran wildly after (for the lane turned), to see the very last of him; and the last glimpse he caught, Denys was rocking to and fro on his mule, and tearing his hair out. But at this sight something rose in Gerard's throat so high, so high, he could run no more nor breathe, but gasped, and leaned against the snow-clad hedge, seizing it, and choking piteously.
The thorns ran into his hand.
After a bitter struggle he got his breath again; and now began to see his own misfortune. Yet not all at once to realize it, so sudden and numbing was the stroke. He staggered on, but scarce feeling or caring whither he was going; and every now and then he stopped, and his arms fell and his head sank on his chest, and he stood motionless: then he said to himself, "Can this thing be? this must be a dream. 'Tis scarce five minutes since we were so happy, walking handed, faring to Rome together, and we admired them and their gay banners and helmets oh hearts of hell!"
All nature seemed to stare now as lonely as himself. Not a creature in sight. No colour but white. He, the ghost of his former self, wandered alone among the ghosts of trees, and fields, and hedges. Desolate! desolate! desolate! All was desolate.
He knelt and gathered a little snow. "Nay, I dream not; for this is snow: cold as the world's heart. It is bloody, too: what may that mean? Fool! 'tis from thy hand. I mind not the wound Ay, I see: thorns. Welcome! kindly foes: I felt ye not, ye ran not into my heart. Ye are not cruel like men."
He had risen, and was dragging his leaden limbs along, when he heard horses' feet and gay voices behind him. He turned with a joyful but wild hope that the soldiers had relented and were bringing Denys back. But no, it was a gay cavalcade. A gentleman of rank and his favourites in velvet and furs and feathers; and four or five armed retainers in buff jerkins.
They swept gaily by.
Gerard never looked at them after they were gone by: certain gay shadows had come and passed; that was all. He was like one in a dream. But he was rudely wakened; suddenly a voice in front of him cried harshly, "Stand and deliver!" and there were three of the gentleman's servants in front of him. They had ridden back to rob him.
"How, ye false knaves," said he, quite calmly; "would ye shame your noble master? He will hang ye to the nearest tree;" and with these words he drew his sword doggedly, and set his back to the hedge.
One of the men instantly levelled his petronel at him.
But another, less sanguinary, interposed. "Be not so hasty! And be not thou so mad! Look yonder!"
Gerard looked, and scarce a hundred yards off the nobleman and his friends had halted, and sat on their horses, looking at the lawless act, too proud to do their own dirty work, but not too proud to reap the fruit, and watch lest their agents should rob them of another man's money.
The milder servant then, a good-natured fellow, showed Gerard resistance was vain; reminded him common thieves often took the life as well as the purse, and assured him it cost a mint to be a gentleman; his master had lost money at play overnight, and was going to visit his leman, and so must take money where he saw it.
"Therefore, good youth, consider that we rob not for ourselves, and deliver us that fat purse at thy girdle without more ado, nor put us to the pain of slitting thy throat and taking it all the same."
"This knave is right," said Gerard calmly aloud but to himself. "I ought not to fling away my life; Margaret would be so sorry. Take then the poor man's purse to the rich man's pouch; and with it this; tell him, I pray the Holy Trinity each coin in it may burn his hand, and freeze his heart, and blast his soul for ever. Begone and leave me to my sorrow!" He flung them the purse.
They rode away muttering; for his words pricked them a little; a very little: and he staggered on, penniless now as well as friendless, till he came to the edge of a wood. Then, though his heart could hardly feel this second blow, his judgment did; and he began to ask himself what was the use going further? He sat down on the hard road, and ran his nails into his hair, and tried to think for the best; a task all the more difficult that a strange drowsiness was stealing over him. Rome he could never reach without money. Denys had said, "Go to Strasbourg, and down the Rhine home." He would obey Denys. But how to get to Strasbourg without money?
Then suddenly seemed to ring in his ears—
"Gyf the world prove harsh and cold, Come back to the hedde of gold."
"And if I do I must go as her servant; I who am Margaret's. I am a-weary, a-weary. I will sleep, and dream all is as it was. Ah me, how happy were we an hour agone, we little knew how happy. There is a house: the owner well-to-do. What if I told him my wrong, and prayed his aid to retrieve my purse, and so to Rhine? Fool! is he not a man, like the rest? He would scorn me and trample me lower. Denys cursed the race of men. That will I never; but oh, I begin to loathe and dread them. Nay, here will I lie till sunset: then darkling creep into this rich man's barn, and take by stealth a draught of milk or a handful o' grain, to keep body and soul together. God, who hath seen the rich rob me, will peradventure forgive me. They say 'tis ill sleeping on the snow. Death steals on such sleepers with muffled feet and honey breath. But what can I? I am a-weary, a-weary. Shall this be the wood where lie the wolves yon old man spoke of? I must e'en trust them: they are not men; and I am so a-weary."
He crawled to the roadside, and stretched out his limbs on the snow, with a deep sigh.
"Ah, tear not thine hair so! teareth my heart to see thee."
"Margaret. Never see me more. Poor Margaret."
And the too tender heart was still.
And the constant lover, and friend of antique mould, lay silent on the snow; in peril from the weather, in peril from wild beasts, in peril from hunger, friendless and penniless in a strange land, and not halfway to Rome.
Rude travel is enticing to us English. And so are its records; even though the adventurer be no pilgrim of love. And antique friendship has at least the interest of a fossil. Still, as the true centre of this story is in Holland, it is full time to return thither, and to those ordinary personages and incidents whereof life has been mainly composed in all ages.
Jorian Ketel came to Peter's house to claim Margaret's promise; but Margaret was ill in bed, and Peter, on hearing his errand, affronted him and warned him off the premises, and one or two that stood by were for ducking him; for both father and daughter were favourites, and the whole story was in every mouth, and Sevenbergens in that state of hot, undiscriminating irritation which accompanies popular sympathy.
So Jorian Ketel went off in dudgeon, and repented him of his good deed. This sort of penitence is not rare, and has the merit of being sincere. Dierich Brower, who was discovered at "The Three Kings," making a chatterbox drunk in order to worm out of him the whereabouts of Martin Wittenhaagen, was actually taken and flung into a horsepond, and threatened with worse usage, should he ever show his face in the burgh again; and finally, municipal jealousy being roused, the burgomaster of Sevenbergen sent a formal missive to the burgomaster of Tergou, reminding him he had overstepped the law, and requesting him to apply to the authorities of Sevenbergen on any future occasion when he might have a complaint, real or imaginary, against any of its townsfolk.
The wily Ghysbrecht, suppressing his rage at this remonstrance, sent back a civil message to say that the person he had followed to Sevenbergen was a Tergovian, one Gerard, and that he had stolen the town records: that Gerard having escaped into foreign parts, and probably taken the documents with him, the whole matter was at an end.
Thus he made a virtue of necessity. But in reality his calmness was but a veil: baffled at Sevenbergen, he turned his views elsewhere he set his emissaries to learn from the family at Tergou whither Gerard had fled, and "to his infinite surprise" they did not know. This added to his uneasiness. It made him fear Gerard was only lurking in the neighbourhood: he would make a certain discovery, and would come back and take a terrible revenge. From this time Dierich and others that were about him noticed a change for the worse in Ghysbrecht Van Swieten. He became a moody irritable man. A dread lay on him. His eyes cast furtive glances, like one who expects a blow, and knows not from what quarter it is to come. Making others wretched had not made him happy. It seldom does.
The little family at Tergou, which, but for his violent interference, might in time have cemented its difference without banishing spem gregis to a distant land, wore still the same outward features, but within was no longer the simple happy family this tale opened with. Little Kate knew the share Cornelis and Sybrandt had in banishing Gerard, and though, for fear of making more mischief still, she never told her mother, yet there were times she shuddered at the bare sight of them, and blushed at their hypocritical regrets. Catherine, with a woman's vigilance, noticed this, and with a woman's subtlety said nothing, but quietly pondered it, and went on watching for more. The black sheep themselves, in their efforts to partake in the general gloom and sorrow, succeeded so far as to impose upon their father and Giles: but the demure satisfaction that lay at their bottom could not escape these feminine eyes—
"That, noting all, seem nought to note."
Thus mistrust and suspicion sat at the table, poor substitutes for Gerard's intelligent face, that had brightened the whole circle, unobserved till it was gone. As for the old hosier his pride had been wounded by his son's disobedience, and so he bore stiffly up, and did his best never to mention Gerard's name; but underneath his Spartan cloak, Nature might be seen tugging at his heart-strings. One anxiety he never affected to conceal. "If I but knew where the boy is, and that his life and health are in no danger, small would be my care," would he say; and then a deep sigh would follow. I cannot help thinking that if Gerard had opened the door just then, and walked in, there would have been many tears and embraces for him, and few reproaches, or none.
One thing took the old couple quite by surprise—publicity. Ere Gerard had been gone a week, his adventures were in every mouth; and to make matters worse, the popular sympathy declared itself warmly on the side of the lovers, and against Gerard's cruel parents, and that old busybody the burgomaster, who must put his nose into a business that nowise concerned him.
"Mother," said Kate, "it is all over the town that Margaret is down with a fever—a burning fever; her father fears her sadly."
"Margaret? what Margaret?" inquired Catherine, with a treacherous assumption of calmness and indifference.
"Oh, mother! whom should I mean? Why, Gerard's Margaret."
"Gerard's Margaret," screamed Catherine; "how dare you say such a word to me? And I rede you never mention that hussy's name in this house, that she has laid bare. She is the ruin of my poor boy, the flower of all my flock. She is the cause that he is not a holy priest in the midst of us, but is roaming the world, and I a desolate broken-hearted mother. There, do not cry, my girl, I do ill to speak harsh to you. But oh, Kate! you know not what passes in a mother's heart. I bear up before you all; it behoves me swallow my fears; but at night I see him in my dreams, and still some trouble or other near him: sometimes he is torn by wild beasts; other times he is in the hands of robbers, and their cruel knives uplifted to strike his poor pale face, that one should think would move a stone. Oh! when I remember that, while I sit here in comfort, perhaps my poor boy lies dead in some savage place, and all along of that girl: there, her very name is ratsbane to me. I tremble all over when I hear it."
"I'll not say anything, nor do anything to grieve you worse, mother," said Kate tenderly; but she sighed.
She whose name was so fiercely interdicted in this house was much spoken of, and even pitied elsewhere. All Sevenbergen was sorry for her, and the young men and maidens cast many a pitying glance, as they passed, at the little window where the beauty of the village lay "dying for love." In this familiar phrase they underrated her spirit and unselfishness. Gerard was not dead, and she was too loyal herself to doubt his constancy. Her father was dear to her and helpless; and but for bodily weakness, all her love for Gerard would not have kept her from doing her duties, though she might have gone about them with drooping head and heavy heart. But physical and mental excitement had brought on an attack of fever so violent, that nothing but youth and constitution saved her. The malady left her at last, but in that terrible state of bodily weakness in which the patient feels life a burden.
Then it is that love and friendship by the bedside are mortal angels with comfort in their voice, and healing in their palms.
But this poor girl had to come back to life and vigour how she could. Many days she lay alone, and the heavy hours rolled like leaden waves over her. In her enfeebled state existence seemed a burden, and life a thing gone by. She could not try her best to get well. Gerard was gone. She had not him to get well for. Often she lay for hours quite still, with the tears welling gently out of her eyes.
One day, waking from an uneasy slumber, she found two women in her room, One was a servant, the other by the deep fur on her collar and sleeves was a person of consideration: a narrow band of silvery hair, being spared by her coiffure, showed her to be past the age when women of sense concealed their years. The looks of both were kind and friendly. Margaret tried to raise herself in the bed, but the old lady placed a hand very gently on her.
"Lie still, sweetheart; we come not here to put you about, but to comfort you, God willing. Now cheer up a bit, and tell us, first, who think you we are?"
"Nay, madam, I know you, though I never saw you before: you are the demoiselle Van Eyck, and this is Reicht Heynes. Gerard has oft spoken of you, and of your goodness to him. Madam, he has no friend like you near him now," and at this thought she lay back, and the tears welled out of her eyes in a moment.
The good-natured Reicht Heynes began to cry for company; but her mistress scolded her. "Well, you are a pretty one for a sick-room," said she; and she put out a world of innocent art to cheer the patient; and not without some little success. An old woman, that has seen life and all its troubles, is a sovereign blessing by a sorrowful young woman's side. She knows what to say, and what to avoid. She knows how to soothe her and interest her. Ere she had been there an hour, she had Margaret's head lying on her shoulder instead of on the pillow, and Margaret's soft eyes dwelling on her with gentle gratitude.
"Ah! this is hair," said the old lady, running her fingers through it. "Come and look at it, Reicht!"
Reicht came and handled it, and praised it unaffectedly. The poor girl that owned it was not quite out of the reach of flattery; owing doubtless to not being dead.
"In sooth, madam, I did use to think it hideous; but he praised it, and ever since then I have been almost vain of it, saints forgive me. You know how foolish those are that love."
"They are greater fools that don't," said the old lady, sharply.
Margaret opened her lovely eyes, and looked at her for her meaning.
This was only the first of many visits. In fact either Margaret Van Eyck or Reicht came nearly every day until their patient was convalescent; and she improved rapidly under their hands. Reicht attributed this principally to certain nourishing dishes she prepared in Peter's kitchen; but Margaret herself thought more of the kind words and eyes that kept telling her she had friends to live for.
Martin Wittenhaagen went straight to Rotterdam, to take the bull by the horns. The bull was a biped, with a crown for horns. It was Philip the Good, duke of this, earl of that, lord of the other. Arrived at Rotterdam, Martin found the court was at Ghent. To Ghent he went, and sought an audience, but was put off and baffled by lackeys and pages. So he threw himself in his sovereign's way out hunting, and contrary to all court precedents, commenced the conversation—by roaring lustily for mercy.
"Why, where is the peril, man?" said the duke, looking all round and laughing.
"Grace for an old soldier hunted down by burghers!"
Now kings differ in character like other folk; but there is one trait they have in common; they are mightily inclined to be affable to men of very low estate. These do not vie with them in anything whatever, so jealousy cannot creep in; and they amuse them by their bluntness and novelty, and refresh the poor things with a touch of nature—a rarity in courts. So Philip the Good reined in his horse and gave Martin almost a tete-a-tete, and Martin reminded him of a certain battlefield where he had received an arrow intended for his sovereign. The duke remembered the incident perfectly, and was graciously pleased to take a cheerful view of it. He could afford to, not having been the one hit. Then Martin told his majesty of Gerard's first capture in the church, his imprisonment in the tower, and the manoeuvre by which they got him out, and all the details of the hunt; and whether he told it better than I have, or the duke had not heard so many good stories as you have, certain it is that sovereign got so wrapt up in it, that, when a number of courtiers came galloping up and interrupted Martin, he swore like a costermonger, and threatened, only half in jest, to cut off the next head that should come between him and a good story; and when Martin had done, he cried out—
"St. Luke! what sport goeth on in this mine earldom, ay! in my own woods, and I see it not. You base fellows have all the luck." And he was indignant at the partiality of Fortune. "Lo you now! this was a man-hunt," said he. "I never had the luck to be at a man-hunt."
"My luck was none so great," replied Martin bluntly: "I was on the wrong side of the dogs' noses."
"Ah! so you were; I forgot that." And royalty was more reconciled to its lot. "What would you then?"
"A free pardon, your highness, for myself and Gerard."
"Go to; the bird will fly from the cage. 'Tis instinct. Besides, coop a young man up for loving a young woman? These burgomasters must be void of common sense. What else?"
"For striking down the burgomaster."
"Oh, the hunted boar will turn to bay. 'Tis his right; and I hold him less than man that grudges it him. What else?"
"For killing of the bloodhounds."
The duke's countenance fell.
"'Twas their life or mine," said Martin eagerly.
"Ay! but I can't have, my bloodhounds, my beautiful bloodhounds, sacrificed to—
"No, no, no! They were not your dogs."
"Whose dogs, then?"
"Oh. Well, I am very sorry for him, but as I was saying I can't have my old soldiers sacrificed to his bloodhounds. Thou shalt have thy free pardon."
"And poor Gerard."
"And poor Gerard too, for thy sake. And more, tell thou this burgomaster his doings mislike me: this is to set up for a king, not a burgomaster. I'll have no kings in Holland but one. Bid him be more humble; or by St. Jude I'll hang him before his own door, as I hanged the burgomaster of what's the name, some town or other in Flanders it was; no, 'twas' somewhere in Brabant—no matter—I hanged him, I remember that much—for oppressing poor folk."
The duke then beckoned his chancellor, a pursy old fellow that rode like a sack, and bade him write out a free pardon for Martin and one Gerard.
This precious document was drawn up in form, and signed next day, and Martin hastened home with it.
Margaret had left her bed some days, and was sitting pale and pensive by the fireside, when he burst in, waving the parchment, and crying, "A free pardon, girl, for Gerard as well as me! Send for him back when you will; all the burgomasters on earth daren't lay a finger on him."
She flushed all over with joy and her hands trembled with eagerness as she took the parchment and devoured it with her eyes, and kissed it again and again, and flung her arms round Martin's neck, and kissed him. When she was calmer, she told him Heaven had raised her up a friend in the dame Van Eyck. "And I would fain consult her on this good news; but I have not strength to walk so far."
"What need to walk? There is my mule."
"Your mule, Martin?"
The old soldier or professional pillager laughed, and confessed he had got so used to her, that he forgot at times Ghysbrecht had a prior claim. To-morrow he would turn her into the burgomaster's yard, but to-night she should carry Margaret to Tergou.
It was nearly dusk; so Margaret ventured, and about seven in the evening she astonished and gladdened her new but ardent friend, by arriving at her house with unwonted roses on her cheeks, and Gerard's pardon in her bosom.
Some are old in heart at forty, some are young at eighty. Margaret Van Eyck's heart was an evergreen. She loved her young namesake with youthful ardour. Nor was this new sentiment a mere caprice; she was quick at reading character, and saw in Margaret Brandt that which in one of her own sex goes far with an intelligent woman; genuineness. But, besides her own sterling qualities, Margaret had from the first a potent ally in the old artist's bosom.
Strange as it may appear to the unobservant, our hearts warm more readily to those we have benefited than to our benefactors. Some of the Greek philosophers noticed this; but the British Homer has stamped it in immortal lines:—
"I heard, and thought how side by side We two had stemmed the battle's tide In many a well-debated field, Where Bertram's breast was Philip's shield. I thought on Darien's deserts pale, Where Death bestrides the evening gale, How o'er my friend my cloak I threw, And fenceless faced the deadly dew. I thought on Quariana's cliff, Where, rescued from our foundering skiff, Through the white breakers' wrath I bore Exhausted Bertram to the shore: And when his side an arrow found, I sucked the Indian's venom'd wound. These thoughts like torrents rushed along To sweep away my purpose strong."
Observe! this assassin's hand is stayed by memory, not of benefits received, but benefits conferred.
Now Margaret Van Eyck had been wonderfully kind to Margaret Brandt; had broken through her own habits to go and see her; had nursed her, and soothed her, and petted her, and cured her more than all the medicine in the world. So her heart opened to the recipient of her goodness, and she loved her now far more tenderly than she had ever loved Gerard, though, in truth, it was purely out of regard for Gerard she had visited her in the first instance.
When, therefore, she saw the roses on Margaret's cheek, and read the bit of parchment that had brought them there, she gave up her own views without a murmur.
"Sweetheart," said she, "I did desire he should stay in Italy five or six years, and come back rich, and above all, an artist. But your happiness is before all, and I see you cannot live without him, so we must have him home as fast as may be."
"Ah, madam! you see my very thoughts." And the young woman hung her head a moment and blushed. "But how to let him know, madam? That passes my skill. He is gone to Italy; but what part I know not. Stay! he named the cities he should visit. Florence was one, and Rome." But then—Finally, being a sensible girl, she divined that a letter, addressed, "My Gerard—Italy," might chance to miscarry, and she looked imploringly at her friend for counsel.
"You are come to the right place, and at the right time," said the old lady. "Here was this Hans Memling with me to-day; he is going to Italy, girl, no later than next week, 'to improve his hand,' he says. Not before 'twas needed, I do assure you."
"But how is he to find my Gerard?"
"Why, he knows your Gerard, child. They have supped here more than once, and were like hand and glove. Now, as his business is the same as Gerard's, he will visit the same places as Gerard, and soon or late he must fall in with him. Wherefore, get you a long letter written, and copy out this pardon into it, and I'll answer for the messenger. In six months at farthest Gerard shall get it; and when he shall get it, then will he kiss it, and put it in his bosom, and come flying home. What are you smiling at? And now what makes your cheeks so red? And what you are smothering me for, I cannot think. Yes! happy days are coming to my little pearl."
Meantime, Martin sat in the kitchen, with the black-jack before him and Reicht Heynes spinning beside him: and, wow! but she pumped him that night.
This Hans Memling was an old pupil of Jan Van Eyck and his sister. He was a painter notwithstanding Margaret's sneer, and a good soul enough, with one fault. He loved the "nipperkin, canakin, and the brown bowl" more than they deserve. This singular penchant kept him from amassing fortune, and was the cause that he often came to Margaret Van Eyck for a meal, and sometimes for a groat. But this gave her a claim on him, and she knew he would not trifle with any commission she should entrust to him.
The letter was duly written and left with Margaret Van Eyck; and the following week, sure enough, Hans Memling returned from Flanders, Margaret Van Eyck gave him the letter, and a piece of gold towards his travelling expenses. He seemed in a hurry to be off.
"All the better," said the old artist; "he will be the sooner in Italy."
But as there are horses who burn and rage to start, and after the first yard or two want the whip, so all this hurry cooled into inaction when Hans got as far as the principal hostelry of Tergou, and saw two of his boon companions sitting in the bay window. He went in for a parting glass with them; but when he offered to pay, they would not hear of it, No; he was going a long journey; they would treat him; everybody must treat him, the landlord and all.
It resulted from this treatment that his tongue got as loose as if the wine had been oil; and he confided to the convivial crew that he was going to show the Italians how to paint: next he sang his exploits in battle, for he had handled a pike; and his amorous successes with females, not present to oppose their version of the incidents. In short, "plenus rimarum erat: huc illuc diffluebat;" and among the miscellaneous matters that oozed out, he must blab that he was entrusted with a letter to a townsman of theirs, one Gerard, a good fellow: he added "you are all good fellows:" and to impress his eulogy, slapped Sybrandt on the back so heartily, as to drive the breath out of his body.
Sybrandt got round the table to avoid this muscular approval; but listened to every word, and learned for the first time that Gerard was gone to Italy. However, to make sure, he affected to doubt it.
"My brother Gerard is never in Italy."
"Ye lie, ye cur," roared Hans, taking instantly the irascible turn, and not being clear enough to see that he, who now sat opposite him, was the same he had praised, and hit, when beside him. "If he is ten times your brother, he is in Italy. What call ye this? There, read me that superscription!" and he flung down a letter on the table.
Sybrandt took it up, and examined it gravely; but eventually laid it down, with the remark, that he could not read. However, one of the company, by some immense fortuity, could read; and proud of so rare an accomplishment, took it, and read it out:
"To Gerard Eliassoen, of Tergou. These by the hand of the trusty Hans Memling, with all speed."
"'Tis excellently well writ," said the reader, examining every letter.
"Ay!" said Hans bombastically, "and small wonder: 'tis writ by a famous hand; by Margaret, sister of Jan Van Eyck. Blessed and honoured be his memory! She is an old friend of mine, is Margaret Van Eyck."
Miscellaneous Hans then diverged into forty topics.
Sybrandt stole out of the company, and went in search of Cornelis.
They put their heads together over the news: Italy was an immense distance off. If they could only keep him there?
"Keep him there? Nothing would keep him long from his Margaret."
"Curse her!" said Sybrandt. "Why didn't she die when she was about it?"
"She die? She would outlive the pest to vex us." And Cornelis was wroth at her selfishness in not dying, to oblige.
These two black sheep kept putting their heads together, and tainting each other worse and worse, till at last their corrupt hearts conceived a plan for keeping Gerard in Italy all his life, and so securing his share of their father's substance.
But when they had planned it they were no nearer the execution: for that required talent: so iniquity came to a standstill. But presently, as if Satan had come between the two heads, and whispered into the right ear of one and the left of the other simultaneously, they both burst out—
They went to Ghysbrecht Van Swieten, and he received them at once: for the man who is under the torture of suspense catches eagerly at knowledge. Certainty is often painful, but seldom, like suspense, intolerable.
"You have news of Gerard?" said he eagerly.
Then they told about the letter and Hans Memling. He listened with restless eye. "Who writ the letter?"
"Margaret Van Eyck," was the reply; for they naturally thought the contents were by the same hand as the superscription.
"Are ye sure?" And he went to a drawer and drew out a paper written by Margaret Van Eyck while treating with the burgh for her house. "Was it writ like this?"
"Yes. 'Tis the same writing," said Sybrandt boldly.
"Good. And now what would ye of me?" said Ghysbrecht, with beating heart, but a carelessness so well feigned that it staggered them. They fumbled with their bonnets, and stammered and spoke a word or two, then hesitated and beat about the bush, and let out by degrees that they wanted a letter written, to say something that might keep Gerard in Italy; and this letter they proposed to substitute in Hans Memling's wallet for the one he carried. While these fumbled with their bonnets and their iniquity, and vacillated between respect for a burgomaster, and suspicion that this one was as great a rogue as themselves, and somehow or other, on their side against Gerard, pros and cons were coursing one another to and fro in the keen old man's spirit. Vengeance said let Gerard come back and feel the weight of the law. Prudence said keep him a thousand miles off. But then Prudence said also, why do dirty work on a doubtful chance? Why put it in the power of these two rogues to tarnish your name? Finally, his strong persuasion that Gerard was in possession of a secret by means of which he could wound him to the quick, coupled with his caution, found words thus: "It is my duty to aid the citizens that cannot write. But for their matter I will not be responsible. Tell me, then, what I shall write."
"Something about this Margaret."
"Ay, ay! that she is false, that she is married to another, I'll go bail."
"Nay, burgomaster, nay! not for all the world!" cried Sybrandt; "Gerard would not believe it, or but half, and then he would come back to see. No; say that she is dead."
"Dead! what, at her age, will he credit that?"
"Sooner than the other. Why she was nearly dead: so it is not to say a downright lie, after all."
"Humph! And you think that will keep him in Italy?"
"We are sure of it, are we not, Cornelis?"
"Ay," said Cornelis, "our Gerard will never leave Italy now he is there. It was always his dream to get there. He would come back for his Margaret, but not for us. What cares he for us? He despises his own family; always did."
"This would be a bitter pill to him," said the old hypocrite.
"It will be for his good in the end," replied the young one.
"What avails Famine wedding Thirst?" said Cornelis.
"And the grief you are preparing for him so coolly?" Ghysbrecht spoke sarcastically, but tasted his own vengeance all the time.
"Oh, a lie is not like a blow with a curtal axe. It hacks no flesh, and breaks no bones."
"A curtal axe?" said Sybrandt; "no, nor even like a stroke with a cudgel." And he shot a sly envenomed glance at the burgomaster's broken nose.
Ghysbrecht's face darkened with ire when this adder's tongue struck his wound. But it told, as intended: the old man bristled with hate.
"Well," said he, "tell me what to write for you, and I must write it; but take notice, you bear the blame if aught turns amiss. Not the hand which writes, but the tongue which dictates, doth the deed."
The brothers assented warmly, sneering within. Ghysbrecht then drew his inkhorn towards him, and laid the specimen of Margaret Van Eyck's writing before him, and made some inquiries as to the size and shape of the letter, when an unlooked-for interruption occurred; Jorian Ketel burst hastily into the room, and looked vexed at not finding him alone.
"Thou seest I have matter on hand, good fellow."
"Ay; but this is grave. I bring good news; but 'tis not for every ear."
The burgomaster rose, and drew Jorian aside into the embrasure of his deep window, and then the brothers heard them converse in low but eager tones. It ended by Ghysbrecht sending Jorian out to saddle his mule. He then addressed the black sheep with a sudden coldness that amazed them—
"I prize the peace of households; but this is not a thing to be done in a hurry: we will see about it, we will see."
"But, burgomaster, the man will be gone. It will be too late."
"Where is he?"
"At the hostelry, drinking."
"Well, keep him drinking! We will see, we will see." And he sent them off discomfited.
To explain all this we must retrograde a step. This very morning then, Margaret Brandt had met Jorian Ketel near her own door. He passed her with a scowl. This struck her, and she remembered him.
"Stay," said she. "Yes! it is the good man who saved him. Oh! why have you not been near me since? And why have you not come for the parchments? Was it not true about the hundred crowns?"
Jorian gave a snort; but, seeing her face that looked so candid, began to think there might be some mistake. He told her he had come, and how he had been received.
"Alas!" said she, "I knew nought of this. I lay at Death's door. She then invited him to follow her, and took him into the garden and showed him the spot where the parchments were buried. Martin was for taking them up, but I would not let him. He put them there; and I said none should move them but you, who had earned them so well of him and me."
"Give me a spade!" cried Jorian eagerly. "But stay! No; he is a suspicious man. You are sure they are there still?"
"I will openly take the blame if human hand hath touched them."
"Then keep them but two hours more, I prithee, good Margaret," said Jorian, and ran off to the Stadthouse of Tergou a joyful man.
The burgomaster jogged along towards Sevenbergen, with Jorian striding beside him, giving him assurance that in an hour's time the missing parchments would be in his hand.
"Ah, master!" said he, "lucky for us it wasn't a thief that took them."
"Not a thief? not a thief? what call you him, then?"
"Well, saving your presence, I call him a jackdaw. This is jackdaw's work, if ever there was; 'take the thing you are least in need of, and hide it'—that's a jackdaw. I should know," added Jorian oracularly, "for I was brought up along with a chough. He and I were born the same year, but he cut his teeth long before me, and wow! but my life was a burden for years all along of him. If you had but a hole in your hose no bigger than a groat, in went his beak like a gimlet; and, for stealing, Gerard all over. What he wanted least, and any poor Christian in the house wanted most, that went first. Mother was a notable woman, so if she did but look round, away flew her thimble. Father lived by cordwaining, so about sunrise Jack went diligently off with his awl, his wax, and his twine. After that, make your bread how you could! One day I heard my mother tell him to his face he was enough to corrupt half-a-dozen other children; and he only cocked his eye at her, and next minute away with the nurseling's shoe off his very foot. Now this Gerard is tarred with the same stick. The parchments are no more use to him than a thimble or an awl to Jack. He took 'em out of pure mischief and hid them, and you would never have found them but for me."
"I believe you are right," said Ghysbrecht, "and I have vexed myself more than need."
When they came to Peter's gate he felt uneasy.
"I wish it had been anywhere but here."
Jorian reassured him.
"The girl is honest and friendly," said he. "She had nothing to do with taking them, I'll be sworn;" and he led him into the garden. "There, master, if a face is to be believed, here they lie; and see, the mould is loose."
He ran for a spade which was stuck up in the ground at some distance, and soon went to work and uncovered a parchment. Ghysbrecht saw it, and thrust him aside and went down on his knees and tore it out of the hole. His hands trembled and his face shone. He threw out parchment after parchment, and Jorian dusted them and cleared them and shook them. Now, when Ghysbrecht had thrown out a great many, his face began to darken and lengthen, and when he came to the last, he put his hands to his temples and seemed to be all amazed.
"What mystery lies here?" he gasped. "Are fiends mocking me? Dig deeper! There must be another."
Jorian drove the spade in and threw out quantities of hard mould. In vain. And even while he dug, his master's mood had changed.
"Treason! treachery!" he cried. "You knew of this."
"Knew what, master, in Heaven's name?"
"Caitiff, you knew there was another one worth all these twice told.'
"'Tis false," cried Jorian, made suspicious by the other's suspicion. "'Tis a trick to rob me of my hundred crowns. Oh! I know you, burgomaster." And Jorian was ready to whimper.
A mellow voice fell on them both like oil upon the waves.
"No, good man, it is not false, nor yet is it quite true: there was another parchment."
"There, there, there! Where is it?"
"But," continued Margaret calmly, "it was not a town record (so you have gained your hundred crowns, good man): it was but a private deed between the burgomaster here and my grandfather Flor—"
"Where is it, girl? that is all we want to know."
"Have patience, and I shall tell you. Gerard read the title of it, and he said, 'This is as much yours as the burgomaster's,' and he put it apart, to read it with me at his leisure."
"It is in the house, then?" said the burgomaster, recovering his calmness.
"No, sir," said Margaret gravely, "it is not." Then, in a voice that faltered suddenly, "You hunted—my poor Gerard—so hard—and so close-that you gave him—no time-to think of aught—but his life—and his grief. The parchment was in his bosom, and he hath ta'en it with him."
"Ask me no more, sir. What right is yours to question me thus? It was for your sake, good man, I put force upon my heart, and came out here, and bore to speak at all to this hard old man. For, when I think of the misery he has brought on him and me, the sight of him is more than I can bear;" and she gave an involuntary shudder, and went slowly in, with her hand to her head, crying bitterly.
Remorse for the past, and dread of the future—the slow, but, as he now felt, the inevitable future—avarice, and fear, all tugged in one short moment at Ghysbrecht's tough heart. He hung his head, and his arms fell listless by his sides. A coarse chuckle made him start round, and there stood Martin Wittenhaagen leaning on his bow, and sneering from ear to ear. At sight of the man and his grinning face, Ghysbrecht's worst passions awoke.
"Ho! attach him, seize him, traitor and thief!" cried he. "Dog, thou shalt pay for all."
Martin, without a word, calmly thrust the duke's pardon under Ghysbrecht's nose. He looked, and had not a word to say. Martin followed up his advantage.
"The duke and I are soldiers. He won't let you greasy burghers trample on an old comrade. He bade me carry you a message too."
"The duke send a message to me?"
"Ay! I told him of your masterful doings, of your imprisoning Gerard for loving a girl; and says he, 'Tell him this is to be a king, not a burgomaster. I'll have no kings in Holland but one. Bid him be more humble, or I'll hang him at his own door,'"
(Ghysbrecht trembled: he thought the duke capable of the deed)
"'as I hanged the burgomaster of Thingembob.' The duke could not mind which of you he had hung, or in what part; such trifles stick not in a soldier's memory; but he was sure he had hanged one of you for grinding poor folk, 'and I'm the man to hang another,' quoth the good duke."
These repeated insults from so mean a man, coupled with his invulnerability, shielded as he was by the duke, drove the choleric old man into a fit of impotent fury: he shook his fist at the soldier, and tried to threaten him, but could not speak for the rage and mortification that choked him: then he gave a sort of screech, and coiled himself up in eye and form like a rattlesnake about to strike; and spat furiously upon Martin's doublet.
The thick-skinned soldier treated this ebullition with genuine contempt. "Here's a venomous old toad! he knows a kick from his foot would send him to his last home; and he wants me to cheat the gallows. But I have slain too many men in fair fight to lift limb against anything less than a man; and this I count no man. What is it, in Heaven's name? an old goat's-skin bag full o' rotten bones."
"My mule! my mule!" screamed Ghysbrecht.
Jorian helped the old man up trembling in every joint. Once in the saddle, he seemed to gather in a moment unnatural vigour; and the figure that went flying to Tergou was truly weird-like and terrible: so old and wizened the face; so white and reverend the streaming hair; so baleful the eye; so fierce the fury which shook the bent frame that went spurring like mad; while the quavering voice yelled, "I'll make their hearts ache. I'll make their hearts ache. I'll make their hearts ache. I'll make their hearts ache. All of them. All!—all!—all!"
The black sheep sat disconsolate amidst the convivial crew, and eyed Hans Memling's wallet. For more ease he had taken it off, and flung it on the table. How readily they could have slipped out that letter and put in another. For the first time in their lives they were sorry they had not learned to write, like their brother.
And now Hans began to talk of going, and the brothers agreed in a whisper to abandon their project for the time. They had scarcely resolved this, when Dierich Brower stood suddenly in the doorway, and gave them a wink.
They went out to him. "Come to the burgomaster with all speed," said he,
They found Ghysbrecht seated at a table, pale and agitated. Before him lay Margaret Van Eyck's handwriting. "I have written what you desired," said he. "Now for the superscription. What were the words? did ye see?"
"We cannot read," said Cornelis.
"Then is all this labour lost," cried Ghysbrecht angrily. "Dolts!"
"Nay, but," said Sybrandt, "I heard the words read, and I have not lost them. They were, 'To Gerard Eliassoen, these by the hand of the trusty Hans Memling, with all speed.'"
"'Tis well. Now, how was the letter folded? how big was it?"
"Longer than that one, and not so long as this."
"'Tis well. Where is he?"
"At the hostelry."
"Come, then, take you this groat, and treat him. Then ask to see the letter, and put this in place of it. Come to me with the other letter."
The brothers assented, took the letter, and went to the hostelry.
They had not been gone a minute, when Dierich Brower issued from the Stadthouse, and followed them. He had his orders not to let them out of his sight till the true letter was in his master's hands. He watched outside the hostelry.
He had not long to wait. They came out almost immediately, with downcast looks. Dierich made up to them.
"Too late!" they cried; "too late! He is gone."
"Gone? How long?"
"Scarce five minutes. Cursed chance!"
"You must go back to the burgomaster at once," said Dierich Brower.
"To what end?"
"No matter; come!" and he hurried them to the Stadthouse.
Ghysbrecht Van Swieten was not the man to accept a defeat.
"Well," said he, on hearing the ill news, "suppose he is gone. Is he mounted?"
"Then what hinders you to come up with him?"
"But what avails coming up with him! There are no hostelries on the road he is gone."
"Fools!" said Ghysbrecht, "is there no way of emptying a man's pockets but liquor and sleight of hand?"
A meaning look, that passed between Ghysbrecht and Dierich, aided the brothers' comprehension. They changed colour, and lost all zeal for the business.
"No! no! we don't hate our brother. We won't get ourselves hanged to spite him," said Sybrandt; "that would be a fool's trick."
"Hanged!" cried Ghysbrecht. "Am I not the burgomaster? How can ye be hanged? I see how 'tis ye fear to tackle one man, being two: hearts of hare, that ye are! Oh! why cannot I be young again? I'd do it single-handed."
The old man now threw off all disguise, and showed them his heart was in this deed. He then flattered and besought, and jeered them alternately, but he found no eloquence could move them to an action, however dishonourable, which was attended with danger. At last he opened a drawer, and showed them a pile of silver coins.
"Change but those letters for me," he said, "and each of you shall thrust one hand into this drawer, and take away as many of them as you can hold."
The effect was magical. Their eyes glittered with desire. Their whole bodies seemed to swell, and rise into male energy.
"Swear it, then," said Sybrandt.
"I swear it."
"No; on the crucifix."
Ghysbrecht swore upon the crucifix.
The next minute the brothers were on the road, in pursuit of Hans Memling. They came in sight of him about two leagues from Tergou, but though they knew he had no weapon but his staff, they were too prudent to venture on him in daylight; so they fell back.