Gilda in this impulsive act of mercy had not paused to consider either the risks or the cost. She had recognised the voice of the man whom she had once loved, that voice called to her out of the depths of boundless misery; it was the call of a man at bay, a human quarry hunted and exhausted, with the hunters close upon his heels. She could not have resisted that call even if she had allowed her reason to fight her instinct then. But now that he stood before her in rough fisherman's clothes, stained and torn, his face covered with blood and grime, his eyes red and swollen, the breath coming in quick, short gasps through his blue, cracked lips, the first sense of fear at what she had done seized hold of her heart.
At first he took no notice of her, but threw himself into the nearest chair and passed his hands across his face and brow. She stood in the middle of the room, feeling helpless and bewildered; she was full of pity for the man, for there is nothing more unutterably pathetic than the hunted human creature in its final stage of apathetic exhaustion, but she was just beginning to co-ordinate her thoughts and they for the moment were being invaded by fear. She felt more than she saw, that presently he turned his hollow, purple-rimmed eyes upon her, and that in them there was a glow half of passionate will-power and half of anxious, agonizing doubt.
I came back a few days ago, thinking I could help my brother to escape. Gilda obeyed him mechanically. First she closed the window; then she went to the door listening against the panel with all her senses on the alert. At the further end of the passage was the living-room where her father must still be sitting after his supper, poring over a book on horticulture, or mayhap attending to his tulip bulbs. If he knew that the would-be murderer of the Stadtholder, the prime mover and instigator of the dastardly plot was here in his house, in his daughter's chamber … Gilda shuddered, half-fainting with terror, and her trembling fingers fumbled with the lock.
Nicolaes is my friend … I counted on seeing him here … he would help me I know … but your father, Gilda, would drag me to the gallows with his own hand if he knew that I am here. He is sure to come and bid me good-night before he goes to bed…". I landed at Scheveningen a week ago, and for five days have hung about the Gevangen Poort of 'S Graven Hage trying to get speech with my brother. Then I was recognized by a group of workmen outside my dead father's house.
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I read recognition in their eyes — knowledge of me and knowledge of the money which that recognition might mean to them. They feigned indifference at first, but I had read their thoughts. They drew together to concert over their future actions and I took to my heels. It was yesterday at noon, and I have been running ever since, running, running, with but brief intervals to regain my breath and beg for a drink of water — when thirst became more unendurable than the thought of capture.
I did not even know which way I was running till I saw the spires of Haarlem rising from out the evening haze; then I thought of you, Gilda, and of this house. You would not sell me, Gilda, for you are rich, and you loved me once," he added hoarsely, while his thin, grimy hands clutched the arms of the chair and he half-raised himself from his seat, as if ready to spring up and to start running again; running, running until he dropped.
But obviously his strength was exhausted, for the next moment he fell back against the cushions, the swollen lids fell upon the hollow eyes, the sunken cheeks and parched lips became ashen white. She ministered to him kindly and gently, first holding the water to his lips, then when he had quenched that raging thirst, she pulled the table up close to his chair, and gave him milk to drink and bread and meat to eat.
He seemed quite dazed, conscious only of bodily needs, for he ate and drank ravenously without thought at first of thanking her. Only when he had finished did he lean back once again against the cushions which her kindly hand had placed behind him, and he murmured feebly like a tired but satisfied child:. Had you not helped me to-night, I should either have perished in a ditch, or fallen in the hands of the Stadholder's minions.
Quickly she put a restraining hand on his shoulder. A firm step had echoed in the flagged corridor beyond the oaken door. In a moment the instinct for life and liberty was fully aroused in the fugitive; his apathy and exhaustion were forgotten; terror, mad, unreasoning terror, had once more taken possession of his mind.
The Laughing Cavalier
Swiftly she blew out the candles, then with dilated anxious eyes searched the recesses of the room for a hiding-place — the cupboard which was too small — the wide hearth which was too exposed — the bed in the wall…. His knees had given way under him, and, as he clutched at her gown, he fell forward at her feet, and remained there crouching, trembling, his circled eyes trying to pierce the surrounding gloom, to locate the position of the door behind which lurked the most immediate danger.
She was white to the lips, white as the gown which fell in straight heavy folds from her hips, and which Stoutenburg was still clutching with convulsive fingers. Alone her white figure detached itself from the darkness around. The wretched man as he looked up could see her small pale head, the stiff collar that rose above her shoulders, her embroidered corslet, and the row of pearls round her neck. Noiselessly she glided across the room, dragging him after her by the hand. She pulled aside the bed-curtains, without a word pointed to the recess.
The bed, built into the wall, was narrow but sure; it smelt sweetly of lavender; the hunted man, his very senses blurred by that overwhelming desire to save his life at any cost, accepted the shelter so innocently offered him. Gathering his long limbs together, he was soon hidden underneath the coverlet. She pulled the curtains together very carefully in front of the bed: she even took the precaution of taking off her stiff collar and embroidered corslet.
Then she lighted one of the candles, and with it in her hand she went to the door.
My head aches terribly … it must be the spring air … Good-night, dear. Mynheer Beresteyn went away at last, not before Gilda feared that she must drop or faint under the stress of this nerve-racking situation. Even now when at last she was alone, when once again she was able to close and bolt the door, she could scarcely stand. She leaned against the wall with eyes closed, and heart that beat so furiously and so fast that she thought she must choke. The sound of her father's footsteps died away along the corridor.
She heard him opening and shutting a door at the further end of the passage, where there were two or three living rooms and his own sleeping chamber. For awhile now the house was still, so still that she could almost hear those furious heart-beats beneath her gown. Then only did she dare to move. With noiseless steps she crossed the room to that recess in the wall hidden by the gay-flowered cotton curtains. Still no answer, and as she paused, straining her ears to listen, she caught the sound of slow and regular breathing. Going back to the table she took up the candle, then with it in her hand she returned to the recess and gently drew aside the curtain.
The light from the candle fell full upon Stoutenburg's face. Inexpressibly weary, exhausted both bodily and mentally, not even the imminence of present danger had succeeded in keeping him awake. The moment that he felt the downy pillow under his head, he had dropped off to sleep as peacefully as he used to do years ago before the shadow of premeditated crime had left its impress on his wan face.
Gilda looking down on him sought in vain in the harsh and haggard features, the traces of those boyish good looks which had fascinated her years ago; she tried in vain to read on those thin, set lips those words of passionate affection which had so readily flown from them then. And he slept on calmly, watched over by the woman whom he had so heartlessly betrayed. All love for him had died out in her heart ere this, but pity was there now, and she was thankful that it had been in her power to aid him at the moment of his most dire peril.
But that danger still existed of course. The household was still astir and the servants not yet all abed.
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Gilda could hear Jakob, the old henchman, making his rounds, seeing that all the lights were safely out, the bolts pushed home and chains securely fastened, and Maria might come back at any moment, wondering why her mistress had not yet sent for her. Nicolaes too was at home, and had already said that he wished to see his sister.
Laughing Cavalier; Ancestor of the Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy - Free at Loyal Books
She tried to rouse the sleeping man, but he lay there like a log. She dared not speak loudly to him or to call his name, and all her efforts at shaking him by the shoulder failed to waken him. Lonely and seriously frightened now Gilda fell on her knees beside the bed. Clasping her hands she tried to pray. Surely God could not leave a young girl in such terrible perplexity, when her only sin had been an act of mercy.
The candle on the bureau close by burnt low in its socket and its flickering light outlined her delicate profile and the soft tendrils of hair that escaped from beneath her coif. Her eyes were closed in the endeavour to concentrate her thoughts, and time flew by swiftly while she tried to pray. She did not perceive that after awhile the Lord of Stoutenburg woke and that he remained for a long time in mute contemplation of the exquisite picture which she presented, clad all in white, with the string of pearls still round her throat, her hands clasped, her lips parted breathing a silent prayer.
Then — as suddenly startled and terrified — she tried to jump up quickly, away from him, he put out his hand and succeeded in capturing her wrists and thus holding her pinioned and still kneeling close beside him. At his words, at the renewed pressure of his hand upon her wrists she made a violent effort to recover her composure. They were clasped in prayer for your safety. You slept so soundly that I feared I could not wake you in order to tell you that you must leave this house instantly. And the sight of you kneeling and praying near me has put life into me again. The garden is quite lonely, the Oude Gracht at its furthest boundary is more lonely still.
The hour is late and the city is asleep … you would be quite safe now. They are mercenaries who call themselves after famous philosophers: "Diogenes," "Socrates," and "Pythagoras. Gilda continues to church but cannot stop thinking about the mysterious, infuriating stranger. She stays behind after the service to pray, but is disturbed by a secret meeting between Stoutenburg and his allies, including Gilda's brother Nicolaes.
Fueled by rage, Stoutenburg shouts out his plan to murder the Prince. Nicolaes follows Gilda out of the church and it soon becomes apparent that she has overheard everything. She begs her brother to reconsider his part in the plot, but he refuses and instead asks her to swear that she will not tell their father. She also refuses, but Nicolaes still tells the rest of the group that she can be trusted not to betray them. Stoutenburg is not convinced and persuades Nicolaes to send Gilda away for a few days, so they can kill the Stadtholder before she can tell anyone.
Nicolaes, who has seen Diogenes in the pub, follows him to Frans Hals' house and hires him to kidnap Gilda. After seeing her portrait, Diogenes recognises her as the lady he met the night before. With the help of the Spanish woman he saved from the mob, Diogenes bundles Gilda and her maid into a sledge and takes her out of Haarlem.
He leaves her under the care of Socrates and Pythagoras for the night and returns to Haarlem, where he is sitting for a painting by Hals. Afterwards, in the pub, he meets Gilda's distraught father. Nicolaes is furious at Diogenes' appearance back in Haarlem, but can say nothing for fear of giving away his role in his sister's kidnapping. Caught between the two men, Diogenes finds himself promising Gilda's father that he will seek out Gilda and return her to him. One word from Gilda could send Diogenes to the gallows, yet despite her vehement verbal attacks on him, he is starting to have deep feelings for her, something which won't please Stoutenburg, who is still determined to marry her.
If so it must also come from those members of the Blakeney family in whose veins runs the blood of that Sir Percy Blakeney who is known to history as The Scarlet Pimpernel-- for they in a manner are responsible for the telling of this veracious chronicle. For the past eight years now-- ever since the true story of The Scarlet Pimpernel was put on record by the present author-- these gentle, kind, inquisitive friends have asked me to trace their descent back to an ancestor more remote than was Sir Percy, to one in fact who by his life and by his deeds stands forth from out the distant past as a conclusive proof that the laws which govern the principles of heredity are as unalterable as those that rule the destinies of the universe.
They have pointed out to me that since Sir Percy Blakeney's was an exceptional personality, possessing exceptional characteristics which his friends pronounced sublime and his detractors arrogant-- he must have had an ancestor in the dim long ago who was, like him, exceptional, like him possessed of qualities which call forth the devotion of friends and rancour of enemies. Nay, more! All these were unanswerable arguments, and with the request that accompanied then I had long intended to comply.
Time has been my only enemy in thwarting my intentions until now-- time and the multiplicity of material and documents to be gone through ere vague knowledge could be turned into certitude. Now at last I am in a position to present not only to the Blakeneys themselves, but to all those who look on the Scarlet Pimpernel as their hero and their friend—the true history of one of his most noted forebears.
Strangely enough his history has never been written before. And yet countless millions must during the past three centuries have stood before his picture; we of the present generation, who are the proud possessors of that picture now, have looked on him many a time, always with sheer, pure joy in our hearts, our lips smiling, our eyes sparkling in response to his; almost forgetting the genius of the artist who portrayed him in the very realism of the personality which literally seems to breathe and palpitate and certainly to laugh to us out of the canvas.
Those twinkling eyes! And yet no biographer has-- so far as is known to the author of this veracious chronicle-- ever attempted to tell us anything of this man's life, no one has attempted hitherto to lift the veil of anonymity which only thinly hides the identity of the Laughing Cavalier.