ONE bright morning unwonted velvet shone, unwonted feathers waved, and horses’ hoofs glinted and rang through the streets of Tergou, and the windows and balconies were studded with wondering faces. The French Ambassador was riding through to sport in the neighbouring forest.
Besides his own suite he was attended by several servants of the Duke of Burgundy, lent to do him honour and minister to his pleasure. The duke’s tumbler rode before him with a grave, sedate majesty, that made his more noble companions seem light, frivolous persons.
But ever and anon, when respect and awe neared the oppressive, he rolled off his horse so ignobly and funnily that even the ambassador was fain to burst out laughing. He also climbed up again by the tail in a way provocative of mirth, and so he played his part. Towards the tail of the pageant rode one that excited more attention still — the duke’s leopard.
A huntsman mounted on a Flemish horse of prodigious size and power carried a long box fastened to the rider’s loins by straps curiously contrived, and on this box sat a huge leopard crouching. She was chained to the huntsman. The people admired her glossy hide and spots, and pressed near, and one or two were for feeling her, and pulling her tail; then the huntsman shouted in a terrible voice:
“Beware! At Antwerp one did but throw a handful of dust at her, and the duke made dust of him.”
“I speak sooth. The good duke shut him up in prison, in a cell under ground, and the rats cleaned the flesh off his bones in a night. Served him right for molesting the poor thing.”
There was a murmur of fear, and the Tergovians shrank from tickling the leopard of their sovereign. But an incident followed that raised their spirits again. The duke’s giant, a Hungarian seven feet four inches high, brought up the rear. This enormous creature had, like some other giants, a treble, fluty voice of little power.
He was a vain fellow, and not conscious of this or any defect. Now it happened he caught sight of Giles sitting on the top of the balcony; so he stopped and
began to make fun of him.
“Hallo! brother!” squeaked he, “I had nearly passed without seeing thee.”
“You are plain enough to see,” bellowed Giles,in his bass tones.
“Come on my shoulder, brother,” squeaked Titan, and held out a shoulder of mutton fist to help him down.
“If I do I’ll cuff your ears,” roared the dwarf.
The giant saw the homuncule was irascible, and played upon him, being encouraged thereto by the shouts of laughter. He did not see that the people were laughing not at his wit, but at the ridiculous incongruity of the two voices — the gigantic feeble fife, and the petty, deep, loud drum, the mountain delivered of a squeak and the mole-hill belching thunder.
The singular duet came to as singular an end. Giles lost all patience and self-command, and being a creature devoid of fear, and in a rage to boot, he actually dropped upon the giant’s neck, seized his hair with one hand, and punched his head with the other. The giant’s first impulse was to laugh, but the weight and rapidity of the blows speedily corrected that inclination.
“He! he! Ah! ha! Hallo! oh! oh! Holy saints! here! help! or I must throttle the imp.
I can’t! O Lord! I’ll split your skull against the…” and he made a wild run backwards at the balcony.
Giles saw his danger, seized the balcony in time with both hands, and whipped
over it just as the giant’s head came against it with a stunning crack. The people roared with laughter and exultation at the address of their little champion.
The indignant giant seized two of the laughers, knocked them together like dumb bells, shook them and strecwed them flat — (Catherine shrieked, and threw her apron over Giles) — then strode wrathfully away after the party. This incident had consequences no one then present foresaw: it made Mr. Giles a companion of princes.
Its immediate results were agreeable.
The Tergovians turned proud of him, and after this listened with more affability to his prayers for parchment. For Giles drove a regular trade with his brother Gerard in this article. That is to say, he went about, and begged it gratis, and Gerard gave him coppers for it.
On the afternoon of the same day, Catherine and her daughter were chatting together about their favourite theme, Gerard, his goodness, his benefice, and the brightened prospects of the whole family.
Their good luck had come to them in the very shape they would have chosen; besides the advantages of a benefice such as the Countess Charolois would not disdain to give, there was the feminine delight at having a priest, a holy man, in their own family. He will marry Cornelis, and Sybrandt: for they can marry (good housewives), now, if they will:
“Gerard will take care of you and Giles, when we are gone. Yes, mother, and we can confess to him instead of to a stranger,” said Kate.
“Ay, girl! and he can give the sacred oil to your father and me, and close our eyes, when our time comes.”m
“Oh, mother! not for many, many years, I do pray heaven. Pray don’t speak of that, it always makes me sad. I hope I shall go before you, mother dear. No! let us be gay to-day. I am out of pain, mother—quite out of all pain; it does seem so strange; and I feel so bright and happy,that… mother, can you keep a secret?”
“Nobody better, child. Why, you know I can.”
“Then I will show you something so beautiful you never saw the like, I trow. Only Gerard must never know; for I am sure he means to surprise us with it, he covers it up so, and sometimes he carries it away altogether.”
Kate took her crutches, and moved slowly away, leaving her mother in an exalted state of curiosity. She soon returned with something in a cloth, uncovered it, and there was a lovely picture of the Virgin, with all her insignia, and wearing her tiara over a wealth of beautiful hair, which flowed loose over her shoulders. Catherine, at first, was struck with awe.
“It is herself!” she cried; “it is the Queen of Heaven! I never saw one like her to my mind before.”
“And her eyes, mother! lifted to Heaven, as if they belonged there, and not to a mortal creature. And her beautiful hair of burning gold.”
“And to think I have a son that can make the saints live again upon a piece of wood!”
“The reason is, he is a young saint himself, mother. He is too good for this world; he is here to portray the blessed, and then to go away and be with them for ever.”
Ere they had half done admiring it, a strange voice was heard at the door. By one of the furtive instincts of their sex they hastily hid the picture in the cloth, though there was no need. And the next moment in came, casting his eyes furtively around, a man that had not entered the house this ten years — Ghysbrecht Van Swieten. The two women were so taken by surprise, that they merely stared at him and at one another, and said,
“The Burgomaster!” in a tone so expressive, that Ghysbrecht felt compelled to answer it.
“Yes! I own, the last time I came here was not on a friendly errand. Men love their own interest — Gerard’s and mine were contrary. Well, let this visit atone the last. To-day, I come on your business, and none of mine.”
Catherine and her daughter exchanged a swift glance of contemptuous incredulity. They knew the man better than he thought.
“It is about your son Gerard.”
“Ay! ay! you want him to work for the town – for nothing. He told us.”
“I come on no such errand. It is to let you know he has fallen into bad hands.”
“Now Heaven and the saints forbid! Man, torture not a mother! Speak out, and quickly speak ere you have time to coin falsehood: we know you.”
Ghysbrecht turned pale at this affront, and spite mingled with the other motives that brought him here.
“Thus it is, then,” said he, grinding his teeth, and speaking very fast. “Your son Gerard is more like to be a father of a family than a priest: he is for ever with Margaret, Peter Brandt’s red-haired girl, and loves her like a cow her calf.”
Mother and daughter both burst out laughing. Ghysbrecht stared at them.
“What, you knew it?”
“Carry this tale to those who know not my son Gerard. Women are nought to him.”
“Other women, mayhap. But this one is the apple of his eye to him, or will be, if you part them not, and soon. Come, dame, don’t make me waste time and friendly counsel: my servant has seen them together a score times, handed, and reading babies in one another’s eyes like – you know, dame — you have been young too.”
“Kate, I am ill at ease. Yes, I have been young, and know how blind and foolish the young are. My heart! He has turned me sick in a moment. Oh, Kate, if it should be true!”
“No, no!” cried Kate, eagerly. “Gerard might love a young woman: all young men do: I can’t think what they see in them to love so: but if he did he would let us know: he would not deceive us. You wicked man; you will kill my mother. No, dear mother, don’t look so! Gerard is too good to love a creature of earth. His love is for our lady and the saints. Ah! I will show you the pict… there: if his heart was earthly could he paint the Queen of Heaven like that – look! look!” and she held the picture out triumphantly, and more radiant and beautiful in this moment of enthusiasm than ever dead picture was or will be, overpowered the Burgomaster with her eloquence and her feminine proof of Gerard‘s purity.
His eyes and mouth opened, and remained open: in which state they kept turning, face and all, as if on a pivot, from the picture to the women, and from the women to the picture.
“Why, it is herself!” he gasped.
“Isn’t it?” cried Kate, and her hostility was softened. “You admire it! I forgive you for frightening us.”
“Am I in a mad-house?” said Ghysbrecht Van Swietcn, thoroughly puzzled. “You show me a picture of the girl; and you say he painted it; and that is a proof he cannot love her. Why they all paint their sweethearts, painters do.”
“A picture of the girl?” exclaimed Kate, shocked. “Fie! this is not a girl; this is the Virgin Mary.”
“No; no, it is Margaret Brandt.”
“Oh blind! It is the Queen of Heaven.”
“No; only of Sevenbergen-village.”
“Profane man! behold her crown!”
“Silly child! look at her red hair!”
“Would the Virgin be seen in red hair? She who had the pick of all the colours ten thousand years before the world began?”
At this moment an anxious face was insinuated round the edge of the open door: it was their neighbour Peter Buysken.
“What is to do?” said he in a cautious whisper. “We can hear you all across the street. What on earth is to do?”
“O, neighbour! What is to do? Why here is the Burgomaster blackening my Gerard.”
“Stop!” cried Van Swieten. “Peter Buysken is come in the nick of time. He knows father and daughter both. They cured him of the colic. Here, Peter, who is that? Now, be silent, women, for one moment, if you can. Who is that?”
Peter gave a start.
“Well, to be sure!” was all his reply.
“Who is it?” repeated Ghysbrecht, impetuously.
Peter Buysken smiled.
“Why you know as well as I do; but what have they put a crown on her for? I never saw her in a crown, for my part.”
“Man alive! Can’t you open your great jaws, and just speak a wench’s name to oblige three people?”
“I’d do a great deal more to oblige one of you than that, Burgomaster. If it isn’t as natural as life!”
“Curse the man! he won’t, he won’t — curse him!”
“Why, what have I done, now?”
“Oh, sir” said little Kate, “for pity’s sake tell us; are these the features of one Margaret Brandt?”
“A mirror is not truer, my little maid.”
“But is it she, sir, for very certain?”
“Why, don’t I tell you it is.”
“Now, why couldn’t you say so at once,” snarled Ghysbrecht.
“I did say so, as plain as I could speak,” snapped Peter; and they growled over this small bone of contention so zealously, that they did not see Catherine and her daughter had thrown their aprons over their heads, and were rocking to and fro in deep distress.
The next moment, Gerard senior came in, and stood aghast. Catherine, though her face was covered, knew his footstep directly.
“That is my poor man,” she sobbed. “Tell him, good Peter Buysken, for I have not the courage to.”
Gerard turned pale. The presence of the Burgomaster in his house, after so many years of coolness, coupled with his wife’s and daughter’s distress, made him fear some heavy misfortune.
“Richart! Jacob!” he gasped.
“No! no!” said the Burgomaster; “it is nearer home, and nobody is dead or dying, old friend.”
“God bless you, Burgomaster! Ah! something is gone off my breast that was like to choke me. Now, what is the matter?”
Ghysbrecht then told him all that he told the women, and showed the picture in evidence.
“Is that all?” said Gerard.
“What are ye roaring and bellowing for? It is vexing, it is angering, but it is not like death nor even sickness. Boys will be boys. He will outgrow that disease: ’tis but skin deep.”
But when Ghysbrecht told him that Margaret was a girl of good character; that it was not to be supposed she would be so intimate if marriage had not been spoken of between them, Gerard’s brow darkened.
“Marriage? that shall never be,” said he, sternly. “I’ll stay that, ay, by force if needed be, as I would his hand lifted to cut his throat. I’d do what old John Koestein did the other day.”
“And what is that, in Heaven’s name?” asked the mother, suddenly removing her apron.
It was the Burgomaster who replied:
“He made me shut young Albert Koestein up in the prison of the Stadthouse till he knocked under: it was not long. Forty-eight hours, all alone, on bread and water, cooled his hot stomach. ’Tell my father I am his humble servant,’ says he, ’and let me into the sun once more—the sun is worth all the wenches in the world.’”
“Oh the cruelty of men!” sighed Catherine.
“As to that, the Burgomaster has no choice: it is the law. And if a father says, ‘Burgomaster,lock up my son,’ he must do it. A fine thing it would be if a father might not lock up his own son.”
“Well, well! it won’t come to that with me and my son. He never disobeyed me in his life: he never shall. Where is he? It is past supper time. Where is he, Kate?”
“Alas, I know not, father.”
“I know,” said Ghysbrecht; ” he is at Sevenbergen. My servant met him on the road.”
Supper passed in gloomy silence. Evening descended — no Gerard: eight o’clock came — no Gerard. Then the father sent all to bed except Catherine.
“You and I will walk abroad, wife, and talk over this new care.”
“Abroad, Gerard, at this time! Whither?”
“Why on the road to Sevenbergen.”
“Oh no, no hasty words, father! Poor Gerard! he never vexed you before.”
“Fear me not. But it must end; and I am not one that trusts to-morrow with to-day’s work.”
The old couple walked hand in hand; for, strange as it may appear to some of my readers, the use of the elbow to couples walking was never discovered in Europe till centuries after this. They walked a long time in silence. The night was clear and balmy. Such nights, calm and silent, recall the past from the dead.
“It is a many years since we walked so late, my man,” said Catherine, softly.
“Ay, sweetheart, more than we shall see again. (Is he never coming, I wonder?”)
“Not since our courting days, Gerard.”
“No. Ay, you were a buxom lass then.”
“And you were a comely lad, as ever a girl’s eye stole a look at. I do suppose Gerard is with her now, as you used to be with me. Nature is strong, and the same in all our generations.”
“Nay, I hope he has left her by now, confound her, or we shall be here all nigh.”
“I have been happy with you, sweetheart, for all our rubs, — much happier, I trow, than if I have – been – a – a -nun. You won’t speak harshly to the poor child? One can be firm without being harsh.”
“Have you been happy with me, my poor Gerard?”
“Why, you know I have. Friends I have known, but none like you. Buss me, wife!”
“A heart to share joy and grief with is a great comfort to man or woman. Isn’t it?”
“It is so, my lass.
’It doth Joy double,
And halveth trouble,’
runs the bye-word. Ah! here comes the young fool.”
Catherine trembled and held her husband’s hand tight. The moon was bright, but they were in the shadow of some trees, and their son did not see them. He came singing in the moonlight, and his face shining.
WHILE the burgomaster was exposing Gerard at Tergou, Margaret had a trouble of her own at Sevenbergen. It was a housewife’s distress, but deeper than we can well conceive. She came to Martin Wittenhaagen, the old soldier, with tears in her eyes.
“Oh, Martin, there’s nothing in the house, and Gerard is coming, and he is so thoughtless. He forgets to sup at home. When he puts down work then he runs to me straight, poor soul: and often he comes here quite faint. And to think I should have nothing to set before my servant that loves me so dear.”
Martin scratched his head.
“What can I do?”
“It is Thursday; it is your day to shoot, sooth to say, I counted on you to-day.”
“Nay,” said the soldier, “I may not shoot when the duke or his friends are at the chace: read else. I am no scholar.”
And he took out of his pouch a parchment with a grand seal. It purported to be a stipend and a licence given by Philip Duke of Burgundy to M. W. one of his archers, in return for services in the wars, and for a wound received at the duke’s side.
The stipend was four merks yearly to be paid by the duke’s almoner, and the licence was to shoot three arrows once a week, viz., on Thursday, and no other day, in any of the duke’s forests in Holland, at any game but a seven year old buck or a doe carrying fawn, proviso that the duke should not be hunting on that day, or any of his friends. In this case Martin was not to go and disturb the woods on peril of his salary and head, &c. Margaret sighed and was silent.
“Come, cheer up, mistress,” said he, “for your sake I’ll peril my carcass; I have done that for many a one that was not worth your fore-finger. It is no such mighty risk either. I’ll but step into the skirts of the forest, here. It is odds but they drive a hare or a fawn within reach of my arrow.”
“Martin, if I let you go you must promise me not to go far, and not to be seen; far better Gerard went supperless than ill should come to you, faithful Martin.”
The required promise given, Martin took his bow and three arrows, and stole cautiously into the wood: it was scarce a furlong distant. The horns were heard faintly in the distance, and all the game was afoot.
Come, thought Martin, I shall soon fill the pot, and no one be the wiser. He took his stand behind a thick oak that commanded a view of an open glade, and strung his bow – a truly formidable weapon.
It was of English yew, six feet two inches high, and thick in proportion: and Martin, broad chested, with arms all iron and cord, and used to the bow from infancy, could draw a three-foot arrow to the head, and when it flew, the eye could scarce follow it, and the bow-string twanged as musical as a harp.
This bow had laid many a stout soldier low in the wars of the Hoecks and Cabbel-jaws. In those days a battle-field was not a cloud of smoke; the combatants were few but the deaths many; for they saw what they were about, and fewer bloodless arrows flew than bloodless bullets now. This tremendous weapon Martin now levelled at a hare.
She came cantering, then sat sprightly, and her ears made a capital V. The arrow flew, the string twanged: but Martin had been in a hurry to pot her, and lost her by an inch: the arrow seemed to strike her, but it struck the ground close to her, and passed under her belly like a flash, and hissed along the short grass and disappeared. She jumped three feet perpendicular, and away at the top of her speed.
“Bungler!” said Martin.
A sure proof he was not an habitual bungler, or he would have blamed the hare. He had scarcely fitted another arrow to his string when a wood pigeon settled on the very tree he stood under. “Aha!” thought he, “you are small, but dainty.”
This time he took more pains; drew his arrow carefully, loosed it smoothly, and saw it, to all appearance, go clean through the bird, carrying feathers skyward like dust. Instead of falling at his feet, the bird, whose breast was torn, not fairly pierced, fluttered feebly away, and, by a great effort, rose above the trees, flew some fifty yards, and fell dead at last; but where he could not see for the thick foliage.
“Luck is against me,” said he, despondently.
But he fitted another arrow, and eyed the glade keenly. Presently he heard a bustle behind him, and turned round just in time to see a noble buck cross the open, but too late to shoot at him. He dashed his bow down with an imprecation. At that moment a long, spotted animal glided swiftly across after the deer; its belly seemed to touch the ground as it went. Martin took up his bow hastily, he recognised the duke’s leopard.
“The hunters will not be far from her,” said he, “and I must not be seen.”
He plunged into the wood, following the buck and leopard, for that was his way home. He had not gone far when he heard an unusual sound ahead of him — leaves rustling violently, and the ground trampled. An experienced huntsman, he suspected the cause, and hurried in the direction.
He found the leopard on the buck’s back, tearing him with teeth and claw, and the buck running in a circle and bounding convulsively, with the blood pouring down his hide. Then Martin formed a desperate resolution to have the venison for Margaret. He drew his arrow to the head, and buried it in the deer, who, spite of the creature on his back, bounded high into the air, and fell dead. The leopard went on tearing him as if nothing had happened.
Martin hoped that the creature would gorge itself with blood, and then let him take the venison. He waited some minutes, then walked resolutely up, and laid his hand on the buck’s leg. The leopard gave a frightful growl, and left off sucking blood. She saw Martin’s game, and was sulky and on her guard.
What was to be done? Martin had heard that wild creatures cannot stand the human eye. Accordingly he stood erect and fixed his on the leopard; the leopard returned a savage glance, and never took her eye off Martin. Then Martin, continuing to look the beast down, soon obtained an actual instead of a conventional result. The leopard flew at his head with a frightful yell, flaming eyes, and jaws and claws distended.
He had but just time to catch her by the throat before her teeth could crush his face; one of her claws seized his shoulder and rent it, the other, aimed at his cheek, would have been more deadly still, but Martin was old-fashioned, and wore no hat but a scapulary of the same stuff as his jerkin, and this scapulary he had brought over his head like a hood; the brute’s claw caught in the loose leather.
Martin kept her teeth off his face with some difficulty, and griped her throat fiercely, and she kept rending his shoulder. It was like blunt reaping-hooks grinding and tearing. The pain was fearful: but, instead of cowing the old soldier, it put his blood up, and he gnashed his teeth with rage almost as fierce as hers, and squeezed her neck with iron force.
The two pair of eyes blazed at one another—and now the man’s were almost as furious as the brute’s. She found he was throttling her, and made a wild attempt to free herself, in which she dragged his cowl all over his face and blinded him, and tore her claw out of his shoulder, flesh and all: but still he throttled her with hand and arm of iron.
Presently her long tail, that was high in the air, went down, and her body lost its elasticity, and he held a choked and powerless thing: he griped it still till all motion ceased, then dashed it to the earth; then, panting, removed his cowl: the leopard lay still at his feet with tongue protruding and bloody paw; and for the first time terror fell on Martin.
“I am a dead man: I have slain the duke’s leopard.”
He hastily seized a few handfuls of leaves and threw them over her; then shouldered the buck and staggered away, leaving a trail of blood all the way – his own and the buck’s. He burst into Peter’s house a horrible figure, bleeding and blood-stained, and flung the
deer’s carcass down.
“There, no questions,” said he, “but broil me a steak of it; for I am faint.”
Margaret did not see he was wounded: she thought the blood was all from the deer. She busied herself at the fire, and the stout soldier stanched and bound his own wound apart, and soon he and Gerard and Margaret were supping royally on broiled venison.
They were very merry; and Gerard, with wonderful thoughtfulness, had brought a flask of Scheidam, and under its influence Martin revived, and told them how the venison was got, and thence to the feats of his youth.
Their mirth was suddenly interrupted. Margaret’s eye became fixed and fascinated, and her cheek pale with fear. she gasped and could not speak, but pointed to the window with trembling fingers. Their eyes followed hers, and there in the twilight crouched a dark form with eyes like glowworms.
It was the leopard!
While they stood petrified, fascinated by the eyes of green fire, there sounded in the wood a single deep bay. It was the bay of a blood-hound. Martin trembled at it.
“They have lost her, and laid muzzled bloodhounds on her scent. They will find her here, and the venison. Good bye, friends, Martin Wittenhaagen ends here.”
Gerard seized his bow, and put it into the soldier’s hands.
“Be a man,” he cried, “shoot her, and fling her into the wood ere they come up. Who will know?”
More voices of hounds broke out, and nearer.
“Curse her!” cried Martin. “I spared her once; now she must die, or I, or both more likely;” and he reared his bow, and drew his arrow to the head.
“No! no!” cried Margaret, and seized the arrow: it broke in half: the pieces fell on each side the bow.
The air at the same time filled with the tongues of the hounds: they were hot upon the scent.
“What have you done, wench. You have put the halter round my throat.”
“No!” cried Margaret. “I have saved you: stand back from the window! both. Your knife quick!”
She seized his long pointed knife, almost tore it out of his girdle, and darted from the room. The house was now surrounded with baying dogs and shouting men. The glow-worm eyes moved not.