A Good Fight 7

Chapter XIV.

The banns of marriage had to be read three times, as with us; but they were read on week days, and the young couple easily persuaded the cure to do the three readings in twenty-four hours: he was new to the place, and their looks spoke volumes in their favour. They were cried on Monday at matins and at vespers; and, to their great delight, nobody from Tergou was in the church. The next morning they were both there palpitating with anxiety, when, to their horror, a stranger stood up and forbade the banns, on the score that the parties were not of age, and their parents not consenting.

Outside the church door, Margaret and Gerard held a trembling and almost despairing consultation; but, before they could settle anything, the man who had done them so ill a turn approached, and gave them to understand that he was very sorry to interfere; that his inclination was to further the happiness of the young: but that in point of fact his only means of getting a living was by forbidding banns: what then?

The young people give me a crown, and I undo my work handsomely; tell the curt I was misinformed; and all goes smoothly.

“A crown? I will give you a golden angel to do this,” said Gerard, eagerly.

The man consented as eagerly, and went with Gerard to the cure, and told him he had made a ridiculous mistake, which a sight of the parties had rectified. On this the cure agreed to marry the young couple next day at ten: and the professional obstructor of bliss went home with Gerard’s angel.

Like most of these very clever knaves, he was a fool, and proceeded to drink his angel at a certain hostelry in Tergou, where was a green devoted to archery and the common sports of the day. There, being drunk, he bragged of his day’s exploit; and who should be there, imbibing every word, but a great frequenter of the sport, the ne’er-do-weel Sybrandt.

Sybrandt ran home to tell his father; his father was not at home; he was gone to Rotterdam to buy cloth of the merchants. Catching his elder brother’s eye, he made him a signal to come out, and told him what he had heard.

There are black sheep in nearly every large family: and these two were Gerard’s black brothers. Idleness is vitiating: waiting for the death of those we ought to love is vitiating: and these two one-idead curs were ready to tear any one to death that should interfere with that miserable inheritance, which was their thought by day and their dream by night. Their parents’ parsimony was a virtue; it was accompanied by industry, and its motive was love of their offspring: but in these perverse and selfish hearts that homely virtue was perverted into avarice, than which no more fruitful source of crimes is to be found in nature.

They put their heads together, and agreed not to tell their mother, whose sentiments were so uncertain, but to go first to the Burgomaster. They were cunning enough to see that he was averse to the match, though they could not divine why.

Ghysbrecht Van Swieten saw through them at once; but he took care not to let them see through him. He heard their story; and, putting on magisterial dignity and coldness, he said:

“Since the father of the family is not here, his duty devolves on me, who am the father of the town. I know your father’s mind; leave all to me: and, above all, tell no woman a word of all this, least of all the women that are in your own house: for chattering tongues mar the wisest counsels.”

So he dismissed them a little superciliously: he was ashamed of his confederates.

On their return home they found their brother Gerard seated on a low stool at their mother’s knee: she was caressing his hair with her hand, speaking very kindly to him, and promising to take his part with his father and thwart his love no more. The main cause of this change of mind was one that the reader will comprehend, if he has ever known a woman of this kind. It was this.

She it was who in a moment of female irritation had cut Margaret’s picture to pieces. She had watched the effect with some misgivings, and had seen Gerard turn pale as death, and sit motionless like a bereaved creature, with the pieces in his hands, and his eyes fixed on them till tears came and blinded them.

Then she was terrified at what she had done; and next her heart smote her bitterly; and she wept sore apart: but, being what she was, dared not own it, but said to herself, “I’ll not say a word, but I’ll make it up to him.” And her bowels yearned over her son, and her feeble violence died a natural death, and she was transferring her fatal alliance to Gerard when the two black sheep came in.

Gerard knew nothing of the immediate cause; on the contrary, her kindness made this novice ashamed of a suspicion he had for a moment entertained that she was the depredator; and he kissed her again and again, and went to bed happy as a prince to think his mother was his mother once more at the very crisis of his fate.

The next morning, at ten o’clock, Gerard and Margaret were in the church at Sevenbergen — he radiant with joy, she with blushes. Peter was also there, and Martin Wittenhaagen, but no other friend. Secrecy was everything. Margaret had declined Italy. She could not leave her father; he was too learned and too helpless.

But it was settled they should retire into Flanders for a few weeks until the storm should be blown over at Tergou. The cure did not keep them waiting long, though it seemed an age. Presently he stood at the altar, and called them to him. They went hand in hand, the happiest in Holland. The cure opened his book. But ere he had uttered a single word of the sacred rite, a harsh voice cried “Forbear!” And the constables of Tergou came up the aisle and seized Gerard in the name of the law.

Martin’s long knife flashed out directly.

“Forbear, man!” cried the Priest. “What! draw your weapon in a church! And you who interrupt this holy sacrament—what means this impiety?”

“There is no impiety, father,” said the Burgomaster’s servant respectfully. “This young man would marry against his father’s will, and his father has prayed our Burgomaster to deal with him according to the law. Let him deny it if he can.”

“Is this so, young man?”

Gerard hung his head.

“We take him to Rotterdam to abide the sentence of the duke.”

At this Margaret uttered a cry of despair, and the young creatures, who were so happy a moment ago, fell to sobbing in one another’s arms so piteously that the instruments of oppression drew back a step, and were ashamed; but one of them that was good-natured stepped up under pretence of separating them, and whispered:

“Rotterdam? it is a lie! We but take him to our Stadthouse.”

They took him away on horseback, on the road to Rotterdam; and, after a dozen halts, and by sly detours, to Tergou. Just outside the town they were met by a rude vehicle covered with canvas. Gerard was put into this, and about five in the evening was secretly conveyed into the prison of the Stadthouse.

He was taken up several flights of stairs and thrust into a small room lighted only by a narrow window, with a vertical iron bar. The whole furniture was a huge oak chest.

Imprisonment in those days was one of the high roads to death. It is horrible in its mildest form; but in these days it implied cold, unbroken solitude, torture, starvation, and often poison. Gerard felt he was in the hands of an enemy.

“Oh, the look that man gave mo on the road to Rotterdam. There is more here than my father’s wrath. I doubt I shall see no more the light of day.”

And he kneeled down and commended his soul to God. Then he rose and sprang at the iron bar of the window and clutched it. This enabled him, by pressing his knees against the wall, to look out. It was but for a minute; but, in that minute, he saw a sight that none but a captive can appreciate.

He saw Martin Wittenhaagen’s back. Martin was sitting, quietly fishing in the brook near the Stadthouse. Gerard sprang again at the window, and whistled. Martin instantly showed that he was watching much harder than he was fishing. He turned hastily round and saw Gerard — made him a signal, and taking up his line and bow went quickly off.

Gerard saw by this that his friends were not idle, yet he had rather Martin had stayed. The very sight of him was a comfort. He held on, looking at the soldier’s retiring form as long as he could, then falling back somewhat heavily, wrenched the rusty iron bar — held only by rusty nails — away from the stone-work just as Ghysbrecht Van Swieten opened the door stealthily behind him.

The Burgomaster’s eye fell instantly on the iron, and then glanced at the window; but he said nothing. The window was eighty feet high; and if Gerard had a fancy for jumping out, why should he balk it? He brought a brown loaf and a pitcher of water, and set them on the chest in solemn silence.

Gerard’s first impulse was to brain him with the iron bar, and fly down the stairs; but the Burgomaster seeing something wicked in his eye, gave a little cough, and three stout fellows, armed, showed themselves directly at the door.

“My orders are to keep you thus until you shall bind yourself by an oath to leave Margaret Brandt, and return to the church to which you have belonged from infancy.”

“Death sooner!”

“As you please.” And the Burgomaster retired.

Martin went with all speed to Sevenbergen; there he found Margaret pale and agitated, but full of resolution and energy. She was just finishing a letter to the Countess Charolois, appealing to her against the violence and treachery of Ghysbrecht.

“Courage!” cried Martin, on entering. “I have found him. He is in the haunted tower; right at the top of it. Ay! I know the place: many a poor fellow has gone up there straight, and come down feet foremost.”

He then told them how he had looked up and seen Gerard’s face at a window that was like a slit in the wall.

“Oh, Martin! how did he look?”

“What mean you? He looked like Gerard Gerardssoen.”

“But was he pale?”

“A little.”

“Looked he anxious? Looked he like one doomed?”

“Nay, nay; as bright as a pewter pot.”

“You mock me. Ah! then that was at sight of you. He counts on us. Oh! what shall we do? Martin, good friend, take this at once to Rotterdam.”

Martin held out his hand for the letter, but was interrupted.

Peter had sat silent all this time, but pondering, and, contrary to his usual custom, keenly attentive to what was going on around him.

“Put not your trust in princes,” said he.

“Alas! what else have we to trust in?”

“Knowledge.”

“Alas, father! your learning will not serve us here.”

“How know you that? Wit has been too strong for iron bars ere to-day.”

“Ay, father; but nature is stronger than wit, and she is against us. Think of the height! No ladder in Holland might reach.”

“I need no ladder: what I need is a gold crown.”

“Nay, I have money, for that matter. I have nine angels. Gerard gave them me to keep; but what do they avail? The Burgomaster will not be bribed to let Gerard free.”

“What do they avail? Give me but one crown, and the young man shall sup with us this night.”

Peter spoke so eagerly and confidently, that for a moment Margaret felt hopeful; but she caught Martin’s eye dwelling upon him with an expression of benevolent contempt.

“It passes the powers of man’s invention,” said she, with a deep sigh.

“Invention?” cried the old man. “A fig for invention! What need we invention at this time of day? Everything has been said that is to be said, and done that can be done. I shall tell you how a Florentine knight was shut up in a tower higher than Gerard’s: yet did his faithful squire stand at the tower foot and get him out, with no other engine than that in your hand, Martin, and certain kickshaws I shall buy for a crown.”

Martin looked at his bow, and turned it round in his hand; and seemed to interrogate it. But the examination left him as incredulous as before.

Then Peter told them his story, how the faithful squire got the knight out of a high tower at Brescia. The manoeuvre, like most things that are really scientific, was so simple, that now their wonder was they had taken for impossible a thing which was not even difficult.

The letter never went to Rotterdam. They trusted to Peter’s learning and their own dexterity.

It was nine o’clock on a clear moonlight night; Gerard, senior, was still away; the rest of his little family had been sometime a-bed.

A figure stood by the dwarf’s bed. It was white, and the moonlight shone on it. With an unearthly noise, between a yell and a snarl, the gymnast rolled off his bed and under it by a single unbroken movement. A soft voice followed him in his retreat.

“Why, Giles, are you afeard of me?”

At this, Giles’s head peeped cautiously out, and he saw it was only his sister Kate. She put her finger to her lips.

”Hush! lest the wicked Cornelis or the wicked Sybrandt hear us.”

She then revealed to Giles, that she had heard Cornelia and Sybrandt mention Gerard’s name; and being herself in great anxiety at his not coming home all day, had listened at their door, and had made a fearful discovery. Gerard was in prison, in the haunted tower of the Stadthouse. He was there it seemed by their father’s authority. But here must be some treachery; for how could their father have ordered this cruel act? he was at Rotterdam. She ended by entreating Giles to bear her company to the fort of the haunted tower, to say a word of comfort to poor Gerard, and let him know their father was absent, and would be sure to release him on his return.

“Dear Giles, I would go alone, but I am afeard of the spirits that men say do haunt the tower: but with you I shall not be afeard.”

“Nor I with you,” said Giles. “I don’t believe there are any spirits in Tergou. I never saw one. This last was the likest one ever I saw; and it was only you, Kate, after all.”

In less than half an hour Giles and Kate opened the house door cautiously and issued forth. She made him carry a lantern, though the night was bright.

“The lantern gives me more courage against the evil spirits,” said she.

The first day of imprisonment is very trying, especially if to the horror of captivity is added the horror of utter solitude. I observe that in our own day a great many persons commit suicide during the first twenty-four hours of the solitary cell. This is doubtless why our Jairi abstain so carefully from the impertinence of watching their little experiment upon the human soul at that stage of it.

As the sun declined, Gerard’s heart too sank and sank: with the waning light, even the embers of hope went out. He was faint, too, with hunger; for he was afraid to eat the food Ghysbrecht had brought him: and hunger alone cows men. He sat upon the chest his arms and his head drooping before him, a picture of despondency.

Suddenly something struck the wall beyond him very sharply, and then rattled on the floor at his feet. It was an arrow; he saw the white feather. A chill ran through him — they meant then to assassinate him from the outside. He crouched. No more missiles came. He crawled on all fours, and took up the arrow: there was no head to it. He uttered a cry of hope: had a friendly hand shot it? He took it up, and felt it all over: he found a soft substance attached to it. Then one of his eccentricities was of grand use to him. His tinder-box enabled him to strike a light: it showed him two things that made his heart bound with delight, none the less thrilling for being somewhat vague. Attached to the arrow was a skein of silk, and on the arrow itself were words written.

How his eye devoured them, his heart panting the while!

Well beloved, make fast the silk to thy knife and lower to us: but hold thy end fast: then count an hundred and draw up.

Gerard seized the oak chest, and with almost superhuman energy dragged it to the window: a moment ago he could not have moved it. Standing on the chest and looking down he saw figures at the lower foot. They were so indistinct they looked like one huge form. He waved his bonnet to them with trembling hand: then he undid the silk rapidly but carefully, and made one end fast to his knife and lowered it till it ceased to draw. Then he counted a hundred. Then pulled the silk carefully up: it came up a little heavier.

At last he came to a large knot, and by that knot a stout whipcord was attached to the silk. What might this mean? While he was puzzling himself Margaret’s voice came up to him, low but clear.

“Draw up, Gerard, till you see liberty in your hand.”

At the word Gerard drew the whipcord line up, and drew and drew till he came to another knot, and found a cord of some thickness take the place of the whipcord. He had no sooner begun to draw this up than he found that he had now a heavy weight to deal with.

Then the truth suddenly flashed on him, and he went to work, and pulled and pulled till the perspiration rolled down him: the weight got heavier and heavier, and at last he was well nigh exhausted; looking down he saw in the moonlight a sight that revived him: it was as it were a great snake coming up to him out of the deep shadow cast by the tower.

He gave a shout of joy, and a score more wild pulls, and lo! a stout new rope touched his hand: he hauled and hauled, and dragged the end into his power and instantly passed it through both handles of the chest in succession, and knotted it firmly; then sat for a moment to recover his breath and collect his courage.

The first thing was to make sure that the chest was sound, and capable of resisting his weight poised in mid-air. He jumped with all his force upon it. At the third jump the whole side burst open, and out scuttled the contents, a host of parchments.

After the first start and misgiving this gave him, Gerard comprehended that the chest had not burst but opened: he had doubtless jumped upon the secret spring. Still it shook in some degree his confidence in the chest’s powers of resistance; so he gave it an ally: he took the iron bar and fastened it with the small rope across the large rope, and across the window.

He now mounted the chest, and from the chest put his foot through the window, and sat half in and half out, with one hand on that part of the rope which was inside. It was a nervous moment; but the free air breathed on his face and gave him the courage to risk what we must all lose one day — for liberty.

Many dangers awaited him, but the greatest was the first getting on to the rope outside. Gerard reflected. Finally he put himself in the attitude of a swimmer, his body to the waist being in the prison, his legs outside. Then holding the inside rope with both hands, he felt with his feet for the outside rope, and when he had got it he worked it in between the palms of his feet, and kept it there tight: then he put his left hand on the sill and gradually wriggled out.

Then he seized the iron bar and for one fearful moment hung outside from it by his right hand, while his left hand seized the rope down at his knees. It was too tight against the wall for his fingers to get round it higher up. The next moment he left the bar and swiftly seized the rope with the right hand too; but in this manoeuvre his body necessarily descended about a yard, and a stifled cry came up from below.

Gerard hung in mid-air. He clenched his teeth, and nipped the rope tight with his feet and gripped it with his hands, and went down slowly hand below hand. He passed by one huge rough stone after another. He saw there was green moss on one or two. He looked up and he looked down. The moon shone upon his prison window: it seemed very near. The fluttering figures below seemed an awful distance. It made him dizzy to look down: so he fixed his eyes steadily on the wall close to him, and went slowly down, down, down. He passed a rusty slimy streak on the wall, it was some ten feet long. The rope made his hands very hot. He stole another look up. The prison window was a good way off, now.

Down — down — down — down. The rope made his hands sore. He looked up. The window was so distant, he ventured now to turn his eyes downward again: and then, not more than thirty feet below him were Margaret and Martin, their faithful hands upstretched to catch him should he fall. He could see their eyes and their teeth shine.

“Take care, Gerard! Oh, take care! Look not down.”

“Fear me not,” cried Gerard, joyfully, and eyed the wall, but came down faster.

In another minute his feet were at their hands. They seized him ere he touched the ground, and all three clung together in one rapturous, panting embrace.

“Hush! away in silence, dear one.”

They stole along the shadow of the wall. But ere they had gone many yards suddenly a stream of light shot from an angle of the building, and lay across their path like a barrier of fire, and they heard whispers and footsteps close at hand.

“Back!” hissed Martin. “Keep in the shade.”

They hurried back, passed the dangling rope, and made for a little square projecting tower. They had barely rounded it when the light shot trembling past them, and flickered uncertainly into the distance.

“A lantern!” groaned Martin, in a whisper. “They are after us.”

“Give me my knife,” whispered Gerard. “I’ll never be taken alive.”

“No, no!” murmured Margaret: “is there no way out where we are?”

“None, none! but I carry six lives at my shoulder” and with the word, Martin strung his bow, and fitted an arrow to the string: “in war never wait -to be struck: I will kill one or two ere they shall know where their death comes from:” then, motioning his companions to be quiet, he began to draw his bow, and ere the arrow was quite drawn to the head, he glided round the corner ready to loose the string the moment the enemy should offer a mark.

Gerard and Margaret palpitated. They had never seen life taken.


Author: Charles Reade

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