“I hope ’tis the Burgomaster that carries the light,” said the escaped prisoner, panting with a strange mixture of horror and exultation. The soldier, he knew, would send an arrow through a burgher or a burgomaster, as he would through a boar in a wood.
But who may foretell the future, however near? The bow instead of remaining firm, and loosing the deadly shaft, was seen to waver first, then shake violently, and the stout soldier staggered back to them, his knees knocking and his cheeks blanched with fear. He let his arrow fall, and clutched Gerard’s shoulder.
“Let me feel flesh and blood,” he gasped: “the haunted tower! the haunted tower!”
His terror communicated itself to Margaret and Gerard. They could hardly find breath to ask him what he had seen.
“Hush!” he cried, “it will hear you. Up the wall! it is going up the wall! lts head is on fire. Up the wall, as mortal creatures walk upon green sward. If you know a prayer say it! For hell is loose to-night.”
“I have power to exorcise spirits,” said Gerard, trembling. “I will venture forth.”
“Go alone, then!” said Martin, “I have looked on’t once and live.”
Gerard stepped forth, and Margaret seized his hand and held it convulsively, and they crept out. Sure enough a sight struck their eyes that benumbed them as they stood. Half-way up the tower, a creature with fiery head, like an enormous glowworm, was going steadily up the wall: the body was dark, but its outline visible, and the whole creature not much less than four feet long.
At the foot of the tower stood a thing in white, that looked exactly like the figure of a female. Gerard and Margaret palpitated with awe.
“The rope — the rope! It is going up the rope — not the wall,” gasped Gerard.
As they gazed, the glow-worm disappeared in Gerard’s late prison, but its light illuminated the cell inside and reddened the window. The white figure stood motionless below. Such as can retain their senses after the first prostrating effect of the supernatural, are apt to experience terror in one of its strangest forms, a wild desire to fling themselves upon the terrible object. It fascinates them as the snake the bird.
The great tragedian Macready used to render this finely in Macbeth at Banquo’s second appearance. He flung himself with averted head at the horrible shadow. This strange impulse now seized Margaret. She put down Gerard’s hand quietly, and stood fascinated; then, all in a moment, with a wild cry, darted towards the spectre. Gerard, not aware of the natural impulse I have spoken of, never doubted the evil one was drawing her to her perdition. He fell on his knees.
“Exorcizo vos. In nomine beatae; Maris, exorcizo vos.”
While he was shrieking his incantations in extremity of terror, to his infinite relief he heard the spectre utter a feeble cry of fear. To find that hell had also its little weaknesses was encouraging. He redoubled his exorcisms, and presently he saw the shape kneeling at Margaret’s knees, and heard it praying piteously for mercy.
Poor little spectre! It took Margaret for the ill spirit of the haunted tower, come flying out on it — to damn it.
Kate and Giles soon reached the haunted tower. Judge their surprise when they found a new rope dangling from the prisoner’s window to the ground.
“I see how it is,” said the inferior intelligence taking facts as they came. “Our Gerard has come down this rope. He has got clear. Up I go, and see.”
“No, Giles, no!” said the superior intelligence blinded by prejudice. “See you not this is glamour. This rope is a line the evil one casts out to wile you to destruction. He knows the weaknesses of all our hearts; he has seen how fond you are of going up things. Where should our Gerard procure a rope? how fasten it in the very sky like that? It is not in nature. Holy saints protect us this night, for hell is abroad.”
“Stuff!” said the dwarf: “the way to hell is down, and this rope leads up. I never had the luck to go up such a long rope. It may be years ere I fall hi with such a long rope all ready fastened for me. As well be knocked on the head at once as never know enjoyment.”
And he sprung on to the rope with a cry of delight, as a cat jumps with a mew on a table where fish is. All the gymnast was on fire; and the only concession Kate could gain from him was permission to fasten the lantern on his neck first.
“A light scares the ill spirits,” said she.
And so, with his huge arms, and legs like feathers, Giles went up the rope faster than his brother came down it. The light at the nape of his neck made a glow-worm of him. His sister watched his progress with trembling anxiety. Suddenly a female figure started out of the solid masonry, and came flying at her with more than mortal velocity.
Kate uttered a feeble cry. It was all she could, for her tongue clove to her palate with terror. Then she dropped her crutches, and sank upon her knees, hiding her face and moaning:
“Take my body, but spare my soul!” &c.
Margaret (panting). “Why it is a woman!”
Kate (quivering). “Why it is a woman!”
Margaret. “How you frightened me.”
Kate. “I am frightened enough myself. Oh! oh! oh!”
“This is strange. But the fiery-headed thing! Yet it was with you, and you are harmless. But why are you here at this time of night!”
“Nay, why are you?”
“Perhaps we are on the same errand? Ah! you are his good sister, Kate.”
“And you are Margaret Brandt.”
“All the better. You love him: you are here. Then Giles was right. He has escaped.”
Gerard came forward, and put the question at rest. But all further explanation was cut short by a horrible unearthly cry, like a sepulchre exulting aloud:
“Parchment! — Parchment! — Parchment!”
At each repetition it rose in intensity. They looked up, and there was the dwarf with his hands full of parchments, and his face lighted with fiendish joy, and lurid with diabolical fire. The light being at his neck, a more infernal “transparency ” never startled mortal eye. With the word the awful imp hurled the parchment down at the astonished heads below.
Down came the records, like wounded wild ducks, some collapsed, others fluttering, and others spread out and wheeling slowly down in airy circles. They had hardly settled, when again the sepulchral roar was heard:
“Parchment! — Parchment!” and down pattered and sailed another flock of documents — another followed: they whitened the grass. Finally, the fire-headed imp, with his light body and horny hands, slid down the rope like a falling star, and (business before sentiment) proposed to Gerard an immediate settlement for the merchandise he had just delivered.
“Hush!” said Gerard; “you speak too loud. Gather them up and follow us to a safer place than this.”
“Will you not come home with me, Gerard?”
“I have no home.”
“You shall not say so, Gerard. Who is more welcome than you will be, after this cruel wrong, to your father’s house?”
“Father? I have no father,” said Gerard, sternly. “He that was my father is turned my gaoler. I have escaped from his hands; I will never come within their reach again.”
“An enemy did this, and not our father,” said Kate.
And she told him what she had overheard Cornelis and Sybrandt say. But the injury was too recent to be soothed. Gerard showed a bitterness of indignation he had hitherto seemed incapable of.
“Cornelis and Sybrandt are two ill curs that have shown me their teeth and their heart a long while; but they could do no more. My father it is that gave the Burgomaster authority, or he durst not have laid a finger on me, that am a free burgher of this town. So be it, then. I was his son — I am his prisoner. He has played his part — I shall play mine. Farewell the town where I was born and lived honestly, and was put in prison. While there is another town left in creation, I’ll never trouble you again, Tergou.”
“Oh, Gerard! Gerard!”
Margaret whispered her:
“Do not gainsay him now. Give his choler time to cool!”
Kate turned quickly towards her.
“Let me look at your face!”
The inspection was favourable, it seemed, for she whispered:
“It is a comely face, and no mischief-maker’s.”
“Fear me not,” said Margaret, in the same tone. “I could not be happy without your love as well as Gerard’s.”
“These are comfortable words,” sobbed Kate. Then, looking up, she said, “I little thought to like you so well. My heart is willing, but my infirmity will not let me embrace you.”
At this point Margaret turned gently round to Gerard’s sister, and kissed her lovingly.
“Often he has spoken of you to me, Kate, and often I longed for this.”
“You, too, Gerard,” said Kate, “kiss me ere you go, for my heart lies heavy at parting with you this night.”
Gerard kissed her, and she went on her crutches home. The last thing they heard of her was a little patient sigh. Then the tears came and stood thick in Margaret’s eyes; but Gerard was a man, and noticed it not. As they turned to go to Sevenbergen, the dwarf nudged Gerard with his bundle of parchments, and sought remuneration. Margaret dissuaded Gerard.
“Why take what is not ours?”
“Oh! spoil an enemy how you can.”
“But may they not make this a handle for fresh violence?”
“How can they? Think you I shall stay in Tergou after this? The Burgomaster robbed me of my liberty; I would take his life for it if I could.”
“Oh fie, Gerard!”
“What? Is life worth more than liberty? Well, I can’t take his life, so I take the first thing that comes to hand.”
He gave Giles a few small coins, with which the urchin was gladdened, and shuffled after his sister. Margaret and Gerard were speedily joined by Martin, and away to Sevenbergen.
Ghysbrecht Van Swieten kept the key of Gerard’s prison in his pouch. He waited till ten of the clock ere he visited him; for he said to himself, “A little hunger sometimes does well ; it breaks them.” At ten he crept up the stairs with a loaf and pitcher, followed by his trusty servant well armed. Ghysbrecht listened at the door. There was no sound inside. A grim smile stole over his features. “By this time he will be as down-hearted as Albert Koestein was,” thought he. He opened the door.
Ghysbrecht stood stupified. Although his face was not visible, his body seemed to lose all motion in so peculiar a way, and then after a little he fell a trembling so, that the servant behind him saw there was something amiss, and crept close to him and peeped over his shoulder. At sight of the empty cell and the rope, and iron bar, he uttered a loud exclamation of wonder: but his surprise doubled when his master, disregarding all else, suddenly flung himself on his knees before the empty chest, and felt wildly all over it with quivering hands, as if unwilling to trust his eyes in a matter so important. The servant gazed at him in utter bewilderment.
“Why, master, what is the matter?”
Ghysbrecht’s pale lips worked as if he was going to answer; but they uttered no sound: his hands fell by his side, and he stared into the chest.
“Why, master, what avails glaring into that empty box? He is not there. See here! Note the cunning of the young rogue; be hath taken out the bar, and”
“GONE! GONE! GONE!”
“Gone? What is gone? Holy saints! he is planet struck.”
“STOP THIEF!” shrieked Ghysbrecht, and suddenly turned on his servant and collared him, and shook him with rage. “D’ye stand there, knave, and see your master robbed? Run I fly! A hundred crowns to him that finds it me again. No, no! ’tis in vain. Oh, fool! fool! to leave that in the same room with him. But none ever found the secret spring before. None ever would but he. It was to be. It is to be. Lost! lost I”
And his years and infirmity now gained the better of his short-lived frenzy, and he sank on the chest muttering ” lost! lost!”
“What is lost, master?” said the servant kindly.
“House and lands and good name:” groaned Ghysbrecht, and wrung his hands feebly.
“What?” cried the servant. This emphatic word and the tone of eager curiosity struck on Ghysbrecht’s ear, and revived his natural cunning.
“I have lost the town records,” stammered he, and he looked askant at the man like a fox caught near a hen-roost.
“Oh, is that all?”
“Is’t not enough? What will the burghers say to me? What will the burgh do?” Then he suddenly burst out again, “A hundred crowns to him who shall recover them; all, mind, all that were in this box. If one be missing, I give nothing.”
“‘Tis a bargain, master: the hundred crowns are in my pouch. See you not that where Gerard Gerardssoen is, there are the pieces of sheepskin you rate so high?”
“That is true; that is true; good Dierich: good faithful Dierich! All, mind, all, that were in the chest.”
“Master, I will take the constables to Gerard’s house and seize him for the theft.”
“The theft? ay! good ! very good! It is theft. I forgot that. So as he is a thief now, we will put him in the dungeons below: where the toads are and the rats. Dierich, that man must never see daylight again. ‘Tis his own fault. He must be prying. Quick, quick! ere he has time to talk, you know, time to talk.”
In less than half an hour Dierich Brower and four constables entered the hosier’s house and demanded young Gerard of the panic-stricken Catherine.
“Alas! what has he done now?” cried she: “that boy will break my heart.”
“Nay, dame, but a trick of youth,” said Dierich. “He hath but made off with certain skins of parchment, in a frolic doubtless; but the Burgomaster is answerable to the burgh for then safe keeping, so he is in care about them: as for the youth, he will doubtless be quit for a reprimand.”
This smooth speech completely imposed on Catherine; but her daughter was more suspicious, and that suspicion was strengthened by the disproportionate anger and disappointment Dierich showed the moment he learned Gerard was not at home — had not been at home that night.
“Come away then,” said he, roughly. “We are wasting time.” He added, vehemently, “I will find him if he is above ground.”
Affection sharpens the wits, and often it has made an innocent person more than a match for the wily. As Dierich was going out, Kate made him a signal she would speak with him privately. He bade his men go on, and waited outside the door. She joined him.
“Hush!” said she, “my mother knows not. Gerard has left Tergou.”
“I saw him last night.”
“Ay? Where?” cried Dierich, eagerly.
“At the foot of the haunted tower.”
“How did he get the rope?”
“I know not; but this I know; my brother Gerard bade me there farewell, and he is many leagues from Tergou ere this. The town, you know, was always unworthy of him, and when it imprisoned him he vowed never to set foot in it again. Let the Burgomaster be content, then. He has imprisoned him, and he has driven him from his birthplace and from his native land. What need now to rob him and us of our good name?”
This might at another moment have struck Dierich as good sense; but he was too mortified at this escape of Gerard and the loss of a hundred crowns.
“What need had he to steal?” retorted he, bitterly.
“Gerard stole not the trash: he but took it to spite the Burgomaster, who stole his liberty; but he shall answer to the Duke for it, he shall. Look in the nearest brook or stye, and maybe you shall find these skins of parchment you keep such a coil about.”
“Think ye so, mistress? — think ye so?” And Dierich’s eyes flashed. “Mayhap you know ’tis so.”
“This I know, that Gerard is too good to steal, and too wise to load himself with rubbish, going a journey.”
“Give you good day, then,” said Dierich, sharply. “The sheepskin you scorn, I value it more than the skin of any he in Tergou.”
And he went off hastily on a false scent. Kate returned into the house and drew Giles aside.
“Giles, my heart misgives me; breathe not to a soul what I say to you. I have told Dirk Brower that Gerard is out of Holland, but much I doubt he is not a league from Tergou.”
“Why, where is he, then?”
“Where should he be, but with her he loves? But if so he must not loiter. These be deep and dark and wicked men that seek him. Giles, I see that in Dirk Brower’s eye makes me tremble. Oh! why cannot I fly to Sevenbergen, and bid him away? Why am I not lusty and active like other girls? God forgive me for fretting at His will: but I never felt till now what it is to be lame and weak and useless. But you are strong, dear Giles,” added she coaxingly — “you are very strong.”
“Yes, I am strong!” thundered Perpusillus; then, catching sight of her meaning, “but I hate to go on foot,” he added, sulkily.
“Alas! alas! who will help me if you will not? Dear Giles, do you not love Gerard?”
“Yes, I like him best of the lot. I’ll go to Sevenbergen on Peter Buysken’s mule. Ask you him, for he won’t lend her me.”
Kate remonstrated. The whole town would follow him. It would be known whither he was gone, and Gerard be in worse danger than before.
Giles parried this by promising to ride out of the town the opposite way, and not turn the mule’s head towards Sevenbergen till he had got rid of the curious. Kate then assented, and borrowed the mule. She charged Giles with a short but meaning message, and made him repeat it after her, over and over, till he could say it word for word.
Giles started on the mule, and little Kate retired, and did the last thing now in her power for her beloved brother; prayed on her knees long and earnestly for his safety.
(To be continued)
Author: Charles Reade