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- Lysbeth, A Tale Of The Dutch - 2/87 -
Behind her lay the roofs of Leyden, pointed, picturesque, and covered with sheets of snow, while above them towered the bulk of the two great churches of St. Peter and St. Pancras, and standing on a mound known as the Burg, the round tower which is supposed to have been built by the Romans. In front stretched the flat expanse of white meadows, broken here and there by windmills with narrow waists and thin tall sails, and in the distance, by the church towers of other towns and villages.
Immediately before her, in strange contrast to this lifeless landscape, lay the peopled mere, fringed around with dead reeds standing so still in the frosty air that they might have been painted things. On this mere half the population of Leyden seemed to be gathered; at least there were thousands of them, shouting, laughing, and skimming to and fro in their bright garments like flocks of gay- plumaged birds. Among them, drawn by horses with bells tied to their harness, glided many sledges of wickerwork and wood mounted upon iron runners, their fore-ends fashioned to quaint shapes, such as the heads of dogs or bulls, or Tritons. Then there were vendors of cakes and sweetmeats, vendors of spirits also, who did a good trade on this cold day. Beggars too were numerous, and among them deformities, who, nowadays, would be hidden in charitable homes, slid about in wooden boxes, which they pushed along with crutches. Lastly many loafers had gathered there with stools for fine ladies to sit on while the skates were bound to their pretty feet, and chapmen with these articles for sale and straps wherewith to fasten them. To complete the picture the huge red ball of the sun was sinking to the west, and opposite to it the pale full moon began already to gather light and life.
The scene seemed so charming and so happy that Lysbeth, who was young, and now that she had recovered from the shock of her beloved father's death, light-hearted, ceased her forward movement and poised herself upon her skates to watch it for a space. While she stood thus a little apart, a woman came towards her from the throng, not as though she were seeking her, but aimlessly, much as a child's toy-boat is driven by light, contrary winds upon the summer surface of a pond.
She was a remarkable-looking woman of about thirty-five years of age, tall and bony in make, with deep-set eyes, light grey of colour, that seemed now to flash fiercely and now to waver, as though in memory of some great dread. From beneath a coarse woollen cap a wisp of grizzled hair fell across the forehead, where it lay like the forelock of a horse. Indeed, the high cheekbones, scarred as though by burns, wide- spread nostrils and prominent white teeth, whence the lips had strangely sunk away, gave the whole countenance a more or less equine look which this falling lock seemed to heighten. For the rest the woman was poorly and not too plentifully clad in a gown of black woollen, torn and stained as though with long use and journeys, while on her feet she wore wooden clogs, to which were strapped skates that were not fellows, one being much longer than the other.
Opposite to Lysbeth this strange, gaunt person stopped, contemplating her with a dreamy eye. Presently she seemed to recognise her, for she said in a quick, low voice, the voice of one who lives in terror of being overheard:--
"That's a pretty dress of yours, Van Hout's daughter. Oh, yes, I know you; your father used to play with me when I was a child, and once he kissed me on the ice at just such a fete as this. Think of it! Kissed me, Martha the Mare," and she laughed hoarsely, and went on: "Yes, well-warmed and well-fed, and, without doubt, waiting for a gallant to kiss you"; here she turned and waved her hand towards the people--"all well-warmed and well-fed, and all with lovers and husbands and children to kiss. But I tell you, Van Hout's daughter, as I have dared to creep from my hiding hole in the great lake to tell all of them who will listen, that unless they cast out the cursed Spaniard, a day shall come when the folk of Leyden must perish by thousands of hunger behind those walls. Yes, yes, unless they cast out the cursed Spaniard and his Inquisition. Oh, I know him, I know him, for did they not make me carry my own husband to the stake upon my back? And have you heard why, Van Hout's daughter? Because what I had suffered in their torture-dens had made my face--yes, mine that once was so beautiful-- like the face of a horse, and they said that 'a horse ought to be ridden.'"
Now, while this poor excited creature, one of a whole class of such people who in those sad days might be found wandering about the Netherlands crazy with their griefs and sufferings, and living only for revenge, poured out these broken sentences, Lysbeth, terrified, shrank back before her. As she shrank the other followed, till presently Lysbeth saw her expression of rage and hate change to one of terror. In another instant, muttering something about a request for alms which she did not wait to receive, the woman had wheeled round and fled away as fast as her skates would carry her--which was very fast indeed.
Turning about to find what had frightened her, Lysbeth saw standing on the bank of the mere, so close that she must have overheard every word, but behind the screen of a leafless bush, a tall, forbidding- looking woman, who held in her hand some broidered caps which apparently she was offering for sale. These caps she began to slowly fold up and place one by one in a hide satchel that was hung about her shoulders. All this while she was watching Lysbeth with her keen black eyes, except when from time to time she took them off her to follow the flight of that person who had called herself the Mare.
"You keep ill company, lady," said the cap-seller in a harsh voice.
"It was none of my seeking," answered Lysbeth, astonished into making a reply.
"So much the better for you, lady, although she seemed to know you and to know also that you would listen to her song. Unless my eyes deceived me, which is not often, that woman is an evil-doer and a worker of magic like her dead husband Van Muyden; a heretic, a blasphemer of the Holy Church, a traitor to our Lord the Emperor, and one," she added with a snarl, "with a price upon her head that before night will, I hope, be in Black Meg's pocket." Then, walking with long firm steps towards a fat man who seemed to be waiting for her, the tall, black-eyed pedlar passed with him into the throng, where Lysbeth lost sight of them.
Lysbeth watched them go, and shivered. To her knowledge she had never seen this woman before, but she knew enough of the times they lived in to be sure that she was a spy of the priests. Already there were such creatures moving about in every gathering, yes, and in many a private place, who were paid to obtain evidence against suspected heretics. Whether they won it by fair means or by foul mattered not, provided they could find something, and it need be little indeed, to justify the Inquisition in getting to its work.
As for the other woman, the Mare, doubtless she was one of those wicked outcasts, accursed by God and man, who were called heretics; people who said dreadful things about the Pope and the Church and God's priests, having been misled and stirred up thereto by a certain fiend in human form named Luther. Lysbeth shuddered at the thought and crossed herself, for in those days she was an excellent Catholic. Yet the wanderer said that she had known her father, so that she must be as well born as herself--and then that dreadful story--no, she could not bear to think of it. But of course heretics deserved all these things; of that there could be no doubt whatever, for had not her father confessor told her that thus alone might their souls be saved from the grasp of the Evil One?
The thought was comforting, still Lysbeth felt upset, and not a little rejoiced when she saw Dirk van Goorl skating towards her accompanied by another young man, also a cousin of her own on her mother's side who was destined in days to come to earn himself an immortal renown-- young Pieter van de Werff. The two took off their bonnets to her, Dirk van Goorl revealing in the act a head of fair hair beneath which his steady blue eyes shone in a rather thick-set, self-contained face. Lysbeth's temper, always somewhat quick, was ruffled, and she showed it in her manner.
"I thought, cousins, that we were to meet at three, and the kirk clock yonder has just chimed half-past," she said, addressing them both, but looking--not too sweetly--at Dirk van Goorl.
"That's right, cousin," answered Pieter, a pleasant-faced and alert young man, "look at /him/, scold /him/, for he is to blame. Ever since a quarter past two have I--I who must drive a sledge in the great race and am backed to win--been waiting outside that factory in the snow, but, upon my honour, he did not appear until seven minutes since. Yes, we have done the whole distance in seven minutes, and I call that very good skating."
"I thought as much," said Lysbeth. "Dirk can only keep an appointment with a church bell or a stadhuis chandelier."
"It was not my fault," broke in Dirk in his slow voice; "I have my business to attend. I promised to wait until the metal had cooled sufficiently, and hot bronze takes no account of ice-parties and sledge races."
"So I suppose that you stopped to blow on it, cousin. Well, the result is that, being quite unescorted, I have been obliged to listen to things which I did not wish to hear."
"What do you mean?" asked Dirk, taking fire at once.
Then she told them something of what the woman who called herself the Mare had said to her, adding, "Doubtless the poor creature is a heretic and deserves all that has happened to her. But it is dreadfully sad, and I came here to enjoy myself, not to be sad."
Between the two young men there passed a glance which was full of meaning. But it was Dirk who spoke. The other, more cautious, remained silent.
"Why do you say that, Cousin Lysbeth?" he asked in a new voice, a voice thick and eager. "Why do you say that she deserves all that can happen to her? I have heard of this poor creature who is called Mother Martha, or the Mare, although I have never seen her myself. She was noble-born, much better born than any of us three, and very fair--once they called her the Lily of Brussels--when she was the Vrouw van Muyden, and she has suffered dreadfully, for one reason only, because she and hers did not worship God as you worship Him."
"As we worship Him," broke in Van de Werff with a cough.
"No," answered Dirk sullenly, "as our Cousin Lysbeth van Hout worships Him. For that reason only they killed her husband and her little son, and drove her mad, so that she lives among the reeds of the Haarlemer Meer like a beast in its den; yes, they, the Spaniards and their Spanish priests, as I daresay that they will kill us also."
"Don't you think that it is getting rather cold standing here?" interrupted Pieter van de Werff before she could answer. "Look, the sledge races are just beginning. Come, cousin, give me your hand," and, taking Lysbeth by the arm, he skated off into the throng,
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