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- Lysbeth, A Tale Of The Dutch - 20/87 -
Church. So she was free--free, and overcome by that thought she staggered, fell, and swooned away.
When her eyes opened again, Montalvo, officer, notary, and soldiers, all had vanished.
THE MARE'S STABLE
When Lysbeth's reason returned to her in that empty room, her first sense was one of wild exultation. She was free, she was not Montalvo's wife, never again could she be obliged to see him, never again could she be forced to endure the contamination of his touch--that was her thought. She was sure that the story was true; were it not true who could have moved the authorities to take action against him? Moreover, now that she had the key, a thousand things were explained, trivial enough in themselves, each of them, but in their sum amounting to proof positive of his guilt. Had he not spoken of some entanglement in Spain and of children? Had he not in his sleep--but it was needless to remember all these things. She was free! She was free! and there on the table still lay the symbol of her bondage, the emerald ring that was to give him the means of flight, a flight from this charge which he knew was hanging over him. She took it up, dashed it to the ground and stamped upon it. Next she fell upon her knees, praising and blessing God, and then, worn out, crept away to rest.
The morning came, the still and beautiful autumn morning, but now all her exultation had left her, and Lysbeth was depressed and heavy hearted. She rose and assisted the one servant who remained in the house to prepare their breakfast, taking no heed of the sidelong glances that the woman cast at her. Afterwards she went to the market to spend some of her last florins in necessaries. Here and in the streets she became aware that she was the object of remark, for people nudged each other and stared at her. Moreover, as she hurried home appalled, her quick ear caught the conversation of two coarse women while they walked behind her.
"She's got it now," said one.
"Serve her right, too," answered the other, "for running after and marrying a Spanish don."
"Marrying?" broke in the first, "it was the best that she could do. She couldn't stop to ask questions. Some corpses must be buried quickly."
Glancing behind her, Lysbeth saw the creature nip her nostrils with her fingers, as though to shut out an evil smell.
Then she could bear it no longer, and turned upon them.
"You are evil slanderers," she said, and walked away swiftly, pursued by the sound of their loud, insulting laughter.
At the house she was told that two men were waiting to see her. They proved to be creditors clamouring for large sums of money, which she could not pay. Lysbeth told them that she knew nothing of the matter. Thereupon they showed her her own writing at the foot of deeds, and she remembered that she had signed more things than she chose to keep count of, everything indeed that the man who called himself her husband put before her, if only to win an hour of blessed freedom from his presence. At length the duns went away vowing that they would have their money if they dragged the bed from under her.
After that came loneliness and silence. No friend appeared to cheer her. Indeed, she had no friends left, for by her husband's command she had broken off her acquaintance with all who after the strange circumstances connected with her marriage were still inclined to know her. He said that he would have no chattering Dutch vrouws about the house, and they said and believed that the Countess de Montalvo had become too proud to associate with those of her own class and people.
Midday came and she could eat no food; indeed, she had touched none for twenty-four hours; her gorge rose against it, although in her state she needed food. Now the shame of her position began to come home to Lysbeth. She was a wife and no wife; soon she must bear the burden of motherhood, and oh! what would that child be? And what should she be, its mother? What, too, would Dirk think of her? Dirk, for whom she had done and suffered all these things. Through the long afternoon hours she lay upon her bed thinking such thoughts as these till at length her mind gave and Lysbeth grew light-headed. Her brain became a chaos, a perfect hell of distorted imaginations.
Then out of its turmoil and confusion rose a vision and a desire; a vision of peace and a desire for rest. But what rest was there for her except the rest of death? Well, why not die? God would forgive her, the Mother of God would plead for her who was shamed and broken- hearted and unfit to live. Even Dirk would think kindly of her when she was dead, though, doubtless, now if he met her he would cover his eyes with his hand. She was burning hot and she was thirsty. How cool the water would be on this fevered night. What could be better than to slip into it and slowly let it close above her poor aching head? She would go out and look at the water; in that, at any rate, there could be no harm.
She wrapped herself in a long cloak and drew its hood over her head. Then she slipped from the house and stole like a ghost through the darkling streets and out of the Maren or Sea Poort, where the guard let her pass thinking that she was a country woman returning to her village. Now the moon was rising, and by the light of it Lysbeth recognised the place. Here was the spot where she had stood on the day of the ice carnival, when that woman who was called Martha the Mare, and who said that she had known her father, had spoken to her. On that water she had galloped in Montalvo's sledge, and up yonder canal the race was run. She followed along its banks, remembering the reedy mere some miles away spotted with islets that were only visited from time to time by fishermen and wild-fowlers; the great Haarlemer Meer which covered many thousands of acres of ground. That mere she felt must look very cool and beautiful on such a night as this, and the wind would whisper sweetly among the tall bulrushes which fringed its banks.
On Lysbeth went and on; it was a long, long walk, but at last she came there, and, oh! the place was sweet and vast and lonely. For so far as her eye could reach in the light of the low moon there was nothing but glimmering water broken here and there by the reed-wreathed islands. Hark! how the frogs croaked and the bitterns boomed among the rushes. Look where the wild ducks swam leaving behind them broad trails of silver as their breasts broke the surface of the great mere into rippling lines.
There, on an island, not a bowshot from her, grew tufts of a daisy- like marsh bloom, white flowers such as she remembered gathering when she was a child. A desire came upon her to pluck some of these flowers, and the water was shallow; surely she could wade to the island, or if not what did it matter? Then she could turn to the bank again, or she might stay to sleep a while in the water; what did it matter? She stepped from the bank--how sweet and cool it felt to her feet! Now it was up to her knees, now it reached her middle, and now the little wavelets beat against her breast. But she would not go back, for there ahead of her was the island, and the white flowers were so close that she could count them, eight upon one bunch and twelve upon the next. Another step and the water struck her in the face, one more and it closed above her head. She rose, and a low cry broke from her lips.
Then, as in a dream, Lysbeth saw a skiff glide out from among the rushes before her. She saw also a strange mutilated face, which she remembered dimly, bending over the edge of the boat, and a long, brown hand stretched out to clasp her, while a hoarse voice bade her keep still and fear nothing.
After this came a sound of singing in her ears and--darkness.
When Lysbeth woke again she found herself lying upon the ground, or rather upon a soft mattress of dry reeds and aromatic grasses. Looking round her she saw that she was in a hut, reed-roofed and plastered with thick mud. In one corner of this hut stood a fireplace with a chimney artfully built of clay, and on the fire of turfs boiled an earthen pot. Hanging from the roof by a string of twisted grass was a fish, fresh caught, a splendid pike, and near to it a bunch of smoked eels. Over her also was thrown a magnificent rug of otter skins. Noting these things, she gathered that she must be in the hovel of some fisherman.
Now by degrees the past came back to Lysbeth, and she remembered her parting with the man who called himself her husband; remembered also her moonlight flight and how she had waded out into the waters of the great mere to pluck the white flowers, and how, as they closed above her head a hand had been stretched out to save her. Lysbeth remembered, and remembering, she sighed aloud. The sound of her sighing seemed to attract the attention of some one who was listening outside the hut; at any rate a rough door was opened or pushed aside and a figure entered.
"Are you awake, lady?" asked a hoarse voice.
"Yes," answered Lysbeth, "but tell me, how did I come here, and who are you?"
The figure stepped back so that the light from the open door fell full upon it. "Look, Carolus van Hout's daughter and Juan Montalvo's wife; those who have seen me once do not forget me."
Lysbeth sat up on the bed and stared at the gaunt, powerful form, the deep-set grey eyes, the wide-spread nostrils, the scarred, high cheek- bones, the teeth made prominent by some devil's work upon the lips, and the grizzled lock of hair that hung across the forehead. In an instant she knew her.
"You are Martha the Mare," she said.
"Yes, I am the Mare, none other, and you are in the Mare's stable. What has he been doing to you, that Spanish dog, that you came last night to ask the Great Water to hide you and your shame?"
Lysbeth made no answer; the story seemed hard to begin with this strange woman. Then Martha went on:
"What did I tell you, Lysbeth van Hout? Did I not say that your blood should warn you against the Spaniards? Well, well, you saved me from the ice and I have saved you from the water. Ah! who was it that led me to row round by that outer isle last night because I could not sleep? But what does it matter; God willed it so, and here you lie in the Mare's stable. Nay, do not answer me, first you must eat."
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