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- Lysbeth, A Tale Of The Dutch - 3/87 -
followed at a distance by Dirk and the serving-maid, Greta.
"Cousin," he whispered as he went, "this is not my place, it is Dirk's place, but I pray you as you love him--I beg your pardon--as you esteem a worthy relative--do not enter into a religious argument with him here in public, where even the ice and sky are two great ears. It is not safe, little cousin, I swear to you that it is not safe."
In the centre of the mere the great event of the day, the sledge races, were now in progress. As the competitors were many these must be run in heats, the winners of each heat standing on one side to compete in the final contest. Now these victors had a pretty prerogative not unlike that accorded to certain dancers in the cotillion of modern days. Each driver of a sledge was bound to carry a passenger in the little car in front of him, his own place being on the seat behind, whence he directed the horse by means of reins supported upon a guide-rod so fashioned that it lifted them above the head of the traveller in the car. This passenger he could select from among the number of ladies who were present at the games; unless, indeed, the gentleman in charge of her chose to deny him in set form; namely, by stepping forward and saying in the appointed phrase, "No, for this happy hour she is mine."
Among the winners of these heats was a certain Spanish officer, the Count Don Juan de Montalvo, who, as it chanced, in the absence on leave of his captain, was at that date the commander of the garrison at Leyden. He was a man still young, only about thirty indeed, reported to be of noble birth, and handsome in the usual Castilian fashion. That is to say, he was tall, of a graceful figure, dark-eyed, strong-featured, with a somewhat humorous expression, and of very good if exaggerated address. As he had but recently come to Leyden, very little was known about this attractive cavalier beyond that he was well spoken of by the priests and, according to report, a favourite with the Emperor. Also the ladies admired him much.
For the rest everything about him was handsome like his person, as might be expected in the case of a man reputed to be as rich as he was noble. Thus his sledge was shaped and coloured to resemble a great black wolf rearing itself up to charge. The wooden head was covered in wolf skin and adorned by eyes of yellow glass and great fangs of ivory. Round the neck also ran a gilded collar hung with a silver shield, whereon were painted the arms of its owner, a knight striking the chains from off a captive Christian saint, and the motto of the Montalvos, "Trust to God and me." His black horse, too, of the best breed, imported from Spain, glittered in harness decorated with gilding, and bore a splendid plume of dyed feathers rising from the head-band.
Lysbeth happened to be standing near to the spot where this gallant had halted after his first victory. She was in the company of Dirk van Goorl alone--for as he was the driver of one of the competing sledges, her other cousin, Pieter van de Werff, had now been summoned away. Having nothing else to do at the moment, she approached and not unnaturally admired this brilliant equipage, although in truth it was the sledge and the horse rather than their driver which attracted her attention. As for the Count himself she knew him slightly, having been introduced to and danced a measure with him at a festival given by a grandee of the town. On that occasion he was courteous to her in the Spanish fashion, rather too courteous, she thought, but as this was the manner of Castilian dons when dealing with burgher maidens she paid no more attention to the matter.
The Captain Montalvo saw Lysbeth among the throng and recognised her, for he lifted his plumed hat and bowed to her with just that touch of condescension which in those days a Spaniard showed when greeting one whom he considered his inferior. In the sixteenth century it was understood that all the world were the inferiors to those whom God had granted to be born in Spain, the English who rated themselves at a valuation of their own--and were careful to announce the fact--alone excepted.
An hour or so later, after the last heat had been run, a steward of the ceremonies called aloud to the remaining competitors to select their passengers and prepare for the final contest. Accordingly each Jehu, leaving his horse in charge of an attendant, stepped up to some young lady who evidently was waiting for him, and led her by the hand to his sledge. While Lysbeth was watching this ceremony with amusement --for these selections were always understood to show a strong preference on behalf of the chooser for the chosen--she was astonished to hear a well-trained voice addressing her, and on looking up to see Don Juan de Montalvo bowing almost to the ice.
"Senora," he said in Castilian, a tongue which Lysbeth understood well enough, although she only spoke it when obliged, "unless my ears deceived me, I heard you admiring my horse and sledge. Now, with the permission of your cavalier," and he bowed courteously to Dirk, "I name you as my passenger for the great race, knowing that you will bring me fortune. Have I your leave, Senor?"
Now if there was a people on earth whom Dirk van Goorl hated, the Spaniards were that people, and if there lived a cavalier who he would prefer should not take his cousin Lysbeth for a lonely drive, that cavalier was the Count Juan de Montalvo. But as a young man, Dirk was singularly diffident and so easily confused that on the spur of the moment it was quite possible for a person of address to make him say what he did not mean. Thus, on the present occasion, when he saw this courtly Spaniard bowing low to him, a humble Dutch tradesman, he was overwhelmed, and mumbled in reply, "Certainly, certainly."
If a glance could have withered him, without doubt Dirk would immediately have been shrivelled to nothing. To say that Lysbeth was angry is too little, for in truth she was absolutely furious. She did not like this Spaniard, and hated the idea of a long interview with him alone. Moreover, she knew that among her fellow townspeople there was a great desire that the Count should not win this race, which in its own fashion was the event of the year, whereas, if she appeared as his companion it would be supposed that she was anxious for his success. Lastly--and this was the chiefest sore--although in theory the competitors had a right to ask any one to whom they took a fancy to travel in their sledges, in practise they only sought the company of young women with whom they were on the best of terms, and who were already warned of their intention.
In an instant these thoughts flashed through her mind, but all she did was to murmur something about the Heer van Goorl----
"Has already given his consent, like an unselfish gentleman," broke in Captain Juan tendering her his hand.
Now, without absolutely making a scene, which then, as to-day, ladies considered an ill-bred thing to do, there was no escape, since half Leyden gathered at these "sledge choosings," and many eyes were on her and the Count. Therefore, because she must, Lysbeth took the proferred hand, and was led to the sledge, catching, as she passed to it through the throng, more than one sour look from the men and more than one exclamation of surprise, real or affected, on the lips of the ladies of her acquaintance. These manifestations, however, put her upon her mettle. So determining that at least she would not look sullen or ridiculous, she began to enter into the spirit of the adventure, and smiled graciously while the Captain Montalvo wrapped a magnificent apron of wolf skins about her knees.
When all was ready her charioteer took the reins and settled himself upon the little seat behind the sleigh, which was then led into line by a soldier servant.
"Where is the course, Senor?" Lysbeth asked, hoping that it would be a short one.
But in this she was to be disappointed, for he answered:
"Up to the little Quarkel Mere, round the island in the middle of it, and back to this spot, something over a league in all. Now, Senora, speak to me no more at present, but hold fast and have no fear, for at least I drive well, and my horse is sure-footed and roughed for ice. This is a race that I would give a hundred gold pieces to win, since your countrymen, who contend against me, have sworn that I shall lose it, and I tell you at once, Senora, that grey horse will press me hard."
Following the direction of his glance, Lysbeth's eye lit upon the next sledge. It was small, fashioned and painted to resemble a grey badger, that silent, stubborn, and, if molested, savage brute, which will not loose its grip until the head is hacked from off its body. The horse, which matched it well in colour, was of Flemish breed; rather a raw- boned animal, with strong quarters and an ugly head, but renowned in Leyden for its courage and staying power. What interested Lysbeth most, however, was to discover that the charioteer was none other than Pieter van de Werff, though now when she thought of it, she remembered he had told her that his sledge was named the Badger. In his choice of passenger she noted, too, not without a smile, that he showed his cautious character, disdainful of any immediate glory, so long as the end in view could be attained. For there in the sleigh sat no fine young lady, decked out in brave attire, who might be supposed to look at him with tender eyes, but a little fair-haired mate aged nine, who was in fact his sister. As he explained afterwards, the rules provided that a lady passenger must be carried, but said nothing of her age and weight.
Now the competitors, eight of them, were in a line, and coming forward, the master of the course, in a voice that every one might hear, called out the conditions of the race and the prize for which it was to be run, a splendid glass goblet engraved with the cross-keys, the Arms of Leyden. This done, after asking if all were ready, he dropped a little flag, whereon the horses were loosed and away they went.
Before a minute had passed, forgetting all her doubts and annoyances, Lysbeth was lost in the glorious excitement of the moment. Like birds in the heavens, cleaving the keen, crisp air, they sped forward over the smooth ice. The gay throng vanished, the dead reeds and stark bushes seemed to fly away from them. The only sounds in their ears were the rushing of the wind, the swish of the iron runners, and the hollow tapping of the hooves of their galloping horses. Certain sledges drew ahead in the first burst, but the Wolf and the Badger were not among these. The Count de Montalvo was holding in his black stallion, and as yet the grey Flemish gelding looped along with a constrained and awkward stride. When, passing from the little mere, they entered the straight of the canal, these two were respectively fourth and fifth. Up the course they sped, through a deserted snow- clad country, past the church of the village of Alkemaade. Now, half a mile or more away appeared the Quarkel Mere, and in the centre of it the island which they must turn. They reached it, they were round it, and when their faces were once more set homewards, Lysbeth noted that the Wolf and the Badger were third and fourth in the race, some one having dropped behind. Half a mile more and they were second and third; another half mile and they were first and second with perhaps a mile to go. Then the fight began.
Yard by yard the speed increased, and yard by yard the black stallion
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