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- Lysbeth, A Tale Of The Dutch - 4/87 -
drew ahead. Now in front of them lay a furlong or more of bad ice encumbered with lumps of frozen snow that had not been cleared away, which caused the sleigh to shake and jump as it struck. Lysbeth looked round.
"The Badger is coming up," she said.
Montalvo heard, and for the first time laid his whip upon the haunches of his horse, which answered gallantly. But still the Badger came up. The grey was the stronger beast, and had begun to put out his strength. Presently his ugly head was behind them, for Lysbeth felt the breath from his nostrils blowing on her, and saw their steam. Then it was past, for the steam blew back into her face; yes, and she could see the eager eyes of the child in the grey sledge. Now they were neck and neck, and the rough ice was done with. Six hundred yards away, not more, lay the goal, and all about them, outside the line of the course, were swift skaters travelling so fast that their heads were bent forward and down to within three feet of the ice.
Van de Werff called to his horse, and the grey began to gain. Montalvo lashed the stallion, and once more they passed him. But the black was failing, and he saw it, for Lysbeth heard him curse in Spanish. Then of a sudden, after a cunning glance at his adversary, the Count pulled upon the right rein, and a shrill voice rose upon the air, the voice of the little girl in the other sledge.
"Take care, brother," it cried, "he will overthrow us."
True enough, in another moment the black would have struck the grey sideways. Lysbeth saw Van de Werff rise from his seat and throw his weight backward, dragging the grey on to his haunches. By an inch--not more--the Wolf sleigh missed the gelding. Indeed, one runner of it struck his hoof, and the high wood work of the side brushed and cut his nostril.
"A foul, a foul!" yelled the skaters, and it was over. Once more they were speeding forward, but now the black had a lead of at least ten yards, for the grey must find his stride again. They were in the straight; the course was lined with hundreds of witnesses, and from the throats of every one of them arose a great cry, or rather two cries.
"The Spaniard, the Spaniard wins!" said the first cry that was answered by another and a deeper roar.
"No, Hollander, the Hollander! The Hollander comes up!"
Then in the midst of the fierce excitement--bred of the excitement perhaps--some curious spell fell upon the mind of Lysbeth. The race, its details, its objects, its surroundings faded away; these physical things were gone, and in place of them was present a dream, a spiritual interpretation such as the omens and influences of the times she lived in might well inspire. What did she seem to see?
She saw the Spaniard and the Hollander striving for victory, but not a victory of horses. She saw the black Spanish Wolf, at first triumphant, outmatch the Netherland Badger. Still, the Badger, the dogged Dutch badger, held on.
Who would win? The fierce beast or the patient beast? Who would be the master in this fight? There was death in it. Look, the whole snow was red, the roofs of Leyden were red, and red the heavens; in the deep hues of the sunset they seemed bathed in blood, while about her the shouts of the backers and factions transformed themselves into a fierce cry as of battling peoples. All voices mingled in that cry-- voices of hope, of agony, and of despair; but she could not interpret them. Something told her that the interpretation and the issue were in the mind of God alone.
Perhaps she swooned, perhaps she slept and dreamed this dream; perhaps the sharp rushing air overcame her. At the least Lysbeth's eyes closed and her mind gave way. When they opened and it returned again their sledge was rushing past the winning post. But in front of it travelled another sledge, drawn by a gaunt grey horse, which galloped so hard that its belly seemed to lie upon the ice, a horse driven by a young man whose face was set like steel and whose lips were as the lips of a trap.
Could that be the face of her cousin Pieter van de Werff, and, if so, what passion had stamped that strange seal thereon? She turned herself in her seat and looked at him who drove her.
Was this a man, or was it a spirit escaped from doom? Blessed Mother of Christ! what a countenance! The eyeballs starting and upturned, nothing but the white of them to be seen; the lips curled, and, between, two lines of shining fangs; the lifted points of the mustachios touching the high cheekbones. No--no, it was neither a spirit nor a man, she knew now what it was; it was the very type and incarnation of the Spanish Wolf.
Once more she seemed to faint, while in her ears there rang the cry-- "The Hollander! Outstayed! Outstayed! Conquered is the accursed Spaniard!"
Then Lysbeth knew that it was over, and again the faintness overpowered her.
SHE WHO BUYS--PAYS
When Lysbeth's mind recovered from its confusion she found herself still in the sledge and beyond the borders of the crowd that was engaged in rapturously congratulating the winner. Drawn up alongside of the Wolf was another sleigh of plain make, and harnessed to it a heavy Flemish horse. This vehicle was driven by a Spanish soldier, with whom sat a second soldier apparently of the rank of sergeant. There was no one else near; already people in the Netherlands had learnt to keep their distance from Spanish soldiers.
"If your Excellency would come now," the sergeant was saying, "this little matter can be settled without any further trouble."
"Where is she?" asked Montalvo.
"Not more than a mile or so away, near the place called Steene Veld."
"Tie her up in the snow to wait till to-morrow morning. My horse is tired and it may save us trouble," he began, then added, after glancing back at the crowd behind him and next at Lysbeth, "no, I will come."
Perhaps the Count did not wish to listen to condolences on his defeat, or perhaps he desired to prolong the /tete-a-tete/ with his fair passenger. At any rate, without further hesitation, he struck his weary horse with the whip, causing it to amble forward somewhat stiffly but at a good pace.
"Where are we going, Senor?" asked Lysbeth anxiously. "The race is over and I must seek my friends."
"Your friends are engaged in congratulating the victor, lady," he answered in his suave and courteous voice, "and I cannot leave you alone upon the ice. Do not trouble; this is only a little matter of business which will scarcely take a quarter of an hour," and once more he struck the horse urging it to a better speed.
Lysbeth thought of remonstrating, she thought even of springing from the sledge, but in the end she did neither. To seem to continue the drive with her cavalier would, she determined, look more natural and less absurd than to attempt a violent escape from him. She was certain that he would not put her down merely at her request; something in his manner told her so, and though she had no longing for his company it was better than being made ridiculous before half the inhabitants of Leyden. Moreover, the position was no fault of hers; it was the fault of Dirk van Goorl, who should have been present to take her from the sledge.
As they drove along the frozen moat Montalvo leant forward and began to chat about the race, expressing regret at having lost it, but using no angry or bitter words. Could this be the man, wondered Lysbeth as she listened, whom she had seen deliberately attempt to overthrow his adversary in a foul heedless of dishonour or of who might be killed by the shock? Could this be the man whose face just now had looked like the face of a devil? Had these things happened, indeed, or was it not possible that her fancy, confused with the excitement and the speed at which they were travelling, had deceived her? Certainly it seemed to have been overcome at last, for she could not remember the actual finish of the race, or how they got clear of the shouting crowd.
While she was still wondering thus, replying from time to time to Montalvo in monosyllables, the sledge in front of them turned the corner of one of the eastern bastions and came to a halt. The place where it stopped was desolate and lonely, for the town being in a state of peace no guard was mounted on the wall, nor could any living soul be found upon the snowy waste that lay beyond the moat. At first, indeed, Lysbeth was able to see nobody at all, for by now the sun had gone down and her eyes were not accustomed to the increasing light of the moon. Presently, however, she caught sight of a knot of people standing on the ice in a recess or little bay of the moat, and half hidden by a fringe of dead reeds.
Montalvo saw also, and halted his horse within three paces of them. The people were five in number, three Spanish soldiers and two women. Lysbeth looked, and with difficulty stifled a cry of surprise and fear, for she knew the women. The tall, dark person, with lowering eyes, was none other than the cap-seller and Spanish spy, Black Meg. And she who crouched there upon the ice, her arms bound behind her, her grizzled locks, torn loose by some rough hand, trailing on the snow--surely it was the woman who called herself the Mare, and who that very afternoon spoke to her, saying that she had known her father, and cursing the Spaniards and their Inquisition. What were they doing here? Instantly an answer leapt into her mind, for she remembered Black Meg's words--that there was a price upon this heretic's head which before nightfall would be in her pocket. And why was there a square hole cut in the ice immediately in front of the captive? Could it be--no, that was too horrible.
"Well, officer," broke in Montalvo, addressing the sergeant in a quiet, wearied voice, "what is all this about? Set out your case."
"Excellency," replied the man, "it is a very simple matter. This creature here, so that woman is ready to take oath," and he pointed to Black Meg, "is a notorious heretic who has already been condemned to death by the Holy Office, and whose husband, a learned man who painted pictures and studied the stars, was burnt on a charge of witchcraft and heresy, two years ago at Brussels. But she managed to escape the stake, and since then has lived as a vagrant, hiding in the islands of
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