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- Lysbeth, A Tale Of The Dutch - 5/87 -
the Haarlemer Meer, and, it is suspected, working murder and robbery on any of Spanish blood whom she can catch. Now she has been caught herself and identified, and, of course, the sentence being in full force against her, can be dealt with at once on your Excellency's command. Indeed, it would not have been necessary that you should be troubled about the thing at all had it not been that this worthy woman," and again he pointed to Black Meg, "who was the one who waylaid her, pulled her down and held her till we came, requires your certificate in order that she may claim the reward from the Treasurer of the Holy Inquisition. Therefore, you will be asked to certify that this is, indeed, the notorious heretic commonly known as Martha the Mare, but whose other name I forget, after which, if you will please to withdraw, we will see to the rest."
"You mean that she will be taken to the prison to be dealt with by the Holy Office?" queried Montalvo.
"Not exactly, Excellency," answered the sergeant with a discreet smile and a cough. "The prison, I am told, is quite full, but she may start for the prison and--there seems to be a hole in the ice into which, since Satan leads the footsteps of such people astray, this heretic might chance to fall--or throw herself."
"What is the evidence?" asked Montalvo.
Then Black Meg stood forward, and, with the rapidity and unction of a spy, poured out her tale. She identified the woman with one whom she had known who was sentenced to death by the Inquisition and escaped, and, after giving other evidence, ended by repeating the conversation which she had overheard between the accused and Lysbeth that afternoon.
"You accompanied me in a fortunate hour, Senora van Hout," said the captain gaily, "for now, to satisfy myself, as I wish to be just, and do not trust these paid hags," and he nodded towards Black Meg, "I must ask you upon your oath before God whether or no you confirm that woman's tale, and whether or no this very ugly person named the Mare called down curses upon my people and the Holy Office? Answer, and quickly, if you please, Senora, for it grows cold here and my horse is beginning to shiver."
Then, for the first time, the Mare raised her head, dragging at her hair, which had become frozen to the ice, until she tore it free.
"Lysbeth van Hout," she cried in shrill, piercing tones, "would you, to please your Spanish lover, bring your father's playmate to her death? The Spanish horse is cold and cannot stay, but the poor Netherland Mare--ah! she may be thrust beneath the blue ice and bide there till her bones rot at the bottom of the moat. You have sought the Spaniards, you, whose blood should have warned you against them, and I tell you that it shall cost you dear; but if you say this word they seek, then it shall cost you everything, not only the body, but the spirit also. Woe to you, Lysbeth van Hout, if you cut me off before my work is done. I fear not death, nay I welcome it, but I tell you I have work to do before I die."
Now, in an agony of mind, Lysbeth turned and looked at Montalvo.
The Count was a man of keen perceptions, and understood it all. Leaning forward, his arm resting on the back of the sledge, as though to contemplate the prisoner, he whispered into Lysbeth's ear, so low that no one else could hear his words.
"Senora," he said, "I have no wishes in this matter. I do not desire to drown that poor mad woman, but if you confirm the spy's story, drown she must. At present I am not satisfied, so everything turns upon your evidence. I do not know what passed between you this afternoon, and personally I do not care, only, if you should chance to have no clear recollection of the matter alleged, I must make one or two little stipulations--very little ones. Let me see, they are--that you will spend the rest of this evening's fete in my company. Further, that whenever I choose to call upon you, your door will be open to me, though I must remind you that, on three occasions already, when I have wished to pay my respects, it has been shut."
Lysbeth heard and understood. If she would save this woman's life she must expose herself to the attentions of the Spaniard, which she desired least of anything in the world. More, speaking upon her oath in the presence of God, she must utter a dreadful lie, she who as yet had never lied. For thirty seconds or more she thought, staring round her with anguished eyes, while the scene they fell on sank into her soul in such fashion that never till her death's day did she forget its aspect.
The Mare spoke no more, she only knelt searching her face with a stern and wondering glance. A little to the right stood Black Meg, glaring at her sullenly, for the blood-money was in danger. Behind the prisoner were two of the soldiers, one patting his hand to his face to hide a yawn, while the other beat his breast to warm himself. The third soldier, who was placed somewhat in front, stirred the surface of the hole with the shaft of his halbert to break up the thin film of ice which was forming over it, while Montalvo himself, still leaning sideways and forwards, watched her eyes with an amused and cynical expression. And over all, over the desolate snows and gabled roofs of the town behind; over the smooth blue ice, the martyr and the murderers; over the gay sledge and the fur-wrapped girl who sat within it, fell the calm light of the moon through a silence broken only by the beating of her heart, and now and again by the sigh of a frost- wind breathing among the rushes.
"Well, Senora," asked Montalvo, "if you have sufficiently reflected shall I administer the oath in the form provided?"
"Administer it," she said hoarsely.
So, descending from the sledge, he stood in front of Lysbeth, and, lifting his cap, repeated the oath to her, an oath strong enough to blast her soul if she swore to it with false intent.
"In the name of God the Son and of His Blessed Mother, you swear?" he asked.
"I swear," she answered.
"Good, Senora. Now listen to me. Did you meet that woman this afternoon?"
"Yes, I met her on the ice."
"And did she in your hearing utter curses upon the Government and the Holy Church, and call upon you to assist in driving the Spaniards from the land, as this spy, whom I believe is called Black Meg, has borne witness?"
"No," said Lysbeth.
"I am afraid that is not quite enough, Senora; I may have misquoted the exact words. Did the woman say anything of the sort?"
For one second Lysbeth hesitated. Then she caught sight of the victim's watching, speculative eyes, and remembered that this crazed and broken creature once had been a child whom her father had kissed and played with, and that the crime of which she was accused was that she had escaped from death at the stake.
"The water is cold to die in!" the Mare said, in a meditative voice, as though she were thinking aloud.
"Then why did you run away from the warm fire, heretic witch?" jeered Black Meg.
Now Lysbeth hesitated no longer, but again answered in a monosyllable, "No."
"Then what did she do or say, Senora?"
"She said she had known my father who used to play with her when she was a child, and begged for alms, that is all. Then that woman came up, and she ran away, whereon the woman said there was a price upon her head, and that she meant to have the money."
"It is a lie," screamed Black Meg in fierce, strident tones.
"If that person will not be silent, silence her," said Montalvo, addressing the sergeant. "I am satisfied," he went on, "that there is no evidence at all against the prisoner except the story of a spy, who says she believes her to be a vagrant heretic of bad character who escaped from the stake several years ago in the neighbourhood of Brussels, whither it is scarcely worth while to send to inquire about the matter. So that charge may drop. There remains the question as to whether or no the prisoner uttered certain words this afternoon, which, if she did utter them, are undoubtedly worthy of the death that, under my authority as acting commandant of this town, I have power to inflict. This question I foresaw, and that is why I asked the Senora, to whom the woman is alleged to have spoken the words, to accompany me here to give evidence. She has done so, and her evidence on oath as against the statement of a spy woman not on oath, is that no such words were spoken. This being so, as the Senora is a good Catholic whom I have no reason to disbelieve, I order the release of the prisoner, whom for my part I take for nothing more than a crazy and harmless wanderer."
"At least you will detain her till I can prove that she is the heretic who escaped from the stake near Brussels," shouted Black Meg.
"I will do nothing of the sort; the prison here is over-full already. Untie her arms and let her go."
The soldiers obeyed, wondering somewhat, and the Mare scrambled to her feet. For a moment she stood looking at her deliverer. Then crying, "We shall met again, Lysbeth van Hout!" suddenly she turned and sped up a dyke at extraordinary speed. In a few seconds there was nothing to be seen of her but a black spot upon the white landscape, and presently she had vanished altogether.
"Gallop as you will, Mare, I shall catch you yet," screamed Black Meg after her. "And you too, my pretty little liar, who have cheated me out of a dozen florins. Wait till you are up before the Inquisition as a heretic--for that's where you'll end. No fine Spanish lover will save you then. So you have gone to the Spanish, have you, and thrown over your fat-faced burgher; well, you will have enough of Spaniards before you have done with them, I can tell you."
Twice had Montalvo tried to stop this flood of furious eloquence, which had become personal and might prove prejudicial to his interests, but without avail. Now he adopted other measures.
"Seize her," he shouted to two of the soldiers; "that's it; now hold her under water in that hole till I tell you to let her up again."
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