Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons/Chapter 6


THE COMING OF THE FIRST PIGEON

CHAPTER VI
THE COMING OF THE FIRST PIGEON

THE middle of August found the conditions in Leyden in no way improved but rather the worse, being just so many weeks nearer starvation. The poor had reached a point where they were indeed glad to get what nourishment they might from the grass that grew in the streets, and even the leaves from the trees that shaded the canals. Even the rich now suffered from the scantiness of provisions, and were fain to draw in their belts tightly to lessen the gnawing of constant hunger.

Jacqueline and Gysbert had lost their fresh, rosy complexions and the roundness of their youthful curves, and looked white and thin. Yet they still fared better than some. Gysbert had made seven trips through the Spanish lines, each time bearing away two carrier pigeons, and bringing back when he could, a little supply of fresh food in his bag. The six remaining birds they had decided to kill and eat, one a week, so that they might have at least a taste of fresh untainted meat occasionally. It had cost Jacqueline many a pang to thus sacrifice her pets, but she could not see her dear ones suffer when it was in her power to give them food.

Gysbert’s latest excursion outside the city walls had been successful, and without any of the excitement that had attended his first trip. He had chosen an entirely different quarter through which to pass, had met with either a friendly reception or indifference from those he met, and who freely purchased his herbs. He was taken without question for a Glipper, as he had announced himself to be, and his presence soon became a familiar figure in their midst. Then too, these expeditions were of much shorter duration than his first, since instead of travelling all the way to Delft, he had only to leave his message and the pigeons at the farmhouse of Julius Van Schaick, a short distance from the city. He had thus far managed also to escape the vigilance of Vrouw Voorhaas, who now accepted without question the explanation of his executing errands for the burgomaster.

And what of Jacqueline? Plague now raged through all the poorer sections of the city,—a dread disease brought on by improper nourishment or none at all. Dr. de Witt and Jacqueline went their daily rounds, cheering, comforting, and administering medicine and nourishment on every side. Never was a presence more welcome in a sick room than that of the slim, fair girl whom many in their delirium took to be an angel. Never was a touch more deft, light and soothing than hers.

By her tender care, Jan Van Buskirk had been nursed through the awful scourge. He was still as weak as a baby, yet able to crawl about his room listlessly, and inquire after the progress of the siege. His admiration for, and devotion to the girl who had brought him safely through his peril was beyond all expression, and he did little else when she was near, than follow her with his eyes in an ecstasy of dumb admiration.

Vrouw Voorhaas utterly disapproved of Jacqueline’s mission to the sick, and spared no pains to make her disapproval known. She was constantly in terror lest the girl herself should become infected, and scolded, muttered and sighed whenever Jacqueline prepared to go out. But the young girl’s determination was too firm to be shaken by the older woman’s expostulations, and her interest and devotion to the work had grown with her increasing responsibility. Dr. de Witt secretly marvelled at her quiet firmness, skill, and unflinching courage. More and more did he rack his brains to elucidate the mystery of her strange resemblance to someone he had once known or seen, but without result.

“Jacqueline, come up to Hengist Hill with me,” said Gysbert one hot, oppressive day about the twentieth of August. “Thou dost look white and tired, and needest a little change of air, and besides I want to talk to thee.”

“Ah, Gysbert, the day is too hot, and I am very tired! Let us rest here in the house instead,” replied the girl wearily.

“Nay, the air is fresh and cool on the hill, and I have yet another reason for the expedition. Come with me and thou wilt not regret it.” Yielding to his wish, Jacqueline accompanied him through the blazing, sun-baked streets, striving for once not to see the misery that now lay open to the daylight all about them. But Gysbert was right,—the Hill was a decided improvement on the heated atmosphere of the town. The grove was cool and pleasant and a refreshing breeze swept the summit. They sat down in the shadow of the old fortress, and drew in great breaths of the life-giving salt air.

“Ah, it is good to be here!” exclaimed Gysbert “Art thou not glad we came, Jacqueline? And now let me ask a question. Answer truly! What hast thou had to eat to-day!”

“Oh, I had plenty answered the girl evasively. “The weather is so hot that I cannot eat much.”

“Now, look thou here!” he replied. “For breakfast this morning we had some watery gruel of our pigeon grain, and a thin slice of malt-cake apiece. I saw thee eat the gruel, but the cake disappeared quickly in some mysterious way. Jacqueline, didst thou save it to take to Jan?”

“Well, yes, I suppose so,” she faltered, cornered so cleverly that she could not deny it.

“Very well!” replied Gysbert with decision. “Then I will tell him the next time I go there, that thou art starving thyself to feed him!”

“No, no, Gysbert!” she cried in genuine alarm, “thou must not do that! It would grieve him unto death, for I have told him that we have plenty.”

“Ah! does that worry thee? Then if thou wilt do something to please me, I promise not to tell him.”

“Yes, yes,” said Jacqueline eagerly. “Anything, Gysbert, will I do if thou wilt only keep that secret!” The boy did not answer, but running to the wall of the fortress, lifted a good-sized stone and took from the hollow underneath something which he brought to his sister. It was the legs and body of a wild rabbit which had been prepared and cooked evidently before an open fire.

“Why, Gysbert!” exclaimed Jacqueline in astonishment. “Where didst thou get this?”

“I brought down the rabbit with a stone, here on the Hill early this morning. Then I skinned him, dressed him, built a fire and roasted him before it, and hid him away in a cool place for our treat this afternoon. Thou must eat exactly half of it now, or I will tell Jan all about thy deception.”

“But Vrouw Voorhaas!” said the girl, doubtfully. “We ought to take some of it to her.”

“Nay,” he answered. “I have watched her, and I know what she does, also. She would thank us and put it aside, only to present it to us at another meal, saying she could not eat it herself. And what is more, she never would eat it, if we left it till it rotted away, so we might just as well finish it now.”

Together they divided the doubtful dainty, and devoured it as though it were the perfection of epicurean cookery; never did a meal taste sweeter to these half-famished children, as they sat nibbling the last vestige of meat from the bones, and feeling new life renewed within them.

“Now,” said Gysbert, when they had finished, “let me tell thee all about my last trip through the besieging lines yesterday, and the messages I bore. Mynheer Van der Werf sent very discouraged word to our good Prince of Orange. The city, he said, was on the brink of starvation, the bread was gone, and the malt-cakes would hold out but four days more. Moreover, the people had fulfilled the promise made in the beginning of the siege,—they had held out two months with food and one month without, and human strength could do no more.

“Mynheer Paul Buys, himself, was at the farmhouse and took the message and the pigeons. He said the number of birds was now sufficient and I need bring no more unless these should all return before the siege was over. Then he sent by word of mouth, this reply to the burgomaster. ‘The Prince begs you to hold out a few days more, as his scheme for relief has already begun to be put into execution. In a day or two a carrier pigeon will come from him telling all about it.’

“Jacqueline, I have guessed what that relief is going to be! A few chance words dropped by Mynheer Buys and an exclamation from the burgomaster has made me certain of it. Ah! it is a great thought,—great indeed!—and like our wonderful Prince to dare it. Canst thou imagine what it is?”

“Nay,” said the girl, wonderingly, “I cannot.”

“Look!” cried Gysbert, pointing in the direction of the ocean. “Dost thou see that huge bulk across the Rhine about five miles from here? That is the greatest outer barrier, the Land-scheiding. See how it keeps back the ocean! Dost thou guess now what is happening?”

“Not,—” hesitated the girl, “not that the dykes have been pierced!”

“Just that! just that!” cried her brother, “Is it not wonderful? The Prince is calling the ocean to his aid, since he cannot raise an army. The Spaniards will drown like rats in a tank!” Jacqueline looked doubtful, and not quite convinced.

“But the land!” she said. “It will ruin all the farms and crops between here and the ocean. And think of all the labor that has been spent on the dykes to shut out the sea. When will they ever be able to rebuild these barriers and shut out the waters?”

“That will all come in good time,” he replied. “First, it is most important to get rid of this Spanish pest. Did I not hear Mynheer Van der Werf himself mutter, ‘Better a drowned land than a lost one!’ It was this exclamation that put me on the track.”

“Dost say that the Prince sends word that the scheme is already begun?” asked Jacqueline.

“Yes, and I think I know what he has done. Mynheer Buys was telling me that he has but lately been to Kappelle and Schiedam. I will wager that they have pierced the dykes all the way from here to Rotterdam, and even as far as Kappelle. But the tide does not rise high at this time of the year, and there is only an east wind, so that the water flows in slowly. But see! see!” and he pointed far off in the sky, where a tiny speck floated,—a mere golden moat in the sunshine. I feel certain that is one of our pigeons, Jacqueline. He flies like ‘William of Orange.’”

“Thou hast good eyes, Gysbert! I can see nothing but a faint speck. Let us watch it, though.” Together they waited in breathless suspense, while the speck drew nearer and assumed more definite shape.

“Look how the left wing droops a trifle. I know that is ‘William of Orange’!” cried Gysbert. In an incredibly short time the bird had passed the limits of the city wall, had drawn closer and closer, and at last passed directly over their heads.

So close to the summit of the Hill was its flight that they could faintly hear the whir of its wings. When it was close above them, all doubt as to its identity vanished, and besides, it was making straight in the directon of Belfry Lane. Without waiting a moment they rushed down the hill, their bodies refreshed by their meal of none too well cooked rabbit meat, their courage restored by the hope of speedy deliverance for the city.

They found when they reached the house that the pigeon had been long before them, Vrouw Voorhaas declaring that she had let it in some half an hour previously. Up to the dove-cote they clambered, breathless and excited, to behold “William of Orange” strutting about proudly, preening his ruffled feathers, and cooing plaintively to be fed. Gysbert found a message tied about the bird’s leg. As fast as his feet would carry him, he flew to the statehouse to deliver the precious bit of paper into the hands of Adrian Van der Werf. But Jacqueline with a handful of corn coaxed the weary messenger to alight on her arm. When he had eaten his fill, she cuddled his head under her soft chin, and stroked his brilliant plumage.

“‘William of Orange,’” she crooned, “thou art well-called. The city owes much to thee, and to thy great namesake!”