Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons/Chapter 7


A SWIM IN THE CANAL AND WHAT CAME OF IT

CHAPTER VII
A SWIM IN THE CANAL AND WHAT CAME OF IT

THE message brought by the pigeon proved to be word direct from the Prince of Orange himself to the people of Leyden. He implored them to take courage, and explained what means he had taken to effect their relief. The plan was what Gysbert had suspected, but was of even wider scope. Not only had all the dykes been ruptured and the water had begun to rise upon the Land-scheiding, but also the Prince had been rapidly collecting provisions in all the principal cities and towns near by and was loading them on a fleet of vessels ready to sail across the land to Leyden when the flood would permit. Thus the same waters that were to rout the Spanish army were to bear life and food to the suffering city. It was truly a daring and original plan, and Van der Werf's stern, harassed countenance lighted with joy when he read the missive.

“Ring the bells!” he commanded. “Call a meeting of the populace in the great square! Order the military hands to play inspiriting music! Fire the cannons and sing lustily! Surely this news must put heart into the people!”

Then such a bedlam of sounds as rose within the walls of Leyden! Not for months had there been such a stir and life in the streets of the half-dead city. The Spaniards outside, hearing the revelry and not in the least understanding its cause; gazed at each other in amazement and could only conjecture that a great army must be coming to the relief of their foes. But they were not long to remain in doubt. That night a sentinel rushed into the camp shouting:

“The water! the water! It stands ten inches deep all round the outskirts of the Land-scheiding! The dykes have all been pierced!” And swift consternation seized them, as they began to grasp the meaning of the shouts of joy within the walls of Leyden.

But a week passed, and the waters did not continue to rise. The low tides and the constant east winds were most unfavorable to the present flooding of the land. Confidence was restored to the Spanish army, and in the city the recent joy faded away as suddenly as it had come. Dull distrust reigned unchecked, and the Glippers of whom there were not a few in the town, lost no opportunity to scoff at ‘This mad hopeless scheme of the Prince’s,’ as they called it.

“Go up to the Tower on Hengist Hill,” they would cry scornfully to the patriots, “and see if the ocean is coming over the dry land to your relief!” Then it came to be that Hengist Hill was haunted day and night by anxious, hunger-stricken men and women, watching, hoping, trusting, praying that some help might come to the famished city.

Meantime the weather continued stifling and unbearable, and sickness, death and the plague raged in Leyden. Jacqueline had her heart and hands full with her newly assumed duties. But Gysbert, not having lately any mission to execute beyond the walls, found time hanging rather heavily on his hands. One muggy, oppressive morning he determined, for lack of anything better to do, to seek some secluded spot and indulge in a refreshing swim in one of the less-frequented canals.

Beaching a shaded spot sufficiently isolated for his purpose, he divested himself of his garments, plunged in, and remained for half an hour swimming about idly in the cool water. At length concluding that his bath had been long enough, he drew himself out and was about to resume his clothes, when he happened to glance down the road that led by the canal. About a hundred yards ahead, a black-cloaked figure whose rear view struck him as somewhat familiar, was hurrying stealthily along.

“By St. Pancras!” muttered Gysbert. “If that isn’t Dirk Willumhoog again! There’s mischief afoot!” Dropping his clothes he ran down the bank, slipped without noise into the water, and swam hurriedly in the direction of the retreating figure.

“If I keep behind him close and to the bank,” thought the boy, “I can watch him very well, and he’ll never suspect there is a soul around.” It did not take him long to catch up with the man he was pursuing. Most of the time he kept out of sight, but he rose occasionally far enough to poke his head over the edge of the canal and peep at his enemy. Once as he did so, he dropped back quickly, finding that Dirk had seated himself under a tree not five feet away. The man was busily engaged in examining the writing on some scraps of paper, or he would certainly have seen the wet, tousled head poked suddenly up over the bank.

“Whew!” thought Gysbert as he ducked, “but that was a narrow escape! I wonder how long he’s going to sit mooning there! ’Tis right unpleasant hanging here motionless, and in spite of the heat, the water grows chilly.” But Dirk had evidently no intention of moving at present, and Gysbert was obliged to shiver and wait for some time, before the spirit moved the man to be gone. At length the crunch of footsteps on the gravel warned the boy that his enemy was once more on his way. It was a relief to swim again and limber up his stiffened body, but to his astonishment he found that they were drawing near to an unfrequented portion of the city near the walls, and that the canal-street would soon turn off in another direction.

“Where can he be going!” questioned Gysbert, as he poked up his head at the turn, and saw Dirk advancing straight on, apparently right to the wall itself. At that moment the man half turned his head and Gysbert ducked under hastily. When he again raised himself, to his amazement Dirk had disappeared as completely as though the earth had opened up and swallowed him.

“Has the rascal spread his cloak and flown over the wall, or has he changed his bodily substance and passed right through it, like the prince in the fairy tale?” demanded Gysbert of the air about him. But as it was plain this would bring no solution of the enigma, he cautiously crept toward the wall, determined by some means to solve the mystery.

From the turn of the canal to the wall was a distance of perhaps five hundred yards, an unoccupied space of ground like a meadow, broken by nothing save a little brook that connected with the canal. At the base of the wall this brook spread out for a space, like a miniature lake. Gysbert examined every inch of the ground attentively, without finding anything that might serve to enlighten him. At the face of the wall he stopped. Plainly no human being could scale at this point the high, smooth surface that confronted him. Dropping on his knees he examined the base. “Nothing here!” he muttered, and waded into the tiny lake that spread out before him.

Step by step he advanced, feeling carefully of the brick wall at every interval, to detect any possible weak spot, when suddenly his feet slipped into a deep hole, he was drawn under, and swept by the force of some swift current, through a small hidden aperture in the wall. When he came to the surface, he grasped at a projecting ledge, and tried to ascertain what had happened. It did not take him long to guess. The marshy land in and about Leyden was constantly intersected by the formation of new brooks and streams. Not infrequently they would undermine the very wall itself, and in times of peace, these defects were always carefully watched and remedied. But in the terrible strain under which the city had existed for the past months, this one had evidently passed unnoticed, and in truth, no one would have suspected its presence from the inside of the city, so well was it hidden by the little spreading lake.

“Now what ought I do next?” thought Gysbert when he had unravelled this mystery. “Without doubt this is Dirk’s secret doorway, and how he discovered it the Evil One only knows! The question is, should I try to explore it before he is well out of the way? I would hardly care to meet him in this black hole! On the other hand, I don’t believe he will remain in here a moment longer than he has to, and I’m freezing hanging here. I ’ll risk it!”

So saying he plunged into the grim cave, and commenced his journey through the base of the great wall of Leyden. To his disgust he found that the stream did not penetrate straight from side to side, but turned and pierced through the length of the wall for many yards. The way was difficult enough, since he had to fight every inch of his progress against the swift current, and once the water deepened to such an extent that he was forced to swim. Moreover, unwarmed by any sun it was icy cold, and his limbs grew numb and his teeth chattered.

For a moment panic seized him, and he felt sure he would never get out alive, but would drown in this horrible place. Then his natural courage again asserted itself, and he pressed steadily forward. At length the course of the hidden stream changed again, a faint glimmer of daylight appeared, and in another moment he stood outside the walls of Leyden, protected from the gaze of the Spanish camp only by a few bushes. No Dirk Willumhoog was to be seen, but there remained not a shadow of doubt that this was his mode of ingress to and exit from the city of Leyden.

Gysbert lay down in the sunlight, and warmed his numbed body in its welcome heat. In half an hour’s time he had started on his return trip, and found it twice as easy as travelling in the opposite direction. Far from fighting the current he was helped along by it, and in a short time stood safe within the town again. Arrived there, another swim awaited him, for as he could not run through the town clad in nothing at all, he was obliged to take to the canal till he reached the spot where he had left his clothes. Once only he stopped to climb out and investigate the place where Dirk had sat examining his papers. As good luck would have it, he discovered hidden away in the grass where it had evidently fallen unnoticed, one of the scraps. On it were written a few words, evidently only a part of the whole, whatever that might have been. Gysbert read them and his eyes grew big with wonder, and then snapped angrily. “Ah, this is shameful!” he cried. “We’ll see about this, Dirk Willumhoog, thou traitor as well as coward!”

With the paper in his mouth for safety, he plunged into the canal, swam to the point where he had left his clothes, flung them on hastily, and hurried home as fast as he could run.

“I shall have something to tell Jacqueline about this day’s work!” he remarked to himself with great satisfaction.