Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons/Chapter 9


VROUW VOORHAAS’S SECRET

CHAPTER IX
VROUW VOORHAAS’S SECRET

NO sooner had Gysbert been dispatched on his journey to Rotterdam, than Jacqueline turned her attention to preparing breakfast. Much to her astonishment, Vrouw Voorhaas was not yet up and about, but she concluded that the woman was wearied out with hard work and anxiety, and was taking an extra, involuntary nap.

The most careful search in the larder revealed nothing that under ordinary circumstances would be considered in the least palatable. Jacqueline remembered two pigeons’ eggs that had been laid the day before, and determined that they must go toward furnishing the breakfast-table. These, with some very thin gruel of pigeon grain completed the arrangements. Wondering that Vrouw Voohaas had not yet appeared, and fearing lest something were the matter, she decided to go up and investigate the cause of this unusual state of affairs. At the door of the bedroom she paused, horror-struck at the sound of a curious muttering and groaning now grown terribly familiar to her ears. Then she opened the door. Her worst suspicions were verified—Vrouw Voorhaas had the plague!

The woman lay tossing and moaning, utterly unconscious of anything about her, muttering strange, incoherent sentences in her delirium. Amazed and shocked at what she heard, Jacqueline stood rooted to the spot listening.

“I will not eat it!—I must not eat it!—” cried the unconscious woman, “—It is for the children!—Oh, God, how I hunger!—” Then in a lower tone;—“Dirk Willumhoog thou shalt not harm them as thou didst endeavor to harm—” Here she appeared to fall into a restless sleep, and for a few moments her tossing form lay quiet. Jacqueline buried her face in her hands and wept with sheer bitterness and despair.

“Oh, Vrouw Voorhaas, Vrouw Voorhaas!—now I know what doth ail thee!” she sobbed aloud. “Thou hast starved thyself for our sakes, thou didst deceive us into thinking thou wast satisfied with a little, and now thou art reaping the results of thy sacrifice!” The realization that this faithful servant had brought herself to this pass by her own self-denial, occupied Jacqueline’s mind to the exclusion of every other thought. “How wicked and ungrateful I have been,” she blamed herself, “going out to nurse other people, when starvation and illness lay waiting right at my own door, and I never guessed! Oh, if Gysbert were only here!”

Then the necessity for doing something, and that speedily, forced itself upon her. Deciding that she could leave the sick woman more easily now than later, she ran out at once to find Dr. de Witt. He accompanied her without an instant’s delay. When he reached the sick room he gave one keen glance at his patient, and then set about his work of relief, Jacqueline assisting him with the intelligence and skill perfected by much practice.

“Now,” said he finally, “thou must make up thy mind, Juffrouw Jacqueline, to one thing. For the present thou must give up all thought of going on thy daily round with me, and devote thyself to the care of this thy companion. Her case is more critical than usual, having been brought on, I judge, by systematic starvation.”

“But Jan!—” faltered the girl. “He is still very weak and needs my care.”

“Let him come here and stay,” ordered the doctor. “I will myself fetch him this afternoon, and thus thou wilt have both thy patients under thine eye. He also may be able to help thee a little. Where is thy brother?”

“He has gone out of the city on an errand of importance. I do not expect him back for two or three days,” she answered.

“Well, keep him out of the sick room when he returns. ’Tis best for him not to be exposed to the disease. Now I must be going on my usual way. I shall miss thy helpful presence much, Juffrouw Jacqueline. Ah, but times are sore in this wretched city!” As he turned to go, Vrouw Voorhaas roused herself and began muttering anew :

“Louvain?—Louvain?—Yes, from there we came, but what is that to thee!—” The doctor started, and walked back toward his patient.

“She hath been raving much without sense!” remarked Jacqueline hastily. “I fear her mind is all unhinged!” But Dr. de Witt continued to scrutinize sharply the features of the sick woman.

“Didst thou really come from Louvain?” he asked Jacqueline at length.

“Yes,” faltered the girl, “many years ago.”

“What is the name of this woman?” the doctor continued to question. As Jacqueline told him, a great light appeared to break in on his mind.

“Ah, ah!” he exclaimed. “I see it all! It is as clear as day to me now! That resemblance in thee I was sure I should place sometime. Is not thy name Cornellisen, and was not thy father the famous doctor-professor in the University?”

“Aye!” answered Jacqueline in fear and trembling, “Thou hast guessed aright, but tell no one, I pray thee!”

“I knew it! I felt it!” continued the doctor. “And yet I could not make the memory a connected one, till now. I was a student about to graduate from the University, and thy father was my great admiration and example. I saw Vrouw Voorhaas once on visiting his home, but never his children, hence I did not recognize thee. It was sad—sad, thy father’s end, and I grieved over it many a long day! It was his great devotion to the young Count de Buren who was under his special care, that brought him to his death. Dost thou know all about it?”

“I know only what Vrouw Voorhaas has told me, of his being captured and killed by the cruel Duke of Alva,” answered Jacqueline.

“Then I can tell thee more, and I will some time. Right glad I am that it has fallen to my lot to help and befriend thee, for so I can render service to thy dead father who was always more than kind to me.”

All the morning Jacqueline sat by the sick woman’s bedside, moistening her parched lips with water, cooling her feverish brow with refreshing compresses, and tending to every unspoken want with a devotion born of love and remorse. At no time did Vrouw Voorhaas become sane and conscious of her surroundings, and her feverish delirium increased as the day wore on. It wrung the girl’s tender heart to hear her cry out against the pangs of hunger and imagine that she must continually deny herself for the children’s sake.

Little by little the history of all the past weeks of suffering was revealed to the watching girl, and she realized that what she had supposed to be a sufficient supply of provisions for all, had only been rendered enough for herself and Gysbert by the cruel deprivation of this faithful woman. But other chance ejaculations were more mystifying, and served to arouse in Jacqueline an intense, terrified curiosity as to what might be this long kept secret that so troubled the soul of Vrouw Voorhaas. Once she was electrified by hearing the sick woman hiss:

“How didst thou get in the city, Dirk Willumhoog?—No, go away! Thou canst draw nothing from me!—I will not tell thee, I say!—Thou dare not touch one hair of their heads I—Nay, I will not tell thee!—Keep thy gold!—What do I care for all the wealth of the Indies!—Their father—”

Jacqueline puzzled over it in trembling astonishment. Was it possible that Dirk Willumhoog had been here in Belfry Lane, and interviewed Vrouw Voorhaas while they were away somewhere? But why had she not told them of it? What could be this dreadful mystery that the two seemed to share in common? What harm did he plan to do them?

That afternoon Jan arrived, accompanied by Dr. de Witt. Jacqueline now had her hands full with the two patients, but she was grateful for the companionship of the old man. It had seemed unutterably depressing to be shut up alone with this sick woman who was never for a moment in her right mind, and who raved incessantly about disturbing mysteries. Two more days passed and the conditions in Belfry Lane continued about the same. Vrouw Voorhaas did not improve, except that she had less delirium, and Jacqueline was worried almost out of her senses because Gysbert had not yet appeared. Nothing could convince her that all was well with him, and she kept constant watch for the carrier pigeon to bring some news.

Running up to the cote on the fourth day, she found to her joy, “William of Orange” strutting about among the two or three other birds. A note was fastened about his leg, and Jacqueline unfastened it with trembling, eager fingers. To her surprise it was addressed not to her but to Vrouw Voorhaas, and was in a strange handwriting. With a great throb of terror, she opened it and read these words:—


Vrouw Voorhaas,”

“Fortune has at last turned in my favor. The boy is now in my possession, and before long the girl will be also. I snap my fingers in thy face!”

Dirk Willumhoog.”