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CHAPTER XVI

THE LAST ALLY

Up to the table I came, and caught Gaspar's hand on the way, and we two men looked deep into each other's eyes. Diedrich Sonoy made room for me beside him, and shook my hand. Cornput played with the papers on the table, and would not look towards me, but the little burgomaster put his hand out timidly, and:

"If you will, sir——" he began.

"Cordieu! why not?" I cried, and I gripped his hand till his eyes watered.

"I fear we shall need the wisest counsel any man can give us," quoth Sonoy. "I wish the Prince were here." I looked at him questioning fashion. "He lies on a sick bed at Delft," quoth he.

"He is in no danger?" I said anxiously.

"Nay, I hope not: but no man can do the work of a whole nation and feel no strain."

Laurenz de St. Trond came in quickly, and Sonoy rose to greet him.

"I ask for your counsel on dispatches from Alkmaar," Sonoy began: then, seeing St. Trend's eyes on me: "Perhaps you are surprised, but——"

"Nay, I am not surprised," said St. Trond.

Gaspar had been fumbling among the papers on the table, and then in the clothes of the messenger who lay asleep on the floor.

"Teufel! where are the dispatches," he burst out. Sonoy turned.

"Hidden on him, it is likely," he said.

"Then they are under his skin," grunted Gaspar. "Come, wake up, my friend," and he shook the sleeper hard, but the fellow only grunted.

"Cordieu! let be; the man will break else!" cried I. "Why did he bring a stick, think you?" and I caught it up and looked at it. It was thick, but not over heavy. I rose, pushed back my chair, and tried to break it. Cordieu! 'twas stout as a beam. I drove the point of my dagger in and split it. At the top it was hollow, and there lay a roll of parchment. I handed it to Sonoy.

 

"To Diedrich Sonoy, Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of North Holland.

"We have beaten back one storming party, and they have not tried us again. Our powder is all but gone. Our food is scanty. Till the tenth day of October we may hold out. We hope for relief.

"Peter Zeraerts, Burgomaster."

 
Sonoy read it slowly, and our faces all grew grave. "Till the tenth day of October!" he repeated.

There was a long silence, only broken by the burgomaster's fingers tapping the table.

"The fools, the fools, why must they take sides in the summer?" grunted Gaspar at last. Sonoy waved his hand.

"If the Spaniards lost a thousand in the storm there are fifteen thousand still?" said I.

"Fifteen thousand!" answered Sonoy. "And to-day is the twenty-sixth of September."

"There is nothing to be done," quoth Cornput airily. "We must hope for the best."

"There is no best," grunted Gaspar.

"We are in God's hands," said the burgomaster.

"Like toys," grunted Gaspar.

"We might, of course, attack Don Frederico," said Cornput.

"With what? Popguns?" quoth Gaspar.

"What say you?" said Sonoy, turning to me.

"There is little to say," I answered. "Hope for the best? Yes, you may do that if you can; but I see little to hope for. To attack Don Frederico is folly—crime. There is no chance, no barest chance of success; and failure leaves Breuthe open to him."

"And yet you might have crushed Alva," said Cornput venomously.

"I might. That I was wrong is not to the purpose. There was a chance then. One thousand against three it was then; fifteen thousand to six hundred it would be now. We can do nothing."

Sonoy looked at Gaspar.

"And so say I," quoth he.

A map lay on the table by Sonoy, and I bent over it.

"We are helpless," said St. Trond sadly. The burgomaster looked up:

"We were helpless once in Breuthe," he cried.

I looked from the map to Sonoy, and I saw his eyes were on it too.

"Alva was weak; there was hope for you. There is only despair for Alkmaar," quoth Gaspar.

"There is—despair," said Sonoy slowly, without looking up, and he put his finger on the map, where a thick red line marked the end of the sea, and he moved his finger slowly along so that I saw it. To and fro his thin white finger moved, up and down the line of the coast, like a sentry on guard. We were all silent. I watched Sonoy's finger, and my eyes grew bigger, and my hands clenched as I watched it and knew what he meant. Gaspar lolled back in his chair, looking at us lazily from half-shut eyes, with a smile on his face. St. Trond gazed across the room through the window at the houses across the street; but, as I think, he did not see them. The burgomaster fidgeted to and fro, and beat the table with his hands, and shuffled and turned his eyes now to us and now to Cornput, whose whole face was curled up into a sneer at Sonoy and me. No one spoke yet, and Sonoy's finger still moved on the map.

Then Sonoy looked up into my eyes.

"There is despair!" he repeated. In truth there was, and little else in the justice-room at Breuthe then. No one answered him, and he leant back in his chair with one hand lying along the arm of it. Then he began to speak slowly in a deep resonant voice:

"We are all of one mind," said he. "No force of ours can help Alkmaar in straits like these. There is no hope in us, as you say. But do not forget—in the last resort the man who cares not what he loses must win. We have fought alone and un-allied for long. The Prince has sought help everywhere and found none. It is only one little corner of North Holland that still is free. If Alkmaar falls, that is the end." He paused for a moment, and then his voice rang out: " Gentlemen, we have one last ally; he asks our all as his price, but—the sea is stronger than Spain!"

"The sea!" cried Cornput and the burgomaster together.

"I have here a letter from the Prince in which he bids me open the sluices of the Zyp and break the dykes if Alkmaar can only be saved thus. I think the time has come to do it." Ay, William of Orange was a man. We looked at each other.

"Gott! Vitelli will run like a rabbit!" cried Gaspar.

"Well, gentlemen?" said Sonoy.

"But the damage!" cried the burgomaster. "The harvest is not in yet, and the country will be all under water."

"Naturally," grunted Gaspar.

"But consider the losses to the peasantry," cried the burgomaster.

"Think of the loss of Alkmaar," said I.

"Have you counted the cost?" said Cornput sharply. "It is well enough for those who have no stake in the country to talk glibly of ruining it," and he gave me an angry glance. "But for those of us who are Dutchmen born and bred it is too heavy a price to pay for Alkmaar."

"Has the Prince no stake in the country?" asked St. Trond quietly. Sonoy sat letting us talk our own way.

"Then you would have Alkmaar go the way of Harlem?" said I, turning on Cornput. "The sack of Harlem all but ruined Orange; what, then, of a second Harlem now? Cordieu! Try to see things as they are, Colonel van Cornput. Which is the worse? The loss of one harvest, or Alva for ever?"

"Harvest or no harvest, I know free-lances find food," quoth Cornput. "I think of the peasants whom you know only to plunder."

"This is no time for insults," I cried. "I say it will be better for the peasants themselves that Alkmaar should be saved even thus."

"Even if they all starve," snarled Cornput.

"Cordieu! Can you not see this goes further than Alkmaar? Let Alva once feel that he cannot win, and it is better than the Empire at your back!"

"That is true," said Sonoy.

"What use in driving Alva back if we ruin the land to do it?" cried Cornput.

"You like being beaten, it seems," grunted Gaspar.

"This has gone far enough, gentlemen," said Sonoy. "The question is, has the time come to carry out the orders of the Prince?"

"We have heard the letter from Alkmaar," said I. "What need of more?"

"Ach, none," grunted Gaspar.

"It must be done," quoth St. Trond.

"And you, Colonel van Cornput?" said Sonoy.

"You are all agreed, it seems. I think it folly, but I shall not oppose it."

Gaspar chuckled.

"I suppose it is wise," squeaked the burgomaster.

"Do not think that the ruin of the harvest is a little thing to me," said Sonoy. "No one will suppose that the Prince thinks it of small account; but Alkmaar comes first. It must be done."

"They will be glad to hear it in Alkmaar," grunted Gaspar. "Eh, my friend?" and he stirred the sleeping messenger with his foot. The man moved, turned over, and sat up rubbing his eyes.

"Ah! … You have the dispatches, your honour?" he said sleepily.

"Yes, we have found them. What is your name?"

"Peter van der Mey, carpenter, of Alkmaar, your honour. Will you relieve us?"

"We shall break the dykes," said Sonoy.

"Oh, then they'll run. Truly, your honour?"

"I say it. You have come here safely. Will you go back with letters from me?"

"Yes, indeed, your honour. Ah! …" and he yawned again. "I have travelled a day and a half without sleep, please your honour," he said apologetically.

"Good!" grunted Gaspar, rubbing his hands. "Any fights, friend?"

"Only once, sir. Three of Alva's Walloons. Ah! .… I had to hide the bodies."

"Teufel! Three with that stick? The brave Peter!"

"Ah! … if it please your honour … ah! … I may … sleep a little," and he fairly fell asleep while he spoke.

"Gott! he deserves a bed, the brave Peter," quoth Gaspar, and he picked the long, lean form up in his arms, and stalked off towards the door.

"Will your lieutenant take charge of the Zyp sluices?" quoth Sonoy.

"A good man for the work," said I.

"Ay, ay, I'll sit on the sluices," grunted Gaspar, looking back over his shoulder.

"You had best have a strong guard," Cornput said with a sneer, "or the peasants you think so much of will shut them for you."

"Let them try," grunted Gaspar, and went out.

"The peasants will not love being ruined." quoth Cornput.

"Oh, be silent, in God's name, sir!" cried Sonoy. "Do you think we love to ruin them?"

"Some of us, perhaps," said Cornput, with a glance at me.

"Be silent!" thundered Sonoy.