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CHAPTER XVIII

THE LATEST NEWS

On the next day, the 27th September, back to Alkmaar went the brave carpenter, Peter van der Mey, bearing dispatches from Sonoy, that bade them take heart, for the end was coming soon. The end was coming, indeed; and, now we had decided to do it, there was not one of us, I think, but shrank in his heart from breaking the dykes.

"When they light three beacons in Alkmaar I break the dykes—to put them out, I suppose. Gott! I said I would do it, and I will; but captain! captain! I will see those three beacons first, and that sober," quoth Gaspar.

"I like it no more than you," said I. "But it will drive Alva back."

"Ach, yes, there will be no Alva when I have once played with their sluices. Nor any one else, perhaps. Gott! I should like to see Vitelli swim!"

"How many men will you take?"

"Fifty will serve. I want to bring them all back. And when those fools in Alkmaar once see my beacon from the Zyp, I will be sworn their three will follow soon. Then, with broken dykes, we shall have to run without much time to look at the path, and a crowd would be in the way."

"Oh, one from you, three from them, is it so?"

"Ach, yes; our friend Diedrich is fond of fire—and water, too, it seems."

A man coming into Breuthe in the end of that September would have thought a pestilence was in the town. Men went about their work with grave faces, and passed one another in the streets without a word. A cloud of silence and gloom seemed to have settled upon us, and every night at dusk, when the day's work was done, the shrill, harsh bells rang out, and men and women hurried to their meeting-houses to listen to sermons and prayer. Then two hours or more later they would come out into the darkness and hurry home: the women clung tight to the arms of the men, looking up into their faces, and the stolid flat-cheeked burghers pressed their thick lips together and had no comfort to give.

There was no comfort; there could be no comfort till the deed was done and the sea had washed Alva away, ay, and much else besides—till the waves had come in over the fair golden fields and the trim homesteads with their little square beds of flowers; till the waves had gone back again, and the dykes were built up once more, and we from the towns came out to count the bodies lying on the dank salt soil of the men and women and children who had died for their little flat land.

Gaspar and Zouch rode out to save Alkmaar—a stalwart, stern little party, with no jests among them all. Very slowly the days went by, and the watchers on the walls saw no three lights coming out of the southern sky. The hour was not yet.

In very evil case were we; in case still worse we were like to be soon. And Don Frederico, with a grip like his father's bulldog jaws, still kept his lines tight drawn round Alkmaar. The season was growing late, the weather was breaking fast, and the Spanish camp, never too cleanly, must have been made miry indeed.

Don Frederico knew nothing of our plans at first, but vague news came to him at last of the guard that had come to the sluices. Oh, Gaspar had shown himself, be sure. So, then, he knew our purpose, and still he kept up the siege. Neither man nor God should tear Alkmaar out of his grasp. And silently he dared us to do our worst. I had hoped, without confessing it to myself, I had hoped even for Don Frederico it might be enough to know what we meant to do. Well, I was wrong; he knew, and the siege went on still.

Gaspar's beacon had flamed up and died away. There was no answer; Alkmaar was bearing its agony to the last, and Don Frederico was resolved to spare it nothing. But there on the Zyp lay Gaspar and his men, and they had a resolve too.

It was on the sixth day of October into the camp at Alkmaar, when the sun was setting in a blaze of gold behind deep-bosomed blue cloud, there came, riding a skinny mule, a travelling armourer. Two great bags of tools and weapons clashed and jingled on either side as he rode slowly and solemnly along. You know these fellows' airs. He came through the lines, and no sentry challenged him, for Don Frederico's guard was less strict than Alva's own. Up to a circle of Germans and Walloons lying round a camp fire he came, and:

"Weapons to mend, señors?" quoth he in Flemish. "Sword-hilts, sword-blades, musquetoons, daggers, pistol locks, spurs, stirrup-irons, metal work of any kind, señors?"

"Señors? We're no señors. Keep your names for their owners, little man!" said one, lazily turning on his elbow.

"Your pardon, brave gentlemen. Sword-hilts, sword-blades, musquetoons——" he began again.

"Hold your whining tongue. See to that!" and another tossed him a dagger with a broken hilt.

Out from the bag came a brazier, sticks from the fire were put in it, and charcoal laid on the top.

"An evil breakage, sir!" quoth the armourer. "Now, there must have been great power behind the weapon for it to break thus. If your knighthood will allow me to guess, it was such a blow as your own arm might strike, crashing against armour of proof, sir. Armour of real Spanish steel, such as the dagger itself, sir."

"No such luck!" grunted its owner. A hoarse laugh ran round the ring.

"Ho, ho! 'twas broken when Otto tumbled across the top of the wall with his fat carcase."

"And if I did," growled Otto. "No one else got to the top."

"It took all of us to push you, Otto!"

The armourer looked up from his brazier.

"Indeed, I had not heard your knighthoods had stormed the town," quoth he, and busied himself with his tools again.

"No, our knighthoods have not," grunted Otto. "Our knighthoods tried!" A rolling volley of oaths ran round the circle.

"And curse me if I try again!" growled several.

"But surely, gentlemen, Alkmaar is not strong?" quoth the armourer. "It should fall easily before you?"

"Some day," growled Otto.

"What odds to us when?" asked another. "We can sit here for ever if Alkmaar chooses, or till Alkmaar starves. No, comrades, delay is the word for us. Wait till it tumbles into our mouths."

"Or till we all stick fast in this mud."

"The waiting does not trouble me. But there is nothing worth waiting for in these cursed northern towns. Think of plundering Antwerp, comrades!"

A gruff chorus of approval followed.

"They say they are killing off all the women," said one.

"What, to eat them?" growled Otto.

"No, they have heard Franz is here."

"Oh, I shall find some," quoth Franz.

The armourer let a tool fall.

"Ho! burnt your fingers, my friend?"

"No, sir, truly; my craft never burns my fingers."

"Lucky man!"

They talked away, and the armourer went on with his work in the firelight. At last he rose from his little anvil, and:

"If your knighthood will give me a little gold I can continue the inlaid work across the fissure."

"Gold!" growled Otto. "Very fine! Think yourself fortunate if you get a silver ducat for your work. Where should I get gold, fool?"

"Nay, indeed, sir, I know not. I thought the Duke of Alva could not but pay highly to such knights as yourselves. And the dagger would look much better if the——"

But they had all broken out laughing.

"Ho, ho! pay from Alva! My innocent little fool, I wish you would tell us how to get it."

"Oh, sir, I know nothing of the Duke's Highness. But I spoke hastily. I thought perhaps after Harlem and Mechlin you would not be without some gold. And it is a pity to spoil the dagger."

"So it is," growled Otto. "Out of Harlem and Mechlin together I made five crowns."

"So little!" cried the armourer.

"And the women, Otto," cried Franz.

"Women bring in no money!"

"By Saint Nicholas! no; but they spend it, eh Franz?" cried another.

"If you're fool enough to give it them, Louis," said Franz. "Mine cost nothing."

"The better for you; nothing is what we get under Alva!" growled Otto.

"Ah! but the success, gentlemen," said the armourer. "Never a defeat! He is a great general, the Duke of Alva! Even if you have neither pay nor plunder, yet the success, the success!"

"The success! Much you know of it! Stick to your trade. Did you ever hear of Breuthe?"

"Well, well, Otto; 'twas the first time," said Franz. "And Ferdinando Alvarez does not make mistakes often. Here is Alkmaar ready for us, at least, and we have nothing to do but eat and sleep here in the camp. We can wait till the day of doom quite comfortably."

"Then your honours have not heard——?" quoth the armourer, quietly looking round. He bent over his work again, and smiled at it.

"Heard? No, we hear nothing. What is it?"

"Oh—why—I think—it is the news they tell in the countryside," said the armourer, watching him.

"The latest news? Out with it, little man!"

"Why, they say, your honours, that Diedrich Sonoy has determined to break the dykes."

"To break the dykes?" they all cried.

"Indeed, so they tell me. Perhaps your honours saw a great fire some days ago——?" quoth the armourer, and paused.

"Ay, ay, we saw it. What then?"

"I inquired, your honours, of the country-folk what it meant; and at last after much questioning they told me that a party had seized the sluices at the Zyp, led by one Wiederman or Wederman, and that the fire was a signal to Alkmaar they were ready to open them. But I thought you would have been told all this."

"Wiederman! Gaspar Wiederman! Newstead's lieutenant!" cried Louis.

"Ah! and Vitelli led a reconnoitring party towards the Zyp three days ago. They said they found nothing," said Franz.

"Yes, they were Spaniards to a man," growled Otto.

The crowd round the fire grew thicker, for talk had been loud.

"Indeed, your honours, I thought you would have known," cried the armourer. "It seemed to me impossible the Zyp could have been seized and you not know it. Did no one know? Not in the whole army? Surely it has not been hidden?"

"And, by the fiends! I will be sworn Vitelli and Frederico did know it!" cried Otto. "The Dutchmen have us in a trap now. If we try and take the Zyp, why, they will open the sluices when we are still miles off! Fiends of the pit! we are trapped! we are trapped!"

The words ran round the thick-packed throng. Trapped! There is nothing drives men mad sooner than that thought.

"Trapped? Yes, and cheated too. Why did not Vitelli and Frederico tell us? Comrades, we're betrayed!" shouted Franz.

"But, indeed, your honours, the fate of one is the fate of all. Your general will fare no better than you," quoth the armourer. "Though he, too, is a Spaniard."

"Ho, ho! Will he not? I see his game, curse him, I see his game. He will wait till the water comes, on the chance that Alkmaar may fall. Then he and the cavalry will run! But where shall we be, comrades? What does that matter to Don Frederico?"

A murmur of assent ran round the crowd. The armourer said no more, but went stolidly on with his work. Tap, tap, tap, his tools sounded through the confused chatter of the crowd. He gave the dagger back.

"The work is done, sir," said he.

"And there is the pay," quoth Otto, and tossed him a ducat.

"Indeed, it is too much," said the armourer, with half a smile; but he put the ducat in his pouch.

"Comrades, I will not stay to be drowned!" cried Franz. "Who thinks with me?"

"And I am a poor swimmer," growled Otto. "By the devil! I will go to Frederico in the morning and tell him my mind! Who will follow me?"

"I—and I—and I——" The words came fast, with loud oaths intermingled.

"By the fiends and the saints! We will all go!" cried Franz, and the crowd took it up.

"We will all go!"

So on the night of that sixth day of October there was much ado in Don Frederico's camp, and the talk went on late; and on the morrow a big disorderly company streamed through the camp towards the general's tent. The news had come at the right moment. Already there was much distrust in the camp, and little unison betwixt Spaniard and German; now these tidings had driven deep a wedge between them. Perhaps that was owing a little to the way in which these tidings were told. They had been shown their condition: no pay, no plunder, no success, and for an end the sea!

Up to the general's tent they came, and the sentry challenged them:

"We will see Don Frederico," quoth Otto, and the crowd shouted the words:

"Don Frederico, Don Frederico!"

He came out. He was a true son of Alva. The same lean sallow face, the same long narrow head, the same dark cunning eyes.

"Is this discipline?" he cried.

"No. Do you expect it?" asked Otto.

"Do you deserve it?" shouted Franz, and the crowd cheered him.

Don Frederico lifted a pistol. Otto folded his arms and looked him in the face:

"Try, if you dare!" said he. But Franz knocked the pistol to the ground, and the crowd surged heavily forward. Don Fred- erico gave back, and, if he had known it, that lost his game.

Vitelli came bustling up:

"You seem a little excited, my friends," he cried, and he took his stand by Don Frederico.

"And with reason!" quoth Franz. "See here: we heard last night that the Zyp has been seized for Orange, and they may open the sluices on us any minute. And we say you knew that three days ago, and kept us here on the chance of the town falling first. We say we have been betrayed!" The crowd yelled at the word, and for a moment he could not go on. "But we have found it out, and if you will not lead us away, by the bottomless pit! you shall not lead us at all!"

"And if you do not follow me—you shall follow no one," snarled Don Frederico.

"Try!" said Otto. "Try!" and neither Vitelli nor Don Frederico had an answer, for close on half the army stood before them.

"Did you think we should stay here to be drowned while you ran away?" cried Franz.

"Answer, answer!" was shouted, and the cries grew louder.

"By God and His saints! I will stay till——" Vitelli laid a heavy hand on his arm. Another officer came up, and they whispered together.

"You may stay—but without a man of us," growled Otto.

Still they whispered—Don Frederico's face stern and unmoved, Vitelli eager and voluble, and the third chiming in after Vitelli. At last Don Frederico bit his lip and gave a sharp answer. Vitelli and his companion spoke both together. Then Don Frederico turned:

"I will hold a council of officers to discuss this," said he, as if the words were squeezed out of him.

"Hold twenty councils if you please," quoth Franz, "but we go to-day!"

The crowd began to break up, and Vitelli stepped forward quickly.

"And now, my friend, who brought you this news?" said he to Franz.

"The news? Yes, it is news to us. You have known it long enough, I dare swear. Why, just a travelling armourer, that came into the camp last night. I suppose we should all have been drowned before we knew else!"

"Oh, just a travelling armourer?" Vitelli repeated.

"Yes, there he is!" and Franz pointed to the edge of the crowd.

Vitelli cried out to the man near to stop him. But the armourer fled on the instant, twisting and turning this way and that, till at last he found a horse, sprang on it, and was gone, with a sword slash across his thigh.

I did not wish to meet Chiapin Vitelli!