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CHAPTER XIX

THE HORSE AND I

Yes, I was the armourer! As I drove my heels into the flanks of this stolen horse and galloped away I chuckled to myself. I had paid back Vitelli for his letter, at least!

Away to the north I turned the horse. The Zyp was too far off for me to reach, and that way the land was bare and open and fiat, but to the east were a few hillocks, with rising ground and the beginning of the wood of Herpt. I made for the wood.

He was a good horse, and he stretched himself out over the level ground, and the damp air whistled by us. I gave one look back. A few were mounting to pursue me, but they went about it slowly, and stopped to tighten girths and fasten curb-chains, as if they cared little for the task. Once in the wood I knew I was safe. I have not slain deer in Windsor Park without learning to dodge the keepers, and, cordieu! I would sooner dodge ten lumbering Walloons than one of the royal foresters. On and on I rode, patting my horse's neck, and laughing to myself as we drew away. But Vitelli seemed anxious to catch me. Some lighter men were mounted and on my track, and they began to gain. The green wall ahead came nearer and nearer, and I peered for- ward with my hand shading my eyes, looking for an opening. I did not doubt the horse, but I feared for my own slashed thigh. It was not too easy to keep the saddle.

I found a green alley in the trees. Down it we dashed, turned sharp to the right, and crashed through the underwood. And then, oh thigh and all, I led them a dance, those weighty Walloons! For every yard I went through underwood they went three, and my brave horse and I, we cantered gaily over the turf, and heard them cursing in the thickets.

At last we shook them off, and galloped gaily down a narrow, winding green path towards the east. There was silence behind me, but it seemed safer to leave some space betwixt me and Vitelli! Away we went, the wet boughs brushed against my face, and I laughed aloud till I shook in the saddle. The trees grew thinner; we came out on level greensward. My horse, my stolen horse, put his foot in a rabbit-hole, and we both crashed down together. I remember falling away from him, and then nothing more for a while.

I woke from the swoon with his cold wet nose nuzzling into my face. I put out my hand to feel his knees at once. They were sound, but cordieu! I was not! My right boot was full of blood. I made a bandage of my shirt, and bound up the thigh. 'Twas an ill wound enough, but looked far worse than it was. And then I glanced round me. A drizzling rain was falling, the sky was grey and dull, and there, half a mile or more away, nearly level with my eyes, was the sea. Crash, crash, crash! I could hear the sound borne up on the west wind of the steady waves beating on the dykes, trying ceaselessly to wear them away, to break them down, to shatter the bonds of man.

There was our last ally, the ally we did not need!

Do you think I was proud as I sat there in the rain? Cordieu! I have no shame in confessing it. My fault it was so many men had come to Alkmaar; perhaps my fault Alkmaar had been besieged at all. So be it; blame me as much as you will, and it will scarce be more than I blame myself. But I had found at last a way to drive them back without the country's ruin. Reckon that, too!

"You may wait a long time for your beacons, Gaspar," I said to myself, and I laughed till the horse looked up from his pasture. I went up to him, opened the holsters in the saddle, and found some food. I took off the saddle, and went back with it to the shelter of the trees.

No one in Breuthe knew I had gone. I laughed again to think of the tales they would tell! Cornput would take me for a deserter. A deserter! Ha, ha! That perhaps was what Vitelli thought. How Alva must love me! I had set his army by the ears now, and his campaign was over for that year. Cordieu! They were very easy to play upon to one who knew them, those brave Germans. Indeed, I was quite contented, for the task had not been without risk. There was no one else I could trust to do it. Oh yes, I was quite contented. And when I saw Gabrielle again——

The horse and I, we spent a very happy day together in spite of the rain. There was plenty of grass and good enough food. And even the rain stopped at last.

I slept a short sleep and a sound, spite of an aching thigh. And with the morning I was in the saddle again to go back to Alkmaar once more.

It was the eighth day of October.

Warily and quietly we came through the wood, back along the paths we had galloped so hastily yesterday, through the wood and out into the open. Yes, Don Frederico was going, and most of him was gone!

Quickly I drew back into the shadow and watched them go, and as I sat there I knew, yes, I knew what the end of the Netherlands war must be. In the last resort, when it is not strength against strength or arms against arms any longer, but when soul is pitted against soul, then at last the best men win. You who have heard the story of Alkmaar know who they were.

1 heard loud cries coming from the walls of Alkmaar.

"Gone, gone, gone!" then cheering, and then, why then, of course, a psalm.

"Yes, you will not need your beacons, now," I muttered. I patted the horse on the neck.

"Shall we carry the news, boy, you and I?" He curvetted.

Cordieu! who had a better right than the horse and I?