My Lady of Orange/Chapter 2
THE USE OF A BRIDGE
"So we have e'en changed masters, captain," grunted Gaspar Wiederman, my lieutenant, as we jogged along through the woods, in the crisp air of the early morn.
"Well, it can scarce be for the worse," said I.
"Ach! Who knows?"
"Who knows?" cried Henri Vermeil at my other elbow. "Why, we all know; we cannot do more than we did for Alva, or worse; and, ma foi, we can scarce get less."
"More defeats, no pay, no plunder. They say the Orange is pious," grunted Gaspar.
"Well, well; he can pray for your sins, Gaspar," cried Henri. "The good man will live on his knees."
"True, there are the convoys," said Gaspar. "Ach! Halt!"
We had come near the road. A few yards below was a mean little inn; further away, the road crested a hill; and, coming quickly over the brow of the hill was a horseman all alone. With two lances, Gaspar and young Vermeil and I rode on towards the road. On and on came our traveller, leaving a trailing cloud of dust behind. At the inn he pulled up, and we heard him cry out for something, but we knew not what. There came out an old crone with a flagon, and he bent from the saddle and raised it to his lips. Just then across the road came a trim, bare-headed girl, and her hair shone in the sunlight. He tossed the flagon back, then, bending to his saddle-bow, he caught the girl in his arms, and drove in his spurs sharply. The horse bounded forward, and he half-turned in his saddle towards the screaming inn-woman.
"Alva's men travel free!" he said.
"Ach! so," grunted Wiederman.
On he came, galloping down the road, while the girl struggled wildly for her strength. He was just passing us when Gaspar looked sharply round at me. I nodded. The thing was done in an instant. He rushed his horse suddenly forward, caught the Spaniard's neck in his arm, threw his weight back and his horse on its haunches. Girl and Spaniard fell together.
The Thing was Done in an Instant
"Gott! You may travel free, but not far, my friend, not far," said Gaspar, looking down at him.
The girl had staggered to her feet, but the Spaniard still lay where he had fallen. Oh, the Spaniard was under, be sure of that! It was Gaspar that threw him.
"Alas! the fate of incontinence, mon cher!" cried Henri Vermeil.
"What was your errand?" I asked in Spanish. The fellow set his teeth, and said nought.
"What was your errand?" I said again. Still he was silent. "Search him," I cried to the two that had come with us.
"To Don Guzman d'Astorgas,
"Press on with all speed, for that the King's service demands you come quickly. The bearer will be your guide.—Alva."
Such was the purport of the paper he bore. I read it, and passed it to Gaspar. He shrugged his shoulders.
"He seems anxious, the great Alva," said he.
"Sangdieu! This tells little," cried Henri Vermeil.
"You think so?" I answered, and fell a-thinking.
"Where is d'Astorgas?" at last I said to the Spaniard. There was no answer.
"You are fond of silence, my kidnapper," said Gaspar.
"We can gratify you with the opportunity of eternal silence," Vermeil said with a chuckle.
"I will wait three minutes; then—speak or die," I said shortly. Ay, I knew he would never speak. Your true Spaniard is hard as iron to others, but—give the devil his due—he is cast in steel himself.
"Will you answer?" He shook his head. I nodded to our two troopers. But the girl ran forward I think we had all forgotten the girl—and caught my hands.
"No, no," she cried. "He must not die."
"Gott! 'tis his own choice," growled Gaspar.
"Will you speak?" I asked again.
"I die for the Faith and the King," he cried; and I signed to the troopers again, and turned away, while the girl hid her face.
"And I hope his Faith is a better colour than his King," grunted Gaspar. The girl looked up.
"You—are you of the Faith?" she cried.
"Oh! perhaps, mademoiselle, perhaps," said Vermeil.
"Of which Faith?" I asked.
"The Reformed—the Faith of Orange."
"Ay, ay; our Faith is our master's," said Gaspar.
"We are in the service of the Prince of Orange," I said.
"Ah!" she clasped her hands in joy. "Take me, take me with you." Vermeil smiled behind his hand.
"Teufel! The ways of women!" said Gaspar.
"Take me to the Prince," she cried again.
"The Prince? Are you mad? You—a girl from an inn?"
The little minx drew herself up with something like a smile.
"Yes, I, a girl from an inn," she said.
I looked at her, and from her to Gaspar, and from Gaspar to Vermeil. Vermeil nodded.
"You will find I am worth taking," she said. I eyed her again. Truly, she was a strange maid to come from an inn. Her hands were small and white, and on brow and neck ran the thin lines of blue under the clear white skin. A maid from an inn! Scarce only that; and so she came with us on her way to the Prince.
"And now for d'Astorgas," said I.
"We know neither where he is nor what he does; only Alva is in a hurry," quoth Gaspar.
"Not where he is, truly; he brings a convoy, I wager my horse," said I. "Shall we send him a guide?"
The two looked at me in silence.
"Seal up the parchment again. One bearer is as good as another. 'The bearer will be your guide.’"
"We know not where he is," said Vermeil.
"Gott! I could smell a convoy ten miles off," cried Gaspar,
"You will go?"
"Ay, I will go, and guide him to hell if you will."
"Nay, not so far; only to Veermut bridge."
"What is the use of a bridge?"
"Much—when it's broken," said I.
So Gaspar Wiederman mounted and galloped off to smell out Don Guzman, and we rode on towards the bridge of Veermut. By my side rode the girl, sitting her horse like a queen—steed and saddle Henri Vermeil had found her. The steed was the Spaniard's—a great iron-jawed Normandy stallion. For a little there was silence. I was pondering how we had best receive Don Guzman, and ever and anon the thought would come across my mind, how would my men ever endure the service of Orange? They had been ready enough to leave Alva. Now it was done, how would they like the change? And I, who cared nought for Alva, cared more than a little for the man I had seen but once—the thin, weary man, with the great dark eyes, at Delft. Suddenly, while I pondered:
"Why did you kill him?" asked the girl.
I looked up, startled.
"So perish all the enemies of the Faith!" quoth Vermeil.
"Nay, not without repentance!" she cried.
"Repentance!" said I. "A Spaniard repent!"
"Murder never aided a cause," she answered.
"One cannot make war in white gloves," I said, and she answered nothing.
By long and by last we came to Veermut bridge, the narrow old wooden bridge to which belongs the fame and the honour of the first hard blow struck at Alva the invincible. "To the bridge?" you ask. Ay, to the bridge. On one side were Don Guzman d'Astorgas and Gaspar Wiederman and the convoy; on the other, Alva and Breuthe town; and betwixt the two only a few miles of causeway and a river. Well, and we, too.
"Halt!" I cried, and down I sprang to see what the bridge timbers were like.
"Vermeil, take a hundred men, go you a mile or more along the road, let them pass you, hang on their rear, see to it that the guard passes the bridge last. When they are all but over, charge on the rearmost, but do not come on the bridge."
"And the others?" he asked.
"There will be no others, Vermeil."
It were a long tale to tell: the sun was setting when d'Astorgas and his trusty guide came down the long narrow road with Vermeil hanging like a terrier on their heels. The convoy came on the bridge; the convoy crossed; the guard were packed thick between the parapets; and then suddenly came a flash and the bridge jumped up a little at one end and fell sideways into the stream, with splash and clash and roar and shrieks all mingled, in a thick cloud of smoke. The engineer's is a useful craft. Out from the shelter of a coppice we charged on that hapless, defenceless convoy, and at the end of one wild rush Don Guzman's convoy had changed its owner.
"Gott! Alva throve on our blood, belike we shall thrive on his food," quoth a gruff voice in my ear.
"Ay, Gaspar, captain. I like a drier road to heaven than a broken bridge."
"You led him easily?"
"Like a butcher the sheep! Gott! he asked me how to stave off Vermeil," cried Gaspar with a laugh.
"Ay, Vermeil is no fool," I answered.
"No, no fool," grunted Gaspar shortly. "No—fool."
In truth, Vermeil had done well, and he brought his men safely across the river, though by Veermut the current is strong and the banks steep.
"So we cry 'check' to Alva!" he shouted gaily.
"Ach! but not 'mate,’" quoth Gaspar.
Cantering down the hill towards us came the girl with the little guard I had left by her riding behind.
"Oh, it was splendid!" she cried while she was still far off; and then, as she came nearer and saw the men that lay bloody and torn and trampled before her horse's feet, she stopped sharply and wheeled round with a little cry.
"Ach! the ways of women," quoth Gaspar. "Now that is how I judge a charge," and he pointed to the dead beneath him.
"What if she had seen Harlem!" said Vermeil with a smile. Gaspar shrugged his shoulders with a chuckle, and I sat silent looking at her as she walked her horse slowly away, with the troopers chuckling behind her.
"Who moves next, captain, Alva or we?" asked Gaspar. I turned to stare at him.
"Dieu! the man is made of iron," cried Vermeil.
"The man need be iron whom Alva strikes," said I.
"Ay, when he strikes," grunted Gaspar with a sneer.
"How if we strike first?" I asked slowly.
"Ay, ay, that's war," quoth Gaspar. "Gott! that is no training for it, though," he said sharply, pointing to the convoy. In truth he was right: a swarm of rascals were round a waggon loaded with wine casks, and more than one cask was broached already. I galloped up.
"Cordieu! stand back, knaves," I cried.
"Fair words, captain; the fight's over; here is your health," quoth one rascal with a mock bow.
"’S death! Do I command? Stand back!"
"All in good——" he began, but the sentence was never ended. It was no time to parley. I reached forward over my horse's neck and fired, and the rascal's blood mixed with the spilt wine on the ground.
"Do I command?" I thundered. "Ere morning we march. A fair portion of meat and wine to every man, and, cordieu! no more. Vermeil, this is work for you."
Gaspar and I rode back up the hill to settle our plans, and as we passed the girl suddenly she turned her horse towards me.
"Is two murders a day your custom, sir?" she asked.
I did not answer; a woman's scorn is not easy to answer.
"Will you send me to the Prince?" she asked again.
"When I can safely," said I.
"And till then, sir?"
"Till then you must trust me."
"Trust—you!" she cried, and her eyes flashed cold, like steel.