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CHAPTER IV

A COUNCIL OF DESPAIR

"By the eyes of God! I will not leave a rat alive within the walls of Breuthe!" So the Duke of Alva had cried when his storming party was beaten down; and the men who hurled back the best troops of Spain that day knew well what their fate would be if they failed then, or if they should fail thereafter.

But Alva's words had come true already. The tanneries had given up their hides, the trees were stript of their leaves, the very nettles that grew beneath the walls were plucked, and all had become food for the hollow-eyed, skin-cheeked men, who clung still to the little shattered town. Rats were a luxury of the past in Breuthe. So I stood on the wall gazing at the charred tents in Alva's camp, and back again at the lean sentinels that paced by me, and I saw that the end must come very soon. Nay, it did not daunt me; I have yet to hear of the day when John Newstead was daunted. There, too, somewhere in that half-burnt camp, was Gabrielle de St. Trond, dead or alive; and as I stood watching I vowed it should go hard with the man who took her if she were wronged, even a little. And of aught else was there little hope.

I walked slowly back to my quarters, and my chin was on my breast, and scheme after scheme went coursing through my brain. There Gaspar and Vermeil awaited me, and even Vermeil looked solemn.

"Ach! come at last, captain," grunted Gaspar. I flung down my hat, loosed my belt, and sat.

"Am I needed?" quoth I.

"Gott! That is what I ask. Are any of us needed here?" I looked at him lazily; indeed, I was not thinking of his words. Quite other things were in my head than the grumbling of Gaspar; but he was in earnest. The broad red brow was bent in a heavy frown, his grey eyes were wide open and bright, and he sat with his head resting on a hand hidden in his thick curly hair.

"Needed?" I answered. "Is Breuthe so strong?"

"Do we strengthen it?" said Gaspar slowly. "Our food will not last long. Newstead's Company are not the men to feed on nettles. What is the end to be, captain? I like more than half a loaf, and there will not be half long."

"Mutiny against me?" I cried.

"Nay, no one will mutiny," said Vermeil smoothly; "but it is well to consider the wishes of the men."

"Teufel! I say they will mutiny," quoth Gaspar. "Men are men. Food is food. They'll mutiny sooner than starve. Gott! Do you blame them? Will you dine off cat-gut too?"

"Perhaps it is time to consider our plans," said Vermeil. "But no doubt you have some scheme, captain?"

"Scheme? Cordieu! No; I have only one scheme for mutineers—the halter!"

"Then you need a lusty hangman!" grunted Gaspar.

"Have you done?" I cried.

"Done? No! The townsfolk don't trust us. We shall have broken heads by the score soon, till Alva come in thirdsman."

"That is true," I muttered. "You can scarce expect Breuthe to love the sackers of Harlem."

"Ach! No; but we might have thought of that before."

"We fight with the men we have," quoth I.

"Then why reckon them angels?" grunted Gaspar.

"Well, well," I said, "what would you have me do, Gaspar?"

The German twisted himself in his chair, and scratched his head. Then he crashed his hand down on the table, and

"This!" he said. "We must fight! We came in through Alva, and we must go out through him too. We can leave the convoy here for the Dutchmen. Teufel! Alva has more than one. And we might find the wench in his camp!"

I looked at Vermeil. He shrugged his shoulders a little.

"Ah! What say you, Vermeil?" I asked.

"There is much in Gaspar's plan," said he, "There is one thing he has forgotten. We can feed the men on convoys, but it will be hard to pay them the same way."

"The wages of Orange!" I said. Vermeil spread out his hands.

"The wages of Orange? They will not take long a-counting," he answered. "We must have money. We cannot get money by staying in Breuthe, and there seems little to be got by going out. It is unfortunate there is no other way." He paused, and Gaspar and I both stared at the sleek olive face, and the twinkling green eyes.

"As Gaspar said very well, the men are not angels, and only angels and devils work for nothing. Besides that, to break through Alva's lines again may not be so easy as it was the first time, and Alva may not treat us kindly if he takes us. We have not deserved well at his hands. It is very unfortunate there is no other way."

Again he paused, and Gaspar broke out:

"Teufel! Man, are you turned raven, with your endless croak? There is nothing easy; but we are desperate. Unfortunate! unfortunate! unfortunate! A thousand fiends! Are you turned coward?"

"I say what you say, my dear Gaspar. We are, indeed, desperate; that is why our council is held. But I say it is unlucky we are desperate; it is unfortunate we are constrained to a course which must lose so many men, perhaps all. I say it would be better if we had a chance of making terms with Alva—for example. It would be better—if it were not impossible."

"Ach! why talk of the impossible?" grunted the German.

"He will scarce be willing to treat with deserters," Vermeil went on, "and deserters who have nothing to give and all to ask. If only we did not come empty-handed!" he added with a sigh.

"Words, words!" said Gaspar scornfully.

I looked at Vermeil, and his eyes met mine for a moment and dropt; for an instant, and only an instant, he seemed to smile.

"There is just one thing we could aid him to," said Vermeil. Gaspar shifted his chair. "The fruit is all but ripe enough to fall, and yet he might thank the man who plucked it. Ah!" he sighed, "if we were not deserters we might sell Breuthe."

"Ten thousand devils! Sell Breuthe?" cried Gaspar, dashing his chair back.

"Ay, we might sell Breuthe," I repeated slowly. Gaspar sprang up and stood leaning over us with one hand on the table.

"Sell Breuthe?" he shouted. "I thought we were soldiers, not a money-grubbing pack of traitors double-dyed! Who made Breuthe yours to sell? You come to the aid of St. Trond here, you lose his daughter, and you sell his town! Mighty deeds! God in heaven! I tell you I will hold Breuthe against you myself, I, Gaspar Wiederman, against any ratting huckster in the town," and he stormed out of the room.

"He seems moved, captain," said Vermeil coolly.

"The men will follow the money, eh?" I asked.

"Ma foi, yes; men are men, as the good Gaspar said."

"If I go to Alva, will you keep peace in the town?" said I.

"You—to Alva?" stammered Vermeil. "He must know you brought us to Orange. Think of the risk. Send a message."

"There will be more risk in my meeting Alva before all is done," said I slowly. He stared at me in amazement, thinking he had scarce heard aright.

"I—I do not understand," he muttered.

"You will," I answered. "I will be my own messenger. At all costs keep the peace till you see me again."

So, just as the sun was setting, a wiry man in a cloak that hid his armour slipt out of the postern gate of Breuthe all alone, and turned towards Alva's camp. And behind me rose the grey walls of the town that had baffled the Spaniard so long, gilt and crimsoned by the rays from the west.

Here and there, breaking the blue mist of the horizon, a dull red glare shone out, marking the forays of Alva's men. Somewhere beyond the horizon, beyond the farthest stretch of Alva's arm, William of Orange, William the Taciturn, sat brooding over the travailing land.

So I went forth to sell Breuthe.