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CHAPTER V

THE LION'S DEN

"Little man, little man, halt!" It was a stalwart, swarthy Walloon sentry stepped suddenly forward, shouting. I judged he meant me by his words, and I paused.

"I bring an offer to the Duke of Alva," I cried.

"What? from the vermin-eaters in Breuthe? Nay, then, come on. We have wasted long enough over this mouse-hole. So you have eaten the last worm, eh, little man?"

"Yes; we cooked it by the fire in your camp," said I.

"Nay, if you come to Alva, speak not of firing the camp, or you are like to try a fire's heat yourself."

"You liked it not, then?" I asked.

"By Beelzebub! you had best bridle your tongue in time, little man, else—— But here is the guard. Lieutenant, the little man has an offer for the Duke from Breuthe."

The lieutenant, a fox-faced Italian, looked at me sharply.

"Why do you not come with a flag of truce, knave?"

"Because I was not anxious to tell of my coming to the good people of Breuthe," I answered quietly.

"Ah, so!" he said, and fixed his eyes on my face. "Well, what is your offer?" he asked lightly.

"It is to the Duke of Alva," quoth I.

"You rate yourself high—and your offer, too, my friend."

"I know what both are," I answered.

"Are you so sure? Perhaps the Duke will teach you better," he said, showing his teeth like a dog. "We shall see. Lead on, there."

"Ay, we shall see," said I.

Outside a tent rather larger than most we halted, and the lieutenant entered alone. Then I heard a rattling Spanish oath from within, suddenly broken off, and a gruff voice speaking quickly and anxiously. There followed a moment's silence; then a sharp command, and the lieutenant came quickly to bid me enter.

Before me sat Ferdinando of Alva, the greatest soldier in Europe, who wielded the forces of the greatest power in the world, the Master of all the Netherlands save Breuthe town. And Breuthe town I had come to sell. Far away in Delft was William of Orange, who had trusted me to do him what good I could. Ay, there sat Alva, with his long, lean, sallow face frowning at me from two yards' distance, caressing his iron-grey beard with a thin, sinewy hand.

"Take away his sword," he said in a grating voice.

I laughed. This was not the way of Orange. The huge fat man who sat by him stared at me for a minute.

"Why, 'tis the Englishman, Newstead!" he cried. Alva's forehead gathered into a frown, and the hand that lay on the table clenched hard. Then his thin lips parted, and he grinned like a wolf.

"Praise be to the Virgin!" he said. "Let him be burnt by a slow fire under their walls."

The lieutenant laid his hand on my shoulder.

"Bethink you!" I cried. "Dead I shall do you little good; alive I can do much."

Alva waved his hand.

"A slow fire!" he repeated.

The fat man—Chiapin Vitelli—bent over and whispered in his ear. I stood there waiting, the lieutenant's claw-hand still on my shoulder. Cordieu! I am no coward, but I do not wish to pass such minutes as those again. For a long time the two dark faces hung near each other and Vitelli whispered on, while I could feel my heart beat, and Alva's steady cold eye never left my face. I do not think my colour changed. At last Vitelli ended. Alva stroked his beard once, twice, thrice. Then suddenly the grating voice broke out again:

"Why do you dare come here?" he said.

I started. I hardly knew what he said.

"Why do you dare come here?" he repeated angrily.

"I—I bring you an offer," I stammered.

Vitelli looked with an air of triumph at Alva.

"Ha! Breuthe will surrender? You will get no terms from me!"

"Breuthe will never surrender!" said I.

The wolf's look—it was never long absent—came back to Alva's face.

"Well, your offer, your offer?" said Vitelli quickly.

"I will open the gates to a party of your men."

"Ah!" Vitelli said, and he smiled, looking sideways at Alva.

"You may go," cried Alva to the lieutenant. "Is that all?" he asked sharply, turning to me.

"The rest comes from you, sir," I answered coolly.

"With a pardon you will be well paid," he snarled.

"I should, of course, request that," I said.

"For yourself and your men," said Vitelli.

"They are good soldiers," I answered; "they would be more use alive."

"You want more?" Alva asked sharply.

I bowed.

"What do you ask?"

"There was a girl we lost——" I began. Alva waved his hand carelessly.

"Pho! you can buy her to-night for a few ducats," cried Vitelli. "Girls are cheap," and he laughed. I looked angrily at the coarse, fat face, and I did not love Chiapin Vitelli, though he had saved my life a little before.

"Is that all?" said Alva.

"Would such a service be overpaid, sir, with seven thousand crowns?"

"Seven thousand fiends!" thundered Alva. "By the eyes of God! do you forget you are a traitor to the King and the Church, and in my power?"

"Breuthe is not, sir," said I.

"And if Breuthe were fastened by chains to hell, I would break them! Am I to pay a king's ransom to a heretic? You shall be paid, rascal, you shall be paid! You shall repent asking money for aiding the cause of God!" Again Vitelli leant forward and whispered, and as he talked the angry light died out of Alva's eyes, and they both glanced covertly at me; and at last Alva began to smile. Then Vitelli lay back in his chair and licked his lips.

"As you are a heretic, rascal," he began, and coughed a little, "as you are a heretic, I suppose you must be paid for aiding us. Well, you shall be paid." He paused, and whispered to Vitelli.

"A thousand crowns now, six thousand when you open the gates. Do you accept?"

I bowed.

"As soon as it is dark to-morrow I will open the main gate," said I. "I would urge you send at least five hundred men."

"I will send enough," said Alva, with a short laugh. "You may go. Vitelli, give him his hire."

"I want a safe-conduct," I answered.

"Fool, why should I harm you now?" said Alva, with a sneer.

"For the girl," said I.

He scrawled on a parchment and tossed it across the table to me. Vitelli took me out and gave me a bag of money.

"There, my clever fool," said he, and laughed.

Was I a fool? Ask Chiapin Vitelli now. You will find him in—nay, I know not where you will find him. He was a brave man, and he saved my life—though the deed was better than the purpose.

"And the girl?"

"The women's auction, fool. Listen and look!"

He pointed to a ring of yellow, smoky light in the midst of the camp, whence wild shouts and screams, and evil laughter came. A drum beat loudly.

The auction of women! Yes, that was ever the end of Alva's forays. The auction of Gabrielle de St. Trond! That was the end of my foray.

There stood the women: some silent, some sobbing loudly, some with their faces buried in their hands, some with their hands tied and struggling yet, some standing still, dry-eyed, looking right on away and beyond, some praying, some laughing. God! I have heard much, but sometimes I hear those laughs still. I fought for Alva once.

Some fool mounted a little platform, while my eyes wandered over the group eagerly.

"Gentlemen of the sword, get ready your purses. Sweet little love-birds we have for you to-night. Bring up the dark little filly, Pedro!"

A girl scarce sixteen at most was dragged forward, and two fellows, each bearing a torch, took stand on either side her, so that the light fell full on her face. It was dully white, like the faces of men who have bled to death.

"Here, gentlemen, a sweet object for your endeavours and your ducats. The very Lily of Holland! Worth double to any honest gentleman when he has kissed the roses back into her cheeks." He laid hold of her dress at the collar, tore it, held it open for a moment with a grin at the crowd, and then put it back. "No, gentlemen, I will not wrong the happy possessor," he cried. And the girl stood like death itself. "What are your bids, gentlemen?"

The bidding reached three ducats.

"No more? Will no cavalier go higher? Nay, then, Julian, she is yours!"

Her owner, a young thin-faced Spaniard, came up with a smile, and led her away through the jeering crowd. As she passed me I slipt the hilt of my dagger into her hand. For a moment she stared at me dully, and then all at once her face lighted up as she went by. Cordieu! 'twas the saddest thing I ever saw.

Have I not done the like myself, you ask? No. This is a game only the Spaniards play. Do you wonder the Dutchmen hate them?

At last, ay, at last! 'Twas she herself. God! I cannot tell how she looked. I could not see then: I can scarce write of it now! There she stood. …

"Here, gentlemen, gay with the Orange colours gold and white, and blue," the fellow touched her hair, and—pah! I cannot write it!

"Ten crowns!" I shouted.

"Ho, ho! here is a cavalier with money, comrades," the fellow turned towards me. "And who may you be, señor? So fond of Orange, are you? Why should I sell to you?"

I thrust through the crowd easily enough, and I forced the safe-conduct into his hands.

"Read it, fool!" I cried.

"Oh! … a safe-conduct … through the lines … for the girl you choose … Alva. … Oh! well, I suppose you must take her. Where's the money?"

I flung the money hard in his face, and dashed my fist after it.

"There is your price," I cried. "Will you jest with the messenger of Alva?"

So Gabrielle de St. Trond and I hurried away from the auction of women. Neither of us spoke; she held my hand and almost dragged me through the camp with half-mad strength. She would scarce pause while I parleyed for a moment with two sentries, and when at last we had left Alva behind us, she turned and looked at that camp with wide fearful eyes, and caught her breath and laughed a little sobbing laugh, and then the wet blue eyes looked up at mine.

"I knew you would come!" she said.

"You knew?" I cried.

"Yes, I knew," she said again.

"’Tis my fault you were ever taken," I said slowly. "I do not hope you can forgive me. I have done what I could since."

We walked on in the moonlight in silence.

"If—if I do not thank you—" she said slowly, "it is because I do not know what to say. I—I always believed you would come, even come alone into Alva's camp to save me. Are any thanks enough for that?"

I did not answer her. Alone into Alva's camp—to save her? Was that the reason? Vitelli's thousand crowns jingled under my cloak.

She stumbled over a stone and fell with a little cry. I bent over her and saw that her shoes were torn through. I picked her up and carried her.

"I am sorry," she said, "but indeed I am very tired," and her head dropt on my shoulder contentedly. So I walked on with Gabrielle in my arms, and the money inside my cloak.

The wicket in the postern opened as I came up, and Vermeil met me with a frown.

"Was that why you went, captain?" he asked, pointing to Gabrielle, and the man at the gate chuckled. Gabrielle woke at the noise.

"Let me go, let me go to my father," she said.

"Ah, captain, it's the way of the world," quoth Vermeil, solemnly shaking his head. "’Tis always another——"

"See the lady be taken to the Governor's house," said I sharply.

"Well, and what of Breuthe?" asked Vermeil, as we moved away. "He is moving heaven and earth, and hell too, our good Gaspar. How did your errand prosper?"

"Cordieu! man, let me sleep! You shall hear in the morning."

"As you will," said Vermeil sulkily. "But I should like to know if you went for the girl's sake or the men's."