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CHAPTER VII

"MAN AGAINST TIME"

We were busy in the market-place, toiling under a burning sun and a hot, parching wind, and the little burgomaster was the busiest of us all. He was squeaking in every corner. Gaspar, his arms and chest bare, stood vomiting German oaths, and giving a push here, and a pull there, and a cuff now and again. Our men worked well; there was talk of money now, and if a free lance will work ever, 'tis for the hope of a hard fight with gold at the end. The burghers were nothing behind them; there was no hissing me now, only stern labour, with the first smiles there had been in Breuthe for many a day.

"So far well," I said at last. It was drawing towards afternoon. "Give them a meal, and let them rest."

The burgomaster came bustling up, and took me by the doublet

"And now, sir, in the matter of money," he said.

"Oh!" I paused and wiped my forehead. "For the money, I must give my men twenty crowns apiece. You see——" Just then I saw Gabrielle hurrying along through the market-place. I swept off my hat and made a step forward. She seemed not to see me.

"Well, sir?" squeaked the burgomaster.

"You see, there will be little left. I must have the money."

"You are welcome to all the money," cried the burgomaster.

Gabrielle heard, and I saw her wince. I bowed again. She passed us, looking away.

I muttered an oath.

"I can spare you five hundred crowns," I said sharply.

"Sir, we do not grudge you money. We are fighting for our wives and our children, our freedom and our faith." He spoke quietly and quickly. "I did not come to ask you for it. We are a small town, and we are not rich now; but, sir, you have come to our aid in our utmost need, and all we can give you is yours. That is all." He turned and left me.

"Curse the money!" I muttered under my breath, as I walked slowly away. "Curse the money!" Why had Alva's money come between me and the girl, when I might have had money in Breuthe for the asking? Who would care to have a girl think his first thoughts were always for money, like any peddling knave from London? Gaspar bade me look after my crowns; well, the crowns were mine. Cordieu! I did not want them for myself, and I could not help it if the girl were a fool. It made no difference to me what the girl thought. What was the girl to me? Cordieu! 'twas not wrong to spoil Alva! And I resolved to take the other six thousand crowns. For I had thought of letting them go.

The shadows lengthened and the sun went down in the west, and within the town we made ready to play for our last stake. The main gate opened on to the market-place, and every street, every lane that led from it was barricaded, and the barricades held by the burghers. In the houses my musketeers were posted, about half the force in all. Under the walls on either side the gate two little picked companies waited, to charge when all the Spaniards were in and shut the gates again. Behind them two transport waggons waited, ready horsed, to be overturned in the gateway when the gates were shut, that they might not be opened again. Vermeil led one company, and our quartermaster, Nicholas Zouch, the other. It was a dangerous task, for from the barricade behind them to the gate was scarce room to gather speed for the charge; but you cannot win battles without risk.

It was dark at last, with the heavy darkness that comes ere the moon rises, and a faint tramp came from without the walls. I stood by the wicket in the main gate, with my horse at my side. They were thronged without now, and I opened the wicket a little way.

"The money! the money!" I whispered in Spanish.

"No play, no pay! Let us in first."

I opened the wicket, and half-a-dozen men rushed in pell-mell.

"And now the gate, señor," said their leader. I turned the great key and pulled it out again. The gate swung open, and the Spaniards rushed in.

"There are your wages!" cried the leader, and he thrust the bag into my hand; and, as I turned, another stabbed at me. I sprang aside, but the dagger was through my arm. Swords were out all round me; I broke through to my horse, and dashed away into the darkness to Zouch. And the Spaniards poured into a silent town, shouting now as they came.

"Wounded, captain?" asked Zouch in a whisper.

" Ay, but I have the gate-key still. And six thousand crowns," said I.

Zouch chuckled.

"Charge now?" he muttered.

"Nay, wait," I said, as I twisted a handkerchief round my arm and peered into the darkness to count the numbers that came. They grew thinner at last.

"Enough now," muttered Zouch. I nodded to the drummer at my elbow. The drum spoke loudly, and Zouch dashed at the gate. Vermeil should have charged at the same instant, but nothing came from the other side, and Zouch was left alone.

"Cordieu! sound again! sound again!" I cried. Again the drum spoke, louder than before. And now Vermeil charged; but the Spaniards were ready to meet him, and each charge singly was feeble. The minutes went by, and our chance was going fast.

"With the waggons! Both waggons!" I yelled. By the mercy of God they heard on the other side, and we went at the Spaniards together. The horses did not flinch, and the Spaniards fell apart as the waggons clove into the heavy mass. We had gone a little wide of the gate, and Zouch and his men clashed it back to its place. The waggons jammed together and broke down, and we cut the horses loose. I tossed the great key to Zouch; he turned it in the lock, and the Spaniards were caught at last. In the darkness those who had come first knew not what was passing, and Zouch and I, with a few men, broke back to our barricade under the wall, and clambered over.

"This is all of them," said Zouch. "Scarce any outside."

"Ay, enough too," I answered. Alva had said he would send enough: there were some seven hundred within the market-place. The moon rose clear and bright.

Was it a butchery? Had you seen those Spaniards fight, you had scarce called it that. Time and again they surged up to the main barricade, and more than once they all but mounted it. But the burghers fought well; each race was at its best; charge after charge came thundering up to that barricade, and charge after charge was broken and driven back by those grim, stubborn Dutchmen. And the Spaniards' headlong courage drove them on yet again, while the musketry tore through their close-packed ranks, and Gaspar, on the main barricade with the burgomaster, leant on a pike and chuckled as the moments went by.

Man against time! That was the fight in the market-place, and the Spaniards knew it as well as we. If they could not break through soon, the odds would be too great. And the deadly musketry never paused. Another charge, and another! Zouch and I peered forward anxiously through the flickering moonlight.

"By the Fiend! They're over!" he cried.

Three men had crested the barricade and others were struggling up behind them. They stood out tall and dark against the moonlight. Taller still rose another figure, and one Spaniard was caught on a pike. Gaspar—ay, no man in the town but Gaspar could have done it—Gaspar swung him round on the pike end and crashed the wretch against his fellows. The three fell on their struggling comrades below, and that charge dropt back too.

The charges grew feebler and slower, and few men now there were to make them. Man against time! The victory was not to be with man. The charges had ceased; there was little movement in the market-place save the writhings of those who were not yet dead. The musketry died slowly away, and Zouch and I came over the barricade on to the bloody stones. There in middle of the market-place I paused and looked round over the dying and the dead. Seven hundred good, of the very flower of Alva's army, lay there crushed at my feet. O Vitelli, Chiapin Vitelli, who was the fool?

Gaspar came down to meet me. His arms were dyed red, and there were smears and splashes of blood across his face and his beard.

"So much for Breuthe's guests," he cried. "Ach! captain, 'twas a good fight. Would that Alva had seen it!"

"There's a party at the postern, captain!" cried a man at my elbow.

"So! Let us give them a message for Ferdinando Alvarez!" He hurried through the streets, mounted the wall by the postern, and there, looking down at the Spaniards who waited for their comrades—

"No es nada," he shouted, "no es nada." 'Twas a catchword of Alva's he used in all disasters: "It is nothing, it is nothing."

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"No es nada" he shouted, "no es nada"

And while Gaspar stood shouting and shaking his bloody pike at the Spaniards, who fell hurriedly back, away in the market-place by the barricade they had kept right bravely, the burghers of Breuthe were singing a psalm

"I will give thanks unto Thee, O Lord, with my whole heart." I heard the first words echoing over the town.

"That will tell Alva who won, Gaspar," said I. "Come down, come down."

"Ach! captain, captain, that was a fight worth fighting," he said as he turned. "I never saw men fight better."

"Than which?"

"Than either! 'Gott! never will I laugh at burghers again. I wish our own were as stout."

"Ay; what in hell's name ailed Vermeil?" I asked sharply. Gaspar shrugged his shoulders.

"The fool near ruined us all!" I said. "Is he safe?"

"He is no fool, alive or dead, "quoth Gaspar.

The burghers were still singing, and the words rose with an exultant shout—

"… The heathen are sunk down in the pit that they made: in the same net which they hid privily is their foot taken."

The psalm ended, and the burghers drifted back to their homes for the sleep and the rest they had earned.

"Need we post guards, sir?" asked the little burgomaster wearily.

"A few at the gates were safer," I answered. "But I think the work is done."

"God has been very gracious," said the burgomaster sleepily, looking round the dead. "Indeed, sir, the work is done."

As he spoke the market-place clock began to strike. One, two, three, the deep chimes rang out as we stood there silent, looking at our work; the chimes died echoing away at last, and Gaspar's eyes met mine.

"Midnight!" grunted Gaspar.

"The end of St. Bartholomew!" I said. Was it chance? Was it chance, señors?

I did not rise too early the next morning, but once risen I betook myself to the walls. Alva's tents still lay there grinning at the town; but far fewer men were under them now, and the grin was like a toothless crone's. While I stood there St. Trond came up too, and stood looking at the camp in silence. At last he turned to me.

"And so, sir, that—that work—was in vain," he said sadly.

"That work has not been done twelve hours yet," I answered.

"I would to God it had never been done at all!" he cried. I shrugged my shoulders. He went on talking, half to himself. "And yet it is just," he said, "it is just. No good could come of such a crime."

"Oh wait, wait," I said sharply. "For the crime—I will take the blame if I may take the credit too."

"The blame is mine, who suffered you to persuade me," he said.

"I told you 'twould drive Alva away; you shall see it yet."

He shook his head, and was turning away when Gaspar came up.

"Gott! captain, work like that makes a man sleep well."

St. Trond shuddered.

"Have you seen the market-place this morning?" he asked of Gaspar.

"Ay, a grand sight! There they lie, higgledy-piggledy, our good Spaniards. Ach! 'twas a good fight! And so Ferdinando has not gone yet?"

St. Trond hurried away. Ay, he was a good man and a brave, but fighting was not his work.

"The stubborn Ferdinando!" quoth Gaspar. "I wonder if you have been too clever, captain?"

I did not answer. I did not believe I was wrong, but if, after all, it had been in vain, if Alva could still cling to the town, there was no hope for Breuthe, or for any inside its walls. Alva would scarce be turned to mercy by last night's work. The thought was not comforting.

"He must go!" I said sharply at last.

Gaspar did not hear: he was looking with a sneering smile at another figure which drew near.

"Ho, ho! here's the Frenchman, captain," he said.

"Cordieu!' yes. Vermeil, why did you fail to charge at the drum?" I said angrily.

"Because I did not hear the first beat," said Vermeil, looking me straight in the face. Gaspar laughed gruffly.

"It is—possible," I answered. I think he knew what I meant—at least he gave me as good again.

"And that Alva may go is—possible," quoth he.

We left him on the walls, and Gaspar and I went down to the market-place, where the sunlight fell across men maimed and mangled, and writhing in torment, crying aloud with curses for water, and then falling back on the hard, red, greasy stones. The wounded and dead of the burghers had been carried away with the earliest dawn, and only the Spaniards lay there now. But moving about among them were women with water and wine, and Gaspar and I looked at each other, and we both swore together.

The burgomaster was clearing away the barricades, and to him we came.

"Cordieu! sir, do you allow this?" I cried. "There will be murder ere long; a dagger in the breast will end this charity."

"Ay, a Spaniard is harmless when he is dead," grunted Gaspar.

"It is but Christian duty, sir," quoth the burgomaster.

"Christian duty! Christian donkeys!" burst out Gaspar. "Did you start it?"

"Well, indeed, gentlemen, I too thought it was dangerous, but—but—the daughter of the Governor—she said—she asked—she said—was I a murderer as well? And I did not know what to say."

"As well, eh? Grateful girl, captain!"

"She is there!" I cried.

"Yes, sir. If you, too, wish it stopped and think it dangerous, I will do what I can," squeaked the little burgomaster, trotting along at our heels as Gaspar and I hurried across the dead.

She was bending over a young stalwart Spaniard with a wet, ragged, gaping wound in his chest. As I saw his face I started; it was the man who had put her up for sale! I put my hand on her shoulder.

"This is no place for women," said I. She looked up, and winced as she saw my face. For a moment she could not speak, and in that moment, while my eyes were on her face, the ruffian at our feet stabbed upwards. But Gaspar, standing beside me, saw it, if we did not, and caught the arm and held it fixed.

"Look, mistress," said he. She turned, and started back with a cry, and I ran the fellow through. A wounded man? Yes.

"I told you it was not safe," I said. She put out her hand to thrust me away.

"Do not speak to me! Do not speak to me!" she cried.

"Ach! the ways of women," grunted Gaspar.

"Indeed, you wrong the gentleman," cried the burgomaster. "He saved your life. And it is not safe to wander among these wounded men: if it must be done it is not work for women."

"And would men do it?" she cried.

"Not I," quoth Gaspar.

"And yet you—it was you made it thus," she said, turning on me.

"It was I," I answered. "Will you go?"

"I will not! Oh, have you no heart at all? Can you see them lying here in the heat? I will not go!"

"I say you must," said I.

"I will not!"

"The work was given me to do by your father, and I will do it to the end. I will not throw good lives after bad. Will you make me call a guard to clear the market-place?"

"You—you will force me?"

"If you ask for force."

"Ah!" She drew in her breath with a sob. Then she called the other women round her and hurried away. "I did not think there was anything so cruel as you in the world," she said, looking back.

"And yet she has been in Alva's camp," grunted Gaspar.

I stood there looking after her, with many thoughts in my head. Two months ago I should have cared little for any one calling me cruel, but now the words rankled. I was right, I knew I was right; that is not always enough; a man likes other people to think him right too. I turned sharply to the burgomaster:

"We must clear this place and bury the dead, or we shall have a pestilence upon us."

"Yes, sir. I will see to it. I hear Alva has not gone yet," he said meekly. Last night's courage had gone.

"He will," I answered. "He must."

"I trust so, sir."

The morning passed into afternoon, and the sun grew hotter, as I sat on the walls watching the camp. Alva's batteries spoke once and again, and once and again a shot from the town replied. The walls were thick with watchers, for all knew we had played our last stake. Our last card lay on the table, and they waited to see what was in Alva's hand. Towards evening Alva's batteries fired more often, and faces on the wall grew long. My men were quiet enough; twenty crowns apiece that morning had given them much trust in me; but the burghers, who had more to lose and less reason for to believe my way the best, now looked askance at me again. And as Gaspar and I walked back to our quarters for a scanty meal, the little throngs at street corners hissed and jeered.

Darkness came over Breuthe, and the watchers went back to their homes to pray. The wind had gone round to the west, and clouds were scurrying over the dark sky. Gaspar and I stood by a tower on the ramparts alone. There were lights and fires in the camp below us.

"A good night for flitting," quoth Gaspar.

"Ay," I said shortly.

For hours we stood there silent, the only noise near us a sentry's footsteps or the grating of the stone as we shifted our feet. But from the camp came a steady hum, as always; a Spanish camp does not sleep early.

The night grew blacker yet, and the stars went out slowly. There came a spot or two of rain, and Gaspar pulled his cloak round him. One by one the fires in the camp died out into the blue darkness, and the rain began to patter on the walls. Suddenly the wind dropped for a moment, and we heard a dull sound coming up on the wet air. The wind blew gustily again, and we could hear nothing but the pelting rain. But, ere long, the blast was over, and the rain fell straight; and as we strained to listen, the same dull sound reached us—fainter a little, now—with a steady, ordered movement like the tramp of feet. Gaspar's hand fell on my shoulder with a thud.

"We win, captain, we win," he cried, and there on the wet walls, with the rain beating through to our skin, we gripped hands hard. Soon a bright grey streak came out on the eastern sky, and the pale light struggled through. The tents of Alva were gone! Along the walls one man cried to another, and men, half dressed, came running out of their houses to see if the shouts were true. The streets grew dark with men and women greeting one another wildly, standing there in the rain, laughing and crying in mad relief. As we passed along, they caught us by the hand, the arm, the cloak, and the children danced in front of us, and the women pressed their lips to our hands. Hardly could we struggle on through the gathering crowds, and the cheering grew and grew to a loud, deafening roar.

"Ay, they cheer now," grunted Gaspar.

And then the rain stopped, and the sun broke through the clouds, and there far over the bare plain a man on the wall saw Alva's army moving slowly away, and broke into a psalm as he saw it.

O Chiapin Vitelli, was I the fool?