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CHAPTER IX

HIRELINGS' BATTLES

The day was far gone when we set out, and we trotted quickly along the level road, through the cool fragrant air, with the shadows lengthening beside us. A little on the flank I rode alone, for indeed I had much in my mind. Where we should find St. Trond, where we should find Alva, what we should do when we found either—none of these things I knew. Surely never did soldiers march on an errand as unknown as this! Why had I come? I knew, though I would scarce confess it, even to myself; it was because Laurenz de St. Trond thought me a cowardly knave; it was because I sought to save the men he had taken with him; it was because we had a chance to hurt Alva; it was for anything but because a girl had cried. What was it she said? She wished she could forget I had come to Alva's camp. She did not forget, then? Nay, I could not forget it either. But she, who thought me a murderer, half a traitor, money-seeking, cruel, yet remembered that I had saved her. I thought of how she had looked at me, how her head had nestled on my shoulder ere she knew all that I had gone to do and all that I had done in that camp. Oh, laugh if you will; I did not repent, I do not repent now, of the way I saved Breuthe. Judge the deed altogether, think of the end as well as the means, and say, was I wrong? But was she wrong either? I had fought for Alva more years than one; is it likely that I was a better man than she fancied?

It grew dark, and still we pushed on. St. Trend's men must have marched well, for though they had many hours' start of us we were mounted and they were on foot, and yet we had to halt, and water and rest our horses without finding them. I would have marched again almost at once, but Zouch came grumbling up:

"I don't know what you want, captain; but 'tis little use catching Alva if we founder the horses to do it,"

So we halted for two hours, and I lay wrapt in my cloak, sleepless, watching the stars.

Morning dawned over the plain red and clear, and at last, away to our right, we saw a cloud of dust moving quickly. The sun rose higher in the sky, and now there was another and a bigger cloud farther off than the first. We began to trot faster.

"Curse it, there's no cover," I muttered.

"What's he trying for?" Zouch asked.

"Who, St. Trond? How should I know?" I said angrily.

"Ought to have some one with him to tell him what to do, I reckon," Zouch growled.

"Are we not with him?" said I sharply.

"Umph! he's there; we're here."

Alva's line went straggling thin and long, and St. Trond still marched on its flank.

"Cordieu! I think they are both fools together," I cried. "Why not—ah!"

Oh! it was the chance—the chance of a life-time. Had I but been with St. Trond! Had I but been a mile nearer! Two waggons broke down across the road, and the rearguard halted perforce; but the van knew nothing of it and kept on the march, and for a moment right in the middle of Alva's force there gaped a hole. Had I but gone with St. Trond at first!

St. Trond hesitated; he was not a soldier by trade, and to plunge into the middle of Alva's men was a thing he would not do without thought. He hesitated, and the chance was gone; the van turned and closed again, and then—then, when they were all ready for him, St. Trond flung his men at the Spaniards.

I can guess how Alva looked; I can see the cold, sneering smile come over his lips; I can hear the harsh orders. It was a task after Alva's own heart to crush six hundred men with three thousand. St. Trond's pikemen charged—they charged well, I will not gainsay that—and Alva gave back a little before the charge. Little by little his centre fell back, and little by little the wings advanced; slowly the circle closed round St. Trond. Alva was to have his revenge for the market-place; and he sat there (many times have I seen the like), sat quietly, slowly stroking his long thin beard, with the pupils of his eyes growing bigger, and his lips bent in a cruel smiling curve.

It was well planned, and carried out as well. But one thing he forgot, and that was the horsemen I led. He should have seen us sooner; perhaps he did, and yet could not guess what we were. For, indeed, it is a strange design to march with pikemen two miles in front of their cavalry. Whether he saw us not we saw him.

"Charge!" I shouted. "Charge! Vivent les gueux!"

"Vivent les gueux!" the men shouted in answer, and, with the war-cry of the Netherlands thundering on before us, we swept down on Alva's wing. They tried to strengthen it, but the time for that had gone by, and ere any support had come we had crashed down on their flank, and were breaking through to where St. Trend's pikemen rolled like a hedgehog in the midst. We were through.

"Break out, break out on your right flank!" I shouted to St. Trond, as we turned our horses and rode back again, cutting down the broken ranks as we passed. The pikemen fought their way through, unbroken yet; the jaws of Alva's trap had closed in vain.

"Fall back, back to the higher ground," grunted Zouch. The fight was not over yet. Alva would not give up his prey without a struggle, and his horsemen were waiting for a chance to charge. They never found it. While they changed ground to try and draw us away, we galloped down towards Alva again, and, thinking their time was come, they started towards our pikemen. Suddenly, in the midst of our charge, I swung the men round to the left, and we took those hapless Spanish troopers in flank, and cut through them as a tight string cuts through cheese. So we came round to St. Trond, and the Spaniards fell back and formed again behind their foot.

"You will fall back on the town?" asked St. Trond as I came up. "We have lost very many."

"Ay, but not too fast," said I. Though, indeed, the Spaniard did not threaten more.

"We came out six hundred strong, and we are little more than four now," quoth St. Trond. "And you?"

"Oh, we have lost some," said I.

Just then Vermeil came up.

"You did not grudge me to the burghers, captain?" quoth he.

"Cordieu! no; but you might have kept them out of this mess."

"I was not in command," said Vermeil; "I was not in command."

Slowly we fell back on Breuthe, smaller, gloomier companies than had gone out the day before. I rode alone still. I could not be with St. Trond, for I knew now that if I had listened to him we might have broken all Alva's force. If we had only been together when the chance came! Had I thought less of the risk, and more of the cause to which I owed service, we might have struck a great blow that day. So St. Trond had been right to sneer, after all, since I could not fight without thinking of myself. You may guess how proud I felt as we rode along the sandy paths. What was that question I asked myself yesterday: "Is a man a fool because he does not always follow his brain?" Well, I knew now that a man was a fool if he followed nothing else. There are not many times in my life when I have felt worthless and mean; but here was one, at least—cordieu! here was one.

St. Trond, too, rode silent and apart, and when I looked covertly at him once or twice I saw his face was very grave and sad. At last he spurred his horse over to me:

"I was wrong, sir, and you were right. Will you let me take my words back? I have thrown away two hundred lives that I might have saved if I had believed you. But for your skill and courage I should have lost all. I cannot forget what I said to you; may I hope that you can forgive it?"

"In God's name, say no more!" I cried. "Why talk of forgiveness from me to you?"

"I admit, sir, I was in the wrong. I cannot do more."

"You were in the right," I said sharply. "I ought to have come with you. What is the use of words now?"

"It was, indeed, a task too great for me," he answered sadly and moved away. You may guess that that was not what I meant my words to say. There is nothing stirs me more than praise when my deserts are blame.

At last, when it was growing dark, we came to Breuthe, and there gathered round us a pale, weeping, trembling crowd to learn that two hundred men—their husbands, their brothers, their sons—who marched out yesterday lay stiff and cold on the plain now. St. Trond rode slowly through the throng, with his hat pulled down over his brows, and they fell back in silence, with angry looks, to let him pass. Then when I came a little after they called down blessings on my head. Such was the justice of Breuthe.

"Has the Prince come?" I asked the burgomaster.

"No, sir, not yet."

"Strange, cordieu! strange, Vermeil, is it not?"

"He may not ride quickly, captain."

"He has had a full day," I answered.

"We broke the bridge at Veermut."

But the hours went by, and still the Prince and Gaspar came not, and the moon was out ere there came a thunder at the main gate and a cry.

"Teufel! Are you all asleep?"

"Who are you?" cried the guard.

"Ach! I am the body-guard of the Prince of Orange!"

The gate was flung open, and there came in William of Orange, riding a jaded horse; and walking at his side, holding by the stirrup-leather, Gaspar Wiederman, covered with dust and splashed with blood.

The guard ran forward, crying anxiously:

"Your Highness is safe?"

"Thanks to this gentleman, I am safe and alive in Breuthe," quoth the Prince with a smile.

I came running up bare-headed, roused by the noise.

"You were attacked, Gaspar?" I cried.

"Ach! do you think I walk for pleasure?"

"Shut the gate, knaves!" I said, for the fools had left it open.

"There is no need," said the Prince calmly. "There are no pursuers."

"Teufel! there are none to pursue," grunted Gaspar.

The Prince smiled and dismounted.

"And it is you, sir, I have to thank for saving the town," he said, holding out his hand to me. "I little thought I had made so good a bargain when you came to Delft. Your dispatch was something of the shortest, but the news needed no phrases to set it off. I fear I have left your escort behind me. They fought bravely, sir, and few of those that beset us live to tell the tale——"

"Ach! none by now," grunted Gaspar.

"Where were you attacked, your Highness?" I cried.

"They—Alva—had laid an ambush by the river at Veermut to attack us as we crossed. Your men held them in play while my horse swam the stream. Even then but for your lieutenant I should have been in ill straits. Your men were outnumbered, and four Spaniards crossed the river after me. My friend here had lost his horse, but he swam across alone. My pistols served for two, his sword for the others. I know not how many that sword had slain before."

"Four, I think—or five," said Gaspar solemnly. "It was twenty to fifty, captain. A good fight!"

"If all your men fight as well," said the Prince, "it is not a regiment you brought me at Delft, but an army. Even Cornput will believe you are worthy now."

"Oh, we fight, some of us," grunted Gaspar.

St. Trond came hurrying up.

"Your Highness," he broke out, "I come——"

"Ah, Laurenz, my friend," said the Prince gaily; "and so you give me a virgin city back!"

"If the town is safe, it was not I who saved it," answered St. Trond slowly. "And this day I have lost two hundred men through my folly. I went out to attack Alva with six hundred burghers against the advice of better 'men than I. I brought back only four hundred, and had it not been for Master Newstead here, who risked himself and his men to save me and mine, not one of us had come back to the town. I was unequal to the task you gave me."

The Prince looked at him sadly and kindly.

"Laurenz, Laurenz, have you forgotten my campaign against Alva?" he said. "I was worse beaten than you, for I had no army left at all."

"If I had been willing to go with the Seigneur de St. Trond at first," I cried, "it might have been a victory."

"Indeed, gentlemen, it seems to me you have done very well. Once I had all but given up hope for the town itself. For the two hundred lost I am sorry—I am sorry," he repeated slowly, "but you will not make me believe it was the fault of either of you."

But I knew—by Heaven I knew!