Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons/Chapter 1

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THE hush of a golden May afternoon lay on the peaceful, watery streets of Leyden. Just enough breeze circulated to rustle the leaves of the poplars, limes and willows that arched the shaded canals. The city drowsed in its afternoon siesta, and few were about to notice the boy and girl making their way rapidly toward the middle of the town. Directly before them, the canal-interlaced streets and stone bridges gave place to a steep incline of ground rising to a considerable height. Its sides were clothed with groves of fruit trees, and from its summit frowned the mouldering walls of some long-forsaken fortress. So old and deserted was this tower that a great clump of oak trees had grown up inside of it, and overtopped its walls.

"Art thou tired, Gysbert?" asked the girl, a slim, golden-haired lass of seventeen, of her younger brother, a boy of little over fourteen years.

"No, Jacqueline, I am strong! A burden of this sort does not weary me!" answered the boy, and he stoutly took a fresh grip on some large, box-like object wrapped in a dark shawl, that they carried between them.

Up the steep sides of the hill they toiled, now lost to sight in the grove of fruit trees, now emerging again near the grim walls of the old battlement. Panting for breath yet laughing gaily, they placed the burden on the ground, and sat down beside it to rest and look about them. Before their eyes lay pictured the sparkling canal-streets of the city, beyond whose limits stretched the fair, fertile plains of Holland, and in the dim distance the blue line of the boundless ocean. Gysbert's eyes grew misty with longing.

"Ah! if I had but brush and colors I would paint this," he sighed. "I would paint it so that all the world would think they looked upon the very scene itself!"

"Some day thou shalt have them, Gysbert, if thou dost but possess thyself with patience," answered his sister, with the gentle yet authoritative air of her three years' senority. “We will raise many pigeons and train them. Then, when the price we have obtained from them is sufficient, thou shalt buy an artist’s outfit, and paint to thy heart’s content. Meantime thou must practice with thy charcoal and pencil, and wait till the war is over."

Both sat silent for a while, each occupied with thoughts that were, in all probability, very similar. The little word "war" recalled to them memories, pictures, speculations and fears, all very painful and puzzling. Neither one could remember the time when their peace-loving land of the Netherlands had been allowed to pursue its avocations unmolested by the terrible Spanish soldiery. From time immemorial had these fair provinces been tightly grasped in the clutch of Spain. Now at last they were awakening, rousing themselves from the long inaction, and striking the first bold blows for liberty from the relentless oppressor. Little did the children dream, as they sat looking out over the beautiful city, that this same year of 1574, and this same Leyden were to witness the great turning-point of the struggle.

"Look, look, Jacqueline! There is the church of Saint Pancras, and there is our house in Belfry Lane. I can almost see Vrouw Voorhaas looking from the window! Come, let us set free the pigeons!" And Gysbert, all excitement, began to fumble with the wrappings of the bundle. Jacqueline rose, threw back the two golden braids that had fallen across her shoulders, and knelt down to superintend the work.

Very carefully they removed the dark shawl and laid it aside, disclosing a box roughly fashioned like a cage, containing four pigeons. The frightened birds fluttered about wildly for a moment, then settled down cooing softly. When they had become accustomed to the daylight, Jacqueline opened one side of the box, thrust in her arm, and drew toward her a young pigeon of magnificent coloring, whose iridescent neck glittered as if hung with jewels. The girl cuddled the bird gently under her chin, and with one finger stroked his handsome head.

“Let us send ‘William of Orange,’ first,” she said. “He is the finest, strongest and wisest, and will lead the way. I am glad we named him after our great leader.”

“But the message!” Gysbert reminded her. “We must not forget that, or good Vrouw Voorhaas will never know whether he got back first or not. She cannot seem to remember one pigeon from another. Here, I will write it.” He drew from his pocket a tiny scrap of paper on which he hastily scrawled:—‘William of Orange’ brings greetings to Vrouw Voorhaas from Jacqueline and Gysbert.” This he wrapped about the leg of the bird and tied it with a string. “Now, let him go!” he cried.

Jacqueline stood up, lifted the bird in both hands, and with a swift upward movement, launched him into the air. The pigeon circled round and round for a moment, then mounted up into the sky with a curious spiral flight. When it was many feet above the children it suddenly changed its tactics, spread its wings taut, and made straight in the direction of Saint Pancras spire and Belfry Lane.

“Bravo! bravo!” they cried, watching intently till its sun-gilded wings had all but faded from sight. “‘William of Orange’ is a true carrier pigeon! Now for the rest!”

One after another they released the three remaining birds to whom they had given the names ‘Count Louis’ and ‘Count John’ after the great William of Nassau’s two favorite brothers, and lastly ‘Admiral Boisot.’ It seemed to be a fancy of the children to call their pets after their famous generals and naval commanders.

“These are the finest pigeons we have raised,” remarked Jacqueline as she shaded her eyes to watch their flight. “None of the others can compare with them, though all are good.”

“Now we have twenty,” added Gysbert, “and all have proved that they have the very best training. No pigeons in the city are like ours, not even old Jan Van Buskirk’s. When shall we begin to hire them out as messengers, Jacqueline?”

“Perhaps there will be an opportunity soon,” answered the girl. “Now that our city is no longer besieged we may have to bide our time. But no one can tell what will happen next in these days. We must wait, Gysbert."

“Come, come! let us be going,” said her brother restlessly, “and see if they all get back safely, and whether ‘William of Orange’ was first.”

“No, let us stay awhile,” replied Jacqueline. “It is pleasant and cool up here, and the afternoon is long. Vrouw Voorhaas will let the birds in, and tell us all about when they arrived. We may as well enjoy the day.”

She reseated herself and gazed off toward the blue line of the ocean, shut out from the land by a series of dykes whose erection represented years of almost incredible labor. The river Rhine making its way sluggishly to the sea,—a very different Rhine from that of its earlier course through Germany,—was almost choked off by the huge sand dunes through which it forced its discouraged path. The girl’s thoughtful mood was infectious, and Gysbert, after rambling about idly for a time, came and settled himself at her side.

“’Tis a strange hill, this, is it not, Jacqueline, to be rising right in the middle of a city like Leyden? Why, there is nothing like it for miles upon miles in this flat country! How came it here, I wonder?”

“Father used to tell me,” said the girl, “that some think it was the work of the Romans when they occupied the land many centuries ago, while more declare that it was raised by the Anglo-Saxon conqueror Hengist. That is why it is called ‘Hengist Hill.’”

“How different it would have been for us if father had lived!” exclaimed Gysbert, suddenly changing the subject. “It seems so long ago, and I was so young that I do not remember much about him. Tell me what thou knowest, Jacqueline. Thou art older and must remember him better.”

“Yes, I was eleven,” said Jacqueline with a dreamy look in her eyes, “and thou wast only eight, when he went away and we never saw him again. We had always lived in the city of Louvain, and father was a professor of medicine in the big university there. Mother died when thou wast but a little baby. I can just remember her as tall and pale and golden-haired, and very gentle. Good Vrouw Voorhaas always kept house for us, and we had a big house then,—a grand house,—and many servants.

“Father was so loving and so kind! He used to take me on his knee and tell me many tales of Holland and the former days. I liked best those about the beautiful Countess Jacqueline of Bavaria, after whom he said I was named, and of how good and beloved she was, and how much she suffered for her people.

“Then came the day when he disappeared—no one knew how or where for a while—till the news reached Vrouw Voorhaas that he had been captured by the cruel Duke of Alva and put to death. It was at the same time that the young Count de Buren, the eldest son of our great William of Orange, was kidnapped from the University where he was studying, and taken a captive to Spain. We had little time to think of that outrage, so great was our grief for our dear father. Vrouw Voorhaas dismissed all the servants, closed the house and sold it, and we came to Leyden to live in the little house in Belfry Lane, where we have been ever since.”

The boy listened spellbound, though the recital was evidently one that had been oft-repeated, but had never lost its mystery and sorrowful charm.

“I was so little,” he said at last, “I only remember our father as a tall man with gray hair and beard, and very blue, twinkling eyes. It is all like a dream to me! But is it not singular, Jacqueline, that Vrouw Voorhaas will never talk about him to us, nor answer any questions when we ask about him? And she has told us never to mention his name to others, and has made us change our last name from Cornellisen to Coovenden. I wonder why!”

“It is very strange,” agreed Jacqueline, shaking her head, “and I do not understand it myself. She told me once that I should know some day, and till then must never question her.” But the restless spirit had again seized Gysbert, and he scrambled to his feet to make another tour around the old fortress. Suddenly the girl was startled by his loud, insistent shout:

“Jacqueline, Jacqueline! come here! There is something very odd coming across the plains! Come quickly!” She rose and ran to the other side of the hill where she found Gysbert shading his eyes with one hand. With the other he pointed to a thin, dark, undulating line moving slowly in the direction of the city, while here and there the sun caught a flash of blue and white, as from waving banners. Jacqueline’s cheeks grew white.

“The Spaniards!” she breathed.

“The Spaniards indeed!” shouted Gysbert. “And coming to besiege the city once more, when we thought they had left us for good and all. In five hours at most, they will be here in front of the walls. We must run to warn the Burgomaster Van der Werf to strengthen the defences and make all speed to close the gates. There is not a moment to lose! Come!”

And without another thought but for the safety of the beautiful city, the two children clasped hands and ran at top speed down the steep hillside, in the direction of the great statehouse.