Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons/Chapter 10

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VR0UW VOORHAAS is decidedly better to-day, Juffrouw Jacqueline,” remarked Dr. Pieter de Witt as he left the bedside of the sick woman. “She is really coming out of this illness very well, thanks to thy careful nursing and our good Jan’s assistance.”

“Is it so indeed!” answered Jacqueline listlessly, striving to force herself to some show of enthusiasm. “Then am I right glad, for I have done my best, and thou hast been devotion itself. Dr. de Witt. Oh! if only—” She turned away her head to hide the tears that would come, and a sob stopped her further utterance. The good doctor understood, and busied himself over his patient till the girl had regained her self-control.

“I mistake not,” he ventured at length, “she will probably be quite herself to-day, having regained consciousness several times lately. It would be well, should she recover sufficiently to ask after thy brother, not to allow her to think he has come to harm. A shock like that would thrust her lower than she has yet been.”

“But what shall we say?” faltered Jacqueline. “I must not tell an untruth.”

“Wouldst thou tell her the broad, brutal facts, and thereby cause her death?” demanded the doctor sternly. “Nay, it is only necessary to say that since she had been suffering with the plague, it was deemed wisest to send him away for a time, lest he contract the disease. She will be satisfied with that for the present.” Jacqueline acquiesced in this, and the two went downstairs to acquaint Jan Van Buskirk with the news of the improvement in Vrouw Voorhaas’s condition. Jan was sitting in the sunny, immaculate kitchen reading his big Bible, one of the few possessions he had brought with him to Belfry Lane. He was as pleased as the others with the good report.

“Listen to this!” he remarked. “I ’ve just been reading it in the Good Book. I think the Lord must have had the siege of Leyden in mind when He caused this to be written—‘Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler and from the noisome pestilence!’—Is n’t that just what happened to Vrouw Voorhaas and myself? I call it nothing less than miraculous! And here’s some more!—‘Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day’—Does n’t that just describe the Spanish army out beyond?—‘nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness’—that’s the plague—‘nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.’—That’s starvation!

“‘A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee!’ Have n’t more than five thousand died of starvation and the pestilence here already, and we are yet spared!”

“True, true!” murmured Jacqueline, “but Gysbert!—” Now there was an unspoken but well-understood conspiracy between the doctor and Jan to keep up the spirits of the despairing girl on this painful subject.

“Thou didst not let me read far enough, Jacqueline,” the old man hastened to add. “Only listen! Here is another Psalm that I was reading this morning. It should be a great help to thee;—‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

“‘When the wicked, even mine enemies came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. Though an host should encamp against me my heart shall not fear. Though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.

“‘Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path because of mine enemies. Wait on the Lord; be of good courage and He shall strengthen thine heart. Wait, I say, on the Lord!”

“What thou hast read does truly give me new courage,” said Jacqueline. “Thanks, Jan! Thou art indeed a help and a comfort. And now I will go up to the dove-cote to see if perchance a pigeon has come with some message for the burgomaster.”

A week had passed since the disappearance of the boy, and not a sign or a token had come to the anxious watchers in Belfry Lane, to indicate his whereabouts or his fate. After the first shock caused by Dirk’s message, Jacqueline had gone straight to Adrian Van der Werf and explained the situation, imploring him to assist in trying to find and rescue her brother. The burgomaster was deeply distressed at the misfortune that had come to his little “jumper,” and was much mystified as to the cause of this continued persecution of two innocent children by an unknown man.

But as to offering any assistance, that he told Jacqueline was quite beyond bis power. Already concern for the famishing, besieged city, and despair at its vanishing hopes of relief had driven him almost beyond his senses with anxiety. It was now not only impossible, but would be also quite fruitless for him to send men outside the walls to search for Gysbert, as they would probably be killed on sight by the ferocious Spaniards. He advised Jacqueline to wait quietly for further developments, and gave it as his opinion that Gysbert had not been killed, but was probably being kept alive for some yet unknown purpose. But little encouraged by this interview, Jacqueline crept home to endure silent but unending misery. For she was too proud to be seen by the others constantly grieving, and moreover, she blamed herself bitterly for ever allowing her brother to undertake such a hazardous enterprise.

Ascending to the pigeon-loft that morning, she found a returned messenger strutting about among the remaining birds. He bore a note wrapped round his leg, addressed to Adrian Van der Werf. Jacqueline made all haste to carry this to the statehouse, for it now devolved upon her to be the bearer of these messages when they arrived. The burgomaster welcomed her kindly:

“Good-morning, Juffrouw Jacqueline! Hast heard any news from thy brother yet?”

“Nay,” answered the girl shaking her head sadly. “But I have here another message for you, Mynheer Van der Werf. It has but just come by a pigeon.”

“Thanks, thanks!” he said, opening it eagerly. Then with sparkling eyes he cried:

“Ah, this is excellent, excellent news! Admiral Boisot with his fleet manned by the Beggars of the Sea, has arrived out of Zeeland, and is already entering the Rhine over the broken dykes. He cannot be ten miles from the city! Praise God, praise God!” He turned to Jacqueline for an answering enthusiasm, but found to his surprise that the poor girl had fainted away in the chair where she sat, evidently from sheer hunger and fatigue. Van der Werf hastened to a closet, took out a bottle, and forced some cordial between her set teeth. As he chafed her cold hands he murmured:

“Poor, poor little girl! Thou hast borne thy share of this cursed trouble nobly and well—that I know from De Witt himself. Thou shalt have every comfort and help that I can render thee!” Jacqueline soon returned to consciousness, but the burgomaster would not yet allow her to leave, and insisted that she drink another glass of the revivifying, cordial. When she was quite herself again, he sent her back to Belfry Lane with a large basket of food from his own larder, which he had despatched a soldier to procure.

“It is not much,” he apologized, “for we are hard put to it ourselves for sustenance now. But it is at least something I can do for so faithful a helper. See that thou dost not stint thyself in thy distribution of it!” he ended laughing.

When she bad gone, Van der Werf hastened to despatch a town-crier to spread the good news, and himself made all speed to Hengist Hill to observe the position of the fleet. The day was clear, and the flotilla lay in plain sight, not far beyond the Land-scheiding—a motley array of more than two hundred vessels of every conceivable shape and size. The largest, an enormous craft with shot-proof bulwarks and moved by huge paddle wheels turned by a crank, was called the “Ark of Delft,” It served as the flagship for Admiral Boisot, and was renowned for being the leader in every battle. Each ship carried from eight to ten cannon, and the whole fleet was manned by twenty-five hundred wild and battle-scarred veterans, the bravest and fiercest in the land.

They called themselves the “Beggars of the Sea,” a name they had assumed since a time at first, when the scornful Spanish soldiery had mocked them. “Who is afraid of you! You are nothing but a pack of beggars!” scoffed the Spaniards. “Very well!” replied the hot-headed Zeelanders. “Ye shall see how beggars can fight!” And truly they made a ferocious crew, as the Spanish found later, to their surprise and dismay. They neither gave nor took quarter, for theirs was a battle to the death, and woe to the luckless Spaniard who fell within their power! “Long live the Beggars!” was their rallying cry, and “Long live the Beggars!” now echoed in shout upon shout from Hengist Hill, by the crowds that had followed the burgomaster to the summit. Hope was once more restored, and Leyden gathered herself together and drew a long breath of renewed courage.

But before the consummation of this hope there was much to be done, and many battles to fight. The Land-scheiding lay before the fleet guarded by Spanish troops, and all about, the villages and fortresses were in the hands of the same enemy. On the night of September tenth, the city was startled by loud cannonading to the southwest, and the sky grew lurid with the flames of burning farmhouses and villages. Boisot had made the first bold move. Finding that the great dyke was but insufficiently guarded, he attacked it in the dead of night, at the same time setting fire to and ruining several adjacent strongholds of the enemy.

When morning dawned he was in possession of the coveted Land-scheiding, without the loss of a single man. The discomfited Spaniards had but too late discovered their mistake in underestimating the courage of their assailants. A dove flew in on the morning of the eleventh, sent by Boisot, telling of the victory. Jacqueline carried it to the statehouse with the first feeling of enthusiasm she had experienced in many a long day. Perhaps the city really would be relieved, and perhaps Gysbert might be restored to them after all!