Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons/Chapter 13

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WORDS cannot express the astonishment of Jan Van Buskirk when he returned from the burgomaster’s, to find no Jacqueline in the little house in Belfry Lane. Unfortunately, she had still grasped the crumpled note in her hand when she left the house, so he had absolutely no clew to her whereabouts. The only explanation he could offer to himself was that she must have gone out unpremeditatedly to obtain some fresh medicine at a little chemist shop near by. So he sat down to wait for her return.

But the time passed on and still she did not come. An hour rolled by and Vrouw Voorhaas awoke to ask for Jacqueline. Jan quieted her by telling her that the girl had retired to take a little rest, and Vrouw Voorhas went to sleep again. Another hour passed, and Jan, frightened almost out of his senses, resolved to seek Dr. de Witt. Waking Vrouw Voorhaas he told her that he did not feel well and was going out to consult the doctor. She, he said, must go quietly to sleep again, as it was nothing serious. Unsuspectingly she assented, and he hurried out to find Dr. de Witt, weary with his day’s exertion, just about to turn into bed. The tale was soon told, and Pieter de Witt lost not a moment in resuming his clothes.

“She has answered some summons,” said he, “and has been led into a trap. I know it! I have suspected all along that something like this would happen when we least dreamed of it. My God! It is unthinkable!” From end to end the two searched the city that night. No one had heard of her, none had seen her, and they returned home in the gray of early morning, foot-sore, despairing and heartsick.

“It will kill Vrouw Voorhaas,” said De Witt, “and by this time she must certainly know something is wrong, since both you and the girl have been away all night. Come right for me, Jan, if it is necessary, but I must turn in now for just a few moment’s rest, or I’ll break down too.” Poor Jan crept home broken and almost in tears. At the door he was met by Vrouw Voorhaas who had dragged herself out of bed to search the house for its usual inmates. Her eyes were wild and haggard, and she faced him fiercely.

“Where hast thou been all night? Where are Jacqueline and Gysbert?” she demanded.

“Oh, they are all right,—all safe!” he tried to prevaricate, but his face betrayed him.

“It is not so! Thou liest!” she interrupted him. “Evil has come to them,—I know it! I know it! For many days have I suspected that all was not well with Gysbert, and now Jacqueline has disappeared too. Thou canst not deceive me! Do not try! Ah, Dirk Willumhoog, thou—” She could not finish, but fell unconscious at the feet of Jan.

He tried to raise her, but in his own weakened condition found it impossible, and concluded that the best thing to do was to go back at once for the doctor. Pieter de Witt, exhausted but indefatigable still in the cause of his friends, hurried back with him at once. Together they succeeded in raising her and getting her back to bed, but they failed utterly in restoring her to consciousness. Dr. de Witt shook his head many times over the black prospect.

“This shock has caused a sudden relapse—and no wonder!” he said. “I sadly fear that the end is not now far away. Thou wilt have to be her attendant now, Jan. For the sake of the children do thy best, and I will help thee!”

“There is one more possibility that we have not tried,” said Jan. “We did not go to the burgomaster’s. Can it be possible that another message came while I was returning, and she hurried out with it, going some other way? Perchance as it was late. Mynheer Van der Werf’s wife would not allow her to go home, and has kept her till morning. Perchance she has been taken sick there.”

“It is a small chance, Jan,—a very small one!” said De Witt. “They would surely have sent us word in any case. But go to him if it will set thy heart at rest. I will stay with Vrouw Voorhaas the while.” Jan set out once more, his poor old legs fairly tottering under him with loss of sleep, lack of food, and weakness. But excitement still buoyed him up, and the faint, vague hope that Jacqueline might have passed the night with Mevrouw Van der Werf spurred him on to one more effort. It was yet too early to find the burgomaster at the statehouse, so he proceeded straight to the residence in the Werfsteg.

He was obliged to lift the heavy knocker several times before he could arouse the sleepy servants within. At length he was admitted by a yawning, hastily clad domestic who went to call the burgomaster. Van der Werf came down quickly, expecting another message from outside the city. His face was pale, haggard and careworn, and his eyes showed plainly that he had passed a sleepless night.

“Jan,” he cried, “what news hast thou? Is there another message?” Then seeing the old man’s wild, questioning eyes,—“Ah! what ails thee? Has anything dreadful happened?”

“Is she not here? Is she not here?” muttered Jan, sinking limply into a chair.

“Is who not here?” questioned Van der Werf mystified.

“Jacqueline!—the Juffrouw Jacqueline!”

“Juffrouw Jacqueline has not been here for three days! Why, Jan, what has happened?” Then the old man told the story, while Van der Werf listened with darkening face.

“’Tis passing strange! ’Tis fairly devillish!” he vociferated. “I could feel no worse if harm had come to one of my own family! Nay, I know nothing about her, and what is worse, I can do nothing. I am as helpless as thou art. My hands are tied! Thou sayest thou hast searched the city?—even I can do no more! If she has by any means been taken beyond the walls,—God help her!” The two men sat for some moments gloomily silent. Jan had reached a point of exhaustion where his body absolutely refused to obey the behests of his mind,—when he attempted to take his departure, he could not rise from his chair.

“Thou must stay and have a little food and drink,—such poor stuff as I can offer thee!” said the burgomaster seeing his plight, and he rang for a servant to bring in such fare as they had in the house. Jan had no heart to attack the breakfast, but Van der Werf insisted that he should eat a little to sustain his strength. So he made a brave attempt, while the burgomaster strode restlessly up and down the room.

“Jan, Jan!” he cried at length. “The Lord hath put more on my shoulders than mortal man can bear! Dost thou know, it is by my will alone that this city holds out? Daily I receive the most cajoling and fair-spoken notes from Commander Valdez. He makes the most extravagant promises of mercy and leniency if I will only open the gates. ’Tis but a siren’s song, as everyone well knows! Yet the dissatisfied ones are clamorous to try once more the mercy of the Spaniard!—They accuse me of starving and killing them for a mere question of my personal pride. My God! has not one of my own family already died of the plague? Is not my own wife even now desperately ill? Am I the gainer by my policy? Alas, no! Jan, a dead body was found placed against my door yesterday morning. We all know what that means,—they lay the city’s terrible plight to my stubbornness. But while I live, I swear I will not open the gates!”

When Jan somewhat refreshed, had finished his meal and rose to start for home. Van der Werf offered to accompany him a way, saying he wanted no breakfast himself and must be at the statehouse early. Together they went out, the burgomaster supporting the old man’s feeble steps as tenderly as a son might have assisted his father. Not many rods behind them, two or three malcontents, well-known for having always leaned toward the opinions of the Glippers, began to follow the magistrate, muttering remarks of no very pleasant nature. Jan the fiery, turned about once and rebuked them:

“Hold thy tongue, Janus de Vries! And thou, Pieter Brouwer, hast thou not thyself been fed from the burgomaster’s own kitchen! I know all about thee! Who art thou to utter complaint!”

“Do not pay any more attention to them, Jan, lest they begin to be wordy and attract more attention to themselves and us than is desirable!” said Van der Werf. But a crowd had already begun to gather, which in an incredibly short time grew into a mob, shouting, yelling, gesticulating, fiercely demanding bread and the opening of the gates. The burgomaster began to fear, not for his own life, but for that of the feeble old man who would be so helpless in their hands did they come at last to violence. Just at this crisis, they emerged into the triangular space in front of the old church of St. Pancras.

Deeming the time ripe for him to exert all his powers of persuasion on this threatening throng. Van der Werf ascended the steps of the edifice, placed Jan in a protecting angle of the doorway, and turned about to face the crowd. As he removed his great felt hat, the morning sunlight fell through the surrounding lime-trees on a face, calm, imposing and softened with a great and overwhelming sadness. Its silent appeal touched even the hearts of the famishing mob, and when he raised his hand there was instant silence. Then after a moment he spoke, in words that history has forever made memorable:

“What would ye, my friends? Why do ye murmur that we do not break our vows and surrender to the Spaniards? That would be a fate more horrible than what the city now endures! I tell you I have made an oath to hold the city, and may God give me strength to keep that oath! I can die but once, whether by your hands, or the enemy’s, or the hand of God. My own fate is indifferent to me, but not so that of the city which has been entrusted to my care. I know that we shall starve if we are not soon relieved, but starvation is preferable to a dishonored death, is it not? Your threats move me not! My life is at your disposal. Here is my sword,—plunge it into my breast if ye will! Take my body to appease your hunger, but do not expect me to surrender while I live!”

He held out his arms a moment, then dropped them at his side.

Instantly a great shout of approval went up from the multitude. In the twinkling of an eye the threats were changed to cries of encouragement to the city and defiance to the enemy, transmuted by the persistent, dogged courage of one man standing absolutely alone!

“Long live Adrian Van der Werf!” they shouted. “We will indeed fight to the end!” And leaving the two standing on the steps of St. Pancras, the crowd rushed to the walls where they remained all day hurling renewed defiance at the Spaniards.

When the mob had deserted them. Van der Werf escorted Jan to Belfry Lane and left him at the door, after which he proceeded with firmer step and easier mind to his daily duties at the statehouse. But when Jan reached Vrouw Voorhaas’s room, he sat suddenly down in a chair and looked hard at the doctor, who noticed that the old man’s expression was as exalted as though he had seen some heavenly vision.

“What is the matter?” he asked. “Hast thou found Juffrouw Jacqueline?”

“Nay,” answered Jan, “I have not found her. But Pieter de Witt, I have just beheld the finest act of courage that it was ever the lot of one poor man to witness! If Adrian Van der Werf can thus bear the sorrows of a whole city on his heart, thou and I, through God, must not shrink at the burdens His wisdom has seen fit to lay upon us!” And he told the doctor of his morning’s experience.