Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons/Chapter 16

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ALL the next day the children bent every effort toward sawing and digging away at their window bars, but the hours wore away and only one had been completely loosened, while another was unfastened at the bottom. The knife-blade was becoming dull with this rough usage, and their courage dropped in proportion as their strength gave out and night approached. Well on in the afternoon, Gysbert again removed the tiles and planking, for both had imagined they heard unusual sounds in the room below. They were not mistaken. A moment’s listening convinced them that it was Dirk and the wife of Joachim Hansleer, holding an animated conversation in low tones.

“Give me my share now, Dirk!” they heard the woman say. “If thou art going to depart for Spain shortly, it will be just as well to settle up this matter at once. I know not where my good man Joachim is, nor when I will see him again, and I need the money.”

“I shall not depart for Spain with those brats till after the sack of the city, when the boy ought to he better. I do not half believe he is as ill as he makes out to be. Why canst thou not wait till then?” answered Dirk. “I must go away this afternoon, and will probably not be back till after the third. I am going to make one more test to see if my secret is still safe and practicable. When I return will be time enough!”

“Thou art a slippery eel, Dirk Willumhoog, and that I know right well!” replied the woman. “After the excitement is all over, thou wouldst find some means of sliding away without paying up thy just debts. I swear to thee that if thou dost not pay me at once those three hundred florins which are due me for my trouble, I will go straightway upstairs after thou art gone to the city and release those two children! And I care not what may be the consequences!”

This knock-down argument evidently convinced Dirk that it would be best to parley no longer with the decided Vrouw Hansleer, but pay her at once. There was a clinking of coins, a counting aloud, several disputes over the reckoning, and at last the matter was settled and peace restored.

“Remember,” warned Dirk as they were leaving the room, “to guard those children well, for they will surely mean more money to us—” Then the door was shut and the listeners heard no more.

“What can all this mean!” queried Gysbert. “Didst thou hear him speak of ‘taking those two brats to Spain in a short time’? That means us, of course! What can he possibly mean to do with us there, and how can we bring him more moneys One would think we were important personages and he was trying to get a ransom for us!”

“It is all dark and mysterious,” answered his sister, “but if we do what we hope. Master Willumhoog will receive a little surprise before October third! Come, we must waste no more time, but work away!” Later on they saw Dirk Willumhoog leave the house, carrying with him a bag which they did not doubt contained the remaining seven hundred florins. While watching his progress down the road, Gysbert’s attention suddenly became fixed on something in the sky, and he seized Jacqueline’s arm excitedly.

“Look, look!” he cried. “Dost thou see?”

“I see nothing! What is it?”

“Why the wind is changing! Look at those black clouds rising out of the northwest! Look at the leaves of the trees all bending toward the east! Look at the birds flying so low! I tell thee, Jacqueline, we are going to have a terrible storm! The equinoctial gale should have come a week ago, but it is here at last!”

What Gysbert predicted was quite correct. The continual east wind had at last shifted to the northwest, bringing with it the strong, salt smell of the sea. The sky was still beautifully clear and blue, but a weather-wise person would have certainly read the signs of coming change. Dirk Willumhoog was now far out of sight, but they saw Vrouw Hansleer come out to the yard and scan the horizon anxiously.

“Here, Jacqueline,” said Gysbert when the woman had gone in, “give me that knife now, while thou dost take a rest. We must get along even faster, for if the wind holds and the water rises, there will be fine doings to-night, and we want to be prepared to take our part. Look! I think the top of this end bar will give way in a short time.”

“This surely will float the fleet, will it not?” asked his sister. “The night I was captured Boisot sent a message that he was at Nord Aa, but must remain there until the water rose. They have probably been stranded there ever since.

“Surely, surely!” answered Gysbert. “And what is more, we ought to have a full view from our little window here, if they come by. For though we are a good distance from the canal, I think we could get a fine sight of a battle, if there is to be one. Oh, I hope there will be a battle!” In a frenzy of excitement, they kept at their work till darkness fell. Before the last streaks of twilight had faded, they had witnessed the puddles in the road grow and spread into small ponds, the ponds widen and join themselves into a shallow lake which lapped against the walls of the house.

Then came the tempest! The wind raged and howled; the sky was black with high-piled clouds; the tree branches tossed and groaned, or were split asunder with loud cracking noises; the walls of the farmhouse shook, the windows rattled, and pandemonium itself seemed let loose! The children trembled, half with awed admiration at this war in the elements, half with delight at what this would mean to the besieged city, and clasped their hands convulsively at every louder roar of the wind or crash of huge trees falling. Down below it was evident that panic and disorder reigned supreme. Cries and shouts of dismay mingled with the shrill screaming of a woman’s voice. Once they heard Vrouw Hansleer splash out into the flooded yard, calling to someone unseen in the darkness:

“Come, Wilhelm! come and help me move my furniture! Oh, my beautiful furniture! it will all be ruined!”

“Zounds, woman!” responded the voice. “Dost thou think thou canst save thy wretched furniture in this pass? Thou shalt he thankful to get off with thy life! Take what thou canst carry and be quick, for the Kirk-way is broken through, and the flood will soon be upon us. Hurry, hurry, I say! Merciful St. Anthony! I can hear it roar now!” And true enough, from far in the distance came a faint, ominous sound, low at first as the sighing of a summer breeze, yet dreadful enough to those who understood it, to paralyze every muscle with terror. With one final shriek Vrouw Hansleer darted into the house for a moment, then out again and the children heard the retreating footsteps splashing hurriedly down the road. After that a deathlike silence reigned in the house.

“Gysbert, they have gone and left us!” cried the terrified Jacqueline. “Left us to perish here like rats drowned in a trap when the flood reaches us! Oh, it is cruel, cruel!”

“Nonsense!” retorted her brother. “This is the finest thing that could have happened. I am certain the flood will not rise higher than these windows, so we will be perfectly safe from drowning. And now that they have deserted the house, we can turn our attention to getting out of the door somehow, and not bother with these window bars any longer. I feel certain the wood of the door will yield to this knife, and when we have made a hole big enough, we can crawl out, or burst it open, or pull back the bolts, or something. But we must be quick about it, for we want to get ahead of Dirk and warn the city before October third. That is the day after to-morrow.” In the pitchy darkness they groped and found the door. Gysbert began immediately to hack away at one of the panels, finding that it offered much less resistance than did the deeply imbedded iron bars of the window.

“Courage, Jacqueline!” he called at intervals. “We are going to make it soon, without fail. But thou hadst best keep watch at the window.” The storm far from abating, increased in violence. The wind shifted again from the northwest to the southwest, piling up the waters of the German ocean in huge masses, and dashing them against the broken dykes. At about eleven o’clock, the ominous, distant murmur increased to a loud roar. Jacqueline at the window called to Gysbert, and together they watched the terrible, awe-inspiring sight, or as much of it as they could see in the darkness.

The dreadful something approached nearer and nearer, till, with an ear-splitting sound it suddenly appeared out of the gloom,—a huge black wall of water nearly ten feet high, rolling forward with incredible swiftness, deluging, submerging, or pushing before it everything that came in its way. For one horrible instant it surged about the house, rocking the structure to its very foundations, and threatening to uproot it outright, and fling it to the ground. But the house stood firm, and the vanguard of the flood passed on, leaving the water well up to the second story window, and burying all else in its swirling depths.

When this moment of danger was past the children breathed again. Gysbert went back to his work on the door with only an, “I told thee so!” while Jacqueline kept watch at her post by the window. The black waters just a little way below her seemed dangerously near, and she imagined them to be rapidly rising. But as they were not yet up to the window, the children were for the present, at least, safe.

At midnight another panorama was spread before their eyes. While Gysbert was digging away at the door, Jacqueline was suddenly startled by a bright flash and a sharp report, across the black waste of waters. Instantly it was followed by a resounding roar, as from the mouths of twenty cannon. Gysbert dropped the knife and rushed to the window.

“The fleet! The fleet!” he cried. “They have passed the Kirk-way, and are making their way toward the city! Long live Admiral Boisot!” It was indeed the doughty Admiral and his fearless Beggars of the Sea. Up till that day he had been all but in despair, and had even written to the Prince of Orange that the expedition must be abandoned if the wind did not change. Then came the storm. The waters rose, and the Kirk-way, already broken through, was soon levelled, and the flotilla passed in triumph at midnight toward the village of Zoeterwoude. Not half a mile distant from the farmhouse in which the children were incarcerated, the fleet received its first challenge from the guarding Spanish sentinels, and answered with such a roar of cannon as all but staggered the astounded outposts.

Then ensued a terrible battle, amid a scene perhaps the strangest in which ever a battle was fought. From out the village of Zoeterwoude flocked the Spanish, making their way in any kind of craft on which they could lay hands. The fleet found itself progressing amid half-submerged tree-tops and orchards, interspersed with chimney stacks and the roofs of low houses. In this strange surrounding they grappled with the Spanish enemy. All the advantage, however, was on their side, as they had but to upset the frail crafts of the Spanish in order to create the most utter rout in the ranks of the enemy.

From the window the children watched the strange spectacle, the room being frequently illuminated by the glare from the cannons. So near were they, that even the shouts and cries reached them distinctly, and once was borne to them across the waters, the “Song of the Beggars” uplifted in a swelling chorus of triumphant voices:

Long live the Beggars! Wilt thou God’s word cherish—
Long live the Beggars! bold of heart and hand.
Long live the Beggars! God will not see thee perish.
Long live the Beggars! oh, noble Christian band!”

Then the fleet swept on, and though the sound of shouting and cannonading diminished but little, the battle passed out of the range of the children’s vision.

When morning dawned over the waste of gray waters, it revealed a weird and desolate scene outside the window. But inside, it lighted up a door in which Gysbert had carved a hole long enough for him to reach his arm through and unloose the bolts!