Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons/Chapter 17

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WITH a mighty effort Gysbert drew back the massive bolt and chain that bad so long kept them prisoners, pushed open the demolished door, and they stood outside the room—free at last!

“Go cautiously!” warned he. “We are not yet absolutely sure that everyone is out of the bouse. But I have this knife, if we meet anyone, and it comes to the worst. We won’t try to go down stairs,—it would be like diving into a tank!” And indeed the water had entered the bouse and crept three-quarters of the way up the staircase, while bumping against the ceiling of the rooms below, floated articles of Vrouw Hansleer’s cherished furniture.

From room to room on the second floor the children crept, carefully listening and waiting before they entered any door. But the house was plainly deserted, except for themselves, and in a short time they abandoned all caution, rollicking about in their new freedom like a couple of three-year-olds! Theirs, they soon discovered, were the only other bedrooms on that floor, and of course the only ones with barred windows. Two other large apartments occupied the remaining space, one evidently used as a storeroom, the other as a granary. Both had large, open windows through which it would be easy to pass.

For a long time they stood at one of these windows, watching the strange sight outside. The water swept by from the ocean inward with a rapid current, bearing on its surface every imaginable article that could float. Boxes, barrels, furniture of every description, parts of houses, here and there a struggling cow or pig, and not infrequently a great haystack striking out majestically on its impromptu voyage. Once a baby’s cradle completely furnished, came in sight, and Jacqueline went nearly wild with terror and excitement lest it might bear a precious burden in its wrappings. But as it was swept nearer they saw that it was empty, and both children breathed a sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, Gysbert of the fertile brain had already concocted a plan of escape.

“I tell thee, Jacqueline, we shall get out of here in the easiest way imaginable, if we can only fish out of this muddle the thing we need! Sooner or later some small boat is bound to come along,—I know it, for I saw one way off there just now, too far away to reach. First we will try to forage up something to eat, if that is possible, for I am nearly starved and thou must be also. Then we will each station ourselves at a window,—I in this room and thou in the granary,—to watch for a boat. In this way we can see from both directions. I will be prepared to swim for it if it comes near enough, and then the matter will be simple.”

“Aye, but I advise thee to first wash thy face!” responded Jacqueline gaily. “That plague-smitten countenance of thine would frighten away any rescuers we might encounter!” And so, laughing, Gysbert followed her advice, leaning out of the window to dabble his hands in the water that now lapped within a foot of the sill.

Breakfast was about as difficult a matter as any they had to undertake, for everything eatable was downstairs, and it would be worse than useless to attempt procuring anything from those water-soaked depths. Beside, they had very little notion as to the whereabouts of the kitchen. So they turned again to the windows to solve their problem, counting it almost certain that eatables of some sort must in due time go sailing by. Their watch was long but not in vain, for in an hour or so, there hove in sight a loaf of bread floating so close that it was within reach of a long stick which they used to secure their treasure. Water-logged and unsavory as it was, they devoured it with unspeakable relish, for was it not the first meal they had eaten in freedom this many a weary day!

Then came the watch for the craft that was to bear them away. But the morning wore on, and though they strained their eyes in every direction, nothing in the least available came into view. The water continued to rise till it was only six inches below the window ledge, and should it come much further, their position might be reckoned exceedingly precarious. What they should do if the second floor became flooded except climb out on the roof, they could not imagine. At last, well on in the afternoon, Jacqueline called excitedly from her lookout:

“Gysbert! Gysbert! Come here immediately! The very thing!” He was at her side in an instant, and there, sure enough, coming rapidly down stream was a little, shallow rowboat bobbing gaily along on the waves. In a very few moments it would be abreast of them.

“I’ll have to swim for it,” said Gysbert. “It’s too far away to reach with the pole!” Hastily flinging oft some of his outer garments he plunged out of the window. He reached the spot opposite the window not an instant too soon; just as the stern of the boat swung by he grasped it and climbed clumsily aboard. But to Jacqueline’s surprise, he did not instantly grasp the oars and start to pull back. Instead he put his hands to his mouth, shouted, “No oars!” and in a twinkling was swept from her sight.

For a moment the situation did not seem very serious, and she waited calmly, thinking he would soon pick up an oar or a pole and return to her. But the time passed on and he did not come. The minutes grew into half an hour, then dragged themselves out to a full hour. Still no Gysbert! Jacqueline became almost distracted, and the situation warranted every fear that thronged her terrified soul. Suppose the water should rise and flood the room? Suppose the night should fall and add its horrors to the prospect? Suppose Dirk Willumhoog should return and snatch her away to unknown terrors? Suppose Gysbert should be swamped in his little boat and drowned? Suppose?—But the accumulated burden of these fears was too great to be borne. She fell on her knees by the window ledge in an agony of prayer, but could only murmur:

“Oh, God, God, God! Help!—”

The afternoon waned and twilight drew down. The water was now within an inch of the window ledge, but Jacqueline did not notice. She knelt with her head buried in her arms, and neither saw nor heard anything. Suddenly she was aroused from this half-stupor by a loud shout. She raised her head and perceived to her delight, a bulky canal vessel, so close that it looked as though it were about to sail right in the window. Over the prow leaned Gysbert, and a man whose face she did not recognize.

“Oh, Jacqueline!” called her brother. “Didst thou think I had forsaken thee? Well, I’ve had the amazing good fortune to be picked up by Herr Captain Joris Fruytiers, and we came at once to get thee!” It took but a moment to launch the little boat, and take Jacqueline on board. As she crept into the boat, Gysbert noticed that the water was just beginning to trickle over the window-sill into the room.

“Jacqueline, we weren’t a moment too soon, were we?” he remarked gravely. When the girl had been established in comfortable quarters in the roomy old canal-vessel, Gysbert told her the history of his adventures since he had been swept from her sight. He had at first felt perfectly confident of finding an oar or a pole floating along in the general confusion, so he did not jump out and swim back as he might have done. But the current bore him on and on, and nothing available did he see in all his journey. Presently, as he was watching over one side of the boat, he heard a hearty voice call out from the opposite direction:

“Ship ahoy! Well, if that isn’t a pretty small fry commanding that bark!” and he recognized the gruff voice of his former acquaintance on the road to Delft. Captain Fruytiers had lost no time in getting both himself and his little boat aboard the big lugger which he said he was taking to join the fleet of Boisot at Zwieten. Gysbert quickly told the bluff captain his story and easily persuaded him to turn back and rescue Jacqueline from her perilous position.

This was all, except that from some passing vessel they had picked up the news that the Fleet had made a most triumphant progress all day, scattering the Spaniards right and left, as they poured from the captured fortresses and fled along the road to the Hague. But Boisot had now arrived before the strongest Spanish redoubt,—the fortress of Lammen, less than five hundred rods from the city. Here he was obliged to halt, for it swarmed with soldiers, bristled with artillery, and defied the fleet to either capture it by force, or pass under its guns. The Admiral hoped to carry the fort next morning, but he expected a stiff battle.

Joris Fruytiers was to join the rear of the flotilla and help to swell its numbers. Plainly it was no situation for Jacqueline, in the midst of these battle-thirsty Beggars of the Sea, and yet no safer place could be found for her at present. So it was decided that she should remain on board, but Gysbert’s head was full of another plan for himself:

“I must get into the city somehow! It would be horrible, with relief so near, to have that scoundrel, Dirk, lead in a Spanish regiment and bring about an untimely surrender,” he urged. “What is more, I have not a minute to spare, for to-morrow night the deed is to be done. If I can get in to-night it will be time enough to warn the burgomaster and raise a defending corps to guard the breach. Stay thou here with good Joris Fruytiers, and I will take the small boat and a pair of oars, and row to the side where I can get through the scattering army, and into Dirk Willumhoog’s clever little entrance!”

So Jacqueline acquiesced, and watched her brother row away with much trepidation and many unuttered prayers for his safety. Darkness soon shut each boat from the sight of the other, but Gysbert paddled on keeping clear of floating debris as best he could, and trying hard to ascertain through the blackness just what was his location. Several times he found himself far out of his course, and thus more than one valuable hour was lost. At length, however, the water became too shallow to continue rowing, and he disembarked, tying the boat to a tree. By several signs he recognized the spot to be near where he had come out of the hidden tunnel, several weeks ago. Of the Spanish army at this spot, there remained but a few stragglers gathering up their possessions.

Gysbert concluded that the safest place for him was the tree to which he had tied his boat, and he was soon among its branches. From here he watched the departure of the last Spaniard, and was just about to descend, when one solitary sneaking shadow attracted his attention. In the blackness of the night he could discover little of its intentions, but as it moved off in the direction of the wall, he decided to get down and follow it. The shadow glided along straight for the wall till it finally disappeared behind the bushes that hid the secret opening. When Gysbert arrived on the spot, there was not even a shadow to be seen. Then a great light dawned on his mind.

“Dirk Willumhoog!” he whispered. “What on earth am I to do now?” For a moment he stood undecided. He dared not venture into the secret passage while his enemy was there. And should Dirk not come back it was still very unsafe, for he might be guarding the other entrance. But the matter was soon to be solved in a way very different from any he could possibly have imagined.

While he stood considering his course, he was startled by a curious rumbling sound that appeared to emanate from the very earth under his feet. Then there were grinding and groaning noises, low and indistinct, but terrifying beyond imagination. Gysbert’s hair fairly rose on his head, and something impelled him to beat the hastiest kind of a retreat. Turning on his heel, he ran with all speed to his boat, unmoored it, pushed it off, and rowed far out upon the black water.

Suddenly there was a terrific sound like an explosion, then a crash that shook the earth for miles around, and made Gysbert’s little boat rock on the waves till it all but overturned completely. When the boy recovered himself enough to realize what had happened, it did not take him long to explain the dreadful sounds. Undermined by the stream so long secretly eating at its base, the whole wall of Leyden between the Cow Gate and the Tower of Burgundy had suddenly fallen in utter ruins!