Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons/Chapter 18

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GYSBERT rowed away frantically from the scene of destruction. He had not, for the moment, the slightest idea what direction he was taking, but his mind was actively at work. The wall of Leyden had fallen in for the space of nearly a quarter of a mile! If the Spaniards had the faintest suspicion of this, he reasoned, they would flock immediately to the scene, and make an easy and terrible entrance. There was no defending the breach from the inside, for the brave, but hunger-enfeebled corps of John Van der Does would be as nothing before the fierce thousands of the Spanish army. To his mind there remained but one course,—he must in some way get word to Admiral Boisot and his Sea Beggars, and let them make an entrance into the city before the Spaniards got wind of the disaster.

With this end in view he looked about him, ascertained as nearly as he could the position of the fleet, and commenced to row steadily in that direction. As he drew near the Fortress of Lammen, however, he became aware that something very strange was taking place. Wonderingly he shipped his oars and turned about to watch the curious sight. Myriads of tiny lights twinkled across the dark waste of waters. There was almost no sound, but only a vague impression that something mysterious was happening. After a time the lights formed themselves into a long procession which seemed to flit steadily across the one remaining causeway that led to the Hague.

The boy sat breathless, eager, marvelling at this apparently never-ending procession of lights, twinkling in single file over what seemed the very face of the water. For a time he could find no explanation for this singular spectacle, till all at once the truth flashed on him. The Spaniards were retreating! Under cover of darkness, they were silently sneaking away, fleeing panic-stricken from the unknown terror of that hideous sound in the night,—fleeing like cowards at the very moment when fortune had rendered their entrance to the coveted city as easy as stepping over a log!

Truly had God’s providence operated in a marvellous manner! At the crash of the falling wall, the terrified citizens of Leyden believed that the Spaniards had at last effected their entrance in some horrible way. The Spanish, on the other hand, felt certain that the citizens were making a final, desperate sortie. And between this new danger on one side, and the fierce Sea Beggars and the inward-surging ocean on the other, they deemed retreat to be their only course, short of complete extermination, and they fled away in the night.

For two hours Gysbert sat in his little boat and watched the retreat. In all the city of Leyden or its environments, he was the only soul that night who was aware of the true state of affairs. At length the last few straggling lights disappeared, and all was silence and darkness. When he was convinced that a nearer approach was safe, he rowed slowly toward Fort Lammen, reconnoitering carefully at almost every yard. But the nearer he drew, the plainer it became that the fort was absolutely deserted. Boldly landing at the foot of the battlement, he entered at the cannon-defended gate, and found the enclosure empty. Colonel Borgia and his troops had fled so hastily that even some of their time-honored battle-flags were left behind!

Gysbert was not content, however, with ascertaining only the condition of Lammen. It was quite possible that the retreating army had halted at Leyderdorp, the headquarters of Valdez, half a mile away. Now that he was about it, he concluded that he might as well investigate there before daylight. Again pushing off his boat, he paddled across the shallow lake that now spread over what was ordinarily meadow-land. But Leyderdorp was also deserted. Guided by a dying camp-fire, he reached a small building which he guessed to be the abode of General Valdez. The fire was built before the doorway, and over it was still cooking a pot of “hodge-podge” or stewed meat and vegetables. Evidently it had been intended for the breakfast of the general, but so speedy had been the retreat that it was left behind in the hurry.

“Whew!” ejaculated Gysbert, leaning over the pot. “This smells right savory to a stomach that has had nothing to-day but half a water-soaked loaf! Thanks, my cowardly friends! I’ll partake of your bounty before I do another thing!” Swinging the pot from its hook, and scarcely waiting for it to cool, he helped himself to a large quantity doled out with a great iron spoon, and ate as only a half-starved, healthy boy can eat, till he could hold no more.

Hunger satisfied, he proceeded to investigate the fleeing general’s quarters. By the dying fire-light he could discern several maps of Leyden and the outlying districts pinned about the walls, and on the table lay a scrap of paper hastily written upon. Gysbert took it out to the fire, coaxed the embers into a blaze, and kneeling over the flames tried to decipher the writing. It was in Latin, and very poor Latin at that, and was plainly the General’s farewell to the city. Gysbert had been for over a year studying this language in school, so he was able to construe its meaning fairly well.

Vale civitas!” he read. “Valete castelli parvii, qui relicti estis propter aquam et non per vim inimicorum!

“‘Vale civitas!’—That’s ‘Farewell city of Leyden!’ I suppose. ‘Valete castelli parvii—’ What in the world can he mean by that! If I had written such stuff in the Latin-school, the master would have boxed my ears and kept me in from play for three days to write my conjugations! What this doughty Spaniard wished to remark was probably—‘Farewell miserable town! Thou art abandoned because of the water, and not because of the strength of thy resistance!’ Oh, ho! noble Valdez, thy Latin is as poor as thy courage! I must keep this carefully to hand to Admiral Boisot.”

But the dawn was already breaking, and Gysbert hurried back to Lammen, carrying with him as a souvenir, the iron pot of hodge-podge. Early that morning there was to be a combined assault on the fort by the Admiral’s fleet and the citizens of the town. The day before, Boisot had despatched the last pigeon into the city, urging the starving populace to aid him in one last desperate attack. With the first streaks of daylight all was in readiness, and the Admiral prepared to push his fleet under the very guns of cannon-bristling Lammen. But to his great astonishment, as the flotilla drew nearer, not a sound came from within the fort, not a vestige of life was to be seen anywhere. A sickening fear assailed him that the Spaniards had entered the walls during the night, which would explain the hideous sounds he had heard, and were already sacking the city.

Suddenly upon the summit of the breastwork appeared the figure of a small boy. With one hand he waved his cap, and in the other he brandished a great pot of hodge-podge.

“Come on! Come on!” he shouted. “They’ve gone! They fled in the night! Have no fear!” For a moment good Boisot could hardly believe his senses. But his sailors lost no time, pushed the fleet to the very walls of the fortress and found it to be true. Past the terrible Lammen they floated in triumph. The watching, wondering citizens of the city opened the gates with shouts of joy, and the conquering fleet sailed in. Leyden was saved!

In the twinkling of an eye were the canals and docks lined with throngs of the starving populace. They grasped with famished delight the loaves of bread thrown to them by the jolly Beggars of the Sea, and nearly choked themselves to death trying to swallow huge mouthfuls without even chewing them.

Gysbert waited impatiently on the fortress till he saw the familiar lugger of Joris Fruytiers come into view, and then ran down and climbed aboard her. Words cannot describe the meeting between himself and Jacqueline, who during that night of terror and uncertainty had given him up for dead. They had much to tell each other, but little time to give to it, for old Captain Joris demanded at once the whole history of Gysbert’s night, and was loud in the praise of his bravery.

When the last vessel had entered the gates, stanch Admiral Boisot stood on the deck of his flag-ship and made a speech to the assembled crowds. He ended by saying that both the city and the Sea Beggars had much to thank God for, and proposed that they all proceed to the great cathedral of St. Peter, to render their praise to the God of Battles at once. Then many remembered what in the excitement of the moment they had quite forgotten—that the day was Sunday! With the Admiral at their head, they marched in solid ranks down the Breede Straat, and entered the cathedral reverently.

“Shall we go?” questioned Gysbert of his sister. “Or dost thou think we had best go straight home first?”

“No,” answered Jacqueline, “I think God’s worship claims us before all else!” and they entered the church with the rest. Only a suffering, plague- stricken, lately besieged and recently delivered people could have rendered such thanks as rose up to God’s throne from St. Peter’s that day. There were sounds of suppressed sobbing all through the congregation, and strong men’s eyes grew moist when the clergyman read:

“‘Oh, that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!

“‘They cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses!

“‘For He satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry with good things!

“‘He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death. He brake their bands in sunder!

“‘For He commandeth and raiseth the stormy wind which lifteth up the waves!

“‘Oh, give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, for His mercy endureth forever!’”

Then the congregation rose, and every voice joined in their battle-hymn:

“A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing!
Our helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe,
His craft and power are great.
And armed with cruel hate,—
On earth is not his equal!”

But in the midst of the second verse, a general emotion checked the volume of sound. One by one the voices failed, till at last the whole vast multitude broke down and wept like children, out of the great thankfulness for their deliverance. In their corner by a window, Gysbert openly sobbed with his head on his arm, and Jacqueline stood with the tears raining down her face, and the glad light of happiness in her eyes.

“Come,” she said when the service was over. “We must hasten at once to Vrouw Voorhaas! I have sad misgivings that all is not well with her.” They had, however, gone but a few steps when they heard a shout behind them, and turning they beheld Dr. Pieter de Witt beckoning to them and running as fast as he could come. Seizing Gysbert, he hugged him distractedly, and he squeezed Jacqueline’s hand till she almost screamed aloud.

“You blessed, blessed children!” he shouted. “I never supposed I should see you again! Ah, this will indeed re-animate old Jan, and even Vrouw Voorhaas may—but come!” And he rushed them along so fast that Jacqueline could hardly find breath in which to ask after the sick woman.

“She is very, very low!” panted De Witt. “We hardly expect her to live through the day, but the sight of you two may make some difference,—I cannot tell! Hurry, hurry!” They reached Belfry Lane, stopped a moment to regain breath, and all three crept upstairs as softly as possible. The opened door revealed a strange sight to their astonished gaze. Jan stood huddled in a corner, eyes wide with amazement, apprehension, and doubt. Vrouw Voorhaas, withered and shrunken by her long illness, half sat up in her bed looking more like a ghost than a living being. But most astonishing of all, over her leaned a stranger, a tall, gaunt man clad in the uniform of the Beggars of the Sea. He bent over the woman, clasping her hand and questioning her anxiously in a low voice. Her face was lined with despair, and her words, though faint, were audible to the listeners at the door:

“Gone!—gone!—not here!—” Suddenly she raised her head and saw the newcomers. With a great happy cry she pointed to them:

“They are here! they are safe!—I have fulfilled my duty,—praise God!” and she fell back unconscious on the pillow.