Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons/Chapter 3

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"TURN thy face a little more to the light, Jacqueline. I want to get a full profile.”

In the little living-room of the house in Belfry Lane, at the two children, on an evening a month after the vents of the last chapter. On one side of the table Vrouw Voorhaas bent over a huge pile of mending, casting an occasional loving and solicitous glance at her two charges, but otherwise quiet, silent and reserved. She was a woman of large, almost masculine proportions, and her muscular frame knew not the meaning of fatigue. Her features were plain and unprepossessing to a degree, but nevertheless grave and intelligent. She was rarely known to smile, and her manner was as that of one weighted down with a great responsibility. Gysbert frequently told his sister that Vrouw Voorhaas acted as though she had some dark secret on her mind, and Jacqueline was forced to admit the truth of the remark. Her devotion to the children was beyond question, yet she seldom exhibited any outward expression of affection.

Jacqueline bent over a musty-looking old book, turning its pages thoughtfully, and drawing her pretty brows together with a puzzled expression at frequent intervals. Gysbert sat on the opposite side of the table with pencil and paper before him, making a sketch of his sister’s head as she leaned over her book.

“What is it thou art reading so intently?” he demanded at length.

“’Tis an old volume that belonged to father’s library,—the only book that was not sold before we left Louvain,” answered Jacqueline. Neither she nor Gysbert noticed the startled glance with which Vrouw Voorhaas raised her head at these words. Jacqueline continued:

“It seems to he all about medicine. Thou knowest how that subject interests me, Gysbert. I long, when I grow up to practice the healing art. I feel in some way as if the gift were in me.”

“Poof!” said the boy. “Women are not fashioned to be physicians,—they have other duties! Thou art mad, Jacqueline! Such business is not for thee!”

“Ah! I know it is not considered a woman’s business, and few if any have tried it. Yet there is the famous Queen Marguerite of Navarre. They say she is the wisest woman in France, for all she is so young, and knows not only Latin, Greek and other languages, but much about medicine and the healing art also! I have been reading in this old book, but I can make little out of it, for there is much Latin in it, of which I understand nothing. But it is my great hope that some day I shall study all about it, even though I never become a physician.”

While they were talking, Vrouw Voorhaas gathered up her work and without a word, left the room. No sooner had she gone than Gysbert leaned across the table, and spoke to his sister in a voice scarcely above a whisper:

“Jacqueline, now that Vrouw Voorhaas is out of the way, I want to tell thee several things, some of which I learned to-day. One thing I have fully made up my mind to do,—I am going to become a ‘jumper’!”

“A ‘jumper,’ Gysbert! And what may that be?”

“Why, I might as well begin at the beginning and explain it all,” he answered. “Thou knowest the siege has lasted now for over a month, and things are beginning to look black for us. There is no more bread in the city, and but very little of the malt-cakes on which we are all now living. Precious glad I am that we were fortunate enough to lay in an extra stock of seeds for our pigeons, or we should soon be reduced to feeding on them!

“Well, I was in the square before the statehouse this morning, and through listening to and taking part in some of the gossip there, I learned a few things. In the first place, our good William the Silent cannot possibly raise a sufficient army to encounter the besieging troops of the Spaniards, that’s plain. Relief must come in some other way, but how, God alone knows! However, our wonderful Prince is wise and resourceful. Let us not despair, but trust him to save us, and do our best to help.

“Jacqueline, I am going to do my part! To-morrow I go to Burgomaster Van der Werf, to offer myself as a ‘jumper.’ Let me tell thee what that means. The Prince wants a few swift, skillful messengers who will go out of the gates secretly, in some kind of disguise, and make their way through the Spanish forces to him. Now I am young, I know, hut I am big and strong, and I know my way around the walls and outside the city as well and perhaps better than anyone in Leyden. And I want to do something! I can’t sit around idle while all are helping in one way or another. Why dost thou look so white and frightened, Jacqueline?”

“Ah, Gysbert! thou must not do this! Thou wilt surely be captured and killed. Ah! I cannot allow it, nor will Vrouw Voorhaas!”

“Vrouw Voorhaas must not know of it,—at least at first. And thou must not interfere with me, dear sister. I know that our father, were he alive, would approve of my decision. Did he not always tell us to be courageous, and would he not wish us to serve our city in this great distress?” This argument silenced Jacqueline’s remonstrances.

“Do what thou wilt, Gysbert, since thou thinkest that our father would approve, only be not rash, and have a care for thy life. What would I do if thou wert taken from me, brother?”

“I will be most cautious, sister, never fear for that!”

“But how shall we keep it from Vrouw Voorhaas? She would lock thee in a room and never let thee out, did she but dream of thy decision!”

“Thou mayst tell her that I am out helping with the defence of the city, if I fail to come back for too long a period. That will be the strict truth, yet not enough to alarm her seriously,” answered Gysbert.

“How absurdly worried and careful she has been about us, since the day we told her of the King’s Pardon and Dirk Willumhoog! She turned deathly white at the mention of his name, and I thought she was going to faint when we told her what he said before he left the gate. Dost thou remember, Gysbert?”

“Aye, but let me tell thee something else, Jacqueline. What dost thou think of this? I saw Dirk Willumhoog in the city this morning!”

“Gysbert! thou art surely joking! That cannot be possible. Since he was expelled from the city, how could he get back?”

“Ask me not how he got back, for I do not know. But the best of it is that he did not see me, and he was so disguised that had it not been for certain circumstances, I should never have known him. I had strolled up Hengist Hill after leaving the Breede Straat, and had climbed into a tree to get a better view of the Spanish army outside the walls. I was sitting in the branches very quietly, when a man in a long cloak and big slouching hat came out of the grove and sat down right under my tree. Thinking himself alone, he took off his hat, threw aside his cloak, and then to my great surprise, pulled off the thick beard that covered his face!

“‘Ah, but it is hot!’ I heard him mutter. Then he stood up and stretched his arms, and I all but lost my hold and fell out of the tree when I recognized who it was! He sat down again and rested for half an hour, and I thought he would never go. Fortunately he did not once think of looking up or he would have certainly seen me. At last he donned his beard, hat and cloak, and sneaked off never dreaming who had watched his every movement! I would give a good round florin to know what he is after!”

“Ah, I am sure it is some harm to us, he is plotting!” shuddered Jacqueline. “Dost thou recall his look of hate on that dreadful day, Gysbert? He has some reason for wishing us evil.”

“That may or may not be,” answered Gysbert. “At any rate, I think he can do us but little harm. However, thou shouldst be careful about going abroad in the city alone, Jacqueline. Thou art not as strong as I.”

“I go nowhere except to purchase our small allowance of food—thou knowst Vrouw Voorhaas never goes out at all now—and to visit poor Jan Van Buskirk once a day, and take him some soothing medicine. He says that nothing helps him like the decoction of my herbs, and nothing charms away his pain like the touch of my hands. Dost thou know, Gysbert, that he has been obliged to kill and eat most of his pigeons since food has been so short? I know not what he will do when they are gone!”

“We will share our food with him, Jacqueline. He has always been so kind to us, and taught us how to raise and train our pigeons. But now, let us to rest! It is late, and I must see Burgomaster Van der Werf early to-morrow.”

Poor Jacqueline’s sleep that night was restless and tormented by frightful dreams in which Gysbert’s new and dangerous vocation, and the evil face of Dirk Willumhoog bore no inconspicuous part. Gysbert, on the contrary, slept sweetly and undisturbed as a year old baby, and rose next morning betimes to seek what fortune he should meet in this new enterprise.

Adrian Van der Werf sat alone in his great office in the statehouse. His fine face was clouded with an expression of intense gloom, and he shook his head gravely as he looked out over the besieged city. Was this fair spot to fall a prey to Spanish vengeance, as its sister cities had fallen? He saw no hope in present prospects, for a better fate. Presently an official opened the door and saluted him:

“A small boy outside wishes to speak with your Worship.”

“Admit him,” answered the burgomaster. “I am not engaged at present.” Glancing up as Gysbert entered, his face lighted with a smile of recognition.

“Ah! thou art the boy who warned us of the approach of the Spaniards! Thou art a brave and thoughtful lad. What can I do for thee?”

“Your Worship, I have a request to make,” answered Gysbert promptly. “I wish to serve my city by becoming a ‘jumper.’”

“A jumper—thou! But thou art scarce fourteen years of age, if I judge rightly. It would be wicked to expose one so young to such dangers!” exclaimed the astonished burgomaster.

“Aye, your Worship, you have guessed my age correctly. But I am strong and agile, and know the walls and outlying districts well. Moreover, I have a plan that I trust will take me safely through the Spanish lines.”

“And what may be that plan?” demanded Van der Werf, more and more amazed.

“This,” answered the boy. “I shall stain my skin and hair darker with walnut juice, that I may not be recognized. And pretending to be somewhat half-witted, I shall go out among the Spanish troops peddling healing herbs. My sister raises many such in her little garden and has taught me much of their use. In this way I can most likely get through the lines, unsuspected and unmolested, and deliver any message to your faithful ones who are beyond.”

“It is a clever scheme!” admitted the wondering burgomaster. “And if thou dost act thy part well, thou wilt be fairly safe.”

“Likewise,” added Gysbert, “I have some carrier pigeons that have been exceedingly well-trained, and perchance could make them of use also.”

“The very thing!” exclaimed Van der Werf. “Our stock of carrier pigeons waxes very low, having either died of starvation, or been eaten. I have been wondering where I should find well-fed, well-trained birds to fill their place. Canst thou take a couple at a time with thee! I must needs send some to William the Silent at Delft, else we will get no more messages from him.”

“Aye, I can bind two and take them at the bottom of my bag of herbs,” answered Gysbert. “I will wager for it that they shall be delivered safely.” Adrian Van der Werf spent a moment in silent consideration.

“Thou art a brave and clever youth,” he said. “But thou must know that thou art risking much in this hazardous enterprise. However, God will watch over those who serve Him. Come to me to-morrow bringing two carrier pigeons, and I will instruct thee as to the message.” And Gysbert, highly pleased, departed for Belfry Lane, whistling lustily one of the popular songs of the day:

“Beat the drums gaily,
“Rub-dub a dub-dee!
“Beat the drums gaily,
“And the Spaniards will flee!”