Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons/Chapter 5

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ON the morning of Gysbert’s first venture into the midst of the enemy, Jacqueline rose with a very heavy heart. She helped her brother with the last preparations for his departure, aided him in escaping the vigilant eye of Vrouw Voorhaas who was already at work though the hour was so early, and bade him a tearful farewell as he sped down the silent street. But her mind was full of foreboding, and she felt as though she could never live through the time till he should return in safety. To pass the weary hours and otherwise occupy her thoughts, she assisted Vrouw Voorhaas with the daily routine of housework, cleaned the pigeon-house, and fed her eighteen remaining pets with a scanty supply of their rapidly diminishing stock of corn.

Vrouw Voorhaas had many questions to ask concerning the whereabouts of Gysbert whom she had not seen that day. Jacqueline parried these as best she could, explaining that he had gone off early to execute some errands for Burgomaster Van der Werf. Her companion, unconvinced that all was as it should be, and vaguely uneasy about her youngest charge, accepted the explanation somewhat distrustfully. To change the subject Jacqueline began to talk about their supply of food and to make plans for husbanding it to the last crumb. While she was talking her gaze suddenly riveted itself on the tall form of the older woman.

“Why Vrouw Voorhaas,” she exclaimed, “how thin thou art growing! See, thy dress dost hang about thee in great folds, and thine arms almost show the bones! Surely we have not yet come to the pass when such loss of flesh would be noticeable! What hast thou been doing?”

“Nothing, nothing, child!” exclaimed the woman hastily. “I eat as heartily as our supply of food will permit, but the hot weather always did reduce my flesh. Hurry away now, and see what thou canst purchase at the market, but try not to be seen too prominently. Young people are not too safe in the streets in these wild times. Art going to visit old Jan to-day?”

“Yes,” answered Jacqueline. “He grows worse and worse, though I do my best to aid him. There seems to be something else ailing him beside just his lumbago, but I cannot quite make out what it is, and he will not see a physician. I will go out and gather some fresh herbs now to take with me.”

The girl took her little basket and went out to her patch of garden at the back of the house. Gay flowers bloomed in one half of it, but the other was devoted to the cultivation of the medicinal herbs whose healing properties she had carefully studied in the old book belonging to her father. First she gathered a sweet-smelling bouquet of late roses and jasmine to cheer the eyes of old Jan, and then stooping among the herbs selected those most calculated to help his poor infirm body. When this was done she re-entered the house, added some malt-cakes and a bottle of Vrouw Voorhaas’s cooling homemade wine, and proceeded on her errand of comfort.

Jan Van Buskirk’s home was on a tiny street just off the Marendorfstrasse, and to reach it Jacqueline was obliged to take a rather circuitous route that led through the poorest section of the city. What she saw there on that day tore her gentle heart with an agony of sympathy. The weather was extremely hot and oppressive, and every one seemed to have sought the coolness of the shaded street in preference to the little suffocating rooms. Pale, emaciated children thronged the doorways, many gnawing on dry unsightly bones from which the last vestige of meat had long since disappeared. Sick babies wailed fretfully, white, haggard men and women strove in vain to comfort them. And here and there lay stretched on an improvised cot the form of some person desperately ill, moaning piteously. Jacqueline contrasted the scene with these same comfortable, happy people of a few months before and her heart grew rebellious at the mighty suffering entailed in just the little word “war.” “Is there no help,—no help for it?” she asked herself.

Jan Van Buskirk was worse, unquestionably worse than when she had visited him before, and his condition alarmed her seriously. He was tossing from side to side, rolling his head feverishly, and muttering incoherent words; nor did he seem in the least to recognize his little friend. Jacqueline quietly determined that it was high time he had more expert medical advice than she could offer, and went out hastily to seek the nearest physician. Dr. Pieter de Witt was hard to find for his duties were long and arduous in these dreadful days, but finally she discovered him in the house of a poor family all sick but the mother who could hardly drag herself around. Hearing Jacqueline’s errand he made haste to accompany her. One glance at the unconscious Jan told him the tale.

“My girl,” he said, turning to Jacqueline, “go away from here as speedily as thou canst. This man has the plague. It has broken out in several parts of the city, owing to bad food or none at all, and this man has caught it. Thou art exposing thyself to a terrible disease and almost certain death. This is no place for thee. Go home, and I will take care of the man to the best of my ability, but I doubt if he will live, even so.”

Jacqueline’s eyes opened wide with a startled look, and she glanced uncertainly at Jan. The sick man stirred restlessly, then with a sudden cry muttered her name in his feverish sleep. At that word the girl formed her decision.

“I will not go, Dr. de Witt. This man has been a friend to me and mine ever since I can remember. I do not fear the plague, and even if I did it would not keep me from giving all the aid I could to Jan Van Buskirk. Moreover, I know a little about medicine myself, having read it in an old book in my possession. I have raised healing herbs, and I also possess one which has the power, they say, to protect from such diseases if carried about the person. I will always have it by me, for I wish to help you in nursing this my friend back to life and health.” Dr. de Witt looked her over for a moment in silent astonishment. Then he spoke:

“Thou art a brave maiden, whoever thou art, and I would that there were many more like thee! Help me thou shalt if such is thy determination, and the good God will bless thee and protect thee from all harm. There is much in having absolutely no fear of this contagion, and I see thou hast none. With thy help we may perhaps save our old friend and neighbor.” Together they labored over the old man, and before he left, the doctor expressed his amazed approval of the skill and knowledge exhibited by this fair slip of a girl in tending and administering to the sick. Beyond this too, something in her manner, her look and her speech indefinably recalled to him old recollections.

“Thou dost constantly put me in mind of some one,” he remarked finally. “Hadst thou ever any relation who was a physician? What is thy father?”

“I have no father,” answered the girl with the reticence she had learned to exhibit through Vrouw Voorhaas’s teaching. “He is long since dead.”

“But what is thy last name?” persisted the good doctor.

“Coovenden,” replied Jacqueline with the hesitancy she could never quite overcome in pronouncing this assumed title.

“Coovenden? Ah, it is not a name that I recognize—and yet there is something,—I know not what, which stirs me!” And he went away shaking his head thoughtfully. On her way home Jacqueline stopped at the public market to purchase what scarce supply of provisions she was able to obtain.

“But this is a miserable little cabbage!” she expostulated mildly to the huckster who served her. “And see! this mutton-bone has scarce any meat upon it. ’Twill be watery soup that is made from this mess!”

“And lucky thou art to have any soup at all!” answered the market-woman. “I tell thee, girl, the time is coming when we shall be glad to eat the grass that grows in the streets, and that’s not far distant, either. I, for one would gladly see the gates opened to the Spaniards. They are better at least than slow starvation!” Jacqueline shrank away from her at these words so like disloyalty to the great cause, and hurried home with the news she had to tell.

As the day wore on, Vrouw Voorhaas became more and more uneasy about Gysbert, and questioned his sister so closely about his absence that she had hard work quieting the woman’s fears and at the same time hiding the truth about him. She herself was beset by more definite terrors for his safety than Vrouw Voorhaas could even guess, and though she did not expect Gysbert before nightfall, counted the moments with ever-increasing agitation.

Then darkness came and the two partook of their frugal supper, laying aside a generous portion for the boy. One by one the stars twinkled out. Jacqueline, sitting by the window tried to count them to distract her thoughts. Her mind reverted again and again to the scenes of the morning, and the pictures of the suffering she had witnessed would not fade from her consciousness. As she sat leaning her head against the casement, she was suddenly startled by having two hands clapped over her eyes, and a voice whispering in her ear:

“Guess who it is!”

“Gysbert!” she exclaimed. “How didst thou get in?”

“Hush! I slipped in through the garden and climbed to my window up the rose-trellis. I did not want Vrouw Voorhaas to see my disguise, and have washed it all off and changed my clothes. Where is she?”

“In her room,” answered his sister, “and right anxious about thee, I can warrant! But tell me all about it, Gysbert!”

In hasty sentences the boy told her of his day’s adventures. She listened with breathless interest, and shuddered not a few times at the narrowness of his escapes. Then she recounted to him her own experiences, and told of Jan Van Buskirk’s illness and danger. When she had finished they sat together in the darkness for a long time without speaking. Finally Jacqueline took her brother ’s hand in hers and said:

“Gysbert, thine own bravery and the dark scenes I have witnessed to-day have set me thinking, and to-night I have made my resolve. Since thou hast given thyself to the dangerous task of assisting our beloved city, I, too, can do no less than devote myself to the relief of some of its suffering. To-morrow I shall seek Dr. de Witt and ask him to allow me to accompany him in his visits to the sick and starving. I can aid in nursing them, at least, since God has given me that power.

Gysbert returned his sister’s clasp, but continued in silence for some moments. Truth to tell, he was struggling with a lump that had risen in his throat, and was glad that the darkness hid the tears that had gathered under his lashes. The experience of the last few days and weeks had helped to give him a poise beyond his years, but his admiration for his sister’s quiet courage almost deprived him of words with which to express it. Presently, however, he got up and put his arms around her neck.

“Jacqueline,” he said, trying to master the huskiness in his voice, “thou art very brave. I would rather go ten times into the heart of the Spanish army, than once into a room with the plague. But thou art right. It is thy destined work since thou hast chosen it, and our father, were he here, would surely say, ‘Well done!’”