The Phantom Ship, by Captain Marryat.
Captain Frederick Marryat was born July 10 1792, and died August 8 1848. He retired from the British navy in 1828 in order to devote himself to writing. In the following 20 years he wrote 26 books, many of which are among the very best of English literature, and some of which are still in print.
Marryat had an extraordinary gift for the invention of episodes in his stories. He says somewhere that when he sat down for the day's work, he never knew what he was going to write. He certainly was a literary genius.
"The Phantom Ship" was published in 1839, the thirteenth book to flow from Marryat's pen. It is one of his very best books.
This e-text was transcribed in 1998 by Nick Hodson, and was reformatted in 2003, and again in 2005.
THE PHANTOM SHIP, BY CAPTAIN FREDERICK MARRYAT.
About the middle of the seventeenth century, in the outskirts of the small but fortified town of Terneuse, situated on the right bank of the Scheldt, and nearly opposite to the island of Walcheren, there was to be seen in advance of a few other even more humble tenements, a small but neat cottage, built according to the prevailing taste of the time. The outside front had, some years back, been painted of a deep orange, the windows and shutters of a vivid green. To about three feet above the surface of the earth, it was faced alternately with blue and white tiles. A small garden, of about two rods of our measure of land, surrounded the edifice; and this little plot was flanked by a low hedge of privet, and encircled by a moat full of water, too wide to be leaped with ease. Over that part of the moat which was in front of the cottage-door was a small and narrow bridge, with ornamented iron handrails, for the security of the passenger. But the colours, originally so bright, with which the cottage had been decorated, had now faded; symptoms of rapid decay were evident in the window-sills, the door-jambs, and other wooden parts of the tenement and many of the white and blue tiles had fallen down and had not been replaced. That much care had once been bestowed upon this little tenement, was as evident as that latterly it had been equally neglected.
The inside of the cottage, both on the basement and the floor above, was divided into two larger rooms in front, and two smaller behind; the rooms in front could only be called large in comparison with the other two, as they were little more than twelve feet square, with but one window to each. The upper floor was, as usual, appropriated to the bedrooms; on the lower, the two smaller rooms were now used only as a wash-house and a lumber-room; while one of the larger was fitted up as a kitchen, and furnished with dressers, on which the metal utensils for cookery shone clean and polished as silver. The room itself was scrupulously neat; but the furniture as well as the utensils, were scanty. The boards of the floor were of a pure white, and so clean that you might have laid anything down without fear of soiling it. A strong deal table, two wooden-seated chairs, and a small easy couch, which had been removed from one of the bedrooms upstairs, were all the moveables which this room contained. The other front room had been fitted up as a parlour; but what might be the style of its furniture was now unknown, for no eye had beheld the contents of that room for nearly seventeen years, during which it had been hermetically sealed, even to the inmates of the cottage.
The kitchen, which we have described, was occupied by two persons. One was a woman, apparently about forty years of age, but worn down by pain and suffering. She had evidently once possessed much beauty: there were still the regular outlines, the noble forehead, and the large dark eye; but there was a tenuity in her features, a wasted appearance, such as to render the flesh transparent; her brow, when she mused, would sink into deep wrinkles, premature though they were; and the occasional flashing of her eyes strongly impressed you with the idea of insanity. There appeared to be some deep-seated, irremoveable, hopeless cause of anguish, never for one moment permitted to be absent from her memory: a chronic oppression, fixed and graven there, only to be removed by death. She was dressed in the widow's coif of the time; but although clean and neat, her garments were faded from long wear. She was seated upon the small couch which we have mentioned, evidently brought down as a relief to her, in her declining state.
On the deal table in the centre of the room sat the other person, a stout, fair-haired, florid youth of nineteen or twenty years old. His features were handsome and bold, and his frame powerful to excess; his eye denoted courage and determination, and as he carelessly swung his legs, and whistled an air in an emphatic manner, it was impossible not to form the idea that he was a daring, adventurous, and reckless character.
"Do not go to sea, Philip; oh, promise me that, my dear child," said the female, clasping her hands.
"And why not go to sea, mother?" replied Philip; "what's the use of my staying here to starve?—for, by Heaven! it's little better, I must do something for myself and for you. And what else can I do? My uncle Van Brennen has offered to take me with him, and will give me good wages. Then I shall live happily on board, and my earnings will be sufficient for your support at home."
"Philip—Philip, hear me. I shall die if you leave me. Whom have I in the world but you? O my child, as you love me, and I know you do love me, Philip, don't leave me; but if you will, at all events do not go to sea."
Philip gave no immediate reply; he whistled for a few seconds, while his mother wept.
"Is it," said he at last, "because my father was drowned at sea that you beg so hard, mother?"
"Oh, no—no!" exclaimed the sobbing woman. "Would to God—"
"Would to God what, mother?"
"Nothing—nothing. Be merciful—be merciful, O God!" replied the mother, sliding from her seat on the couch, and kneeling by the side of it, in which attitude she remained for some time in fervent prayer. At last she resumed her seat, and her face wore an aspect of more composure.
Philip, who during this, had remained silent and thoughtful, again addressed his mother.
"Look ye, mother. You ask me to stay on shore with you, and starve,— rather hard conditions:—now hear what I have to say. That room opposite has been shut up ever since I can remember—why, you will never tell me; but once I heard you say, when we were without bread and with no prospect of my uncle's return—you were then half frantic, mother, as you know you sometimes are—"
"Well, Philip, what did you hear me say?" inquired his mother, with tremulous anxiety.
"You said, mother, that there was money in that room which would save us; and then you screamed and raved, and said that you preferred death. Now, mother, what is there in that chamber, and why has it been so long shut up? Either I know that, or I go to sea."
At the commencement of this address of Philip, his mother appeared to be transfixed, and motionless as a statue; gradually her lips separated, and her eyes glared; she seemed to have lost the power of reply; she put her hand to her right side, as if to compress it, then both her hands, as if to relieve herself from excruciating torture: at last she sank, with her head forward, and the blood poured out of her mouth.
Philip sprang from the table to her assistance, and prevented her from falling on the floor. He laid her on the couch, watching with alarm the continued effusion.
"Oh! mother—mother, what is this?" cried he, at last, in great distress.
For some time his mother could make him no reply; she turned further on her side, that she might not be suffocated by the discharge from the ruptured vessel, and the snow-white planks of the floor were soon crimsoned with her blood.
"Speak, dearest mother, if you can," repeated Philip in agony; "What shall I do?—what shall I give you? God Almighty! what is this?"
"Death, my child, death!" at length replied the poor woman, sinking into a state of unconsciousness.
Philip, now much alarmed, flew out of the cottage, and called the neighbours to his mother's assistance. Two or three hastened to the call; and as soon as Philip saw them occupied in restoring his mother, he ran as fast as he could to the house of a medical man, who lived about a mile off;—one Mynheer Poots, a little, miserable, avaricious wretch but known to be very skilful in his profession. Philip found Poots at home, and insisted upon his immediate attendance.
"I will come—yes, most certainly," replied Poots, who spoke the language but imperfectly; "but, Mynheer Vanderdecken, who will pay me?"
"Pay you! my uncle will, directly that he comes home."
"Your uncle, de Skipper Vanbrennen: no, he owe me four guilders, and he has owed me for a long time. Besides his ship may sink."
"He shall pay you the four guilders, and for this attendance also," replied Philip in a rage; "come directly,—while you are disputing, my mother may be dead."
"But, Mr Philip, I cannot come, now I recollect. I have to see the child of the Burgomaster at Terneuse," replied Mynheer Poots.
"Look you, Mynheer Poots," exclaimed Philip, red with passion; "you have but to choose,—will you go quietly, or must I take you there? You'll not trifle with me."
Here Mynheer Poots was under considerable alarm, for the character of Philip Vanderdecken was well known.
"I will come by-and-by, Mynheer Philip, if I can."
"You'll come now, you wretched old miser," exclaimed Philip, seizing hold of the little man by the collar, and pulling him out of his door.
"Murder! murder!" cried Poots, as he lost his legs, and was dragged along by the impetuous young man.
Philip stopped, for he perceived that Poots was black in the face.
"Must I then choke you, to make you go quietly? for, hear me, go you shall, alive or dead."
"Well, then," replied Poots, recovering himself, "I will go, but I'll have you in prison to-night: and, as for your mother, I'll not—no, that I will not—Mynheer Philip, depend upon it."
"Mark me, Mynheer Poots," replied Philip, "as sure as there is a God in heaven, if you do not come with me, I'll choke you now; and when you arrive, if you do not your best for my poor mother, I'll murder you there. You know that I always do what I say, so now take my advice, come along quietly, and you shall certainly be paid, and well paid—if I sell my coat."
This last observation of Philip, perhaps, had more effect than even his threats. Poots was a miserable little atom, and like a child in the powerful grasp of the young man. The doctor's tenement was isolated, and he could obtain no assistance until within a hundred yards of Vanderdecken's cottage; so Mynheer Poots decided that he would go— first, because Philip had promised to pay him, and secondly, because he could not help it.
This point being settled, Philip and Mynheer Poots made all haste to the cottage; and on their arrival, they found his mother still in the arms of two of her female neighbours, who were bathing her temples with vinegar. She was in a state of consciousness, but she could not speak; Poots ordered her to be carried up stairs and put to bed, and pouring some acids down her throat, hastened away with Philip to procure the necessary remedies.
"You will give your mother that directly, Mynheer Philip," said Poots, putting a phial into his hand; "I will now go to the child of the Burgomaster, and will afterwards come back to your cottage."
"Don't deceive me," said Philip, with a threatening look.
"No, no, Mynheer Philip, I would not trust to your uncle Vanbrennen for payment, but you have promised, and I know that you always keep your word. In one hour I will be with your mother; but you yourself must now be quick."
Philip hastened home. After the potion had been administered, the bleeding was wholly stopped; and in half an hour, his mother could express her wishes in a whisper. When the little doctor arrived, he carefully examined his patient, and then went down stairs with her son into the kitchen.
"Mynheer Philip," said Poots, "by Allah! I have done my best, but I must tell you that I have little hopes of your mother rising from her bed again. She may live one day or two days, but not more. It is not my fault, Mynheer Philip," continued Poots, in a deprecating tone.
"No, no; it is the will of Heaven," replied Philip, mournfully.
"And you will pay me, Mynheer Vanderdecken?" continued the doctor after a short pause.
"Yes," replied Philip in a voice of thunder, and starting from a reverie. After a moment's silence, the doctor recommenced:
"Shall I come to-morrow, Mynheer Philip? You know that will be a charge of another guilder: it is of no use to throw away money or time either."
"Come to-morrow, come every hour, charge what you please; you shall certainly be paid," replied Philip, curling his lip with contempt.
"Well, it is as you please. As soon as she is dead the cottage and the furniture will be yours, and you will sell them of course. Yes, I will come. You will have plenty of money. Mynheer Philip, I would like the first offer of the cottage, if it is to let."
Philip raised his arm in the air as if to crush Mynheer Poots, who retreated to the corner.
"I did not mean until your mother was buried," said Poots, in a coaxing tone.
"Go, wretch, go!" said Philip, covering his face with his hands, as he sank down upon the blood-stained couch.
After a short interval, Philip Vanderdecken returned to the bedside of his mother, whom he found much better; and the neighbours, having their own affairs to attend to, left them alone. Exhausted with the loss of blood, the poor woman slumbered for many hours, during which she never let go the hand of Philip, who watched her breathing in mournful meditation.
It was about one o'clock in the morning when the widow awoke. She had in a great degree recovered her voice, and thus she addressed her son:—
"My dear, my impetuous boy, and have I detained you here a prisoner so long?"
"My own inclination detained me, mother. I leave you not to others until you are up and well again."
"That, Philip, I shall never be. I feel that death claims me; and O my son, were it not for you, how should I quit this world rejoicing! I have long been dying, Philip,—and long, long have I prayed for death."
"And why so, mother?" replied Philip, bluntly; "I've done my best."
"You have, my child, you have: and may God bless you for it. Often have I seen you curb your fiery temper—restrain yourself when justified in wrath—to spare a mother's feelings. 'Tis now some days that even hunger has not persuaded you to disobey your mother. And, Philip, you must have thought me mad or foolish to insist so long, and yet to give no reason. I'll speak—again—directly."
The widow turned her head upon the pillow, and remained quiet for some minutes; then, as if revived, she resumed:
"I believe I have been mad at times—have I not, Philip? And God knows I have had a secret in my heart enough to drive a wife to frenzy. It has oppressed me day and night, worn my mind, impaired my reason, and now, at last, thank Heaven! it has overcome this mortal frame: the blow is struck, Philip—I'm sure it is. I wait but to tell you all,—and yet I would not,—'twill turn your brain as it has turned mine, Philip."
"Mother," replied Philip, earnestly, "I conjure you, let me hear this killing secret. Be heaven or hell mixed up with it, I fear not. Heaven will not hurt me and Satan I defy."
"I know thy bold, proud spirit, Philip,—thy strength of mind. If any one could bear the load of such a dreadful tale, thou couldst. My brain, alas! was far too weak for it; and I see it is my duty to tell it to thee."
The widow paused as her thoughts reverted to that which she had to confide; for a few minutes the tears rained down her hollow cheeks; she then appeared to have summoned resolution, and to have regained strength.
"Philip, it is of your father I would speak. It is supposed—that he was—drowned at sea."
"And was he not, mother?" replied Philip, with surprise.
"But he has long been dead, mother?"
"No,—yes,—and yet—no," said the widow, covering her eyes. Her brain wanders, thought Philip, but he spoke again:
"Then where is he, mother?"
The widow raised herself, and a tremor visibly ran through her whole frame, as she replied—
"In LIVING JUDGMENT."
The poor woman then sank down again upon the pillow, and covered her head with the bedclothes, as if she would have hid herself from her own memory. Philip was so much perplexed and astounded, that he could make no reply. A silence of some minutes ensued when, no longer able to bear the agony of suspense, Philip faintly whispered—
"The secret, mother, the secret; quick, let me hear it."
"I can now tell all, Philip," replied his mother, in a solemn tone of voice. "Hear me, my son. Your father's disposition was but too like your own;—O may his cruel fate be a lesson to you, my dear, dear child! He was a bold, a daring, and, they say, a first-rate seaman. He was not born here, but in Amsterdam; but he would not live there, because he still adhered to the Catholic religion. The Dutch, you know, Philip, are heretics, according to our creed. It is now seventeen years or more that he sailed for India, in his fine ship the Amsterdammer, with a valuable cargo. It was his third voyage to India, Philip, and it was to have been, if it had so pleased God, his last, for he had purchased that good ship with only part of his earnings, and one more voyage would have made his fortune. O! how often did we talk over what we would do upon his return, and how these plans for the future consoled me at the idea of his absence, for I loved him dearly, Philip,—he was always good and kind to me! and after he had sailed, how I hoped for his return! The lot of a sailor's wife is not to be envied. Alone and solitary for so many months, watching the long wick of the candle and listening to the howling of the wind—foreboding evil and accident—wreck and widowhood. He had been gone about six months, Philip, and there was still a long dreary year to wait before I could expect him back. One night, you, my child, were fast asleep; you were my only solace—my comfort in my loneliness. I had been watching over you in your slumbers: you smiled and half pronounced the name of mother; and at last I kissed your unconscious lips, and I knelt and prayed—prayed for God's blessing on you, my child, and upon him too—little thinking, at the time, that he was so horribly, so fearfully CURSED."
The widow paused for breath, and then resumed. Philip could not speak. His lips were sundered, and his eyes riveted upon his mother, as he devoured her words.
"I left you and went down stairs into that room, Philip, which since that dreadful night has never been re-opened. I sate me down and read, for the wind was strong, and when the gale blows, a sailor's wife can seldom sleep. It was past midnight, and the rain poured down. I felt unusual fear,—I knew not why, I rose from the couch and dipped my finger in the blessed water, and I crossed myself. A violent gust of wind roared round the house and alarmed me still more. I had a painful, horrible foreboding; when, of a sudden, the windows and window-shutters were all blown in, the light was extinguished, and I was left in utter darkness. I screamed with fright—but at last I recovered myself, and was proceeding towards the window that I might reclose it, when whom should I behold, slowly entering at the casement, but—your father,— Philip!—Yes, Philip,—it was your father!"
"Merciful God!" muttered Philip, in a low tone almost subdued into a whisper.
"I knew not what to think,—he was in the room; and although the darkness was intense, his form and features were as clear and as defined as if it were noon-day. Fear would have inclined me to recoil from,— his loved presence to fly towards him. I remained on the spot where I was, choked with agonising sensations. When he had entered the room, the windows and shutters closed of themselves, and the candle was relighted—then I thought it was his apparition, and I fainted on the floor.
"When I recovered I found myself on the couch, and perceived that a cold (O how cold!) and dripping hand was clasped in mine. This reassured me, and I forgot the supernatural signs which accompanied his appearance. I imagined that he had been unfortunate, and had returned home. I opened my eyes, and beheld my loved husband and threw myself into his arms. His clothes were saturated with the rain; I felt as if I had embraced ice—but nothing can check the warmth of woman's love, Philip. He received my caresses but he caressed not again: he spoke not, but looked thoughtful and unhappy. 'William—William,' cried I; 'speak, to your dear Catherine.'
"'I will,' replied he, solemnly, 'for my time is short.'
"'No, no, you must not go to sea again; you have lost your vessel but you are safe. Have I not you again?'
"'Alas! no—be not alarmed, but listen? for my time is short. I have not lost my vessel, Catherine, BUT I HAVE LOST!—Make no reply, but listen; I am not dead, nor yet am I alive. I hover between this world and the world of spirits. Mark me.'
"'For nine weeks did I try to force my passage against the elements round the stormy Cape, but without success; and I swore terribly. For nine weeks more did I carry sail against the adverse winds and currents, and yet could gain no ground and then I blasphemed,—ay, terribly blasphemed. Yet still I persevered. The crew, worn out with long fatigue, would have had me return to the Table Bay; but I refused; nay, more, I became a murderer—unintentionally, it is true, but still a murderer. The pilot opposed me, and persuaded the men to bind me, and in the excess of my fury, when he took me by the collar, I struck at him; he reeled; and, with the sudden lurch of the vessel, he fell overboard, and sank. Even this fearful death did not restrain me; and I swore by the fragment of the Holy Cross, preserved in that relic now hanging round your neck, that I would gain my point in defiance of storm and seas, of lightning, of heaven, or of hell, even if I should beat about until the Day of Judgment.'
"'My oath was registered in thunder, and in streams of sulphurous fire. The hurricane burst upon the ship, the canvass flew away in ribbons; mountains of seas swept over us, and in the centre of a deep o'erhanging cloud, which shrouded all in utter darkness, were written in letters of livid flame, these words—UNTIL THE DAY OF JUDGEMENT.'
"'Listen to me, Catherine, my time is short. One hope alone remains, and for this am I permitted to come here. Take this letter.' He put a sealed paper on the table. 'Read it, Catherine, dear, and try if you can assist me. Read it, and now farewell—my time is come.'
"Again the window and window-shutters burst open—again the light was extinguished, and the form of my husband was, as it were, wafted in the dark expanse. I started up and followed him with outstretched arms and frantic screams as he sailed through the window;—my glaring eyes beheld his form borne away like lightning on the wings of the wild gale, till it was lost as a speck of light, and then it disappeared. Again the windows closed, the light burned, and I was left alone!
"Heaven, have mercy! My brain!—my brain!—Philip!—Philip!" shrieked the poor woman; "don't leave me—don't—don't—pray don't!"
During these exclamations the frantic widow had raised herself from the bed, and, at the last, had fallen into the arms of her son. She remained there some minutes without motion. After a time Philip felt alarmed at her long quiescence; he laid her gently down upon the bed, and as he did so her head fell back—her eyes were turned—the widow Vanderdecken was no more.
Philip Vanderdecken, strong as he was in mental courage, was almost paralysed by the shock when he discovered that his mother's spirit had fled; and for some time he remained by the side of the bed, with his eyes fixed upon the corpse, and his mind in a state of vacuity. Gradually he recovered himself; he rose, smoothed down the pillow, closed her eyelids, and then clasping his hands, the tears trickled down his manly cheeks. He impressed a solemn kiss upon the pale white forehead of the departed, and drew the curtains round the bed.
"Poor mother!" said he, sorrowfully, as he completed his task, "at length thou hast found rest,—but thou hast left thy son a bitter legacy."
And as Philip's thoughts reverted to what had passed, the dreadful narrative whirled in his imagination and scathed his brain. He raised his hands to his temples, compressed them with force, and tried to collect his thoughts, that he might decide upon what measures he should take. He felt that he had no time to indulge his grief. His mother was in peace: but his father—where was he?
He recalled his mother's words—"One hope alone remained." Then there was hope. His father had laid a paper on the table—could it be there now? Yes, it must be—his mother had not had the courage to take it up. There was hope in that paper, and it had lain unopened for more than seventeen years.
Philip Vanderdecken resolved that he would examine the fatal chamber—at once he would know the worst. Should he do it now, or wait till daylight?—but the key, where was it? His eyes rested upon an old japanned cabinet in the room: he had never seen his mother open it in his presence: it was the only likely place of concealment that he was aware of. Prompt in all his decisions, he took up the candle, and proceeded to examine it. It was not locked; the doors swung open, and drawer after drawer was examined, but Philip discovered not the object of his search; again and again did he open the drawers, but they were all empty. It occurred to Philip that there might be secret drawers, and he examined for some time in vain. At last he took out all the drawers, and laid them on the floor, and lifting the cabinet off its stand he shook it. A rattling sound in one corner told him that in all probability the key was there concealed. He renewed his attempts to discover how to gain it, but in vain. Daylight now streamed through the casements, and Philip had not desisted from his attempts: at last, wearied out, he resolved to force the back panel of the cabinet; he descended to the kitchen, and returned with a small chopping-knife and hammer, and was on his knees busily employed forcing out the panel, when a hand was placed upon his shoulder.
Philip started: he had been so occupied with his search and his wild chasing thoughts, that he had not heard the sound of an approaching footstep. He looked up and beheld the Father Seysen, the priest of the little parish, with his eyes sternly fixed upon him. The good man had been informed of the dangerous state of the widow Vanderdecken, and had risen at daylight to visit and afford her spiritual comfort.
"How now, my son," said the priest: "fearest thou not to disturb thy mother's rest? and wouldst thou pilfer and purloin even before she is in her grave?"
"I fear not to disturb my mother's rest, good father," replied Philip, rising on his feet, "for she now rests with the blessed. Neither do I pilfer or purloin. It is not gold, I seek although if gold there were, that gold would now be mine. I seek but a key, long hidden, I believe, within this secret drawer, the opening of which is a mystery beyond my art."
"Thy mother is no more, sayest thou, my son? and dead without receiving the rites of our most holy church! Why didst thou not send for me?"
"She died, good father, suddenly, most suddenly, in these arms, about two hours ago. I fear not for her soul, although I can but grieve you were not at her side."
The priest gently opened the curtains, and looked upon the corpse. He sprinkled holy water on the bed, and for a short time his lips were seen to move in silent prayer. He then turned round to Philip.
"Why do I see thee thus employed? and why so anxious to obtain that key? A mother's death should call forth filial tears and prayers for her repose. Yet are thine eyes dry, and thou art employed upon an indifferent search while yet the tenement is warm which but now held her spirit. This is not seemly, Philip. What is the key thou seekest?"
"Father, I have no time for tears—no time to spare for grief or lamentation. I have much to do, and more to think of than thought can well embrace. That I loved my mother, you know well."
"But the key thou seekest, Philip?"
"Father, it is the key of a chamber which has not been unlocked for years, which I must—will open; even if—"
"If what, my son?"
"I was about to say what I should not have said. Forgive me, Father; I meant that I must search that chamber."
"I have long heard of that same chamber being closed: and that thy mother would not explain wherefore, I know well for I have asked her, and have been denied. Nay, when, as in duty bound, I pressed the question, I found her reason was disordered by my importunity, and, therefore, I abandoned the attempt. Some heavy weight was on thy mother's mind, my son, yet would she never confess or trust it with me. Tell me, before she died, hadst thou this secret from her?"
"I had, most holy father."
"Wouldst thou not feel comfort if thou didst confide to me, my son? I might advise, assist—"
"Father, I would indeed—I could confide it to thee, and ask for thy assistance—I know 'tis not from curious feeling thou wouldst have it, but from a better motive. But of that which has been told it is not yet manifest whether it is as my poor mother says, or but the phantom of a heated brain. Should it indeed be true, fain would I share the burthen with you—yet little you might thank me for the heavy load. But no—at least not now—it must not, cannot be revealed. I must do my work— enter that hated room alone."
"Fearest thou not?"
"Father, I fear nothing. I have a duty to perform—a dreadful one, I grant; but, I pray thee, ask no more; for like my poor mother, I feel as if the probing of the wound would half unseat my reason."
"I will not press thee further, Philip. The time may come when I may prove of service. Farewell, my child; but I pray thee to discontinue thy unseemly labour, for I must send in the neighbours to perform the duties to thy departed mother, whose soul I trust is with its God."
The priest looked at Philip; he perceived that his thoughts were elsewhere; there was a vacancy and appearance of mental stupefaction, and as he turned away, the good man shook his head.
"He is right," thought Philip, when once more alone; and he took up the cabinet, and placed it upon the stand. "A few hours more can make no difference: I will lay me down, for my head is giddy."
Philip went into the adjoining room, threw himself upon his bed, and in a few minutes was in a sleep as sound as that permitted to the wretch a few hours previous to his execution.
During his slumbers the neighbours had come in, and had prepared everything for the widow's interment. They had been careful not to wake the son, for they held as sacred the sleep of those who must wake up to sorrow. Among others, soon after the hour of noon, arrived Mynheer Poots; he had been informed of the death of the widow, but having a spare hour, he thought he might as well call, as it would raise his charges by another guilder. He first went into the room where the body lay, and from thence he proceeded to the chamber of Philip, and shook him by the shoulder.
Philip awoke, and, sitting up, perceived the doctor standing by him.
"Well, Mynheer Vanderdecken," commenced the unfeeling little man, "so it's all over. I knew it would be so; and recollect you owe me now another guilder, and you promised faithfully to pay me; altogether, with the potion, it will be three guilders and a half—that is, provided you return my phial."
Philip, who at first waking was confused, gradually recovered his senses during this address.
"You shall have your three guilders and a half, and your phial to boot, Mr Poots," replied he, as he rose from off the bed.
"Yes, yes; I know you mean to pay me—if you can. But look you, Mynheer Philip, it may be some time before you sell the cottage. You may not find a customer. Now, I never wish to be hard upon people who have no money, and I'll tell you what I'll do. There is a something on your mother's neck. It is of no value—none at all, but to a good Catholic. To help you in your strait I will take that thing, and then we shall be quits. You will have paid me, and there will be an end of it."
Philip listened calmly: he knew to what the little miser had referred,— the relic on his mother's neck; that very relic upon which his father swore the fatal oath. He felt that millions of guilders would not have induced him to part with it.
"Leave the house," answered he, abruptly. "Leave it immediately. Your money shall be paid."
Now Mynheer Poots, in the first place, knew that the setting of the relic, which was in a square frame of pure gold, was worth much more than the sum due to him: he also knew that a large price had been paid for the relic itself, and, as at that time such a relic was considered very valuable, he had no doubt but that it would again fetch a considerable sum. Tempted by the sight of it when he entered the chamber of death, he had taken it from the neck of the corpse, and it was then actually concealed in his bosom, so he replied,—"My offer is a good one, Mynheer Philip, and you had better take it. Of what use is such trash?"
"I tell you no," cried Philip, in a rage.
"Well, then, you will let me have it in my possession till I am paid, Mynheer Vanderdecken—that is but fair. I must not lose my money. When you bring me my three guilders and a half and the phial, I will return it to you."
Philip's indignation was now without bounds. He seized Mynheer Poots by the collar, and threw him out of the door. "Away immediately," cried he, "or by—"
There was no occasion for Philip to finish the imprecation. The doctor had hastened away with such alarm, that he fell down half the steps of the staircase, and was limping away across the bridge. He almost wished that the relic had not been in his possession; but his sudden retreat had prevented him, even if so inclined, from replacing it on the corpse.
The result of this conversation naturally turned Philip's thoughts to the relic, and he went into his mother's room to take possession of it. He opened the curtains—the corpse was laid out—he put forth his hand to untie the black ribbon. It was not there. "Gone!" exclaimed Philip. "They hardly would have removed it—never would. It must be that villain Poots—wretch! but I will have it, even if he has swallowed it, though I tear him limb from limb!"
Philip darted down the stairs, rushed out of the house, cleared the moat at one bound and, without coat or hat, flew away in the direction of the doctor's lonely residence. The neighbours saw him as he passed them like the wind; they wondered, and they shook their heads. Mynheer Poots was not more than half way to his home for he had hurt his ankle. Apprehensive of what might possibly take place, should his theft be discovered, he occasionally looked behind him; at length, to his horror, he beheld Philip Vanderdecken at a distance, bounding on in pursuit of him. Frightened almost out of his senses, the wretched pilferer hardly knew how to act; to stop and surrender up the stolen property was his first thought, but fear of Vanderdecken's violence prevented him; so he decided on taking to his heels, thus hoping to gain his house, and barricade himself in, by which means he would be in a condition to keep possession of what he had stolen, or at least to make some terms ere he restored it.
Mynheer Poots had need to run fast, and so he did, his thin legs bearing his shrivelled form rapidly over the ground; but Philip, who, when he witnessed the doctor's attempt to escape, was fully convinced that he was the culprit, redoubled his exertions, and rapidly came up with the chase. When within a hundred yards of his own door, Mynheer Poots heard the bounding steps of Philip gain upon him, and he sprang and leaped in his agony. Nearer and nearer still the step, until at last he heard the very breathing of his pursuer; and Poots shrieked in his fear, like the hare in the jaws of the greyhound. Philip was not a yard from him; his arm was outstretched when the miscreant dropped down paralysed with terror; and the impetus of Vanderdecken was so great, that he passed over his body, tripped and after trying in vain to recover his equilibrium, he fell and rolled over and over. This saved the little doctor; it was like the double of a hare. In a second he was again on his legs, and before Philip could rise and again exert his speed, Poots had entered his door and bolted it within. Philip was, however, determined to repossess the important treasure; and as he panted, he cast his eyes around to see if any means offered for his forcing his entrance into the house. But as the habitation of the doctor was lonely, every precaution had been taken by him to render it secure against robbery; the windows below were well barricaded and secured, and those on the upper story were too high for any one to obtain admittance by them.
We must here observe, that although Mynheer Poots was,—from his known abilities, in good practice, his reputation as a hard-hearted, unfeeling miser was well established. No one was ever permitted to enter his threshold, nor, indeed, did any one feel inclined. He was as isolated from his fellow-creatures as was his tenement, and was only to be seen in the chamber of disease and death. What his establishment consisted of no one knew. When he first settled in the neighbourhood, an old decrepit woman occasionally answered the knocks given at the door by those who required the doctor's services; but she had been buried some time, and ever since all calls at the door had been answered by Mynheer Poots in person, if he were at home, and if not, there was no reply to the most importunate summons. It was then surmised that the old man lived entirely by himself, being too niggardly to pay for any assistance. This Philip also imagined; and as soon as he had recovered his breath, he began to devise some scheme by which he would be enabled not only to recover the stolen property, but also to wreak a dire revenge.
The door was strong and not to be forced by any means which presented themselves to the eye of Vanderdecken. For a few minutes he paused to consider, and as he reflected, so did his anger cool down, and he decided that it would be sufficient to recover his relic without having recourse to violence. So he called out in a loud voice—
"Mynheer Poots, I know that you can hear me. Give me back what you have taken, and I will do you no hurt; but if you will not, you must take the consequence, for your life shall pay the forfeit before I leave this spot."
This speech was indeed very plainly heard by Mynheer Poots; but the little miser had recovered from his fright, and, thinking himself secure, could not make up his mind to surrender the relic without a struggle; so the doctor answered not, hoping that the patience of Philip would be exhausted, and that by some arrangement, such as the sacrifice of a few guilders, no small matter to one so needy as Philip, he would be able to secure what he was satisfied would sell at a high price.
Vanderdecken, finding that no answer was returned, indulged in strong invective, and then decided upon measures certainly in themselves by no means undecided.
There was part of a small stack of dry fodder standing not far from the house, and under the wall a pile of wood for firing. With these Vanderdecken resolved upon setting fire to the house, and thus, if he did not gain his relic, he would at least obtain ample revenge, he brought several armfuls of fodder and laid them at the door of the house, and upon that he piled the faggots and logs of wood, until the door was quite concealed by them. He then procured a light from the steel, flint, and tinder which every Dutchman carries in his pocket, and very soon he had fanned the pile into a flame. The smoke ascended in columns up to the rafters of the roof, while the fire raged below. The door was ignited, and was adding to the fury of the flames, and Philip shouted with joy at the success of his attempt.
"Now, miserable despoiler of the dead—now, wretched thief, now you shall feel my vengeance," cried Philip, with a loud voice. "If you remain within, you perish in the flames; if you attempt to come out, you shall die by my hands. Do you hear, Mynheer Poots—do you hear?"
Hardly had Philip concluded this address, when the window of the upper floor furthest from the burning door was thrown open.
"Ay,—you come now to beg and to entreat;—but no—no," cried Philip— who stopped as he beheld at the window what seemed to be an apparition, for instead of the wretched little miser, he beheld one of the loveliest forms Nature ever deigned to mould—an angelic creature, of about sixteen or seventeen, who appeared calm and resolute in the midst of the danger by which she was threatened. Her long black hair was braided and twined round her beautifully-formed head; her eyes were large, intensely dark, yet soft; her forehead high and white, her chin dimpled, her ruby lips arched and delicately fine, her nose small and straight. A lovelier face could not be well imagined; it reminded you of what the best of painters have sometimes, in their more fortunate moments, succeeded in embodying, when they would represent a beauteous saint. And as the flames wreathed and the smoke burst out in columns and swept past the window, so might she have reminded you in her calmness of demeanour of some martyr at the stake.
"What wouldst thou, violent young man? Why are the inmates of this house to suffer death by your means?" said the maiden, with composure.
For a few seconds Philip gazed, and could make no reply; then the thought seized him that in his vengeance, he was about to sacrifice so much loveliness. He forgot everything but her danger, and seizing one of the large poles which he had brought to feed the flame, he threw off and scattered in every direction the burning masses, until nothing was left which could hurt the building but the ignited door itself; and this, which as yet—for it was of thick oak plank—had not suffered very material injury, he soon reduced, by beating it, with clods of earth, to a smoking and harmless state. During these active measures on the part of Philip, the young maiden watched him in silence.
"All is safe now, young lady," said Philip. "God forgive me that I should have risked a life so precious. I thought but to wreak my vengeance upon Mynheer Poots."
"And what cause can Mynheer Poots have given for such dreadful vengeance?" replied the maiden, calmly.
"What cause, young lady? He came to my house—despoiled the dead—took from my mother's corpse a relic beyond price."
"Despoiled the dead!—he surely cannot—you must wrong him, young sir."
"No, no. It is the fact, lady,—and that relic—forgive me—but that relic I must have. You know not what depends upon it."
"Wait, young sir," replied the maiden; "I will soon return."
Philip waited several minutes, lost in thought and admiration: so fair a creature in the house of Mynheer Poots! Who could she be? While thus ruminating, he was accosted by the silver voice of the object of his reveries, who, leaning out of the window held in her hand the black ribbon to which was attached the article so dearly coveted.
"Here is your relic, sir," said the young female; "I regret much that my father should have done a deed which well might justify your anger: but here it is," continued she, dropping it down on the ground by Philip; "and now you may depart."
"Your father, maiden! can he be your father?" said Philip, forgetting to take up the relic which lay at his feet.
She would have retired from the window without reply, but Philip spoke a again—
"Stop, lady, stop one moment, until I beg your forgiveness for a wild, foolish act. I swear by this sacred relic," continued he, taking it from the ground and raising it to his lips, "that had I known that any unoffending person had been in this house, I would not have done the deed, and much do I rejoice that no harm hath happened. But there is still danger, lady; the door must be unbarred, and the jambs, which still are glowing, be extinguished, or the house may yet be burnt. Fear not for your father, maiden; for had he done me a thousand times more wrong, you will protect each hair upon his head. He knows me well enough to know I keep my word. Allow me to repair the injury I have occasioned, and then I will depart."
"No, no; don't trust him," said Mynheer Poots, from within the chamber.
"Yes, he may be trusted," replied the daughter; "and his services are much needed for what could a poor weak girl like me, and a still weaker father, do in this strait? Open the door, and let the house be made secure." The maiden then addressed Philip—"He shall open the door, sir, and I will thank you for your kind service. I trust entirely to your promise."
"I never yet was known to break my word, maiden," replied Philip; "but let him be quick, for the flames are bursting out again."
The door was opened by the trembling hands of Mynheer Poots, who then made a hasty retreat upstairs. The truth of what Philip had said was then apparent. Many were the buckets of water which he was obliged to fetch before the fire was quite subdued; but during his exertions neither the daughter nor the father made their appearance.
When all was safe, Philip closed the door, and again looked up at the window. The fair girl made her appearance, and Philip, with a low obeisance, assured her that there was then no danger.
"I thank you, sir," replied she—"I thank you much. Your conduct, although hasty at the first, has yet been most considerate."
"Assure your father, maiden, that all animosity on my part hath ceased, and that in a few days I will call and satisfy the demand he hath against me."
The window closed, and Philip, more excited but with feelings altogether different from those with which he had set out, looked at it for a minute, and then bent his steps to his own cottage.
The discovery of the beautiful daughter of Mynheer Poots had made a strong impression upon Philip Vanderdecken, and now he had another excitement to combine with those which already overcharged his bosom. He arrived at his own house, went upstairs, and threw himself on the bed from which he had been roused by Mynheer Poots. At first, he recalled to his mind the scene we have just described, painted in his imagination the portrait of the fair girl, her eyes, her expression, her silver voice, and the words which she had uttered; but her pleasing image was soon chased away by the recollection that his mother's corpse lay in the adjoining chamber, and that his father's secret was hidden in the room below.
The funeral was to take place the next morning, and Philip, who, since his meeting with the daughter of Mynheer Poots, appeared even to himself not so anxious for immediate examination of the room, resolved that he would not open it until after the melancholy ceremony. With this resolution he fell asleep; and, exhausted with bodily and mental excitement, he did not wake until the next morning, when he was summoned by the priest to assist at the funeral rites. In an hour all was over; the crowd dispersed, and Philip, returning to the cottage, bolted the door that he might not be interrupted, and felt happy that he was alone.
There is a feeling in our nature which will arise when we again find ourselves in the tenement where death has been, and all traces of it have been removed. It is a feeling of satisfaction and relief at having rid ourselves of the memento of mortality, the silent evidence of the futility of our pursuits and anticipations. We know that we must one day die, but we always wish to forget it. The continual remembrance would be too great a check upon our mundane desires and wishes; and, although we are told that we ever should have futurity in our thoughts, we find that life is not to be enjoyed if we are not permitted occasional forgetfulness. For who would plan what rarely he is permitted to execute, if each moment of the day he thought of death? We either hope that we may live longer than others, or we forget that we may not.
If this buoyant feeling had not been planted in our nature, how little would the world have been improved even from the Deluge! Philip walked into the room where his mother had lain one short hour before, and unwittingly felt relief. Taking down the cabinet, he now recommenced his task; the back panel was soon removed, and a secret drawer discovered; he drew it out, and it contained what he presumed to be the object of his search,—a large key with a slight coat of rust upon it, which came off upon its being handled. Under the key was a paper, the writing on which was somewhat discoloured; it was in his mother's hand, and ran as follows:—
"It is now two nights since a horrible event took place which has induced me to close the lower chamber, and my brain is still bursting with terror. Should I not, during my lifetime, reveal what occurred, still this key will be required, as at my death the room will be opened. When I rushed from it I hastened upstairs, and remained that night with my child; the next morning I summoned up sufficient courage, to go down, turn the key and bring it up into my chamber. It is now closed till I close my eyes in death. No privation, no suffering, shall induce me to open it, although in the iron cupboard under the buffet farthest from the window, there is money sufficient for all my wants; that money will remain there for my child, to whom, if I do not impart the fatal secret, he must be satisfied that it is one which it were better should be concealed,—one so horrible as to induce me to take the steps which I now do. The keys of the cupboards and buffets were, I think, lying on the table, or in my work-box, when I quitted the room. There is a letter on the table—at least I think so. It is sealed. Let not the seal be broken but by my son, and not by him unless he knows the secret. Let it be burnt by the priest,—for it is cursed;—and even should my son know all that I do, oh, let him pause,—let him reflect well before he breaks the seal,—for 'twere better he should know NO MORE!"
"Not know more!" thought Philip, as his eyes were still fixed upon the paper. "Yes, but I must and will know more, so forgive me dearest mother, if I waste no time in reflection. It would be but time thrown away, when one is resolved as I am."
Philip pressed his lips to his mother's signature, folded up the paper and put it into his pocket; then taking the key, he proceeded downstairs.
It was about noon when Philip descended to open the chamber; the sun shone bright, the sky was clear, and all without was cheerful and joyous. The front door of the cottage being closed, there was not much light in the passage when Philip put the key into the lock of the long-closed door, and with some difficulty turned it round. To say that when he pushed open the door he felt no alarm would not be correct; he did feel alarm, and his heart palpitated; but he felt more than was requisite of determination to conquer that alarm, and to conquer more, should more be created by what he should behold. He opened the door, but did not immediately enter the room: he paused where he stood, for he felt as if he was about to intrude into the retreat of a disembodied spirit, and that that spirit might reappear. He waited a minute, for the effort of opening the door had taken away his breath, and, as he recovered himself, he looked within.
He could but imperfectly distinguish the objects in the chamber, but through the joints of the shutters there were three brilliant beams of sunshine forcing their way across the room, which at first induced him to recoil as if from something supernatural; but a little reflection reassured him. After about a minute's pause, Philip went into the kitchen, lighted a candle, and, sighing deeply two or three times as if to relieve his heart, he summoned his resolution, and walked towards the fatal room. He first stopped at the threshold, and, by the light of the candle, took a hasty survey. All was still: and the table on which the letter had been left, being behind the door, was concealed by its being opened. It must be done, thought Philip: and why not at once? continued he, resuming his courage; and, with a firm step, he walked into the room and went to unfasten the shutters. If his hand trembled a little when he called to mind how supernaturally they had last been opened, it is not surprising. We are but mortal, and we shrink from contact with aught beyond this life. When the fastenings were removed and the shutters unfolded, a stream of light poured into the room so vivid as to dazzle his eyesight; strange to say, this very light of a brilliant day overthrew the resolution of Philip more than the previous gloom and darkness had done; and with the candle in his hand, he retreated hastily into the kitchen to re-summon his courage, and there he remained for some minutes with his face covered, and in deep thought.
It is singular that his reveries at last ended by reverting to the fair daughter of Mynheer Poots, and her first appearance at the window; and he felt as if the flood of light which had just driven him from the one, was not more impressive and startling than her enchanting form at the other. His mind dwelling upon this beauteous vision appeared to restore Philip's confidence; he now rose and boldly walked into the room. We shall not describe the objects it contained as they chanced to meet the eyes of Philip, but attempt a more lucid arrangement.
The room was about twelve or fourteen feet square, with but one window; opposite to the door stood the chimney and fireplace, with a high buffet of dark wood on each side. The floor of the room was not dirty, although about its upper parts spiders had run their cobwebs in every direction. In the centre of the ceiling hung a quicksilver globe, a common ornament in those days, but the major part of it had lost its brilliancy, the spiders' webs enclosing it like a shroud. Over the chimney-piece were hung two or three drawings, framed and glazed, but a dusty mildew was spotted over the glass, so that little of them could be distinguished. In the centre of the mantelpiece was an image of the Virgin Mary, of pure silver, in a shrine of the same metal, but it was tarnished to the colour of bronze or iron; some Indian figures stood on each side of it. The glass doors of the buffets on each side of the chimney-piece were also so dimmed that little of what was within could be distinguished: the light and heat which had been poured into the room, even for so short a time, had already gathered up the damp of many years, and it lay as a mist, and mingled with the dust upon the panes of glass: still here and there a glittering of silver vessels could be discerned, for the glass doors had protected them from turning black, although much dimmed in lustre.
On the wall facing the window were other prints, in frames equally veiled in damp and cobwebs and also two bird-cages. The bird-cages Philip approached, and looked into them. The occupants, of course, had long been dead; but at the bottom of the cages was a small heap of yellow feathers, through which the little white bones of the skeletons were to be seen, proving that they had been brought from the Canary Isles; and, at that period, such birds were highly valued. Philip appeared to wish to examine everything before he sought that which he most dreaded, yet most wished, to find. There were several chairs round the room: on one of them was some linen; he took it up. It was some that must have belonged to him when he was yet a child. At last, Philip turned his eyes to the wall not yet examined (that opposite the chimney piece), through which the door was pierced, and behind the door as it lay open, he was to find the table, the couch, the work-box, and the FATAL LETTER. As he turned round, his pulse, which had gradually recovered its regular motion, beat more quickly, but he made the effort, and it was over. At first he examined the walls, against which were hung swords and pistols of various sorts but chiefly Asiatic bows and arrows, and other implements of destruction. Philip's eyes gradually descended upon the table and little couch behind it, where his mother stated herself to have been seated when his father made his awful visit. The work-box and all its implements were on the table, just as she had left them. The keys she mentioned were also lying there, but Philip looked, and looked again; there was no letter, he now advanced nearer, examined closely—there was none that he could perceive, either on the couch or on the table—or on the floor. He lifted up the work-box to ascertain if it was beneath—but no. He examined among its contents, but no letter was there. He turned over the pillows of the couch, but still there was no letter to be found. And Philip felt as if there had been a heavy load removed from his panting chest. "Surely, then," thought he, as he leant against the wall, "this must have been the vision of a heated imagination. My poor mother must have fallen asleep, and dreamt this horrid tale. I thought it was impossible, at least I hoped so. It must have been as I suppose; the dream was too powerful, too like a fearful reality,—partially unseated my poor mother's reason." Philip reflected again, and was then satisfied that his suppositions were correct.
"Yes, it must have been so, poor dear mother! how much thou hast suffered; but thou art now rewarded, and with thy God."
After a few minutes (during which he surveyed the room again and again with more coolness, and perhaps some indifference, now that he regarded the supernatural history as not true), Philip took out of his pocket the written paper found with the key, and read it over,—"The iron cupboard under the buffet farthest from the window."
"'Tis well." He took the bunch of keys from off the table, and soon fitted one to the outside wooden doors which concealed the iron safe. A second key on the bunch opened the iron doors; and Philip found himself in possession of a considerable sum of money, amounting, as near as he could reckon, to ten thousand guilders, in little yellow sacks.
"My poor mother!" thought he; "and has a mere dream scared thee to penury and want, with all this wealth in thy possession?" Philip replaced the sacks, and locked up the cupboards, after having taken out of one, already half emptied, a few pieces for his immediate wants. His attention was next directed to the buffets above, which with one of the keys, he opened; he found that they contained china, and silver flagons, and cups of considerable value. The locks were again turned, and the bunch of keys thrown upon the table.
The sudden possession of so much wealth added to the conviction, to which Philip had now arrived that there had been no supernatural appearance, as supposed, by his mother, naturally revived and composed his spirits; and he felt a reaction which amounted almost to hilarity. Seating himself on the couch, he was soon in a reverie, and, as before reverted to the lovely daughter of Mynheer Poots indulging in various castle-buildings, all ending, as usual, when we choose for ourselves, in competence and felicity. In this pleasing occupation he remained for more than two hours, when his thoughts again reverted to his poor mother and her fearful death.
"Dearest, kindest mother!" apostrophised Philip aloud, as he rose from his leaning position, "here thou wert, tired with watching over my infant slumbers, thinking of my absent father and his dangers, working up thy mind and anticipating evil, till thy fevered sleep conjured up this apparition. Yes, it must have been so; for see here, lying on the floor, is the embroidery, as it fell from thy unconscious hands, and with that labour ceased thy happiness in this life. Dear, dear mother!" continued he; a tear rolling down his cheek as he stooped to pick up the piece of muslin, "how much hast thou suffered when—God of Heaven!" exclaimed Philip, as he lifted up the embroidery, starting back with violence, and overturning the table, "God of Heaven, and of Judgment, there is—there is," and Philip clasped his hands, and bowed his head in awe and anguish, as in a changed and fearful tone he muttered forth—"the LETTER!"
It was but too true,—underneath the embroidery on the floor had lain the fatal letter of Vanderdecken. Had Philip seen it on the table when he first went into the room, and was prepared to find it, he would have taken it up with some degree of composure: but to find it now, when he had persuaded himself that it was all an illusion on the part of his mother; when he had made up his mind that there had been no supernatural agency; after he had been indulging in visions of future bliss and repose, was a shock that transfixed him where he stood and for some time he remained in his attitude of surprise and terror. Down at once fell the airy fabric of happiness which he had built up during the last two hours; and as he gradually recovered from his alarm, his heart filled with melancholy forebodings. At last he dashed forward, seized the letter, and burst out of the fatal room.
"I cannot, dare not, read it here," exclaimed he: "no, no, it must be under the vault of high and offended Heaven, that the message must be received." Philip took his hat, and went out of the house; in calm despair he locked the door, took out the key, and walked he knew not whither.
If the reader can imagine the feelings of a man who, sentenced to death, and having resigned himself to his fate, finds himself unexpectedly reprieved; who, having recomposed his mind after the agitation arising from a renewal of those hopes and expectations which he had abandoned, once more dwells upon future prospects, and indulges in pleasing anticipations: we say, that if the reader can imagine this, and then what would be that man's feelings when he finds that the reprieve is revoked, and that he is to suffer, he may then form some idea of the state of Philip's mind when he quitted the cottage.
Long did he walk, careless in which direction, with the letter in his clenched hand, and his teeth firmly set. Gradually he became more composed: and out of breath with the rapidity of his motion, he sat down upon a bank, and there he long remained, with his eyes riveted upon the dreaded paper, which he held with both his hands upon his knees.
Mechanically he turned the letter over; the seal was black. Philip sighed:—"I cannot read it now," thought he, and he rose and continued his devious way.
For another half-hour did Philip keep in motion, and the sun was not many degrees above the horizon. Philip stopped and looked at it till his vision failed. "I could imagine that it was the eye of God," thought Philip, "and perhaps it may be. Why, then, merciful Creator, am I thus selected from so many millions to fulfil so dire a task?"
Philip looked about him for some spot where he might be concealed from observation—where he might break the seal, and read this mission from a world of spirits. A small copse of brushwood, in advance of a grove of trees, was not far from where he stood. He walked to it, and sat down, so as to be concealed from any passers by. Philip once more looked at the descending orb of day, and by degrees he became composed.
"It is thy will," exclaimed he; "it is my fate, and both must be accomplished."
Philip put his hand to the seal,—his blood thrilled when he called to mind that it had been delivered by no mortal hand, and that it contained the secret of one in judgment. He remembered that that one was his father; and that it was only in the letter that there was hope,—hope for his poor father, whose memory he had been taught to love, and who appealed for help.
"Coward that I am, to have lost so many hours!" exclaimed Philip; "yon sun appears as if waiting on the hill, to give me light to read."
Philip mused a short time; he was once more the daring Vanderdecken. Calmly he broke the seal, which bore the initials of his father's name, and read as follows:—
"One of those pitying spirits whose eyes rain tears for mortal crimes has been permitted to inform me by what means alone my dreadful doom may be averted.
"Could I but receive on the deck of my own ship the holy relic upon which I swore the fatal oath, kiss it in all humility, and shed one tear of deep contrition on the sacred wood, I then might rest in peace.
"How this may be effected, or by whom so fatal a task will be undertaken, I know not. O Catherine, we have a son—but, no, no, let him not hear of me. Pray for me, and now, farewell.
"Then it is true, most horribly true," thought Philip; "and my father is even now IN LIVING JUDGMENT. And he points to me,—to whom else should he? Am I not his son, and is it not my duty?"
"Yes, father," exclaimed Philip aloud, falling on his knees, "you have not written these lines in vain. Let me peruse them once more."
Philip raised up his hand; but although it appeared to him that he had still hold of the letter, it was not there—he grasped nothing. He looked on the grass to see if it had fallen—but no, there was no letter, it had disappeared. Was it a vision?—no, no, he had read every word. "Then it must be to me, and me alone, that the mission was intended. I accept the sign.
"Hear me, dear father,—if thou art so permitted,—and deign to hear me, gracious Heaven—hear the son who, by this sacred relic, swears that he will avert your doom, or perish. To that will he devote his days; and having done his duty, he will die in hope and peace. Heaven, that recorded my rash father's oath, now register his son's upon the same sacred cross, and may perjury on my part be visited with punishment more dire than his! Receive it, Heaven, as at the last I trust that in thy mercy thou wilt receive the father and the son: and if too bold, O pardon my presumption."
Philip threw himself forward on his face, with his lips to the sacred symbol. The sun went down, and the twilight gradually disappeared; night had, for some time, shrouded all in darkness, and Philip yet remained in alternate prayer and meditation!
But he was disturbed by the voices of some men, who sat down upon the turf but a few yards from where he was concealed. The conversation he little heeded; but it had roused him and his first feeling was to return to the cottage, that he might reflect over his plans; but although the men spoke in a low tone, his attention was soon arrested by the subject of their conversation, when he heard the name mentioned of Mynheer Poots. He listened attentively, and discovered that they were four disbanded soldiers, who intended that night to attack the house of the little doctor, who had, they knew, much money in his possession.
"What I have proposed is the best," said one of them; "he has no one with him but his daughter."
"I value her more than his money," replied another; "so, recollect before we go, it is perfectly understood that she is to be my property."
"Yes, if you choose to purchase her, there's no objection," replied a third.
"Agreed; how much will you in conscience ask for a paling girl?"
"I say five hundred guilders," replied another.
"Well, be it so, but on this condition, that if my share of the booty does not amount to so much, I am to have her for my share, whatever it may be."
"That's very fair," replied the other: "but I'm much mistaken if we don't turn more than two thousand guilders out of the old man's chest."
"What do you two say—is it agreed—shall Baetens have her?"
"O yes," replied the others.
"Well, then," replied the one who had stipulated for Mynheer Poots's daughter, "now I am with you heart and soul. I loved that girl, and tried to get her,—I positively offered to marry her, but the old hunks refused me, an ensign, an officer; but now I'll have revenge. We must not spare him."
"No, no," replied the others.
"Shall we go now, or wait till it is later? In an hour or more the moon will be up,—we may be seen."
"Who is to see us? unless, indeed, some one is sent for him. The later the better, I say."
"How long will it take us to get there? Not half an hour if we walk. Suppose we start in half an hour hence, we shall just have the moon to count the guilders by."
"That's all right. In the meantime, I'll put a new flint in my lock, and have my carbine loaded. I can work in the dark."
"You are used to it, Jan."
"Yes, I am,—and I intend this ball to go through the old rascal's head."
"Well, I'd rather you should kill him than I," replied one of the others, "for he saved my life at Middleburgh, when every one made sure I'd die."
Philip did not wait to hear any more; he crawled behind the bushes until he gained the grove of trees, and passing through them, made a detour, so as not to be seen by these miscreants. That they were disbanded soldiers, many of whom were infesting the country, he knew well. All his thoughts were now to save the old doctor and his daughter from the danger which threatened them; and for a time he forgot his father, and the exciting revelations of the day. Although Philip had not been aware in what direction he had walked when he set off from the cottage, he knew the country well; and now that it was necessary to act, he remembered the direction in which he should find the lonely house of Mynheer Poots: with the utmost speed he made his way for it, and in less than twenty minutes he arrived there out of breath.
As usual, all was silent, and the door fastened. Philip knocked, but there was no reply. Again and again he knocked, and became impatient. Mynheer Poots must have been summoned, and was not in the house; Philip therefore called out so as to be heard within, "Maiden, if your father is out, as I presume he must be, listen to what I have to say—I am Philip Vanderdecken. But now I overheard four wretches, who have planned to murder your father, and rob him of his gold. In one hour, or less, they will be here, and I have hastened to warn and to protect you, if I may. I swear upon the relic that you delivered to me this morning, that what I state is true."
Philip waited a short time, but received no answer.
"Maiden," resumed he, "answer me, if you value that which is more dear to you than even your father's gold to him. Open the casement above, and listen to what I have to say. In so doing there is no risk; and even if it were not dark, already have I seen you."
A short time after this second address, the casement of the upper window was unbarred, and the slight form of the fair daughter of Mynheer Poots was to be distinguished by Philip through the gloom.
"What wouldst thou young sir, at this unseemly hour? and what is it thou wouldst impart, but imperfectly heard by me, when thou spokest this minute at the door?"
Philip then entered into a detail of all that he had overheard, and concluded by begging her to admit him, that he might defend her.
"Think, fair maiden, of what I have told you. You have been sold to one of those reprobates, whose name I think they mentioned was Baetens. The gold, I know, you value not; but think of thine own dear self—suffer me to enter the house, and think not for one moment that my story is feigned. I swear to thee, by the soul of my poor dear mother, now, I trust, in heaven, that every word is true."
"Baetens, did you say, sir?"
"If I mistook them not, such was the name; he said he loved you once."
"That name I have in memory—I know not what to do, or what to say: my father has been summoned to a birth, and may be yet away for many hours. Yet how can I ope the door to you—at night—he not at home—I alone? I ought not—cannot—yet do I believe you. You surely never could be so base as to invent this tale."
"No—upon my hopes of future bliss I could not, maiden! you must not trifle with your life and honour, but let me in."
"And if I did, what could you do against such numbers?"
"They are four to one—would soon overpower you, and one more life would be lost."
"Not if you have arms; and I think your father would not be left without them. I fear them not—you know that I am resolute."
"I do indeed—and now you'd risk your life for those you did assail. I thank you, thank you kindly, sir—but dare not ope the door."
"Then, maiden, if you'll not admit me, here will I now remain; without arms, and but ill able to contend with four armed villains; but still, here will I remain and prove my truth to one I will protect 'gainst any odds—yes, even here!"
"Then shall I be thy murderer!—but that must not be. Oh! sir—swear, swear by all that's holy, and by all that's pure, that—you do not deceive me."
"I swear by thyself, maiden, than all to me more sacred!"
The casement closed, and in a short time a light appeared above. In a minute or two more the door was opened to Philip by the fair daughter of Mynheer Poots. She stood with the candle in her right hand, the colour in her cheeks varying—now flushing red, and again deadly pale. Her left hand was down by her side, and in it she held a pistol half concealed. Philip perceived this precaution on her part, but took no notice of it; he wished to re-assure her.
"Maiden!" said he, not entering, "if you still have doubts—if you think you have been ill advised in giving me admission—there is yet time to close the door against me; but for your own sake I entreat you not. Before the moon is up, the robbers will be here. With my life I will protect you, if you will but trust me. Who indeed could injure one like you?"
She was indeed (as she stood irresolute and perplexed from the peculiarity of her situation, yet not wanting in courage when it was to be called forth) an object well worthy of gaze and admiration. Her features thrown into broad light and shade by the candle which at times was half extinguished by the wind—her symmetry of form and the gracefulness and singularity of her attire—were matter of astonishment to Philip. Her head was without covering, and her long hair fell in plaits behind her shoulders; her stature was rather under the middle size, but her form perfect; her dress was simple but becoming, and very different from that usually worn by the young women of the district. Not only her features but her dress would at once have indicated to a traveller that she was of Arab blood, as was the fact.
She looked in Philip's face as he spoke—earnestly, as if she would have penetrated into his inmost thoughts; but there was a frankness and honesty in his bearing, and a sincerity in his manly countenance, which re-assured her. After a moment's hesitation she replied—
"Come in, sir; I feel that I can trust you."
Philip entered. The door was then closed and made secure.
"We have no time to lose, maiden," said Philip: "but tell me your name, that I may address you as I ought."
"My name is Amine," replied she, retreating a little.
"I thank you for that little confidence; but I must not dally. What arms have you in the house, and have you ammunition?"
"Both. I wish that my father would come home."
"And so do I," replied Philip, "devoutedly wish he would, before these murderers come; but not, I trust, while the attack is making, for there's a carbine loaded expressly for his head, and if they make him prisoner, they will not spare his life, unless his gold and your person are given in ransom. But the arms, maiden—where are they?"
"Follow me," replied Amine, leading Philip to an inner room on the upper floor. It was the sanctum of her father, and was surrounded with shelves filled with bottles and boxes of drugs. In one corner was an iron chest, and over the mantelpiece were a brace of carbines and three pistols.
"They are all loaded," observed Amine, pointing to them, and laying on the table the one which she had held in her hand.
Philip took down the arms and examined all the primings. He then took up from the table the pistol which Amine had laid there, and threw open the pan. It was equally well prepared. Philip closed the pan, and with a smile observed:—
"So this was meant for me, Amine?"
"No—not for you—but for a traitor, had one gained admittance."
"Now, maiden," observed Philip, "I shall station myself at the casement which you opened, but without a light in the room. You may remain here, and can turn the key for your security."
"You little know me," replied Amine. "In that way at least I am not fearful: I must remain near you and reload the arms—a task in which I am well practised."
"No, no," replied Philip, "you might be hurt."
"I may. But think you I will remain here idly, when I can assist one who risks his life for me? I know my duty, sir, and I shall perform it."
"You must not risk your life, Amine," replied Philip; "my aim will not be steady if I know that you're in danger. But I must take the arms into the other chamber, for the time is come."
Philip, assisted by Amine, carried the carbines and pistols into the adjoining chamber; and Amine then left Philip, carrying with her the light. Philip, as soon as he was alone, opened the casement and looked out—there was no one to be seen; he listened, but all was silent. The moon was just rising above the distant hill, but her light was dimmed by fleecy clouds, and Philip watched for a few minutes; at length he heard a whispering below. He looked out, and could distinguish through the dark the four expected assailants, standing close to the door of the house. He walked away softly from the window, and went into the next room to Amine, whom he found busy preparing the ammunition.
"Amine, they are at the door, in consultation. You can see them now without risk. I thank them, for they will convince you that I have told the truth."
Amine, without reply, went into the front room and looked out of the window. She returned, and laying her hand upon Philip's arm, she said—"Grant me your pardon for my doubts. I fear nothing now but that my father may return too soon, and they seize him."
Philip left the room again, to make his reconnoissance. The robbers did not appear to have made up their mind—the strength of the door defied their utmost efforts, so they attempted stratagem. They knocked, and as there was no reply, they continued to knock louder and louder: not meeting with success, they held another consultation, and the muzzle of a carbine was then put to the keyhole, and the piece discharged. The lock of the door was blown off, but the iron bars which crossed the door within, above and below, still held it fast.
Although Philip would have been justified in firing upon the robbers when he first perceived them in consultation at the door, still there is that feeling in a generous mind which prevents the taking away of life, except from stern necessity; and this feeling made him withhold his fire until hostilities had actually commenced. He now levelled one of the carbines at the head of the robber nearest to the door, who was busy examining the effect which the discharge of the piece had made, and what further obstacles intervened. The aim was true, and the man fell dead, while the others started back with surprise at the unexpected retaliation. But in a second or two a pistol was discharged at Philip, who still remained leaning out of the casement, fortunately without effect; and the next moment he felt himself drawn away, so as to be protected from their fire. It was Amine, who, unknown to Philip, had been standing by his side.
"You must not expose yourself, Philip," said she, in a low tone.
"She called me Philip," thought he, but made no reply.
"They will be watching for you at the casement now," said Amine. "Take the other carbine, and go below in the passage. If the lock of the door is blown off, they may put their arms in, perhaps, and remove the bars. I do not think they can, but I'm not sure; at all events, it is there you should now be, as there they will not expect you."
"You are right," replied Philip, going down.
"But you must not fire more than once there; if another fall, there will be but two to deal with, and they cannot watch the casement and force admittance too. Go—I will reload the carbine."
Philip descended softly and without a light. He went up to the door, and perceived that one of the miscreants, with his arm through the hole where the lock was blown off, was working at the upper iron bar, which he could just reach. He presented his carbine, and was about to fire the whole charge into the body of the man under his raised arm, when there was a report of fire-arms from the robbers outside.
"Amine has exposed herself," thought Philip, "and may be hurt."
The desire of vengeance prompted him first to fire his piece through the man's body, and then he flew up the stairs to ascertain the state of Amine. She was not at the casement; he darted into the inner room, and found her deliberately loading the carbine.
"My God! how you frightened me, Amine. I thought by their firing that you had shown yourself at the window."
"Indeed I did not; but I thought that when you fired through the door they might return your fire, and you be hurt; so I went to the side of the casement and pushed out on a stick some of my father's clothes, and they who were watching for you fired immediately."
"Indeed, Amine! who could have expected such courage and such coolness in one so young and beautiful?" exclaimed Philip, with surprise.
"Are none but ill-favoured people brave, then?" replied Amine, smiling.
"I did not mean that, Amine—but I am losing time. I must to the door again. Give me that carbine, and reload this."
Philip crept down stairs that he might reconnoitre, but before he had gained the door he heard at a distance the voice of Mynheer Poots. Amine, who also heard it, was in a moment at his side with a loaded pistol in each hand.
"Fear not, Amine," said Philip, as he unbarred the door, "there are but two, and your father shall be saved."
The door was opened, and Philip, seizing his carbine, rushed out; he found Mynheer Poots on the ground between the two men, one of whom had raised his knife to plunge it into his body, when the ball of the carbine whizzed through his head. The last of the robbers closed with Philip, and a desperate struggle ensued—it was however, soon decided by Amine stepping forward and firing one of the pistols through the robber's body.