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.