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Orczy Emmuska Orczy, Baroness
Leatherface: A Tale of Old Flanders

PROLOGUE
MONS, SEPTEMBER, 1572

It lacked two hours before the dawn on this sultry night early in September. The crescent moon had long ago sunk behind a bank of clouds in the west, and not a sound stirred the low-lying land around the besieged city.

To the south the bivouac fires of Alva's camp had died out one by one, and here the measured tread of the sentinels on their beat alone broke the silence of the night. To the north, where valorous Orange with a handful of men-undisciplined, unpaid and rebellious-vainly tried to provoke his powerful foe into a pitched battle, relying on God for the result, there was greater silence still. The sentinels-wearied and indifferent-had dropped to sleep at their post: the troops, already mutinous, only held to their duty by the powerful personality of the Prince, slept as soundly as total indifference to the cause for which they were paid to fight could possibly allow.

In his tent even Orange-tired out with ceaseless watching-had gone to rest. His guards were in a profound sleep.

Then it was that from the south there came a stir, and from Alva's entrenchments waves of something alive that breathed in the darkness of the night were set in motion, like when the sea rolls inwards to the shore.

Whispered words set this living mass on its way, and anon it was crawling along-swiftly and silently-more silently than incoming waves on a flat shore-on and on, always northwards in the direction of the Prince of Orange's camp, like some gigantic snake that creeps with belly close to the ground.

"Don Ramon," whispered a voice in the darkness, "let Captain Romero deal with the sentinels and lead the surprise attack, whilst you yourself make straight for the Prince's tent; overpower his guard first, then seize his person. Two hundred ducats will be your reward, remember, if you bring Orange back here-a prisoner-and a ducat for each of your men."

These were the orders and don Ramon de Linea sped forward with six hundred arquebusiers-all picked men-they wore their shirts over their armour, so that in the mêlée which was to come they might recognise one another in the gloom.

Less than a league of flat pasture land lay between Alva's entrenchments at St. Florian near the gates of beleaguered Mons, and Orange's camp at Hermigny. But at St. Florian men stirred and planned and threatened, whilst at Hermigny even the sentinels slept. Noble-hearted Orange had raised the standard of revolt against the most execrable oppression of an entire people which the world has ever known-and he could not get more than a handful of patriots to fight for their own freedom against the tyranny and the might of Spain, whilst mercenary troops were left to guard the precious life of the indomitable champion of religious and civil liberties.

The moving mass of de Linea's arquebusiers had covered half a league of the intervening ground; their white shirts only just distinguishable in the gloom made them look like ghosts; only another half-league-less perhaps-separated them from their goal, and still no one stirred in Orange's camp. Then it was that something roused the sentinels from their sleep. A rough hand shook first one then the others by the shoulder, and out of the gloom a peremptory voice whispered hurriedly:

"Quick! awake! sound the alarm! An encamisada is upon you. You will all be murdered in your sleep."

And even before the drowsy sentinels had time to rouse themselves or to rub their eyes, the same rough hand had shaken the Prince's guard, the same peremptory voice had called: "Awake! the Spaniards are upon you!"

In the Prince's tent a faint light was glimmering. He himself was lying fully dressed and armed upon a couch. At sound of the voice, of his guards stirring, of the noise and bustle of a wakening camp, he sat up just in time to see a tall figure in the entrance of his tent.

The feeble light threw but into a dim relief this tall figure of a man, clad in dark, shapeless woollen clothes wearing a hood of the same dark stuff over his head and a leather mask over his face.

"Leatherface!" exclaimed the Prince as he jumped to his feet. "What is it?"

"A night attack," replied a muffled voice behind the mask. "Six hundred arquebusiers-they are but half a league away! – I would have been here sooner only the night is so infernally dark, I caught my foot in a rabbit-hole and nearly broke my ankle-I am as lame as a Jew's horse … but still in time," he added as he hastily helped the Prince to adjust his armour and straighten out his clothes.

The camp was alive now with call to arms and rattle of steel, horses snorting and words of command flying to and fro. Don Ramon de Linea, a quarter of a league away, heard these signs of troops well on the alert and he knew that the surprise attack had failed. Six hundred arquebusiers-though they be picked men-were not sufficient for a formal attack on the Prince of Orange's entire cavalry. Even mercenary and undisciplined troops will fight valiantly when their lives depend upon their valour. De Linea thought it best to give the order to return to camp.

And the waves of living men which had been set in motion an hour ago, now swiftly and silently went back the way they came. Don Ramon when he came once more in the camp at St. Florian and in the presence of Alva's captain-in-chief, had to report the failure of the night attack which had been so admirably planned.

"The whole camp at Hermigny was astir," he said as he chawed the ends of his heavy moustache, for he was sorely disappointed. "I could not risk an attack under those conditions. Our only chance of winning was by surprise."

"Who gave the alarm?" queried don Frederic de Toledo, who took no pains to smother the curses that rose to his lips.

"The devil, I suppose," growled don Ramon de Linea savagely.

And out at Hermigny-in Orange's tent-the man who was called Leatherface was preparing to go as quietly and mysteriously as he had come.

"They won't be on you, Monseigneur," he said, "now that they know your troops are astir. But if I were you," he added grimly, "I would have every one of those sentinels shot at dawn. They were all of them fast asleep when I arrived."

He gave the military salute and would have turned to go without another word but that the Prince caught him peremptorily by the arm:

"In the meanwhile, Messire, how shall I thank you again?" he asked.

"By guarding your precious life, Monseigneur," replied the man simply. "The cause of freedom in the Low Countries would never survive your loss."

"Well!" retorted the Prince of Orange with a winning smile, "if that be so, then the cause of our freedom owes as much to you as it does to me. Is it the tenth time-or the twelfth-that you have saved my life?"

"Since you will not let me fight with you…"

"I'll let you do anything you wish, Messire, for you would be as fine a soldier as you are a loyal friend. But are you not content with the splendid services which you are rendering to us now? Putting aside mine own life-which mayhap is not worthless-how many times has your warning saved mine and my brother's troops from surprise attacks? How many times have Noircarmes' or don Frederic's urgent appeals for reinforcements failed, through your intervention, to reach the Duke of Alva until our own troops were able to rally? Ah, Messire, believe me! God Himself has chosen you for this work!"

"The work of a spy, Monseigneur," said the other not without a touch of bitterness.

"Nay! if you call yourself a spy, Messire, then shall the name of 'spy' be henceforth a name of glory to its wearer, synonymous with the loftiest patriotism and noblest self-sacrifice."

He held out his hand to the man with the mask, who bent his tall figure over it in dutiful respect.

"You see how well I keep to my share of the compact, Messire. Never once-even whilst we were alone-hath your name escaped my lips."

"For which act of graciousness, Monseigneur, I do offer you my humble thanks. May God guard your Highness through every peril! The cause of justice and of liberty rests in your hands."

After another deeply respectful bow he finally turned to go. He had reached the entrance of the tent when once more the Prince spoke to him.

"When shall I see you again-Leatherface?" he asked cheerily.

"When your Highness' precious life or the safety of your army are in danger," replied the man.

"God reward you!" murmured Orange fervently as the man with the mask disappeared into the night.

BOOK ONE: BRUSSELS

CHAPTER I
THE BLOOD COUNCIL

I

Less than a month later, and tyranny is once more triumphant. Mons has capitulated, Orange has withdrawn his handful of mutinous troops into Holland, Valenciennes has been destroyed and Mechlin-beautiful, gracious, august Mechlin-with her cathedrals and her trade-halls, her ancient monuments of art and civilisation has been given over for three days to the lust and rapine of Spanish soldiery!

Three whole days! E'en now we think on those days and shudder-shudder at what we know, at what the chroniclers have told us, the sacking of churches, the pillaging of monasteries, the massacre of peaceful, harmless citizens!

Three whole days during which the worst demons that infest hell itself, the worst demons that inspire the hideous passions of men-greed, revenge and cruelty-were let loose upon the stately city whose sole offence had been that she had for twenty-four hours harboured Orange and his troops within her gates and closed them against the tyrant's soldiery!

Less than a month and Orange is a fugitive, and all the bright hopes for the cause of religious and civil freedom are once more dashed to the ground. It seems as if God Himself hath set His face against the holy cause! Mons has fallen and Mechlin is reduced to ashes, and over across the borders the King of France has caused ten thousand of his subjects to be massacred-one holy day, the feast of St. Bartholomew-ten thousand of them! – just because their religious beliefs did not coincide with his own. The appalling news drove Orange and his small army to flight-he had reckoned on help from the King of France-instead of that promised help the news of the massacre of ten thousand Protestants! Catholic Europe was horror-stricken at the crime committed in the name of religion; but in the Low Countries, Spanish tyranny had scored a victory-the ignoble Duke of Alva triumphed and the cause of freedom in Flanders and Hainault and Brabant received a blow from which it did not again recover for over three hundred years!

II

Outwardly the house where the Duke of Alva lodged in Brussels was not different to many of the same size in the city. It was built of red brick with stone base and finely-carved cornice, and had a high slate roof with picturesque dormer windows therein. The windows on the street level were solidly grilled and were ornamented with richly-carved pediments, as was the massive doorway too. The door itself was of heavy oak, and above it there was a beautifully wrought niche which held a statue of the Virgin.

On the whole it looked a well-constructed, solid and roomy house, and Mme. de Jassy, its owner, had placed it at the disposal of the Lieutenant-Governor when first he arrived in Brussels, and he had occupied it ever since. The idler as he strolled past the house would hardly pause to look at it, if he did not happen to know that behind those brick walls and grilled windows a work of oppression more heinous than this world had ever known before, was being planned and carried on by a set of cruel and execrable tyrants against an independent country and a freedom-loving people.

Here in the dining-hall the Duke of Alva would preside at the meetings of the Grand Council-the Council of Blood-sitting in a high-backed chair which had the arms of Spain emblazoned upon it. Juan de Vargas and Alberic del Rio usually sat to right and left of him. Del Rio-indolent and yielding-a mere tool for the carrying out of every outrage, every infamy which the fiendish brain of those tyrants could devise wherewith to crush the indomitable spirit of a proud nation jealous of its honour and of its liberties: and de Vargas-Alva's double and worthy lieutenant-no tool he, but a terrible reality, active and resourceful in the invention of new forms of tyranny, new fetters for the curbing of stiff-necked Flemish and Dutch burghers, new methods for wringing rivers of gold out of a living stream of tears and blood.

De Vargas! – the very name stinks in the nostrils of honest men even after the lapse of centuries! – It conjures up the hideous image of a human bloodhound-lean and sallow of visage, with drooping, heavy-lidded eyes and flaccid mouth, a mouth that sneered and jested when men, women and children were tortured and butchered, eyes that gloated at sight of stake and scaffold and gibbet-and within the inner man, a mind intent on the science of murder and rapine and bloodshed.

Alva the will that commanded! Vargas the brain that devised! Del Rio the hand that accomplished!

Men sent by Philip II. of Spain, the most fanatical tyrant the world has ever known, to establish the abhorrent methods of the Spanish Inquisition in the Low Countries in order to consolidate Spanish rule there and wrest from prosperous Flanders and Brabant and Hainault, from Holland and the Dutch provinces enough gold to irrigate the thirsty soil of Spain. "The river of gold which will flow from the Netherlands to Madrid shall be a yard deep!" so had Alva boasted when his infamous master sent him to quell the revolt which had noble-hearted Orange for its leader-a revolt born of righteous indignation and an unconquerable love of freedom and of justice.

To mould the Netherlands into abject vassals of Spain, to break their independence of spirit by terrorism and by outrage, to force Spanish ideas, Spanish culture, Spanish manners, Spanish religion upon these people of the North who loathed tyranny and worshipped their ancient charters and privileges, that was the task which the Duke of Alva set himself to do-a task for which he needed the help of men as tyrannical and unscrupulous as himself.

Granvelle had begun the work, Alva was completing it! The stake, the scaffold, the gibbet for all who had one thought of justice, one desire for freedom. Mons razed to the ground, Valenciennes a heap of ruins and ashes, Mechlin a hecatomb. Men, women and children outraged and murdered! Whole families put to the torture to wring gold from unwilling givers! churches destroyed! monasteries ransacked!

That was the work of the Grand Council-the odious Council of Blood, the members of which have put to shame the very name of religion, for they dared to pretend that they acted in its name.

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