Read an extract from ALEXANDRE DUMAS’ last great pageturner and Book of the Season, THE BLACK TULIP.
While the shouts of the crowd assembled on the Buitenhof were growing ever more terrifying as they rose up towards the two brothers (making Johan de Witt determined to speed the departure of his brother Cornelius), a deputation of citizens had gone to the town hall, as we mentioned, to demand the expulsion of Tilly and his corps of cavalry.
It was not far from the Buitenhof to the Hoogstraat,1 and one might have observed a stranger, who had been following the details of these events with curiosity from the start, going along with the rest – or, rather, behind the rest – towards the town hall, in order to find out at once what would occur there.
This stranger was a very young man, barely twenty-two or twenty-three years old, and not sturdy in appearance. He must have had some reason to avoid recognition, because he was hiding his long, pale face behind a fine kerchief of Frisian linen, with which he constantly wiped the perspiration off his brow or dabbed his burning lips.
With his piercing eyes, like those of a bird of prey, his long, aquiline nose and his straight, thin-lipped mouth that was open – or rather, split like the edges of a wound – he would have offered Lavater2 (had Lavater been living at that time) the subject of a physiological study that would not have been entirely flattering.
What difference, they said in Antiquity, 3 between the face of the conqueror and that of the pirate? The same as between the eagle and the vulture: serenity or anxiety. So this livid face, this frail and suffering body, as it went with uneasy steps in pursuit of the howling crowd from the Buitenhof to the Hoogstraat, was the very picture of a suspicious master or an anxious thief; and a police constable would undoubtedly have opted for the latter, because of the care that the man in question was taking to conceal himself.
Apart from that he was plainly dressed, and with no visible weapon; his arm was slender but nervous, and his dry, white hand, finely made and aristocratic, rested not on the arm, but on the shoulder of an officer, who, with his own hand on his sword, had been looking at all the events in the Buitenhof with understandable interest until the moment when his companion had set out, taking him along as he went.
Once they had arrived at the square of the Hoogstraat, the man with the pale face drew the other into the shelter of a window shutter and fixed his attention on the town hall. In response to the frenzied clamour of the mob, the window looking over the Hoogstraat opened and a man came forward to address them.
‘Who is that on the balcony?’ the young man asked the officer, with only a nod towards the speaker, who seemed quite disturbed and was supporting himself on the balustrade rather than just leaning on it.
‘That is the deputy Bowelt,’ the officer replied. ‘And what kind of a man is this Deputy Bowelt? Do you know him?’
‘A fine, upstanding man, at least, as far as I know, sire.’
When the young man heard this assessment of Bowelt’s character from the officer, he gave such an odd shrug of disappointment and such evident signs of displeasure that the officer noticed it and hastened to add, ‘At least, that is what they say, sire. For my part, I cannot swear to anything, as I’m not personally acquainted with Mijnheer Bowelt.’
‘A fine, upstanding man,’ repeated the one he had addressed as ‘sire’. ‘By upstanding, do you mean one who is likely to stand up to them?’ ‘Sire will excuse me, I cannot make such a judgement about a man who, I repeat, is known to me only by sight.’
‘As you say,’ the young man muttered. ‘Then let’s wait and see.’
The officer nodded and said nothing.
‘If this Bowelt is a fine, upstanding man,’ the royal personage continued, ‘he will give short shrift to the request that these fanatics have come to make.’
The nervous, involuntary movement of his hand against his companion’s shoulder, like the tapping of a musician’s fingers on a keyboard, betrayed the extent of his impatience, which at times – and now especially – he had trouble concealing behind a dark and icy exterior.
At this point, they heard the leader of the townsfolk calling on the deputy to ask him where were his colleagues, the other deputies.
‘Gentlemen,’ Bowelt said, a second time. ‘I am telling you that at this moment I am alone with Mijnheer d’Asperen, and I cannot take a decision by myself.’
‘The order! The order!’ cried several thousand voices.
Bowelt tried to speak, but his words were drowned out by the noise and all one could see were his arms making various desperate gestures. Then, seeing that he would not make himself heard, he turned back towards the open window and called d’Asperen.
D’Asperen in his turn appeared on the balcony where he was greeted with still more forceful cries than those which ten minutes earlier had greeted Bowelt. Even so, he did try to address the crowd, but the mob preferred breaking through the guard of the States – which offered no resistance to the sovereign people – to hearing d’Asperen’s speech.
‘Come on,’ the young man said coolly as the people were pouring in through the main door of the Hoogstraat. ‘It seems that the discussion will take place indoors, colonel. Let’s go and hear it.’
‘Be careful, sire!’
‘Why should I?’
‘Among the deputies, there are many who have had dealings with you. It would be enough for just one to recognize Your Highness.’
‘Enough for me to be accused of instigating all this. You are right,’ the young man said, his cheeks reddening for an instant with regret at having shown so much haste in his desires. ‘Yes, you are right, let’s stay here. From here, we shall see them return with or without the authorization and be able to judge from that whether Mijnheer Bowelt will be a fine, upstanding man, or one brave enough to stand up to them. I should like to know.’
The officer looked in astonishment at the man he called ‘sire’, and said, ‘But Your Highness surely does not imagine for a moment that the deputies will order Tilly’s men to leave?’
‘Why not?’ the young man asked coldly.
‘Because if they were to order that, it would quite simply be signing the death warrants of Johan and Cornelius de Witt.’
‘We shall see,’ the royal personage replied calmly. ‘God alone can know what goes on in the hearts of men.’
The officer looked askance at the impassive face of his companion, and the colour drained from his face. This officer was both a decent and a brave man.
From the place where they had stopped, the royal personage and his companion could hear the sound of voices and the tramping of feet on the staircase of the town hall. Then they heard this sound come out and spread across the square from the open windows of the room on the balcony of which Bowelt and d’Asperen had appeared. The two men themselves stayed inside, fearing, no doubt, that the crowd might press against them and push them over the balustrade.
Then shadows, turning noisily, could be seen passing across the windows. The council chamber was filling up.
Suddenly the noise ceased. Then, just as suddenly, it doubled in volume, reaching such a pitch that the old building shook from top to bottom. And finally the stream once again started to roll through the galleries and stairways down to the door, before emerging from it like a torrent.
At the head of the first group, a man, his face hideously distorted by joy, flew rather than ran. It was the barber Tyckelaer.
‘We’ve got it! We’ve got it!’ he cried, waving a sheet of paper in the air.
‘They have the order,’ the officer muttered in amazement.
‘Well, now my mind is settled on the matter,’ said the royal personage calmly. ‘You could not tell me, dear Colonel, whether Mijnheer Bowelt was an upright man or a courageous one. He is neither.’ And, unblinking, he watched the crowd surging past him.
‘Now, Colonel,’ he said, ‘come to the Buitenhof. I think we shall see an odd spectacle.’
The officer bowed and followed his master without a word.
The crowd on the square and around the prison was immense.
But Tilly’s horsemen were still as successful – and as firm – in containing it.
Soon, the Count heard the mounting roar of the stream of men as they approached and saw the first waves pressing forward with the speed of a rushing waterfall. At the same time, he noticed the sheet of paper fluttering in the air above the clutching hands and shining weapons.
‘Ah!’ he exclaimed, rising in his stirrups and touching his lieutenant with the pommel of his sword. ‘I think these wretches have their order.’
‘The cowardly rogues!’ said the lieutenant.
It was indeed the order, which the townspeople’s militia received with roars of joy. They set off at once, marching forward towards Count Tilly and his men with loud cries. But the Count was not the sort of man to let them approach too close.
‘Halt!’ he cried. ‘Halt! And keep back from my horses or I shall give the order to advance.’
‘Here is the order!’ replied a hundred insolent voices.
Incredulous, he took it, quickly glanced over it and said in a loud voice, ‘Those who signed this order are the true murderers of Cornelius de Witt. As for me, I should rather lose both my hands than have written a single letter of this disgraceful order.’
Then, using the pommel of his sword to push back a man who was trying to take the paper from him, he said, ‘One moment! A piece of paper such as this is important and should be kept.’
He folded it and carefully put it in the pocket of his jerkin. Then, turning back to his troop, he called: ‘Tilly’s horse, by the right, march!’ And, in an undertone (but so that some could hear it), he exclaimed, ‘And now, cut-throats, do your work!’
A furious shout, composed of all the eager hatreds and savage joys grumbling on the Buitenhof, greeted their departure.
The horsemen slowly walked off in line. The Count stayed at the back, confronting the intoxicated populace till the last moment, as it took over the ground relinquished by the captain’s horse. As one can see, Johan de Witt had not exaggerated the danger when, helping his brother to get up, he urged him to depart. So Cornelius was coming down the staircase leading into the courtyard, supported by the arm of the former Grand Pensionary when, at the foot of the stairs, he met the lovely Rosa, shaking with fright.
‘Oh, Mijnheer Johan,’ she said. ‘What a disaster!’
‘What is it, child?’ asked de Witt.
‘It’s that they have gone to the Hoogstraat to fetch the order for Count Tilly’s horse to leave.’
‘Ha!’ said Johan. ‘If as you say, my girl, the troop has left, then things are indeed looking bad for us.’
‘So I have some advice to give you,’ the girl said, trembling.
‘Give it to me, child. What is remarkable about the fact that God might speak to me through your lips?’
‘Well, Mijnheer Johan, I should not go out through the main street.’
‘Why not, since Tilly’s men are still at their post?’
‘They may be, but until the order is countermanded, it is to stay in front of the prison.’
‘Do you have an order for them to accompany you outside the town?’
‘Well, as soon as you have stepped beyond the first row of horse, you will fall into the hands of the mob.’
‘What about the town militia?’
‘Huh! The militia is the most inflamed of all.’
‘So what can we do?’
‘In your place, Mijnheer Johan,’ the young woman went on shyly, ‘I should go out through the postern, which opens on an empty street, because everyone is in the main street waiting at the main gate. I would then proceed to the town gate through which you wish to depart.’
‘But my brother cannot walk,’ said Johan.
‘I shall try,’ Cornelius replied, with an expression of sublime resolve.
‘But don’t you have your carriage?’ the young woman asked.
‘It is there, at the main gate.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ she replied. ‘I thought that your coachman must be a faithful servant, so I told him to go and wait at the postern gate.’
The two brothers looked at one another with feeling and then both pairs of eyes, full of gratitude, turned to the young woman.
‘Now,’ said the Grand Pensionary, ‘all that remains is to see if Gryphus will open that gate for us.’ ‘Oh, no,’ Rosa said. ‘He won’t.’
‘So what are we to do, then?’
‘Well, I guessed that he would refuse and just now, while he was talking with a prisoner through the jail window, I took the key off his bunch.’
‘And do you have this key?’
‘Here it is, Mijnheer Johan.’ ‘My child,’ Cornelius said, ‘I have nothing to give you in exchange for the service you have done me, except the Bible that you will find in my room. It will be the last present of an honourable man and I hope it will bring you happiness.’
‘Thank you, Mijnheer Cornelius, it will never leave me,’ the young woman replied. Then, with a sigh, to herself, she added, ‘What a pity I cannot read!’
‘The noise is getting louder, my child,’ Johan said. ‘I think we have not a moment to lose.’
‘Come on,’ the lovely Frisian girl said, and she led the two brothers by an inner corridor to the opposite side of the prison.
Still guided by Rosa, they went down a flight of some dozen stairs, crossed a small yard with crenellated ramparts and, when the arched door had been opened, they found themselves on the other side of the prison in a deserted street, and in front of them the carriage with its running board lowered.
‘Quickly, quickly, masters, can you hear them?’ the coachman cried in terror.
But after putting Cornelius in first, the Grand Pensionary turned to the young woman.
‘Goodbye, my child,’ he said. ‘Whatever I say will be too feeble to express our gratitude. We entrust you to God, who will, I hope, remember that you have just saved the lives of two men.’
Rosa took the hand that the Grand Pensionary held out to her and kissed it respectfully.
‘Go,’ she said. ‘Go now. It sounds as though they are breaking down the gate.’
Johan de Witt got in hurriedly, sat down beside his brother and drew the apron across the carriage, shouting, ‘To the Tol-Hek!’
The Tol-Hek was the iron barrier across the gate leading to the little port of Schweningen, where a small boat was waiting for the brothers. The carriage set off at a gallop, carrying the fugitives and pulled by its two sturdy Flemish horses. Rosa looked after it, until it had turned the corner of the street. Then she went back inside, shutting the door behind her and throwing the key into a well.
The noise that told Rosa that the mob was breaking down the gate was indeed that of the mob dashing against the gate after the prison square had been emptied of Tilly’s men. Though it was solid, and though the jailer, Gryphus – it must be said, in all fairness to him – was obstinately refusing to open it, one could tell that it would soon give way, and Gryphus, who had gone very pale, was wondering if it might not be better to open it than to have it broken down when he felt someone gently tugging at his coat.
He turned round and saw Rosa.
‘Can you hear those fanatics?’ he said.
‘I can hear them so well, father, that if I were you . . .’
‘You would open to them, wouldn’t you?’
‘No, I should let them break down the gate.’
‘But they will kill me.’
‘Yes, if they see you.’
‘How do you expect them not to see me?’
‘In the secret dungeon.’
‘What about you, child?’
‘I shall come down into it with you. We shall close the door behind us and when they have left the prison, we shall come out.’
‘By heavens, you’re right,’ exclaimed Gryphus, adding, ‘It’s astonishing how much good sense there is in that little head.’
Then, as the gate was collapsing, to the great delight of the mob, Rosa said, ‘Come, come, father,’ as she opened a small trapdoor.
‘But what about our prisoners?’ Gryphus asked.
‘God will look after them, father,’ the young woman said. ‘Let me look after you.’
Gryphus followed his daughter and the trapdoor fell back above their heads, just as the broken gate was giving way to the people.
However, the dungeon into which Rosa took her father, known as the ‘secret dungeon’, offered a sure hiding place to these two characters, and we shall be obliged to leave them there for a while. Their hiding place was known only to the authorities, who sometimes used it to shut up one of those great criminals on whose behalf they feared some rebellion or attempt at abduction.
The mob burst into the prison, shouting, ‘Death to the traitors! Cornelius de Witt to the gallows! Death! Death!’