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BLACK NIGHT FALLS
"And so now you may see for yourself, Lorens, that what that idiot Klaas told you in the hall just now — I heard him mumbling — is true. This is the end of Joris van Norreys. That is why I sent for you —"
The heavy golden damask curtains were not drawn, but the fading daylight did not pierce far beyond their jealous guardianship. Never had this state bedchamber been comfortable and now, even in mid-May, there was the bite of damp December in its musty air. Air as wintry as the expression on the time-whittled face of the old man held upright by the monster pillows of the cavernous, curtain-walled, fourposter bed.
But today Lorens refused to allow himself to be intimidated by that bleakness in his grandfather's sunken eyes, the tight set of his bearded lips. He turned from the window almost eagerly.
"I have always been ready — wanted — to come; you know that, sir!"
"But I was not ready to have you! There was a reason, its purpose is now served, or will be soon enough."
The boy stopped, almost in mid-stride.
"Why — why do you hate me so?" he asked simply.
"Hate you? Come, boy, don't be more stupid than the good Lord has made you already. You have always suited me well enough."
A distant rumble of sound drowned out the harsh labored breathing of the old man. Overhead the crystal drops of the chandelier tinkled in protest. And underfoot, oak flooring, laid true three hundred years before, trembled.
"So here they come, do they?" Joris van Norrey's question was half snarl. "Twice in a lifetime — three times in mine — they have made such a bid for power. And this time it seems that they are winning the game."
"No!" His grandson's denial was hot and quick.
Joris van Norreys grinned, his blue lips drawing back across yellow stubs of teeth. The crooked scar he had had from a drunken pearl diver in Sumatra made a wry grimace of the smile.
"You still believe in 'right' and 'honor' and 'freedom,' I see" — his words rose determinedly above the intruding chime of the glass prisms, the far-off concussion of explosion. "Well, the young are ever idealistic. And the House of Norreys has been known to cling to lost causes with a persistence worthy of a better end."
"This cause is not lost — yet!"
"Do you think so? Yet I will wager that black shirts will walk the streets of Amsterdam within the week. Hear that? It is the death of Rotterdam. We have used our greatest weapon — loosing the floods of the sea — and this time history does not repeat, it has not saved us. But, for the distant future, you may be right. Netherlands blood is stubborn and we have an inborn liking for following only the paths we ourselves have chosen. So, as you are the last of the Norreys — except that dunder-head Piet I have made plans for you —"
The boy shook his head impatiently. "I have plans of my own, thank you, sir. I may be counted too young to fight, but out there is work to be done. We are still resisting!"
Joris van Norreys lifted one hand in a silencing gesture.
"Be quiet and listen! Time is the one thing I can no longer control and I have little of it left. Yes, they are still resisting out there, fighting a battle already lost. We cannot stem this tide; it will sweep over us, on and on. All that remains is to guard what we have left, to plan ahead, to prepare to receive our conquerors as they should be —"
"I refuse," the young voice overbore the old one, "to make terms with them!"
The old man nodded. "Yes, our blood has never taken easily to the bended knee and the bowed head. But I don't think that our present captors will find any of our nation docile vassals. Spain never did. However, you are not to remain here. A dead man, though he may be a martyr to a cause, is of less use to his country than a living fighter. You will now obey me, living or dead though I may be. I shall have your word upon that here and now."
Blue eyes locked in battle with stubborn gray. And, in that long moment of struggle, the boy's face seemed to thin down to the sharp lines of the one half buried in the pillows. Not only blood but spirit were shared in that room.
"And if I do promise to go your way?"
"Then I shall put into your hands a weapon — to be used how and when you see fit. Refuse, and you shall walk out of this room as empty-handed as you entered, free to spend your life as foolishly and as quickly as you have planned. More battles are won by wits than by unthinking courage."
Lorens' gray eyes dropped to his slim brown hands twisting and retwisting an edge of the thick coverlet. Time was measured in the tinkle of the glass, the thud of sound in the tortured city beyond the checkerboard of fields.
"Why do you ask this of me? For months now I have been forbidden this house, you have refused to see or speak to me —"
Joris van Norreys clicked his teeth impatiently. "I have said that I had an excellent reason for what I have done. And I do not have time now to explain. What is your choice?"
"I will do as you wish."
Now there seemed to be a tinge of faint color in his grandfather's leather skin, and when the old man spoke again it was with some of the briskness Lorens remembered of old.
"Open the Beggar's Purse, if you can remember how, and bring me the case you find there."
Lorens went to the throat of the empty fireplace and crouched to reach up into the chimney. His groping fingers touched the well-hidden spring. It gave easily and within the revealed recess he found a jewel case.
Not heeding the dust on its lid, Joris took the case eagerly and snapped it open. On the dingy velvet cushion within lay a necklace of gold flowers.
Lorens drew a deep breath. "The Flowers of Orange!"
"Just so. And they are as ugly a piece of rococo as I have ever seen. But with its history and the worth of these" — he touched the gemmed hearts of the fat flowers — "it may be well termed 'priceless'. You had better not try to take this with you — it is too well known to the black hounds who will be nosing about. They will search for it wherever the House of Norreys is known to have connections. I have no doubt that even the Beggar's Purse, that hiding place contrived to defy the skill of Parma's searching parties, is well known to them. But I have made some preparations. In the smallest of the wine vaults — you know the plan — I have had installed one of those 'name' safes which we once discussed. Do you remember?"
Lorens nodded eagerly. "Those set upon a name, which can be opened only when the letters of that name are dialed —"
"But this safe has additional interesting features" — for the second time Joris smiled. "And ones invented by the astute brains of our new friends — which should please them. I was assured by the German firm from which I purchased it several years ago that it is the only one of its kind in the world. Once closed and locked upon a name, it cannot again be opened for two years. And should an attempt be made to force it, the contents will be destroyed by acid. That final touch I have caused to be published in the right quarters so that they will not dare to meddled. In two years much can happen. Perhaps you youngsters may be right in believing that the invader has now overreached himself. If that is so, it will do these" — the golden flowers trickled through his fingers — "no harm to lie quiet. If, at the end of that time, this has become another of their slave states, then you can use your ingenuity to work out an answer. I am too old to plan farther, and too tired. Only a young man can plan the game of life in this new world. Use the wits you have to the best of your ability. And may they win in the end. Take this now and put it away" — he pushed aside the necklace with a fretful gesture. "When you have done that, take the letter Klaas will have ready for you and go —"
"But you — ?"
"I am a dead man, and this is no time to think of the dead. If you see that fool Piet again, tell him from me that he should stick to his flying about in those airplanes he is so fond of; he hasn't the brains to run a proper business. If the House of Norreys is ever to open its doors again, it will be because you have learned some sense and how to tell an aquamarine from an emerald. Now get out! I want to be left in peace!"
His glance became a measuring stare which swept from the dusty feet of the slim figure before him to the undisciplined blond hair.
"You're young, too young for common sense, but you'll do. You're a Norreys, that's certain, and you seemed able, during the past months, to fend for yourself. If this world is ever fit to live in again you may — No, get out, take that thing and go. I'm tired of the sight of you!"
But Lorens dared to catch one of the swollen hands and hold it tight before he picked up the jewel case. The blue eyes were shut, there was no answering pressure from the thick fingers in his. Joris van Norreys had never cared for leave-taking in the past, he had no taste for it now, and for this one least of all. He did not move nor open his eyes as the door opened and shut again upon the gloom of the old room.
The chill of the room seemed to have penetrated to the hall. It followed Lorens down the wide stairs into the high-ceiled dining room. Silver and polsihed oak, crimson and tarnished gold, old solid magnificence, the House of Norreys; buyers and sellers of jewels, friends of thrones, of kings and queens, dead and living; exiled, and still holding dwindling power. Four hundred years of merchanting, of sometimes wresting this wealth from the earth with their own hands. The first Lorens had done that, and Hendrik, who had traveled the roads of India while the Great Mogul had still ruled there, and so had Joris.
Some of them had been more adventurers than merchants. There were parchment maps among the old records, maps of queer places of the world which were not even well known today. But Norreys had drawn those maps scores, even hundreds of years ago. The constant tinkle of the chandeliers now might be ghostly echoes of the rattling of swords in shadowy scabbards. The Norreys of old were fighting men.
On sudden impulse Lorens went to the far wall where a dark picture hung. It had been painted by Hals, his grandfather had once said. But that had never meant much to him. He was more interested in the man who lived within the time-dulled canvas: the first Lorens, the man who had disappeared into the Far East when China was half legend, when the archipelagoes of the dusky-skinned, fighting Malays were mostly myth. Lorens van Norreys the first had beaten out a trading empire with his two brawny fists, ruling as a Raja in dim islands, returning home to die thirty years later, breasting the Dutch sea in a queer outlandish Oriental ship, a cargo of such wealth on board as no home-dwelling burgher had seen before.
He had taken a Dutch bride East with him — against her will, family legend said — and he came back with a bodyguard of twelve tall sons. Legend or truth, there were stories about him, stories which had become through the years no longer whispered scandal, but the pride of the House of Norreys.
How would he have dealt with the Nazis, his descendant wondered. In some spectacular but very effective way — judging by what was known of him. But at least he deserved not to have to endure them when he could no longer dispense their coming.
A raid upon the drawers of the sideboard provided Lorens with a sharp fruit knife which promised to do the job neatly enough. He lifted the canvas down to the table and, with careful strength, slashed the picture loose from the frame. Hoping not to crack the ancient paint, he rolled it in linen dinner napkins and took it with him, through the pantries and deserted kitchen. There, a dark figure moved out to intercept him.
"It is you at last, Mijnheer Lorens?" Klaas' flat dark face showed no surprise. As he had grown older his Malay blood seemed stronger. Lorens often wondered if he had ever regretted leaving Java, the land of his birth. "I have the keys ready for you, the cellar doors are now unlocked."
There were four keys on the ring he handed to Lorens, all old, long-shafted iron ones of an earlier day.
"The safe is in the small room by the canal. Do you wish me to carry the torch for you?"
"No, thank you, Klaas. I will manage."
The steps were worn in shallow hollows and the dancing circle of light picked out clearly the black cracks where mortar, long laid, had crumbled into dust. Yet it was not too damp and the air was fairly fresh.
Lorens went on past empty racks where the dusty glass of a few forgotten bottles sparkled in the torchlight. Then he had to push by rotting wooden tuns which still held about them the faint scent of vanished liquors, scars of rat teeth plain to be seen on their splintering sides. Even underground here, miles deep in the countryside, one could still feel the torment of the raided city. What must it be like there now, with death pouring red fire from the air, flame and wreckage in the place of homes and shops and peaceful streets? It was hard to believe in — this last crowning horror.
The room by the canal was small, much smaller than the other caverns of the cellar and here was the safe partly built into the wall, as solid now as the blocks about it. But when Lorens knelt before it in the dust, the door gave readily to his pull.
He stood the linen-swathed picture within one corner, then put the jewel case on the single shelf. Two years it would rest there. Two years of — what?
The door snapped shut. His fingers were on the dial knob. What word would do to set the lock? And what would happen if something ill chanced and that word, in his brain only, would be lost? No one could say nowadays with confidence, "I have a future. I shall stand here two years from now and open this door again." One could only hope. Someone must share his secret — someone to be trusted.
Under this roof now — since the other servants had been told to go — there was only a dying man and the Eurasian; neither one could help him. And in blasted Rotterdam who could he call upon?
He rubbed the sweating palms of his hands on his rough tweed trousers. Someone must share his secret — but who — where — ? As he bent forward again, a paper crackled in his pocket. He plucked at the white corner which had pushed above the edge of the tweed. A canceled stamp showed there, a blue stamp with unfamiliar markings in white. He sat for a moment, rocking slowly on his heels, staring at the envelope.
Here was the answer, the perfect answer, the only answer left him. He reached for the dial knob. Six times it clicked into place. For a last precaution he tried it, but the steel no longer moved. Set and sealed, safe for two years. And if he could work it — the secret would be equally safe too.
"Mijnheer Lorens!" Klaas was waiting for him as he came again into the great hall above. "Tuan Joris would have you read this — now."
"This" was a letter, bulky and sealed. The envelope tore unevenly under Lorens' probing finger, and he pulled out thick, heavy sheets of office foolscap scrawled over with the black strokes of his grandfather's writing.
Excerpted from The Sword Is Drawn by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1972 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 10, 2013
Posted March 30, 2013