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The Confession of Floris Heenvliet:
eBook No.: 2300631h.html
Date first posted: May 2023
Most recent update: May 2023
This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan
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"Floris Heenvliet did not believe in remorse—he believed in no emotion once other men had put a name to it—yet he had experienced most feelings, and his cynicism had saved him very little." So, what, then, did he wish to confess?
LORIS HEENVLIET was skating along the canal that runs from Delft to Rotterdam. He had his back to the former town, which was where he lived, but he had not yet come so far that he could see the houses of Rotterdam, or even the spires of the big churches with their lead cupolas visible as far as Schiedam.
It was late afternoon, cold and lonely.
Floris had passed no one since he had left his uncle's house in the Koornmarkt, and he was glad. He was skating in face of the wind, he had his fur collar turned up, his cap pulled low, and his hands in his pockets.
It was delightful to feel his body swing forward without exertion or fatigue, to feel the ice spinning away from under his feet, to see the long canal ever widening before him, and to hear the solitary yet homely sound of the wind that blew back his coat and seemed to be struggling to lift up his cap, that it might whisper something in his ear.
On either side the flat, bare country was lying under a white salt mist that became grey in the distance and mingled with the sombre-coloured sky.
Floris skated through field after field, where the canal was edged by spears of broken grass, and low bushes, bearing glittering lines of snow, bent over the frozen tow-path, and beyond this nothing but the straight line of the land merging into the mist.
Then he passed windmills with the date painted in large letters under the thatch, and the sails turning briskly, and in the distance he could sometimes see another windmill—a grey shape that did not catch the wind, but was still as a painting on the background of the mist.
He smiled to think that he had ever been tired, and yet in the perfect exaltation of his body, in the joy of the swift motion and the keen air, he thought of fatigue and weariness, and even now and then of death.
He went between scattered houses built down close to the water, with their own little wooden landing-stages, on which stood familiar objects—a pair of sabots, a pile of logs, or even a cat walking cautiously.
He passed a trim villa, the red bricks mortared with lines of white, one window open and a rich Persian cloth of glowing colours hanging out, and on the roof a crow.
These things flew past, and he was in the bare, open country again.
Because he was so utterly alone and untrammelled, he felt as if he was being watched, and in the complete silence he distinguished voices that he never heard at other times.
He knew what they said perfectly well, and that they spoke the truth; he smiled in his collar and wondered.
He did not believe in remorse—he believed in no emotion once other men had put a name to it—yet he had experienced most feelings, and his cynicism had saved him very little.
He thrust his hands deeper into his pockets and hunched his shoulders up to his ears. Was this remorse? Did the wind and the loneliness and the white mist fill him with remorse?
It was foolish to suppose so. What had these things to do with his inner feelings?
No, it was not remorse.
He skated past another windmill. A bird flew up out of the grass, darted up, then down again.
Ugh, how cold it was!
A deeper shade seemed to be falling over the landscape.
Floris straightened his shoulders and raised his eyes.
Ahead of him was the sun, red and hard and sullen, hanging above the towers of Schiedam.
The short winter day was nearly over. He made a graceful sweeping curve on the ice, and turned towards Delft.
No, it was not remorse, he said to himself, but pride.
He wished to show that he could do without these things— comforts, luxuries, the respect of the neighbours, the prospect of an easy and wealthy future, the affection of his uncle, even his good name and the love of Elizabeth Van Decken.
Yes, he was eager to show that these things, for the sake of which he had lost his honour, were really nothing to him, and that he could sacrifice them all.
But to whom was he eager to show it? Who would care? Everyone would scorn him if he confessed.
Then it was a strange kind of pride, because there was no one to admire him, or be convinced, or hold him justified.
Except, perhaps, Heaven.
He skated between the fields, the windmills, and the houses.
He would lose everything; let him consider that. People would turn their backs on him—even Elizabeth. He would have to leave Delft.
Perhaps his cousin, the man whom he had wronged and whose memory he would right, if he confessed, might have said a good word for him, but, he being dead, there was no other, Floris reflected, with an unreasonable sneer.
Then why did he think of confessing, since he would gain nothing, but lose everything, since he did not feel remorseful towards the man whom he had ruined?
He asked himself, bending his head before the veering wind.
There was no answer.
It was an impulse turning into a resolution. He felt impelled to confess as he had never felt impelled to anything in his life.
The canal broadened before him; he could see the towers of St. Ursula and the Oude Kerk rising above the bare trees; he passed little houses with painted shutters and the dark building of the arsenal, where the arms of the Republic frowned from the stone.
A few flakes of snow began to fall.
An old woman going along the towpath recognised his slender, graceful figure as it sped along, and called out a greeting.
He answered her over his shoulder and hurried on.
Now he had entered the town; either side of him was the high brick pavement planted with bare lime trees, and beyond the plain red houses, with the lights appearing here and there in the windows.
Floris thought of the last time that he had skated through Delft, one arm round Elizabeth's waist, holding, with the other hand, hers in its fur glove on his breast, her hooded head on his shoulder, and their feet keeping perfect time on the shining ice.
When he had almost reached the end of the Koornmarkt, he stopped, sat down on the edge of the pavement, took off his skates, and tied them together as he had done a hundred times before. No one would have imagined that any deep thought or extraordinary resolve lay under his demeanour as he passed into his uncle's quiet house in the shadow of the Oude Kerk.
A passer-by on the other side of the canal saw just Mynheer Floris Van Heenvliet going home; Floris himself, as he passed under the portico, was thinking that nothing would ever be the same again after he had said what he was going to say.
He took off his cap and shook the snowflakes from it, and got out of his coat.
Anna, the housekeeper, came down the black-and-white tiled hall.
"It is beginning to snow again," she said. "I am glad you have come back. You have been gone a long time."
Floris gave her his cap, coat, and skates.
"Where is my uncle?" he asked.
"In the parlour—waiting for you, Mynheer Floris."
"Very well." He put his hand to his hair, which was damp and clinging to his brow, then thrust his finger inside his black cravat, as if he wished to loosen it.
"I will bring a light," said old Anna.
"No "—he lowered his dark eyes and gazed at the black-and-white pattern of the tiles—"do not bring a light—yet, Anna. I will ring when we need the lamp."
"But you cannot see," she protested.
"It does not matter—I want to speak to my uncle——"
He saw she was looking at him curiously, and he flushed.
"Yes, I want to speak to my uncle...and it will do as well...better in the dark."
"Well, we will have a light in the door, or the neighbours will wonder——"
She turned off, then paused and looked back.
"Are not Mejuffrouw Elizabeth and her mother coming to supper?"
"You told me so yourself," said old Anna, quite angrily.
"Yes, of course...they are coming."
Anna looked at him crossly; she was annoyed by his vacant ways and his whim about the light.
"I hope you will have finished by then," she answered, "for one cannot show people into the dark."
"I shall have finished by then," said Floris.
After Anna had gone, he stood with his hand on the parlour door.
How difficult words were! Now he came to consider it, he could not recall having ever put anything vital into words.
What had he said when he had asked Elizabeth to be his wife?
He had written a letter; he had spoken to her father; it had been understood between them before his awkward, broken sentences had won her loving consent. Well, that was no help to him now...
He had to open this door, enter the familiar parlour, and empty his soul to the old man who would be sitting within.
He pressed his brow against the lintel of the doorpost, shivered, and set his teeth; then he heard Anna returning with the lamp for the hall, and, goaded by this, he turned the handle.
Softly entering, he closed the door behind him.
The room was brightly lit with firelight; in a high-backed chair by the hearth sat his uncle, with his face half towards the fire and half concealed by the sides of the chair. Floris was seized with a terror lest he should look round and break the silence with some cheerful commonplace.
For that would make everything impossible.
"Uncle," he said, in a quick, low voice, "it is I, Floris! Do not look at me—nor speak to me...I want to say something...it is very difficult."
He sat down at the table and hid his face in his hands, for he knew Mynheer Heenvliet must instinctively look round, and he did not want to see his expression of wonder and alarm.
After waiting a little, he spoke again.
"Will you sit as you are, looking into the fire...and listen to me? How impossible it is to explain! I went skating this afternoon, out through the Rotterdam Gate, as far as Schiedam...I made a resolution...I want to confess."
He raised his eyes and saw his uncle leaning back in the deep chair, motionless.
"Perhaps I can speak like this, in the dark, if you do not say anything or—look at me...It is about your son I am going to speak...my cousin Hendrick."
He drew a deep breath, and strove to probe the very depths of his own meaning.
"I do not know why I am confessing...I do not know...because I do not love my cousin any more than I ever did...I have nothing to gain."
He drew his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow and lips; he fixed his eyes on the dark walls, the well-known pictures, the blue-and-white curtains, the chimney-piece, with its dull mirror, ornaments of blue-and-white Delft, and black marble clock.
All these things had become strange and far away; he felt giddy, confused by the shadows that were blotting everything out.
Even the firelight, it seemed, for the logs were flaring fitfully and sinking into ashes.
Floris clenched his hands on the table, forcing the words out of himself.
"I was always jealous of Hendrick—because he was your heir, and I was poor, with no claim on you...and I was cleverer than he. I found that out when we were clerks together...in your counting-house...in Amsterdam...He was foolish enough to be always getting into trouble...and I was clever enough to make the most of it..."
A sound like a sigh broke from the old man.
"Do not say anything!" cried Floris. "I am going to tell you all...You began to find his accounts were wrong, and he could not explain——" The speaker's voice sank lower. "I did it...it was very easy."
The firelight seemed to be sinking rapidly; only a faint, pulsing glow remained over the figure of Mynheer Heenvliet.
"That was the beginning," continued Floris, leaning heavily on the table and staring at the dull patch of window, against which the hastening snow was drifting. "Then one day he came to me and told me that he was tired of it...I was the favourite, and he was always in your displeasure. I knew why—I had taken pains it should be so...yet you had trusted him with a large amount of money to be conveyed to the bank at Utrecht...Well, he was going away, he told me. Since then I have often wondered why he should make a confidant of me; but he was always simple...he thought I was honourable. Do not speak!...I am telling you that I am not honourable."
He paused, clenching his hand tightly before him on the smooth, shining table, where he had often arranged the ranks of his lead soldiers when he was a child, or opened the great black-letter Bible on Sundays and gazed at the terrible woodcut of the Last Judgment.
He did not see anything—not even Mynheer Heenvliet. He was utterly absorbed in getting this thing into words; he wondered he could do it; he wondered why he was doing it. Still, cold and sick, he went on, forcing his soul to penance.
"Hendrick gave me the money and a letter for you; he would not be beholden for a ducat...He ran away and joined the merchant service, as you know."
Floris shuddered, as if the snow falling softly against the pane was drifting on to his bare heart.
"Listen! I burnt the letter and I buried the money.
"You thought he had robbed you and disgraced you...and I thought...'He is a fool. What does it matter?'"
The logs fell together with a little empty sound.
Floris gave a groan.
"What does it matter? Oh, Heavens, I do not know, but I must speak! Hush! hear me to the end. You disinherited him—as I meant you should—and I was your heir...You cursed him; now you will curse me...Listen! I am confessing. He was never to blame...When he died...in China, I laughed to think how safe I was. No one knew...except Heaven. We have been happy together—you and I. I have pleased you better than he could ever have done...Am I not a fool to confess? That is all...I did not think that I could ever bring these words over my lips; but it is done...
"I will go away...you must tell Elizabeth...It would be better...if I were dead, for I love her...I do not ask you to forgive me, even to speak to me. "I am going now..."
His head sank lower and lower, until it rested on the edge of the table.
The marble clock gave a little whirr and struck six.
The clear strokes fell echoing into the dark stillness. In the distance the Stadhuis clock was chiming, then that from the Oude Kerk sounded close, deep and earnest.
Floris dragged himself into a sitting posture.
"Elizabeth will hate me...It always seemed to me that she would have loved...him...if he had stayed...Elizabeth..."
He rose, staggering, and flung out his hand against the wall to support himself.
"I am going." He bit his weak lips.
A door opened and closed somewhere. His head was reeling; he had to lean against the wall, for his limbs were trembling and weak.
Voices, footsteps, sounded from without.
He tried to find his way to the door, when it was opened swiftly by a girl carrying a candle.
The picture of light, life, and happiness which she made blinded him; he stood with his hand over his eyes.
"What is the matter, Floris?"
She smiled, holding up the candle, whose beams glittered in her fair hair.
"How cold you have let the room get! Ah, the fire is nearly out. And why are you in the dark, Floris?"
She went lightly round to the hearth.
"Elizabeth," he said miserably, "I am going; my uncle will speak to you."
"What do you mean?"
She was by the old man's chair, and bent over it as she spoke.
"He is asleep," she smiled. "Come, Mynheer, wake up and tell me what Floris means."
She shook him by the shoulder, and Mynheer Heenvliet gave a sigh and sat up, blinking his eyes.
Floris came round the table.
"Asleep?" he said.
The old man looked from one to the other, then he asked—
"Who let the fire out? I told Anna to bring in the lamp at half-past five."
"You have been asleep?" demanded Floris, with his hand on his heart.
"It seems so," smiled the merchant. "How quietly you came in! Ugh, it is chilly!" He rose. "We will go into the other room and have supper."
He took Elizabeth's arm, and she smiled at Floris.
"You look rather pale," she remarked. "There is nothing the matter, is there?"
"Nothing; let us go in to supper."
There are some things a man can do only once.
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