The Laughing Cavalier (novel)

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The Laughing Cavalier
First edition
Author Baroness Orczy
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Adventure, Historical novel
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 406 pp
Followed by The First Sir Percy
The Laughing Cavalier was serialized in Adventure in 1914

The Laughing Cavalier is a 1913 adventure novel by Baroness Orczy, which revolves around Percy Blake, a foreign adventurer and ancestor of Orczy's famous character, the Scarlet Pimpernel. The story takes place in Holland in 1623/1624 and is partly inspired by Frans Hals' painting The Laughing Cavalier: in the novel, Blake is Frans Hals' adopted son and the man who poses for the painting of the Laughing Cavalier.

The sequel to this book, continuing the story of Percy Blake, is The First Sir Percy.

Plot summary[edit]

In March 1623, the Dutch nobleman Willem van Oldenbarnevelt, Lord of Stoutenburg, is on the run. His father, the statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt ("John of Barneveld" in the book) was falsely accused of treason and sent to the gallows by the Stadtholder, Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange in 1619; and his brother Reinier van Oldenbarnevelt, the lord of Groeneveld, has since been arrested and executed for plotting to kill the Prince. Stoutenburg is now a fugitive and determined to get his revenge.

Stoutenburg asks for shelter from Gilda Beresteyn, the daughter of a rich merchant. Gilda was once in love with Stoutenburg, but has never forgiven him for abandoning her to make a more profitable marriage. Despite her reservations she shelters him for a short time, but eventually she sends him away, knowing that her father, a friend of the Prince of Orange, will not approve.

Nine months later, Gilda is walking through Haarlem to the New Year's Eve service and sees three foreign adventurers intervening to protect a Spanish woman who is being attacked by a mob. After the fracas is over, Gilda speaks to the three men. They are mercenaries who call themselves after famous philosophers: "Diogenes," "Socrates," and "Pythagoras." Gilda is attracted to "Diogenes" (really Percy Blake, the illegitimate son of an English nobleman and a Dutch woman), but he offends her by taking his leave and going off to a pub.

Gilda continues to church but cannot stop thinking about the mysterious, infuriating stranger. She stays behind after the service to pray, but is disturbed by a secret meeting between Stoutenburg and his allies, including Gilda's brother Nicolaes. Fueled by rage, Stoutenburg shouts out his plan to murder the Prince.

Nicolaes follows Gilda out of the church and it soon becomes apparent that she has overheard everything. She begs her brother to reconsider his part in the plot, but he refuses and instead asks her to swear that she will not tell their father. She also refuses, but Nicolaes still tells the rest of the group that she can be trusted not to betray them. Stoutenburg is not convinced and persuades Nicolaes to send Gilda away for a few days, so they can kill the Stadtholder before she can tell anyone.

Willem van Oldenbarnevelt, Lord of Stoutenburg, anonymous portrait from 1634.

Nicolaes, who has seen Diogenes in the pub, follows him to Frans Hals' house and hires him to kidnap Gilda. After seeing her portrait, Diogenes recognises her as the lady he met the night before. With the help of the Spanish woman he saved from the mob, Diogenes bundles Gilda and her maid into a sledge and takes her out of Haarlem. He leaves her under the care of Socrates and Pythagoras for the night and returns to Haarlem, where he is sitting for a painting by Hals. Afterwards, in the pub, he meets Gilda's distraught father. Nicolaes is furious at Diogenes' appearance back in Haarlem, but can say nothing for fear of giving away his role in his sister's kidnapping. Caught between the two men, Diogenes finds himself promising Gilda's father that he will seek out Gilda and return her to him.

One word from Gilda could send Diogenes to the gallows, yet despite her vehement verbal attacks on him, he is starting to have deep feelings for her, something which won't please Stoutenburg, who is still determined to marry her.

An Apology by Baroness Orczy[edit]

Does it need one?

If so it must also come from those members of the Blakeney family in whose veins runs the blood of that Sir Percy Blakeney who is known to history as The Scarlet Pimpernel-- for they in a manner are responsible for the telling of this veracious chronicle.

For the past eight years now-- ever since the true story of The Scarlet Pimpernel was put on record by the present author-- these gentle, kind, inquisitive friends have asked me to trace their descent back to an ancestor more remote than was Sir Percy, to one in fact who by his life and by his deeds stands forth from out the distant past as a conclusive proof that the laws which govern the principles of heredity are as unalterable as those that rule the destinies of the universe. They have pointed out to me that since Sir Percy Blakeney's was an exceptional personality, possessing exceptional characteristics which his friends pronounced sublime and his detractors arrogant-- he must have had an ancestor in the dim long ago who was, like him, exceptional, like him possessed of qualities which call forth the devotion of friends and rancour of enemies. Nay, more! there must have existed at one time or another a man who possessed that sunny disposition, that same irresistible laughter, that same careless insouciance and adventurous spirit which were subsequently transmitted to his descendants, of whom the Scarlet Pimpernel himself was the most distinguished individual.

All these were unanswerable arguments, and with the request that accompanied then I had long intended to comply. Time has been my only enemy in thwarting my intentions until now-- time and the multiplicity of material and documents to be gone through ere vague knowledge could be turned into certitude.

Now at last I am in a position to present not only to the Blakeneys themselves, but to all those who look on the Scarlet Pimpernel as their hero and their friend—the true history of one of his most noted forebears.

Strangely enough his history has never been written before. And yet countless millions must during the past three centuries have stood before his picture; we of the present generation, who are the proud possessors of that picture now, have looked on him many a time, always with sheer, pure joy in our hearts, our lips smiling, our eyes sparkling in response to his; almost forgetting the genius of the artist who portrayed him in the very realism of the personality which literally seems to breathe and palpitate and certainly to laugh to us out of the canvas.

Those twinkling eyes! how well we know them! that laugh! we can almost hear it; as for the swagger, the devil-may-care arrogance, do we not condone it, seeing that it has its mainspring behind a fine straight brow whose noble, sweeping lines betray an undercurrent of dignity and of thought.

And yet no biographer has-- so far as is known to the author of this veracious chronicle-- ever attempted to tell us anything of this man's life, no one has attempted hitherto to lift the veil of anonymity which only thinly hides the identity of the Laughing Cavalier.

But here in Haarlem-- in the sleepy, yet thriving little town where he lived, the hard-frozen ground in winter seems at times to send forth a memory-echo of his firm footstep, of the jingling of his spurs, and the clang of his sword, and the old gate of the Spaarne through which he passed so often is still haunted with the sound of his merry laughter, and his pleasant voice seems still to rouse the ancient walls from their sleep.

Here too-- hearing these memory-echoes whenever the shadows of evening draw in on the quaint city-- I had a dream. I saw him just as he lived, three hundred years ago. He had stepped out of the canvas in London, had crossed the sea and was walking the streets of Haarlem just as he had done then, filling them with his swagger, with his engaging personality, above all with his laughter. And sitting beside me in the old tavern of the "Lame Cow," in that self-same tap-room where he was wont to make merry, he told me the history of his life.

Since then kind friends at Haarlem have placed documents in my hands which confirmed the story told me by the Laughing Cavalier. To them do I tender my heartfelt and grateful thanks. But it is to the man himself-- to the memory of him which is so alive here in Haarlem-- that I am indebted for the true history of his life, and therefore I feel that but little apology is needed for placing the true facts before all those who have known him hitherto only by his picture, who have loved him only for what they guessed.

The monograph which I now present with but few additions of minor details, goes to prove what I myself had known long ago, namely, that the Laughing Cavalier who sat to Frans Hal for his portrait in 1624 was the direct ancestor of Sir Percy Blakeney, known to history as the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Haarlem, 1913


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