Claiming that his daughter had been stolen away by the Flemings, the Duke of Brabant launched against Flanders a bloody seven-year campaign which eventually resulted in his defeat. Wolfort, the leader of the Flemish armies, inflamed by his military success and his popularity with the soldiery, usurped the earldom of Flanders, causing the flight of the child Florez, the true earl; his widower father Gerrard, a commoner; his sister Jaculin, who had been pledged to Lord Hubert; and several loyal noblemen. As time passed, Wolfort ruthlessly crushed resistance to his rule, and finally the entire earldom except the city of Bruges capitulated to him. Try as he might, however, Wolfort was unable to find Florez and the party of fugitives. As long as the rightful heir lived, Wolfort’s title remained insecure.
Although Hubert remained in Wolfort’s court, he could not forget Jaculin, and at last he resolved to go again in search of her. He was captured, however, and returned by the usurper’s soldiers. Wolfort received him honorably and, pretending to be overcome with remorse for his crimes, asked Hubert to seek not only Jaculin but also Florez and Gerrard, to whom he would restore the earldom. Although he suspected Wolfort’s sincerity, Hubert left for Bruges, where the loyalists had been reported. Hempskirke, one of Wolfort’s tools, accompanied Hubert on his mission.
In Bruges the merchants were agog over the success of one of their company, the handsome and liberal young Goswin. Known throughout the city for his courtesy, honesty, and open-handedness, Goswin’s credit had no bounds; and in love he was as fortunate as he was in business, being engaged to the lovely Gertrude, daughter of Burgomaster Vandunke. Among the most devoted of Goswin’s followers was Clause, king of the beggars, who had been chosen for that eminence by Goswin. The beggar king’s subjects included Minche, a pretty beggar-maid, and Higgen, Ferret, Prigg, Snap, and Ginks—good fellows all. Hubert and Hempskirke, who were disguised, passed this group on the road near Bruges. Both Clause and Minche looked somehow familiar to Hubert, but when he attempted to inquire about them from the other beggars he was met by stutters and stammers only. Resolving to return later, he continued on to the city, where he and Hempskirke were to be entertained by Vandunke, even though the burgomaster had no love for Wolfort, their master.
Hempskirke, on his arrival, was outraged to learn that Gertrude, his niece and a gentlewoman, was being courted by Goswin, her social inferior. He insulted the young merchant, who replied nobly and returned Hempskirke’s blow by striking the nobleman with his own sword. As a result, Hempskirke challenged Goswin to combat. Incapable of fair play, the nobleman hired several ruffians to be on hand when he met Goswin and to beat him. Fortunately, Clause and the beggars met the ruffians near Bruges and, while gulling them, learned of the plot; thus the beggar band seized Hempskirke and his henchmen when they betrayed Goswin.
Clause then learned that Goswin was despondent because he was in debt to the extent of one hundred thousand crowns, the day of repayment was upon him, and his merchant ships had not come in. Clause told the unbelieving Goswin that the beggars would furnish the money from their treasury by the next day. Only partly reassured, Goswin left the forest. After his departure the beggars turned their attention to their prisoner, Hempskirke, and tormented him until he revealed that Wolfort had instructed him to kill Florez and Gerrard if they could be found and then to dispose of Hubert. Deciding to keep Hempskirke a prisoner, Clause gave him into the care of Hubert, who had joined the beggar band in the disguise of a huntsman.
In Bruges, Goswin grew so concerned over his impending ruin that he almost offended Gertrude, to whom he would not reveal the cause of his worry. When he pleaded with his fellow merchants for a further extension of credit, they, in strong contrast to their previous attitude of regard for him, mercilessly insisted upon the immediate repayment of his debts. He was thoroughly disillusioned and in despair when the faithful Clause entered with two beggars carrying bags of gold. Goswin paid his now fawning creditors and then gratefully promised Clause that he would grant freely one petition, which Clause reserved for the future.
Meanwhile, Hubert had been able to speak alone with Minche, the beggarmaid. Their conversation grew tender and Hubert, kissing her, had his previous suspicions confirmed. She was in reality his lost Jaculin. She also recognized him, but would not abandon her disguise for fear of revealing the other members of the beggar band. Hubert then formulated a plan to trap Wolfort. Still pretending to be a simple huntsman, he allowed Hempskirke to persuade him to set the prisoner free; and he agreed to lead Wolfort and his men to Florez and Gerrard.
During this time Goswin’s ships had returned, heavily laden with profitable merchandise. Once more the most successful young merchant in Bruges, he decided to marry Gertrude immediately. When Clause heard this news, however, he unaccountably resolved that the wedding must not take place. Staying only long enough to allow Hubert to identify himself, to recognize him as Gerrard, and to reveal his reason for releasing Hempskirke, Gerrad, still disguised as the king of the beggars, hurried to Bruges. There he appeared just before the wedding and demanded, for reasons that he would not explain, that Goswin forsake his bride-to-be and accompany him. The young merchant pleaded pitifully, but Gerrard was firm. Goswin had no recourse in honor but to grant the petition he had promised him.
Gertrude, thinking Goswin false to her, followed him into the forest and there fell into the hands of Hempskirke, Wolfort, and their men. They were met by Hubert, still disguised, who convinced the usurper that the best way to capture the fugitives was to divide his force into five squadrons. Just as Gerrard was informing Goswin that the supposed beggar king was in reality his father and that Goswin was Florez, the rightful earl, Wolfort’s forces seized them, Jaculin, and several noblemen disguised as beggars.
When Wolfort spoke to them in their true persons, Gertrude believed that her love for Goswin, who as Florez was high above her, was hopeless; but Wolfort, revealing a hitherto unsuspected villainy, identified Gertrude as Bertha, the missing heir of Brabant, stolen from her father and given by Hempskirke to the innocent Vandunke.
Hubert, in the meantime, had not betrayed his old loyalties; he had arranged for the true beggars, Vandunke, and the loyal merchants of Bruges to overcome Wolfort’s scattered troops. As Wolfort was ordering the execution of his captives, Vandunke’s band arrived. Florez was at once reunited with Bertha and Hubert with Jaculin. The only ones unhappy at the outcome were the beggars. Claiming that they could not stand the strain of making an honest living, they decided to go to England to practice their trade.
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