The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 10

The banns of marriage had to be read three times, as in our days; with this difference, that they were commonly read on week-days, and the young couple easily persuaded the cure to do the three readings in twenty-four hours: he was new to the place, and their looks spoke volumes in their favour. They were cried on Monday at matins and at vespers; and, to their great delight, nobody from Tergou was in the church. The next morning they were both there, palpitating with anxiety, when, to their horror, a stranger stood up and forbade the banns, On the score that the parties were not of age, and their parents not consenting.

Outside the church door Margaret and Gerard held a trembling, and almost despairing consultation; but, before they could settle anything, the man who had done them so ill a turn approached, and gave them to understand that he was very sorry to interfere: that his inclination was to further the happiness of the young; but that in point of fact his only means of getting a living was by forbidding banns: what then? “The young people give me a crown, and I undo my work handsomely; tell the cure I was misinformed, and all goes smoothly.”

“A crown! I will give you a golden angel to do this,” said Gerard eagerly; the man consented as eagerly, and went with Gerard to the cure, and told him he had made a ridiculous mistake, which a sight of the parties had rectified. On this the cure agreed to marry the young couple next day at ten: and the professional obstructor of bliss went home with Gerard’s angel. Like most of these very clever knaves, he was a fool, and proceeded to drink his angel at a certain hostelry in Tergou where was a green devoted to archery and the common sports of the day. There, being drunk, he bragged of his day’s exploit; and who should be there, imbibing every word, but a great frequenter of the spot, the ne’er-do-weel Sybrandt. Sybrandt ran home to tell his father; his father was not at home; he was gone to Rotterdam to buy cloth of the merchants. Catching his elder brother’s eye, he made him a signal to come out, and told him what he had heard.

There are black sheep in nearly every large family; and these two were Gerard’s black brothers. Idleness is vitiating: waiting for the death of those we ought to love is vitiating; and these two one-idea’d curs were ready to tear any one to death that should interfere with that miserable inheritance which was their thought by day and their dream by night. Their parents’ parsimony was a virtue; it was accompanied by industry, and its motive was love of their offspring; but in these perverse and selfish hearts that homely virtue was perverted into avarice, than which no more fruitful source of crimes is to be found in nature.

They put their heads together, and agreed not to tell their mother, whose sentiments were so uncertain, but to go first to the burgomaster. They were cunning enough to see that he was averse to the match, though they could not divine why.

Ghysbrecht Van Swieten saw through them at once; but he took care not to let them see through him. He heard their story, and putting on magisterial dignity and coldness, he said;

“Since the father of the family is not here, his duty falleth on me, who am the father of the town. I know your father’s mind; leave all to me; and, above all, tell not a woman a word of this, least of all the women that are in your own house: for chattering tongues mar wisest counsels.”

So he dismissed them, a little superciliously: he was ashamed of his confederates.

On their return home they found their brother Gerard seated on a low stool at their mother’s knee: she was caressing his hair with her hand, speaking very kindly to him, and promising to take his part with his father and thwart his love no more. The main cause of this change of mind was characteristic of the woman. She it was who in a moment of female irritation had cut Margaret’s picture to pieces. She had watched the effect with some misgivings, and had seen Gerard turn pale as death, and sit motionless like a bereaved creature, with the pieces in his hands, and his eyes fixed on them till tears came and blinded them. Then she was terrified at what she had done; and next her heart smote her bitterly; and she wept sore apart; but, being what she was, dared not own it, but said to herself, “I’ll not say a word, but I’ll make it up to him.” And her bowels yearned over her son, and her feeble violence died a natural death, and she was transferring her fatal alliance to Gerard when the two black sheep came in. Gerard knew nothing of the immediate cause; on the contrary, inexperienced as he was in the ins and outs of females, her kindness made him ashamed of a suspicion he had entertained that she was the depredator, and he kissed her again and again, and went to bed happy as a prince to think his mother was his mother once more at the very crisis of his fate.

The next morning, at ten o’clock, Gerard and Margaret were in the church at Sevenbergen, he radiant with joy, she with blushes. Peter was also there, and Martin Wittenhaagen, but no other friend. Secrecy was everything. Margaret had declined Italy. She could not leave her father; he was too learned and too helpless. But it was settled they should retire into Flanders for a few weeks until the storm should be blown over at Tergou. The cure did not keep them waiting long, though it seemed an age. Presently he stood at the altar, and called them to him. They went hand in hand, the happiest in Holland. The cure opened his book.

But ere he uttered a single word of the sacred rite, a harsh voice cried “Forbear!” And the constables of Tergou came up the aisle and seized Gerard in the name of the law. Martin’s long knife flashed out directly.

“Forbear, man!” cried the priest. “What! draw your weapon in a church, and ye who interrupt this holy sacrament, what means this impiety?”

“There is no impiety, father,” said the burgomaster’s servant respectfully. “This young man would marry against his father’s will, and his father has prayed our burgomaster to deal with him according to the law. Let him deny it if he can.”

“Is this so, young man?”

Gerard hung his head.

“We take him to Rotterdam to abide the sentence of the Duke.”

At this Margaret uttered a cry of despair, and the young creatures, who were so happy a moment ago, fell to sobbing in one another’s arms so piteously, that the instruments of oppression drew back a step and were ashamed; but one of them that was good-natured stepped up under pretence of separating them, and whispered to Margaret:

“Rotterdam? it is a lie. We but take him to our Stadthouse.”

They took him away on horseback, on the road to Rotterdam; and, after a dozen halts, and by sly detours, to Tergou. Just outside the town they were met by a rude vehicle covered with canvas. Gerard was put into this, and about five in the evening was secretly conveyed into the prison of the Stadthouse. He was taken up several flights of stairs and thrust into a small room lighted only by a narrow window, with a vertical iron bar. The whole furniture was a huge oak chest.

Imprisonment in that age was one of the highroads to death. It is horrible in its mildest form; but in those days it implied cold, unbroken solitude, torture, starvation, and often poison. Gerard felt he was in the hands of an enemy.

“Oh, the look that man gave me on the road to Rotterdam. There is more here than my father’s wrath. I doubt I shall see no more the light of day.” And he kneeled down and commended his soul to God.

Presently he rose and sprang at the iron bar of the window, and clutched it. This enabled him to look out by pressing his knees against the wall. It was but for a minute; but in that minute he saw a sight such as none but a captive can appreciate.

Martin Wittenhaagen’s back.

Martin was sitting, quietly fishing in the brook near the Stadthouse.

Gerard sprang again at the window, and whistled. Martin instantly showed that he was watching much harder than fishing. He turned hastily round and saw Gerard — made him a signal, and taking up his line and bow, went quickly off.

Gerard saw by this that his friends were not idle: yet had rather Martin had stayed. The very sight of him was a comfort. He held on, looking at the soldier’s retiring form as long as he could, then falling back somewhat heavily wrenched the rusty iron bar, held only by rusty nails, away from the stone-work just as Ghysbrecht Van Swieten opened the door stealthily behind him. The burgomaster’s eye fell instantly on the iron, and then glanced at the window; but he said nothing. The window was a hundred feet from the ground; and if Gerard had a fancy for jumping out, why should he balk it? He brought a brown loaf and a pitcher of water, and set them on the chest in solemn silence. Gerard’s first impulse was to brain him with the iron bar and fly down the stairs; but the burgomaster seeing something wicked in his eye, gave a little cough, and three stout fellows, armed, showed themselves directly at the door.

“My orders are to keep you thus until you shall bind yourself by an oath to leave Margaret Brandt, and return to the Church, to which you have belonged from your cradle.”

“Death sooner.”

“With all my heart.” And the burgomaster retired.

Martin went with all speed to Sevenbergen; there he found Margaret pale and agitated, but full of resolution and energy. She was just finishing a letter to the Countess Charolois, appealing to her against the violence and treachery of Ghysbrecht.

“Courage!” cried Martin on entering. “I have found him. He is in the haunted tower, right at the top of it. Ay, I know the place: many a poor fellow has gone up there straight, and come down feet foremost.”

He then told them how he had looked up and seen Gerard’s face at a window that was like a slit in the wall.

“Oh, Martin! how did he look?”

“What mean you? He looked like Gerard Eliassoen.”

“But was he pale?”

“A little.”

“Looked he anxious? Looked he like one doomed?”

“Nay, nay; as bright as a pewter pot.”

“You mock me. Stay! then that must have been at sight of you. He counts on us. Oh, what shall we do? Martin, good friend, take this at once to Rotterdam.”

Martin held out his hand for the letter.

Peter had sat silent all this time, but pondering, and yet, contrary to custom, keenly attentive to what was going on around him.

“Put not your trust in princes,” said he.

“Alas! what else have we to trust in?”

“Knowledge.”

“Well-a-day, father! your learning will not serve us here.”

“How know you that? Wit has been too strong for iron bars ere to-day.

“Ay, father; but nature is stronger than wit, and she is against us. Think of the height! No ladder in Holland might reach him.”

“I need no ladder; what I need is a gold crown.”

“Nay, I have money, for that matter. I have nine angels. Gerard gave them me to keep; but what do they avail? The burgomaster will not be bribed to let Gerard free.”

“What do they avail? Give me but one crown, and the young man shall sup with us this night.”

Peter spoke so eagerly and confidently, that for a moment Margaret felt hopeful; but she caught Martin’s eye dwelling upon him with an expression of benevolent contempt.

“It passes the powers of man’s invention,” said she, with a deep sigh.

“Invention!” cried the old man. “A fig for invention. What need we invention at this time of day? Everything has been said that is to be said, and done that ever will be done. I shall tell you how a Florentine knight was shut up in a tower higher than Gerard’s; yet did his faithful squire stand at the tower foot and get him out, with no other engine than that in your hand, Martin, and certain kickshaws I shall buy for a crown.”

Martin looked at his bow, and turned it round in his hand, and seemed to interrogate it. But the examination left him as incredulous as before.

Then Peter told them his story, how the faithful squire got the knight out of a high tower at Brescia. The manoeuvre, like most things that are really scientific, was so simple, that now their wonder was they had taken for impossible what was not even difficult.

The letter never went to Rotterdam. They trusted to Peter’s learning and their own dexterity.

It was nine o’clock on a clear moonlight night; Gerard, senior, was still away; the rest of his little family had been some time abed.

A figure stood by the dwarf’s bed. It was white, and the moonlight shone on it.

With an unearthly noise, between a yell and a snarl, the gymnast rolled off his bed and under it by a single unbroken movement. A soft voice followed him in his retreat.

“Why, Giles, are you afeard of me?”

At this, Giles’s head peeped cautiously up, and he saw it was only his sister Kate.

She put her finger to her lips. “Hush! lest the wicked Cornelis or the wicked Sybrandt hear us.” Giles’s claws seized the side of the bed, and he returned to his place by one undivided gymnastic.

Kate then revealed to Giles that she had heard Cornelis and Sybrandt mention Gerard’s name; and being herself in great anxiety at his not coming home all day, had listened at their door, and had made a fearful discovery. Gerard was in prison, in the haunted tower of the Stadthouse. He was there, it seemed, by their father’s authority. But here must be some treachery; for how could their father have ordered this cruel act? He was at Rotterdam. She ended by entreating Giles to bear her company to the foot of the haunted tower, to say a word of comfort to poor Gerard, and let him know their father was absent, and would be sure to release him on his return.

“Dear Giles, I would go alone, but I am afeard of the spirits that men say do haunt the tower; but with you I shall not be afeard.”

“Nor I with you,” said Giles. “I don’t believe there are any spirits in Tergou. I never saw one. This last was the likest one ever I saw; and it was but you, Kate, after all.”

In less than half an hour Giles and Kate opened the housedoor cautiously and issued forth. She made him carry a lantern, though the night was bright. “The lantern gives me more courage against the evil spirits,” said she.

The first day of imprisonment is very trying, especially if to the horror of captivity is added the horror of utter solitude. I observe that in our own day a great many persons commit suicide during the first twenty-four hours of the solitary cell. This is doubtless why our Jairi abstain so carefully from the impertinence of watching their little experiment upon the human soul at that particular stage of it.

As the sun declined, Gerard’s heart too sank and sank; with the waning light even the embers of hope went out. He was faint, too, with hunger; for he was afraid to eat the food Ghysbrecht had brought him; and hunger alone cows men. He sat upon the chest, his arms and his head drooping before him, a picture of despondency. Suddenly something struck the wall beyond him very sharply, and then rattled on the floor at his feet. It was an arrow; he saw the white feather. A chill ran through him — they meant then to assassinate him from the outside. He crouched. No more missiles came. He crawled on all fours, and took up the arrow; there was no head to it. He uttered a cry of hope: had a friendly hand shot it? He took it up, and felt it all over: he found a soft substance attached to it. Then one of his eccentricities was of grand use to him. His tinder-box enabled him to strike a light: it showed him two things that made his heart bound with delight, none the less thrilling for being somewhat vague. Attached to the arrow was a skein of silk, and on the arrow itself were words written.

How his eyes devoured them, his heart panting the while!

Well beloved, make fast the silk to thy knife and lower to us: but hold thine end fast: then count an hundred and draw up.

Gerard seized the oak chest, and with almost superhuman energy dragged it to the window: a moment ago he could not have moved it. Standing on the chest and looking down, he saw figures at the tower foot. They were so indistinct, they looked like one huge form. He waved his bonnet to them with trembling hand: then he undid the silk rapidly but carefully, and made one end fast to his knife and lowered it till it ceased to draw. Then he counted a hundred. Then pulled the silk carefully up: it came up a little heavier. At last he came to a large knot, and by that knot a stout whipcord was attached to the silk. What could this mean? While he was puzzling himself Margaret’s voice came up to him, low but clear. “Draw up, Gerard, till you see liberty.” At the word Gerard drew the whipcord line up, and drew and drew till he came to another knot, and found a cord of some thickness take the place of the whipcord. He had no sooner begun to draw this up, than he found that he had now a heavy weight to deal with. Then the truth suddenly flashed on him, and he went to work and pulled and pulled till the perspiration rolled down him: the weight got heavier and heavier, and at last he was well-nigh exhausted: looking down, he saw in the moonlight a sight that revived him: it was as it were a great snake coming up to him out of the deep shadow cast by the tower. He gave a shout of joy, and a score more wild pulls, and lo! a stout new rope touched his hand: he hauled and hauled, and dragged the end into his prison, and instantly passed it through both handles of the chest in succession, and knotted it firmly; then sat for a moment to recover his breath and collect his courage. The first thing was to make sure that the chest was sound, and capable of resisting his weight poised in mid-air. He jumped with all his force upon it. At the third jump the whole side burst open, and out scuttled the contents, a host of parchments.

After the first start and misgiving this gave him, Gerard comprehended that the chest had not burst, but opened: he had doubtless jumped upon some secret spring. Still it shook in some degree his confidence in the chest’s powers of resistance; so he gave it an ally: he took the iron bar and fastened it with the small rope across the large rope, and across the window. He now mounted the chest, and from the chest put his foot through the window, and sat half in and half out, with one hand on that part of the rope which was inside. In the silent night he heard his own heart beat.

The free air breathed on his face, and gave him the courage to risk what we must all lose one day — for liberty. Many dangers awaited him, but the greatest was the first getting on to the rope outside. Gerard reflected. Finally, he put himself in the attitude of a swimmer, his body to the waist being in the prison, his legs outside. Then holding the inside rope with both hands, he felt anxiously with his feet for the outside rope, and when he had got it, he worked it in between the palms of his feet, and kept it there tight: then he uttered a short prayer, and, all the calmer for it, put his left hand on the sill and gradually wriggled out. Then he seized the iron bar, and for one fearful moment hung outside from it by his right hand, while his left hand felt for the rope down at his knees; it was too tight against the wall for his fingers to get round it higher up. The moment he had fairly grasped it, he left the bar, and swiftly seized the rope with the right hand too; but in this manoeuvre his body necessarily fell about a yard. A stifled cry came up from below. Gerard hung in mid-air. He clenched his teeth, and nipped the rope tight with his feet and gripped it with his hands, and went down slowly hand below hand. He passed by one huge rough stone after another. He saw there was green moss on one. He looked up and he looked down. The moon shone into his prison window: it seemed very near. The fluttering figures below seemed an awful distance. It made him dizzy to look down: so he fixed his eyes steadily on the wall close to him, and went slowly down, down, down.

He passed a rusty, slimy streak on the wall: it was some ten feet long. The rope made his hands very hot. He stole another look up.

The prison window was a good way off now.

Down — down — down — down.

The rope made his hands sore.

He looked up. The window was so distant, he ventured now to turn his eyes downward again; and there, not more than thirty feet below him, were Margaret and Martin, their faithful hands upstretched to catch him should he fall. He could see their eyes and their teeth shine in the moonlight. For their mouths were open, and they were breathing hard.

“Take care, Gerard oh, take care! Look not down.”

“Fear me not,” cried Gerard joyfully, and eyed the wall, but came down faster.

In another minute his feet were at their hands. They seized him ere he touched the ground, and all three clung together in one embrace.

“Hush! away in silence, dear one.”

They stole along the shadow of the wall.

Now, ere they had gone many yards, suddenly a stream of light shot from an angle of the building, and lay across their path like a barrier of fire, and they heard whispers and footsteps close at hand.

“Back!” hissed Martin. “Keep in the shade.”

They hurried back, passed the dangling rope, and made for a little square projecting tower. They had barely rounded it when the light shot trembling past them, and flickered uncertainly into the distance.

“A lantern!” groaned Martin in a whisper. “They are after us.”

“Give me my knife,” whispered Gerard. “I’ll never be taken alive.”

“No, no!” murmured Margaret; “is there no way out where we are?”

“None! none! But I carry six lives at my shoulder;” and with the word, Martin strung his bow, and fitted an arrow to the string: “in war never wait to be struck: I will kill one or two ere they shall know where their death comes from:” then, motioning his companions to be quiet he began to draw his bow, and, ere the arrow was quite drawn to the head, he glided round the corner ready to loose the string the moment the enemy should offer a mark.

Gerard and Margaret held their breath in horrible expectation: they had never seen a human being killed.

And now a wild hope, but half repressed, thrilled through Gerard, that this watchful enemy might be the burgomaster in person. The soldier, he knew, would send an arrow through a burgher or burgomaster, as he would through a boar in a wood.

But who may foretell the future, however near? The bow, instead of remaining firm, and loosing the deadly shaft, was seen to waver first, then shake violently, and the stout soldier staggered back to them, his knees knocking and his cheeks blanched with fear. He let his arrow fall, and clutched Gerard’s shoulder.

“Let me feel flesh and blood,” he gasped. “The haunted tower! the haunted tower!”

His terror communicated itself to Margaret and Gerard. They gasped rather than uttered an inquiry.

“Hush!” he cried, “it will hear you up the wall! it is going up the wall! Its head is on fire. Up the wall, as mortal creatures walk upon green sward. If you know a prayer, say it, for hell is loose to-night.”

“I have power to exorcise spirits,” said Gerard, trembling. “I will venture forth.”

“Go alone then,” said Martin; “I have looked on’t once, and live.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33