The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 11

The strange glance of hatred the burgomaster had cast on Gerard, coupled with his imprisonment, had filled the young man with a persuasion that Ghysbrecht was his enemy to the death, and he glided round the angle of the tower, fully expecting to see no supernatural appearance, but some cruel and treacherous contrivance of a bad man to do him a mischief in that prison, his escape from which could hardly be known.

As he stole forth, a soft but brave hand crept into his; and Margaret was by his side, to share this new peril.

No sooner was the haunted tower visible, than a sight struck their eyes that benumbed them as they stood. More than halfway up the tower, a creature with a fiery head, like an enormous glowworm, was steadily mounting the wall: the body was dark, but its outline visible through the glare from the head, and the whole creature not much less than four feet long.

At the foot of the tower stood a thing in white, that looked exactly like the figure of a female. Gerard and Margaret palpitated with awe.

“The rope! the rope! It is going up the rope,” gasped Gerard.

As they gazed, the glowworm disappeared in Gerard’s late prison, but its light illuminated the cell inside and reddened the window. The white figure stood motionless below.

Such as can retain their senses after the first prostrating effect of the supernatural are apt to experience terror in one of its strangest forms, a wild desire to fling themselves upon the terrible object. It fascinates them as the snake the bird. The great tragedian Macready used to render this finely in Macbeth, at Banquo’s second appearance. He flung himself with averted head at the horrible shadow. This strange impulse now seized Margaret. She put down Gerard’s hand quietly, and stood bewildered; then, all in a moment, with a wild cry, darted towards the spectre. Gerard, not aware of the natural impulse I have spoken of, never doubted the evil one was drawing her to her perdition. He fell on his knees.

“Exorcizo vos. In nomine beatae Mariae, exorcizo vos.”

While the exorcist was shrieking his incantations in extremity of terror, to his infinite relief he heard the spectre utter a feeble cry of fear. To find that hell had also its little weaknesses was encouraging. He redoubled his exorcisms, and presently he saw the ghastly shape kneeling at Margaret’s knees, and heard it praying piteously for mercy.

Kate and Giles soon reached the haunted tower. Judge their surprise when they found a new rope dangling from the prisoner’s window to the ground.

“I see how it is,” said the inferior intelligence, taking facts as they came. “Our Gerard has come down this rope. He has got clear. Up I go, and see.”

“No, Giles, no!” said the superior intelligence, blinded by prejudice. “See you not this is glamour? This rope is a line the evil one casts out to wile thee to destruction. He knows the weaknesses of all our hearts; he has seen how fond you are of going up things. Where should our Gerard procure a rope? how fasten it in the sky like this? It is not in nature. Holy saints protect us this night, for hell is abroad.”

“Stuff!” said the dwarf; “the way to hell is down, and this rope leads up. I never had the luck to go up such a long rope. It may be years ere I fall in with such a long rope all ready for me. As well be knocked on the head at once as never know happiness.”

And he sprung on to the rope with a cry of delight, as a cat jumps with a mew on to a table where fish is. All the gymnast was on fire; and the only concession Kate could gain from him was permission to fasten the lantern on his neck first.

“A light scares the ill spirits,” said she.

And so, with his huge arms, and his legs like feathers, Giles went up the rope faster than his brother came down it. The light at the nape of his neck made a glowworm of him. His sister watched his progress, with trembling anxiety. Suddenly a female figure started out of the solid masonry, and came flying at her with more than mortal velocity.

Kate uttered a feeble cry. It was all she could, for her tongue clove to her palate with terror. Then she dropped her crutches, and sank upon her knees, hiding her face and moaning:

“Take my body, but spare my soul!”

Margaret (panting). “Why, it is a woman!”

Kate (quivering). “Why, it is a woman!”

Margaret. “How you scared me!”

Kate. “I am scared enough myself. Oh! oh! oh!”

“This is strange! But the fiery-headed thing? Yet it was with you, and you are harmless! But why are you here at this time of night?”

“Nay, why are YOU?”

“Perhaps we are on the same errand? Ah! you are his good sister, Kate!”

“And you are Margaret Brandt.”

“Yes.

“All the better. You love him; you are here. Then Giles was right. He has won free.”

Gerard came forward, and put the question at rest. But all further explanation was cut short by a horrible unearthly noise, like a sepulchre ventriloquizing:

“PARCHMENT! — PARCHMENT! — PARCHMENT!”

At each repetition, it rose in intensity. They looked up, and there was the dwarf, with his hands full of parchments, and his face lighted with fiendish joy and lurid with diabolical fire. The light being at his neck, a more infernal “transparency” never startled mortal eye. With the word, the awful imp hurled parchment at the astonished heads below. Down came records, like wounded wild-ducks; some collapsed, others fluttering, and others spread out and wheeling slowly down in airy circles. They had hardly settled, when again the sepulchral roar was heard —“Parchment — parchment!” and down pattered and sailed another flock of documents: another followed: they whitened the grass. Finally, the fire-headed imp, with his light body and horny hands, slid down the rope like a falling star, and (business before sentiment) proposed to his rescued brother an immediate settlement for the merchandise he had just delivered.

“Hush!” said Gerard; “you speak too loud. Gather them up, and follow us to a safer place than this.”

“Will you come home with me, Gerard?” said little Kate.

“I have no home.”

“You shall not say so. Who is more welcome than you will be, after this cruel wrong, to your father’s house?

“Father! I have no father,” said Gerard sternly. “He that was my father is turned my gaoler. I have escaped from his hands; I will never come within their reach again.”

“An enemy did this, and not our father.”

And she told him what she had overheard Cornelis and Sybrandt say. But the injury was too recent to be soothed. Gerard showed a bitterness of indignation he had hitherto seemed incapable of.

“Cornelis and Sybrandt are two ill curs that have shown me their teeth and their heart a long while; but they could do no more. My father it is that gave the burgomaster authority, or he durst not have laid a finger on me, that am a free burgher of this town. So be it, then. I was his son. I am his prisoner. He has played his part. I shall play mine. Farewell the burgh where I was born, and lived honestly and was put in prison. While there is another town left in creation, I’ll never trouble you again, Tergou.”

“Oh! Gerard! Gerard!”

Margaret whispered her: “Do not gainsay him now. Give his choler time to cool!”

Kate turned quickly towards her. “Let me look at your face?” The inspection was favourable, it seemed, for she whispered: “It is a comely face, and no mischief-maker’s.”

“Fear me not,” said Margaret, in the same tone. “I could not be happy without your love, as well as Gerard’s.”

“These are comfortable words,” sobbed Kate. Then, looking up, she said, “I little thought to like you so well. My heart is willing, but my infirmity will not let me embrace you.”

At this hint, Margaret wound gently round Gerard’s sister, and kissed her lovingly.

“Often he has spoken of you to me, Kate; and often I longed for this.”

“You, too, Gerard,” said Kate; “kiss me ere you go; for my heart lies heavy at parting with you this night.”

Gerard kissed her, and she went on her crutches home. The last thing they heard of her was a little patient sigh. Then the tears came and stood thick in Margaret’s eyes. But Gerard was a man, and noticed not his sister’s sigh.

As they turned to go to Sevenbergen, the dwarf nudged Gerard with his bundle of parchments and held out a concave claw.

Margaret dissuaded Gerard. “Why take what is not ours?”

“Oh, spoil an enemy how you can.”

“But may they not make this a handle for fresh violence?”

“How can they? Think you I shall stay in Tergou after this? The burgomaster robbed me of my liberty; I doubt I should take his life for it, if I could.”

“Oh, fie! Gerard.”

“What! Is life worth more than liberty? Well, I can’t take his life, so I take the first thing that comes to hand.”

He gave Giles a few small coins, with which the urchin was gladdened, and shuffled after his sister. Margaret and Gerard were speedily joined by Martin, and away to Sevenbergen.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/reade/charles/cloister-and-the-hearth/chapter11.html

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