The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 14

As if this had been a concerted signal, the back door was struck as rudely the next instant. They were hemmed in. But at these alarming sounds Margaret seemed to recover some share of self-possession. She whispered, “Say he was here, but is gone.” And with this she seized Gerard and almost dragged him up the rude steps that led to her father’s sleeping-room. Her own lay next beyond it.

The blows on the door were repeated.

“Who knocks at this hour?”

“Open, and you will see!”

“I open not to thieves — honest men are all abed now.”

“Open to the law, Martin Wittenhaagen, or you shall rue it.”

“Why, that is Dirk Brower’s voice, I trow. What make you so far from Tergou?”

“Open, and you will know.”

Martin drew the bolt very slowly, and in rushed Dierich and four more. They let in their companion who was at the back door.

“Now, Martin, where is Gerard Eliassoen?”

“Gerard Eliassoen? Why, he was here but now!”

“Was here?” Dierich’s countenance fell. “And where is he now?”

“They say he has gone to Italy. Why, what is to do?”

“No matter. When did he go? Tell me not that he went in such a storm as this!”

“Here is a coil about Gerard Eliassoen,” said Martin contemptuously. Then he lighted the candle, and seating himself coolly by the fire, proceeded to whip some fine silk round his bow-string at the place where the nick of the arrow frets it.

“I’ll tell you,” said he carelessly. “Know you his brother Giles? — a little misbegotten imp, all head and arms? Well, he came tearing over here on a mule, and bawled out something, I was too far off to hear the creature’s words, but only its noise. Any way, he started Gerard. For as soon as he was gone, there was such crying and kissing, and then Gerard went away. They do tell me he has gone to Italy — mayhap you know where that is, for I don’t.”

Dierich’s countenance fell lower and lower at this account. There was no flaw in it, A cunninger man than Martin would perhaps have told a lie too many and raised suspicion. But Martin did his task well. He only told the one falsehood he was bade to tell, and of his own head invented nothing.

“Mates,” said Dierich, “I doubt he speaks sooth. I told the burgomaster how ‘twould be. He met the dwarf galloping Peter Buyskens’s mule from Sevenbergen. ‘They have sent that imp to Gerard,’ says he, ‘so, then, Gerard is at Sevenbergen.’ ‘Ah, master!’ says I, ”tis too late now. We should have thought of Sevenbergen before, instead of wasting our time hunting all the odd corners of Tergou for those cursed parchments that we shall never find till we find the man that took ’em. If he was at Sevenbergen,’ quoth I, ‘and they sent the dwarf to him, it must have been to warn him we are after him. He is leagues away by now,’ quoth I. Confound that chalk-faced girl! she has outwitted us bearded men; and so I told the burgomaster, but he would not hear reason. A wet jerkin apiece, that is all we shall get, mates, by this job.”

Martin grinned coolly in Dierich’s face.

“However,” added the latter, “to content the burgomaster, we will search the house.”

Martin turned grave directly.

This change of countenance did not escape Dierich. He reflected a moment.

“Watch outside two of you, one on each side of the house, that no one jump from the upper windows. The rest come with me.”

And he took the candle and mounted the stairs, followed by three of his comrades.

Martin was left alone.

The stout soldier hung his head. All had gone so well at first; and now this fatal turn! Suddenly it occurred to him that all was not yet lost. Gerard must be either in Peter’s room or Margaret’s; they were not so very high from the ground. Gerard would leap out. Dierich had left a man below; but what then? For half a minute Gerard and he would be two to one, and in that brief space, what might not be done?

Martin then held the back door ajar and watched. The light shone in Peter’s room. “Curse the fool!” said he, “is he going to let them take him like a girl?”

The light now passed into Margaret’s bedroom. Still no window was opened. Had Gerard intended to escape that way, he would not have waited till the men were in the room. Martin saw that at once, and left the door, and came to the foot-stair and listened.

He began to think Gerard must have escaped by the window while all the men were in the house. The longer the silence continued, the stronger grew this conviction. But it was suddenly and rudely dissipated.

Faint cries issued from the inner bedroom — Margaret’s.

“They have taken him,” groaned Martin; “they have got him.”

It now flashed across Martin’s mind that if they took Gerard away, his life was not worth a button; and that, if evil befell him, Margaret’s heart would break. He cast his eyes wildly round like some savage beast seeking an escape, and in a twinkling formed a resolution terribly characteristic of those iron times and of a soldier driven to bay. He stepped to each door in turn, and imitating Dierich Brower’s voice, said sharply, “Watch the window!” He then quietly closed and bolted both doors. He then took up his bow and six arrows; one he fitted to his string, the others he put into his quiver. His knife he placed upon a chair behind him, the hilt towards him; and there he waited at the foot of the stair with the calm determination to slay those four men, or be slain by them. Two, he knew, he could dispose of by his arrows, ere they could get near him, and Gerard and he must take their chance hand-to-hand with the remaining pair. Besides, he had seen men panic-stricken by a sudden attack of this sort. Should Brower and his men hesitate but an instant before closing with him, he should shoot three instead of two, and then the odds would be on the right side.

He had not long to wait. The heavy steps sounded in Margaret’s room, and came nearer and nearer.

The light also approached, and voices.

Martin’s heart, stout as it was, beat hard, to hear men coming thus to their death, and perhaps to his; more likely so than not: for four is long odds in a battlefield of ten feet square, and Gerard might be bound perhaps, and powerless to help. But this man, whom we have seen shake in his shoes at a Giles-o’-lanthorn, never wavered in this awful moment of real danger, but stood there, his body all braced for combat, and his eye glowing, equally ready to take life and lose it. Desperate game! to win which was exile instant and for life, and to lose it was to die that moment upon that floor he stood on.

Dierich Brower and his men found Peter in his first sleep. They opened his cupboards, they ran their knives into an alligator he had nailed to his wall; they looked under his bed: it was a large room, and apparently full of hiding-places, but they found no Gerard.

Then they went on to Margaret’s room, and the very sight of it was discouraging — it was small and bare, and not a cupboard in it; there was, however, a large fireplace and chimney. Dierich’s eye fell on these directly. Here they found the beauty of Sevenbergen sleeping on an old chest not a foot high, and no attempt made to cover it; but the sheets were snowy white, and so was Margaret’s own linen. And there she lay, looking like a lily fallen into a rut.

Presently she awoke, and sat up in the bed, like one amazed; then, seeing the men, began to scream faintly, and pray for mercy.

She made Dierich Brower ashamed of his errand.

“Here is a to-do,” said he, a little confused. “We are not going to hurt you, my pretty maid. Lie you still, and shut your eyes, and think of your wedding-night, while I look up this chimney to see if Master Gerard is there.”

“Gerard! in my room?”

“Why not? They say that you and he —”

“Cruel! you know they have driven him away from me — driven him from his native place. This is a blind. You are thieves; you are wicked men; you are not men of Sevenbergen, or you would know Margaret Brandt better than to look for her lover in this room of all others in the world. Oh, brave! Four great hulking men to come, armed to the teeth, to insult one poor honest girl! The women that live in your own houses must be naught, or you would respect them too much to insult a girl of good character.”

“There! come away, before we hear worse,” said Dierich hastily. “He is not in the chimney. Plaster will mend what a cudgel breaks; but a woman’s tongue is a double-edged dagger, and a girl is a woman with her mother’s milk still in her.” And he beat a hasty retreat. “I told the burgomaster how ‘twould be.”

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