The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 17

Jorian Ketel went straight to Margaret’s room, and there, to his infinite surprise, he found the man he had been in search of, pale and motionless, his head in Margaret’s lap, and she kneeling over him, mute now, and stricken to stone. Her eyes were dilated yet glazed, and she neither saw the light nor heard the man, nor cared for anything on earth, but the white face in her lap.

Jorian stood awe-struck, the candle shaking in his hand.

“Why, where was he, then, all the time?”

Margaret heeded him not. Jorian went to the empty chest and inspected it. He began to comprehend. The girl’s dumb and frozen despair moved him.

“This is a sorry sight,” said he; “it is a black night’s work: all for a few skins! Better have gone with us than so. She is past answering me, poor wench. Stop! let us try whether —”

He took down a little round mirror, no bigger than his hand, and put it to Gerard’s mouth and nostrils, and held it there. When he withdrew it, it was dull.

“THERE IS LIFE IN HIM!” said Jorian Ketel to himself.

Margaret caught the words instantly, though only muttered, and it was if a statue should start into life and passion. She rose and flung her arms round Jorian’s neck.

“Oh, bless the tongue that tells me so!” and she clasped the great rough fellow again and again, eagerly, almost fiercely.

“There, there! let us lay him warm, said Jorian; and in a moment he raised Gerard and laid him on the bed-clothes. Then he took out a flask he carried, and filled his hand twice with Schiedamze, and flung it sharply each time in Gerard’s face. The pungent liquor co-operated with his recovery — he gave a faint sigh. Oh, never was sound so joyful to human ear! She flew towards him, but then stopped, quivering for fear she should hurt him. She had lost all confidence in herself.

“That is right — let him alone,” said Jorian; “don’t go cuddling him as you did me, or you’ll drive his breath back again. Let him alone: he is sure to come to. ‘Tisn’t like as if he was an old man.”

Gerard sighed deeply, and a faint streak of colour stole to his lips. Jorian made for the door. He had hardly reached it, when he found his legs seized from behind.

It was Margaret! She curled round his knees like a serpent, and kissed his hand, and fawned on him. “You won’t tell? You have saved his life; you have not the heart to thrust him back into his grave, to undo your own good work?”

“No, no! It is not the first time I have done you two a good turn; ’twas I told you in the church whither we had to take him. Besides, what is Dierich Brower to me? I’ll see him hanged ere I’ll tell him. But I wish you’d tell me where the parchments are! There are a hundred crowns offered for them. That would be a good windfall for my Joan and the children, you know.”

“Ah! they shall have those hundred crowns.

“What! are the things in the house?” asked Jorian eagerly.

“No; but I know where they are; and by God and St. Bavon I swear you shall have them to-morrow. Come to me for them when you will, but come alone.”

“I were made else. What! share the hundred crowns with Dirk Brower? And now may my bones rot in my skin if I let a soul know the poor boy is here.”

He then ran off, lest by staying longer he should excite suspicion, and have them all after him. And Margaret knelt, quivering from head to foot, and prayed beside Gerard and for Gerard.

“What is to do?” replied Jorian to Dierich Brower’s query; “why, we have scared the girl out of her wits. She was in a kind of fit.”

“We had better all go and doctor her, then.”

“Oh, yes! and frighten her into the churchyard. Her father is a doctor, and I have roused him, and set him to bring her round. Let us see the fire, will ye?”

His off-hand way disarmed all suspicion. And soon after the party agreed that the kitchen of the “Three Kings” was much warmer than Peter’s house, and they departed, having first untied Martin.

“Take note, mate, that I was right, and the burgomaster wrong,” said Dierich Brower at the door; “I said we should be too late to catch him, and we were too late.”

Thus Gerard, in one terrible night, grazed the prison and the grave.

And how did he get clear at last? Not by his cunningly contrived hiding-place, nor by Margaret’s ready wit; but by a good impulse in one of his captors, by the bit of humanity left in a somewhat reckless fellow’s heart, aided by his desire of gain. So mixed and seemingly incongruous are human motives, so shortsighted our shrewdest counsels.

They whose moderate natures or gentle fates keep them, in life’s passage, from the fierce extremes of joy and anguish our nature is capable of, are perhaps the best, and certainly the happiest of mankind. But to such readers I should try in vain to convey what bliss unspeakable settled now upon these persecuted lovers, Even to those who have joyed greatly and greatly suffered, my feeble art can present but a pale reflection of Margaret’s and Gerard’s ecstasy.

To sit and see a beloved face come back from the grave to the world, to health and beauty, by swift gradations; to see the roses return to the loved cheek, love’s glance to the loved eye, and his words to the loved mouth — this was Margaret’s — a joy to balance years of sorrow. It was Gerard’s to awake from a trance, and find his head pillowed on Margaret’s arm; to hear the woman he adored murmur new words of eloquent love, and shower tears and tender kisses and caresses on him. He never knew, till this sweet moment, how ardently, how tenderly, she loved him. He thanked his enemies. They wreathed their arms sweetly round each other, and trouble and danger seemed a world, an age behind them. They called each other husband and wife. Were they not solemnly betrothed? And had they not stood before the altar together? Was not the blessing of Holy Church upon their union? — her curse on all who would part them?

But as no woman’s nerves can bear with impunity so terrible a strain. presently Margaret turned faint, and sank on Gerard’s shoulder, smiling feebly, but quite, quite unstrung. Then Gerard was anxious, and would seek assistance. But she held him with a gentle grasp, and implored him not to leave her for a moment.

“While I can lay my hand on you, I feel you are safe, not else. Foolish Gerard! nothing ails me. I am weak, dearest, but happy, oh! so happy!”

Then it was Gerard’s turn to support that dear head, with its great waves of hair flowing loose over him, and nurse her, and soothe her, quivering on his bosom, with soft encouraging words and murmurs of love, and gentle caresses. Sweetest of all her charms is a woman’s weakness to a manly heart.

Poor things! they were happy. To-morrow they must part. But that was nothing to them now. They had seen Death, and all other troubles seemed light as air. While there is life there is hope; while there is hope there is joy. Separation for a year or two, what was it to them, who were so young, and had caught a glimpse of the grave? The future was bright, the present was Heaven: so passed the blissful hours.

Alas! their innocence ran other risks besides the prison and the grave. They were in most danger from their own hearts and their inexperience, now that visible danger there was none.

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