The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 19

Gerard warned by recent peril, rose before daybreak and waked Martin. The old soldier was astonished. He thought Gerard had escaped by the window last night. Being consulted as to the best way for him to leave the country and elude pursuit, he said there was but one road safe. “I must guide you through the great forest to a bridle-road I know of. This will take you speedily to a hostelry, where they will lend you a swift horse; and then a day’s gallop will take you out of Holland. But let us start ere the folk here quit their beds.”

Peter’s house was but a furlong and a half from the forest. They started, Martin with his bow and three arrows, for it was Thursday; Gerard with nothing but a stout oak staff Peter gave him for the journey.

Margaret pinned up her kirtle and farthingale, for the road was wet. Peter went as far as his garden hedge with them, and then with more emotion than he often bestowed on passing events, gave the young man his blessing.

The sun was peeping above the horizon as they crossed the stony field and made for the wood. They had crossed about half, when Margaret, who kept nervously looking back every now and then, uttered a cry, and, following her instinct, began to run towards the wood, screaming with terror all the way.

Ghysbrecht and his men were in hot pursuit.

Resistance would have been madness. Martin and Gerard followed Margaret’s example. The pursuers gained slightly on them; but Martin kept shouting, “Only win the wood! only win the wood!”

They had too good a start for the men on foot, and their hearts bounded with hope at Martin’s words, for the great trees seemed now to stretch their branches like friendly arms towards them, and their leaves like a screen.

But an unforeseen danger attacked them. The fiery old burgomaster flung himself on his mule, and, spurring him to a gallop, he headed not his own men only, but the fugitives. His object was to cut them off. The old man came galloping in a semicircle, and got on the edge of the wood, right in front of Gerard; the others might escape for aught he cared.

Margaret shrieked, and tried to protect Gerard by clasping him; but he shook her off without ceremony.

Ghysbrecht in his ardour forgot that hunted animals turn on the hunter; and that two men can hate, and two can long to kill the thing they hate.

Instead of attempting to dodge him, as the burgomaster made sure he would, Gerard flew right at him, with a savage, exulting cry, and struck at him with all his heart, and soul and strength. The oak staff came down on Ghysbrecht’s face with a frightful crash, and laid him under his mule’s tail beating the devil’s tattoo with his heels, his face streaming, and his collar spattered with blood.

The next moment the three were in the wood. The yell of dismay and vengeance that burst from Ghysbrecht’s men at that terrible blow which felled their leader, told the fugitives that it was now a race for life or death.

“Why run?” cried Gerard, panting. “You have your bow, and I have this,” and he shook his bloody staff.

“Boy!” roared Martin; “the GALLOWS! Follow me,” and he fled into the wood. Soon they heard a cry like a pack of hounds opening on sight of the game. The men were in the wood, and saw them flitting amongst the trees. Margaret moaned and panted as she ran; and Gerard clenched his teeth and grasped his staff. The next minute they came to a stiff hazel coppice. Martin dashed into it, and shouldered the young wood aside as if it were standing corn.

Ere they had gone fifty yards in it they came to four blind paths.

Martin took one. “Bend low,” said he. And, half creeping, they glided along. Presently their path was again intersected with other little tortuous paths. They took one of them. It seemed to lead back; but it soon took a turn, and, after a while, brought them to a thick pine grove, where the walking was good and hard. There were no paths here; and the young fir-trees were so thick, you could not see three yards before your nose.

When they had gone some way in this, Martin sat down; and, having learned in war to lose all impression of danger with the danger itself, took a piece of bread and a slice of ham out of his wallet, and began quietly to eat his breakfast.

The young ones looked at him with dismay. He replied to their looks.

“All Sevenbergen could not find you now; you will lose your purse, Gerard, long before you get to Italy; is that the way to carry a purse?”

Gerard looked, and there was a large triangular purse, entangled by its chains to the buckle and strap of his wallet.

“This is none of mine,” said he. “What is in it, I wonder?” and he tried to detach it; but in passing through the coppice it had become inextricably entangled in his strap and buckle. “It seems loath to leave me,” said Gerard, and he had to cut it loose with his knife. The purse, on examination, proved to be well provided with silver coins of all sizes, but its bloated appearance was greatly owing to a number of pieces of brown paper folded and doubled. A light burst on Gerard. “Why, it must be that old thief’s; and see! stuffed with paper to deceive the world!”

The wonder was how the burgomaster’s purse came on Gerard.

They hit at last upon the right solution. The purse must have been at Ghysbrecht’s saddle-bow, and Gerard rushing at his enemy, had unconsciously torn it away, thus felling his enemy and robbing him, with a single gesture.

Gerard was delighted at this feat, but Margaret was uneasy.

“Throw it away, Gerard, or let Martin take it back. Already they call you a thief. I cannot bear it.”

“Throw it away! give it him back? not a stiver! This is spoil lawfully won in battle from an enemy. Is it not, Martin?”

“Why, of course. Send him back the brown paper, and you will; but the purse or the coin — that were a sin.”

“Oh, Gerard!” said Margaret, “you are going to a distant land. We need the goodwill of Heaven. How can we hope for that if we take what is not ours?”

But Gerard saw it in a different light.

“It is Heaven that gives it me by a miracle, and I shall cherish it accordingly,” said this pious youth. “Thus the favoured people spoiled the Egyptians, and were blessed.”

“Take your own way,” said Margaret humbly; “you are wiser than I am. You are my husband,” added she, in a low murmuring voice; “is it for me to gainsay you?”

These humble words from Margaret, who, till that day, had held the whip-hand, rather surprised Martin for the moment. They recurred to him some time afterwards, and then they surprised him less.

Gerard kissed her tenderly in return for her wife-like docility, and they pursued their journey hand in hand, Martin leading the way, into the depths of the huge forest. The farther they went, the more absolutely secure from pursuit they felt. Indeed, the townspeople never ventured so far as this into the trackless part of the forest.

Impetuous natures repent quickly. Gerard was no sooner out of all danger than his conscience began to prick him.

“Martin, would I had not struck quite so hard.”

“Whom? Oh! let that pass, he is cheap served.”

“Martin, I saw his grey hairs as my stick fell on him. I doubt they will not from my sight this while.”

Martin grunted with contempt. “Who spares a badger for his grey hairs? The greyer your enemy is, the older; and the older the craftier and the craftier the better for a little killing.”

“Killing? killing, Martin? Speak not of killing!” and Gerard shook all over.

“I am much mistook if you have not,” said Martin cheerfully.

“Now Heaven forbid!”

“The old vagabond’s skull cracked like a walnut. Aha!”

“Heaven and the saints forbid it!”

“He rolled off his mule like a stone shot out of a cart. Said I to myself, ‘There is one wiped out,’” and the iron old soldier grinned ruthlessly.

Gerard fell on his knees and began to pray for his enemy’s life.

At this Martin lost his patience. “Here’s mummery. What! you that set up for learning, know you not that a wise man never strikes his enemy but to kill him? And what is all this coil about killing of old men? If it had been a young one, now, with the joys of life waiting for him, wine, women, and pillage! But an old fellow at the edge of the grave, why not shove him in? Go he must, to-day or to-morrow; and what better place for greybeards? Now, if ever I should be so mischancy as to last so long as Ghysbrecht did, and have to go on a mule’s legs instead of Martin Wittenhaagen’s, and a back like this (striking the wood of his bow), instead of this (striking the string), I’ll thank and bless any young fellow who will knock me on the head, as you have done that old shopkeeper; malison on his memory.

“Oh, culpa mea! culpa mea!” cried Gerard, and smote upon his breast.

“Look there!” cried Martin to Margaret scornfully, “he is a priest at heart still — and when he is not in ire, St. Paul, what a milksop!”

“Tush, Martin!” cried Margaret reproachfully: then she wreathed her arms round Gerard, and comforted him with the double magic of a woman’s sense and a woman’s voice.

“Sweetheart!” murmured she, “you forget: you went not a step out of the way to harm him, who hunted you to your death. You fled from him. He it was who spurred on you. Then did you strike; but in self-defence and a single blow, and with that which was in your hand. Malice had drawn knife, or struck again and again. How often have men been smitten with staves not one but many blows, yet no lives lost! If then your enemy has fallen, it is through his own malice, not yours, and by the will of God.”

“Bless you, Margaret; bless you for thinking so!”

“Yes; but, beloved one, if you have had the misfortune to kill that wicked man, the more need is there that you fly with haste from Holland. Oh, let us on.”

“Nay, Margaret,” said Gerard. “I fear not man’s vengeance, thanks to Martin here and this thick wood: only Him I fear whose eye pierces the forest and reads the heart of man. If I but struck in self-defence, ’tis well; but if in hate, He may bid the avenger of blood follow me to Italy — to Italy? ay, to earth’s remotest bounds.”

“Hush!” said Martin peevishly. “I can’t hear for your chat.”

“What is it?”

“Do you hear nothing, Margaret; my ears are getting old.”

Margaret listened, and presently she heard a tuneful sound, like a single stroke upon a deep ringing bell. She described it so to Martin.

“Nay, I heard it,” said he.

“And so did I,” said Gerard; “it was beautiful. Ah! there it is again. How sweetly it blends with the air. It is a long way off. It is before us, is it not?”

“No, no! the echoes of this wood confound the ear of a stranger. It comes from the pine grove.”

“What! the one we passed?”

“Why, Martin, is this anything? You look pale.”

“Wonderful!” said Martin, with a sickly sneer. “He asks me is it anything? Come, on, on! at any rate, let us reach a better place than this.”

“A better place — for what?”

“To stand at bay, Gerard,” said Martin gravely; “and die like soldiers, killing three for one.”

“What’s that sound?”

“IT IS THE AVENGER OF BLOOD.”

“Oh, Martin, save him! Oh, Heaven be merciful What new mysterious peril is this?”

“GIRL, IT’S A BLOODHOUND.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/reade/charles/cloister-and-the-hearth/chapter19.html

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