The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 2

“The soup is hot,” said Gerard.

“But how are we to get it to our mouths?” inquired the senior, despondingly.

“Father, the young man has brought us straws.” And Margaret smiled slily.

“Ay, ay!” said the old man; “but my poor bones are stiff, and indeed the fire is too hot for a body to kneel over with these short straws. St. John the Baptist, but the young man is adroit!”

For, while he stated his difficulty, Gerard removed it. He untied in a moment the knot on his breast, took his hat off, put a stone into each corner of it, then, wrapping his hand in the tail of his jerkin, whipped the flask off the fire, wedged it in between the stones, and put the hat under the old man’s nose with a merry smile. The other tremulously inserted the pipe of rye-straw and sucked. Lo and behold, his wan, drawn face was seen to light up more and more, till it quite glowed; and as soon as he had drawn a long breath:

“Hippocrates and Galen!” he cried, “’tis a soupe au vin — the restorative of restoratives. Blessed be the nation that invented it, and the woman that made it, and the young man who brings it to fainting folk. Have a suck, my girl, while I relate to our young host the history and virtues of this his sovereign compound. This corroborative, young sir, was unknown to the ancients: we find it neither in their treatises of medicine, nor in those popular narratives, which reveal many of their remedies, both in chirurgery and medicine proper. Hector, in the Ilias, if my memory does not play me false —

(Margaret. “Alas! he’s off.”)

—— was invited by one of the ladies of the poem to drink a draught of wine; but he declined, on the plea that he was just going into battle, and must not take aught to weaken his powers. Now, if the soupe au vin had been known in Troy, it is clear that in declining vinum merum upon that score, he would have added in the hexameter, ‘But a soupe au vin, madam, I will degust, and gratefully.’ Not only would this have been but common civility — a virtue no perfect commander is wanting in — but not to have done it would have proved him a shallow and improvident person, unfit to be trusted with the conduct of a war; for men going into a battle need sustenance and all possible support, as is proved by this, that foolish generals, bringing hungry soldiers to blows with full ones, have been defeated, in all ages, by inferior numbers. The Romans lost a great battle in the north of Italy to Hannibal, the Carthaginian, by this neglect alone. Now, this divine elixir gives in one moment force to the limbs and ardour to the spirits; and taken into Hector’s body at the nick of time, would, by the aid of Phoebus, Venus, and the blessed saints, have most likely procured the Greeks a defeat. For note how faint and weary and heart-sick I was a minute ago; well, I suck this celestial cordial, and now behold me brave as Achilles and strong as an eagle.”

“Oh, father, now? an eagle, alack!”

“Girl, I defy thee and all the world. Ready, I say, like a foaming charger, to devour the space between this and Rotterdam, and strong to combat the ills of life, even poverty and old age, which last philosophers have called the summum malum. Negatur; unless the man’s life has been ill-spent — which, by the bye, it generally has. Now for the moderns!”

“Father! dear father!”

“Fear me not, girl; I will be brief, unreasonably and unseasonably brief. The soupe au vin occurs not in modern science; but this is only one proof more, if proof were needed, that for the last few hundred years physicians have been idiots, with their chicken-broth and their decoction of gold, whereby they attribute the highest qualities to that meat which has the least juice of any meat, and to that metal which has less chemical qualities than all the metals; mountebanks! dunces! homicides! Since, then, from these no light is to be gathered, go we to the chroniclers; and first we find that Duguesclin, a French knight, being about to join battle with the English — masters, at that time, of half France, and sturdy strikers by sea and land — drank, not one, but three soupes au vin in honour of the Blessed Trinity. This done, he charged the islanders; and, as might have been foretold, killed a multitude, and drove the rest into the sea. But he was only the first of a long list of holy and hard-hitting ones who have, by this divine restorative, been sustentated, fortified, corroborated, and consoled.”

“Dear father, prithee add thyself to that venerable company ere the soup cools.” And Margaret held the hat imploringly in both hands till he inserted the straw once more.

This spared them the “modern instances,” and gave Gerard an opportunity of telling Margaret how proud his mother would be her soup had profited a man of learning.

“Ay! but,” said Margaret, “it would like her ill to see her son give all and take none himself. Why brought you but two straws?”

“Fair mistress, I hoped you would let me put my lips to your straw, there being but two.”

Margaret smiled and blushed. “Never beg that you may command,” said she. “The straw is not mine, ’tis yours: you cut it in yonder field.”

“I cut it, and that made it mine; but after that, your lip touched it, and that made it yours.”

“Did it Then I will lend it you. There — now it is yours again; your lip has touched it.”

“No, it belongs to us both now. Let us divide it.”

“By all means; you have a knife.”

“No, I will not cut it — that would be unlucky. I’ll bite it. There I shall keep my half: you will burn yours, once you get home, I doubt.’

“You know me not. I waste nothing. It is odds but I make a hairpin of it, or something.”

This answer dashed the novice Gerard, instead of provoking him, to fresh efforts, and he was silent. And now, the bread and soup being disposed of, the old scholar prepared to continue his journey. Then came a little difficulty: Gerard the adroit could not tie his ribbon again as Catherine had tied it. Margaret, after slily eyeing his efforts for some time, offered to help him; for at her age girls love to be coy and tender, saucy and gentle, by turns, and she saw she had put him out of countenance but now. Then a fair head, with its stately crown of auburn hair, glossy and glowing through silver, bowed sweetly towards him; and, while it ravished his eye, two white supple hands played delicately upon the stubborn ribbon, and moulded it with soft and airy touches. Then a heavenly thrill ran through the innocent young man, and vague glimpses of a new world of feeling and sentiment opened on him. And these new and exquisite sensations Margaret unwittingly prolonged: it is not natural to her sex to hurry aught that pertains to the sacred toilet. Nay, when the taper fingers had at last subjugated the ends of the knot, her mind was not quite easy, till, by a manoeuvre peculiar to the female hand, she had made her palm convex, and so applied it with a gentle pressure to the centre of the knot — a sweet little coaxing hand-kiss, as much as to say, “Now be a good knot, and stay so.” The palm-kiss was bestowed on the ribbon, but the wearer’s heart leaped to meet it.

“There, that is how it was,” said Margaret, and drew back to take one last keen survey of her work; then, looking up for simple approval of her skill, received full in her eyes a longing gaze of such ardent adoration, as made her lower them quickly and colour all over. An indescribable tremor seized her, and she retreated with downcast lashes and tell-tale cheeks, and took her father’s arm on the opposite side. Gerard, blushing at having scared her away with his eyes, took the other arm; and so the two young things went downcast and conscious, and propped the eagle along in silence.

They entered Rotterdam by the Schiedamze Poort; and, as Gerard was unacquainted with the town, Peter directed him the way to the Hooch Straet, in which the Stadthouse was. He himself was going with Margaret to his cousin, in the Ooster–Waagen Straet, so, almost on entering the gate, their roads lay apart. They bade each other a friendly adieu, and Gerard dived into the great town. A profound sense of solitude fell upon him, yet the streets were crowded. Then he lamented too late that, out of delicacy, he had not asked his late companions who they were and where they lived.

“Beshrew my shamefacedness!” said he. “But their words and their breeding were above their means, and something did whisper me they would not be known. I shall never see her more. Oh weary world, I hate you and your ways. To think I must meet beauty and goodness and learning — three pearls of price — and never see them more!”

Falling into this sad reverie, and letting his body go where it would, he lost his way; but presently meeting a crowd of persons all moving in one direction, he mingled with them, for he argued they must be making for the Stadthouse. Soon the noisy troop that contained the moody Gerard emerged, not upon the Stadthouse, but upon a large meadow by the side of the Maas; and then the attraction was revealed. Games of all sorts were going on: wrestling, the game of palm, the quintain, legerdemain, archery, tumbling, in which art, I blush to say, women as well as men performed, to the great delectation of the company. There was also a trained bear, who stood on his head, and marched upright, and bowed with prodigious gravity to his master; and a hare that beat a drum, and a cock that strutted on little stilts disdainfully. These things made Gerard laugh now and then; but the gay scene could not really enliven it, for his heart was not in tune with it. So hearing a young man say to his fellow that the Duke had been in the meadow, but was gone to the Stadthouse to entertain the burgomasters and aldermen and the competitors for the prizes, and their friends, he suddenly remembered he was hungry, and should like to sup with a prince. He left the river-side, and this time he found the Hooch Straet, and it speedily led him to the Stadthouse. But when he got there he was refused, first at one door, then at another, till he came to the great gate of the courtyard. It was kept by soldiers, and superintended by a pompous major-domo, glittering in an embroidered collar and a gold chain of office, and holding a white staff with a gold knob. There was a crowd of persons at the gate endeavouring to soften this official rock. They came up in turn like ripples, and retired as such in turn. It cost Gerard a struggle to get near him, and when he was within four heads of the gate, he saw something that made his heart beat; there was Peter, with Margaret on his arm, soliciting humbly for entrance.

“My cousin the alderman is not at home; they say he is here.”

“What is that to me, old man?”

“If you will not let us pass in to him, at least take this leaf from my tablet to my cousin. See, I have written his name; he will come out to us.

“For what do you take me? I carry no messages, I keep the gate.”

He then bawled, in a stentorian voice, inexorably:

“No strangers enter here, but the competitors and their companies.”

“Come, old man,” cried a voice in the crowd, “you have gotten your answer; make way.”

Margaret turned half round imploringly:

“Good people, we are come from far, and my father is old; and my cousin has a new servant that knows us not, and would not let us sit in our cousin’s house.”

At this the crowd laughed hoarsely. Margaret shrank as if they had struck her. At that moment a hand grasped hers — a magic grasp; it felt like heart meeting heart, or magnet steel. She turned quickly round at it, and it was Gerard. Such a little cry of joy and appeal came from her bosom, and she began to whimper prettily.

They had hustled her and frightened her, for one thing; and her cousin’s thoughtlessness, in not even telling his servant they were coming, was cruel; and the servant’s caution, however wise and faithful to her master, was bitterly mortifying to her father and her. And to her so mortified, and anxious and jostled, came suddenly this kind hand and face. “Hinc illae lacrimae.”

“All is well now,” remarked a coarse humourist; “she hath gotten her sweetheart.”

“Haw! haw! haw!” went the crowd.

She dropped Gerard’s hand directly, and turned round, with eyes flashing through her tears:

“I have no sweetheart, you rude men. But I am friendless in your boorish town, and this is a friend; and one who knows, what you know not, how to treat the aged and the weak.”

The crowd was dead silent. They had only been thoughtless, and now felt the rebuke, though severe, was just. The silence enabled Gerard to treat with the porter.

“I am a competitor, sir.”

“What is your name?” and the man eyed him suspiciously.

“Gerard, the son of Elias.”

The janitor inspected a slip of parchment he held in his hand:

“Gerard Eliassoen can enter.”

“With my company, these two?”

“Nay; those are not your company they came before you.”

“What matter? They are my friends, and without them I go not in.”

“Stay without, then.”

“That will I not.”

“That we shall see.”

“We will, and speedily.” And with this, Gerard raised a voice of astounding volume and power, and routed so that the whole street rang:

“Ho! PHILIP, EARL OF HOLLAND!”

“Are you mad?” cried the porter.

“HERE IS ONE OF YOUR VARLETS DEFIES YOU.”

“Hush, hush!”

“AND WILL NOT LET YOUR GUESTS PASS IN.”

“Hush! murder! The Dukes there. I’m dead,” cried the janitor, quaking.

Then suddenly trying to overpower Gerard’s thunder, he shouted, with all his lungs:

“OPEN THE GATE, YE KNAVES! WAY THERE FOR GERARD ELIASSOEN AND HIS COMPANY! (The fiends go with him!)”

The gate swung open as by magic. Eight soldiers lowered their pikes halfway, and made an arch, under which the victorious three marched in triumphant. The moment they had passed, the pikes clashed together horizontally to bar the gateway, and all but pinned an abdominal citizen that sought to wedge in along with them.

Once past the guarded portal, a few steps brought the trio upon a scene of Oriental luxury. The courtyard was laid out in tables loaded with rich meats and piled with gorgeous plate. Guests in rich and various costumes sat beneath a leafy canopy of fresh-cut branches fastened tastefully to golden, silver, and blue silken cords that traversed the area; and fruits of many hues, including some artificial ones of gold, silver, and wax, hung pendant, or peeped like fair eyes among the green leaves of plane-trees and lime-trees. The Duke’s minstrels swept their lutes at intervals, and a fountain played red Burgundy in six jets that met and battled in the air. The evening sun darted its fires through those bright and purple wine spouts, making them jets and cascades of molten rubies, then passing on, tinged with the blood of the grape, shed crimson glories here and there on fair faces, snowy beards, velvet, satin, jewelled hilts, glowing gold, gleaming silver, and sparkling glass. Gerard and his friends stood dazzled, spell-bound. Presently a whisper buzzed round them, “Salute the Duke! Salute the Duke!” They looked up, and there on high, under the dais, was their sovereign, bidding them welcome with a kindly wave of the hand. The men bowed low, and Margaret curtsied with a deep and graceful obeisance. The Duke’s hand being up, he gave it another turn, and pointed the new-comers out to a knot of valets. Instantly seven of his people, with an obedient start, went headlong at our friends, seated them at a table, and put fifteen many-coloured soups before them, in little silver bowls, and as many wines in crystal vases.

“Nay, father, let us not eat until we have thanked our good friend,” said Margaret, now first recovering from all this bustle.

“Girl, he is our guardian angel.”

Gerard put his face into his hands.

“Tell me when you have done,” said he, “and I will reappear and have my supper, for I am hungry. I know which of us three is the happiest at meeting again.”

“Me?” inquired Margaret.

“No: guess again.”

“Father?”

“No.”

“Then I have no guess which it can be;” and she gave a little crow of happiness and gaiety. The soup was tasted, and vanished in a twirl of fourteen hands, and fish came on the table in a dozen forms, with patties of lobster and almonds mixed, and of almonds and cream, and an immense variety of brouets known to us as rissoles. The next trifle was a wild boar, which smelt divine. Why, then, did Margaret start away from it with two shrieks of dismay, and pinch so good a friend as Gerard? Because the Duke’s cuisinier had been too clever; had made this excellent dish too captivating to the sight as well as taste. He had restored to the animal, by elaborate mimicry with burnt sugar and other edible colours, the hair and bristles he had robbed him of by fire and water. To make him still more enticing, the huge tusks were carefully preserved in the brute’s jaw, and gave his mouth the winning smile that comes of tusk in man or beast; and two eyes of coloured sugar glowed in his head. St. Argus! what eyes! so bright, so bloodshot, so threatening — they followed a man and every movement of his knife and spoon. But, indeed, I need the pencil of Granville or Tenniel to make you see the two gilt valets on the opposite side of the table putting the monster down before our friends, with a smiling, self-satisfied, benevolent obsequiousness for this ghastly monster was the flower of all comestibles — old Peter clasping both hands in pious admiration of it; Margaret wheeling round with horror-stricken eyes and her hand on Gerard’s shoulder, squeaking and pinching; his face of unwise delight at being pinched, the grizzly brute glaring sulkily on all, and the guests grinning from ear to ear.

“What’s to do?” shouted the Duke, hearing the signals of female distress. Seven of his people with a zealous start went headlong and told him. He laughed and said, “Give her of the beef-stuffing, then, and bring me Sir Boar.” Benevolent monarch! The beef-stuffing was his own private dish. On these grand occasions an ox was roasted whole, and reserved for the poor. But this wise as well as charitable prince had discovered, that whatever venison, bares, lamb, poultry, etc., you skewered into that beef cavern, got cooked to perfection, retaining their own juices and receiving those of the reeking ox. These he called his beef-stuffing, and took delight therein, as did now our trio; for, at his word, seven of his people went headlong, and drove silver tridents into the steaming cave at random, and speared a kid, a cygnet, and a flock of wildfowl. These presently smoked before Gerard and company; and Peter’s face, sad and slightly morose at the loss of the savage hog, expanded and shone. After this, twenty different tarts of fruits and herbs, and last of all, confectionery on a Titanic scale; cathedrals of sugar, all gilt painted in the interstices of the bas-reliefs; castles with moats, and ditches imitated to the life; elephants, camels, toads; knights on horseback jousting; kings and princesses looking on trumpeters blowing; and all these personages eating, and their veins filled with sweet-scented juices: works of art made to be destroyed. The guests breached a bastion, crunched a crusader and his horse and lance, or cracked a bishop, cope, chasuble, crosier and all, as remorselessly as we do a caraway comfit; sipping meanwhile hippocras and other spiced drinks, and Greek and Corsican wines, while every now and then little Turkish boys, turbaned, spangled, jewelled, and gilt, came offering on bended knee golden troughs of rose-water and orange-water to keep the guests’ hands cool and perfumed.

But long before our party arrived at this final stage appetite had succumbed, and Gerard had suddenly remembered he was the bearer of a letter to the Princess Marie, and, in an under-tone, had asked one of the servants if he would undertake to deliver it. The man took it with a deep obeisance: “He could not deliver it himself, but would instantly give it one of the Princess’s suite, several of whom were about.”

It may be remembered that Peter and Margaret came here not to dine, but to find their cousin. Well, the old gentleman ate heartily, and — being much fatigued, dropped asleep, and forgot all about his cousin. Margaret did not remind him; we shall hear why.

Meanwhile, that Cousin was seated within a few feet of them, at their backs, and discovered them when Margaret turned round and screamed at the boar. But he forbore to speak to them, for municipal reasons. Margaret was very plainly dressed, and Peter inclined to threadbare. So the alderman said to himself:

“’Twill be time to make up to them when the sun sets and the company disperses then I will take my poor relations to my house, and none will be the wiser.”

Half the courses were lost on Gerard and Margaret. They were no great eaters, and just now were feeding on sweet thoughts that have ever been unfavourable to appetite. But there is a delicate kind of sensuality, to whose influence these two were perhaps more sensitive than any other pair in that assembly — the delights of colour, music, and perfume, all of which blended so fascinatingly here.

Margaret leaned back and half closed her eyes, and murmured to Gerard: “What a lovely scene! the warm sun, the green shade, the rich dresses, the bright music of the lutes and the cool music of the fountain, and all faces so happy and gay! and then, it is to you we owe it.”

Gerard was silent all but his eyes; observing which —

“Now, speak not to me,” said Margaret languidly; “let me listen to the fountain: what are you a competitor for?”

He told her.

“Very well! You will gain one prize, at least.”

“Which? which? have you seen any of my work?”

“I? no. But you will gain a prize.

“I hope so; but what makes you think so?”

“Because you were so good to my father.”

Gerard smiled at the feminine logic, and hung his head at the sweet praise, and was silent.

“Speak not,” murmured Margaret. “They say this is a world of sin and misery. Can that be? What is your opinion?”

“No! that is all a silly old song,” explained Gerard. “’Tis a byword our elders keep repeating, out of custom: it is not true.”

“How can you know? You are but a child,” said Margaret, with pensive dignity.

“Why, only look round! And then thought I had lost you for ever; and you are by my side; and now the minstrels are going to play again. Sin and misery? Stuff and nonsense!”

The lutes burst out. The courtyard rang again with their delicate harmony.

“What do you admire most of all these beautiful things, Gerard?”

“You know my name? How is that?”

“White magic. I am a — witch.”

“Angels are never witches. But I can’t think how you —”

“Foolish boy! was it not cried at the gate loud enough to deave one?”

“So it was. Where is my head? What do I admire most? If you will sit a little more that way, I’ll tell you.”

“This way?”

“Yes; so that the light may fall on you. There! I see many fair things here, fairer than I could have conceived; but the fairest of all, to my eye, is your lovely hair in its silver frame, and the setting sun kissing it. It minds me of what the Vulgate praises for beauty, ‘an apple of gold in a network of silver,’ and oh, what a pity I did not know you before I sent in my poor endeavours at illuminating! I could illuminate so much better now. I could do everything better. There, now the sun is full on it, it is like an aureole. So our Lady looked, and none since her until to-day.”

“Oh, fie! it is wicked to talk so. Compare a poor, coarse-favoured girl like me with the Queen of Heaven? Oh, Gerard! I thought you were a good young man.” And Margaret was shocked apparently.

Gerard tried to explain. “I am no worse than the rest; but how can I help having eyes, and a heart Margaret!”

“Gerard!”

“Be not angry now!”

“Now, is it likely?”

“I love you.”

“Oh, for shame! you must not say that to me,” and Margaret coloured furiously at this sudden assault.

“I can’t help it. I love you. I love you.”

“Hush, hush! for pity’s sake! I must not listen to such words from a stranger. I am ungrateful to call you a stranger. Oh! how one may be mistaken! If I had known you were so bold —” And Margaret’s bosom began to heave, and her cheeks were covered with blushes, and she looked towards her sleeping father, very much like a timid thing that meditates actual flight.

Then Gerard was frightened at the alarm he caused. “Forgive me,” said he imploringly. “How could any one help loving you?”

“Well, sir, I will try and forgive you — you are so good in other respects; but then you must promise me never to say you — to say that again.”

“Give me your hand then, or you don’t forgive me.”

She hesitated; but eventually put out her hand a very little way, very slowly, and with seeming reluctance. He took it, and held it prisoner. When she thought it had been there long enough, she tried gently to draw it away. He held it tight: it submitted quite patiently to force. What is the use resisting force. She turned her head away, and her long eyelashes drooped sweetly. Gerard lost nothing by his promise. Words were not needed here; and silence was more eloquent. Nature was in that day what she is in ours; but manners were somewhat freer. Then as now, virgins drew back alarmed at the first words of love; but of prudery and artificial coquetry there was little, and the young soon read one another’s hearts. Everything was on Gerard’s side, his good looks, her belief in his goodness, her gratitude; and opportunity for at the Duke’s banquet this mellow summer eve, all things disposed the female nature to tenderness: the avenues to the heart lay open; the senses were so soothed and subdued with lovely colours, gentle sounds, and delicate odours; the sun gently sinking, the warm air, the green canopy, the cool music of the now violet fountain.

Gerard and Margaret sat hand in hand in silence; and Gerard’s eyes sought hers lovingly; and hers now and then turned on him timidly and imploringly and presently two sweet unreasonable tears rolled down her cheeks, and she smiled while they were drying: yet they did not take long.

And the sun declined; and the air cooled; and the fountain plashed more gently; and the pair throbbed in unison and silence, and this weary world looked heaven to them.

Oh, the merry days, the merry days when we were young.

Oh, the merry days, the merry days when we were young.

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