The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 23

Life and liberty, while safe, are little thought of: for why? they are matters of course. Endangered, they are rated at their real value. In this, too, they are like sunshine, whose beauty men notice not at noon when it is greatest, but towards evening, when it lies in flakes of topaz under shady elms. Yet it is feebler then; but gloom lies beside it, and contrast reveals its fire. Thus Gerard and Margaret, though they started at every leaf that rustled louder than its fellows, glowed all over with joy and thankfulness as they glided among the friendly trees in safety and deep tranquil silence, baying dogs and brutal voices yet ringing in their mind’s ears.

But presently Gerard found stains of blood on Margaret’s ankles.

“Martin! Martin! help! they have wounded her: the crossbow!”

“No, no!” said Margaret, smiling to reassure him; “I am not wounded, nor hurt at all.”

“But what is it, then, in Heaven’s name?” cried Gerard, in great agitation.

“Scold me not, then!” and Margaret blushed.

“Did I ever scold you?”

“No, dear Gerard. Well, then, Martin said it was blood those cruel dogs followed; so I thought if I could but have a little blood on my shoon, the dogs would follow me instead, and let my Gerard wend free. So I scratched my arm with Martin’s knife — forgive me! Whose else could I take? Yours, Gerard? Ah, no. You forgive me?” said she beseechingly, and lovingly and fawningly, all in one.

“Let me see this scratch first,” said Gerard, choking with emotion. “There, I thought so. A scratch? I call it a cut — a deep, terrible, cruel cut.”

Gerard shuddered at sight of it.

“She might have done it with her bodkin,” said the soldier. “Milksop! that sickens at sight of a scratch and a little blood.”

“No, no. I could look on a sea of blood, but not on hers. Oh, Margaret! how could you be so cruel?”

Margaret smiled with love ineffable. “Foolish Gerard,” murmured she, “to make so much of nothing.” And she flung the guilty arm round his neck. “As if I would not give all the blood in my heart for you, let alone a few drops from my arm.” And with this, under the sense of his recent danger, she wept on his neck for pity and love; and he wept with her.

“And I must part from her,” he sobbed; “we two that love so dear — one must be in Holland, one in Italy. Ah me! ah me! ah me!”

At this Margaret wept afresh, but patiently and silently. Instinct is never off its guard, and with her unselfishness was an instinct. To utter her present thoughts would be to add to Gerard’s misery at parting, so she wept in silence.

Suddenly they emerged upon a beaten path, and Martin stopped.

“This is the bridle-road I spoke of,” said he hanging his head; “and there away lies the hostelry.”

Margaret and Gerard cast a scared look at one another.

“Come a step with me, Martin,” whispered Gerard. When he had drawn him aside, he said to him in a broken voice, “Good Martin, watch over her for me! She is my wife; yet I leave her. See Martin! here is gold — it was for my journey; it is no use my asking her to take it — she would not; but you will for her, will you not? Oh, Heaven! and is this all I can do for her? Money? But poverty is a curse. You will not let her want for anything, dear Martin? The burgomaster’s silver is enough for me.”

“Thou art a good lad, Gerard. Neither want nor harm shall come to her. I care more for her little finger than for all the world; and were she nought to me, even for thy sake would I be a father to her. Go with a stout heart, and God be with thee going and coming.” And the rough soldier wrung Gerard’s hand, and turned his head away, with unwonted feeling.

After a moment’s silence he was for going back to Margaret, but Gerard stopped him. “No, good Martin; prithee, stay here behind this thicket, and turn your head away from us, while I-oh, Martin! Martin!”

By this means Gerard escaped a witness of his anguish at leaving her he loved, and Martin escaped a piteous sight. He did not see the poor young things kneel and renew before Heaven those holy vows cruel men had interrupted. He did not see them cling together like one, and then try to part, and fail, and return to one another, and cling again, like drowning, despairing creatures. But he heard Gerard sob, and sob, and Margaret moan.

At last there was a hoarse cry, and feet pattered on the hard road.

He started up, and there was Gerard running wildly, with both hands clasped above his head, in prayer, and Margaret tottering back towards him with palms extended piteously, as if for help, and ashy cheek and eyes fixed on vacancy.

He caught her in his arms, and spoke words of comfort to her; but her mind could not take them in; only at the sound of his voice she moaned and held him tight, and trembled violently.

He got her on the mule, and put his arm around her, and so, supporting her frame, which, from being strong like a boy, had now turned all relaxed and powerless, he took her slowly and sadly home.

She did not shed one tear, nor speak one word.

At the edge of the wood he took her off the mule, and bade her go across to her father’s house. She did as she was bid.

Martin to Rotterdam. Sevenbergen was too hot for him.

Gerard, severed from her he loved, went like one in a dream. He hired a horse and a guide at the little hostelry, and rode swiftly towards the German frontier. But all was mechanical; his senses felt blunted; trees and houses and men moved by him like objects seen through a veil. His companions spoke to him twice, but he did not answer. Only once he cried out savagely, “Shall we never be out of this hateful country?”

After many hours’ riding they came to the brow of a steep hill; a small brook ran at the bottom.

“Halt!” cried the guide, and pointed across the valley. “Here is Germany.”

“Where?”

“On t’other side of the bourn. No need to ride down the hill, I trow.”

Gerard dismounted without a word, and took the burgomaster’s purse from his girdle: while he opened it, “You will soon be out of this hateful country,” said his guide, half sulkily; “mayhap the one you are going to will like you no better; any way, though it be a church you have robbed, they cannot take you, once across that bourn.”

These words at another time would have earned the speaker an admonition or a cuff. They fell on Gerard now like idle air. He paid the lad in silence, and descended the hill alone. The brook was silvery; it ran murmuring over little pebbles, that glittered, varnished by the clear water; he sat down and looked stupidly at them. Then he drank of the brook; then he laved his hot feet and hands in it; it was very cold: it waked him. He rose, and taking a run, leaped across it into Germany. Even as he touched the strange land he turned suddenly and looked back. “Farewell, ungrateful country!” he cried. “But for her it would cost me nought to leave you for ever, and all my kith and kin, and — the mother that bore me, and — my playmates, and my little native town. Farewell, fatherland — welcome the wide world! omne so-lum for-ti p p-at-r-a.” And with these brave words in his mouth he drooped suddenly with arms and legs all weak, and sat down and sobbed bitterly upon the foreign soil.

When the young exile had sat a while bowed down, he rose and dashed the tears from his eyes like a man; and not casting a single glance more behind him, to weaken his heart, stepped out into the wide world.

His love and heavy sorrow left no room in him for vulgar misgivings. Compared with rending himself from Margaret, it seemed a small thing to go on foot to Italy in that rude age.

All nations meet in a convent. So, thanks to his good friends the monks, and his own thirst of knowledge, he could speak most of the languages needed on that long road. He said to himself, “I will soon be at Rome; the sooner the better now.”

After walking a good league, he came to a place where four ways met. Being country roads, and serpentine, they had puzzled many an inexperienced neighbour passing from village to village. Gerard took out a little dial Peter had given him, and set it in the autumn sun, and by this compass steered unhesitatingly for Rome inexperienced as a young swallow flying south; but unlike the swallow, wandering south alone.

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