The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 25

Denys caught at Gerard, and somewhat checked his fall; but it may be doubted whether this alone would have saved him from breaking his neck, or a limb. His best friend now was the dying bear, on whose hairy carcass his head and shoulders descended. Denys tore him off her. It was needless. She panted still, and her limbs quivered, but a hare was not so harmless; and soon she breathed her last; and the judicious Denys propped Gerard up against her, being soft, and fanned him. He came to by degrees, but confused, and feeling the bear around him, rolled away, yelling.

“Courage,” cried Denys, “le diable est mort.”

“Is it dead? quite dead?” inquired Gerard from behind a tree; for his courage was feverish, and the cold fit was on him just now, and had been for some time.

“Behold,” said Denys, and pulled the brute’s ear playfully, and opened her jaws and put in his head, with other insulting antics; in the midst of which Gerard was violently sick.

Denys laughed at him.

“What is the matter now?” said he, “also, why tumble off your perch just when we had won the day?”

“I swooned, I trow.”

“But why?”

Not receiving an answer, he continued, “Green girls faint as soon as look at you, but then they choose time and place. What woman ever fainted up a tree?”

“She sent her nasty blood all over me. I think the smell must have overpowered me! Faugh! I hate blood.”

“I do believe it potently.”

“See what a mess she has made me

“But with her blood, not yours. I pity the enemy that strives to satisfy you.”’

“You need not to brag, Maitre Denys; I saw you under the tree, the colour of your shirt.”

“Let us distinguish,” said Denys, colouring; “it is permitted to tremble for a friend.”

Gerard, for answer, flung his arms round Denys’s neck in silence.

“Look here,” whined the stout soldier, affected by this little gush of nature and youth, “was ever aught so like a woman? I love thee, little milksop — go to. Good! behold him on his knees now. What new caprice is this?”

“Oh, Denys, ought we not to return thanks to Him who has saved both our lives against such fearful odds?” And Gerard kneeled, and prayed aloud. And presently he found Denys kneeling quiet beside him, with his hands across his bosom after the custom of his nation, and a face as long as his arm. When they rose, Gerard’s countenance was beaming.

“Good Denys,” said he, “Heaven will reward thy piety.”

“Ah, bah! I did it out of politeness,” said the Frenchman. “It was to please thee, little one. C’est egal, ’twas well and orderly prayed, and edified me to the core while it lasted. A bishop had scarce handled the matter better; so now our evensong being sung, and the saints enlisted with us — marchons.”

Ere they had taken two steps, he stopped. “By-the-by, the cub!”

“Oh, no, no!” cried Gerard.

“You are right. It is late. We have lost time climbing trees, and tumbling off ’em, and swooning, and vomiting, and praying; and the brute is heavy to carry. And now I think on’t, we shall have papa after it next; these bears make such a coil about an odd cub. What is this? you are wounded! you are wounded!”

“Not I.”

“He is wounded; miserable that I am!”

“Be calm, Denys. I am not touched; I feel no pain anywhere.”

“You? you only feel when another is hurt,” cried Denys, with great emotion; and throwing himself on his knees, he examined Gerard’s leg with glistening eyes.

“Quick! quick! before it stiffens,” he cried, and hurried him on.

“Who makes the coil about nothing now?” inquired Gerard composedly.

Denys’s reply was a very indirect one.

“Be pleased to note,” said he, “that I have a bad heart. You were man enough to save my life, yet I must sneer at you, a novice in war. Was not I a novice once myself? Then you fainted from a wound, and I thought you swooned for fear, and called you a milksop. Briefly, I have a bad tongue and a bad heart.”

“Denys!”

“Plait-il?”

“You lie.”

“You are very good to say so, little one, and I am eternally obliged to you,” mumbled the remorseful Denys.

Ere they had walked many furlongs, the muscles of the wounded leg contracted and stiffened, till presently Gerard could only just put his toe to the ground, and that with great pain.

At last he could bear it no longer.

“Let me lie down and die,” he groaned, “for this is intolerable.”

Denys represented that it was afternoon, and the nights were now frosty; and cold and hunger ill companions; and that it would be unreasonable to lose heart, a certain great personage being notoriously defunct. So Gerard leaned upon his axe, and hobbled on; but presently he gave in, all of a sudden, and sank helpless in the road.

Denys drew him aside into the wood, and to his surprise gave him his crossbow and bolts, enjoining him strictly to lie quiet, and if any ill-looking fellows should find him out and come to him, to bid them keep aloof; and should they refuse, to shoot them dead at twenty paces. “Honest men keep the path; and, knaves in a wood, none but fools do parley with them.” With this he snatched up Gerard’s axe, and set off running — not, as Gerard expected, towards Dusseldorf, but on the road they had come.

Gerard lay aching and smarting; and to him Rome, that seemed so near at starting, looked far, far off, now that he was two hundred miles nearer it. But soon all his thoughts turned Sevenbergen-wards. How sweet it would be one day to hold Margaret’s hand, and tell her all he had gone through for her! The very thought of it, and her, soothed him; and in the midst of pain and irritation of the nerves be lay resigned, and sweetly, though faintly, smiling.

He had lain thus more than two hours, when suddenly there were shouts; and the next moment something struck a tree hard by, and quivered in it.

He looked, it was an arrow.

He started to his feet. Several missiles rattled among the boughs, and the wood echoed with battle-cries. Whence they came he could not tell, for noises in these huge woods are so reverberated, that a stranger is always at fault as to their whereabout; but they seemed to fill the whole air. Presently there was a lull; then he heard the fierce galloping of hoofs; and still louder shouts and cries arose, mingled with shrieks and groans; and above all, strange and terrible sounds, like fierce claps of thunder, bellowing loud, and then dying off in cracking echoes; and red tongues of flame shot out ever and anon among the trees, and clouds of sulphurous smoke came drifting over his head. And all was still.

Gerard was struck with awe. “What will become of Denys?” he cried. “Oh, why did you leave me? Oh, Denys, my friend! my friend!”

Just before sunset Denys returned, almost sinking under a hairy bundle. It was the bear’s skin.

Gerard welcomed him with a burst of joy that astonished him.

“I thought never to see you again, dear Denys. Were you in the battle?”

“No. What battle?”

“The bloody battle of men, or fiends, that raged in the wood a while agone;” and with this he described it to the life, and more fully than I have done.

Denys patted him indulgently on the back.

“It is well,” said he; “thou art a good limner; and fever is a great spur to the imagination. One day I lay in a cart-shed with a cracked skull, and saw two hosts manoeuvre and fight a good hour on eight feet square, the which I did fairly describe to my comrade in due order, only not so gorgeously as thou, for want of book learning.

“What, then, you believe me not? when I tell you the arrows whizzed over my head, and the combatants shouted, and —”

“May the foul fiends fly away with me if I believe a word of it.”

Gerard took his arm, and quietly pointed to a tree close by.

“Why, it looks like — it is-a broad arrow, as I live!” And he went close, and looked up at it.

“It came out of the battle. I heard it, and saw it.”

“An English arrow.”

“How know you that?”

“Marry, by its length. The English bowmen draw the bow to the ear, others only to the right breast. Hence the English loose a three-foot shaft, and this is one of them, perdition seize them! Well, if this is not glamour, there has been a trifle of a battle. And if there has been a battle in so ridiculous a place for a battle as this, why then ’tis no business of mine, for my Duke hath no quarrel hereabouts. So let’s to bed,” said the professional. And with this he scraped together a heap of leaves, and made Gerard lie on it, his axe by his side. He then lay down beside him, with one hand on his arbalest, and drew the bear-skin over them, hair inward. They were soon as warm as toast, and fast asleep.

But long before the dawn Gerard woke his comrade.

“What shall I do, Denys, I die of famine?”

“Do? why, go to sleep again incontinent: qui dort dine.”

“But I tell you I am too hungry to sleep,” snapped Gerard.

“Let us march, then,” replied Denys, with paternal indulgence.

He had a brief paroxysm of yawns; then made a small bundle of bears’ ears, rolling them up in a strip of the skin, cut for the purpose; and they took the road.

Gerard leaned on his axe, and propped by Denys on the other side, hobbled along, not without sighs.

“I hate pain.” said Gerard viciously.

“Therein you show judgment,” replied papa smoothly.

It was a clear starlight night; and soon the moon rising revealed the end of the wood at no great distance: a pleasant sight, since Dusseldorf they knew was but a short league further.

At the edge of the wood they came upon something so mysterious that they stopped to gaze at it, before going up to it. Two white pillars rose in the air, distant a few paces from each other; and between them stood many figures, that looked like human forms.

“I go no farther till I know what this is,” said Gerard, in an agitated whisper. “Are they effigies of the saints, for men to pray to on the road? or live robbers waiting to shoot down honest travellers? Nay, living men they cannot be, for they stand on nothing that I see. Oh! Denys, let us turn back till daybreak; this is no mortal sight.”

Denys halted, and peered long and keenly. “They are men,” said he, at last. Gerard was for turning back all the more. “But men that will never hurt us, nor we them. Look not to their feet, for that they stand on!”

“Where, then, i’ the name of all the saints?”

“Look over their heads,” said Denys gravely.

Following this direction, Gerard presently discerned the outline of a dark wooden beam passing from pillar to pillar; and as the pair got nearer, walking now on tiptoe, one by one dark snake-like cords came out in the moonlight, each pendent from the beam to a dead man, and tight as wire.

Now as they came under this awful monument of crime and wholesale vengeance a light air swept by, and several of the corpses swung, or gently gyrated, and every rope creaked. Gerard shuddered at this ghastly salute. So thoroughly had the gibbet, with its sickening load, seized and held their eyes, that it was but now they perceived a fire right underneath, and a living figure sitting huddled over it. His axe lay beside him, the bright blade shining red in the glow. He was asleep.

Gerard started, but Denys only whispered, “courage, comrade, here is a fire.”

“Ay! but there is a man at it.”

“There will soon be three;” and he began to heap some wood on it that the watcher had prepared; during which the prudent Gerard seized the man’s axe, and sat down tight on it, grasping his own, and examining the sleeper. There was nothing outwardly distinctive in the man. He wore the dress of the country folk, and the hat of the district, a three-cornered hat called a Brunswicker, stiff enough to turn a sword cut, and with a thick brass hat-band. The weight of the whole thing had turned his ears entirely down, like a fancy rabbit’s in our century; but even this, though it spoiled him as a man, was nothing remarkable. They had of late met scores of these dog’s-eared rustics. The peculiarity was, this clown watching under a laden gallows. What for?

Denys, if he felt curious, would not show it; he took out two bears’ ears from his bundle, and running sticks through them, began to toast them. “’Twill be eating coined money,” said he; “for the burgomaster of Dusseldorf had given us a rix-dollar for these ears, as proving the death of their owners; but better a lean purse than a lere stomach.”

“Unhappy man!” cried Gerard, “could you eat food here?”

“Where the fire is lighted there must the meat roast, and where it roasts there must it be eaten; for nought travels worse than your roasted meat.”

“Well, eat thou, Denys, an thou canst! but I am cold and sick; there is no room for hunger in my heart after what mine eyes have seen,” and he shuddered over the fire. “Oh! how they creak! and who is this man, I wonder? what an ill-favoured churl!”

Denys examined him like a connoisseur looking at a picture, and in due course delivered judgment. “I take him to be of the refuse of that company, whereof these (pointing carelessly upward) were the cream, and so ran their heads into danger.

“At that rate, why not stun him before he wakes?” and Gerard fidgeted where he sat.

Denys opened his eyes with humorous surprise. “For one who sets up for a milksop you have the readiest hand. Why should two stun one? tush! he wakes: note now what he says at waking, and tell me.”

These last words were hardly whispered when the watcher opened his eyes. At sight of the fire made up, and two strangers eyeing him keenly, he stared, and there was a severe and pretty successful effort to be calm; still a perceptible tremor ran all over him. Soon he manned himself, and said gruffly. “Good morrow. But at the very moment of saying it he missed his axe, and saw how Gerard was sitting upon it, with his own laid ready to his hand. He lost countenance again directly. Denys smiled grimly at this bit of byplay.

“Good morrow!” said Gerard quietly, keeping his eye on him.

The watcher was now too ill at ease to be silent. “You make free with my fire,” said he; but he added in a somewhat faltering voice, “you are welcome.”

Denys whispered Gerard. The watcher eyed them askant.

“My comrade says, sith we share your fire, you shall share his meat.”

“So be it,” said the man warmly. “I have half a kid hanging on a bush hard by, I’ll go fetch it;” and he arose with a cheerful and obliging countenance, and was retiring.

Denys caught up his crossbow, and levelled it at his head. The man fell on his knees.

Denys lowered his weapon, and pointed him back to his place. He rose and went back slowly and unsteadily, like one disjointed; and sick at heart as the mouse, that the cat lets go a little way, and then darts and replaces.

“Sit down, friend,” said Denys grimly, in French.

The man obeyed finger and tone, though he knew not a word of French.

“Tell him the fire is not big enough for more than thee. He will take my meaning.”

This being communicated by Gerard, the man grinned; ever since Denys spoke he had seemed greatly relieved. “I wist not ye were strangers,” said he to Gerard.

Denys cut a piece of bear’s ear, and offered it with grace to him he had just levelled crossbow at.

He took it calmly, and drew a piece of bread from his wallet, and divided it with the pair. Nay, more, he winked and thrust his hand into the heap of leaves he sat on (Gerard grasped his axe ready to brain him) and produced a leathern bottle holding full two gallons. He put it to his mouth, and drank their healths, then handed it to Gerard; he passed it untouched to Denys.

“Mort de ma vie!” cried the soldier, “it is Rhenish wine, and fit for the gullet of an archbishop. Here’s to thee, thou prince of good fellows, wishing thee a short life and a merry one! Come, Gerard, sup! sup! Pshaw, never heed them, man! they heed not thee. Natheless, did I hang over such a skin of Rhenish as this, and three churls sat beneath a drinking it and offered me not a drop, I’d soon be down among them.”

“Denys! Denys!”

“My spirit would cut the cord, and womp would come my body amongst ye, with a hand on the bottle, and one eye winking, t’other.”

Gerard started up with a cry of horror and his fingers to his ears, and was running from the place, when his eye fell on the watcher’s axe. The tangible danger brought him back. He sat down again on the axe with his fingers in his ears.

“Courage, l’ami, le diable est mort!” shouted Denys gaily, and offered him a piece of bear’s ear, put it right under his nose as he stopped his ears. Gerard turned his head away with loathing.

“Wine!” he gasped. “Heaven knows I have much need of it, with such companions as thee and —”

He took a long draught of the Rhenish wine: it ran glowing through his veins, and warmed and strengthened his heart, but could not check his tremors whenever a gust of wind came. As for Denys and the other, they feasted recklessly, and plied the bottle unceasingly, and drank healths and caroused beneath that creaking sepulchre and its ghastly tenants.

“Ask him how they came here,” said Denys, with his mouth full, and pointing up without looking.

On this question being interpreted to the watcher, he replied that treason had been their end, diabolical treason and priest-craft. He then, being rendered communicative by drink, delivered a long prosy narrative, the purport of which was as follows. These honest gentlemen who now dangled here so miserably were all stout men and true, and lived in the forest by their wits. Their independence and thriving state excited the jealousy and hatred of a large portion of mankind, and many attempts were made on their lives and liberties; these the Virgin and their patron saints, coupled with their individual skill and courage constantly baffled. But yester eve a party of merchants came slowly on their mules from Dusseldorf. The honest men saw them crawling, and let them penetrate near a league into the forest, then set upon them to make them disgorge a portion of their ill-gotten gains. But alas! the merchants were no merchants at all, but soldiers of more than one nation, in the pay of the Archbishop of Cologne; haubergeons had they beneath their gowns, and weapons of all sorts at hand; natheless, the honest men fought stoutly, and pressed the traitors hard, when lo! horsemen, that had been planted in ambush many hours before, galloped up, and with these new diabolical engines of war, shot leaden bullets, and laid many an honest fellow low, and so quelled the courage of others that they yielded them prisoners. These being taken red-handed, the victors, who with malice inconceivable had brought cords knotted round their waists, did speedily hang, and by their side the dead ones, to make the gallanter show. “That one at the end was the captain. He never felt the cord. He was riddled with broad arrows and leaden balls or ever they could take him: a worthy man as ever cried, ‘Stand and deliver!’ but a little hasty, not much: stay! I forgot; he is dead. Very hasty, and obstinate as a pig. That one in the — buff jerkin is the lieutenant, as good a soul as ever lived: he was hanged alive. This one here, I never could abide; no (not that one; that is Conrad, my bosom friend); I mean this one right overhead in the chicken-toed shoon; you were always carrying tales, ye thief, and making mischief; you know you were; and, sirs, I am a man that would rather live united in a coppice than in a forest with backbiters and tale-bearers: strangers, I drink to you.” And so he went down the whole string, indicating with the neck of the bottle, like a showman with his pole, and giving a neat description of each, which though pithy was invariably false; for the showman had no real eye for character, and had misunderstood every one of these people.

“Enough palaver!” cried Denys. “Marchons! Give me his axe: now tell him he must help you along.”

The man’s countenance fell, but he saw in Denys’s eye that resistance would be dangerous; he submitted. Gerard it was who objected. He said, “Y pensez-vous? to put my hand on a thief, it maketh my flesh creep.”

“Childishness! all trades must live. Besides, I have my reasons. Be not you wiser than your elder.”

“No. Only if I am to lean on him I must have my hand in my bosom, still grasping the haft of my knife.”

“It is a new attitude to walk in; but please thyself.”

And in that strange and mixed attitude of tender offices and deadly suspicion the trio did walk. I wish I could draw them — I would not trust to the pen.

The light of the watch-tower at Dusseldorf was visible as soon as they cleared the wood, and cheered Gerard. When, after an hour’s march, the black outline of the tower itself and other buildings stood out clear to the eye, their companion halted and said gloomily, “You may as well slay me out of hand as take me any nearer the gates of Dusseldorf town.”

On this being communicated to Denys, he said at once, “Let him go then, for in sooth his neck will be in jeopardy if he wends much further with us.” Gerard acquiesced as a matter of course. His horror of a criminal did not in the least dispose him to active co-operation with the law. But the fact is, that at this epoch no private citizen in any part of Europe ever meddled with criminals but in self-defence, except, by-the-by, in England, which, behind other nations in some things, was centuries before them all in this.

The man’s personal liberty being restored, he asked for his axe. It was given him. To the friends’ surprise he still lingered. Was he to have nothing for coming so far out of his way with them?

“Here are two batzen, friend.

“Add the wine, the good Rhenish?”

“Did you give aught for it?”

“Ay! the peril of my life.”

“Hum! what say you, Denys?”

“I say it was worth its weight in gold. Here, lad, here be silver groshen, one for every acorn on that gallows tree; and here is one more for thee, who wilt doubtless be there in due season.”

The man took the coins, but still lingered.

“Well! what now?” cried Gerard, who thought him shamefully overpaid already. “Dost seek the hide off our bones?”

“Nay, good sirs, but you have seen to-night how parlous a life is mine. Ye be true men, and your prayers avail; give me then a small trifle of a prayer, an’t please you; for I know not one.”

Gerard’s choler began to rise at the egotistical rogue; moreover, ever since his wound he had felt gusts of irritability. However, he bit his lip and said, “There go two words to that bargain; tell me first, is it true what men say of you Rhenish thieves, that ye do murder innocent and unresisting travellers as well as rob them?”

The other answered sulkily, “They you call thieves are not to blame for that; the fault lies with the law.”

“Gramercy! so ’tis the law’s fault that ill men break it?”

“I mean not so; but the law in this land slays an honest man an if he do but steal. What follows? he would be pitiful, but is discouraged herefrom; pity gains him no pity, and doubles his peril: an he but cut a purse his life is forfeit; therefore cutteth he the throat to boot, to save his own neck: dead men tell no tales. Pray then for the poor soul who by bloody laws is driven to kill or else be slaughtered; were there less of this unreasonable gibbeting on the highroad, there should be less enforced cutting of throats in dark woods, my masters.”

“Fewer words had served,” replied Gerard coldly. “I asked a question, I am answered,” and suddenly doffing his bonnet —

“‘Obsecro Deum omnipotentem, ut, qua cruce jam pendent isti quindecim latrones fures et homicidae, in ea homicida fur et latro tu pependeris quam citissime, pro publica salute, in honorem justi Dei cui sit gloria, in aeternum, Amen.’”

“And so good day.”

The greedy outlaw was satisfied last. “That is Latin,” he muttered, “and more than I bargained for.” So indeed it was.

And he returned to his business with a mind at ease. The friends pondered in silence the many events of the last few hours.

At last Gerard said thoughtfully, “That she-bear saved both our lives-by God’s will.”

“Like enough,” replied Denys; “and talking of that, it was lucky we did not dawdle over our supper.”

“What mean you?”

“I mean they are not all hanged; I saw a refuse of seven or eight as black as ink around our fire.”

“When? when?”

“Ere we had left it five minutes.”

“Good heavens! and you said not a word.”

“It would but have worried you, and had set our friend a looking back, and mayhap tempted him to get his skull split. All other danger was over; they could not see us, we were out of the moonshine, and indeed, just turning a corner. Ah! there is the sun; and here are the gates of Dusseldorf. Courage, l’ami, le diable est mort!”

“My head! my head!” was all poor Gerard could reply.

So many shocks, emotions, perils, horrors, added to the wound, his first, had tried his youthful body and sensitive nature too severely.

It was noon of the same day.

In a bedroom of “The Silver Lion” the rugged Denys sat anxious, watching his young friend.

And he lay raging with fever, delirious at intervals, and one word for ever on his lips.

“Margaret! — Margaret Margaret!”

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