The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 28

Things good and evil balance themselves in a remarkable manner and almost universally. The steel bow attached to the arbalestrier’s back, and carried above his head, had sunk him. That very steel bow, owing to that very position, could not escape Gerard’s hands, one of which grasped it, and the other went between the bow and the cord, which was as good. The next moment, Denys, by means of his crossbow, was hoisted with so eager a jerk that half his body bobbed up out of water.

“Now, grip me not! grip me not!” cried Gerard, in mortal terror of that fatal mistake.

“Pas si bete,” gurgled Denys.

Seeing the sort of stuff he had to deal with, Gerard was hopeful and calm directly. “On thy back,” said he sharply, and seizing the arbalest, and taking a stroke forward, he aided the desired movement. “Hand on my shoulder! slap the water with the other hand! No — with a downward motion; so. Do nothing more than I bid thee.” Gerard had got hold of Denys’s long hair, and twisting it hard, caught the end between his side teeth, and with the strong muscles of his youthful neck easily kept up the soldier’s head, and struck out lustily across the current. A moment he had hesitated which side to make for, little knowing the awful importance of that simple decision; then seeing the west bank a trifle nearest, he made towards it, instead of swimming to jail like a good boy, and so furnishing one a novel incident. Owing to the force of the current they slanted considerably, and when they had covered near a hundred yards, Denys murmured uneasily, “How much more of it?”

“Courage,” mumbled Gerard. “Whatever a duck knows, a Dutchman knows; art safe as in bed.”

The next moment, to their surprise, they found themselves in shallow water, and so waded ashore. Once on terra firma, they looked at one another from head to foot as if eyes could devour, then by one impulse flung each an arm round the other’s neck, and panted there with hearts too full to speak. And at this sacred moment life was sweet as heaven to both; sweetest perhaps to the poor exiled lover, who had just saved his friend. Oh, joy to whose height what poet has yet soared, or ever tried to soar? To save a human life; and that life a loved one. Such moments are worth living for, ay, three score years and ten. And then, calmer, they took hands, and so walked along the bank hand in hand like a pair of sweethearts, scarce knowing or caring whither they went.

The boat people were all safe on the late concave, now convex craft, Herr Turnip-face, the “Inverter of things,” being in the middle. All this fracas seemed not to have essentially deranged his habits. At least he was greeting when he shot our friends into the Rhine, and greeting when they got out again.

“Shall we wait till they right the boat?”

“No, Denys, our fare is paid; we owe them nought. Let us on, and briskly.”

Denys assented, observing that they could walk all the way to Cologne on this bank.

“I fare not to Cologne,” was the calm reply.

“Why, whither then?”

“To Burgundy.”

“To Burgundy? Ah, no! that is too good to be sooth.”

“Sooth ’tis, and sense into the bargain. What matters it to me how I go to Rome?”

“Nay, nay; you but say so to pleasure me. The change is too sudden; and think me not so ill-hearted as take you at your word. Also did I not see your eyes sparkle at the wonders of Cologne? the churches, the images, the relics

“How dull art thou, Denys; that was when we were to enjoy them together. Churches! I shall see plenty, go Rome-ward how I will. The bones of saints and martyrs; alas! the world is full of them; but a friend like thee, where on earth’s face shall I find another? No, I will not turn thee farther from the road that leads to thy dear home, and her that pines for thee. Neither will I rob myself of thee by leaving thee. Since I drew thee out of Rhine I love thee better than I did. Thou art my pearl: I fished thee; and must keep thee. So gainsay me not, or thou wilt bring back my fever; but cry courage, and lead on; and hey for Burgundy!”

Denys gave a joyful caper. “Courage! va pour la Bourgogne. Oh! soyes tranquille! cette fois il est bien decidement mort, ce coquin-la.” And they turned their backs on the Rhine.

On this decision making itself clear, across the Rhine there was a commotion in the little party that had been watching the discussion, and the friends had not taken many steps ere a voice came to them over the water. “HALT!”

Gerard turned, and saw one of those four holding out a badge of office and a parchment slip. His heart sank; for he was a good citizen, and used to obey the voice that now bade him turn again to Dusseldorf — the Law’s.

Denys did not share his scruples. He was a Frenchman, and despised every other nation, laws, inmates, and customs included. He was a soldier, and took a military view of the situation. Superior force opposed; river between; rear open; why, ’twas retreat made easy. He saw at a glance that the boat still drifted in mid-stream, and there was no ferry nearer than Dusseldorf. “I shall beat a quick retreat to that hill,” said he, “and then, being out of sight, quick step.”

They sauntered off.

“Halt! in the bailiff’s name,” cried a voice from the shore.

Denys turned round and ostentatiously snapped his fingers at the bailiff, and proceeded.

“Halt! in the archbishop’s name.”

Denys snapped his fingers at his grace, and proceeded.

“Halt! in the emperor’s name.”

Denys snapped his fingers at his majesty, and proceeded.

Gerard saw this needless pantomime with regret, and as soon as they had passed the brow of the hill, said, “There is now but one course, we must run to Burgundy instead of walking;” and he set off, and ran the best part of a league without stopping.

Denys was fairly blown, and inquired what on earth had become of Gerard’s fever. “I begin to miss it sadly,” said he drily.

“I dropped it in Rhine, I trow,” was the reply.

Presently they came to a little village, and here Denys purchased a loaf and a huge bottle of Rhenish wine. “For,” he said, “we must sleep in some hole or corner. If we lie at an inn, we shall be taken in our beds.” This was no more than common prudence on the old soldier’s part.

The official network for catching law-breakers, especially plebeian ones, was very close in that age; though the co-operation of the public was almost null, at all events upon the Continent. The innkeepers were everywhere under close surveillance as to their travellers, for whose acts they were even in some degree responsible, more so it would seem than for their sufferings.

The friends were both glad when the sun set; and delighted, when, after a long trudge under the stars (for the moon, if I remember right, did not rise till about three in the morning) they came to a large barn belonging to a house at some distance. A quantity of barley had been lately thrashed; for the heap of straw on one side the thrashing-floor was almost as high as the unthrashed corn on the other.

“Here be two royal beds,” said Denys; “which shall we lie on, the mow, or the straw?”

“The straw for me,” said Gerard.

They sat on the heap, and ate their brown bread, and drank their wine, and then Denys covered his friend up in straw, and heaped it high above him, leaving him only a breathing hole: “Water, they say, is death to fevered men; I’ll make warm water on’t, anyhow.”

Gerard bade him make his mind easy. “These few drops from Rhine cannot chill me. I feel heat enough in my body now to parch a kennel, or boil a cloud if I was in one.” And with this epigram his consciousness went so rapidly, he might really be said to “fall asleep.”

Denys, who lay awake awhile, heard that which made him nestle closer. Horses’ hoofs came ringing up from Dusseldorf, and the wooden barn vibrated as they rattled past howling in a manner too well known and understood in the 15th century, but as unfamiliar in Europe now as a red Indian’s war-whoop.

Denys shook where he lay.

Gerard slept like a top.

It all swept by, and troop and howls died away.

The stout soldier drew a long breath, whistled in a whisper, closed his eyes, and slept like a top, too.

In the morning he sat up and put out his hand to wake Gerard. It lighted on the young man’s forehead, and found it quite wet. Denys then in his quality of nurse forbore to wake him. “It is ill to check sleep or sweat in a sick man,” said he. “I know that far, though I ne’er minced ape nor gallows-bird.”

After waiting a good hour he felt desperately hungry; so he turned, and in self-defence went to sleep again.

Poor fellow, in his hard life he had been often driven to this manoeuvre. At high noon he was waked by Gerard moving, and found him sitting up with the straw smoking round him like a dung-hill. Animal heat versus moisture. Gerard called him “a lazy loon.” He quietly grinned.

They set out, and the first thing Denys did was to give Gerard his arbalest, etc., and mount a high tree on the road. “Coast clear to the next village,” said he, and on they went.

On drawing near the village, Denys halted and suddenly inquired of Gerard how he felt.

“What! can you not see? I feel as if Rome was no further than yon hamlet.”

“But thy body, lad; thy skin?”

“Neither hot nor cold; and yesterday ’twas hot one while and cold another. But what I cannot get rid of is this tiresome leg.”

“Le grand malheur! Many of my comrades have found no such difficulty.”

“Ah! there it goes again; itches consumedly.”

“Unhappy youth,” said Denys solemnly, “the sum of thy troubles is this: thy fever is gone, and thy wound is — healing. Sith so it is,” added he indulgently, “I shall tell thee a little piece of news I had otherwise withheld.”

“What is’t?” asked Gerard, sparkling with curiosity.

“THE HUE AND CRY IS OUT AFTER US: AND ON FLEET HORSES.”

“Oh!”

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