The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 3

A grave white-haired seneschal came to their table, and inquired courteously whether Gerard Eliassoen was of their company. Upon Gerard’s answer, he said:

“The Princess Marie would confer with you, young sir; I am to conduct you to her presence.”

Instantly all faces within hearing turned sharp round, and were bent with curiosity and envy on the man that was to go to a princess.

Gerard rose to obey.

“I wager we shall not see you again,” said Margaret calmly, but colouring a little.

“That you will,” was the reply: then he whispered in her ear: “This is my good princess; but you are my queen.” He added aloud: “Wait for me, I pray you, I will presently return.”

“Ay, ay!” said Peter, awaking and speaking at one and the same moment.

Gerard gone, the pair whose dress was so homely, yet they were with the man whom the Princess sent for, became “the cynosure of neighbouring eyes;” observing which, William Johnson came forward, acted surprise, and claimed his relations.

“And to think that there was I at your backs, and you saw me not”

“Nay, cousin Johnson, I saw you long syne,” said Margaret coldly.

“You saw me, and spoke not to me?”

“Cousin, it was for you to welcome us to Rotterdam, as it is for us to welcome you at Sevenbergen. Your servant denied us a seat in your house.”

“The idiot!”

“And I had a mind to see whether it was ‘like maid like master:’ for there is sooth in bywords.”

William Johnson blushed purple. He saw Margaret was keen, and suspected him. He did the wisest thing under the circumstances, trusted to deeds not words. He insisted on their coming home with him at once, and he would show them whether they were welcome to Rotterdam or not.

“Who doubts it, cousin? Who doubts it?” said the scholar.

Margaret thanked him graciously, but demurred to go just now: said she wanted to hear the minstrels again. In about a quarter of an hour Johnson renewed his proposal, and bade her observe that many of the guests had left. Then her real reason came out.

“It were ill manners to our friend; and he will lose us. He knows not where we lodge in Rotterdam, and the city is large, and we have parted company once already.”

“Oh!” said Johnson, “we will provide for that. My young man, ahem! I mean my secretary, shall sit here and wait, and bring him on to my house: he shall lodge with me and with no other.”

“Cousin, we shall be too burdensome.”

“Nay, nay; you shall see whether you are welcome or not, you and your friends, and your friends’ friends, if need be; and I shall hear what the Princess would with him.”

Margaret felt a thrill of joy that Gerard should be lodged under the same roof with her; then she had a slight misgiving.

“But if your young man should be thoughtless, and go play, and Gerard miss him?”

“He go play? He leave that spot where I put him, and bid him stay? Ho! stand forth, Hans Cloterman.”

A figure clad in black serge and dark violet hose arose, and took two steps and stood before them without moving a muscle: a solemn, precise young man, the very statue of gravity and starched propriety. At his aspect Margaret, being very happy, could hardly keep her countenance. But she whispered Johnson, “I would put my hand in the fire for him. We are at your command, cousin, as soon as you have given him his orders.”

Hans was then instructed to sit at the table and wait for Gerard, and conduct him to Ooster–Waagen Straet. He replied, not in words, but by calmly taking the seat indicated, and Margaret, Peter, and William Johnson went away together.

“And, indeed, it is time you were abed, father, after all your travel,” said Margaret. This had been in her mind all along.

Hans Cloterman sat waiting for Gerard, solemn and businesslike. The minutes flew by, but excited no impatience in that perfect young man. Johnson did him no more than justice when he laughed to scorn the idea of his secretary leaving his post or neglecting his duty in pursuit of sport or out of youthful hilarity and frivolity.

As Gerard was long in coming, the patient Hans — his employer’s eye being no longer on him improved the time by quaffing solemnly, silently, and at short but accurately measured intervals, goblets of Corsican wine. The wine was strong, so was Cloterman’s head; and Gerard had been gone a good hour ere the model secretary imbibed the notion that Creation expected Cloterman to drink the health of all good fellows, and nommement of the Duke of Burgundy there present. With this view he filled bumper nine, and rose gingerly but solemnly and slowly. Having reached his full height, he instantly rolled upon the grass, goblet in hand, spilling the cold liquor on more than one ankle — whose owners frisked — but not disturbing a muscle in his own long face, which, in the total eclipse of reason, retained its gravity, primness, and infallibility.

The seneschal led Gerard through several passages to the door of the pavilion, where some young noblemen, embroidered and feathered, sat sentinel, guarding the heir-apparent, and playing cards by the red light of torches their servants held. A whisper from the seneschal, and one of them rose reluctantly, stared at Gerard with haughty surprise, and entered the pavilion. He presently returned, and, beckoning the pair, led then, through a passage or two and landed them in an ante-chamber, where sat three more young gentlemen, feathered, furred, and embroidered like pieces of fancy work, and deep in that instructive and edifying branch of learning, dice.

“You can’t see the Princess — it is too late,” said one.

Another followed suit:

“She passed this way but now with her nurse. She is gone to bed, doll and all. Deuce — ace again!”

Gerard prepared to retire. The seneschal, with an incredulous smile, replied:

“The young man is here by the Countess’s orders; be so good as conduct him to her ladies.”

On this a superb Adonis rose, with an injured look, and led Gerard into a room where sat or lolloped eleven ladies, chattering like magpies. Two, more industrious than the rest, were playing cat’s-cradle with fingers as nimble as their tongues. At the sight of a stranger all the tongues stopped like one piece of complicated machinery, and all the eyes turned on Gerard, as if the same string that checked the tongues had turned the eyes on. Gerard was ill at ease before, but this battery of eyes discountenanced him, and down went his eyes on the ground. Then the cowards finding, like the hare who ran by the pond and the frogs scuttled into the water, that there was a creature they could frighten, giggled and enjoyed their prowess. Then a duenna said severely, “Mesdames!” and they were all abashed at once as though a modesty string had been pulled. This same duenna took Gerard, and marched before him in solemn silence. The young man’s heart sank, and he had half a mind to turn and run out of the place.

“What must princes be,” he thought, “when their courtiers are so freezing? Doubtless they take their breeding from him they serve.” These reflections were interrupted by the duenna suddenly introducing him into a room where three ladies sat working, and a pretty little girl tuning a lute. The ladies were richly but not showily dressed, and the duenna went up to the one who was hemming a kerchief, and said a few words in a low tone. This lady then turned towards Gerard with a smile, and beckoned him to come near her. She did not rise, but she laid aside her work, and her manner of turning towards him, slight as the movement was, was full of grace and ease and courtesy. She began a conversation at once.

“Margaret Van Eyck is an old friend of mine, sir, and I am right glad to have a letter from her hand, and thankful to you, sir, for bringing it to me safely. Marie, my love, this is the gentleman who brought you that pretty miniature.”

“Sir, I thank you a thousand times,” said the young lady.

“I am glad you feel her debtor, sweetheart, for our friend would have us to do him a little service in return.

“I will do anything on earth for him,” replied the young lady with ardour.

“Anything on earth is nothing in the world,” said the Countess of Charolois quietly.

“Well, then, I will — What would you have me to do, sir?”

Gerard had just found out what high society he was in. “My sovereign demoiselle,” said he, gently and a little tremulously, “where there have been no pains, there needs no reward.”

But we must obey mamma. All the world must obey

“That is true. Then, our demoiselle, reward me, if you will by letting me hear the stave you were going to sing and I did interrupt it.”

“What! you love music, sir?”

“I adore it.”

The little princess looked inquiringly at her mother, and received a smile of assent. She then took her lute and sang a romaunt of the day. Although but twelve years old, she was a well-taught and painstaking musician. Her little claw swept the chords with Courage and precision, and struck out the notes of the arpeggio clear, and distinct, and bright, like twinkling stars; but the main charm was her voice. It was not mighty, but it was round, clear, full, and ringing like a bell. She sang with a certain modest eloquence, though she knew none of the tricks of feeling. She was too young to be theatrical, or even sentimental, so nothing was forced — all gushed. Her little mouth seemed the mouth of Nature. The ditty, too, was as pure as its utterance. As there were none of those false divisions — those whining slurs, which are now sold so dear by Italian songsters, though every jackal in India delivers them gratis to his customers all night, and sometimes gets shot for them, and always deserves it — so there were no cadences and fiorituri, the trite, turgid, and feeble expletives of song, the skim-milk with which mindless musicians and mindless writers quench fire, wash out colour, and drown melody and meaning dead.

While the pure and tender strain was flowing from the pure young throat, Gerard’s eyes filled. The Countess watched him with interest, for it was usual to applaud the Princess loudly, but not with cheek and eye. So when the voice ceased, and the glasses left off ringing, she asked demurely, “Was he content?”

Gerard gave a little start; the spoken voice broke a charm and brought him back to earth.

“Oh, madam!” he cried, “surely it is thus that cherubs and seraphs sing, and charm the saints in heaven.”

“I am somewhat of your opinion, my young friend,” said the Countess, with emotion; and she bent a look of love and gentle pride upon her girl: a heavenly look, such as, they say, is given to the eye of the short-lived resting on the short-lived.

The Countess resumed: “My old friend request me to be serviceable to you. It is the first favour she has done us the honour of asking us, and the request is sacred. You are in holy orders, sir?”

Gerard bowed.

“I fear you are not a priest, you look too young.”

“Oh no, madam; I am not even a sub-deacon. I am only a lector; but next month I shall be an exorcist, and before long an acolyth.”

“Well, Monsieur Gerard, with your accomplishments you can soon pass through the inferior orders. And let me beg you to do so. For the day after you have said your first mass I shall have the pleasure of appointing you to a benefice.”

“Oh, madam!”

“And, Marie, remember I make this promise in your name as well as my own.”

“Fear not, mamma: I will not forget. But if he will take my advice, what he will be is Bishop of Liege. The Bishop of Liege is a beautiful bishop. What! do you not remember him, mamma, that day we were at Liege? he was braver than grandpapa himself. He had on a crown, a high one, and it was cut in the middle, and it was full of oh! such beautiful jewels; and his gown stiff with gold; and his mantle, too; and it had a broad border, all pictures; but, above all, his gloves; you have no such gloves, mamma. They were embroidered and covered with jewels, and scented with such lovely scent; I smelt them all the time he was giving me his blessing on my head with them. Dear old man! I dare say he will die soon most old people do and then, sir, you Can be bishop you know, and wear —

“Gently, Marie, gently: bishoprics are for old gentlemen; and this is a young gentleman.”

“Mamma! he is not so very young.

“Not compared with you, Marie, eh?”

“He is a good birth dear mamma; and I am sure he is good enough for a bishop.

“Alas! mademoiselle, you are mistaken”

“I know not that, Monsieur Gerard; but I am a little puzzled to know on what grounds mademoiselle there pronounces your character so boldly.”

“Alas! mamma,” said the Princess, “you have not looked at his face, then;” and she raised her eyebrows at her mother’s simplicity.

“I beg your pardon,” said the Countess, “I have. Well, sir, if I cannot go quite so fast as my daughter, attribute it to my age, not to a want of interest in your welfare. A benefice will do to begin your Career with; and I must take care it is not too far from — what call you the place?”

“Tergou, madam

“A priest gives up much,” continued the Countess; “often, I fear, he learns too late how much;” and her woman’s eye rested a moment on Gerard with mild pity and half surprise at his resigning her sex and all the heaven they can bestow, and the great parental joys: “at least you shall be near your friends. Have you a mother?”

“Yes, madam, thanks be to God!”

“Good! You shall have a church near Tergou. She will thank me. And now, sir, we must not detain you too long from those who have a better claim on your society than we have. Duchess, oblige me by bidding one of the pages conduct him to the hall of banquet; the way is hard to find.”

Gerard bowed low to the Countess and the Princess, and backed towards the door.

“I hope it will be a nice benefice,” said the Princess to him, with a pretty smile, as he was going out; then, shaking her head with an air of solemn misgiving, “but you had better have been Bishop of Liege.”

Gerard followed his new conductor, his heart warm with gratitude; but ere he reached the banquet-hall a chill came over him. The mind of one who has led a quiet, uneventful life is not apt to take in contradictory feelings at the same moment and balance them, but rather to be overpowered by each in turn. While Gerard was with the Countess, the excitement of so new a situation, the unlooked-for promise the joy and pride it would cause at home, possessed him wholly; but now it was passion’s turn to be heard again. What! give up Margaret, whose soft hand he still felt in his, and her deep eyes in his heart? resign her and all the world of love and joy she had opened on him to-day? The revulsion, when it did come, was so strong that he hastily resolved to say nothing at home about the offered benefice. “The Countess is so good,” thought he, “she has a hundred ways of aiding a young man’s fortune: she will not compel me to be a priest when she shall learn I love one of her sex: one would almost think she does know it, for she cast a strange look on me, and said, ‘A priest gives up much, too much.’ I dare say she will give me a place about the palace.” And with this hopeful reflection his mind was eased, and, being now at the entrance of the banqueting hall, he thanked his conductor, and ran hastily with joyful eyes to Margaret. He came in sight of the table — she was gone. Peter was gone too. Nobody was at the table at all; only a citizen in sober garments had just tumbled under it dead drunk, and several persons were raising him to carry him away. Gerard never guessed how important this solemn drunkard was to him: he was looking for “Beauty,” and let the “Beast” lie. He ran wildly round the hall, which was now comparatively empty. She was not there. He left the palace: outside he found a crowd gaping at two great fan-lights just lighted over the gate. He asked them earnestly if they had seen an old man in a gown, and a lovely girl pass out. They laughed at the question. “They were staring at these new lights that turn night into day. They didn’t trouble their heads about old men and young wenches, every-day sights.” From another group he learned there was a Mystery being played under canvas hard by, and all the world gone to see it. This revived his hopes, and he went and saw the Mystery.

In this representation divine personages, too sacred for me to name here, came clumsily down from heaven to talk sophistry with the cardinal Virtues, the nine Muses, and the seven deadly sins, all present in human shape, and not unlike one another. To enliven which weary stuff in rattled the Prince of the power of the air, and an imp that kept molesting him and buffeting him with a bladder, at each thwack of which the crowd were in ecstasies. When the Vices had uttered good store of obscenity and the Virtues twaddle, the celestials, including the nine Muses went gingerly back to heaven one by one; for there was but one cloud; and two artisans worked it up with its supernatural freight, and worked it down with a winch, in full sight of the audience. These disposed of, the bottomless pit opened and flamed in the centre of the stage; the carpenters and Virtues shoved the Vices in, and the Virtues and Beelzebub and his tormentor danced merrily round the place of eternal torture to the fife and tabor.

This entertainment was writ by the Bishop of Ghent for the diffusion of religious sentiment by the aid of the senses, and was an average specimen of theatrical exhibitions so long as they were in the hands of the clergy. But, in course of time, the laity conducted plays, and so the theatre, I learn from the pulpit, has become profane.

Margaret was nowhere in the crowd, and Gerard could not enjoy the performance; he actually went away in Act 2, in the midst of a much-admired piece of dialogue, in which Justice out-quibbled Satan. He walked through many streets, but could not find her he sought. At last, fairly worn out, he went to a hostelry and slept till daybreak. All that day, heavy and heartsick, he sought her, but could never fall in with her or her father, nor ever obtain the slightest clue. Then he felt she was false or had changed her mind. He was irritated now, as well as sad. More good fortune fell on him; he almost hated it. At last, on the third day, after he had once more been through every street, he said, “She is not in the town, and I shall never see her again. I will go home.” He started for Tergou with royal favour promised, with fifteen golden angels in his purse, a golden medal on his bosom, and a heart like a lump of lead.

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