The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 30

Here Gerard made acquaintance with a monk, who had constructed the great dial in the prior’s garden, and a wheel for drawing water, and a winnowing machine for the grain, etc., and had ever some ingenious mechanism on hand. He had made several psalteries and two dulcimers, and was now attempting a set of regalles, or little organ for the choir.

Now Gerard played the humble psaltery a little; but the monk touched that instrument divinely, and showed him most agreeably what a novice he was in music. He also illuminated finely, but could not write so beautifully as Gerard. Comparing their acquirements with the earnestness and simplicity of an age in which accomplishments implied a true natural bent, Youth and Age soon became like brothers, and Gerard was pressed hard to stay that night. He consulted Denys, who assented with a rueful shrug.

Gerard told his old new friend whither he was going, and described their late adventures, softening down the bolster.

“Alack!” said the good old man, “I have been a great traveller in my day, but none molested me.” He then told him to avoid inns; they were always haunted by rogues and roysterers, whence his soul might take harm even did his body escape, and to manage each day’s journey so as to lie at some peaceful monastery; then suddenly breaking off and looking as sharp as a needle at Gerard, he asked him how long since he had been shriven? Gerard coloured up and replied feebly —

“Better than a fortnight.”

“And thou an exorcist! No wonder perils have overtaken thee. Come, thou must be assoiled out of hand.”

“Yes, father,” said Gerard, “and with all mine heart;” and was sinking down to his knees, with his hands joined, but the monk stopped him half fretfully —

“Not to me! not to me! not to me! I am as full of the world as thou or any be that lives in’t. My whole soul it is in these wooden pipes, and sorry leathern stops, which shall perish — with them whose minds are fixed on such like vanities.”

“Dear father,” said Gerard, “they are for the use of the Church, and surely that sanctifies the pains and labour spent on them?”

“That is just what the devil has been whispering in mine ear this while,” said the monk, putting one hand behind his back and shaking his finger half threateningly, half playfully, at Gerard. “He was even so kind and thoughtful as to mind me that Solomon built the Lord a house with rare hangings, and that this in him was counted gracious and no sin. Oh! he can quote Scripture rarely. But I am not so simple a monk as you think, my lad,” cried the good father, with sudden defiance, addressing not Gerard but — Vacancy. “This one toy finished, vigils, fasts, and prayers for me; prayers standing, prayers lying on the chapel floor, and prayers in a right good tub of cold water.” He nudged Gerard and winked his eye knowingly. “Nothing he hates and dreads like seeing us monks at our orisons up to our chins in cold water. For corpus domat aqua. So now go confess thy little trumpery sins, pardonable in youth and secularity, and leave me to mine, sweet to me as honey, and to be expiated in proportion.”

Gerard bowed his head, but could not help saying, “Where shall I find a confessor more holy and clement?”

“In each of these cells,” replied the monk simply (they were now in the corridor) “there, go to Brother Anselm, yonder.”

Gerard followed the monk’s direction, and made for a cell; but the doors were pretty close to one another, and it seems he mistook; for just as he was about to tap, he heard his old friend crying to him in an agitated whisper, “Nay! nay! nay!” He turned, and there was the monk at his cell-door, in a strange state of anxiety, going up and down and beating the air double-handed, like a bottom sawyer. Gerard really thought the cell he was at must be inhabited by some dangerous wild beast, if not by that personage whose presence in the convent had been so distinctly proclaimed. He looked back inquiringly and went on to the next door. Then his old friend nodded his head rapidly, bursting in a moment into a comparatively blissful expression of face, and shot back into his den. He took his hour-glass, turned it, and went to work on his regalles; and often he looked up, and said to himself, “Well-a-day, the sands how swift they run when the man is bent over earthly toys.”

Father Anselm was a venerable monk, with an ample head, and a face all dignity and love. Therefore Gerard in confessing to him, and replying to his gentle though searching questions, could not help thinking, “Here is a head! — Oh dear! oh dear! I wonder whether you will let me draw it when I have done confessing.” And so his own head got confused, and he forgot a crime or two. However, he did not lower the bolstering this time, nor was he so uncandid as to detract from the pagan character of the bolstered.

The penance inflicted was this: he was to enter the convent church, and prostrating himself, kiss the lowest step of the altar three times; then kneeling on the floor, to say three paternosters and a credo: “this done, come back to me on the instant.”

Accordingly, his short mortification performed, Gerard returned, and found Father Anselm spreading plaster.

“After the soul the body,” said he; “know that I am the chirurgeon here, for want of a better. This is going on thy leg; to cool it, not to burn it; the saints forbid.”

During the operation the monastic leech, who had naturally been interested by the Dusseldorf branch of Gerard’s confession, rather sided with Denys upon “bleeding.” “We Dominicans seldom let blood nowadays; the lay leeches say ’tis from timidity and want of skill; but, in sooth, we have long found that simples will cure most of the ills that can be cured at all. Besides, they never kill in capable hands; and other remedies slay like thunderbolts. As for the blood, the Vulgate saith expressly it is the life of a man.’ And in medicine or law, as in divinity, to be wiser than the All-wise is to be a fool. Moreover, simples are mighty. The little four-footed creature that kills the poisonous snake, if bitten herself, finds an herb powerful enough to quell that poison, though stronger and of swifter operation than any mortal malady; and we, taught by her wisdom, and our own traditions, still search and try the virtues of those plants the good God hath strewed this earth with, some to feed men’s bodies, some to heal them. Only in desperate ills we mix heavenly with earthly virtue. We steep the hair or the bones of some dead saint in the medicine, and thus work marvellous cures.”

“Think you, father, it is along of the reliques? for Peter a Floris, a learned leech and no pagan, denies it stoutly.”

“What knows Peter a Floris? And what know I? I take not on me to say we can command the saints, and will they nill they, can draw corporal virtue from their blest remains. But I see that the patient drinking thus in faith is often bettered as by a charm. Doubtless faith in the recipient is for much in all these cures. But so ’twas ever. A sick woman, that all the Jewish leeches failed to cure, did but touch Christ’s garment and was healed in a moment. Had she not touched that sacred piece of cloth she had never been healed. Had she without faith not touched it only, but worn it to her grave, I trow she had been none the better for’t. But we do ill to search these things too curiously. All we see around us calls for faith. Have then a little patience. We shall soon know all. Meantime, I, thy confessor for the nonce, do strictly forbid thee, on thy soul’s health, to hearken learned lay folk on things religious. Arrogance is their bane; with it they shut heaven’s open door in their own faces. Mind, I say, learned laics. Unlearned ones have often been my masters in humility, and may be thine. Thy wound is cared for; in three days ’twill be but a scar. And now God speed thee, and the saints make thee as good and as happy as thou art thoughtful and gracious.” Gerard hoped there was no need to part yet, for he was to dine in the refectory. But Father Anselm told him, with a shade of regret just perceptible and no more, that he did not leave his cell this week, being himself in penitence; and with this he took Gerard’s head delicately in both hands, and kissed him on the brow, and almost before the cell door had closed on him, was back to his pious offices. Gerard went away chilled to the heart by the isolation of the monastic life, and saddened too. “Alas!” he thought, “here is a kind face I must never look to see again on earth; a kind voice gone from mine ear and my heart for ever. There is nothing but meeting and parting in this sorrowful world. Well-a-day! well-a-day!” This pensive mood was interrupted by a young monk who came for him and took him to the refectory; there he found several monks seated at a table, and Denys standing like a poker, being examined as to the towns he should pass through: the friars then clubbed their knowledge, and marked out the route, noting all the religious houses on or near that road; and this they gave Gerard. Then supper, and after it the old monk carried Gerard to his cell, and they had an eager chat, and the friar incidentally revealed the cause of his pantomime in the corridor. “Ye had well-nigh fallen into Brother Jerome’s clutches. Yon was his cell.”

“Is Father Jerome an ill man, then?”

“An ill man!” and the friar crossed himself; “a saint, an anchorite, the very pillar of this house! He had sent ye barefoot to Loretto. Nay, I forgot, y’are bound for Italy; the spiteful old saint upon earth, had sent ye to Canterbury or Compostella. But Jerome was born old and with a cowl; Anselm and I were boys once, and wicked beyond anything you can imagine” (Gerard wore a somewhat incredulous look): “this keeps us humble more or less, and makes us reasonably lenient to youth and hot blood.”

Then, at Gerard’s earnest request, one more heavenly strain upon the psalterion, and so to bed, the troubled spirit calmed, and the sore heart soothed.

I have described in full this day, marked only by contrast, a day that came like oil on waves after so many passions and perils — because it must stand in this narrative as the representative of many such days which now succeeded to it. For our travellers on their weary way experienced that which most of my readers will find in the longer journey of life, viz., that stirring events are not evenly distributed over the whole road, but come by fits and starts, and as it were, in clusters. To some extent this may be because they draw one another by links more or less subtle. But there is more in it than that. It happens so. Life is an intermittent fever. Now all narrators, whether of history or fiction, are compelled to slur these barren portions of time or else line trunks. The practice, however, tends to give the unguarded reader a wrong arithmetical impression, which there is a particular reason for avoiding in these pages as far as possible. I invite therefore your intelligence to my aid, and ask you to try and realize that, although there were no more vivid adventures for a long while, one day’s march succeeded another; one monastery after another fed and lodged them gratis with a welcome always charitable, sometimes genial; and though they met no enemy but winter and rough weather, antagonists not always contemptible, yet they trudged over a much larger tract of territory than that, their passage through which I have described so minutely. And so the pair, Gerard bronzed in the face and travel-stained from head to foot, and Denys with his shoes in tatters, stiff and footsore both of them, drew near the Burgundian frontier.

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