The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 31

Gerard was almost as eager for this promised land as Denys; for the latter constantly chanted its praises, and at every little annoyance showed him “they did things better in Burgundy;” and above all played on his foible by guaranteeing clean bedclothes at the inns of that polished nation. “I ask no more,” the Hollander would say; “to think that I have not lain once in a naked bed since I left home! When I look at their linen, instead of doffing habit and hose, it is mine eyes and nose I would fain be shut of.”

Denys carried his love of country so far as to walk twenty leagues in shoes that had exploded, rather than buy of a German churl, who would throw all manner of obstacles in a customer’s way, his incivility, his dinner, his body.

Towards sunset they found themselves at equal distances from a little town and a monastery, only the latter was off the road. Denys was for the inn, Gerard for the convent. Denys gave way, but on condition that once in Burgundy they should always stop at an inn. Gerard consented to this the more readily that his chart with its list of convents ended here. So they turned off the road. And now Gerard asked with surprise whence this sudden aversion to places that had fed and lodged them gratis so often. The soldier hemmed and hawed at first, but at last his wrongs burst forth. It came out that this was no sudden aversion, but an ancient and abiding horror, which he had suppressed till now, but with infinite difficulty, and out of politeness: “I saw they had put powder in your drink,” said he, “so I forbore them. However, being the last, why not ease my mind? Know then I have been like a fish out of water in all those great dungeons. You straightway levant with some old shaveling: so you see not my purgatory.”

“Forgive me! I have been selfish.”

“Ay, ay, I forgive thee, little one; ’tis not thy fault: art not the first fool that has been priest-rid, and monk-hit. But I’ll not forgive them my misery.” Then, about a century before Henry VIII.‘s commissioners, he delivered his indictment. These gloomy piles were all built alike. Inns differed, but here all was monotony. Great gate, little gate, so many steps and then a gloomy cloister. Here the dortour, there the great cold refectory, where you must sit mumchance, or at least inaudible, he who liked to speak his mind out; “and then,” said he, “nobody is a man here, but all are slaves, and of what? of a peevish, tinkling bell, that never sleeps. An ’twere a trumpet now, aye sounding alarums, ‘twouldn’t freeze a man’s heart so. Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, and you must sit to meat with may be no stomach for food. Ere your meat settles in your stomach, tinkle, tinkle! and ye must to church with may be no stomach for devotion: I am not a hog at prayers, for one. Tinkle, tinkle, and now you must to bed with your eyes open. Well, by then you have contrived to shut them, some uneasy imp of darkness has got to the bell-rope, and tinkle, tinkle, it behoves you say a prayer in the dark, whether you know one or not. If they heard the sort of prayers I mutter when they break my rest with their tinkle! Well, you drop off again and get about an eyeful of sleep: lo, it is tinkle, tinkle, for matins.”

“And the only clapper you love is a woman’s,” put in Gerard half contemptuously.

“Because there is some music in that even when it scolds,” was the stout reply. “And then to be always checked. If I do but put my finger in the salt-cellar, straightway I hear, ‘Have you no knife that you finger the salt?’ And if I but wipe my knife on the cloth to save time, then ’tis, ‘Wipe thy knife dirty on the bread, and clean upon the cloth!’ Oh small of soul! these little peevish pedantries fall chill upon good fellowship like wee icicles a-melting down from strawen eaves.”

“I hold cleanliness no pedantry,” said Gerard. “Shouldst learn better manners once for all.”

“Nay; ’tis they who lack manners. They stop a fellow’s mouth at every word.”

“At every other word, you mean; every obscene or blasphemous one.”

“Exaggerator, go to! Why, at the very last of these dungeons I found the poor travellers sitting all chilled and mute round one shaveling, like rogues awaiting their turn to be hanged; so to cheer them up, I did but cry out, ‘Courage, tout le monde, le dia —

“Connu! what befell?”

“Marry, this. ‘Blaspheme not!’ quo’ the bourreau. ‘Plait-il,’ say I. Doesn’t he wheel and wyte on me in a sort of Alsatian French, turning all the P’s into B’s. I had much ado not to laugh in his face.”

“Being thyself unable to speak ten words of his language without a fault.”

“Well, all the world ought to speak French. What avail so many jargons except to put a frontier atwixt men’s hearts?”

“But what said he?”

“What signifies it what a fool says?”

“Oh, not all the words of a fool are folly, or I should not listen to you.”

“Well, then, he said, ‘Such as begin by making free with the devil’s name, aye end by doing it with all the names in heaven.’ ‘Father,’ said I, ‘I am a soldier, and this is but my “consigne” or watchword.” ‘Oh, then, it is just a custom?’ said he. I not divining the old fox, and thinking to clear myself, said, ‘Ay, it was.’ ‘Then that is ten times worse,’ said he. ”Twill bring him about your ears one of these days. He still comes where he hears his name often called.’ Observe! no gratitude for the tidings which neither his missals nor his breviary had ever let him know. Then he was so good as to tell me, soldiers do commonly the crimes for which all other men are broke on the wheel; a savoir murder, rape, and pillage.”

“And is’t not true?”

“True or not, it was ill manners,” replied Denys guardedly. “And so says this courteous host of mine, ‘Being the foes of mankind, why make enemies of good spirits into the bargain, by still shouting the names of evil ones?’ and a lot more stuff.”

“Well, but, Denys, whether you hearken his rede, or slight it, wherefore blame a man for raising his voice to save your soul?”

“How can his voice save my soul, when he keeps turning of his P’s into B’s.”

Gerard was staggered: ere he could recover at this thunderbolt of Gallicism, Denys went triumphant off at a tangent, and stigmatized all monks as hypocrites. “Do but look at them, how they creep about and cannot eye you like honest men.”

“Nay,” said Gerard eagerly, “that modest downcast gaze is part of their discipline, ’tis ‘custodia oculorum’.”

“Cussed toads eating hoc hac horum? No such thing; just so looks a cut-purse. Can’t meet a true man’s eye. Doff cowl, monk; and behold, a thief; don cowl thief, and lo, a monk. Tell me not they will ever be able to look God Almighty in the face, when they can’t even look a true man in the face down here. Ah, here it is, black as ink! into the well we go, comrade. Misericorde, there goes the tinkle already. ’Tis the best of tinkles though; ’tis for dinner: stay, listen! I thought so: the wolf in my stomach cried ‘Amen!’” This last statement he confirmed with two oaths, and marched like a victorious gamecock into the convent, thinking by Gerard’s silence he had convinced him, and not dreaming how profoundly he had disgusted him.

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