The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 32

In the refectory allusion was made, at the table where Gerard sat, to the sudden death of the monk who had undertaken to write out fresh copies of the charter of the monastery, and the rule, etc.

Gerard caught this, and timidly offered his services. There was a hesitation which he mistook. “Nay, not for hire, my lords, but for love, and as a trifling return for many a good night’s lodging the brethren of your order have bestowed on me a poor wayfarer.”

A monk smiled approvingly; but hinted that the late brother was an excellent penman, and his work could not be continued but by a master. Gerard on this drew from his wallet with some trepidation a vellum deed, the back of which he had cleaned and written upon by way of specimen. The monk gave quite a start at sight of it, and very hastily went up the hall to the high table, and bending his knee so as just to touch in passing the fifth step and the tenth, or last, presented it to the prior with comments. Instantly a dozen knowing eyes were fixed on it, and a buzz of voices was heard; and soon Gerard saw the prior point more than once, and the monk came back, looking as proud as Punch, with a savoury crustade ryal, or game pie gravied and spiced, for Gerard, and a silver grace cup full of rich pimentum. This latter Gerard took, and bowing low, first to the distant prior, then to his own company, quaffed, and circulated the cup.

Instantly, to his surprise, the whole table hailed him as a brother: “Art convent bred, deny it not?” He acknowledged it, and gave Heaven thanks for it, for otherwise he had been as rude and ignorant as his brothers, Sybrandt and Cornelis.

“But ’tis passing strange how you could know,” said he.

“You drank with the cup in both hands,” said two monks, speaking together.

The voices had for some time been loudish round a table at the bottom of the hall; but presently came a burst of mirth so obstreperous and prolonged, that the prior sent the very sub-prior all down the hall to check it, and inflict penance on every monk at the table. And Gerard’s cheek burned with shame; for in the heart of the unruly merriment his ear had caught the word “courage!” and the trumpet tones of Denys of Burgundy.

Soon Gerard was installed in feu Werter’s cell, with wax lights, and a little frame that could be set at any angle, and all the materials of caligraphy. The work, however, was too much for one evening. Then came the question, how could he ask Denys, the monk-hater, to stay longer? However, he told him, and offered to abide by his decision. He was agreeably surprised when Denys said graciously, “A day’s rest will do neither of us harm. Write thou, and I’ll pass the time as I may.”

Gerard’s work was vastly admired; they agreed that the records of the monastery had gained by poor Werter’s death. The sub-prior forced a rix-dollar on Gerard, and several brushes and colours out of the convent stock, which was very large. He resumed his march warm at heart, for this was of good omen; since it was on the pen he relied to make his fortune and recover his well-beloved. “Come, Denys,” said he good-humouredly, “see what the good monks have given me; now, do try to be fairer to them; for to be round with you, it chilled my friendship for a moment to hear even you call my benefactors ‘hypocrites.’”

“I recant,” said Denys.

“Thank you! thank you! Good Denys.”

“I was a scurrilous vagabond.”

“Nay, nay, say not so, neither!”

“But we soldiers are rude and hasty. I give myself the lie, and I offer those I misunderstood all my esteem. ’Tis unjust that thousands should be defamed for the hypocrisy of a few.”

“Now are you reasonable. You have pondered what I said?”

“Nay, it is their own doing.”

Gerard crowed a little, we all like to be proved in the right; and was all attention when Denys offered to relate how his conversion was effected.

“Well then, at dinner the first day a young monk beside me did open his jaws and laughed right out and most musically. ‘Good,’ said I, ‘at last I have fallen on a man and not a shorn ape.’ So, to sound him further, I slapped his broad back and administered my consigne. ‘Heaven forbid!’ says he. I stared. For the dog looked as sad as Solomon; a better mime saw you never, even at a Mystery. ‘I see war is no sharpener of the wits,’ said he. ‘What are the clergy for but to fight the foul fiend? and what else are the monks for?

“The fiend being dead,

The friars are sped.”

You may plough up the convents, and we poor monks shall have nought to do — but turn soldiers, and so bring him to life again.’ Then there was a great laugh at my expense. ‘Well, you are the monk for me,’ said I. ‘And you are the crossbowman for me,’ quo’ he. ‘And I’ll be bound you could tell us tales of the war should make our hair stand on end.’ ‘Excusez! the barber has put that out of the question,’ quoth I, and then I had the laugh.”

“What wretched ribaldry!” observed Gerard pensively.

The candid Denys at once admitted he had seen merrier jests hatched with less cackle. “’Twas a great matter to have got rid of hypocrisy. ‘So,’ said I, ‘I can give you the chaire de poule, if that may content ye.’ ‘That we will see,’ was the cry, and a signal went round.”

Denys then related, bursting with glee, how at bedtime he had been taken to a cell instead of the great dortour, and strictly forbidden to sleep; and to aid his vigil, a book had been lent him of pictures representing a hundred merry adventures of monks in pursuit of the female laity; and how in due course he had been taken out barefooted and down to the parlour, where was a supper fit for the duke, and at it twelve jolly friars, the roaringest boys he had ever met in peace or war. How the story, the toast, the jest, the wine-cup had gone round, and some had played cards with a gorgeous pack, where Saint Theresa, and Saint Catherine, etc., bedizened with gold, stood for the four queens; and black, white, grey, and crutched friars for the four knaves; and had staked their very rosaries, swearing like troopers when they lost. And how about midnight a sly monk had stolen out, but had by him and others been as cannily followed into the garden, and seen to thrust his hand into the ivy and out with a rope-ladder. With this he had run up on the wall, which was ten feet broad, yet not so nimbly but what a russet kirtle had popped up from the outer world as quick as he; and so to billing and cooing: that this situation had struck him as rather feline than ecclesiastical, and drawn from him the appropriate comment of a “mew!” The monks had joined the mewsical chorus, and the lay visitor shrieked and been sore discomforted; but Abelard only cried, “What, are ye there, ye jealous miauling knaves? ye shall caterwaul to some tune to-morrow night. I’ll fit every man-jack of ye with a fardingale.” That this brutal threat had reconciled him to stay another day — at Gerard’s request.

Gerard groaned.

Meantime, unable to disconcert so brazen a monk, and the demoiselle beginning to whimper, they had danced caterwauling in a circle, then bestowed a solemn benediction on the two wall-flowers, and off to the parlour, where they found a pair lying dead drunk, and other two affectionate to tears. That they had straightway carried off the inanimate, and dragged off the loving and lachymose, kicked them all merrily each into his cell.

“And so shut up in measureless content.”

Gerard was disgusted: and said so.

Denys chuckled, and proceeded to tell him how the next day he and the young monks had drawn the fish-ponds and secreted much pike, carp, tench, and eel for their own use: and how, in the dead of night, he had been taken shoeless by crooked ways into the chapel, a ghost-like place, being dark, and then down some steps into a crypt below the chapel floor, where suddenly paradise had burst on him.

“’Tis there the holy fathers retire to pray,” put in Gerard.

“Not always,” said Denys; “wax candles by the dozen were lighted, and princely cheer; fifteen soups maigre, with marvellous twangs of venison, grouse, and hare in them, and twenty different fishes (being Friday), cooked with wondrous art, and each he between two buxom lasses, and each lass between two lads with a cowl; all but me: and to think I had to woo by interpreter. I doubt the knave put in three words for himself and one for me; if he didn’t, hang him for a fool. And some of the weaker vessels were novices, and not wont to hold good wine; had to be coaxed ere they would put it to their white teeth; mais elles s’y faisaient; and the story, and the jest, and the cup went round (by-the-by, they had flagons made to simulate breviaries); and a monk touched the cittern, and sang ditties with a voice tunable as a lark in spring. The posies did turn the faces of the women folk bright red at first: but elles s’y faisaient.”

Here Gerard exploded.

“Miserable wretches! Corrupters of youth! Perverters of innocence! but for your being there, Denys, who have been taught no better, oh, would God the church had fallen on the whole gang. Impious, abominable hypocrites!”

“Hypocrites?” cried Denys, with unfeigned surprise. “Why, that is what I clept them ere I knew them: and you withstood me. Nay, they are sinners; all good fellows are that; but, by St. Denys his helmeted skull, no hypocrites, but right jolly roaring blades.”

“Denys,” said Gerard solemnly, “you little know the peril you ran that night. That church you defiled amongst you is haunted; I had it from one of the elder monks. The dead walk there, their light feet have been heard to patter o’er the stones.”

“Misericorde!” whispered Denys.

“Ay, more,” said Gerard, lowering his voice almost to a whisper; “celestial sounds have issued from the purlieus of that very crypt you turned into a tavern. Voices of the dead holding unearthly communion have chilled the ear of midnight, and at times, Denys, the faithful in their nightly watches have even heard music from dead lips; and chords, made by no mortal finger, swept by no mortal hand, have rung faintly, like echoes, deep among the dead in those sacred vaults.”

Denys wore a look of dismay. “Ugh! if I had known, mules and wain-ropes had not hauled me thither; and so” (with a sigh) “I had lost a merry time.”

Whether further discussion might have thrown any more light upon these ghostly sounds, who can tell? for up came a “bearded brother” from the monastery, spurring his mule, and waving a piece of vellum in his hand. It was the deed between Ghysbrecht and Floris Brandt. Gerard valued it deeply as a remembrance of home: he turned pale at first but to think he had so nearly lost it, and to Denys’s infinite amusement not only gave a piece of money to the lay brother, but kissed the mule’s nose.

“I’ll read you now,” said Gerard, “were you twice as ill written; and — to make sure of never losing you”— here he sat down, and taking out needle and thread, sewed it with feminine dexterity to his doublet, and his mind, and heart, and soul were away to Sevenbergen.

They reached the promised land, and Denys, who was in high spirits, doffed his bonnet to all the females; who curtsied and smiled in return; fired his consigne at most of the men; at which some stared, some grinned, some both; and finally landed his friend at one of the long-promised Burgundian inns.

“It is a little one,” said he, “but I know it of old for a good one; Les Trois Poissons.’ But what is this writ up? I mind not this;” and he pointed to an inscription that ran across the whole building in a single line of huge letters. “Oh, I see. ‘Ici on loge a pied et a cheval,’” said Denys, going minutely through the inscription, and looking bumptious when he had effected it.

Gerard did look, and the sentence in question ran thus:

“ON NE LOGE CEANS A CREDIT; CE BONHOMME EST MORT, LES MAUVAIS PAIEURS L’ONT TUE.”

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