The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 36

“In prison, sir; good lack, for what misdeed?”

“Well, she is a witness, and may be a necessary one.”

“Why, Messire Bailiff,” put in Denys, “you lay not all your witnesses by the heels I trow.”

The alderman, pleased at being called bailiff, became communicative. “In a case of blood we detain all testimony that is like to give us leg bail, and so defeat justice, and that is why we still keep the women folk. For a man at odd times hides a week in one mind, but a woman, if she do her duty to the realm o’ Friday, she shall undo it afore Sunday, or try. Could you see yon wench now, you should find her a-blubbering at having betrayed five males to the gallows. Had they been females, we might have trusted to a subpoena. For they despise one another. And there they show some sense. But now I think on’t, there were other reasons for laying this one by the heels. Hand me those depositions, young sir.” And he put on his glasses. “Ay! she was implicated; she was one of the band.”

A loud disclaimer burst from Denys and Gerard at once.

“No need to deave me,” said the alderman. “Here ’tis in black and white. ‘Jean Hardy (that is one of the thieves), being questioned, confessed that — humph? Ay, here ’tis. ‘And that the girl Manon was the decoy, and her sweetheart was Georges Vipont, one of the band; and hanged last month: and that she had been deject ever since, and had openly blamed the band for his death, saying if they had not been rank cowards, he had never been taken, and it is his opinion she did but betray them out of very spite, and —

“His opinion,” cried Gerard indignantly; “what signifies the opinion of a cut-throat, burning to be revenged on her who has delivered him to justice? And an you go to that, what avails his testimony? Is a thief never a liar? Is he not aye a liar? and here a motive to lie? Revenge, why, ’tis the strongest of all the passions. And oh, sir, what madness to question a detected felon and listen to him lying away an honest life — as if he were a true man swearing in open day, with his true hand on the Gospel laid!”

“Young man,” said the alderman, “restrain thy heat in presence of authority! I find by your tone you are a stranger. Know then that in this land we question all the world. We are not so weak as to hope to get at the truth by shutting either our left ear or our right.”

“And so you would listen to Satan belying the saints!”

“Ta! ta! The law meddles but with men and women, and these cannot utter a story all lies, let them try ever so. Wherefore we shut not the barn-door (as the saying is) against any man’s grain. Only having taken it in, we do winnow and sift it. And who told you I had swallowed the thief’s story whole like fair water? Not so. I did but credit so much on’t as was borne out by better proof.”

“Better proof?” and Gerard looked blank. “Why, who but the thieves would breathe a word against her?”

“Marry, herself.”

“Herself, sir? what, did you question her too?”

“I tell you we question all the world. Here is her deposition; can you read? — Read it yourself, then.”

Gerard looked at Denys and read him Manon’s deposition.

“I am a native of Epinal. I left my native place two years ago because I was unfortunate: I could not like the man they bade me. So my father beat me. I ran away from my father. I went to service. I left service because the mistress was jealous of me. The reason that she gave for turning me off was, because I was saucy. Last year I stood in the marketplace to be hired with other girls. The landlord of ‘The Fair Star’ hired me. I was eleven months with him. A young man courted me. I loved him. I found out that travellers came and never went away again. I told my lover. He bade me hold my peace. He threatened me. I found my lover was one of a band of thieves. When travellers were to be robbed, the landlord went out and told the band to come. Then I wept and prayed for the travellers’ souls. I never told. A month ago my lover died.

“The soldier put me in mind of my lover. He was bearded like him I had lost. I cannot tell whether I should have interfered, if he had had no beard. I am sorry I told now.”

The paper almost dropped from Gerard’s hands. Now for the first time he saw that Manon’s life was in mortal danger. He knew the dogged law, and the dogged men that executed it. He threw himself suddenly on his knees at the alderman’s feet. “Oh, sir! think of the difference between those cruel men and this poor weak woman! Could you have the heart to send her to the same death with them; could you have the heart to condemn us to look on and see her slaughtered, who, but that she risked her life for ours, had not now been in jeopardy? Alas, sir! show me and my comrade some pity, if you have none for her, poor soul. Denys and I be true men, and you will rend our hearts if you kill that poor simple girl. What can we do? What is left for us to do then but cut our throats at her gallows’ foot?”

The alderman was tough, but mortal; the prayers and agitation of Gerard first astounded, then touched him. He showed it in a curious way. He became peevish and fretful. “There, get up, do,” said he. “I doubt whether anybody would say as many words for me. What ho, Daniel! go fetch the town clerk.” And on that functionary entering from an adjoining room, “Here is a foolish lad fretting about yon girl. Can we stretch a point? say we admit her to bear witness, and question her favourably.”

The town clerk was one of your “impossibility” men.

“Nay, sir, we cannot do that: she was not concerned in this business. Had she been accessory, we might have offered her a pardon to bear witness.”

Gerard burst in, “But she did better. Instead of being accessory, she stayed the crime; and she proffered herself as witness by running hither with the tale.”

“Tush, young man, ’tis a matter of law.” The alderman and the clerk then had a long discussion, the one maintaining, the other denying, that she stood as fair in law as if she had been accessory to the attempt on our travellers’ lives. And this was lucky for Manon: for the alderman, irritated by the clerk reiterating that he could not do this, and could not that, and could not do t’other, said “he would show him he could do anything he chose,” And he had Manon out, and upon the landlord of “The White Hart” being her bondsman, and Denys depositing five gold pieces with him, and the girl promising, not without some coaxing from Denys, to attend as a witness, he liberated her, but eased his conscience by telling her in his own terms his reason for this leniency.

“The town had to buy a new rope for everybody hanged, and present it to the bourreau, or compound with him in money: and she was not in his opinion worth this municipal expense, whereas decided characters like her late confederates, were.” And so Denys and Gerard carried her off, Gerard dancing round her for joy, Denys keeping up her heart by assuring her of the demise of a troublesome personage, and she weeping inauspiciously. However, on the road to “The White Hart” the public found her out, and having heard the whole story from the archers, who naturally told it warmly in her favour, followed her hurrahing and encouraging her, till finding herself backed by numbers she plucked up heart. The landlord too saw at a glance that her presence in the inn would draw custom, and received her politely, and assigned her an upper chamber: here she buried herself, and being alone rained tears again.

Poor little mind, it was like a ripple, up and down, down and up, up and down. Bidding the landlord be very kind to her, and keep her a prisoner without letting her feel it, the friends went out: and lo! as they stepped into the street they saw two processions coming towards them from opposite sides. One was a large one, attended with noise and howls and those indescribable cries by which rude natures reveal at odd times that relationship to the beasts of the field and forest, which at other times we succeed in hiding. The other, very thinly attended by a few nuns and friars, came slow and silent.

The prisoners going to exposure in the market-place. The gathered bones of the victims coming to the churchyard.

And the two met in the narrow street nearly at the inn door, and could not pass each other for a long time, and the bier, that bore the relics of mortality, got wedged against the cart that carried the men who had made those bones what they were, and in a few hours must die for it themselves. The mob had not the quick intelligence to be at once struck with this stern meeting: but at last a woman cried, “Look at your work, ye dogs!” and the crowd took it like wildfire, and there was a horrible yell, and the culprits groaned and tried to hide their heads upon their bosoms, but could not, their hands being tied. And there they stood, images of pale hollow-eyed despair, and oh how they looked on the bier, and envied those whom they had sent before them on the dark road they were going upon themselves! And the two men who were the cause of both processions stood and looked gravely on, and even Manon, hearing the disturbance, crept to the window, and, hiding her face, peeped trembling through her fingers, as women will.

This strange meeting parted Denys and Gerard. The former yielded to curiosity and revenge, the latter doffed his bonnet, and piously followed the poor remains of those whose fate had so nearly been his own. For some time he was the one lay mourner: but when they had reached the suburbs, a long way from the greater attraction that was filling the market-place, more than one artisan threw down his tools, and more than one shopman left his shop, and touched with pity or a sense of our common humanity, and perhaps decided somewhat by the example of Gerard, followed the bones bareheaded, and saw them deposited with the prayers of the Church in hallowed ground.

After the funeral rites Gerard stepped respectfully up to the cure, and offered to buy a mass for their souls.

Gerard, son of Catherine, always looked at two sides of a penny: and he tried to purchase this mass a trifle under the usual terms, on account of the pitiable circumstances. But the good cure gently but adroitly parried his ingenuity, and blandly screwed him up to the market price.

In the course of the business they discovered a similarity of sentiments. Piety and worldly prudence are not very rare companions: still it is unusual to carry both so far as these two men did. Their collision in the prayer market led to mutual esteem, as when knight encountered knight worthy of his steel. Moreover the good cure loved a bit of gossip, and finding his customer was one of those who had fought the thieves at Domfront, would have him into his parlour and hear the whole from his own lips. And his heart warmed to Gerard, and he said “God was good to thee. I thank Him for’t with all my soul. Thou art a good lad.” He added drily, “Shouldst have told me this tale in the churchyard. I doubt, I had given thee the mass for love. However,” said he (the thermometer suddenly falling), “’tis ill luck to go back upon a bargain. But I’ll broach a bottle of my old Medoc for thee: and few be the guests I would do that for.” The cure went to his cupboard, and while he groped for the choice bottle, he muttered to himself, “At their old tricks again!”

“Plait-il?” said Gerard.

“I said nought. Ay, here ’tis.”

“Nay, your reverence. You surely spoke: you said, ‘At their old tricks again!’”

“Said I so in sooth?” and his reverence smiled. He then proceeded to broach the wine, and filled a cup for each. Then he put a log of wood on the fire, for stoves were none in Burgundy. “And so I said ‘At their old tricks!’ did I? Come, sip the good wine, and, whilst it lasts, story for story, I care not if I tell you a little tale.”

Gerard’s eyes sparkled.

“Thou lovest a story?”

“As my life.”

“Nay, but raise not thine expectations too high, neither. ’Tis but a foolish trifle compared with thine adventures.”

THE CURE’S TALE.

“Once upon a time, then, in the kingdom of France, and in the duchy of Burgundy, and not a day’s journey from the town where now we sit a-sipping of old Medoc, there lived a cure. I say he lived; but barely. The parish was small, the parishioners greedy; and never gave their cure a doit more than he could compel. The nearer they brought him to a disembodied spirit by meagre diet, the holier should be his prayers in their behalf. I know not if this was their creed, but their practice gave it colour.

“At last he pickled a rod for them.

“One day the richest farmer in the place had twins to baptize. The cure was had to the christening dinner as usual; but ere he would baptize the children, he demanded, not the christening fees only, but the burial fees. ‘Saints defend us, parson, cried the mother; ‘talk not of burying! I did never see children liker to live.’ ‘Nor I,’ said the cure, ‘the praise be to God. Natheless, they are sure to die, being sons of Adam, as well as of thee, dame. But die when they will, ’twill cost them nothing, the burial fees being paid and entered in this book.’ ‘For all that ’twill cost them something,’ quoth the miller, the greatest wag in the place, and as big a knave as any; for which was the biggest God knoweth, but no mortal man, not even the hangman. ‘Miller, I tell thee nay,’ quo’ the cure. ‘Parson, I tell you ay,’ quo’ the miller. ”Twill cost them their lives.’ At which millstone conceit was a great laugh; and in the general mirth the fees were paid and the Christians made.

“But when the next parishioner’s child, and the next after, and all, had to pay each his burial fee, or lose his place in heaven, discontent did secretly rankle in the parish. Well, one fine day they met in secret, and sent a churchwarden with a complaint to the bishop, and a thunderbolt fell on the poor cure. Came to him at dinner-time a summons to the episcopal palace, to bring the parish books and answer certain charges. Then the cure guessed where the shoe pinched. He left his food on the board, for small his appetite now, and took the parish books and went quaking.

“The bishop entertained him with a frown, and exposed the plaint. ‘Monseigneur,’ said the cure right humbly, ‘doth the parish allege many things against me, or this one only?’ ‘In sooth, but this one,’ said the bishop, and softened a little. ‘First, monseigneur, I acknowledge the fact.’ ”Tis well,’ quoth the bishop; ‘that saves time and trouble. Now to your excuse, if excuse there be.’ ‘Monseigneur, I have been cure of that parish seven years, and fifty children have I baptized, and buried not five. At first I used to say, “Heaven be praised, the air of this village is main healthy;” but on searching the register book I found ’twas always so, and on probing the matter, it came out that of those born at Domfront, all, but here and there one, did go and get hanged at Aix. But this was to defraud not their cure only, but the entire Church of her dues, since “pendards” pay no funeral fees, being buried in air. Thereupon, knowing by sad experience their greed, and how they grudge the Church every sou, I laid a trap to keep them from hanging; for, greed against greed, there be of them that will die in their beds like true men ere the Church shall gain those funeral fees for nought.’ Then the bishop laughed till the tears ran down, and questioned the churchwarden, and he was fain to confess that too many of the parish did come to that unlucky end at Aix. ‘Then,’ said the bishop, ‘I do approve the act, for myself and my successors; and so be it ever, till they mend their manners and die in their beds.’ And the next day came the ringleaders crestfallen to the cure, and said, ‘Parson, ye were even good to us, barring this untoward matter: prithee let there be no ill blood anent so trivial a thing.’ And the cure said, ‘My children, I were unworthy to be your pastor could I not forgive a wrong; go in peace, and get me as many children as may be, that by the double fees the cure you love may miss starvation.’

“And the bishop often told the story, and it kept his memory of the cure alive, and at last he shifted him to a decent parish, where he can offer a glass of old Medoc to such as are worthy of it. Their name it is not legion.”

A light broke in upon Gerard, his countenance showed it.

“Ay!” said his host, “I am that cure: so now thou canst guess why I said ‘At their old tricks.’ My life on’t they have wheedled my successor into remitting those funeral fees. You are well out of that parish. And so am I.”

The cure’s little niece burst in, “Uncle, the weighing — la! a stranger!” And burst out.

The cure rose directly, but would not part with Gerard.

“Wet thy beard once more, and come with me.”

In the church porch they found the sexton with a huge pair of scales, and weights of all sizes. Several humble persons were standing by, and soon a woman stepped forward with a sickly child and said, “Be it heavy be it light, I vow, in rye meal of the best, whate’er this child shall weigh, and the same will duly pay to Holy Church, an if he shall cast his trouble. Pray, good people, for this child, and for me his mother hither come in dole and care!”

The child was weighed, and yelled as if the scale had been the font.

“Courage! dame,” cried Gerard. “This is a good sign. There is plenty of life here to battle its trouble.”

“Now, blest be the tongue that tells me so,” said the poor woman. She hushed her ponderling against her bosom, and stood aloof watching, whilst another woman brought her child to scale.

But presently a loud, dictatorial voice was heard, “Way there, make way for the seigneur!”

The small folk parted on both sides like waves ploughed by a lordly galley, and in marched in gorgeous attire, his cap adorned by a feather with a topaz at its root, his jerkin richly furred, satin doublet, red hose, shoes like skates, diamond-hilted sword in velvet scabbard, and hawk on his wrist, “the lord of the manor.” He flung himself into the scales as if he was lord of the zodiac as well as the manor: whereat the hawk balanced and flapped; but stuck: then winked.

While the sexton heaved in the great weights, the cure told Gerard, “My lord had been sick unto death, and vowed his weight in bread and cheese to the poor, the Church taking her tenth.”

“Permit me, my lord; if your lordship continues to press your lordship’s staff on the other scale, you will disturb the balance.”

His lordship grinned and removed his staff, and leaned on it. The cure politely but firmly objected to that too.

“Mille diables! what am I to do with it, then?” cried the other.

“Deign to hold it out so, my lord, wide of both scales.”

When my lord did this, and so fell into the trap he had laid for Holy Church, the good cure whispered to Gerard. “Cretensis incidit in Cretensem!” which I take to mean, “Diamond cut diamond.” He then said with an obsequious air, “If that your lordship grudges Heaven full weight, you might set the hawk on your lacquey, and so save a pound.”

“Gramercy for thy rede, cure,” cried the great man, reproachfully. “Shall I for one sorry pound grudge my poor fowl the benefit of Holy Church? I’d as lieve the devil should have me and all my house as her, any day i’ the year.”

“Sweet is affection,” whispered the cure.

“Between a bird and a brute,” whispered Gerard.

“Tush!” and the cure looked terrified.

The seigneur’s weight was booked, and Heaven I trust and believe did not weigh his gratitude in the balance of the sanctuary. For my unlearned reader is not to suppose there was anything the least eccentric in the man, or his gratitude to the Giver of health and all good gifts. Men look forward to death, and back upon past sickness with different eyes. Item, when men drive a bargain, they strive to get the sunny side of it; it matters not one straw whether it is with man or Heaven they are bargaining. In this respect we are the same now, at bottom, as we were four hundred years ago: only in those days we did it a grain or two more naively, and that naivete shone out more palpably, because, in that rude age, body prevailing over mind, all sentiments took material forms. Man repented with scourges, prayed by bead, bribed the saints with wax tapers, put fish into the body to sanctify the soul, sojourned in cold water for empire over the emotions, and thanked God for returning health in 1 cwt. 2 stone 7 lb 3 oz. 1 dwt. of bread and cheese.

Whilst I have been preaching, who preach so rarely and so ill, the good cure has been soliciting the lord of the manor to step into the church, and give order what shall be done with his great-great-grandfather.

“Ods bodikins! what, have you dug him up?”

“Nay, my lord, he never was buried.”

“What, the old dict was true after all?”

“So true that the workmen this very day found a skeleton erect in the pillar they are repairing. I had sent to my lord at once, but I knew he would be here.”

“It is he! ’Tis he!” said his descendant, quickening his pace. “Let us go see the old boy. This youth is a stranger, I think.”

Gerard bowed.

“Know then that my great-great-grandfather held his head high and being on the point of death, revolted against lying under the aisle with his forbears for mean folk to pass over. So, as the tradition goes, he swore his son (my great-grandfather), to bury him erect in one of the pillars of the church” (here they entered the porch). “‘For,’ quoth he, ‘NO BASE MAN SHALL PASS OVER MY STOMACH.’ Peste!” and even while speaking, his lordship parried adroitly with his stick a skull that came hopping at him, bowled by a boy in the middle of the aisle, who took to his heels yelling with fear the moment he saw what he had done. His lordship hurled the skull furiously after him as he ran, at which the cure gave a shout of dismay and put forth his arm to hinder him, but was too late.

The cure groaned aloud. And as if this had evoked spirits of mischief, up started a whole pack of children from some ambuscade, and unseen, but heard loud enough, clattered out of the church like a covey rising in a thick wood.

“Oh! these pernicious brats,” cried the cure. “The workmen cannot go to their nonemete but the church is rife with them. Pray Heaven they have not found his late lordship; nay, I mind, I hid his lordship under a workmen’s jerkin, and — saints defend us! the jerkin has been moved.”

The poor cure’s worst misgivings were realized: the rising generation of the plebians had played the mischief with the haughty old noble. “The little ones had jockeyed for the bones oh,” and pocketed such of them as seemed adapted for certain primitive games then in vogue amongst them.

“I’ll excommunicate them,” roared the curate, “and all their race.”

“Never heed,” said the scapegrace lord: and stroked his hawk; “there is enough of him to swear by. Put him back! put him back!”

“Surely, my lord, ’tis your will his bones be laid in hallowed earth, and masses said for his poor prideful soul?”

The noble stroked his hawk.

“Are ye there, Master Cure?” said he. “Nay, the business is too old: he is out of purgatory by this time, up or down. I shall not draw my purse-strings for him. Every dog his day. Adieu, Messires, adieu, ancestor;” and he sauntered off whistling to his hawk and caressing it.

His reverence looked ruefully after him.

“Cretensis incidit in Cretensem,” said he sorrowfully. “I thought I had him safe for a dozen masses. Yet I blame him not, but that young ne’er-do-weel which did trundle his ancestor’s skull at us: for who could venerate his great-great-grandsire and play football with his head? Well it behoves us to be better Christians than he is.” So they gathered the bones reverently, and the cure locked them up, and forbade the workmen, who now entered the church, to close up the pillar, till he should recover by threats of the Church’s wrath every atom of my lord. And he showed Gerard a famous shrine in the church. Before it were the usual gifts of tapers, etc. There was also a wax image of a falcon, most curiously moulded and coloured to the life, eyes and all. Gerard’s eye fell at once on this, and he expressed the liveliest admiration. The cure assented. Then Gerard asked, “Could the saint have loved hawking?”

The cure laughed at his simplicity. “Nay, ’tis but a statuary hawk. When they have a bird of gentle breed they cannot train, they make his image, and send it to this shrine with a present, and pray the saint to work upon the stubborn mind of the original, and make it ductile as wax: that is the notion, and methinks a reasonable one, too.”

Gerard assented. “But alack, reverend sir, were I a saint, methinks I should side with the innocent dove, rather than with the cruel hawk that rends her.”

“By St. Denys you are right,” said the cure. “But, que voulez-vous? the saints are debonair, and have been flesh themselves, and know man’s frailty and absurdity. ’Tis the Bishop of Avignon sent this one.”

“What! do bishops hawk in this country?”

“One and all. Every noble person hawks, and lives with hawk on wrist. Why, my lord abbot hard by, and his lordship that has just parted from us, had a two years’ feud as to where they should put their hawks down on that very altar there. Each claimed the right hand of the altar for his bird.”

“What desecration!”

“Nay! nay! thou knowest we make them doff both glove and hawk to take the blessed eucharist. Their jewelled gloves will they give to a servant or simple Christian to hold: but their beloved hawks they will put down on no place less than the altar.”

Gerard inquired how the battle of the hawks ended.

“Why, the abbot he yielded, as the Church yields to laymen. He searched ancient books, and found that the left hand was the more honourable, being in truth the right hand, since the altar is east, but looks westward. So he gave my lord the soi-disant right hand, and contented himself with the real right hand, and even so may the Church still outwit the lay nobles and their arrogance, saving your presence.”

“Nay, sir, I honour the Church. I am convent bred, and owe all I have and am to Holy Church.”

“Ah, that accounts for my sudden liking to thee. Art a gracious youth. Come and see me whenever thou wilt.”

Gerard took this as a hint that he might go now. It jumped with his own wish, for he was curious to hear what Denys had seen and done all this time. He made his reverence and walked out of the church; but was no sooner clear of it than he set off to run with all his might: and tearing round a corner, ran into a large stomach, whose owner clutched him, to keep himself steady under the shock; but did not release his hold on regaining his equilibrium.

“Let go, man,” said Gerard.

“Not so. You are my prisoner.”

“Prisoner?”

“Ay.”

“What for, in Heaven’s name?”

“What for? Why, sorcery.”

“SORCERY?”

“Sorcery.”

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