The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 39

Rude travel is enticing to us English. And so are its records; even though the adventurer be no pilgrim of love. And antique friendship has at least the interest of a fossil. Still, as the true centre of this story is in Holland, it is full time to return thither, and to those ordinary personages and incidents whereof life has been mainly composed in all ages.

Jorian Ketel came to Peter’s house to claim Margaret’s promise; but Margaret was ill in bed, and Peter, on hearing his errand, affronted him and warned him off the premises, and one or two that stood by were for ducking him; for both father and daughter were favourites, and the whole story was in every mouth, and Sevenbergens in that state of hot, undiscriminating irritation which accompanies popular sympathy.

So Jorian Ketel went off in dudgeon, and repented him of his good deed. This sort of penitence is not rare, and has the merit of being sincere. Dierich Brower, who was discovered at “The Three Kings,” making a chatterbox drunk in order to worm out of him the whereabouts of Martin Wittenhaagen, was actually taken and flung into a horsepond, and threatened with worse usage, should he ever show his face in the burgh again; and finally, municipal jealousy being roused, the burgomaster of Sevenbergen sent a formal missive to the burgomaster of Tergou, reminding him he had overstepped the law, and requesting him to apply to the authorities of Sevenbergen on any future occasion when he might have a complaint, real or imaginary, against any of its townsfolk.

The wily Ghysbrecht, suppressing his rage at this remonstrance, sent back a civil message to say that the person he had followed to Sevenbergen was a Tergovian, one Gerard, and that he had stolen the town records: that Gerard having escaped into foreign parts, and probably taken the documents with him, the whole matter was at an end.

Thus he made a virtue of necessity. But in reality his calmness was but a veil: baffled at Sevenbergen, he turned his views elsewhere he set his emissaries to learn from the family at Tergou whither Gerard had fled, and “to his infinite surprise” they did not know. This added to his uneasiness. It made him fear Gerard was only lurking in the neighbourhood: he would make a certain discovery, and would come back and take a terrible revenge. From this time Dierich and others that were about him noticed a change for the worse in Ghysbrecht Van Swieten. He became a moody irritable man. A dread lay on him. His eyes cast furtive glances, like one who expects a blow, and knows not from what quarter it is to come. Making others wretched had not made him happy. It seldom does.

The little family at Tergou, which, but for his violent interference, might in time have cemented its difference without banishing spem gregis to a distant land, wore still the same outward features, but within was no longer the simple happy family this tale opened with. Little Kate knew the share Cornelis and Sybrandt had in banishing Gerard, and though, for fear of making more mischief still, she never told her mother, yet there were times she shuddered at the bare sight of them, and blushed at their hypocritical regrets. Catherine, with a woman’s vigilance, noticed this, and with a woman’s subtlety said nothing, but quietly pondered it, and went on watching for more. The black sheep themselves, in their efforts to partake in the general gloom and sorrow, succeeded so far as to impose upon their father and Giles: but the demure satisfaction that lay at their bottom could not escape these feminine eyes —

“That, noting all, seem nought to note.”

Thus mistrust and suspicion sat at the table, poor substitutes for Gerard’s intelligent face, that had brightened the whole circle, unobserved till it was gone. As for the old hosier his pride had been wounded by his son’s disobedience, and so he bore stiffly up, and did his best never to mention Gerard’s name; but underneath his Spartan cloak, Nature might be seen tugging at his heart-strings. One anxiety he never affected to conceal. “If I but knew where the boy is, and that his life and health are in no danger, small would be my care,” would he say; and then a deep sigh would follow. I cannot help thinking that if Gerard had opened the door just then, and walked in, there would have been many tears and embraces for him, and few reproaches, or none.

One thing took the old couple quite by surprise — publicity. Ere Gerard had been gone a week, his adventures were in every mouth; and to make matters worse, the popular sympathy declared itself warmly on the side of the lovers, and against Gerard’s cruel parents, and that old busybody the burgomaster, who must put his nose into a business that nowise concerned him.

“Mother,” said Kate, “it is all over the town that Margaret is down with a fever — a burning fever; her father fears her sadly.”

“Margaret? what Margaret?” inquired Catherine, with a treacherous assumption of calmness and indifference.

“Oh, mother! whom should I mean? Why, Gerard’s Margaret.”

“Gerard’s Margaret,” screamed Catherine; “how dare you say such a word to me? And I rede you never mention that hussy’s name in this house, that she has laid bare. She is the ruin of my poor boy, the flower of all my flock. She is the cause that he is not a holy priest in the midst of us, but is roaming the world, and I a desolate broken-hearted mother. There, do not cry, my girl, I do ill to speak harsh to you. But oh, Kate! you know not what passes in a mother’s heart. I bear up before you all; it behoves me swallow my fears; but at night I see him in my dreams, and still some trouble or other near him: sometimes he is torn by wild beasts; other times he is in the hands of robbers, and their cruel knives uplifted to strike his poor pale face, that one should think would move a stone. Oh! when I remember that, while I sit here in comfort, perhaps my poor boy lies dead in some savage place, and all along of that girl: there, her very name is ratsbane to me. I tremble all over when I hear it.”

“I’ll not say anything, nor do anything to grieve you worse, mother,” said Kate tenderly; but she sighed.

She whose name was so fiercely interdicted in this house was much spoken of, and even pitied elsewhere. All Sevenbergen was sorry for her, and the young men and maidens cast many a pitying glance, as they passed, at the little window where the beauty of the village lay “dying for love.” In this familiar phrase they underrated her spirit and unselfishness. Gerard was not dead, and she was too loyal herself to doubt his constancy. Her father was dear to her and helpless; and but for bodily weakness, all her love for Gerard would not have kept her from doing her duties, though she might have gone about them with drooping head and heavy heart. But physical and mental excitement had brought on an attack of fever so violent, that nothing but youth and constitution saved her. The malady left her at last, but in that terrible state of bodily weakness in which the patient feels life a burden.

Then it is that love and friendship by the bedside are mortal angels with comfort in their voice, and healing in their palms.

But this poor girl had to come back to life and vigour how she could. Many days she lay alone, and the heavy hours rolled like leaden waves over her. In her enfeebled state existence seemed a burden, and life a thing gone by. She could not try her best to get well. Gerard was gone. She had not him to get well for. Often she lay for hours quite still, with the tears welling gently out of her eyes.

One day, waking from an uneasy slumber, she found two women in her room, One was a servant, the other by the deep fur on her collar and sleeves was a person of consideration: a narrow band of silvery hair, being spared by her coiffure, showed her to be past the age when women of sense concealed their years. The looks of both were kind and friendly. Margaret tried to raise herself in the bed, but the old lady placed a hand very gently on her.

“Lie still, sweetheart; we come not here to put you about, but to comfort you, God willing. Now cheer up a bit, and tell us, first, who think you we are?”

“Nay, madam, I know you, though I never saw you before: you are the demoiselle Van Eyck, and this is Reicht Heynes. Gerard has oft spoken of you, and of your goodness to him. Madam, he has no friend like you near him now,” and at this thought she lay back, and the tears welled out of her eyes in a moment.

The good-natured Reicht Heynes began to cry for company; but her mistress scolded her. “Well, you are a pretty one for a sick-room,” said she; and she put out a world of innocent art to cheer the patient; and not without some little success. An old woman, that has seen life and all its troubles, is a sovereign blessing by a sorrowful young woman’s side. She knows what to say, and what to avoid. She knows how to soothe her and interest her. Ere she had been there an hour, she had Margaret’s head lying on her shoulder instead of on the pillow, and Margaret’s soft eyes dwelling on her with gentle gratitude.

“Ah! this is hair,” said the old lady, running her fingers through it. “Come and look at it, Reicht!”

Reicht came and handled it, and praised it unaffectedly. The poor girl that owned it was not quite out of the reach of flattery; owing doubtless to not being dead.

“In sooth, madam, I did use to think it hideous; but he praised it, and ever since then I have been almost vain of it, saints forgive me. You know how foolish those are that love.”

“They are greater fools that don’t,” said the old lady, sharply.

Margaret opened her lovely eyes, and looked at her for her meaning.

This was only the first of many visits. In fact either Margaret Van Eyck or Reicht came nearly every day until their patient was convalescent; and she improved rapidly under their hands. Reicht attributed this principally to certain nourishing dishes she prepared in Peter’s kitchen; but Margaret herself thought more of the kind words and eyes that kept telling her she had friends to live for.

Martin Wittenhaagen went straight to Rotterdam, to take the bull by the horns. The bull was a biped, with a crown for horns. It was Philip the Good, duke of this, earl of that, lord of the other. Arrived at Rotterdam, Martin found the court was at Ghent. To Ghent he went, and sought an audience, but was put off and baffled by lackeys and pages. So he threw himself in his sovereign’s way out hunting, and contrary to all court precedents, commenced the conversation — by roaring lustily for mercy.

“Why, where is the peril, man?” said the duke, looking all round and laughing.

“Grace for an old soldier hunted down by burghers!”

Now kings differ in character like other folk; but there is one trait they have in common; they are mightily inclined to be affable to men of very low estate. These do not vie with them in anything whatever, so jealousy cannot creep in; and they amuse them by their bluntness and novelty, and refresh the poor things with a touch of nature — a rarity in courts. So Philip the Good reined in his horse and gave Martin almost a tete-a-tete, and Martin reminded him of a certain battlefield where he had received an arrow intended for his sovereign. The duke remembered the incident perfectly, and was graciously pleased to take a cheerful view of it. He could afford to, not having been the one hit. Then Martin told his majesty of Gerard’s first capture in the church, his imprisonment in the tower, and the manoeuvre by which they got him out, and all the details of the hunt; and whether he told it better than I have, or the duke had not heard so many good stories as you have, certain it is that sovereign got so wrapt up in it, that, when a number of courtiers came galloping up and interrupted Martin, he swore like a costermonger, and threatened, only half in jest, to cut off the next head that should come between him and a good story; and when Martin had done, he cried out —

“St. Luke! what sport goeth on in this mine earldom, ay! in my own woods, and I see it not. You base fellows have all the luck.” And he was indignant at the partiality of Fortune. “Lo you now! this was a man-hunt,” said he. “I never had the luck to be at a man-hunt.”

“My luck was none so great,” replied Martin bluntly: “I was on the wrong side of the dogs’ noses.”

“Ah! so you were; I forgot that.” And royalty was more reconciled to its lot. “What would you then?”

“A free pardon, your highness, for myself and Gerard.”

“For what?”

“For prison-breaking.”

“Go to; the bird will fly from the cage. ’Tis instinct. Besides, coop a young man up for loving a young woman? These burgomasters must be void of common sense. What else?”

“For striking down the burgomaster.”

“Oh, the hunted boar will turn to bay. ’Tis his right; and I hold him less than man that grudges it him. What else?”

“For killing of the bloodhounds.”

The duke’s countenance fell.

“’Twas their life or mine,” said Martin eagerly.

“Ay! but I can’t have, my bloodhounds, my beautiful bloodhounds, sacrificed to —

“No, no, no! They were not your dogs.”

“Whose dogs, then?”

“The ranger’s.”

“Oh. Well, I am very sorry for him, but as I was saying I can’t have my old soldiers sacrificed to his bloodhounds. Thou shalt have thy free pardon.”

“And poor Gerard.”

“And poor Gerard too, for thy sake. And more, tell thou this burgomaster his doings mislike me: this is to set up for a king, not a burgomaster. I’ll have no kings in Holland but one. Bid him be more humble; or by St. Jude I’ll hang him before his own door, as I hanged the burgomaster of what’s the name, some town or other in Flanders it was; no, ’twas’ somewhere in Brabant — no matter — I hanged him, I remember that much — for oppressing poor folk.”

The duke then beckoned his chancellor, a pursy old fellow that rode like a sack, and bade him write out a free pardon for Martin and one Gerard.

This precious document was drawn up in form, and signed next day, and Martin hastened home with it.

Margaret had left her bed some days, and was sitting pale and pensive by the fireside, when he burst in, waving the parchment, and crying, “A free pardon, girl, for Gerard as well as me! Send for him back when you will; all the burgomasters on earth daren’t lay a finger on him.”

She flushed all over with joy and her hands trembled with eagerness as she took the parchment and devoured it with her eyes, and kissed it again and again, and flung her arms round Martin’s neck, and kissed him. When she was calmer, she told him Heaven had raised her up a friend in the dame Van Eyck. “And I would fain consult her on this good news; but I have not strength to walk so far.”

“What need to walk? There is my mule.”

“Your mule, Martin?”

The old soldier or professional pillager laughed, and confessed he had got so used to her, that he forgot at times Ghysbrecht had a prior claim. To-morrow he would turn her into the burgomaster’s yard, but to-night she should carry Margaret to Tergou.

It was nearly dusk; so Margaret ventured, and about seven in the evening she astonished and gladdened her new but ardent friend, by arriving at her house with unwonted roses on her cheeks, and Gerard’s pardon in her bosom.

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