The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 40

Some are old in heart at forty, some are young at eighty. Margaret Van Eyck’s heart was an evergreen. She loved her young namesake with youthful ardour. Nor was this new sentiment a mere caprice; she was quick at reading character, and saw in Margaret Brandt that which in one of her own sex goes far with an intelligent woman; genuineness. But, besides her own sterling qualities, Margaret had from the first a potent ally in the old artist’s bosom.

Human nature.

Strange as it may appear to the unobservant, our hearts warm more readily to those we have benefited than to our benefactors. Some of the Greek philosophers noticed this; but the British Homer has stamped it in immortal lines:—

“I heard, and thought how side by side

We two had stemmed the battle’s tide

In many a well-debated field,

Where Bertram’s breast was Philip’s shield.

I thought on Darien’s deserts pale,

Where Death bestrides the evening gale,

How o’er my friend my cloak I threw,

And fenceless faced the deadly dew.

I thought on Quariana’s cliff,

Where, rescued from our foundering skiff,

Through the white breakers’ wrath I bore

Exhausted Bertram to the shore:

And when his side an arrow found,

I sucked the Indian’s venom’d wound.

These thoughts like torrents rushed along

To sweep away my purpose strong.”

Observe! this assassin’s hand is stayed by memory, not of benefits received, but benefits conferred.

Now Margaret Van Eyck had been wonderfully kind to Margaret Brandt; had broken through her own habits to go and see her; had nursed her, and soothed her, and petted her, and cured her more than all the medicine in the world. So her heart opened to the recipient of her goodness, and she loved her now far more tenderly than she had ever loved Gerard, though, in truth, it was purely out of regard for Gerard she had visited her in the first instance.

When, therefore, she saw the roses on Margaret’s cheek, and read the bit of parchment that had brought them there, she gave up her own views without a murmur.

“Sweetheart,” said she, “I did desire he should stay in Italy five or six years, and come back rich, and above all, an artist. But your happiness is before all, and I see you cannot live without him, so we must have him home as fast as may be.”

“Ah, madam! you see my very thoughts.” And the young woman hung her head a moment and blushed. “But how to let him know, madam? That passes my skill. He is gone to Italy; but what part I know not. Stay! he named the cities he should visit. Florence was one, and Rome.” But then — Finally, being a sensible girl, she divined that a letter, addressed, “My Gerard — Italy,” might chance to miscarry, and she looked imploringly at her friend for counsel.

“You are come to the right place, and at the right time,” said the old lady. “Here was this Hans Memling with me to-day; he is going to Italy, girl, no later than next week, ‘to improve his hand,’ he says. Not before ’twas needed, I do assure you.”

“But how is he to find my Gerard?”

“Why, he knows your Gerard, child. They have supped here more than once, and were like hand and glove. Now, as his business is the same as Gerard’s, he will visit the same places as Gerard, and soon or late he must fall in with him. Wherefore, get you a long letter written, and copy out this pardon into it, and I’ll answer for the messenger. In six months at farthest Gerard shall get it; and when he shall get it, then will he kiss it, and put it in his bosom, and come flying home. What are you smiling at? And now what makes your cheeks so red? And what you are smothering me for, I cannot think. Yes! happy days are coming to my little pearl.”

Meantime, Martin sat in the kitchen, with the black-jack before him and Reicht Heynes spinning beside him: and, wow! but she pumped him that night.

This Hans Memling was an old pupil of Jan Van Eyck and his sister. He was a painter notwithstanding Margaret’s sneer, and a good soul enough, with one fault. He loved the “nipperkin, canakin, and the brown bowl” more than they deserve. This singular penchant kept him from amassing fortune, and was the cause that he often came to Margaret Van Eyck for a meal, and sometimes for a groat. But this gave her a claim on him, and she knew he would not trifle with any commission she should entrust to him.

The letter was duly written and left with Margaret Van Eyck; and the following week, sure enough, Hans Memling returned from Flanders, Margaret Van Eyck gave him the letter, and a piece of gold towards his travelling expenses. He seemed in a hurry to be off.

“All the better,” said the old artist; “he will be the sooner in Italy.”

But as there are horses who burn and rage to start, and after the first yard or two want the whip, so all this hurry cooled into inaction when Hans got as far as the principal hostelry of Tergou, and saw two of his boon companions sitting in the bay window. He went in for a parting glass with them; but when he offered to pay, they would not hear of it, No; he was going a long journey; they would treat him; everybody must treat him, the landlord and all.

It resulted from this treatment that his tongue got as loose as if the wine had been oil; and he confided to the convivial crew that he was going to show the Italians how to paint: next he sang his exploits in battle, for he had handled a pike; and his amorous successes with females, not present to oppose their version of the incidents. In short, “plenus rimarum erat: huc illuc diffluebat;” and among the miscellaneous matters that oozed out, he must blab that he was entrusted with a letter to a townsman of theirs, one Gerard, a good fellow: he added “you are all good fellows:” and to impress his eulogy, slapped Sybrandt on the back so heartily, as to drive the breath out of his body.

Sybrandt got round the table to avoid this muscular approval; but listened to every word, and learned for the first time that Gerard was gone to Italy. However, to make sure, he affected to doubt it.

“My brother Gerard is never in Italy.”

“Ye lie, ye cur,” roared Hans, taking instantly the irascible turn, and not being clear enough to see that he, who now sat opposite him, was the same he had praised, and hit, when beside him. “If he is ten times your brother, he is in Italy. What call ye this? There, read me that superscription!” and he flung down a letter on the table.

Sybrandt took it up, and examined it gravely; but eventually laid it down, with the remark, that he could not read. However, one of the company, by some immense fortuity, could read; and proud of so rare an accomplishment, took it, and read it out:

“To Gerard Eliassoen, of Tergou. These by the hand of the trusty Hans Memling, with all speed.”

“’Tis excellently well writ,” said the reader, examining every letter.

“Ay!” said Hans bombastically, “and small wonder: ’tis writ by a famous hand; by Margaret, sister of Jan Van Eyck. Blessed and honoured be his memory! She is an old friend of mine, is Margaret Van Eyck.”

Miscellaneous Hans then diverged into forty topics.

Sybrandt stole out of the company, and went in search of Cornelis.

They put their heads together over the news: Italy was an immense distance off. If they could only keep him there?

“Keep him there? Nothing would keep him long from his Margaret.”

“Curse her!” said Sybrandt. “Why didn’t she die when she was about it?”

“She die? She would outlive the pest to vex us.” And Cornelis was wroth at her selfishness in not dying, to oblige.

These two black sheep kept putting their heads together, and tainting each other worse and worse, till at last their corrupt hearts conceived a plan for keeping Gerard in Italy all his life, and so securing his share of their father’s substance.

But when they had planned it they were no nearer the execution: for that required talent: so iniquity came to a standstill. But presently, as if Satan had come between the two heads, and whispered into the right ear of one and the left of the other simultaneously, they both burst out —

“THE BURGOMASTER!”

They went to Ghysbrecht Van Swieten, and he received them at once: for the man who is under the torture of suspense catches eagerly at knowledge. Certainty is often painful, but seldom, like suspense, intolerable.

“You have news of Gerard?” said he eagerly.

Then they told about the letter and Hans Memling. He listened with restless eye. “Who writ the letter?”

“Margaret Van Eyck,” was the reply; for they naturally thought the contents were by the same hand as the superscription.

“Are ye sure?” And he went to a drawer and drew out a paper written by Margaret Van Eyck while treating with the burgh for her house. “Was it writ like this?”

“Yes. ’Tis the same writing,” said Sybrandt boldly.

“Good. And now what would ye of me?” said Ghysbrecht, with beating heart, but a carelessness so well feigned that it staggered them. They fumbled with their bonnets, and stammered and spoke a word or two, then hesitated and beat about the bush, and let out by degrees that they wanted a letter written, to say something that might keep Gerard in Italy; and this letter they proposed to substitute in Hans Memling’s wallet for the one he carried. While these fumbled with their bonnets and their iniquity, and vacillated between respect for a burgomaster, and suspicion that this one was as great a rogue as themselves, and somehow or other, on their side against Gerard, pros and cons were coursing one another to and fro in the keen old man’s spirit. Vengeance said let Gerard come back and feel the weight of the law. Prudence said keep him a thousand miles off. But then Prudence said also, why do dirty work on a doubtful chance? Why put it in the power of these two rogues to tarnish your name? Finally, his strong persuasion that Gerard was in possession of a secret by means of which he could wound him to the quick, coupled with his caution, found words thus: “It is my duty to aid the citizens that cannot write. But for their matter I will not be responsible. Tell me, then, what I shall write.”

“Something about this Margaret.”

“Ay, ay! that she is false, that she is married to another, I’ll go bail.”

“Nay, burgomaster, nay! not for all the world!” cried Sybrandt; “Gerard would not believe it, or but half, and then he would come back to see. No; say that she is dead.”

“Dead! what, at her age, will he credit that?”

“Sooner than the other. Why she was nearly dead: so it is not to say a downright lie, after all.”

“Humph! And you think that will keep him in Italy?”

“We are sure of it, are we not, Cornelis?”

“Ay,” said Cornelis, “our Gerard will never leave Italy now he is there. It was always his dream to get there. He would come back for his Margaret, but not for us. What cares he for us? He despises his own family; always did.”

“This would be a bitter pill to him,” said the old hypocrite.

“It will be for his good in the end,” replied the young one.

“What avails Famine wedding Thirst?” said Cornelis.

“And the grief you are preparing for him so coolly?” Ghysbrecht spoke sarcastically, but tasted his own vengeance all the time.

“Oh, a lie is not like a blow with a curtal axe. It hacks no flesh, and breaks no bones.”

“A curtal axe?” said Sybrandt; “no, nor even like a stroke with a cudgel.” And he shot a sly envenomed glance at the burgomaster’s broken nose.

Ghysbrecht’s face darkened with ire when this adder’s tongue struck his wound. But it told, as intended: the old man bristled with hate.

“Well,” said he, “tell me what to write for you, and I must write it; but take notice, you bear the blame if aught turns amiss. Not the hand which writes, but the tongue which dictates, doth the deed.”

The brothers assented warmly, sneering within. Ghysbrecht then drew his inkhorn towards him, and laid the specimen of Margaret Van Eyck’s writing before him, and made some inquiries as to the size and shape of the letter, when an unlooked-for interruption occurred; Jorian Ketel burst hastily into the room, and looked vexed at not finding him alone.

“Thou seest I have matter on hand, good fellow.”

“Ay; but this is grave. I bring good news; but ’tis not for every ear.”

The burgomaster rose, and drew Jorian aside into the embrasure of his deep window, and then the brothers heard them converse in low but eager tones. It ended by Ghysbrecht sending Jorian out to saddle his mule. He then addressed the black sheep with a sudden coldness that amazed them —

“I prize the peace of households; but this is not a thing to be done in a hurry: we will see about it, we will see.”

“But, burgomaster, the man will be gone. It will be too late.”

“Where is he?”

“At the hostelry, drinking.”

“Well, keep him drinking! We will see, we will see.” And he sent them off discomfited.

To explain all this we must retrograde a step. This very morning then, Margaret Brandt had met Jorian Ketel near her own door. He passed her with a scowl. This struck her, and she remembered him.

“Stay,” said she. “Yes! it is the good man who saved him. Oh! why have you not been near me since? And why have you not come for the parchments? Was it not true about the hundred crowns?”

Jorian gave a snort; but, seeing her face that looked so candid, began to think there might be some mistake. He told her he had come, and how he had been received.

“Alas!” said she, “I knew nought of this. I lay at Death’s door. She then invited him to follow her, and took him into the garden and showed him the spot where the parchments were buried. Martin was for taking them up, but I would not let him. He put them there; and I said none should move them but you, who had earned them so well of him and me.”

“Give me a spade!” cried Jorian eagerly. “But stay! No; he is a suspicious man. You are sure they are there still?”

“I will openly take the blame if human hand hath touched them.”

“Then keep them but two hours more, I prithee, good Margaret,” said Jorian, and ran off to the Stadthouse of Tergou a joyful man.

The burgomaster jogged along towards Sevenbergen, with Jorian striding beside him, giving him assurance that in an hour’s time the missing parchments would be in his hand.

“Ah, master!” said he, “lucky for us it wasn’t a thief that took them.”

“Not a thief? not a thief? what call you him, then?”

“Well, saving your presence, I call him a jackdaw. This is jackdaw’s work, if ever there was; ‘take the thing you are least in need of, and hide it’— that’s a jackdaw. I should know,” added Jorian oracularly, “for I was brought up along with a chough. He and I were born the same year, but he cut his teeth long before me, and wow! but my life was a burden for years all along of him. If you had but a hole in your hose no bigger than a groat, in went his beak like a gimlet; and, for stealing, Gerard all over. What he wanted least, and any poor Christian in the house wanted most, that went first. Mother was a notable woman, so if she did but look round, away flew her thimble. Father lived by cordwaining, so about sunrise Jack went diligently off with his awl, his wax, and his twine. After that, make your bread how you could! One day I heard my mother tell him to his face he was enough to corrupt half-a-dozen other children; and he only cocked his eye at her, and next minute away with the nurseling’s shoe off his very foot. Now this Gerard is tarred with the same stick. The parchments are no more use to him than a thimble or an awl to Jack. He took ’em out of pure mischief and hid them, and you would never have found them but for me.”

“I believe you are right,” said Ghysbrecht, “and I have vexed myself more than need.”

When they came to Peter’s gate he felt uneasy.

“I wish it had been anywhere but here.”

Jorian reassured him.

“The girl is honest and friendly,” said he. “She had nothing to do with taking them, I’ll be sworn;” and he led him into the garden. “There, master, if a face is to be believed, here they lie; and see, the mould is loose.”

He ran for a spade which was stuck up in the ground at some distance, and soon went to work and uncovered a parchment. Ghysbrecht saw it, and thrust him aside and went down on his knees and tore it out of the hole. His hands trembled and his face shone. He threw out parchment after parchment, and Jorian dusted them and cleared them and shook them. Now, when Ghysbrecht had thrown out a great many, his face began to darken and lengthen, and when he came to the last, he put his hands to his temples and seemed to be all amazed.

“What mystery lies here?” he gasped. “Are fiends mocking me? Dig deeper! There must be another.”

Jorian drove the spade in and threw out quantities of hard mould. In vain. And even while he dug, his master’s mood had changed.

“Treason! treachery!” he cried. “You knew of this.”

“Knew what, master, in Heaven’s name?”

“Caitiff, you knew there was another one worth all these twice told.’

“’Tis false,” cried Jorian, made suspicious by the other’s suspicion. “’Tis a trick to rob me of my hundred crowns. Oh! I know you, burgomaster.” And Jorian was ready to whimper.

A mellow voice fell on them both like oil upon the waves.

“No, good man, it is not false, nor yet is it quite true: there was another parchment.”

“There, there, there! Where is it?”

“But,” continued Margaret calmly, “it was not a town record (so you have gained your hundred crowns, good man): it was but a private deed between the burgomaster here and my grandfather Flor —”

“Hush, hush!”

“— is Brandt.”

“Where is it, girl? that is all we want to know.”

“Have patience, and I shall tell you. Gerard read the title of it, and he said, ‘This is as much yours as the burgomaster’s,’ and he put it apart, to read it with me at his leisure.”

“It is in the house, then?” said the burgomaster, recovering his calmness.

“No, sir,” said Margaret gravely, “it is not.” Then, in a voice that faltered suddenly, “You hunted — my poor Gerard — so hard — and so close-that you gave him — no time-to think of aught — but his life — and his grief. The parchment was in his bosom, and he hath ta’en it with him.”

“Whither, whither?”

“Ask me no more, sir. What right is yours to question me thus? It was for your sake, good man, I put force upon my heart, and came out here, and bore to speak at all to this hard old man. For, when I think of the misery he has brought on him and me, the sight of him is more than I can bear;” and she gave an involuntary shudder, and went slowly in, with her hand to her head, crying bitterly.

Remorse for the past, and dread of the future — the slow, but, as he now felt, the inevitable future — avarice, and fear, all tugged in one short moment at Ghysbrecht’s tough heart. He hung his head, and his arms fell listless by his sides. A coarse chuckle made him start round, and there stood Martin Wittenhaagen leaning on his bow, and sneering from ear to ear. At sight of the man and his grinning face, Ghysbrecht’s worst passions awoke.

“Ho! attach him, seize him, traitor and thief!” cried he. “Dog, thou shalt pay for all.”

Martin, without a word, calmly thrust the duke’s pardon under Ghysbrecht’s nose. He looked, and had not a word to say. Martin followed up his advantage.

“The duke and I are soldiers. He won’t let you greasy burghers trample on an old comrade. He bade me carry you a message too.”

“The duke send a message to me?”

“Ay! I told him of your masterful doings, of your imprisoning Gerard for loving a girl; and says he, ‘Tell him this is to be a king, not a burgomaster. I’ll have no kings in Holland but one. Bid him be more humble, or I’ll hang him at his own door,’”

(Ghysbrecht trembled: he thought the duke capable of the deed)

“‘as I hanged the burgomaster of Thingembob.’ The duke could not mind which of you he had hung, or in what part; such trifles stick not in a soldier’s memory; but he was sure he had hanged one of you for grinding poor folk, ‘and I’m the man to hang another,’ quoth the good duke.”

These repeated insults from so mean a man, coupled with his invulnerability, shielded as he was by the duke, drove the choleric old man into a fit of impotent fury: he shook his fist at the soldier, and tried to threaten him, but could not speak for the rage and mortification that choked him: then he gave a sort of screech, and coiled himself up in eye and form like a rattlesnake about to strike; and spat furiously upon Martin’s doublet.

The thick-skinned soldier treated this ebullition with genuine contempt. “Here’s a venomous old toad! he knows a kick from his foot would send him to his last home; and he wants me to cheat the gallows. But I have slain too many men in fair fight to lift limb against anything less than a man; and this I count no man. What is it, in Heaven’s name? an old goat’s-skin bag full o’ rotten bones.”

“My mule! my mule!” screamed Ghysbrecht.

Jorian helped the old man up trembling in every joint. Once in the saddle, he seemed to gather in a moment unnatural vigour; and the figure that went flying to Tergou was truly weird-like and terrible: so old and wizened the face; so white and reverend the streaming hair; so baleful the eye; so fierce the fury which shook the bent frame that went spurring like mad; while the quavering voice yelled, “I’ll make their hearts ache. I’ll make their hearts ache. I’ll make their hearts ache. I’ll make their hearts ache. All of them. All! — all! — all!”

The black sheep sat disconsolate amidst the convivial crew, and eyed Hans Memling’s wallet. For more ease he had taken it off, and flung it on the table. How readily they could have slipped out that letter and put in another. For the first time in their lives they were sorry they had not learned to write, like their brother.

And now Hans began to talk of going, and the brothers agreed in a whisper to abandon their project for the time. They had scarcely resolved this, when Dierich Brower stood suddenly in the doorway, and gave them a wink.

They went out to him. “Come to the burgomaster with all speed,” said he,

They found Ghysbrecht seated at a table, pale and agitated. Before him lay Margaret Van Eyck’s handwriting. “I have written what you desired,” said he. “Now for the superscription. What were the words? did ye see?”

“We cannot read,” said Cornelis.

“Then is all this labour lost,” cried Ghysbrecht angrily. “Dolts!”

“Nay, but,” said Sybrandt, “I heard the words read, and I have not lost them. They were, ‘To Gerard Eliassoen, these by the hand of the trusty Hans Memling, with all speed.’”

“’Tis well. Now, how was the letter folded? how big was it?”

“Longer than that one, and not so long as this.”

“’Tis well. Where is he?”

“At the hostelry.”

“Come, then, take you this groat, and treat him. Then ask to see the letter, and put this in place of it. Come to me with the other letter.”

The brothers assented, took the letter, and went to the hostelry.

They had not been gone a minute, when Dierich Brower issued from the Stadthouse, and followed them. He had his orders not to let them out of his sight till the true letter was in his master’s hands. He watched outside the hostelry.

He had not long to wait. They came out almost immediately, with downcast looks. Dierich made up to them.

“Too late!” they cried; “too late! He is gone.”

“Gone? How long?”

“Scarce five minutes. Cursed chance!”

“You must go back to the burgomaster at once,” said Dierich Brower.

“To what end?”

“No matter; come!” and he hurried them to the Stadthouse.

Ghysbrecht Van Swieten was not the man to accept a defeat.

“Well,” said he, on hearing the ill news, “suppose he is gone. Is he mounted?”

“No.”

“Then what hinders you to come up with him?”

“But what avails coming up with him! There are no hostelries on the road he is gone.”

“Fools!” said Ghysbrecht, “is there no way of emptying a man’s pockets but liquor and sleight of hand?”

A meaning look, that passed between Ghysbrecht and Dierich, aided the brothers’ comprehension. They changed colour, and lost all zeal for the business.

“No! no! we don’t hate our brother. We won’t get ourselves hanged to spite him,” said Sybrandt; “that would be a fool’s trick.”

“Hanged!” cried Ghysbrecht. “Am I not the burgomaster? How can ye be hanged? I see how ’tis ye fear to tackle one man, being two: hearts of hare, that ye are! Oh! why cannot I be young again? I’d do it single-handed.”

The old man now threw off all disguise, and showed them his heart was in this deed. He then flattered and besought, and jeered them alternately, but he found no eloquence could move them to an action, however dishonourable, which was attended with danger. At last he opened a drawer, and showed them a pile of silver coins.

“Change but those letters for me,” he said, “and each of you shall thrust one hand into this drawer, and take away as many of them as you can hold.”

The effect was magical. Their eyes glittered with desire. Their whole bodies seemed to swell, and rise into male energy.

“Swear it, then,” said Sybrandt.

“I swear it.”

“No; on the crucifix.”

Ghysbrecht swore upon the crucifix.

The next minute the brothers were on the road, in pursuit of Hans Memling. They came in sight of him about two leagues from Tergou, but though they knew he had no weapon but his staff, they were too prudent to venture on him in daylight; so they fell back.

But being now three leagues and more from the town, and on a grassy road — sun down, moon not yet up — honest Hans suddenly found himself attacked before and behind at once by men with uplifted knives, who cried in loud though somewhat shaky voices, “Stand and deliver!”

The attack was so sudden, and so well planned, that Hans was dismayed. “Slay me not, good fellows,” he cried; “I am but a poor man, and ye shall have my all.”

“So be it then. Live! but empty thy wallet.”

“There is nought in my wallet, good friend, but one letter.”

“That we shall see,” said Sybrandt, who was the one in front.

“Well, it is a letter.”

“Take it not from me, I pray you. ’Tis worth nought, and the good dame would fret that writ it.”

“There,” said Sybrandt, “take back thy letter; and now empty thy pouch. Come I tarry not!”

But by this time Hans had recovered his confusion; and from a certain flutter in Sybrandt, and hard breathing of Cornelis, aided by an indescribable consciousness, felt sure the pair he had to deal with were no heroes. He pretended to fumble for his money: then suddenly thrust his staff fiercely into Sybrandt’s face, and drove him staggering, and lent Cornelis a back-handed slash on the ear that sent him twirling like a weathercock in March; then whirled his weapon over his head and danced about the road like a figure on springs, shouting:

“Come on, ye thieving loons! Come on!”

It was a plain invitation; yet they misunderstood it so utterly as to take to their heels, with Hans after them, he shouting “Stop thieves!” and they howling with fear and pain as they ran.

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