The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 43

A change came over Margaret Brandt. She went about her household duties like one in a dream. If Peter did but speak a little quickly to her, she started and fixed two terrified eyes on him. She went less often to her friend Margaret Van Eyck, and was ill at her ease when there. Instead of meeting her warm old friend’s caresses, she used to receive them passive and trembling, and sometimes almost shrink from them. But the most extraordinary thing was, she never would go outside her own house in daylight. When she went to Tergou it was after dusk, and she returned before daybreak. She would not even go to matins. At last Peter, unobservant as he was, noticed it, and asked her the reason.

“Methinks the folk all look at me.”

One day, Margaret Van Eyck asked her what was the matter.

A scared look and a flood of tears were all the reply; the old lady expostulated gently. “What, sweetheart, afraid to confide your sorrows to me?”

“I have no sorrows, madam, but of my own making. I am kinder treated than I deserve; especially in this house.”

“Then why not come oftener, my dear?”

“I come oftener than I deserve;” and she sighed deeply.

“There, Reicht is bawling for you,” said Margaret Van Eyck; “go, child! — what on earth can it be?”

Turning possibilities over in her mind, she thought Margaret must be mortified at the contempt with which she was treated by Gerard’s family. “I will take them to task for it, at least such of them as are women;” and the very next day she put on her hood and cloak and followed by Reicht, went to the hosier’s house. Catherine received her with much respect, and thanked her with tears for her kindness to Gerard. But when, encouraged by this, her visitor diverged to Margaret Brandt, Catherine’s eyes dried, and her lips turned to half the size, and she looked as only obstinate, ignorant women can look. When they put on this cast of features, you might as well attempt to soften or convince a brick wall. Margaret Van Eyck tried, but all in vain. So then, not being herself used to be thwarted, she got provoked, and at last went out hastily with an abrupt and mutilated curtsey, which Catherine, returned with an air rather of defiance than obeisance. Outside the door Margaret Van Eyck found Reicht conversing with a pale girl on crutches. Margaret Van Eyck was pushing by them with heightened colour, and a scornful toss intended for the whole family, when suddenly a little delicate hand glided timidly into hers, and looking round she saw two dove-like eyes, with the water in them, that sought hers gratefully and at the same time imploringly. The old lady read this wonderful look, complex as it was, and down went her choler. She stopped and kissed Kate’s brow. “I see,” said she. “Mind, then, I leave it to you.” Returned home, she said —“I have been to a house to-day, where I have seen a very common thing and a very uncommon thing; I have seen a stupid, obstinate woman, and I have seen an angel in the flesh, with a face-if I had it here I’d take down my brushes once more and try and paint it.”

Little Kate did not belie the good opinion so hastily formed of her. She waited a better opportunity, and told her mother what she had learned from Reicht Heynes, that Margaret had shed her very blood for Gerard in the wood.

“See, mother, how she loves him.”

“Who would not love him?”

“Oh, mother, think of it! Poor thing.”

“Ay, wench. She has her own trouble, no doubt, as well as we ours. I can’t abide the sight of blood, let alone my own.”

This was a point gained; but when Kate tried to follow it up she was stopped short.

About a month after this a soldier of the Dalgetty tribe, returning from service in Burgundy, brought a letter one evening to the hosier’s house. He was away on business; but the rest of the family sat at Supper. The soldier laid the letter on the table by Catherine, and refusing all guerdon for bringing it, went off to Sevenbergen.

The letter was unfolded and spread out; and curiously enough, though not one of them could read, they could all tell it was Gerard’s handwriting.

“And your father must be away,” cried Catherine. “Are ye not ashamed of yourselves? not one that can read your brother’s letter.”

But although the words were to them what hieroglyphics are to us, there was something in the letter they could read. There is an art can speak without words; unfettered by the penman’s limits, it can steal through the eye into the heart and brain, alike of the learned and unlearned; and it can cross a frontier or a sea, yet lose nothing. It is at the mercy of no translator; for it writes an universal language.

When, therefore, they saw this,

[a picture of two hands clasped together]

which Gerard had drawn with his pencil between the two short paragraphs, of which his letter consisted, they read it, and it went straight to their hearts.

Gerard was bidding them farewell.

As they gazed on that simple sketch, in every turn and line of which they recognized his manner, Gerard seemed present, and bidding them farewell.

The women wept over it till they could see it no longer.

Giles said, “Poor Gerard!” in a lower voice than seemed to belong to him.

Even Cornelis and Sybrandt felt a momentary remorse, and sat silent and gloomy.

But how to get the words read to them. They were loth to show their ignorance and their emotion to a stranger.

“The Dame Van Eyck?” said Kate timidly.

“And so I will, Kate. She has a good heart. She loves Gerard, too. She will be glad to hear of him. I was short with her when she came here; but I will make my submission, and then she will tell me what my poor child says to me.”

She was soon at Margaret Van Eyck’s house. Reicht took her into a room, and said, “Bide a minute; she is at her orisons.”

There was a young woman in the room seated pensively by the stove; but she rose and courteously made way for the visitor.

“Thank you, young lady; the winter nights are cold, and your stove is a treat.” Catherine then, while warming her hands, inspected her companion furtively from head to foot, inclusive. The young person wore an ordinary wimple, but her gown was trimmed with fur, which was, in those days, almost a sign of superior rank or wealth. But what most struck Catherine was the candour and modesty of the face. She felt sure of sympathy from so good a countenance, and began to gossip.

“Now, what think you brings me here, young lady? It is a letter! a letter from my poor boy that is far away in some savage part or other. And I take shame to say that none of us can read it. I wonder whether you can read?”

“Yes.”

“Can ye, now? It is much to your credit, my dear. I dare say she won’t be long; but every minute is an hour to a poor longing mother.”

“I will read it to you.”

“Bless you, my dear; bless you!”

In her unfeigned eagerness she never noticed the suppressed eagerness with which the hand was slowly put out to take the letter. She did not see the tremor with which the fingers closed on it.

“Come, then, read it to me, prithee. I am wearying for it.”

“The first words are, ‘To my honoured parents.’”

“Ay! and he always did honour us, poor soul.”

“‘God and the saints have you in His holy keeping, and bless you by night and by day. Your one harsh deed is forgotten; your years of love remembered.’”

Catherine laid her hand on her bosom, and sank back in her chair with one long sob.

“Then comes this, madam. It doth speak for itself; ‘a long farewell.’”

“Ay, go on; bless you, girl you give me sorry comfort. Still ’tis comfort.”

“‘To my brothers Cornelis and Sybrandt — Be content; you will see me no more!’”

“What does that mean? Ah!”

“‘To my sister Kate. Little angel of my father’s house. Be kind to her —’ Ah!”

“That is Margaret Brandt, my dear — his sweetheart, poor soul. I’ve not been kind to her, my dear. Forgive me, Gerard!”

“’— for poor Gerard’s sake: since grief to her is death to me — Ah!” And nature, resenting the poor girl’s struggle for unnatural composure, suddenly gave way, and she sank from her chair and lay insensible, with the letter in her hand and her head on Catherine’s knees.

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