The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 44

Experienced women are not frightened when a woman faints, or do they hastily attribute it to anything but physical causes, which they have often seen produce it. Catherine bustled about; laid the girl down with her head on the floor quite flat, opened the window, and unloosed her dress as she lay. Not till she had done all this did she step to the door and say, rather loudly:

“Come here, if you please.”

Margaret Van Eyck and Reicht came, and found Margaret lying quite flat, and Catherine beating her hands.

“Oh, my poor girl! What have you done to her?”

“Me?” said Catherine angrily.

“What has happened, then?”

“Nothing, madam; nothing more than is natural in her situation.”

Margaret Van Eyck coloured with ire.

“You do well to speak so coolly,” said she, “you that are the cause of her situation.”

“That I am not,” said Catherine bluntly; “nor any woman born.”

“What! was it not you and your husband that kept them apart? and now he has gone to Italy all alone. Situation indeed! You have broken her heart amongst you.”

“Why, madam? Who is it then? in Heaven’s name! To hear you, one would think this was my Gerard’s lass. But that can’t be. This fur never cost less than five crowns the ell; besides, this young gentlewoman is a wife; or ought to be.”

“Of course she ought. And who is the cause she is none? Who came before them at the very altar?”

“God forgive them, whoever it was,” said Catherine gravely; “me it was not, nor my man.”

“Well,” said the other, a little softened, “now you have seen her, perhaps you will not be quite so bitter against her madam. She is coming to, thank Heaven.”

“Me bitter against her?” said Catherine; “no, that is all over. Poor soul! trouble behind her and trouble afore her; and to think of my setting her, of all living women, to read Gerard’s letter to me. Ay, and that was what made her go off, I’ll be sworn. She is coming to. What, sweetheart! be not afeard, none are here but friends.”

They seated her in an easy chair. As the colour was creeping back to her face and lips. Catherine drew Margaret Van Eyck aside.

“Is she staying with you, if you please?”

“No, madam.”

“I wouldn’t let her go back to Sevenbergen to-night, then.”

“That is as she pleases. She still refuses to bide the night.”

“Ay, but you are older than she is; you can make her. There, she is beginning to notice.”

Catherine then put her mouth to Margaret Van Eyck’s ear for half a moment; it did not seem time enough to whisper a word, far less a sentence. But on some topics females can flash communication to female like lightning, or thought itself.

The old lady started, and whispered back —

“It’s false! it is a calumny! it is monstrous! look at her face. It is blasphemy to accuse such a face.”

“Tut! tut! tut!” said the other; “you might as well say this is not my hand. I ought to know; and I tell ye it is so.”

Then, much to Margaret Van Eyck’s surprise, she went up to the girl, and taking her round the neck, kissed her warmly.

“I suffered for Gerard, and you shed your blood for him I do hear; his own words show me that I have been to blame, the very words you have read to me. Ay, Gerard, my child, I have held aloof from her; but I’ll make it up to her once I begin. You are my daughter from this hour.”

Another warm embrace sealed this hasty compact, and the woman of impulse was gone.

Margaret lay back in her chair, and a feeble smile stole over her face. Gerard’s mother had kissed her and called her daughter; but the next moment she saw her old friend looking at her with a vexed air.

“I wonder you let that woman kiss you.”

“His mother!” murmured Margaret, half reproachfully.

“Mother, or no mother, you would not let her touch you if you knew what she whispered in my ear about you.”

“About me?” said Margaret faintly.

“Ay, about you, whom she never saw till to-night.” The old lady was proceeding, with some hesitation and choice of language, to make Margaret share her indignation, when an unlooked-for interruption closed her lips.

The young woman slid from her chair to her knees, and began to pray piteously to her for pardon. From the words and the manner of her penitence a bystander would have gathered she had inflicted some cruel wrong, some intolerable insult, upon her venerable friend.

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