The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 46

Catherine was a good housewife who seldom left home for a day, and then one thing or another always went amiss. She was keenly conscious of this, and watching for a slack tide in things domestic, put off her visit to Sevenbergen from day to day, and one afternoon that it really could have been managed, Peter Buyskens’ mule was out of the way.

At last, one day Eli asked her before all the family, whether it was true she had thought of visiting Margaret Brandt.

“Ay, my man.”

“Then I do forbid you.”

“Oh, do you?”

“I do.”

“Then there is no more to be said, I suppose,” said she, colouring.

“Not a word,” replied Eli sternly.

When she was alone with her daughter she was very severe, not upon Eli, but upon herself.

“Behoved me rather go thither like a cat at a robin. But this was me all over. I am like a silly hen that can lay no egg without cackling, and convening all the house to rob her on’t. Next time you and I are after aught the least amiss, let’s do’t in Heaven’s name then and there, and not take time to think about it, far less talk; so then, if they take us to task we can say, alack we knew nought; we thought no ill; now, who’d ever? and so forth. For two pins I’d go thither in all their teeth.”

Defiance so wild and picturesque staggered Kate. “Nay, mother, with patience father will come round.”

“And so will Michaelmas; but when? and I was so bent on you seeing the girl. Then we could have put our heads together about her. Say what they will, there is no judging body or beast but by the eye. And were I to have fifty more sons I’d ne’er thwart one of them’s fancy, till such time as I had clapped my eyes upon her and seen Quicksands; say you, I should have thought of that before condemning Gerard his fancy; but there, life is a school, and the lesson ne’er done; we put down one fault and take up t’other, and so go blundering here, and blundering there, till we blunder into our graves, and there’s an end of us.”

“Mother,” said Kate timidly.

“Well, what is a-coming now? no good news though, by the look of you. What on earth can make the poor wretch so scared?”

“An avowal she hath to make,” faltered Kate faintly.

“Now, there is a noble word for ye,” said Catherine proudly. “Our Gerard taught thee that, I’ll go bail. Come then, out with thy vowel.”

“Well then, sooth to say, I have seen her.”

“And?”

“And spoken with her to boot.”

“And never told me? After this marvels are dirt.”

“Mother, you were so hot against her. I waited till I could tell you without angering you worse.”

“Ay,” said Catherine, half sadly, half bitterly, “like mother, like daughter; cowardice it is our bane. The others I whiles buffet, or how would the house fare? but did you, Kate, ever have harsh word or look from your poor mother, that you — Nay, I will not have ye cry, girl; ten to one ye had your reason; so rise up, brave heart, and tell me all, better late than ne’er; and first and foremost when ever, and how ever, wend you to Sevenbergen wi’ your poor crutches, and I not know?”

“I never was there in my life; and, mammy dear, to say that I ne’er wished to see her that I will not, but I ne’er went nor sought to see her.”

“There now,” said Catherine disputatively, “said I not ’twas all unlike my girl to seek her unbeknown to me? Come now, for I’m all agog.

“Then thus ’twas. It came to my ears, no matter how, and prithee, good mother, on my knees ne’er ask me how, that Gerard was a prisoner in the Stadthouse tower.”

“Ah”

“By father’s behest as ’twas pretended.”

Catherine uttered a sigh that was almost a moan. “Blacker than I thought,” she muttered faintly.

“Giles and I went out at night to bid him be of good cheer. And there at the tower foot was a brave lass, quite strange to me I vow, on the same errand.”

“Lookee there now, Kate.”

“At first we did properly frighten one another, through the place his bad name, and our poor heads being so full o’ divels, and we whitened a bit in moonshine. But next moment, quo’ I, ‘You are Margaret.’ ‘And you are Kate,’ quo’ she. Think on’t!”

“Did one ever? ’Twas Gerard! He will have been talking backards and forrards of thee to her, and her to thee.”

In return for this, Kate bestowed on Catherine one of the prettiest presents in nature — the composite kiss, i.e., she imprinted on her cheek a single kiss, which said —

1. Quite correct.
2. Good, clever mother, for guessing so right and quick.
3. How sweet for us twain to be’ of one mind again after
never having been otherwise.
4. Etc.

“Now then, speak thy mind, child, Gerard is not here. Alas, what am I saying? would to Heaven he were.”

“Well then, mother, she is comely, and wrongs her picture but little.”

“Eh, dear; hark to young folk! I am for good acts, not good looks. Loves she my boy as he did ought to be loved?”

“Sevenbergen is farther from the Stadthouse than we are,” said Kate thoughtfully; “yet she was there afore me.”

Catherine nodded intelligence.

“Nay, more, she had got him out ere I came. Ay, down from the captive’s tower.”

Catherine shook her head incredulously. “The highest tower for miles! It is not feasible.”

“’Tis sooth though. She and an old man she brought found means and wit to send him up a rope. There ’twas dangling from his prison, and our Giles went up it. When first I saw it hang, I said, ‘This is glamour.’ But when the frank lass’s arms came round me, and her bosom’ did beat on mine, and her cheeks wet, then said I, ”Tis not glamour: ’tis love.’ For she is not like me, but lusty and able; and, dear heart, even I, poor frail creature, do feel sometimes as I could move the world for them I love: I love you, mother. And she loves Gerard.”

“God bless her for’t! God bless her!”

“But

“But what, lamb?”

“Her love, is it for very certain honest? ’Tis most strange; but that very thing, which hath warmed your heart, hath somewhat cooled mine towards her; poor soul. She is no wife, you know, mother, when all is done.”

“Humph! They have stood at the altar together.”

“Ay, but they went as they came, maid and bachelor.”

“The parson, saith he so?”

“Nay, for that I know not.”

“Then I’ll take no man’s word but his in such a tangled skein.” After some reflection she added, “Natheless art right, girl; I’ll to Sevenbergen alone. A wife I am but not a slave. We are all in the dark here. And she holds the clue. I must question her, and no one by; least of all you. I’ll not take any lily to a house Wi’ a spot, no, not to a palace o’ gold and silver.”

The more Catherine pondered this conversation, the more she felt drawn towards Margaret, and moreover “she was all agog” with curiosity, a potent passion with us all, and nearly omnipotent with those who like Catherine, do not slake it with reading. At last, one fine day, after dinner, she whispered to Kate, “Keep the house from going to pieces, an ye can;” and donned her best kirtle and hood, and her scarlet clocked hose and her new shoes, and trudged briskly off to Sevenbergen, troubling no man’s mule.

When she got there she inquired where Margaret Brandt lived. The first person she asked shook his head, and said —“The name is strange to me.” She went a little farther and asked a girl of about fifteen who was standing at a door. “Father,” said the girl, speaking into the house, “here is another after that magician’s daughter.” The man came out and told Catherine Peter Brandt’s cottage was just outside the town on the east side. “You may see the chimney hence;” and he pointed it out to her. “But you will not find them there, neither father nor daughter; they have left the town this week, bless you.”

“Say not so, good man, and me walken all the way from Tergou.”

“From Tergou? then you must ha’ met the soldier.”

“What soldier? ay, I did meet a soldier.”

“Well, then, yon soldier was here seeking that self-same Margaret.”

“Ay, and warn’t a mad with us because she was gone?” put in the girl. “His long beard and her cheek are no strangers, I warrant.”

“Say no more than ye know,” said Catherine sharply. “You are young to take to slandering your elders. Stay! tell we more about this soldier, good man.

“Nay, I know no more than that he came hither seeking Margaret Brandt, and I told him she and her father had made a moonlight flit on’t this day sennight, and that some thought the devil had flown away with them, being magicians. ‘And,’ says he, ‘the devil fly away with thee for thy ill news;’ that was my thanks. ‘But I doubt ’tis a lie,’ said he. ‘An you think so,’ said I, ‘go and see.’ ‘I will,’ said he, and burst out wi’ a hantle o’ gibberish: my wife thinks ’twas curses; and hied him to the cottage. Presently back a comes, and sings t’other tune. ‘You were right and I was wrong,’ says he, and shoves a silver coin in my hand. Show it the wife, some of ye; then she’ll believe me; I have been called a liar once to-day.”

“It needs not,” said Catherine, inspecting the coin all the same.

“And he seemed quiet and sad like, didn’t he now, wench?”

“That a did,” said the young woman warmly; “and, dame, he was just as pretty a man as ever I clapped eyes on. Cheeks like a rose, and shining beard, and eyes in his head like sloes.”

“I saw he was well bearded,” said Catherine; “but, for the rest, at my age I scan them not as when I was young and foolish. But he seemed right civil: doffed his bonnet to me as I had been a queen, and I did drop him my best reverence, for manners beget manners. But little I wist he had been her light o’ love, and most likely the — Who bakes for this town?”

The man, not being acquainted with her, opened his eyes at this transition, swift and smooth.

“Well, dame, there be two; John Bush and Eric Donaldson, they both bide in this street.”

“Then, God be with you, good people,” said she, and proceeded; but her sprightly foot came flat on the ground now, and no longer struck it with little jerks and cocking heel. She asked the bakers whether Peter Brandt had gone away in their debt. Bush said they were not customers. Donaldson said, “Not a stiver: his daughter had come round and paid him the very night they went. Didn’t believe they owed a copper in the town.” So Catherine got all the information of that kind she wanted with very little trouble.

“Can you tell me what sort this Margaret was?” said she, as she turned to go.

“Well, somewhat too reserved for my taste. I like a chatty customer — when I’m not too busy. But she bore a high character for being a good daughter.”

“’Tis no small praise. A well-looking lass, I am told?”

“Why, whence come you, wyfe?”

“From Tergou.”

“Oh, ay. Well you shall judge: the lads clept her ‘the beauty of Sevenbergen;’ the lasses did scout it merrily, and terribly pulled her to pieces, and found so many faults no two could agree where the fault lay.”

“That is enough,” said Catherine. “I see, the bakers are no fools in Sevenbergen, and the young women no shallower than in other burghs.”

She bought a manchet of bread, partly out of sympathy and justice (she kept a shop), partly to show her household how much better bread she gave them daily; and returned to Tergou dejected.

Kate met her outside the town with beaming eyes.

“Well, Kate, lass, it is a happy thing I went; I am heartbroken. Gerard has been sore abused. The child is none of ourn, nor the mother from this hour.”

“Alas, mother, I fathom not your meaning.”

“Ask me no more, girl, but never mention her name to me again. That is all.”

Kate acquiesced with a humble sigh, and they went home together.

They found a soldier seated tranquilly by their fire. The moment they entered the door he rose, and saluted them civilly. They stood and looked at him; Kate with some little surprise, but Catherine with a great deal, and with rising indignation.

“What makes you here?” was Catherine’s greeting.

“I came to seek after Margaret.”

“Well, we know no such person.”

“Say not so, dame; sure you know her by name, Margaret Brandt.”

“We have heard of her for that matter — to our cost.”

“Comes, dame, prithee tell me at least where she bides.”

“I know not where she bides, and care not.”

Denys felt sure this was a deliberate untruth. He bit his lip. “Well, I looked to find myself in an enemy’s country at this Tergou; but maybe if ye knew all ye would not be so dour.”

“I do know all,” replied Catherine bitterly. “This morn I knew nought.” Then suddenly setting her arms akimbo she told him with a raised voice and flashing eyes she wondered at his cheek sitting down by that hearth of all hearths in the world.

“May Satan fly away with your hearth to the lake of fire and brimstone,” shouted Denys, who could speak Flemish fluently. “Your own servant bade me sit there till you came, else I had ne’er troubled your hearth. My malison on it, and on the churlish roof-tree that greets an unoffending stranger this way,” and he strode scowling to the door.

“Oh! oh!” ejaculated Catherine, frightened, and also a little conscience-stricken; and the virago sat suddenly down and burst into tears. Her daughter followed suit quietly, but without loss of time.

A shrewd writer, now unhappily lost to us, has somewhere the following dialogue:

She. “I feel all a woman’s weakness.”

He. “Then you are invincible.”

Denys, by anticipation, confirmed that valuable statement; he stood at the door looking ruefully at the havoc his thunderbolt of eloquence had made.

“Nay, wife,” said he, “weep not neither for a soldier’s hasty word. I mean not all I said. Why, your house is your own, and what right in it have I? There now, I’ll go.”

“What is to do?” said a grave manly voice.

It was Eli; he had come in from the shop.

“Here is a ruffian been a-scolding of your women folk and making them cry,” explained Denys.

“Little Kate, what is’t? for ruffians do not use to call themselves ruffians,” said Eli the sensible.

Ere she could explain, “Hold your tongue, girl,” said Catherine; “Muriel bade him sat down, and I knew not that, and wyted on him; and he was going and leaving his malison on us, root and branch. I was never so becursed in all my days, oh! oh! oh!”

“You were both somewhat to blame; both you and he,” said Eli calmly. “However, what the servant says the master should still stand to. We keep not open house, but yet we are not poor enough to grudge a seat at our hearth in a cold day to a wayfarer with an honest face, and, as I think, a wounded man. So, end all malice, and sit ye down!”

“Wounded?” cried mother and daughter in a breath.

“Think you a soldier slings his arm for sport?”

“Nay, ’tis but an arrow,” said Denys cheerfully.

“But an arrow?” said Kate, with concentrated horror. “Where were our eyes, mother?”

“Nay, in good sooth, a trifle. Which, however, I will pray mesdames to accept as an excuse for my vivacity. ’Tis these little foolish trifling wounds that fret a man, worthy sir. Why, look ye now, sweeter temper than our Gerard never breathed, yet, when the bear did but strike a piece no bigger than a crown out of his calf, he turned so hot and choleric y’had said he was no son of yours, but got by the good knight Sir John Pepper on his wife dame Mustard; who is this? a dwarf? your servant, Master Giles.”

“Your servant, soldier,” roared the newcomer. Denys started. He had not counted on exchanging greetings with a petard.

Denys’s words had surprised his hosts, but hardly more than their deportment now did him. They all three came creeping up to where he sat, and looked down into him with their lips parted, as if he had been some strange phenomenon.

And growing agitation succeeded to amazement.

“Now hush!” said Eli, “let none speak but I. Young man,” said he solemnly, “in God’s name who are you, that know us though we know you not, and that shake our hearts speaking to us of — the absent-our poor rebellious son: whom Heaven forgive and bless?”

“What, master,” said Denys, lowering his voice, “hath he not writ to you? hath he not told you of me, Denys of Burgundy?”

“He hath writ, but three lines, and named not Denys of Burgundy, nor any stranger.”

“Ay, I mind the long letter was to his sweetheart, this Margaret, and she has decamped, plague take her, and how I am to find her Heaven knows.”

“What, she is not your sweetheart then?”

“Who, dame? an’t please you.”

“Why, Margaret Brandt.”

“How can my comrade’s sweetheart be mine? I know her not from Noah’s niece; how should I? I never saw her.”

“Whist with this idle chat, Kate,” said Eli impatiently, “and let the young man answer me. How came you to know Gerard, our son? Prithee now think on a parent’s cares, and answer me straightforward, like a soldier as thou art.”

“And shall. I was paid off at Flushing, and started for Burgundy. On the German frontier I lay at the same inn with Gerard. I fancied him. I said, ‘Be my comrade.’ He was loth at first; consented presently. Many a weary league we trode together. Never were truer comrades: never will be while earth shall last. First I left my route a bit to be with him: then he his to be with me. We talked of Sevenbergen and Tergou a thousand times; and of all in this house. We had our troubles on the road; but battling them together made them light. I saved his life from a bear; he mine in the Rhine: for he swims like a duck and I like a hod o’ bricks and one another’s lives at an inn in Burgundy, where we two held a room for a good hour against seven cut-throats, and crippled one and slew two; and your son did his devoir like a man, and met the stoutest champion I ever countered, and spitted him like a sucking-pig. Else I had not been here. But just when all was fair, and I was to see him safe aboard ship for Rome, if not to Rome itself, met us that son of a — the Lord Anthony of Burgundy, and his men, making for Flanders, then in insurrection, tore us by force apart, took me where I got some broad pieces in hand, and a broad arrow in my shoulder, and left my poor Gerard lonesome. At that sad parting, soldier though I be, these eyes did rain salt scalding tears, and so did his, poor soul. His last word to me was, ‘Go, comfort Margaret!’ so here I be. Mine to him was, ‘Think no more of Rome. Make for Rhine, and down stream home.’ Now say, for you know best, did I advise him well or ill?”

“Soldier, take my hand,” said Eli. “God bless thee! God bless thee!” and his lip quivered. It was all his reply, but more eloquent than many words.

Catherine did not answer at all, but she darted from the room and bade Muriel bring the best that was in the house, and returned with wood in both arms, and heaped the fire, and took out a snow-white cloth from the press, and was going in a great hurry to lay it for Gerard’s friend, when suddenly she sat down and all the power ebbed rapidly out of her body.

“Father!” cried Kate, whose eye was as quick as her affection.

Denys started up; but Eli waved him back and flung a little water sharply in his wife’s face. This did her instant good. She gasped, “So sudden. My poor boy!” Eli whispered Denys, “Take no notice! she thinks of him night and day.” They pretended not to observe her, and she shook it off, and hustled and laid the cloth with her own hands; but as she smoothed it, her hands trembled and a tear or two stole down her cheeks.

They could not make enough of Denys. They stuffed him, and crammed him; and then gathered round him and kept filling his glass in turn, while by that genial blaze of fire and ruby wine and eager eyes he told all that I have related, and a vast number of minor details, which an artist, however minute, omits.

But how different the effect on my readers and on this small circle! To them the interest was already made before the first word came from his lips. It was all about Gerard, and he who sat there telling it them, was warm from Gerard and an actor with him in all these scenes.

The flesh and blood around that fire quivered for their severed member, hearing its struggles and perils.

I shall ask my readers to recall to memory all they can of Gerard’s journey with Denys, and in their mind’s eye to see those very matters told by his comrade to an exile’s father, all stoic outside, all father within, and to two poor women, an exile’s mother and a sister, who were all love and pity and tender anxiety both outside and in. Now would you mind closing this book for a minute and making an effort to realize all this? It will save us so much repetition.

Then you will not be surprised when I tell you that after a while Giles came softly and curled himself up before the fire, and lay gazing at the speaker with a reverence almost canine; and that, when the rough soldier had unconsciously but thoroughly betrayed his better qualities, and above all his rare affection for Gerard, Kate, though timorous as a bird, stole her little hand into the warrior’s huge brown palm, where it lay an instant like a tea-spoonful of cream spilt on a platter, then nipped the ball of his thumb and served for a Kardiometer. In other words, Fate is just even to rival storytellers, and balances matters. Denys had to pay a tax to his audience which I have not. Whenever Gerard was in too much danger, the female faces became so white, and their poor little throats gurgled so, he was obliged in common humanity to spoil his recital. Suspense is the soul of narrative, and thus dealt Rough-and-Tender of Burgundy with his best suspenses. “Now, dame, take not on till ye hear the end; ma’amselle, let not your cheek blanch so; courage! it looks ugly; but you shall hear how we won through. Had he miscarried, and I at hand, would I be alive?”

And meantime Kate’s little Kardiometer, or heart-measurer, graduated emotion, and pinched by scale. At its best it was by no means a high-pressure engine. But all is relative. Denys soon learned the tender gamut; and when to water the suspense, and extract the thrill as far as possible. On one occasion only he cannily indemnified his narrative for this drawback. Falling personally into the Rhine, and sinking, he got pinched, he Denys, to his surprise and satisfaction. “Oho!” thought he, and on the principle of the anatomists, “experimentum in corpore vili,” kept himself a quarter of an hour under water; under pressure all the time. And even when Gerard had got hold of him, he was loth to leave the river, so, less conscientious than I was, swam with Gerard to the east bank first, and was about to land, but detected the officers and their intent, chaffed them a little space, treading water, then turned and swam wearily all across, and at last was obliged to get out, for very shame, or else acknowledge himself a pike; so permitted himself to land, exhausted: and the pressure relaxed.

It was eleven o’clock, an unheard-of hour, but they took no note of time this night; and Denys had still much to tell them, when the door was opened quietly, and in stole Cornelis and Sybrandt looking hang-dog. They had this night been drinking the very last drop of their mysterious funds.

Catherine feared her husband would rebuke them before Denys; but he only looked sadly at them, and motioned them to sit down quietly.

Denys it was who seemed discomposed. He knitted his brows and eyed them thoughtfully and rather gloomily. Then turned to Catherine. “What say you, dame? the rest to-morrow; for I am somewhat weary, and it waxes late.”

“So be it,” said Eli. But when Denys rose to go to his inn, he was instantly stopped by Catherine. “And think you to lie from this house? Gerard’s room has been got ready for you hours agone; the sheets I’ll not say much for, seeing I spun the flax and wove the web.”

“Then would I lie in them blindfold,” was the gallant reply. “Ah, dame, our poor Gerard was the one for fine linen. He could hardly forgive the honest Germans their coarse flax, and whene’er my traitors of countrymen did amiss, a would excuse them, saying, ‘Well, well; bonnes toiles sont en Bourgogne:’ that means, there be good lenten cloths in Burgundy.’ But indeed he beat all for bywords and cleanliness.

“Oh, Eli! Eli! doth not our son come back to us at each word?”

“Ay. Buss me, my poor Kate. You and I know all that passeth in each other’s hearts this night. None other can, but God.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/reade/charles/cloister-and-the-hearth/chapter46.html

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