The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 50

Among strangers Margaret Brandt was comparatively happy. And soon a new and unexpected cause of content arose. A civic dignitary being ill, and fanciful in proportion, went from doctor to doctor; and having arrived at death’s door, sent for Peter. Peter found him bled and purged to nothing. He flung a battalion of bottles out of window, and left it open; beat up yolks of eggs in neat Schiedam, and administered it in small doses; followed this up by meat stewed in red wine and water, shredding into both mild febrifugal herbs, that did no harm. Finally, his patient got about again, looking something between a man and a pillow-case, and being a voluble dignitary, spread Peter’s fame in every street; and that artist, who had long merited a reputation in vain, made one rapidly by luck. Things looked bright. The old man’s pride was cheered at last, and his purse began to fill. He spent much of his gain, however, in sovereign herbs and choice drugs, and would have so invested them all, but Margaret white-mailed a part. The victory came too late. Its happy excitement was fatal.

One evening, in bidding her good-night, his voice seemed rather inarticulate.

The next morning he was found speechless, and only just sensible.

Margaret, who had been for years her father’s attentive pupil, saw at once that he had had a paralytic stroke. But not trusting to herself, she ran for a doctor. One of those who, obstructed by Peter, had not killed the civic dignitary, came, and cheerfully confirmed her views. He was for bleeding the patient. She declined. “He was always against blooding,” said she, “especially the old.” Peter lived, but was never the same man again. His memory became much affected, and of course he was not to be trusted to prescribe; and several patients had come, and one or two, that were bent on being cured by the new doctor and no other, awaited his convalescence. Misery stared her in the face. She resolved to go for advice and comfort to her cousin William Johnson, from whom she had hitherto kept aloof out of pride and poverty. She found him and his servant sitting in the same room, and neither of them the better for liquor. Mastering all signs of surprise, she gave her greetings, and presently told him she had come to talk on a family matter, and with this glanced quietly at the servant by way of hint. The woman took it, but not as expected.

“Oh, you can speak before me, can she not, my old man?”

At this familiarity Margaret turned very red, and said —

“I cry you mercy, mistress. I knew not my cousin had fallen into the custom of this town. Well, I must take a fitter opportunity;” and she rose to go.

“I wot not what ye mean by custom o’ the town,” said the woman, bouncing up. “But this I know; ’tis the part of a faithful servant to keep her master from being preyed on by his beggarly kin.”

Margaret retorted: “Ye are too modest, mistress. Ye are no servant. Your speech betrays you. ’Tis not till the ape hath mounted the tree that she, shows her tail so plain. Nay, there sits the servant; God help him! And while so it is, fear not thou his kin will ever be so poor in spirit as come where the likes of you can flout their dole.” And casting one look of mute reproach at her cousin for being so little of a man as to sit passive and silent all this time, she turned and went haughtily out; nor would she shed a single tear till she got home and thought of it. And now here were two men to be lodged and fed by one pregnant girl; and another mouth coming into the world.

But this last, though the most helpless of all, was their best friend.

Nature was strong in Margaret Brandt; that same nature which makes the brutes, the birds, and the insects, so cunning at providing food and shelter for their progeny yet to come.

Stimulated by nature she sat and brooded, and brooded, and thought, and thought, how to be beforehand with destitution. Ay, though she had still five gold pieces left, she saw starvation coming with inevitable foot.

Her sex, when, deviating from custom, it thinks with male intensity, thinks just as much to the purpose as we do. She rose, bade Martin move Peter to another room, made her own very neat and clean, polished the glass globe, and suspended it from the ceiling, dusted the crocodile and nailed him to the outside wall; and after duly instructing Martin, set him to play the lounging sentinel about the street door, and tell the crocodile-bitten that a great, and aged, and learned alchymist abode there, who in his moments of recreation would sometimes amuse himself by curing mortal diseases.

Patients soon came, and were received by Margaret, and demanded to see the leech. “That might not be. He was deep in his studies, searching for the grand elixir, and not princes could have speech of him. They must tell her their symptoms, and return in two hours.” And oh! mysterious powers! when they did return, the drug or draught was always ready for them. Sometimes, when it was a worshipful patient, she would carefully scan his face, and feeling both pulse and skin, as well as hearing his story, would go softly with it to Peter’s room; and there think and ask herself how her father, whose system she had long quietly observed, would have treated the case. Then she would write an illegible scrawl with a cabalistic letter, and bring it down reverently, and show it the patient, and “Could he read that?” Then it would be either, “I am no reader,” or, with admiration, “Nay, mistress, nought can I make on’t.”

“Ay, but I can. ’Tis sovereign. Look on thyself as cured!” If she had the materials by her, and she was too good an economist not to favour somewhat those medicines she had in her own stock, she would sometimes let the patient see her compound it, often and anxiously consulting the sacred prescription lest great Science should suffer in her hands. And so she would send them away relieved of cash, but with their pockets full of medicine, and minds full of faith, and humbugged to their hearts’ content. Populus vult decipi. And when they were gone, she would take down two little boxes Gerard had made her; and on one of these she had written To-day, and on the other To-morrow, and put the smaller coins into “To-day,” and the larger into “To-morrow,” along with such of her gold pieces as had survived the journey from Sevenbergen, and the expenses of housekeeping in a strange place, and so she met current expenses, and laid by for the rainy day she saw coming, and mixed drugs with simples, and vice with virtue. On this last score her conscience pricked her sore, and after each day’s comedy, she knelt down and prayed God to forgive her “for the sake of her child.” But lo and behold, cure and cure was reported to her; so then her conscience began to harden. Martin Wittenhaagen had of late been a dead weight on her hands. Like most men who had endured great hardships, he had stiffened rather suddenly. But though less supple, he was as strong as ever, and at his own pace could have carried the doctor herself round Rotterdam city. He carried her slops instead.

In this new business he showed the qualities of a soldier: unreasoning obedience, punctuality, accuracy, despatch, and drunkenness.

He fell among “good fellows;” the blackguards plied him with Schiedam; he babbled, he bragged.

Doctor Margaret had risen very high in his estimation. All this brandishing of a crocodile for a standard, and setting a dotard in ambush, and getting rid of slops, and taking good money in exchange, struck him not as Science but something far superior, Strategy. And he boasted in his cups and before a mixed company how “me and my General we are a biting of the burghers.”

When this revelation had had time to leaven the city, his General, Doctor Margaret, received a call from the constables; they took her, trembling and begging subordinate machines to forgive her, before the burgomaster; and by his side stood real physicians, a terrible row, in long robes and square caps, accusing her of practising unlawfully on the bodies of the duke’s lieges. At first she was too frightened to say a word. Novice like, the very name of “Law” paralyzed her. But being questioned closely, but not so harshly as if she had been ugly, she told the truth; she had long been her father’s pupil, and had but followed his system, and she had cured many; “and it is not for myself in very deed, sirs, but I have two poor helpless honest men at home upon my hands, and how else can I keep them? Ah, good sirs, let a poor girl make her bread honestly; ye hinder them not to make it idly and shamefully; and oh, sirs, ye are husbands, ye are fathers; ye cannot but see I have reason to work and provide as best I may;” and ere this woman’s appeal had left her lips, she would have given the world to recall it, and stood with one hand upon her heart and one before her face, hiding it, but not the tears that trickled underneath it. All which went to the wrong address. Perhaps a female bailiff might have yielded to such arguments, and bade her practise medicine, and break law, till such time as her child should be weaned, and no longer.

“What have we to do with that,” said the burgomaster, “save and except that if thou wilt pledge thyself to break the law no more, I will remit the imprisonment, and exact but the fine?”

On this Doctor Margaret clasped her hands together, and vowed most penitently never, never, never to cure body or beast again; and being dismissed with the constables to pay the fine, she turned at the door, and curtsied, poor soul, and thanked the gentlemen for their forbearance.

And to pay the fine the “To-morrow box” must be opened on the instant; and with excess of caution she had gone and nailed it up, that no slight temptation might prevail to open it. And now she could not draw the nails, and the constables grew impatient, and doubted its contents, and said, “Let us break it for you.” But she would not let them. “Ye will break it worse than I shall.” And she took a hammer, and struck too faintly, and lost all strength for a minute, and wept hysterically; and at last she broke it, and a little cry bubbled from her when it broke; and she paid the fine, and it took all her unlawful gains and two gold pieces to boot; and when the men were gone, she drew the broken pieces of the box, and what little money they had left her, all together on the table, and her arms went round them, and her rich hair escaped, and fell down all loose, and she bowed her forehead on the wreck, and sobbed, “My love’s box it is broken, and my heart withal;” and so remained. And Martin Wittenhaagen came in, and she could not lift her head, but sighed out to him what had befallen her, ending, “My love his box is broken, and so mine heart is broken.”

And Martin was not so sad as wroth. Some traitor had betrayed him. What stony heart had told and brought her to this pass? Whoever it was should feel his arrow’s point. The curious attitude in which he must deliver the shaft never occurred to him.

“Idle chat! idle chat!” moaned Margaret, without lifting her brow from the table. “When you have slain all the gossips in this town, can we eat them? Tell me how to keep you all, or prithee hold thy peace, and let the saints get leave to whisper me.” Martin held his tongue, and cast uneasy glances at his defeated General.

Towards evening she rose, and washed her face and did up her hair, and doggedly bade Martin take down the crocodile, and put out a basket instead.

“I can get up linen better than they seem to do it in this street,” said she, “and you must carry it in the basket.”

“That will I for thy sake,” said the soldier.

“Good Martin! forgive me that I spake shrewishly to thee.”

Even while they were talking came a male for advice. Margaret told it the mayor had interfered and forbidden her to sell drugs. “But,” said she, “I will gladly iron and starch your linen for you, and I will come and fetch it from your house.”

“Are ye mad, young woman?” said the male. “I come for a leech, and ye proffer me a washerwoman;” and it went out in dudgeon.

“There is a stupid creature,” said Margaret sadly.

Presently came a female to tell the symptoms of her sick child. Margaret stopped it.

“We are forbidden by the bailiff to sell drugs. But I will gladly wash, iron, and starch your linen for you-and-I will come and fetch it from your house.”

“Oh, ay,” said the female. “Well, I have some smocks and ruffs foul. Come for them; and when you are there, you can look at the boy;” and it told her where it lived, and when its husband would be out; yet it was rather fond of its husband than not.

An introduction is an introduction. And two or three patients out of all those who came and were denied medicine made Doctor Margaret their washerwoman.

“Now, Martin, you must help. I’ll no more cats than can slay mice.”

“Mistress, the stomach is not awanting for’t, but the headpiece, worst luck.”

“Oh! I mean not the starching and ironing; that takes a woman and a handy one. But the bare washing; a man can surely contrive that. Why, a mule has wit enough in’s head to do’t with his hoofs, an’ ye could drive him into the tub. Come, off doublet, and try.”

“I am your man,” said the brave old soldier, stripping for the unwonted toil. “I’ll risk my arm in soapsuds, an you will risk your glory.”

“My what?”

“Your glory and honour as a — washerwoman.”

“Gramercy! if you are man enough to bring me half-washed linen t’ iron, I am woman enough to fling’t back i’ the suds.”

And so the brave girl and the brave soldier worked with a will, and kept the wolf from the door. More they could not do. Margaret had repaired the “To-morrow box,” and as she leaned over the glue, her tears mixed with it, and she cemented her exiled lover’s box with them, at which a smile is allowable, but an intelligent smile tipped with pity, please, and not the empty guffaw of the nineteenth-century-jackass, burlesquing Bibles, and making fun of all things except fun. But when mended it stood unreplenished. They kept the weekly rent paid, and the pot boiling, but no more.

And now came a concatenation. Recommended from one to another, Margaret washed for the mayor. And bringing home the clean linen one day she heard in the kitchen that his worship’s only daughter was stricken with disease, and not like to live, Poor Margaret could not help cross-questioning, and a female servant gave her such of the symptoms as she had observed. But they were too general. However, one gossip would add one fact, and another another. And Margaret pondered them all.

At last one day she met the mayor himself. He recognized her directly. “Why, you are the unlicensed doctor.” “I was,” said she, “but now I’m your worship’s washerwoman.” The dignitary coloured, and said that was rather a come down. “Nay, I bear no malice; for your worship might have been harder. Rather would I do you a good turn. Sir, you have a sick daughter. Let me see her.”

The mayor shook his head. “That cannot be. The law I do enforce on others I may not break myself.” Margaret opened her eyes. “Alack, sir, I seek no guerdon now for curing folk; why, I am a washerwoman. I trow one may heal all the world, an if one will but let the world starve one in return.” “That is no more than just,” said the mayor: he added, “an’ ye make no trade on’t, there is no offence.” “Then let me see her.”

“What avails it? The learnedest leeches in Rotterdam have all seen her, and bettered her nought. Her ill is inscrutable. One skilled wight saith spleen; another, liver; another, blood; another, stomach; and another, that she is possessed; and in very truth, she seems to have a demon; shunneth all company; pineth alone; eateth no more victuals than might diet a sparrow. Speaketh seldom, nor hearkens them that speak, and weareth thinner and paler and nearer and nearer the grave, well-a-day.” “Sir,” said Margaret, “an if you take your velvet doublet to half-a-dozen of shops in Rotterdam, and speer is this fine or sorry velvet, and worth how much the ell, those six traders will eye it and feel it, and all be in one story to a letter. And why? Because they know their trade. And your leeches are all in different stories. Why? Because they know not their trade. I have heard my father say each is enamoured of some one evil, and seeth it with his bat’s eye in every patient. Had they stayed at home, and never seen your daughter, they had answered all the same, spleen, blood, stomach, lungs, liver, lunacy, or as they call it possession. Let me see her. We are of a sex, and that is much.” And when he still hesitated, “Saints of heaven!” cried she, giving way to the irritability of a breeding woman, “is this how men love their own flesh and blood? Her mother had ta’en me in her arms ere this, and carried me to the sick room.” And two violet eyes flashed fire.

“Come with me,” said the mayor hastily.

“Mistress, I have brought thee a new doctor.”

The person addressed, a pale young girl of eighteen, gave a contemptuous wrench of her shoulder, and turned more decidedly to the fire she was sitting over.

Margaret came softly and sat beside her. “But ’tis one that will not torment you.

“A woman!” exclaimed the young lady, with surprise and some contempt.

“Tell her your symptoms.”

“What for? you will be no wiser.”

“You will be none the worse.”

“Well, I have no stomach for food, and no heart for any thing. Now cure me, and go.”

“Patience awhile! Your food, is it tasteless like in your mouth?”

“Ay. How knew you that?”

“Nay, I knew it not till you did tell me. I trow you would be better for a little good company.”

“I trow not. What is their silly chat to me?”

Here Margaret requested the father to leave them alone; and in his absence put some practical questions. Then she reflected.

“When you wake i’ the morning you find yourself quiver, as one may say?”

“Nay. Ay. How knew you that?”

“Shall I dose you, or shall I but tease you a bit with my silly chat?”

“Which you will.”

“Then I will tell you a story. ’Tis about two true lovers.”

“I hate to hear of lovers,” said the girl; “nevertheless canst tell me, ’twill be less nauseous than your physic — maybe.”

Margaret then told her a love story. The maiden was a girl called Ursel, and the youth one Conrad; she an old physician’s daughter, he the son of a hosier at Tergou. She told their adventures, their troubles, their sad condition. She told it from the female point of view, and in a sweet and winning and earnest voice, that by degrees soon laid hold of this sullen heart, and held it breathless; and when she broke it off her patient was much disappointed.

“Nay, nay, I must hear the end. I will hear it.”

“Ye cannot, for I know it not; none knoweth that but God.”

“Ah, your Ursel was a jewel of worth,” said the girl earnestly. “Would she were here.”

“Instead of her that is here?”

“I say not that;” and she blushed a little.

“You do but think it.”

“Thought is free. Whether or no, an she were here, I’d give her a buss, poor thing.”

“Then give it me, for I am she.”

“Nay, nay, that I’ll be sworn y’ are not.”

“Say not so; in very truth I am she. And prithee, sweet mistress, go not from your word, but give me the buss ye promised me, and with a good heart, for oh, my own heart lies heavy: heavy as thine, sweet mistress.”

The young gentlewoman rose and put her arms round Margaret’s neck and kissed her. “I am woe for you,” she sighed. “You are a good soul; you have done me good — a little.” (A gulp came in her throat.) “Come again! come again!”

Margaret did come again, and talked with her, and gently, but keenly watched what topics interested her, and found there was but one. Then she said to the mayor, “I know your daughter’s trouble, and ’tis curable.”

“What is’t? the blood?”

“Nay.”

“The stomach?”

“Nay.”

“The liver?”

“Nay.”

“The foul fiend?”

“Nay.”

“What then?”

“Love.”

“Love? stuff, impossible! She is but a child; she never stirs abroad unguarded. She never hath from a child.”

“All the better; then we shall not have far to look for him.”

“I vow not. I shall but command her to tell me the caitiff’s name, that hath by magic arts ensnared her young affections.”

“Oh, how foolish be the wise!” said Margaret; “what, would ye go and put her on her guard? Nay, let us work by art first; and if that fails, then ’twill still be time for violence and folly.”

Margaret then with some difficulty prevailed on the mayor to take advantage of its being Saturday, and pay all his people their salaries in his daughter’s presence and hers.

It was done: some fifteen people entered the room, and received their pay with a kind word from their employer. Then Margaret, who had sat close to the patient all the time, rose and went out. The mayor followed her.

“Sir, how call you yon black-haired lad?”

“That is Ulrich, my clerk.”

“Well then, ’tis he.”

“Now Heaven forbid a lad I took out of the streets.”

“Well, but your worship is an understanding man. You took him not up without some merit of his?”

“Merit? not a jot! I liked the looks of the brat, that was all.”

“Was that no merit? He pleased the father’s eye. And now who had pleased the daughter’s. That has oft been seen since Adam.”

“How know ye ’tis he?”

“I held her hand, and with my finger did lightly touch her wrist; and when the others came and went, ’twas as if dogs and cats had fared in and out. But at this Ulrich’s coming her pulse did leap, and her eye shine; and when he went, she did sink back and sigh; and ’twas to be seen the sun had gone out of the room for her. Nay, burgomaster, look not on me so scared: no witch or magician I, but a poor girl that hath been docile, and so bettered herself by a great neglected leech’s art and learning. I tell ye all this hath been done before, thousands of years ere we were born. Now bide thou there till I come to thee, and prithee, prithee, spoil not good work wi’ meddling.” She then went back and asked her patient for a lock of her hair.

“Take it,” said she, more listlessly than ever.

“Why, ’tis a lass of marble. How long do you count to be like that, mistress?”

“Till I am in my grave, sweet Peggy.”

“Who knows? maybe in ten minutes you will be altogether as hot.”

She ran into the shop, but speedily returned to the mayor and said, “Good news! He fancies her and more than a little. Now how is’t to be? Will you marry your child, or bury her, for there is no third way, for shame and love they do rend her virgin heart to death.”

The dignitary decided for the more cheerful rite, but not without a struggle; and with its marks on his face he accompanied Margaret to his daughter. But as men are seldom in a hurry to drink their wormwood, he stood silent. So Doctor Margaret said cheerfully, “Mistress, your lock is gone; I have sold it.”

“And who was so mad as to buy such a thing?” inquired the young lady scornfully.

“Oh, a black-haired laddie wi’ white teeth. They call him Ulrich.”

The pale face reddened directly, brow and all.

“Says he, ‘Oh, sweet mistress, give it me.’ I had told them all whose ’twas. ‘Nay,’ said I, ‘selling is my livelihood, not giving.’ So he offered me this, he offered me that, but nought less would I take than his next quarter’s wages.

“Cruel,” murmured the girl, scarce audibly.

“Why, you are in one tale with your father. Says he to me when I told him, ‘Oh, an he loves her hair so well, ’tis odd but he loves the rest of her. Well,’ quoth he, ”tis an honest lad, and a shall have her, gien she will but leave her sulks and consent.’ So, what say ye, mistress, will you be married to Ulrich, or buried i’ the kirkyard?”

“Father! father!”

“’Tis so, girl, speak thy mind.”

“I will obey my father — in all things,” stammered the poor girl, trying hard to maintain the advantageous position in which Margaret had placed her. But nature, and the joy and surprise, were too strong even for a virgin’s bashful cunning. She cast an eloquent look on them both, and sank at her father’s knees, and begged his pardon, with many sobs for having doubted his tenderness.

He raised her in his arms, and took her, radiant through her tears with joy, and returning life, and filial love, to his breast; and the pair passed a truly sacred moment, and the dignitary was as happy as he thought to be miserable; so hard is it for mortals to foresee. And they looked round for Margaret, but she had stolen away softly.

The young girl searched the house for her.

“Where is she hid? Where on earth is she?”

Where was she? why, in her own house, dressing meat for her two old children, and crying bitterly the while at the living picture of happiness she had just created.

“Well-a-day, the odds between her lot and mine; well-a-day!”

Next time she met the dignitary he hemm’d and hawed, and remarked what a pity it was the law forbade him to pay her who had cured his daughter. “However, when all is done, ’twas not art, ’twas but woman’s wit.”

“Nought but that, burgomaster,” said Margaret bitterly. “Pay the men of art for not curing her: all the guerdon I seek, that cured her, is this: go not and give your foul linen away from me by way of thanks.”

“Why should I?” inquired he.

“Marry, because there be fools about ye will tell ye she that hath wit to cure dark diseases, cannot have wit to take dirt out o’ rags; so pledge me your faith.”

The dignitary promised pompously, and felt all the patron.

Something must be done to fill “To-morrow’s” box. She hawked her initial letters and her illuminated vellums all about the town. Printing had by this time dealt caligraphy in black and white a terrible blow in Holland and Germany. But some copies of the printed books were usually illuminated and fettered. The printers offered Margaret prices for work in these two kinds.

“I’ll think on’t,” said she.

She took down her diurnal book, and calculated that the price of an hour’s work on those arts would be about one-fifth what she got for an hour at the tub and mangle. “I’ll starve first,” said she; “what, pay a craft and a mystery five times less than a handicraft!”

Martin, carrying the dry clothes-basket, got treated, and drunk. This time he babbled her whole story. The girls got hold of it and gibed her at the fountain.

All she had gone through was light to her, compared with the pins and bodkins her own sex drove into her heart, whenever she came near the merry crew with her pitcher, and that was every day. Each sex has its form of cruelty; man’s is more brutal and terrible; but shallow women, that have neither read nor suffered, have an unmuscular barbarity of their own (where no feeling of sex steps in to overpower it). This defect, intellectual perhaps rather than moral, has been mitigated in our day by books, especially by able works of fiction; for there are two roads to the highest effort of intelligence, Pity; Experience of sorrows, and Imagination, by which alone we realize the grief we never felt. In the fifteenth century girls with pitchers had but one; Experience; and at sixteen years of age or so, that road had scarce been trodden. These girls persisted that Margaret was deserted by her lover. And to be deserted was a crime (They had not been deserted yet.) Not a word against the Gerard they had created out of their own heads. For the imaginary crime they fell foul of the supposed victim. Sometimes they affronted her to her face. Oftener they talked at her backwards and forwards with a subtle skill, and a perseverance which, “oh, that they had bestowed on the arts,” as poor Aguecheek says.

Now Margaret was brave, and a coward; brave to battle difficulties and ill fortune; brave to shed her own blood for those she loved. Fortitude she had. But she had no true fighting courage. She was a powerful young woman, rather tall, full, and symmetrical; yet had one of those slips of girls slapped her face, the poor fool’s hands would have dropped powerless, or gone to her own eyes instead of her adversary’s. Nor was she even a match for so many tongues; and besides, what could she say? She knew nothing of these girls, except that somehow they had found out her sorrows, and hated her; only she thought to herself they must be very happy, or they would not be so hard on her.

So she took their taunts in silence; and all her struggle was not to let them see their power to make her writhe within.

Here came in her fortitude; and she received their blows with well-feigned, icy hauteur. They slapped a statue.

But one day, when her spirits were weak, as happens at times to females in her condition, a dozen assailants followed suit so admirably, that her whole sex seemed to the dispirited one to be against her, and she lost heart, and the tears began to run silently at each fresh stab.

On this their triumph knew no bounds, and they followed her half way home casting barbed speeches.

After that exposure of weakness the statue could be assumed no more. So then she would stand timidly aloof out of tongue-shot, till her young tyrants’ pitchers were all filled, and they gone; and then creep up with hers. And one day she waited so long that the fount had ceased to flow. So the next day she was obliged to face the phalanx, or her house go dry. She drew near slowly, but with the less tremor, that she saw a man at the well talking to them. He would distract their attention, and besides, they would keep their foul tongues quiet if only to blind the male to their real character. This conjecture, though shrewd, was erroneous. They could not all flirt with that one man; so the outsiders indemnified themselves by talking at her the very moment she came up.

“Any news from foreign parts, Jacqueline?”

“None for me, Martha. My lad goes no farther from me than the town wall.”

“I can’t say as much,” says a third.

“But if he goes t’ Italy I have got another ready to take the fool’s place.”

“He’ll not go thither, lass. They go not so far till they are sick of us that bide in Holland.”

Surprise and indignation, and the presence of a man, gave Margaret a moment’s fighting courage.

“Oh, flout me not, and show your ill nature before the very soldier. In Heaven’s name, what ill did I ever to ye? what harsh word cast back, for all you have flung on me, a desolate stranger in your cruel town, that ye flout me for my bereavement and my poor lad’s most unwilling banishment? Hearts of flesh would surely pity us both, for that ye cast in my teeth these many days, ye brows of brass, ye bosoms of stone.”

They stared at this novelty, resistance; and ere they could recover and make mincement of her, she put her pitcher quietly down, and threw her coarse apron over her head, and stood there grieving, her short-lived spirit oozing fast. “Hallo!” cried the soldier, “why, what is your ill?” She made no reply. But a little girl, who had long secretly hated the big ones, squeaked out, “They did flout her, they are aye flouting her; she may not come nigh the fountain for fear o’ them, and ’tis a black shame.”

“Who spoke to her! Not I for one.”

“Nor I. I would not bemean myself so far.”

The man laughed heartily at this display of dignity. “Come, wife,” said he, “never lower thy flag to such light skirmishers as these. Hast a tongue i’ thy head as well as they.”

“Alack, good soldier, I was not bred to bandy foul terms.”

“Well, but hast a better arm than these. Why not take ’em by twos across thy knee, and skelp ’em till they cry Meculpee?”

“Nay, I would not hurt their bodies for all their cruel hearts.”

“Then ye must e’en laugh at them, wife. What! a woman grown, and not see why mesdames give tongue? You are a buxom wife; they are a bundle of thread-papers. You are fair and fresh; they have all the Dutch rim under their bright eyes, that comes of dwelling in eternal swamps. There lies your crime. Come, gie me thy pitcher, and if they flout me, shalt see me scrub ’em all wi’ my beard till they squeak holy mother.” The pitcher was soon filled, and the soldier put it in Margaret’s hand. She murmured, “Thank you kindly, brave soldier.”

He patted her on the shoulder. “Come, courage, brave wife; the divell is dead!” She let the heavy pitcher fall on his foot directly. He cursed horribly, and hopped in a circle, saying, “No, the Thief’s alive and has broken my great toe.”

The apron came down, and there was a lovely face all flushed with’ emotion, and two beaming eyes in front of him, and two hands held out clasped.

“Nay, nay, ’tis nought,” said he good-humouredly, mistaking.

“Denys?”

“Well? — But — Hallo! How know you my name is —”

“Denys of Burgundy!”

“Why, ods bodikins! I know you not, and you know me.”

“By Gerard’s letter. Crossbow! beard! handsome! The divell is dead.”

“Sword of Goliah! this must be she. Red hair, violet eyes, lovely face. But I took ye for a married wife, seeing ye ——”

“Tell me my name,” said she quickly.

“Margaret Brandt.”

“Gerard? Where is he? Is he in life? Is he well? Is he coming? Is he come? Why is he not here? Where have ye left him? Oh tell me! prithee, prithee, prithee, tell me!”

“Ay, ay, but not here. Oh, ye are all curiosity now, mesdames, eh? Lass, I have been three months a-foot travelling all Holland to find ye, and here you are. Oh, be joyful!” and he flung his cap in the air, and seizing both her hands kissed them ardently. “Ah, my pretty she-comrade, I have found thee at last. I knew I should. Shall be flouted no more. I’ll twist your necks at the first word, ye little trollops. And I have got fifteen gold angels left for thee, and our Gerard will soon be here. Shalt wet thy purple eyes no more.”

But the fair eyes were wet even now, looking kindly and gratefully at the friend that had dropped among her foes as if from heaven; Gerard’s comrade. “Prithee come home with me good, kind Denys. I cannot speak of him before these.” They went off together, followed by a chorus. “She has gotten a man. She has gotten a man at last. Boo! boo! boo!”

Margaret quickened her steps; but Denys took down his crossbow and pretended to shoot them all dead: they fled quadrivious, shrieking.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/reade/charles/cloister-and-the-hearth/chapter50.html

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