The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 63

A dark cloud fell on a noble mind.

His pure and unrivalled love for Margaret had been his polar star. It was quenched, and he drifted on the gloomy sea of no hope.

Nor was he a prey to despair alone, but to exasperation at all his self-denial, fortitude, perils, virtue, wasted and worse than wasted; for it kept burning and stinging him, that, had he stayed lazily, selfishly at home, he should have saved his Margaret’s life.

These two poisons, raging together in his young blood, maddened and demoralized him. He rushed fiercely into pleasure. And in those days, even more than now, pleasure was vice. Wine, women, gambling, whatever could procure him an hour’s excitement and a moment’s oblivion. He plunged into these things, as men tired of life have rushed among the enemy’s bullets.

The large sums he had put by for Margaret gave him ample means for debauchery, and he was soon the leader of those loose companions he had hitherto kept at a distance.

His heart deteriorated along with his morals.

He sulked with his old landlady for thrusting gentle advice and warning on him; and finally removed to another part of the town, to be clear of remonstrance and reminiscences. When he had carried this game on some time, his hand became less steady, and he could no longer write to satisfy himself. Moreover, his patience declined as the habits of pleasure grew on him. So he gave up that art, and took likenesses in colours.

But this he neglected whenever the idle rakes, his companions, came for him.

And so he dived in foul waters, seeking that sorry oyster-shell, Oblivion.

It is not my business to paint at full length the scenes of coarse vice in which this unhappy young man now played a part. But it is my business to impress the broad truth, that he was a rake, a debauchee, and a drunkard, and one of the wildest, loosest, and wickedest young men in Rome.

They are no lovers of truth, nor of mankind, who conceal or slur the wickedness of the good, and so by their want of candour rob despondent sinners of hope.

Enough, the man was not born to do things by halves. And he was not vicious by halves.

His humble female friends often gossiped about him. His old landlady told Teresa he was going to the bad, and prayed her to try and find out where he was.

Teresa told her husband Lodovico his sad story, and bade him look about and see if he could discover the young man’s present abode. “Shouldst remember his face, Lodovico mio?”

“Teresa, a man in my way of life never forgets a face, least of all a benefactor’s. But thou knowest I seldom go abroad by daylight.”

Teresa sighed. “And how long is it to be so, Lodovico?”

“Till some cavalier passes his sword through me. They will not let a poor fellow like me take to any honest trade.”

Pietro Vanucci was one of those who bear prosperity worse than adversity.

Having been ignominiously ejected for late hours by their old landlady, and meeting Gerard in the street, he greeted him warmly, and soon after took up his quarters in the same house.

He brought with him a lad called Andrea, who ground his colours, and was his pupil, and also his model, being a youth of rare beauty, and as sharp as a needle.

Pietro had not quite forgotten old times, and professed a warm friendship for Gerard.

Gerard, in whom all warmth of sentiment seemed extinct, submitted coldly to the other’s friendship.

And a fine acquaintance it was. This Pietro was not only a libertine, but half a misanthrope, and an open infidel.

And so they ran in couples, with mighty little in common. O, rare phenomenon!

One day, when Gerard had undermined his health, and taken the bloom off his beauty, and run through most of his money, Vanucci got up a gay party to mount the Tiber in a boat drawn by buffaloes. Lorenzo de’ Medici had imported these creatures into Florence about three years before. But they were new in Rome, and nothing would content this beggar on horseback, Vanucci, but being drawn by the brutes up the Tiber.

Each libertine was to bring a lady and she must be handsome, or he be fined. But the one that should contribute the loveliest was to be crowned with laurel, and voted a public benefactor. Such was their reading of “Vir bonus est quis?” They got a splendid galley, and twelve buffaloes. And all the libertines and their female accomplices assembled by degrees at the place of embarkation. But no Gerard.

They waited for him some time, at first patiently, then impatiently.

Vanucci excused him. “I heard him say he had forgotten to provide himself with a fardingale. Comrades, the good lad is hunting for a beauty fit to take rank among these peerless dames. Consider the difficulty, ladies, and be patient!”

At last Gerard was seen at some distance with a female in his hand.

“She is long enough,” said one of her sex, criticising her from afar.

“Gemini! what steps she takes,” said another. “Oh! it is wise to hurry into good company,” was Pietro’s excuse.

But when the pair came up, satire was choked.

Gerard’s companion was a peerless beauty; she extinguished the boat-load, as stars the rising sun. Tall, but not too tall; and straight as a dart, yet supple as a young panther. Her face a perfect oval, her forehead white, her cheeks a rich olive with the eloquent blood mantling below and her glorious eyes fringed with long thick silken eyelashes, that seemed made to sweep up sensitive hearts by the half dozen. Saucy red lips, and teeth of the whitest ivory.

The women were visibly depressed by this wretched sight; the men in ecstasies; they received her with loud shouts and waving of caps, and one enthusiast even went down on his knees upon the boat’s gunwale, and hailed her of origin divine. But his chere amie pulling his hair for it — and the goddess giving him a little kick — cotemporaneously, he lay supine; and the peerless creature frisked over his body without deigning him a look, and took her seat at the prow. Pietro Vanucci sat in a sort of collapse, glaring at her, and gaping with his mouth open like a dying cod-fish.

The drover spoke to the buffaloes, the ropes tightened, and they moved up stream.

“What think ye of this new beef, mesdames?”

“We ne’er saw monsters so viley ill-favoured; with their nasty horns that make one afeard, and, their foul nostrils cast up into the air. Holes be they; not nostrils.”

“Signorina, the beeves are a present from Florence the beautiful Would ye look a gift beef i’ the nose?”

“They are so dull,” objected a lively lady. “I went up Tiber twice as fast last time with but five mules and an ass.”

“Nay, that is soon mended,” cried a gallant, and jumping ashore he drew his sword, and despite the remonstrances of the drivers, went down the dozen buffaloes goading them.

They snorted and whisked their tails, and went no faster, at which the boat-load laughed loud and long: finally he goaded a patriarch bull, who turned instantly on the sword, sent his long horns clean through the spark, and with a furious jerk of his prodigious neck sent him flying over his head into the air. He described a bold parabola and fell sitting, and unconsciously waving his glittering blade, into the yellow Tiber. The laughing ladies screamed and wrung their hands, all but Gerard’s fair. She uttered something very like an oath, and seizing the helm steered the boat out, and the gallant came up sputtering, griped the gunwale, and was drawn in dripping.

He glared round him confusedly. “I understand not that,” said he, a little peevishly; puzzled, and therefore, it would seem, discontented. At which, finding he was by some strange accident not slain, his doublet being perforated, instead of his body, they began to laugh again louder than ever.

“What are ye cackling at?” remonstrated the spark, “I desire to know how ’tis that one moment a gentleman is out yonder a pricking of African beef, and the next moment —”

Gerard’s lady. “Disporting in his native stream.”

“Tell him not, a soul of ye,” cried Vanucci. “Let him find out ‘s own riddle.”

Confound ye all. I might puzzle my brains till doomsday, I should ne’er find it out. Also, where is my sword?

Gerard’s lady. “Ask Tiber! Your best way, signor, will be to do it over again; and, in a word, keep pricking of Afric’s beef, till your mind receives light. So shall you comprehend the matter by degrees, as lawyers mount heaven, and buffaloes Tiber.”

Here a chevalier remarked that the last speaker transcended the sons of Adam as much in wit as she did the daughters of Eve in beauty.

At which, and indeed at all their compliments, the conduct of Pietro Vanucci was peculiar. That signor had left off staring, and gaping bewildered; and now sat coiled up snake-like, on each, his mouth muffled, and two bright eyes fixed on the’ lady, and twinkling and scintillating most comically.

He did not appear to interest or amuse her in return. Her glorious eyes and eyelashes swept him calmly at times, but scarce distinguished him from the benches and things.

Presently the unanimity of the party suffered a momentary check.

Mortified by the attention the cavaliers paid to Gerard’s companion, the ladies began to pick her to pieces sotto voce, and audibly.

The lovely girl then showed that, if rich in beauty, she was poor in feminine tact. Instead of revenging herself like a true woman through the men, she permitted herself to overhear, and openly retaliate on her detractors.

“There is not one of you that wears Nature’s colours,” said she. “Look here,” and she pointed rudely in one’s face. “This is the beauty that is to be bought in every shop. Here is cerussa, here is stibium, and here purpurissum. Oh, I know the articles bless you, I use them every day — but not on my face, no thank you.”

Here Vanucci’s eyes twinkled themselves nearly out of sight.

“Why, your lips are coloured, and the very veins in your forehead: not a charm but would come off with a wet towel. And look at your great coarse black hair like a horse’s tail, drugged and stained to look like tow. And then your bodies are as false as your heads and your cheeks, and your hearts I trow. Look at your padded bosoms, and your wooden heeled chopines to raise your little stunted limbs up and deceive the world. Skinny dwarfs ye are, cushioned and stultified into great fat giants. Aha, mesdames, well is it said of you, grande — di legni: grosse — di straci: rosse — di bettito: bianche — di calcina.”

This drew out a rejoinder. “Avaunt, vulgar toad, telling the men everything. Your coarse, ruddy cheeks are your own, and your little handful of African hair. But who is padded more? Why, you are shaped like a fire-shovel.”

“Ye lie, malapert.”

“Oh, the well-educated young person! Where didst pick her up, Ser Gerard?”

“Hold thy peace, Marcia,” said Gerard, awakened by the raised trebles from a gloomy reverie. “Be not so insolent! The grave shall close over thy beauty as it hath over fairer than thee.”

“They began,” said Marcia petulantly.

“Then be thou the first to leave off.”

“At thy request, my friend.” She then whispered Gerard, “It was only to make you laugh; you are distraught, you are sad. Judge whether I care for the quips of these little fools, or the admiration of these big fools. Dear Signor Gerard, would I were what they take me for? You should not be so sad.”

Gerard sighed deeply; and shook his head. But touched by the earnest young tones, caressed the jet black locks, much as one strokes the head of an affectionate dog.

At this moment a galley drifting slowly down stream got entangled for an instant in their ropes: for, the river turning suddenly, they had shot out into the stream; and this galley came between them and the bank. In it a lady of great beauty was seated under a canopy with gallants and dependents standing behind her.

Gerard looked up at the interruption. It was the Princess Claelia.

He coloured and withdrew his hand from Marcia’s head.

Marcia was all admiration. “Aha! ladies,” said she, “here is a rival an ye will. Those cheeks were coloured by Nature-like mine.”

“Peace, child! peace!” said Gerard. “Make not too free with the great.”

“Why, she heard me not. Oh, Ser Gerard, what a lovely creature!”

Two of the females had been for some time past putting their heads together and casting glances at Marcia.

One of them now addressed her.

“Signorina, do you love almonds?”

The speaker had a lapful of them.

“Yes, I love them; when I can get them,” said Marcia pettishly, and eyeing the fruit with ill-concealed desire; “but yours is not the hand to give me any, I trow.”

“You are much mistook,” said the other. “Here, catch!” And suddenly threw a double handful into Marcia’s lap.

Marcia brought her knees together by an irresistible instinct.

“Aha! you are caught, my lad,” cried she of the nuts. “’Tis a man; or a boy. A woman still parteth her knees to catch the nuts the surer in her apron; but a man closeth his for fear they should all between his hose. Confess, now, didst never wear fardingale ere to-day?”

“Give me another handful, sweetheart, and I’ll tell thee.”

“There! I said he was too handsome for a woman.”

“Ser Gerard, they have found me out,” observed the Epicaene, calmly cracking an almond.

The libertines vowed it was impossible, and all glared at the goddess like a battery. But Vanucci struck in, and reminded the gaping gazers of a recent controversy, in which they had, with a unanimity not often found among dunces, laughed Gerard and him to scorn, for saying that men were as beautiful as women in a true artist’s eye.

“Where are ye now? This is my boy Andrea. And you have all been down on your knees to him. Ha! ha! But oh, my little ladies, when he lectured you and flung your stibium, your cerussa, and your purpurissum back in your faces, ’tis then I was like to burst; a grinds my colours. Ha! ha! he! he! he! ho!”

“The little impostor! Duck him!”

“What for, signors?” cried Andrea, in dismay, and lost his rich carnation.

But the females collected round him, and vowed nobody should harm a hair of his head.

“The dear child! How well his pretty little saucy ways become him.”

“Oh, what eyes and teeth!”

“And what eyebrows and hair!”

“And what lashes!”

“And what a nose!”

“The sweetest little ear in the world!”

“And what health! Touch but his cheek with a pin the blood should squirt.”

“Who would be so cruel?”

“He is a rosebud washed in dew.”

And they revenged themselves for their beaux’ admiration of her by lavishing all their tenderness on him.

But one there was who was still among these butterflies, but no longer of them. The sight of the Princess Claelia had torn open his wound.

Scarce three months ago he had declined the love of that peerless creature; a love illicit and insane; but at least refined.

How much lower had he fallen now.

How happy he must have been, when the blandishments of Claelia, that might have melted an anchorite, could not tempt him from the path of loyalty!

Now what was he? He had blushed at her seeing him in such company. Yet it was his daily company.

He hung over the boat in moody silence.

And from that hour another phase of his misery began; and grew upon him.

Some wretched fools try to drown care in drink.

The fumes of intoxication vanish; the inevitable care remains, and must be faced at last — with an aching head, disordered stomach, and spirits artificially depressed.

Gerard’s conduct had been of a piece with these maniacs’. To survive his terrible blow he needed all his forces; his virtue, his health, his habits of labour, and the calm sleep that is labour’s satellite; above all, his piety.

Yet all these balms to wounded hearts he flung away and trusted to moral intoxication.

Its brief fumes fled; the bereaved heart lay still heavy as lead within his bosom; but now the dark vulture Remorse sat upon it rending it.

Broken health; means wasted; innocence fled; Margaret parted from him by another gulf wider than the grave! The hot fit of despair passed away.

The cold fit of despair came on.

Then this miserable young man spurned his gay companions, and all the world.

He wandered alone. He drank wine alone to stupefy himself; and paralyze a moment the dark foes to man that preyed upon his soul. He wandered alone amidst the temples of old Rome, and lay stony eyed, woebegone, among their ruins, worse wrecked than they.

Last of all came the climax, to which solitude, that gloomy yet fascinating foe of minds diseased, pushes the hopeless.

He wandered alone at night by dark streams, and eyed them, and eyed them, with decreasing repugnance. There glided peace; perhaps annihilation.

What else was left him?

These dark spells have been broken by kind words, by loving and cheerful voices.

The humblest friend the afflicted one possesses may speak, or look, or smile, a sunbeam between him and that worst madness Gerard now brooded.

Where was Teresa? Where his hearty, kind old landlady?

They would see with their homely but swift intelligence; they would see and save.

No; they knew not where he was, or whither he was gliding.

And is there no mortal eye upon the poor wretch, and the dark road he is going?

Yes; one eye there is upon him; watching his every movement; following him abroad; tracking him home.

And that eye is the eye of an enemy.

An enemy to the death.

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