The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 65

It happened, two days after the scene I have endeavoured to describe, that Gerard, wandering through one of the meanest streets in Rome, was overtaken by a thunderstorm, and entered a low hostelry. He called for wine, and the rain continuing, soon drank himself into a half stupid condition, and dozed with his head on his hands and his hands upon the table.

In course of time the room began to fill and the noise of the rude guests to wake him.

Then it was he became conscious of two figures near him conversing in a low voice.

One was a pardoner. The other by his dress, clean but modest, might have passed for a decent tradesman; but the way he had slouched his hat over his brows, so as to hide all his face except his beard, showed he was one of those who shun the eye of honest men, and of the law. The pair were driving a bargain in the sin market. And by an arrangement not uncommon at that date, the crime to be forgiven was yet to be committed — under the celestial contract.

He of the slouched hat was complaining of the price pardons had reached. “If they go up any higher we poor fellows shall be shut out of heaven altogether.”

The pardoner denied the charge flatly. “Indulgences were never cheaper to good husbandmen.”

The other inquired, “Who were they?”

“Why, such as sin by the market, like reasonable creatures. But if you will be so perverse as go and pick out a crime the Pope hath set his face against, blame yourself, not me!”

Then, to prove that crime of one sort or another was within the means of all but the very scum of society, he read out the scale from a written parchment.

It was a curious list; but not one that could be printed in this book. And to mutilate it would be to misrepresent it. It is to be found in any great library. Suffice it to say that murder of a layman was much cheaper than many crimes my lay readers would deem light by comparison.

This told; and by a little trifling concession on each side, the bargain was closed, the money handed over, and the aspirant to heaven’s favour forgiven beforehand for removing one layman. The price for disposing of a clerk bore no proportion.

The word assassination was never once uttered by either merchant.

All this buzzed in Gerard’s ear. But he never lifted his head from the table; only listened stupidly.

However, when the parties rose and separated, he half raised his head, and eyed with a scowl the retiring figure of the purchaser.

“If Margaret was alive,” muttered he, “I’d take thee by the throat and throttle thee, thou cowardly stabber. But she is dead; dead; dead. Die all the world; ’tis nought to me: so that I die among the first.”

When he got home there was a man in a slouched hat walking briskly to and fro on the opposite side of the way.

“Why, there is that cur again,” thought Gerard.

But in this state of mind, the circumstance made no impression whatever on him.

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