The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 66

Two nights after this Pietro Vanucci and Andrea sat waiting supper for Gerard.

The former grew peevish. It was past nine o’clock. At last he sent Andrea to Gerard’s room on the desperate chance of his having come in unobserved. Andrea shrugged his shoulders and went.

He returned without Gerard, but with a slip of paper. Andrea could not read, as scholars in his day and charity boys in ours understand the art; but he had a quick eye, and had learned how the words Pietro Vanucci looked on paper.

“That is for you, I trow,” said he, proud of his intelligence.

Pietro snatched it, and read it to Andrea, with his satirical comments.

“‘Dear Pietro, dear Andrea, life is too great a burden.’

“So ’tis, my lad,’ but that is no reason for being abroad at supper-time. Supper is not a burden.”

“‘Wear my habits!’

“Said the poplar to the juniper bush.”

“‘And thou, Andrea, mine amethyst ring; and me in both your hearts a month or two.’

“Why, Andrea?”

“‘For my body, ere this ye read, it will lie in Tiber. Trouble not to look for it. ’Tis not worth the pains. Oh unhappy day that it was born oh happy night that rids me of it.

“‘Adieu! adieu!

“‘The broken-hearted Gerard.’

“Here is a sorry jest of the peevish rogue,” said Pietro. But his pale cheek and chattering teeth belied his words. Andrea filled the house with his cries.

“O, miserable day! O, calamity of calamities! Gerard, my friend, my sweet patron! Help! help! He is killing himself! Oh, good people, help me save him!” And after alarming all the house he ran into the street, bareheaded, imploring all good Christians to help him save his friend.

A number of persons soon collected.

But poor Andrea could not animate their sluggishness. Go down to the river? No. It was not their business. What part of the river? It was a wild goose chase.

It was not lucky to go down to the river after sunset. Too many ghosts walked those banks all night.

A lackey, however, who had been standing some time opposite the house, said he would go with Andrea; and this turned three or four of the younger ones.

The little band took the way to the river.

The lackey questioned Andrea.

Andrea, sobbing, told him about the letter, and Gerard’s moody ways of late.

That lackey was a spy of the Princess Claelia.

Their Italian tongues went fast till they neared the Tiber.

But the moment they felt the air from the river, and the smell of the stream in the calm spring night, they were dead silent.

The moon shone calm and clear in a cloudless sky. Their feet sounded loud and ominous. Their tongues were hushed.

Presently hurrying round a corner they met a man. He stopped irresolute at sight of them.

The man was bareheaded, and his dripping hair glistened in the moonlight; and at the next step they saw his clothes were drenched with water.

“Here he is,” cried one of the young men, unacquainted with Gerard’s face and figure.

The stranger turned instantly and fled.

They ran after him might and main, Andrea leading, and the princess’s lackey next.

Andrea gained on him; but in a moment he twisted up a narrow alley. Andrea shot by, unable to check himself; and the pursuers soon found themselves in a labyrinth in which it was vain to pursue a quickfooted fugitive who knew every inch of it, and could now only be followed by the ear.

They returned to their companions, and found them standing on the spot where the man had stood, and utterly confounded. For Pietro had assured them that the fugitive had neither the features nor the stature of Gerard.

“Are ye verily sure?” said they. “He had been in the river. Why, in the saints’ names, fled he at our approach?”

Then said Vanucci, “Friends, methinks this has nought to do with him we seek. What shall we do, Andrea?”

Here the lackey put in his word. “Let us track him to the water’s side, to make sure. See, he hath come dripping all the way.”

This advice was approved, and with very little difficulty they tracked the man’s course.

But soon they encountered a new enigma.

They had gone scarcely fifty yards ere the drops turned away from the river, and took them to the gate of a large gloomy building. It was a monastery.

They stood irresolute before it, and gazed at the dark pile.

It seemed to them to hide some horrible mystery.

But presently Andrea gave a shout. “Here be the drops again,” cried he. “And this road leadeth to the river.”

They resumed the chase; and soon it became clear the drops were now leading them home. The track became wetter and wetter, and took them to the Tiber’s edge. And there on the bank a bucketful appeared to have been discharged from the stream.

At first they shouted, and thought they had made a discovery: but reflection showed them it amounted to nothing. Certainly a man had been in the water, and had got out of it in safety; but that man was not Gerard. One said he knew a fisherman hard by that had nets and drags. They found the fisherman and paid him liberally to sink nets in the river below the place, and to drag it above and below; and promised him gold should he find the body. Then they ran vainly up and down the river which flowed so calm and voiceless, holding this and a thousand more strange secrets. Suddenly Andrea, with a cry of hope, ran back to the house.

He returned in less than half an hour.

“No,” he groaned, and wrung his hands.

“What is the hour?” asked the lackey.

“Four hours past midnight.”

“My pretty lad,” said the lackey solemnly, “say a mass for thy friend’s soul: for he is not among living men.”

The morning broke. Worn out with fatigue, Andrea and Pietro went home, heart sick.

The days rolled on, mute as the Tiber as to Gerard’s fate.

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