The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 69

In the guest chamber of a Dominican convent lay a single stranger, exhausted by successive and violent fits of nausea, which had at last subsided, leaving him almost as weak as Margaret lay that night in Holland.

A huge wood fire burned on the hearth, and beside it hung the patient’s clothes.

A gigantic friar sat by his bedside, reading pious collects aloud from his breviary.

The patient at times eyed him, and seemed to listen: at others closed his eyes and moaned.

The monk kneeled down with his face touching the ground and prayed for him; then rose and bade him farewell. “Day breaks,” said he; “I must prepare for matins.”

“Good Father Jerome, before you go, how came I hither?”

“By the hand of Heaven. You flung away God’s gift. He bestowed it on you again. Think on it! Hast tried the world and found its gall. Now try the Church! The Church is peace. Pax vobiscum.”

He was gone. Gerard lay back, meditating and wondering, till weak and wearied he fell into a doze.

When he awoke again he found a new nurse seated beside him. It was a layman, with an eye as small and restless as Friar Jerome’s was calm and majestic.

The man inquired earnestly how he felt.

“Very, very weak. Where have I seen you before, messer?”

“None the worse for my gauntlet?” inquired the other, with considerable anxiety; “I was fain to strike you withal, or both you and I should be at the bottom of Tiber.”

Gerard stared at him. “What, ’twas you saved me? How?”

“Well, signor, I was by the banks of Tiber on-on an errand, no matter what. You came to me and begged hard for a dagger stroke. But ere I could oblige you, ay, even as you spoke to me, I knew you for the signor that saved my wife and child upon the sea.”

“It is Teresa’s husband. And an assassin?!!?”

“At your service. Well, Ser Gerard, the next thing was, you flung yourself into Tiber, and bade me hold aloof.”

“I remember that.”

“Had it been any but you, believe me I had obeyed you, and not wagged a finger. Men are my foes. They may all hang on one rope, or drown in one river for me. But when thou, sinking in Tiber, didst cry ‘Margaret!’”

“Ah!”

“My heart it cried ‘Teresa!’ How could I go home and look her in the face, did I let thee die, and by the very death thou savedst her from? So in I went; and luckily for us both I swim like a duck. You, seeing me near, and being bent on destruction, tried to grip me, and so end us both. But I swam round thee, and (receive my excuses) so buffeted thee on the nape of the neck with my steel glove; that thou lost sense, and I with much ado, the stream being strong, did draw thy body to land, but insensible and full of water. Then I took thee on my back and made for my own home. ‘Teresa will nurse him, and be pleased with me,’ thought I. But hard by this monastery, a holy friar, the biggest e’er I saw, met us and asked the matter. So I told him. He looked hard at thee. ‘I know the face,’ quoth he. ”Tis one Gerard, a fair youth from Holland.’ ‘The same,’ quo’ I. Then said his reverence, ‘He hath friends among our brethren. Leave him with us! Charity, it is our office.’

“Also he told me they of the convent had better means to tend thee than I had. And that was true enow. So I just bargained to be let in to see thee once a day, and here thou art.”

And the miscreant cast a strange look of affection and interest upon Gerard.

Gerard did not respond to it. He felt as if a snake were in the room. He closed his eyes.

“Ah, thou wouldst sleep,” said the miscreant eagerly. “I go.” And he retired on tip-toe with a promise to come every day.

Gerard lay with his eyes closed: not asleep, but deeply pondering.

Saved from death, by an assassin

Was not this the finger of Heaven?

Of that Heaven he had insulted, cursed, and defied.

He shuddered at his blasphemies. He tried to pray.

He found he could utter prayers. But he could not pray.

“I am doomed eternally,” he cried, “doomed, doomed.”

The organ of the convent church burst on his ear in rich and solemn harmony.

Then rose the voices of the choir chanting a full service.

Among them was one that seemed to hover above the others, and tower towards heaven; a sweet boy’s voice, full, pure, angelic.

He closed his eyes and listened. The days of his own boyhood flowed back upon him in those sweet, pious harmonies. No earthly dross there, no foul, fierce passions, rending and corrupting the soul.

Peace, peace; sweet, balmy peace.

“Ay,” he sighed, “the Church is peace of mind. Till I left her bosom I ne’er knew sorrow, nor sin.”

And the poor torn, worn creature wept.

And even as he wept, there beamed on him the sweet and reverend face of one he had never thought to see again. It was the face of Father Anselm.

The good father had only reached the convent the night before last. Gerard recognized him in a moment, and cried to him, “Oh, Father Anselm, you cured my wounded body in Juliers: now cure my hurt soul in Rome! Alas, you cannot.”

Anselm sat down by the bedside, and putting a gentle hand on his head, first calmed him with a soothing word or two.

He then (for he had learned how Gerard came there) spoke to him kindly but solemnly, and made him feel his crime, and urged him to repentance, and gratitude to that Divine Power which had thwarted his will to save his soul.

“Come, my son,” said he, “first purge thy bosom of its load.”

“Ah, father,” said Gerard, “in Juliers I could; then I was innocent but now, impious monster that I am, I dare not confess to you.”

“Why not, my son? Thinkest thou I have not sinned against Heaven in my time, and deeply? oh, how deeply! Come, poor laden soul, pour forth thy grief, pour forth thy faults, hold back nought! Lie not oppressed and crushed by hidden sins.”

And soon Gerard was at Father Anselm’s knees confessing his every sin with sighs and groans of penitence.

“Thy sins are great,” said Anselm. “Thy temptation also was great, terribly great. I must consult our good prior.”

The good Anselm kissed his brow, and left him, to consult the superior as to his penance.

And lo! Gerard could pray now.

And he prayed with all his heart.

The phase, through which this remarkable mind now passed, may be summed in a word — Penitence.

He turned with terror and aversion from the world, and begged passionately to remain in the convent. To him, convent nurtured, it was like a bird returning wounded, wearied, to its gentle nest.

He passed his novitiate in prayer, and mortification, and pious reading and meditation.

The Princess Claelia’s spy went home and told her that Gerard was certainly dead, the manner of his death unknown at present.

She seemed literally stunned. When, after a long time, she found breath to speak at all, it was to bemoan her lot, cursed with such ready tools. “So soon,” she sighed; “see how swift these monsters are to do ill deeds. They come to us in our hot blood, and first tempt us with their venal daggers, then enact the mortal deeds we ne’er had thought on but for them.”

Ere many hours had passed, her pity for Gerard and hatred of his murderer had risen to fever heat; which with this fool was blood heat.

“Poor soul! I cannot call thee back to life. But he shall never live that traitorously slew thee.”

And she put armed men in ambush, and kept them on guard all day, ready, when Lodovico should come for his money, to fall on him in a certain antechamber and hack him to pieces.

“Strike at his head,” said she, “for he weareth a privy coat of mail; and if he goes hence alive your own heads shall answer it.”

And so she sat weeping her victim, and pulling the strings of machines to shed the blood of a second for having been her machine to kill the first.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/reade/charles/cloister-and-the-hearth/chapter69.html

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