The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 7

One bright morning unwonted velvet shone, unwonted feathers waved, and horses’ hoofs glinted and ran through the streets of Tergou, and the windows and balconies were studded with wondering faces. The French ambassador was riding through to sport in the neighbouring forest.

Besides his own suite, he was attended by several servants of the Duke of Burgundy, lent to do him honour and minister to his pleasure. The Duke’s tumbler rode before him with a grave, sedate majesty, that made his more noble companions seem light, frivolous persons. But ever and anon, when respect and awe neared the oppressive, he rolled off his horse so ignobly and funnily, that even the ambassador was fain’ to burst out laughing. He also climbed up again by the tail in a way provocative of mirth, and so he played his part. Towards the rear of the pageant rode one that excited more attention still — the Duke’s leopard. A huntsman, mounted on a Flemish horse of giant prodigious size and power, carried a long box fastened to the rider’s loins by straps curiously contrived, and on this box sat a bright leopard crouching. She was chained to the huntsman. The people admired her glossy hide and spots, and pressed near, and one or two were for feeling her, and pulling her tail; then the huntsman shouted in a terrible voice, “Beware! At Antwerp one did but throw a handful of dust at her, and the Duke made dust of him.”

“Gramercy!”

“I speak sooth. The good Duke shut him up in prison, in a cell under ground, and the rats cleaned the flesh off his bones in a night. Served him right for molesting the poor thing.”

There was a murmur of fear, and the Tergovians shrank from tickling the leopard of their sovereign.

But an incident followed that raised their spirits again. The Duke’s giant, a Hungarian seven feet four inches high, brought up the rear. This enormous creature had, like some other giants, a treble, fluty voice of little power. He was a vain fellow, and not conscious of this nor any defect. Now it happened he caught sight of Giles sitting on the top of the balcony; so he stopped and began to make fun of him.

“Hallo! brother!” squeaked he, “I had nearly passed without seeing thee.”

“You are plain enough to see,” bellowed Giles in his bass tones.

“Come on my shoulder, brother,” squeaked Titan, and held out a shoulder of mutton fist to help him down.

“If I do I’ll cuff your ears,” roared the dwarf.

The giant saw the homuncule was irascible, and played upon him, being encouraged thereto by the shouts of laughter. For he did not see that the people were laughing not at his wit, but at the ridiculous incongruity of the two voices — the gigantic feeble fife, and the petty deep, loud drum, the mountain delivered of a squeak, and the mole-hill belching thunder.

The singular duet came to as singular an end. Giles lost all patience and self-command, and being a creature devoid of fear, and in a rage to boot, he actually dropped upon the giant’s neck, seized his hair with one hand, and punched his head with the other. The giant’s first impulse was to laugh, but the weight and rapidity of the blows soon corrected that inclination.

“He! he! Ah! ha! hallo! oh! oh! Holy saints! here! help! or I must throttle the imp. I can’t! I’ll split your skull against the —” and he made a wild run backwards at the balcony. Giles saw his danger, seized the balcony in time with both hands, and whipped over it just as the giant’s head came against it with a stunning crack. The people roared with laughter and exultation at the address of their little champion. The indignant giant seized two of the laughers, knocked them together like dumb-bells, shook them and strewed them flat — Catherine shrieked and threw her apron over Giles — then strode wrathfully away after the party. This incident had consequences no one then present foresaw. Its immediate results were agreeable. The Tergovians turned proud of Giles, and listened with more affability to his prayers for parchment. For he drove a regular trade with his brother Gerard in this article. Went about and begged it gratis, and Gerard gave him coppers for it.

On the afternoon of the same day, Catherine and her daughter were chatting together about their favourite theme, Gerard, his goodness, his benefice, and the brightened prospects of the whole family.

Their good luck had come to them in the very shape they would have chosen; besides the advantages of a benefice such as the Countess Charolois would not disdain to give, there was the feminine delight at having a priest, a holy man, in their own family. “He will marry Cornelis and Sybrandt: for they can wed (good housewives), now, if they will. Gerard will take care of you and Giles, when we are gone.”

“Yes, mother, and we can confess to him instead of to a stranger,” said Kate.

“Ay, girl! and he can give the sacred oil to your father and me, and close our eyes when our time comes.”

“Oh, mother! not for many, many years, I do pray Heaven. Pray speak not of that, it always makes me sad. I hope to go before you, mother dear. No; let us be gay to-day. I am out of pain, mother, quite out of all pain; it does seem so strange; and I feel so bright and happy, that — mother, Can you keep a secret?”

“Nobody better, child. Why, you know I can.”

“Then I will show you something so beautiful. You never saw the like, I trow. Only Gerard must never know; for sure he means to surprise us with it; he covers it up so, and sometimes he carries it away altogether.”

Kate took her crutches, and moved slowly away, leaving her mother in an exalted state of curiosity. She soon returned with something in a cloth, uncovered it, and there was a lovely picture of the Virgin, with all her insignia, and wearing her tiara over a wealth of beautiful hair, which flowed loose over her shoulders. Catherine, at first, was struck with awe.

“It is herself,” she cried; “it is the Queen of Heaven. I never saw one like her to my mind before.”

“And her eyes, mother: lifted to the sky, as if they belonged there, and not to a mortal creature. And her beautiful hair of burning gold.”

“And to think I have a son that can make the saints live again upon a piece of wood!”

“The reason is, he is a young saint himself, mother. He is too good for this world; he is here to portray the blessed, and then to go away and be with them for ever.”

Ere they had half done admiring it, a strange voice was heard at the door. By one of the furtive instincts of their sex they hastily hid the picture in the cloth, though there was no need, And the next moment in came, casting his eyes furtively around, a man that had not entered the house this ten years Ghysbrecht Van Swieten.

The two women were so taken by surprise, that they merely stared at him and at one another, and said, “The burgomaster!” in a tone so expressive, that Ghysbrecht felt compelled to answer it.

“Yes! I own the last time I came here was not on a friendly errand. Men love their own interest — Eli’s and mine were contrary. Well, let this visit atone the last. To-day I come on your business and none of mine.” Catherine and her daughter exchanged a swift glance of contemptuous incredulity. They knew the man better than he thought.

“It is about your son Gerard.”

“Ay! ay! you want him to work for the town all for nothing. He told us.”

“I come on no such errand. It is to let you know he has fallen into bad hands.”

“Now Heaven and the saints forbid! Man, torture not a mother! Speak out, and quickly: speak ere you have time to coin falsehood: we know thee.”

Ghysbrecht turned pale at this affront, and spite mingled with the other motives that brought him here. “Thus it is, then,” said he, grinding his teeth and speaking very fast. “Your son Gerard is more like to be father of a family than a priest: he is for ever with Margaret, Peter Brandt’s red-haired girl, and loves her like a cow her calf.”

Mother and daughter both burst out laughing. Ghysbrecht stared at them.

“What! you knew it?”

“Carry this tale to those who know not my son, Gerard. Women are nought to him.”

“Other women, mayhap. But this one is the apple of his eye to him, or will be, if you part them not, and soon. Come, dame, make me not waste time and friendly counsel: my servant has seen them together a score times, handed, and reading babies in one another’s eyes like — you know, dame — you have been young, too.”

“Girl, I am ill at ease. Yea, I have been young, and know how blind and foolish the young are. My heart! he has turned me sick in a moment. Kate, if it should be true?”

“Nay, nay!” cried Kate eagerly. “Gerard might love a young woman: all young men do: I can’t find what they see in them to love so; but if he did, he would let us know; he would not deceive us. You wicked man! No, dear mother, look not so! Gerard is too good to love a creature of earth. His love is for our Lady and the saints. Ah! I will show you the picture there: if his heart was earthly, could he paint the Queen of Heaven like that — look! look!” and she held the picture out triumphantly, and, more radiant and beautiful in this moment of enthusiasm than ever dead picture was or will be, over-powered the burgomaster with her eloquence and her feminine proof of Gerard’s purity. His eyes and mouth opened, and remained open: in which state they kept turning, face and all as if on a pivot, from the picture to the women, and from the women to the picture.

“Why, it is herself,” he gasped.

“Isn’t it!” cried Kate, and her hostility was softened. “You admire it? I forgive you for frightening us.”

“Am I in a mad-house?” said Ghysbrecht Van Swieten thoroughly puzzled. “You show me a picture of the girl; and you say he painted it; and that is a proof he cannot love her. Why, they all paint their sweethearts, painters do.”

“A picture of the girl?” exclaimed Kate, shocked. “Fie! this is no girl; this is our blessed Lady.”

“No, no; it is Margaret Brandt.”

“Oh blind! It is the Queen of Heaven.”

“No; only of Sevenbergen village.”

“Profane man! behold her crown!”

“Silly child! look at her red hair! Would the Virgin be seen in red hair? She who had the pick of all the colours ten thousand years before the world began.”

At this moment an anxious face was insinuated round the edge of the open door: it was their neighbour Peter Buyskens.

“What is to do?” said he in a cautious whisper. “We can hear you all across the street. What on earth is to do?”

“Oh, neighbour! What is to do? Why, here is the burgomaster blackening our Gerard.”

“Stop!” cried Van Swieten. “Peter Buyskens is come in the nick of time. He knows father and daughter both. They cast their glamour on him.”

“What! is she a witch too?”

“Else the egg takes not after the bird. Why is her father called the magician? I tell you they bewitched this very Peter here; they cast unholy spells on him, and cured him of the colic: now, Peter, look and tell me who is that? and you be silent, women, for a moment, if you can; who is it, Peter?”

“Well, to be sure!” said Peter, in reply; and his eye seemed fascinated by the picture.

“Who is it?” repeated Ghysbrecht impetuously.

Peter Buyskens smiled. “Why, you know as well as I do; but what have they put a crown on her for? I never saw her in a crown, for my part.”

“Man alive! Can’t you open your great jaws, and just speak a wench’s name plain out to oblige three people?”

“I’d do a great deal more to oblige one of you than that, burgomaster. If it isn’t as natural as life!”

“Curse the man! he won’t, he won’t — curse him!”

“Why, what have I done now?”

“Oh, sir!” said little Kate, “for pity’s sake tell us; are these the features of a living woman, of — of — Margaret Brandt?”

“A mirror is not truer, my little maid.”

“But is it she, sir, for very certain?”

“Why, who else should it be?”

“Now, why couldn’t you say so at once?” snarled Ghysbrecht.

“I did say so, as plain as I could speak,” snapped Peter; and they growled over this small bone of contention so zealously, that they did not see Catherine and her daughter had thrown their aprons over their heads, and were rocking to and fro in deep distress. The next moment Elias came in from the shop, and stood aghast. Catherine, though her face was covered, knew his footstep.

“That is my poor man,” she sobbed. “Tell him, good Peter Buyskens, for I have not the courage.”

Elias turned pale. The presence of the burgomaster in his house, after so many years of coolness, coupled with his wife’s and daughter’s distress, made him fear some heavy misfortune.

“Richart! Jacob!” he gasped.

“No, no!” said the burgomaster; “it is nearer home, and nobody is dead or dying, old friend.”

“God bless you, burgomaster! Ah! something has gone off my breast that was like to choke me. Now, what is the matter?”

Ghysbrecht then told him all that he told the women, and showed the picture in evidence.

“Is that all?” said Eli, profoundly relieved. “What are ye roaring and bellowing for? It is vexing — it is angering, but it is not like death, not even sickness. Boys will be boys. He will outgrow that disease: ’tis but skin-deep.”

But when Ghysbrecht told him that Margaret was a girl of good character; that it was not to be supposed she would be so intimate if marriage had not been spoken of between them, his brow darkened.

“Marriage! that shall never be,” said he sternly. “I’ll stay that; ay, by force, if need be — as I would his hand lifted to cut his throat. I’d do what old John Koestein did t’other day.”

“And what is that, in Heaven’s name?” asked the mother, suddenly removing her apron.

It was the burgomaster who replied:

“He made me shut young Albert Koestein up in the prison of the Stadthouse till he knocked under. It was not long: forty-eight hours, all alone, on bread and water, cooled his hot stomach. ‘Tell my father I am his humble servant,’ says he, ‘and let me into the sun once more — the sun is worth all the wenches in the world.’”

“Oh, the cruelty of men!” sighed Catherine.

“As to that, the burgomaster has no choice: it is the law. And if a father says, ‘Burgomaster, lock up my son,’ he must do it. A fine thing it would be if a father might not lock up his own son.”

“Well, well! it won’t come to that with me and my son. He never disobeyed me in his life: he never shall, Where is he? It is past supper-time. Where is he, Kate?”

“Alas! I know not, father.”

“I know,” said Ghysbrecht; “he is at Sevenbergen. My servant met him on the road.”

Supper passed in gloomy silence. Evening descended — no Gerard! Eight o’clock came — no Gerard! Then the father sent all to bed, except Catherine.

“You and I will walk abroad, wife, and talk over this new care.”

“Abroad, my man, at this time? Whither?”

“Why, on the road to Sevenbergen.”

“Oh no; no hasty words, father. Poor Gerard! he never vexed you before.”

“Fear me not. But it must end; and I am not one that trusts to-morrow with to-day’s work.”

The old pair walked hand in hand; for, strange is it may appear to some of my readers, the use of the elbow to couples walking was not discovered in Europe till centuries after this. They sauntered on a long time in silence. The night was clear and balmy. Such nights, calm and silent, recall the past from the dead.

“It is a many years since we walked so late, my man,” said Catherine softly.

“Ay, sweetheart, more than we shall see again (is he never coming, I wonder?)”

“Not since our courting days, Eli.”

“No. Ay, you were a buxom lass then.”

“And you were a comely lad, as ever a girl’s eye stole a look at. I do suppose Gerard is with her now, as you used to be with me. Nature is strong, and the same in all our generations.”

“Nay, I hope he has left her by now, confound her, or we shall be here all night.”

“Eli!”

“Well, Kate?”

“I have been happy with you, sweetheart, for all our rubs — much happier, I trow, than if I had — been — a — a — nun. You won’t speak harshly to the poor child? One can be firm without being harsh.”

“Surely.”

“Have you been happy with me, my poor Eli?”

“Why, you know I have. Friends I have known, but none like thee. Buss me, wife!”

“A heart to share joy and grief with is a great comfort to man or woman. Isn’t it, Eli?”

“It is so, my lass.

‘It doth joy double,

And halveth trouble,’

runs the byword. And so I have found it, sweetheart. Ah! here comes the young fool.”

Catherine trembled, and held her husband’s hand tight.

The moon was bright, but they were in the shadow of some trees, and their son did not see them. He came singing in the moonlight, and his face shining.

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