The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 70

One of the novice Gerard’s self-imposed penances was to receive Lodovico kindly, feeling secretly as to a slimy serpent.

Never was self-denial better bestowed; and like most rational penances, it soon became no penance at all. At first the pride and complacency, with which the assassin gazed on the one life he had saved, was perhaps as ludicrous as pathetic; but it is a great thing to open a good door in a heart. One good thing follows another through the aperture. Finding it so sweet to save life, the miscreant went on to be averse to taking it; and from that to remorse; and from remorse to something very like penitence. And here Teresa cooperated by threatening, not for the first time, to leave him unless he would consent to lead an honest life. The good fathers of the convent lent their aid, and Lodovico and Teresa were sent by sea to Leghorn, where Teresa had friends, and the assassin settled down and became a porter.

He found it miserably dull work at first; and said so.

But methinks this dull life of plodding labour was better for him, than the brief excitement of being hewn in pieces by the Princess Claelia’s myrmidons. His exile saved the unconscious penitent from that fate; and the princess, balked of her revenge, took to brooding, and fell into a profound melancholy; dismissed her confessor, and took a new one with a great reputation for piety, to whom she confided what she called her griefs. The new confessor was no other than Fra Jerome. She could not have fallen into better hands.

He heard her grimly out. Then took her and shook the delusions out of her as roughly as if she had been a kitchen-maid. For, to do this hard monk justice, on the path of duty he feared the anger of princes as little as he did the sea. He showed her in a few words, all thunder and lightning, that she was the criminal of criminals.

“Thou art the devil, that with thy money hath tempted one man to slay his fellow, and then, blinded with self-love, instead of blaming and punishing thyself, art thirsting for more blood of guilty men, but not so guilty as thou.”

At first she resisted, and told him she was not used to be taken to task by her confessors. But he overpowered her, and so threatened her with the Church’s curse here and hereafter, and so tore the scales off her eyes, and thundered at her, and crushed her, that she sank down and grovelled with remorse and terror at the feet of the gigantic Boanerges.

“Oh, holy father, have pity on a poor weak woman, and help me save my guilty soul. I was benighted for want of ghostly counsel like thine, good father. I waken as from a dream.

“Doff thy jewels,” said Fra Jerome sternly.

“I will. I will.”

“Doff thy silk and velvet; and in humbler garb than wears thy meanest servant, wend thou instant to Loretto.”

“I will,” said the princess faintly.

“No shoes; but a bare sandal.’

“No father.”

“Wash the feet of pilgrims both going and coming; and to such of them as be holy friars tell thy sin, and abide their admonition.”

“Oh, holy father, let me wear my mask.”

“Humph!”

“Oh, mercy! Bethink thee! My features are known through Italy.”

“Ay. Beauty is a curse to most of ye. Well, thou mayst mask thine eyes; no more.”

On this concession she seized his hand, and was about to kiss it; but he snatched it rudely from her.

“What would ye do? That hand handled the eucharist but an hour agone: is it fit for such as thou to touch it?”

“Ah, no. But oh, go not without giving your penitent daughter your blessing.”

“Time enow to ask it when you come back from Loretto.”

Thus that marvellous occurrence by Tiber’s banks left its mark on all the actors, as prodigies are said to do. The assassin, softened by saving the life he was paid to take, turned from the stiletto to the porter’s knot. The princess went barefoot to Loretto, weeping her crime and washing the feet of base-born men.

And Gerard, carried from the Tiber into that convent a suicide, now passed for a young saint within its walls.

Loving but experienced eyes were on him.

Upon a shorter probation than usual he was admitted to priest’s orders.

And soon after took the monastic vows, and became a friar of St. Dominic.

Dying to the world, the monk parted with the very name by which he had lived in it, and so broke the last link of association with earthly feelings.

Here Gerard ended, and Brother Clement began.

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