The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 73

THE HEARTH

A Catherine is not an unmixed good in a strange house. The governing power is strong in her. She has scarce crossed the threshold ere the utensils seem to brighten; the hearth to sweep itself; the windows to let in more light; and the soul of an enormous cricket to animate the dwelling-place. But this cricket is a Busy Body. And that is a tremendous character. It has no discrimination. It sets everything to rights, and everybody. Now many things are the better for being set to rights. But everything is not. Everything is the one thing that won’t stand being set to rights; except in that calm and cool retreat, the grave.

Catherine altered the position of every chair and table in Margaret’s house; and perhaps for the better.

But she must go farther, and upset the live furniture.

When Margaret’s time was close at hand, Catherine treacherously invited the aid of Denys and Martin; and on the poor, simple-minded fellows asking her earnestly what service they could be, she told them they might make themselves comparatively useful by going for a little walk. So far so good. But she intimated further that should the promenade extend into the middle of next week all the better. This was not ingratiating. The subsequent conduct of the strong under the yoke of the weak might have propitiated a she-bear with three cubs, one sickly. They generally slipped out of the house at daybreak; and stole in like thieves at night; and if by any chance they were at home, they went about like cats on a wall tipped with broken glass, and wearing awe-struck visages, and a general air of subjugation and depression.

But all would not do. Their very presence was ill-timed; and jarred upon Catherine’s nerves.

Did instinct whisper, a pair of depopulators had no business in a house with multipliers twain?

The breastplate is no armour against a female tongue; and Catherine ran infinite pins and needles of speech into them. In a word, when Margaret came down stairs, she found the kitchen swept of heroes.

Martin, old and stiff, had retreated no farther than the street, and with the honours of war: for he had carried off his baggage, a stool; and sat on it in the air.

Margaret saw he was out in the sun; but was not aware he was a fixture in that luminary. She asked for Denys. “Good, kind Denys; he will be right pleased to see me about again.”

Catherine, wiping a bowl with now superfluous vigour, told her Denys was gone to his friends in Burgundy. “And high time, Hasn’t been anigh them this three years, by all accounts.”

“What, gone without bidding me farewell?” said Margaret, uplifting two tender eyes like full-blown violets.

Catherine reddened. For this new view of the matter set her conscience pricking her.

But she gave a little toss and said, “Oh, you were asleep at the time: and I would not have you wakened.”

“Poor Denys,” said Margaret, and the dew gathered visibly on the open violets.

Catherine saw out of the corner of her eye, and without taking a bit of open notice, slipped off and lavished hospitality and tenderness on the surviving depopulator.

It was sudden: and Martin old and stiff in more ways than one —

“No, thank you, dame. I have got used to out o’ doors. And I love not changing and changing. I meddle wi’ nobody here; and nobody meddles wi’ me.”

“Oh, you nasty, cross old wretch!” screamed Catherine, passing in a moment from treacle to sharpest vinegar. And she flounced back into the house.

On calm reflection she had a little cry. Then she half reconciled herself to her conduct by vowing to be so kind, Margaret should never miss her plagues of soldiers. But feeling still a little uneasy, she dispersed all regrets by a process at once simple and sovereign.

She took and washed the child.

From head to foot she washed him in tepid water; and heroes, and their wrongs, became as dust in an ocean — of soap and water.

While this celestial ceremony proceeded, Margaret could not keep quiet. She hovered round the fortunate performer. She must have an apparent hand in it, if not a real. She put her finger into the water — to pave the way for her boy, I suppose; for she could not have deceived herself so far as to think Catherine would allow her to settle the temperature. During the ablution she kneeled down opposite the little Gerard, and prattled to him with amazing fluency; taking care, however, not to articulate like grown-up people; for, how could a cherub understand their ridiculous pronunciation?

“I wish you could wash out THAT,” said she, fixing her eyes on the little boy’s hand.

“What?”

“What, have you not noticed? on his little finger.”

Granny looked, and there was a little brown mole,

“Eh, but this is wonderful!” she cried. “Nature, my lass, y’are strong; and meddlesome to boot. Hast noticed such a mark on some one else? Tell the truth, girl!”

“What, on him? Nay, mother, not I.”

“Well then he has; and on the very spot. And you never noticed that much. But, dear heart, I forgot; you han’t known him from child to man as I have, I have had him hundreds o’ times on my knees, the same as this, and washed him from top to toe in luke-warm water.” And she swelled with conscious superiority; and Margaret looked meekly up to her as a woman beyond competition.

Catherine looked down from her dizzy height and moralized. She differed from other busy-bodies in this, that she now and then reflected: not deeply; or of course I should take care not to print it.

“It is strange,” said she, “how things come round and about, Life is but a whirligig. Leastways, we poor women, our lives are all cut upon one pattern. Wasn’t I for washing out my Gerard’s mole in his young days? ‘Oh, fie! here’s a foul blot,’ quo’ I; and scrubbed away at it I did till I made the poor wight cry; so then I thought ’twas time to give over. And now says you to me, ‘Mother,’ says you, ‘do try and wash you out o’ my Gerard’s finger,’ says you. Think on’t!”

“Wash it out?” cried Margaret; “I wouldn’t for all the world, Why, it is the sweetest bit in his little darling body. I’ll kiss it morn and night till he that owned it first comes back to us three, Oh, bless you, my jewel of gold and silver, for being marked like your own daddy, to comfort me.”

And she kissed little Gerard’s little mole; but she could not stop there; she presently had him sprawling on her lap, and kissed his back all over again and again, and seemed to worry him as wolf a lamb; Catherine looking on and smiling. She had seen a good many of these savage onslaughts in her day.

And this little sketch indicates the tenor of Margaret’s life for several months, One or two small things occurred to her during that time which must be told; but I reserve them, since one string will serve for many glass beads. But while her boy’s father was passing through those fearful tempests of the soul, ending in the dead monastic calm, her life might fairly be summed in one great blissful word — Maternity.

You, who know what lies in that word, enlarge my little sketch, and see the young mother nursing and washing, and dressing and undressing, and crowing and gambolling with her first-born; then swifter than lightning dart your eye into Italy, and see the cold cloister; and the monks passing like ghosts, eyes down, hands meekly crossed over bosoms dead to earthly feelings.

One of these cowled ghosts is he, whose return, full of love, and youth, and joy, that radiant young mother awaits.

In the valley of Grindelwald the traveller has on one side the perpendicular Alps, all rock, ice, and everlasting snow, towering above the clouds, and piercing to the sky; on his other hand little every-day slopes, but green as emeralds, and studded with cows and pretty cots, and life; whereas those lofty neighbours stand leafless, lifeless, inhuman, sublime. Elsewhere sweet commonplaces of nature are apt to pass unnoticed; but, fronting the grim Alps, they soothe, and even gently strike, the mind by contrast with their tremendous opposites. Such, in their way, are the two halves of this story, rightly looked at; on the Italian side rugged adventure, strong passion, blasphemy, vice, penitence, pure ice, holy snow, soaring direct at heaven. On the Dutch side, all on a humble scale and womanish, but ever green. And as a pathway parts the ice towers of Grindelwald, aspiring to the sky, from its little sunny braes, so here is but a page between

“the Cloister and the Hearth.”

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