The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 74

THE CLOISTER

THE new pope favoured the Dominican order. The convent received a message from the Vatican, requiring a capable friar to teach at the University of Basle. Now Clement was the very monk for this: well versed in languages, and in his worldly days had attended the lectures of Guarini the younger. His visit to England was therefore postponed though not resigned; and meantime he was sent to Basle; but not being wanted there for three months, he was to preach on the road.

He passed out of the northern gate with his eyes lowered, and the whole man wrapped in pious contemplation.

Oh, if we could paint a mind and its story, what a walking fresco was this barefooted friar!

Hopeful, happy love, bereavement, despair, impiety, vice, suicide, remorse, religious despondency, penitence, death to the world, resignation.

And all in twelve short months.

And now the traveller was on foot again. But all was changed: no perilous adventures now. The very thieves and robbers bowed to the ground before him, and instead of robbing him, forced stolen money on him, and begged his prayers.

This journey therefore furnished few picturesque incidents. I have, however, some readers to think of, who care little for melodrama, and expect a quiet peep at what passes inside a man, To such students things undramatic are often vocal, denoting the progress of a mind.

The first Sunday of Clement’s journey was marked by this. He prayed for the soul of Margaret. He had never done so before. Not that her eternal welfare was not dearer to him than anything on earth. It was his humility. The terrible impieties that burst from him on the news of her death horrified my well-disposed readers; but not as on reflection they horrified him who had uttered them. For a long time during his novitiate he was oppressed with religious despair. He thought he must have committed that sin against the Holy Spirit which dooms the soul for ever, By degrees that dark cloud cleared away, Anselmo juvante; but deep self-abasement remained. He felt his own salvation insecure, and moreover thought it would be mocking Heaven, should he, the deeply stained, pray for a soul so innocent, comparatively, as Margaret’s. So he used to coax good Anselm and another kindly monk to pray for her. They did not refuse, nor do it by halves. In general the good old monks (and there were good, bad, and indifferent in every convent) had a pure and tender affection for their younger brethren, which, in truth, was not of this world.

Clement then, having preached on Sunday morning in a small Italian town, and being mightily carried onward, was greatly encouraged; and that day a balmy sense of God’s forgiveness and love descended on him. And he prayed for the welfare of Margaret’s soul. And from that hour this became his daily habit, and the one purified tie, that by memory connected his heart with earth.

For his family were to him as if they had never been.

The Church would not share with earth. Nor could even the Church cure the great love without annihilating the smaller ones.

During most of this journey Clement rarely felt any spring of life within him, but when he was in the pulpit. The other exceptions were, when he happened to relieve some fellow-creature.

A young man was tarantula bitten, or perhaps, like many more, fancied it. Fancy or reality, he had been for two days without sleep, and in most extraordinary convulsions, leaping, twisting, and beating the walls. The village musicians had only excited him worse with their music. Exhaustion and death followed the disease, when it gained such a head. Clement passed by and learned what was the matter. He sent for a psaltery, and tried the patient with soothing melodies; but if the other tunes maddened him, Clement’s seemed to crush him. He groaned and moaned under them, and grovelled on the floor. At last the friar observed that at intervals his lips kept going. He applied his ear, and found the patient was whispering a tune; and a very singular one, that had no existence. He learned this tune and played it. The patient’s face brightened amazingly. He marched about the room on the light fantastic toe enjoying it; and when Clement’s fingers ached nearly off with playing it, he had the satisfaction of seeing the young man sink complacently to sleep to this lullaby, the strange creation of his own mind; for it seems he was no musician, and never composed a tune before or after. This sleep saved his life. And Clement, after teaching the tune to another, in case it should be wanted again, went forward with his heart a little warmer. On another occasion he found a mob haling a decently dressed man along, who struggled and vociferated, but in a strange language. This person had walked into their town erect and sprightly, waving a mulberry branch over his head. Thereupon the natives first gazed stupidly, not believing their eyes, then pounced on him and dragged him before the podesta, Clement went with them; but on the way drew quietly near the prisoner and spoke to him in Italian; no answer. In French’ German; Dutch; no assets. Then the man tried Clement in tolerable Latin, but with a sharpish accent. He said he was an Englishman, and oppressed with the heat of Italy, had taken a bough off the nearest tree, to save his head. “In my country anybody is welcome to what grows on the highway. Confound the fools; I am ready to pay for it. But here is all Italy up in arms about a twig and a handful of leaves.”

The pig-headed podesta would have sent the dogged islander to prison; but Clement mediated, and with some difficulty made the prisoner comprehend that silkworms, and by consequence mulberry leaves, were sacred, being under the wing of the Sovereign, and his source of income; and urged on the podesta that ignorance of his mulberry laws was natural in a distant country, where the very tree perhaps was unknown, The opinionative islander turned the still vibrating scale by pulling’ out a long purse and repeating his original theory, that the whole question was mercantile. “Quid damni?” said he, “Dic; et cito solvam.” The podesta snuffed the gold: fined him a ducat for the duke; about the value of the whole tree; and pouched the coin.

The Englishman shook off his ire the moment he was liberated, and laughed heartily at the whole thing; but was very grateful to Clement.

“You are too good for this hole of a country, father,” said he, “Come to England! That is the only place in the world, I was an uneasy fool to leave it, and wander among mulberries and their idiots. I am a Kentish squire, and educated at Cambridge University. My name it is Rolfe, my place Betshanger, The man and the house are both at your service. Come over and stay till domesday. We sit down forty to dinner every day at Betshanger. One more or one less at the board will not be seen. You shall end your days with me and my heirs if you will, Come now! What an Englishman says he means.” And he gave him a great hearty grip of the hand to confirm it,

“I will visit thee some day, my son,” said Clement; “but not to weary thy hospitality.”

The Englishman then begged Clement to shrive him. “I know not what will become of my soul,” said he, “I live like a heathen since I left England.”

Clement consented gladly, and soon the islander was on his knees to him by the roadside, confessing the last month’s sins.

Finding him so pious a son of the Church, Clement let him know he was really coming to England. He then asked him whether it was true that country was overrun with Lollards and Wickliffites.

The other coloured up a little. “There be black sheep in every land,” said he. Then after some reflection he said gravely, “Holy father, hear the truth about these heretics. None are better disposed towards Holy Church than we English. But we are ourselves, and by ourselves. We love our own ways, and above all, our own tongue. The Norman could conquer our bill-hooks, but not our tongues; and hard they tried it for many a long year by law and proclamation. Our good foreign priests utter God to plain English folk in Latin, or in some French or Italian lingo, like the bleating of a sheep. Then come the fox Wickliff and his crew, and read him out of his own book in plain English, that all men’s hearts warm to. Who can withstand this? God forgive me, I believe the English would turn deaf ears to St, Peter himself, spoke he not to them in the tongue their mothers sowed in their ears and their hearts along with mothers’ kisses.” He added hastily, “I say not this for myself; I am Cambridge bred; and good words come not amiss to me in Latin; but for the people in general. Clavis ad corda Anglorum est lingua materna.”

“My son,” said Clement, “blessed be the hour I met thee; for thy words are sober and wise. But alas! how shall I learn your English tongue? No book have I.”

“I would give you my book of hours, father. ’Tis in English and Latin, cheek by jowl. But then, what would become of my poor soul, wanting my ‘hours’ in a strange land? Stay, you are a holy man, and I am an honest one; let us make a bargain; you to pray for me every day for two months, and I to give you my book of hours. Here it is. What say you to that?” And his eyes sparkled, and he was all on fire with mercantility.

Clement smiled gently at this trait; and quietly detached a MS. from his girdle, and showed him that it was in Latin and Italian.

“See, my son,” said he, “Heaven hath foreseen our several needs, and given us the means to satisfy them: let us change books; and, my dear son, I will give thee my poor prayers and welcome, not sell them thee. I love not religious bargains.”

The islander was delighted. “So shall I learn the Italian tongue without risk to my eternal weal, Near is my purse, but nearer is my soul.”

He forced money on Clement. In vain the friar told him it was contrary to his vow to carry more of that than was barely necessary.

“Lay it out for the good of the Church and of my soul,” said the islander. “I ask you not to keep it, but take it you must and shall.” And he grasped Clement’s hand warmly again; and Clement kissed him on the brow, and blessed him, and they went each his way.

About a mile from where they parted, Clement found two tired wayfarers lying in the deep shade of a great chestnut-tree, one of a thick grove the road skirted. Near the men was a little cart, and in it a printing-press, rude and clumsy as a vine-press, A jaded mule was harnessed to the cart.

And so Clement stood face to face with his old enemy.

And as he eyed it, and the honest, blue-eyed faces of the wearied craftsmen, he looked back as on a dream at the bitterness he had once felt towards this machine. He looked kindly down on them, and said softly —

“Sweynheim!”

The men started to their feet.

“Pannartz!”

They scuttled into the wood, and were seen no more.

Clement was amazed, and stood puzzling himself.

Presently a face peeped from behind a tree.

Clement addressed it, “What fear ye?”

A quavering voice replied —

“Say, rather, by what magic you, a stranger, can call us by our names! I never clapt eyes on you till now.”

“O, superstition! I know ye, as all good workmen are known — by your works. Come hither and I will tell ye.”

They advanced gingerly from different sides; each regulating his advance by the other’s.

“My children,” said Clement, “I saw a Lactantius in Rome, printed by Sweynheim and Pannartz, disciples of Fust.”

“D’ye hear that, Pannartz? our work has gotten to Rome already.”

“By your blue eyes and flaxen hair I wist ye were Germans; and the printing-press spoke for itself. Who then should ye be but Fust’s disciples, Pannartz and Sweynheim?”

The honest Germans were now astonished that they had suspected magic in so simple a matter.

“The good father hath his wits about him, that is all,” said Pannartz.

“Ay,” said Sweynheim, “and with those wits would he could tell us how to get this tired beast to the next town.”

“Yea,” said Sweynheim, “and where to find money to pay for his meat and ours when we get there.”

“I will try,” said Clement. “Free the mule of the cart, and of all harness but the bare halter.”

This was done, and the animal immediately lay down and rolled on his back in the dust like a kitten. Whilst he was thus employed, Clement assured them he would rise up a new mule.

“His Creator hath taught him this art to refresh himself, which the nobler horse knoweth not. Now, with regard to money, know that a worthy Englishman hath entrusted me with a certain sum to bestow in charity. To whom can I better give a stranger’s money than to strangers? Take it, then, and be kind to some Englishman or other stranger in his need; and may all nations learn to love one another one day.”

The tears stood in the honest workmen’s eyes. They took the money with heartfelt thanks.

“It is your nation we are bound to thank and bless, good father, if we but knew it.”

“My nation is the Church.”

Clement was then for bidding them farewell, but the honest fellows implored him to wait a little; they had no silver nor gold, but they had something they could give their benefactor, They took the press out of the cart, and while Clement fed the mule, they hustled about, now on the white hot road, now in the deep cool shade, now half in and half out, and presently printed a quarto sheet of eight pages, which was already set up. They had not type enough to print two sheets at a time. When, after the slower preliminaries, the printed sheet was pulled all in a moment, Clement was amazed in turn.

“What, are all these words really fast upon the paper?” said he. “Is it verily certain they will not go as swiftly as they came? And you took me for a magician! ’Tis ‘Augustine de civitate Dei.’ My sons, you carry here the very wings of knowledge. Oh, never abuse this great craft! Print no ill books! They would fly abroad countless as locusts, and lay waste men’s souls.”

The workmen said they would sooner put their hands under the screw than so abuse their goodly craft.

And so they parted.

There is nothing but meeting and parting in this world.

At a town in Tuscany the holy friar had a sudden and strange recontre with the past. He fell in with one of those motley assemblages of patricians and plebeians, piety and profligacy, “a company of pilgrims;” a subject too well painted by others for me to go and daub.

They were in an immense barn belonging to the inn, Clement, dusty and wearied, and no lover of idle gossip, sat in a corner studying the Englishman’s hours, and making them out as much by his own Dutch as by the Latin version.

Presently a servant brought a bucket half full of water, and put it down at his feet. A female servant followed with two towels. And then a woman came forward, and crossing herself, kneeled down without a word at the bucket-side, removed her sleeves entirely, and motioned to him to put his feet into the water. It was some lady of rank doing penance. She wore a mask scarce an inch broad, but effectual. Moreover, she handled the friar’s feet more delicately than those do who are born to such offices.

These penances were not uncommon; and Clement, though he had little faith in this form of contrition, received the services of the incognita as a matter of course. But presently she sighed deeply, and with her heartfelt sigh and her head bent low over her menial office, she seemed so bowed with penitence, that he pitied her, and said calmly but gently, “Can I aught for your soul’s weal, my daughter?”

She shook her head with a faint sob. “Nought, holy father, nought; only to hear the sin of her who is most unworthy to touch thy holy feet. ’Tis part of my penance to tell sinless men how vile I am.”

“Speak, my daughter.”

“Father,” said the lady, bending lower and lower, “these hands of mine look white, but they are stained with blood — the blood of the man I loved. Alas! you withdraw your foot. Ah me! What shall I do? All holy things shrink from me.”

“Culpa mea! culpa mea!” said Clement eagerly. “My daughter, it was an unworthy movement of earthly weakness, for which I shall do penance. Judge not the Church by her feebler servants, Not her foot, but her bosom, is offered to thee, repenting truly. Take courage, then, and purge thy conscience of its load.”

On this the lady, in a trembling whisper, and hurriedly, and cringing a little, as if she feared the Church would strike her bodily for what she had done, made this confession.

“He was a stranger, and base-born, but beautiful as Spring, and wise beyond his years. I loved him, I had not the prudence to conceal my love. Nobles courted me. I ne’er thought one of humble birth could reject me. I showed him my heart oh, shame of my sex! He drew back; yet he admired me; but innocently, He loved another; and he was constant. I resorted to a woman’s wiles, They availed not. I borrowed the wickedness of men, and threatened his life, and to tell his true lover he died false to her, Ah! you shrink your foot trembles. Am I not a monster? Then he wept and prayed to me for mercy; then my good angel helped me; I bade him leave Rome. Gerard, Gerard, why did you not obey me? I thought he was gone. But two months after this I met him, Never shall I forget it. I was descending the Tiber in my galley, when he came up it with a gay company, and at his side a woman beautiful as an angel, but bold and bad. That woman claimed me aloud for her rival. Traitor and hypocrite, he had exposed me to her, and to all the loose tongues in Rome. In terror and revenge I hired-a bravo. When he was gone on his bloody errand, I wavered too late. The dagger I had hired struck, He never came back to his lodgings. He was dead. Alas! perhaps he was not so much to blame: none have ever cast his name in my teeth. His poor body is not found: or I should kiss its wounds; and slay myself upon it. All around his very name seems silent as the grave, to which this murderous hand hath sent him.” (Clement’s eye was drawn by her movement. He recognized her shapely arm, and soft white hand.) “And oh! he was so young to die. A poor thoughtless boy, that had fallen a victim to that bad woman’s arts, and she had made him tell her everything. Monster of cruelty, what penance can avail me? Oh, holy father, what shall I do?”

Clement’s lips moved in prayer, but he was silent. He could not see his duty clear.

Then she took his feet and began to dry them. She rested his foot upon her soft arm, and pressed it with the towel so gently she seemed incapable of hurting a fly. Yet her lips had just told another story, and a true one.

While Clement was still praying for wisdom, a tear fell upon his foot. It decided him. “My daughter,” said he, “I myself have been a great sinner.”

“You, father?”

“I; quite as great a sinner as thou; though not in the same way. The devil has gins and snares, as well as traps. But penitence softened my impious heart, and then gratitude remoulded it. Therefore, seeing you penitent, I hope you can be grateful to Him, who has been more merciful to you than you have to your fellow-creature. Daughter, the Church sends you comfort.”

“Comfort to me? ah! never! unless it can raise my victim from the dead.”

“Take this crucifix in thy hand, fix thine eyes on it, and listen to me,” was all the reply.

“Yes, father; but let me thoroughly dry your feet first; ’tis ill sitting in wet feet; and you are the holiest man of all whose feet I have washed. I know it by your voice.”

“Woman, I am not. As for my feet, they can wait their turn. Obey thou me.

“Yes, father,” said the lady humbly. But with a woman’s evasive pertinacity she wreathed one towel swiftly round the foot she was drying, and placed his other foot on the dry napkin; then obeyed his command.

And as she bowed over the crucifix, the low, solemn tones of the friar fell upon her ear, and his words soon made her whole body quiver with various emotion, in quick succession.

“My daughter, he you murdered — in intent — was one Gerard, a Hollander. He loved a creature, as men should love none but their Redeemer and His Church. Heaven chastised him. A letter came to Rome. She was dead.”

“Poor Gerard! Poor Margaret!” moaned the penitent.

Clement’s voice faltered at this a moment. But soon, by a strong effort, he recovered all his calmness.

“His feeble nature yielded, body and soul, to the blow, He was stricken down with fever. He revived only to rebel against Heaven. He said, ‘There is no God.’”

“Poor, poor Gerard!”

“Poor Gerard? thou feeble, foolish woman! Nay, wicked, impious Gerard. He plunged into vice, and soiled his eternal jewel: those you met him with were his daily companions; but know, rash creature, that the seeming woman you took to be his leman was but a boy, dressed in woman’s habits to flout the others, a fair boy called Andrea. What that Andrea said to thee I know not; but be sure neither he, nor any layman, knows thy folly, This Gerard, rebel against Heaven, was no traitor to thee, unworthy.”

The lady moaned like one in bodily agony, and the crucifix began to tremble in her trembling hands.

“Courage!” said Clement. “Comfort is at hand.”

“From crime he fell into despair, and bent on destroying his soul, he stood one night by Tiber, resolved on suicide. He saw one watching him. It was a bravo.”

“Holy saints!”

“He begged the bravo to despatch him; he offered him all his money, to slay him body and soul. The bravo would not. Then this desperate sinner, not softened even by that refusal, flung himself into Tiber.”

“Ah!”

“And the assassin saved his life. Thou hadst chosen for the task Lodovico, husband of Teresa, whom this Gerard had saved at sea, her and her infant child.”

“He lives! he lives! he lives! I am faint.”

The friar took the crucifix from her hands, fearing it might fall, A shower of tears relieved her. The friar gave her time; then continued calmly, “Ay, he lives; thanks to thee and thy wickedness, guided to his eternal good by an almighty and all-merciful hand. Thou art his greatest earthly benefactor.”

“Where is he? where? where?”

“What is that to thee?”

“Only to see him alive. To beg him on my knees forgive me. I swear to you I will never presume again to — How could I? He knows all. Oh, shame! Father, does he know?”

“All.”

“Then never will I meet his eye; I should sink into the earth. But I would repair my crime. I would watch his life unseen. He shall rise in the world, whence I so nearly thrust him, poor soul; the Caesare, my family, are all-powerful in Rome; and I am near their head.”

“My daughter,” said Clement coldly, “he you call Gerard needs nothing man can do for him. Saved by a miracle from double death, he has left the world, and taken refuge from sin and folly in the bosom of the Church.”

“A priest?”

“A priest, and a friar.”

“A friar? Then you are not his confessor? Yet you know all. That gentle voice!”

She raised her head slowly, and peered at him through her mask.

The next moment she uttered a faint shriek, and lay with her brow upon his bare feet.

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