The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 76

THE HEARTH

When little Gerard was nearly three months old, a messenger came hot from Tergou for Catherine.

“Now just you go back,” said she, “and tell them I can’t come, and I won’t: they have got Kate,” So he departed, and Catherine continued her sentence; “there, child, I must go: they are all at sixes and sevens: this is the third time of asking; and to-morrow my man would come himself and take me home by the ear, with a flea in’t.” She then recapitulated her experiences of infants, and instructed Margaret what to do in each coming emergency, and pressed money upon her, Margaret declined it with thanks, Catherine insisted, and turned angry. Margaret made excuses all so reasonable that Catherine rejected them with calm contempt; to her mind they lacked femininity,

“Come, out with your heart,” said she “and you and me parting; and mayhap shall never see one another’s face again.”

“Oh! mother, say not so.”

“Alack, girl, I have seen it so often; ’twill come into my mind now at each parting, When I was your age, I never had such a thought, Nay, we were all to live for ever then: so out wi’ it.”

“Well, then, mother — I would rather not have told you — your Cornelis must say to me, ‘So you are come to share with us, eh, mistress?’ those were his words, I told him I would be very sorry.

“Beshrew his ill tongue! What signifies it? He will never know,

“Most likely he would sooner or later, But whether or no, I will take no grudged bounty from any family; unless I saw my child starving, and — Heaven only knows what I might do, Nay, mother, give me but thy love — I do prize that above silver, and they grudge me not that, by all I can find — for not a stiver of money will I take out of your house.”

“You are a foolish lass, Why, were it me, I’d take it just to spite him.”

“No, you would not, You and I are apples off one tree”

Catherine yielded with a good grace; and when the actual parting came, embraces and tears burst forth on both sides.

When she was gone the child cried a good deal; and all attempts to pacify him failing, Margaret suspected a pin, and searching between his clothes and his skin, found a gold angel incommoding his backbone.

“There, now, Gerard,” said she to the babe; “I thought granny gave in rather sudden.”

She took the coin and wrapped it in a piece of linen, and laid it at the bottom of her box, bidding the infant observe she could be at times as resolute as granny herself.

Catherine told Eli of Margaret’s foolish pride, and how she had baffled it. Eli said Margaret was right, and she was wrong.

Catherine tossed her head. Eli pondered.

Margaret was not without domestic anxieties. She had still two men to feed, and could not work so hard as she had done. She had enough to do to keep the house, and the child, and cook for them all. But she had a little money laid by, and she used to tell her child his father would be home to help them before it was spent. And with these bright hopes, and that treasury of bliss, her boy, she spent some happy months.

Time wore on; and no Gerard came; and stranger still, no news of him.

Then her mind was disquieted, and contrary to her nature, which was practical, she was often lost in sad reverie; and sighed in silence. And while her heart was troubled, her money was melting. And so it was, that one day she found the cupboard empty, and looked in her dependents’ faces; and at the sight of them, her bosom was all pity; and she appealed to the baby whether she could let grandfather and poor old Martin want a meal; and went and took out Catherine’s angel. As she unfolded the linen a tear of gentle mortification fell on it. She sent Martin out to change it. While he was gone a Frenchman came with one of the dealers in illuminated work, who had offered her so poor a price. He told her he was employed by his sovereign to collect masterpieces for her book of hours. Then she showed him the two best things she had; and he was charmed with one of them, viz., the flowers and raspberries and creeping things, which Margaret Van Eyck had shaded. He offered her an unheard-of price. “Nay, flout not my need, good stranger,” said she; “three mouths there be in this house, and none to fill them but me.”

Curious arithmetic! Left out No. 1.

“I’d out thee not, fair mistress. My princess charged me strictly, ‘Seek the best craftsmen’; but I will no hard bargains; make them content with me, and me with them.’”

The next minute Margaret was on her knees kissing little Gerard in the cradle, and showering four gold pieces on him again and again, and relating the whole occurrence to him in very broken Dutch,

“And oh, what a good princess: wasn’t she? We will pray for her, won’t we, my lambkin; when we are old enough?”

Martin came in furious. “They will not change it. I trow they think I stole it.”

“I am beholden to thee,” said Margaret hastily, and almost snatched it from Martin, and wrapped it up again, and restored it to its hiding-place.

Ere these unexpected funds were spent, she got to her ironing and starching again. In the midst of which Martin sickened; and died after an illness of nine days.

Nearly all her money went to bury him decently.

He was gone; and there was an empty chair by her fireside, For he had preferred the hearth to the sun as soon as the Busy Body was gone.

Margaret would not allow anybody to sit in this chair now. Yet whenever she let her eye dwell too long on it vacant, it was sure to cost her a tear.

And now there was nobody to carry her linen home, To do it herself she must leave little Gerard in charge of a neighbour, But she dared not trust such a treasure to mortal; and besides she could not bear him out of her sight for hours and hours. So she set inquiries on foot for a boy to carry her basket on Saturday and Monday.

A plump, fresh-coloured youth, called Luke Peterson, who looked fifteen, but was eighteen, came in, and blushing, and twiddling his bonnet, asked her if a man would not serve her turn as well as a boy.

Before he spoke she was saying to herself, “This boy will just do.”

But she took the cue, and said, “Nay; but a man will maybe seek more than I can well pay.

“Not I,” said Luke warmly. “Why, Mistress Margaret, I am your neighbour, and I do very well at the coopering. I can carry your basket for you before or after my day’s work, and welcome, You have no need to pay me anything. ‘Tisn’t as if we were strangers, ye know.”

“Why, Master Luke, I know your face, for that matter; but I cannot call to mind that ever a word passed between us.”

“Oh yes, you did, Mistress Margaret. What, have you forgotten? One day you were trying to carry your baby and eke your pitcher full o’ water; and quo’ I, ‘Give me the baby to carry.’ ‘Nay, says you, ‘I’ll give you the pitcher, and keep the bairn myself;’ and I carried the pitcher home, and you took it from me at this door, and you said to me, ‘I am muckle obliged to you, young man,’ with such a sweet voice; not like the folk in this street speak to a body.”

“I do mind now, Master Luke; and methinks it was the least I could say.”

“Well, Mistress Margaret, if you will say as much every time I carry your basket, I care not how often I bear it, nor how far.”

“Nay, nay,” said Margaret, colouring faintly. “I would not put upon good nature, You are young, Master Luke, and kindly. Say I give you your supper on Saturday night, when you bring the linen home, and your dawn-mete o’ Monday; would that make us anyways even?”

“As you please; only say not I sought a couple o’ diets! for such a trifle as yon.”

With chubby-faced Luke’s timely assistance, and the health and strength which Heaven gave this poor young woman, to balance her many ills, the house went pretty smoothly awhile. But the heart became more and more troubled by Gerard’s long, and now most mysterious silence.

And then that mental torturer, Suspense, began to tear her heavy heart with his hot pincers, till she cried often and vehemently, “Oh, that I could know the worst.”

Whilst she was in this state, one day she heard a heavy step mount the stair. She started and trembled, “That is no step that I know. Ill tidings?”

The door opened, and an unexpected visitor, Eli, came in, looking grave and kind.

Margaret eyed him in silence, and with increasing agitation,

“Girl.” said he, “the skipper is come back.”

“One word,” gasped Margaret; “is he alive?”

“Surely I hope so. No one has seen him dead.”

“Then they must have seen him alive.”

“No, girl; neither dead nor alive hath he been seen this many months in Rome. My daughter Kate thinks he is gone to some other city. She bade me tell you her thought.”

“Ay, like enough,” said Margaret gloomily; “like enough. My poor babe!”

The old man in a faintish voice asked her for a morsel to eat: he had come fasting.

The poor thing pitied him with the surface of her agitated mind, and cooked a meal for him, trembling, and scarce knowing what she was about.

Ere he went he laid his hand upon her head, and said, “Be he alive, or be he dead, I look on thee as my daughter. Can I do nought for thee this day? bethink thee now?”

“Ay, old man. Pray for him; and for me!”

Eli sighed, and went sadly and heavily down the stairs.

She listened half stupidly to his retiring footsteps till they ceased. Then she sank moaning down by the cradle, and drew little Gerard tight to her bosom. “Oh, my poor fatherless boy; my fatherless boy!”

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