The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 78

Some blackguard or other, I think it was Sybrandt, said, “A lie is not like a blow with a curtal axe.”

True: for we can predict in some degree the consequences of a stroke with any material weapon. But a lie has no bounds at all. The nature of the thing is to ramify beyond human calculation.

Often in the everyday world a lie has cost a life, or laid waste two or three.

And so, in this story, what tremendous consequences of that one heartless falsehood!

Yet the tellers reaped little from it.

The brothers, who invented it merely to have one claimant the less for their father’s property, saw little Gerard take their brother’s place in their mother’s heart. Nay, more, one day Eli openly proclaimed that, Gerard being lost, and probably dead, he had provided by will for little Gerard, and also for Margaret, his poor son’s widow.

At this the look that passed between the black sheep was a caution to traitors. Cornelis had it on his lips to say. Gerard was most likely alive, But he saw his mother looking at him, and checked himself in time.

Ghysbrecht Van Swieten, the other partner in that lie, was now a failing man. He saw the period fast approaching when all his wealth would drop from his body, and his misdeeds cling to his soul.

Too intelligent to deceive himself entirely, he had never been free from gusts of remorse. In taking Gerard’s letter to Margaret he had compounded. “I cannot give up land and money,” said his giant Avarice. “I will cause her no unnecessary pain,” said his dwarf Conscience.

So, after first tampering with the seal, and finding there was not a syllable about the deed, he took it to her with his own hand; and made a merit of it to himself: a set-off; and on a scale not uncommon where the self-accuser is the judge.

The birth of Margaret’s child surprised and shocked him, and put his treacherous act in a new light. Should his letter take effect he should cause the dishonour of her who was the daughter of one friend, the granddaughter of another, and whose land he was keeping from her too.

These thoughts preying on him at that period of life when the strength of body decays, and the memory of old friends revives, filled him with gloomy horrors. Yet he was afraid to confess. For the cure was an honest man, and would have made him disgorge. And with him Avarice was an ingrained habit, Penitence only a sentiment.

Matters were thus when, one day, returning from the town hall to his own house, he found a woman waiting for him in the vestibule, with a child in her arms. She was veiled, and so, concluding she had something to be ashamed of, he addressed her magisterially, On this she let down her veil and looked him full in the face.

It was Margaret Brandt.

Her sudden appearance and manner startled him, and he could not conceal his confusion.

“Where is my Gerard?” cried she, her bosom heaving. “Is he alive?”

“For aught I know,” stammered Ghysbrecht. “I hope so, for your sake. Prithee come into this room. The servants!”

“Not a step,” said Margaret, and she took him by the shoulder, and held him with all the energy of an excited woman. “You know the secret of that which is breaking my heart. Why does not my Gerard come, nor send a line this many months? Answer me, or all the town is like to hear me, let alone thy servants, My misery is too great to be sported with.”

In vain he persisted he knew nothing about Gerard. She told him those who had sent her to him told her another tale.

“You do know why he neither comes nor sends,” said she firmly.

At this Ghysbrecht turned paler and paler; but he summoned all his dignity, and said, “Would you believe those two knaves against a man of worship?”

“What two knaves?” said she keenly.

He stammered, “Said ye not —? There I am a poor old broken man, whose memory is shaken. And you come here, and confuse me so, I know not what I say.”

“Ay, sir, your memory is shaken, or sure you would not be my enemy. My father saved you from the plague, when none other would come anigh you; and was ever your friend. My grandfather Floris helped you in your early poverty, and loved you, man and boy. Three generations of us you have seen; and here is the fourth of us; this is your old friend Peter’s grandchild, and your old friend Floris his great-grandchild. Look down on his innocent face, and think of theirs!”

“Woman, you torture me,” sighed Ghysbrecht, and sank upon a bench. But she saw her advantage, and kneeled before him, and put the boy on his knees. “This fatherless babe is poor Margaret Brandt’s, that never did you ill, and comes of a race that loved you. Nay, look at his face. ’Twill melt thee more than any word of mine, Saints of heaven, what can a poor desolate girl and her babe have done to wipe out all memory of thine own young days, when thou wert guiltless as he is, that now looks up in thy face and implores thee to give him back his father?”

And with her arms under the child she held him up higher and higher, smiling under the old man’s eyes.

He cast a wild look of anguish on the child, and another on the kneeling mother, and started up shrieking, “Avaunt, ye pair of adders.”

The stung soul gave the old limbs a momentary vigour, and he walked rapidly, wringing his hands and clutching at his white hair. “Forget those days? I forget all else. Oh, woman, woman, sleeping or waking I see but the faces of the dead, I hear but the voices of the dead, and I shall soon be among the dead, There, there, what is done is done. I am in hell. I am in hell.”

And unnatural force ended in prostration.

He staggered, and but for Margaret would have fallen, With her one disengaged arm she supported him as well as she could and cried for help.

A couple of servants came running, and carried him away in a state bordering on syncope, The last Margaret saw of him was his old furrowed face, white and helpless as his hair that hung down over the servant’s elbow.

“Heaven forgive me,” she said. “I doubt I have killed the poor old man.”

Then this attempt to penetrate the torturing mystery left it as dark, or darker than before. For when she came to ponder every word, her suspicion was confirmed that Ghysbrecht did know something about Gerard. “And who were the two knaves he thought had done a good deed, and told me? Oh, my Gerard, my poor deserted babe, you and I are wading in deep waters.”

The visit to Tergou took more money than she could well afford; and a customer ran away in her debt. She was once more compelled to unfold Catherine’s angel. But strange to say, as she came down stairs with it in her hand she found some loose silver on the table, with a written line —

For Gerard his wife.

She fell with a cry of surprise on the writing; and soon it rose into a cry of joy.

“He is alive. He sends me this by some friendly hand.”

She kissed the writing again and again, and put it in her bosom.

Time rolled on, and no news of Gerard.

And about every two months a small sum in silver found its way into the house. Sometimes it lay on the table. Once it was flung in through the bedroom window in a purse. Once it was at the bottom of Luke’s basket. He had stopped at the public-house to talk to a friend. The giver or his agent was never detected. Catherine disowned it. Margaret Van Eyck swore she had no hand in it. So did Eli. And Margaret, whenever it came, used to say to little Gerard, “Oh, my poor deserted child, you and I are wading in deep waters.”

She applied at least half this modest, but useful supply, to dressing the little Gerard beyond his station in life. “If it does come from Gerard, he shall see his boy neat.” All the mothers in the street began to sneer, especially such as had brats out at elbows.

The months rolled on, and dead sickness of heart succeeded to these keener torments. She returned to her first thought: “Gerard must be dead. She should never see her boy’s father again, nor her marriage lines.” This last grief, which had been somewhat allayed by Eli and Catherine recognizing her betrothal, now revived in full force; others would not look so favourably on her story. And often she moaned over her boy’s illegitimacy.

“Is it not enough for us to be bereaved? Must we be dishonoured too? Oh, that we had ne’er been born.”

A change took place in Peter Brandt. His mind, clouded for nearly two years, seemed now to be clearing; he had intervals of intelligence; and then he and Margaret used to talk of Gerard, till he wandered again. But one day, returning after an absence of some hours, Margaret found him conversing with Catherine, in a way he had never done since his paralytic stroke. “Eh, girl, why must you be out?” said she. “But indeed I have told him all; and we have been a-crying together over thy troubles.”

Margaret stood silent, looking joyfully from one to the other.

Peter smiled on her, and said, “Come, let me bless thee.”

She kneeled at his feet, and he blessed her most eloquently.

He told her she had been all her life the lovingest, truest, and most obedient daughter Heaven ever sent to a poor old widowed man. “May thy son be to thee what thou hast been to me!”

After this he dozed. Then the females whispered together; and Catherine said —“All our talk e’en now was of Gerard. It lies heavy on his mind. His poor head must often have listened to us when it seemed quite dark. Margaret, he is a very understanding man; he thought of many things: ‘He may be in prison, says he, ‘or forced to go fighting for some king, or sent to Constantinople to copy books there, or gone into the Church after all.’ He had a bent that way.”

“Ah, mother,” whispered Margaret, in reply, “he doth but deceive himself as we do.”

Ere she could finish the sentence, a strange interruption occurred.

A loud voice cried out, “I SEE HIM, I SEE HIM.”

And the old man with dilating eyes seemed to be looking right through the wall of the house.

“IN A BOAT; ON A GREAT RIVER; COMING THIS WAY. Sore disfigured; but I knew him. Gone! gone! all dark.”

And he sank back, and asked feebly where was Margaret.

“Dear father, I am by thy side, Oh, mother! mother, what is this?”

“I cannot see thee, and but a moment agone I saw all round the world, Ay, ay. Well, I am ready. Is this thy hand? Bless thee, my child, bless thee! Weep not! The tree is ripe.”

The old physician read the signs aright. These calm words were his last. The next moment he drooped his head, and gently, placidly, drifted away from earth, like an infant sinking to rest, The torch had flashed up before going out.

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