The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 79

She who had wept for poor old Martin was not likely to bear this blow so stoically as the death of the old is apt to be borne. In vain Catherine tried to console her with commonplaces; in vain told her it was a happy release for him; and that, as he himself had said, the tree was ripe. But her worst failure was, when she urged that there were now but two mouths to feed; and one care the less.

“Such cares are all the joys I have,” said Margaret. “They fill my desolate heart, which now seems void as well as waste. Oh, empty chair, my bosom it aches to see thee. Poor old man, how could I love him by halves, I that did use to sit and look at him and think, ‘But for me thou wouldst die of hunger.’ He, so wise, so learned erst, was got to be helpless as my own sweet babe, and I loved him as if he had been my child instead of my father. Oh, empty chair! Oh, empty heart! Well-a-day! well-a-day!”

And the pious tears would not be denied.

Then Catherine held her peace; and hung her head. And one day she made this confession, “I speak to thee out o’ my head, and not out o’ my bosom; thou dost well to be deaf to me. Were I in thy place I should mourn the old man all one as thou dost.”

Then Margaret embraced her, and this bit of true sympathy did her a little good. The commonplaces did none.

Then Catherine’s bowels yearned over her, and she said, “My poor girl, you were not born to live alone. I have got to look on you as my own daughter. Waste not thine youth upon my son Gerard. Either he is dead or he is a traitor. It cuts my heart to say it; but who can help seeing it? Thy father is gone; and I cannot always be aside thee. And here is an honest lad that loves thee well this many a day. I’d take him and Comfort together. Heaven hath sent us these creatures to torment us and comfort us and all; we are just nothing in the world without ’em,” Then seeing Margaret look utterly perplexed, she went on to say, “Why, sure you are not so blind as not to see it?”

“What? Who?”

“Who but this Luke Peterson.”

“What, our Luke? The boy that carries my basket?”

“Nay, he is over nineteen, and a fine healthy lad; and I have made inquiries for you; and they all do say he is a capable workman, and never touches a drop; and that is much in a Rotterdam lad, which they are mostly half man, half sponge.”

Margaret smiled for the first time this many days. “Luke loves dried puddings dearly,” said she, “and I make them to his mind, ’Tis them he comes a-courting here.” Then she suddenly turned red. “But if I thought he came after your son’s wife that is, or ought to be, I’d soon put him to the door.”

“Nay, nay; for Heaven’s sake let me not make mischief. Poor lad! Why, girl, Fancy will not be bridled, Bless you, I wormed it out of him near a twelvemonth agone.”

“Oh, mother, and you let him?”

“Well, I thought of you. I said to myself, ‘If he is fool enough to be her slave for nothing, all the better for her. A lone woman is lost without a man about her to fetch and carry her little matters,’ But now my mind is changed, and I think the best use you can put him to is to marry him.”

“So then, his own mother is against him, and would wed me to the first comer. An, Gerard, thou hast but me; I will not believe thee dead till I see thy tomb, nor false till I see thee with another lover in thine hand. Foolish boy, I shall ne’er be civil to him again.”

Afflicted with the busybody’s protection, Luke Peterson met a cold reception in the house where he had hitherto found a gentle and kind one. And by-and-by, finding himself very little spoken to at all, and then sharply and irritably, the great soft fellow fell to whimpering, and asked Margaret plump if he had done anything to offend her.

“Nothing. I am to blame. I am curst. If you will take my counsel you will keep out of my way awhile.”

“It is all along of me, Luke,” said the busybody.

“You, Mistress Catherine, Why, what have I done for you to set her against me?”

“Nay, I meant all for the best. I told her I saw you were looking towards her through a wedding ring, But she won’t hear of it.”

“There was no need to tell her that, wife; she knows I am courting her this twelvemonth.”

“Not I,” said Margaret; “or I should never have opened the street door to you.

“Why, I come here every Saturday night. And that is how the lads in Rotterdam do court. If we sup with a lass o’ Saturdays, that wooing.”

“Oh, that is Rotterdam, is it? Then next time you come, let it be Thursday or Friday. For my part, I thought you came after my puddings, boy.”

“I like your puddings well enough. You make them better than mother does, But I like you still better than the puddings,” said Luke tenderly.

“Then you have seen the last of them. How dare you talk so to another man’s wife, and him far away?” She ended gently, but very firmly, “You need not trouble yourself to come here any more, Luke; I can carry my basket myself.”

“Oh, very well,” said Luke; and after sitting silent and stupid for a little while, he rose, and said sadly to Catherine, “Dame, I daresay I have got the sack;” and went out.

But the next Saturday Catherine found him seated on the doorstep blubbering. He told her he had got used to come there, and every other place seemed strange. She went in, and told Margaret; and Margaret sighed, and said, “Poor Luke, he might come in for her, if he could know his place, and treat her like a married wife.” On this being communicated to Luke, he hesitated, “Pshaw!” said Catherine, “promises are pie-crusts. Promise her all the world, sooner than sit outside like a fool, when a word will carry you inside, now you humour her in everything, and then, if Poor Gerard come not home and claim her, you will be sure to have her — in time. A lone woman is aye to be tired out, thou foolish boy.”

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