The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 82

“Mistress, they all say he is dead.”

“Not so. They feed me still with hopes.”

“Ay, to your face, but behind your back they all say he is dead.”

At this revelation Margaret’s tears began to flow’.

Luke whimpered for company. He had the body of a man but the heart of a girl.

“Prithee, weep not so, sweet mistress,” said he. “I’d bring him back to life an I could, rather than see thee weed so sore.”

Margaret said she thought she was weeping because they were so double-tongued with her.

She recovered herself, and laying her hand on his shoulder, said solemnly, “Luke, he is not dead. Dying men are known to have a strange sight. And listen, Luke! My poor father, when he was a-dying, and I, simple fool, was so happy, thinking he was going to get well altogether, he said to mother and me — he was sitting in that very chair where you are now, and mother was as might be here, and I was yonder making a sleeve — said he, ‘I see him!’ I see him! Just so. Not like a failing man at all, but all o’ fire. ‘Sore disfigured-on a great river-coming this way.’

“Ah, Luke, if you were a woman, and had the feeling for me you think you have, you would pity me, and find him for me. Take a thought! The father of my child!”

“Alack, I would if I knew how,” said Luke, “but how can I?”

“Nay, of course you cannot. I am mad to think it. But oh, if any one really cared for me, they would; that is all I know.”

Luke reflected in silence for some time.

“The old folk all say dying men can see more than living wights. Let me think: for my mind cannot gallop like thine. On a great river Well, the Maas is a great river.” He pondered on.

“Coming this way? Then if it ’twas the Maas, he would have been here by this time, so ’tis not the Maas. The Rhine is a great river, greater than the Maas; and very long. I think it will be the Rhine.”

“And so do I, Luke; for Denys bade him come down the Rhine. But even if it is, he may turn off before he comes anigh his birthplace. He does not pine for me as I for him; that is clear. Luke, do you not think he has deserted me?” She wanted him to contradict her, but he said, “It looks very like it; what a fool he must be!”

“What do we know?” objected Margaret imploringly.

“Let me think again,” said Luke. “I cannot gallop.”

The result of this meditation was this. He knew a station about sixty miles up the Rhine, where all the public boats put in; and he would go to that station, and try and cut the truant off. To be sure he did not even know him by sight; but as each boat came in he would mingle with the passengers, and ask if one Gerard was there. “And, mistress, if you were to give me a bit of a letter to him; for, with us being strangers, mayhap a won’t believe a word I say.”

“Good, kind, thoughtful Luke, I will (how I have undervalued thee!). But give me till supper-time to get it writ.” At supper she put a letter into his hand with a blush; it was a long letter, tied round with silk after the fashion of the day, and sealed over the knot.

Luke weighed it in his hand, with a shade of discontent, and said to her very gravely, “Say your father was not dreaming, and say I have the luck to fall in with this man, and say he should turn out a better bit of stuff than I think him, and come home to you then and there — what is to become o’ me?”

Margaret coloured to her very brow. “Oh, Luke, Heaven will reward thee. And I shall fall on my knees and bless thee; and I shall love thee all my days, sweet Luke, as a mother does her son. I am so old by thee: trouble ages the heart. Thou shalt not go ’tis not fair of me. Love maketh us to be all self.”

“Humph!” said Luke. “And if,” resumed he, in the same grave way, “yon scapegrace shall read thy letter, and hear me tell him how thou pinest for him, and yet, being a traitor, or a mere idiot, will not turn to thee what shall become of me then? Must I die a bachelor, and thou fare lonely to thy grave, neither maid, wife, nor widow?”

Margaret panted with fear and emotion at this terrible piece of good sense, and the plain question which followed it. But at last she faltered out, “If, which our Lady be merciful to me, and forbid — Oh!”

“Well, mistress?”

“If he should read my letter, and hear thy words — and, sweet Luke, be just and tell him what a lovely babe he hath, fatherless, fatherless. Oh, Luke, can he be so cruel?”

“I trow not but if?”

“Then he will give thee up my marriage lines, and I shall be an honest woman, and a wretched one, and my boy will not be a bastard; and of course, then we could both go into any honest man’s house that would be troubled with us; and even for thy goodness this day, I will — I will — ne’er be so ungrateful as go past thy door to another man’s.”

“Ay, but will you come in at mine? Answer me that!”

“Oh, ask me not! Some day, perhaps, when my wounds leave bleeding. Alas, I’ll try. If I don’t fling myself and my child into the Maas. Do not go, Luke! do not think of going! ’Tis all madness from first to last.”

But Luke was as slow to forego an idea as to form one.

His reply showed how fast love was making a man of him. “Well,” said he, “madness is something, anyway; and I am tired of doing nothing for thee; and I am no great talker. To-morrow, at peep of day, I start. But hold, I have no money. My mother, she takes care of all mine; and I ne’er see it again.”

Then Margaret took out Catherine’s gold angel, which had escaped so often, and gave it to Luke; and he set out on his mad errand.

It did not, however, seem so mad to him as to us. It was a superstitious age; and Luke acted on the dying man’s dream, or vision, or illusion, or whatever it was, much as we should act on respectable information.

But Catherine was downright angry when she heard of it, “To send the poor lad on such a wild-goose chase! But you are like a many more girls; and mark my words; by the time you have worn that Luke fairly out, and made him as sick of you as a dog, you will turn as fond on him as a cow on a calf, and ‘Too late’ will be the cry.”

THE CLOISTER

The two friars reached Holland from the south just twelve hours after Luke started up the Rhine.

Thus, wild-goose chase or not, the parties were nearing each other, and rapidly too. For Jerome, unable to preach in low Dutch, now began to push on towards the coast, anxious to get to England as soon as possible.

And having the stream with them, the friars would in point of fact have missed Luke by passing him in full stream below his station, but for the incident which I am about to relate.

About twenty miles above the station Luke was making for, Clement landed to preach in a large village; and towards the end of his sermon he noticed a grey nun weeping.

He spoke to her kindly, and asked her what was her grief.

“Nay,” said she, “’tis not for myself flow these tears; ’tis for my lost friend. Thy words reminded me of what she was, and what she is, poor wretch, But you are a Dominican, and I am a Franciscan nun.”

“It matters little, my sister, if we are both Christians, and if I can aid thee in aught.”

The nun looked in his face, and said, “These are strange words, but methinks they are good; and thy lips are oh, most eloquent, I will tell thee our grief.”

She then let him know that a young nun, the darling of the convent, and her bosom friend, had been lured away from her vows, and after various gradations of sin, was actually living in a small inn as chambermaid, in reality as a decoy, and was known to be selling her favours to the wealthier customers, She added, “Anywhere else we might, by kindly violence, force her away from perdition, But this innkeeper was the servant of the fierce baron on the height there, and hath his ear still, and he would burn our convent to the ground, were we to take her by force.”

“Moreover, souls will not be saved by brute force,” said Clement.

While they were talking Jerome came up, and Clement persuaded him to lie at the convent that night, But when in the morning Clement told him he had had a long talk with the abbess, and that she was very sad, and he had promised her to try and win back her nun, Jerome objected, and said, “It was not their business, and was a waste of time,” Clement, however, was no longer a mere pupil. He stood firm, and at last they agreed that Jerome should go forward, and secure their passage in the next ship for England, and Clement be allowed time to make his well-meant but idle experiment.

About ten o’clock that day, a figure in a horseman’s cloak, and great boots to match, and a large flapping felt hat, stood like a statue near the auberge, where was the apostate nun, Mary. The friar thus disguised was at that moment truly wretched. These ardent natures undertake wonders; but are dashed when they come hand to hand with the sickening difficulties. But then, as their hearts are steel, though their nerves are anything but iron, they turn not back, but panting and dispirited, struggle on to the last.

Clement hesitated long at the door, prayed for help and wisdom, and at last entered the inn and sat down faint at heart, and with his body in a cold perspiration, But inside he was another man. He called lustily for a cup of wine: it was brought him by the landlord, He paid for it with money the convent had supplied him; and made a show of drinking it.

“Landlord,” said he, “I hear there is a fair chambermaid in thine house.”

“Ay, stranger, the buxomest in Holland. But she gives not her company to all comers only to good customers.”

Friar Clement dangled a massive gold chain in the landlord’s sight. He laughed, and shouted, “Here, Janet, here is a lover for thee would bind thee in chains of gold; and a tall lad into the bargain, I promise thee.”

“Then I am in double luck,” said a female voice; “send him hither.”

Clement rose, shuddered, and passed into the room, where Janet was seated playing with a piece of work, and laying it down every minute, to sing a mutilated fragment of a song. For, in her mode of life, she had not the patience to carry anything out.

After a few words of greeting, the disguised visitor asked her if they could not be more private somewhere.

“Why not?” said she. And she rose and smiled, and went tripping before him, He followed, groaning inwardly, and sore perplexed.

“There,” said she. “Have no fear! Nobody ever comes here, but such as pay for the privilege.”

Clement looked round the room, and prayed silently for wisdom. Then he went softly, and closed the window-shutters carefully.

“What on earth is that for?” said Janet, in some uneasiness.

“Sweetheart,” whispered the visitor, with a mysterious air, “it is that God may not see us.

“Madman,” said Janet; “think you a wooden shutter can keep out His eye?”

“Nay, I know not. Perchance He has too much on hand to notice us, But I would not the saints and angels should see us. Would you?”

“My poor soul, hope not to escape their sight! The only way is not to think of them; for if you do, it poisons your cup. For two pins I’d run and leave thee. Art pleasant company in sooth.”

“After all, girl, so that men see us not, what signify God and the saints seeing us? Feel this chain! ’Tis virgin gold. I shall cut two of these heavy links off for thee.”

“Ah! now thy discourse is to the point,” And she handled the chain greedily. “Why, ’tis as massy as the chain round the virgin’s neck at the conv —” She did not finish the word.

“Whisht! whisht! whisht! ’Tis it. And thou shalt have thy share. But betray me not.”

“Monster!” cried Janet, drawing back from him with repugnance; “what, rob the blessed Virgin of her chain, and give it to an —”

“You are none,” cried Clement exultingly, “or you had not recked for that-Mary!”

“Ah! ah! ah!”

“Thy patron saint, whose chain this is, sends me to greet thee”

She ran screaming to the window and began to undo the shutters.

Her fingers trembled, and Clement had time to debarass himself of his boots and his hat before the light streamed in upon him, He then let his cloak quietly fall, and stood before her, a Dominican friar, calm and majestic as a statue, and held his crucifix towering over her with a loving, sad, and solemn look, that somehow relieved her of the physical part of fear, but crushed her with religious terror and remorse. She crouched and cowered against the wall.

“Mary,” said he gently; “one word! Are you happy?”

“As happy as I shall be in hell.”

“And they are not happy at the convent; they weep for you.”

“For me?”

“Day and night; above all, the Sister Ursula.”

“Poor Ursula!” And the strayed nun began to weep herself at the thought of her friend.

“The angels weep still more. Wilt not dry all their tears in earth and heaven and save thyself?”

“Ay! would I could; but it is too late.”

“Satan avaunt,” cried the monk sternly. “’Tis thy favourite temptation; and thou, Mary, listen not to the enemy of man, belying God, and whispering despair. I who come to save thee have been a far greater sinner than thou. Come, Mary, sin, thou seest, is not so sweet, e’n in this world, as holiness; and eternity is at the door.”

“How can they ever receive me again?”

“’Tis their worthiness thou doubtest now. But in truth they pine for thee. ’Twas in pity of their tears that I, a Dominican, undertook this task; and broke the rule of my order by entering an inn; and broke it again by donning these lay vestments. But all is well done, and quit for a light penance, if thou wilt let us rescue thy soul from this den of wolves, and bring thee back to thy vows.”

The nun gazed at him with tears in her eyes. “And thou, a Dominican, hast done this for a daughter of St. Francis! Why, the Franciscans and Dominicans hate one another.”

“Ay, my daughter; but Francis and Dominic love one another.”

The recreant nun seemed struck and affected by this answer

Clement now reminded her how shocked she had been that the Virgin should be robbed of her chain. “But see now,” said he, “the convent, and the Virgin too, think ten times more of their poor nun than of golden chains; for they freely trusted their chain to me a stranger, that peradventure the sight of it might touch their lost Mary and remind her of their love,” Finally he showed her with such terrible simplicity the end of her present course, and on the other hand so revived her dormant memories and better feelings, that she kneeled sobbing at his feet, and owned she had never known happiness nor peace since she betrayed her vows; and said she would go back if he would go with her; but alone she dared not, could not: even if she reached the gate she could never enter. How could she face the abbess and the sisters? He told her he would go with her as joyfully as the shepherd bears a strayed lamb to the fold.

But when he urged her to go at once, up sprung a crop of those prodigiously petty difficulties that entangle her sex, like silken nets, liker iron cobwebs.

He quietly swept them aside.

“But how can I walk beside thee in this habit?”

“I have brought the gown and cowl of thy holy order. Hide thy bravery with them. And leave thy shoes as I leave these” (pointing to his horseman’s boots).

She collected her jewels and ornaments.

“What are these for?” inquired Clement.

“To present to the convent, father.”

“Their source is too impure.”

“But,” objected the penitent, “it would be a sin to leave them here. They can be sold to feed the poor.”

“Mary, fix thine eye on this crucifix, and trample those devilish baubles beneath thy feet.”

She hesitated; but soon threw them down and trampled on them.

“Now open the window and fling them out on that dunghill. ’Tis well done. So pass the wages of sin from thy hands, its glittering yoke from thy neck, its pollution from thy soul. Away, daughter of St. Francis, we tarry in this vile place too long.” She followed him.

But they were not clear yet.

At first the landlord was so astounded at seeing a black friar and a grey nun pass through his kitchen from the inside, that he gaped, and muttered, “Why, what mummery is this?” But he soon comprehended the matter, and whipped in between the fugitives and the door. “What ho! Reuben! Carl! Gavin! here is a false friar spiriting away our Janet.”

The men came running in with threatening looks. The friar rushed at them crucifix in hand. “Forbear,” he cried, in a stentorian voice. “She is a holy nun returning to her vows. The hand that touches her cowl or her robe to stay her, it shall wither, his body shall lie unburied, cursed by Rome, and his soul shall roast in eternal fire.” They shrank back as if a flame had met them. “And thou — miserable panderer!”

He did not end the sentence in words, but seized the man by the neck, and strong as a lion in his moments of hot excitement, hurled him furiously from the door and sent him all across the room, pitching head foremost on to the stone floor; then tore the door open and carried the screaming nun out into the road.

“Hush! poor trembler,” he gasped; “they dare not molest thee on the highroad. Away!”

The landlord lay terrified, half stunned, and bleeding; and Mary, though she often looked back apprehensively, saw no more of him.

On the road he bade her observe his impetuosity.

“Hitherto,” said he, “we have spoken of thy faults: now for mine. My choler is ungovernable; furious. It is by the grace of God I am not a murderer, I repent the next moment; but a moment too late is all too late. Mary, had the churls laid finger on thee, I should have scattered their brains with my crucifix, Oh, I know myself; go to; and tremble at myself. There lurketh a wild beast beneath this black gown of mine.”

“Alas, father,” said Mary, “were you other than you are I had been lost. To take me from that place needed a man wary as a fox; yet bold as a lion.”

Clement reflected. “This much is certain: God chooseth well his fleshly instruments; and with imperfect hearts doeth His perfect work, Glory be to God!”

When they were near the convent Mary suddenly stopped, and seized the friar’s arm, and began to cry. He looked at her kindly, and told her she had nothing to fear. It would be the happiest day she had ever spent. He then made her sit down and compose herself till he should return, He entered the convent, and desired to see the abbess.

“My sister, give the glory to God: Mary is at the gate.”

The astonishment and delight of the abbess were unbounded.

She yielded at once to Clement’s earnest request that the road of penitence might be smoothed at first to this unstable wanderer, and after some opposition, she entered heartily into his views as to her actual reception. To give time for their little preparations Clement went slowly back, and seating himself by Mary soothed her; and heard her confession.

“The abbess has granted me that you shall propose your own penance.”

“It shall be none the lighter,” said she.

“I trow not,” said he; “but that is future: to-day is given to joy alone.”

He then led her round the building to the abbess’s postern.

As they went they heard musical instruments and singing.

“’Tis a feastday,” said Mary; “and I come to mar it.”

“Hardly,” said Clement, smiling; “seeing that you are the queen of the fete.”

“I, father? what mean you?”

“What, Mary, have you never heard that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety-nine just persons which need no repentance? Now this convent is not heaven; nor the nuns angels; yet are there among then, some angelic spirits; and these sing and exult at thy return. But here methinks comes one of them; for I see her hand trembles at the keyhole.”

The postern was flung open, and in a moment Sister Ursula clung sobbing and kissing round her friend’s neck. The abbess followed more sedately, but little less moved.

Clement bade them farewell. They entreated him to stay; but he told them with much regret he could not. He had already tried his good Brother Jerome’s patience, and must hasten to the river; and perhaps sail for England to-morrow.

So Mary returned to the fold, and Clement strode briskly on towards the Rhine, and England.

This was the man for whom Margaret’s boy lay in wait with her letter.

THE HEARTH

And that letter was one of those simple, touching appeals only her sex can write to those who have used them cruelly, and they love them. She began by telling him of the birth of the little boy, and the comfort he had been to her in all the distress of mind his long and strange silence had caused her. She described the little Gerard minutely, not forgetting the mole on his little finger.

“Know you any one that hath the like on his? If you only saw him you could not choose but be proud of him; all the mothers in the street do envy me; but I the wives; for thou comest not to us. My own Gerard, some say thou art dead. But if thou wert dead, how could I be alive? Others say that thou, whom I love so truly, art false. But this will I believe from no lips but thine. My father loved thee well; and as he lay a-dying he thought he saw thee on a great river, with thy face turned towards thy Margaret, but sore disfigured. Is’t so, perchance? Have cruel men scarred thy sweet face? or hast thou lost one of thy precious limbs? Why, then thou hast the more need of me, and I shall love thee not worse, alas! thinkest thou a woman’s love is light as a man’s? but better, than I did when I shed those few drops from my arm, not worth the tears, thou didst shed for them; mindest thou? ’tis not so very long agone, dear Gerard.”

The letter continued in this strain, and concluded without a word of reproach or doubt as to his faith and affection. Not that she was free from most distressing doubts; but they were not certainties; and to show them might turn the scale, and frighten him away from her with fear of being scolded. And of this letter she made soft Luke the bearer.

So she was not an angel after all.

Luke mingled with the passengers of two boats, and could hear nothing of Gerard Eliassoen. Nor did this surprise him.

He was more surprised when, at the third attempt, a black friar said to him, somewhat severely, “And what would you with him you call Gerard Eliassoen?”

“Why, father, if he is alive I have got a letter for him.”

“Humph!” said Jerome. “I am sorry for it, However, the flesh is weak. Well, my son, he you seek will be here by the next boat, or the next boat after. And if he chooses to answer to that name — After all, I am not the keeper of his conscience.”

“Good father, one plain word, for Heaven’s sake, This Gerard Eliassoen of Tergou — is he alive?”

“Humph! Why, certes, he that went by that name is alive.”

“Well, then, that is settled,” said Luke drily. But the next moment he found it necessary to run out of sight and blubber.

“Oh, why did the Lord make any women?” said he to himself. “I was content with the world till I fell in love. Here his little finger is more to her than my whole body, and he is not dead, And here I have got to give him this.” He looked at the letter and dashed it on the ground. But he picked it up again with a spiteful snatch, and went to the landlord, with tears in his eyes, and begged for work, The landlord declined, said he had his own people.

“Oh, I seek not your money,” said Luke, “I only want some work to keep me from breaking my heart about another man’s lass.”

“Good lad! good lad!” exploded the landlord; and found him lots of barrels to mend — on these terms, And he coopered with fury in the interval of the boats coming down the Rhine.

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