The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 85

THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH

The sermon had begun when Margaret entered the great church of St. Laurens. It was a huge edifice, far from completed. Churches were not built in a year. The side aisles were roofed, but not the mid aisle nor the chancel; the pillars and arches were pretty perfect, and some of them whitewashed. But only one window in the whole church was glazed; the rest were at present great jagged openings in the outer walls.

But to-day all these uncouth imperfections made the church beautiful. It was a glorious summer afternoon, and the sunshine came broken into marvellous forms through those irregular openings, and played bewitching pranks upon so many broken surfaces.

It streamed through the gaping walls, and clove the dark cool side aisles with rivers of glory, and dazzled and glowed on the white pillars beyond.

And nearly the whole central aisle was chequered with light and shade in broken outlines; the shades seeming cooler and more soothing than ever shade was, and the lights like patches of amber diamond animated with heavenly fire. And above, from west to east the blue sky vaulted the lofty aisle, and seemed quite close.

The sunny caps of the women made a sea of white contrasting exquisitely with that vivid vault of blue.

For the mid aisle, huge as it was, was crammed, yet quite still. The words and the mellow, gentle, earnest voice of the preacher held them mute.

Margaret stood spellbound at the beauty, the devotion, “the great calm,” She got behind a pillar in the north aisle; and there, though she could hardly catch a word, a sweet devotional langour crept over her at the loveliness of the place and the preacher’s musical voice; and balmy oil seemed to trickle over the waves in her heart and smooth them. So she leaned against the pillar with eyes half closed, and all seemed soft and dreamy.

She felt it good to be there.

Presently she saw a lady leave an excellent place opposite to get out of the sun, which was indeed pouring on her head from the window. Margaret went round softly but swiftly; and was fortunate enough to get the place. She was now beside a pillar of the south aisle, and not above fifty feet from the preacher. She was at his side, a little behind him, but could hear every word.

Her attention, however, was soon distracted by the shadow of a man’s head and shoulders bobbing up and down so drolly she had some ado to keep from smiling.

Yet it was nothing essentially droll.

It was the sexton digging.

She found that out in a moment by looking behind her, through the window, to whence the shadow came.

Now as she was looking at Jorian Ketel digging, suddenly a tone of the preacher’s voice fell upon her ear and her mind so distinctly, it seemed literally to strike her, and make her vibrate inside and out.

Her hand went to her bosom, so strange and sudden was the thrill. Then she turned round, and looked at the preacher. His back was turned, and nothing visible but his tonsure. She sighed. That tonsure, being all she saw, contradicted the tone effectually.

Yet she now leaned a little forward with downcast eyes, hoping for that accent again. It did not come. But the whole voice grew strangely upon her. It rose and fell as the preacher warmed; and it seemed to waken faint echoes of a thousand happy memories. She would not look to dispel the melancholy pleasure this voice gave her.

Presently, in the middle of an eloquent period, the preacher stopped.

She almost sighed; a soothing music had ended. Could the sermon be ended already? No; she looked round; the people did not move.

A good many faces seemed now to turn her way.’ She looked behind her sharply. There was nothing there.

Startled countenances near her now eyed the preacher. She followed their looks; and there, in the pulpit, was a face as of a staring corpse. The friar’s eyes, naturally large, and made larger by the thinness of his cheeks, were dilated to supernatural size, and glaring her way out of a bloodless face.

She cringed and turned fearfully round: for she thought there must be some terrible thing near her. No; there was nothing; she was the outside figure of the listening crowd.

At this moment the church fell into commotion, Figures got up all over the building, and craned forward; agitated faces by hundreds gazed from the friar to Margaret, and from Margaret to the friar. The turning to and fro of so many caps made a loud rustle. Then came shrieks of nervous women, and buzzing of men; and Margaret, seeing so many eyes levelled at her, shrank terrified behind the pillar, with one scared, hurried glance at the preacher.

Momentary as that glance was, it caught in that stricken face an expression that made her shiver.

She turned faint, and sat down on a heap of chips the workmen had left, and buried her face in her hands, The sermon went on again. She heard the sound of it; but not the sense. She tried to think, but her mind was in a whirl, Thought would fix itself in no shape but this: that on that prodigy-stricken face she had seen a look stamped. And the recollection of that look now made her quiver from head to foot.

For that look was “RECOGNITION.”

The sermon, after wavering some time, ended in a strain of exalted, nay, feverish eloquence, that went far to make the crowd forget the preacher’s strange pause and ghastly glare. Margaret mingled hastily with the crowd, and went out of the church with them.

They went their ways home. But she turned at the door, and went into the churchyard; to Peter’s grave. Poor as she was, she had given him a slab and a headstone. She sat down on the slab, and kissed it. Then threw her apron over her head that no one might distinguish her by her hair.

“Father,” she said, “thou hast often heard me say I am wading in deep waters; but now I begin to think God only knows the bottom of them. I’ll follow that friar round the world, but I’ll see him at arm’s length. And he shall tell me why he looked towards me like a dead man wakened; and not a soul behind me. Oh, father; you often praised me here: speak a word for me there. For I am wading in deep waters.”

Her father’s tomb commanded a side view of the church door. And on that tomb she sat, with her face covered, waylaying the holy preacher.

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