The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 88

It was supper-time. Eli’s family were collected round the board; Margaret only was missing. To Catherine’s surprise, Eli said he would wait a bit for her.

“Why, I told her you would not wait for the duke.”

“She is not the duke; she is a poor, good lass, that hath waited not minutes, but years, for a graceless son of mine. You can put the meat on the board all the same; then we can fall to, without farther loss o’ time, when she does come.”

The smoking dishes smelt so savoury that Eli gave way. “She will come if we begin,” said he; “they always do, Come, sit ye down, Mistress Joan; y’are not here for a slave, I trow, but a guest. There, I hear a quick step off covers, and fall to.”

The covers were withdrawn, and the knives brandished.

Then burst into the room, not the expected Margaret, but a Dominican friar, livid with rage.

He was at the table in a moment, in front of Cornelis and Sybrandt, threw his tall body over the narrow table, and with two hands hovering above their shrinking heads, like eagles over a quarry, he cursed them by name, soul and body, in this world and the next. It was an age eloquent in curses; and this curse was so full, so minute, so blighting, blasting, withering, and tremendous, that I am afraid to put all the words on paper. “Cursed be the lips,” he shrieked, “which spoke the lie that Margaret was dead; may they rot before the grave, and kiss white-hot iron in hell thereafter; doubly cursed be the hands that changed those letters, and be they struck off by the hangman’s knife, and handle hell fire for ever; thrice accursed be the cruel hearts that did conceive that damned lie, to part true love for ever; may they sicken and wither on earth joyless, loveless, hopeless; and wither to dust before their time; and burn in eternal fire,” He cursed the meat at their mouths and every atom of their bodies, from their hair to the soles of their feet. Then turning from the cowering, shuddering pair, who had almost hid themselves beneath the table, he tore a letter out of his bosom, and flung it down before his father.

“Read that, thou hard old man, that didst imprison thy son, read, and see what monsters thou hast brought into the world, The memory of my wrongs and hers dwell with you all for ever! I will meet you again at the judgment day; on earth ye will never see me more.”

And in a moment, as he had come, so he was gone, leaving them stiff, and cold, and white as statues round the smoking board.

And this was the sight that greeted Margaret’s eyes and Jorian’s — pale figures of men and women petrified around the untasted food, as Eastern poets feigned.

Margaret glanced her eye round, and gasped out, “Oh, joy! all here; no blood hath been shed. Oh, you cruel, cruel men! I thank God he hath not slain you.”

At sight of her Catherine gave an eloquent scream; then turned her head away. But Eli, who had just cast his eye over the false letter, and begun to understand it all, seeing the other victim come in at that very moment with her wrongs reflected in her sweet, pale face, started to his feet in a transport of rage, and shouted, “Stand clear, and let me get at the traitors, I’ll hang for them,” And in a moment he whipped out his short sword, and fell upon them.

“Fly!” screamed Margaret. “Fly!”

They slipped howling under the table, and crawled out the other side.

But ere they could get to the door, the furious old man ran round and intercepted them. Catherine only screamed and wrung her hands; your notables are generally useless at such a time; and blood would certainly have flowed, but Margaret and Jorian seized the fiery old man’s arms, and held them with all their might, whilst the pair got clear of the house; then they let him go; and he went vainly raging after them out into the street.

They were a furlong off, running like hares.

He hacked down the board on which their names were written, and brought it indoors, and flung it into the chimney-place. Catherine was sitting rocking herself with her apron over her head. Joan had run to her husband. Margaret had her arms round Catherine’s neck; and pale and panting, was yet making efforts to comfort her.

But it was not to be done, “Oh, my poor children!” she cried. “Oh, miserable mother! ’Tis a mercy Kate was ill upstairs. There, I have lived to thank God for that!” she cried, with a fresh burst of sobs. “It would have killed her. He had better have stayed in Italy, as come home to curse his own flesh and blood and set us all by the ears.

“Oh, hold your chat, woman,” cried Eli angrily; “you are still on the side of the ill-doer, You are cheap served; your weakness made the rogues what they are; I was for correcting them in their youth: for sore ills, sharp remedies; but you still sided with their faults, and undermined me, and baffled wise severity. And you, Margaret, leave comforting her that ought rather to comfort you; for what is her hurt to yours? But she never had a grain of justice under her skin; and never will. So come thou to me, that am thy father from this hour.”

This was a command; so she kissed Catherine, and went tottering to him, and he put her on a chair beside him, and she laid her feeble head on his honest breast; but not a tear: it was too deep for that.

“Poor lamb,” said he. After a while —“Come, good folks,” said true Eli, in a broken voice, to Jorian and Joan, “we are in a little trouble, as you see; but that is no reason you should starve. For our Lady’s sake, fall to; and add not to my grief the reputation of a churl. What the dickens!” added he, with a sudden ghastly attempt at stout-heartedness, “the more knaves I have the luck to get shut of, the more my need of true men and women, to help me clear the dish, and cheer mine eye with honest faces about me where else were gaps. Fall to, I do entreat ye.”

Catherine, sobbing, backed his request. Poor, simple, antique, hospitable souls! Jorian, whose appetite, especially since his illness, was very keen, was for acting on this hospitable invitation; but Joan whispered a word in his ear, and he instantly drew back, “Nay, I’ll touch no meat that Holy Church hath cursed.”

“In sooth, I forgot,” said Eli apologetically. “My son, who was reared at my table, hath cursed my victuals. That seems strange. Well, what God wills, man must bow to.”

The supper was flung out into the yard.

Jorian took his wife home, and heavy sadness reigned in Eli’s house that night.

Meantime, where was Clement?

Lying at full length upon the floor of the convent church, with his lips upon the lowest step of the altar, in an indescribable state of terror, misery, penitence, and self-abasement: through all which struggled gleams of joy that Margaret was alive.

Night fell and found him lying there weeping and praying; and morning would have found him there too; but he suddenly remembered that, absorbed in his own wrongs and Margaret’s, he had committed another sin besides intemperate rage. He had neglected a dying man.

He rose instantly, groaning at his accumulated wickedness, and set out to repair the omission. The weather had changed; it was raining hard, and when he got clear of the town, he heard the wolves baying; they were on the foot, But Clement was himself again, or nearly; he thought little of danger or discomfort, having a shameful omission of religious duty to repair: he went stoutly forward through rain and darkness.

And as he went, he often beat his breast, and cried, “MEA CULPA! MEA CULPA!”

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