The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 89

What that sensitive mind, and tender conscience, and loving heart, and religious soul, went through even in a few hours, under a situation so sudden and tremendous, is perhaps beyond the power of words to paint.

Fancy yourself the man; and then put yourself in his place! Were I to write a volume on it, we should have to come to that at last.

I shall relate his next two overt acts. They indicate his state of mind after the first fierce tempest of the soul had subsided. After spending the night with the dying hermit in giving and receiving holy consolations, he set out not for Rotterdam, but for Tergou. He went there to confront his fatal enemy the burgomaster, and by means of that parchment, whose history, by-the-by was itself a romance, to make him disgorge; and give Margaret her own.

Heated and dusty, he stopped at the fountain, and there began to eat his black bread and drink of the water. But in the middle of his frugal meal a female servant came running, and begged him to come and shrive her dying master, He returned the bread to his wallet, and followed her without a word.

She took him — to the Stadthouse.

He drew back with a little shudder when he saw her go in.

But he almost instantly recovered himself, and followed her into the house, and up the stairs. And there in bed, propped up by pillows, lay his deadly enemy, looking already like a corpse.

Clement eyed him a moment from the door, and thought of all the tower, the wood, the letter. Then he said in a low voice, “Pax vobiscum!” He trembled a little while he said it.

The sick man welcomed him as eagerly as his weak state permitted. “Thank Heaven, thou art come in time to absolve me from my sins, father, and pray for my soul, thou and thy brethren.”

“My son,” said Clement, “before absolution cometh confession. In which act there must be no reservation, as thou valuest thy soul’s weal. Bethink thee, therefore, wherein thou hast most offended God and the Church, while I offer up a prayer for wisdom to direct thee.”

Clement then kneeled and prayed; and when he rose from his knees, he said to Ghysbrecht, with apparent calmness, “My son, confess thy sins.”

“Ah, father,” said the sick man, “they are many and great.”

“Great, then, be thy penitence, my son; so shalt thou find God’s mercy great.”

Ghysbrecht put his hands together, and began to confess with every appearance of contrition.

He owned he had eaten meat in mid-Lent. He had often absented himself from mass on the Lord’s day, and saints’ days; and had trifled with other religious observances, which he enumerated with scrupulous fidelity.

When he had done, the friar said quietly, “’Tis well, my son, These be faults. Now to thy crimes, Thou hadst done better to begin with them.”

“Why, father, what crimes lie to my account if these be none?”

“Am I confessing to thee, or thou to me?” said Clement somewhat severely.

“Forgive me, father! Why, surely, I to you. But I know not what you call crimes.”

“The seven deadly sins, art thou clear of them?”

“Heaven forefend I should be guilty of them. I know them not by name.”

“Many do them all that cannot name them. Begin with that one which leads to lying, theft, and murder.”

“I am quit of that one, any way. How call you it?”

“AVARICE, my son.”

“Avarice? Oh, as to that, I have been a saving man all my day; but I have kept a good table, and not altogether forgotten the poor. But, alas, I am a great sinner, Mayhap the next will catch me, What is the next?”

“We have not yet done with this one. Bethink thee, the Church is not to be trifled with.”

“Alas! am I in a condition to trifle with her now? Avarice? Avarice?”

He looked puzzled and innocent.

“Hast thou ever robbed the fatherless?” inquired the friar.

“Me? robbed the fatherless?” gasped Ghysbrecht; “not that I mind.”

“Once more, my son, I am forced to tell thee thou art trifling with the Church. Miserable man! another evasion, and I leave thee, and fiends will straightway gather round thy bed, and tear thee down to the bottomless pit.”

“Oh, leave me not! leave me not!” shrieked the terrified old man. “The Church knows all. I must have robbed the fatherless. I will confess. Who shall I begin with? My memory for names is shaken.”

The defence was skilful, but in this case failed.

“Hast thou forgotten Floris Brandt?” said Clement stonily.

The sick man reared himself in bed in a pitiable state of terror. “How knew you that?” said he.

“The Church knows many things,” said Clement coldly, “and by many ways that are dark to thee, Miserable impenitent, you called her to your side, hoping to deceive her, You said, ‘I will not confess to the cure but to some friar who knows not my misdeeds. So will I cheat the Church on my deathbed, and die as I have lived,’ But God, kinder to thee than thou art to thyself, sent to thee one whom thou couldst not deceive. He has tried thee; He was patient with thee, and warned thee not to trifle with Holy Church; but all is in vain; thou canst not confess; for thou art impenitent as a stone. Die, then, as thou hast lived. Methinks I see the fiends crowding round the bed for their prey. They wait but for me to go. And I go.”

He turned his back; but Ghysbrecht, in extremity of terror, caught him by the frock. “Oh, holy man, mercy! stay. I will confess all, all. I robbed my friend Floris, Alas! would it had ended there; for he lost little by me; but I kept the land from Peter his son, and from Margaret, Peter’s daughter. Yet I was always going to give it back; but I couldn’t, I couldn’t.”

“Avarice, my son, avarice, Happy for thee ’tis not too late.”

“No; I will leave it her by will. She will not have long to wait for it now; not above a month or two at farthest.”

“For which month’s possession thou wouldst damn thy soul for ever, Thou fool!”

The sick man groaned, and prayed the friar to be reasonable.

The friar firmly, but gently and persuasively, persisted, and with infinite patience detached the dying man’s gripe from another’s property. There were times when his patience was tried, and he was on the point of thrusting his hand into his bosom and producing the deed, which he had brought for that purpose; but after yesterday’s outbreak he was on his guard against choler; and to conclude, he conquered his impatience; he conquered a personal repugnance to the man, so strong as to make his own flesh creep all the time he was struggling with this miser for his soul; and at last, without a word about the deed, he won upon him to make full and prompt restitution.

How the restitution was made will be briefly related elsewhere: also certain curious effects produced upon Ghysbrecht by it; and when and on what terms Ghysbrecht and Clement parted.

I promised to relate two acts of the latter, indicative of his mind.

This is one. The other is told in two words.

As soon as he was quite sure Margaret had her own, and was a rich woman —

He disappeared.

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