The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 9

Margaret cut off a huge piece of venison, and ran to the window and threw it out to the green eyes of fire. They darted on to it with a savage snarl; and there was a sound of rending and crunching: at this moment, a hound uttered a bay so near and loud it rang through the house; and the three at the window shrank together. Then the leopard feared for her supper, and glided swiftly and stealthily away with it towards the woods, and the very next moment horses and men and dogs came helter-skelter past the window, and followed her full cry. Martin and his companions breathed again: the leopard was swift, and would not be caught within a league of their house. They grasped hands. Margaret seized this opportunity, and cried a little; Gerard kissed the tears away.

To table once more, and Gerard drank to woman’s wit: “’Tis stronger than man’s force,” said he.

“Ay,” said Margaret, “when those she loves are in danger; not else.”

To-night Gerard stayed with her longer than usual, and went home prouder than ever of her, and happy as a prince. Some little distance from home, under the shadow of some trees, he encountered two figures: they almost barred his way.

It was his father and mother.

Out so late! what could be the cause?

A chill fell on him.

He stopped and looked at them: they stood grim and silent. He stammered out some words of inquiry.

“Why ask?” said the father; “you know why we are here.”

“Oh, Gerard!” said his mother, with a voice full of reproach yet of affection.

Gerard’s heart quaked: he was silent.

Then his father pitied his confusion, and said to him:

“Nay, you need not to hang your head. You are not the first young fool that has been caught by a red cheek and a pair of blue eyes.”

“Nay, nay!” put in Catherine, “it was witchcraft; Peter the Magician is well known for that.”

“Come, Sir Priest,” resumed his father, “you know you must not meddle with women folk. But give us your promise to go no more to Sevenbergen, and here all ends: we won’t be hard on you for one fault.”

“I cannot promise that, father.”

“Not promise it, you young hypocrite!”

“Nay, father, miscall me not: I lacked courage to tell you what I knew would vex you; and right grateful am I to that good friend, whoever he be, that has let you wot. ’Tis a load off my mind. Yes, father, I love Margaret; and call me not a priest, for a priest I will never be. I will die sooner.”

“That we shall see, young man. Come, gainsay me no more; you will learn what ’tis to disrespect a father.”

Gerard held his peace, and the three walked home in gloomy silence, broken only by a deep sigh or two from Catherine.

From that hour the little house at Tergou was no longer the abode of peace. Gerard was taken to task next day before the whole family; and every voice was loud against him, except little Kate’s and the dwarf’s, who was apt to take his cue from her without knowing why. As for Cornelis and Sybrandt, they were bitterer than their father. Gerard was dismayed at finding so many enemies, and looked wistfully into his little sister’s face: her eyes were brimming at the harsh words showered on one who but yesterday was the universal pet. But she gave him no encouragement: she turned her head away from him and said:

“Dear, dear Gerard, pray to Heaven to cure you of this folly!”

“What, are you against me too?” said Gerard, sadly; and he rose with a deep sigh, and left the house and went to Sevenbergen.

The beginning of a quarrel, where the parties are bound by affection though opposed in interest and sentiment, is comparatively innocent: both are perhaps in the right at first starting, and then it is that a calm, judicious friend, capable of seeing both sides, is a gift from Heaven. For the longer the dissension endures, the wider and deeper it grows by the fallibility and irascibility of human nature: these are not confined to either side, and finally the invariable end is reached — both in the wrong.

The combatants were unequally matched: Elias was angry, Cornelis and Sybrandt spiteful; but Gerard, having a larger and more cultivated mind, saw both sides where they saw but one, and had fits of irresolution, and was not wroth, but unhappy. He was lonely, too, in this struggle. He could open his heart to no one. Margaret was a high-spirited girl: he dared not tell her what he had to endure at home; she was capable of siding with his relations by resigning him, though at the cost of her own happiness. Margaret Van Eyck had been a great comfort to him on another occasion; but now he dared not make her his confidant. Her own history was well known. In early life she had many offers of marriage; but refused them all for the sake of that art, to which a wife’s and mother’s duties are so fatal: thus she remained single and painted with her brothers. How could he tell her that he declined the benefice she had got him, and declined it for the sake of that which at his age she had despised and sacrificed so lightly?

Gerard at this period bade fair to succumb. But the other side had a horrible ally in Catherine, senior. This good-hearted but uneducated woman could not, like her daughter, act quietly and firmly: still less could she act upon a plan. She irritated Gerard at times, and so helped him; for anger is a great sustainer of the courage: at others she turned round in a moment and made onslaughts on her own forces. To take a single instance out of many: one day that they were all at home, Catherine and all, Cornelis said: “Our Gerard wed Margaret Brandt? Why, it is hunger marrying thirst.”

“And what will it be when you marry?” cried Catherine. “Gerard can paint, Gerard can write, but what can you do to keep a woman, ye lazy loon? Nought but wait for your father’s shoon. Oh we can see why you and Sybrandt would not have the poor boy to marry. You are afraid he will come to us for a share of our substance. And say that he does, and say that we give it him, it isn’t yourn we part from, and mayhap never will be.”

On these occasions Gerard smiled slily, and picked up heart, and temporary confusion fell on Catherine’s unfortunate allies. But at last, after more than six months of irritation, came the climax. The father told the son before the whole family he had ordered the burgomaster to imprison him in the Stadthouse rather than let him marry Margaret. Gerard turned pale with anger at this, but by a great effort held his peace. His father went on to say, “And a priest you shall be before the year is out, nilly-willy.”

“Is it so?” cried Gerard. “Then, hear me, all. By God and St. Bavon I swear I will never be a priest while Margaret lives. Since force is to decide it, and not love and duty, try force, father; but force shall not serve you, for the day I see the burgomaster come for me, I leave Tergou for ever, and Holland too, and my father’s house, where it seems I have been valued all these years, not for myself, but for what is to be got out of me.”

And he flung out of the room white with anger and desperation.

“There!” cried Catherine, “that comes of driving young folks too hard. But men are crueller than tigers, even to their own flesh and blood. Now, Heaven forbid he should ever leave us, married or single.”

As Gerard came out of the house, his cheeks pale and his heart panting, he met Reicht Heynes: she had a message for him: Margaret Van Eyck desired to see him. He found the old lady seated grim as a judge. She wasted no time in preliminaries, but inquired coldly why he had not visited her of late: before he could answer, she said in a sarcastic tone, “I thought we had been friends, young sir.”

At this Gerard looked the picture of doubt and consternation.

“It is because you never told her you were in love,” said Reicht Heynes, pitying his confusion.

“Silence, wench! Why should he tell us his affairs? We are not his friends: we have not deserved his confidence.”

“Alas! my second mother,” said Gerard, “I did not dare to tell you my folly.”

“What folly? Is it folly to love?”

“I am told so every day of my life.”

“You need not have been afraid to tell my mistress; she is always kind to true lovers.”

“Madam — Reicht I was afraid because I was told . . . ”

“Well, you were told —?”

“That in your youth you scorned love, preferring art.”

“I did, boy; and what is the end of it? Behold me here a barren stock, while the women of my youth have a troop of children at their side, and grandchildren at their knee I gave up the sweet joys of wifehood and motherhood for what? For my dear brothers. They have gone and left me long ago. For my art. It has all but left me too. I have the knowledge still, but what avails that when the hand trembles. No, Gerard; I look on you as my son. You are good, you are handsome, you are a painter, though not like some I have known. I will not let you throw your youth away as I did mine: you shall marry this Margaret. I have inquired, and she is a good daughter. Reicht here is a gossip. She has told me all about it. But that need not hinder you to tell me.”

Poor Gerard was overjoyed to be permitted to praise Margaret aloud, and to one who could understand what he loved in her.

Soon there were two pair of wet eyes over his story; and when the poor boy saw that, there were three.

Women are creatures brimful of courage. Theirs is not exactly the same quality as manly courage; that would never do, hang it all; we should have to give up trampling on them. No; it is a vicarious courage. They never take part in a bull-fight by any chance; but it is remarked that they sit at one unshaken by those tremors and apprehensions for the combatants to which the male spectator — feeble-minded wretch! — is subject. Nothing can exceed the resolution with which they have been known to send forth men to battle: as some witty dog says,

“Les femmes sont tres braves avec le peur d’autrui.”

By this trait Gerard now profited. Margaret and Reicht were agreed that a man should always take the bull by the horns. Gerard’s only course was to marry Margaret Brandt off-hand; the old people would come to after a while, the deed once done. Whereas, the longer this misunderstanding continued on its present footing, the worse for all parties, especially for Gerard.

“See how pale and thin they have made him amongst them.”

“Indeed you are, Master Gerard,” said Reicht. “It makes a body sad to see a young man so wasted and worn. Mistress, when I met him in the street to-day, I had liked to have burst out crying: he was so changed.

“And I’ll be bound the others keep their colour; ah, Reicht? such as it is.”

“Oh, I see no odds in them.”

“Of course not. We painters are no match for boors. We are glass, they are stone. We can’t stand the worry, worry, worry of little minds; and it is not for the good of mankind we should be exposed to it. It is hard enough, Heaven knows, to design and paint a masterpiece, without having gnats and flies stinging us to death into the bargain.”

Exasperated as Gerard was by his father’s threat of violence, he listened to these friendly voices telling him the prudent course was rebellion. But though he listened, he was not convinced.

“I do not fear my father’s violence,” he said, “but I do fear his anger. When it came to the point he would not imprison me. I would marry Margaret to-morrow if that was my only fear. No; he would disown me. I should take Margaret from her father, and give her a poor husband, who would never thrive, weighed down by his parent’s curse. Madam! I sometimes think if I could marry her secretly, and then take her away to some country where my craft is better paid than in this; and after a year or two, when the storm had blown over, you know, could come back with money in my purse, and say, ‘My dear parents, we do not seek your substance, we but ask you to love us once more as you used, and as we have never ceased to love you’— but, alas! I shall be told these are the dreams of an inexperienced young man.”

The old lady’s eyes sparkled.

“It is no dream, but a piece of wonderful common-sense in a boy; it remains to be seen whether you have spirit to carry out your own thought. There is a country, Gerard, where certain fortune awaits you at this moment. Here the arts freeze, but there they flourish, as they never yet flourished in any age or land.”

“It is Italy!” cried Gerard. “It is Italy!”

“Ay, Italy! where painters are honoured like princes, and scribes are paid three hundred crowns for copying a single manuscript. Know you not that his Holiness the Pope has written to every land for skilful scribes to copy the hundreds of precious manuscripts that are pouring into that favoured land from Constantinople, whence learning and learned men are driven by the barbarian Turks?”

“Nay, I know not that; but it has been the dream and hope of my life to visit Italy, the queen of all the arts; oh, madam! But the journey, and we are all so poor.”

“Find you the heart to go, I’ll find the means. I know where to lay my hand on ten golden angels: they will take you to Rome: and the girl with you, if she loves you as she ought.”

They sat till midnight over this theme. And, after that day, Gerard recovered his spirits, and seemed to carry a secret talisman against all the gibes and the harsh words that flew about his ears at home.

Besides the money she procured him for the journey, Margaret Van Eyck gave him money’s worth. Said she, “I will tell you secrets that I learned from masters that are gone from me, and have left no fellow behind. Even the Italians know them not; and what I tell you now in Tergou you shall sell here in Florence. Note my brother Jan’s pictures: time, which fades all other paintings, leaves his colours bright as the day they left the easel. The reason is, he did nothing blindly, in a hurry. He trusted to no hireling to grind his colours; he did it himself, or saw it done. His panel was prepared and prepared again — I will show you how — a year before he laid his colour on. Most of them are quite content to have their work sucked up and lost, sooner than not be in a hurry. Bad painters are always in a hurry. Above all, Gerard, I warn you use but little oil, and never boil it: boiling it melts that vegetable dross into its heart which it is our business to clear away; for impure oil is death to colour. No; take your oil and pour it into a bottle with water. In a day or two the water will turn muddy: that is muck from the oil. Pour the dirty water carefully away and add fresh. When that is poured away, you will fancy the oil is clear. You’re mistaken. Reicht, fetch me that!” Reicht brought a glass trough with a glass lid fitting tight. “When your oil has been washed in bottle, put it into this trough with water, and put the trough in the sun all day. You will soon see the water turbid again. But mark, you must not carry this game too far, or the sun will turn your oil to varnish. When it is as clear as crystal, not too luscious, drain carefully, and cork it up tight. Grind your own prime colours, and lay them on with this oil, and they shall live. Hubert would put sand or salt in the water to clear the oil quicker. But Jan used to say, ‘Water will do it best; give water time.’ Jan Van Eyck was never in a hurry, and that is why the world will not forget him in a hurry.”

This and several other receipts, quae nunc perscribere longum est, Margaret gave him with sparkling eyes, and Gerard received them like a legacy from Heaven, so interesting are some things that read uninteresting. Thus provided with money and knowledge, Gerard decided to marry and fly with his wife to Italy. Nothing remained now but to inform Margaret Brandt of his resolution, and to publish the banns as quietly as possible. He went to Sevenbergen earlier than usual on both these errands. He began with Margaret; told her of the Dame Van Eyck’s goodness, and the resolution he had come to at last, and invited her co-operation.

She refused it plump.

“No, Gerard; you and I have never spoken of your family, but when you come to marriage —” She stopped, then began again. “I do think your father has no ill-will to me more than to another. He told Peter Buyskens as much, and Peter told me. But so long as he is bent on your being a priest (you ought have told me this instead of I you), I could not marry you, Gerard, dearly as I love you.”

Gerard strove in vain to shake this resolution. He found it very easy to make her cry, but impossible to make her yield. Then Gerard was impatient and unjust.

“Very well!” he cried; “then you are on their side, and you will drive me to be a priest, for this must end one way or another. My parents hate me in earnest, but my lover only loves me in jest.”

And with this wild, bitter speech, he flung away home again, and left Margaret weeping.

When a man misbehaves, the effect is curious on a girl who loves him sincerely. It makes her pity him. This, to some of us males, seems anything but logical. The fault is in our own eye; the logic is too swift for us. The girl argues thus:—“How unhappy, how vexed, how poor he must be to misbehave! Poor thing!”

Margaret was full of this sweet womanly pity, when, to her great surprise, scarce an hour and a half after he left her, Gerard came running back to her with the fragments of a picture in his hand, and panting with anger and grief.

“There, Margaret! see! see! the wretches! Look at their spite! They have cut your portrait to pieces.”

Margaret looked, and, sure enough, some malicious hand had cut her portrait into five pieces. She was a good girl, but she was not ice; she turned red to her very forehead.

“Who did it?”

“Nay, I know not. I dared not ask; for I should hate the hand that did it, ay, till my dying day. My poor Margaret! The butchers, the ruffians! Six months’ work cut out of my life, and nothing to show for it now. See, they have hacked through your very face; the sweet face that every one loves who knows it. Oh, heartless, merciless vipers!”

“Never mind, Gerard,” said Margaret, panting. “Since this is how they treat you for my sake — Ye rob him of my portrait, do ye? Well, then, he shall have the face itself, such as it is.”

“Oh, Margaret!”

“Yes, Gerard; since they are so cruel, I will be the kinder: forgive me for refusing you. I will be your wife: to-morrow, if it is your pleasure.”

Gerard kissed her hands with rapture, and then her lips; and in a tumult of joy ran for Peter and Martin. They came and witnessed the betrothal; a solemn ceremony in those days, and indeed for more than a century later, though now abolished.

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