The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 91

Not many days after this came the news that Margaret Van Eyck was dead and buried. By a will she had made a year before, she left all her property, after her funeral expenses and certain presents to Reicht Heynes, to her dear daughter Margaret Brandt, requesting her to keep Reicht as long as unmarried.

By this will Margaret inherited a furnished house, and pictures and sketches that in the present day would be a fortune: among the pictures was one she valued more than a gallery of others.

It represented “A Betrothal.” The solemnity of the ceremony was marked in the grave face of the man, and the demure complacency of the woman. She was painted almost entirely by Margaret Van Eyck, but the rest of the picture by Jan. The accessories were exquisitely finished, and remain a marvel of skill to this day. Margaret Brandt sent word to Reicht to stay in the house till such time as she could find the heart to put foot in it, and miss the face and voice that used to meet her there; and to take special care of the picture “in the little cubboord:” meaning the diptych.

The next thing was, Luke Peterson came home, and heard that Gerard was a monk.

He was like to go mad with joy. He came to Margaret, and said —“heed, mistress. If he cannot marry you I can.”

“You?” said Margaret. “Why, I have seen him.”

“But he is a friar.”

“He was my husband, and my boy’s father long ere he was a friar. And I have seen him, I’ve seen him.”

Luke was thoroughly puzzled. “I’ll tell you what,” said he; “I have got a cousin a lawyer. I’ll go and ask him whether you are married or single.”

“Nay, I shall ask my own heart, not a lawyer. So that is your regard for me; to go making me the town talk, oh, fie!”

“That is done already without a word from me.”

“But not by such as seek my respect. And if you do it, never come nigh me again.”

“Ay,” said Luke, with a sigh, “you are like a dove to all the rest; but you are a hardhearted tyrant to me.”

“’Tis your own fault, dear Luke, for wooing me. That is what lets me from being as kind to you as I desire, Luke, my bonny lad, listen to me. I am rich now; I can make my friends happy, though not myself. Look round the street, look round the parish. There is many a quean in it fairer than I twice told, and not spoiled with weeping. Look high; and take your choice. Speak you to the lass herself, and I’ll speak to the mother; they shall not say thee nay; take my word for’t.”

“I see what ye mean,” said Luke, turning very red. “But if I can’t have your liking, I will none o’ your money. I was your servant when you were poor as I; and poorer. No; if you would liever be a friar’s leman than an honest man’s wife, you are not the woman I took you for: so part we withouten malice: seek you your comfort on yon road, where never a she did find it yet, and for me, I’ll live and die a bachelor. Good even, mistress.”

“Farewell, dear Luke; and God forgive you for saying that to me.”

For some days Margaret dreaded, almost as much as she desired, the coming interview with Gerard. She said to herself, “I wonder not he keeps away a while; for so should I.” However, he would hear he was a father; and the desire to see their boy would overcome everything. “And,” said the poor girl to herself, “if so be that meeting does not kill me, I feel I shall be better after it than I am now.”

But when day after day went by, and he was not heard of, a freezing suspicion began to crawl and creep towards her mind. What if his absence was intentional? What if he had gone to some cold-blooded monks his fellows, and they had told him never to see her more? The convent had ere this shown itself as merciless to true lovers as the grave itself.

At this thought the very life seemed to die out of her.

And now for the first time deep indignation mingled at times with her grief and apprehension. “Can he have ever loved me? To run from me and his boy without a word! Why, this poor Luke thinks more of me than he does.”

While her mind was in this state, Giles came roaring. “I’ve hit the clout; our Gerard is Vicar of Gouda.”

A very brief sketch of the dwarf’s court life will suffice to prepare the reader for his own account of this feat. Some months before he went to court his intelligence had budded. He himself dated the change from a certain 8th of June, when, swinging by one hand along with the week’s washing on a tight rope in the drying ground, something went crack inside his head; and lo! intellectual powers unchained. At court his shrewdness and bluntness of speech, coupled with his gigantic voice and his small stature, made him a Power: without the last item I fear they would have conducted him to that unpopular gymnasium, the gallows. The young Duchess of Burgundy, and Marie the heiress apparent, both petted him, as great ladies have petted dwarfs in all ages; and the court poet melted butter by the six-foot rule, and poured enough of it down his back to stew Goliah in. He even amplified, versified, and enfeebled certain rough and ready sentences dictated by Giles.

The centipedal prolixity that resulted went to Eli by letter, thus entitled —

“The high and puissant Princess Marie
of Bourgogne her lytel jantilman hys
complaynt of y’ Coort, and
praise of a rusticall lyfe, versificated, and empapyred
by me the lytel jantilman’s right lovynge
and obsequious servitor, etc.”

But the dwarf reached his climax by a happy mixture of mind and muscle; thus:

The day before a grand court joust he challenged the Duke’s giant to a trial of strength. This challenge made the gravest grin, and aroused expectation.

Giles had a lofty pole planted ready, and at the appointed hour went up it like a squirrel, and by strength of arm made a right angle with his body, and so remained: then slid down so quickly, that the high and puissant princess squeaked, and hid her face in her hands, not to see the demise of her pocket-Hercules.

The giant effected only about ten feet, then looked ruefully up and ruefully down, and descended, bathed in perspiration to argue the matter.

“It was not the dwarf’s greater strength, but his smaller body.”

The spectators received this excuse with loud derision. There was the fact, the dwarf was great at mounting a pole: the giant only great at excuses. In short Giles had gauged their intellects: with his own body no doubt.

“Come,” said he, “an ye go to that, I’ll wrestle ye, my lad, if so be you will let me blindfold your eyne.”

The giant, smarting under defeat, and thinking he could surely recover it by this means, readily consented.

“Madam,” said Giles, “see you yon blind Samson? At a signal from me he shall make me a low obeisance, and unbonnet to me.”

“How may that be, being blinded?” inquired a maid of honour.

“I’ll wager on Giles for one,” said the princess.

“That is my affair.”

When several wagers were laid pro and con, Giles hit the giant in the bread-basket. He went double (the obeisance), and his bonnet fell off.

The company yelled with delight at this delicate stroke of wit, and Giles took to his heels. The giant followed as soon as he could recover his breath and tear off his bandage. But it was too late; Giles had prepared a little door in the wall, through which he could pass, but not a giant, and had coloured it so artfully, it looked like a wall; this door he tore open, and went headlong through, leaving no vestige but this posy, written very large upon the reverse of his trick door —

Long limbs, big body, panting wit

By wee and wise is bet and bit

After this Giles became a Force.

He shall now speak for himself.

Finding Margaret unable to believe the good news, and sceptical as to the affairs of Holy Church being administered by dwarfs, he narrated as follows:

“When the princess sent for me to her bedroom as of custom, to keep her out of languor, I came not mirthful nor full of country dicts, as is my wont, but dull as lead.

“‘Why, what aileth thee?’ quo’ she. ‘Art sick?’ ‘At heart,’ quo’ I. ‘Alas, he is in love,’ quo’ she. Whereat five brazen hussies, which they call them maids of honour, did giggle loud. ‘Not so mad as that,’ said I, ‘seeing what I see at court of women folk.’

“‘There, ladies,’ quo’ the princess, ‘best let him a be. ’Tis a liberal mannikin, and still giveth more than he taketh of saucy words.’

“‘In all sadness,’ quo’ she, ‘what is the matter?’

“I told her I was meditating, and what perplexed me was, that other folk could now and then keep their word, but princes never.

“‘Heyday,’ says she, ‘thy shafts fly high this morn.’ I told her, ‘Ay, for they hit the Truth.’

“She said I was as keen as keen; but it became not me to put riddles to her, nor her to answer them. ‘Stand aloof a bit, mesdames,’ said she, ‘and thou speak withouten fear;’ for she saw I was in sad earnest.

“I began to quake a bit; for mind ye, she can doff freedom and don dignity quicker than she can slip out of her dressing-gown into kirtle of state. But I made my voice so soft as honey (wherefore smilest?), and I said ‘Madam, one evening, a matter of five years agone, as ye sat with your mother, the Countess of Charolois, who is now in heaven, worse luck, you wi’ your lute, and she wi’ her tapestry, or the like, do ye mind there came came into ye a fair youth with a letter from a painter body, one Margaret Van Eyck?”

“She said she thought she did, ‘Was it not a tall youth, exceeding comely?’

“‘Ay, madam,’ said I; ‘he was my brother.’

“‘Your brother?’ said she, and did eye me like all over, (What dost smile at?”)

“So I told her all that passed between her and Gerard, and how she was for giving him a bishopric; but the good countess said, ‘Gently, Marie! he is too young; and with that they did both promise him a living: ‘Yet,’ said I, ‘he hath been a priest a long while, and no living. Hence my bile.’

“‘Alas!’ said she, ”tis not by my good will; for all this thou hast said is sooth, and more. I do remember my dear mother said to me, “See thou to it if I be not here.”’ So then she cried out, ‘Ay, dear mother, no word of thine shall ever fall to the ground.’

“I, seeing her so ripe, said quickly, ‘Madam, the Vicar of Gouda died last week.’ (For when ye seek favours of the great, behoves ye know the very thing ye aim at.)

“‘Then thy brother is vicar of Gouda,’ quo’ she, ‘so sure as I am heiress of Burgundy and the Netherlands. Nay, thank me not, good Giles,’ quo’ she, ‘but my good mother. And I do thank thee for giving of me somewhat to do for her memory. And doesn’t she fall a weeping for her mother? And doesn’t that set me off a-snivelling for my good brother that I love so dear, and to think that a poor little elf like me could yet speak in the ear of princes, and make my beautiful brother vicar of Gouda; eh, lass, it is a bonny place, and a bonny manse, and hawthorn in every bush at spring-tide, and dog-roses and eglantine in every summer hedge. I know what the poor fool affects, leave that to me.”

The dwarf began his narrative strutting to and fro before Margaret, but he ended it in her arms; for she could not contain herself, but caught him, and embraced him warmly. “Oh, Giles,” she said, blushing, and kissing him, “I cannot keep my hands off thee, thy body it is so little, and thy heart so great. Thou art his true friend. Bless thee! bless thee! bless thee! Now we shall see him again. We have not set eyes on him since that terrible day.”

“Gramercy, but that is strange,” said Giles. “Maybe he is ashamed of having cursed those two vagabones, being our own flesh and blood, worse luck.”

“Think you that is why he hides?” said Margaret eagerly;

“Ay, if he is hiding at all. However, I’ll cry him by bellman.

“Nay, that might much offend him.”

“What care I? Is Gouda to go vicarless and the manse in nettles?”

And to Margaret’s secret satisfaction, Giles had the new vicar cried in Rotterdam and the neighbouring towns. He easily persuaded Margaret that in a day or two Gerard would be sure to hear, and come to his benefice. She went to look at his manse, and thought how comfortable it might be made for him, and how dearly she should love to do it.

But the days rolled on, and Gerard came neither to Rotterdam nor Gouda. Giles was mortified, Margaret indignant, and very wretched. She said to herself, “Thinking me dead, he comes home, and now, because I am alive, he goes back to Italy, for that is where he has gone.”

Joan advised her to consult the hermit of Gouda.

“Why, sure he is dead by this time.”

“Yon one, belike. But the cave is never long void; Gouda ne’er wants a hermit.”

But Margaret declined to go again to Gouda on such an errand, “What can he know, shut up in a cave? less than I, belike. Gerard hath gone back t’ Italy. He hates me for not being dead.”

Presently a Tergovian came in with a word from Catherine that Ghysbrecht Van Swieten had seen Gerard later than any one else. On this Margaret determined to go and see the house and goods that had been left her, and take Reicht Heynes home to Rotterdam. And as may be supposed, her steps took her first to Ghysbrecht’s house. She found him in his garden, seated in a chair with wheels. He greeted her with a feeble voice, but cordially; and when she asked him whether it was true he had seen Gerard since the fifth of August, he replied, “Gerard no more, but Friar Clement. Ay, I saw him; and blessed be the day he entered my house.”

He then related in his own words his interview with Clement.

He told her, moreover, that the friar had afterwards acknowledged he came to Tergou with the missing deed in his bosom on purpose to make him disgorge her land; but that finding him disposed towards penitence, he had gone to work the other way.

“Was not this a saint; who came to right thee, but must needs save his enemy’s soul in the doing it?”

To her question, whether he had recognized him, he said, “I ne’er suspected such a thing. ’Twas only when he had been three days with me that he revealed himself, Listen while I speak my shame and his praise.

“I said to him, ‘The land is gone home, and my stomach feels lighter; but there is another fault that clingeth to me still;’ then told I him of the letter I had writ at request of his brethren, I whose place it was to check them. Said I, ‘Yon letter was writ to part two lovers, and the devil aiding, it hath done the foul work. Land and houses I can give back, but yon mischief is done for ever.’ ‘Nay,’ quoth he, ‘not for ever, but for life. Repent it then while thou livest.’ ‘I shall,’ said I, ‘but how can God forgive it? I would not,’ said I, ‘were I He.’

“‘Yet will He certainly forgive it,’ quoth he; ‘for He is ten times more forgiving than I am, and I forgive thee.’ I stared at him; and then he said softly, but quavering like, ‘Ghysbrecht, look at me closer. I am Gerard, the son of Eli.’ And I looked, and looked, and at last, lo! it was Gerard. Verily I had fallen at his feet with shame and contrition, but he would not suffer me. ‘That became not mine years and his, for a particular fault. I say not I forgive thee without a struggle,’ said he, ‘not being a saint. But these three days thou hast spent in penitence, I have worn under thy roof in prayer; and I do forgive thee.’ Those were his very words.”

Margaret’s tears began to flow, for it was in a broken and contrite voice the old man told her this unexpected trait in her Gerard. He continued, “And even with that he bade me farewell.

“‘My work here is done now,’ said he. I had not the heart to stay him; for let him forgive me ever so, the sight of me must be wormwood to him. He left me in peace, and may a dying man’s blessing wait on him, go where he will. Oh, girl, when I think of his wrongs, and thine, and how he hath avenged himself by saving this stained soul of mine, my heart is broken with remorse, and these old eyes shed tears by night and day.”

“Ghysbrecht,” said Margaret, weeping, “since he hath forgiven thee, I forgive thee too: what is done, is done; and thou hast let me know this day that which I had walked the world to hear. But oh, burgomaster, thou art an understanding man, now help a poor woman, which hath forgiven thee her misery.”

She then told him all that had befallen, “And,” said she, “they will not keep the living for him for ever. He bids fair to lose that, as well as break all our hearts.”

“Call my servant,” cried the burgomaster, with sudden vigour.

He sent him for a table and writing materials, and dictated letters to the burgomasters in all the principal towns in Holland, and one to a Prussian authority, his friend. His clerk and Margaret wrote them, and he signed them. “There,” said he, “the matter shall be despatched throughout Holland by trusty couriers, and as far as Basle in Switzerland; and fear not, but we will soon have the vicar of Gouda to his village.”

She went home animated with fresh hopes, and accusing herself of ingratitude to Gerard. “I value my wealth now,” said she.

She also made a resolution never to blame his conduct till she should hear from his own lips his reason.

Not long after her return from Tergou a fresh disaster befell. Catherine, I must premise, had secret interviews with the black sheep, the very day after they were expelled; and Cornelis followed her to Tergou, and lived there on secret contributions, but Sybrandt chose to remain in Rotterdam. Ere Catherine left, she asked Margaret to lend her two gold angels. “For,” said she, “all mine are spent.” Margaret was delighted to lend them or give them; but the words were scarce out of her mouth ere she caught a look of regret and distress on Kate’s face, and she saw directly whither her money was going. She gave Catherine the money, and went and shut herself up with her boy. Now this money was to last Sybrandt till his mother could make some good excuse for visiting Rotterdam again, and then she would bring the idle dog some of her own industrious savings.

But Sybrandt, having gold in his pocket, thought it inexhaustible: and being now under no shadow of restraint, led the life of a complete sot; until one afternoon, in a drunken frolic, he climbed on the roof of the stable at the inn he was carousing in, and proceeded to walk along it, a feat he had performed many times when sober. But now his unsteady brain made his legs unsteady, and he rolled down the roof and fell with a loud thwack on to an horizontal paling, where he hung a moment in a semicircle; then toppled over and lay silent on the ground, amidst roars of laughter from his boon companions. When they came to pick him up he could not stand; but fell down giggling at each attempt.

On this they went staggering and roaring down the street with him, and carried him at great risk of another fall to the shop in the Hoog Straet. For he had babbled his own shame all over the place.

As soon as he saw Margaret he hiccupped out, “Here is the doctor that cures all hurts, a bonny lass.” He also bade her observe he bore her no malice, for he was paying her a visit sore against his will. “Wherefore, prithee send away these drunkards, and let you and me have t’other glass, to drown all unkindness.”

All this time Margaret was pale and red by turns at sight of her enemy and at his insolence; but one of the men whispered what had happened, and a streaky something in Sybrandt’s face arrested her attention.

“And he cannot stand up, say you?”

“A couldn’t just now. Try, comrade! Be a man now!”

“I am a better man than thou,” roared Sybrandt. “I’ll stand up and fight ye all for a crown.”

He started to his feet, and instantly rolled into his attendant’s arms with a piteous groan. He then began to curse his boon companions, and declare they had stolen away his legs. “He could feel nothing below the waist.”

“Alas, poor wretch,” said Margaret. She turned very gravely to the men, and said, “Leave him here. And if you have brought him to this, go on your knees, for you have spoiled him for life. He will never walk again; his back is broken.”

The drunken man caught these words, and the foolish look of intoxication fled, and a glare of anguish took its place. “The curse,” he groaned; “the curse!”

Margaret and Reicht Heynes carried him carefully, and laid him on the softest bed.

“I must do as he would do,” whispered Margaret. “He was kind to Ghysbrecht.”

Her opinion was verified, Sybrandt’s spine was fatally injured; and he lay groaning and helpless, fed and tended by her he had so deeply injured.

The news was sent to Tergou, and Catherine came over.

It was a terrible blow to her. Moreover, she accused herself as the cause. “Oh, false wife; oh, weak mother,” she cried, “I am rightly punished for my treason to my poor Eli.”

She sat for hours at a time by his bedside rocking herself in silence, and was never quite herself again; and the first grey hairs began to come in her poor head from that hour.

As for Sybrandt, all his cry was now for Gerard, He used to whine to Margaret like a suffering hound, “Oh, sweet Margaret, oh, bonny Margaret, for our Lady’s sake find Gerard, and bid him take his curse off me. Thou art gentle, thou art good; thou wilt entreat for me, and he will refuse thee nought.”

Catherine shared his belief that Gerard could cure him, and joined her entreaties to his, Margaret hardly needed this. The burgomaster and his agents having failed, she employed her own, and spent money like water. And among these agents poor Luke enrolled himself. She met him one day looking very thin, and spoke to him compassionately. On this he began to blubber, and say he was more miserable than ever; he would like to be good friends again upon almost any terms.

“Dear heart,” said Margaret sorrowfully, “why can you not say to yourself, now I am her little brother, and she is my old, married sister, worn down with care? Say so, and I will indulge thee, and pet thee, and make thee happier than a prince.”

“Well, I will,” said Luke savagely, “sooner than keep away from you altogether. But above all give me something to do. Perchance I may have better luck this time.”

“Get me my marriage lines,” said Margaret, turning sad and gloomy in a moment.

“That is as much as to say, get me him! for where they are, he is.”

“Not so. He may refuse to come nigh me; but certes he will not deny a poor woman, who loved him once, her lines of betrothal. How can she go without them into any honest man’s house?”

“I’ll get them you if they are in Holland,” said Luke.

“They are as like to be in Rome,” replied Margaret.

“Let us begin with Holland,” observed Luke prudently.

The slave of love was furnished with money by his soft tyrant, and wandered hither and thither, Coopering, and carpentering, and looking for Gerard. “I can’t be worse if I find the vagabone,” said he, “and I may be a hantle better.”

The months rolled on, and Sybrandt improved in spirit, but not in body; he was Margaret’s pensioner for life; and a long-expected sorrow fell upon poor Catherine, and left her still more bowed down; and she lost her fine hearty bustling way, and never went about the house singing now; and her nerves were shaken, and she lived in dread of some terrible misfortune falling on Cornelis. The curse was laid on him as well as Sybrandt. She prayed Eli, if she had been a faithful partner all these years, to take Cornelis into his house again, and let her live awhile at Rotterdam.

“I have good daughters here,” said she; “but Margaret is so tender, and thoughtful, and the little Gerard, he is my joy; he grows liker his father every day, and his prattle cheers my heavy heart; and I do love children.”

And Eli, sturdy but kindly, consented sorrowfully.

And the people of Gouda petitioned the duke for a vicar, a real vicar. “Ours cometh never nigh us,” said they, “this six months past; our children they die unchristened, and our folk unburied, except by some chance comer.” Giles’ influence baffled this just complaint once; but a second petition was prepared, and he gave Margaret little hope that the present position could be maintained a single day.

So then Margaret went sorrowfully to the pretty manse to see it for the last time, ere it should pass for ever into stranger’s hands.

“I think he would have been happy here,” she said, and turned heart-sick away.

On their return, Reicht Heynes proposed to her to go and consult the hermit.

“What,” said Margaret, “Joan has been at you. She is the one for hermits. I’ll go, if ’tis but to show thee they know no more than we do.” And they went to the cave.

It was an excavation partly natural, partly artificial, in a bank of rock overgrown by brambles. There was a rough stone door on hinges, and a little window high up, and two apertures, through one of which the people announced their gifts to the hermit, and put questions of all sorts to him; and when he chose to answer, his voice came dissonant and monstrous out at another small aperture.

On the face of the rock this line was cut —

Felix qui in Domino nixus ab orbe fugit.

Margaret observed to her companion that this was new since she was here last.

“Ay,” said Reicht, “like enough;” and looked up at it with awe. Writing even on paper she thought no trifle; but on rock! She whispered, “Tis a far holier hermit than the last; he used to come in the town now and then, but this one ne’er shows his face to mortal man.”

“And that is holiness?”

“Ay, sure.”

“Then what a saint a dormouse must be?”

“Out, fie, mistress. Would ye even a beast to a man?”

“Come, Reicht,” said Margaret, “my poor father taught me overmuch, So I will e’en sit here, and look at the manse once more. Go thou forward and question thy solitary, and tell me whether ye get nought or nonsense out of him, for ’twill be one.”

As Reicht drew near the cave a number of birds flew out of it., She gave a little scream, and pointed to the cave to show Margaret they had come thence, On this Margaret felt sure there was no human being in the cave, and gave the matter no further attention, She fell into a deep reverie while looking at the little manse.

She was startled from it by Reicht’s hand upon her shoulder, and a faint voice saying, “Let us go home.”

“You got no answer at all, Reicht,” said Margaret calmly.

“No, Margaret,” said Reicht despondently. And they returned home.

Perhaps after all Margaret had nourished some faint secret hope in her heart, though her reason had rejected it, for she certainly went home more dejectedly.

Just as they entered Rotterdam, Reicht said, “Stay! Oh, Margaret, I am ill at deceit; but ’tis death to utter ill news to thee; I love thee so dear.”

“Speak out, sweetheart,” said Margaret. “I have gone through so much, I am almost past feeling any fresh trouble.”

“Margaret, the hermit did speak to me.”

“What, a hermit there? among all those birds.”

“Ay; and doth not that show him a holy man?”

“I’ God’s name, what said he to thee, Reicht?”

“Alas! Margaret, I told him thy story, and I prayed him for our Lady’s sake tell me where thy Gerard is, And I waited long for an answer, and presently a voice came like a trumpet: ‘Pray for the soul of Gerard the son of Eli!”

“Ah!”

“Oh, woe is me that I have this to tell thee, sweet Margaret! bethink thee thou hast thy boy to live for yet.”

“Let me get home,” said Margaret faintly.

Passing down the Brede Kirk Straet they saw Joan at the door. Reicht said to her, “Eh, woman, she has been to your hermit, and heard no good news.”

“Come in,” said Joan, eager for a gossip.

Margaret would not go in; but she sat down disconsolate on the lowest step but one of the little external staircase that led into Joan’s house, and let the other two gossip their fill at the top of it.

“Oh,” said Joan, “what yon hermit says is sure to be sooth, He is that holy, I am told, that the very birds consort with him.”

“What does that prove?” said Margaret deprecatingly. “I have seen my Gerard tame the birds in winter till they would eat from his hand.”

A look of pity at this parallel passed between the other two, but they were both too fond of her to say what they thought.

Joan proceeded to relate all the marvellous tales she had heard of this hermit’s sanctity; how he never came out but at night, and prayed among the wolves, and they never molested him; and now he bade the people not bring him so much food to pamper his body, but to bring him candles.

“The candles are to burn before his saint,” whispered Reicht solemnly.

“Ay, lass; and to read his holy books wi’. A neighbour o’ mine saw his hand come out, and the birds sat thereon and pecked crumbs. She went for to kiss it, but the holy man whippit it away in a trice. They can’t abide a woman to touch ‘en, or even look at ’em, saints can’t.”

“What like was his hand, wife? Did you ask her?”

“What is my tongue for, else? Why, dear heart, all one as yourn; by the same token a had a thumb and four fingers.”

“Look ye there now.”

“But a deal whiter nor yourn and mine.”

“Ay, ay.”

“And main skinny.”

“Alas.”

“What could ye expect? Why, a live upon air, and prayer, and candles.”

“Ah, well,” continued Joan; “poor thing, I whiles think ’tis best for her to know the worst. And now she hath gotten a voice from heaven, Or almost as good, and behoves her pray for his soul. One thing, she is not so poor now as she was; and never fell riches to a better hand; and she is only come into her own for that matter, so she can pay the priest to say masses for him, and that is a great comfort.”

In the midst of their gossip, Margaret, in whose ears it was all buzzing, though she seemed lost in thought, got softly up, and crept away with her eyes on the ground, and her brows bent.

“She hath forgotten I am with her,” said Reicht Heynes ruefully.

She had her gossip out with Joan, and then went home.

She found Margaret seated cutting out a pelisse of grey cloth, and a cape to match. Little Gerard was standing at her side, inside her left arm, eyeing the work, and making it more difficult by wriggling about, and fingering the arm with which she held the cloth steady, to all which she submitted with imperturbable patience and complacency, Fancy a male workman so entangled, impeded, worried!

“Ot’s that, mammy?”

“A pelisse, my pet.”

“Ot’s a p’lisse?”

“A great frock. And this is the cape to’t.”

“Ot’s it for?”

“To keep his body from the cold; and the cape is for his shoulders, or to go over his head like the country folk. ’Tis for a hermit.”

“Ot’s a ‘ermit?”

“A holy man that lives in a cave all by himself.”

“In de dark?”

“Ay, whiles.”

“Oh.”

In the morning Reicht was sent to the hermit with the pelisse, and a pound of thick candles.

As she was going out of the door Margaret said to her, “Said you whose son Gerard was?”

“Nay, not I.”

“Think, girl! How could he call him Gerard, son of Eli, if you had not told him?”

Reicht persisted she had never mentioned him but as plain Gerard. But Margaret told her flatly she did not believe her; at which Reicht was affronted, and went out with a little toss of the head. However, she determined to question the hermit again, and did not doubt he would be more liberal in his communication when he saw his nice new pelisse and the candles.

She had not been gone long when Giles came in with ill news.

The living of Gouda would be kept vacant no longer.

Margaret was greatly distressed at this.

“Oh, Giles,” said she, “ask for another month. They will give thee another month, maybe.”

He returned in an hour to tell her he could not get a month.

“They have given me a week,” said he. “And what is a week?”

“Drowning bodies catch at strawen,” was her reply. “A week? a little week?”

Reicht came back from her errand out of spirits. Her oracle had declined all further communication. So at least its obstinate silence might fairly be interpreted.

The next day Margaret put Reicht in charge of the shop, and disappeared all day. So the next day, and so the next. Nor would she tell any one where she had been. Perhaps she was ashamed. The fact is, she spent all those days on one little spot of ground. When they thought her dreaming, she was applying to every word that fell from Joan and Reicht the whole powers of a far acuter mind than either of them possessed.

She went to work on a scale that never occurred to either of them. She was determined to see the hermit, and question him face to face, not through a wall. She found that by making a circuit she could get above the cave, and look down without being seen by the solitary. But when she came to do it, she found an impenetrable mass of brambles. After tearing her clothes, and her hands and feet, so that she was soon covered with blood, the resolute, patient girl took out her scissors and steadily snipped and cut till she made a narrow path through the enemy. But so slow was the work that she had to leave it half done. The next day she had her scissors fresh ground, and brought a sharp knife as well, and gently, silently, cut her way to the roof of the cave. There she made an ambush of some of the cut brambles, so that the passers-by might not see her, and couched with watchful eye till the hermit should come out. She heard him move underneath her. But he never left his cell. She began to think it was true that he only came out at night.

The next day she came early and brought a jerkin she was making for little Gerard, and there she sat all day, working, and watching with dogged patience.

At four o’clock the birds began to feed; and a great many of the smaller kinds came fluttering round the cave, and one or two went in. But most of them, taking a preliminary seat on the bushes, suddenly discovered Margaret, and went off with an agitated flirt of their little wings. And although they sailed about in the air, they would not enter the cave. Presently, to encourage them, the hermit, all unconscious of the cause of their tremors, put out a thin white hand with a few crumbs in it, Margaret laid down her work softly, and gliding her body forward like a snake, looked down at it from above; it was but a few feet from her. It was as the woman described it, a thin, white hand.

Presently the other hand came out with a piece of bread, and the two hands together broke it and scattered the crumbs.

But that other hand had hardly been out two seconds ere the violet eyes that were watching above dilated; and the gentle bosom heaved, and the whole frame quivered like a leaf in the wind.

What her swift eye had seen I leave the reader to guess. She suppressed the scream that rose to her lips, but the effort cost her dear. Soon the left hand of the hermit began to swim indistinctly before her gloating eyes; and with a deep sigh her head drooped, and she lay like a broken lily.

She was in a deep swoon, to which perhaps her long fast to-day and the agitation and sleeplessness of many preceding days contributed.

And there lay beauty, intelligence, and constancy, pale and silent, And little that hermit guessed who was so near him. The little birds hopped on her now, and one nearly entangled his little feet in her rich auburn hair.

She came back to her troubles. The sun was set. She was very cold, She cried a little, but I think it was partly from the remains of physical weakness. And then she went home, praying God and the saints to enlighten her and teach her what to do for the best.

When she got home she was pale and hysterical, and would say nothing in answer to all their questions but her favourite word, “We are wading in deep waters.”

The night seemed to have done wonders for her.

She came to Catherine, who was sitting sighing by the fireside, and kissed her, and said —

“Mother, what would you like best in the world?”

“Eh, dear,” replied Catherine despondently, “I know nought that would make me smile now; I have parted from too many that were dear to me. Gerard lost again as soon as found; Kate in heaven; and Sybrandt down for life.”

“Poor mother! Mother dear, Gouda manse is to be furnished, and cleaned, and made ready all in a hurry, See, here be ten gold angels. Make them go far, good mother; for I have ta’en over many already from my boy for a set of useless loons that were aye going to find him for me.”

Catherine and Reicht stared at her a moment in silence, and then out burst a flood of questions, to none of which would she give a reply. “Nay,” said she, “I have lain on my bed and thought, and thought, and thought whiles you were all sleeping; and methinks I have got the clue to all, I love you, dear mother; but I’ll trust no woman’s tongue. If I fail this time, I’ll have none to blame but Margaret Brandt.”

A resolute woman is a very resolute thing. And there was a deep, dogged determination in Margaret’s voice and brow that at once convinced Catherine it would be idle to put any more questions at that time, She and Reicht lost themselves in conjectures; and Catherine whispered Reicht, “Bide quiet; then ’twill leak out;” a shrewd piece of advice, founded on general observation.

Within an hour Catherine was on the road to Gouda in a cart, with two stout girls to help her, and quite a siege artillery of mops, and pails, and brushes, She came back with heightened colour, and something of the old sparkle in her eye, and kissed Margaret with a silent warmth that spoke volumes, and at five in the morning was off again to Gouda.

That night as Reicht was in her first sleep a hand gently pressed her shoulder, and she awoke, and was going to scream, “Whisht,” said Margaret, and put her finger to her lips.

She then whispered, “Rise softly, don thy habits, and come with me!”

When she came down, Margaret begged her to loose Dragon and bring him along. Now Dragon was a great mastiff, who had guarded Margaret Van Eyck and Reicht, two lone women, for some years, and was devotedly attached to the latter.

Margaret and Reicht went out, with Dragon walking majestically behind them. They came back long after midnight, and retired to rest.

Catherine never knew.

Margaret read her friends: she saw the sturdy, faithful Frisian could hold her tongue, and Catherine could not. Yet I am not sure she would have trusted even Reicht had her nerve equalled her spirit; but with all her daring and resolution, she was a tender, timid woman, a little afraid of the dark, very afraid of being alone in it, and desperately afraid of wolves. Now Dragon could kill a wolf in a brace of shakes; but then Dragon would not go with her, but only with Reicht; so altogether she made one confidante.

The next night they made another moonlight reconnaissance, and as I think, with some result. For not the next night (it rained that night and extinguished their courage), but the next after they took with them a companion, the last in the world Reicht Heynes would have thought of; yet she gave her warm approval as soon as she was told he was to go with them.

Imagine how these stealthy assailants trembled and panted when the moment of action came; imagine, if you can, the tumult in Margaret’s breast, the thrilling hopes, chasing, and chased by sickening fears; the strange and perhaps unparalleled mixture of tender familiarity and distant awe with which a lovely and high-spirited, but tender, adoring woman, wife in the eye of the Law, and no wife in the eye of the Church, trembling, blushing, paling, glowing, shivering, stole at night, noiseless as the dew, upon the hermit of Gouda.

And the stars above seemed never so bright and calm.

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