The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 93

One day as he lay there sighing and groaning, prayerless, tuneless, hopeless, a thought flashed into his mind. What he had done for the poor and the wayfarer, he would do for himself. He would fill his den of despair with the name of God and the magic words of holy writ, and the pious, prayerful consolations of the Church.

Then, like Christian at Apollyon’s feet, he reached his hand suddenly out and caught, not his sword, for he had none, but peaceful labour’s humbler weapon, his chisel, and worked with it as if his soul depended on his arm.

They say that Michael Angelo in the next generation used to carve statues, not like our timid sculptors, by modelling the work in clay, and then setting a mechanic to chisel it, but would seize the block, conceive the image, and at once, with mallet and steel, make the marble chips fly like mad about him, and the mass sprout into form. Even so Clement drew no lines to guide his hand. He went to his memory for the gracious words, and then dashed at his work and eagerly graved them in the soft stone, between working and fighting.

He begged his visitors for candle ends, and rancid oil.

“Anything is good enough for me,” he said, “if ’twill but burn.” So at night the cave glowed afar off like a blacksmith’s forge, through the window and the gaping chinks of the rude stone door, and the rustics beholding crossed themselves and suspected deviltries, and within the holy talismans, one after another, came upon the walls, and the sparks and the chips flew day and night, night and day, as the soldier of Solitude and of the Church plied, with sighs and groans, his bloodless weapon, between working and fighting.

Kyrie Eleison.

Christe Eleison.

{ton Satanan suntripson upo tous pothas ymwn}4

Sursum Corda.5

Deus Refugium nostrum et virtus.6

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi miserere mihi.7

Sancta Trinitas unus Deus, miserere nobis.8

Ab infestationibus Daemonum, a ventura ira, a damnatione perpetua. Libera nos Domine.9

Deus, qui miro ordine Angelorum ministeria, etc, (the whole collect).10

Quem quaerimus adjutorem nisi te Domine qui pro peccatis nostris juste irascaris? 11

Sancte Deus, Sancte fortis, Sancte et misericors Salvator, amarae morti ne tradas nos.

And underneath the great crucifix, which was fastened to the wall, he graved this from Augustine:

O anima Christiana, respice vulnera patientis, sanguinem morientis, pretium redemptionis. Haec quanta sint cogitate, et in statera mentis vestrae appendite, ut totus vobis figatur in corde, qui pro vobis totus fixus est in cruce. Nam si passio Christi ad memoriam revocetur, nihil est tam durum quod non aequo animo toleretur.

Which may be thus rendered: O Christian soul, look on the wounds of the suffering One, the blood of the dying One, the price paid for our redemption! These things, oh, think how great they be, and weigh them in the balance of thy mind: that He may be wholly nailed to thy heart, who for thee was all nailed unto the cross. For do but call to mind the sufferings of Christ, and there is nought on earth too hard to endure with composure.

Soothed a little, a very little, by the sweet and pious words he was raising all round him, and weighed down with watching and working night and day, Clement one morning sank prostrate with fatigue, and a deep sleep overpowered him for many hours. Awaking quietly, he heard a little cheep; he opened his eyes, and lo! upon his breviary, which was on a low stool near his feet, ruffling all his feathers with a single pull, and smoothing them as suddenly, and cocking his bill this way and that with a vast display of cunning purely imaginary, perched a robin redbreast.

Clement held his breath.

He half closed his eyes lest they should frighten the airy guest.

Down came robin on the floor.

When there he went through his pantomime of astuteness; and then, pim, pim, pim, with three stiff little hops, like a ball of worsted on vertical wires, he was on the hermit’s bare foot. On this eminence he swelled and contracted again, with ebb and flow of feathers; but Clement lost this, for he quite closed his eyes and scarce drew his breath in fear of frightening and losing his visitor. He was content to feel the minute claw on his foot. He could but just feel it, and that by help of knowing it was there.

Presently a little flirt with two little wings, and the feathered busybody was on the breviary again.

Then Clement determined to try and feed this pretty little fidget without frightening it away. But it was very difficult.

He had a piece of bread within reach, but how get at it? I think he was five minutes creeping his hand up to that bread, and when there he must not move his arm.

He slily got a crumb between a finger and thumb and shot it as boys do marbles, keeping the hand quite still.

Cockrobin saw it fall near him, and did sagacity, but moved not.

When another followed, and then another, he popped down and caught up one of the crumbs, but not quite understanding this mystery fled with it, for more security, to an eminence; to wit, the hermit’s knee.

And so the game proceeded till a much larger fragment than usual rolled along.

Here was a prize. Cockrobin pounced on it, bore it aloft, and fled so swiftly into the world with it, the cave resounded with the buffeted air.

“Now, bless thee, sweet bird,” sighed the stricken solitary; “thy wings are music, and thou a feathered ray camedst to light my darkened soul.”

And from that to his orisons, and then to his tools with a little bit of courage, and this was his day’s work:

Veni, Creator Spiritus,

Mentes tuorem visita,

Imple superna gratia

Quae tu creasti pectora

Accende lumen sensibus,

Mentes tuorum visita,

Infirma nostri corporis,

Virtute firmans perpeti.

And so the days rolled on; and the weather got colder, and Clement’s heart got warmer, and despondency was rolling away; and by-and-by, somehow or another, it was gone. He had outlived it.

It had come like a cloud, and it went like one.

And presently all was reversed; his cell seemed illuminated with joy. His work pleased him; his prayers were full of unction; his psalms of praise. Hosts of little birds followed their crimson leader, and flying from snow, and a parish full of Cains, made friends one after another with Abel; fast friends. And one keen frosty night as he sang the praises of God to his tuneful psaltery, and his hollow cave rang forth the holy psalmody upon the night, as if that cave itself was Tubal’s surrounding shell, or David’s harp, he heard a clear whine, not unmelodious; it became louder and less in tune. He peeped through the chinks of his rude door, and there sat a great red wolf moaning melodiously with his nose high in the air.

Clement was rejoiced. “My sins are going,” he cried, “and the creatures of God are owning me, one after another.” And in a burst of enthusiasm he struck up the laud:

“Praise Him all ye creatures of His!

“Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.”

And all the time he sang the wolf bayed at intervals.

But above all he seemed now to be drawing nearer to that celestial intercourse which was the sign and the bliss of the true hermit; for he had dreams about the saints and angels, so vivid, they were more like visions. He saw bright figures clad in woven snow. They bent on him eyes lovelier than those of the antelope’s he had seen at Rome, and fanned him with broad wings hued like the rainbow, and their gentle voices bade him speed upon his course.

He had not long enjoyed this felicity when his dreams began to take another and a strange complexion. He wandered with Fra Colonna over the relics of antique nations, and the friar was lame and had a staff, and this staff he waved over the mighty ruins, and were they Egyptian, Greek, or Roman, straightway the temples and palaces, whose wrecks they were, rose again like an exhalation, and were thronged with the famous dead. Songsters that might have eclipsed both Apollo and his rival poured forth their lays; women, god-like in form, and draped like Minerva, swam round the marble courts in voluptuous but easy and graceful dances. Here sculptors carved away amidst admiring pupils, and forms of supernatural beauty grew out of Parian marble in a quarter of an hour; and grave philosophers conversed on high and subtle matters, with youth listening reverently; it was a long time ago. And still beneath all this wonderful panorama a sort of suspicion or expectation lurked in the dreamer’s mind. “This is a prologue, a flourish, there is something behind; something that means me no good, something mysterious, awful.”

And one night that the wizard Colonna had transcended himself, he pointed with his stick, and there was a swallowing up of many great ancient cities, and the pair stood on a vast sandy plain with a huge crimson sun sinking to rest, There were great palm-trees; and there were bulrush hives, scarce a man’s height, dotted all about to the sandy horizon, and the crimson sun.

“These are the anchorites of the Theban desert,” said Colonna calmly; “followers not of Christ and His apostles, and the great fathers, but of the Greek pupils of the Egyptian pupils of the Brachmans and Gymnosophists.”

And Clement thought that he burned to go and embrace the holy men and tell them his troubles, and seek their advice. But he was tied by the feet somehow, and could not move, and the crimson sun sank, and it got dusk, and the hives scarce visible, And Colonna’s figure became shadowy and shapeless, but his eyes glowed ten times brighter; and this thing all eyes spoke and said: “Nay, let them be, a pack of fools I see how dismal it all is.” Then with a sudden sprightliness, “But I hear one of them has a manuscript of Petronius, on papyrus; I go to buy it; farewell for ever, for ever, for ever.”

And it was pitch dark, and a light came at Clement’s back like a gentle stroke, a glorious roseate light. It warmed as well as brightened. It loosened his feet from the ground; he turned round, and there, her face irradiated with sunshine, and her hair glittering like the gloriola of a saint, was Margaret Brandt.

She blushed and smiled and cast a look of ineffable tenderness on him, “Gerard,” she murmured, “be whose thou wilt by day, but at night be mine!”

Even as she spoke, the agitation of seeing her so suddenly awakened him, and he found himself lying trembling from head to foot.

That radiant figure and mellow voice seemed to have struck his nightly keynote.

Awake he could pray, and praise, and worship God; he was master of his thoughts. But if he closed his eyes in sleep, Margaret, or Satan in her shape, beset him, a seeming angel of light. He might dream of a thousand different things, wide as the poles asunder, ere he woke the imperial figure was sure to come and extinguish all the rest in a moment, stellas exortus uti aetherius sol; for she came glowing with two beauties never before united, an angel’s radiance and a woman’s blushes.

Angels cannot blush. So he knew it was a fiend.

He was alarmed, but not so much surprised as at the demon’s last artifice. From Anthony to Nicholas of the Rock scarce hermit that had not been thus beset; sometimes with gay voluptuous visions, sometimes with lovely phantoms, warm, tangible, and womanly without, demons within, nor always baffled even by the saints. Witness that “angel form with a devil’s heart” that came hanging its lovely head, like a bruised flower, to St. Macarius, with a feigned tale, and wept, and wept, and wept, and beguiled him first of his tears and then of half his virtue.

But with the examples of Satanic power and craft had come down copious records of the hermits’ triumphs and the weapons by which they had conquered.

Domandum est Corpus; the body must be tamed; this had been their watchword for twelve hundred years. It was a tremendous war-cry; for they called the earthly affections, as well as appetites, body, and crushed the whole heart through the suffering and mortified flesh.

Clement then said to himself that the great enemy of man had retired but to spring with more effect, and had allowed him a few days of true purity and joy only to put him off his guard against the soft blandishments he was pouring over the soul that had survived the buffeting of his black wings. He applied himself to tame the body, he shortened his sleep, lengthened his prayers, and increased his severe temperance to abstinence. Hitherto, following the ordinary rule, he had eaten only at sunset. Now he ate but once in forty-eight hours, drinking a little water every day.

On this the visions became more distinct.

Then he flew to a famous antidote, to “the grand febrifuge” of anchorites — cold water.

He found the deepest part of the stream that ran by his cell; it rose not far off at a holy well; and clearing the bottom of the large stones, made a hole where he could stand in water to the chin, and fortified by so many examples, he sprang from his rude bed upon the next diabolical assault, and entered the icy water.

It made him gasp and almost shriek with the cold. It froze his marrow. “I shall die,” he cried, “I shall die; but better this than fire eternal.”

And the next day he was so stiff in all his joints he could not move, and he seemed one great ache. And even in sleep he felt that his very bones were like so many raging teeth, till the phantom he dreaded came and gave one pitying smile, and all the pain was gone.

Then, feeling that to go into the icy water again, enfeebled by fasts as he was, might perhaps carry the guilt of suicide, he scourged himself till the blood ran, and so lay down smarting. And when exhaustion began to blunt the smart down to a throb, that moment the present was away, and the past came smiling back. He sat with Margaret at the duke’s feast, the minstrels played divinely, and the purple fountains gushed. Youth and love reigned in each heart, and perfumed the very air.

Then the scene shifted, and they stood at the altar together man and wife. And no interruption this time, and they wandered hand in hand, and told each other their horrible dreams. As for him, “he had dreamed she was dead, and he was a monk; and really the dream had been so vivid and so full of particulars that only his eyesight could even now convince him it was only a dream, and they were really one.”

And this new keynote once struck, every tune ran upon it. Awake he was Clement the hermit, risen from unearthly visions of the night, as dangerous as they were sweet; asleep he was Gerard Eliassoen, the happy husband of the loveliest and best, and truest girl in Holland: all the happier that he had been for some time the sport of hideous dreams, in which he had lost her.

His constant fasts, coupled with other austerities, and the deep mental anxiety of a man fighting with a supernatural foe, had now reduced him nearly to a skeleton; but still on those aching bones hung flesh unsubdued, and quivering with an earthly passion; so, however, he thought; “or why had ill spirits such power over him?” His opinion was confirmed, when one day he detected himself sinking to sleep actually with a feeling of complacency, because now Margaret would come and he should feel no more pain, and the unreal would be real, and the real unreal, for an hour.

On this he rose hastily with a cry of dismay, and stripping to the skin climbed up to the brambles above his cave, and flung himself on them, and rolled on them writhing with the pain: then he came into his den a mass of gore, and lay moaning for hours; till, out of sheer exhaustion, he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

He awoke to bodily pain, and mental exultation; he had broken the fatal spell. Yes, it was broken; another and another day passed, and her image molested him no more. But he caught himself sighing at his victory.

The birds got tamer and tamer, they perched upon his hand. Two of them let him gild their little claws. Eating but once in two days he had more to give them.

His tranquility was not to last long.

A woman’s voice came in from the outside, told him his own story in a very few words, and asked him to tell her where Gerard was to be found.

He was so astounded he could only say, with an instinct of self-defence, “Pray for the soul of Gerard the son of Eli!” meaning that he was dead to the world. And he sat wondering.

When the woman was gone, he determined, after an inward battle, to risk being seen, and he peeped after her to see who it could be; but he took so many precautions, and she ran so quickly back to her friend, that the road was clear.

“Satan!” said he directly.

And that night back came his visions of earthly love and happiness so vividly, he could count every auburn hair in Margaret’s head, and see the pupils of her eyes.

Then he began to despair, and said, “I must leave this country; here I am bound fast in memory’s chain;” and began to dread his cell. He said, “A breath from hell hath infected it, and robbed even these holy words of their virtue.” And unconsciously imitating St. Jerome, a victim of earthly hallucinations, as overpowering, and coarser, he took his warmest covering out into the wood hard by, and there flung down under a tree that torn and wrinkled leather bag of bones, which a little ago might have served a sculptor for Apollo.

Whether the fever of his imagination intermitted, as a master mind of our day has shown that all things intermit12 or that this really broke some subtle link, I know not, but his sleep was dreamless.

He awoke nearly frozen, but warm with joy within.

“I shall yet be a true hermit, Dei gratia,” said he.

The next day some good soul left on his little platform a new lambs-wool pelisse and cape, warm, soft, and ample.

He had a moment’s misgiving on account of its delicious softness and warmth; but that passed. It was the right skin13, and a mark that Heaven approved his present course.

It restored warmth to his bones after he came in from his short rest.

And now, at one moment he saw victory before him if he could but live to it; at another, he said to himself, “’Tis but another lull; be on thy guard, Clement.”

And this thought agitated his nerves and kept him in continual awe.

He was like a soldier within the enemy’s lines.

One night, a beautiful clear frosty night, he came back to his cell, after a short rest. The stars were wonderful. Heaven seemed a thousand times larger as well as brighter than earth, and to look with a thousand eyes instead of one.

“Oh, wonderful,” he cried, “that there should be men who do crimes by night; and others scarce less mad, who live for this little world, and not for that great and glorious one, which nightly, to all eyes not blinded by custom, reveals its glowing glories. Thank God I am a hermit.”

And in this mood he came to his cell door.

He paused at it; it was closed.

“Why, methought I left it open,” said he, “The wind. There is not a breath of wind. What means this?”

He stood with his hand upon the rugged door. He looked through one of the great chinks, for it was much smaller in places than the aperture it pretended to close, and saw his little oil wick burning just where he had left it.

“How is it with me,” he sighed, “when I start and tremble at nothing? Either I did shut it, or the fiend hath shut it after me to disturb my happy soul. Retro Sathanas!”

And he entered his cave rapidly, and began with somewhat nervous expedition to light one of his largest tapers. While he was lighting it, there was a soft sigh in the cave.

He started and dropped the candle just as it was lighting, and it went out.

He stooped for it hurriedly and lighted it, listening intently.

When it was lighted he shaded it with his hand from behind, and threw the faint light all round the cell.

In the farthest corner the outline of the wall seemed broken.

He took a step towards the place with his heart beating.

The candle at the same time getting brighter, he saw it was the figure of a woman.

Another step with his knees knocking together.

IT WAS MARGARET BRANDT.

4 Beat down Satan under our feet.

5 Up, hearts!

6 O God our refuge and strength.

7 O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me!

8 O Holy Trinity, one God, have mercy upon us.

9 From the assaults of demons — from the wrath to come — from everlasting damnation, deliver us, O Lord!

10 See the English collect, St., Michael and all Angels.

11 Of whom may we seek succour but of Thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased (and that torrent of prayer, the following verse).

12 Dr. Dickson, author of Fallacies of the Faculty, etc.

13 It is related of a mediaeval hermit, that being offered a garment made of cats’ skins, he rejected it, saying, “I have heard of a lamb of God but I never heard of a cat of God.”

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