The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 94

HER attitude was one to excite pity rather than terror, in eyes not blinded by a preconceived notion. Her bosom was fluttering like a bird, and the red and white coming and going in her cheeks, and she had her hand against the wall by the instinct of timid things, she trembled so; and the marvellous mixed gaze of love, and pious awe, and pity, and tender memories, those purple eyes cast on the emaciated and glaring hermit, was an event in nature.

“Aha!” he cried. “Thou art come at last in flesh and blood; come to me as thou camest to holy Anthony. But I am ware of thee. I thought thy wiles were not exhausted. I am armed.” With this he snatched up his small crucifix and held it out at her, astonished, and the candle in the other hand, both crucifix and candle shaking violently. “Exorcizo te.”

“Ah, no!” cried she piteously; and put out two pretty deprecating palms. “Alas! work me no ill! It is Margaret.”

“Liar!” shouted the hermit. “Margaret was fair, but not so supernatural fair as thou. Thou didst shrink at that sacred name, thou subtle hypocrite. In Nomine Dei exorcizo vos.”

“Ah, Jesu!” gasped Margaret, in extremity of terror, “curse me not! I will go home. I thought I might come. For very manhood be-Latin me not! Oh, Gerard, is it thus you and I meet after all, after all?”

And she cowered almost to her knees and sobbed with superstitious fear and wounded affection.

Impregnated as he was with Satanophobia he might perhaps have doubted still whether this distressed creature, all woman and nature, was not all art and fiend. But her spontaneous appeal to that sacred name dissolved his chimera; and let him see with his eyes, and hear with his ears.

He uttered a cry of self-reproach, and tried to raise her but what with fasts, what with the overpowering emotion of a long solitude so broken, he could not. “What,” he gasped, shaking over her, “and is it thou? And have I met thee with hard words? Alas!” And they were both choked with emotion and could not speak for a while.

“I heed it not much,” said Margaret bravely, struggling with her tears; “you took me for another: for a devil; oh! oh! oh! oh! oh!”

“Forgive me, sweet soul!” And as soon as he could speak more than a word at a time, he said, “I have been much beset by the evil one since I came here.”

Margaret looked round with a shudder. “Like enow. Then oh take my hand, and let me lead thee from this foul place.”

He gazed at her with astonishment.

“What, desert my cell; and go into the world again? Is it for that thou hast come to me?” said he sadly and reproachfully.

“Ay, Gerard, I am come to take thee to thy pretty vicarage: art vicar of Gouda, thanks to Heaven and thy good brother Giles; and mother and I have made it so neat for thee, Gerard. ’Tis well enow in winter I promise thee. But bide a bit till the hawthorn bloom, and anon thy walls put on their kirtle of brave roses, and sweet woodbine, Have we forgotten thee, and the foolish things thou lovest? And, dear Gerard, thy mother is waiting; and ’tis late for her to be out of her bed: prithee, prithee, come! And the moment we are out of this foul hole I’ll show thee a treasure thou hast gotten, and knowest nought on’t, or sure hadst never fled from us so. Alas! what is to do? What have I ignorantly said, to be regarded thus?”

For he had drawn himself all up into a heap, and was looking at her with a strange gaze of fear and suspicion blended.

“Unhappy girl,” said he solemnly, yet deeply agitated, “would you have me risk my soul and yours for a miserable vicarage and the flowers that grow on it? But this is not thy doing: the bowelless fiend sends thee, poor simple girl, to me with this bait. But oh, cunning fiend, I will unmask thee even to this thine instrument, and she shall see thee, and abhor thee as I do, Margaret, my lost love, why am I here? Because I love thee.”

“Oh! no, Gerard, you love me not or you would not have hidden from me; there was no need.”

“Let there be no deceit between us twain, that have loved so true; and after this night, shall meet no more on earth.”

“Now God forbid!” said she.

“I love thee, and thou hast not forgotten me, or thou hadst married ere this, and hadst not been the one to find me, buried here from sight of man. I am a priest, a monk: what but folly or sin can come of you and me living neighbours, and feeding a passion innocent once, but now (so Heaven wills it) impious and unholy? No, though my heart break I must be firm. ’Tis I that am the man, ’tis I that am the priest. You and I must meet no more, till I am schooled by solitude, and thou art wedded to another.”

“I consent to my doom but not to thine. I would ten times liever die; yet I will marry, ay, wed misery itself sooner than let thee lie in this foul dismal place, with yon sweet manse awaiting for thee.” Clement groaned; at each word she spoke out stood clearer and clearer two things — his duty, and the agony it must cost.

“My beloved,” said he, with a strange mixture of tenderness and dogged resolution, “I bless thee for giving me one more sight of thy sweet face, and may God forgive thee, and bless thee, for destroying in a minute the holy peace it hath taken six months of solitude to build. No matter. A year of penance will, Dei gratia, restore me to my calm. My poor Margaret, I seem cruel: yet I am kind: ’tis best we part; ay, this moment.”

“Part, Gerard? Never: we have seen what comes of parting. Part? Why, you have not heard half my story; no, nor the tithe, ’Tis not for thy mere comfort I take thee to Gouda manse. Hear me!”

“I may not. Thy very voice is a temptation with its music, memory’s delight.”

“But I say you shall hear me, Gerard, for forth this place I go not unheard.”

“Then must we part by other means,” said Clement sadly.

“Alack! what other means? Wouldst put me to thine own door, being the stronger?”

“Nay, Margaret, well thou knowest I would suffer many deaths rather than put force on thee; thy sweet body is dearer to me than my own; but a million times dearer to me are our immortal souls, both thine and mine. I have withstood this direst temptation of all long enow. Now I must fly it: farewell! farewell!”

He made to the door, and had actually opened it and got half out, when she darted after and caught him by the arm.

“Nay, then another must speak for me. I thought to reward thee for yielding to me; but unkind that thou art, I need his help I find; turn then this way one moment.”

“Nay, nay.”

“But I say ay! And then turn thy back on us an thou canst.” She somewhat relaxed her grasp, thinking he would never deny her so small a favour. But at this he saw his opportunity and seized it.

“Fly, Clement, fly!” he almost shrieked; and his religious enthusiasm giving him for a moment his old strength, he burst wildly away from her, and after a few steps bounded over the little stream and ran beside it, but finding he was not followed stopped, and looked back.

She was lying on her face, with her hands spread out.

Yes, without meaning it, he had thrown her down and hurt her.

When he saw that, he groaned and turned back a step; but suddenly, by another impulse flung himself into the icy water instead.

“There, kill my body!” he cried, “but save my soul!”

Whilst he stood there, up to his throat in liquid ice, so to speak, Margaret uttered one long, piteous moan, and rose to her knees.

He saw her as plain almost as in midday. Saw her pale face and her eyes glistening; and then in the still night he heard these words:

“Oh, God! Thou that knowest all, Thou seest how I am used. Forgive me then! For I will not live another day.” With this she suddenly started to her feet, and flew like some wild creature, wounded to death, close by his miserable hiding-place, shrieking:

“CRUEL! — CRUEL! — CRUEL! — CRUEL!”

What manifold anguish may burst from a human heart in a single syllable. There were wounded love, and wounded pride, and despair, and coming madness all in that piteous cry. Clement heard, and it froze his heart with terror and remorse, worse than the icy water chilled the marrow of his bones.

He felt he had driven her from him for ever, and in the midst of his dismal triumph, the greatest he had won, there came an almost incontrollable impulse to curse the Church, to curse religion itself, for exacting such savage cruelty from mortal man. At last he crawled half dead out of the water, and staggered to his den. “I am safe here,” he groaned; “she will never come near me again; unmanly, ungrateful wretch that I am.” And he flung his emaciated, frozen body down on the floor, not without a secret hope that it might never rise thence alive.

But presently he saw by the hour-glass that it was past midnight.

On this, he rose slowly and took off his wet things, and moaning all the time at the pain he had caused her he loved, put on the old hermit’s cilice of bristles, and over that his breastplate. He had never worn either of these before, doubting himself worthy to don the arms of that tried soldier. But now he must give himself every aid; the bristles might distract his earthly remorse by bodily pain, and there might be holy virtue in the breastplate. Then he kneeled down and prayed God humbly to release him that very night from the burden of the flesh. Then he lighted all his candles, and recited his psalter doggedly; each word seemed to come like a lump of lead from a leaden heart, and to fall leaden to the ground; and in this mechanical office every now and then he moaned with all his soul. In the midst of which he suddenly observed a little bundle in the corner he had not seen before in the feebler light, and at one end of it something like gold spun into silk.

He went to see what it could be; and he had no sooner viewed it closer, than he threw up his hands with rapture. “It is a seraph,” he whispered, “a lovely seraph. Heaven hath witnessed my bitter trial, and approves my cruelty; and this flower of the skies is sent to cheer me, fainting under my burden.”

He fell on his knees, and gazed with ecstasy on its golden hair, and its tender skin, and cheeks like a peach.

“Let me feast my sad eyes on thee ere thou leavest me for thine ever-blessed abode, and my cell darkens again at thy parting, as it did at hers.”

With all this, the hermit disturbed the lovely visitor. He opened wide two eyes, the colour of heaven; and seeing a strange figure kneeling over him, he cried piteously, “MUMMA! MUM-MA!” And the tears began to run down his little cheeks.

Perhaps, after all, Clement, who for more than six months had not looked on the human face divine, estimated childish beauty more justly than we can; and in truth, this fair northern child, with its long golden hair, was far more angelic than any of our imagined angels. But now the spell was broken.

Yet not unhappily. Clement it may be remembered, was fond of children, and true monastic life fosters this sentiment. The innocent distress on the cherubic face, the tears that ran so smoothly from those transparent violets, his eyes, and his pretty, dismal cry for his only friend, his mother, went through the hermit’s heart. He employed all his gentleness and all his art to soothe him; and as the little soul was wonderfully intelligent for his age, presently succeeded so far that he ceased to cry out, and wonder took the place of fear; while, in silence, broken only in little gulps, he scanned, with great tearful eyes, this strange figure that looked so wild, but spoke so kindly, and wore armour, yet did not kill little boys, but coaxed them. Clement was equally perplexed to know how this little human flower came to lie sparkling and blooming in his gloomy cave. But he remembered he had left the door wide open, and he was driven to conclude that, owing to this negligence, some unfortunate creature of high or low degree had seized this opportunity to get rid of her child for ever.14. At this his bowels yearned so over the poor deserted cherub, that the tears of pure tenderness stood in his eyes, and still, beneath the crime of the mother, he saw the divine goodness, which had so directed her heartlessness as to comfort His servant’s breaking heart.

“Now bless thee, bless thee, bless thee, sweet innocent, I would not change thee for e’en a cherub in heaven.”

“At’s pooty,” replied the infant, ignoring contemptuously, after the manner of infants, all remarks that did not interest him.

“What is pretty here, my love, besides thee?”

“Ookum-gars,15 said the boy, pointing to the hermit’s breastplate.

“Quot liberi, tot sententiunculae!” Hector’s child screamed at his father’s glittering casque and nodding crest; and here was a mediaeval babe charmed with a polished cuirass, and his griefs assuaged.

“There are prettier things here than that,” said Clement, “there are little birds; lovest thou birds?”

“Nay. Ay. En um ittle, ery ittle? Not ike torks. Hate torks um bigger an baby.”

He then confided, in very broken language, that the storks with their great flapping wings scared him, and were a great trouble and worry to him, darkening his existence more or less.

“Ay, but my birds are very little, and good, and oh, so pretty!”

“Den I ikes ‘m,” said the child authoritatively, “I ont my mammy.”

“Alas, sweet dove! I doubt I shall have to fill her place as best I may. Hast thou no daddy as well as mammy, sweet one?”

Now not only was this conversation from first to last, the relative ages, situations, and all circumstances of the parties considered, as strange a one as ever took place between two mortal creatures, but at or within a second or two of the hermit’s last question, to turn the strange into the marvellous, came an unseen witness, to whom every word that passed carried ten times the force it did to either of the speakers.

Since, therefore, it is with her eyes you must now see, and hear with her ears, I go back a step for her.

Margaret, when she ran past Gerard, was almost mad. She was in that state of mind in which affectionate mothers have been known to kill their children, sometimes along with themselves, sometimes alone, which last is certainly maniacal, She ran to Reicht Heynes pale and trembling, and clasped her round the neck, “Oh, Reicht! oh, Reicht!” and could say no more.

Reicht kissed her, and began to whimper; and would you believe it, the great mastiff uttered one long whine: even his glimmer of sense taught him grief was afoot.

“Oh, Reicht!” moaned the despised beauty, as soon as she could utter a word for choking, “see how he has served me!” and she showed her hands, that were bleeding with falling on the stony ground. “He threw me down, he was so eager to fly from me, He took me for a devil; he said I came to tempt him. Am I the woman to tempt a man? you know me, Reicht.”

“Nay, in sooth, sweet Mistress Margaret, the last i’ the world.”

“And he would not look at my child. I’ll fling myself and him into the Rotter this night.”

“Oh, fie! fie! eh, my sweet woman, speak not so. Is any man that breathes worth your child’s life?”

“My child! where is he? Why, Reicht, I have left him behind. Oh, shame! is it possible I can love him to that degree as to forget my child? Ah! I am rightly served for it.”

And she sat down, and faithful Reicht beside her, and they sobbed in one another’s arms.

After a while Margaret left off sobbing and said doggedly, “let us go home.”

“Ay, but the bairn?”

“Oh! he is well where he is. My heart is turned against my very child, He cares nought for him; wouldn’t see him, nor hear speak of him; and I took him there so proud, and made his hair so nice, I did, and put his new frock and cowl on him. Nay, turn about: it’s his child as well as mine; let him keep it awhile: mayhap that will learn him to think more of its mother and his own.”

“High words off an empty stomach,” said Reicht.

“Time will show. Come you home.”

They departed, and Time did show quicker than he levels abbeys, for at the second step Margaret stopped, and could neither go one way nor the other, but stood stock still.

“Reicht,” said she piteously, “what else have I on earth? I cannot.”

“Whoever said you could? Think you I paid attention? Words are woman’s breath. Come back for him without more ado; ’tis time we were in our beds, much more he.”

Reicht led the way, and Margaret followed readily enough in that direction; but as they drew near the cell, she stopped again.

“Reicht, go you and ask him, will he give me back my boy; for I could not bear the sight of him.”

“Alas! mistress, this do seem a sorry ending after all that hath been betwixt you twain. Bethink thee now, doth thine heart whisper no excuse for him? dost verily hate him for whom thou hast waited so long? Oh, weary world!”

“Hate him, Reicht? I would not harm a hair of his head for all that is in nature; but look on him I cannot; I have taken a horror of him. Oh! when I think of all I have suffered for him, and what I came here this night to do for him, and brought my own darling to kiss him and call him father. Ah, Luke, my poor chap, my wound showeth me thine. I have thought too little of thy pangs, whose true affection I despised; and now my own is despised, Reicht, if the poor lad was here now, he would have a good chance.”

“Well, he is not far off,” said Reicht Heynes; but somehow she did not say it with alacrity.

“Speak not to me of any man,” said Margaret bitterly; “I hate them all.”

“For the sake of one?”

“Flout me not, but prithee go forward, and get me what is my own, my sole joy in the world. Thou knowest I am on thorns till I have him to my bosom again.”

Reicht went forward; Margaret sat by the roadside and covered her face with her apron, and rocked herself after the manner of her country, for her soul was full of bitterness and grief. So severe, indeed, was the internal conflict, that she did not hear Reicht running back to her, and started violently when the young woman laid a hand upon her shoulder.

“Mistress Margaret!” said Reicht quietly, “take a fool’s advice that loves ye. Go softly to yon cave, wi’ all the ears and eyes your mother ever gave you.”

“Why? Reicht?” stammered Margaret.

“I thought the cave was afire, ’twas so light inside; and there were voices.”

“Voices?”

“Ay, not one, but twain, and all unlike — a man’s and a little child’s talking as pleasant as you and me. I am no great hand at a keyhole for my part, ’tis paltry work; but if so be voices were a talking in yon cave, and them that owned those voices were so near to me as those are to thee, I’d go on all fours like a fox, and I’d crawl on my belly like a serpent, ere I’d lose one word that passes atwixt those twain.”

“Whisht, Reicht! Bless thee! Bide thou here. Buss me! Pray for me!”

And almost ere the agitated words had left her lips, Margaret was flying towards the hermitage as noiselessly as a lapwing.

Arrived near it, she crouched, and there was something truly serpentine in the gliding, flexible, noiseless movements by which she reached the very door, and there she found a chink, and listened. And often it cost her a struggle not to burst in upon them; but warned by defeat, she was cautious, and resolute, let well alone, And after a while, slowly and noiselessly she reared her head, like a snake its crest, to where she saw the broadest chink of all, and looked with all her eyes and soul, as well as listened.

The little boy then being asked whether he had no daddy, at first shook his head, and would say nothing; but being pressed he suddenly seemed to remember something, and said he, “Dad-da ill man; run away and left poor mum-ma.”

She who heard this winced. It was as new to her as to Clement. Some interfering foolish woman had gone and said this to the boy, and now out it came in Gerard’s very face. His answer surprised her; he burst out, “The villain! the monster! he must be born without bowels to desert thee, sweet one, Ah! he little knows the joy he has turned his back on. Well, my little dove, I must be father and mother to thee, since the one runs away, and t’other abandons thee to my care. Now to-morrow I shall ask the good people that bring me my food to fetch some nice eggs and milk for thee as well; for bread is good enough for poor old good-for-nothing me, but not for thee. And I shall teach thee to read.”

“I can yead, I can yead.”

“Ay, verily, so young? all the better; we will read good books together, and I shall show thee the way to heaven. Heaven is a beautiful place, a thousand times fairer and better than earth, and there be little cherubs like thyself, in white, glad to welcome thee and love thee. Wouldst like to go to heaven one day?”

“Ay, along wi’-my-mammy.”

“What, not without her then?”

“Nay. I ont my mammy. Where is my mammy?”

(Oh! what it cost poor Margaret not to burst in and clasp him to her heart!)

“Well, fret not, sweetheart, mayhap she will come when thou art asleep. Wilt thou be good now and sleep?”

“I not eepy. Ikes to talk.”

“Well, talk we then; tell me thy pretty name.”

“Baby.” And he opened his eyes with amazement at this great hulking creature’s ignorance.

“Hast none other?”

“Nay.”

“What shall I do to pleasure thee, baby? Shall I tell thee a story?”

“I ikes tories,” said the boy, clapping his hands.

“Or sing thee a song?”

“I ikes tongs,” and he became excited.

“Choose then, a song or a story.”

“Ting I a tong. Nay, tell I a tory. Nay, ting I a tong. Nay — And the corners of his little mouth turned down and he had half a mind to weep because he could not have both, and could not tell which to forego. Suddenly his little face cleared: “Ting I a tory,” said he.

“Sing thee a story, baby? Well, after all, why not? And wilt thou sit o’ my knee and hear it?”

“Yea.”

“Then I must e’en doff this breastplate, ’Tis too hard for thy soft cheek. So. And now I must doff this bristly cilice; they would prick thy tender skin, perhaps make it bleed, as they have me, I see. So. And now I put on my best pelisse, in honour of thy worshipful visit. See how soft and warm it is; bless the good soul that sent it; and now I sit me down; so. And I take thee on my left knee, and put my arm under thy little head; so, And then the psaltery, and play a little tune; so, not too loud.”

“I ikes dat.”

“I am right glad on’t. Now list the story.”

He chanted a child’s story in a sort of recitative, singing a little moral refrain now and then. The boy listened with rapture.

“I ikes oo,” said he, “Ot is oo? is oo a man?”

“Ay, little heart, and a great sinner to boot.”

“I ikes great tingers. Ting one other tory.”

Story No. 2 was Chanted.

“I ubbs oo,” cried the child impetuously, “Ot caft16 is oo?”

“I am a hermit, love.”

“I ubbs vermins. Ting other one.”

But during this final performance, Nature suddenly held out her leaden sceptre over the youthful eyelids. “I is not eepy,” whined he very faintly, and succumbed.

Clement laid down his psaltery softly and began to rock his new treasure in his arms, and to crone over him a little lullaby well known in Tergou, with which his own mother had often sent him off.

And the child sank into a profound sleep upon his arm. And he stopped croning and gazed on him with infinite tenderness, yet sadness; for at that moment he could not help thinking what might have been but for a piece of paper with a lie in it.

He sighed deeply.

The next moment the moonlight burst into his cell, and with it, and in it, and almost as swift as it, Margaret Brandt was down at his knee with a timorous hand upon his shoulder.

“GERARD, YOU DO NOT REJECT US, YOU CANNOT.”

14 More than one hermit had received a present of this kind.

15 Query, “looking glass.”

16 Craft. He means trade or profession.

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