The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 95

The startled hermit glared from his nurseling to Margaret, and from her to him, in amazement, equalled only by his agitation at her so unexpected return. The child lay asleep on his left arm, and she was at his right knee; no longer the pale, scared, panting girl he had overpowered so easily an hour or two ago, but an imperial beauty, with blushing cheeks and sparkling eyes, and lips sweetly parted in triumph, and her whole face radiant with a look he could not quite read; for he had never yet seen it on her: maternal pride.

He stared and stared from the child to her, in throbbing amazement.

“Us?” he gasped at last. And still his wonder-stricken eyes turned to and fro.

Margaret was surprised in her turn, It was an age of impressions not facts, “What!” she cried, “doth not a father know his own child? and a man of God, too? Fie, Gerard, to pretend! nay, thou art too wise, too good, not to have — why, I watched thee; and e’en now look at you twain! ’Tis thine own flesh and blood thou holdest to thine heart.”

Clement trembled, “What words are these,” he stammered, “this angel mine?”

“Whose else? since he is mine.”

Clement turned on the sleeping child, with a look beyond the power of the pen to describe, and trembled all over, as his eyes seemed to absorb the little love.

Margaret’s eyes followed his. “He is not a bit like me,” said she proudly; “but oh, at whiles he is thy very image in little; and see this golden hair. Thine was the very colour at his age; ask mother else. And see this mole on his little finger; now look at thine own; there! ’Twas thy mother let me weet thou wast marked so before him; and oh, Gerard, ’twas this our child found thee for me; for by that little mark on thy finger I knew thee for his father, when I watched above thy window and saw thee feed the birds.” Here she seized the child’s hand, and kissed it eagerly, and got half of it into her mouth, Heaven knows how, “Ah! bless thee, thou didst find thy poor daddy for her, and now thou hast made us friends again after our little quarrel; the first, the last. Wast very cruel to me but now, my poor Gerard, and I forgive thee; for loving of thy child.”

“Ah! ah! ah! ah! ah!” sobbed Clement, choking. And lowered by fasts, and unnerved by solitude, the once strong man was hysterical, and nearly fainting.

Margaret was alarmed, but having experience, her pity was greater than her fear. “Nay, take not on so,” she murmured soothingly, and put a gentle hand upon his brow. “Be brave! So, so. Dear heart, thou art not the first man that hath gone abroad and come back richer by a lovely little self than he went forth. Being a man of God, take courage, and say He sends thee this to comfort thee for what thou hast lost in me; and that is not so very much, my lamb; for sure the better part of love shall ne’er cool here to thee; though it may in thine, and ought, being a priest, and parson of Gouda.”

“I? priest of Gouda? Never!” murmured Clement in a faint voice; “I am a friar of St. Dominic: yet speak on, sweet music, tell me all that has happened thee, before we are parted again.”

Now some would on this have exclaimed against parting at all, and raised the true question in dispute. But such women as Margaret do not repeat their mistakes. It is very hard to defeat them twice, where their hearts are set on a thing.

She assented, and turned her back on Gouda manse as a thing not to be recurred to; and she told him her tale, dwelling above all on the kindness to her of his parents; and while she related her troubles, his hand stole to hers, and often she felt him wince and tremble with ire, and often press her hand, sympathizing with her in every vein.

“Oh, piteous tale of a true heart battling alone against such bitter odds,” said he.

“It all seems small, when I see thee here again, and nursing my boy. We have had a warning, Gerard. True friends like you and me are rare, and they are mad to part, ere death divideth them.”

“And that is true,” said Clement, off his guard.

And then she would have him tell her what he had suffered for her, and he begged her to excuse him, and she consented; but by questions quietly revoked her consent and elicited it all; and many a sigh she heaved for him, and more than once she hid her face in her hands with terror at his perils, though past. And to console him for all he had gone through, she kneeled down and put her arms under the little boy, and lifted him gently up. “Kiss him softly,” she whispered. “Again, again kiss thy fill if thou canst; he is sound. ’Tis all I can do to comfort thee till thou art out of this foul den and in thy sweet manse yonder.”

Clement shook his head.

“Well,” said she, “let that pass. Know that I have been sore affronted for want of my lines.”

“Who hath dared affront thee?”

“No matter, those that will do it again if thou hast lost them, which the saints forbid.”

“I lose them? nay, there they lie, close to thy hand.”

“Where, where, oh, where?”

Clement hung his head. “Look in the Vulgate. Heaven forgive me: I thought thou wert dead, and a saint in heaven.”

She looked, and on the blank leaves of the poor soul’s Vulgate she found her marriage lines.

“Thank God!” she cried, “thank God! Oh, bless thee, Gerard, bless thee! Why, what is here, Gerard?”

On the other leaves were pinned every scrap of paper she had ever sent him, and their two names she had once written together in sport, and the lock of her hair she had given him, and half a silver coin she had broken with him, and a straw she had sucked her soup with the first day he ever saw her.

When Margaret saw these proofs of love and signs of a gentle heart bereaved, even her exultation at getting back her marriage lines was overpowered by gushing tenderness. She almost staggered, and her hand went to her bosom, and she leaned her brow against the stone cell and wept so silently that he did not see she was weeping; indeed she would not let him, for she felt that to befriend him now she must be the stronger; and emotion weakens.

“Gerard,” said she, “I know you are wise and good. You must have a reason for what you are doing, let it seem ever so unreasonable. Talk we like old friends. Why are you buried alive?”

“Margaret, to escape temptation. My impious ire against those two had its root in the heart; that heart then I must deaden, and, Dei gratia, I shall. Shall I, a servant of Christ and of the Church, court temptation? Shall I pray daily to be led out on’t, and walk into it with open eyes?”

“That is good sense anyway,” said Margaret, with a consummate affectation of candour.

“’Tis unanswerable,” said Clement, with a sigh.

“We shall see. Tell me, have you escaped temptation here? Why I ask is, when I am alone, my thoughts are far more wild and foolish than in company. Nay, speak sooth; come!”

“I must needs own I have been worse tempted here with evil imaginations than in the world.”

“There now.”

“Ay, but so were Anthony and Jerome, Macarius and Hilarion, Benedict, Bernard, and all the saints. ’Twill wear off.”

“How do you know?”

“I feel sure it will.”

“Guessing against knowledge. Here ’tis men folk are sillier than us that be but women. Wise in their own conceits, they will not let themselves see; their stomachs are too high to be taught by their eyes. A woman, if she went into a hole in a bank to escape temptation, and there found it, would just lift her farthingale and out on’t, and not e’en know how wise she was, till she watched a man in like plight.”

“Nay, I grant humility and a teachable spirit are the roads to wisdom; but when all is said, here I wrestle but with imagination. At Gouda she I love as no priest or monk must love any but the angels, she will tempt a weak soul, unwilling, yet not loth to be tempted.”

“Ay, that is another matter; I should tempt thee then? to what, i’ God’s name?”

“Who knows? The flesh is weak.”

“Speak for yourself, my lad. Why, you are thinking of some other Margaret, not Margaret a Peter. Was ever my mind turned to folly and frailty? Stay, is it because you were my husband once, as these lines avouch? Think you the road to folly is beaten for you more than another? Oh! how shallow are the wise, and how little able are you to read me, who can read you so well from top to toe, Come, learn thine A B C. Were a stranger to proffer me unchaste love, I should shrink a bit, no doubt, and feel sore, but I should defend myself without making a coil; for men, I know, are so, the best of them sometimes. But if you, that have been my husband, and are my child’s father, were to offer to humble me so in mine own eyes, and thine, and his, either I should spit in thy face, Gerard, or, as I am not a downright vulgar woman, I should snatch the first weapon at hand and strike thee dead.”

And Margaret’s eyes flashed fire, and her nostrils expanded, that it was glorious to see; and no one that did see her could doubt her sincerity.

“I had not the sense to see that,” said Gerard quietly. And he pondered.

Margaret eyed him in silence, and soon recovered her composure.

“Let not you and I dispute,” said she gently; “speak we of other things. Ask me of thy folk.”

“My father?”

“Well, and warms to thee and me. Poor soul, a drew glaive on those twain that day, but Jorian Ketel and I we mastered him, and he drove them forth his house for ever.”

“That may not be; he must take them back.”

“That he will never do for us. You know the man; he is dour as iron; yet would he do it for one word from one that will not speak it.”

“Who?”

“The vicar of Gouda, The old man will be at the manse to-morrow, I hear.”

“How you come back to that.”

“Forgive me: I am but a woman. It is us for nagging; shouldst keep me from it wi’ questioning of me.”

“My sister Kate?”

“Alas!”

“What, hath ill befallen e’en that sweet lily? Out and alas!”

“Be calm, sweetheart, no harm hath her befallen. Oh, nay, nay, far fro’ that.” Then Margaret forced herself to be composed, and in a low, sweet, gentle voice she murmured to him thus:

“My poor Gerard, Kate hath left her trouble behind her. For the manner on’t, ’twas like the rest. Ah, such as she saw never thirty, nor ever shall while earth shall last. She smiled in pain too. A well, then, thus ’twas: she was took wi’ a languor and a loss of all her pains.”

“A loss of her pains? I understand you not.”

“Ay, you are not experienced; indeed, e’en thy mother almost blinded herself and said, ”Tis maybe a change for the better.’ But Joan Ketel, which is an understanding woman, she looked at her and said, ‘Down sun, down wind!’ And the gossips sided and said, ‘Be brave, you that are her mother, for she is half way to the saints.’ And thy mother wept sore, but Kate would not let her; and one very ancient woman, she said to thy mother, ‘She will die as easy as she lived hard.’ And she lay painless best part of three days, a sipping of heaven afore-hand, And, my dear, when she was just parting, she asked for ‘Gerard’s little boy,’ and I brought him and set him on the bed, and the little thing behaved as peaceably as he does now. But by this time she was past speaking; but she pointed to a drawer, and her mother knew what to look for: it was two gold angels thou hadst given her years ago. Poor soul! she had kept then, till thou shouldst come home. And she nodded towards the little boy, and looked anxious; but we understood her, and put the pieces in his two hands, and when his little fingers closed on them, she smiled content. And so she gave her little earthly treasures to her favourite’s child — for you were her favourite — and her immortal jewel to God, and passed so sweetly we none of us knew justly when she left us. Well-a-day, well-a-day!”

Gerard wept.

“She hath not left her like on earth,” he sobbed. “Oh, how the affections of earth curl softly round my heart! I cannot help it; God made them after all. Speak on, sweet Margaret at thy voice the past rolls its tides back upon me; the loves and the hopes of youth come fair and gliding into my dark cell, and darker bosom, on waves of memory and music.”

“Gerard, I am loth to grieve you, but Kate cried a little when she first took ill at you not being there to close her eyes.”

Gerard sighed.

“You were within a league, but hid your face from her.”

He groaned.

“There, forgive me for nagging; I am but a woman; you would not have been so cruel to your own flesh and blood knowingly, would you?”

“Oh, no.”

“Well, then, know that thy brother Sybrandt lies in my charge with a broken back, fruit of thy curse.”

“Mea culpa! mea culpa!”

“He is very penitent; be yourself and forgive him this night.”

“I have forgiven him long ago.”

“Think you he can believe that from any mouth but yours? Come! he is but about two butts’ length hence.”

“So near? Why, where?”

“At Gouda manse. I took him there yestreen. For I know you, the curse was scarce cold on your lips when you repented it” (Gerard nodded assent), “and I said to myself, Gerard will thank me for taking Sybrandt to die under his roof; he will not beat his breast and cry mea culpa, yet grudge three footsteps to quiet a withered brother on his last bed. He may have a bee in his bonnet, but he is not a hypocrite, a thing all pious words and uncharitable deeds.”

Gerard literally staggered where he sat at this tremendous thrust.

“Forgive me for nagging,” said she. “Thy mother too is waiting for thee. Is it well done to keep her on thorns so long She will not sleep this night, Bethink thee, Gerard, she is all to thee that I am to this sweet child. Ah, I think so much more of mothers since I had my little Gerard. She suffered for thee, and nursed thee, and tended thee from boy to man. Priest monk, hermit, call thyself what thou wilt, to her thou art but one thing; her child.”

“Where is she?” murmured Gerard, in a quavering voice.

“At Gouda manse, wearing the night in prayer and care.”

Then Margaret saw the time was come for that appeal to his reason she had purposely reserved till persuasion should have paved the way for conviction. So the smith first softens the iron by fire, and then brings down the sledge hammer.

She showed him, but in her own good straightforward Dutch, that his present life was only a higher kind of selfishness, spiritual egotism; whereas a priest had no more right to care only for his own soul than only for his own body. That was not his path to heaven. “But,” said she, “whoever yet lost his soul by saving the souls of others! the Almighty loves him who thinks of others; and when He shall see thee caring for the souls of the folk the duke hath put into thine hand, He will care ten times more for thy soul than He does now.”

Gerard was struck by this remark. “Art shrewd in dispute,” said he.

“Far from it,” was the reply, “only my eyes are not bandaged with conceit.17 So long as Satan walks the whole earth, tempting men, and so long as the sons of Belial do never lock themselves in caves, but run like ants to and fro corrupting others, the good man that skulks apart plays the devil’s game, or at least gives him the odds: thou a soldier of Christ? ask thy Comrade Denys, who is but a soldier of the duke, ask him if ever he skulked in a hole and shunned the battle because forsooth in battle is danger as well as glory and duty. For thy sole excuse is fear; thou makest no secret on’t, Go to, no duke nor king hath such cowardly soldiers as Christ hath. What was that you said in the church at Rotterdam about the man in the parable that buried his talent in the earth, and so offended the giver? Thy wonderful gift for preaching, is it not a talent, and a gift from thy Creator?”

“Certes; such as it is.”

“And hast thou laid it out? or buried it? To whom hast thou preached these seven months? to bats and owls? Hast buried it in one hole with thyself and thy once good wits?

“The Dominicans are the friars preachers. ’Tis for preaching they were founded, so thou art false to Dominic as well as to his Master.

“Do you remember, Gerard, when we were young together, which now are old before our time, as we walked handed in the fields, did you but see a sheep cast, ay, three fields off, you would leave your sweetheart (by her good will) and run and lift the sheep for charity? Well, then, at Gouda is not one sheep in evil plight, but a whole flock; some cast, some strayed, some sick, some tainted, some a being devoured, and all for the want of a shepherd. Where is their shepherd? lurking in a den like a wolf, a den in his own parish; out fie! out fie!

“I scented thee out, in part, by thy kindness to the little birds. Take note, you Gerard Eliassoen must love something, ’tis in your blood; you were born to’t. Shunning man, you do but seek earthly affection a peg lower than man.”

Gerard interrupted her. “The birds are God’s creatures, His innocent creatures, and I do well to love them, being God’s creatures.”

“What, are they creatures of the same God that we are, that he is who lies upon thy knee?”

“You know they are.”

“Then what pretence for shunning us and being kind to them? Sith man is one of the animals, why pick him out to shun? Is’t because he is of animals the paragon? What, you court the young of birds, and abandon your own young? Birds need but bodily food, and having wings, deserve scant pity if they cannot fly and find it. But that sweet dove upon thy knee, he needeth not carnal only, but spiritual food. He is thine as well as mine; and I have done my share. He will soon be too much for me, and I look to Gouda’s parson to teach him true piety and useful lore. Is he not of more value than many sparrows?”

Gerard started and stammered an affirmation. For she waited for his reply.

“You wonder,” continued she, “to hear me quote holy writ so glib. I have pored over it this four years, and why? Not because God wrote it, but because I saw it often in thy hands ere thou didst leave me. Heaven forgive me, I am but a woman. What thinkest thou of this sentence? ‘Let your work so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven!’ What is a saint in a sink better than ‘a light under a bushel!’

“Therefore, since the sheep committed to thy charge bleat for thee and cry, ‘Oh desert us no longer, but come to Gouda manse;’ since I, who know thee ten times better than thou knowest thyself, do pledge my soul it is for thy soul’s weal to go to Gouda manse — since duty to thy child, too long abandoned, calls thee to Gouda manse — since thy sovereign, whom holy writ again bids thee honour, sends thee to Gouda manse — since the Pope, whom the Church teaches thee to revere hath absolved thee of thy monkish vows, and orders thee to Gouda manse —”

“Ah!”

“Since thy grey-haired mother watches for thee in dole and care, and turneth oft the hour-glass and sigheth sore that thou comest so slow to her at Gouda manse — since thy brother, withered by thy curse, awaits thy forgiveness and thy prayers for his soul, now lingering in his body, at Gouda manse — take thou in thine arms the sweet bird wi’ crest of gold that nestles to thy bosom, and give me thy hand; thy sweetheart erst and wife, and now thy friend, the truest friend to thee this night that ere man had, and come with me to Gouda manse!”

“IT IS THE VOICE OF AN ANGEL!” cried Clement loudly.

“Then hearken it, and come forth to Gouda manse!”

The battle was won.

Margaret lingered behind, cast her eye rapidly round the furniture, and selected the Vulgate and the psaltery. The rest she sighed at, and let it lie. The breastplate and the cilice of bristles she took and dashed with feeble ferocity on the floor.

Then seeing Gerard watch her with surprise from the outside, she coloured and said, “I am but a woman: ‘little’ will still be ‘spiteful.’”

“Why encumber thyself with those? They are safe.”

“Oh, she had a reason.”

And with this they took the road to Gouda parsonage, The moon and stars were so bright, it seemed almost as light as day.

Suddenly Gerard stopped. “My poor little birds!”

“What of them?”

“They will miss their food. I feed them every day.”

“The child hath a piece of bread in his cowl, Take that, and feed them now against the morn.”

“I will. Nay, I will not, He is as innocent, and nearer to me and to thee.”

Margaret drew a long breath, “’Tis well, Hadst taken it, I might have hated thee; I am but a woman.”

When they had gone about a quarter of a mile, Gerard sighed.

“Margaret,” said he, “I must e’en rest; he is too heavy for me.”

“Then give him me, and take thou these. Alas! alas! I mind when thou wouldst have run with the child on one shoulder, and the mother on t’other.”

And Margaret carried the boy.

“I trow,” said Gerard, looking down, “overmuch fasting is not good for a man.”

“A many die of it each year, winter time,” replied Margaret.

Gerard pondered these simple words, and eyed her askant, carrying the child with perfect ease. When they had gone nearly a mile he said with considerable surprise, “You thought it was but two butts’ length.”

“Not I.”

“Why, you said so.”

“That is another matter.” She then turned on him the face of a Madonna. “I lied,” said she sweetly. “And to save your soul and body, I’d maybe tell a worse lie than that, at need. I am but a woman, Ah, well, it is but two butts’ length from here at any rate.”

“Without a lie?”

“Humph! Three, without a lie.”

And sure enough, in a few minutes they came up to the manse.

A candle was burning in the vicar’s parlour. “She is waking still,” whispered Margaret.

“Beautiful! beautiful!” said Clement, and stopped to look at it.

“What, in Heaven’s name?”

“That little candle, seen through the window at night. Look an it be not like some fair star of size prodigious: it delighteth the eyes, and warmeth the heart of those outside.”

“Come, and I’ll show thee something better,” said Margaret, and led him on tiptoe to the window.

They looked in, and there was Catherine kneeling on the hassock, with her “hours” before her.

“Folk can pray out of a cave,” whispered Margaret. “Ay and hit heaven with their prayers; for ’tis for a sight of thee she prayeth, and thou art here. Now, Gerard, be prepared; she is not the woman you knew her; her children’s troubles have greatly broken the brisk, light-hearted soul. And I see she has been weeping e’en now; she will have given thee up, being so late.”

“Let me get to her,” said Clement hastily, trembling all over.

“That door! I will bide here.”

When Gerard was gone to the door, Margaret, fearing the sudden surprise, gave one sharp tap at the window and cried, “Mother!” in a loud, expressive voice that Catherine read at once. She clasped her hands together and had half risen from her kneeling posture when the door burst open and Clement flung himself wildly on his knees at her knees, with his arms out to embrace her. She uttered a cry such as only a mother could, “Ah! my darling, my darling!” and clung sobbing round his neck. And true it was, she saw neither a hermit, a priest, nor a monk, but just her child, lost, and despaired of, and in her arms, And after a little while Margaret came in, with wet eyes and cheeks, and a holy calm of affection settled by degrees on these sore troubled ones. And they sat all three together, hand in hand, murmuring sweet and loving converse; and he who sat in the middle drank right and left their true affection and their humble but genuine wisdom, and was forced to eat a good nourishing meal, and at daybreak was packed off to a snowy bed, and by and by awoke, as from a hideous dream, friar and hermit no more, Clement no more, but Gerard Eliassoen, parson of Gouda.

17 I think she means prejudice.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/reade/charles/cloister-and-the-hearth/chapter95.html

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