The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 99

Jerome was as morose as ever in his general character, but he had somewhat softened towards Gerard. All the time he was in England he had missed him more then he thought possible, and since then had often wondered what had become of him. What he heard in Gouda raised his feeble brother in his good opinion; above all, that he had withstood the Pope and the Minorites on “the infernal heresy of the immaculate conception,” as he called it. But when one of his young monks told him with tears in his eyes the Cause of Gerard’s illness, all his contempt revived. “Dying for a woman?”

He determined to avert this scandal; he visited Clement twice a day in his cell, and tried all his old influence and all his eloquence to induce him to shake off this unspiritual despondency, and not rob the church of his piety and his eloquence at so critical a period.

Gerard heard him, approved his reasoning, admired his strength, confessed his own weakness, and continued visibly to wear away to the land of the leal. One day Jerome told him he had heard his story, and heard it with pride. “But now,” said he, “you spoil it all, Clement; for this is the triumph of earthly passion. Better have yielded to it and repented, than resist it while she lived, and succumb under it now, body and soul.”

“Dear Jerome,” said Clement, so sweetly as to rob his remonstrance of the tone of remonstrance, “here, I think, you do me some injustice. Passion there is none; but a deep affection, for which I will not blush here, since I shall not blush for it in heaven. Bethink thee, Jerome, the poor dog that dies of grief on his master’s grave, is he guilty of passion? Neither am I. Passion had saved my life, and lost my soul, She was my good angel; she sustained me in my duty and charity; her face encouraged me in the pulpit; her lips soothed me under ingratitude. She intertwined herself with all that was good in my life; and after leaning on her so long, I could not go on alone. And, dear Jerome, believe me I am no rebel against Heaven. It is God’s will to release me. When they threw the earth upon her poor coffin, something snapped within my bosom here that mended may not be. I heard it, and I felt it. And from that time, Jerome, no food that I put in my mouth had any savour. With my eyes bandaged now I could not tell thee which was bread, and which was flesh, by eating of it.”

“Holy saints!”

“And again, from that same hour my deep dejection left me, and I smiled again. I often smile — why? I read it thus: He in whose hands are the issues of life and death gave me that minute the great summons; ’twas some cord of life snapped in me. He is very pitiful. I should have lived unhappy; but He said, ‘No; enough is done, enough is suffered; poor feeble, loving servant, thy shortcomings are forgiven, thy sorrows touch thine end; come thou to thy rest!’ I come, Lord, I come!”

Jerome groaned. “The Church had ever her holy but feeble servants,” he said. “Now would I give ten years of my life to save thine. But I see it may not be. Die in peace.”

And so it was that in a few days more Gerard lay a-dying in a frame of mind so holy and happy, that more than one aged saint was there to garner his dying words. In the evening he had seen Giles, and begged him not to let poor Jack starve; and to see that little Gerard’s trustees did their duty, and to kiss his parents for him, and to send Denys to his friends in Burgundy: “Poor thing, he will feel so strange here without his comrade.” And after that he had an interview with Jerome alone. What passed between them was never distinctly known; but it must have been something remarkable, for Jerome went from the door with his hands crossed on his breast, his high head lowered, and sighing as he went.

The two monks that watched with him till matins related that all through the night he broke out from time to time in pious ejaculations, and praises, and thanksgivings; only once they said he wandered, and thought he saw her walking in green meadows with other spirits clad in white, and beckoning him; and they all smiled and beckoned him. And both these monks said (but it might have been fancy) that just before dawn there came three light taps against the wall, one after another, very slow; and the dying man heard them, and said.

“I come, love, I come.”

This much is certain, that Gerard did utter these words, and prepare for his departure, having uttered them. He sent for all the monks who at that hour were keeping vigil. They came, and hovered like gentle spirits round him with holy words. Some prayed in silence for him with their faces touching the ground, others tenderly supported his head. But when one of them said something about his life of self-denial and charity, he stopped him, and addressing them all said, “My dear brethren, take note that he who here dies so happy holds not these new-fangled doctrines of man’s merit. Oh, what a miserable hour were this to me an if I did! Nay, but I hold, with the Apostles, and their pupils in the Church, the ancient fathers, that we are justified not by our own wisdom, or piety, or the works we have done in holiness of heart, but by faith.’"19

Then there was silence, and the monks looked at one another significantly.

“Please you sweep the floor,” said the dying Christian, in a voice to which all its clearance and force seemed supernaturally restored.

They instantly obeyed, not without a sentiment of awe and curiosity.

“Make me a great cross with wood ashes.”

They strewed the ashes in form of a great Cross upon the floor.

“Now lay me down on it, for so will I die.”

And they took him gently from his bed, and laid him on the cross of wood ashes.

“Shall we spread out thine arms, dear brother?”

“Now God forbid! Am I worthy of that?”

He lay silent, but with his eyes raised in ecstasy.

Presently he spoke half to them, half to himself, “Oh,” he said, with a subdued but concentrated rapture, “I feel it buoyant. It lifts me floating in the sky whence my merits had sunk me like lead.”

Day broke; and displayed his face cast upward in silent rapture, and his hands together; like Margaret’s.

And just about the hour she died he spoke his last word in this world.

“Jesu!”

And even with that word — he fell asleep.

They laid him out for his last resting-place.

Under his linen they found a horse-hair shirt.

“Ah!” cried the young monks, “behold a saint!”

Under the hair cloth they found a long thick tress of auburn hair.

They started, and were horrified; and a babel of voices arose, some condemning, some excusing.

In the midst of which Jerome came in, and hearing the dispute, turned to an ardent young monk called Basil, who was crying scandal the loudest, “Basil,” said he, “is she alive or dead that owned this hair?”

“How may I know, father?”

“Then for aught you know it may be the relic of a saint?”

“Certes it may be,” said Basil sceptically.

“You have then broken our rule, which saith, ‘Put ill construction on no act done by a brother which can be construed innocently.’ Who are you to judge such a man as this was? go to your cell, and stir not out for a week by way of penance.”

He then carried off the lock of hair.

And when the coffin was to be closed, he cleared the cell: and put the tress upon the dead man’s bosom. “There, Clement,” said he to the dead face. And set himself a penance for doing it; and nailed the coffin up himself.

The next day Gerard was buried in Gouda churchyard. The monks followed him in procession from the convent. Jerome, who was evidently carrying out the wishes of the deceased, read the service. The grave was a deep one, and at the bottom of it was a lead coffin. Poor Gerard’s, light as a feather (so wasted was he), was lowered, and placed by the side of it.

After the service Jerome said a few words to the crowd of parishioners that had come to take the last look at their best friend. When he spoke of the virtues of the departed loud wailing and weeping burst forth, and tears fell upon the coffin like rain.

The monks went home. Jerome collected them in the refectory and spoke to them thus: “We have this day laid a saint in the earth. The convent will keep his trentals, but will feast, not fast; for our good brother is freed from the burden of the flesh; his labours are over, and he has entered into his joyful rest. I alone shall fast, and do penance; for to my shame I say it, I was unjust to him, and knew not his worth till it was too late. And you, young monks, be not curious to inquire whether a lock he bore on his bosom was a token of pure affection or the relic of a saint; but remember the heart he wore beneath: most of all, fix your eyes upon his life and conversation, and follow them an ye may: for he was a holy man.”

Thus after life’s fitful fever these true lovers were at peace.

The grave, kinder to them than the Church, united them for ever; and now a man of another age and nation, touched with their fate, has laboured to build their tombstone, and rescue them from long and unmerited oblivion.

He asks for them your sympathy, but not your pity.

No, put this story to a wholesome use.

Fiction must often give false views of life and death. Here as it happens, curbed by history, she gives you true ones. Let the barrier that kept these true lovers apart prepare you for this, that here on earth there will nearly always be some obstacle or other to your perfect happiness; to their early death apply your Reason and your Faith, by way of exercise and preparation. For if you cannot bear to be told that these died young, who had they lived a hundred years would still be dead, how shall you bear to see the gentle, the loving, and the true glide from your own bosom to the grave, and fly from your house to heaven?

Yet this is in store for you. In every age the Master of life and death, who is kinder as well as wiser than we are, has transplanted to heaven, young, earth’s sweetest flowers.

I ask your sympathy, then, for their rare constancy and pure affection, and their cruel separation by a vile heresy20 in the bosom of the Church; but not your pity for their early but happy end.

‘Beati sunt qui in Domino moriuntur.

19 He was citing from Clement of Rome —

{ou di eautwn dikaioumetha oude dia tys ymeteras

sophias, y eusebeias y ergwn wn kateirgasametha en

osioteeti karthias, alla dia tys pistews}.

— Epist.ad Corinth, i. 32.

20 Celibacy of the clergy, an invention truly fiendish.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/reade/charles/cloister-and-the-hearth/chapter99.html

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