The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 38

Outside the town they found the snow fresh trampled by innumerable wolves every foot of the road.

“We did well to take the old man’s advice, Denys.”

“Ay did we. For now I think on’t, I did hear them last night scurrying under our window, and howling and whining for man’s flesh in yon market-place. But no fat burgher did pity the poor vagabones, and drop out o’ window.”

Gerard smiled, but with an air of abstraction. And they plodded on in silence.

“What dost meditate so profoundly?”

“Thy goodness.”

Denys was anything but pleased at this answer. Amongst his oddities you may have observed that he could stand a great deal of real impertinence; he was so good-humoured. But would fire up now and then where not even the shadow of a ground for anger existed.

“A civil question merits a civil reply,” said he very drily.

“Alas, I meant no other,” said Gerard.

“Then why pretend you were thinking of my goodness, when you know I have no goodness under my skin?”

“Had another said this, I had answered, ‘Thou liest.’ But to thee I say, ‘Hast no eye for men’s qualities, but only for women’s.’ And once more I do defy thy unreasonable choler, and say I was thinking on thy goodness of overnight. Wouldst have wedded me to the ‘Tete d’Or’ or rather to the ‘tete de veau doree,’ and left thyself solitary.”

“Oh, are ye there, lad?” said Denys, recovering his good humour in a moment. “Well, but to speak sooth, I meant that not for goodness; but for friendship and true fellowship, no more. And let me tell you, my young master, my conscience it pricketh me even now for letting you turn your back thus on fortune and peaceful days. A truer friend than I had ta’en and somewhat hamstrung thee. Then hadst thou been fain to lie smarting at the ‘Tete d’Or’ a month or so; yon skittish lass had nursed thee tenderly, and all had been well. Blade I had in hand to do’t, but remembering how thou hatest pain, though it be but a scratch, my craven heart it failed me at the pinch.” And Denys wore a look of humble apology for his lack of virtuous resolution when the path of duty lay so clear.

Gerard raised his eyebrows with astonishment at this monstrous but thoroughly characteristic revelation; however, this new and delicate point of friendship was never discussed; viz., whether one ought in all love to cut the tendon Achilles of one’s friend. For an incident interposed.

“Here cometh one in our rear a-riding on his neighbour’s mule,” shouted Denys.

Gerard turned round. “And how know ye ’tis not his own, pray?”

“Oh, blind! Because he rides it with no discretion.”

And in truth the man came galloping like a fury. But what astonished the friends most was that on reaching them the rustic rider’s eyes opened saucer-like, and he drew the rein so suddenly and powerfully, that the mule stuck out her fore-legs, and went sliding between the pedestrians like a four-legged table on castors.

“I trow ye are from the ‘Tete d’Or?’” They assented. “Which of ye is the younger?”

“He that was born the later,” said Denys, winking at his companion.

“Gramercy for the news.”

“Come, divine then!”

“And shall. Thy beard is ripe, thy fellow’s is green; he shall be the younger; here, youngster.” And he held him out a paper packet. “Ye left this at the ‘Tete d’Or,’ and our mistress sends it ye.”

“Nay, good fellow, methinks I left nought.” And Gerard felt his pouch. etc.

“Would ye make our burgess a liar,” said the rustic reproachfully; “and shall I have no pourboire?” (still more reproachfully); “and came ventre a terre.”

“Nay, thou shalt have pourboire,” and he gave him a small coin.

“A la bonne heure,” cried the clown, and his features beamed with disproportionate joy. “The Virgin go with ye; come up, Jenny!” and back he went “stomach to earth,” as his nation is pleased to call it.

Gerard undid the packet; it was about six inches square, and inside it he found another packet, which contained a packet, and so on. At the fourth he hurled the whole thing into the snow. Denys took it out and rebuked his petulance. He excused himself on the ground of hating affectation.

Denys attested, “‘The great toe of the little daughter of Herodias’ there was no affectation here, but only woman’s good wit. Doubtless the wraps contained something which out of delicacy, or her sex’s lovely cunning, she would not her hind should see her bestow on a young man; thy garter, to wit.”

“I wear none.”

“Her own then; or a lock of her hair. What is this? A piece of raw silk fresh from the worm. Well, of all the love tokens!”

“Now who but thee ever dreamed that she is so naught as send me love tokens? I saw no harm in her — barring her hands.”

“Stay, here is something hard lurking in this soft nest. Come forth, I say, little nestling! Saints and pikestaves! look at this!”

It was a gold ring with a great amethyst glowing and sparkling, full coloured, but pure as crystal.

“How lovely!” said Gerard innocently.

“And here is something writ; read it thou! I read not so glib as some, when I know not the matter beforehand.”

Gerard took the paper. “’Tis a posy, and fairly enough writ.” He read the lines, blushing like a girl. They were very naive, and may be thus Englished:—

‘Youth, with thee my heart is fledde,

Come back to the ‘golden Hedde!’

Wilt not? yet this token keepe

Of hir who doeth thy goeing weepe.

Gyf the world prove harsh and cold,

Come back to ‘the Hedde of gold.’”

“The little dove!” purred Denys.

“The great owl! To go and risk her good name thus. However, thank Heaven she has played this prank with an honest lad that will ne’er expose her folly. But oh, the perverseness! Could she not bestow her nauseousness on thee?” Denys sighed and shrugged. “On thee that art as ripe for folly as herself?”

Denys confessed that his young friend had harped his very thought. ’Twas passing strange to him that a damsel with eyes in her head should pass by a man, and bestow her affections on a boy. Still he could not but recognize in this the bounty of Nature. Boys were human beings after all, and but for this occasional caprice of women, their lot would be too terrible; they would be out of the sun altogether, blighted, and never come to anything; since only the fair could make a man out of such unpromising materials as a boy. Gerard interrupted this flattering discourse to beg the warrior-philosopher’s acceptance of the lady’s ring. He refused it flatly, and insisted on Gerard going back to the “Tete d’Or” at once, ring and all, like a man, and not letting a poor girl hold out her arms to him in vain.

“Her hands, you mean.”

“Her hand, with the ‘Tete d’Or’ in it.”

Failing in this, he was for putting the ring on his friend’s finger. Gerard declined. “I wear a ring already.”

“What, that sorry gimcrack? why, ’tis pewter, or tin at best: and this virgin gold, forbye the jewel.”

“Ay, but ’twas Margaret gave me this one; and I value it above rubies. I’ll neither part with it nor give it a rival,” and he kissed the base metal, and bade it fear nought.

“I see the owl hath sent her ring to a goose,” said Denys sorrowfully. However, he prevailed on Gerard to fasten it inside his bonnet. To this, indeed, the lad consented very readily. For sovereign qualities were universally ascribed to certain jewels; and the amethyst ranked high among these precious talismans.

When this was disposed of, Gerard earnestly requested his friend to let the matter drop, since speaking of the other sex to him made him pine so for Margaret, and almost unmanned him with the thought that each step was taking him farther from her. “I am no general lover, Denys. There is room in my heart for one sweetheart, and for one friend. I am far from my dear mistress; and my friend, a few leagues more, and I must lose him too. Oh, let me drink thy friendship pure while I may, and not dilute with any of these stupid females.”

“And shalt, honey-pot, and shalt,” said Denys kindly’. “But as to my leaving thee at Remiremont, reckon thou not on that! For” (three consecutive oaths) “if I do. Nay, I shall propose to thee to stay forty-eight hours there, while I kiss my mother and sisters, and the females generally, and on go you and I together to the sea.”

“Denys! Denys!”

“Denys nor me! ’Tis settled. Gainsay me not! or I’ll go with thee to Rome. Why not? his Holiness the Pope hath ever some little merry pleasant war toward, and a Burgundian soldier is still welcome in his ranks.”

On this Gerard opened his heart. “Denys, ere I fell in with thee, I used often to halt on the road, unable to go farther: my puny heart so pulled me back: and then, after a short prayer to the saints for aid, would I rise and drag my most unwilling body onward. But since I joined company with thee, great is my courage. I have found the saying of the ancients true, that better is a bright comrade on the weary road than a horse-litter; and, dear brother, when I do think of what we have done and suffered together! Savedst my life from the bear, and from yet more savage thieves; and even poor I did make shift to draw thee out of Rhine, and somehow loved thee double from that hour. How many ties tender and strong between us! Had I my will, I’d never, never, never, never part with my Denys on this side the grave. Well-a-day! God His will be done.

“No, my will shall be done this time,” shouted Denys. “Le bon Dieu has bigger fish to fry than you or me. I’ll go with thee to Rome. There is my hand on it.”

“Think what, you say! ’Tis impossible. ’Tis too selfish of me.”

“I tell thee, ’tis settled. No power can change me. At Remiremont I borrow ten pieces of my uncle, and on we go; ’tis fixed.”

They shook hands over it. Then Gerard said nothing, for his heart was too full; but he ran twice round his companion as he walked, then danced backwards in front of him, and finally took his hand, and so on they went hand in hand like sweethearts, till a company of mounted soldiers, about fifty in number, rose to sight on the brow of a hill.

“See the banner of Burgundy,” said Denys joyfully; “I shall look out for a comrade among these.”

“How gorgeous is the standard in the sun,” said Gerard “and how brave are the leaders with velvet and feathers, and steel breastplates like glassy mirrors!”

When they came near enough to distinguish faces, Denys uttered an exclamation: “Why, ’tis the Bastard of Burgundy, as I live. Nay, then; there is fighting a-foot since he is out; a gallant leader, Gerard, rates his life no higher than a private soldier’s, and a soldier’s no higher than a tomtit’s; and that is the captain for me.”

“And see, Denys, the very mules with their great brass frontlets and trappings seem proud to carry them; no wonder men itch to be soldiers;” and in the midst of this innocent admiration the troop came up with them.

“Halt!” cried a stentorian voice. The troop halted. The Bastard of Burgundy bent his brow gloomily on Denys: “How now, arbalestrier, how comes it thy face is turned southward, when every good hand and heart is hurrying northward?”

Denys replied respectfully that he was going on leave, after some years of service, to see his kindred at Remiremont.

“Good. But this is not the time for’t; the duchy is disturbed. Ho! bring that dead soldier’s mule to the front; and thou mount her and forward with us to Flanders.”

“So please your highness,” said Denys firmly, “that may not be. My home is close at hand. I have not seen it these three years; and above all, I have this poor youth in charge, whom I may not, cannot leave, till I see him shipped for Rome.

“Dost bandy words with me?” said the chief, with amazement, turning fast to wrath. “Art weary o’ thy life? Let go the youth’s hand, and into the saddle without more idle words.”

Denys made no reply; but he held Gerard’s hand the tighter, and looked defiance.

At this the bastard roared, “Jarnac, dismount six of thy archers, and shoot me this white-livered cur dead where he stands — for an example.”

The young Count de Jarnac, second in command, gave the order, and the men dismounted to execute it.

“Strip him naked,” said the bastard, in the cold tone of military business, “and put his arms and accoutrements on the spare mule We’ll maybe find some clown worthier to wear them.”

Denys groaned aloud, “Am I to be shamed as well as slain?”

“Oh, nay! nay! nay!” cried Gerard, awaking from the stupor into which this thunderbolt of tyranny had thrown him. “He shall go with you on the instant. I’d liever part with him for ever than see a hair of his dear head harmed Oh, sir, oh, my lord, give a poor boy but a minute to bid his only friend farewell! he will go with you. I swear he shall go with you.”

The stern leader nodded a cold contemptuous assent. “Thou, Jarnac, stay with them, and bring him on alive or dead. Forward!” And he resumed his march, followed by all the band but the young count and six archers, one of whom held the spare mule.

Denys and Gerard gazed at one another haggardly. Oh, what a look!

And after this mute interchange of anguish, they spoke hurriedly, for the moments were flying by.

“Thou goest to Holland: thou knowest where she bides. Tell her all. She will be kind to thee for my sake.”

“Oh, sorry tale that I shall carry her! For God’s sake, go back to the ‘Tete d’Or.’ I am mad!”

“Hush! Let me think: have I nought to say to thee, Denys? my head! my head!”

“Ah! I have it. Make for the Rhine, Gerard! Strasbourg. ’Tis but a step. And down the current to Rotterdam. Margaret is there: I go thither. I’ll tell her thou art coming. We shall all be together.”

“My lads, haste ye, or you will get us into trouble,” said the count firmly, but not harshly now.

“Oh, sir, one moment! one little moment!” panted Gerard.

“Cursed be the land I ‘was born in! cursed be the race of man! and he that made them what they are!” screamed Denys.

“Hush, Denys, hush! blaspheme not! Oh, God forgive him, he wots not what he says. Be patient, Denys, be patient: though we meet no more on earth, let us meet in a better world, where no blasphemer may enter. To my heart, lost friend; for what are words now?” He held out his arms, and they locked one another in a close embrace. They kissed one another again and again, speechless, and the tears rained down their cheeks And the Count Jarnac looked on amazed, but the rougher soldiers, to whom comrade was a sacred name, looked on with some pity in their hard faces. Then at a signal from Jarnac, with kind force and words of rude consolation, they almost lifted Denys on to the mule; and putting him in the middle of them, spurred after their leader. And Gerard ran wildly after (for the lane turned), to see the very last of him; and the last glimpse he caught, Denys was rocking to and fro on his mule, and tearing his hair out. But at this sight something rose in Gerard’s throat so high, so high, he could run no more nor breathe, but gasped, and leaned against the snow-clad hedge, seizing it, and choking piteously.

The thorns ran into his hand.

After a bitter struggle he got his breath again; and now began to see his own misfortune. Yet not all at once to realize it, so sudden and numbing was the stroke. He staggered on, but scarce feeling or caring whither he was going; and every now and then he stopped, and his arms fell and his head sank on his chest, and he stood motionless: then he said to himself, “Can this thing be? this must be a dream. ’Tis scarce five minutes since we were so happy, walking handed, faring to Rome together, and we admired them and their gay banners and helmets oh hearts of hell!”

All nature seemed to stare now as lonely as himself. Not a creature in sight. No colour but white. He, the ghost of his former self, wandered alone among the ghosts of trees, and fields, and hedges. Desolate! desolate! desolate! All was desolate.

He knelt and gathered a little snow. “Nay, I dream not; for this is snow: cold as the world’s heart. It is bloody, too: what may that mean? Fool! ’tis from thy hand. I mind not the wound Ay, I see: thorns. Welcome! kindly foes: I felt ye not, ye ran not into my heart. Ye are not cruel like men.”

He had risen, and was dragging his leaden limbs along, when he heard horses’ feet and gay voices behind him. He turned with a joyful but wild hope that the soldiers had relented and were bringing Denys back. But no, it was a gay cavalcade. A gentleman of rank and his favourites in velvet and furs and feathers; and four or five armed retainers in buff jerkins.

They swept gaily by.

Gerard never looked at them after they were gone by: certain gay shadows had come and passed; that was all. He was like one in a dream. But he was rudely wakened; suddenly a voice in front of him cried harshly, “Stand and deliver!” and there were three of the gentleman’s servants in front of him. They had ridden back to rob him.

“How, ye false knaves,” said he, quite calmly; “would ye shame your noble master? He will hang ye to the nearest tree;” and with these words he drew his sword doggedly, and set his back to the hedge.

One of the men instantly levelled his petronel at him.

But another, less sanguinary, interposed. “Be not so hasty! And be not thou so mad! Look yonder!”

Gerard looked, and scarce a hundred yards off the nobleman and his friends had halted, and sat on their horses, looking at the lawless act, too proud to do their own dirty work, but not too proud to reap the fruit, and watch lest their agents should rob them of another man’s money.

The milder servant then, a good-natured fellow, showed Gerard resistance was vain; reminded him common thieves often took the life as well as the purse, and assured him it cost a mint to be a gentleman; his master had lost money at play overnight, and was going to visit his leman, and so must take money where he saw it.

“Therefore, good youth, consider that we rob not for ourselves, and deliver us that fat purse at thy girdle without more ado, nor put us to the pain of slitting thy throat and taking it all the same.”

“This knave is right,” said Gerard calmly aloud but to himself. “I ought not to fling away my life; Margaret would be so sorry. Take then the poor man’s purse to the rich man’s pouch; and with it this; tell him, I pray the Holy Trinity each coin in it may burn his hand, and freeze his heart, and blast his soul for ever. Begone and leave me to my sorrow!” He flung them the purse.

They rode away muttering; for his words pricked them a little; a very little: and he staggered on, penniless now as well as friendless, till he came to the edge of a wood. Then, though his heart could hardly feel this second blow, his judgment did; and he began to ask himself what was the use going further? He sat down on the hard road, and ran his nails into his hair, and tried to think for the best; a task all the more difficult that a strange drowsiness was stealing over him. Rome he could never reach without money. Denys had said, “Go to Strasbourg, and down the Rhine home.” He would obey Denys. But how to get to Strasbourg without money?

Then suddenly seemed to ring in his ears —

“Gyf the world prove harsh and cold,

Come back to the hedde of gold.”

“And if I do I must go as her servant; I who am Margaret’s. I am a-weary, a-weary. I will sleep, and dream all is as it was. Ah me, how happy were we an hour agone, we little knew how happy. There is a house: the owner well-to-do. What if I told him my wrong, and prayed his aid to retrieve my purse, and so to Rhine? Fool! is he not a man, like the rest? He would scorn me and trample me lower. Denys cursed the race of men. That will I never; but oh, I begin to loathe and dread them. Nay, here will I lie till sunset: then darkling creep into this rich man’s barn, and take by stealth a draught of milk or a handful o’ grain, to keep body and soul together. God, who hath seen the rich rob me, will peradventure forgive me. They say ’tis ill sleeping on the snow. Death steals on such sleepers with muffled feet and honey breath. But what can I? I am a-weary, a-weary. Shall this be the wood where lie the wolves yon old man spoke of? I must e’en trust them: they are not men; and I am so a-weary.”

He crawled to the roadside, and stretched out his limbs on the snow, with a deep sigh.

“Ah, tear not thine hair so! teareth my heart to see thee.”

“Margaret. Never see me more. Poor Margaret.”

And the too tender heart was still.

And the constant lover, and friend of antique mould, lay silent on the snow; in peril from the weather, in peril from wild beasts, in peril from hunger, friendless and penniless in a strange land, and not halfway to Rome.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59