The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 47

Denys took an opportunity next day and told mother and daughter the rest, excusing himself characteristically for not letting Cornelis and Sybrandt hear of it. “It is not for me to blacken them; they come of a good stock. But Gerard looks on them as no friends of his in this matter; and I’m Gerard’s comrade and it is a rule with us soldiers not to tell the enemy aught — but lies.”

Catherine sighed, but made no answer.

The adventures he related cost them a tumult of agitation and grief, and sore they wept at the parting of the friends, which even now Denys could not tell without faltering. But at last all merged in the joyful hope and expectation of Gerard’s speedy return. In this Denys confidently shared; but reminded them that was no reason why he should neglect his friend’s wishes and last words. In fact, should Gerard return next week, and no Margaret to be found, what sort of figure should he cut?

Catherine had never felt so kindly towards the truant Margaret as now; and she was fully as anxious to find her, and be kind to her before Gerard’s return, as Denys was; but she could not agree with him that anything was to be gained by leaving this neighbourhood to search for her. “She must have told somebody whither she was going. It is not as though they were dishonest folk flying the country; they owe not a stiver in Sevenbergen; and dear heart, Denys, you can’t hunt all Holland for her.”

“Can I not?” said Denys grimly. “That we shall see.” He added, after some reflection, that they must divide their forces; she stay here with eyes and ears wide open, and he ransack every town in Holland for her, if need be. “But she will not be many leagues from here. They be three. Three fly not so fast, nor far, as one.”

“That is sense,” said Catherine. But she insisted on his going first to the demoiselle Van Eyck. “She and our Margaret were bosom friends. She knows where the girl is gone, if she will but tell us.” Denys was for going to her that instant, so Catherine, in a turn of the hand, made herself one shade neater, and took him with her.

She was received graciously by the old lady sitting in a richly furnished room; and opened her business. The tapestry dropped out of Margaret Van Eyck’s hands. “Gone? Gone from Sevenbergen and not told me; the thankless girl.”

This turn greatly surprised the visitors. “What, you know not? when was she here last?”

“Maybe ten days agone. I had ta’en out my brushes, after so many years, to paint her portrait. I did not do it, though; for reasons.”

Catherine remarked it was “a most strange thing she should go away bag and baggage like this, without with your leave or by your leave, why, or wherefore. Was ever aught so untoward; just when all our hearts are warm to her; and here is Gerard’s mate come from the ends of the earth with comfort for her from Gerard, and can’t find her, and Gerard himself expected. What to do I know not. But sure she is not parted like this without a reason. Can ye not give us the clue, my good demoiselle? Prithee now.

“I have it not to give,” said the elder lady, rather peevishly.

“Then I can,” said Reicht Heynes, showing herself in the doorway, with colour somewhat heightened.

“So you have been hearkening all the time, eh?”

“What are my ears for, mistress?”

“True. Well, throw us the light of thy wisdom on this dark matter.”

“There is no darkness that I see,” said Reicht. “And the clue, why, an ye call’t a two-plye twine, and the ends on’t in this room e’en now, ye’ll not be far out. Oh, mistress, I wonder at you sitting there pretending.”

“Marry, come up.” and the mistress’s cheek was now nearly as red as the servant’s. “So ’twas I drove the foolish girl away.”

“You did your share, mistress. What sort of greeting gave you her last time she came? Think you she could miss to notice it, and she all friendless? And you said, ‘I have altered my mind about painting of you,’ says you, a turning up your nose at her.”

“I did not turn up my nose. It is not shaped like yours for looking heavenward.”

“Oh, all our nosen can follow our heartys bent, for that matter. Poor soul. She did come into the kitchen to me. ‘I am not to be painted now,’ said she, and the tears in her eyes. She said no more. But I knew well what she did mean. I had seen ye.”

“Well,” said Margaret Van Eyck, “I do confess so much, and I make you the judge, madam. Know that these young girls can do nothing of their own heads, but are most apt at mimicking aught their sweethearts do. Now your Gerard is reasonably handy at many things, and among the rest at the illuminator’s craft. And Margaret she is his pupil, and a patient one: what marvel? having a woman’s eye for colour, and eke a lover to ape. ’Tis a trick I despise at heart: for by it the great art of colour, which should be royal, aspiring, and free, becomes a poor slave to the petty crafts of writing and printing, and is fettered, imprisoned, and made little, body and soul, to match the littleness of books, and go to church in a rich fool’s pocket. Natheless affection rules us all, and when the poor wench would bring me her thorn leaves, and lilies, and ivy, and dewberries, and ladybirds, and butterfly grubs, and all the scum of Nature-stuck fast in gold-leaf like wasps in a honey-pot, and withal her diurnal book, showing she had pored an hundred, or an hundred and fifty, or two hundred hours over each singular page, certes I was wroth that an immortal soul, and many hours of labour, and much manual skill, should be flung away on Nature’s trash, leaves, insects, grubs, and on barren letters; but, having bowels, I did perforce restrain, and as it were, dam my better feelings, and looked kindly at the work to see how it might be bettered; and said I, ‘Sith Heaven for our sins hath doomed us to spend time, and soul, and colour on great letters and little beetles, omitting such small fry as saints and heroes, their acts and passions, why not present the scum naturally?’ I told her ‘the grapes I saw, walking abroad, did hang i’ the air, not stick in a wall; and even these insects,’ quo’ I, ‘and Nature her slime in general, pass not their noxious lives wedged miserably in metal prisons like flies in honey-pots and glue-pots, but do crawl or hover at large, infesting air.’ ‘Ah my dear friend,’ says she, ‘I see now whither you drive; but this ground is gold; whereon we may not shade.’ ‘Who said so?’ quoth I. ‘All teachers of this craft,’ says she; and (to make an end o’ me at once, I trow) ‘Gerard himself!’ ‘That for Gerard himself,’ quoth I, ‘and all the gang; gi’e me a brush!’

“Then chose I, to shade her fruit and reptiles, a colour false in nature, but true relatively to that monstrous ground of glaring gold; and in five minutes out came a bunch of raspberries, stalk and all, and a’most flew in your mouth; likewise a butterfly grub she had so truly presented as might turn the stoutest stomach. My lady she flings her arms round my neck, and says she, ‘Oh!’”

“Did she now?”

“The little love!” observed Denys, succeeding at last in wedging in a word.

Margaret Van Eyck stared at him; and then smiled. She went on to tell them how from step to step she had been led on to promise to resume the art she had laid aside with a sigh when her brothers died, and to paint the Madonna once more — with Margaret for model. Incidentally she even revealed how girls are turned into saints. “Thy hair is adorable,” said I. “Why, ’tis red,” quo’ she. “Ay,” quoth I, “but what a red! how brown! how glossy! most hair is not worth a straw to us painters; thine the artist’s very hue. But thy violet eyes, which smack of earth, being now languid for lack of one Gerard, now full of fire in hopes of the same Gerard, these will I lift to heaven in fixed and holy meditation, and thy nose, which doth already somewhat aspire that way (though not so piously as Reicht’s), will I debase a trifle, and somewhat enfeeble thy chin.”

“Enfeeble her chin? Alack! what may that mean? Ye go beyond me, mistress.”

“’Tis a resolute chin. Not a jot too resolute for this wicked world; but when ye come to a Madonna? No thank you.”

“Well I never. A resolute chin.”

Denys. “The darling!”

“And now comes the rub. When you told me she was — the way she is, it gave me a shock; I dropped my brushes. Was I going to turn a girl, that couldn’t keep her lover at a distance, into the Virgin Mary, at my time of life? I love the poor ninny still. But I adore our blessed Lady. Say you, ‘a painter must not be peevish in such matters’? Well, most painters are men; and men are fine fellows. They can do aught. Their saints and virgins are neither more nor less than their lemans, saving your presence. But know that for this very reason half their craft is lost on me, which find beneath their angels’ white wings the very trollops I have seen flaunting it on the streets, bejewelled like Paynim idols, and put on like the queens in a pack o’ cards. And I am not a fine fellow, but only a woman, and my painting is but one half craft, and t’other half devotion. So now you may read me. ’Twas foolish, maybe, but I could not help it; yet am I sorry.” And the old lady ended despondently a discourse which she had commenced in a’mighty defiant tone.

“Well, you know, dame,” observed Catherine, “you must think it would go to the poor girl’s heart, and she so fond of ye?”

Margaret Van Eyck only sighed.

The Frisian girl, after biting her lips impatiently a little while, turned upon Catherine. “Why, dame, think you ’twas for that alone Margaret and Peter hath left Sevenbergen? Nay.”

“For what else, then?”

“What else? Why, because Gerard’s people slight her so cruel. Who would bide among hard-hearted folk that ha’ driven her lad t’ Italy, and now he is gone, relent not, but face it out, and ne’er come anigh her that is left?”

“Reicht, I was going.”

“Oh, ay, going, and going, and going. Ye should ha’ said less or else done more. But with your words you did uplift her heart and let it down wi’ your deeds. ‘They have never been,’ said the poor thing to me, with such a sigh. Ay, here is one can feel for her: for I too am far from my friends, and often, when first I came to Holland, I did used to take a hearty cry all to myself. But ten times liever would I be Reicht Heynes with nought but the leagues atw’een me and all my kith, than be as she is i’ the midst of them that ought to warm to her, and yet to fare as lonesome as I.”

“Alack, Reicht, I did go but yestreen, and had gone before, but one plaguy thing or t’other did still come and hinder me.”

“Mistress, did aught hinder ye to eat your dinner any one of those days? I trow not. And had your heart been as good towards your own flesh and blood, as ’twas towards your flesher’s meat, nought had prevailed to keep you from her that sat lonely, a watching the road for you and comfort, wi’ your child’s child a beating ‘neath her bosom.”

Here this rude young woman was interrupted by an incident not uncommon in a domestic’s bright existence. The Van Eyck had been nettled by the attack on her, but with due tact had gone into ambush. She now sprang out of it. “Since you disrespect my guests, seek another place!”

“With all my heart,” said Reicht stoutly.

“Nay, mistress,” put in the good-natured Catherine. “True folk will still speak out. Her tongue is a stinger.” Here the water came into the speaker’s eyes by way of confirmation. “But better she said it than thought it. So now ‘t won’t rankle in her. And part with her for me, that shall ye not. Beshrew the wench, she wots she is a good servant, and takes advantage. We poor wretches which keep house must still pay ’em tax for value. I had a good servant once, when I was a young woman. Eh dear, how she did grind me down into the dust. In the end, by Heaven’s mercy, she married the baker, and I was my own woman again. ‘So,’ said I, ‘no more good servants shall come hither, a hectoring o’ me.’ I just get a fool and learn her; and whenever she knoweth her right hand from her left, she sauceth me: then out I bundle her neck and crop, and take another dunce in her place. Dear heart, ’tis wearisome, teaching a string of fools by ones; but there — I am mistress:” here she forgot that she was defending Reicht, and turning rather spitefully upon her, added, “and you be mistress here, I trow.”

“No more than that stool,” said the Van Eyck loftily. “She is neither mistress nor servant; but Gone. She is dismissed the house, and there’s an end of her. What, did ye not hear me turn the saucy baggage off?”

“Ay, ay. We all heard ye,” said Reicht, with vast indifference.

“Then hear me!” said Denys solemnly.

They all went round like things on wheels, and fastened their eyes on him.

“Ay, let us hear what the man says,” urged the hostess. “Men are fine fellows, with their great hoarse voices.”

“Mistress Reicht,” said Denys, with great dignity and ceremony, indeed so great as to verge on the absurd, “you are turned off. If on a slight acquaintance I might advise, I’d say, since you are a servant no more, be a mistress, a queen.”

“Easier said than done,” replied Reicht bluntly.

“Not a jot. You see here one who is a man, though but half an arbalestrier, owing to that devilish Englishman’s arrow, in whose carcass I have, however, left a like token, which is a comfort. I have twenty gold pieces” (he showed them) “and a stout arm. In another week or so I shall have twain. Marriage is not a habit of mine; but I capitulate to so many virtues. You are beautiful, good-hearted, and outspoken, and above all, you take the part of my she-comrade. Be then an arbalestriesse!”

“And what the dickens is that?” inquired Reicht.

“I mean, be the wife, mistress, and queen of Denys of Burgundy here present.”

A dead silence fell on all.

It did not last long, though; and was followed by a burst of unreasonable indignation.

Catherine. “Well, did you ever?”

Margaret. “Never in all my born days.”

Catherine. “Before our very faces.”

Margaret. “Of all the absurdity, and insolence of this ridiculous sex —”

Then Denys observed somewhat drily, that the female to whom he had addressed himself was mute; and the others, on whose eloquence there was no immediate demand, were fluent: on this the voices stopped, and the eyes turned pivot-like upon Reicht.

She took a sly glance from under her lashes at her military assailant, and said, “I mean to take a good look at any man ere I leap into his arms.”

Denys drew himself up majestically. “Then look your fill, and leap away.”

This proposal led to a new and most unexpected result. A long white finger was extended by the Van Eyck in a line with the speaker’s eye, and an agitated voice bade him stand, in the name of all the saints. “You are beautiful, so,” cried she. “You are inspired — with folly. What matters that? you are inspired. I must take off your head.” And in a moment she was at work with her pencil. “Come out, hussy,” she screamed to Reicht, “more in front of him, and keep the fool inspired and beautiful. Oh, why had I not this maniac for my good centurion? They went and brought me a brute with a low forehead and a shapeless beard.”

Catherine stood and looked with utter amazement at this pantomime, and secretly resolved that her venerable hostess had been a disguised lunatic all this time, and was now busy throwing off the mask. As for Reicht, she was unhappy and cross. She had left her caldron in a precarious state, and made no scruple to say so, and that duties so grave as hers left her no “time to waste a playing the statee and the fool all at one time.” Her mistress in reply reminded her that it was possible to be rude and rebellious to one’s poor, old, affectionate, desolate mistress, without being utterly heartless and savage; and a trampler on arts.

On this Reicht stopped, and pouted, and looked like a little basilisk at the inspired model who caused her woe. He retorted with unshaken admiration. The situation was at last dissolved by the artist’s wrist becoming cramped from disuse; this was not, however, until she had made a rough but noble sketch. “I can work no more at present,” said she sorrowfully.

“Then, now, mistress, I may go and mind my pot?”

“Ay, ay, go to your pot! And get into it, do; you will find your soul in it: so then you will all be together.”

“Well, but, Reicht,” said Catherine, laughing, “she turned you off.”

“Boo, boo, boo!” said Reicht contemptuously. “When she wants to get rid of me, let her turn herself off and die. I am sure she is old enough for’t. But take your time, mistress; if you are in no hurry, no more am I. When that day doth come, ’twill take a man to dry my eyes; and if you should be in the same mind then, soldier, you can say so; and if you are not, why, ’twill be all one to Reicht Heynes.”

And the plain speaker went her way. But her words did not fall to the ground. Neither of her female hearers could disguise from herself that this blunt girl, solitary herself, had probably read Margaret Brandt aright, and that she had gone away from Sevenbergen broken-hearted.

Catherine and Denys bade the Van Eyck adieu, and that same afternoon Denys set out on a wild goose chase. His plan, like all great things, was simple. He should go to a hundred towns and villages, and ask in each after an old physician with a fair daughter, and an old long-bow soldier. He should inquire of the burgomasters about all new-comers, and should go to the fountains and watch the women and girls as they came with their pitchers for water.

And away he went, and was months and months on the tramp, and could not find her.

Happily, this chivalrous feat of friendship was in some degree its own reward.

Those who sit at home blindfolded by self-conceit, and think camel or man out of the depths of their inner consciousness, alias their ignorance, will tell you that in the intervals of war and danger, peace and tranquil life acquire their true value and satisfy the heroic mind. But those who look before they babble or scribble will see and say that men who risk their lives habitually thirst for exciting pleasures between the acts of danger, are not for innocent tranquility.

To this Denys was no exception. His whole military life had been half sparta, half Capua. And he was too good a soldier and too good a libertine to have ever mixed either habit with the other. But now for the first time he found himself mixed; at peace and yet on duty; for he took this latter view of his wild goose chase, luckily. So all these months he was a demi-Spartan; sober, prudent, vigilant, indomitable; and happy, though constantly disappointed, as might have been expected. He flirted gigantically on the road; but wasted no time about it. Nor in these his wanderings did he tell a single female that “marriage was not one of his habits, etc.”

And so we leave him on the tramp, “Pilgrim of Friendship,” as his poor comrade was of Love.

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