The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 49

MARGARET BRANDT had always held herself apart from Sevenbergen; and her reserve had passed for pride; this had come to her ears, and she knew many hearts were swelling with jealousy and malevolence. How would they triumph over her when her condition could no longer be concealed! This thought gnawed her night and day. For some time it had made her bury herself in the house, and shun daylight even on those rare occasions when she went abroad.

Not that in her secret heart and conscience she mistook her moral situation, as my unlearned readers have done perhaps. Though not acquainted with the nice distinctions of the contemporary law, she knew that betrothal was a marriage contract, and could no more be legally broken on either side than any other compact written and witnessed; and that marriage with another party than the betrothed had been formerly annulled both by Church and State and that betrothed couples often came together without any further ceremony, and their children were legitimate.

But what weighed down her simple mediaeval mind was this: that very contract of betrothal was not forthcoming. Instead of her keeping it, Gerard had got it, and Gerard was far, far away. She hated and despised herself for the miserable oversight which had placed her at the mercy of false opinion.

For though she had never heard Horace’s famous couplet, Segnius irritant, etc., she was Horatian by the plain, hard, positive intelligence, which, strange to say, characterizes the judgment of her sex, when feeling happens not to blind it altogether. She gauged the understanding of the world to a T. Her marriage lines being out of sight, and in Italy, would never prevail to balance her visible pregnancy, and the sight of her child when born. What sort of a tale was this to stop slanderous tongues? “I have got my marriage lines, but I cannot show them you.” What woman would believe her? or even pretend to believe her? And as she was in reality one of the most modest girls in Holland, it was women’s good opinion she wanted, not men’s.

Even barefaced slander attacks her sex at a great advantage; but here was slander with a face of truth. “The strong-minded woman” had not yet been invented; and Margaret, though by nature and by having been early made mistress of a family, she was resolute in some respects, was weak as water in others, and weakest of all in this. Like all the elite of her sex, she was a poor little leaf, trembling at each gust of the world’s opinion, true or false. Much misery may be contained in few words. I doubt if pages of description from any man’s pen could make any human creature, except virtuous women (and these need no such aid), realize the anguish of a virtuous woman foreseeing herself paraded as a frail one. Had she been frail at heart, she might have brazened it out. But she had not that advantage. She was really pure as snow, and saw the pitch coming nearer her and nearer. The poor girl sat listless hours at a time, and moaned with inner anguish. And often, when her father was talking to her, and she giving mechanical replies, suddenly her cheek would burn like fire, and the old man would wonder what he had said to discompose her. Nothing. His words were less than air to her. It was the ever-present dread sent the colour of shame into her burning cheek, no matter what she seemed to be talking and thinking about. But both shame and fear rose to a climax when she came back that night from Margaret Van Eyck’s. Her condition was discovered, and by persons of her own sex. The old artist, secluded like herself, might not betray her; but Catherine, a gossip in the centre of a family, and a thick neighbourhood? One spark of hope remained. Catherine had spoken kindly, even lovingly. The situation admitted no half course. Gerard’s mother thus roused must either be her best friend or worst enemy. She waited then in racking anxiety to hear more. No word came. She gave up hope. Catherine was not going to be her friend. Then she would expose her, since she had no strong and kindly feeling to balance the natural love of babbling.

Then it was the wish to fly from this neighbourhood began to grow and gnaw upon her, till it became a wild and passionate desire. But how persuade her father to this? Old people cling to places. He was very old and infirm to change his abode. There was no course but to make him her confidant; better so than to run away from him; and she felt that would be the alternative. And now between her uncontrollable desire to fly and hide, and her invincible aversion to speak out to a man, even to her father, she vibrated in a suspense full of lively torture. And presently betwixt these two came in one day the fatal thought, “end all!” Things foolishly worded are not always foolish; one of poor Catherine’s bugbears, these numerous canals, did sorely tempt this poor fluctuating girl. She stood on the bank one afternoon, and eyed the calm deep water. It seemed an image of repose, and she was so harassed. No more trouble. No more fear of shame. If Gerard had not loved her, I doubt she had ended there.

As it was, she kneeled by the water side, and prayed fervently to God to keep such wicked thoughts from her. “Oh! selfish wretch,” said she, “to leave thy father. Oh, wicked wretch, to kill thy child, and make thy poor Gerard lose all his pain and peril undertaken for thy sight. I will tell father all, ay, ere this sun shall set.” And she went home with eager haste, lest her good resolution should ooze out ere she got there.

Now, in matters domestic the learned Peter was simple as a child, and Margaret, from the age of sixteen, had governed the house gently but absolutely. It was therefore a strange thing in this house, the faltering, irresolute way in which its young but despotic mistress addressed that person, who in a domestic sense was less important than Martin Wittenhaagen, or even than the little girl who came in the morning and for a pittance washed the vessels, etc., and went home at night.

“Father, I would speak to thee.”

“Speak on, girl.”

“Wilt listen to me? And — and — not — and try to excuse my faults?”

“We have all our faults, Margaret, thou no more than the rest of us; but fewer, unless parental feeling blinds me.”

“Alas, no, father: I am a poor foolish girl, that would fain do well, but have done ill, most ill, most unwisely; and now must bear the shame. But, father, I love you, with all my faults, and will not you forgive my folly, and still love your motherless girl?”

“That ye may count on,” said Peter cheerfully.

“Oh, well, smile not. For then how can I speak and make you sad?”

“Why, what is the matter?”

“Father, disgrace is coming on this house: it is at the door. And I the culprit. Oh, father, turn your head away. I— I— father, I have let Gerard take away my marriage lines.”

“Is that all? ’Twas an oversight.”

“’Twas the deed of a mad woman. But woe is me! that is not the worst.”

Peter interrupted her. “The youth is honest, and loves you dear. You are young. What is a year or two to you? Gerard will assuredly come back and keep troth.”

“And meantime know you what is coming?”

“Not I, except that I shall be gone first for one.”

“Worse than that. There is worse pain than death. Nay, for pity’s sake turn away your head, father.”

“Foolish wench!” muttered Peter, but turned his head.

She trembled violently, and with her cheeks on fire began to falter out, “I did look on Gerard as my husband — we being betrothed-and he was in so sore danger, and I thought I had killed him, and I-oh, if you were but my mother I might find courage: you would question me. But you say not a word.”

“Why, Margaret, what is all this coil about? and why are thy cheeks crimson, speaking to no stranger’, but to thy old father?”

“Why are my cheeks on fire? Because — because — father kill me; send me to heaven! bid Martin shoot me with his arrow! And then the gossips will come and tell you why I blush so this day. And then, when I am dead, I hope you will love your girl again for her mother’s sake.”

“Give me thy hand, mistress,” said Peter, a little sternly.

She put it out to him trembling. He took it gently and began with some anxiety in his face to feel her pulse.

“Alas, nay,” said she. “’Tis my soul that burns, not my body, with fever. I cannot, will not, bide in Sevenbergen.” And she wrung her hands impatiently.

“Be calm now,” said the old man soothingly, “nor torment thyself for nought. Not bide in Sevenbergen? What need to bide a day, as it vexes thee, and puts thee in a fever: for fevered thou art, deny it not.”

“What!” cried Margaret, “would you yield to go hence, and — and ask no reason but my longing to be gone?” and suddenly throwing herself on her knees beside him, in a fervour of supplication she clutched his sleeve, and then his arm, and then his shoulder, while imploring him to quit this place, and not ask her why. “Alas! what needs it? You will soon see it. And I could never say it. I would liever die.”

“Foolish child, who seeks thy girlish secrets? Is it I, whose life hath been spent in searching Nature’s? And for leaving Sevenbergen, what is there to keep me in it, thee unwilling? Is there respect for me here, or gratitude? Am I not yclept quacksalver by those that come not near me, and wizard by those I heal? And give they not the guerdon and the honour they deny me to the empirics that slaughter them? Besides, what is’t to me where we sojourn? Choose thou that, as did thy mother before thee.”

Margaret embraced him tenderly, and wept upon his shoulder.

She was respited.

Yet as she wept, respited, she almost wished she had had the courage to tell him.

After a while nothing would content him but her taking a medicament he went and brought her. She took it submissively, to please him. It was the least she could do. It was a composing draught, and though administered under an error, and a common one, did her more good than harm: she awoke calmed by a long sleep, and that very day began her preparations.

Next week they went to Rotterdam, bag and baggage, and lodged above a tailor’s shop in the Brede–Kirk Straet.

Only one person in Tergou knew whither they were gone.

The Burgomaster.

He locked the information in his own breast.

The use he made of it ere long, my reader will not easily divine: for he did not divine it himself.

But time will show.

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