The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 52

When she came down again she was a changed woman. Her eyes were wet, but calm, and all her bitterness and excitement charmed away.

“Denys,” said she softly, “I have got my orders. I am to read my lover’s letter to his folk.”

“Ye will never do that?”

“Ay will I.”

“I see there is something in the letter has softened ye towards them.”

“Not a jot, Denys, not a jot. But an I hated them like poison I would not disobey my love. Denys, ’tis so sweet to obey, and sweetest of all to obey one who is far, far away, and cannot enforce my duty, but must trust my love for my obedience. Ah, Gerard, my darling, at hand I might have slighted thy commands, misliking thy folk as I have cause to do; but now, didst bid me go into the raging sea and read thy sweet letter to the sharks, there I’d go. Therefore, Denys, tell his mother I have got a letter, and if she and hers would hear it, I am their servant; let them say their hour, and I’ll seat them as best I can, and welcome them as best I may.”

Denys went off to Catherine with this good news. He found the family at dinner, and told them there was a long letter from Gerard. Then in the midst of the joy this caused, he said, “And her heart is softened, and she will read it to you herself; you are to choose your own time.”

“What does she think there are none can read but her?” asked Catherine. “Let her send the letter and we will read it.”

“Nay, but, mother,” objected little Kate; “mayhap she cannot bear to part it from her hand; she loves him dearly.”

“What, thinks she we shall steal it?”

Cornelis suggested that she would fain wedge herself into the family by means of this letter.

Denys cast a look of scorn on the speaker. “There spoke a bad heart,” said he. “La camarade hates you all like poison. Oh, mistake me not, dame; I defend her not, but so ’tis; yet maugre her spleen at a word from Gerard she proffers to read you his letter with her own pretty mouth, and hath a voice like honey — sure ’tis a fair proffer.”

“’Tis so, mine honest soldier,” said the father of the family, “and merits a civil reply, therefore hold your whisht ye that be women, and I shall answer her. Tell her I, his father, setting aside all past grudges, do for this grace thank her, and would she have double thanks, let her send my son’s letter by thy faithful hand, the which will I read to his flesh and blood, and will then to her so surely and faithful return, as I am Eli a Dierich a William a Luke, free burgher of Tergou, like my forbears, and like them, a man of my word.”

“Ay, and a man who is better than his word,” cried Catherine; “the only one I ever did foregather.”

“Hold thy peace, wife.”

“Art a man of sense, Eli, a dirk, a chose, a chose1,”’ shouted Denys. “The she-comrade will be right glad to obey Gerard and yet not face you all, whom she hates as wormwood, saving your presence. Bless ye, the world hath changed, she is all submission to-day: ‘obedience is honey,’ quoth she; and in sooth ’tis a sweetmeat she cannot but savour, eating so little on’t, for what with her fair face, and her mellow tongue; and what wi’ flying in fits and terrifying us that be soldiers to death, an we thwart her; and what wi’ chiding us one while, and petting us like lambs t’ other, she hath made two of the crawlingest slaves ever you saw out of two honest swashbucklers. I be the ironing ruffian, t’ other washes.”

“What next?

“What next? why, whenever the brat is in the world I shall rock cradle, and t’ other knave will wash tucker and bib. So, then, I’ll go fetch the letter on the instant. Ye will let me bide and hear it read, will ye not?”

“Else our hearts were black as coal,” said Catherine.

So Denys went for the letter. He came back crestfallen. “She will not let it out of her hand neither to me nor you, nor any he or she that lives.”

“I knew she would not,” said Cornelis.

“Whisht! whisht!” said Eli, “and let Denys tell his story.”

“‘Nay,’ said I, ‘but be ruled by me.’ ‘Not I,’ quoth she. ‘Well, but,’ quoth I, ‘that same honey Obedience ye spake of.’ ‘You are a fool,’ says she; ‘obedience to Gerard is sweet, but obedience to any other body, who ever said that was sweet?’

“At last she seemed to soften a bit, and did give me a written paper for you, mademoiselle. Here ’tis.”

“For me?” said little Kate, colouring.

“Give that here!” said Eli, and he scanned the writing, and said almost in a whisper, “These be words from the letter Hearken!

“‘And, sweetheart, an if these lines should travel safe to thee, make thou trial of my people’s hearts withal. Maybe they are somewhat turned towards me, being far away. If ’tis so they will show it to thee, since now to me they may not. Read, then, this letter! But I do strictly forbid thee to let it from thy hand; and if they still hold aloof from thee, why, then say nought, but let them think me dead. Obey me in this; for, if thou dost disrespect my judgment and my will in this, thou lovest me not.’”

There was a silence, and Gerard’s words copied by Margaret here handed round and inspected.

“Well,” said Catherine, “that is another matter. But methinks ’tis for her to come to us, not we to her.”

“Alas, mother! what odds does that make?”

“Much,” said Eli. “Tell her we are over many to come to her, and bid her hither, the sooner the better.”

When Denys was gone, Eli owned it was a bitter pill to him.

“When that lass shall cross my threshold, all the mischief and misery she hath made here will seem to come in adoors in one heap. But what could I do, wife? We must hear the news of Gerard. I saw that in thine eyes, and felt it in my own heart. And she is backed by our undutiful but still beloved son, and so is she stronger than we, and brings our noses down to the grindstone, the sly, cruel jade. But never heed. We will hear the letter; and then let her go unblessed as she came unwelcome.”

“Make your mind easy,” said Catherine. “She will not come at all.” And a tone of regret was visible.

Shortly after Richart, who had been hourly expected, arrived from Amsterdam grave and dignified in his burgher’s robe and gold chain, ruff, and furred cap, and was received not with affection only, but respect; for he had risen a step higher than his parents, and such steps were marked in mediaeval society almost as visibly as those in their staircases.

Admitted in due course to the family council, he showed plainly, though not discourteously, that his pride was deeply wounded by their having deigned to treat with Margaret Brandt. “I see the temptation,” said he. “But which of us hath not at times to wish one way and do another?” This threw a considerable chill over the old people. So little Kate put in a word. “Vex not thyself, dear Richart. Mother says she will not come.

“All the better, sweetheart. I fear me, if she do, I shall hie me back to Amsterdam.”

Here Denys popped his head in at the door, and said —

“She will be here at three on the great dial.”

They all looked at one another in silence.

1 Anglice, a Thing-em-bob.

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