The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 77

Not long after this, as the little family at Tergou sat at dinner, Luke Peterson burst in on them, covered with dust. “Good people, Mistress Catherine is wanted instantly at Rotterdam.”

“My name is Catherine, young man. Kate, it will be Margaret.”

“Ay, dame, she said to me, ‘Good Luke, hie thee to Tergou, and ask for Eli the hosier, and pray his wife Catherine to come to me, for God His love.’ I didn’t wait for daylight.”

“Holy saints! He has come home, Kate. Nay, she would sure have said so. What on earth can it be?” And she heaped conjecture on conjecture.

“Mayhap the young man can tell us,” hazarded Kate timidly.

“That I can,” said Luke, “Why, her babe is a-dying, And she was so wrapped up in it!”

Catherine started up: “What is his trouble?”

“Nay, I know not. But it has been peaking and pining worse and worse this while.”

A furtive glance of satisfaction passed between Cornelis and Sybrandt. Luckily for them Catherine did not see it. Her face was turned towards her husband. “Now, Eli,” cried she furiously, “if you say a word against it, you and I shall quarrel, after all these years.’

“Who gainsays thee, foolish woman? Quarrel with your own shadow, while I go borrow Peter’s mule for ye.”

“Bless thee, my good man! Bless thee! Didst never yet fail me at a pinch, Now eat your dinners who can, while I go and make ready.”

She took Luke back with her in the cart, and on the way questioned and cross-questioned him severely and seductively by turns, till she had turned his mind inside out, what there was of it.

Margaret met her at the door, pale and agitated, and threw her arms round her neck, and looked imploringly in her face.

“Come, he is alive, thank God,” said Catherine, after scanning her eagerly.

She looked at the failing child, and then at the poor hollow-eyed mother, alternately, “Lucky you sent for me,” said she, “The child is poisoned.”

“Poisoned! by whom?”

“By you. You have been fretting.”

“Nay, indeed, mother. How can I help fretting?”

“Don’t tell me, Margaret. A nursing mother has no business to fret. She must turn her mind away from her grief to the comfort that lies in her lap. Know you not that the child pines if the mother vexes herself? This comes of your reading and writing. Those idle crafts befit a man; but they keep all useful knowledge out of a woman. The child must be weaned.”

“Oh, you cruel woman,” cried Margaret vehemently; “I am sorry I sent for you. Would you rob me of the only bit of comfort I have in the world? A-nursing my Gerard, I forget I am the most unhappy creature beneath the sun.”

“That you do not,” was the retort, “or he would not be the way he is.”

“Mother!” said Margaret imploringly.

“’Tis hard,” replied Catherine, relenting. “But bethink thee; would it not be harder to look down and see his lovely wee face a-looking up at you out of a little coffin?”

“Oh, Jesu!”

“And how could you face your other troubles with your heart aye full, and your lap empty?”

“Oh, mother, I consent to anything. Only save my boy.”

“That is a good lass, Trust to me! I do stand by, and see clearer than thou.”

Unfortunately there was another consent to be gained — the babe’s; and he was more refractory than his mother.

“There,” said Margaret, trying to affect regret at his misbehaviour; “he loves me too well.”

But Catherine was a match for them both. As she came along she had observed a healthy young woman, sitting outside her own door, with an infant, hard by. She went and told her the case; and would she nurse the pining child for the nonce, till she had matters ready to wean him?

The young woman consented with a smile, and popped her child into the cradle, and came into Margaret’s house. She dropped a curtsey, and Catherine put the child into her hands. She examined, and pitied it, and purred over it, and proceeded to nurse it, just as if it had been her own.

Margaret, who had been paralyzed at her assurance, cast a rueful look at Catherine, and burst out crying.

The visitor looked up. “What is to do? Wife, ye told me not the mother was unwilling.”

“She is not: she is only a fool. Never heed her; and you, Margaret, I am ashamed of you.”

“You are a cruel, hard-hearted woman,” sobbed Margaret.

“Them as take in hand to guide the weak need be hardish. And you will excuse me; but you are not my flesh and blood; and your boy is.”

After giving this blunt speech time to sink, she added, “Come now, she is robbing her own to save yours, and you can think of nothing better than bursting out a-blubbering in the woman’s face. Out fie, for shame!”

“Nay, wife,” said the nurse. “Thank Heaven, I have enough for my own and for hers to boot. And prithee wyte not on her! Maybe the troubles o’ life ha’ soured her own milk.”

“And her heart into the bargain,” said the remorseless Catherine.

Margaret looked her full in the face; and down went her eyes.

“I know I ought to be very grateful to you,” sobbed Margaret to the nurse: then turned her head and leaned away over the chair, not to witness the intolerable sight of another nursing her Gerard, and Gerard drawing no distinction between this new mother and her the banished one.

The nurse replied, “You are very welcome, my poor woman. And so are you, Mistress Catherine, which are my townswoman, and know it not.”

“What, are ye from Tergou? all the better, But I cannot call your face to mind.”

“Oh, you know not me: my husband and me, we are very humble folk by you. But true Eli and his wife are known of all the town; and respected, So, I am at your call, dame; and at yours, wife; and yours, my pretty poppet; night or day.”

“There’s a woman of the right old sort,” said Catherine, as the door closed upon her.

“I HATE her. I HATE her. I HATE her,” said Margaret, with wonderful fervour.

Catherine only laughed at this outburst.

“That is right,” said she; “better say it, as set sly and think it. It is very natural after all, Come, here is your bundle o’ comfort. Take and hate that, if ye can;” and she put the child in her lap.

“No, no,” said Margaret, turning her head half way from him; she could not for her life turn the other half. “He is not my child now; he is hers. I know not why she left him here, for my part. It was very good of her not to take him to her house, cradle and all; oh! oh! oh! oh! oh! oh oh! oh!”

“Ah! well, one comfort, he is not dead. This gives me light: some other woman has got him away from me; like father, like son; oh! oh! oh! oh! oh!”

Catherine was sorry for her, and let her cry in peace. And after that, when she wanted Joan’s aid, she used to take Gerard out, to give him a little fresh air. Margaret never objected; nor expressed the least incredulity; but on their return was always in tears.

This connivance was short-lived. She was now altogether as eager to wean little Gerard. It was done; and he recovered health and vigour; and another trouble fell upon him directly teething, But here Catherine’s experience was invaluable; and now, in the midst of her grief and anxiety about the father, Margaret had moments of bliss, watching the son’s tiny teeth come through. “Teeth, mother? I call them not teeth, but pearls of pearls.” And each pearl that peeped and sparkled on his red gums, was to her the greatest feat Nature had ever achieved.

Her companion partook the illusion. And had we told them standing corn was equally admirable, Margaret would have changed to a reproachful gazelle, and Catherine turned us out of doors; so each pearl’s arrival was announced with a shriek of triumph by whichever of them was the fortunate discoverer.

Catherine gossiped with Joan, and learned that she was the wife of Jorian Ketel of Tergou, who had been servant to Ghysbrecht Van Swieten, but fallen out of favour, and come back to Rotterdam, his native place. His friends had got him the place of sexton to the parish, and what with that and carpentering, he did pretty well.

Catherine told Joan in return whose child it was she had nursed, and all about Margaret and Gerard, and the deep anxiety his silence had plunged them in. “Ay,” said Joan, “the world is full of trouble.” One day she said to Catherine, “It’s my belief my man knows more about your Gerard than anybody in these parts; but he has got to be closer than ever of late. Drop in some day just afore sunset, and set him talking. And for our Lady’s sake say not I set you on. The only hiding he ever gave me was for babbling his business; and I do not want another. Gramercy! I married a man for the comfort of the thing, not to be hided.”

Catherine dropped in. Jorian was ready enough to tell her how he had befriended her son and perhaps saved his life. But this was no news to Catherine; and the moment she began to cross-question him as to whether he could guess why her lost boy neither came nor wrote, he cast a grim look at his wife, who received it with a calm air of stolid candour and innocent unconsciousness; and his answers became short and sullen.

“What should he know more than another?” and so on. He added, after a pause, “Think you the burgomaster takes such as me into his secrets?”

“Oh, then the burgomaster knows something?” said Catherine sharply.

“Likely. Who else should?”

“I’ll ask him.”

“I would.”

“And tell him you say he knows.”

“That is right, dame. Go make him mine enemy. That is what a poor fellow always gets if he says a word to you women.”

And Jorian from that moment shrunk in and became impenetrable as a hedgehog, and almost as prickly.

His conduct caused both the poor women agonies of mind, alarm, and irritated curiosity. Ghysbrecht was for some cause Gerard’s mortal enemy; had stopped his marriage, imprisoned him, hunted him. And here was his late servant, who when off his guard had hinted that this enemy had the clue to Gerard’s silence. After sifting Jorian’s every word and look, all remained dark and mysterious. Then Catherine told Margaret to go herself to him. “You are young, you are fair. You will maybe get more out of him than I could.”

The conjecture was a reasonable one.

Margaret went with her child in her arms and tapped timidly at Jorian’s door just before sunset. “Come in,” said a sturdy voice. She entered, and there sat Jorian by the fireside. At sight of her he rose, snorted, and burst out of the house. “Is that for me, wife?” inquired Margaret, turning very red.

“You must excuse him,” replied Joan, rather coldly; “he lays it to your door that he is a poor man instead of a rich one. It is something about a piece of parchment, There was one amissing, and he got nought from the burgomaster all along of that one.”

“Alas! Gerard took it.”

“Likely, But my man says you should not have let him: you were pledged to him to keep them all safe. And sooth to Say, I blame not my Jorian for being wroth, ’Tis hard for a poor man to be so near fortune and lose it by those he has befriended. However, I tell him another story. Says I, ‘Folk that are out o’ trouble like you and me didn’t ought to be too hard on folk that are in trouble; and she has plenty. Going already? What is all your hurry, mistress?”

“Oh, it is not for me to drive the goodman out of his own house.”

“Well, let me kiss the bairn afore ye go. He is not in fault anyway, poor innocent.”

Upon this cruel rebuff Margaret came to a resolution, which she did not confide even to Catherine.

After six weeks’ stay that good woman returned home.

On the child’s birthday, which occurred soon after, Margaret did no work; but put on her Sunday clothes, and took her boy in her arms and went to the church and prayed there long and fervently for Gerard’s safe return.

That same day and hour Father Clement celebrated a mass and prayed for Margaret’s departed soul in the minster church at Basle.

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