The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 90

It was the day after that terrible scene: the little house in the Hoog Straet was like a grave, and none more listless and dejected than Catherine, so busy and sprightly by nature, After dinner, her eyes red with weeping, she went to the convent to try and soften Gerard, and lay the first stone at least of a reconciliation.

It was some time before she could make the porter understand whom she was seeking. Eventually she learned he had left late last night, and was not expected back, She went sighing with the news to Margaret. She found her sitting idle, like one with whom life had lost its savour; she had her boy clasped so tight in her arms, as if he was all she had left, and she feared some one would take him too. Catherine begged her to come to the Hoog Straet.

“What for?” sighed Margaret. “You cannot but say to yourselves, she is the cause of all.”

“Nay, nay,” said Catherine, “we are not so ill-hearted, and Eli is so fond on you; you will maybe soften him.”

“Oh, if you think I can do any good, I’ll come,” said Margaret, with a weary sigh.

They found Eli and a carpenter putting up another name in place of Cornelis and Sybrandt’s; and what should that name be but Margaret Brandt’s.

With all her affection for Margaret, this went through poor Catherine like a knife. “The bane of one is another’s meat,” said she.

“Can he make me spend the money unjustly?” replied Margaret coldly.

“You are a good soul,” said Catherine. “Ay, so best, sith he is the strongest.”

The next day Giles dropped in, and Catherine told the story all in favour of the black sheep, and invited his pity for them, anathematized by their brother, and turned on the wide world by their father. But Giles’s prejudices ran the other way; he heard her out, and told her bluntly the knaves had got off cheap; they deserved to be hanged at Margaret’s door into the bargain, and dismissing them with contempt, crowed with delight at the return of his favourite. “I’ll show him,” said he, “what ’tis to have a brother at court with a heart to serve a friend, and a head to point the way.”

“Bless thee, Giles,” murmured Margaret softly.

“Thou wast ever his stanch friend, dear Giles,” said little Kate; “but alack, I know not what thou canst do for him now.”

Giles had left them, and all was sad and silent again, when a well-dressed man opened the door softly, and asked was Margaret Brandt here.

“D’ye hear, lass? You are wanted,” said Catherine briskly. In her the Gossip was indestructible.

“Well, mother,” said Margaret listlessly, “and here I am.”

A shuffling of feet was heard at the door, and a colourless, feeble old man was assisted into the room. It was Ghysbrecht Van Swieten. At sight of him Catherine shrieked, and threw her apron over her head, and Margaret shuddered violently, and turned her head swiftly away, not to see him.

A feeble voice issued from the strange visitor’s lips, “Good people, a dying man hath come to ask your forgiveness.”

“Come to look on your work, you mean,” said Catherine, taking down her apron and bursting out sobbing. “There, there, she is fainting; look to her, Eli, quick.”

“Nay,” said Margaret, in a feeble voice, “the sight of him gave me a turn, that is all, Prithee, let him say his say, and go; for he is the murderer of me and mine.”

“Alas,” said Ghysbrecht, “I am too feeble to say it standing and no one biddeth me sit down.”

Eli, who had followed him into the house, interfered here, and said, half sullenly, half apologetically, “Well, burgomaster, ’tis not our wont to leave a visitor standing whiles we sit. But man, man, you have wrought us too much ill.” And the honest fellow’s voice began to shake with anger he fought hard to contain, because it was his own house.

Then Ghysbrecht found an advocate in one who seldom spoke in vain in that family.

It was little Kate. “Father, mother,” said she, “my duty to you, but this is not well. Death squares all accounts, And see you not death in his face? I shall not live long, good friends; and his time is shorter than mine.”

Eli made haste and set a chair for their dying enemy with his own hands. Ghysbrecht’s attendants put him into it. “Go fetch the boxes,” said he. They brought in two boxes, and then retired, leaving their master alone in the family he had so cruelly injured.

Every eye was now bent on him, except Margaret’s. He undid the boxes with unsteady fingers, and brought out of one the title-deeds of a property at Tergou. “This land and these houses belonged to Floris Brandt, and do belong to thee of right, his granddaughter. These I did usurp for a debt long since defrayed with interest. These I now restore their rightful owner with penitent tears. In this other box are three hundred and forty golden angels, being the rent and fines I have received from that land more than Floris Brandt’s debt to me, I have kept it compt, still meaning to be just one day; but Avarice withheld me, pray, good people, against temptation! I was not born dishonest: yet you see.”

“Well, to be sure!” cried Catherine. “And you the burgomaster! Hast whipt good store of thieves in thy day. However,” said she, on second thoughts, “’tis better late than never, What, Margaret, art deaf? The good man hath brought thee back thine own. Art a rich woman. Alack, what a mountain o’ gold!”

“Bid him keep land and gold, and give me back my Gerard, that he stole from me with his treason,” said Margaret, with her head still averted.

“Alas!” said Ghysbrecht, “would I could, what I can I have done. Is it nought? It cost me a sore struggle; and I rose from my last bed to do it myself, lest some mischance should come between her and her rights.”

“Old man,” said Margaret, “since thou, whose idol is pelf, hast done this, God and the saints will, as I hope, forgive thee. As for me, I am neither saint nor angel, but only a poor woman, whose heart thou hast broken, Speak to him, Kate, for I am like the dead.”

Kate meditated a little while; and then her soft silvery voice fell like a soothing melody upon the air, “My poor sister hath a sorrow that riches cannot heal, Give her time, Ghysbrecht; ’tis not in nature she should forgive thee all. Her boy is fatherless; and she is neither maid, wife, nor widow; and the blow fell but two days syne, that laid her heart a bleeding.”

A single heavy sob from Margaret was the comment to these words.

“Therefore, give her time! And ere thou diest, she will forgive thee all, ay, even to pleasure me, that haply shall not be long behind thee, Ghysbrecht. Meantime, we, whose wounds be sore, but not so deep as hers, do pardon thee, a penitent and a dying man; and I, for one, will pray for thee from this hour; go in peace!”

Their little oracle had spoken; it was enough. Eli even invited him to break a manchet and drink a stoup of wine to give him heart for his journey.

But Ghysbrecht declined, and said what he had done was a cordial to him, “Man seeth but a little way before him, neighbour. This land I clung so to it was a bed of nettles to me all the time. ’Tis gone; and I feel happier and livelier like for the loss on’t.”

He called his men, and they lifted him into the litter.

When he was gone Catherine gloated over the money. She had never seen so much together, and was almost angry with Margaret, for “sitting out there like an image.” And she dilated on the advantages of money.

And she teased Margaret till at last she prevailed on her to come and look at it.

“Better let her be, mother,” said Kate, “How can she relish gold, with a heart in her bosom liker lead?” But Catherine persisted.

The result was, Margaret looked down at all her wealth with wondering eyes. Then suddenly wrung her hands and cried with piercing anguish, “TOO LATE! TOO LATE!” And shook off her leaden despondency, only to go into strong hysterics over the wealth that came too late to be shared with him she loved.

A little of this gold, a portion of this land, a year or two ago, when it was as much her own as now; and Gerard would have never left her side for Italy or any other place.

“Too late! Too late!”

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