"O my lord," interrupted the servitor with hands uplifted in defence, "who besought you not to measure this innocent daughter of a decorous household, who was scarcely beyond childhood, by the standard you applied to others? Who entreated you to spare her fair fame? And if you deem the stuff of which the servant is made too coarse to understand what moves so pure a soul, you do Biberli injustice, for, by my patron saint, though duty commanded me to interpose doubts and scruples between you and a passion from which could scarcely spring aught that would bring joy to your mother's heart I, too, asked myself the question why, in these days, a devout maiden should not long to try her skill in conversion upon a valiant knight who served her. Ever since St. Francis of Assisi appeared in Italy, barefooted monks and grey-robed nuns, who follow him, Franciscans and Sisters of St. Clare stream hither as water flows into a mill-race when the sluice-gates are opened. With what edification we, too, listened to the old Minorite whom we picked up by the wayside, at the tavern where we usually found pleasure in nothing but drinking, gambling, shouting, and singing! Besides, I know from my sweetheart with what exemplary devotion the lovely Eva follows St. Clare."
"Who is now and will remain my patron saint also, old Biber," interrupted Heinz with joyful emotion, as he laid his hand gratefully on his follower's shoulder; then rising and beckoning to the bar-maid, added: "The stuff of which you are made, old comrade, is inferior to no man's. Only now and then the pedagogue plays you a trick. Had you uttered your real opinion in the first place, the wine would have tasted better to us both. Let Eva try the work of conversion on me! What, save my lady's love, is more to me than our holy faith? It must indeed be a delight to take the field for the Church and against her foes!" While speaking, he paid the reckoning and went out with Biberli.
The moon was now pouring her silver beams, with full radiance, over the quiet street, the linden in front of the Ortlieb house, and its lofty gable roof. Only a single room in the spacious mansion was still lighted, the bow-windowed one occupied by the two sisters.
Heinz, without heeding Biberli's renewed protest, looked upward, silently imploring Eva's pardon for having misjudged her even a moment. His gaze rested devoutly on the open window, behind which a curtain was stirring. Was it the night breeze that almost imperceptibly raised and lowered it, or was her own dear self concealed behind it?
Just at that moment he suddenly felt his servant's hand on his arm, and as he followed his horror-stricken gaze, a chill ran through his own veins. From the heavy door of the house, which stood half open, a white-robed figure emerged with the solemn, noiseless footfall of a ghost, and advanced across the courtyard towards him.
Was it a restless spirit risen from its grave at the midnight hour, which must be close at hand? Through his brain, like a flash of lightning, darted the thought that Eva had spoken to him of her invalid mother. Had she died? Was her wandering soul approaching him to drive him from the threshold of the house which hid her endangered child?
The figure had stopped before the door and now, raising its head, gazed with wide eyes upward at the moon, and—he was not mistaken—it was no spectre of darkness; it was she for whom every pulse of his heart throbbed—Eva!
No human creature had ever seemed to him so divinely fair as she in her long white night-robe, over which fell the thick waves of her light hair. The horror which had seized him yielded to the most ardent yearning. Pressing his hand upon his throbbing heart, he watched her every movement. He longed to go forward to meet her, yet a supernatural spell seemed to paralyse his energy. He would sooner have dared clasp in his arms the image of a beautiful Madonna than this embodiment of pure, helpless, gracious innocence.
Now she herself drew nearer, but he felt as if his will was broken, and with timid awe he drew back one step, and then another, till the chain stopped him.
Just at that moment she paused, stretched out her white arm with a beckoning gesture, and again turned towards the house, Heinz following because he could not help it, her sign drew him after her with magnetic power.
Now Eva entered the dimly lighted corridor, and again her uplifted hand seemed to invite him to follow. Then—the impetuous throbbing of his heart almost stifled him—she set her little white foot on the first step of the stairs and led the way up to the first landing, where she paused, lifting her face to the open window, through which the moonbeams streamed into the hall, flooding her head, her figure, and every surrounding object with their soft light.
Heinz followed step by step. It seemed as if the wild surges of a sea were roaring in his ears, and glittering sparks were dancing before his yearning, watchful eyes.
How he loved her! How intense was the longing which drew him after her! And yet another emotion stirred in his heart with still greater power-grief, sincere grief, which pierced his in, most soul, that she could have beckoned to him, permitted him to follow her, granted him what he would never have ventured to ask. Nay, when he set his foot on the first step, it seemed as if the temple which contained his holiest treasure fell crashing around him, and an inner voice cried loudly: "Away, away from here! Would you exchange the purest and loftiest things for what tomorrow will fill you with grief and loathing?" it continued to admonish. "You will relinquish what is dearest and most sacred to secure what is ready to rush into your arms on all the high-roads.
"Hence, hence, you poor, deluded mortal, ere it is too late!"
But even had he known it was the fair fiend Venus herself moving before him under the guise of Eva, the spell of her unutterable beauty would have constrained him to follow her, though the goal were the Horselberg, death, and hell.
On the second landing she again stood still and, leaning against a pillar, raised her arms and extended them towards the moon, in whose silvery light they gleamed like marble. Heinz saw her lips move, heard his own name fall from them, and all self-control vanished.
"Eva!" he cried with passionate fervor, holding out his arms to clasp her; but, ere he even touched her, a shriek of despairing anguish echoed loudly back from the walls.
The sound of her own name had broken the threads with which the mysterious power of the moonlight had drawn her from her couch, down through the house, out of doors, and again back to the stairs.
Sleep vanished with the dream which she had shared with him and, shuddering, she perceived where she was, saw the knight before her, became conscious that she had left her chamber in her night-robe, with disordered hair and bare feet; and, frantic with horror at the thought of the resistless might with which a mysterious force constrained her to obey it against her own will, deeply wounded by the painful feeling that she had been led so far across the bounds of maidenly modesty, hurt and angered by the boldness of the man before her, who had dared to follow her into her parents' house, she again raised her voice, this time to call her from whom she was accustomed to seek and find help in every situation in life.
"Els! Els!" rang up the stairs; and the next moment Els, who had already heard Eva's first scream, sprang down the few steps to her sister's side.
One glance at the trembling girl in her nightrobe, and at the moonlight which still bathed her in its rays, told Els what had drawn Eva to the stairs.
The knight must have slipped into the house and found her there. She knew him and, before Heinz had time to collect his thoughts, she said soothingly to her sister, who threw her arms around her as though seeking protection, "Go up to your room, child!—Help her, Katterle. I'll come directly."
While Eva, leaning on the maid's arm, mounted the stairs with trembling knees, Els turned to the Swiss and said in a grave, resolute tone: "If you are worthy of your escutcheon, Sir Knight, you will not now fly like a coward from this house across whose threshold you stole with shameful insolence, but await me here until I return. You shall not be detained long. But, to guard yourself and another from misinterpretation, you must hear me."
Heinz nodded assent in silence, as if still under the spell of what he had recently experienced. But, ere he reached the entry below, Martsche, the old housekeeper, and Endres, the aged head packer, came towards him, just as they had risen from their beds, the former with a petticoat flung round her shoulders, the latter wrapped in a horse-blanket.
Eva's shriek had waked both, but Els enjoined silence on everyone and, after telling them to go back to bed, said briefly that Eva in her somnambulism had this time gone out into the street and been brought back by the knight. Finally, she again said to Heinz, "Presently!" and then went to her sister.
When Biberli bade farewell to his sweetheart, who gave him Eva's little note, he had arranged to meet her again in an hour or, if his duties detained him longer, in two; but after the "true and steadfast" fellow left her, her heart throbbed more and more anxiously, for the wrong she had done in acting as messenger between the young daughter of her employers and a stranger knight was indeed hard to forgive.
Instead of waiting in the kitchen or entry for her lover's return, as she had intended, she had gone to the image of the Virgin at the gate of the Convent of St. Clare, before which she had often found consolation, especially when homesick yearning for the mountains of her native Switzerland pressed upon her too sorely. This time also it had been gracious to her, for after she had prayed very devoutly and vowed to give a candle to the Mother of God, as well as to St. Clare, she fancied that the image smiled upon her and promised that she should go unpunished.
On her return the knight had just followed Eva into the house, and Biberli pursued his master as far as the stairs. Here Katterle met her lover, but, when she learned what was occurring, she became greatly enraged and incensed by the base interpretation which the servant placed upon Eva's going out into the street and, terrified by the danger into which the knight threatened to plunge them all, she forgot the patience and submission she was accustomed to show the true and steadfast Biberli. But—resolved to protect her young mistress from the presumptuous knight-scarcely had she angrily cried shame upon her lover for this base suspicion, protesting that Eva had never gone to seek a knight but, as she had often done on bright moonlight nights, walked in her sleep down the stairs and out of doors, when the young girl's shriek of terror summoned her to her aid.
Biberli looked after her sullenly, meanwhile execrating bitterly enough the wild love which had robbed his master of reason and threatened to hurl him, Biberli, and even the innocent Katterle, whose brave defence of her mistress had especially pleased him, into serious misfortune.
When old Endres appeared he had slipped behind a wall formed of bales heaped one above another, and did not stir until the entry was quiet again.
To his amazement he had then found his master standing beside the door of the house, but his question—which, it is true, was not wholly devoid of a shade of sarcasm—whether the knight was waiting for the return of his sleep-walking sweetheart, was so harshly rebuffed that he deemed it advisable to keep silence for a time.
Though Heinz Schorlin had perceived that he had followed an unconscious somnambulist, he was not yet capable of calmly reflecting upon what had occurred or of regarding the future with prudence. He knew one thing only: the fear was idle that the lovely creature whose image, surrounded by a halo of light, still hovered before him like a vision from a higher, more beautiful world, was an unworthy person who, with a face of angelic innocence, transgressed the laws of custom and modesty. Her shriek of terror, her horror at seeing him, and the cry for help which had brought her sister to her aid and roused the servants from their sleep, gave him the right to esteem her as highly as ever; and this conviction fanned into such a blaze the feeling of happiness which love had awakened and his foolish distrust had already begun to stifle, that he was firmly resolved, cost what it might, to make Eva his own.
After he had reached this determination he began to reflect more quietly. What cared he for liberty and a rapid advance in the career upon which he had entered, if only his future life was beautified by her love!
If he were required to woo her in the usual form, he would do so. And what a charming yet resolute creature was the other E, who, in her anxiety about her sister, had crossed his path with such grave, firm dignity! She was Wolff Eysvogel's betrothed bride, and it seemed to him a very pleasant thing to call the young man, whom he had so quickly learned to esteem, his brother-in-law.
If the father refused his daughter to him, he would leave Nuremberg and ride to the Rhine, where Hartmann, the Emperor Rudolph's son, whom he loved like a younger brother, was now living. Heinz had instructed the lad of eighteen in the use of the lance and the sword, and Hartmann had sent him word the day before that the Rhine was beautiful, but without him he but half enjoyed even the pleasantest things. He needed him. Hundreds of other knights and squires could break in the new horses for the Emperor and the young Bohemian princess, though perhaps not quite so skilfully. Hartmann would understand him and persuade his imperial father to aid him in his suit. The warmhearted youth could not bear to see him sorrowful, and without Eva there was no longer joy or happiness.
He was roused from these thoughts and dreams by his own name called in a low tone.
Katterle had gone with Eva to the chamber, whither the older sister followed them. Tenderly embracing the weeping girl, she had kissed her wet eyes and whispered in an agitated voice, with which, however, blended a great deal of affectionate mischief: "The wolf who forced his way into the house does not seem quite so harmless as mine, whom I have succeeded in taming very tolerably. Go to mother now, darling. I'll be back directly."
"What do you intend to do?" asked Eva timidly, still unable, under the influence of her strange experiences, to regain her self-control.
"To look around the house," replied her sister, beckoning to Katterle to accompany her.
In the entry she questioned the maid with stern decision, and the trembling girl owned, amid her tears, that Eva had sent a little note to the knight in reply to his request that she would name her colour, and whatever else her anxious mistress desired hastily to learn.
After a threatening "We will discuss your outrageous conduct later," Els hurried down-stairs, and found in the entry the man whose pleasure in the pursuit of the innocent child whom she protected she meant to spoil. But though she expressed her indignation to the knight with the utmost harshness, he besought a hearing with so much respect and in such seemly words, that she requested him, in a gentler tone, to speak freely. But scarcely had he begun to relate how Eva, at the ball, had filled his heart with the purest love, when the trampling of horses' hoofs, which had come nearer and nearer to the house, suddenly ceased, and Biberli, who had gone into the court-yard, came hurrying back, exclaiming in a tone of warning, "The von Montforts!"
At the same moment two men-servants threw back both leaves of the door, torchlight mingled with the moonbeams in the courtyard, and the next instant a goodly number of knights and gentlemen entered the hall.
Biberli was not mistaken. The von Montforts had returned home, instead of spending the night at Kadolzburg, and neither Els nor the Swiss had the time or disposition to seek concealment.
The intruders were preceded by men-servants, whose torches lighted the long, lofty storehouse brilliantly. It seemed to Els as if her heart stopped beating and she felt her cheeks blanch.
Here she beheld Count von Montfort's bronzed face, the countenance of a sportsman and reveller; yonder the frank, handsome features of the young Burgrave, Eitelfritz von Zollern, framed by the hood of the Knights of St. John, drawn up during the night-ride; there the pale, noble visage of the quiet knight Boemund Altrosen, far famed for his prowess with lance and sword; beyond, the scarred, martial countenance of Count Casper Schlick, set in a mass of tangled brown locks; and then the watery, blue eyes of Sir Seitz Siebenburg, the husband of her future sister-in-law Isabella.
They had pressed in, talking eagerly, laughing, and rejoicing that the wild night ride proposed by Cordula von Montfort, which had led over dark forest paths, lighted only by a stray moonbeam, and often across fields and ditches and through streams, had ended without mischance to man or beast.
Now they all crowded around the countess, Seitz Siebenburg bending towards her with such zeal that the ends of his huge mustache brushed the plumes in her cap, and Boemund Altrosen, who had just been gazing into the flushed face of the daring girl with the warm joy of true love, cast a look of menace at him.
Els, too, greatly disliked "the Mustache," as her future brother-in-law was called because the huge ornament on his upper lip made him conspicuous among the beardless knights. She was aware that he returned the feeling, and had left no means untried to incite Wolff Eysvogel's parents to oppose his betrothal. Now he was one of the first to notice her and, after whispering with a malicious smile to the countess and those nearest to him, he looked at her so malevolently that she could easily guess what interpretation he was trying to put upon her nocturnal meeting with the Swiss in the eyes of his companions.
Her cheeks flamed with wrath, and like a flash of lightning came the thought of the pleasure it would afford this wanton company, whose greatest delight was to gloat over the errors of their neighbours, if the knight who had brought her into this suspicious situation, or she herself, should confess that not she, but the devout Eva, had attracted Heinz hither. What a satisfaction it would be to this reckless throng to tell such a tale of a young girl of whom the Burgravine von Zollern had said the evening before to their Uncle Pfinzing, that purity and piety had chosen Eva's lovely face for a mirror!
What if Heinz Schorlin, to save her, Els, from evil report, should confess that she was here only to rebuke his insolent intrusion into a decorous household?
This must be prevented, and Heinz seemed to understand her; for after their eyes had met, his glance of helpless enquiry told her that he would leave her to find an escape from this labyrinth.
The merry party, who now perceived that they had interrupted the nocturnal tryst of lovers, did not instantly know what to do and, as one looked enquiringly at another, an embarrassed silence followed their noisy jollity.
But the hush did not last long, and its interruption at first seemed to Els to bode the worst result; it was a peal of gay, reckless laughter, ringing from the lips of the very Cordula von Montfort, into whose eyes, as the only one of her own sex who was present, Els had just gazed with a look imploring aid.
Had Eva's aversion to the countess been justified, and was she about to take advantage of her unpleasant position to jeer at her?
Had the two quarreled at the ball the night before, and did Cordula now perceive an opportunity to punish the younger sister by the humiliation of the older one?
Yet her laugh sounded by no means spiteful—rather, very gay and natural. The pleasant grey eyes sparkled with the most genuine mirth, and she clapped her little hands so joyously that the falcon's chain on the gauntlet of her riding glove rattled.
And what was this?
No one looks at a person whom one desires to wound with an expression of such cheerful encouragement as the look with which Cordula now gazed at Els and Heinz Schorlin, who stood by her side. True, they were at first extremely perplexed by the words she now shouted to those around her in a tone of loud exultation, as though announcing a victory; but from the beginning they felt that there was no evil purpose in them. Soon they even caught the real meaning of the countess's statement, and Els was ashamed of having feared any injury from the girl whose defender she had always been.
"Won, Sir Knight—cleverly won!" was her first sentence to Heinz.
Then, turning to Els, she asked with no less animation: "And you, my fair maid and very strict housemate, who has won the wager now? Do you still believe it is an inconceivable thought that the modest daughter of a decorous Nuremberg race, entitled to enter the lists of a tourney, would grant a young knight a midnight meeting?" And addressing her companions, she continued, in an explanatory yet still playful tone: "She was ready to wager the beautiful brown locks which she now hides modestly under a kerchief, and even her betrothed lover's ring. It should be mine if I succeeded in leading her to commit such an abominable deed. But I was content, if I won the wager, with a smaller forfeit; yet now that I have gained it, Jungfrau Ortlieb, you must pay!"
The whole company listened in astonishment to this speech, which no one understood, but the countess, nodding mischievously to her nearest neighbours, went on:
"How bewildered you all look! It might tempt me to satisfy your curiosity less speedily, but, after the delightful entertainment you gave us, my Lord Burgrave, one becomes merciful. So you shall hear how I, as wise as the serpent, craftily forced this haughty knight"—she tapped Heinz Schorlin's arm with her riding whip—"and you, too, Jungfrau Ortlieb, whose pardon I now entreat, to help me win the bet. No offence, noble sirs! But this bet was what compelled me to drag you all from Kadolzburg and its charms so early, and induce you to attend me on the reckless ride through the moonlit night. Now accept the thanks of a lady whose heart is grateful; for your obedience helped me win the wager. Look yonder at my handsome, submissive knight, Sir Heinz Schorlin, so rich in every virtue. I commanded, him, on pain of my anger, to meet me at midnight at the entrance of our quarters—that is, the entry of the Ortlieb mansion; and to this modest and happy betrothed bride (may she pardon the madcap!) I represented how it troubled me and wounded my timid delicacy to enter so late at night, accompanied only by gentlemen, the house which so hospitably sheltered us, and go to my sleeping room, though I should not fear the Sultan and his mamelukes, if with this in my hand"—she motioned to her riding whip—"and my dear father at my side, I stood on my own feet which, though by no means small, are well-shod and resolute. Yet, as we are apt to measure others by our own standard, the timid, decorous girl believed me, and poor Cordula, who indeed brought only her maids and no female guardian, and therefore must dispense with being received on her return by a lady capable of commanding respect, did not appeal in vain to the charitable feelings of her beautiful housemate. She promised faithfully to come down into the entry, when the horses approached, to receive the poor lamb, surrounded by lynxes, wild-cats, foxes, and wolves, and lead it into the safe fold—if one can call this stately house by such a name. Both Sir Heinz Schorlin and Jungfrau Elizabeth Ortlieb kept their word and joined each other here—to their extreme amazement, I should suppose, as to my knowledge they never met before—to receive me, and thus had an interview which, however loudly they may contradict it, I call a nocturnal meeting. But my wager, fair child, is won, and tomorrow you will deliver to me the exquisite carved ivory casket, while I shall keep my bracelet."
Here she paused, paying no heed to the merry threats, exclamations of amazement, and laughter of her companions.
But while her father, striking his broad chest, cried again and again, with rapturous delight, "A paragon of a woman!" and Seitz Siebenburg, in bitter disappointment, whispered, "The fourteen saintly helpers in time of need might learn from you how to draw from the clamps what is not worth rescue and probably despaired of escape," she was trying to give time to recover more composure her young hostess, to whom she was sincerely attached, and who, she felt sure, could have met Heinz Schorlin, who perhaps had come hither on her own account, only by some cruel chance. So she added in a quieter tone: "And now, Jungfrau Ortlieb, in sober earnest I will ask your protection and guidance through the dark house, and meanwhile you shall tell me how Sir Heinz greeted you and what passed between you, either good or bad, during the time of waiting."
Els summoned up her courage and answered loud enough to be heard by all present: "We were speaking of you, Countess Cordula, and the knight said:
"I ventured to remark, Countess," said Heinz, interrupting the new ally, "that though you might understand how to show a poor knight his folly, no kinder heart than yours throbbed under any bodice in Switzerland, Swabia, or France." Cordula struck him lightly on the shoulder with her riding whip, saying with a laugh: "Who permits you to peep under women's bodices through so wide a tract of country, you scamp? Had I been in Jungfrau Ortlieb's place I should have punished your entry into a respectable house:
"Oh, my dear Countess," Heinz interrupted, and his words bore so distinctly the stamp of truth and actual experience that even Sir Seitz Siebenburg was puzzled, "though I am always disposed to be grateful to you, I cannot feel a sense of obligation for this lady's reception of me, even to the most gracious benefactress. For, by my patron saint, she forbade me the house as if I were a thief and a burglar."
"And she was right!" exclaimed the countess. "I would have treated you still more harshly. Only you would have spared yourself many a sharp word had you confessed at once that it was I who summoned you here. I'll talk with you tomorrow, and am I not right, Jungfrau Elsyou won't make him suffer for losing the wager, but exercise your domestic authority after a more gentle fashion?"
While speaking, she looked at Els with a glance so full of meaning that the young girl's cheeks crimsoned, and the longing to put an end to this deceitful game became almost uncontrollable. The thought of Eva alone sealed her lips.
IN THE FIRE OF THE FORGE
A ROMANCE OF OLD NUREMBERG
By Georg Ebers
One person only besides Sir Seitz Siebenburg had not been deceived—the young knight Boemund Altrosen, whose love for Cordula was genuine, and who, by its unerring instinct, felt that she had invented her tale and for a purpose which did honour to her kindness of heart. So his calm black eyes rested upon the woman he loved with proud delight, while Seitz Siebenburg twisted his mustache fiercely. Not a look or movement of either of the two girls had escaped his notice, and Cordula's bold interference in behalf of the reckless Swiss knight, who now seemed to have ensnared his future sister-in-law also, increased the envy and jealousy which tortured him until he was forced to exert the utmost self-restraint in order not to tell the countess to her face that he, at least, was far from being deceived by such a fable. Yet he succeeded in controlling himself. But as he forced his lips to silence he gazed with the most open scorn at the bales of merchandise heaped around him. He would show the others that, though the husband of a merchant's daughter, he retained the prejudices of his knightly rank.
But no one heeded the disagreeable fellow, who had no intimate friends in the group. Most of the company were pressing round Heinz Schorlin with jests and questions, but bluff Count von Montfort warmly clasped Els's hand, while he apologised for the bold jest of his young daughter who, in spite of her recklessness, meant kindly.
Nothing could have been more unwelcome to a girl in so unpleasant a situation than this delay. She longed most ardently to get away but, ere she succeeded in escaping from the friendly old noble, two gentlemen hastily entered the brightly lighted entry, at sight of whom her heart seemed to stop beating.
The old count, who noticed her blanched face, released her, asking sympathisingly what troubled her, but Els did not hear him.
When she felt him loose her hand she would fain have fled up the stairs to her mother and sister, to avoid the discussions which must now follow. But she knew into what violent outbursts of sudden anger her usually prudent father could be hurried if there was no one at hand to warn him.
There he stood in the doorway, his stern, gloomy expression forming a strange contrast to the merry party who had entered in such a jovial mood.
His companion, Herr Casper Eysvogel, had already noticed his future daughter-in-law, recognised her by an amazed shrug of the shoulders which was anything but a friendly greeting, and now eyed the excited revellers with a look as grave and repellent as that of the owner of the house. Herr Casper's unusual height permitted him to gaze over the heads of the party though, with the exception of Count von Montfort, they were all tall, nay, remarkably tall men, and the delicacy of his clear-cut, pallid, beardless face had never seemed to Els handsomer or more sinister. True, he was the father of her Wolff, but the son resembled this cold-hearted man only in his unusual stature, and a chill ran through her veins as she felt the stately old merchant's blue eyes, still keen and glittering, rest upon her.
On the day of her betrothal she had rushed into his arms with a warm and grateful heart, and he had kissed her, as custom dictated; but it was done in a strange way—his thin, well-cut lips had barely brushed her brow. Then he stepped back and turned to his wife with the low command, "It is your turn now, Rosalinde." Her future mother-in-law rose quickly, and doubtless intended to embrace her affectionately, but a loud cough from her own mother seemed to check her, for ere she opened her arms to Els she turned to her and excused her act by the words, "He wishes it." Yet Els was finally clasped in Frau Rosalinde's arms and kissed more warmly than—from what had previously occurred—she had expected.
Wolff's grandmother, old Countess Rotterbach, who rarely left the huge gilt armchair in her daughter's sitting-room, had watched the whole scene with a scornful smile; then, thrusting her prominent chin still farther forward, she said to her daughter, loud enough for Els to hear, "This into the bargain?"
All these things returned to the young girl's memory as she gazed at the cold, statuesque face of her lover's father. It seemed as if he held his tall, noble figure more haughtily erect than usual, and that his plain dark garments were of richer material and more faultless cut than ever; nay, she even fancied that, like the lion, which crouches and strains every muscle ere it springs upon its victim, he was summoning all his pride and sternness to crush her.
Els was innocent; nay, the motive which had brought her here to defend her sister could not fail to be approved by every well-disposed person, and certainly not last by her father, and it would have suited her truthful nature to contradict openly Countess Cordula's friendly falsehood had not her dread of fatally exposing Eva imposed silence.
How her father's cheeks glowed already! With increasing anxiety, she attributed it to the indignation which overpowered him, yet he was only heated by the haste with which, accompanied by his future son-in-law's father, he had rushed here from the Frauenthor as fast as his feet would carry him. Casper Eysvogel had also attended the Vorchtel entertainment and accompanied Ernst Ortlieb into the street to discuss some business matters.
He intended to persuade him to advance the capital for which he had just vainly asked Herr Vorchtel. He stood in most urgent need for the next few days of this great sum, of which his son and business partner must have no knowledge, and at first Wolff Eysvogel's future father-in-law saw no reason to refuse. But Herr Ernst was a cautious man, and when his companion imposed the condition that his son should be kept in ignorance of the loan, he was puzzled. He wished to learn why the business partner should not know what must be recorded in the books of the house; but Casper Eysvogel needed this capital to silence the Jew Pfefferkorn, from whom he had secretly borrowed large sums to conceal the heavy losses sustained in Venice the year before at the gaming table.
At first courteously, then with rising anger, he evaded the questions of the business man, and his manner of doing so, with the little contradictions in which the arrogant man, unaccustomed to falsehood, involved himself, showed Herr Ernst that all was not as it should be.
By the time they reached the Frauenthor, he had told Casper Eysvogel positively that he would not fulfil the request until Wolff was informed of the matter.
Then the sorely pressed man perceived that nothing but a frank confession could lead him to his goal. But what an advantage it would give his companion, what a humiliation it would impose upon himself! He could not force his lips to utter it, but resolved to venture a last essay by appealing to the father, instead of to the business man; and therefore, with the haughty, condescending manner natural to him, he asked Herr Ernst, as if it were his final word, whether he had considered that his refusal of a request, which twenty other men would deem it an honour to fulfil, might give their relations a form very undesirable both to his daughter and himself?
"No, I did not suppose that a necessity," replied his companion firmly, and then added in an irritated tone: "But if you need the loan so much that you require for your son a father-in-law who will advance it to you more readily, why, then, Herr Casper—"
Here he paused abruptly. A flood of light streamed into the street from the doorway of the Ortlieb house. It must be a fire, and with the startled cry, "St. Florian aid us! my entry is burning!" he rushed forward with his companion to the endangered house so quickly that the torchbearers, who even in this bright night did good service in the narrow streets, whose lofty houses barred out the moonlight, could scarcely follow.
Thus Herr Ernst, far more anxious about his invalid, helpless wife than his imperilled wares, soon reached his own door. His companion crossed the threshold close behind him, sullen, deeply incensed, and determined to order his son to choose between his love and favour and the daughter of this unfriendly man, whom only a sudden accident had prevented from breaking the betrothal.
The sight of so many torches blazing here was an exasperating spectacle to Ernst Ortlieb, who with wise caution and love of order insisted that nothing but lanterns should be used to light his house, which contained inflammable wares of great value; but other things disturbed his composure, already wavering, to an even greater degree.
What was his Els doing at this hour among these gentlemen, all of whom were strangers?
Without heeding them or the countess, he was hastening towards her to obtain a solution of this enigma, but the young Burgrave Eitelfritz von Zollern, the Knight of Altrosen, Cordula von Montfort, and others barred his way by greeting him and eagerly entreating him to pardon their intrusion at so late an hour.
Having no alternative, he curtly assented, and was somewhat soothed as he saw old Count von Montfort, who was still standing beside Els, engaged in an animated conversation with her. His daughter's presence was probably due to that of the guests quartered in his home, especially Cordula, whom, since she disturbed the peace of his quiet household night after night, he regarded as the personification of restlessness and reckless freedom. He would have preferred to pass her unnoticed, but she had clung to his arm and was trying, with coaxing graciousness, to soften his indignation by gaily relating how she had come here and what had detained her and her companions. But Ernst Ortlieb, who would usually have been very susceptible to such an advance from a young and aristocratic lady, could not now succeed in smoothing his brow. In his excitement he was not even able to grasp the meaning of the story she related merrily, though with well-feigned contrition. While listening to her with one ear, he was straining the other to catch what Sir Seitz Siebenburg was saying to his father-in-law, Casper Eysvogel.
He gathered from Countess Cordula's account that she had succeeded in playing some bold prank in connection with Els and the Swiss knight Heinz Schorlin, and the words "the Mustache" was whispering to his father-in-law-the direction of his glance betrayed it—also referred to Els and the Swiss. But the less Herr Ernst heard of this conversation the more painfully it excited his already perturbed spirit.
Suddenly his pleasant features, which, on account of the lady at his side, he had hitherto forced to wear a gracious aspect, assumed an expression which filled the reckless countess with grave anxiety, and urged the terrified Els, who had not turned her eyes from him, to a hasty resolution. That was her father's look when on the point of an outbreak of fury, and at this hour, surrounded by these people, he must not allow himself to yield to rage; he must maintain a tolerable degree of composure.
Without heeding the young Burgrave Eitelfritz or Sir Boemund Altrosen, who were just approaching her, she forced her way nearer to her father, He still maintained his self-control, but already the veins on his brow had swollen and his short figure was rigidly erect. The cause of his excitement—she had noticed it—was some word uttered by Seitz Siebenburg. Her father was the only person who had understood it, but she was not mistaken in the conjecture that it referred to her and the Swiss knight, and she believed it to be base and spiteful.
In fact, after his father-in-law had told him that Ernst Ortlieb thought his house was on fire, "the Mustache," in reply to Herr Casper's enquiry how his son's betrothed bride happened to be there, answered scornfully: "Els? She did not hasten hither, like the old man, to put the fire out, but because one flame was not enough for her. Wolff must know it to-morrow. By day the slender little flame of honourable betrothed love flickers for him; by night it blazes more brightly for yonder Swiss scoundrel. And the young lady chooses for the scene of this toying with fire the easily ignited warehouse of her own father!"
"I will secure mine against such risks," Casper Eysvogel answered; then, casting a contemptuous glance at Els and a wrathful one at the Swiss knight, he added with angry resolution: "It is not yet too late. So long as I am myself no one shall bring peril and disgrace upon my house and my son."
Then Herr Ernst had suddenly become aware of the suspicion with which his beautiful, brave, self-sacrificing child was regarded. Pale as death, he struggled for composure, and when his eyes met the imploring gaze of the basely defamed girl, he said to himself that he must maintain his self-control in order not to afford the frivolous revellers who surrounded him an entertaining spectacle.
Wolff was dear to him, but before he would have led his Els to the house where the miserable "Mustache" lived, and whose head was the coldhearted, gloomy man whose words had just struck him like a poisoned arrow, he, whom the Lord had bereft of his beloved, gallant son, would have been ready to deprive himself of his daughters also and take both to the convent. Eva longed to go, and Els might find there a new and beautiful happiness, like his sister, the Abbess Kunigunde. In the Eysvogel house, never!
During these hasty reflections Els extended her hand toward him, and the shining gold circlet which her lover had placed on her ring finger glittered in the torchlight. A thought darted through his brain with the speed of lightning, and without hesitation he drew the ring from the hand of his astonished daughter, whispering curtly, yet tenderly, in reply to her anxious cry, "What are you doing?"
"Trust me, child."
Then hastily approaching Casper Eysvogel, he beckoned to him to move a little aside from the group.
The other followed, believing that Herr Ernst would now promise the sum requested, yet firmly resolved, much as he needed it, to refuse.
Ernst Ortlieb, however, made no allusion to business matters, but with a swift gesture handed him the ring which united their two children. Then, after a rapid glance around had assured him that no one had followed them, he whispered to Herr Casper: "Tell your Wolff that he was, and would have remained, dear to us; but my daughter seems to me too good for his father's house and for kindred who fear that she will bring injury and shame upon them. Your wish is fulfilled. I hereby break the betrothal."
"And, in so doing, you only anticipate the step which I intended to take with more cogent motives," replied Casper Eysvogel with cool composure, shrugging his shoulders contemptuously. "The city will judge to-morrow which of the two parties was compelled to sever a bond sacred in the sight of God and men. Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to give your daughter the good opinion you cherish of my son."
Drawing his stately figure to its full height as he spoke, he gazed at his diminutive adversary with a look of haughty contempt and, without vouchsafing a word in farewell, turned his back upon him.
Repressed fury was seething in Ernst Ortlieb's breast, and he would scarcely have succeeded in controlling himself longer but for the consolation afforded by the thought that every tie was sundered between his daughter and this cold, arrogant, unjust man and his haughty, evil disposed kindred. But when he again looked for the daughter on whom his hasty act had doubtless inflicted a severe blow, she was no longer visible.
Directly after he took the ring she had glided silently, unnoticed by most of the company, up the stairs to the second story. Cordula von Montfort told him this in a low tone.
Els had made no answer to her questions, but her imploring, tearful eyes pierced the young countess to the heart. Her quick ear had caught Siebenburg's malicious words and Casper Eysvogel's harsh response and, with deep pity, she felt how keenly the poor girl must suffer.
The happiness of a whole life destroyed without any fault of her own! From their first meeting Els had seemed to her incapable of any careless error, and she had merely tried, by her bold, interference, to protect her from the gossip of evil tongues. But Heinz Schorlin had just approached and whispered that, by his knightly honour, Els was a total stranger to him, and he only wished he might find his own dear sister at home as pure and free from any fault.
Poor child! But the countess knew who had frustrated her intervention in behalf of Els. It was Sir Seitz Siebenburg, "the Mustache," whose officious homage, at first amusing, had long since become repulsive. Her heart shrank from the thought that, merely from vain pleasure in having a throng of admirers, she had given this scoundrel more than one glance of encouragement. The riding whip fairly quivered in her right hand as, after informing Ernst Ortlieb where Els had gone, she warned the gentlemen that it was time to depart, and Seitz Siebenburg submissively, yet as familiarly as if he had a right to her special favour, held out his hand in farewell.
But Countess Cordula withdrew hers with visible dislike, saying in a tone of chilling repulse: "Remember me to your wife, Sir Knight. Tell her to take care that her twin sons resemble their father as little as possible."
"Then you want to have two ardent admirers the less?" asked Siebenburg gaily, supposing that the countess's remark was a jest.
But when she did not, as he expected, give these insulting words an interpretation favourable to him, but merely shrugged her shoulders scornfully, he added, glancing fiercely at the Swiss knight:
"True, you would doubtless be better pleased should the boys grow up to resemble the lucky Sir Heinz Schorlin, for whose sake you proved yourself the inventor of tales more marvellous, if not more credible, than the most skilful travelling minstrel."
"Perhaps so," replied the countess with contemptuous brevity. "But I should be satisfied if the twins—and this agrees with my first wish should grow up honest men. If you should pay me the honour of a visit during the next few days, Sir Seitz, I could not receive it."
With these words she turned away, paying no further heed to him, though he called her name aloud, as if half frantic.
It was after midnight when the servants closed the heavy door of the Ortlieb mansion. The late guests had left it, mounted their horses, and ridden away together through the Frauenthor into the city.
The moon no longer lighted their way. A sultry wind had swept from the southwest masses of grey clouds, which constantly grew denser and darker. Heinz Schorlin did not notice it, but his follower, Biberli, called his attention to the rising storm and entreated him to choose the nearest road to the city. To remain outside the gate in such darkness would be uncomfortable, nay, perhaps not without peril, but the knight merely flung him the peevish answer, "So much the better," and, to Biberli's surprise, turned into St. Klarengasse, which brought him by no means nearer to his distant lodgings in the Bindergasse.
It was unfortunate to be warmly devoted to a master who had no fear, whom he was obliged to serve as a messenger of love, and who now probably scarcely knew himself whither this love would lead him.
But true and steadfast Biberli would really have followed Sir Heinz, not only in a dangerous nocturnal ramble, but through all the terrors of. hell. So he only glanced down at his long, lean legs, which would be exposed here to the bites of the dogs, with whom he stood on especially bad terms, raised his long robe higher, as the paths over which they must pass were of doubtful cleanliness, and deemed it a good omen when his foot struck against a stout stick, which his patron saint had perhaps thrown in his way as a weapon. Its possession was somewhat soothing, it is true, yet he did not regain the pleasant consciousness of peace in which his soul had rejoiced a few short hours before.
He knew what to expect from the irritable mood into which recent events appeared to have thrown his master. Heinz usually soon forgot any such trivial disappointment, but the difficulty threatening himself and Katterle was far worse—nay, might even assume terrible proportions.
These alarming thoughts made him sigh so deeply that Heinz turned towards him.
He would gladly have relieved his own troubled breast in the same way. Never before had the soul of this light-hearted child of good fortune served as the arena for so fierce a struggle of contending emotions.
He loved Eva, and the image of her white, supernaturally beautiful figure, flooded by the moonlight, still stood before him as distinctly as when, after her disappearance, he had resolved to plead his suit for her to her sister; but the usually reckless fellow asked himself, shuddering, what would have happened had he obeyed Eva's summons and been found with her, as he had just been surprised with her sister. She was not wholly free from guilt, for her note had really contained an invitation to a meeting; yet she escaped. But his needless impetuosity and her sudden appearance before the house had placed her modest, charming sister, the betrothed bride of the gallant fellow who had fought with him in the Marchfield, in danger of being misunderstood and despised. If the finger of scorn were pointed at her, if a stain rested on her fair fame, the austere Wolff Eysvogel would hardly desire to make her his wife, and then this also would be his fault.
His kind, honest heart suffered keenly under these self-accusations, the first which he had ever heeded.
Hitherto the volatile young fellow, who had often gaily risked his life in battle and his last penny at the gaming table, had never thought of seriously examining his own soul, battling by his own strength of will against some secret longing and shunning its cause. On the contrary, from childhood he had accustomed himself to rely on the protection and aid of the Virgin and the saints; and when they passed the image with the ever-burning lamp, where Katterle had just sought and found consolation, he implored it not to let his bold intrusion into the home of the maiden he loved bring evil upon her and her sister. He also vowed to the convent and its saint—which, come what might, should also be his—a rich gift whenever the Emperor or the gaming table again filled his purse.
The thought of being burdened his whole life long with the reproach of having made two such charming, innocent creatures miserable seemed unendurable. He would gladly have given gold and blood to remove it.
It was too late that day, but he resolved to go to the confessional on the morrow, for absolution had always relieved and lightened his heart. But how trivial his errors had been! True, the wrong he had now committed was not a mortal sin, and would hardly impose a severe penance upon him, yet it burdened him like the most infamous crime. He did not understand himself, and often wondered why he, reckless Heinz, thus made a mountain out of a molehill. Yet when, after this reflection, he uttered a sigh of relief, it seemed as if a voice within commanded him not to think lightly of what had passed, for on that evening he had ceased to bestow pleasure on every one, and instead of, as usual, being helpful and agreeable, he had plunged others who had done him no wrong—nay, perhaps a whole household, whose daughter had given him the first love of her young heart-into misery and disgrace. Had he considered the consequences of his act, he would still be merry Heinz. Then he remembered how, when a boy, playing with other lads high up among the mountains just as it was beginning to thaw, he had hurled the work they had finished with so much toil, a snow man, down the slope, rejoicing with his playfellows over its swift descent towards the valley, until they noticed with what frightful speed its bulk increased as it sped over its snowy road, till at last, like a terrible avalanche, it swept away a herdsman's hut—fortunately an empty one. Now, also, his heedlessness had set in motion a mass which constantly rolled onward, and how terrible might be the harm it would do!
If Hartmann, the Emperor's son, were only there! He confided everything to him, for he was sure of his silence. Both his duty as a knight and his conscience forbade him to relate his experiences and ask counsel from any one else.
He was still absorbed in these gloomy thoughts when, just before reaching the Walch, he heard Biberli's deep sigh. Here, behind and beside the frames of the cloth weavers, stood the tents before which the followers and soldiers of the princes and dignitaries who had come to the Reichstag were still sitting around the camp fire, carousing and laughing.
Any interruption was welcome to him, and to Biberli it seemed like a deliverance to be permitted to use his poor endangered tongue, for his master had asked what grief oppressed him.
"If you desired to know what trouble did not burden my soul I could find a speedier answer," replied Biberli piteously. "Oh, this night, my lord! What has it not brought upon us and others! Look at the black clouds rising in the south. They are like the dark days impending over us poor mortals."
Then he confided to Heinz his fears for himself and Katterle. The knight's assurance that he would intercede for him and, if necessary, even appeal to the Emperor's favour, somewhat cheered his servitor's drooping spirits, it is true, but by no means restored his composure, and his tone was lugubrious enough as he went on:
"And the poor innocent girl in the Ortlieb house! Your little lady, my lord, broke the bread she must now eat herself, but the other, the older E."
"I know," interrupted the knight sorrowfully. "But if the gracious Virgin aids us, they will continue to believe in the wager Cordula von Montfort——"
"She! she!" Biberli exclaimed, enthusiastically waving his stick aloft. "The Lord created her in a good hour. Such a heart! Such friendly kindness! And to think that she interposed so graciously for you—you, Sir Heinz, to whom she showed the favour of combing your locks, as if you were already her promised husband, and who afterwards, for another's sake, left her at the ball as if she wore a fern cap and had become invisible. I saw the whole from the musician's gallery. True, the somnambulist is marvellously beautiful."
But the knight interrupted him by exclaiming so vehemently: "Silence!" that he paused.
Both walked on without speaking for some distance ere Heinz began again:
"Even though I live to grow old and grey, never shall I behold aught more beautiful than the vision of that white-robed girlish figure on the stairs."
True and steadfast Biberli sighed faintly. Love for Eva Ortlieb held his master as if in a vise; but a Schorlin seemed to him far too good a match for a Nuremberg maiden who had grown up among sacks of pepper and chests of goods and, moreover, was a somnambulist. He looked higher for his Heinz, and had already found the right match for him. So, turning to him again, he said earnestly:
"Drive the bewitching vision from your mind, Sir Heinz. You don't know—but I could tell you some tales about women who walk in their sleep by moonlight."
"Well?" asked Heinz eagerly.
"As a maiden," Biberli continued impressively, with the pious intention of guarding his master from injury, "the somnambulist merely runs the risk of falling from the roof, or whatever accident may happen to a sleepwalker; but if she enters the estate of holy matrimony, the evil power which has dominion over her sooner or later transforms her at midnight into a troll, which seizes her husband's throat in his sleep and strangles him."
"Nursery tales!" cried Heinz angrily, but Biberli answered calmly:
"It can make no difference to you what occurs in the case of such possessed women, for henceforward the Ortlieb house will be closed against you. And—begging your pardon—it is fortunate. For, my lord, the horse mounted by the first Schorlin—the chaplain showed it to you in the picture—came from the ark in which Noah saved it with the other animals from the deluge, and the first Lady Schorlin whom the family chronicles mention was a countess. Your ancestresses came from citadels and castles; no Schorlin ever yet brought his bride from a tradesman's house. You, the proudest of them all, will scarcely think of making such an error, though it is true—"
"Ernst Ortlieb, spite of his trade, is a man of knightly lineage, to whom the king of arms opens the lists at every tournament!" exclaimed Heinz indignantly.
"In the combat with blunt weapons," replied Biberli contemptuously.
"Nay, for the jousts and single combat," cried Heinz excitedly. "The Emperor Frederick himself dubbed Herr Ernst a knight."
"You know best," replied Biberli modestly. But his coat of arms, like his entry, smells of cloves and pepper. Here is another, however, who, like your first ancestress, has a countess's title, and who has a right—My name isn't Biberli if your lady mother at home would not be more than happy were I to inform her that the Countess von Montfort and the darling of her heart, which you are:
"The name of Montfort and what goes with it," Heinz interrupted, "would surely please those at home. But the rest! Where could a girl be found who, setting aside Cordula's kind heart, would be so great a contrast to my mother in every respect?"
"Stormy mornings merge into quiet days," said the servant. "Everything depends, my lord, upon the heart of which you speak so slightingly—the heart and, even above that, upon the blood. 'Help is needed there,' cried the kind heart just now, and then the blood did its 'devoir'. The act followed the desire as the sound follows the blow of the hammer, the thunder the flash of lightning. Well for the castle that is ruled by such a mistress! I am only the servant, and respect commands me to curb my tongue; but to-day I had news from home through the Provost Werner, of Lucerne, whom I knew at Stansstadt. I meant to tell you of it over the wine at the Thirsty Troopers, but that accursed note and the misfortune which followed prevented. It will not make either of us more cheerful, but whoever is ordered by the leech to drink gall and wormwood does wisely to swallow the dose at one gulp. Do you wish to empty the cup now?"
The knight nodded assent, and Biberli went on. "Home affairs are not going as they ought. Though your uncle's hair is already grey, the knightly blood in his veins makes him grasp the sword too quickly. The quarrel about the bridge-toll has broken out again more violently than ever. The townsfolk drove off our cattle as security and, by way of punishment, your uncle seized the goods of their merchants, and they came to blows. True, the Schorlin retainers forced back the men from town with bloody heads, but if the feud lasts much longer we cannot hold out, for the others have the money, and since the war cry has sounded less frequently there has been no lack of men at arms who will serve any one who pays. Besides, the townsfolk can appeal to the treaty of peace, and if your uncle continues to seize the merchant's wares they will apply to the imperial magistrate, and then:
"Then," cried Heinz eagerly, "then the time will have come for me to leave the court and return home to look after my rights."
"A single arm, no matter how strong it may be, can avail nothing there, my lord," Biberli protested earnestly. "Your Uncle Ramsweg has scarcely his peer as a leader, but even were it not so you could not bring yourself to send the old man home and put yourself in his place. Besides, it would be as unwise as it is unjust. What is lacking at home is money to pay the town what it demands for the use of the bridge, or to increase the number of your men, and therefore:
"Well?" asked Heinz eagerly.
"Therefore seek the Countess von Montfort, who favours you above every one else," was the reply; "for with her all you need will be yours without effort. Her dowry will suffice to settle twenty such bridge dues, and if it should come to a fray, the brave huntress will ride to the field at your side with helmet and spear. Which of the four Fs did Countess Cordula von Montfort ever lack?"
"The four Fs?" asked Heinz, listening intently. "The Fs," explained the ex-pedagogue, "are the four letters which marriageable knights should consider. They are: Family, figure, favour, and fortune. But hold your cap on! What a hot blast this is, as if the storm were coming straight from the jaws of hell. And the dust! Where did all these withered leaves come from in the month of June? They are whirling about as if the foliage had already fallen. There are big raindrops driving into my face too B-r-r! You need all four Fs. No rain will wash a single one of them away, and I hope it won't efface the least word of my speech either. What, according to human foresight, could be lacking to secure the fairest happiness, if you and the countess—"
"Love," replied Heinz Schorlin curtly.
"That will come of itself," cried Biberli, as if sure of what he was saying, "if the bride is Countess Cordula."
"Possibly," answered the knight, "but the heart must not be filled by another's image."
Here he paused, for in the darkness he had stumbled into the ditch by the road.
The whirlwind which preceded the bursting of the storm blew such clouds of dust and everything it contained into their faces that it was difficult to advance. But Biberli was glad, for he had not yet found a fitting answer. He struggled silently on beside his master against the wind, until it suddenly subsided, and a violent storm of rain streamed in big warm drops on the thirsty earth and the belated pedestrians. Then, spite of Heinz's protestations, Biberli hurriedly snatched the long robe embroidered with the St from his shoulders and threw it over his master, declaring that his shirt was as safe from injury as his skin, but the rain would ruin the knight's delicate embroidered doublet.
Then he drew over his head the hood which hung from his coat, and meanwhile must have decided upon an answer, for as soon as they moved on he began again: "You must drive your love for the beautiful sleepwalker out of your mind. Try to do so, my dear, dear master, for the sake of your lady mother, your young sister who will soon be old enough to marry, our light-hearted Maria, and the good old castle. For your own happiness, your lofty career, which began so gloriously, you must hear me! O master, my dear master, tear from your heart the image of the little Nuremberg witch, tempting though it is, I admit. The wound will bleed for a brief time, but after so much mirthful pleasure a fleeting disappointment in love, I should think, would not be too hard to bear if it will be speedily followed by the fairest and most enduring happiness."
Here a flash of lightning, which illumined the hospital door close before them, and made every surrounding object as bright as day, interrupted the affectionate entreaty of the faithful fellow, and at the same time a tremendous peal of thunder crashed and rattled through the air.
Master and servant crossed themselves, but Heinz exclaimed:
"That struck the tower yonder. A little farther to the left, and all doubts and misgivings would have been ended."
"You can say that!" exclaimed Biberli reproachfully while passing with his master through the gate which had just been opened for an imperial messenger. "And you dare to make such a speech in the midst of this heavenly wrath! For the sake of a pair of lovely eyes you are ready to execrate a life which the saints have so blessed with every gift that thousands and tens of thousands would not give it up from sheer gratitude and joy, even if it were not a blasphemous crime!"
Again the lightning and thunder drowned his words. Biberli's heart trembled, and muttering prayers beseeching protection from the avenging hand above, he walked swiftly onward till they reached the Corn Market. Here they were again stopped, for, notwithstanding the late hour, a throng of people, shouting and wailing, was just pouring from the Ledergasse into the square, headed by a night watchman provided with spear, horn, and lantern, a bailiff, torchbearers, and some police officers, who were vainly trying to silence the loudest outcries.
Again a brilliant flash of lightning pierced the black mass of clouds, and Heinz, shuddering, pointed to the crowd and asked, "Do you suppose the lightning killed the man whom they are carrying yonder?"
"Let me see," replied Biberli, among whose small vices curiosity was by no means the least. He must have understood news gathering thoroughly, for he soon returned and informed Heinz, who had sought shelter from the rain under the broad bow window of a lofty house, that the bearers were just carrying to his parents' home a young man whose thread of life had been suddenly severed by a stab through the breast in a duel. After the witnesses had taken the corpse to the leech Otto, in the Ledergasse, and the latter said that the youth was dead, they had quickly dispersed, fearing a severe punishment on account of the breach of the peace. The murdered man was Ulrich Vorchtel, the oldest son of the wealthy Berthold Vorchel, who collected the imperial taxes.
Again Heinz shuddered. He had seen the unfortunate young man the day before yesterday at the fencing school, and yesterday, full of overflowing mirth, at the dance, and knew that he, too, had fought in the battle of Marchfield. His foe must have been master of the art of wielding the sword, for the dead man had been a skilful fencer, and was tall and stalwart in figure.
When the servant ended his story Heinz stood still in the darkness for a time, silently listening. The bells had begun to ring, the blast of the watchman's horn blended with the wailing notes summoning aid, and in two places—near the Thiergartenthor and the Frauenthor—the sky was crimsoned by the reflection of a conflagration, probably kindled by some flash of lightning, which flickered over the clouds, alternately rising and falling, sometimes deeper and anon paler in hue. Throngs of people, shouting "Fire!" pressed from the cross streets into the square. The stillness of the night was over.
When Heinz again turned to Biberli he said in a hollow tone:
"If the earth should swallow up Nuremberg tonight it would not surprise me. But over yonder—look, Biber, the Duke of Pomerania's quarters in the Green Shield are still lighted. I'll wager that they are yet at the gaming table. A plague upon it! I would be there, too, if my purse allowed. I feel as if yonder dead man and his coffin were burdening my soul. If it was really good fortune in love that snatched the zecchins from my purse yesterday:
"Then," cried Biberli eagerly, "to-night is the very time, ere Countess Cordula teaches you to forget what troubles you, to win them back. The gold for the first stake is at your disposal."
"From the Duke of Pomerania, you think?" asked Heinz; then, in a quick, resolute tone, added: "No! Often as the duke has offered me his purse, I never borrow from my peers when the prospect of repayment looks so uncertain."
"Gently, my lord," returned Biberli, slapping his belt importantly. "Here is what you need for the stake as your own property. No miracles have been wrought for us, only I forgot But look! There are the black clouds rolling northward over the castle. That was a frightful storm! But a spendthrift doesn't keep house long-and the thunder has not yet followed that last flash of lightning. There is plenty of uproar without it. It's hard work to hear one's self speak amid all the ringing, trumpeting, yelling, and shrieking. It seems as if they expected to put out the fire with noise. The fathers of the city can attend to that. It doesn't appear to disturb the duke and his guests at their dice; and here, my lord, are fifty florins which, I think, will do for the beginning."
Biberli handed the knight a little bag containing this sum, and when Heinz asked in perplexity where he obtained it, the ex-schoolmaster answered gaily: "They came just in the nick of time. I received them from Suss, the jockey, while you were out riding this afternoon."
"For the black?" Heinz enquired.
"Certainly, my lord. It's a pity about the splendid stallion. But, as you know, he has the staggers, and when I struck him on the coronet he stood as if rooted to the earth, and the equerry, who was there, said that the disease was proved. So the Jew silently submitted, let the horse be led away, and paid back what we gave him. Fifty heavy florins! More than enough for a beginning. If I may advise you, count on the two and the five when fixed numbers are to be thrown or hit. Why? Because you must turn your ill luck in love to advantage: and those from whom it comes are the two beautiful Ortlieb Es, as Nuremberg folk call the ladies Els and Eva. That makes the two. But E is the fifth letter in the alphabet, so I should choose the five. If Biberli did not put things together shrewdly—"
"He would be as oversharp as he has often been already," Heinz interrupted, but he patted Biberli's wet arm as he spoke, and added kindly "Yet every day proves that my Biberli is a true and steadfast fellow; but where in the wide world did you, a schoolmaster, gain instruction in the art of throwing the dice?"
"While we were studying in Paris, with my dead foster brother," replied the servant with evident emotion. "But now go up, my lord, before the fire alarm, and I know not what else, makes the people upstairs separate. The iron must be forged during this wild night. Only a few drops of rain are falling. You can cross the street dry even without my long garment."
While speaking he divested the knight of his robe, and continued eagerly: "Now, my lord, from the coffin, or let us say rather the leaden weight, which oppresses your soul, let a bolt be melted that will strike misfortune to the heart. Glittering gold has a cheering colour."
"Stop! stop!" Heinz interrupted positively. "No good wishes on the eve of hunting or gaming.
"But if I come bounding down the stairs of the Green Shield with a purse as heavy as my heart is just now—why, Biberli, success puts a new face on many things, and yours shall again look at me without anxiety."
The thunderclouds had gathered in the blackest masses above the Frauenthor and the Ortlieb mansion. Ere the storm burst the oppressive atmosphere had burdened the hearts within as heavily as it weighed outside upon tree, bush, and all animated creation.
In the servants' rooms under the roof the maids slept quietly and dreamlessly; and the men, with their mouths wide open, snored after the labour of the day, unconscious of what was passing outside in the sky or the events within which had destroyed the peace of their master and his family.
The only bed unoccupied was the one in the little room next to the stairs leading to the garret, which was occupied by Katterle. The Swiss, kneeling before it with her face buried in the coarse linen pillow case, alternately sobbed, prayed, and cursed herself and her recklessness.
When the gale, which preceded the thunderstorm, blew leaves and straws in through the open window she started violently, imagining that Herr Ortlieb had come to call her to account and her trial was to begin. The barber's widow, whom she had seen a few days before in the pillory, with a stone around her neck, because she had allowed a cloth weaver's heedless daughter to come to her lodging with a handsome trumpeter who belonged to the city musicians, rose before her mental vision. How the poor thing had trembled and moaned after the executioner's assistant hung the heavy stone around her neck! Then, driven frantic by the jeers and insults of the people, the missiles flung by the street boys, and the unbearable burden, she could control herself no longer but, pouring forth a flood of curses, thrust out her tongue at her tormentors.
What a spectacle! But ere she, Katterle, would submit to such disgrace she would bid farewell to life with all its joys; and even to the countryman to whom her heart clung, and who, spite of his well-proven truth and steadfastness, had brought misery upon her.
Now the memory of the hateful word which she, too, had called to the barber's widow weighed heavily on her heart. Never, never again would she be arrogant to a neighbour who had fallen into misfortune.
This vow, and many others, she made to St. Clare; then her thoughts wandered to the city moat, to the Pegnitz, the Fischbach, and all the other streams in and near Nuremberg, where it was possible to drown and thus escape the terrible disgrace which threatened her. But in so doing she had doubtless committed a heavy sin; for while recalling the Dutzen Pond, from whose dark surface she had often gathered white water lilies after passing through the Frauenthor into the open fields, and wondering in what part of its reedy shore her design could be most easily executed, a brilliant flash of lightning blazed through her room, and at the same time a peal of thunder shook the old mansion to its foundations.
That was meant for her and her wicked thoughts. No! For the sake of escaping disgrace here on earth, she dared not trifle with eternal salvation and the hope of seeing her dead mother in the other world.
The remembrance of that dear mother, who had laboured so earnestly to train her in every good path, soothed her. Surely she was looking down upon her and knew that she had remained upright and honest, that she had not defrauded her employers of even a pin, and that the little fault which was to be so grievously punished had been committed solely out of love for her countryman, who in his truth and steadfastness meant honestly by her. What Biberli requested her to do could be no heavy sin.
But the powers above seemed to be of a different opinion; for again a dazzling glare of light illumined the room, and the crash and rattle of the thunder of the angry heavens accompanied it with a deafening din. Katterle shrieked aloud; it seemed as if the gates of hell had opened before her, or the destruction of the world had begun.
Frantic with terror, she sprang back from the window, through which the raindrops were already sprinkling her face. They cooled her flushed cheeks and brought her back to reality. The offence she had just committed was no trivial one. She, whom Herr Ortlieb, with entire confidence, had placed in the service of the fair young girl whose invalid mother could not care for her, had permitted herself to be induced to persuade Eva, who was scarcely beyond childhood, to a rendezvous with a man whom she represented to the inexperienced maiden as a godly, virtuous knight, though she knew from Biberli how far the latter surpassed his master in fidelity and steadfastness.
"Lead us not into temptation!" How often she had repeated the words in the Lord's Prayer, and now she herself had become the serpent that tempted into sin the innocent child whom duty should have commanded her to guard.
No, no! The guilt for which she was threatened with punishment was by no means small, and even if her earthly judge did not call her to account, she would go to confession to-morrow and honestly perform the penance imposed.
Moved by these thoughts, she gazed across the courtyard to the convent. Just at that moment the lightning again flashed, the thunder pealed, and she covered her face with her hands. When she lowered her arms she saw on the roof of the nuns' granary, which adjoined the cow-stable, a slender column of smoke, followed by a narrow tongue of flame, which grew steadily brighter.
The lightning had set it on fire.
Sympathy for the danger and losses of others forced her own grief and anxiety into the background and, without pausing to think, she slipped on her shoes, snatched her shawl from the chest, and ran downstairs, shouting: "The lightning has struck! The convent is burning!"
Just at that moment the door of the chamber occupied by the two sisters opened, and Ernst Ortlieb, with tangled hair and pallid cheeks, came toward her.
Within the room the dim light of the little lamp and the fiery glare of the lightning illumined tear-stained, agitated faces.
After Heinz Schorlin had called to her, and Els had hurried to her aid, Eva, clad in her long, plain night robe, and barefooted, just as she had risen from her couch, followed the maid to her room. What must the knight, who but yesterday, she knew, had looked up to her as to a saint, think of her now?
She felt as if she were disgraced, stained with shame. Yet it was through no fault of her own, and overwhelmed by the terrible conviction that mysterious, supernatural powers, against which resistance was hopeless, were playing a cruel game with her, she had felt as if the stormy sea were tossing her in a rudderless boat on its angry surges.
Unable to seek consolation in prayer, as usual, she had given herself up to dull despair, but only for a short time. Els had soon returned, and the firm, quiet manner with which her prudent, helpful friend and sister met her, and even tried to raise her drooping courage by a jest ere she sent her to their mother's sick room, had fallen on her soul like refreshing dew; not because Els promised to act for her—on the contrary, what she intended to do roused her to resistance.
She had been far too guilty and oppressed to oppose her, yet indignation concerning the sharp words which Els had uttered about the knight, and her intention of forbidding him the house, perhaps forever, had stimulated her like strong acid wine.
Not until after her sister had left her did she become capable of clearly understanding what she had felt during her period of somnambulism.
While her mother, thanks to a narcotic, slept soundly, breathing quietly, and in the entry below something, she knew not what, perhaps due to her father's return, was occurring, she sat thinking, pondering, while an impetuous throng of rebellious wishes raised their voices, alternately asking and denying, in her agitated breast.
How she had happened to rise from her couch and go out had vanished utterly from her memory, but she was still perfectly conscious of her feelings during the night walk. If hitherto she had yearned to drain heavenly bliss from the chalice of faith, during her wanderings through the house she had longed for nothing save to drink her fill from the cup of earthly joy. Ardent kisses, of which she had forbidden herself even to think, she awaited with blissful delight. Her timorous heart, held in check by virgin modesty, accustomed to desire nothing save what she could have confessed to her sister and the abbess, seemed as if it had cast off every fetter and boldly resolved to risk the most daring deeds. The somnambulist had longed for the moment when, after Heinz Schorlin's confession that he loved her, she could throw her arms around his neck with rapturous gratitude.
If, while awake, she had desired only to speak to him of her saint and of his duty to overthrow the foes of the Church, she had wished while gazing at the moon from the stairs, and in front of the house door, to whisper sweet words of love, listen to his, and in so doing forget herself, the world, and everything which did not belong to him, to her, and their love.
And she remembered this longing and yearning in a way very unlike a mere dream. It seemed rather as if, while the moon was attracting her by its magic power, something, which had long slumbered in the depths of her soul, had waked to life; something, from which formerly, ere her heart and mind had been able rightly to understand it, she had shrunk with pious horror, had assumed a tangible form.
Now she dreaded this newly recognised sinful part of her own nature, which she had imagined a pure vessel that had room only for what was noble, sacred, and innocent.
She, too—she knew it now—was only a girl like those on whose desire for love she had looked down with arrogant contempt, no bride of heaven or saint.
She had not yet taken the veil, and it was fortunate, for what would have become of her had she not discovered until after her profession this part of her nature, which she thought every true nun, if she possessed it, must discard, like the hair which was shorn from her head, before taking the vow of the order.
During this self-inspection it became more and more evident that she was not one person, but two in one—a twofold nature with a single body and two distinct souls; and this conviction caused her as much pain as if the cut which had produced the separation were still bleeding.
Just at that moment her eyes fell upon the image of the Virgin opposite, and the usual impulse to lift her soul in prayer took possession of her even more powerfully than a short time before.
With fervent warmth she besought her to release her from this newly awakened nature, which surely could not be pleasing in the sight of Heaven, and let her once more become what she was before the unfortunate ramble in the moonlight.
But the composure she needed for prayer was soon destroyed, for the image of the knight rose before her again and again, and it seemed as if her own name, which he had called with such ardent longing, once more rang in her ears.
Whoever thus raises his voice in appeal to another loves that person. Heinz Schorlin's love was great and sincere and, instead of heeding the inner voice that warned her to return to prayer, she cried defiantly, "I will not!"
She could not yet part from the man for whom her heart throbbed with such passionate yearning, who was so brave and godly, so ardently devoted to her.
True, it had been peacefully beautiful to dream herself into the bright glory of heaven, yet the stormy rapture she had felt while thinking of him and his love seemed richer and greater. She could not, would not part from him.
Then she remembered her sister's intention of driving Heinz—Eva already called the knight by that name in her soliloquy—from her presence, and the thought that she might perhaps wound him so keenly that knightly honour would forbid his return alarmed and incensed her.
What right had Els to distrust him? A godly knight played no base game with the chosen lady of, his heart, and that, yes, that she certainly was, since she had named her colour to him. Nothing should separate them. She needed him for her happiness as much as she did light and air. Hitherto she had longed for bliss in another world, but she was so young she probably had a long life before her, and what could existence on earth offer if robbed of the hope of his possession?
The newly awakened part of her nature demanded its rights. It would never again allow itself to be forced into the old slumber.
If her sister came back and boasted of having driven away the dangerous animal forever, she would show her that she had a different opinion of the knight, and would permit no one to interpose between them. But, while still pondering over this plan, the door of the sick-room was softly opened and her father beckoned to her to follow him.
Silently leading the way through the dusky corridor, no longer illumined by the moonlight, he entered his daughter's room before her. The lamp, still burning there, revealed the agitated face of her sister who, resting her chin on her hand, sat on the stool beside the spinning wheel.
Eva's courage, which had blazed up so brightly, instantly fell again.
"Good heavens! What has happened?" she cried in terror; but her father answered in a hollow tone:
"For the sake of your noble sister, to whom I pledged my word, I will force myself to remain calm. But look at her! Her poor heart must be like a graveyard, for she was doomed to bury what she held dearest. And who," he continued furiously, so carried away by grief and indignation as to be unmindful of his promise to maintain his composure, "who is to blame for it all, save you and your boundless imprudence?"
Eva, with uplifted hands, tried to explain how, unconscious of her acts, she had walked in her sleep down the stairs and out of the house, but he imperiously cut her short with:
"Silence! I know all. My daughter gave a worthless tempter the right to expect the worst from her. You, whom we deemed the ornament of this house, whose purity hitherto was stainless, are to blame if people passing on the street point at it! Alas! alas! Our honour, our ancient, unsullied name!"
Groaning aloud, the father struck his brow with his clenched hand; but when Els rose and passed her arm around his shoulders to speak words of consolation, Eva, who hitherto had vainly struggled for words, could endure no more.
"Whoever says that of me, my father," she exclaimed with flashing eyes; scarcely able to control her voice, "has opened his ears to slander; and whoever terms Heinz Schorlin a worthless tempter, is blinded by a delusion, and I call him to his face, even were it my own father, to whom I owe gratitude and respect—"
But here she stopped and extended her arms to keep off the deeply angered man, for he had started forward with quivering lips, and—she perceived it clearly—was already under the spell of one of the terrible fits of fury which might lead him to the most unprecedented deeds. Els, however, had clung to him and, while holding him back with all her strength, cried out in a tone of keen reproach, "Is this the way you keep your promise?"
Then, lowering her voice, she continued with loving entreaty: "My dear, dear father, can you doubt that she was asleep, unconscious of her acts, when she did what has brought so much misery upon us?"
And, interrupting herself, she added eagerly in a tone of the firmest conviction: "No, no, neither shame nor misery has yet touched you, my father, nor the poor child yonder. The suspicion of evil rests on me, and me alone, and if any one here must be wretched it is I."
Then Herr Ernst, regaining his self-control, drew back from Eva, but the latter, as if fairly frantic, exclaimed: "Do you want to drive me out of my senses by your mysterious words and accusations? What, in the name of all the saints, has happened that can plunge my Els into misery and shame?"
"Into misery and shame," repeated her father in a hollow tone, throwing himself into a chair, where he sat motionless, with his face buried in his hands, while Els told her sister what had occurred when she went down into the entry to speak to the knight.
Eva listened to her story, fairly gasping for breath. For one brief moment she cherished the suspicion that Cordula had not acted from pure sympathy, but to impose upon Heinz Schorlin a debt of gratitude which would bind him to her more firmly. Yet when she heard that her father had given back his daughter's ring to Herr Casper Eysvogel and broken his child's betrothal she thought of nothing save her sister's grief and, sobbing aloud, threw herself into Els's arms.
The girls held each other in a close embrace until the first flash of lightning and peal of thunder interrupted the conversation.
The father and daughters had been so deeply agitated that they had not heard the storm rising outside, and the outbreak of the tempest surprised them. The peal of thunder, which so swiftly followed the lightning, also startled them and when, soon after, a second one shook the house with its crashing, rattling roar, Herr Ernst went out to wake the chief packer. But old Endres was already keeping watch among the wares entrusted to him and when, after a brief absence, the master of the house returned, he found Eva again clasped in her sister's arms, and saw the latter kissing her brow and eyes as she tenderly strove to comfort her.
But Eva seemed deaf to her soothing words. Els, her faithful Els, was no longer the betrothed bride of her Wolff; her great, beautiful happiness was destroyed forever. On the morrow all Nuremberg would learn that Herr Casper had broken his son's betrothal pledge, because his bride, for the sake of a tempter, Sir Heinz Schorlin, had failed to keep her troth with him.
How deeply all this pierced Eva's heart! how terrible was the torture of the thought that she was the cause of this frightful misfortune! Dissolved in an agony of tears, she entreated the poor girl to forgive her; and Els did so willingly, and in a way that touched her father to the very depths of his heart. How good the girls must be who, spite of the sore suffering which one had brought upon the other, were still so loving and loyal!
Convinced that Eva, too, had done nothing worthy of punishment, he went towards them to clasp both in his arms, but ere he could do so the clap of thunder which had frightened Katterle so terribly shook the whole room. "St. Clare, aid us!" cried Eva, crossing herself and falling upon her knees; but Els rushed to the window, opened it, and looked down the street. Nothing was visible there save a faint red glow on the distant northern horizon, and two mailed soldiers who were riding into the city at a rapid trot. They had been sent from the stables in the Marienthurm to keep order in case a fire should break out. Several men with hooks and poles followed, also hurrying to the Frauenthor.
In reply to the question where the fire was and where they going, they answered: "To the Fischbach, to help. Flames have burst out apparently under the fortress at the Thiergartenthor."
The long-drawn call for help from the warder's horn, which came at the same moment, proved that the men were right.
Herr Ernst hastened out of the room just as Katterle's shriek, "The lightning struck! the convent is burning!" rung from the upper step of the stairs.
He had already pronounced her sentence, and the sight of her roused his wrath again so vehemently that, spite of the urgent peril, he shouted to her that, whatever claimed his attention now, she certainly should not escape the most severe punishment for her shameful conduct.
Then he ordered old Endres and two of the menservants to watch the sleeping-room of his invalid wife, that in case anything should happen the helpless woman might be instantly borne to a place of safety.
Ere he himself went to the scene of the conflagration he hurried back to his daughters.
While the girls were giving him his hat and cloak he told them where the fire had broken out, and this caused another detention of the anxious master of the house, for Eva seized her shoes and stockings and, kicking her little slippers from her feet, declared that she, too, would not remain absent from the place when her dear nuns were in danger. But her father commanded her to stay with her mother and sister, and went to the door, turning back once more on the threshold to his daughters with the anxious entreaty: "Think of your mother!"
Another peal of thunder drowned the sound of his footsteps hurrying down the stairs. When Els, who had watched her father from the window a short time, went back to her sister, Eva dried her eyes and cheeks, saying: "Perhaps he is right; but whenever my heart urges me to obey any warm impulse, obstacles are put in my way. What a weak nonentity is the daughter of an honourable Nuremberg family!"
Els heard this complaint with astonishment. Was this her Eva, her "little saint," who yesterday had desired nothing more ardently than with humble obedience, far from the tumult of the world, to become worthy of her Heavenly Bridegroom, and in the quiet peace of the convent raise her soul to God? What had so changed the girl in these few hours? Even the most worldly-minded of her friends would have taken such an impeachment ill.
But she had no time now to appeal to the conscience of her misguided sister. Love and duty summoned her to her mother's couch. And then! The child had become aware of her love, and was she, Els, who had been parted from Wolff by her own father, and yet did not mean to give him up, justified in advising her sister to cast aside her love and the hope of future happiness with and through the man to whom she had given her heart?
What miracles love wrought! If in a single night it had transformed the devout future Bride of Heaven into an ardently loving woman, it could accomplish the impossible for her also.
While Eva was gazing out of the window Els returned to her mother. She was still asleep and, without permitting either curiosity or longing to divert her from her duty, Els kept her place beside the couch of the beloved invalid, spite of the fire alarm which, though somewhat subdued, was heard in the room.
Eva was standing at the open window. The violence of the storm seemed exhausted. The clouds were rolling northward, and the thunder followed the flashes of lightning at longer and longer intervals. Peace was restored to the heavens, but the crowd and noise in the city and the street constantly increased.
The iron tongues of the alarm bells had never swung so violently, the warder's horn had never made the air quiver with such resonant appeals for aid.
Nor did the metallic voices above call for help in vain, for while a roseate glow tinged the linden in front of her window and the houses on the opposite side of the street with the hues of dawn, the crowds thronging from the Frauenthor to St. Klarengasse grew denser and denser.
The convent was not visible from her chamber, but the acrid odor of the smoke and the loud voices which reached her ear from that direction proved that the fire was no trivial one. While she was seeking out the spot from which Heinz must have looked up to her window, the Ortlieb menservants, with some of the Montfort retainers, came out of the house with pails and ladders.