Pale with fury, he flung, as it were, the estate the Swiss had won from him at his feet, amid no lack of insulting words.
At first Heinz listened to the luckless gambler's outbreak of rage in silent amazement, but when the latter began to threaten, and even clapped his hand on his sword, the composure which never failed him in the presence of anything that resembled danger quickly returned.
He had felt a strong aversion to Siebenburg from their first meeting, and the slanderous words with which he had dragged in the dust the good name of a maiden who, Heinz knew, had incurred suspicion solely through his fault, had filled him with scorn. So, with quiet contempt, he let him rave on; but when the person to whom he had just been talking—the old Minorite monk whom he had met on the highroad and accompanied to Nuremberg—appeared at the door of the next room, he stopped Seitz with a firm "Enough!" pointed to the old man, and in brief, simple words, gave the castle and lands of Tannenreuth to the monastery of the mendicant friars of the Franciscan order in Nuremberg.
Siebenburg listened with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders, then he said bitterly: "I thought that a life of poverty was the chief rule in the order of St. Francis. But no matter! May the gift won at the gaming table profit the holy Brothers. For you, Sir Knight, it will gain the favour of the Saint of Assisi, whose power is renowned. So you have acted wisely."
Here he hesitated; he felt choked with rage. But while the Minorite was thanking Heinz for the generous gift, Siebenburg's eyes again rested on the curtain behind which the maid was concealed.
It was now his turn to deal the Swiss a blow. The old mendicant friar was a venerable person whose bearing commanded respect, and Heinz seemed to value his good opinion. For that very reason the Minorite should learn the character of this patron of his order.
"Since you so earnestly desire to be rid of my company, Sir Heinz Schorlin," he continued, "I will fulfil your wish. Only just now you appeared to consider certain words uttered last night in reference to a lady—"
"Let that pass," interrupted Heinz with marked emphasis.
"I might expect that desire," replied Siebenburg scornfully; "for as you are in the act of gaining the favour of Heaven by pious works, it will be agreeable to you—"
"What?" asked the Swiss sharply.
"You will surely desire," was the reply, "to change conduct which is an offence to honourable people, and still more to the saints above. You who have estranged a betrothed bride from her lover and lured her to midnight interviews, no doubt suppose yourself safe from the future husband, whom the result of a duel—as you know—will keep from her side. But Wolff happens to be my brother-in-law, and if I feel disposed to take his place and break a lance with you——"
Heinz, pale as death, interrupted him, exclaiming in a tone of the deepest indignation: "So be it, then. We will have a tilt with lances, and then we will fight with our swords."
Siebenburg looked at him an instant, as if puzzled by his adversary's sharp assault, but quickly regained his composure and answered: "Agreed! In the joust—[single combat in the tourney]—with sharp weapons it will soon appear who has right on his side."
"Right?" asked Heinz in astonishment, shrugging his shoulders scornfully.
"Yes, right," cried the other furiously, "which you have ceased to prize."
"So far from it," the Swiss answered quietly, "that before we discuss the mode of combat with the herald I must ask you to recall the insults with which yesterday, in your drunkenness, you injured the honour of a virtuous maiden in the presence of other knights and gentlemen."
"Whose protector," laughed Seitz, "you seem to have constituted yourself, by your own choice, in her bridegroom's place."
"I accept the position," replied Heinz with cool deliberation. "Not you, nay, I will fight in Wolff Eysvogel's stead—and with his consent, I think. I know him, and esteem him so highly——"
"That you invite his plighted bride to nocturnal love dalliance, and exchange love messages with her," interrupted the other.
This was too much for Heinz Schorlin and, with honest indignation, he cried: "Prove it! Or, by our Lord's blood!—My sword, Biberli!—Spite of the peace proclaimed throughout the land, you shall learn, ere you open your slandering lips again——"
Here he paused suddenly, for while Biberli withdrew to obey the command which, though it probably suited his wishes, he was slow in executing, doubtless that he might save his master from a reckless act, Siebenburg, frantic with fury, rushed to the curtain. Ere Heinz could interfere, he jerked it back so violently that he tore it from the fastenings and forced the terrified maid, whose arm he grasped, to approach the knight with him.
Heinz had seen Katterle only by moonlight and in the twilight, so her unexpected appearance gave him no information. He gazed at her enquiringly, with as much amazement as though she had risen from the earth. Siebenburg gave him no time to collect his thoughts, but dragged the girl before the monk and, raising his voice in menace, commanded: "Tell the holy Brother who you are, woman!"
"Katterle of Sarnen," she answered, weeping. "And whom do you serve?" the knight demanded.
"The Ortlieb sisters, Jungfrau Els and Jungfrau Eva," was the reply.
"The beautiful Es, as they are called here, holy Brother," said Siebenburg with a malicious laugh, "whose maid I recognise in this girl. If she did not come hither to mend the linen of her mistress's friend—"
But here Biberli, who on his return to the anteroom had been terrified by the sight of his sweetheart, interrupted the knight by turning to Heinz with the exclamation: "Forgive me, my lord. Surely you know that she is my betrothed bride. She came just now—scarcely a dozen Paternosters ago-to talk with me about the marriage."
Katterle had listened in surprise to the bold words of her true and steadfast lover, yet she was not ill pleased, for he had never before spoken of their marriage voluntarily. At the same time she felt the obligation of aiding him and nodded assent, while Siebenburg rudely interrupted the servant by calling to the monk: "Lies and deception, pious Brother. Black must be whitened here. She stole, muffled, to her mistress's gallant, to bring a message from the older beautiful E, with whom this godly knight was surprised last night."
Again the passionate outbreak of his foe restored the Swiss to composure. With a calmness which seemed to the servant incomprehensible, though it filled him with delight, he turned to the monk, saying earnestly and simply: "Appearances may be against me, Pater Benedictus. I will tell you all the circumstances at once. How this maid came here will be explained later. As for the maiden whom this man calls the older beautiful E, never—I swear it by our saint—have I sought her love or received from her the smallest token of her favour."
Then turning to Siebenburg he continued, still calmly, but with menacing sternness: "If I judge you aright, you will now go from one to another telling whom you found here, in order to injure the fair fame of the maiden whom your wife's valiant brother chose for his bride, and to place my name with hers in the pillory."
"Where Els Ortlieb belongs rather than in the honourable home of a Nuremberg patrician," retorted Siebenburg furiously. "If she became too base for my brother-in-law, the fault is yours. I shall certainly take care that he learns the truth and knows where, and at what an hour, his betrothed bride met foreign heartbreakers. To open the eyes of others concerning her will also be a pleasant duty."
Heinz sprang towards Biberli to snatch the sword from his hand, but he held it firmly, seeking his master's eyes with a look of warning entreaty; but his faithful solicitude would have been futile had not the monk lent his aid. The old man's whispered exhortation to his young friend to spare the imperial master, to whom he was so deeply indebted, a fresh sorrow, restored to the infuriated young knight his power of self-control. Pushing the thick locks back from his brow with a hasty movement, he answered in a tone of the most intense contempt:
"Do what you will, but remember this: Beware that, ere the joust begins, you do not ride the rail instead of the charger. The maidens whose pure name you so yearn to sully are of noble birth, and if they appear to complain of you——"
"Then I will proclaim the truth," Siebenburg retorted, "and the Court of Love and Pursuivant at Arms will deprive you, the base seducer, of the right to enter the lists rather than me, my handsome knight!"
"So be it," replied Heinz quietly. "You can discuss the other points with my herald. Wolff Eysvogel, too—rely upon it—will challenge you, if you fulfil your base design."
Then, turning his back upon Seitz without a word of farewell, he motioned the monk towards the open door of the antechamber, and letting him lead the way, closed it behind them.
"He will come to you, you boaster!" Siebenburg shouted contemptuously after the Swiss, and then turned to Biberli and the maid with a patronising question; but the former, without even opening his lips in reply, hastened to the door and, with a significant gesture, induced the knight to retire.
Seitz submitted and hastened down the stairs, his eyes flashing as if he had won a great victory. At the door of the house he grasped the hilt of his sword, and then, with rapid movements, twisted the ends of his mustache. The surprise he had given the insolent Swiss by the discovery of his love messenger—it had acted like a spell—could not have succeeded better. And what had Schorlin alleged in justification? Nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Wolff Eysvogel's herald should challenge the Swiss, not him, who meant to open the deceived lover's eyes concerning his betrothed bride.
He eagerly anticipated the joust and the sword combat with Heinz. The sharper the herald's conditions the better. He had hurled more powerful foes than the Swiss from the saddle, and from knightly "courtoisie" not even used his strength without consideration. Heinz Schorlin should feel it.
He gazed around him like a victor, and throwing his head back haughtily he went down the Bindergasse, this time past the Franciscan monastery towards the Town Hall and the fish market. Eber, the sword cutler, lived there and, spite of the large sum he owed him, Seitz wished to talk with him about the sharp weapons he needed for the joust. On his way he gave his imagination free course. It showed him his impetuous onset, his enemy's fall in the sand, the sword combat, and the end of the joust, the swift death of his hated foe.
These pictures of the future occupied his thoughts so deeply that he neither saw nor heard what was passing around him. Many a person for whom he forgot to turn aside looked angrily after him. Suddenly he found his farther progress arrested. The crier had just raised his voice to announce some important tidings to the people who thronged around him between the Town Hall and the Franciscan monastery. Perhaps he might have succeeded in forcing a passage through the concourse, but when he heard the name "Ernst Ortlieb," in the monotonous speech of the city crier, he followed the remainder of his notice. It made known to the citizens of Nuremberg that, since the thunderstorm of the preceding night, a maid had been missing from the house of the Honourable Herr Ernst Ortlieb, of the Council, a Swiss by birth, Katharina of Sarnen, called Katterle, a woman of blameless reputation. Whoever should learn anything concerning the girl was requested to bring the news to the Ortlieb residence.
What did this mean?
If the girl had vanished at midnight and not returned to her employers since, she could scarcely have sought Heinz Schorlin as a messenger of love from Els. But if she had not come to the Swiss from one of the Es, what proof did he, Seitz, possess of the guilt of his brother-in-law's bride? How should he succeed in making Wolff understand that his beloved Els had wronged him if the maid was to play no part in proving it? Yesterday evening he had not believed firmly in her guilt; that very morning it had even seemed to him a shameful thing that he had cast suspicion upon her in the presence of others. The encounter with the maid at the Swiss knight's lodgings had first induced him to insist on his accusation so defiantly. And now? If Heinz Schorlin, with the help of the Ortliebs, succeeded in proving the innocence of those whom he had accused, then—ah, he must not pursue that train of thought—then, at the lady's accusation, he might be deprived of the right to enter the lists in the tournament; then all the disgrace which could be inflicted upon the slanderous defamer of character threatened him; then Wolff would summon him to a reckoning, as well as Heinz Schorlin. Wolff, whom he had begun to hate since, with his resistless arm of iron, he had exposed him for the first time to the malicious glee of the bystanders in the fencing hall.
Yet it was not this which suddenly bowed his head and loudly admonished him that he had again behaved like a reckless fool. Cowardice was his least fault. He did not fear what might befall him in battle. Whether he would be barred out from the lists was the terrible question which darkened the bright morning already verging towards noon. He had charged Els with perfidy in the presence of others, and thereby exposed her, the plighted bride of a knight, to the utmost scorn. And besides—fool that he was!—his brothers had again attacked a train of waggons on the highway and would soon be called to account as robbers. This would certainly lead the Swiss and others to investigate his own past, and the Pursuivant at Arms excluded from joust and tourney whoever "injured trade or merchant." What would not his enemy, who was in such high favour with the Emperor, do to compass his destruction? But—and at the thought he uttered a low imprecation—how could he ride to the joust if his father-in-law closed his strong box which, moreover, was said to be empty? If the old man was forced to declare himself bankrupt Siebenburg's creditors would instantly seize his splendid chargers and costly suits of armour, scarcely one half of which were paid for. How much money he needed as security in case of defeat! His sole property was debts. Yet the thought seemed like an illumination—his wife's valuable old jewels could probably still be saved, and she might be induced to give him part of the ornaments for the tournament. He need only make her understand that his honour and that of the twins were at stake. Would that Heaven might spare his boys such hours of anxiety and self-accusation!
But what was this? Was he deluding himself? Did his over-excited imagination make him hear a death knell pealing for his honour and his hopes, which must be borne to their grave? Yet no! All the citizens and peasants, men and women, great and small, who thronged the salt market, which he had just entered, raised their heads to listen with him; for from every steeple at once rang the mournful death knell which announced to the city the decease of an "honourable" member of the Council, a secular or ecclesiastical prince. The mourning banner was already waving on the roof of the Town Hall, towards which he turned. Men in the service of the city were hoisting other black flags upon the almshouse, and now the Hegelein—[Proclaimer of decrees]—in mourning garments, mounted on a steed caparisoned with crepe, came riding by at the head of other horsemen clad in sable, proclaiming to the throng that Hartmann, the Emperor Rudolph's promising son, had found an untimely end. The noble youth was drowned while bathing in the Rhine.
It seemed as if a frost had blighted a blooming garden. The gay bustle in the market place was paralysed. The loud sobs of many women blended with exclamations of grief and pity from bearded lips which had just been merrily bargaining for salt and fish, meat and game. Messengers with crepe on their hats or caps forced a passage through the throng, and a train of German knights, priests, and monks passed with bowed heads, bearing candles in their hands, between the Town Hail and St. Sebald's Church towards the corn magazine and the citadel.
Meanwhile dark clouds were spreading slowly over the bright-blue vault of the June sky. A flock of rooks hovered around the Town Hall, and then flew, with loud cries, towards the castle.
Seitz watched them indifferently. Even the great omnipotent sovereign there had his own cross to bear; tears flowed in his proud palace also, and sighs of anguish were heard. And this was just. He had never wished evil to any one who did not injure him, but even if he could have averted this sore sorrow from the Emperor Rudolph he would not have stirred a finger. His coronation had been a blow to him and to his brothers. Formerly they had been permitted to work their will on the highways, but the Hapsburg, the Swiss, had pitilessly stopped their brigandage. Now for the first time robber-knights were sentenced and their castles destroyed. The Emperor meant to transform Germany into a sheepfold, Absbach exclaimed. The Siebenburg brothers were his faithful allies, and though they complained that the joyous, knightly clank of arms would be silenced under such a sovereign, they themselves took care that the loud battle shouts, cries of pain, and shrieks for aid were not hushed on the roads used for traffic by the merchants. But this was not Seitz's sole reason for shrugging his shoulders at the expressions of the warmest sympathy which rose around him. The Emperor was tenderly attached to Heinz Schorlin, and the man who was so kindly disposed to his foe could never be his friend. Perhaps to-morrow Rudolph might behead his brothers and elevate Heinz Schorlin to still greater honors. Seitz, whose eyes had overflowed with tears when the warder of his native castle lost his aged wife, who had been his nurse, now found no cause to grieve with the mourners.
So he continued his way, burdened with his own anxieties, amid the tears and lamentations of the multitude. The numerous retinue of servants in the Eysvogel mansion were moving restlessly to and fro; the news of the prince's death had reached them. Herr Casper had left the house. He was probably at Herr Ernst Ortlieb's. If the latter had already learned what he, Seitz Siebenburg, had said at the gaming table of his daughter, perhaps his hand had dealt the first decisive blow at the tottering house where, so long as it stood, his wife and the twins would under any circumstances find shelter. Resentment against the Swiss, hatred, and jealousy, had made him a knave, and at the same time the most shortsighted of fools.
As he approached the second story, in which the nursery was situated and where he expected to find his wife, it suddenly seemed as if a star had risen amid the darkness. If he poured out his heart to Isabella and let her share the terrible torture of his soul, perhaps it would awaken a tender sympathy in the woman who still loved him, and who was dearer to him than he could express. Her jewels were certainly very valuable, but far more precious was the hope of being permitted to rest his aching head upon her breast and feel her slender white hand push back the hair from his anxious brow. Oh, if misfortune would draw her again as near to him as during the early months of their married life and directly before it, he could rise from his depression with fresh vigour and transform the battle, now half lost, into victory. Besides, she was clever and had power over the hearts of her family, so perhaps she might point out the pathway of escape, which his brain, unused to reflection, could not discover.
His heart throbbed high as, animated by fresh hope, he entered the corridor from which opened the rooms which he occupied with her. But his wish to find her alone was not to be fulfilled; several voices reached him.
What was the meaning of the scene?
Isabella, her face deadly pale, and her tall figure drawn up to its full height, stood before the door of the nursery with a stern, cold expression on her lovely lips, like a princess pronouncing sentence upon a criminal. She was panting for breath, and before her, her mother, and her grandmother, Countess Cordula's pretty page, whom Siebenburg knew only too well, was moving to and fro with eager gestures. He held in his hand the bunch of roses which Seitz had sent to his newly-won wife and darling as a token of reconciliation, and Siebenburg heard his clear, boyish tones urge: "I have already said so and, noble lady, you may believe me, this bouquet, which the woman brought us, was intended for my gracious mistress, Countess von Montfort. It was meant to give her a fair morning greeting, and—Do not let this vex you, for it was done only in the joyous game of love, as custom dictated. Ever since we came here your lord has daily honoured my countess with the loveliest flowers whose buds unfold in the region near the Rhine. But my gracious mistress, as you have already heard, believes that you, noble lady, have a better right to these unusually beautiful children of the spring than she who last evening bade your lord behold in you, not in her, fair lady, the most fitting object of his homage. So she sent me hither, most gracious madam, to lay what is yours at your feet."
As he spoke, the agile boy, with a graceful bow, tried to place the flowers in Isabella's hand, but she would not receive the bouquet, and the abrupt gesture with which she pushed them back flung the nosegay on the floor. Paying no further heed to it, she answered in a cold, haughty tone: "Thank your mistress, and tell her that I appreciated her kind intention, but the roses which she sent me were too full of thorns." Then, turning her back on the page, she advanced with majestic pride to the door of the nursery.
Her mother and grandmother tried to follow, but Siebenburg pressed between them and his wife, and his voice thrilled with the anguish of a soul overwhelmed by despair as he cried imploringly: "Hear me, Isabella! There is a most unhappy misunderstanding here. By all that is sacred to me, by our love, by our children, I swear those roses were intended for you, my heart's treasure, and for you alone."
But Countess Rotterbach cut him short by exclaiming with a loud chuckle: "The unripe early pears will probably come from the fruit market to the housewife's hands later; the roses found their way to Countess von Montfort more quickly."
The malicious words were followed like an echo by Frau Rosalinde's tearful "It is only too true. This also!"
The knight, unheeding the angry, upbraiding woman, hastened in pursuit of his wife to throw himself at her feet and confess the whole truth; but she, who had heard long before that Sir Seitz was paying Countess Cordula more conspicuous attention than beseemed a faithful husband, and who, after the happy hour so recently experienced, had expected, until the arrival of the page, the dawn of brighter, better days, now felt doubly abased, deceived, betrayed.
Without vouchsafing the unfortunate man even a glance or a word, she entered the nursery before he reached her; but he, feeling that he must follow her at any cost, laid his hand on the lock of the door and tried to open it. The strong oak resisted his shaking and pulling. Isabella had shot the heavy iron bolt into its place. Seitz first knocked with his fingers and then with his clenched fist, until the grandmother exclaimed: "You have destroyed the house, at least spare the doors."
Uttering a fierce imprecation, he went to his own chamber, hastily thrust into his pockets all the gold and valuables which he possessed, and then went out again into the street. His way led him past Kuni, the flower girl from whom he had bought the roses. The beggar who was to carry them to his wife did not hear distinctly, on account of her bandaged head, and not understanding the knight, went to the girl from whom she had seen him purchase the blossoms to ask where they belonged. Kuni pointed to the lodgings of the von Montforts, where she had already sent so many bouquets for Siebenburg. The latter saw both the flower-seller and the beggar woman, but did not attempt to learn how the roses which he intended for his wife had reached Countess Cordula. He suspected the truth, but felt no desire to have it confirmed. Fate meant to destroy him, he had learned that. The means employed mattered little. It would have been folly to strive against the superior power of such an adversary. Let ruin pursue its course. His sole wish was to forget his misery, though but for a brief time. He knew he could accomplish this by drink, so he entered the Mirror wine tavern and drained bumper after bumper with a speed which made the landlord, though he was accustomed to marvellous performances on the part of his guests, shake the head set on his immensely thick neck somewhat suspiciously.
The few persons present had gathered in a group and were talking sadly about the great misfortune which had assailed the Emperor. The universal grief displayed so hypocritically, as Seitz thought, angered him, and he gazed at them with such a sullen, threatening look that no one ventured to approach him. Sometimes he stared into his wine, sometimes into vacancy, sometimes at the vaulted ceiling above. He harshly rebuffed the landlord and the waiter who tried to accost him, but when the peasant's prediction was fulfilled and the thunderstorm of the preceding night was followed at midnight by one equally severe, he arose and left the hostelry. The rain tempted him into the open air. The taproom was so sultry, so terribly sultry. The moisture of the heavens would refresh him.
The fury of the tempest had ceased, but the sky was still obscured by clouds. A cool breeze blew from the northeast through the damp, heavy air.
Heinz Schorlin was coming from the fortress, and after crossing the Diligengasse went directly towards his lodgings. His coat of mail, spurs, and helmeted head were accoutrements for the saddle, yet he was on foot. A throng of men, women, and children, whispering eagerly together, accompanied him. One pointed him out to another, as if there was something unusual about him. Two stalwart soldiers in the pay of the city followed, carrying his saddle and the equipments of his horse, and kept back the boys or women who boldly attempted to press too near.
Heinz did not heed the throng. He looked pale, and his thick locks, falling in disorder from under his helmet, floated around his face. The chain armour on his limbs and his long surcoat were covered with mire. The young knight, usually so trim, looked disordered and, as it were, thrown off his balance. His bright face bore the impress of a horror still unconquered, as he gazed restlessly into vacancy, and seemed to be seeking something, now above and now in the ground.
The pretty young hostess, Frau Barbara Deichsler, holding her little three-year-old daughter by the hand, stood in front of the house in the Bindergasse where he lodged. The knight usually had a pleasant or merry word for her, and a gay jest or bit of candy for Annele. Nay, the young noble, who was fond of children, liked to toss the little one in his arms and play with her.
Frau Barbara had already heard that, as Heinz was returning from the fortress, the lightning had struck directly in front of him, killing his beautiful dun charger, which she had so often admired. It had happened directly before the eyes of the guard, and the news had gone from man to man of the incredible miracle which had saved the life of the young Swiss, the dearest friend of the Emperor's dead son.
When Heinz approached the door Frau Barbara stepped forward with Annele to congratulate him that the dear saints had so graciously protected him, but he only answered gravely: "What are we mortals? Rejoice in the child, Frau Barbara, so long as she is spared to you."
He passed into the entry as he spoke, but Frau Deichsler hastily prepared to call his armour-bearer, a grey-bearded Swiss who had served the knight's father and slept away the hours not devoted to his duties or to the wine cup. He must supply the place of Biberli, who had left the house a long time before, and for the first time in many years was keeping his master waiting. But Heinz knew where he was, and while the armour-bearer was divesting him, awkwardly enough, of his suit of mail and gala attire, he was often seized with anxiety about his faithful follower, though many things with which the morning had burdened his soul lay nearer to his heart.
Never had he been so lucky in gambling as last night in the Duke of Pomerania's quarters. Biberli's advice to trust to the two and five had been repeatedly tested, and besides the estate of Tannenreuth, which Siebenburg had staked against all his winnings, he had brought home more gold than he had ever seen before.
Yet he had gone to rest in a mood by no means joyous. It was painful to him to deprive any one of his lands and home. He had even resisted accepting Siebenburg's reckless stake, but his obstinate persistence and demand could not be opposed. The calumnies by which the "Mustache" had assailed the innocent Els Ortlieb haunted him, and many others had shown their indignation against the traducer. Probably thirty gentlemen at the gaming table had been witnesses of these incidents, and if, to-morrow, it was in everybody's mouth that he, Heinz, had been caught at mid-night in an interview with the elder beautiful Ortlieb E, the fault was his, and he would be burdened with the guilt of having sullied the honour and name of a pure maiden, the betrothed bride of an estimable man.
When he woke in the morning his first thought had been of her. She had seemed more desirable than ever. But his relatives at home, and the counsel Biberli had urged upon him during their nocturnal wandering, had constantly interposed between him and the maiden whom he so ardently loved. Besides, it seemed certain that the passion which filled his heart must end unhappily. Else what was the meaning of this unexampled good luck at the gaming table? The torture of this thought had kept him awake a long time. Then he had sunk into a deep, dreamless sleep. In the morning Biberli, full of delight, roused him, and displayed three large bags filled with florins and zecchins, the gains of the night before.
The servant had begged to be permitted to count the golden blessing, which in itself would suffice to buy the right to use the bridge from the city of Luzerne twice over, and the best thing about which was that it would restore the peace of mind of his lady mother at Schorlin Castle.
Now, in the name of all the saints, let him continue his life of liberty, and leave the somnambulist to walk over the roofs, and suffer Altrosen, who had worn her colour so patiently, to wed the countess.
But how long the servitor's already narrow face became when Heinz, with a grave resolution new to Biberli, answered positively that no ducats would stray from these bags to Schorlin Castle. If, last night, anxiety had burdened his mind like the corpse of a murdered man, these gains weighed upon his soul like the loathsome body of a dead cat. Never in his whole life had he felt so poor as with this devil's money. The witch-bait which Biberli had given him with the two and the five had drawn it out of the pockets of his fellow gamblers. He would be neither a cut-purse nor a dealer in the black arts. The wages of hell should depart as quickly as they came. While speaking, he seized the second largest bag and gave it to the servant, exclaiming: "Now keep your promise to Katterle like an honest man. The poor thing will have a hard time at her employer's. I make but one condition: you are to remain in my service. I can't do without you."
While the armour-bearer, in the agile Biberli's place, was handing him the garments to be worn in the house, Heinz again remembered how the faithful fellow had thrown himself on his knees and kissed his master's hands and arms in the excess of his joyful surprise, and yet he had felt as if a dark cloud was shadowing the brightness of his soul. The morning sun had shone so radiantly into his window, and Annele had come with such bewitching shyness to bring him a little bunch of lilies of the valley with a rose in the centre, and a pleasant morning greeting from her mother, that the cloud could not remain, yet it had only parted occasionally to close again speedily, though it was less dense and dark than before.
Yet he had taken the child in his arms and looked down into the narrow street to show her the people going to market so gaily in the early morning. But he soon put her down again, for he recognised in a horseman approaching on a weary steed Count Curt Gleichen, the most intimate friend of young Prince Hartmann and himself, and when he called to him he had slid from his saddle with a faint greeting.
Heinz instantly rushed out of the house to meet him, but he had found him beside his steed, which had sunk on its knees, and then, trembling and panting, dragged itself, supported by its rider's hand, into the entry. There it fell, rolled over on its side, and stretched its limbs stiffly in death. It was the third horse which the messenger had killed since he left the Rhine, yet he was sure of arriving too soon; for he had to announce to a father the death of his promising son.
Heinz listened, utterly overwhelmed, to the narrative of the eye-witness, who described how Hartmann, ere he could stretch out a hand to save him, had been dragged into the depths by the waves of the Rhine.
In spite of the sunny brightness of the morning the young Swiss had had a presentiment of some great misfortune, and had told himself that he would welcome it if it relieved him from the burden which had darkened his soul since the disgraceful good luck of the previous night. Now it had happened, and how gladly he would have continued to bear the heaviest load to undo the past. He had sobbed on his friend's breast like a child, accusing Heaven for having visited him with this affliction.
Hartmann had been not only his friend but his pupil—and what a pupil! He had instructed him in horsemanship and the use of the sword, and during the last year shared everything with him and young Count Gleichen as if they were three brothers and, like a brother, the prince had constantly grown closer to his heart. Had he, Heinz, accompanied Hartmann to the Rhine and been permitted to remain with him, neither or both would have fallen victims to the river! And Hartmann's aged father, the noble man to whom he owed everything, and who clung with his whole soul to the beloved youth, his image in mind and person—how would the Emperor Rudolph endure this? But a few months ago death had snatched from him his wife, the love of his youth, the mother of his children, the companion of his glorious career! The thought of him stirred Heinz to the depths of his soul, and he would fain have hastened at once to the castle to help the stricken father bear the new and terrible burden imposed upon him. But he must first care for the messenger of these terrible tidings who, with lips white from exhaustion, needed refreshment.
Biberli, who saw and thought of everything, had already urged the hostess to do what she could, and sent the servant to the tailor that, when Heinz rode to the fortress, he might not lack the mourning—a tabard would suffice—which could be made in a few hours.
Frau Barbara had just brought the lunch and promised to obey the command to keep the terrible news which she had just heard a secret from every one, that the rumor might not reach the fortress prematurely, when another visitor appeared—Heinz Schorlin's cousin, Sir Arnold Maier of Silenen, a tall, broad-shouldered man of fifty, with stalwart frame and powerful limbs.
His grave, bronzed countenance, framed by a grey beard, revealed that he, too, brought no cheering news. He had never come to his young cousin's at so early an hour.
His intelligent, kindly grey eyes surveyed Heinz with astonishment. What had befallen the happy-hearted fellow? But when he heard the news which had wet the young knight's eyes with tears, his own lips also quivered, and his deep, manly tones faltered as he laid his heavy hands on the mourner's shoulders and gazed tearfully into his eyes. At last he exclaimed mournfully: "My poor, poor boy! Pray to Him to whom we owe all that is good, and who tries us with the evil. Would to God I had less painful tidings for you!"
Heinz shrank back, but his cousin told him the tidings learned from a Swiss messenger scarcely an hour before. The dispute over the bridge toll had caused a fight. The uncle who supplied a father's place to Heinz and managed his affairs—brave old Walther Ramsweg—was killed; Schorlin Castle had been taken by the city soldiery and, at the command of the chief magistrate, razed to the ground. Wendula Schorlin, Heinz's mother, with her daughter Maria, had fallen into the hands of the city soldiers and been carried to the convent in Constance, where she and her youngest child now remained with the two older daughters.
Heinz, deeply agitated by the news, exclaimed: "Uncle Ramsweg, our kind second father, also in the grave without my being able to press his brave, loyal hand in farewell! And Maria, our singing bird, our nimble little squirrel, with those grave, world-weary Sisters! And my mother! You, too, like every one, love her, Cousin—and you know her. She who has been accustomed to command, and to manage the house and the lands, who like a saint dried tears far and near amid trouble and deprivation—she, deprived of her own strong will, in a convent! Oh, Cousin, Cousin! To hear this, and not be able to rush upon the rabble who have robbed us of the home of our ancestors, as a boy crushes a snail shell! Can it be imagined? No Castle Schorlin towering high above the lake on the cliff at the verge of the forest. The room where we all saw the light of the world and listened to our mother's songs destroyed; the sacred chamber where the father who so lovingly protected us closed his eyes; the chapel where we prayed so devoutly and vowed to the Holy Virgin a candle from our little possessions, or, in the lovely month of May, brought flowers to her from our mother's little garden, the cliff, or the dark forest. The courtyard where we learned to manage a steed and use our weapons, the hall where we listened to the wandering minstrels, in ruins! Gone, gone, all gone! My mother and Maria weeping prisoners!"
Here his cousin broke in to show him that love was leading him to look on the dark side. His mother had chosen the convent for her daughter's sake; she was by no means detained there by force. She could live wherever she pleased, and her dowry, with what she had saved, would be ample to support her and Maria, in the city or the country, in a style suited to their rank.
This afforded Heinz some consolation, but enough remained to keep his grief alive, and his voice sounded very sorrowful as he added: "That lessens the bitterness of the cup. But who will re build the ancient castle? Who will restore our uncle? And the Emperor, my beloved, fatherly master, dying of grief! Our Hartmann dead! Washed away like a dry branch which the swift Reuss seizes and hurries out of our sight! Too much, too hard, too terrible! Yet the sun shines as brightly as before! The children in the street below laugh as merrily as ever!"
Groaning aloud, he covered his face with his hands, and those from whom he might have expected consolation were forced to leave him in the midst of the deepest sorrow; for the Swiss mail, which had come to Maier of Silenen as the most distinguished of his countrymen, was awaiting distribution, and Count Gleichen was forced to fulfill his sorrowful duty as messenger. His friend Heinz had lent him his second horse, the black, to ride to the fortress.
While Heinz, pursued by grief and care, sometimes paced up and down the room, sometimes threw himself into the armchair which Frau Barbara, to do him special honour, had placed in the sitting-room, the Minorite monk Benedictus, whom he had brought to Nuremberg, had come uninvited from the neighbouring monastery to give him a morning greeting. The enthusiasm with which St. Francis had filled his soul in his early years had not died out in his aged breast. He who in his youth had borne the escutcheon of his distinguished race in many a battle and tourney, as a knight worthy of all honour, sympathised with his young equal in rank, and found him in the mood to provide for his eternal salvation. On the ride to Nuremberg he had perceived in Heinz a pious heart and a keen intellect which yearned for higher things. But at that time the joyous youth had not seemed to him ripe for the call of Heaven; when he found him bowed with grief, his eyes, so radiant yesterday, swimming in tears, the conviction was aroused that the Omnipotent One Himself had taken him by the hand to lead the young Swiss, to whom he gratefully wished the best blessings, into the path which the noble Saint of Assisi himself had pointed out to him, and wherein he had found a bliss for which in the world he had vainly yearned.
But his conversation with his young friend had been interrupted, first by the tailor who was to make his mourning garb, then by Siebenburg, and even later he had had no opportunity to school Heinz; for after Seitz had gone Biberli and Katterle had needed questioning. The result of this was sufficiently startling, and had induced Heinz to send the servant and his sweetheart on the errand from which the former had not yet returned.
When the young knight found himself alone he repeated what the monk had just urged upon him. Then Eva's image rose before him, and he had asked himself whether she, the devout maiden, would not thank her saint when she learned that he, obedient to her counsel, was beginning to provide for his eternal salvation.
Moved by such thoughts, he had smiled as he told himself that the Minorite seemed to be earnestly striving to win him for the monastery. The old man meant kindly, but how could he renounce the trade of arms, for which he was reared and which he loved?
Then he had been obliged to ride to the fortress to wait upon the Emperor and tell him how deeply he sympathised with his grief. But he was denied admittance. Rudolph desired to be alone, and would not see even his nearest relatives.
On the way home he wished to pass through the inner gate of the Thiergartnerthor into Thorstrasse to cross the milk market. The violence of the noonday thundershower had already begun to abate, and he had ridden quietly forward, absorbed in his grief, when suddenly a loud, rattling crash had deafened his ears and made him feel as if the earth, the gate, and the fortress were reeling. At the same moment his horse leaped upward with all four feet at once, tossed its clever head convulsively, and sank on its knees.
Half blinded by the dazzling light he saw, and bewildered by the sulphurous vapour he noticed, Heinz nevertheless retained his presence of mind, and had sprung from the saddle ere the quivering steed fell on its side. Several of the guard at the gate quickly hastened to his assistance, examined the horse with him, and found the noble animal already dead. The lightning had darted along the iron mail on its forehead and the steel bit, and struck the ground without injuring Heinz himself. The soldiers and a Dominican monk who had sought shelter from the rain in the guardhouse extolled this as a great miracle. The people who had crowded to the spot were also seized with pious awe, and followed the knight to whom Heaven had so distinctly showed its favour.
Heinz himself only felt that something extraordinary had happened. The world had gained a new aspect. His life, which yesterday had appeared so immeasurably long, now seemed brief, pitifully brief. Perhaps it would end ere the sun sank to rest in the Haller meadows. He must deem every hour that he was permitted to breathe as a gift, like the earnest money he, placed in the trainer's hand in a horse trade. According to human judgment the lightning should have killed him as well as the horse. If he still lived and breathed and saw the grey clouds drifting across the sky, this was granted only that he might secure his eternal salvation, to which hitherto he had given so little concern. How grateful he ought to be that this respite had been allowed him—that he had not been snatched away unwarned, like Prince Hartmann, in the midst of his sins!
Would not Eva feel the same when she learned what had befallen him? Perhaps Biberli would come back soon—he had been gone so long—and could tell him about her.
Even before the thunderbolt had stirred the inmost depths of his being, when he was merely touched by his deep grief and the monk's admonition, he had striven to guide the servant and his sweetheart into the right path, and the grey-haired monk aided him. The monastic life, it is true, would not have suited Biberli, but he had shown himself ready to atone for the wrong done the poor girl who had kept her troth for three long years and, unasked, went back with her to her angry master.
Ere Heinz set forth on his ride to the fortress he had gone out declaring that he would prove the meaning of his truth and steadfastness, thereby incurring a peril which certainly gave him a right to wear the T and St on his long robe and cap forever. He must expect to be held to a strict account by Ernst Ortlieb. If the incensed father, who was a member of the Council, used the full severity of the law, he might fare even worse than ill. But he had realised the pass to which he had brought his sweetheart, and the Minorite led his honest heart to the perception of the sin he would commit if he permitted her to atone for an act which she had done by his desire—nay, at his command.
With the gold Heinz had given him, and after his assurance that he would retain him in his service even when a married man, he could, it is true, more easily endure being punished with her who, as his wife, would soon be destined to share evil with him as well as good. He had also secured the aid of both his master and the Minorite, and had arranged an account of what had occurred, which placed his own crime and the maid's in a milder light. Finally—and he hoped the best result from this—Katterle would bring the Ortliebs good news, and he was the very man to make it useful to Jungfrau Els.
So he had committed his destiny to his beloved master, behind whom was the Emperor himself, to the Minorite, who, judging from his great age and dignified aspect, might be an influential man, St. Leodogar, and his own full purse and, with a heart throbbing anxiously, entered the street with the closely muffled Katterle, to take the unpleasant walk to the exasperated master and father.
The morning had been rife with important events to Biberli also. The means of establishing a household, the conviction that it would be hard for him to remain a contented man without the idol of his heart, and the still more important one that it would not be wise to defer happiness long, because, as the death of young Prince Hartmann had shown, and Pater Benedictus made still more evident, the possibility of enjoying the pleasures of life might be over far too speedily.
He had been within an ace of losing his Katterle forever, and through no one's guilt save that of the man on whose truth and steadfastness she so firmly relied. After Siebenburg's departure she had confessed with tears to him, his master, and the monk, what had befallen her, and how she had finally reached the Bindergasse and Sir Heinz Schorlin's lodgings.
When, during the conflagration, fearing punishment, she had fled, she went first to the Dutzen pond. Determined to end her existence, she reached the goal of her nocturnal and her life pilgrimage. The mysterious black water with its rush-grown shore, where ducks quacked and frogs croaked in the sultry gloom, lay before her in the terrible darkness. After she had repeated several Paternosters, the thought that she must die without receiving the last unction weighed heavily on her soul. But this she could not help, and it seemed more terrible to stand in the stocks, like the barber's widow, and be insulted, spit upon by the people, than to endure the flames of purgatory, where so many others—probably among them Biberli, who had brought her to this pass—would be tortured with her.
So she laid down the bundle which—she did not know why herself—she had brought with her, and took off her shoes as if she were going into the water to bathe. Just at that moment she suddenly saw a red light glimmering on the dark surface of the water. It could not be the reflection of the fires of purgatory, as she had thought at first. It certainly did not proceed from the forge on the opposite shore, now closed, for its outlines rose dark and motionless against the moon. No—a brief glance around verified it—the light came from the burning of the convent. The sky was coloured a vivid scarlet in two places, but the glow was brightest towards the southeastern part of the city, where St. Klarengasse must be. Then she was overpowered by torturing curiosity. Must she die without knowing how much the fire had injured the newly built convent, on whose site she had enjoyed the springtime of love, and how the good Sisters fared? It seemed impossible, and her greatest fault for the first time proved a blessing. It drew her back from the Dutzen pond to the city.
On reaching the Marienthurm she learned that only a barn and a cow stable had b@en destroyed by the flames. For this trivial loss she had suffered intense anxiety and been faithless to her resolution to seek death, which ends all fears.
Vexed by her own weakness, she determined to go back to her employer's house and there accept whatever fate the saints bestowed. But when she saw a light still shining through the parchment panes in the room occupied by the two Es, she imagined that Herr Ernst was pronouncing judgment upon Eva. In doing so her own guilt must be recalled, and the thought terrified her so deeply that she joined the people returning from the fire, for whom the Frauenthor still stood open, and allowed the crowd to carry her on with them to St. Kunigunde's chapel in St. Lawrence's church; and when some, passing the great Imhof residence, turned into the Kotgasse, she followed.
Hitherto she had walked on without goal or purpose, but here the question where to seek shelter confronted her; for the torchbearers who had lighted the way disappeared one after another in the various houses. Deep darkness suddenly surrounded her, and she was seized with terror. But ere the last torch vanished, its light fell upon one of the brass basins which hung in front of the barbers' shops.
The barber! The woman whom she had seen in the stocks was the widow of one, and the house where she granted the lovers the meeting, on whose account she had been condemned to so severe a punishment, was in the Kotgasse, and had been pointed out to her. It must be directly opposite. The thought entered her mind that the woman who had endured such a terrible punishment, for a crime akin to her own, would understand better than any one else the anguish of her heart. How could the widow yonder refuse her companion in guilt a compassionate reception!
It was a happy idea, but she would never have ventured to rouse the woman from her sleep, so she must wait. But the first grey light of dawn was already appearing in the eastern horizon on the opposite side of the square of St. Lawrence, and perhaps Frau Ratzer would open her house early.
The street did honour to the name of Kotgasse—[Kot or koth-mire]. Holding her dress high around her, Katterle waded across to the northern row of houses and reached the plank sidewalk covered with mud to her ankles; but at the same moment a door directly in front of her opened, and two persons, a man and a woman, entered the street and glided by; but they came from Frau Ratzer's—she recognised it by the bow-window above the entrance. The maid hurried towards the door, which still stood open, and on its threshold was the woman to whom she intended to pay her early visit.
Almost unable to speak, she entreated her to grant a poor girl, who did not know where to seek shelter at this hour, the protection of her house.
The widow silently drew Katterle into the dark, narrow entry, shut the door, and led her into a neat, gaily ornamented room. A lamp which was still burning hung from the ceiling, but Frau Ratzer raised the tallow candle she had carried to the door, threw its light upon her face, and nodded approvingly. Katterle was a pretty girl, and the flush of shame which crimsoned her cheeks was very becoming. The widow probably thought so, too, for she stroked them with her fat hand, promising, as she did so, to receive her and let her want for nothing if she proved an obedient little daughter. Then she pinched the girl's arm with the tips of her fingers so sharply that she shrank back and timidly told the woman what had brought her there, saying that she was and intended to remain a respectable girl, and had sought shelter with Frau Ratzer because she knew what a sore disgrace she had suffered for the same fault which had driven her from home.
But the widow, starting as if stung by a scorpion, denounced Katterle as an impudent hussy, who rightfully belonged in the stocks, to which the base injustice of the money-bags in the court had condemned her. There was no room in her clean house for anyone who reminded her of this outrage and believed that she had really committed so shameful an act. Then, seizing the maid by the shoulders, she pushed her into the street.
Meanwhile it had grown light. The sun had just risen in the east above the square of St. Lawrence and spread a golden fan of rays over the azure sky. The radiant spectacle did not escape the eyes of the frightened girl, and she rejoiced because it gave her the assurance that the terrifying darkness of the night was over.
How fresh the morning was, how clear and beautiful the light of the young day! And it shone not only on the great and the good, but on the lowly, the poor, and the wicked. Even for the horrible woman within the sky adorned itself with the exquisite blue and glorious brilliancy.
Uttering a sigh of relief she soon reached the Church of St. Lawrence, which the old sexton was just opening. She was the first person who entered the stately house of God that morning and knelt in one of the pews to pray.
This had been the right thing for her to do. Dear Lord! Where was there any maid in greater trouble, yet Heaven had preserved her from the death on a red-hot gridiron which had rendered St. Lawrence, whose name the church bore, a blessed martyr. Compared with that, even standing in the pillory was not specially grievous. So she poured out her whole soul to the saint, confessing everything which grieved and oppressed her, until the early mass began. She had even confided to him that she was from Sarnen in Switzerland, and had neither friend nor countryman here in Nuremberg save her lover, the true and steadfast Biberli. Yet no! There was one person from her home who probably would do her a kindness, the wife of the gatekeeper in the von Zollern castle, a native of Berne, who had come to Nuremberg and the fortress as the maid of the Countess Elizabeth of Hapsburg, the present Burgravine. This excellent woman could give her better counsel than any one, and she certainly owed the recollection of Frau Gertrude to her patron saint.
After a brief thanksgiving she left the church and went to the fortress.
As she expected, her countrywoman received her kindly; and after Katterle had confided everything to her, and in doing so mentioned Wolff Eysvogel, the betrothed husband of the elder of her young mistresses, Frau Gertrude listened intently and requested her to wait a short time.
Yet one quarter of an hour after another elapsed before she again appeared. Her husband, the Bernese warder, a giant of a man to whom the red and yellow Swiss uniform and glittering halberd he carried in his hand were very becoming, accompanied his wife.
After briefly questioning Katterle, he exacted a solemn promise of secrecy and then motioned to her to follow him. Meanwhile the maid had been informed how the duel between Wolff Eysvogel and Ulrich Vorchtel had ended, but while she still clasped her hands in horror, the Swiss had opened the door of a bright, spacious apartment, where Els Ortlieb's betrothed husband received her with a kind though sorrowful greeting. Then he continued his writing, and at last gave her two letters. One, on whose back he drew a little heart, that she might not mistake it for the other, was addressed to his betrothed bride; the second to Heinz Schorlin, whom Wolff—no, her ears did not deceive her—called the future husband of his sister-in-law Eva. At breakfast, which she shared with her country people and their little daughter, Katterle would have liked to learn how Wolff reached the fortress, but the gatekeeper maintained absolute silence on this subject.
The maid at last, without hindrance, reached the Deichsler house and found Biberli (not) at home. She ought to have returned to the Ortliebs in his company long before, but the knight still vainly awaited his servant's appearance. He missed him sorely, since it did not enter his head that his faithful shadow, Biberli, knew nothing of the thunderbolt which had almost robbed him of his master and killed his pet, the dun horse. Besides, he was anxious about his fate and curious to learn how he had found the Ortlieb sisters; for, though Eva alone had power to make Heinz Schorlin's heart beat faster, the misfortune of poor Els affected him more deeply as the thought that he was its cause grew more and more painful.
Wolff's letter, which Katterle delivered to him, revealed young Eysvogel's steadfast love for the hapless girl. In it he also alluded to his nocturnal interview with Heinz, and in cordial words admitted that he thought he had found in him a sincere friend, to whom, if to any one, he would not grudge his fair young sister-in-law Eva. Then he described how the unfortunate duel had occurred.
After mentioning what had excited young Ulrich Vorchtel's animosity, he related that, soon after his interview with Heinz, he had met young Vorchtel, accompanied by several friends. Ulrich had barred his way, loading him with invectives so fierce and so offensive to his honour, that he was obliged to accept the challenge. As he wore no weapon save the dagger in his belt, he used the sword which a German knight among Ulrich's companions offered him. Calm in the consciousness that he had given his former friend's sister no reason to believe in his love, and firmly resolved merely to bestow a slight lesson on her brother, he took the weapon. But when Ulrich shouted to the crusader that the blade he lent was too good for the treacherous hand he permitted to wield it, his blood boiled, and with his first powerful thrust all was over.
The German knight had then introduced himself as a son of the Burgrave von Zollern and taken him to the castle, where, with his father's knowledge, the noble young Knight Hospitaller concealed him, and the point now was to show the matter, which was undoubtedly a breach of the peace, to the Emperor Rudolph in the right light. The young Burgrave thought that he, Heinz Schorlin, could aid in convincing the sovereign, who would lend him a ready ear, that he, Wolff, had only drawn his sword under compulsion. So truly as Heinz himself hoped to be a happy man through Eva's love, he must help him to bridge the chasm which, by his luckless deed, separated him from his betrothed bride.
Heinz had had this letter read aloud twice. Then when Biberli had gone and he rode to the fortress, he had resolved to do everything in his power for the young Nuremberg noble who had so quickly won his regard, but the sorely stricken imperial father had refused to see him, and therefore it was impossible to take any step in the matter.
Yet Wolff's letter had showed that he believed him in all earnestness to be Eva's future husband, and thus strengthened his resolve to woo her as soon as he felt a little more independent.
After the thunderbolt had killed the horse under him, and the old Minorite had again come and showed him that the Lord Himself, through the miracle He had wrought, had taken him firmly and swiftly by the hand as His chosen follower, it seemed to his agitated mind, when he took up the letter a second time, as though everything Wolff had written about him and Els's sister was not intended for him.
Eva was happiness—but Heaven had vouchsafed a miracle to prove the transitoriness of earthly life, that by renunciation here he might attain endless bliss above. Sacrifice and again sacrifice, according to the Minorite, was the magic spell that opened the gates of heaven, and what harder sacrifice could he offer than that of his love? "Renounce! renounce!" he heard a voice within cry in his ears as, with much difficulty, he himself read Wolff's letter, but whatever he might cast away of all that was his, he still would fail to take up his cross as Father Benedictus required; for even as an unknown beggar he would have enjoyed—this he firmly believed—in Eva's love the highest earthly bliss. Yet divine love was said to be so much more rapturous, and how much longer it endured!
And she? Did not the holy expression of her eyes and the aspiration of her own soul show that she would understand him, approve his sacrifice, imitate it, and exchange earthly for heavenly love? Neither could renounce it without inflicting deep wounds on the heart, but every drop of blood which gushed from them, the Minorite said, would add new and heavy weight to their claim to eternal salvation.
Ay, Heinz would try to resign Eva! But when he yielded to the impulse to read Wolff's letter again he felt like a dethroned prince whom some stranger, ignorant of his misfortune, praises for his mighty power.
The visions of the future which the greyhaired monk conjured up, all that he told hint of his own regeneration, transformation, and the happiness which he would find as a disciple of St. Francis in poverty, liberty, and the silent struggle for eternal bliss, everything which he described with fervid eloquence, increased the tumult in the young knight's deeply agitated soul.
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Deem every hour that he was permitted to breathe as a gift
IN THE FIRE OF THE FORGE
A ROMANCE OF OLD NUREMBERG
By Georg Ebers
IN THE FIRE OF THE FORGE—PART II.
The vesper bells had already died away, yet Heinz was still listening eagerly to the aged Minorite, who was now relating the story of St. Francis, his breach with everything that he loved, and the sorrowful commencement of his life. The monk could have desired no more attentive auditor. Only the young knight often looked out of the window in search of Biberli, who had not yet returned.
The latter had gone to the Ortlieb mansion with Katterle.
The runaway maid, whose disappearance, at old Martsche's earnest request, had already been "cried" in the city, had no cause to complain of her reception; for the housekeeper and the other servants, who knew nothing of her guilt, greeted her as a favourite companion whom they had greatly missed, and Biberli had taken care that she was provided with answers to the questions of the inquisitive. The story which he had invented began with the false report that a fire had broken out in the fortress. This had startled Katterle, and attracted her to the citadel to aid her countrywoman and her little daughter. Then came the statement that she spent the night there, and lastly the tale that in the morning she was detained in the Swiss warder's quarters by a gentleman of rank—perhaps the Burgrave himself—who, after he had learned who she was, wished to give her some important papers for Herr Ernst Ortlieb. She had waited hours for them and finally, on the way home, chanced to meet Biberli.
At first the maid found it difficult to repeat this patchwork of truth and fiction in proper order, but the ex-schoolmaster impressed it so firmly on his sweetheart's mind that at last it flowed from her lips as fluently as his pupils in Stanstadt had recited the alphabet.
So she became among the other servants the heroine of an innocent adventure whose truth no one doubted, least of all the housekeeper, who felt a maternal affection for her. Some time elapsed ere she could reach the Es; they were still with their mother, who was so ill that the leech Otto left the sick-room shaking his head.
As soon as he had gone Biberli stopped Els, who had accompanied the physician outside the door of the sufferer's chamber, and earnestly entreated her to forgive him and Katterle—who stood at his side with drooping head, holding her apron to her eyes and persuade her father also to let mercy take the place of justice.
But kind-hearted Els proved sterner than the maid had ever seen her.
As her mother had been as well as usual when she woke, they had told her of the events of the previous night. Her father was very considerate, and even kept back many incidents, but the invalid was too weak for so unexpected and startling a communication. She was well aware of her excitable daughter's passionate nature; but she had never expected that her little "saint," the future bride of Heaven, would be so quickly fired with earthly love, especially for a stranger knight. Moreover, the conduct of Eva who, though she entreated her forgiveness, by no means showed herself contritely ready to resign her lover, had given her so much food for thought that she could not find the rest her frail body required.
Soon after these disclosures she was again attacked with convulsions, and Els thought of them and the fact that they were caused by Eva's imprudence, instigated by the maid, when she refused Biberli her intercession with her father in behalf of him and his bride, as he now called Katterle.
The servitor uttered a few touching exclamations of grief, yet meanwhile thrust his hand into the pocket of his long robe and, with a courteous bow and the warmest message of love from her betrothed husband, whom Katterle had seen in perfect health and under the best care in the Zollern castle, delivered to the indignant girl the letter which Wolff had entrusted to the maid. Els hurried with the missive so impatiently expected to the window in the hall, through which the sun, not yet reached by the rising clouds, was shining, and as it contained nothing save tender words of love which proved that her betrothed husband firmly relied upon her fidelity and, come what might, would not give her up, she returned to the pair, and hurriedly, but in a more kindly tone, informed them that her father was greatly incensed against both, but she would try to soften him. At present he was in his office with Herr Casper Eysvogel; Biberli might wait in the kitchen till the latter went away.
Els then entered the sick-chamber, but Biberli put his hand under his sweetheart's chin, bent her head back gently, and said: "Now you see how Biberli and other clever people manage. The best is kept until the last. The result of the first throw matters little, only he who wins the last goes home content. To know how to choose the bait is also an art. The trout bites at the fly, the pike at the worm, and a yearning maiden at her lover's letter. Take notice! To-day, which began with such cruel sorrow, will yet have a tolerable end."
"Nay," cried Katterle, nudging him angrily with her elbow, "we never had a day begin more happily for us. The gold with which we can set up housekeeping—"
"Oh, yes," interrupted Biberli, "the zecchins and gold florins are certainly no trifle. Much can be bought with them. But Schorlin Castle razed to the ground, my master's lady mother and Fraulein Maria held as half captives in the convent, to say nothing of the light-hearted Prince Hartmann and Sir Heinz's piteous grief—if all these things could be undone, child, I should not think the bag of gold, and another into the bargain, too high a price to pay for it. What is the use of a house filled with fine furniture when the heart is so full of sorrow? At home we all eat together out of a cracked clay dish across which a tinker had drawn a wire, with rude wooden spoons made by my father, yet how we all relished it!—what more did we want?"
As he spoke he drew her into the kitchen, where he found a friendly reception.
True, the Ortlieb servants were attached to their employers and sincerely sorry for the ill health of the mistress of the house, but for several years the lamentations and anxiety concerning her had been ceaseless. The young prince's death had startled rather than saddened them. They did not know him, but it was terrible to die so young and so suddenly. They would not have listened to a merry tale which stirred them to laughter, but Biberli's stories of distant lands, of the court, of war, of the tournament, just suited their present mood, and the narrator was well pleased to find ready listeners. He had so many things to forget, and he never succeeded better than when permitted to use his tongue freely. He wagged it valiantly, too, but when the thunderstorm burst he paused and went to the window. His narrow face was blanched, and his agile limbs moved restlessly. Suddenly remarking, "My master will need me," he held out his hand to Katterle in farewell. But as the zigzag flash of lightning had just been followed by the peal of thunder, she clung to him, earnestly beseeching him not to leave her. He yielded, but went out to learn whether Herr Casper was still in the office, and in a short time returned, exclaiming angrily: "The old Eysvogel seems to be building his nest here!"
Then, to the vexation of the clumsy old cook, whom he interrupted by his restless movements in the Paternosters she was repeating on her rosary, he began to stride up and down before the hearth.
His light heart had rarely been so heavy. He could not keep his thoughts from his master, and felt sure that Heinz needed him; that he, Biberli, would have cause to regret not being with him at this moment. Had the storm destroyed the Ortlieb mansion he would have considered it only natural; and as he glanced around the kitchen in search of Katterle, who, like most of the others, was on her knees with her rosary in her hand, old Martsche rushed in, hurried up to the cook, shook her as if to rouse her from sleep, and exclaimed: "Hot water for the blood-letting! Quick! Our mistress—she'll slip through our hands."
As she spoke, the young kitchen maid Metz helped the clumsy woman up, and Biberli also lent his aid.
Just as the jug was filled, Els, too, hastened in, snatched it from the hand of Martsche, whose old feet were too slow for her, and hurried with it into the entry and up the stairs, passing her father, to whom she had called on the way down.
Casper Eysvogel stood at the bottom of the steps, and called after her that it would not be his fault, but her father's, if everything between her and his son was over.
She probably heard the words, but made no answer, and hastened as fast as her feet would carry her to her mother's bed.
The old physician was holding the gasping woman in his arms, and Eva knelt beside the high bedstead sobbing, as she covered the dry, burning hand with kisses.
When Ernst Ortlieb entered the chamber of his beloved wife a cold chill ran down his back, for the odour of musk, which he had already inhaled beside many a deathbed, reached him.
It had come to this! The end which he had so long delayed by tender love and care was approaching. The flower which had adorned his youth and, spite of its broken stem, had grown still dearer and was treasured beyond everything else that bloomed in his garden, would be torn from him.
This time no friendly potion had helped her to sleep through the noise of the thunderstorm. Soon after the attack of convulsions the agitated, feeble sufferer had started up in terror at the first loud peal of thunder. Fright followed fright, and when the leech came voluntarily to enquire for her, he found a dying woman.
The bleeding restored her to consciousness for a short time, and she evidently recognised her husband and her children. To the former she gave a grateful, tender glance of love, to Els an affectionate, confidential gesture, but Eva, her pride and joy, whom the past night had rendered a child of sorrow, claimed her attention most fully.
Her kind, gentle eyes rested a long time upon her: then she looked toward her husband as if beseeching him to cherish this child with special tenderness in his heart; and when he returned the glance with another, in which all the wealth of his great and loyal love shone through his tears, her fever-flushed features brightened. Memories of the spring of her love seemed to irradiate her last moments and, as her eyes again rested on Eva, her lips once more smiled with the bewitching expression, once her husband's delight, which had long deserted them.
It seemed during this time as if she had forgotten the faithful nurse who for years had willingly sacrificed the pleasures of her days and the sleep of her nights, to lavish upon the child of her anxiety all that her mother-heart still contained, which was naught save love.
Els doubtless noticed it, but with no bitter or sorrowful thoughts. She and the beloved dying woman understood one another. Each knew what she was to the other. Her mother need not doubt, nor did she, that, whatever obstacles life might place in her pathway, Els would pursue the right course even without counsel and guidance. But Eva needed her love and care so much just now, and when the sufferer gave her older daughter also a tender glance and vainly strove to falter a few words of thanks, Els herself replaced in Eva's the hand which her mother had withdrawn.
Fran Maria nodded gently to Els, as if asking her sensible elder daughter to watch over her forsaken sister in her place.
Then her eyes again sought her husband, but the priest, to whom she had just confessed, approached her instead.
After the holy man had performed the duties of his office, she again turned her head toward Eva. It seemed as though she was feasting her eyes on her daughter's charms. Meanwhile she strove to utter what more she desired to say, but the bystanders understood only the words—they were her last: "We thought—should be untouched—But now Heaven——"
Here she paused and, after closing her eyes for a time, went on in a lower but perfectly distinct tone: "You are good—I hope—the forge-fire of life—it is fortunate for you The heart and its demands The hap—pi—ness—which it—gave—me——It ought—it must—you, too——"
Whilst speaking she had again glanced towards her husband, then at the Abbess Kunigunde, who knelt beside him, and as the abbess met the look she thought, "She is entrusting the child to me, and desires Eva to be happy as one of us and the fairest of the brides of Heaven!" Ernst Ortlieb, wholly overpowered by the deepest grief, was far from enquiring into the meaning of these last words of his beloved dying wife.
Els, on the contrary, who had learned to read the sufferer's features and understood her even without words when speech was difficult, had watched every change in the expression of her features with the utmost attention. Without reflecting or interpreting, she was sure that the movements of her dying mother's lips had predicted to Eva that the "forge fire of life" would exert its purifying and moulding influence on her also, and wished that in the world, not in the convent, she might be as happy as she herself had been rendered by her father's love.
After these farewell words Frau Maria's features became painfully distorted, the lids drooped over her eyes, there was a brief struggle, then a slight gesture from the physician announced to the weeping group that her earthly pilgrimage was over.
No one spoke. All knelt silently, with clasped hands, beside the couch, until Eva, as if roused from a dream, shrieked, "She will never come back again!" and with passionate grief threw herself upon the lifeless form to kiss the still face and beseech her to open her dear eyes once more and not leave her.
How often she had remained away from the invalid in order to let her aunt point out the path for her own higher happiness whilst Els nursed her mother; but now that she had left her, she suddenly felt what she had possessed and lost in her love. It seemed as if hitherto she had walked beneath the shadow of leafy boughs, and her mother's death had stripped them all away as an autumn tempest cruelly tears off the foliage. Henceforth she must walk in the scorching sun without protection or shelter. Meanwhile she beheld in imagination fierce flames blazing brightly from the dark soot—the forge fire of life, to which the dead woman's last words had referred. She knew what her mother had wished to say, but at the present time she lacked both the desire and the strength to realise it.
For a time each remained absorbed by individual grief. Then the father drew both girls to his heart and confessed that, with their mother's death life, already impoverished by the loss of his only son, had been bereft of its last charm. His most ardent desire was to be summoned soon to follow the departed ones.
Els summoned up her courage and asked: "And we—are we nothing to you, father?"
Surprised by this rebuke, he started, removed his wet handkerchief from his eyes, and answered: "Yes, yes—but the old do not reckon Ay, much is left to me. But he who is robbed of his best possession easily forgets the good things remaining, and good you both are."
He kissed his daughter lovingly as he spoke, as if wishing to retract the words which had wounded her; then gazing at the still face of the dead, he said: "Before you dress her, leave her alone with me for a time——There is a wild turmoil here and here"—he pointed to his breast and brow—"and yet The last hours——There is so much to settle and consider in a future without her With her, with her dear calm features before my eyes——"
Here a fresh outburst of grief stifled his voice; but Els pointed to the image of the Virgin on the wall and beckoned to her sister.
Wholly engrossed by her own sorrow, Eva had scarcely heeded her father's words, and now impetuously refused to leave her mother. Herr Ernst, pleased by this immoderate grief for the one dearest to him, permitted her to remain, and asked Els to attend to the outside affairs which a death always brought with it.
Els accepted the new duty as a matter of course and went to the door; but at the threshold she turned back, rushed to the deathbed, kissed the pure brow and closed eyelids of the sleeper, and then knelt beside her in silent prayer. When she rose she clasped Eva, who had knelt and risen with her, in a close embrace, and whispered: "Whatever happens, you may rely on me."
Then she consulted her father concerning certain arrangements which must be made, and also asked him what she should say to the maid's lover, who had come to beseech his forgiveness.
"Tell him to leave me in peace!" cried Herr Ernst vehemently. Els tried to intercede for the servant, but her father pressed both hands over his ears, exclaiming: "Who can reach a decision when he is out of his senses himself? Let the man come to-morrow, or the day after. Whoever may call, I will see no one, and don't wish to know who is here."
But the peace and solitude for which he longed seemed denied him. A few hours after he left the chamber of death he was obliged to go to the Town Hall on business which could not be deferred; and when, shortly before sunset, he returned home and locked himself into his own room, old Eysvogel again appeared.
He looked pale and agitated, and ordered the manservant—who denied him admittance as he had been directed—to call Jungfrau Els. His voice trembled as he entreated her to persuade her father to see him again. The matter in question was the final decision of the fate of his ancient house, of Wolff, and also her own and her marriage with his son. Perhaps the death of his beloved wife might render her father's mood more gentle. He did not yet know all Now he must learn it. If he again said "No," it would seal the ruin of the Eysvogel firm.
How imploringly he could plead! how humbly the words fell from the old merchant's lips, moving Els to her inmost heart as she remembered the curt inflexibility with which, only yesterday, this arrogant man, in that very spot, had refused any connection with the Ortliebs! How much it must cost him to bow his stiff neck before her, who was so much younger, and approach her father, whose heart he had so pitilessly trampled under foot, in the character of a supplicant for aid, perhaps a beggar!
Besides, Wolff was his son!
Whatever wrong the father had done her she must forget it, and the task was not difficult; for now—she felt it—no matter from what motive, he honestly desired to unite her to his son. If her lover now led her through the door adorned with the huge, showy escutcheon, she would no longer come as a person unwillingly tolerated, but as a welcome helper-perhaps as the saviour of the imperilled house. Of the women of the Eysvogel family she forbade herself to think.
How touching the handsome, aristocratic, grey-haired man seemed to her in his helpless weakness! If her father would only receive him, he would find it no easier than she to deny him the compassion he so greatly needed.
She knocked at the lonely mourner's door and was admitted.
He was sitting, with his head bowed on his hands, opposite to the large portrait of her dead mother in her bridal robes. The dusk of the gathering twilight concealed the picture, but he had doubtless gazed long at the lovely features, and still beheld them with his mental vision.
Els was received with a mournful greeting; but when Herr Ernst heard what had brought her to him, he fiercely commanded her to tell Herr Casper that he would have nothing more to do with him.
Els interceded for the unfortunate man, begging, pleading, and assuring her father that she would never give up Wolff. The happiness of her whole life was centred in him and his love. If he refused the Eysvogels the aid besought by the old merchant who, in his humility, seemed a different man——
Here her father indignantly broke in, ordering her to disturb him no longer. But now the heritage of his own nature asserted itself in Els and, with an outburst of indignation, she pointed to the picture of her mother, whose kind heart certainly could not have endured to see a broken-hearted man, on whose rescue the happiness of her own child depended, turned from her door like an importunate beggar.
At this the man whose locks had long been grey sprang from his chair with the agility of a youth, exclaiming in vehement excitement: "To embitter the hours devoted to the most sacred grief is genuine Eysvogel selfishness. Everything for themselves! What do they care for others? I except your Wolff; let the future decide what concerns him and you. I will stand by you. But to hope for happiness and peace-nay, even a life without bitter sorrow for you from the rest of the kin—is to expect to gather sweet pears from juniper bushes. Ever since your betrothal your mother and I have had no sleep, disturbed whenever we talked to each other about your being condemned to live under the same roof with that old devil, the countess, her pitiable daughter, and that worthless Siebenburg. But within the past few hours all this has been changed. The table-cloth has been cut between the Eysvogels and the Ortliebs. No power in the world can ever join it. I have not told you what has happened. Now you may learn that you——But first listen, and then decide on whose side you will stand.
"Early this morning I went to the session of the Council. In the market-place I met first one member of it, then a second, third, and fourth; each asked me what had happened to the beautiful E, my lovely little daughter. Gradually I learned what had reached their ears. Yesterday evening, on his way home from here, the man outside, Casper Eysvogel, sullied your—our—good name, child, in a way I have just learned the particulars. He boasted, in the presence of those estimable old gentlemen, the Brothers Ebner, that he had flung at my feet the ring which bound you to his son. You had been surprised at midnight, he said, in the arms of a Swiss knight, and that base scoundrel Siebenburg, his daughter's husband, dared at the gaming-table, before a number of knights and gentlemen—among them young Hans Gross, Veit Holzschuher, and others-to put your interview with the Swiss in so false a light that No, I cannot bring my lips to utter it——
"You need hear only this one thing more: the wretch said that he thanked his patron saint that they had discovered the jade's tricks in time. And this, child, was the real belief of the whole contemptible crew! But now that the water is up to their necks, and they need my helping hand to save them from drowning-now they will graciously take Ernst Ortlieb's daughter if he will give them his property into the bargain, that they may destroy both fortune and child. No—a thousand times no! It is not seemly, at this hour, to yield to the spirit of hate; but she who is lying in her last sleep above would not have counselled me by a single word to such suicidal folly. I did not learn the worst until I went to the Council, or I would have turned the importunate fellow from the door this morning. Tell the old man so, and add that Ernst Ortlieb will have nothing more to do with him."
Here the deeply incensed father pointed to the door.
Els had listened with eyes dilating in horror. The result surpassed her worst fears.
She had felt so secure in her innocence, and the countess had interceded for her so cleverly that, absorbed by anxieties concerning Eva, Cordula, and her mother, she had already half forgotten the disagreeable incident.
Yet, now that her fair name was dragged through the mire, she could scarcely be angry with those who pointed the finger of scorn at her; for faithlessness to a betrothed lover was an offence as great as infidelity to a husband. Nay, her friends were more ready to condemn a girl who broke her vow than a wife who forgot her duty.
And if Wolff, in his biding-place in the citadel, should learn what was said of his Els, to whom yesterday old and young raised their hats in glad yet respectful greeting, would he not believe those who appealed to his own father?
Yet ere she had fully realised this fear, she told herself that it was her duty and her right to thrust it aside. Wolff would not be Wolff if even for a moment he believed such a thing possible. They ought not, could not, doubt each other. Though all Nuremberg should listen to the base calumny and turn its back upon her, she was sure of her Wolff. Ay, he would cherish her with twofold tenderness when he learned by whom this terrible suffering had been inflicted upon her.
Drawing a long breath, she again fixed her eyes upon her mother's portrait. Had she now rushed out to tell the old man who had so cruelly injured her—oh, it would have lightened her heart!—the wrong he had done and what she thought of him, her mother would certainly have stopped her, saying: "Remember that he is your betrothed husband's father." She would not forget it; she could not even hate the ruined man.
Any effort to change her father's mood now—she saw it plainly—would be futile. Later, when his just anger had cooled, perhaps he might be persuaded to aid the endangered house.
Herr Ernst gazed after her sorrowfully as, with a gesture of farewell, she silently left the room to tell her lover's father that he had come in vain.
The old merchant was waiting in the entry, where the wails of the servants and the women in the neighbourhood who, according to custom, were beating their brows and breasts and rending their garments, could be heard distinctly.
Deadly pale, as if ready to sink, he tottered towards the door.
When Els saw him hesitate at the top of the few steps leading to the entry, she gave him her arm to support him down. As he cautiously put one foot after the other on the stairs, she wondered how it was possible that this man, whose tall figure and handsome face were cast in so noble a mould, could believe her to be so base; and at the same moment she remembered the words which old Berthold Vorchtel had uttered in her presence to his son Ulrich: "If anything obscure comes between you and a friend, obtain a clear understanding and peace by truth."
Had the young man who had irritated his misjudged friend into crossing swords with him followed this counsel, perhaps he would have been alive now. She would take it herself, and frankly ask Wolff's father what justified him in accusing her of so base a deed.
The lamps were already lighted in the hall, and the rays from the central one fell upon Herr Casper's colourless face, which wore an expression of despair. But just as her lips parted to ask the question the odour of musk reached her from the death-chamber, whose door Eva had opened. Her mother's gentle face, still in death, rose before her memory, and she was forced to exert the utmost self-control not to weep aloud. Without further reflection she imposed silence upon herself and—yesterday she would not have ventured to do it—threw her arm around Herr Casper's shoulders, gazed affectionately at him, and whispered: "You must not despair, father. You have a faithful ally in this house in Els."
The old man looked down at her in astonishment, but instead of drawing her closer to him he released himself with courteous coldness, saying bitterly: "There is no longer any bond between us and the Ortliebs, Jungfrau Els. From this day forth I am no more your father than you are the bride of my son. Your will may be good, but how little it can accomplish has unfortunately been proved."
Shrugging his shoulders wearily as he spoke, he nodded a farewell and left the house.
Four bearers were waiting outside with the sedan-chair, three servants with torches, and two stout attendants carrying clubs over their shoulders. All wore costly liveries of the Eysvogel colours, and when their master had taken his seat in the gilded conveyance and the men lifted it, Els heard a weaver's wife, who lived near by, say to her little boy: "That's the rich Herr Eysvogel, Fritzel. He has as much money to spend every hour as we have in a whole year, and he is a very happy man."
Els went back into the house.
The repulse which she had just received caused her bitter sorrow. Her father was right. Herr Casper had treated her kindly from a purely selfish motive. She herself was nothing to him.
But there was so much for her to do that she found little time to grieve over this new trouble.
Eva was praying in the death-chamber for the soul of the beloved dead with some of the nuns from the convent, who had lost in her mother a generous benefactress.
Els was glad to know that she was occupied; it was better that her sister should be spared many of the duties which she was obliged to perform. Whilst arranging with the coffin-maker and the "Hegelein," the sexton and upholsterer, ordering a large number of candles and everything else requisite at the funeral of the mistress of an aristocratic household, she also found time to look after her father and Countess Cordula, who was better. Yet she did not forget her own affairs.
Biberli had returned. He had much to relate; but when forced to admit that nothing was urgent, she requested him to defer it until later, and only commissioned him to go to the castle, greet Wolff in her name, and announce her mother's death; Katterle would accompany him, in order to obtain admittance through her countryman, the Swiss warder.
Els might have sent one of the Ortlieb servants; but, in the first place, the fugitive's refuge must be concealed, and then she told herself that Biberli, who had witnessed the occurrence of the previous evening, could best inform Wolff of the real course of events. But when she gave him permission to tell her betrothed husband all that he had seen and heard the day before at the Ortlieb mansion, Biberli replied that a better person than he had undertaken to do so. As he left his master, Sir Heinz was just going to seek her lover. When she learned all that had befallen the knight, she would understand that he was no longer himself. Els, however, had no time to listen, and promised to hear his story when he returned; but he was too full of the recent experience to leave it untold, and briefly related how wonderfully Heaven had preserved his master's life. Then he also told her hurriedly that the trouble which had come upon her through Sir Heinz's fault burdened his soul. Therefore he would not let the night pass without at least showing her betrothed husband how he should regard the gossip of idle tongues if it penetrated to his hiding-place.