The Fire Of The Forge by Georg Ebers
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."