The Fire Of The Forge by Georg Ebers
Wolff had scarcely vanished from the street, and Els from the window, when a man's slender figure appeared, as if it had risen from the earth, beside the spurge-laurel tree at the left of the house. Directly after some one rapped lightly on the pavement of the yard, and in a few minutes the heavy ironbound oak doors opened and a woman's hand beckoned to the late guest, who glided swiftly along in the narrow line of shadow cast by the house and vanished through the entrance.
The moon looked after him doubtfully. In former days the narrow-shouldered fellow had been seen near the Ortlieb house often enough, and his movements had awakened Luna's curiosity; for he had been engaged in amorous adventure even when work was still going on at the recently completed convent of St. Clare--an institution endowed by the Ebner brothers, to which Herr Ernst Ortlieb added a considerable sum. At that time--about three years before--the bold fellow had gone there to keep tryst evening after evening, and the pretty girl who met him was Katterle, the waiting maid of the beautiful Els, as Nuremberg folk called the Ortlieb sisters, Els and Eva. Many vows of ardent, changeless love for her had risen to the moon, and the outward aspect of the man who made them afforded a certain degree of assurance that he would fulfil his pledges, for he then wore the long dark robe of reputable people, and on the front of his cap, from which a net shaped like a bag hung down his back, was a large S, and on the left shoulder of his long coat a T, the initials of the words Steadfast and True. They bore witness that the person who had them embroidered on his clothing deemed these virtues the highest and noblest. It might have been believed that the lean fellow, who scarcely looked his five-and-thirty years, possessed these lofty traits of character; for, though three full years had passed since his last meeting with Katterle at the building site, he had gone to his sweetheart with his wonted steadfastness and truth immediately after the Emperor Rudolph's entry.
He had given her reason to rely upon him; but the moon's gaze reaches far, and had discovered the quality of Walther Biberli's "steadfastness and truth."
In one respect it proved the best and noblest; for among thousands of servitors the moon had not seen one who clung to his lord with more loyal devotion. Towards pretty young women, on the contrary, he displayed his principal virtues in a very singular way; for the pallid nocturnal wanderer above had met him in various lands and cities, and wherever he tarried long another maid was added to the list of those to whom Biberli vowed steadfastness and truth.
True, whenever Sir Long Coat's travels led him back to any one to whom he had sworn eternal love, he went first to her, if she, too, retained the old affection. But Katterle had cause to care for him most, for he was more warmly devoted to her than to any of the others, and in his own fashion his intentions were honest. He seriously intended, as soon as his master left the imperial court--which he hoped would not happen too soon--and returned to his ancestral castle in his native Switzerland, to establish a home of his own for his old age, and no one save Katterle should light the hearth fire. Her outward circumstances pleased him, as well as her disposition and person. She was free-born, like himself--the son of a forest keeper--and, again like him, belonged to a Swiss family; her heritage (she was an orphan), which consisted of a house and arable land in her home, Sarnen, where she still sent her savings, satisfied his requirements. But above all she believed in him and admired his versatile mind and his experience. Moreover, she gave him absolute obedience, and loved him so loyally that she had remained unwedded, though a number of excellent men had sought her in marriage.
Katterle had met him for the first time more than three years before when, after the battle of Marchfield, he remained several weeks in Nuremberg. They had sat side by side at a tournament, and, recognising each other as Swiss-born by the sharp sound of the letters "ch" and the pronunciation of other words, were mutually attracted.
Katterle had a kind heart; yet at that time she almost yielded to the temptation to pray Heaven not to hasten the cure of a brave man's wounds too quickly, for she knew that Biberli was a squire in the service of the young Swiss knight Heinz Schorlin, whose name was on every lip because, in spite of his youth, he had distinguished himself at the battle of Marchfield by his rare bravery, and that the young hero would remain in Nuremberg only until his severe injuries were completely healed. His departure would bring to her separation from his servant, and sometimes when homesickness tortured her she thought she would be unable to survive the parting. Meanwhile Biberli nursed his master with faithful zeal, as if nothing bound him to Nuremberg, and even after his departure Katterle remained in good health.
Now she had him again. Directly after the Emperor Rudolph's entrance, five days before, Biberli had come openly to the Ortlieb house and presented himself to Martsche,--[Margaret]--the old house keeper, as the countryman and friend of the waiting maid, who had brought her a message from home.
True, it had been impossible to say anything confidential either in the crowded kitchen or in the servants' hall. To-night's meeting was to afford the opportunity.
The menservants, carrying sedan chairs and torches, had all gone out with their master, who had taken his younger daughter, Eva, to the dance. They were to wait in front of the Town Hall, because it was doubtful whether the daughter of the house, who had been very reluctant to go to the entertainment, might not urge an early departure. Count von Montfort, whose quarters were in the Ortlieb mansion, and his whole train of male attendants, certainly would not come back till very late at night or even early morning, for the Countess Cordula remained at a ball till the close, and her father lingered over the wine cup till his daughter called him from the revellers.
All this warranted the lovers in hoping for an undisturbed interview. The place of meeting was well chosen. It was unsatisfactory only to the moon for, after Biberli had closed the heavy door of the house behind him, Luna found no chink or crevice through which a gliding ray might have watched what the true and steadfast Biberli was saying to Katterle. There was one little window beside the door, but it was closed, and the opening was covered with sheepskin. So the moon's curiosity was not gratified.
Instead of her silver rays, the long entry of the Ortlieb house, with its lofty ceiling, was illumined only by the light of three lanterns, which struggled dimly through horn panes. The shining dots in a dark corner of the spacious corridor were the eyes of a black cat, watching there for rats and mice.
The spot really possessed many advantages for the secret meeting of two lovers, for as it ran through the whole width of the house, it had two doors, one leading to the street, the other into the yard. In the right wall of the entry there were also two small doors, reached by a flight of steps. At this hour both closed empty rooms, for the office and the chamber where Herr Ernst Ortlieb received his business friends had not been occupied since sunset, and the bathroom and dressing-room adjoining were used only during the day.
True, some unbidden intruder might have come down the long broad staircase leading to the upper story. But in that case the lovers had the best possible hiding-place close at hand, for here large and small boxes, standing side by side and one above another, formed a protecting wall; yonder heaps of sacks and long rows of casks afforded room for concealment behind them. Rolls of goods packed in sacking leaned against the chests, inviting a fugitive to slip back of them, and surely no one would suspect the presence of a pair of lovers in the rear of these mountains of hides and bales wrapped in matting. Still it would scarcely have been advisable to remain near them; for these packages, which the Ortlieb house brought from Venice, contained pepper and other spices that exhaled a pungent odor, endurable only by hardened nerves.
Valuable goods of various kinds lay here until they could be placed in cellars or storehouses or sold. But there was many an empty space, too, in the broad corridor for, spite of Emperor Rudolph's strictness, robbery on the highroads had by no means ceased, and Herr Ernst Ortlieb was still compelled to use caution in the transportation of costly wares.
After Biberli and his sweetheart had assured themselves that the ardour of their love had by no means cooled, they sat down on some bags filled with cloves and related to each other the experiences through which they had passed during the period of separation.
Katterle's life had flowed on in a pleasant monotony. She had no cause to complain of her employers.
Fran Maria Ortlieb, the invalid mistress of the house, rarely needed her services.
During a ride to visit relatives in Ulm, the travellers, who were under the same escort of men at arms as a number of Nuremberg freight waggons, had been attacked by the robber knights Absbach and Hirschhorn. An arrow had struck Frau Ortlieb's palfrey, causing the unfortunate woman a severe fall, which produced an internal injury, from which she had not yet recovered. The assault resulted unfortunately for young Hirschhorn, who led it; he met with a shameful death on the gallows.
The information enraged Biberli. Instead of feeling any sympathy for the severely injured lady, he insisted that the Nuremberg burghers had dealt with Hirschhorn in a rascally fashion; for he was a knight, and therefore, as honest judges familiar with the law, they ought to have put him to death by the sword instead of with the rope. And Katterle agreed with him; she never contradicted his opinions, and surely Biberli must know what treatment befitted a knight, since he was the foster-brother of one.
Nor did the maid, who was in the personal service of the daughters of the house, make any complaint against them. Indeed, she could not praise Els, the elder, sufficiently. She was very just, the careful nurse of her invalid mother, and always unvarying in her cheerful kindness.
She had no fault to find with Eva either, especially as she was more religious than any one in the whole house. Spite of her marvellous beauty--Katterle knew that there was nothing false about it--she would probably end by joining the nuns in the convent. But her mood changed with every breath, like the weathercock on the steeple. If she got out of bed the wrong way, or one did not guess her wishes before they were uttered, she would fly into a rage at the least trifle. Then she sometimes used very unkind words; but no one could cherish anger against her long, for she had an indescribably lovely manner of trying to atone for the offences which her hasty young blood made her commit. She had gone to the ball that night as if it were a funeral; she shunned men like poison, and even kept out of the way of her sister's friends.
Biberli laughed, as if there could be no doubt of his opinion, and exclaimed: "Just wait a while! My master will meet her at the Town Hall tonight, and if the scrawny little squirrel I saw three years ago has really grown up into such a beauty, if he does not get on her track and capture her, my name isn't Biberli."
"But surely," replied Katterle doubtfully, "you told me that you had not yet succeeded in persuading him to imitate you in steadfastness and truth."
"But he is a knight," replied the servant, striking himself pompously under the T on his shoulder, as if he, too, belonged to this favoured class, "and so he is as free to pursue a woman as to hunt the game in the forest. And my Heinz Schorlin! You saw him, and admitted that he was worth looking at. And that was when he had scarcely recovered from his dangerous wounds, while now----The French Knight de Preully, in Paris, with whom my dead foster-brother, until he fell sick-----" Here he hesitated; an enquiring look from his sweetheart showed that--perhaps for excellent reasons--he had omitted to tell her about his sojourn in Paris.
Now that he had grown older and abandoned the wild revelry of that period in favour of truth and steadfastness, he quietly related everything she desired to know.
He had acquired various branches of learning while sharing the studies of his foster-brother, the eldest son of the old Knight Schorlin, who was then living, and therefore, when scarcely twenty, was appointed schoolmaster at Stansstadt. Perhaps he might have continued to teach--for he promised to be successful--had not a vexatious discovery disgusted him with his calling.
He was informed that the mercenaries in the Schnitzthurm guard were paid five shillings a week more than he, spite of the knowledge he had gained by so much toil.
In his indignation he went back to Schorlin Castle, which was always open to him, and he arrived just at the right time.
His present master's older brother, whose health had always been delicate, being unable to follow the profession of arms, was on the eve of departing to attend the university at Paris, accompanied by the chaplain and an equerry. When the Lady Wendula, his master's mother, learned what an excellent reputation Biberli had gained as a schoolmaster, she persuaded her husband to send him as esquire with their sickly son.
In Paris there was at first no lack of pleasures of every description, especially as they met among the king's mercenaries many a dissolute Swiss knight and man at arms. His foster-brother, to his sorrow, was unable to resist the temptations which Satan scatters in Paris as the peasants elsewhere sow rye and oats, and the young knight was soon attacked, by a severe illness. Then Biberli's gay life ended too. For months he did not leave his foster-brother's sick bed a single hour, by day or night, until death released him from his suffering.
On his return to Castle Schorlin he found many changes; the old knight had been called away from earth a few days before his son's death, and Heinz Schorlin, his present master, had fallen heir to castle and lands. This, however, was no great fortune, for the large estates of the Schorlin family were burdened by heavy debts.
The dead lord, as countryman, boon companion, and brother in arms of the Emperor Rudolph, had been always ready to place his sword at his service, and whenever a great tournament was held he never failed to be present. So the property had been consumed, and the Lady Wendula and her son and three daughters were left in moderate circumstances. The two older girls had taken the veil, while the youngest, a merry little maiden, lived with her mother.
But the Emperor Rudolph had by no means forgotten the Lady Wendula and her dead husband, and with the utmost kindness requested her to send him her only son as soon as he was able to wield a sword and lance. He intended to repay Heinz for the love and loyalty his father had shown him through his whole life.
"And the Hapsburg," Biberli added, "had kept his word."
In a few years his young lord was ready for a position at court.
Gotthard von Ramsweg, the Lady Wendula's older brother, a valiant knight, went to his sister's home after her husband's death to manage the estate and instruct his nephew in all the exercises of knighthood. Soon the strong, agile, fearless son of a brave father, under the guidance of such a teacher, excelled many an older youth. He was barely eighteen when the Lady Wendula sent him to his imperial master. She had given him, with her blessing, fiery horses, the finest pieces of his father's suits of mail, an armour bearer, and a groom to take with him on his journey; and his uncle had agreed to accompany him to Lausanne, where the Emperor Rudolph was then holding his court to discuss with Pope Gregory--the tenth of the name--arrangements for a new crusade. But nothing had yet been said about Biberli. On the evening before the young noble's departure, however, a travelling minstrel came to the castle, who sang of the deeds of former crusaders, and alluded very touchingly to the loneliness of the wounded knight, Herr Weisenthau, on his couch of pain. Then the Lady Wendula remembered her eldest son, and the fraternal tendance which Biberli had given him.
"And so," the servant went on, "in the anxiety of a mother's heart she urged me to accompany Heinz, her darling, as esquire; and watch over his welfare."
"Since I could use a pen, I was to write now and then what a mother desires to hear of a son. She felt great confidence in me, because she believed that I was true and steadfast. And I have kept in every respect the vow I then made to the Lady Wendula--that she should not find herself mistaken in me. I remember that evening as if it were only yesterday. To keep constantly before my eyes the praise my mistress had bestowed upon me, I ventured to ask my young master' sister to embroider the T and the S on the cap and the new coat, and the young lady did so that very night. Since that time these two initials have gone with me wherever our horses bear us, and as, after the battle of Marchfield, Biberli nursed his master back to health with care and toil, he thinks he can prove to you, his sole sweetheart, that he wears his T and S with good reason."
In return for these words Katterle granted her friend the fitting reward with such resignation that it was robbing the moon not to permit her to look on. Her curiosity, however, was not to remain wholly ungratified; for when Biberli found that it was time for him to repair to the Town Hall to learn whether his master, Heinz Schorlin, needed his services, Katterle came out of the house door with him.
They found much more to say and to do ere they parted.
First, the Swiss maid-servant wished to know how the Emperor Rudolph had received Heinz Schorlin; and she had the most gratifying news.
During their stay at Lausanne, where he won the victory in a tournament, Heinz was knighted; but after the battle of Marchfield he became still dearer to the Emperor, especially when a firm friendship united the young Swiss to Hartmann, Rudolph's eighteen-year-old son, who was now on the Rhine. That very day Heinz had received a tangible proof of the imperial favour, on account of which he had gone to the dance in an extremely cheerful mood.
This good news concerning the knight, whom her young mistress had perhaps already met, awakened in the maid, who was not averse to the business of matchmaking, so dear to her sex, very aspiring plans which aimed at nothing less than a union between Eva and Heinz Schorlin. But Biberli had scarcely perceived the purport of Katterle's words when he anxiously interrupted her and, declaring that he had already lingered too long, cut short the suggestion by taking leave.
His master's marriage to a young girl who belonged to the city nobility, which in his eyes was far inferior in rank to a Knight Schorlin, should cast no stone in the pathway of fame that was leading him so swiftly upward. Many things must happen before Biberli could honestly advise him to give up his present free and happy life and seek rest in his own nest.
If Eva Ortlieb were as lovely as the Virgin herself, and Sir Heinz's inflammable heart should blaze as fervently as it always did, she should not lure him into the paralysing bondage of wedlock so long as he was there and watched over him.
If he must be married, Biberli had something else in view for him--something which would make him a great lord at a single stroke. But it was too soon even for that.
When he crossed the Fleischbrucke in the market place and approached the brilliantly lighted Town Hall, he had considerable difficulty in moving forward, for the whole square was thronged with curious spectators, servants in gala liveries, sedan chairs, richly caparisoned steeds, and torchbearers. The von Montfort retinue, which had quarters in the Ortlieb house, was one of the most brilliant and numerous of all, and Biberli's eyes wandered with a look of satisfaction over the gold-mounted sedan chair of the young countess. He would rather have given his master to her than to the Nuremberg maiden whom Katterle compared to a weathercock, and who therefore certainly did not possess the lofty virtue of steadfastness.