The Fire Of The Forge by Georg Ebers
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.
Els uttered a sigh of relief. Surely Wolff must trust her! Yet what viciously coloured reports might reach him from the Eysvogels! Now that he would learn the actual truth from the most credible eye-witnesses she no longer dreaded even the worst calumny.
No one appeared at supper except her father. Eva had begged to be excused. She wished to remain undisturbed; but the world, with rude yet beneficent hand, interrupted even her surrender to her grief for her mother.
The tailor, who protested that, owing to the mourning for young Prince Hartmann, he had fairly "stolen" this hour for the beautiful Ortlieb sisters, came with his assistant, and at the same time a messenger arrived from the cloth-house in the market-place bringing the packages of white stuffs for selection. Then it was necessary to decide upon the pattern and material; the sisters must appear in mourning the next morning at the consecration, and later at the mass for the dead.
Eva had turned to these worldly matters with sincere repugnance, but Els would not release her from giving them due attention.
It was well for her tortured soul and the poor eyes reddened by weeping. But when she again knelt in the chamber of death beside her dear nuns and saw the grey robe, which they all wore, the wish to don one, which she had so often cherished, again awoke. No other was more pleasing to her Heavenly Bridegroom, and she forbade herself in this hour to think of the only person for whose sake she would gladly have adorned herself. Yet the struggle to forget him constantly recalled him to her mind, no matter how earnestly she strove to shut out his image whenever it appeared. But, after her last conversation, must not her mother have died in the belief that she would not give up her love? And the dead woman's last words? Yet, no matter what they meant, here and now nothing should come between her and the beloved departed. She devoted herself heart and soul to the memory of the longing for her.
Grief for her loss, repentance for not having devoted herself faithfully enough to her, and the hope that in the convent her prayers might obtain a special place in the world beyond for the beloved sleeper, now revived her wish to take the veil. She felt bound to the nuns, who shared her aspirations. When her father came to send her to her rest and asked whether, as a motherless child, she intended to trust his love and care or to choose another mother who was not of this world, she answered quietly with a loving glance at the picture of St. Clare, "As you wish, and she commands."
Herr Ernst kindly replied that she still had ample time to make her decision, and then again urged her to leave the watch beside the dead to the women who had been appointed to it and the nuns, who desired to remain with the body; but Eva insisted so eagerly upon sharing it that Els, by a significant gesture to her father, induced him to yield.
She kept her sister away whilst the corpse was being laid out and the women were performing their other duties by asking Eva to receive their Aunt Christine, the wife of Berthold Pfinzing, who had hurried to the city from Schweinau as soon as she had news of her sister-in-law's death.
Nothing must cloud the memory of the beloved sufferer in the mind of her child, and Els knew that Frau Christine had been a dear friend of the dead woman, that Eva clung to her like a second mother, and that nothing could reach her sister from her honest heart which would not benefit her. Nor was she mistaken, for the warm, affectionate manner in which the matron greeted the young girl restored her composure; nay, when Fran Christine was obliged to go, because her time was claimed by important duties, she would gladly have detained her.
When Eva, in a calmer mood than before, at last entered the hall where her mother's body now lay in a white silk shroud on the snowy satin pillows, as she was to be placed before the altar for the service of consecration on the morrow, she was again overwhelmed with all the violence of the deepest grief; nay, the burning anguish of her soul expressed itself so vehemently that the abbess, who had returned whilst the sisters were still taking leave of their Aunt Christine, did not succeed in soothing her until, drawing her aside, she whispered: "Remember our saint, child. He called everything, even the sorest agony, 'Sister Sorrow'. So you, too, must greet sorrow as a sister, the daughter of your heavenly Father. Remember the supreme, loving hand whence it came, and you will bear it patiently."
Eva nodded gratefully, and when grief threatened to overpower her she thought of the saint's soothing words, "Sister Sorrow," and her heart grew calmer.
Els knew how much the emotions of the previous nights must have wearied her, and had permitted her to share the vigil beside the corpse only because she believed that she would be unable to resist sleep. She had slipped a pillow between her back and that of the tall, handsome chair which she had chosen for a seat, but Eva disappointed her expectation; for whatever she earnestly desired she accomplished, and whilst Els often closed her eyes, she remained wide awake. When sleep threatened to overpower her she thought of her mother's last words, especially one phrase, "the forge fire of life," which seemed specially pregnant with meaning. Yet, ere she had reached any definite understanding of its true significance, the cocks began to crow, the song of the nightingale ceased, and the twittering of the other birds in the trees and bushes in the garden greeted the dawning day.
Then she rose and, smiling, kissed Els, who was sleeping, on the forehead, told Sister Renata that she would go to rest, and lay down on her bed in the darkened chamber.
Whilst praying and reflecting she had thought constantly of her mother. Now she dreamed that Heinz Schorlin had borne her in his strong arms out of the burning convent, as Sir Boemund Altrosen had saved the Countess von Montfort, and carried her to the dead woman, who looked as fresh and well as in the days before her sickness.
When, three hours before noon, she awoke, she returned greatly refreshed to her dead mother. How mild and gentle her face was even now; yet the dear, silent lips could never again give her a morning greeting and, overwhelmed by grief, she threw herself on her knees before the coffin.
But she soon rose again. Her recent slumber had transformed the passionate anguish into quiet sorrow.
Now, too, she could think of external things. There was little to be done in the last arrangement of the dead, but she could place the delicate, pale hands in a more natural position, and the flowers which the gardener had brought to adorn the coffin did not satisfy her. She knew all that grew in the woods and fields near Nuremberg, and no one could dispose bouquets more gracefully. Her mother had been especially fond of some of them, and was always pleased when she brought them home from her walks with the abbess or Sister Perpetua, the experienced old doctress of the convent. Many grew in the forest, others on the brink of the water. The beloved dead should not leave the house, whose guide and ornament she had been, without her favourite blossoms.
Eva arranged the flowers brought by the gardener as gracefully as possible, and then asked Sister Perpetua to go to walk with her, telling her father and sister that she wished to be out of doors with the nun for a short time.
She told no one what she meant to do. Her mother's favourite flowers should be her own last gift to her.
Old Martsche received the order to send Ortel, the youngest manservant in the household, a good-natured fellow eighteen years old, with a basket, to wait for her and Sister Perpetua at the weir.
After the thunderstorm of the day before the air was specially fresh and pure; it was a pleasure merely to breathe. The sun shone brightly from the cloudless sky. It was a delightful walk through the meadows and forest over the footpath which passed near the very Dutzen pool, where Katterle the day before had resolved to seek death. All Nature seemed revived as though by a refreshing bath. Larks flew heavenward with a low sweet song, from amidst the grain growing luxuriantly for the winter harvest, and butterflies hovered above the blossoming fields. Slender dragon-flies and smaller busy insects flitted buzzing from flower to flower, sucking honey from the brimming calyxes and bearing to others the seeds needed to form fruit. The songs of finches and the twitter of white-throats echoed from many a bush by the wayside.
In the forest they were surrounded by delightful shade animated by hundreds of loud and low voices far away and close at hand. Countless buds were opening under the moss and ferns, strawberries were ripening close to the ground, and the delicate leafy boughs of the bilberry bushes were full of juicy green oared fruit.
Near the weir they heard a loud clanking and echoing, but it had a very different effect from the noise of the city; instead of exciting curiosity there was something soothing in the regularity of the blows of the iron hammer and the monotonous croaking of the frogs.
In this part of the forest, where the fairest flowers grew, the morning dew still hung glittering from the blossoms and grasses. Here it was secluded, yet full of life, and amidst the wealth of sounds in which might be heard the tapping of the woodpecker, the cry of the lapwing, and the call of the distant wood-pigeon, it was so still and peaceful that Eva's heart grew lighter in spite of her grief.
Sister Perpetua spoke only to answer a question. She sympathised with Eva's thought when she frankly expressed her pleasure in every new discovery, for she knew for whom and with what purpose she was seeking and culling the flowers and, instead of accusing her of want of feeling, she watched with silent emotion the change wrought in the innocent child by the effort to render, in league with Nature, an act of loving service to the one she held dearest.
True, even now grief often rudely assailed Eva's heart. At such times she paused, sighing silently, or exclaimed to her companion, "Ah, if she could be with us!" or else asked thoughtfully if she remembered how her mother had rejoiced over the fragrant orchid or the white water-lily which she had just found.
Sister Perpetua had taken part of the blossoms which she had gathered; but Ortel already stood waiting with the basket, and the house-dog, Wasser, which had followed the young servant, ran barking joyously to meet the ladies. Eva already had flowers enough to adorn the coffin as she desired, and the sun showed that it was time to return.
Hitherto they had met no one. The blossoms could be arranged here in the forest meadow under the shade of the thick hazel-bushes which bordered the pine wood.
After Eva had thrown hers on the grass, she asked the nun to do the same with her own motley bundle.
Between the thicket and the road stood a little chapel which had been erected by the Mendel family on the spot where a son of old Herr Nikolaus had been murdered. Four Frank robber knights had attacked him and the train of waggons he had ridden out to meet, and killed the spirited young man, who fought bravely in their defence.
Such an event would no longer have been possible so near the city. But Eva knew what had befallen the Eysvogel wares and, although she did not lack courage, she started in terror as she heard the tramp of horses' hoofs and the clank of weapons, not from the city, but within the forest.
She hastily beckoned to her companion who, being slightly deaf had heard nothing, to hide with her behind the hazel-bushes, and also told the young servant, who had already placed the basket beside the flowers, to conceal himself, and all three strained their ears to catch the sounds from the wood.
Ortel held the dog by the collar, silenced him, and assured his mistress that it was only another little band of troopers on their way from Altdorf to join the imperial army.
But this surmise soon proved wrong, for the first persons to appear were two armed horsemen, who turned their heads as nimbly as their steeds, now to the right and now to the left, scanning the thickets along the road distrustfully. After a somewhat lengthy interval the tall figure of an elderly man followed, clad in deep mourning. Beneath his cap, bordered with fine fur, long locks fell to his shoulders, and he was mounted on a powerful Binzgau charger. At his side, on a beautiful spirited bay, rode a very young woman whose pliant figure was extremely aristocratic in its bearing.
As soon as the hazel-bushes and pine trees, which had concealed the noble pair, permitted a view of them, Eva recognised in the gentleman the Emperor Rudolph, and in his companion Duchess Agnes of Austria, his young daughter-in-law, whom she had not forgotten since the dance at the Town Hall. Behind them came several mailed knights, with the emblems of the deepest mourning on their garments and helmets, and among those nearest to the Emperor Eva perceived--her heart almost stood still--the person whom she had least expected to meet here--Heinz Schorlin.
Whilst she was gathering the flowers for her mother's coffin his image had almost vanished from her mind. Now he appeared before her in person, and the sight moved her so deeply that Sister Perpetua, who saw her turn pale and cling to the young pine by her side, attributed her altered expression to fear of robber knights, and whispered, "Don't be troubled, child; it is only the Emperor."
Neither the first horsemen-guards whom the magistrate, Berthold Pfinzing, Eva's uncle, had assigned to the sovereign without his knowledge, to protect him from unpleasant encounters during his early morning ride--nor the Emperor and his companions could have seen Eva whilst they were passing the chapel; but scarcely had they reached it when the dog Wasser, which had escaped from Ortel's grasp, burst through the hazel copse and, barking furiously, dashed towards the duchess's horse.
The spirited animal leaped aside, but a few seconds later Heinz Schorlin had swung himself from the saddle and dealt the dog so vigorous a kick that it retreated howling into the thicket. Meanwhile he had watched every movement of the bay, and at the right instant his strong hand had grasped its nostrils and forced it to stand.
"Always alert and on the spot at the right time!" cried the Emperor, then added mournfully, "So was our Hartmann, too."
The duchess bent her head in assent, but the grieving father pointed to Heinz, and added: "The boy owed his blithe vigour partly to the healthful Swiss blood with which he was born, but yonder knight, during the decisive years of life, set him the example. Will you dismount, child, and let Schorlin quiet the bay?"
"Oh, no," replied the duchess, "I understand the animal. You have not yet broken the wonderful son of the desert of shying, as you promised. It was not the barking cur, but yonder basket that has dropped from the skies, which frightened him."
She pointed, as she spoke, to the grass near the chapel where, beside Eva's flowers, stood the light willow basket which was to receive them.
"Possibly, noble lady," replied Heinz, patting the glossy neck of the Arabian, a gift to the Emperor Rudolph from the Egyptian Mameluke Sultan Kalaun. "But perhaps the clever creature merely wished to force his royal rider to linger here. Graciously look over yonder, Your Highness; does it not seem as if the wood fairy herself had laid by the roadside for your illustrious Majesty the fairest flowers that bloom in field and forest, mere and moss?"
As he spoke he stooped, selected from the mass of blossoms gathered by Eva those which specially pleased his eye, hastily arranged them in a bouquet, and with a respectful bow presented them to the duchess.
She thanked him graciously, put the nosegay in her belt, and gazed at him with so warm a light in her eyes that Eva felt as if her heart was shrinking as she watched the scene.
Even princesses, who were separated from him by so wide a gulf, could not help favouring this man. How could she, the simple maiden whom he had assured of his love, ever have been able to give him up?
But she had no time to think and ponder; the Emperor was already riding on with the Bohemian princess, and Heinz went to his horse, whose bridle was held by one of the troopers who followed the train.
Ere he swung himself into the saddle again, however, he paused to reflect.
The thought that he had robbed some flower or herb-gatherer of a portion of the result of her morning's work had entered his mind and, obeying a hasty impulse, he flung a glittering zecchin into the basket.
Eva saw it, and every fibre of her being urged her to step forward, tell him that the flowers were hers, and thank him in the name of the poor for whom she destined his gift; but maidenly diffidence held her in check, although he gave her sufficient opportunity; for when he perceived the image of the Virgin in the Mendel chapel, he crossed himself, removed his helmet, and bending the knee repeated, whilst the others rode on without him, a silent prayer. His brown locks floated around his head, and his features expressed deep earnestness and glowing ardour.
Oh, how gladly Eva would have thrown herself on her knees beside him, clasped his hands, and--nay, not prayed, her heart was throbbing too stormily for that-rested her head upon his breast and told him that she trusted him, and felt herself one with him in earthly as well as heavenly love!
Whoever prayed thus in solitude had a soul yearning for the loftiest things. Others might say what they chose, she knew him better. This man, from the first hour of their meeting, had loved her with the most ardent but also with the holiest passion; never, never had he sought her merely for wanton amusement. Her mother's last wish would be fulfilled. She need only trust him with her whole soul, and leave the "forge fire of life" to strengthen and purify her.
Now she remembered where the dying woman had heard the phrase.
Her Aunt Christine had used it recently in her mother's presence. Young Kunz Schurstab had fallen into evil ways in Lyons. Every one, even his own father, had given him up for lost; but after several years he returned home and proved himself capable of admirable work, both in his father's business and in the Council. In reply to Frau Ortlieb's enquiry where this transformation in the young man had occurred, her aunt answered:
"In the forge fire of life." Eva told herself that she had intentionally kept aloof from its flames, and in the convent, perhaps, they would never have reached her. Yesterday they had seized upon her for the first time, and henceforward she would not evade them, that she might obey her mother and become worthy of the man praying silently yonder. He owed to his heroic courage and good sword a renowned name; but what had she ever done save selfishly to provide for her own welfare in this world and the next? She had not even been strong enough to hold the head of the mother, to whom she owed everything and who had loved her so tenderly, when the convulsions attacked her.
Even after she closed her eyes in death--she had noticed it--she had been kept from every duty in the household and for the beloved dead, because it was deemed unsuitable for her, and Els and every one avoided putting the serious demands of life between the "little saint" and her aspirations towards the bliss of heaven. Yet Eva knew that she could accomplish whatever she willed to do, and instead of using the strength which she felt stirring with secret power in her fragile body, she had preferred to let it remain idle, in order to dwell in another world from that in which she had been permitted to prove her might. The fire of the forge, by whose means pieces of worthless iron were transformed into swords and ploughshares, should use its influence upon her also. Let it burn and torture her, if it only made her a genuine, noble woman, a woman like her Aunt Christine, from whom her mother had heard the phrase of "the forge fire of life," who aided and pointed out the right path to hundreds, and probably, at her age, had needed neither an Els nor an Abbess Kunigunde to keep her, body and soul, in the right way. She loved both; but some impulse within rebelled vehemently against being treated like a child, and--now that her mother was dead--subjecting her own will to that of any other person than the man to whom she would have gladly looked up as a master.
Whilst Heinz knelt in front of the chapel without noticing Sister Perpetua, who was praying before the altar within, these thoughts darted through Eva's brain like a flash of lightning. Now he rose and went to his horse, but ere he mounted it the dog, barking furiously, again broke from the thicket close at her side.
Heinz must have seen her white mourning robes, for her own name reached her ears in a sudden cry, and soon after--she herself could not have told how--Heinz was standing beside the basket amidst the flowers, with her hand clasped in his, gazing into her eyes so earnestly and sadly that he seemed a different person from the reckless dancer in the Town Hall, though the look was equally warm and tender. Whilst doing so, he spoke of the deep wound inflicted upon her by her mother's death. Fate had dealt him a severe blow also, but grief taught him to turn whither she, too, had directed him.
Just at that moment the blast of the horn summoning the Emperor's train to his side echoed through the forest.
"The Emperor!" cried Heinz; then bending towards the flowers he seized a few forget-me-nots, and, whilst gazing tenderly at them and Eva, murmured in a low tone, as if grief choked his utterance: "I know you will give them to me, for they wear the colour of the Queen of Heaven, which is also yours, and will be mine till my heart and eyes fail me."
Eva granted his request with a whispered "Keep them"; but he pressed his hand to his brow and, as if torn by contending emotions, hastily added: "Yes, it is that of the Holy Virgin. They say that Heaven has summoned me by a miracle to serve only her and the highest, and it often seems to me that they are right. But what will be the result of the conflicting powers which since that flash of lightning have drawn one usually so prompt in decision as I, now here, now there? Your blue, Eva, the hue of these flowers, will remain mine whether I wear it in honour of the Blessed Virgin, or--if the world does not release me--in yours. She or you! You, too, Eva, I know, stand hesitating at the crossing of two paths--which is the right one? We will pray Heaven to show it to you and to me."
As he spoke he swung himself swiftly into the saddle and, obeying the summons, dashed after his imperial master.
Eva gazed silently at the spot where he had vanished behind a group of pine trees; but Ortel, who had gathered a few early strawberries for her, soon roused her from her waking dream by exclaiming, as he clapped his big hands: "I'll be hanged, Jungfrau Eva, if the knight who spoke to you isn't the Swiss to whom the great miracle happened yesterday!"
"The miracle?" she asked eagerly, for Els had intentionally concealed what she heard, and this evidently had something to do with the "wonderful summons" of which Heinz had spoken without being understood.
"Yes, a great, genuine miracle," Ortel went on eagerly. "The lightning--I heard it from the butcher boy who brings the meat, he learned it from his master's wife herself, and now every child in the city knows it--the lightning struck the knight's casque during the thundershower yesterday; it ran along his armour, flashing brightly; the horse sank dead under him without moving a limb, but he himself escaped unhurt, and the mark of a cross can be seen in the place where the lightning struck his helmet."
"And you think this happened to the very knight who took the flowers yonder?" asked Eva anxiously.
"As certainly as I hope to have the sacrament before I die, Jungfrau Eva," the youth protested. "I saw him riding with that lank Biberli, Katterle's lover, who serves him, and such noblemen are not found by the dozen. Besides, he is one of those nearest to the Emperor Rudolph's person. If it isn't he, I'll submit to torment----"
"Fie upon your miserable oaths!" Eva interrupted reprovingly. "Do you know also that the tall, stately gentleman with the long grey hair----"
"That was the Emperor Rudolph!" cried Ortel, sure he was right. "Whoever has once seen him does not forget him. Everything on earth belongs to him; but when the knight took our flowers so freely just now as if they were his own, I thought But there--there--there! See for yourself, Jungfrau! A heavy, unclipped yellow zecchin!"
As he spoke he took the coin in his hand, crossed himself, and added thoughtfully: "The little silver coin, or whatever he flung in here--perhaps to pay for the flowers, which are not worth five shillings--has been changed into pure gold by the saint who wrought the miracle for him. My soul! If many in Nuremberg paid so high for forage, the rich Eysvogel would leave the Council and go in search of wild flowers!"
Eva begged the man to leave the zecchin, promising to give him another at home and half a pound in coppers as earnest money. "This is what I call a lucky morning!" cried Ortel. But directly after he changed his tone, remembering Eva's white mourning robe and the object of their expedition, and his fresh voice sounded very sympathetic as he added: "If one could only call your lady mother back to life! Ah, me! I'd spend all my savings to buy for the saints as many candles as my mother has in her little shop, if that would change things."
Whilst speaking he filled the basket with flowers, and the nun helped him. Eva walked before them with bowed head.
Could she hope to wed the man for whom Heaven had performed such a miracle? Was it no sin to hope and plead that he would wear their common colour, not in honour of the Queen of Heaven, but of the lowly Eva, in whom nothing was strong save the desire for good? Was not Heinz forcing her to enter into rivalry with one the most distant comparison with whom meant defeat? Yet, no! Her gracious Friend above knew her and her heart. She knew with what tender love and reverence she had looked up to her from childhood, and she now confided the love in her heart to her who had shown herself gracious a thousand times when she raised her soul to her in prayer.
Eva was breathing heavily when she emerged from the forest and stopped to wait until Sister Perpetua had finished her prayer in the chapel and overtook her. Her heart was heavy, and when, in the meadow beyond the woods, the heat of the sun, which was already approaching the zenith, made itself felt, it seemed as if she had left the untroubled happiness of childhood behind her in the green thicket. Yet she would not have missed this forest walk at any price. She knew now that she had no rival save the one whom Heinz ought to love no less than she. Whether they both decided in favour of the world or the cloister, they would remain united in love for her and her divine Son.