The Fire Of The Forge by Georg Ebers
The entombment of the magnificent coffin of Frau Maria Ortlieb under the pavement of the family chapel was over. The little group of sympathising friends had left the church. Only the widower and his daughters remained, and when he knew that he could no longer be seen by the few who still lingered in the house of God, he clasped the two girls to his heart with a suppressed sob.
Never had he experienced such deep sorrow, such anguish of soul. He had not even been permitted to take leave of his beloved companion with unmixed grief; fierce resentment had mingled with his trouble.
To remain alone in the house with his daughters after the burial and answer their questions seemed to him impossible.
The meeting of the Council, which would soon begin, served as a pretence for leaving them. Eva was to blame for what he had just suffered; but he knew everything concerning the rumours about the inexperienced girl and Heinz Schorlin, and there fore was aware that her fault was trivial. To censure her seemed as difficult as to discuss calmly with her and the sensible Els what could be done under existing circumstances; besides, he was firmly convinced that Eva had nothing left except to take, without delay, the veil for which she had longed from childhood. His sister, the Abbess Kunigunde, was keeping the door of the convent open. She had promised the girl to await her at home. In taking leave of his daughters, he begged them not to wait for him, because the Council were to decide the fate of the Eysvogel business, and the session might last a long while.
Then his Els gazed at him with a look of such earnest entreaty that he nodded, and in a tone of the warmest compassion began: "I shall be more than glad to aid your Wolff, my dear girl, but he himself told you how the case stands. What would it avail if I beggared myself and you for the Eysvogels and their tottering house? I must remain hard now, in order later to smooth the path for Wolff and you, Els. If Berthold Vorchtel would make up his mind to join me, it might be different, but he summoned the Council as a complainant, and if he is the one to overthrow the reeling structure, who can blame him? We shall see. Whatever I can reasonably do for the unfortunate family shall be accomplished, my girl."
Then he kissed his older daughter on the forehead, hastily gave the younger the same caress, and left the chapel. But Els detained him, whispering: "Whatever wrong was inflicted upon us yesterday, do not let it prejudice you, father. It was meant neither for her whose peace nothing can now disturb, nor for you. We alone----"
"You certainly," Herr Ernst interrupted bitterly, "were made to feel how far superior in virtue they considered themselves to you, who are better and purer than all of them. But keep up Eva's courage. I have been talking with your Uncle Pfinzing and your Aunt Christine. You yourself took them into your confidence, and we will consult together how the serpent's head is to be crushed."
He turned away as he spoke, but Els went back to her sister, and after a brief prayer they left the church with bowed heads.
The sedan-chairs were waiting outside. Each was to be borne home separately, but both preferred, spite of the bright summer weather, to draw the curtains, that unseen they might weep, and ask themselves how such wrongs could have been inflicted upon the dead woman and themselves.
The respect of high and low for the Ortlieb family had been most brilliantly displayed when the body of the son, slain in battle, had been interred in the chapel of his race. And their mother? How many had held her dear! to how many she had been kind, loving, and friendly! How great a sympathy the whole city had shown during her illness, and how many of all classes had attended the mass for her soul! And the burial which had just taken place?
True, on her father's account all the members of the Council were present, but scarcely half the wives had appeared. Their daughters--Els had counted them--numbered only nine, and but three were included among her friends. The others had probably come out of curiosity. And the common people, the artisans, the lower classes, who in countless numbers had accompanied her brother's coffin to its resting place, and during the mass for the dead had crowded the spacious nave of St. Sebald's? There had been now only a scanty group. The nuns from the convent were present, down to the most humble lay Sister; but they were under great obligations to her mother, and their abbess was her father's sister. There were few other women except the old crones from the hospitals and nurseries, who were never absent when there was an opportunity to weep or to backbite. In going through the nave of the church into the chapel the sisters had passed a group of younger lads and maidens, who had nudged one another in so disrespectful a way, whispering all sorts of things, that Els had tried to draw Eva past them as swiftly as possible.
Her wish to keep her more sensitive sister from noticing the disagreeable gestures and insulting words of the cruel youths and girls was gratified. True, Eva also felt with keen indignation that far too little honour was paid to her beloved dead; that the blinded people believed the slanderers who repeated even worse things of her Els than of herself, and made their poor mother, who had lived and suffered like a saint, atone for what they imagined were the sins of her daughters; but the jeers and scorn which had obtruded themselves upon her father and sister from more than one quarter, in many a form, had entirely escaped her notice. She had accustomed herself from childhood to indulge in reflections and emotions apart from the demands of the world. Whatever occupied her mind or soul absorbed her completely; here she had been wholly engrossed in this silent intercourse with the departed, and a single glance at the group assembled in the church had showed her everything which she desired to know of her surroundings.
Heinz had gone to the field the day before yesterday. Her silent colloquy concerned him also. How difficult he made it for her to maintain the resolution which she had formed during the mass for the dead, since he remained aloof, without giving even the slightest token of remembrance. True, an inward voice constantly repeated that he could not part from her any more easily than she from him; but her maidenly pride rebelled against the neglect with which he grieved her. The defiant desire to punish him for departing without a word of farewell urged her back to the convent. She had spent many hours there daily, and in its atmosphere of peace felt better and happier than in her father's house or any other spot which she visited. The close association with her aunt, the abbess, was renewed. True, she had not urged Eva to a definite statement by so much as a single word, yet she had made her feel plainly how deeply it would wound her if her pupil should resolve to disappoint the hopes which she herself had fostered. If Eva refused to take the veil, would not her kind friend be justified in charging her with unequalled ingratitude? and whose opinion did she value even half as much, if she excepted her lover's, whose approval was more to her than that of all the rest of the world?
He was better than she, and who could tell what important motive kept him away? Countless worldly wishes had blended with the devotion which she felt in the convent; and had not the abbess herself taught her to obey, without regard to individuals or their opinion, the demands of her own nature, which were in harmony with the will of the Most High? and how loudly every voice within commanded her to be loyal to her love! She had made her decision, but offended pride, the memory of the happy, peaceful hours in the convent and, above all, the fear of grieving the beloved guide of her childhood, withheld her from the firm and irrevocable statement to which her nature, averse to hesitation and delay, impelled her.
The nearer the sedan-chair came to the Ortlieb mansion the faster her heart beat, for that very day, probably within the next few hours, the abbess would compel her to choose between her father's house and the convent.
She was panting for breath and deadly pale when, just after Els's arrival, she stepped from the chair. It had become intensely hot. Within the vaulted corridor with its solid, impenetrable walls, a cooler atmosphere received her, and she hoped to find in her own chamber fresher, purer air, and--at least for the next few hours--undisturbed peace.
But what was the meaning of this scene? At her entrance, the conversation which Els had evidently just commenced with several other women at the door of the office suddenly ceased. It must be due to consideration for her; for she had not failed to notice the significant glance with which her sister looked at her and then removed her finger from her lips.
The abbess, who had been concealed by a wall of chests piled one above another, now came forward and laid her hand upon the shoulder of a little elderly woman, who must have been disputing vehemently with the old housekeeper, Martsche, for she was flushed with excitement, and the housekeeper's chin still quivered.
Usually Eva paid little heed to the quarrels of the servants, but this one appeared to have some connection with herself, and the cause could be no trivial one, since Aunt Kunigunde took part in it.
But she had no sooner approached the other women than the abbess drew her aside and asked her a few unimportant questions. They were probably intended to keep her away from the disputants. But Eva knew the little woman, and wished to learn what offence had been given modest, humble Widow Vorkler. Her husband had been employed by the Ortlieb firm as a carrier, who had driven his team of six horses to Milan faithfully until killed in the Tyrol during an attack by robber knights in the lawless period before the coronation of the Emperor Rudolph.
With the aid of Herr Ernst Ortlieb, the widow had then set up a little shop for the sale of wax candles, images of the saints, rosaries, and modest confirmation gifts, by which means she gained an honest livelihood for her seven children and herself. Her oldest son, who on account of hip disease was not fit for hard work, helped her, and the youngest was Ortel, who had carried Eva's basket on the day of her dead mother's consecration. Her daughter Metz was also in the Ortlieb's service as assistant to the chief cook.
When Frau Vorkler had come to see her children, she had scarcely been able to find words which sufficiently expressed her grateful appreciation, but to-day she seemed like a different person.
The brief colloquy between the abbess and Eva already appeared to her too long, and when the former bade her finish her business later with Els and old Martsche, she angrily declared that, with all due reverence for the Lady Abbess, she must inform Jungfrau Eva also what compelled her, a virtuous woman with a grateful heart, to take her children from the service of the employer for whom her husband had sacrificed his life.
Els, who was eager to conceal the woman's insulting errand from Eva, tried to silence Frau Vorkler, but she defiantly persisted, and with redoubled zeal protested that speak she must or her heart would break. Then she declared that she had been proud to place her children in so godly a household, but now everything was changed, and though it grieved her to the soul, she must insist upon taking Metz and Ortel from its service. She lived by the piety of people who bought candles for the dear saints and rosaries for praying; but even the most devout had eyes everywhere, and if it were known that her young children were serving in a house where such things happened, as alas! were reported through the whole city concerning the daughters of this family----
Here old Martsche with honest indignation interrupted the excited woman; but Fran Vorkler would not be silenced, and asked what a poor girl like her Metz possessed except her good name. How quickly suspicion would rest on a lass whose respectability was questioned! People had begun to do so ever since the Ortlieb sisters were called the "beautiful" instead of the pious and virtuous Es. This showed how such notice of the face and figure benefited Christian maidens. Yesterday and to-day she had given a three-farthing candle to her saint as a thank offering that this horror had not reached their mother's ears. The dead woman had been a truly devout and noble lady, and her soul would be grateful to her for impressing upon the minds of her motherless daughters that the path which they had recklessly entered----
This was too much for Ortel, who, concealed behind a heap of sacks, had listened to the discussion, and clasping his hands beseechingly, he now went up to his mother and entreated her to beware of repeating the slanders of evil-minded people who had dared to cast stones at the gracious maidens, who were as pure and innocent as their saint herself.
Poor Ortel! His kind young eyes streaming with tears might have softened a rock; but the enraged candle-dealer misinterpreted his honest emotion, and he certainly would not have been allowed to go on so far had not rage and amazement kept her silent. But Frau Vorkler never lost the use of her tongue long, and what a flood of abuse of the degenerate children of the time, who forgot the respect and gratitude due to their own mother, she began to pour forth! But when faithful Endres, who had grown grey in the Ortlieb service, and under whose orders Ortel was placed to help in unpacking, commanded her to be silent or leave the house, and told her son, instead of following her, to stay with his old employer, Frau Vorkler proceeded to lament over the corruption of the whole world, and did not fail to deal a few side-thrusts at the two daughters of the house.
But here also she made little progress, for the abbess led Eva up the stairs, and the two old family servants, Martsche representing the guiding mind and Endres the rude strength, made common cause. The latter upheld Ortel in his refusal to leave the house, and the former declared that Metz must remain the usual time after giving notice. She would not help Frau Vorkler to force the poor child into an unequal, miserable marriage with the old miser to whom she wanted to give her.
This remark was aimed at the master-tailor Seubolt, the guardian of the Vorkler children, who, though forty years her senior, wanted to make pretty Metz his wife, and who had also promised the widow to obtain for his future brother-in-law Ortel an excellent place in the stables of the German order of military monks. Not outraged morality, but the guardian and suitor in one person, had induced the candle-dealer to take her children from their good places in the Ortlieb household. The widow's fear of having her real motive detected spared the necessity of using force. But whilst slowly retiring backwards, crab fashion, she shrieked at her antagonists the threat that her children's guardian, no less a personage than master-tailor Nickel Seubolt, was a man who would help her gain her just rights and snatch the endangered souls of Ortel and her poor young Metz from temporal and eternal destruction in this Sodom and Gomorrah----
The rest of the burden which oppressed her soul she was forced to confide to the street. Endres closed the heavy door of the house behind her with a strength and celerity marvellous in a man of his years.
Ortel was terribly agitated. Soon after his mother's departure he went with his sister to the woodhouse, where both wept bitterly; for Metz had given her heart to a young carrier who was expected to return from a trip to Frankfort the first of July, and would rather have thrown herself into the Pegnitz than married the rich old tailor to whom she knew her mother had promised her pretty daughter; whilst her brother, like many youths of his station, thought that the place of driver of a six-horse wain was the most delightful calling in the world, and both were warmly attached to their employer and the family whom they served. And yet both felt that it was a heavy sin to refuse to obey their mother.