Part II.
Volume 6.
Chapter VII.
 

Eva was spared witnessing the close of this unpleasant incident. The abbess had led her up the stairs into the sitting-room. St. Clare herself, she thought, had sent Fran Vorkler to render the choice she intended to place before her niece that very day easier for Eva.

Even whilst ascending the broad steps she put her arm around her, but in the apartment, whence the noonday sun had been shut out and they were greeted with a cool atmosphere perfumed with the fragrance of the bouquets of roses and mignonette which Eva and the gardener had set in jars on the mantelpiece early in the morning, the abbess drew her darling closer to her side, saying, "The world is again showing you its most disagreeable face, my poor child, ere you bid it farewell."

She kissed her brow and eyes tenderly as she spoke, expecting Eva, as she had often done when anything troubled her young soul, to return the caress impulsively, and accept with grateful impetuosity the invitation to the shelter which she offered; but the vile assault of the coarse woman who brought to her knowledge what people were thinking and saying about her produced upon the strange child, who had already given her many a surprise, an effect precisely opposite to her expectations. No, Eva had by no means forgotten the pain inflicted by Frau Vorkler's base accusations; but if whilst in the sedan-chair she had feared that she should lack courage to inflict upon her beloved aunt and friend so great a disappointment, she now felt that this dread had been needless, and that her offended maidenly pride absolved her from consideration for any person.

With cautious tenderness she released herself from the arms of the abbess, gazed sorrowfully at her with her large eyes as if beseeching forgiveness then, as she saw her aunt look at her with pained surprise, again threw herself on her breast.

Instead of being protectingly embraced by the elder woman, the young girl clasped her closely to her heart, kissed and patted her with caressing love, and with the winning charm peculiar to her besought her forgiveness if she denied herself and her that which she had long desired as the fairest and noblest goal.

When the abbess interrupted her to represent what awaited her in the world and in the convent, Eva listened, nestling closely to her side until she had finished, then sighing as deeply as if her own resolve caused her the keenest suffering, threw her head back, exclaiming, "Yet, in spite of everything, I cannot, must not enter the convent now." Clasping the abbess's hand, she explained what prevented her from fulfilling the wish of her childhood's guide, which had so long been her own, extolling with warm, sincere gratitude the quiet happiness and sweet anticipations enjoyed with her beloved nuns ere love had conquered her.

During the recent days of sorrow she had again sought the path to her saints and found the greatest solace in prayer; but whenever she uplifted her heart to the Saviour, whose bride she had once so fervently vowed to become, the Redeemer had indeed appeared as usual before the eyes of her soul, but he resembled in form and features Sir Heinz Schorlin, and, instead of turning her away from the world to divine love, she had surrendered herself completely to earthly affection. Prayer had become sin. The saint's song:

          "O Love, Love's reign announcing,
            Why dost thou wound me so?
          Into thy fiercest flames I fling
            My heart, my life below."

no longer invited her to give herself up to be fused into divine love, but merely rendered the need of her own soul clearer, and expressed in words the yearning of her heart for her lover.

Here her aunt interrupted her with the assurance that all this--she had had the same experience when, renouncing the love of the noblest and best of men, she took the veil--would be different, wholly different, when with St. Clare's aid she had again found the path on which she had already once so nearly reached heaven. Even now she beheld in imagination the day when Eva would look back upon the world she had left as if it were a mere formless mass of clouds. These were no idle words. The promise was something derived from her own experience.

On her pilgrimage to Rome she had gazed from an Alpine peak and beheld at her feet nothing save low hills, forests, valleys, and flashing streams, with here and there a village; but she could distinguish neither human beings nor animals; a light mist had veiled everything, converting it into one monotonous surface. But above her head the sky, like a giant dome free from cloud and mist, arched in a beautiful vault, blue as turquoise and sapphire. It seemed so close that the eagle soaring near her might reach it with a few strokes of his pinions. She was steeped in radiance, and the sun shone down upon her with overpowering brilliancy like the eye of God.

Close at her side a gay butterfly hovered about the solitary little white flower which grew from a bare rock on the topmost summit. In the brilliant light and amidst the solemn silence that butterfly seemed like a transfigured soul, and aroused the question, Who that was permitted to live on this glowing height, so near the Most High, could desire to return to the grey mist below?

So the human soul which soared to the shining height where it was so near heaven, would blissfully enjoy the purity of the air and the un shadowed light which bathed it, and all that was passing in the world below would blend into a single vanquished whole, whose details could no longer be distinguished. Thus Heinz Schorlin's image would also mingle with the remainder of the world, lying far below her, to which he belonged. It should merely incite her to rise nearer and nearer to heaven, to the radiant light above, to which her soul would mount as easily as the eagle that before the pilgrim's eyes had vanished in the divine blue and the golden sunshine.

"So come and dare the flight!" she concluded with warm enthusiasm. "The wings you need have grown from your soul, you chosen bride of Heaven. Use them. That which now most repels you from the goal will fall away as the snake sheds its skin. Like the phoenix rising from its ashes, the destruction of the little earthly love which even now causes you more pain than pleasure, will permit the ascent of the great love for Him Who is Love incarnate, the love which encompasses the lonely butterfly on the white blossom in the silent, deserted mountain solitude, which lacks no feather on its wings, no tiniest hair on its feelers, as warmly and carefully as the vast, unlimited universe whose duration ends only with eternity."

Eva, with labouring breath, had fairly hung upon the lips of the revered woman, who at last gazed upwards with dilated eyes like a prophetess.

When she paused the young girl nodded assent. Her teacher and friend seemed to have crushed her resistance.

Like the eagle which had disappeared before the pilgrim's eyes in the azure vault of heaven, the radiant light on the pure summit summoned her pure soul to dare the flight.

The abbess watched with delight the influence of her words upon the soul of her darling, who, gazing thoughtfully at the floor, now seemed to be pondering over what she had urged.

But suddenly Eva raised her bowed head, and her eyes, sparkling with a brighter light, sought those of the abbess.

Her quick intellect had attentively considered what she had heard, and her vivid power of imagination had enabled her to transfer to reality the picture which had already half won her over to her friend's wishes.

"No, Aunt Kunigunde, no!" she began, raising her hands as if in repulse. "Your radiant height strongly allures me also, yet, gladly as I believe that, for many the world would be easily forgotten above, where no sound from it reaches us and the mist conceals individual figures from our eyes, for me, now that love has filled my heart, it would be impossible to ascend the peak alone and without him.

"Hear me, aunt!

"What was it that attracted me so powerfully from the beginning? At first, as you know, the hope of making him a combatant for the possessions which I have learned through you to regard as the highest and most sacred. Then, when love came, when a new power, heretofore unknown, awoke within me and--everything must be told--I longed for his wooing and his embrace, I also felt that our union could take root and put forth blossoms only in the full harmony of our mutual love for God and the Saviour. And though since the mass for the dead was celebrated for my mother--it wounded me, and defiance and the wish to punish him urged me to put the convent walls between us--no further token of his love has come, though I know as well as you that he desired to quit the world, this by no means impairs--nay, it only strengthens--the confidence I feel that our souls belong to one another as inseparably as though the sacrament had hallowed our union.

"Therefore I should never succeed in coming so near heaven as you, the lonely, devout pilgrim, attained on the summit of your mountain peak, unless he accompanied me in spirit, unless his soul joined mine in the ascent or the flight. It rests in mine as mine rests in his, and were they separated both would bleed as if from severed veins. For this reason, aunt, he can never blend into a uniform mass with the rest of the world below me; for if I gained the radiant height, he would remain at my side and gaze with me at the mist-veiled world beneath. He can never vanish from the eyes of my soul, and so, dear aunt, because I owe it to him to avoid even the semblance----"

Here she hesitated; for from the adjoining room they heard a man's deep voice telling Els something in loud, excited tones.

This interruption was welcome to the abbess; she had as yet found no answer to her niece's startling objection.

Eva answered her questioning glance with the exclamation, "Uncle Pfinzing!"

"He?" replied the abbess dejectedly. "His opinion has some weight with you, and this very day, during the burial, he told me how glad he should be to see you sheltered in the convent from the hateful calumnies caused by your imprudence!"

"Yet--you will see it directly," the girl declared, "he will surely understand me when I explain that I would rather endure the worst than appear to seek refuge from evil tongues in flight. Whoever has expected Eva Ortlieb to shelter herself from malice behind strong walls will be mistaken. Heinz is certainly aware of the shameful injustice which has pursued us, and if he returns he must find me where he left me. I am now encountering what my dead mother called the forge fire of life, and I will not shun it like a coward. Heinz, I know, will overthrow the man who unchained this generation of vipers against us; but if he does not return, or can bring himself to cast the love that unites us behind him with the world from which he would fain turn, then, aunt"--and Eva's eyes flashed brightly with passionate fire, and her clear voice expressed the firm decision of a vigorous will--"then I will commit our cause to One who will not suffer falsehood to conquer truth or wrong to triumph over right. Then, though it should be necessary to walk over red-hot ploughshares, let the ordeal bear witness for us."

The abbess, startled, yet rejoicing at the fulness of faith flaming in her darling's passionate speech, approached Eva to soothe her; but scarcely had she begun to speak when the door opened and Berthold Pfinzing entered with his older niece.

He was holding Els by the hand, and it was evident that some sorrowful thought occupied the minds of both.

"Has any new horror happened?" fell in tones of anxious enquiry from Eva's lips before she even greeted her dearest relative.

"Think of something very bad," was her sister's reply, in a tone so dejected and mournful, that Eva, with a low cry--"My father!"--pressed her hand upon her heart.

"Not dead, darling," said the magistrate, stroking her head soothingly with his short, broad hand, "by all the saints, not even wounded or ill. Yet the daughter has guessed aright, and I have kept the 'Honourables' waiting, that I might tell you the news myself; for what may not such tidings become whilst passing from lip to lip! It is a toad, a very ugly toad, and I would not permit a dragon to be brought into the house to you poor things in its place."

He poured all this forth very rapidly, for, notwithstanding the intense heat, and the burden of business at the Town Hall, he had left it, though only to do his dear Es a kindness, lie and his worthy wife Christine, the sister of Herr Ernst Ortlieb and of the abbess, had long been familiar with all the tales which slander had called to life, and had striven zealously enough to refute them. What he had now to relate filled him with honest indignation against the evil tongues, and he knew how deeply it would excite and grieve Eva, his godchild, who stood especially near his heart. He would gladly have said a few kind words to her before beginning his story, but he was obliged to return to the Town Hall immediately to open the important conference concerning the fate of the Eysvogel business.

His appearance showed how rapidly he had hurried to the house through the burning sunshine, for drops of perspiration were trickling down his broad, low forehead over his plump, smoothshaven cheeks and thick red neck, in which his small chin vanished as if it were a cushion. Besides, he constantly raised a large linen handkerchief to his face, and his huge chest laboured for breath as he hastily repeated to Eva and the abbess what he had just announced to Els in a few rapid words.

Herr Ernst Ortlieb had gone to the Town Hall, where he attended an examination in his character as magistrate, and had entered the court yard to enjoy the cool air for a short time with a few other "Honourables," in the shady walk near the main gate.

Just then master-tailor Seubolt, the guardian of Ortel and his sister, who were in service at the Ortlieb mansion, approached the Town Hall. No one could have supposed that the tall, grey-headed man with the bowed back, who was evidently nearing sixty, really meant to make a young girl like Metz Vorkler his wife. Besides, he assumed a very humble, modest demeanour when, passing through the vaulted entrance of the Town Hall, which stood open to every citizen, he approached Herr Ernst to ask, with many bows and humble phrases, for the permission, which he had been refused at the Ortlieb house, to remove his wards from a place which their mother, as well as he himself, felt sure--he had supposed that the "Honourable" would have no objection--would be harmful to them in both body and soul.

Surprised and indignant, but perfectly calm, Herr Ernst had requested him to tell him whatever he had to say at a more convenient time. But as the tailor insisted that the matter would permit no delay, he invited him to step aside with him, in order not to make the councillors who were with him witnesses of the unpleasant discussion.

Seubolt, however, seemed to have no greater desire than to be heard by as many people as possible. Raising his voice to a very loud tone, though he still maintained an extremely humble manner, he began to give the reasons which induced him, spite of his deep regret, to remove his wards from the Ortlieb house. And now, sheltering himself behind frequent repetitions of "As people say" and "Heaven forbid that I should believe such things," he began to relate what the most venomous slander had dared to assert concerning the beautiful Es.

For a time Herr Ernst had forced himself to listen quietly to this malicious abuse of those whom he held dearest, but at last it became too much for the quick-tempered man. The tailor had ventured to allude to Jungfrau Els "who certainly had scarcely given full cause for such evil slander" in words which caused even the councillors standing near to contradict him loudly, and induced Herr Pfinzing, who had just come up, to beckon to the city soldiers. At that instant the blood mounted to the insulted father's brain, and the misfortune happened; for as the tailor, with an unexpected gesture of the arm he was flourishing, brushed Herr Ernst's cap, the latter, fairly insane with rage, snatched the pike from one of the men who, obeying Herr Pfinzing's signal, were just approaching the tailor, and with a wild cry struck down the base traducer.

Herr Pfinzing, with the presence of mind characteristic of him, instantly ordered the beadles to carry the wounded man into the Town Hall, and thus prevented the luckless deed of violence from creating any excitement.

The few persons in the courtyard had been detained, and perhaps everything might yet be well. Herr Ernst had instantly delivered himself up to justice, and instead of being taken to prison like a common criminal, had been conveyed in a closed sedan-chair to the watch-tower.

The pike had pierced the tailor's shoulder, but the wound did not seem to be mortal, and Herr Ernst's rash deed might be made good by the payment of blood-money, though, it is true, on account of the tailor's position and means, this might be a large sum.

"My horse," said Herr Berthold in conclusion, "was waiting for me, and brought me here as swiftly as he must carry me back again. But, you poor things! as for you, my Els, you have a firm nature, and if you insist upon refusing the invitation to our house, why, wait here to learn whether your father needs you. You, my little goddaughter Eva, are provided for. This sorrow, of course, will throw the veil over your fair head."

The worthy man, as he spoke, laid his hand on her shoulder and looked at her with a glance which seemed to rely on her assent, but she interrupted him with the exclamation, "No, uncle! Until you have convinced yourself that no one will dare assail Eva Ortlieb's honour, do not ask her again if she desires the protection of the convent."

The magistrate hurriedly passed his huge handkerchief over his face; then taking Eva's head between his hands, kissed her brow, and--turning the shrewd, twinkling eyes, which were as round as everything else about his person, towards the others, said: "Did any one suggest this, or did the 'little saint' have the sensible idea herself?"

When Eva, smiling, pointed to her own forehead, he exclaimed: "My respects, child. They say that what stirs up there descends from godfather to godchild, and I'll never put goblet to my lips again if I--"

Here he stopped, and called after Els that he had not meant to hint, for she was hurrying out to get her uncle something to drink. But ere the door closed behind her he went on eagerly:

"But to you, my saintly child, I will say: your piety soars far too high for me to follow with my heavy body; yet on the ride here I, old sinner that I am, longed--no offence, sister-in-law abbess!--to warn you against the convent, for the very reason which keeps you away from your saint. We'll find the gag to stop the mouths of these accursed slanderers forever, and then, if you want to enter the convent, they shall not say, when you take the veil, 'Eva Ortlieb is hiding from her own shame and the tricks with which we frightened her out of the world.' No! All Nuremberg shall join in the hosanna!"

Then taking the goblet which Els had just filled, he drained it with great satisfaction, and rushing off, called back to the sisters: "I'll soon see you again, you brave little Es. My wife is coming to talk over the matter with you. Don't let that worthless candle-dealer's children leave the house till their time is up. If you wish to visit your father in the watch-tower there will be no difficulty. I'll tell the warder. Only the drawbridge will be raised after sunset. You can provide for his bodily needs, too, Els. We cannot release him yet; the law must take its course."

At the door he stopped again and called back into the room: "We can't be sure. If Frau Vorkler and the tailor's friends make an outcry and molest you, send at once to the Town Hall. I'll keep my eyes open and give the necessary orders."

A few minutes after he trotted through the Frauenthor on his clumsy stallion.