The Fire Of The Forge by Georg Ebers
The watch-tower was in the northern part of the city, in the corn magazine of the fortress, and the whole width of Nuremberg must be traversed to reach it. Even before Herr Pfinzing had left the house the sisters determined to go to their father, and the abbess approved the plan. She invited the girls to spend the night at the convent, if they found the deserted house too lonely, but they did not promise to do so.
Countess Cordula, who was on friendly terms with Eva, also emptied the vials of her wrath with all the impetuosity of her nature upon Sir Seitz Siebenburg and the credulity and malice of the people. From the beginning she had been firmly convinced that the "Mustache," as she now called the knight in a tone of the most intense aversion, had contrived this base conspiracy, and her opinion was strengthened by Biberli. Now she would gladly have torn herself into pieces to mitigate the sisters' hard lot. She wanted to accompany them to the watch-tower, to have them taken there in her sedan-chair carried by horses, which had room for several persons, and at last begged for the favour of being allowed to spend the night in the room adjoining theirs. If the girls, amidst all these base suspicions, should find Nuremberg unendurable, she would leave the scene of the Reichstag with them to-morrow, if necessary, and take them to her castle in the Vorarlberg. She had other plans for them, too, in her mind, but lacked time now to explain them to the sisters; they could not obtain admittance to their father's prison after sundown, and in a few hours the long summer day would be over.
It was not advisable to use their sedan-chairs adorned with the Ortlieb coat of arms, which every one knew, so they went on foot with their faces shrouded by the 'Reise' which was part of their mourning dress; and, in order not to violate usage, were accompanied by two servants, old Martsche and Katterle.
From the Fleischbrucke they might have avoided the market-place, but Els wanted to enquire whether the Eysvogel matter was being discussed. One of the "Honourables"--all of whom she knew--was always to be found near the Town Hall, and Eva understood her sister's anxiety and went with her willingly.
But when they were passing the prison she became frightened.
Through the squares formed by the iron grating in front of the broad window of the largest one, head after head, hand after hand, was thrust into the street. The closely cropped heads of the prisoners, many of which showed mutilations by the hand of the executioner, which had barely healed, formed, as separated only by the iron bars, they protruded above, below, and beside one another into the open air, a mosaic picture, startlingly repulsive in appearance; for savage greed glittered in the eyes of most, and showed itself in the movements of the long, thin hands extended for gifts. Bitter need and passionate longing gazed defiantly, beseechingly, and threateningly at the people who crowded round the window. Few were silent; they implored the curious and pitying men, women, and children, who in the presence of their misery rejoiced in their more favoured lot, for aid in their distress, and rarely in vain; for many a mother gave her children a loaf to hand to the unfortunates, and meanwhile impressed on their minds the lesson that they would fare as badly as the most horrible of the mutilated prisoners unless they were good and obedient to their parents and teachers.
Street boys held out an apple or a bit of bread, to snatch it away just as they touched it with their finger-tips, thus playing with them for their own amusement, but the tribulation of the wretched captives. Then some man who had seen better days, or a criminal whom sudden passion had made a murderer, would burst into a rage and, seizing the iron bars, shake them savagely, whilst the others, shrieking, drew in their heads. Then fierce curses, threats, and invectives echoed over the market-place and, screaming aloud, the boys ran back; but they soon resumed their malicious sport.
Often, it is true, a mother came who placed her gift in the hands of her child, or a modest old woman, tradesman, or soldier, from motives of genuine compassion, offered the prisoners a jug of new milk or strengthening wine. Nor was there any lack of priests or monks who desired to give the consolations of religion to the pitiable men behind the bars, but most of them reaped little gratitude; only a few listened to their exhortations with open hearts, and but too frequently they were silenced by insults and rude outcries.
Whilst the sisters, attended by their maidservants, were passing these pitiable people, Frau Tucher, whose daughter had been very ill, sent, for the love of God, a large basket of freshly baked bread to the prisoners. One of her servants was distributing it, and they greedily snatched the welcome gift from his hand. A woman, who was about to give one of the rolls to the hollow-eyed child in her arms just as a rude fellow who had lost his ears snatched it, scratched his dirty, freckled face with her sharp nails, and the sight of the blood which dripped from his lip over his chin upon the roll was so hideous a spectacle that Eva clung closer to her sister, who had just put her hand into the pocket hanging from her belt to give the unfortunates a few shillings, and drew her away with her.
Both, followed by the two maids, made their way as fast as possible through the people who had flocked hither in great numbers for a purpose which the sisters were to learn only too soon.
It was a long time since they had been here, and a few weeks previously the "Honourables" had had the pillory moved from the other side of the Town Hall to this spot. Katterle's warning was not heard in the din around them.
The crowd grew denser every moment, and Eva had already asked her sister to turn back, when Els saw the man who brought to her father the summons to the meetings of the Council, and requested him to accompany them through the throng to the courtyard; but amidst the uproar of shouts and cries he misunderstood her, and supposing that she wished to witness the spectacle which had attracted so many, forced a way for the sisters into the very front rank.
The person who had just been bound in this place of shame was the barber's widow from the Kotgasse, who had already been here once for giving lovers an opportunity for secret meetings, and to whom Katterle had fled for shelter. Bowed by the weight of the stone which had been hung around her neck, the woman, with outstretched head, looked furiously around the circle of her tormentors like a wild beast crouched to spring, and scarcely had the messenger brought the sisters and their servants to a place near her when, recognising Katterle, she shrieked shrilly to the crowd that there were the right ones, the dainty folk who, if they did not belong to a rich family, would be put in the place where, in spite of the Riese over their faces, with which they mourned for their lost good name, they had more reason to be than she, who was only the lowly widow of a barber.
Overwhelmed with horror the girls pressed on, and at Eva's terrified exclamation, "Let us, O let us go!" the man did his best. But they made slow progress through the crowd, whose yells, hisses, and catcalls pursued them to the entrance of the neighbouring Town Hall.
Here the guard, with crossed halberds, kept back the people who were crowding after the insulted girls, and it was fortunate, for Eva's feet refused to carry her farther, and her older sister's strength to support her failed.
Sighing deeply, Els led her to a bench which stood between two pillars, and then ordered old Martsche, and Katterle, who was trembling in every limb, to watch Eva till her return.
Before they went on, her sister must have some rest, and Martin Schedel, the old Clerk of the Council, was the man with whom to obtain it.
She went in search of him as fast as her feet would bear her, and by a lucky accident met the kind old man, whom she had known from childhood, on the stairs leading to the Council chamber and the upper offices.
Ernst Ortlieb's unhappy deed, and the story of the base calumnies in circulation about the unfortunate man's daughters, which he had just heard from Herr Pfinzing, had filled the worthy old clerk's heart with pity and indignation; so he eagerly embraced the opportunity afforded to atone to the young girls for the wrongs committed against them by their fellow-citizens. Telling the maidservants to wait in the antechamber of the orphan's court-room, he led the sisters to his own office, helping Eva up the long flight of stairs with an arm which, though aged, was still vigorous. After insisting that she should sit in the armchair before the big desk, and placing wine and water before her, he begged the young girls to wait until his return. He was obliged to be present at the meeting, which had probably already begun. The matter in question was the Eysvogel business, and if Els would remain he could tell her the result. Then he left them.
Eva, deadly pale, leaned back with closed eyes in the clerk's high chair. Els bathed her brow with a wet handkerchief, consoling her by representing how foolish it would be to suffer the lowest of the populace to destroy her happiness.
Her sister nodded assent, saying: "Did you notice the faces of those people behind the bars? Most of them, I thought, looked stupid rather than evil." Here she hesitated, and then added thoughtfully: "Yet they cannot be wise. These poor creatures seldom obtain any great sum by thieving and cheating. To what terrible punishments they expose themselves both in this world and the next! And conscience!"
"Yes, conscience!" Els eagerly repeated. "So long as we can say that we have done nothing wrong, we can suffer even the worst to be said of us without grieving."
"Still," sighed Eva, "I feel as if that horrible woman's insults had sullied me with a stain no water can wash away. What sorrows have come upon us since our mother died, Els!"
Her sister nodded, and added mournfully: "Our father, my Wolff, your poor, stricken heart, and below in the Council chamber, Eva, perhaps whilst we are talking, those who are soon to be my kindred are being doomed. That is harder to bear, child, than the invectives with which a wicked woman slanders us. Often I do not know myself where I get the strength to keep up my courage."
She turned away as she spoke to wipe the tears from her eyes without being seen; but Eva perceived it, and rose to clasp her in her arms and whisper words of cheer. Ere she had taken the first step, however, she started; in rising she had upset the clerk's tin water-pail, which fell rattling on the floor.
"The water!" she exclaimed sadly, "and my tongue is parched."
"I'll fetch more," said Els consolingly; "Herr Martin brought it from over yonder."
Opening the door to which she had pointed, she entered a low, spacious anteroom, in which was a brass fire engine, ladders, pails, and various other utensils for extinguishing a fire in the building, hung on the rough plastered wall which separated this room from the office of the city clerk. The centre of the opposite wall was occupied by two small windows surmounted by a broad, semicircular arch, and separated by a short Roman pillar. The sashes of both, whose leaden casings were filled with little round horn panes, stood wide open. This double window was in the upper part of the Council chamber, which occupied two stories. To create a draught this hot day it had been flung wide open, and Els could distinguish plainly the words uttered below. The first that reached her was the name: "Wolff Eysvogel."
A burning sensation thrilled her. If she went nearer to the window she could hear what the Honourables decided concerning the Eysvogel house; and, overpowered by her ardent desire not to lose a single word of the discussion which was to determine the happiness of Wolff's life, and therefore hers, she instantly silenced the voice which admonished her that listening was wrong. Yet the habit of caring for Eva was so dear to her, and ruled her with such power, that before listening to what was passing in the Council chamber below she looked for the water, which she speedily found, took it to the thirsty girl, and hurriedly told her what she had discovered in the next room and how she intended to profit by it.
In spite of Eva's entreaty not to do it, she hastened back to the open window.
The younger sister, though she shook her head, gazed after her with a significant smile.
To Eva this was no accident.
Perhaps it was her saint herself who, when her sister went to seek refreshment for her, had guided her to the window. Eva deemed it a boon to be permitted to find here in solitude the rest needful for her body which, though usually so strong, had been shaken by horror, and to struggle and pray for a clear understanding of the many things which troubled her; for to her prayer was far more than the petition for a spiritual or earthly blessing; nay, she prayed far less frequently to implore anything than from yearning for the Most High to whose presence the wings of prayer raised her. So long as she was absorbed in it, she felt removed from the world and borne into the abode of God.
Now also, whilst Els was listening, she brought no earthly matter to the Power who guided the universe as well as her own little individual life, but merely lost herself in supplication and in her intercourse with the Omnipotent One, who seemed to her a familiar friend; she forgot what grieved and troubled her and how she had been pained. But meanwhile the prediction she had made to the abbess was verified; she felt as if her lover's soul rose with hers to the pure height where she dwelt, and that the earthly love which filled her heart and his was but an effluence of the Eternal Love, whose embodiment to her was God and the Saviour.
The union of herself and Heinz seemed imaged by two streams flowing from the same great inexhaustible, pure, and beneficent fountain, which, after having run through separate channels, meet to traverse as a single river the blooming meadows and keep them fresh and green. God's love, her own, and his were each separate and yet the same, portions of the great fount which animated, saved, and blessed her, him, and the whole vast universe. The spring gushing from her love and his was eternal, and therefore neither could be exhausted, no matter how much it gave.
But both were still in the world. As he would certainly put forth all his might to show himself worthy of the confidence placed in him by his Emperor and master, she too must test her youthful strength in the arduous conflict which she had begun. Her recent experiences were the flames of the forge fire of life of which her mother had spoken--and how pitifully she had endured their glow! This must be changed. She had often proved that when the body is wearied the soul gains greater power to soar. Should she not begin to avail herself of this to make her feeble body obey her will? With compressed lips and clenched hand she resolved to try.