The Fire Of The Forge by Georg Ebers
Whilst Eva, completely absorbed in herself, was forming this resolution, Els, panting for breath, stood at the open window under the ceiling of the Council chamber, gazing down and listening to the sounds from beneath.
Directly opposite to her was the inscription
"Feldt Urtel auf erden, als ir dort woldt geurtheilt werden," in the German and Latin languages, and below this motto, urging the magistrates to justice, was a large fresco representing the unjust judge Sisamnes being flayed by an executioner in the costume of the Nuremberg Leben--[Executioner's assistant. Really "Lowen."]--before the eyes of King Cambyses, in order to cover the judgment seat with his skin. Another picture represented this lofty throne, on which sat the ruler of Persia dispensing justice. The subject of a third was the Roman army interrupted in its march by the order of the Emperor Trajan, that he might have time to hear a widow's accusation of the murderer of her son and to punish the criminal.
Els did not bestow a single glance upon these familiar pictures, but gazed down at the thirteen elderly and the same number of much younger men, who in their high-backed chairs were holding council together at her left hand far below her. These were the burgomasters of the city, of whom an elder and a younger one directed for the space of a month, as "Questioner," the government of the public affairs of the city and the business of the "Honourable Council."
At this time the office was filled by Albert Ebner and Jorg Stromer, whilst in the secret council formed by seven of the older gentlemen, as the highest executive authority, Hans Schtirstab as the second and Berthold Vorchtel as first Losunger filled the chief offices.
So this year the deeply offended father held the highest place in the Council, and in the whole community of Nuremberg he, more than any one else, would decide the fate of the Eysvogels.
Els knew this, and with an anxious heart saw him gaze earnestly and sadly at the papers which Martin Schedel, the city clerk, had just brought to him from a special desk. At his side, in the centre of the table covered with green cloth, sat the listener's uncle, the magistrate Berthold Pfinzing, who in the Emperor's name presided over the court of justice.
He also appeared in his character of protector of the Jews, and Samuel Pfefferkorn, a Hebrew usurer, had just left the hall after an examination.
Casper Eysvogel was gazing after him with a face white as death. His handsome head shook as the imperial magistrate, turning to Berthold Vorchtel, the chief Losunger, said in a tone loud enough to be heard by all present, "So this is also settled. Herr Casper contracted the great debt to the Jew without the knowledge of his son and partner, and this explains to a florin the difference between the accounts of the father and son. The young man was intentionally kept in the dark about the greatest danger which threatened the business. To him the situation of the house must have appeared critical, but by no means hopeless. But for the Siebenburgs and the other bandits, who transformed the last important and promising venture of the firm into a great loss, and with the sale of the landed property, it might perhaps have speedily risen, and under prudent and skilful management regained its former prosperity. The enormous sum to which the debt to Samuel Pfefferkorn increased gives the position of affairs a different aspect. Since, as protector of the Jew, I must insist upon the payment of this capital with the usual interest, the old Eysvogel firm will be unable to meet its obligations--nay, its creditors can be but partially paid. Therefore nothing remains for us to do save to consider how to protect as far as possible our city and the citizens who are interested. Yet, in my opinion, the entire firm does not deserve punishment--only the father, who concealed from his upright son his own accounts and those of Samuel Pfefferkorn, and--it is hard for me to say this in Herr Casper's presence;--also, when the peril became urgent, illegally deprived his business partner of the possibility of obtaining a correct view of the real situation of affairs. So, in the Emperor's name, let justice take its course."
These words pronounced the doom of the ancient, great, and wealthy Eysvogel firm; yet the heart of Els throbbed high with joy when, after a brief interchange of opinions between the assembled members of the Council, the imperial magistrate, turning to Herr Vorchtel, again began: "As Chief Losunger, it would be your place, Herr Berthold, to raise your voice on the part of the Honourable Council in defence of the accused; but since we are all aware of the great grief inflicted upon you by the son of the man in whose favour you would be obliged to speak, we should, I think, spare you this duty, and transfer it to Herr Hans Schtirstab, the second Losunger, or to Herr Albert Ebner, the oldest of the governing burgomasters, who, though equally concerned in this sad case, are less closely connected with the Eysvogels themselves."
Els uttered a sigh of relief, for both the men named were friendly to Wolff; but Herr Vorchtel had already risen and began to speak, turning his wise old head slowly to and fro, and drawing his soft grey beard through his hand.
He commenced his address as quietly as if he were talking with friends at his own table, and the tones of his deep voice, as well as the expression of his finely moulded aged features, exerted a soothing influence upon his listeners.
Els, with a throbbing heart, felt that nothing which this man advocated could be wrong, and that whatever he recommended would be sure of acceptance; for he stood amongst his young and elderly fellow directors of the Nuremberg republic like an immovably steadfast guardian of duty and law, who had grown grey in the atmosphere of honesty and honour. Thus she had imagined the faithful Eckart, thus her own Wolff might look some day when age had bleached his hair and labour and anxiety had lined his lofty brow with wrinkles; Berthold Vorchtel, and other "Honourables" who resembled him; grey-haired Conrad Gross; tall, broad-shouldered Friedrich Holzschuher, whose long, snow-white hair fell in thick waves to his shoulders; Ulrich Haller, in whose locks threads of silver were just appearing, princely in form and bearing; stately Hermann Waldstromer, who had the keen eyes of a huntsman; the noble Ebner brothers, who would have attracted attention even in an assembly of knights and counts--nay, the Emperor Rudolph was probably thinking of the men below when he said that the Nuremberg Council reminded him of a German oak wood, where firm reliance could be placed on every noble trunk.
Herr Berthold Vorchtel was just such a noble, reliable tree. Els told herself so, and though she knew how deeply he was wounded when Wolff preferred her to his daughter Ursula, and how sorely he mourned his son Ulrich's death, she was nevertheless convinced that this man would bear the Eysvogels no grudge for the grief suffered through them, for no word which was not just and estimable would cross his aged lips.
She was not mistaken; for after Herr Berthold had insisted upon his right to raise his voice, not in behalf of Herr Casper but for his business firm and its preservation, he remarked, by way of introduction, that for the sake of Nuremberg he would advise that the Eysvogel house should not be abandoned without ceremony to the storm which its chief had aroused against the ancient, solid structure.
Then he turned to the papers and parchments, to which the city clerk had just added several books and rolls. His address, frequently interrupted by references to the documents before him, sounded clear and positive. The amount of the sums owed by the Eysvogel firm, as well as the names of its creditors in Nuremberg, Augsburg, Ulm, and Regensburg, Venice, Milan, Bruges, and other German and foreign cities, formed the most important portion of his speech. During its progress he frequently seized a bit of chalk and blackboard, writing rapidly on the green table whole rows of figures, and the young burgomasters especially exchanged admiring smiles as the experienced old merchant added and subtracted in an instant sums for which they themselves would have needed twice as much time.
The figures and names buzzed in the ears of the listener at the window like the humming of a swarm of gnats. To understand and remember them was impossible, and she gazed in astonishment at the old man who so clearly comprehended the confused tangle and drew from it so readily just what he needed for his purpose.
When he closed, and with a loud "Therefore" began to communicate the result, she summoned all the mental power she possessed in order to understand it. She succeeded, but her knees fairly trembled when she heard the sum which the house was obliged to repay to others.
Yet, when Herr Berthold lastly gave the estimate of the Eysvogel property in merchandise, buildings, and estates, she was again surprised. She had not supposed that Wolff's proud family was so wealthy; but the close of this report brought fresh disappointment, for including the sum which Herr Casper had borrowed from the Jew Pfefferkorn, the debts of the firm exceeded its possessions far more than Els had expected from the amount of its riches.
She was wholly ignorant of the condition of her own father's property; but she thought she knew that it was far from being enough to suffice here. And this appeared to be the case, for when Berthold Vorchtel resumed his speech he alluded to Ernst Ortlieb. In words full of sympathy he lamented the unprecedented insult which had led him to commit the deed of violence that prevented his sharing in this consultation. But before his removal he had given him an important commission. Upon certain conditions--but only upon them--he would place a considerable portion of his fortune at his disposal for the settlement of this affair. Still, large as was the promised sum, it would by no means be sufficient to save the Eysvogel business from ruin. Yet he, Berthold Vorchtel, was of the opinion that its fall must be prevented at any cost. The sincerity of this conviction he intended to prove by the best means at a merchant's command-the pledge of his own large capital.
These words deeply moved the whole assembly, and Els saw her uncle glance at the old gentleman with a look which expressed the warm appreciation of a man of the same mind.
Casper Eysvogel, who, lost in thought, had permitted the statements of the Losunger, which were mingled with many a bitter censure of his own conduct, to pass without contradiction--nay, apparently in a state of apathy in which he was no longer capable of following details--straightened his bowed figure and gazed enquiringly into Herr Berthold's face as if he did not venture to trust his own ears; but the other looked past him, as he added that what he was doing for the Eysvogel business was due to no consideration for the man who had hitherto directed it, or his family, but solely on account of the good city whose business affairs the confidence of the Council had summoned him to direct, and her commerce, whose prosperity was equally dear to most of the Honourables around him.
Cries and gestures of assent accompanied the last sentence; but Berthold Vorchtel recognised the demonstration by remarking that it showed him that the Council, in the name of the city, would be disposed to do its share in raising the amount still lacking.
This statement elicited opposition, expressed in several quarters in low tones, and from one seat loudly, and Herr Berthold heard it. Turning to Peter Ammon, one of the Eysvogels' principal creditors, who was making the most animated resistance, he remarked that no one could be more unwilling than himself to use the means of the community to protect from the consequences of his conduct a citizen whose own errors had placed him in a perilous position, but, on the other hand, he would always--and in this case with special zeal--be ready to aid such a person in spite of the faults committed, if he believed that he could thus protect the community from serious injury.
Then he asked permission to make a digression, and being greeted with cries of "Go on!" from all sides, began in brief, clear sentences to show how the commerce of Nuremberg from small beginnings had reached its present prosperity. Instead of the timid, irregular exchange of goods as far as the Rhine, the Main, and the Danube, regular intercourse with Venice, Milan, Genoa, Bohemia, and Hungary, Flanders, Brabant, and the coast of the Baltic had commenced. Trade with the Italian cities, and through them, even with the Levant, had made its first successful opening under the Hohenstaufen rule; but during the evil days when the foreign monarchs had neglected Germany and her welfare, it sustained the most serious losses. By the election of Rudolph of Hapsburg who, with vigour, good-will, and intelligence, had devoted his attention to the security of commerce in the countries over which he reigned, better days for the merchant had returned, and it was very evident what his work required, what injured and robbed it of its well-earned reward. Confidence at home and abroad was the foundation of prosperity, not alone of the Nuremberg merchant but of trade in general. Under the Hohenstaufen rule their upright ancestors had so strengthened this confidence that wherever he went the Nuremberg merchant received respect and confidence above many--perhaps all others. The insecurity of the roads and of justice in the lawless times before the election of the Hapsburgs might have impaired this great blessing; but since Rudolph had wielded the sceptre with virile energy, made commerce secure, and administered justice, confidence had also returned, and to maintain it no sacrifice should be too great. As for him, Berthold Vorchtel, he would not spare himself, and if he expected the city to imitate him he would know how to answer for it.
Here he was interrupted by loud shouts of applause; but, without heeding them, he quietly went on: "And it is necessary to secure confidence in the Nuremberg merchant in two directions: his honesty and the capital at his command. Our business friends, far and near, must be permitted to continue to rely upon our trustworthiness as firmly as upon rock and iron. If we brought the arrogant Italian to say of us that, amongst the German cities who were blind, Nuremberg was the one-eyed, we ought now to force them to number us amongst those who see with both eyes, the honest, trust-inspiring blue eyes of the German. But to attain this goal we need the imperial protection, the watchful power of a great and friendly ruler. The progress which our trade owed to the Hohenstaufen proves this; the years without an Emperor, on the contrary, showed what threatens our commerce as soon as we lack this aid. Rights and privileges from sovereigns smoothed the paths in which we have surpassed others. To obtain new and more important ones must be our object. From the first Reichstag which the Emperor Rudolph held here, he has shown that he esteems us and believes us worthy of his confidence. Many valuable privileges have revealed this. To maintain this confidence, which is and will remain the source of the most important favours to Nuremberg, is enjoined upon us merchants by prudence, upon us directors of the city by regard for its prosperity. But, my honourable friends, reluctantly as I do so, I must nevertheless remind you that this confidence, here and there, has already received a shock through the errors of individuals. Who could have forgotten the tale of the beautiful cap of the unhappy Meister Mertein, who has preceded us into the other world? Doubtless it concerned but one scabby sheep, yet it served to bring the whole flock into disrepute. Perhaps the fact that it occurred so soon after Rudolph's election to the sovereignty, during the early days of his residence in our goodly city, imprinted it so deeply upon our imperial master's memory. A few hours ago he asked for some information concerning the sad affair which now occupies our attention, and when I represented that the public spirit and honesty of my countrymen, fellow-citizens, and associate members of the Council would prevent it from injuring our trade at home or abroad, he alluded to that story, by no means in the jesting way with which he formerly mentioned the vexatious incident that redounded to the honour of no one more than that of his own shrewdness, which at that time--seven years ago--was so often blended with mirth."
When the speaker began to allude to this much-discussed incident a smile had flitted over the features of his listeners, for they remembered it perfectly, and the story of Emperor Rudolph and the cap was still related to the honour of the presence of mind of the wise Hapsburg judge.
During the period of the assembly of the princes a Nuremberg citizen had taken charge of a bag containing two hundred florins for a foreign merchant who had lodged with him, but when he was asked for the property entrusted to him denied that he had received it.
This disgraceful occurrence was reported to the Emperor, but he apparently paid no heed to it, and received Master Mertein, amongst other citizens who wished to be presented to him. The dishonest man appeared in a rich gala dress and as, embarrassed by the Emperor's piercing gaze, he awkwardly twirled his cap--a magnificent article bordered with costly fur; the sovereign took it from his hand, examined it admiringly and, with the remark that it would suit even a king, placed it on his own royal head. Then he approached one after another to exchange a few words and, as if forgetting that he wore the head-gear, left the apartment to order a messenger to take the cap at once to its owner's wife, show it to her as a guarantee of trustworthiness, and ask her to bring the bag which the foreign merchant had given him to the castle. The woman did so and the cheat was unmasked.
Everyone present, like Els, was familiar with this story, which wrongly cast so evil a light upon the uprightness of the citizens of Nuremberg. Who could fail to be painfully affected by the thought that Rudolph, during his present stay amongst them, must witness the injury of others by a Nuremberg merchant? Who could have now opposed Herr Berthold, when he asked, still more earnestly than before, that the community would do its share to maintain confidence in the reliability of the Nuremberg citizens, and especially of the Honourable Council and everyone of its members?
But when he mentioned the large sum which he himself, and the other which Ernst Ortlieb intended on certain conditions to devote to the settlement of this affair, Peter Ammon also withdrew his opposition. The First Losunger's proposal was unanimously accepted, and also the condition made by his associate, Ernst Ortlieb. Casper Eysvogel, on whom the resolution bore most heavily, submitted in silence, shrugging his shoulders.
How high Els's heart throbbed, how she longed to rush down into the Council chamber and clasp the hand of the noble old man at the green table, when he said that in consequence of Ernst Ortlieb's condition--which he also made--the charge of the newly established Eysvogel business must be transferred from Herr Casper's hands to those of his son, Herr Wolff, as soon as the imperial pardon permitted him to leave his hiding-place. He, Berthold Vorchtel, would make no complaint against him, for he knew that Wolff had been forced to cross swords with his Ulrich. He had formed this resolution after a severe struggle with himself; but as a Christian and a fair-minded man he had renounced the human desire for revenge, and as God had wished to give him a token of his approval, he had sent to his house a substitute for his dead son. Fresh cries of approval interrupted this communication, whose meaning Els did not understand.
Not a word of remonstrance was uttered when the imperial magistrate at last proposed that Casper Eysvogel and the women of his family should leave the city and atone for his great offence by ten years in exile. One of his estates, which he advised the city to buy, could be assigned him as a residence. Herr Casper's daughter, Frau Isabella Siebenburg, had already, with her twin sons, found shelter at the Knight Heideck's castle. Her husband, who had joined his guilty brothers, would speedily fall into the hands of justice and reap what he had sowed. For the final settlement of this affair he begged the Honourable Council to appoint commissioners, whom he would willingly join.
Then Herr Vorchtel again rose and requested his honourable friends to treat the new head of the house with entire confidence; for from the books of the firm and the statements which he had made in his hiding-place and sent to the Council, both he and the city clerk had become convinced that he was one of the most cautious and upright young merchants in Nuremberg. Their opinion was also shared by the most prominent business acquaintances of the house.
This pleased the listener. But whilst the speaker sat down amidst the eager assent of his associates in office, and Herr Casper Eysvogel, leaning on the arm of his cousin, Conrad Teufel, left the hall with tottering steps, utterly crushed, she saw the city clerk Schedel, after a hasty glance upwards, approach the side door, through which he could reach the staircase leading to his rooms.
He evidently intended to tell the result of the discussion. But the old gentleman would need considerable time to reach her, so she again listened to what was passing below.
She heard her uncle, the magistrate, speak of her father's unfortunate deed, and tell the Council how the name of Herr Ernst's daughters, who were held in such honour, had become innocently, through evil gossip, the talk of the people. Just at that moment the old man's shuffling step sounded close by the door.
Els stopped listening to hasten towards the messenger of good tidings, and the old gentleman could scarcely believe his own eyes when he saw the happiness beaming in the girl's beautiful fresh face, whose anxiety and pallor had just roused his deep sympathy.
It was scarcely possible that anyone could have anticipated him with the glad news, and spite of his seventy-two years the city clerk had retained the keen eyes of youth. When he entered the anteroom with Els and saw the open window and beside it the white Riese which she had removed in order to hear better, he released himself from the arm she had passed around his shoulders, shook his finger threateningly at her, and cried: "It's fortunate that I find only the Riese, and not the listener, otherwise I should be compelled to deliver her to the jailer, or even the torturer, for unwarranted intrusion into the secrets of the honourable Council. I can hardly institute proceedings against a bit of linen!"