Part II.
Volume 7.
Chapter X.
 

A few minutes later the sisters left the Town Hall. Their white Rieses were wound so closely about their faces that their features were completely hidden, but the thin material permitted them to see Herr Vorchtel, leaning upon the arm of the young burgomaster, Hans Nutzel, leave the Council chamber, where the other Honourables were still deliberating. Pointing to the old man, the city clerk told Els with a significant smile that Ursula Vorchtel was engaged to the talented, attractive young merchant now walking with her father, and that he had promised Herr Vorchtel to aid him and his younger son in the management of his extensive business. This was a great pleasure to the noble old merchant, and when he, the city clerk, met Ursula that morning, spite of her deep mourning, she again looked out upon the world like the happy young creature she was. Her new joy had greatly increased her beauty, and her lover was the very person to maintain it. Herr Schedel thought it would be pleasant news to Els, too. The young girl pressed his hand warmly; for these good tidings put the finishing touch to the glad tidings she had just heard. The reproach which, unjust as it might be, had spoiled many an hour for Wolff and entailed such fatal consequences, was now removed, and to her also "Ursel's" altered manner had often seemed like a silent accusation. She felt grateful, as if it were a personal joy, for the knowledge that the girl who had believed herself deserted by Wolff, her own lover, was now a happy betrothed bride.

Ursula's engagement removed a burden from Eva's soul, too, only she did not understand how a girl whose heart had once opened to a great love could ever belong to anyone else. Els understood her; nay, in Ursula's place she would have done the same, if it were only to weave a fresh flower in her afflicted father's fading garland of joy.

The city clerk accompanied them to the great entrance door of the Town Hall.

Several jailers and soldiers in the employ of the city were standing there, and whilst their old friend was promising to do his utmost to secure Ernst Ortlieb's liberation and recommending the girls to the protection of one of the watchmen, Eva's cheeks flushed; for a messenger of the Council had just approached the others, and she heard him utter the name of Sir Heinz Schorlin and his follower Walther Biberli. Els listened, too, but whilst her sister in embarrassment pressed her hand upon her heart, she frankly asked the city clerk what had befallen the knight and his squire, who was betrothed to her maid. She heard that at the last meeting of the Council an order had been issued for Biberli's arrest.

His name must have been brought up during the discussions of the slanders which had so infamously pursued the Ortlieb sisters, but she could not enquire how or in what connection, for the sun was already low in the western sky, and if the girls wished to see their father there was no time to lose.

Yet, though Katterle had just said that Countess von Montfort was waiting outside in her great sedan-chair for the young ladies, they were still detained, for they would not leave the Town Hall without thanking the city clerk and saying farewell to him. He was still near, but the captain of the city soldiers had drawn him aside and was telling him something which seemed to permit no delay, and induced the old gentleman to glance at the sisters repeatedly.

Eva did not notice it; for Biberli's arrest, which probably had some connection with Heinz and herself, had awakened a series of anxious thoughts associated with her lover and his faithful follower. Els troubled herself only about the events occurring in her immediate vicinity, and felt perfectly sure that the captain's communications referred not only to the four itinerant workmen and the three women who had just been led across the courtyard to the "Hole," and to whom the speaker pointed several times, but especially to her and her sister.

When the city clerk at last turned to them again, he remarked carelessly that a disagreeable mob in front of the Ortlieb mansion had been dispersed, and then, with urgent cordiality, invited the two girls to spend the night under the protection of his old housekeeper. When they declined, he assured them that measures would be taken to guard them from every insult. He had something to tell their uncle, and the communication appeared to permit no delay, for with a haste very unusual in the deliberate old gentleman he left the two sisters with a brief farewell.

Meanwhile Countess Cordula had become weary of waiting in the sedan-chair. She came striding to meet her new friends, attired in a rustling canary-green silk robe whose train swept the ground, but it was raised so high in front that the brown hunting-boots encasing her well-formed feet were distinctly visible. She was swinging her heavy riding-whip in her hand, and her favourite dogs, two black dachshunds with yellow spots over their eyes, followed at her heels.

As it was against the rules to bring dogs into the Town Hall, the doorkeeper tried to stop her, but without paying the slightest attention to him, she took Els by the hand, beckoned to Eva, and was turning to leave the path leading to the market-place.

In doing so her eyes fell upon the courtyard, where, just after the Ave Maria, a motley throng had gathered. Here, guarded by jailers, stood vagabonds and disreputable men and women, sham blind beggars and cripples, swindlers, and other tatterdemalions, who had been caught in illegal practices or without the beggar's sign. In another spot, dark-robed servants of the Council were discussing official and other matters. Near the "Hole" a little party of soldiers were resting, passing from hand to hand the jug of wine bestowed by the Honourable Council. The "Red Coat"--[Executioner]--was giving orders to his "Life"--[Executioner's assistant ("Lion")]--as they carried across the courtyard a new instrument of torture intended for the room adjoining the Council chamber, where those who refused to make depositions were forced to it. In a shady corner sat old people, poorly clad women, and pale-faced children, the city poor, who at this hour received food from the kitchen of the Town Hall. A few priests and monks were going into the wing of the building which contained the "Hole," with its various cells and the largest chamber of torture, to give the consolations of religion to the prisoners and those tortured by the rack who had not yet been conveyed to the hospital at Schweinau.

The countess's keen glance wandered from one to another. When they reached the group of paupers they rested upon a woman with deadly pale, hollow cheeks, pressing a pitifully emaciated infant to her dry breast, and her eyes swiftly filled with tears.

"Here," she whispered to old Martsche, taking several gold coins from the pocket that hung at her belt, "give these to the poorest ones. You are sensible. Divide it so that several will have a share and the money will reach the right hands. You can take your time. We need neither you nor Katterle. Go back to the house. I will carry your young mistresses to their father and home again. Where I am you need have no fear that harm will befall them."

Then she turned again towards the "Hole," and seeing the people yelling and shouting while awaiting imprisonment, she pointed to them with her whip, saying, "That's a part of the pack which was set upon you. You shall hear about it presently. But now come."

As she spoke she went before the girls and urged them to step quickly into the large, handsome sedan-chair, around which an unusual number of people had assembled, for she wished to avoid any recognition of the sisters by the curious spectators. The gilded box, borne between two powerful Brabant horses in such a way that it hung between the tail of the first and the head of the second, would have had room for a fourth occupant.

When it moved forward, swaying from side to side, Cordula pointed to the curtained windows, and said: "Shameful, isn't it? But it is better so, children. That arch-rascal Siebenburg robbed the people of the little sense they possessed, and that cat of a candle-dealer, with her mate, the tailor, or rather his followers, poisoned the minds of the rest. How quickly it worked! Goodness, it seems to me, acts more slowly. True, your hot-tempered father spoiled the old rascal's inclination to woo pretty Metz for a while; but his male and female gossips, aunts, cousins, and work-people apparently allowed themselves to be persuaded by his future mother-in-law to the abominable deed, which caused the brawling rabble you saw in the Town Hall court to content themselves with a hard couch in the 'Hole' overnight."

"They have done everything bad concerning us, though I don't know exactly what," cried Els indignantly.

"Wished to do, Miss Wisdom," replied the countess, patting Els's arm soothingly. "We kept our eyes open, and I helped to put a stop to their proceedings. The rabble gathered in front of your house, yelling and shrieking, and when I stepped into your bow-window there was as great an outcry as if they were trying to bring down the walls of Jericho a second time. Some boys even flung at me everything they could find in the mire of the streets. The most delightful articles! There was actually a dead rat! I can see its tail flying now! Our village lads know how to aim better. Before the worst came, by the advice of the equerry and our wise chaplain, whom I consulted, we had done what was necessary, and summoned the guard at the Frauenthor to our assistance. But the soldiers were in no great haste; so when matters were going too far, I stepped into the breach myself, called down to tell them my name, and also showed my crossbow with an arrow on the string. This had an effect. Only a few women still continued to load me with horrible abuse. Then the chaplain came to the window and this restored silence; but, in spite of his earnest words, not a soul stirred from the spot until the patrol arrived, dispersed the rabble, and arrested some of them."

Els, who sat by Cordula's side, drew her towards her and kissed her gratefully; but Eva's eyes had filled with tears of grief at the beginning of the countess's report of this new insult, and the hostility of so many of the townsfolk; yet she succeeded in controlling herself. She would not weep. She had even forced herself to gaze, without the quiver of an eyelash, at the sorrowful and horrible spectacle outside of the "Hole." She must cease being a weak child. How true her dying mother's words had been! To be able to struggle and conquer, she must not withdraw from life and its influences, which, if she did not spare herself, promised to transform her into the resolute woman she desired to become.

She had listened with labouring breath to the speaker's last words, and when Els embraced Cordula, she raised her little clenched hand, exclaiming with passionate emotion: "Oh, if I had only been at home with you! You are brave, Countess, but I, too, would not have shrunk from them. I would voluntarily have made myself the target for their malice, and called to their faces that only miserably deluded people or shameless rascals could throw stones at my Els, who is a thousand times better than any of them!"

"Or at you, you dear, brave child," added Cordula in an agitated tone.

From the day following the burning of the convent the countess had given up her whim of winning Heinz Schorlin. She now knew that all her nobler feelings spoke more loudly in favour of the quiet man who had borne her out of the flames. Sir Boemund Altrosen's love had proved genuine, and she would reward him for it; but the heart of the pretty creature opposite to her was also filled with deep, true love, and she would do everything in her power for Eva, whom she had loved ever since her affliction had touched her tender heart.

Both sisters were now aware of Cordula's kind intentions, and the warm pleasure she displayed when Els told her what the Council had determined, showed plainly enough that the motherless young countess, who had neither brother nor sister, clung to the daughters of her host like a third sister. Old Herr Vorchtel's treatment of the man who had inflicted so deep a sorrow upon him touched her inmost soul. It was grand, noble; the Saviour himself would have rejoiced over it. "If it would only please the good old man," she exclaimed, "I would rather offer him my lips to kiss than the handsomest young knight."

Though two of Count von Montfort's mounted huntsmen and several constables accompanied the unusually large and handsome sedan-chair, a curious crowd had followed it; but the opinion probably prevailed that the countess's companions were some of her waiting-women. When they alighted in front of the watch-tower, however, an elderly laundry-maid who had worked for the Ortliebs recognised the sisters and pointed them out to the others, protesting that it was hard for a woman of her chaste spirit to have served in a house where such things could have happened. Then a tailor's apprentice, who considered the whole of the guild insulted in the wounded Meister Seubolt, put his fingers to his wide mouth and emitted a long, shrill whistle; but the next instant a blow from a powerful fist silenced him. It was young Ortel, who had come to the watch-tower to seek Herr Ernst and tell him that he and his sister Metz, spite of their mother and guardian, meant to stay in his service. His heart's blood would not have been too dear to guard Eva, whom he instantly recognised, from every insult; but he had no occasion to use his youthful strength a second time, for the soldiers who guarded the tower and the city mercenaries drove back the crowd and kept the square in front of the tower open.

The countess would not be detained long, for the sun had already sunk behind the towers and western wall of the fortress, and the reflection of the sunset was tinging the eastern sky with a roseate hue. The warden really ought to have refused them admittance, for the time during which he was permitted to take visitors to the imprisoned "Honourable" had already passed. But for the daughters of Herr Ernst Ortlieb, to whom he was greatly indebted, he closed his eyes to this fact, and only entreated them to make their stay brief, for the drawbridge leading to the tower must be raised when darkness gathered.

The young girls found their father, absorbed in grief as if utterly crushed, seated at a table on which stood a leaden inkstand with several sheets of paper. He still held the pen in his hand.

He received his daughters with the exclamation, "You poor, poor children!" But when Els tried to tell him what had given her so much pleasure, he interrupted her to accuse himself, with deep sorrow, of having again permitted sudden passion to master him. Probably this was the last time; such experiences would cool even the hottest blood. Then he began to relate what had induced him to raise his hand against the tailor, and as, in doing so, he recalled the insolent hypocrite's spiteful manner, he again flew into so violent a rage that the blow which he dealt the table made the ink splash up and soil both the paper lying beside it and his own dress, still faultlessly neat even in prison. This caused fresh wrath, and he furiously crushed the topmost sheet, already half covered with writing, and hurled it on the floor.

Not until Els stooped to pick it up did he calm himself, saying, with a shrug of the shoulders, "Who can remain unmoved when the whirlwind of despair seizes him? When a swarm of hornets attacks a horse, and it rears, who wonders? And I--What stings and blows has Fate spared me?" Els ventured to speak soothingly to him, and remind him of God, and the saints to whom he had made such generous offerings in building the convent; but this awakened an association, and he asked if it were true that Eva had refused to take the veil.

She made a silent gesture of assent, expecting another outburst of anger; but her father only shook his head sorrowfully, clasped her right hand in both his, and said sadly: "Poor, poor child! But she, she--your mother--would probably----The last words her dear lips bestowed upon us concerned you, child, and I believe their meaning----"

Here the warden interrupted him to remind the girls that it was time to depart; but whilst Els was begging the man for a brief delay, Herr Ernst looked first at the paper and writing materials, then at his daughters, and added with quiet decision: "Before you go, you must hear that, in spite of everything, I did not wholly lose courage, but began to act."

"That is right, dear father," exclaimed Els, and told him briefly and quickly what the Council had decided, how warmly old Berthold Vorchtel had interceded for Wolff, and that the management of the business was to be confided solely to him.

These tidings swiftly and powerfully revived the fading hopes of the sorely stricken man. He drew up his short figure as if the vigour of youth had returned, declaring that he now felt sure that this first star in the dark night would soon be followed by others. "It will now be your Wolff's opportunity," he exclaimed, "to make amends for much that Fate But I was commencing something else. Give me that bit of crumpled paper. I'll look at it again early to-morrow morning; it is a letter to the Emperor I was composing. Your brother ought not to have given up his young life on the battlefield for the Crown in vain. He owes me compensation for the son, you for the brother. He is certainly a fair-minded man, and therefore will not shut his ears to my complaint. Just wait, children! And you, my devout Eva, pray to your saint that the petition, which concerns you also, may effect what I expect."

"And what is that?" asked Eva anxiously. "That the wrong done you, you poor, deceived child, shall be made good," replied Herr Ernst with imperious decision.

Eva clasped his hand, pleading warmly and tenderly: "By all that you hold dear and sacred, I beseech you, father, not to mention me and Sir Heinz Schorlin in your letter. If he withdrew his love from me, no imperial decree--"

The veins on the Councillor's brow again swelled with wrath, and though he did not burst into a passion, he exclaimed in violent excitement: "A nobleman who declares his love to a chaste Nuremberg maiden of noble birth assumes thereby a duty which, if unfulfilled, imposes a severe punishment upon him. This just punishment, at least, the tempter shall not escape. The Emperor, who proclaimed peace throughout the land and cleared the highways of the bands of robbers, will consider it his first duty--"

Here the warden interrupted him by calling from the threshold of the room that the draw-bridge would be raised and the young ladies must follow him without delay.

Eva again besought her father not to enter an accusation against the knight, and Els warmly supported her sister; but their brief, ardent entreaty produced no effect upon the obstinate man except, after he had pressed a farewell kiss upon the brows of both, to tell them with resolute dignity that the night would bring counsel, and he was quite sure that this time, as usual, he should pursue the right course for the real good of his dear children.

Hitherto Herr Ernst had indeed proved himself a faithful and prudent head of his family, but this time his daughters left him with heavy, anxious hearts.

Fear of her father's intention tortured Eva like a new misfortune, and Els and the countess also hoped that the petition would go without the accusation against Heinz.

Whilst the sedan-chair was bearing the girls home few words were exchanged. Not until they approached the Frauenthor did they enter into a more animated conversation, which referred principally to Biberli and the question whether the Honourable Council would call Katterle to account also, and what could be done to save both from severe punishment. Cordula had drawn aside the curtain on the right and was gazing into the street, apparently from curiosity, but really with great anxiety. But Herr Pfinzing had done his part, and with the exception of several soldiers in the pay of the city there were few people in sight near the Ortlieb mansion.

A horse was being led up and down on the opposite side of the courtyard, and behind the chains stood a sedan-chair with several men, to whom Metz had just brought from the kitchen a coal of fire to light their torches. The pretty girl looked as bright as if she felt small concern for the severe wound of the grey-haired tailor who had chosen her for his wife.