Part II.
Volume 7.
Chapter XIII.
 

The drawbridge before the watch-tower was promptly lowered for the imperial magistrate and his wife. He would have dissuaded Frau Chris the from the ride and come alone, had not experience taught him that Ernst Ortlieb was more ready to listen to her than to him. But they came too late; just before sunset Herr Ernst had availed himself of the visit of the imperial forester, Waldstromer, to give him the petition to convey to the protonotary, by whom it was to reach the Emperor. Nor did he regret this decision, but insisted that his duty as a father and a Nuremberg "Honourable" would not permit the wrong done to his child and his household by a foreign knight to pass unpunished.

True, Fran Christine exerted all her powers of persuasion to change his opinion, and her husband valiantly supported her, but they accomplished nothing except to gain the prisoner's consent that if the paper had not yet reached the Emperor the protonotary might defer its presentation until he was asked for it.

Herr Ernst had made this concession after the magistrate's representation that Sir Heinz Schorlin had been subjected to an experience which had stirred the inmost depths of his soul, and soon after had been unexpectedly sent in pursuit of the Siebenburgs. Hence he had found no time to speak to the father. If he persisted in his intention of entering a monastery, the petition would be purposeless. If it proved that he was merely trifling with Eva, there would be time enough to call upon the Emperor to punish him. Besides, he knew from Maier of Silenen that the knight had firmly resolved to renounce the world.

But the magistrate and his wife did not take their nocturnal ride in vain, for after leaving the watch-tower they met the protonotary at St. Sebald's. He had received the petition, but had not yet delivered it to his royal master, and promised to withhold it for a time.

Rejoicing over this success, Herr Pfinzing accompanied Fran Christine, who wanted to visit Els, to the Eysvogel residence.

The din of many voices and loud laughter greeted them from the spacious entry. Three mendicant friars, with overflowing pouches, pressed past them, and two others were still standing with the men and the maidservants assembled in the light of the lanterns. They had filled the barefooted monks' bags, for the salvation of their own souls, with the provisions of the house, and were talking garrulously, already half intoxicated by the jugs of wine which the butler willingly filled to earn a sweet reward from the young maids, who eagerly sought the favour of the rotund bachelor whose hair was just beginning to turn grey.

The magistrate's entrance startled them, and the butler vainly strove to hide a large jar whose shape betrayed that it came from Sicily and contained the noble vintage of Syracuse. Two of the maids slid under their aprons the big hams and pieces of roast meat with which they had already begun to regale themselves.

Herr Berthold, smiling sadly, watched the conduct of the masterless servants; then raising his cap, bowed with the utmost respect to the disconcerted revellers, and said courteously, "I hope it will agree with you all."

The startled group looked sheepishly at one another. The butler was the only person who quickly regained his composure, came forward to the magistrate cap in hand, and said obsequiously that he and his fellow-servants were in evil case. The house had no master. No one knew from whom he or she was to receive orders. Most of them had been discharged by the Honourable Councillor, but no one knew when he was to leave or whom to ask for his wages.

The magistrate then informed them that Herr Wolff Eysvogel had the right to give orders, and during his absence his betrothed bride, Jungfrau Els Ortlieb. The next morning a member of the Council would examine the claims of each, pay the wages, and with Frau Rosalinde and Jungfrau Els determine the other matters.

The butler had imbibed a goodly share of the noble wine. His fat cheeks glowed, and at the magistrate's last remark he laughed softly: "If we wait for the folk upstairs to agree we shall stay here till the Pegnitz flows up the valley. Just listen to their state of harmony, sir!"

In fact the shrill, angry accents of a woman's loud voice, with which mingled deeper tones that were very familiar to Herr Berthold, echoed down into the entry. It certainly looked ill for the concord of the women of the house; yet the magistrate could not permit the unprincipled servant's insolence to pass unpunished, so he answered quietly:

"You are right, fellow. One can put a stop to this shameful conduct more quickly than several, and by virtue of my office I will therefore be the one to command here. You will leave this house and service to-morrow."

But when the angry butler, with the hoarse tones of a drunkard, declared that in Nuremberg none save rascals were turned out of doors directly after a discharge, the magistrate, with grave dignity, cut him short by remarking that he would do better not to bring before the magistrates the question of what beseemed the servant who wasted the valuable property entrusted to his care, as had been done here.

With these words he pointed to the spot where the jug of wine which he had plainly seen was only half concealed, and the threat silenced the man, whose conscience reproached him far more than Herr Pfinzing could imagine.

Meanwhile quiet had not been restored upstairs. Frau Christine had released Els from a store-room in which the old countess, after persuading her daughter to this spiteful and childish trick, had locked her. A serious discussion amongst the women followed, which was closed only by the interposition of the magistrate. Perhaps this might have been accomplished less quickly had not the leech Otto appeared as a welcome aid.

Frau Rosalinde penitently besought forgiveness, her mother was again forbidden to come to the lower story, and threatened, if she approached the sick-room, with immediate removal from the house.

This strictness was necessary to render it possible for Els to maintain her difficult position.

The day had been filled with painful incidents and shameful humiliations. The old countess had summoned two relatives, both elderly canonesses, to aid her in her assault upon the intruder, and perhaps they were the persons who advised locking up Sir Casper's nurse, to whom they denied the right of still calling herself the bride of the young master of the house.

Frau Christine had arrived at the right time. Els was beginning to lose courage. She had found nothing which could aid her to sustain it.

Since Biberli had been deprived of his liberty she had rarely heard from Wolff, and his invalid father, for whose sake she remained in the house, seemed to view her with dislike. At first he had tried neither to speak to nor look at her, but that morning, while raising a refreshing cup to his parched lips, he had cast at her from the one eye whose lid still moved a glance whose enmity still haunted her.

Even the priest who visited him several times was by no means kindly disposed towards her. He belonged to the Dominican order, and was the confessor of the old countess and Frau Rosalinde. They must have slandered her sorely to him; and as the order of St. Francis, to which the Sisters of St. Clare belonged, was a thorn in his flesh, he bore her a grudge because, as the Abbess Kunigunde's niece, she stood by her and her convent, and threatened to win the Eysvogel household over to the Franciscans.

Before the magistrate and his wife left their niece, Herr Berthold ordered the men and maidservants to stand in separate rows, then, in the physician's presence, introduced Els to them as the mistress whom they were to obey, and requested her to choose those whose services she wished to retain. The rest would be compensated at the Town Hall the next day for their abrupt dismissal.

Els had never found it harder to say good-by to her relatives; but the leech Otto remained with her some time, and was soon joined by Conrad Teufel, thereby rendering it a little easier for her to persist in the performance of her difficult duty. On the way home to Schweinau the magistrate and his wife talked together as eagerly as if they had just met after a long separation. They had gone back to the query how nursing the wounded criminals would affect Eva, and both hoped that Cordula's presence and encouragement would strengthen her power of resistance.

But what did this mean?

As they approached the little castle they saw from the road in the arbour, which was lighted with links, the figure of the countess. She was sitting in Frau Christine's easy chair, but Eva was nowhere in view. Had her strength failed, and was Cordula awaiting their return after putting her more delicate friend to bed? And Boemund Altrosen, who stood opposite to her, leaning against one of the pillars which supported the arched ceiling of the room, how came he here? The Pfinzings had known him from early childhood, for his father had been a dear friend and brother in arms of the magistrate; and--whilst Boemund, as a boy, was enjoying the instruction of the Benedictines in the monastery of St. Aegidius, he had been a favourite comrade of Frau Christine's son, who had fallen in battle, and always found a cordial reception in his parents' house.

With what tender anxiety the knight gazed into Cordula's pale face! Something must have befallen the blooming, vigorous huntress and daring horsewoman, and both Herr Berthold and his wife feared that it concerned Eva.

The young couple now perceived their approach, and Cordula, rising, waved her handkerchief to them. Yet how slowly she rose, how feebly the vivacious girl moved her hand.

Herr Berthold helped his wife from the saddle as quickly as possible, and both hurried anxiously towards the arbour. Frau Christine did not remain in the winding path, but though usually she strictly insisted that no one should tread on the turf, hastily crossed it to reach her goal more quickly. But ere she could put the question she longed to ask, Cordula sorrowfully exclaimed: "Don't judge me too severely. 'He who exalts himself shall be humbled,' says the Bible, and also that the first shall be last, and the last first; but I have been forced to sit upon the ground whilst Eva occupies the throne. I belong at the end of the last rank, whilst she leads the foremost."

"Please explain the riddle at once," pleaded Frau Christine.

Sir Boemund Altrosen came forward, held out his hand to his old friend, and spoke for Cordula "The horror and loathsomeness were too much for her, whilst Jungfrau Ortlieb endured them."

"Eva remained at the hospital," the countess added dejectedly, "because a dying woman would not let her go; whilst I--the knight is right--could bear it no longer."

Frau Christine glanced triumphantly at her husband, but when she saw Cordula's pale cheeks she exclaimed: "Poor child! And there was no one here to----One moment, Countess!"

Throwing down her riding-whip and gloves as she spoke, she was hurrying towards the sideboard on which stood the medicine-case, to prepare a strengthening drink; but Cordula stopped her, saying: "The housekeeper has already supplied the necessary stimulant. I will only ask to have my horse brought to the door, or my father will be anxious. I was obliged to await your return, because----Well, my flight from the hospital certainly was not praiseworthy, and it affords me no special pleasure to confess it. But you must not think me even more pitiful than I proved myself, so I stayed to tell you myself----"

"That it is one thing," interrupted Sir Boemund, "to nurse worthy wood-cutters, gamekeepers, fishermen, and charcoal-burners, who, when wounded and ill, look up to their gracious mistress as if she were an angel of deliverance, and quite a different matter to mingle with the miserable rabble yonder. The bloody stripes which the executioner's lash cuts in the criminal's back do not render him more gentle; the mutilation which he curses, and the disgrace with which an abandoned woman----"

"Stop!" interrupted Cordula, whose lips and cheeks had again grown colourless. "Do not mention those scenes which have poisoned my soul. It was too hideous, too terrible! And how the woman with the red band around her neck, the mark of the rope by which she carried the stone, rushed at the other whose eye had been put out! how they fought on the floor, scratching, biting, tearing each other's hair----"

Here the tender-hearted girl, covering her convulsed face with her hands, sobbed aloud.

Frau Christine drew her compassionately to her heart, pressed the motherless child's head to her bosom, and let her weep her fill there, whilst the magistrate said to Sir Boemund: "And Eva Ortlieb also witnessed this hideous scene, yet the delicate young creature endured it?"

Altrosen nodded assent, adding eagerly, as if some memory rose vividly before him: "She often looked distressed by these horrors, but usually--how shall I express it?--usually calm and content."

"Content," repeated the magistrate thoughtfully. Then, suddenly straightening his short, broad figure, he thrust his little fat hand into a fold of the knight's doublet, exclaiming: "Boemund, do you want to know the most difficult riddle that the Lord gives to us men to solve? It is--take heed--a woman's soul."

"Yes," replied Altrosen curtly; the word sounded like a sigh.

While speaking, his dark eye was bent on Cordula, whose head still rested on Frau Christine's breast.

Then, adjusting the bandage which since the fire had been wound around his forehead and his dark hair, he continued in a tone of explanation: "Count von Montfort sent me, when it grew dark, to accompany his daughter home. From your little castle I was directed to the hospital, where I found her amongst the horrible women. She had struggled faithfully against her loathing and disgust, but when I arrived her power of resistance was already beginning to fail. Fortunately the sedan-chair was there, for she felt that her feet would scarcely carry her back. I ordered one to be prepared for Jungfrau Ortlieb, though I remembered the dying woman who kept her. As if the matter were some easy task, she begged the countess to excuse her, and remained beside the wretched straw pallet."

The deeply agitated girl had just released herself from the matron's embrace, and begged the knight to have her Roland saddled; but Frau Christine stopped him, and entreated Cordula, for her sake, to use her sedan-chair instead of the horse.

"If it will gratify you," replied the countess smiling; "but I should reach home safely on the piebald."

"Who doubts it?" asked the matron. "Give her your arm, husband. The bearers are ready, and you will soon overtake them on your horse, Boemund."

"The walk through the warm June night will do me good," the latter protested.

Soon after the sedan-chair which conveyed Cordula, lighted by several torch-bearers on foot and on horseback, began to move towards the city.

At St. Linhard, Boemund Altrosen, who walked beside it, asked the question, "Then I may hope, Countess? I really may?"

She nodded affectionately, and answered under her breath: "You may; but we must first try whether the flower of love which blossomed for you out of my weakness is the real one. I believe it will be."

He joyously raised her hand to his lips, but a torch-bearer's shout--" Count von Montfort and his train!"--urged him back from the sedan chair. A few seconds after Cordula welcomed her father, who had anxiously ridden forth to meet his jewel.