The Fire Of The Forge by Georg Ebers
"I can hardly do more, and yet I must," groaned Frau Christine, as she gazed after the torch-bearers who preceded Cordula. Her husband, however, tried to detain her, offering to go to their young guest in her place.
But the effort was vain. The motherless child, whom the captive father probably believed to be in safety with her sensible sister, was at a post of danger, and only a woman's eye could judge whether it would do to yield to Eva's wish, which the housekeeper had just told her mistress, and allow her--it was already past midnight-to remain longer at the hospital.
She would not have hesitated to require her niece's return home had not maternal solicitude urged her to deprive her of nothing which could aid her troubled soul to regain its poise. If possible at all, it would be through devotion to an arduous work of charity that she would understand her own nature, and find an answer to the question whether, when the slanderers were silenced, she would take the veil or cling firmly to the hopeless love which had mastered her young heart.
If she succeeded in remaining steadfast here and, in spite of the glad consciousness of having conquered by the sign of the cross, was still loyal to her worldly love, then the latter was genuine and strong, and Eva did not belong to the convent; then her sister, the abbess, was mistaken in the girl whose soul she had guided from early childhood.
Frau Christine, who usually formed an opinion quickly and resolutely, had not dared to give Eva a positive answer the previous evening.
With sympathising emotion the matron had heard her confess that during her nocturnal wanderings a new feeling, which she could no longer still, had awakened in her breast. When she also told her the image of true love which she had formed, she could not bring herself to undeceive her.
The abbess had made a somewhat similar confession to her, the older sister, when her young heart--how long ago it seemed!--had also been mastered by love. The object of its ardent passion was no less a personage than the Burgrave von Zollern.
Frau Christine had seen his marriage with the Hapsburg princess awaken her sister's desire to renounce the world. Kunigunde was then a maiden of rare, majestic beauty, and only the Burgrave's exalted station had prevented his wedding "Eva," as she was called before she took the veil.
As a husband and father, he had found deep happiness in the love of the Countess Elizabeth, the future Emperor Rudolph's sister, yet he had remained a warm friend of the abbess; and when he treated Eva with such marked distinction at the dance, she owed it not only to her own charms but also to the circumstance that, like the girl whom he had loved in his youth, she bore the name of "Eva Ortlieb," and the expression of her eyes vividly recalled the happiest time in his life.
The abbess, after a still more severe renunciation, had attained even greater happiness in the convent. Her sister could not blame her for wishing the same lot for the devout young niece, whose fate seemed to bear a closer and closer resemblance to her own; but yesterday she had argued with her, for Kunigunde had insisted firmly that if the girl did not voluntarily knock at the convent door she should be forced to enter, not only for her own sake but also Sir Heinz Schorlin's. Nothing could rouse the ire of every true Christian more than the thought that a noble knight, for whose conversion Heaven had wrought a miracle, could turn a deaf ear to the summons for the sake of a girl scarcely beyond childhood. To place convent walls between the pair would therefore be a work pleasing in the sight of God-nay, necessary for the example.
This statement sounded so resolute and imperative that Frau Christine, who knew her sister's gentle nature, had been convinced that she was obeying the mandate of a superior. Soon afterward she learned that Kunigunde had followed the dictates of the zealous prior of the Dominicans, who was regarded as the supreme judge in religious affairs. At a chance meeting she had imprudently asked this man, who had never been friendly to her or her order, to give his opinion concerning this matter, which gave her no rest.
Frau Christine had eagerly opposed her. The case of Heinz Schorlin was different from that of the Burgrave Frederick, who could never be permitted to wed the daughter of a Nuremberg merchant. If the Swiss renounced his intention of entering the monastery, there was nothing to prevent his wooing Eva. It should by no means be as the prior of the Dominicans had said: "They must both renounce the world," but, "They must test themselves, and if the world holds them firmly, and the Emperor, who is a fatherly friend to Heinz, makes no objection, it would be a duty to unite the pair."
The decisive hour for Eva was now at hand, and Fran Christine, eager to learn in what condition she should find her niece, had herself carried to the hospital.
Her husband and several men-servants accompanied her, for at this late hour the neighbourhood, where so many criminals were nursed for a short time, was by no means safe. Companions, friends, and relatives of the criminals were often attracted thither by sympathy, curiosity, or business affairs. Whoever had occasion to shun appearing by daylight in a place which never lacked bailiffs and city soldiers, slunk to the hospital at night.
As a heavy rain had just begun to fall, the short distance to be traversed by the magistrate and his wife was empty. Ample provision also seemed to have been made to guard the place of healing, for several armed troopers belonging to the city guard were pacing up and down before he board fence which surrounded it, and the approach of the late visitors was heralded by the deep baying of large hounds.
The magistrate was well known here, and the doorkeeper, roused from his sleep, hastened to light the way for him and his wife with a lantern. In spite of the planks which had been placed in he courtyard, the task of crossing it was by no means easy; for the night was intensely dark, and the foot passed beyond the boards, it plunged into the mire, on which they floated rather than lay.
At first the barking of the dogs had drowned very other sound, but as they approached the house thatched with straw, where the wounded men were nursed, harsh voices, interrupted at times by the angry oaths of some patient roused from sleep, or the watchman's command to keep quiet, reached them in a loud uproar.
A narrow passage dimly lighted by a lantern led to the women's quarters, where Eva had remained. The magistrate entered the men's dormitory to make an inspection, while his wife, needing no guidance, passed on to the women, meeting no one on her way except a Sister of Charity and two men-servants who, under the guidance of a sleepy Dominican monk, were bearing out the corpse of some one who had just passed away.
Sister Hildegard, who was sitting at the door of the dormitory, half asleep, started up as Frau Christine crossed the threshold.
The knight's widow, a vigorous matron, whose hair had long been grey, pointed with the rosary in her hand to the end of the long, dimly lighted apartment, and said in a low tone: "The sick woman seems to be asleep now. The prior sent the old Dominican to whom Eva is talking. He is said to be the most learned and eloquent member of the order. If I am right, he came here to appeal to your niece's conscience. At least his first question was for her, and you see how eagerly he is speaking. When yonder sick woman seemed to be drawing near her end she asked for the sacrament, which was administered by the Dominican. It was a sorrowful farewell on account of her children, but the barber thinks we may perhaps save her yet. Father Benedictus, the old Minorite, who was found on the road and brought to us, seems, on the other hand, to be dying. We will gladly keep him in the Beguines home until the angel summons him. Unfortunately, yonder poor woman's third day will end tomorrow. We are not permitted to shelter her here any longer, and if we turn her out--"
"What is the matter with the woman?" interrupted Frau Christine, but the other gazed into her face with warm sympathising affection and such tender entreaty that the magistrate's wife, before she began her reply, exclaimed: "So it is the old, pitiful story! But let her stay! Yes, even though, instead of every pound of farthings, she cost us ten times as much in gold! But we will spare what is necessary for her. I see by your face that it will not be wasted."
"Certainly not," replied Sister Hildegard gratefully. "Oh, how she came here! Now, it is true, she has more than she needs. Your dear niece--she is an angel of charity--sent her Katterle out to get what was wanted. But where is the girl?" She gazed around the spacious chamber as she spoke, but could not find Katterle.
True, a dim light pervaded the whole apartment, and Sister Hildegard, referring to it, added "The light keeps many of the patients awake, and we have a better use for the pennies which the oil and chips cost. When there are brilliant entertainments to be given, or works of mercy done which the whole world sees, the Honourables let their gold flow freely enough, but who beholds the abodes of horror? We look best in the dark, and no one will miss what we save in light."
Certainly no one present incurred any danger of seeing at this hour the pitiable spectacles visible by day; for what was occurring at the opposite end of the room could not be perceived from the door. So when it closed Eva could not distinguish who had entered.
But this was agreeable to Frau Christine; for before going to her niece she wished to inquire about the woman by whom she had been detained.
Like the others, she was lying upon the board platform which surrounded the four walls of the room, interrupted only by the door through which she had just passed. It rose in a slanting direction towards the wall, that the sufferers' heads might be higher than their feet. Instead of cushions, it was covered with a thick layer of straw, the beds of the patients who were nursed here. It seemed to be changed very rarely, for especially near the door at which the two women were still standing a damp, unpleasant odour emanated from the straw. It belonged here, however, as feathers are a part of birds, and the people who were nursed within its walls were accustomed to nothing better. When, fifteen years before, the oversight of the hospital was entrusted to Frau Christine, she had found the condition of affairs still worse, and the idea of procuring beds for the injured persons to be cured here was as far from her thoughts, or those of the rest of the world, as cushioning the stable.
That was the way things were at Schweinau. Straw of all sorts might be expected to be found here, not only on the wooden platform but on the floor, in the yard, and everywhere else, as surely as leaves upon the ground of a wood in the autumn. To leave the house without taking stalks in the hair and garments was as impossible as for any person accustomed to better conditions, who did not wish to faint from discomfort, to do without a scent bottle.
Formerly Frau Christine had endeavoured to obtain better air, but even her kind-hearted husband had laughed at the foolish idea, because such things would benefit only herself and some of the nurses. In the taverns usually frequented by the inmates of the hospital they learned to endure a different atmosphere, which was stifling to him.
After contagious diseases certain precautions were always taken. On Sunday morning it was even fumigated with juniper-berries on hot tin and boiling vinegar.
Frau Christine had introduced this disinfectant herself by the advice of Otto the leech, when all who had been brought hither with open wounds, among them vigorous young men, had died like flies. At that time the distinguished physician had even succeeded in getting the Honourable Council to defray the cost of having the walls newly white washed and fresh clay stamped on the floor. He had also directed that the old straw should be replaced by clean every Sunday morning, and now matters were better still, for the rule was that every sick person should have a fresh layer. True, it was not always fulfilled, and many a person was forced to be content with his predecessor's couch.
In the women's room, however, the change of straw was more rigidly required. The nurse herself attended to it, and Sister Hildegard gave her energetic assistance.
In difficult cases the influence of the leech Otto was called to her aid, but he had grown old and no longer came to Schweinau. Two barbers now cared for the bandaging and healing of the wounds, and if they were at a loss the younger city physician was summoned.
Sister Hildegard now pointed to the couch beside which the Dominican was talking to Eva, and said: "She is the widow of a carrier and the child of worthy people; her father was the sexton of St. Sebald's. True, he died long ago, at the same time as her mother. It was twelve years since, during the plague.
"Reicklein, yonder, had no other relatives here--her parents were from Bamberg--but she was well off, and her husband, Veit, earned enough by his travels through the country. But on St. Blaise's day, early in the month of February, during a trip to Vogtland, it was at Hof, he was overtaken by a snowstorm, and the worthy man was found frozen under a drift, with his staff and pouch. The sad news reached her just after the birth of a little boy, and there were two other mouths to feed besides. Her savings went quickly enough, and she fell into dire poverty, for she had not yet recovered her strength, and could not do housework. During Passion Week she sold her bed to pay what she had borrowed and to feed the children. It was cold, she had not a copper, nor any possibility of earning anything. Then the rest went, too, and there was no way of getting food enough for the children and herself.
"But as her father had been in the employ of the city and was an honest man, by the advice of the provost of St. Sebald's, who had been her confessor from childhood, she applied to the Honourable Council, and received the answer that old Hans Schab was by no means forgotten, and therefore, to relieve her need, she was referred to the beadle, who would give her the permit which enabled her to ask alms from those who went to St. Sebald's Church, and had already afforded many a person ample support.
"For her children's sake she crushed the pride which rebelled against it, and stood at the church door, not once, but again and again. The other mendicants, however, treated her so roughly, and the cruel enmity with which they tried to crowd her out of her place seemed so unbearable, that she could not hold out. Once, when they insulted her too much, and again thrust her back so spitefully that not even one of the many churchgoers noticed her, she, fled to her children in the little room, determined to stop this horrible begging. This happened the Saturday before Whitsuntide, and as she had gone out hoping this time to bring something back, she had promised the children food enough to satisfy their hunger. They should have some Whitsuntide cakes, too, as they did years ago. When she reached the house and little Walpurga--you'll see her presently, a pretty child six years old--ran to meet her, asking for the cakes and the bread to satisfy her hunger, while Annelein, who is somewhat older, but less bright and active, did the same, she felt as if she should die, and carrying the baby, which she had held in her arms while begging at the church door, back into the room, she told Walpurga to watch it, as she had long been in the habit of doing, until she came back with the bread.
"For the children's sake she would try begging once more, but she could not go to St. Sebald's.
"So she went from house to house, asking alms; but she was a well-formed woman, who did not show her serious illness. She kept herself tidy, too, and looked better in her poor rags than many who were better off. Had she carried her nursing infant, perhaps she might have succeeded better, but even the most compassionate housewives either turned her from their doors or offered her work at the wash-tub, or in cleaning or gardening. The weakness from which she had suffered since the birth of her child made stooping so painful that she could not do what they required.
"When she was at last obliged to turn homeward, because the baby had probably been screaming for her a long time, she had only one small copper coin, with which she went to the baker Kilian's, in the Stopfelgasse, to ask for a penny's worth of bread. The baker's wife was not there, and her spinster sister-in-law, an elderly, ill-natured woman, was serving the customers in her place.
"As she turned to cut the bit of bread, and all sorts of nice sweet cakes lay on the shining counters before poor Riecklein, the children seemed to stand before her, headed by Walpurga, asking for the cakes and the bread she had promised them to eat their fill; and as no one was passing in the quiet street, Satan stirred within her for the first time, and a sweet jumble slid into the little basket on her arm. Had she stopped there she might have escaped unpunished; but there were two hungry little beaks agape in the nest, and she saw a pretty lamb with a little red flag on its back. If Walpurga could only have it! And with the clumsiness due to her inexperience in such matters she seized that, too, and put it with the other.
"Meanwhile the sister-in-law had turned, and instead of enquiring at a time so near the holy feast what had induced her to commit such a crime, she shrieked, 'Stop thief!' and similar cries.
"So the widow was taken to the Hole, and as she had hitherto borne an unsullied reputation and was the child of a good man, justice allowed itself to be satisfied with having her scourged with rods privately instead of in public. So she came here. But as her poor body was too fragile to withstand all the trouble which had come upon her, she had a violent attack of fever, and a few hours ago death stretched its hand towards her."
"And the children?" asked Frau Christine, deeply moved.
"She was allowed to have the baby," answered Sister Hildegard, "but she told us about the others and their desolate condition. In the delirium of fever she saw them stealing and the constable seizing them. Then your Eva encouraged me to send for them by promising to provide their food. So they came here. The worker on cloth from whom she rented her little room had helped them, and it was from her that Sister Pauline, whom I sent there, first learned that Walpurga, for whose sake she had so sadly forgotten her duty, was not even her own child, but an adopted one whom her late husband, on one of his trips, had found abandoned on the highroad at Vierzehnheiligen, beside an image of the Virgin, and brought home with him."
Here Sister Hildegard paused, and Frau Christine also remained silent a long time.
Yet, it was horrible here, and the air was impure; but had Countess Cordula looked more closely she would probably have seen one of the beautiful flowers which often bloomed amidst all the weeds, the poisonous and parasitic vegetation.
Eva was right to pity this woman, and if her life could be saved she herself would relieve her necessities and secure her children's future. She silently made this resolve whilst the Sister led the way to the couch of the scourged thief. The unfortunate woman should learn that God often compels us to traverse the roughest and stoniest paths in the wilderness ere he leads us into the Promised Land.
Eva was so deeply absorbed in her conversation with the Dominican that she did not see her aunt until she stood before her.
They greeted each other with a silent nod, and a smile of satisfaction flitted over the girl's face as she motioned to the sleeper whose slumber she was watching.
The young mother's pretty face still glowed with the flush of fever. One arm clasped the baby, which lay amidst the white linen Katterle had just brought. He was a pretty child, who showed no traces of the poverty in which he had been reared. Beside the widow were two little girls about six years old. The one at the left was sound asleep, with her head resting on her little fat arm. The other, at the sick woman's right, pressed her fair head upon her breast. Her slumber was very light, and she often opened her large, blue eyes and gazed with touching anxiety at the sick woman. This was the adopted child, Walpurga, and never had the matron beheld amongst the poor and suffering so lovely a human flower as this little six-year-old child, struggling with sleep in her affectionate desire to render aid. The other little girl's free hand also touched her mother, and thus these four, united in poverty and sorrow, but also in love, seemed to form a single whole. What a peaceful, charming picture!
Frau Christine gazed with earnest sympathy at each member of this group. How well-formed was every one! how pure and innocent the features of the children looked! how kind and loving those of the suffering mother, who was a thief, and whose tender back had felt the scourge of the executioner!
The thought made her shudder. But when little Walpurga, half asleep, raised her tiny hand and lovingly stroked the wounded shoulder of her adopted mother, the matron, as usual when anything pleasant moved her heart, longed to have her husband at her side. How easily, since he was so near, she could afford him a sight of this touching picture! It should prove that she had been right to let Eva remain here.
Faithful to her custom of permitting no delay in the execution of a good resolution, she wanted to send Katterle to call her husband, but the girl could not be found.
Then Frau Christine went herself, beckoning to Eva to follow; but they had scarcely reached the centre of the room when a peal of shrill laughter greeted them from a couch on the left.
The person from whom it came was the barber's widow, whose attack had alarmed Eva so terribly the day before in front of the pillory. It pealed loudly and shrilly through the stillness of the night, and when the matron turned angrily to reprove the person who so inconsiderately disturbed the rest of the others, the woman clapped her hands and instantly a chorus of sharp, screaming voices rose around her. The barber's widow, who knew everybody who lived in Nuremberg, had recognised the magistrate's wife at her entrance, and secretly incited her neighbours to follow her example and, as soon as she gave the signal, demand better fare and make Frau Christine, the patroness of the hospital, feel what they thought of the cruelty of her husband, who had delivered them to the executioner.
The female thieves and swindlers-in short, all the reprobate women around Frau Ratzer, whose feet had just been tied on account of her unruly behaviour in the Countess von Montfort's presence--obeyed her signal, and the fierce voices raised in demand and invective woke those who were sleeping farther away. Weeping, wailing, and screaming they started up, clamouring to know what danger threatened them, whilst Frau Ratzer and her fellow-conspirators shrieked for beer or wine instead of water, for meat with the black bread and wretched broth and, yelling and howling, bade the patroness tell her husband that they thought him a brute and a bloodhound.
There was a hideous, confused, ear-splitting din, which threatened serious consequences, for some of the women, leaving their straw beds, hastened towards the door or surrounded Frau Christine and Eva with uplifted fists and threatening nails.
The warning voices of the matrons, to whose aid the Beguines had hastened, were drowned by the uproar, but the danger which specially threatened Eva, whom the barber's widow pointed out to her neighbour who had stolen a child to train it to beg, was soon ended, for the wild cries had reached the men's building, from which Herr Berthold Pfinzing came hurrying in, accompanied by the superintendent, his assistants, and several monks.
If the women reproached the magistrate, who in reality was a lenient judge, with being a cruel tyrant, they were now to learn that he certainly did not lack uncompromising energy. The unpleasant position in which he found his wife and his beloved godchild did not incline him to gentleness. He would have liked to have tied the hands of all these women, most of whom had forfeited the consideration due their sex. This was really done to the most unruly, while the barber's widow was carried to the prison-chamber, which the hospital did not lack.
After quiet was at last restored and Frau Christine had told her husband that she had been attacked while on her way to show him a delightful scene in the midst of all this terrible misery, he angrily exclaimed: "A magnificent picture! Balm for the eyes and ears of your own brother's virginal daughter! The saints be praised that you both escaped so easily. Can there be in the worst hell anything more horrible than what has just been witnessed here? Really, where a Countess Cordula cannot endure----"
Here Frau Christine soothingly interrupted her irate husband, and so great was her influence over him, that his tone sounded like friendly encouragement as he added: "You wanted to show me something special, but I was detained over there. Though it was late, I wanted to see the worthy fellow again. What a man he is! I mean Sir Heinz Schorlin's squire."
"Poor Biberli?" asked Eva eagerly; and there was a faint tone of reproach in her voice as she continued, "You promised to look after him."
"So I did, child," the magistrate protested. "But justice must take its course, and the rack is part of the examination by torture. He might easily have lost his tongue, and if his master doesn't return soon and another accuser should appear, who knows what will happen!"
"But that must not, shall not be!" cried Eva, the old defiance echoing imperiously in her voice. "Heinz Schorlin--you said so yourself--would not plead in vain for mercy to the Emperor; and before I will see the faithful fellow----"
"Gently, child," whispered Frau Christine to her niece, laying her hand on her arm, but the magistrate, shaking his finger at her, answered soothingly: "Jungfrau Ortlieb would rather thrust her own little feet into the Spanish boot. Be comforted! The three pairs we have are all too large to squeeze them."
Eva lowered her eyes in embarrassment, and exclaimed in a modest, beseeching tone: "But, uncle, do not you, too, feel that it would be cruel and unjust to make this honest fellow a cripple in return for his faithful services?"
"I do feel it," answered Herr Berthold, his face assuming an expression of regret; "and for that very reason I ventured to take a girl over whom I have no authority out of her service."
"Katterle?" asked Eva anxiously.
Her uncle nodded assent, adding: "First hear what interested me so quickly in the strange fellow. At the first charge, which merely accused him of having carried a message of love from his master to Jungfrau Ortlieb, I interceded for him, and yesterday the other magistrates, to whom I had explained the case, joined me. So he escaped with a sentence of exile from the city for five years. I hoped it would not be necessary to present the second accusation, for it was signed by no name, but merely bore three crosses, and for a long time most of the magistrates, following my example, have considered such things as treacherous attacks made by cowards who shun the light of day; but it was impossible to suppress it entirely, because the law commands me to withhold no complaint made to the court. So it was read aloud, and Hans Teufel's motion to let it drop without any action met with no approval, warmly as I supported it.
"We must not blame the gentlemen. They all wish to act for your benefit, and desire nothing except a clear understanding of this vexatious business. But in that indictment Biberli was charged with having forced his way into an Honourable's house at night to obtain admittance for his master. In collusion with a maid-servant he was also said to have maintained the love correspondence between Herr Ernst Ortlieb's two daughters, a Swiss knight, and Boemund Altrosen."
"Infamous!" cried Eva. "What, in the name of all the saints, have we to do with Altrosen?"
"You certainly have very little," replied Frau Christine, "but the Ortlieb mansion has all the more. To-night he will again be seen before its door, and if still later he appears with his lute under Countess Cordula's windows and is heard singing to her, it wouldn't surprise me."
"And people," exclaimed Eva with increasing indignation, "will add another link to the chain of slander. If a Vorkler and her companions repeat the calumny, who can wonder? But that the magistrates should believe such shameful things about the brothers of their own fellow-member----"
"It was precisely because they do not believe it and wish to keep you away from the court," her uncle interrupted, "that they insisted upon the examination. They desired to show the people by their verdict and the severity of the procedures how thoroughly in earnest they were. But whilst I was compelled to absent myself an hour because the Emperor wished to inspect the new towers on the city wall, and I had to attend him in the character of showman, they sentenced the poor fellow, since his loose tongue had brought the whole rout and rabble against him, to torture so severe that I shuddered when told of it."
"And Biberli?" asked Eva, trembling with suspense.
"All honour is due the man!" cried Herr Berthold, raising his cap. "The rods scourged his fettered limbs, his thumbs were pressed in the screws, bound to the ladder, he was dragged over the larded hare---"
"Oh, hush!" cried Fran Christine with uplifted hands, and her husband nodded understandingly. Then, with a faint sigh, he added:
"Why should I torture you with these horrors? Nothing was spared him. Yet the worthy fellow stuck to his statement that he had accompanied his master to your house in the full moonlight to take a somnambulist who had wandered out of the open door back to her friends. Sir Heinz Schorlin had met Jungfrau Ortlieb only once--at the dance in the Town Hall. Though he had sometimes appeared before her father's house, it was not on account of Herr Ernst's daughters, but--and this was an allusion to Cordula von Montfort--for the sake of another lady.
"After the lightning had killed his master's horse under him he had avoided every woman, because he wished to enter a monastery. He could prove all these statements by many witnesses. Yesterday he named them, and Count Gleichen and his retainers appeared with several others. The Minorite Benedictus was vainly sought at the Franciscans."
"He is here in the house of the Beguines," replied Frau Christine, "and weak as he is, he will have strength enough to make a deposition in the knight's favour."
The magistrate said that this might be necessary if a new charge were brought against the servitor, Katterle, and perhaps even Sir Heinz Schorlin himself. Rarely had he seen a bad cause maintained with so much obstinacy. The complainants had witnesses who testified under oath what they had heard in taverns and tap-rooms from Sir Seitz Siebenburg and those who repeated his tales. Their examination had lasted a long time, and what they alleged was as absurd as possible, yet for that very reason difficult to refute. These depositions had aided the cause of the accused, but in consequence of such numerous charges many questions of course were put to Biberli, and thus the torture had been cruelly increased and prolonged.
Here Eva interrupted the speaker with another outburst of indignation, but he only shrugged his shoulders pityingly, saying: "Gently, child! A shoemaker who recently upbraided the 'Honourables' for something similar was publicly scourged, and if cruelties have been practised here it is the fault of the law, not of the judges. But worse yet may come, if the pack is not silenced by a higher will."
"The Emperor?" asked the girl with quivering lips.
"Yes, child," was the reply, "and your old godfather had thought of bringing this evil cause before our royal master. He gladly exercises mercy, but only after carefully investigating the pros and cons. In this case there is but one person in whom he has full confidence, and who is also in a position to tell him the exact truth."
"Heinz Schorlin!" cried Eva. "He must be informed at once, without delay."
"Certainly," replied Herr Pfinzing quietly. "And since, as the uncle and godfather of Jungfrau Eva, who would have gladly undertaken the ride, I could not order her horse to be saddled, I sent some one else whose heart also will point out the way."
"Uncle!" Eva eagerly interrupted, raising her clasped hands in gratitude. "But whom can you----"
Here she hesitated, then suddenly exclaimed as if sure of her point: "Oh, I know the messenger, Countess von Montfort----"
"You've aimed too high," replied Herr Berthold smiling, "yet I think the choice was no worse. Your maid, child, the poor fellow's sweetheart."
Frau Christine and Eva, in the same breath, uttered an exclamation of surprise and assent, and both asked how the magistrate had chanced to select her.
A waggon from Schwabach, which happened opportunely to be on its way to Siebenburg, had brought Biberli to Schweinau on its homeward trip, just before the magistrate and his wife reached the hospital.
Katterle had been present when the tortured man was brought out and laid upon his couch of straw.
She did not recognise him until, with pathetic reproach, he called her by name and, horrified by the spectacle he presented, she fell upon her knees. But the couch at her side had already been prepared for him, and she did not need to rise again in order to stroke him, comfort him, and promise not to desert him, even if he should be a miserable cripple for life.
When the magistrate approached the couple, to offer Biberli his friendly aid, the latter faltered that he had only one desire--to see his beloved master once more. Besides, his case was hopeless unless the knight obtained a pardon for him from the Emperor Rudolph, for his persecutors would not cease their pursuit of him, and he could not endure the torture a second time.
Here the magistrate paused in his narrative, for he thought of an incident which he was reluctant to mention in the presence of the Dominican who had administered the sacrament to the suffering widow and now joined the group of listeners. This was, that a member of the latter's order had approached Biberli and exhorted him not to fear another examination by torture, for the Lord gave the innocent strength to maintain the truth even under the keenest suffering. A peculiar smile hovered around the lips of the poor tortured fellow, which Herr Berthold fully understood; for the brave servitor had by no means stuck to the truth during the pangs inflicted upon him.
"Oh, my dear ones," Herr Pfinzing continued, "a harder heart than mine would have been touched by what I saw and heard beside that couch of straw when I was left alone with poor Biberli and his sweetheart. If you could have seen how Katterle threw herself upon her lover after I had told her that even the most agonizing torture could not force him to confirm the charge which had been brought against her! Rarely does one mortal pour forth such a flood of ardent gratitude upon another; and when Biberli repeated that his dear master's help would be necessary to protect her and him from another examination, she offered to go in search of him at once, notwithstanding the rain and the darkness.
"Then I thought that no messenger could be found who was more familiar with the course of affairs, and at the same time inspired with more loving zeal. So, as the waggon in which Biberli had come was still waiting outside, I spoke to the carter, who had brought a load of wheat to Nuremberg, and now, on his way home, had ample room under the tilt. I knew the man, and we soon came to an agreement. From Schwabach, his brother, who knows every foot of the road, will take her to the imperial troops who are fighting with the Siebenburgs. I undertook to arrange with you for her absence. She is now rolling along in the old carter Apel's waggon towards Schwabach and Sir Heinz Schorlin."
Hitherto the magistrate had maintained his composure, but now his deep voice lost its firmness, and it was neither the loving words of appreciation whispered by his wife nor the gratitude which Eva tenderly displayed that checked his speech, but the remembrance of the parting between the man so cruelly tortured and his sweetheart.
Biberli had hoped that she would nurse him; the sight of her would have cheered his eyes and heart, yet he sent her out into darkness and danger. Gratitude and love, the consciousness that just now she could be of infinite importance to him and do much for him, bound her to his couch like so many fetters, yet she had gone, and had even assumed the appearance of doing so willingly and being confident of success.
How their faces had brightened when the magistrate told them that his wife and Eva would take charge of him, and he himself would see that he had a better bed!
Biberli murmured sadly: "Straw and I have been used to each other in many a tavern, but now a somewhat softer couch might be of service, for wherever my racked body was touched I believe there would be something out of joint."
Herr Berthold had no reason to be ashamed of his emotion, for he had learned from the barber that the poor fellow had by no means exaggerated, and, as a witness of part of the torture, he knew that even the most cruel anguish had not conquered the faithful Biberli's firm resolve to bring neither his master nor his sweetheart before the judge.
In recalling this noble act of the lowly servitor he grew eloquent, and described minutely what the poor fellow had suffered, and how, after Katterle had left him, he lay motionless, with his thin, pale face irradiated by a grateful smile.
The women, too, and the monk Aegidius, an old Minorite, who had been watching beside the aged Brother of his order, Benedictus, and had just joined them, shed tears at his story; but Eva, from the very depths of her soul, exclaimed aloud, "Happy is he who is permitted to endure such tortures for love's sake!"
The others gazed in surprise at the young girl who, with her clasped hands pressed upon her heaving bosom, and her large eyes uplifted, looked as if she beheld heaven opening before her.
The old Minorite's heart swelled at this confession and the sight of the maiden. Thus, though far less richly endowed with the divine gift of beauty, he had seen St. Clare absorbed in prayer. The words uttered by the fresh lips of this favoured girl, whom he beheld for the first time, expressed a feeling which might guide her into the path of the Holy Martyrs and, filled with pious enthusiasm, he approached, drew her clasped hands away from her breast, pressed them in his own and, remembering what the Abbess Kunigunde had told him yesterday beside the couch of Benedictus concerning her severe conflict, exclaimed:
"Whoever said that, knows the words of Holy Writ which promise the crown of eternal life to those who are faithful unto death. Obey the voice, my child, which unites you to those who are called. St. Clare herself summons you to her heavenly home."
The others listened to the old monk in silence. Eva slightly shook her head. But when the disappointed Minorite released her hands she clasped his thin one, saying modestly: "How could I be worthy of so sublime a promise? The poor servant on his straw bed, with his T and St embroidered on cap and cloak, of whom my uncle told us, has a tenfold greater claim, I think, to the crown of life, for which, as yet, I have been permitted to do so little. But I hope to win it, and the saint who calls everything that breathes and lives brothers and sisters, as children of the same exalted Father, cannot teach that the fidelity shown in the world deserves less reward than that of the chosen ones in the convent."
"That is a foolish and sacrilegious opinion," answered the Dominican sternly. "We will take care, my dear daughter, to guide your soul from pathless wandering into the right path which Holy Church has marked out for you."
He turned his back upon the group as he spoke, but the grey-haired Minorite, smiling sadly, turned to Eva, saying: "I cannot contradict him. Fidelity to those whom we love, my child, is far less meritorious than that which we show to Heaven. To you, daughter, its doors have already opened. How strong must be the pleasure felt by the children of the world in this brief earthly happiness, since they are so ready to sacrifice for it the certainty of eternal bliss! Your error will grieve the abbess and Father Benedictus."
With these words he, too, took his leave, but Frau Christine whispered to her niece: "These monks are not the Holy Church to which we both belong as obedient daughters. To my poor mind and heart it seems as if the Saviour would deem you right."
"Amen," added the magistrate, who had heard his wife's murmured words.