The Fire Of The Forge by Georg Ebers
Encouraged and hopeful, Eva again mounted her palfrey, and urged the swift animal outside the city to so rapid a pace that the old groom on his well-fed bay was left far behind. But the change of dress, the waiting, and the numerous questions asked by the Burgravine had consumed so much time that the poplars were already casting long shadows when she dismounted before the hospital.
Sister Hildegard received her with an embarrassment by no means usual, but which Eva thought natural when the former told her that the dying Father Benedictus had asked for her impatiently. The widow was doing well, and Biberli would hardly need her; for the wife of a Swabian knight in whose service he had formerly been was sitting by his couch with her young daughter, and their visit seemed to please him.
Eva remarked in surprise that she thought the sick man had never served any one except the Schurlins, but she was in too much haste for further questions, and entered the room where Biberli lay.
Her face was flushed by the rapid ride; her thick, fair hair, which usually fell loosely on her shoulders, had been hastily braided before she mounted her horse, but the long, heavy braids had become unfastened on the way, and now hung in tresses round her face and pliant figure.
She waved her hand gaily from the threshold to the patient for whom she had done and dared so much; but ere approaching his couch she modestly saluted the stately matron who was with Biberli, and nodded a pleasant welcome to her daughter, whose pretty, frank face attracted her. After the Swabians had cordially returned her greeting, she briefly excused herself, as an urgent duty would not permit her to yield to her desire to remain with them.
Lastly, she addressed a few hasty questions to the squire about his health, kissed little Walpurga, who had nestled to her side, bade her tell her another that she would come to her later, and entered the next room.
"Well?" Biberli asked his visitors eagerly, after the door had closed behind her.
"Oh, how beautiful she is!" cried the younger lady quickly, but her mother's voice trembled with deep emotion as she answered: "How I objected to my son's marriage with the daughter of a city family! Nay, I intended to cast all the weight of my maternal influence between Heinz and the Nuremberg maiden. Yet you did not say too much, my friend, and what your praise began Eva's own appearance has finished. She will be welcome to me as a daughter. I have scarcely ever seen anything more lovely. That she is devout and charitable and, moreover, has a clear intellect and resolute energy, can be plainly perceived in spite of the few minutes which she could spare us. If Heaven would really suffer our Heinz to win the heart of this rare creature----"
"Every fibre of it is his already," interrupted Biberli. "The rub--pardon me, noble lady!--is somewhere else. Whether he--whether Heinz can be induced to renounce the thought of the monastery, is the question."
He sighed faintly as he gazed into the still beautiful, strong, and yet kindly face of the Lady Wendula Schorlin, Sir Heinz's mother, for she was the older visitor.
"We ought not to doubt that," replied the matron firmly. "As the last of his ancient race, it is his duty to provide for its continuance, not solely for his own salvation. He was always a dutiful son."
"Yet," replied Biberli thoughtfully, "'Away with those who gave us life!' was the exhortation of Father Benedictus in the next room. 'Away with the service of sovereign and woman!' he cried to our knight. 'Away with everything that stands in the way of your own salvation!' And," Biberli added, "St. Francis was not the first to devise that. Our Lord and Saviour commanded His disciples to leave father and mother and to follow Him."
"Who will prevent his walking in the paths of Jesus Christ?" replied the Lady Wendula? "Yet, though he follows His footsteps, he must and can do so as a scion of a noble race, as a knight and the brave soldier and true servant of his Emperor, which he is, as a good son and, God willing, as a husband and father. He is sure of my blessing if he wields his sword as a champion of his holy faith. When my two daughters took the veil I submissively yielded. They can pray for heavenly bliss for their brother and ourselves. My only son, the last Schorlin, I neither can nor will permit to renounce the world, in which he has tasks to perform which God Himself assigned him by his birth."
"And how could Heinz part from this angel," cried Maria--to whom, next to her mother, her brother was the dearest person on earth--"if he is really sure of her love!"
She herself had not yet opened her heart to love. To wander through forest and field with the aged head of her family, assist her mother in housekeeping, and nurse the sick poor in the village, had hitherto been the joy and duty of her life. Gaily, often with a song upon her lips, she had carelessly seen one day follow another until Schorlin Castle was besieged and destroyed, and her dear uncle, the Knight Ramsweg, was slain in the defence of the fortress confided to his care. Then she and her mother were taken to the convent at Constance. Both remained there in perfect freedom, as welcome guests of the nuns, until the mounted courier brought a letter from the Knight Maier of Silenen, her cousin, who wrote from Nuremberg that Heinz, like his sisters, intended to renounce the world.
Lady Schorlin set out at once, and with an anxious heart rode to Nuremberg with her daughter as fast as possible.
They had arrived a few hours before and gone to their cousin from Silenen. From him the Lady Wendula learned what her maternal love desired to know. Biberli's fate brought her, after a brief rest, to the hospital, and how it comforted the faithful fellow's heart to see the noble lady who had confided his master to his care, and in whose house the T and St had been embroidered on his long coat and cap!
Lady Wendula had remembered these letters, and when she spoke of them he replied that since he had partially verified what the T and St had announced to people concerning his character, and to which the letters had themselves incited him, he no longer needed them.
Then he lapsed into silence, and at last, as the result of his meditations, told his mistress that there was something unusual about his insignificant self, because he earnestly desired to practise the virtues whose possession he claimed before the eyes of the people. He had usually found the worst wine in the taverns with showy signs, and when the Lady Wendula's daughter had embroidered those letters on the cloth for him, what he furnished the guests was also of very doubtful quality. On his sick bed he had been obliged to place no curb upon his proneness to reflection, and in doing so had discovered that there was no virtue which can be owned like a house or a steed, but that each must be constantly gained anew, often amidst toil and suffering. One thing, however, was now firmly established in his belief: that his favourite virtues were really the fairest of all, because--one will answer for all--man never felt happier than when he had succeeded in keeping his fidelity inviolate and maintaining his steadfastness. He had learned, too, from Fraulein Eva that the Redeemer Himself promised the crown of eternal life to those who remain faithful unto death. In this confidence he awaited the jailers, who perhaps would come very soon to lead him into the most joyless of all apartments--the Nuremberg torture chamber.
Then he told the ladies what he knew of the love which united Heinz and Eva. The four Fs which he had advised his master to heed in his wooing--Family, Figure, Favor, and Fortune--he no longer deemed the right touch-tones. Whilst he was forced to lie idly here he had found that they should rather be exchanged for four Ss--Spirituality, Steadfastness, Stimulation, and Solace--for the eyes and the heart.
All these were united in Eva and, moreover, there could be no objection to the family to which she belonged.
Thereupon he had commenced so enthusiastic a eulogy of his beloved nurse and preserver that more than once Lady Wendula, smiling, stopped him, accusing him of permitting his grateful heart to lead him to such exaggeration that the maiden he wished to serve would scarcely thank him.
Yet Eva's personal appearance had disappointed neither the experienced mother nor the easily won daughter. Nay, when Maria Schorlin gazed at her through the half-open door of the Minorite's room, because she did not want to lose sight of the girl who had already attracted her on account of her hard battle in the cause of love, and who specially charmed her because it was her Heinz whom she loved, she thought no human being could resist the spell which emanated from Eva.
With her finger on her lip she beckoned to her mother, and she, too, could not avert her eyes from the wonderful creature whom she hoped soon to call daughter, as she saw Eva standing, with eyes uplifted to heaven, beside the old man's couch, and heard her, in compliance with his wish, as she had often done before, half recite, half sing in a low voice the Song of the Sun, the finest work of St. Francis.
The words were in the Italian language, in which this song had flowed from the poet heart of the Saint of Assisi, so rich in love to God and all animate nature; for she had learned to speak Italian in the Convent of St. Clare, to which several Italians had been transferred from their own home and that of their order and its founder.
Lady Wendula and her daughter could also follow the song; for the mother had learned the beautiful language of the Saint of Assisi from the minnesingers in her youth, and in the early years of her marriage had accompanied the Emperor Frederick, with her husband, across the Alps. So she had taught Maria.
As Lady Schorlin approached the door Eva, with her large eyes uplifted, was just beginning the second verse:
"Praised by His creatures all Praised be the Lord my God By Messer Sun, my brother, above all, Who by his rays lights us and lights the day. Radiant is he, with his great splendour stored, Thy glory, Lord, confessing. "By sister Moon and stars my Lord is praised, Where clear and fair they in the heavens are raised. "By brother Wind, my Lord, thy praise is said, By air and clouds, and the blue sky o'erhead, By which thy creatures all are kept and fed. "By one most humble, useful, precious, chaste, By sister Water, O my Lord, thou art praised. "And praised is my Lord By brother Fire-he who lights up the night; Jocund, robust is he, and strong and bright. "Praised art Thou, my Lord, by mother Earth, Thou who sustainest her and governest, And to her flowers, fruit, herbs, dost colour give and birth. "And praised is my Lord By those who, for Thy love, can pardon give And bear the weakness and the wrongs of men. "Blessed are those who suffer thus in peace, By Thee, the Highest, to be crowned in heaven. "Praised by our sister Death, my Lord, art Thou, From whom no living man escapes. Who die in mortal sin have mortal woe, But blessed are they who die doing Thy will; The second death can strike at them no blow. "Praises and thanks and blessing to my Master be! Serve ye Him all, with great humility."
How God was loved by this saint, who beheld in everything the Most High had created kindred whom he loved and held intercourse with as with brother and sister! Whatever the divine Father's love had formed--the sun, the moon and stars, the wood, water and fire, the earth and her fair children, the various flowers and plants--he made proclaim, each for itself and all in common, like a mighty chorus, the praise of God. Even death joins in the hymn, and all these sons and daughters of the same exalted Father call to the minds of men the omnipotent, beneficent rule of the Lord. They help mortals to appreciate God's majesty, fill their hearts with gratitude, and summon them to praise His sublimity and greatness. In death, whom the poet also calls his sister, he sees no cruel murderer, because she, too, comes from the Most High. "And what sister," asks the saint, "could more surely rescue the brother from sorrow and suffering?" Whoever, as a child of God, feels like the loving Saint of Assisi, will gratefully suffer death to lead him to union with the Father.
Benedictus had followed the magnificent poem with rapture. At the lines,
"But blessed are they who die doing Thy will; The second death can strike at them no blow,"
he nodded gently, as if sure that the close of his earthly pilgrimage meant nothing to him except the beginning of a new and happy life; but when Eva ended with the command to serve the Lord with great humility, he lowered his eyes to the floor hesitatingly, as if not sure of himself.
But he soon raised them again and fixed them on the young girl. They seemed to ask the question whether this noble hymn did not draw his nurse also to him who had sung it; whether, in spite of it, she still persisted, with sorrowful blindness, in her refusal to join the Sisters of St. Clare, whom the saintly singer also numbered amongst his followers. Yet he felt too feeble to appeal to her conscience now, as he had often done, and bear the replies with which this highly gifted, peculiar creature, in every conversation his increasing weakness permitted him to share with her, had pressed him hard and sometimes even silenced him.
True, they fought with unequal weapons. Pain and illness paralysed his keen intellect, and difficulty of breathing often checked the eloquent tongue, both of which had served him so readily in his intercourse with Heinz Schorlin. She contended with the most precious goal of youth before her eyes, fresh and healthy in mind and body, conscious, in the midst of the struggle, against doubt and suffering, for what she held dearest of her own vigorous energy, panoplied by the talisman of the last mandate from the lips of her dying mother.
Benedictus, during a long life devoted to the highest aims, had battled enough. He already saw Sister Death upon the threshold, and he wished to depart in peace and reap the reward for so much conflict, pain, and sacrifice. The Lord Himself had broken his weapons. The Minorite Egidius, his friend and companion in years, must carry on with Eva, Father Ignatius, the most eloquent member of the order in Nuremberg, with Heinz Schorlin, the work which he, Benedictus, had begun. Though he himself must retire from the battlefield, he was sure that his post would not remain empty.
The chant had placed him in the right mood to take leave of the Brothers, whose arrival Sister Hildegard had just announced.
Since yesterday he had seen the Saviour constantly before his mental vision. Sometimes he imagined that he beheld Him beckoning to him; sometimes that He extended His arms to him; sometimes he even fancied that he heard His voice, or that of St. Francis, and both invited him to approach.
To-day-the leech had admitted it, and he himself felt it by his fevered brow, the failing pulsations of the heart, and the chill in the cold feet, perhaps already dead--he might expect to leave the dust of the world and behold those for whom he longed face to face in a purer light.
He wished to await the end surrounded only by the Brothers, who were fighting the same battle, reminded by nothing of the world, as if in the outer court of heaven.
Eva, the beautiful yet perverse woman, was one of the last persons whom he would have desired to have near him when he took the step into the other world.
Speech was difficult. A brief admonition to renounce her earthly love in order to share the divine one whose rich joys he hoped to taste that very day was the farewell greeting he vouchsafed Eva. When she tried to kiss his hand he withdrew it as quickly as his weakness permitted.
Then she retired, and Father Aegidius led the Brothers of the order in Nuremberg into the room. Meanwhile it had grown dark, and the Beguine Paulina brought in a two-branched candelabrum with burning candles. Eva took it from her hand and placed it so that the light should not dazzle her patient; but he saw her and, by pointing with a frowning brow to the door, commanded her to leave the room.
She gladly obeyed. When she had passed the Brothers, however, she paused on the threshold before going into the entry and again gazed at the old man's noble, pallid features illumined by the candlelight.
She had never seen him look so. He was gazing, radiant with joy, at the monks, who were to give him the benediction at his departure. Then he raised his dark eyes as if transfigured; he was thanking Heaven for so much mercy, but the other Minorites fell on their knees beside the bed and prayed with him.
How lovingly the old man looked into each face! He had never favoured her with such a glance. Yet no other nursing had been so difficult and often so painful. At first he had shown a positive enmity to her, and even asked Sister Hildegard for another nurse; but no suitable substitute for Eva could be found. Then he had earnestly desired to be removed to the Franciscan monastery in Nuremberg; this, however, could not be done because it would have hastened his death. So he was forced to remain, and Eva felt that her presence was not the least thing which rendered the hospital distasteful.
Yet, as his aged eyes refused their service and he liked to have someone read aloud from the gospels which he carried with him, or from notes written by his own hand, which also comprised some of the poems of St. Francis, and no one else in the house was capable of performing this office, he at last explicitly desired to keep her for his nurse.
To anoint and bandage, according to the physician's prescription, his sore feet and the deep scars made on his back by severe scourging, which had reopened, became more difficult the more plainly he showed his aversion to her touch, because she--he had told her so himself--was a woman. She certainly had not found it easy to keep awake and wear a pleasant expression when, after a toilsome day, he woke her at midnight and forced her to read aloud until the grey dawn of morning. But hardest of all for Eva to bear were the bitter words with which he wounded her, and which sounded specially sharp and hostile when he reproached her for standing between Heinz Schorlin and the eternal salvation for which the knight so eagerly longed. He seemed to bear her a grudge like that which the artist feels towards the culprit who has destroyed one of his masterpieces.
Often, too, a chance word betrayed that he blamed Heaven for having denied him victory in the battle for the soul of Heinz. Schorlin which he had begun to wage in its name. True, such murmuring was always followed by deep repentance. But in every mood he still strove to persuade Eva to renounce the world.
When she confessed what withheld her from doing so, he at first tried to convince her by opposing reasons, but usually strength to continue the interchange of thought soon failed him. Then he confined himself to condemning with harsh words her perverse spirit and worldly nature, and threatening her with the vengeance of Heaven.
Once, after repeating the Song of the Sun, as she had done just now, he asked whether she, too, felt that nothing save the peace of the cloister would afford the possibility of feeling the greatness and love of the Most High as warmly and fully as this majestic song commands us to do.
Then, summoning her courage, she assured him of the contrary. Though but a simple girl, she, who had often been the guest of the abbess, felt the grandeur and glory of God as much more deeply in the world and during the fulfilment of the hardest duties which life imposed than with the Sisters of St. Clare, as the forests and fields were wider than the little convent garden.
The old man, in a rage, upbraided her with being a blinded fool, and asked her whether she did not know that the world was finite and limited, whilst what the convent contained was eternal and boundless.
Another time he had wounded her so deeply by his severity that she had found it impossible to restrain her tears. But he had scarcely perceived this ere he repented his harshness. Nothing but love ought to move his heart on the eve of a union with Him whom he had just called Love itself, and with earnest and tender entreaties he besought Eva to forgive him for the censure which was also a work of love. Throughout the day he had treated her with affectionate, almost humble, kindness.
All these things returned to Eva's thoughts as she left her grey-haired patient.
He was standing on the threshold of the other world, and it was easy for her to think of him kindly, deeply as he had often wounded her. Nay, her heart swelled with grateful joy because she had been so patient and suffered nothing to divert her from the arduous duty which she had undertaken in nursing the old man, who regarded her with such disfavour.
A light had been brought into Biberli's room too. When Eva entered with glowing cheeks she found the Swabians still sitting beside his couch. The door leading into the chamber of the dying man had been closed long before, yet the notes of pious litanies came from the adjoining room. Lady Schorlin noticed her deep emotion with sympathy, and asked her to sit down by her side. Maria offered her own low stool, but Eva declined its use, because she would soon be obliged to ride back to the city. She pressed her hand upon her burning brow, sighing, "Now, now--after such an hour, at court!"
Lady Wendula urged her with such kindly maternal solicitude to take a little rest that the young girl yielded.
The matron's remark that she, too, was invited to the reception at the imperial residence that evening brought an earnest entreaty from Eva to accept the invitation for her sake, and the Swabian promised to gratify her if nothing occurred to prevent. At any rate, they would ride to the city together.
Biberli's astonished enquiry concerning the cause of Eva's visit to the fortress was answered evasively, and she was glad when the singing in the next room led the Swabian to ask whether it was true that the master of her suffering friend on the couch, who intended to devote himself to a monastic life, meant to enter the order of the Minorite whom she had just left and become a mendicant friar. When Eva assented, the lady remarked that members of this brotherhood had rarely come to her castle; but Biberli said that they were quiet, devout men who, content with the alms they begged, preached, and performed other religious duties. They were recruited more from the people than from the aristocratic classes. Many, however, joined them in order to live an idle life, supported by the gifts of others.
Eva eagerly opposed this view, maintaining that true piety could be most surely found in the order of St. Francis. Then, with warm enthusiasm, she praised its founder, asserting that, on the contrary, the Saint of Assisi had enjoined labour upon his followers. For instance, one of his favourite disciples was willing to shake the nuts from the rotten branches of a nut tree which no one dared to climb if he might have half the harvest. This was granted, but he made a sack of his wide brown cowl, filled it with the nuts, and distributed them amongst his poor.
This pleased the mother and daughter; yet when the former remarked that work of this kind seemed to her too easy for a young, noble, and powerful knight, Eva agreed, but added that the saint also required an activity in which the hands, it is true, remained idle, but which heavily taxed even the strongest soul. St. Francis himself had set the example of performing this toil cheerfully and gladly.
Whilst giving this information she had again risen. Sister Hildegard had announced that her palfrey and the horses of the guests had been led up.
Finally Eva promised to mount at the same time as the Swabians, bade farewell to Biberli, who looked after her with surprise, yet silently conjectured that this errand to the Emperor was in his behalf, and then went into the entry, where Sister Hildegard told her that Father Benedictus had just died.
The monks were still chanting beside his deathbed. Brother Aegidius, the friend and comrade of the dead man, however, had left them and approached Eva.
Deeply agitated, he struggled to repress his sobs as he told her that the old man's longing was fulfilled and his Saviour had summoned him. To die thus, richly outweighed the many sacrifices he had so willingly made here below during a long life. If Eva had witnessed his death she would have perceived the aptness of the saying that a monk's life is bitter, but his death is sweet. Such an end was granted only to those who cast the world aside. Let her consider this once more, ere she renounced the eternal bliss for which formerly she had so devoutly yearned.
Eva's only answer was the expression of her grief for his friend's decease. But whilst passing out into the darkness she thought: the holy Brother certainly had a beautiful and happy death, yet how gently, trusting in the mercy of her Redeemer, my mother also passed away, though during her life and on her deathbed she remained in the world. And then--whilst Father Benedictus was closing his eyes--what concern did he probably have for aught save his own salvation, but my mother forgot herself and thought only of others, of those whom she loved, whilst the Saviour summoned her to Himself. Her eyes were already dim and her tongue faltered when she uttered the words which had guided her daughter until now. The forge fire of life burns fiercely, yet to it my gratitude is due if the resolutions I formed in the forest after I had gathered the flowers for her and saw Heinz kneeling in prayer have not been vain, but have changed the capricious, selfish child into a woman who can render some service to others.
If Heinz comes now and seeks me, I think I can say trustingly, "Here I am!" We have both striven for the divine Love and recognised its glorious beauty. If later, hand in hand, we can interweave it with the earthly one, why should it not be acceptable to the Saviour? If Heinz offers me his affection I will greet it as "Sister Love," and it will certainly summon me with no lower voice to praise the Father from whom it comes and who has bestowed it upon me, as do the sun, the moon and stars, the fire and water.
Whilst speaking she went out, and after learning that Frau Christine and her husband had not yet returned, she rode with the Swabians towards the city.
In order not to pass through the whole length of Nuremberg, Eva guided her friends around the fortifications. Their destination was almost the same, and they chose to enter at the Thiergartnerthor, which was in the northwestern part of the city, under the hill crowned by the castle, whilst the road to Schweinau usually led through the Spitalthor.
On the way Lady Wendula induced Eva to tell her many things about herself, urging her to describe her father and her dead mother. Her daughter Maria, on the other hand, was most interested in her sister Els, who, as she had heard from Biberli, was the second beautiful E.
Eva liked to talk about her relatives, but her depression continued and she spoke only in reply to questions, for the Minorite's death had affected her, and her heart throbbed anxiously when she thought of the moment that she must appear amongst the courtiers and see the Emperor.
Would her errand be vain? Must poor Biberli pay for his resolute fidelity with his life? What pain it would cause her, and how heavily it would burden his master's soul that he had failed to intercede for him!
Not until Lady Schorlin questioned her did Eva confess what troubled her, and how she dreaded the venture which she had undertaken on her own responsibility.
They were obliged to wait outside the Thiergartnerthor, for it had just been opened to admit a train of freight waggons.
Whilst Eva remained on the high-road, with the castle before her eyes, she sighed from the depths of her troubled heart: "Why should the Emperor Rudolph grant me, an insignificant girl, what he refused his sister's husband, the powerful Burgrave, to whom he is so greatly indebted? Oh, suppose he should treat me harshly and bid me go back to my spinning wheel!"
Then she felt the arm of the dignified lady at her side pass round her and heard her say: "Cheer up, my dear girl. The blessing of a woman who feels as kindly towards you as to her own daughter will accompany you, and no Emperor will ungraciously rebuff you, you lovely, loyal, charitable child."
At these words from her kind friend Eva's heart opened as if the dear mother whom death had snatched from her had inspired her with fresh courage, and from the very depths of her soul rose the cry, "Oh, how I thank you!"
She urged her nimble palfrey nearer the lady's horse to kiss her left hand, which held the bridle, but Lady Wendula would not permit it and, drawing her towards her, exclaimed, "Your lips, dear one," and as her red mouth pressed the kind lady's, Eva felt as if the caress had sealed an old and faithful friendship. But this was not all. Maria also wished to show the affection she had won, and begged for a kiss too.
Without suspecting it, Eva, on the way to an enterprise she dreaded, received the proof that her lover's dearest relatives welcomed her with their whole hearts as a new member of the family.
On the other side of the gate she was obliged to part from the Swabians.
Lady Wendula bade her farewell with an affectionate "until we meet again," and promised positively to go to the reception at the castle.
Eva uttered a sigh of relief. It seemed like an omen of success that this lady, who had so quickly inspired her with such perfect confidence, was to witness her difficult undertaking. She felt like a leader who takes the field with a scanty band of soldiers and is unexpectedly joined by the troops of a firm friend.