Part II.
Volume 8.
Chapter XVII.
 

When Arnold, the warder from Berne, helped Eva from the saddle, a blaze of light greeted her from the imperial residence. The banquet was just beginning.

Frau Gertrude had more than one piece of good news to tell while assisting the young girl. Among the sovereign's guests was her uncle the magistrate, who had accompanied the Emperor to the beekeeper's, and with his wife, whom she would also find there, had been invited to the banquet. Besides--this, as the best, she told her last--her father, Herr Ernst Ortlieb, had returned from Ulm and Augsburg, and a short time before had come to the fortress to conduct Jungfrau Els, by the Burgrave's gracious permission, to her betrothed husband's hiding place. Fran Gertrude had lighted her way, and a long separation might be borne for such a meeting.

The ex-maid was obliged to bestir herself that Eva might have a few minutes for her sister and Wolff, yet she would fain have spent a much longer time over the long, thick, fair hair, which with increasing pleasure she combed until it flowed in beautiful waving tresses over the rich Florentine stuff of her plain white mourning robe.

The Swiss had also provided white roses from the Burgrave's garden to fasten at the square neck of Eva's dress. The latter permitted her to do this, but her wish to put a wreath of roses on the young girl's head, according to the fashion of the day, was denied, because Eva thought it more seemly to appear unadorned, and not as if decked for a festival when she approached the Emperor as a petitioner. The woman whose life had been spent at court perceived the wisdom of this idea, and at last rejoiced that she had not obtained her wish; for when her work was finished Eva looked so bewitching and yet so pure and modest, that nothing could be removed or--even were it the wreath of roses--added without injuring the perfect success of her masterpiece.

Lack of time soon compelled the young girl to interrupt the exclamations of admiration uttered by the skilful tiring woman herself, her little daughter, the maidservant, and the friend whom Fran Gertrude had invited to come in as if by accident.

While following the warder's wife through various corridors and rooms, Eva thought of the hour in her own home before the dance at the Town Hall, and it seemed as if not days but a whole life intervened, and she was a different person, a complete contrast in most respects to the Eva of that time.

Before the dance she had secretly rejoiced in the applause elicited by her appearance; now she was indifferent to it--nay, the more eagerly the spectators expressed their delight the more she grieved that the only person whom she desired to please was not among them.

How easy it had been to be led to the dance, and how hard was the errand awaiting her! Her heart shrank before the doubt awakened by the flood of light pouring from the windows of the imperial residence; the doubt whether her lover would not avoid her if--ah, had it only been possible!--if he should meet her among the guests yonder; whether the eloquent Father Ignatius, who had followed him, might not already have won from the knight a vow compelling him to turn from her and summon all his strength of will to forget her.

But, no! He could no more renounce his love than she hers. She would not, dare not, let such terrible thoughts torture her now.

Heinz was far away, and the fate of her love would be decided later. The cause of her presence here was something very different, and the conviction that it was good, right, and certain of his approval, dispelled the pain that had overpowered her, and raised her courage.

Unspeakably hard trials lay behind her, and harder ones must, perhaps, yet be vanquished. But she no longer needed to fear them, for she felt that the strength which had awakened within her after she became conscious of her love was still sustaining and directing her, and would enable her to govern matters which she could not help believing that she herself would be too weak to guide to their goal. She felt freed from her former wavering and hesitation, and as formerly in the modest house of the Beguines, now in the stately citadel she realised that, in sorrow and severe trial, she had learned to assert her position in life by her own strength. Her father, whom she was to meet presently, would find little outward change in her, but when he had perceived the transformation wrought in the character of his helpless "little saint" it would please him to hear from her how wonderfully her mother's last prophetic words were being fulfilled.

She was emerging from the forge fire of life, steeled for every conflict, yet those would be wrong who believed that, trusting to her own newly won strength, she had forgotten to look heavenward. On the contrary, never had she felt nearer to her God, her Saviour, and the gracious Virgin. Without them she could accomplish nothing, yet for the first time she had undertaken tasks and sought to win goals which were worthy of beseeching them for aid. Love had taught her to be faithful in worldly life, and she said to herself, "Better, far better I can certainly become; but firmer faith cannot be kept."

Wolff's hiding place was a large, airy room, affording a view of the Frank country, with its meadows, fields, and forests. Eva saw there by the light of the blazing pine chips her father, sister, and brother-in-law.

Yet the meeting between all these beloved ones after a long separation partook more of sorrow than of joy. Els had really resolved to leave the Eysvogel mansion, yet she met her Aunt Christine with the joyful cry: "I shall stay! Wolff's father and I have become good friends."

In fact, a few hours before Herr Casper had looked at her kindly and gratefully, and when she showed him how happy this rendered her, warmly entreated her in a broken voice not to leave him. She had proved herself to be his good angel, and the sight of her was the only bright spot in his clouded life. Then she had gladly promised to stay, and intended to keep her word. She had only accompanied her father, who had unexpectedly returned for a short time, because she could trust the nun who shared her nursing of the paralysed patient, and he rarely recognised his watcher at night.

How long Els had been separated from her lover! When Eva greeted the reunited pair they had already poured forth to each other the events which had driven them to the verge of despair, and which now once more permitted them with budding hope to anticipate new happiness.

Eva had little time, yet the sisters found an opportunity to confide many things to each other, though at first their father often interrupted them by opposing his younger daughter's intention of going to the Emperor as a supplicant.

The girl whose wishes but a short time ago he had refused or gratified, according to the mood of the moment, like those of a child, had since gained, even in his eyes, so well founded a claim to respect, she opposed him in her courteous, modest way with such definiteness of purpose, Biberli's fate interested him so much, and the prospect of seeing his daughters brought before the court was so painful, that he admitted the force of Eva's reasons and let her set forth on her difficult mission accompanied by his good wishes.

Els had dropped her maternal manner; nay, she received her sister as her superior, and began to describe her work in the hospital to Wolff in such vivid colours that Eva laid her hand on her lips and hurried out of the room with the exclamation, "If you insist upon our changing places, we will stand in future side by side and shoulder to shoulder! Farewell till after the battle!"

She could not have given much more time to her relatives under any circumstances, for the Burgravine's maid of honour who was to attend her to the reception was already waiting somewhat impatiently in Frau Gertrude's room, and took her to the castle without delay.

The place where they were to stay was the large apartment adjoining the dining hall.

The confidence which Eva had regained on her way to her relatives vanished only too quickly in the neighbourhood of the sovereign and the sight of the formal reception bestowed on all who entered. Her heart throbbed more and more anxiously as she realised for the first time how serious a step she had taken; nay, it was long ere she succeeded in calming herself sufficiently to notice the clatter of the metal vessels and the Emperor's deep voice, which often drowned the lower tones of the guests. Reverence for royalty was apparent everywhere.

How much quieter this banquet was than those of the princes and nobles! The guests knew that the Emperor Rudolph disliked the boisterous manners of the German nobility. Besides, the sovereign's mourning exerted a restraint upon mirth and recklessness. All avoided loud laughter, though the monarch was fond of gaiety and heroically concealed the deep grief of his own soul.

When the lord high steward announced to the maid of honour who had brought Eva here that dessert was served, the latter believed that the dreaded moment when she would be presented to the Emperor was close at hand, but quarter of an hour after quarter of an hour passed and she still heard the clanking of metal and the voices of the guests, which now began to grow louder, and amidst which she sometimes distinguished the strident tones of the court fool, Eyebolt, and the high ones of the Countess Cordula.

Time moved at a snail's pace, and she already fancied her heart could no longer endure its violent throbbing, when at last--at last--the heavy oak chairs were pushed noisily back over the stone floor of the dining hall.

From the balcony of the audience chamber a flourish of trumpets echoed loudly along the arches of the lofty, vaulted ceiling of the apartment, and the Emperor, leading the company, crossed the threshold attended by several dignitaries, the court jesters, and some pages.

His august sister, the Burgravine Elizabeth, leaned on his arm. The papal ambassador, Doria, in the brilliant robe of a cardinal, followed, escorting the Duchess Agnes, but he parted from her in the hall. Among many other secular and ecclesiastical princes and dignitaries appeared also Count von Montfort and his daughter, the old First Losunger of Nuremberg, Berthold Vorchtel, and Herr Pfinzing with his wife.

Several guests from the city entered at the same time through another door, among whom, robed in handsome festal garments, were Eva's new Swabian acquaintances. How gladly she would have hastened to them! But a grey-haired stately man of portly figure, whose fur-trimmed cloak hung to his ankles--Sir Arnold Maier of Silenen, led them to a part of the hall very distant from where she was standing.

To make amends, Count von Montfort and Cordula came very near her; but she could not greet them. Each person--she felt it--must remain in his or her place. And the restraint became stronger as the Duchess Agnes, giving one guest a nod, another a few words, advanced nearer and nearer, pausing at last beside Count von Montfort.

The old huntsman advanced respectfully towards the Bohemian princess, and Eva heard the fourteen-year-old wife ask, "Well, Count, how fares your wish to find the right husband for your wilful daughter?"

"Of course it must be fulfilled, Duchess, since your Highness deigned to approve it," he answered, with his hand upon his heart.

"And may his name be known?" she queried with evident eagerness, her dark eyes sparkling brightly and a faint flush tingeing the slight shade of tan on her child face.

"The duty of a knight and paternal weakness unfortunately still seal my lips," he answered. "Your Highness knows best that a lady's wish--even if she is your own child--is a command."

"You are praised as an obedient father," replied the Bohemian with a slight shrug of the shoulders. "Yet you probably need not conceal whether the happy man, who is not only encouraged, but this time also chosen by the charming huntress of many kinds of game, is numbered among our guests."

"Unfortunately he is denied the pleasure, your Highness," replied the count; but Cordula, who had noticed Eva, and had heard the Duchess Agnes's last words, approached her royal foe, and with a low, reverential bow, said: "My poor heart must imagine him far away from here amid peril and privation. Instead of breaking ladies' hearts, he is destroying the castles of robber knights and disturbers of the peace of the country."

The duchess, in silent rage, clenched her white teeth upon her quivering lips, and was about to make an answer which would scarcely have flattered Cordula, when the Emperor, who had left his distinguished attendants, approached Eva, with the Burgravine still leaning on his arm.

She did not notice it; she was vainly trying to interpret the meaning of Cordula's words. True, she did not know that when no messenger brought Heinz Schorlin's intercession for Biberli, in whose fate the countess felt a sincere interest, she had commanded her own betrothed husband to ride his horse to death in order to tell the master of the sorely imperilled man what danger threatened his faithful servant, and remind him, in her name, that gratitude was one of the virtues which beseemed a true knight, even though the matter in question concerned only a servant Boemund Altrosen had obeyed, and must have overtaken Heinz long ago and probably aided him to rout the Siebenburgs and their followers. But Cordula read the young Bohemian's child heart, and it afforded her special pleasure to deal her a heavy blow in the warfare they were waging, which perhaps might aid another purpose.

The surprise and bewilderment which the countess's answer had aroused in Eva heightened the spell of her beauty.

Had she heard aright? Could Heinz really have sued for the countess's hand and been accepted? Surely, surely not! Neither was capable of such perfidy, such breach of faith. Spite of the testimony of her own ears, she would not believe it. But when she at last saw the Emperor's tall figure before her, and he gazed down at her with a kind, fatherly glance, she answered it with her large blue eyes uplifted beseechingly, and withal as trustilly, as if she sought to remind him that, if he only chose to do so, his power made it possible to convert everything which troubled and oppressed her to good.

The tearful yet bright gaze of those resistless eyes pierced the Emperor's very soul, and he imagined how this lovely vision of purity and innocence, this rare creature, of whom he had heard such marvellous things from Herr Pfinzing during their ride through the forest, would have fired the heart of his eighteen-year-old son, so sensitive to every impression, whom death had snatched from him so suddenly. And whilst remembering Hartmann, he also thought of his dead son's most loyal and dearest friend, Heinz Schorlin, who was again showing such prowess in his service, and had earned a right to recognition and reward.

He did not know his young favourite's present state of mind concerning his desire for a monastic life, but he had probably become aware that his swiftly kindled, ardent love for yonder lovely child had led him into an act of culpable imprudence. Besides, that very day many things had reached his ears concerning these two who suited each other as perfectly as Heinz Schorlin seemed--even to the Hapsburg, who was loyally devoted to the Holy Church--unfit for a religious life.

The Emperor could do much to further the union of this pair, yet he too was obliged to exercise caution. If he joined them in wedlock as though they were his own children he might be sure of causing loud complaints from the priesthood, and especially the Dominicans, who were very influential at the court of Rome--nay, he must be prepared for opposition directed against himself as well as the young pair. The prior of the order had already complained to the nuncio of the lukewarmness of the Superior of the Sisters of St. Clare, who idly witnessed the estrangement from the Church of the soul of a maiden belonging to a distinguished family; and Doria had told the sovereign of this provoking matter, and expressed the prior's hope that Sir Heinz Schorlin, who enjoyed the monarch's favour, would be won for the monastic life. Opposition to this marriage, which he approved, and therefore desired to favour, was also to be expected from another quarter. Therefore he must act with the utmost caution, and in a manner which his antagonists could not oppose.

At this reflection a peculiar smile, familiar to the courtiers as an omen of a gracious impulse, hovered around his lips, which during the past month had usually revealed by their expression the grief that burdened his soul and, raising his long forefinger in playful menace, he began:

"Aha, Jungfrau Eva Ortlieb! What have you been doing since I had the boon of meeting so rare a beauty at the dance? Do you know that you have caused a turmoil amongst both ecclesiastical and secular authorities, and that many a precious hour has been shortened for me on your account? You have disturbed both the austere Dominican Fathers and the devout Sisters of St. Clare. The former think the gentle nuns treat you too indulgently, and the latter charge the zealous followers of St. Domingo with too much strictness concerning you.

"And, besides, if you were not so well aware of it yourself, you would scarcely believe it: for the sake of an insignificant serving man, who is under your special protection, I, who carry the burden of so many serious and weighty affairs, am beset by those of high and low degree. How much, too, I have also suffered on account of his master, Sir Heinz Schorlin--again in connection with you, you lovely disturber of the peace! To say nothing of the rest, your own father brings a charge against him. The accusation is made in a letter which Meister Gottlieb, our protonotary, was to withhold by Herr Ortlieb's desire, but through a welcome accident it fell into my hands. This letter contains statements, my lovely child, which I--Nay, don't be troubled; the roses on your cheeks are glowing enough already, and for their sake I will not mention its contents; only they force me to ask the question--come nearer--whether, though it caused you great annoyance that a certain young Swiss knight forced his way into your father's house under cover of the darkness, you do not hope with me, the more experienced friend, that this foolhardy fellow, misguided by ardent love, with the aid of the saints to whom he is beginning to turn, may be converted to greater caution and praiseworthy virtue? Whether, in your great charity--which I have heard so highly praised--you would be capable"--Here he paused and, lowering his voice to a whisper, added:

"Do me the favour to lend your ear--what a well-formed little thing it is!--a short time longer, to confide to the elderly man who feels a father's affection for you whether you would be wholly reluctant to attempt the reformation of the daring evil-doer yourself were he to offer, not only his heart, but the little ring with--I will guarantee it--his honourable, knightly hand?"

"Oh, your Majesty!" cried Eva, gazing at the gracious sovereign with an expression of such imploring entreaty in her large, tearful blue eyes that, as if regretting his hasty question, he added soothingly:

"Well, well, we will reach the goal, I think, at a slower pace. Such a confession will probably flow more easily from the lips when sought by the person for whom it means happiness or despair, than when a stranger--even one as old and friendly as I--seeks to draw it from a modest maiden."

Here he paused; he had just recognised Lady Wendula Schorlin. Waving his hand to her in joyous greeting, he ordered a page to conduct her to him and, again turning to Eva, said: "Look yonder, my beautiful child: there is someone in whom you would confide more willingly than in me. I think Sir Heinz's mother, who is worthy of all reverence and love--"

Here surprise and joy forced from Eva's lips the question, "His mother?" and there was such amazement in the tone that, as the Lady Wendula, bowing low, approached the Emperor, after exchanging the first greetings which pass between old friends who have been long separated, he asked how it happened that though Eva seemed to have already met the matron, she heard with such surprise that she was the mother of his brave favourite.

Lady Wendula then confessed the name she had given herself, that she might study the young girl without being known; and again that peculiar smile flitted across the Emperor Rudolph's beardless face, and lingered there, as he asked the widow of his dead companion in arms whether, after such an examination, she believed she had found the right wife for her son; and she replied that a long life would not give her time enough to thank Heaven sufficiently for such a daughter.

The maiden who was the subject of this whispering, whose purport only a loving glance from the Lady Wendula revealed, pressed her hand upon her heart, whose impetuous throbbing stifled her breath. Oh, how gladly she would have hastened to the mother of the man she loved and his young sister, who stood at a modest distance, to clasp them in her arms, and confide to them what seemed too great, too much, too beautiful for herself alone, yet which might crumble at a single word from her lover's lips like an undermined tower swept away by the wind! But she was forced to have patience, and submit to whatever might yet be allotted to her.

Nor was she to lack agitating experiences, for the Emperor's murmured question whether she desired to hear herself called "daughter" by this admirable lady had scarcely called forth an answer, which, though mute, revealed the state of her heart eloquently enough, than he added in a louder tone, though doubtfully: "Then, so far, all would be well; but, fair maiden, my young friend, unfortunately, was by no means satisfied, if I heard aright, with knocking at the door of a single heart. Things have reached my ears--But this, too, must be----"

Here he suddenly paused, for already during this conversation with the ladies there had been a noise at the door of the hall, and now the person whom the Emperor had just accused entered, closely followed by the chamberlain, Count Ebenhofen, whose face was deeply flushed from his vain attempts to keep Sir Heinz Schorlin back.

Heinz's cheeks were also glowing from his struggle with the courtier, who considered it a grave offence that a knight should dare to appear before the Emperor at a peaceful social assembly clad in full armour.

His appearance created a joyful stir among the other members of the court--nay, in spite of the sovereign's presence, cordial expressions of welcome fell from the lips of ladies and nobles. The Bohemian princess alone cast an angry glance at the blue ribbon which adorned the helmet of the returning knight; for "blue" was Countess von Montfort's colour, and "rose red" her own.

The ecclesiastics whom Heinz passed whispered eagerly together. The Duchess Agnes's confessor, an elderly Dominican of tall stature, was listening to the provost of St. Sebald's, a grey-haired man a head shorter than he, of dignified yet kindly aspect, who, looking keenly at Heinz, remarked: "I fear that your prior hopes too confidently to win yonder young knight. No one walks with that bearing who is on the eve of renouncing the world. A splendid fellow!"

"To whom armour is better suited than the cowl," observed the Bishop of Bamberg, a middleaged prelate of aristocratic appearance, approaching the others. "Your prior, my dear brothers, would have little pleasure, I think, in the fish he is so eagerly trying to drag from the Minorite's net into his own. He would leap ashore again all too quickly. He is not fit for the monastery. He would do better for a priest, and I would bid him welcome as a military brother in office."

"Bold enough he certainly is," added the Dominican. "I would not advise every one to enter the Emperor's presence and this distinguished gathering in such attire."

In fact, Heinz showed plainly that he had come directly from the battlefield and the saddle, for a suit of stout chain armour, which covered the greater part of his tolerably long tunic, encased his limbs, and even the helmet which he bore on his arm, spite of the blue ribbon that adorned it, was by no means one of the delicate, costly ones worn in the tournament. Besides, many a bruise showed that hard blows and thrusts had been dealt him.