The Fire Of The Forge by Georg Ebers
Eva Ortlieb had been borne home from the ball in her sedan chair with a happy smile hovering round her fresh young lips.
It still lingered there when she found her sister in their chamber, sitting at the spinning wheel. She had not left her suffering mother until her eyes closed in slumber, and was now waiting for Eva, to hear whether the entertainment had proved less disagreeable than she feared, and--as she had sent her maid to bed--to help her undress.
One glance at Eva told her that she had perhaps left the ballroom even more reluctantly than she entered it; but when Els questioned her so affectionately, and with maternal care began to unfasten the ribbon which tied her cap, the young girl, who in the sedan chair had determined to confess to no one on earth what so deeply moved her heart, could not resist the impulse to clasp her in her arms and kiss her with impetuous warmth.
Els received the caress with surprise for, though both girls loved each other tenderly, they, like most sisters, rarely expressed it by tangible proofs of tenderness. Not until Eva released her did Els exclaim in merry amazement: "So it was delightful, my darling?"
"Oh, so delightful!" Eva protested with hands uplifted, and at the same time met her sister's eyes with a radiant glance.
Yet the thought entered her mind that it ill beseemed her to express so much pleasure in a worldly amusement. Her glance fell in shame, and she gently continued in that tone of self-compassion which was by no means unfamiliar to the members of her family. "True, though the Emperor is so noble, and both he and the Burgravine were so gracious to me, at first--and not only for a brief quarter of an hour, but a very long time I could feel no real pleasure. What am I saying? Pleasure! I was indescribably desolate and alone among all those vain, bedizened strangers. I was like a shipwrecked sailor washed ashore by the waves and surrounded by people whose language is unfamiliar."
"But half Nuremberg was at the ball," her sister interrupted. "Now you see the trouble, darling. Whoever, like you, remains in seclusion and mounts a tall tree to be entirely alone, will be deserted; for who would be kind-hearted enough to learn to climb for your sake? But it seems that afterwards one and another----"
"Oh!" Eva interrupted, "if you think that any of your friends gave me more than a passing greeting, you are mistaken. Not even Barbel, Ann, or Metz took any special notice of your sister. They kept near Ursel Vorchtel, and she and her brother Ulrich, of course, behaved as if I wore a fern cap and had become invisible. I cannot tell you how uncomfortable I felt, and then--yes, Els, then I first realised distinctly what you are to me. Obstinate as I often am, in spite of all your kindness and care, ungraciously as I often treat you, to-night I clearly perceived that we belong together, like a pair of eyes, and that without you I am only half myself--or, at any rate--not complete. And--as we are speaking in images--I felt like a sapling whose prop has been removed; even your Wolff can never have longed for you more ardently. My father found little time to give me. As soon as he saw me take my place in the Polish dance he went with Uncle Pfinzing to the drinking room, and I did not see him again till he came to bring me home. He had asked Fran Nutzel to look after me, but her Kathrin was taken ill, as I heard when we were leaving, and she disappeared with her during the first dance. So I moved forlornly here and there until he--Heinz Schorlin--came and took charge of me."
"He? Sir Heinz Schorlin?" asked Els in surprise, a look of anxious suspense clouding her pretty, frank face. "The reckless Swiss, whom Countess Cordula said yesterday was the pike in the dull carp pond of the court, and the only person for whom it was worth while to bear the penance imposed in the confessional?"
"Cordula von Montfort!" cried Eva scornfully. "If she speaks to me I shall not answer her, I can tell you. My cheeks crimson when I think of the liberty----"
"Never mind her," said her sister soothingly. "She is a motherless child, and therefore unlike us. As for Heinz Schorlin, he is certainly a gallant knight; but, my innocent lambkin, he is a wolf nevertheless."
"A wolf?" asked Eva, opening her large eyes as wide as if they beheld some terrible object. But she soon laughed softly, and added quietly: "But a very harmless wolf, who humbly changes his nature when the right hand strokes him. How you stare at me! I am not thinking of your beloved Wolff, whom you have tamed tolerably well, but the wolf of Gubbio, which did so much mischief, and to which St. Francis went forth, accosted him as Brother Wolf, and reminded him that they both owed their lives to the goodness of the same divine Father. The animal seemed to understand this, for it nodded to him. The saint now made a bargain with the wolf, which gave him its paw in pledge of the oath; and it kept the promise, for it followed St. Francis into the city, and never again harmed anyone. The citizens of Gubbio fed the good beast, and when it died sincerely mourned it. If you wish to know from whom I heard this edifying story--which is true, and can be confirmed by some one now in Nuremberg who witnessed it--let me tell you that it was the wicked wolf himself; not the Gubbio one, but he from Switzerland. An old Minorite monk, to whom he compassionately gave his horse, is the witness I mentioned. At the tavern the priest told him what he had beheld with his own eyes. Do you still inveigh against the dangerous beast, which acts like the good Samaritan, and finds nothing more delightful than hearing or speaking of our dear saint?"
"And this in the Town Hall during the dance?" asked Els, clasping her hands as if she had heard something unprecedented.
Eva, fairly radiant with joy, nodded assent; and Els heard the ring of pleasure in her clear voice, too, as she exclaimed: "That was just what made the ball so delightful. The dancing! Oh, yes, it is easy enough to walk and turn in time to the music when one has such a knight for a partner; but that was by no means the pleasantest part of it. During the interval--it seemed but an instant, yet it really lasted a considerable time--we first entered into conversation."
"In one of the side rooms?" asked Els, the bright colour fading from her cheeks.
"What are you thinking of?" replied Eva in a tone of offence. "I believe I know what is seemly as well as anybody else. True, your Countess Cordula did not set the most praiseworthy example. She allowed the whole throng of knights to surround her in the ante-room, and your future brother-in-law, Siebenburg, outdid them all. We--Heinz Schorlin and I--sat near the Emperor's table in the great hall, where everybody could see us. There the conversation naturally passed from the old Minorite to the holy founder of his order, and remained there. And if ever valiant knight possessed a devout mind, it is Heinz Schorlin. Whoever goes into battle without relying upon God and his saints,' he said, 'will find his courage lack wings, and his armour the surest defensive 'weapon.'"
"In the ballroom!" again fell from her sister's lips in the same tone of amazement.
"Where else?" asked Eva angrily. "I never met him except there. What do you other girls talk about at such entertainments, if it surprises you? Besides, St. Francis was by no means our only subject; we spoke of the future crusade, too. And oh!--you may believe me--we would have been glad to talk of such things for hours. He knew many things about our saint; but the precise one which makes him especially great and lovable, and withal so powerful that he attracted all whom he deemed worthy to follow him, he had not understood, and I was permitted to be the first person to bring it clearly before his mind. Ah! and his wit is as keen as his sword, and his heart is as open to all that is noble and sacred as it is loyal to his lord and Emperor. If we meet again I shall win him for the white cross on the black mantle and the battle against the enemies of the faith."
"But, Eva," interrupted her sister, still under the spell of astonishment, "such conversation amid the merry music of the pipers!"
"'Wherever three Christians meet, even though they are only laymen, there is a church,' says Tertullian," Eva answered impressively. "One need not go to the house of God to talk about the things which ought to be the highest and dearest to every one; and Heinz Schorlin--I know it from his own lips--is of the same opinion, for he told me voluntarily that he would never forget the few hours which we had enjoyed together."
"Indeed!" said her sister thoughtfully. "But whether he does not owe this pleasure more to the dancing than to the edifying conversation----"
"Certainly not!" replied Eva, very positively. "I can prove it, too; for later, after he had heard many things about St. Clare, the female counterpart of Francis, he vowed to make her his patron saint. Or do you suppose that a knight changes his saints, as he does his doublet and coat of mail, without having any great and powerful motive? Do you think it possible that the idle pleasure of the dance led him to so important a decision?"
"Certainly not. Nothing led him to it except the irresistible zeal of my devout sister," answered Els, smiling, as she continued to comb her fair hair. "She spoke with tongues in the ballroom, as the apostles did at Pentecost, and thus our 'little saint' performed her first miracle: the conversion of a godless knight during the dancing."
"Call it so, if you choose," replied Eva, her red lips pouting scornfully, as if she felt raised above such pitiful derision. "How you hurt, Els! You are pulling all the hair out of my head!"
The object of this rebuke had used the comb with the utmost care, but the great luxuriance of the long, fair, waving locks had presented many an impediment, and Eva seemed unusually sensitive that night. Els thought she knew why, and made no answer to the unjust charge. She knew her sister; and as she wound the braids about her head, and then, in the maid's place, hung part of her finery on hooks, and laid part carefully in the chest, she asked her numerous questions about the dance, but was vouchsafed only monosyllabic replies.
At last Els knelt before the prie-dieu. Eva did the same, resting her head so long upon her clasped hands that the patient older sister could not wait for the "Amen," but, in order not to disturb Eva's devotion, only pressed a light kiss upon her head and then carefully drew the curtains closely over the windows which, instead of glass, contained oiled parchment.
Eva's excitement filled her with anxiety. She knew, too, what a powerful influence the bright moonlight sometimes exerted upon her while she slept, and cast another glance at the closely curtained window before she went to her own bed. There she lay a long time, with eyes wide open, pondering over her sister's words, and in doing so perceived more and more clearly that love was now knocking at the heart of the child kneeling before the prie-dieu. Sir Heinz Schorlin, the wild butterfly, desired to sip the honey from this sweet, untouched flower, and then probably abandon her like so many before her. Love and anxiety made the girl, whose opinion was usually milder than her sister's, a stern and unwise judge, for she assumed that the Swiss--whose character in reality was far removed from base hypocrisy--the man whom she had just termed a wolf, had donned sheep's clothing to make her poor lambkin an easier prey. But she was on guard and ready to spoil his game.
Did Eva really fail to understand the new feeling which had seized her so swiftly and powerfully? Did she lull herself in the delusion that she cared only for the welfare of the soul of the pious young knight?
Yes, it might be so, and prudent Els, who had watched her own little world intently enough, said to herself that it would be pouring oil upon the flames to tease Eva about the defeat which she, the "little saint," had sustained in the battle against the demands of the world and of the feminine heart. Besides, her sister was too dear for her to rejoice in her humiliation. Els resolved not to utter a word about the Swiss unless compelled to do so.
Eva's prayers before retiring were often very long, but to-night it seemed as if they would never end.
"She is not appealing to St. Clare for herself alone, but for another," thought Els. "I spend less time in doing it. True, a Heinz Schorlin needs longer intercession than my Eva, my Wolff, and my poor pious mother. But I won't disturb her yet."
Sighing faintly, she changed her position, but remained sitting propped against the white pillows in order not to allow herself to be overcome by sleep. But it was a hard struggle, and her lids often fell, her head drooped upon her breast.
Dawn was already glimmering without when the supplicant at last rose and sought her couch. Her sister let her lie quietly for a while, then she rose and put out the lamp which Eva had forgotten to extinguish. The latter noticed it, turned her face towards her and called her gently. "To think that you should have to get up again, my poor Els! Give me a good-night kiss."
"Gladly, dearest," replied the other. "But it is really quite time to say 'good-morning."'
"And you have kept awake so long!" replied Eva compassionately, as she threw her arms gratefully around her sister's neck, kissed her tenderly, and then pressed her hot cheek to hers.
"What is this?" cried Els, with sincere anxiety. "Are you hurt, child? Surely you are weeping?"
"No, no," was the reply. "I am only--I only thought that I had adorned myself, decked myself out with idle finery, although I know how many poor people are starving in want and misery, and how much more pleasing in the sight of the Lord is the grey robe of the cloistered nun. I could scarcely leave the hall in my overweening pleasure, and yet it would have beseemed me far better to share the sufferings of the crucified Saviour."
"But, child," replied Els, striving to soothe her sister, "how often I have heard from you and our aunt, the abbess, that no one was so cheerful and so glad to witness the enjoyment of human beings and animals as your St. Francis!"
"He--he!" groaned Eva, "he who attained the highest goal, who heard the voice of the Lord wherever he listened; he who chose poverty as his beloved bride, who scorned show and parade and the trappings of wealth, as he disdained earthly love; he who celebrated in song the love of the soul glowing for the highest things, as no troubadour could do--oh, how ardently he knew how to love, but to love the things which do not belong to this world!"
Els longed to ask what Eva knew about the ardent fire of love; but she restrained herself, darkened the bed as well as she could with the movable curtain which hung from the ceiling on both sides above the double couch, and said: "Be sensible, child, and put aside such thoughts. How loudly the birds are twittering outside! If our father is obliged to breakfast alone there may be a storm, and I should be glad to have an hour's nap. You need slumber, too. Dancing is tiresome. Shut your eyes and sleep as long as you can. I'll be as quiet as a mouse while I am dressing."
As she spoke she turned away from her sister and no longer resisted the sleep which soon closed her weary eyes.