The Fire Of The Forge by Georg Ebers
Eva had gazed into vacancy a long time, and beheld a succession of pleasing pictures, in every one of which, Heinz Schorlin appeared. Once, in imagination, she placed a wreath on his helmet after a great victory over the infidels.
Why should not this vision become a reality? Doubtless it owed its origin to a memory, for Wolff Eysvogel had been fired with love for her sister while Els was winding laurel around his helmet.
After the Honourable Council had resolved that the youths belonging to noble families, who had fought in the battle of Marchfield and returned victorious, should be adorned with wreaths by the maidens of their choice, Fate had appointed her sister to crown Eysvogel.
At that time Wolff had but recently recovered from the severe wounds with which he had returned from the campaign. But while he knelt before Els and his eyes met hers, love had overmastered him so swiftly and powerfully, that at the end of a few days he determined to woo her.
Meanwhile his own family resolutely opposed his choice. The father declared that he had made an agreement with Berthold Vorchtel to marry him to his daughter Ursula, and withdrawal on his son's part would embarrass him. His grandmother, the arrogant old Countess Rotterbach, agreed with him, and declared that Wolff ought to wed no one except a lady of the most aristocratic birth or an heiress like Ursula. Her daughter Rosalinde Eysvogel, as usual, was the echo of her mother.
Herr Ernst Ortlieb, too, would far rather have seen his Els marry into another home; but Wolff himself was a young man of such faultless honour, and the bride he had chosen was so eager to become his, that he deemed it a duty to forget the aversion inspired by the suitor's family.
As for Wolff, he had so firmly persisted in his resolve that his parents at last permitted him to ask for his darling's hand, but his father had made it a condition that the betrothal, on account of the youth of the lovers, should not be announced till after Wolff had returned from Milan, where he was to finish the studies commenced in Venice. True, everyone had supposed that they were completed long ago, but Eysvogel senior insisted upon his demand, and afterwards succeeded in deferring the announcement of the betrothal, until the resolute persistence of Wolff, who meanwhile had entered the great commercial house, and the wish of his own aged mother, a sensible woman, who from the first had approved her grandson's choice and to whom Herr Casper was obliged to show a certain degree of consideration, compelled him to give it publicity.
A few days later Herr Casper's brother died, and soon after his estimable old mother. He used these events as a pretext for longer delay, saying that both he and his wife needed at least six months' interval ere they could forget their mourning in a gay wedding festival. Besides, he would prefer not to have the marriage take place until after Wolff's election to the Council, which, in all probability, would occur after Walpurgis of the coming year.
Ernst Ortlieb had sullenly submitted to all this. Nothing but his love for his child and respect for Herr Casper's dead mother, who had taken Els to her heart like a beloved granddaughter, would have enabled him to conquer his hasty temper in his negotiations with the man whom he detested in his inmost soul, and not hurl back the consent so reluctantly granted to his son.
The friends who knew him admired the strength of will with which he governed his impetuous nature in this transaction. Some asserted that secret obligations compelled him to yield to the rich Eysvogel; for though the Ortlieb mercantile house was reputed wealthy, the business prudence of its head resulted in smaller profits, and people had not forgotten that it had suffered heavy losses during the terrible period of despotism which had preceded the Emperor Rudolph's accession to the throne.
The insecurity of the high-roads had injured every merchant, but in trying to find some explanation for Herr Ortlieb's submission the attacks which had cost him one and another train of wares were regarded as specially disastrous.
Finally, the dowry which Els was to bring bore no comparison to the large sums Ernst Ortlieb had lavished upon the erection of the St. Clare Convent, and hence it was inferred that the wealth of the firm had sustained considerable losses. This found ready credence, owing to the retired life led by the Ortliebs,--whose house had formerly been one of the most hospitable in the city,--ever since the wife had become an invalid and Eva had grown up with an aversion to the world. Few took the trouble to inquire into the very apparent causes for the change.
Yet this view of the matter was opposed by many-nay, when the conversation turned upon these subjects, Herr Berthold Vorchtel, perhaps the richest and most distinguished man in Nuremberg, who rented the imperial taxes, made comments from which, had it not been so difficult to believe, people might have inferred that Casper Eysvogel was indebted to Ernst Ortlieb rather than the latter to him.
Yet the cautious, prudent man never explained the foundation of his opinion, for he very rarely mentioned either of the two firms; yet prior to the battle of Marchfield he had believed that his own daughter Ursula and Wolff Eysvogel would sooner or later wed. Herr Casper, the young man's father, had strengthened this expectation. He himself and his wife esteemed Wolff, and his "Ursel" had shown plainly enough that she preferred him to the other friends of her elder brother Ulrich.
When he returned home the two met like brother and sister, and the parents of Ursula Vorchtel had expected Wolff's proposal until the day on which the wreaths were bestowed had made them poorer by a favourite wish and destroyed the fairest hope of their daughter Ursula.
The worthy merchant, it is true, deemed love a beautiful thing, but in Nuremberg it was the parents who chose wives and husbands for their sons and daughters; yet, after marriage, love took possession of the newly wedded pair. A transgression of this ancient custom was very rare, and even though Wolff's heart was fired with love for Els Ortlieb, his father, Herr Vorchtel thought, should have refused his consent to the betrothal, especially as he had already treated Ursel as his future daughter. Some compulsion must have been imposed upon him when he permitted his son to choose a wife other than the one selected.
But what could render one merchant dependent upon another except business obligations?--and Berthold Vorchtel was sharp-sighted. He knew the heavy draft which Herr Casper had made upon the confidence reposed in the old firm, and thought he had perceived that the great splendour displayed by the women of the Eysvogel family, the liberality with which Herr Casper had aided his impoverished noble relatives, and the lavish expenditure of his son-in-law, the debt-laden Sir Seitz Siebenburg, drew too heavily upon the revenues of the ancient house.
Even now Casper Eysvogel's whole conduct proved how unwelcome was his son's choice. To him, Ursula's father, he still intimated on many an occasion that he had by no means resigned every hope of becoming, through his son, more nearly allied to his family, for a betrothal was not a wedding.
Berthold Vorchtel, however, was not the man to enter into such double-dealing, although he saw plainly enough how matters stood with his poor child. She had confided her feelings to no one; yet, in spite of Ursula's reserved nature, even a stranger could perceive that something clouded her happiness. Besides, she had persistently refused the distinguished suitors who sought the wealthy Herr Berthold's pretty daughter, and only very recently had promised her parents, of her own free will, to give up her opposition to marriage.
Ever since the betrothal, to the sincere sorrow of Els, she had studiously avoided Wolff's future bride, who had been one of her dearest friends; and Ulrich, Herr Vorchtel's oldest son, took his sister's part, and at every opportunity showed Wolff--who from a child, and also in the battle of Marchfield, had been a favourite comrade--that he bore him a grudge, and considered his betrothal to any one except Ursula an act of shameful perfidy.
The fair-minded father did not approve of his son's conduct, for his wife had learned from her daughter that Wolff had never spoken to her of love, or promised marriage.
Therefore, whenever Herr Berthold Vorchtel met Els's father--and this often happened in the Council--he treated him with marked respect, and when there was an entertainment in his house sent him an invitation, as in former years, which Ernst Urtlieb accepted, unless something of importance prevented.
But though the elder Vorchtel was powerless to change his children's conduct, he never wearied of representing to his son how unjust and dangerous were the attacks with which, on every occasion, he irritated Wolff, whose strength and skill in fencing were almost unequalled in Nuremberg. In fact, the latter would long since have challenged his former friend had he not been so conscious of his own superiority, and shrunk from the thought of bringing fresh sorrow upon Ursula and her parents, whom he still remembered with friendly regard.
Eva was fond of her future brother-in-law, and it had not escaped her notice that of late something troubled him.
What was it?
She thoughtfully gave the wheel a push, and as it turned swiftly she remembered the Swiss dance the evening before, and suddenly clenched her small right hand and dealt the palm of her left a light blow.
She fancied that she had discovered the cause of Wolff's depression, for she again saw distinctly before her his sister Isabella's husband, Sir Seitz Siebenburg, as he swung Countess Cordula around so recklessly that her skirt, adorned with glittering jewels, fluttered far out from her figure. In the room adjacent to the hall he had flung himself upon his knees before the countess, and Eva fancied she again beheld his big, red face, with its long, thick, yellow mustache, whose ends projected on both sides in a fashion worn by few men of his rank. The expression of the watery blue eyes, with which he stared Cordula in the face, were those of a drunkard.
To-day he had followed her to the Kadolzburg, and probably meant to spend the night there. So Wolff had ample reason to be anxious about his sister and her peace of mind. That must be it!
Perhaps he would yet come that evening, to give Els at least a greeting from the street. How late was it?
She hastily tried to draw the curtains aside from the window, but this was not accomplished as quickly as she expected--they had been care fully fastened with pins. Eva noticed it, and suddenly remembered her father's whispered words to Els.
They were undoubtedly about the window. According to the calendar, the moon would be full that day, and she knew very well that it had a strange influence upon her. True, within the past year it appeared to have lost its power; but formerly, especially when she had devoted herself very earnestly to religious exercises, she had often, without knowing how or why, left her bed and wandered about, not only in her chamber but through the house. Once she had climbed to the dovecot in the courtyard, and another time had mounted to the garret where, she did not know in what way, she had been awakened. When she looked around, the moon was shining into the spacious room, and showed her that she was perched on one of the highest beams in the network of rafters which, joined with the utmost skill, supported the roof. Below her yawned a deep gulf, and as she looked down into it she was seized with such terror that she uttered a loud shriek for help, and did not recover her calmness until the old housekeeper, Martsche, who had started from her bed in alarm, brought her father to her.
She had been taken down with the utmost care. No one was permitted to help except white-haired Nickel, the old head packer, who often let a whole day pass without opening his lips; for Herr Ernst seemed to lay great stress upon keeping the moon's influence on Eva a secret. There was indeed something uncanny about this night-walking, for even now it seemed incomprehensible how she had reached the beam, which was at least the height of three men above the floor. A fall might have cost her life, and her father was right in trying to prevent a repetition of such nocturnal excursions. This time Els had helped him.
How faithfully she cared for them all!
Yes, she had barred out even the faintest glimmer. Eva smiled as she saw the numerous pins with which her sister had fastened the curtain, and an irresistible longing seized her to see once more the wonderful light that promoted the growth of the hair if cut during its increase, and also exerted so strange an influence upon her.
She must look up at the moon!
Swiftly and skilfully, as if aided by invisible hands, her dainty fingers opened curtain and window.
Drawing a deep breath, with an emotion of pleasure which she had not experienced for a long time, she gazed at the linden before the house steeped in silvery radiance, and upward to the pure disk of the full moon sailing in the cloudless sky. How beautiful and still the night was! How delightful it would be to walk up and down the garden, with her aunt the abbess, with Els, and perhaps--she felt the blood crimson her cheeks--with Heinz Schorlin!
Where was he now?
Undoubtedly with the Emperor and his ladies, perhaps at the side of the Bohemian princess, the young Duchess Agnes, who yesterday had so plainly showed her pleasure in his society.
Just then the watch, marching from the Marienthurn to the Frauenthor, gave her vagrant thoughts a new turn. The city guard was soon followed by a troop of horse, which probably belonged to the Emperor's train.
It was delightful to gaze, at this late hour, into the moonlit street, and she wondered that she had never enjoyed it before. True, it would have been still pleasanter had Els borne her company; and, besides, she longed to tell her the new explanation she had found for Wolff's altered manner.
Perhaps her mother was asleep, and she could come with her.
How still the house was!
Cautiously opening the door of the sick-room, she glanced in. Els was standing at the head of the bed, supporting her mother with her strong young arms, while Sister Renata pushed the cushions between the sufferer's back and the bedstead.
The old difficulty of breathing had evidently attacked her again.
Yes, yes, the dim light of the lamp was shining on her pale face, and the large sunken eyes were gazing with imploring anguish at the image of the Virgin on the opposite wall.
How gladly Eva would have afforded her relief! She looked with a faint sense of envy at her sister, whose skilful, careful hands did everything to the satisfaction of the beloved sufferer, while in nursing she failed only too often in giving the right touch. But she could pray--implore the aid of her saint very fervently; nay, she was more familiar with her, and might hope that she would fulfil a heartfelt wish of hers more quickly than for her sister. It would not do to call Els to the window. She closed the door gently, returned to her chamber, knelt and implored St. Clare, with all the fervour of her heart, to grant her mother a good night. Then she again drew the curtains closely over the window, and went to call Katterle to help her undress.
But the maid was just entering with fresh water. What was the matter with her?
Her hand trembled as she braided her young mistress's hair and sometimes, with a faint sigh, she stopped the movement of the comb.
Her silence could be easily explained; for Eva had often forbidden Katterle to talk, when she disturbed her meditation. Yet the girl must have had some special burden on her mind, for when Eva had gone to bed she could not resolve to leave the room, but remained standing on the threshold in evident embarrassment.
Eva encouraged her to speak, and Katterle, so confused that she often hesitated for words and pulled at her ribbons till she was in danger of tearing them from her white apron, stammered that she did not come on her own account, but for another person. It was well known in the household that her betrothed husband, the true and steadfast Walther Biberli, served a godly knight, her countryman.
"I know it," said Eva with apparent composure, "and your Biberli has commissioned you to bear me the respectful greeting of Sir Heinz Schorlin."
The girl looked at her young mistress in surprise. She had been prepared for a sharp rebuke, and had yielded to her lover's entreaties to under take this service amid tears, and with great anxiety; for if her act should be betrayed, she would lose, amid bitter reproaches, the place she so greatly prized. Yet Biberli's power over her and her faith in him were so great that she would have followed him into a lion's den; and it had scarcely seemed a more desirable venture to carry a love-greeting to the pious maiden who held men in such disfavour, and could burst into passionate anger as suddenly as her father.
Eva had expected such a message. It seemed like a miracle to Katterle.
With a sigh of relief, and a hasty thanksgiving to her patron saint, she at once began to praise the virtue and piety of the servant as well as his lord; but Eva again interrupted, and asked what Sir Heinz Schorlin desired.
Katterle, with new-born confidence, repeated, as if it were some trivial request, the words Biberli had impressed upon her mind.
"By virtue of the right of every good and devout knight to ask his lady for her colour, Sir Heinz Schorlin, with all due reverence, humbly prays you to name yours; for how could he hold up his head before you and all the knights if he were denied the privilege of wearing it in your honour, in war as well as in peace?"
Here her mistress again interrupted with a positive "I know," and, still more emboldened, Katterle continued the ex-schoolmaster's lesson to the end:
"His lord, my lover says, will wait here beneath the window, in all reverence, though it should be till morning, until you show him your sweet face. No, don't interrupt me yet, Mistress Eva, for you must know that Sir Heinz's lady mother committed her dear son to my Biberli's care, that he might guard him from injury and illness. But since his master met you, he has been tottering about as though he had received a spear-thrust, and as the knight confessed to his faithful servitor that no leech could help him until you permitted him to open his heart to you and show you with what humble devotion----"
But here the maid was interrupted in a manner very different from her expectations, for Eva had raised herself on her pillows and, almost unable to control her voice in the excess of her wrath, exclaimed:
"The master who presumes to seek through his servant----And by what right does the knight dare thus insolently----But no! Who knows what modest wish was transformed in your mouth to so unprecedented a demand? He desired to see my face? He wanted to speak to me in person, to confess I know not what? From you--you, Katterle, the maid--the knight expects----"
Here she struck her little hand angrily against the wood of the bedstead and, panting for breath, continued:
"I'll show him!----Yet no! What I have to answer no one else----From me, from me alone, he shall learn without delay. There is paper in yonder chest, on the very top; bring it to me, with pen and ink."
Katterle silently hurried to obey this order, but Eva pressed her hand upon her heaving bosom, and gazed silently into vacancy.
The manservant and the maid whom Heinz Schorlin had made his messengers certainly could have no conception of the bond that united her to him; even her own sister had misunderstood it. He should now learn that Eva Ortlieb knew what beseemed her! But she, too, longed for another meeting, and this conduct rendered it necessary.
The sooner they two had a conversation, the better. She could confidently venture to invite him to the meeting which she had in view; her aunt, the abbess, had promised to stand by her side, if she needed her, in her intercourse with the knight.
But her colour?
Katterle had long since laid the paper and writing materials before her, but she still pondered. At last, with a smile of satisfaction, she seized the pen. The manner in which she intended to mention the colour should show him the nature of the bond which united them.
She was mistress of the pen, for in the convent she had copied the gospels, the psalms, and other portions of the Scriptures, yet her hand trembled as she committed the following lines to the paper:
"I am angered--nay, even grieved--that you, a godly knight, who knows the reverence due to a lady, have ventured to await my greeting in front of my father's house. If you are a true knight, you must be aware that you voluntarily promised to obey my every glance. I can rely upon this pledge, and since I find it necessary to talk with you, I invite you to an interview--when and where, my maid, who is betrothed to your servant, shall inform him. A friend, who has your welfare at heart as well as mine, will be with me. It must be soon, with the permission of St. Clare, who, since you have chosen her for your patron saint, looks down upon you as well as on me.
"As for my colour, I know not what to name; the baubles associated with earthly love are unfamiliar to me. But blue is the colour of the pure heaven and its noble queen, the gracious Virgin. If you make this colour yours and fight for it, I shall rejoice, and am willing to name it mine."
At the bottom of the little note she wrote only her Christian name "Eva," and when she read it over she found that it contained, in apt and seemly phrases, everything that she desired to say to the knight.
While folding the paper and considering how she could fasten it, as there was no wax at hand, she thought of the narrow ribbons with which Els tied together, in sets of half a dozen, the fine kerchiefs worn over the neck and bosom, when they came from the wash. They were sky-blue, and nothing could be more suitable for the purpose.
Katterle brought one from the top of the chest. Eva wound it swiftly around the little roll, and the maid hastily left the room, sure of the gratitude of the true and steadfast Biberli.
When Eva was again alone, she at first thought that she might rejoice over her hasty act; but on asking herself what Els would say, she felt certain that she would disapprove of it and, becoming disconcerted, began to imagine what consequences it might entail.
The advice which her father had recently given Wolff, never to let any important letter pass out of his hands until at least one night had elapsed, returned to her memory, and from that instant the little note burdened her soul like a hundred-pound weight.
She would fain have started up to get it back again, and a strong attraction drew her towards the window to ascertain whether Heinz Schorlin had really come and was awaiting her greeting.
Perhaps Katterle had not yet delivered the note. What if she were still standing at the door of the house to wait for Biberli? If, to be absolutely certain, she should just glance out, that would not be looking for the knight, and she availed herself of the excuse without delay.
In an instant she sprang from her bed and gently drew the curtain aside. The street was perfectly still. The linden and the neighbouring houses cast dark, sharply outlined shadows upon the light pavement, and from the convent garden the song of the nightingale echoed down the quiet moonlit street.
Katterle had probably already given the note to Heinz Schorlin who, obedient to his lady's command, as beseemed a knight, had gone away. This soothed her anxiety, and with a sigh she went back to bed.
But the longing to look out into the street again was so strong that she yielded to the temptation; yet, ere she reached the window, she summoned the strength of will which was peculiar to her and, lying down, once more closed her lids, with the firm resolve to see and hear nothing. As she had not shut her eyes the night before and, from dread of the ball, had slept very little during the preceding one, she soon, though the moon was shining in through the parted curtains, lapsed into a condition midway between sleep and waking. Extreme fatigue had deadened consciousness, yet she fancied that at times she heard the sound of footsteps on the pavement outside, and the deep voices of men.
Nor was what she heard in her half-dozing state, which was soon followed by the sound slumber of youth, any delusion of the senses.