Volume 2.
Chapter X.
 

The grey dawn was already glimmering, yet neither the expected vehicle nor Jorg had come. Old Rahel, usually an early riser, was sleeping as soundly as if she had to make up the lost slumber of ten nights; but the smith's anxiety would no longer allow him to remain in the close room. Ruth followed him into the open air, and when she timidly touched him--for there had always been something unapproachable to her in the silent man's gigantic figure--he looked at her from head to foot, with strange, questioning sympathy, and then asked suddenly, with a haste unusual to him.

"Has your father told you about Jesus Christ?"

"Often!" replied Ruth.

"And do you love Him?"

"Dearly. Father says He loved all children, and called them to Him."

"Of course, of course!" replied the smith, blushing with shame for his own distrust.

The doctor did not follow the others, and as soon as his wife saw that they were alone, she beckoned to him.

Lopez sat down on the couch beside her, and took her hand. The slender fingers trembled in his clasp, and when, with loving anxiety, he drew her towards him, he felt the tremor of her delicate limbs, while her eyes expressed bitter suffering and terrible dread.

"Are you afraid?" he asked, tenderly.

Elizabeth shuddered, threw her arms passionately around his neck, and nodded assent.

"The wagon will convey us to the Rhine Valley, please God, this very day, and there we shall be safe," he continued, soothingly. But she shook her head, her features assuming an expression of indifference and contempt. Lopez understood how to read their meaning, and asked: "So it is not the bailiffs you fear; something else is troubling you?"

She nodded again, this time still more eagerly, drew out the crucifix, which she had hitherto kept concealed under her coverlid, showed it to him, then pointed upward towards heaven, lastly to herself and him, and shrugged her shoulders with an air of deep, mournful renunciation.

"You are thinking of the other world," said Lopez; then, fixing his eyes on the ground, he continued, in a lower tone: "I know you are tortured by the fear of not meeting me there."

"Yes," she gasped, with a great effort, pressing her forehead against his shoulder.

A hot tear fell on the doctor's hand, and he felt as if his own heart was weeping with his beloved, anxious wife.

He knew that this thought had often poisoned her life and, full of tender sympathy, turned her beautiful face towards him and pressed a long kiss on her closed eyes, then said, tenderly:

"You are mine, I am yours, and if there is a life beyond the grave, and an eternal justice, the dumb will speak as they desire, and sing wondrous songs with the angels; the sorrowful will again be happy there. We will hope, we will both hope! Do you remember how I read Dante aloud to you, and tried to explain his divine creation, as we sat on the bench by the fig-tree. The sea roared below us, and our hearts swelled higher than its storm-lashed waves. How soft was the air, how bright the sunshine! This earth seemed doubly beautiful to you and me as, led by the hand of the divine seer and singer, we descended shuddering to the nether world. There the good and noble men of ancient times walked in a flowery meadow, and among them the poet beheld in solitary grandeur--do you still remember how the passage runs? 'E solo in parte vidi 'l Saladino.' Among them he also saw the Moslem Saladin, the conqueror of the Christians. If any one possessed the key of the mysteries of the other world, Elizabeth, it was Dante. He assigned a lofty place to the pagan, who was a true man--a man with a pure mind, a zeal for goodness and right, and I think I shall have a place there too. Courage, Elizabeth, courage!"

A beautiful smile had illumined the wife's features, while she was reminded of the happiest hours of her life, but when he paused, gazed into her eyes, and clasped her right hand in his, she was seized with an intense longing to pray once, only once, with him to the Saviour so, drawing her fingers from his, she pressed the image of the Crucified One to her breast with her left hand, pleading with mute motions of her lips, ineligible to him alone, and with ardent entreaty in her large, tearful eyes: "Pray, pray with me, pray to the saviour."

Lopez was greatly agitated; his heart beat faster, and a strong impulse urged him to start up, cry "no," and not allow himself to be moved, by an affectionate meakness, into bowing his manly soul before one, who, to him, was no more than human.

The noble figure of the crucified Saviour, carved by an artist's hand in ivory, hung from an ebony cross, and he thrust the image back, intending to turn proudly way, he gazed at the face and found there only pain, quiet endurance, and touching sorrow. Ah, his own heart had often bled, as the pure brow of this poor, persecuted, tortured saint bled beneath its crown of thorns. To defy this silent companion in suffering, was no manly deed--to pay homage, out of love, to Him, who had brought love into the world, seemed to possess a sweet, ensnaring charm--so he clasped his slender hands closely round his dumb wife's fingers, pressed his dark curls against Elizabeth's fair hair, and both, for the first and last time, repeated together a mute, fervent prayer.

Before the hut, and surrounded by the forest, was a large clearing, where two roads crossed.

Adam, Marx and Ruth had gazed first down one and then the other, to look for the wagon, but nothing was to be seen or heard. As, with increasing anxiety, they turned back to the first path, the poacher grew restless. His crooked mouth twisted to and fro in strange contortions, not a muscle of his coarse face was till, and this looked so odd and yet so horrible, that Ruth could not help laughing, and the smith asked what ailed him.

Marx made no reply; his ear had caught the distant bay of a dog, and he knew what the sound meant. Work at the anvil impairs the hearing, and the smith did not notice the approaching peril, and repeated: "What ails you, man?"

"I am freezing," replied the charcoal-burner, cowering, with a piteous expression.

Ruth heard no more of the conversation, she had stopped and put her hand to her ear, listening with head bent forward, to the noises in the distance.

Suddenly she uttered a low cry, exclaiming: "There's a dog barking, Meister Adam, I hear it."

The smith turned pale and shook his head, but she cried earnestly: "Believe me; I hear it. Now it's barking again."

Adam too, now heard a strange noise in the forest. With lightning speed he loosened the hammer in his belt, took Ruth by the hand, and ran up the clearing with her.

Meantime, Lopez had compelled old Rahel to rise.

Everything must be ready, when Ulrich returned. In his impatience he had gone to the door, and when he saw Adam hurrying up the glade with the child, ran anxiously to meet them, thinking that some accident had happened to Ulrich.

"Back, back!" shouted the smith, and Ruth, releasing her hand from his, also motioned and shrieked "Back, back!"

The doctor obeyed the warning, and stopped; but he had scarcely turned, when several dogs appeared at the mouth of the ravine through which the party had come the day before, and directly after Count Frohlinger, on horseback, burst from the thicket.

The nobleman sat throned on his spirited charger, like the sun-god Siegfried. His fair locks floated dishevelled around his head, the steam rising from the dripping steed hovered about him in the fresh winter air like a light cloud. He had opened and raised his arms, and holding the reins in his left hand, swung his hunting spear with the right. On perceiving Lopez, a clear, joyous, exultant "Hallo, Halali!" rang from his bearded lips.

To-day Count Frohlinger was not hunting the stag, but special game, a Jew.

The chase led to the right cover, and how well the hounds had done, how stoutly Emir, his swift hunter, had followed.

This was a morning's work indeed!

"Hallo, Halali!" he shouted exultingly again, and ere the fugitives had escaped from the clearing, reached the doctor's side, exclaiming:

"Here is my game; to your knees, Jew!"

The count had far outstripped his attendants, and was entirely alone.

As Lopez stood still with folded arms, paying no heed to his command, he turned the spear, to strike him with the handle.

Then, for the first time in many years, the old fury awoke in Adam's heart; and rushing upon the count like a tiger, he threw his powerful arms around his waist, and ere he was aware of the attack, hurled him from his horse, set his knee on his breast, snatched the hammer from his belt, and with a mighty blow struck the dog that attacked him, to the earth. Then he again swung the iron, to crush the head of his hated foe. But Lopez would not accept deliverance at such a price, and cried in a tone of passionate entreaty:

"Let him go, Adam, spare him."

As he spoke, he clung to the smith's arm, and when the latter tried to release himself from his grasp, said earnestly:

"We will not follow their example!"

Again the hammer whizzed high in the air, and again the Jew clung to the smith's arm, this time exclaiming imperiously:

"Spare him, if you are my friend!"

What was his strength in comparison with Adam's? Yet as the hammer rose for the third time, he again strove to prevent the terrible deed, seizing the infuriated man's wrist, and gasping, as in the struggle he fell on his knees beside the count: "Think of Ulrich! This man's son was the only one, the only one in the whole monastery, who stood by Ulrich, your child--in the monastery--he was--his friend--among so many. Spare him--Ulrich! For Ulrich's sake, spare him!"

During this struggle the smith had held the count down with his left hand, and defended himself against Lopez with the right.

One jerk, and the hand upraised for murder was free again--but he did not use it. His friend's last words had paralyzed him.

"Take it," he said in a hollow tone, giving the hammer to the doctor.

The latter seized it, and rising joyously, laid his hand on the shoulder of the smith, who was still kneeling on the count's breast, and said beseechingly: "Let that suffice. The man is only. . . ."

He went no farther--a gurgling, piercing cry of pain escaped his lips, and pressing one hand to his breast, and the other to his brow, he sank on the snow beside the stump of a giant pine.

A squire dashed from the forest--the archer, to whom this noble quarry had fallen a victim, appeared in the clearing, holding aloft the cross-bow from which he had sent the bolt. His arrow was fixed in the doctor's breast; alas, the man had only sent the shaft, to save his fallen master from the hammer in the Jew's hand.

Count Frohlinger rose, struggling for breath; his hand sought his hunting-knife, but in the fall it had slipped from its sheath and was lying in the snow.

Adam supported his dying friend in his arms, Ruth ran weeping to the hut, and before the nobleman had fully collected his thoughts, the squire reached his side, and young Count Lips, riding a swift bay-horse, dashed from the forest, closely followed by three mounted huntsmen.

When the attendants saw their master on foot, they too sprang from their saddles, Lips did the same, and an eager interchange of question and answer began among them.

The nobleman scarcely noticed his son, but greeted with angry words the man who had shot the Jew. Then, deeply excited, he hoarsely ordered his attendants to bind the smith, who made no resistance, but submitted to everything like a patient child.

Lopez no longer needed his arms.

The dumb wife sat on the stump, with her dying husband resting on her lap. She had thrown her arms around the bleeding form, and the feet hung limply down, touching the snow.

Ruth, sobbing bitterly, crouched on the ground by her mother's side, and old Rahel, who had entirely regained her self-control, pressed a cloth, wet with wine, on his forehead.

The young count approached the dying Jew. His father slowly followed, drew the boy to his side, and said in a low, sad tone:

"I am sorry for the man; he saved my life."

The wounded man opened his eyes, saw Count Frohlinger, his son and the fettered smith, felt his wife's tears on his brow, and heard Ruth's agonized weeping. A gentle smile hovered around his pale lips, and when he tried to raise his head Elizabeth helped him, pressing it gently to her breast.

The feeble lips moved and Lopez raised his eyes to her face, as if to thank her, saying in a low voice: "The arrow--don't touch it. . . . Elizabeth--Ruth, we have clung together faithfully, but now--I shall leave you alone, I must leave you." He paused, a shadow clouded his eyes, and the lids slowly fell. But he soon raised them again, and fixing his glance steadily on the count, said:

"Hear me, my Lord; a dying man should be heard, even if he is a Jew. See! This is my wife, and this my child. They are Christians. They will soon be alone in the world, deserted, orphaned. The smith is their only friend. Set him free; they--they, they will need a protector. My wife is dumb, dumb . . . alone in the world. She can neither beseech nor demand. Set Adam free, for the sake of your Saviour, your son, free--yes, free. A wide, wide space must be between you; he must go away with them, far away. Set him free! I held his arm with the hammer. . . . You know--with the hammer. Set him free. My death--death atones for everything."

Again his voice failed, and the count, deeply moved, looked irresolutely now at him, now at the smith. Lips's eyes filled with tears; and as he saw his father delay in fulfilling the dying man's last wish, and a glance from the dim eyes met his, he pressed closer to the noble, who stood struggling with many contending emotions, and whispered, weeping:

"My Lord and Father, my Lord and Father, tomorrow will be Christmas. For Christ's sake, for love of me, grant his request: release Ulrich's father, set him free! Do so, my noble Father; I want no other Christmas gift."

Count Frohlinger's heart also overflowed, and when, raising his tear-dimmed eyes, he saw Elizabeth's deep grief stamped on her gentle features, and beheld reclining on her breast, the mild, beautiful face of the dying man, it seemed as if he saw before him the sorrowful Mother of God--and to-morrow would be Christmas. Wounded pride was silent, he forgot the insult he had sustained, and cried in a voice as loud, as if he wished every word to reach the ear now growing dull in death:

"I thank you for your aid, man. Adam is free, and may go with your wife and child wherever he lists. My word upon it; you can close your eyes in peace!"

Lopez smiled again, raised his hand as if in gratitude, then let it fall upon his child's head, gazed lovingly at Ruth for the last time, and murmured in a low tone "Lift my head a little higher, Elizabeth." When she had obeyed his wish, he gazed earnestly into her face, whispered softly: "A dreamless sleep--reanimated to new forms in the endless circle. No!--Do you see, do you hear. . . . Solo in parte' . . . with you . . . with you. . . . Oh, oh!--the arrow--draw the arrow from the wound. Elizabeth, Elizabeth--it aches. Well--well--how miserable we were, and yet, yet. . . . You--you--I--we--we know, what happiness is. You--I . . . Forgive me! I forgive, forgive. . . ."

The dying man's hand fell from his child's head, his eyes closed, but the pleasant smile with which he had perished, hovered around his lips, even in death.