A Word Only A Word by Georg Ebers
The fifth night after the Eletto's election was closing in, a light rain was falling, and no sound was heard in the deserted streets of the encampment except now and then the footsteps of a sentinel, or the cries of a child. In Zorrillo's tent, which was usually brightly lighted until a late hour of the night, only one miserable brand was burning, beside which sat the sleepy bar-maid, darning a hole in her frieze-jacket. The girl did not expect any one, and started when the door of the tent was violently torn open, and her master, followed by two newly-appointed captains, came straight up to her.
Zorrillo held his hat in his hand, his hair, slightly tinged with grey, hung in a tangled mass over his forehead, but he carried himself as erect as ever. His body did not move, but his eyes wandered from one corner of the tent to another, and the girl crossed herself and held up two fingers towards him, for his dark glance fell upon her, as he at last exclaimed, in a hollow tone:
"Where is the mistress?"
"Gone, I could not help it" replied the girl.
"To the Eletto, to Navarrete."
"He came and took her and the child, directly after you had left the camp."
"And she has not returned?"
"She has just sent a roast chicken, which I was to keep for you when you came home. There it is." Zorrillo laughed. Then he turned to his companions, saying:
"I thank you. You have now. . . . Is she still with the Eletto?"
"Why, of course."
"And who--who saw her the night before the election--let me sit down--who saw her with him then?"
"My brother," replied one of the captains. "She was just coming out of the tent, as he passed with the guard."
"Don't take the matter to heart," said the other. "There are plenty of women! We are growing old, and can no longer cope with a handsome fellow like Navarrete."
"I thought the sibyl was more sensible," added the younger captain. "I saw her in Naples sixteen years ago. Zounds, she was a beautiful woman then! A pretty creature even now; but Navarrete might almost be her son. And you always treated her kindly, Pasquale. Well, whoever expects gratitude from women. . . ."
Suddenly the quartermaster remembered the hour just before the election, when Florette had thrown herself upon his breast, and thanked him for his kindness; clenching his teeth, he groaned aloud.
The others were about to leave him, but he regained his self-control, and said:
"Take him the count's letter, Renato. What I have to say to him, I will determine later."
Zorrillo was a long time unlacing his jerkin and taking out the paper. Both of his companions noticed how his fingers trembled, and looked at each other compassionately; but the older one said, as he received the letter:
"Man, man, this will do no good. Women are like good fortune."
"Take the thing as a thousand others have taken it, and don't come to blows. You wield a good blade, but to attack Navarrete is suicide. I'll take him the letter. Be wise, Zorrillo, and look for another love at once."
"Directly, directly, of course," replied the quartermaster; but as soon as he had sent the maid-servant away, and was entirely alone, he bowed his forehead upon the table and his shoulders heaved convulsively. He remained in this attitude a long time, then paced to and fro with forced calmness. Morning dawned long ere he sought his couch.
Early the next day he made his report to the Eletto before the assembled council of war, and when it broke up, approached Navarrete, saying, in so loud a tone that no one could fail to hear:
"I congratulate you on your new sweetheart."
"With good reason," replied the Eletto. "Wait a little while, and I'll wager that you'll congratulate me more sincerely than you do to-day."
The offers from Brussels had again proved unacceptable. It was necessary now to act, and the insurgent commander profited by the time at his disposal. It seemed as if "power" doubled his elasticity and energy. It was so delightful, after the march, the council of war, and the day's work were over, to rest with his mother, listen to her, and open his own heart. How had she preserved--yes, he might call it so--her aristocratic bearing, amid the turmoil, perils, and mire of camp-life, in spite of all, all! How cleverly and entertainingly she could talk about men and things, how comical the ideas, with which she understood how to spice the conversation, and how well versed he found her in everything that related to the situation of the regiments and his own position. She had not been the confidante of army leaders in vain.
By her advice he relinquished his plan of capturing Mechlin, after learning from spies that it was prepared and expecting the attack of the insurgents.
He could not enter upon a long siege with the means at his command; his first blow must not miss the mark. So he only showed himself near Brussels, sent Captain Montesdocca, who tried to parley again, back with his mission unaccomplished, marched in a new direction to mislead his foes, and then unexpectedly assailed wealthy Aalst in Flanders.
The surprised inhabitants tried to defend their well-fortified city, but the citizens' strength could not withstand the furious assault of the well-drilled, booty-seeking army.
The conquered city belonged to the king. It was the pledge of what the rebels required, and they indemnified themselves in it for the pay that had been with held. All who attempted to offer resistance fell by the sword, all the citizens' possessions were seized by the soldiers, as the wages that belonged to them.
In the shops under the Belfry, the great tower from whence the bell summoned the inhabitants when danger threatened, lay plenty of cloth for new doublets. Nor was there any lack of gold or silver in the treasury of the guild-hall, the strong boxes of the merchants, the chests of the citizens. The silver table-utensils, the gold ornaments of the women, the children's gifts from godparents fell into the hands of the conquerors, while a hundred and seventy rich villages near Aalst were compelled to furnish food for the mutineers.
Navarrete did not forbid the plundering. According to his opinion, what soldiers took by assault was well-earned booty. To him the occupation of Aalst was an act of righteous self-defence, and the regiments shared his belief, and were pleased with their Eletto.
The rebels sought and found quarters in the citizens' houses, slept in their beds, eat from their dishes, and drank their wine-cellars empty. Pillage was permitted for three days. On the fifth discipline was restored, the quartermaster's department organized, and the citizens were permitted to assemble at the guild-hall, pursue their trades and business, follow the pursuits to which they had been accustomed. The property they had saved was declared unassailable; besides, robbery had ceased to be very remunerative.
The Eletto was at liberty to choose his own quarters, and there was no lack of stately dwellings in Aalst. Ulrich might have been tempted to occupy the palace of Baron de Hierges, but passed it by, selecting as a home for his mother and himself a pretty little house on the market-place, which reminded him of his father's smithy. The bow-windowed room, with the view of the belfry and the stately guildhall, was pleasantly fitted up for his mother, and the city gardeners received orders to send the finest house-plants to his residence. Soon the sitting-room, adorned with flowers and enlivened by singing-birds, looked far handsomer and more cosy than the nest of which he had dreamed. A little white dog, exactly like the one Florette had possessed in the smithy, was also procured, and when in the evening the warm summer air floated into the open windows, and Ulrich sat alone with Florette, recalling memories of the past, or making plans for the future, it seemed as if a new spring had come to his soul. The citizens' distress did not trouble him. They were the losing party in the grim game of war, enemies--rebels. Among his own men he saw nothing but joyous faces; he exercised the power--they obeyed.
Zorrillo bore him ill-will, Ulrich read it in his eyes; but he made him a captain, and the man performed his duty as quartermaster in the most exemplary manner. Florette wished to tell him that the Eletto was her son, but the latter begged her to wait till his power was more firmly established, and how could she refuse her darling anything? She had grieved deeply, very deeply, but this mood soon passed away, and now she could be happy in Ulrich's society, and forget sorrow and heartache.
What joy it was to have him back, to be loved by him! Where was there a more affectionate son, a pleasanter home than hers? The velvet and brocade dresses belonging to the Baroness de Hierges had fallen to the Eletto. How young Florette looked in them! When she glanced into the mirror, she was astonished at herself.
Two beautiful riding-horses for ladies' use and elegant trappings had been found in the baron's stable. Ulrich had told her of it, and the desire to ride with him instantly arose in her mind. She had always accompanied Grandgagnage, and when she now went out, attired in a long velvet riding-habit, with floating plumes in her dainty little hat, beside her son, she soon noticed how admiringly even the hostile citizens and their wives looked after them. It was a pretty sight to behold the handsome soldier, full of pride and power, galloping on the most spirited stallion, beside the beautiful, white-haired woman, whose eyes sparkled with vivacious light.
Zorrillo often met them, when they passed the guildhall, and Florette always gave him a friendly greeting with her whip, but he intentionally averted his eyes or if he could not avoid it, coldly returned her recognition.
This wounded her deeply, and when alone, it often happened that she sunk into gloomy reverie and, with an aged, weary face, gazed fixedly at the floor. But Ulrich's approach quickly cheered and rejuvenated her.
Florette now knew what her son had experienced in life, what had moved his heart, his soul, and could not contradict him, when he told her that power was the highest prize of existence.
The Eletto's ambitious mind could not be satisfied with little Aalst. The mutineers had been outlawed by an edict from Brussels, but the king had nothing to do with this measure; the shameful proclamation was only intended to stop the wailing of the Netherlanders. They would have to pay dearly for it! There was a great scheme in view.
The Antwerp of those days was called "as rich as the Indies;" the project under consideration was the possibility of manoeuvring this abode of wealth into the hands of the mutineers; the whole Spanish army in the Netherlands being about to follow the example of the regiments in Aalst.
The mother was the friend and counsellor of the son. At every step he took he heard her opinion, and often yielded his own in its favor. This interest in the direction of great events occupied the sibyl's versatile mind. When, on many occasions, pros and tons were equal in weight, she brought out the cards, and this oracle generally turned the scale.
No high aim, no desire to accomplish good and great things in wider spheres, influenced the thoughts and actions of this couple.
What cared they, that the weal and woe of thousands depended on their decision? The deadly weapon in their bands was to them only a valuable utensil in which they delighted, and with which fruits were plucked from the trees.
Ulrich now saw the fulfilment of Don Juan's words, that power was an arable field; for there were many full ears in Aalst for them both to harvest.
Florette still nursed, with maternal care, the soldier's orphan which she had taken to her son's house; the child, born on a bed of straw--was now clothed in dainty linen, laces and other beautiful finery. It was necessary to her, for she occupied herself with the helpless little creature when, during the long morning hours of Ulrich's absence, sorrowful thought troubled her too deeply.
Ulrich often remained absent a long time, far longer than the service required. What was he doing? Visiting a sweetheart? Why not? She only marvelled that the fair women did not come from far and near to see the handsome man.
Yes, the Eletto had found an old love. Art, which he had sullenly forsaken. News had reached his ears, that an artist had fallen in the defence of the city. He went to the dead man's house to see his works, and how did he find the painter's dwelling! Windows, furniture were shattered, the broken doors of the cupboards hung into the rooms on their bent hinges. The widow and her children were lying in the studio on a heap of straw. This touched his heart, and he gave alms with an open hand to the sorrowing woman. A few pictures of the saints, which the Spaniards had spared, hung on the walls; the easel, paints and brushes had been left untouched.
A thought, which he instantly carried into execution, entered his mind. He would paint a new standard! How his heart beat, when he again stood before the easel!
He regarded the heretics as heathens. The Spaniards were shortly going to fight against them and for the faith. So he painted the Saviour on one side of the standard, the Virgin on the other. The artist's widow sat to him for the Madonna, a young soldier for the Christ.
No scruples, no consideration for the criticisms of teachers now checked his creating hand; the power was his, and whatever he did must be right.
He placed upon the Saviour's bowed figure, Costa's head, as he had painted it in Titian's studio, and the Madonna, in defiance of the stern judges in Madrid, received the sibyl's face, to please himself and do honor to his mother. He made her younger, transformed her white hair to gleaming golden tresses. One day he asked Flora to sit still and think of something very serious; he wanted to sketch her.
She gaily placed herself in position, saying:
"Be quick, for serious thoughts don't last long with me."
A few days later both pictures were finished, and possessed no mean degree of merit; he rejoiced that after the long interval he could still accomplish something. His mother was delighted with her son's masterpieces, especially the Madonna, for she instantly recognized herself, and was touched by this proof of his faithful remembrance. She had looked exactly like it when a young girl, she said; it was strange how precisely he had hit the color of her hair; but she was afraid it was blaspheming to paint a Madonna with her face; she was a poor sinner, nothing more.
Florette was glad that the work was finished, for restlessness again began to torture her, and the mornings had been so lonely. Zorrillo--it caused her bitter pain--had not cast even a single glance at her, and she began to miss the society of men, to which she had been accustomed. But she never complained, and always showed Ulrich the same cheerful face, until the latter told her one day that he must leave her for some time.
He had already defeated in little skirmishes small bodies of peasants and citizens, who had taken the field against the mutineers; now Colonel Romero called upon him to help oppose a large army of patriots, who had assembled between Lowen and Tirlemont, under the command of the noble Sieur de Floyon. It was said to consist Of students and other rebellious brawlers, and so it proved; but the "rebels" were the flower of the youth of the shamefully-oppressed nation, noble souls, who found it unbearable to see their native land enslaved by mutinous hordes.
Ulrich's parting with his mother was not a hard one. He felt sure of victory and of returning home, but the excitable woman burst into tears as she bade him farewell.
The Eletto took the field with a large body of troops; the majority of the mutineers, with them. Captain and Quartermaster Zorrillo, remained behind to hold the citizens in check.