A Word Only A Word by Georg Ebers
This morning Pater Benedictus was a totally different person from the man, who had sat over the wine the night before. Coldly and formally he evaded the smith's questions, until the latter had sent his son away.
Ulrich, without making any objection, had helped his father shoe the sorrel horse, and in a few minutes, by means of a little stroking over the eyes and nose, slight caresses, and soothing words, rendered the refractory stallion as docile as a lamb. No horse had ever resisted the lad, from the time he was a little child, the smith said, though for what reason he did not know. These words pleased the monk, for he was only too familiar with two fillies, that were perfect fiends for refractoriness, and the fair-haired boy could show his gratitude for the schooling he received, by making himself useful in the stable.
Ulrich must go to the monastery, so Benedictus curtly declared with the utmost positiveness, after the smith had finished his work. At midsummer a place would be vacant in the school, and this should be reserved for the boy. A great favor! What a prospect--to be reared there with aristocratic companions, and instructed in the art of painting. Whether he should become a priest, or follow some worldly pursuit, could be determined later. In a few years the boy could choose without restraint.
This plan would settle everything in the best possible way. The Jew need not be injured, and the smith's imperiled son would be saved. The monk would hear no objections. Either the accusation against the doctor should be laid before the chapter, or Ulrich must go to the school.
In four weeks, on St. John's Day, so Benedictus declared, the smith and his son might announce their names to the porter. Adam must have saved many florins, and there would be time enough to get the lad shoes and clothes, that he might hold his own in dress with the other scholars.
During this whole transaction the smith felt like a wild animal in the hunter's toils, and could say neither "yes" nor "no." The monk did not insist upon a promise, but, as he rode away, flattered himself that he had snatched a soul from the claws of Satan, and gained a prize for the monastery-school and his stable--a reflection that made him very cheerful.
Adam retrained alone beside the fire. Often, when his heart was heavy, he had seized his huge hammer and deadened his sorrow by hard work; but to-day he let the tool lie, for the consciousness of weakness and lack of will paralyzed his lusty vigor, and he stood with drooping head, as if utterly crushed. The thoughts that moved him could not be exactly expressed in words, but doubtless a vision of the desolate forge, where he would stand alone by the fire without Ulrich, rose before his mind. Once the idea of closing his house, taking the boy by the hand, and wandering out into the world with him, flitted through his brain. But then, what would become of the Jew, and how could he leave this place? Where would his miserable wife, the accursed, lovely sinner, find him, when she sought him again? Ulrich had run out of doors long ago. Had he gone to study his lessons with the Jew? He started in terror at the thought. Passing his hands over his eyes, like a dreamer roused from sleep, he went into his chamber, threw off his apron, cleansed his face and hands from the soot of the forge, put on his burgher dress, which he only wore when he went to church or visited the doctor, and entered the street.
The thunder-storm had cleared the air, and the sun shone pleasantly on the shingled roofs of the miserable houses of the Richtberg. Its rays were reflected from the little round window-panes, and flickered over the tree-tops on the edge of the ravine.
The light-green hue of the fresh young foliage on the beeches glittered as brightly against the dark pines, as if Spring had made them a token of her mastery over the grave companions of Winter; yet even the pines were not passed by, and where her finger had touched the tips of the branches in benediction, appeared tender young shoots, fresh as the grass by the brook, and green as chrysophase and emerald.
The stillness of morning reigned within the forest, yet it was full of life, rich in singing, chirping and twittering. Light streamed from the blue sky through the tree-tops, and the golden sunbeams shimmered and danced over the branches, trunks and ground, as if they had been prisoned in the woods and could never find their way out. The shadows of the tall trunks lay in transparent bars on the underbrush, luxuriant moss, and ferns, and the dew clung to the weeds and grass.
Nature had celebrated her festival of resurrection at Easter, and the day after the morrow joyous Whitsuntide would begin. Fresh green life was springing from the stump of every dead tree; even the rocks afforded sustenance to a hundred roots, a mossy covering and network of thorny tendrils clung closely to them. The wild vine twined boldly up many a trunk, fruit was already forming on the bilberry bushes, though it still glimmered with a faint pink hue amid the green of May. A thousand blossoms, white, red, blue and yellow, swayed on their slender stalks, opened their calixes to the bees, unfolded their stars to deck the woodland carpet, or proudly stretched themselves up as straight as candles. Grey fungi had shot up after the refreshing rain, and gathered round the red-capped giants among the mushrooms. Under, over and around all this luxuriant vegetation hopped, crawled, flew, fluttered, buzzed and chirped millions of tiny, short-lived creatures. But who heeds them on a sunny Spring morning in the forest, when the birds are singing, twittering, trilling, pecking, cooing and calling so joyously? Murmuring and plashing, the forest stream dashed down its steep bed over rocks and amid moss-covered stones and smooth pebbles to the valley. The hurrying water lived, and in it dwelt its gay inhabitants, fresh plants grew along the banks from source to mouth, while over and around it a third species of living creatures sunned themselves, fluttered, buzzed and spun delicate silk threads.
In the midst of a circular clearing, surrounded by dense woods, smoked a charcoal kiln. It was less easy to breathe here, than down in the forest below. Where Nature herself rules, she knows how to guard beauty and purity, but where man touches her, the former is impaired and the latter sullied.
It seemed as if the morning sunlight strove to check the smoke from the smouldering wood, in order to mount freely into the blue sky. Little clouds floated over the damp, grassy earth, rotting tree-trunks, piles of wood and heaps of twigs that surrounded the kiln. A moss-grown but stood at the edge of the forest, and before it sat Ulrich, talking with the coal-burner. People called this man "Hangemarx," and in truth he looked in his black rags, like one of those for whom it is a pity that Nature should deck herself in her Spring garb. He had a broad, peasant face, his mouth was awry, and his thick yellowish-red hair, which in many places looked washed out or faded, hung so low over his narrow forehead, that it wholly concealed it, and touched his bushy, snow-white brows. The eyes under them needed to be taken on trust, they were so well concealed, but when they peered through the narrow chink between the rows of lashes, not even a mote escaped them. Ulrich was shaping an arrow, and meantime asking the coal-burner numerous questions, and when the latter prepared to answer, the boy laughed heartily, for before Hangemarx could speak, he was obliged to straighten his crooked mouth by three jerking motions, in which his nose and cheeks shared.
An important matter was being discussed between the two strangely dissimilar companions.
After it grew dark, Ulrich was to come to the charcoal-burner again. Marx knew where a fine buck couched, and was to drive it towards the boy, that he might shoot it. The host of the Lamb down in the town needed game, for his Gretel was to be married on Tuesday. True, Marx could kill the animal himself, but Ulrich had learned to shoot too, and if the place whence the game came should be noised abroad, the charcoal-burner, without any scruples of conscience, could swear that he did not shoot the buck, but found it with the arrow in its heart.
People called the charcoal-burner a poacher, and he owed his ill-name of "Hangemarx" to the circumstance that once, though long ago, he had adorned a gallows. Yet he was not a dishonest man, only he remembered too faithfully the bold motto, which, when a boy, one peasant wood-cutter or charcoal-burner whispered to another:
"Forest, stream and meadow are free."
His dead father had joined the Bundschuh,--[A peasants' league which derived its name from the shoe, of peculiar shape, worn by its members.]--adopted this motto, and clung fast to it and with it, to the belief that every living thing in the forest belonged to him, as much as to the city, the nobles, or the monastery. For this faith he had undergone much suffering, and owed to it his crooked mouth and ill name, for just as his beard was beginning to grow, the father of the reigning count came upon him, just after he had killed a fawn in the "free" forest. The legs of the heavy animal were tied together with ropes, and Marx was obliged to take the ends of the knot between his teeth like a bridle, and drag the carcass to the castle. While so doing his cheeks were torn open, and the evil deed neither pleased him nor specially strengthened his love for the count. When, a short time after, the rebellion broke out in Stuhlingen, and he heard that everywhere the peasants were rising against the monks and nobles, he, too, followed the black, red and yellow banner, first serving with Hans Muller of Bulgenbach, then with Jacklein Rohrbach of Bockingen, and participating with the multitude in the overthrow of the city and castle of Neuenstein. At Weinsberg he saw Count Helfenstein rush upon the spears, and when the noble countess was driven past him to Heilbronn in the dung-cart, he tossed his cap in the air with the rest.
The peasant was to be lord now; the yoke of centuries was to be broken; unjust imposts, taxes, tithes and villenage would be forever abolished, while the fourth of the twelve articles he had heard read aloud more than once, remained firmly fixed in his memory "Game, birds and fish every one is free to catch." Moreover, many a verse from the Gospel, unfavorable to the rich, but promising the kingdom of heaven to the poor, and that the last shall be first, had reached his ears. Doubtless many of the leaders glowed with lofty enthusiasm for the liberation of the poor people from unendurable serfdom and oppression; but when Marx, and men like him, left wife and children and risked their lives, they remembered only the past, and the injustice they had suffered, and were full of a fierce yearning to trample the dainty, torturing demons under their heavy peasant feet.
The charcoal-burner had never lighted such bright fires, never tasted such delicious meat and spicy wine, as during that period of his life, while vengeance had a still sweeter savor than all the rest. When the castle fell, and its noble mistress begged for mercy, he enjoyed a foretaste of the promised paradise. Satan has also his Eden of fiery roses, but they do not last long, and when they wither, put forth sharp thorns. The peasants felt them soon enough, for at Sindelfingen they found their master in Captain Georg Truchsess of Waldberg.
Marx fell into his troopers' hands and was hung on the gallows, but only in mockery and as a warning to others; for before he and his companions perished, the men took them down, cut their oath-fingers from their hands, and drove them back into their old servitude. When he at last returned home, his house had been taken from his family, whom he found in extreme poverty. The father of Adam, the smith, to whom he had formerly sold charcoal, redeemed the house, gave him work, and once, when a band of horsemen came to the city searching for rebellious peasants, the old man did not forbid him to hide three whole days in his barn.
Since that time everything had been quiet in Swabia, and neither in forest, stream nor meadow had any freedom existed.
Marx had only himself to provide for; his wife was dead, and his sons were raftsmen, who took pine logs to Mayence and Cologne, sometimes even as far as Holland. He owed gratitude to no one but Adam, and showed in his way that he was conscious of it, for he taught Ulrich all sorts of things which were of no advantage to a boy, except to give him pleasure, though even in so doing he did not forget his own profit. Ulrich was now fifteen, and could manage a cross-bow and hit the mark like a skilful hunter, and as the lad did not lack a love for the chase, Marx afforded him the pleasure. All he had heard about the equal rights of men he engrafted into the boy's soul, and when to-day, for the hundredth time, Ulrich expressed a doubt whether it was not stealing to kill game that belonged to the count, the charcoal-burner straightened his mouth, and said:
"Forest, stream and meadow are free. Surely you know that."
The boy gazed thoughtfully at the ground for a time, and then asked:
"The fields too?"
"The fields?" repeated Marx, in surprise. "The fields? The fields are a different matter." He glanced as he spoke, at the field of oats he had sown in the autumn, and which now bore blades a finger long. "The fields are man's work and belong to him who tills them, but the forest, stream and meadow were made by God. Do you understand? What God created for Adam and Eve is everybody's property."
As the sun rose higher, and the cuckoo began to raise its voice, Ulrich's name was shouted loudly several times in rapid succession through the forest. The arrow he had been shaping flew into a corner, and with a hasty "When it grows dusk, Marxle!" Ulrich dashed into the woods, and soon joined his playmate Ruth.
The pair strolled slowly through the forest by the side of the stream, enjoying the glorious morning, and gathering flowers to carry a bouquet to the little girl's mother. Ruth culled the blossoms daintily with the tips of her fingers; Ulrich wanted to help, and tore the slender stalks in tufts from the roots by the handful. Meantime their tongues were not idle. Ulrich boastfully told her that Pater Benedictus had seen his picture of her father, recognized it instantly, and muttered something over it. His mother's blood was strong in him; his imaginary world was a very different one from that of the narrow-minded boys of the Richtberg.
His father had told him much, and the doctor still more, about the wide, wide world-kings, artists and great heroes. From Hangemarx he learned, that he possessed the same rights and dignity as all other men, and Ruth's wonderful power of imagination peopled his fancy with the strangest shapes and figures. She made royal crowns of wreaths, transformed the little hut, the lad had built of boughs, behind the doctor's house, into a glittering imperial palace, converted round pebbles into ducats and golden zechins--bread and apples into princely banquets; and when she had placed two stools before the wooden bench on which she sat with Ulrich her fancy instantly transformed them into a silver coronation coach with milk-white steeds. When she was a fairy, Ulrich was obliged to be a magician; if she was the queen, he was king.
When, to give vent to his animal spirits, Ulrich played with the Richtberg boys, he always led them, but allowed himself to be guided by little Ruth. He knew that the doctor was a despised Jew, that she was a Jewish child; but his father honored the Hebrew, and the foreign atmosphere, the aristocratic, secluded repose that pervaded the solitary scholar's house, exerted a strange influence over him.
When he entered it, a thrill ran through his frame; it seemed as if he were penetrating into some forbidden sanctuary. He was the only one of all his playfellows, who was permitted to cross this threshold, and he felt it as a distinction, for, in spite of his youth, he realized that the quiet doctor, who knew everything that existed in heaven and on earth, and yet was as mild and gentle as a child, stood far, far above the miserable drudges, who struggled with sinewy hands for mere existence on the Richtberg. He expected everything from him, and Ruth also seemed a very unusual creature, a delicate work of art, with whom he, and he only, was allowed to play.
It might have happened, that when irritated he would upbraid her with being a wretched Jewess, but it would scarcely have surprised him, if she had suddenly stood before his eyes as a princess or a phoenix.
When the Richtberg lay close beneath them, Ruth sat down on a stone, placing her flowers in her lap. Ulrich threw his in too, and, as the bouquet grew, she held it towards him, and he thought it very pretty; but she said, sighing:
"I wish roses grew in the forest; not common hedge-roses, but like those in Portugal--full, red, and with the real perfume. There is nothing that smells sweeter."
So it always was with the pair. Ruth far outstripped Ulrich in her desires and wants, thus luring him to follow her.
"A rose!" repeated Ulrich. "How astonished you look!"
Her wish reminded him of the magic word she had mentioned the day before, and they talked about it all the way home, Ulrich saying that he had waked three times in the night on account of it. Ruth eagerly interrupted him, exclaiming:
"I thought of it again too, and if any one would tell the what it was, I should know what to wish now. I would not have a single human being in the world except you and me, and my father and mother."
"And my little mother!" added Ulrich, earnestly.
"And your father, too!"
"Why, of course, he, too!" said the boy, as if to make hasty atonement for his neglect.