A Word Only A Word by Georg Ebers
The sun was shining brightly on the little windows of the Israelite's sitting-room, which were half open to admit the Spring air, though lightly shaded with green curtains, for Costa liked a subdued light, and was always careful to protect his apartment from the eyes of passers-by.
There was nothing remarkable to be seen, for the walls were whitewashed, and their only ornament was a garland of lavender leaves, whose perfume Ruth's mother liked to inhale. The whole furniture consisted of a chest, several stools, a bench covered with cushions, a table, and two plain wooden arm-chairs.
One of the latter had long been the scene of Adam's happiest hours, for he used to sit in it when he played chess with Costa.
He had sometimes looked on at the noble game while in Nuremberg; but the doctor understood it thoroughly, and had initiated him into all its rules.
For the first two years Costa had remained far in advance of his pupil, then he was compelled to defend himself in good earnest, and now it not unfrequently happened that the smith vanquished the scholar. True, the latter was much quicker than the former, who if the situation became critical, pondered over it an unconscionably long time.
Two hands more unlike had rarely met over a chess-board; one suggested a strong, dark plough-ox, the other a light, slender-limbed palfrey. The Israelite's figure looked small in contrast with the smith's gigantic frame. How coarse-grained, how heavy with thought the German's big, fair head appeared, how delicately moulded and intellectual the Portuguese Jew's.
To-day the two men had again sat down to the game, but instead of playing, had been talking very, very earnestly. In the course of the conversation the doctor had left his place and was pacing restlessly to and fro. Adam retained his seat.
His friend's arguments had convinced him. Ulrich was to be sent to the monastery-school. Costa had also been informed of the danger that threatened his own person, and was deeply agitated. The peril was great, very great, yet it was hard, cruelly hard, to quit this peaceful nook. The smith understood what was passing in his mind, and said:
"It is hard for you to go. What binds you here to the Richtberg?"
"Peace, peace!" cried the other. "And then," he added more calmly, "I have gained land here."
"The large and small graves behind the executioner's house, they are my estates."
"It is hard, hard to leave them," said the smith, with drooping head. "All this comes upon you on account of the kindness you have shown my boy; you have had a poor reward from us."
"Reward?" asked the other, a subtle smile hovering around his lips. "I expect none, neither from you nor fate. I belong to a poor sect, that does not consider whether its deeds will be repaid or not. We love goodness, set a high value on it, and practise it, so far as our power extends, because it is so beautiful. What have men called good? Only that which keeps the soul calm. And what is evil? That which fills it with disquiet. I tell you, that the hearts of those who pursue virtue, though they are driven from their homes, hunted and tortured like noxious beasts, are more tranquil than those of their powerful persecutors, who practise evil. He who seeks any other reward for virtue, than virtue itself, will not lack disappointment. It is neither you nor Ulrich, who drives me hence, but the mysterious ancient curse, that pursues my people when they seek to rest; it is, it is. . . . Another time, to-morrow. This is enough for to-day."
When the doctor was alone, he pressed his hand to his brow and groaned aloud. His whole life passed before his mind, and he found in it, besides terrible suffering, great and noble joys, and not an hour in which his desire for virtue was weakened. He had spent happy years here in the peace of his simple home, and now must again set forth and wander on and on, with nothing before his eyes save an uncertain goal, at the end of a long, toilsome road. What had hitherto been his happiness, increased his misery in this hour. It was hard, unspeakably hard, to drag his wife and child through want and sorrow, and could Elizabeth, his wife, bear it again?
He found her in the tiny garden behind the horse, kneeling before a flower-bed to weed it. As he greeted her pleasantly, she rose and beckoned to him.
"Let us sit down," he said, leading her to the bench before the hedge, that separated the garden from the forest. There he meant to tell her, that they must again shake the dust from their feet.
She had lost the power of speech on the rack in Portugal, and could only falter a few unintelligible words, when greatly excited, but her hearing had remained, and her husband understood how to read the expression of her eyes. A great sorrow had drawn a deep line in the high, pure brow, and this also was eloquent; for when she felt happy and at peace it was scarcely perceptible, but if an anxious or sorrowful mood existed, the furrow contracted and deepened. To-day it seemed to have entirely disappeared. Her fair hair was drawn plainly and smoothly, over her temples, and the slender, slightly stooping figure, resembled a young tree, which the storm has bowed and deprived of strength and will to raise itself.
"Beautiful!" she exclaimed in a smothered tone, with much effort, but her bright glance clearly expressed the joy that filled her soul, as she pointed to the green foliage around her and the blue sky over their heads.
"Delicious-delicious!" he answered, cordially. "The June day is reflected in your dear face. You have learned to be contented here?"
Elizabeth nodded eagerly, pressing both hands upon her heart, while her eloquent glance told him how well, how grateful and happy, she felt here; and when in reply to his timid question, whether it would be hard for her to leave this place and seek another, a safer home, she gazed at first in surprise, then anxiously into his face, and then, with an eager gesture of refusal, gasped "Not go--not go!" He answered, soothingly:
"No, no; we are still safe here to-day!"
Elizabeth knew her husband, and had keen eyes; a presentiment of approaching danger seized upon her. Her features assumed an expression of terrified expectation and deep grief. The furrow in her brow deepened, and questioning glances and gestures united with the "What?--what?" trembling on her lips.
"Do not fear!" he replied, tenderly. "We must not spoil the present, because the future might bring something that is not agreeable to us."
As he uttered the words, she pressed closely to him, clutching his arm with both hands, but he felt the rapid throbbing of her heart, and perceived by the violent agitation expressed in every feature, what deep, unconquerable horror was inspired by the thought of being compelled to go out into the world again, hunted from country to country, from town to town. All that she had suffered for his sake, came back to his memory, and he clasped her trembling hands in his with passionate fervor. It seemed as if it would be very, very easy, to die with her, but wholly impossible to thrust her forth again into a foreign land and to an uncertain fate; so, kissing her on her eyes, which were dilated with horrible fear, he exclaimed, as if no peril, but merely a foolish wish had suggested the desire to roam:
"Yes, child, it is best here. Let us be content with what we have. We will stay!--yes, we will stay!" Elizabeth drew a long breath, as if relieved from an incubus, her brow became smooth, and it seemed as if the dumb mouth joined the large upraised eyes in uttering an "Amen," that came from the inmost depths of the heart.
Costa's soul was saddened and sorely troubled, when he returned to the house and his writing-table. The old maid-servant, who had accompanied him from Portugal, entered at the same time, and watched his preparations, shaking her head. She was a small, crippled Jewess, a grey-haired woman, with youthful, bright, dark eyes, and restless hands, that fluttered about her face with rapid, convulsive gestures, while she talked.
She had grown old in Portugal, and contracted rheumatism in the unusual cold of the North, so even in Spring she wrapped her head in all the gay kerchiefs she owned. She kept the house scrupulously neat, understood how to prepare tempting dishes from very simple materials, and bought everything she needed for the kitchen. This was no trifling matter for her, since, though she had lived more than nine years in the black Forest, she had learned few German words. Even these the neighbors mistook for Portuguese, though they thought the language bore some distant resemblance to German. Her gestures they understood perfectly.
She had voluntarily followed the doctor's father, yet she could not forgive the dead man, for having brought her out of the warm South into this horrible country. Having been her present master's nurse, she took many liberties with him, insisting upon knowing everything that went on in the household, of which she felt herself the oldest, and therefore the most distinguished member; and it was strange how quickly she could hear when she chose, spite of her muffled ears!
To-day she had been listening again, and as her master was preparing to take his seat at the table and sharpen his goose-quill, she glanced around to see that they were entirely alone; then approached, saying in Portuguese:
"Don't begin that, Lopez. You must listen to me first."
"Must I?" he asked, kindly.
"If you don't choose to do it, I can go!" she answered, angrily. "To be sure, sitting still is more comfortable than running."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Do you suppose yonder books are the walls of Zion? Do you feel inclined to make the monks' acquaintance once more?"
"Fie, fie, Rahel, listening again? Go into the kitchen!"
"Directly! Directly! But I will speak first. You pretend, that you are only staying here to please your wife, but it's no such thing. It's yonder writing that keeps you. I know life, but you and your wife are just like two children. Evil is forgotten in the twinkling of an eye, and blessing is to come straight from Heaven, like quails and manna. What sort of a creature have your books made you, since you came with the doctor's hat from Coimbra? Then everybody said: 'Lopez, Senor Lopez. Heavenly Father, what a shining light he'll be!' And now! The Lord have mercy on us! You work, work, and what does it bring you? Not an egg; not a rush! Go to your uncle in the Netherlands. He'll forget the curse, if you submit! How many of the zechins, your father saved, are still left?"
Here the doctor interrupted the old woman's torrent of speech with a stern "enough!" but she would not allow herself to be checked, and continued with increasing volubility.
"Enough, you say? I fret over perversity enough in silence. May my tongue wither, if I remain mute to-day. Good God! child, are you out of your senses? Everything has been crammed into your poor head, but to be sure it isn't written in the books, that when people find out what happened in Porto, and that you married a baptized child, a Gentile, a Christian girl. . . ."
At these words the doctor rose, laid his hands on the servant's shoulder, and said with grave, quiet earnestness.
"Whoever speaks of that, may betray it; may betray it. Do you understand me, Rahel? I know your good intentions, and therefore tell you: my wife is content here, and danger is still far away. We shall stay. And besides: since Elizabeth became mine, the Jews avoid me as an accursed, the Christians as a condemned man. The former close the doors, the latter would fain open them; the gates of a prison, I mean. No Portuguese will come here, but in the Netherlands there is more than one monk and one Jew from Porto, and if any of them recognize me and find Elizabeth with me, it will involve no less trifle than her life and mine. I shall stay here; you now know why, and can go to your kitchen."
Old Rahel reluctantly obeyed, yet the doctor did not resume his seat at the writing-table, but for a long time paced up and down among his books more rapidly than usual.