A Word Only A Word by Georg Ebers
Autumn had come. The yellow leaves were fluttering about the school play-ground, the starlings were gathering in flocks on the church roof to take their departure, and Ulrich would fain have gone with them, no matter where. He could not feel at home in the monastery and among his companions. Always first in Richtberg, he was rarely so here, most seldom of all in school, for his father had forbidden the doctor to teach him Latin, so in that study he was last of all.
Often, when every one was asleep, the poor lad sat studying by the ever-burning lamp in the lobby, but in vain. He could not come up with the others, and the unpleasant feeling of remaining behind, in spite of the most honest effort, spoiled his life and made him irritable.
His comrades did not spare him, and when they called him "horse-boy," because he was often obliged to help Pater Benedictus in bringing refractory horses to reason, he flew into a rage and used his superior strength.
He stood on the worst terms of all with black-haired Xaver, to whom he owed the nickname.
This boy's father was the chief magistrate of the little city, and was allowed to take his son home with him at Michaelmas.
When the black-haired lad returned, he had many things to tell, gathered from half-understood rumor, about Ulrich's parents. Words were now uttered, that brought the blood to Ulrich's cheeks, yet he intentionally pretended not to hear them, because he dared not contradict tales that might be true. He well knew who had brought all these stories to the others, and answered Xaver's malicious spite with open enmity.
Count Lips did not trouble himself about any of these things, but remained Ulrich's most intimate friend, and was fond of going with him to see the horses. His vivacious intellect joyously sympathized with the smith's son, when he told him about Ruth's imaginary visions, and often in the play-ground he went apart with Ulrich from their companions; but this very circumstance was a thing that many, who had formerly been on more intimate terms with the aristocratic boy, were not disposed to forgive the new-comer.
Xaver had never been friendly to the count's son, and succeeded in irritating many against their former favorite, because he fancied himself better than they, and still more against Ulrich, who was half a servant, yet presumed to play the master and offer them violence.
The monks employed in the school soon noticed the ill terms, on which the new pupil stood with his companions, and did not lack reasons for shaking their heads over him.
Benedictus had not been able to conceal, who had been Ulrich's teacher in Richtberg; and the seeds the Jew had planted in the boy, seemed to be bearing strange and vexatious fruit.
Father Hieronymus, who instructed the pupils in religion, fairly raged, when he spoke of the destructive doctrines, that haunted the new scholar's head.
When, soon after Ulrich's reception into the school, he had spoken of Christ's work of redemption, and asked the boy: "From what is the world to be delivered by the Saviour's suffering?" the answer was: "From the arrogance of the rich and great." Hieronymus had spoken of the holy sacraments, and put the question: "By what means can the Christian surely obtain mercy, unless he bolts the door against it--that is, commits a mortal sin?" and Ulrich's answer was: "By doing unto others, what you would have others do unto you."
Such strange words might be heard by dozens from the boy's lips. Some were repeated from Hangemarx's sayings, others from the doctor's; and when asked where he obtained them, he quoted only the latter, for the monks were not to be allowed to know anything about his intercourse with the poacher.
Sharp reproofs and severe penances were now bestowed, for many a word that he had thought beautiful and pleasing in the sight of God; and the poor, tortured young soul often knew no help in its need.
He could not turn to the dear God and the Saviour, whom he was said to have blasphemed, for he feared them; but when he could no longer bear his grief, discouragement, and yearning, he prayed to the Madonna for help.
The image of the unhappy woman, about whom he had heard nothing but ill words, who had deserted him, and whose faithlessness gave the other boys a right to jeer at him, floated before his eyes, with that of the pure, holy Virgin in the church, brought by Father Lukas from Italy.
In spite of all the complaints about him, which were carried to the abbot, the latter thought him a misguided, but good and promising boy, an opinion strengthened by the music-teacher and the artist Lukas, whose best pupil Ulrich was; but they also were enraged against the Jew, who had lured this nobly-gifted child along the road of destruction; and often urged the abbot, who was anything but a zealot, to subject him to an examination by torture.
In November, the chief magistrate was summoned, and informed of the heresies with which the Hebrew had imperiled the soul of a Christian child.
The wise abbot wished to avoid anything, that would cause excitement, during this time of rebellion against the power of the Church, but the magistrate claimed the right to commence proceedings against the doctor. Of course, he said, sufficient proof must be brought against the accused. Father Hieronymus might note down the blasphemous tenets he heard from the boy's lips before witnesses, and at the Advent season the smith and his son would be examined.
The abbot, who liked to linger over his books, was glad to know that the matter was in the hands of the civil authorities, and enjoined Hieronymus to pay strict attention.
On the third Sunday in Advent, the magistrate again came to the monastery. His horses had worked their way with the sleigh through the deep snow in the ravine with much difficulty, and, half-frozen, he went directly to the refectory and there asked for his son.
The latter was lying with a bandaged eye in the cold dormitory, and when his father sought him, he heard that Ulrich had wounded him.
It would not have needed Xaver's bitter complaints, to rouse his father to furious rage against the boy who had committed this violence, and he was by no means satisfied, when he learned that the culprit had been excluded for three weeks from the others' sports, and placed on a very frugal diet. He went furiously to the abbot.
The day before (Saturday), Ulrich had gone at noon, without the young count, who was in confinement for some offence, to the snow-covered play-ground, where he was attacked by Xaver and a dozen of his comrades, pushed into a snow-bank, and almost suffocated. The conspirators had stuffed icicles and snow under his clothes next his skin, taken off his shoes and filled them with snow, and meantime Xaver jumped upon his back, pressing his face into the snow till Ulrich lost his breath, and believed his last hour had come.
Exerting the last remnant of his strength, he had succeeded in throwing off and seizing his tormentor. While the others fled, he wreaked his rage on the magistrate's son to his heart's content, first with his fists, and then with the heavy shoe that lay beside him. Meantime, snowballs had rained upon his body and head from all directions, increasing his fury; and as soon as Xaver no longer struggled he started up, exclaiming with glowing cheeks and upraised fists:
"Wait, wait, you wicked fellows! The doctor in Richtberg knows a word, by which he shall turn you all into toads and rats, you miserable rascals!"
Xaver had remembered this speech, which he repeated to his father, cleverly enlarged with many a false word. The abbot listened to the magistrate's complaint very quietly.
The angry father was no sufficient witness for him, yet the matter seemed important enough to send for and question Ulrich, though the meal-time had already begun. The Jew had really spoken to his daughter about the magic word, and the pupil of the monastery had threatened his companions with it. So the investigation might begin.
Ulrich was led back to the prison-chamber, where some thin soup and bread awaited him, but he touched neither. Food and drink disgusted him, and he could neither work nor sit still.
The little bell, which, summoned all the occupants of the monastery, was heard at an unusual hour, and about vespers the sound of sleigh-bells attracted him to the window. The abbot and Father Hieronymus were talking in undertones to the magistrate, who was just preparing to enter his sleigh.
They were speaking of him and the doctor, and the pupils had just been summoned to bear witness against him. No one had told him so, but he knew it, and was seized with such anxiety about the doctor, that drops of perspiration stood on his brow.
He was clearly aware that he had mingled his teacher's words with the poacher's blasphemous sayings, and also that he had put the latter into the mouth of Ruth's father.
He was a traitor, a liar, a miserable scoundrel!
He wished to go to the abbot and confess all, yet dared not, and so the hours stole away until the time for the evening mass.
While in church he strove to pray, not only for himself but for the doctor, but in vain, he could think of nothing but the trial, and while kneeling with his hands over his eyes, saw the Jew in fetters before him, and he himself at the trial in the town-hall.
At last the mass ended.
Ulrich rose. Just before him hung the large crucifix, and the Saviour on the cross, who with his head bowed on one side, usually gazed so gently and mournfully upon the ground, to-day seemed to look at him with mingled reproach and accusation.
In the dormitory, his companions avoided him as if he had the plague, but he scarcely noticed it.
The moonlight and the reflection from the snow shone brightly through the little window, but Ulrich longed for darkness, and buried his face in the pillows. The clock in the steeple struck ten.
He raised himself and listened to the deep breathing of the sleepers on his right and left, and the gnawing of a mouse under the bed.
His heart throbbed faster and more anxiously, but suddenly seemed to stand still, for a low voice had called his name.
"Ulrich!" it whispered again, and the young count, who lay beside him, rose in bed and bent towards him. Ulrich had told him about the word, and often indulged in wishes with him, as he had formerly done with Ruth. Philipp now whispered:
"They are going to attack the doctor. The abbot and magistrate questioned us, as if it were a matter of life and death. I kept what I know about the word to myself, for I'm sorry for the Jew, but Xaver, spiteful fellow, made it appear as if you really possessed the spell, and just now he came to me and said his father would seize the Jew early to-morrow morning, and then he would be tortured. Whether they will hang or burn him is the question. His life is forfeited, his father said--and the black-visaged rascal rejoiced over it."
"Sileutium, turbatores!" cried the sleepy voice of the monk in charge, and the boys hastily drew back into the feathers and were silent.
The young count soon fell asleep again, but Ulrich buried his head still deeper among the pillows; it seemed as if he saw the mild, thoughtful face of the man, from whom he had received so much affection, gazing reproachfully at him; then the dumb wife appeared before his mind, and he fancied her soft hand was lovingly stroking his cheeks as usual. Ruth also appeared, not in the yellow silk dress, but clad in rags of a beggar, and she wept, hiding her face in her mother's lap.
He groaned aloud. The clock struck eleven. He rose and listened. Nothing stirred, and slipping on his clothes, he took his shoes in his hand and tried to open the window at the head of his bed. It had stood open during the day, but the frost fastened it firmly to the frame. Ulrich braced his foot against the wall and pulled with all his strength, but it resisted one jerk after another; at last it suddenly yielded and flew open, making a slight creaking and rattling, but the monk on guard did not wake, only murmured softly in his sleep.
The boy stood motionless for a time, holding his breath, then swung himself upon the parapet and looked out. The dormitory was in the second story of the monastery, above the rampart, but a huge bank of snow rose beside the wall, and this strengthened his courage.
With hurrying fingers he made the sign of the cross, a low: "Mary, pray for me," rose from his lips, then he shut his eyes and risked the leap.
There was a buzzing, roaring sound in his ears, his mother's image blended in strange distortion with the Jew's, then an icy sea swallowed him, and it seemed as if body and soul were frozen. But this sensation overpowered him only a few minutes, then working his way out of the mass of snow, he drew on his shoes, and dashed as if pursued by a pack of wolves, down the mountain, through the ravine, across the heights, and finally along the river to the city and the Richtberg.