Volume 3.
Chapter XIV.
 

Wolf Hartschwert had asked the guards who were stationed at the end of Red Cock Street whether any riders had passed them.

Several horses always stood saddled for the service of the court. Malfalconnet mounted his noble stallion, and Count Lanoi, the equerry, gave his companion a good horse and furnished two mounted torch-bearers.

But the Emperor's envoys had not far to ride; halfway between the abbey of Prufening and Ratisbon, just outside the village of Dcchbetten, they met the returning excursionists.

Barbara's voice reached Wolf from a considerable distance.

He knew the playmate of his childhood; her words never sounded so loud and sharp unless she was excited.

She had said little on the way out, and Herr Peter Schlumperger asked what had vexed her. Then she roused herself, and, to conquer the great anxiety which again and again took possession of her, she drank Herr Peter's sweet Malmsey wine more recklessly than usual.

At last, more intoxicated by her own vivacity than by the juice of the grape, she talked so loudly and freely with the other ladies and gentlemen that it became too much even for Frau Kastenmayr, who had glanced several times with sincere anxiety from her golden-haired favourite to her brother, and then back to Barbara.

Such reckless forwardness ill beseemed a chaste Ratisbon maiden and the future wife of a Peter Schlumperger, and she would gladly have urged departure. But some of the city pipers had been sent to the forest, and when they began to play, and Herr Peter himself invited the young people to dance, her good humour wholly disappeared; for Barbara, whom the young gentlemen eagerly sought, had devoted herself to dancing with such passionate zest that at last her luxuriant hair became completely loosened, and for several measures fluttered wildly around her. True, she had instantly hastened deeper into the woods with Nandl Woller, her cousin, to fasten it again, but the incident had most unpleasantly wounded Frau Kastenmayr's strict sense of propriety.

Nothing unusual ought to happen to a girl of Barbara's age, and the careless manner in which she treated what had befallen her before the eyes of so many men angered the austere widow so deeply that she withdrew a large share of her favour. This was the result of the continual singing.

Any other girl would fasten her hair firmly and resist flying in the dance from one man's arm to another's, especially in the presence of a suitor who was in earnest, and who held aloof from these amusements of youth.

Doubtless it was her duty to keep her brother from marriage with a girl who, so long as her feet were moving in time to the violins and clarionets, did not even bestow a single side glance upon her estimable lover.

So her displeasure had caused the early departure.

Torch-bearers rode at the head of the tolerably long train of the residents of Ratisbon, and some of the guests carried cressets. So there was no lack of light, and as the lantern in her neighbour's hand permitted the baron to recognise Barbara, Malfalconnet, according to the agreement, rode up to the singer, while Wolf accosted Herr Peter Schlumperger, and informed him of the invitation which the steward, in the Emperor's name, was bringing his fair guest.

The Ratisbon councillor allowed him to finish his explanation, and then with quiet dignity remarked that his Majesty's summons did not concern him. It rested entirely with jungfrau Blomberg to decide whether she would accept it at so late an hour.

But Barbara had already determined.

The assent was swift and positive, but neither the light of the more distant torches nor of the lantern close at hand was brilliant enough to show the baron how the girl's face blanched at the message that the Emperor Charles did not command, but only humbly entreated her to do him a favour that evening.

She had with difficulty uttered a few words of thanks; but when the adroit baron, with flattering urgency, besought her to crown her kindness and remember the saying that whoever gives quickly gives doubly, she pressed her right hand on her throbbing heart, and rode to Frau Kastenmayr's side to explain briefly what compelled her to leave them, and say to her and her brother a few words of farewell and gratitude.

Herr Peter replied with sincere kindness; his sister with equally well-meant chilling displeasure. Then Barbara rode on with the two envoys, in advance of the procession, at the swiftest trot. Her tongue, just now so voluble, seemed paralyzed. The violent throbbing of her heart fairly stopped her breath. A throng of contradictory thoughts and feelings filled her soul and mind. She was conscious of one thing only. A great, decisive event was imminent, and the most ardent wish her heart had ever cherished was approaching its fulfilment.

It is difficult to talk while riding rapidly; but Malfalconnet was master of the power of speech under any circumstances, and the courtier, with ready presence of mind, meant to avail himself of the opportunity to win the favour of the woman whose good will might become a precious possession.

But he was not to accomplish this, for, when he addressed the first question to Barbara, she curtly replied that she did not like to talk while her horse was trotting.

Wolf thought of the loud voice which had reached him a short time before from the midst of the Ratisbon party, but he said nothing, and the baron henceforward contented himself with occasionally uttering a few words.

The whole ride probably occupied only a quarter of an hour, but what a flood of thoughts and feelings swept in this short time through Barbara's soul!

She had just been enraged with herself for her defiance and the reckless haste which perhaps had forever deprived her of the opportunity to show the Emperor Charles her skill as a singer. The cruel anxiety which tortured her on this account had urged her at Prufening to the loud forwardness which hitherto she had always shunned. She had undoubtedly noticed how deeply this had lowered her in Frau Kastenmayr's esteem, and the discovery had been painful and wounded her vanity; but what did she care now for her, for her brother, for all Ratisbon? She was riding toward the great man who longed to see her, and to whom--she herself scarcely knew whence she gained the courage--she felt that she belonged.

She had looked up to him as to a mountain peak whose jagged summit touched the sky when her father and others had related his knightly deeds, his victories over the most powerful foes, and his peerless statesmanship. Only the day before yesterday she had listened to Wolf with silent amazement when he told her of the countries and nations over which this mightiest of monarchs reigned, and described the magnificence of his palaces in the Netherlands, in Spain, and in Italy. Of the extent of his wealth, and the silver fleets which constantly brought to him from the New World treasures of the noble metal of unprecedented value, Barbara had already heard many incredible things.

Yet, during this ride through the silent night, she did not even bestow the lightest thought upon the riches of the man who was summoning her to his side. The gold, the purple, the ermine, the gems, and all the other splendours which she had seen, as if in a dream, hovering before her at the first tidings that she was invited to sing before the Emperor Charles, had vanished from her imagination.

She only longed to display her art before the greatest of men, whose "entreaty" had intoxicated her with very different power from the Malmsey at Herr Peter's table, and show herself worthy of his approval. That the mightiest of the mighty could not escape pain seemed to her like a mockery and a spiteful cruelty of Fate, and at the early mass that day she had prayed fervently that Heaven might grant him recovery.

Now she believed that it was in her own hands to bring it to him.

How often had she been told that her singing possessed the power to cheer saddened souls! Surely the magic of her art must exert a totally different influence upon the man to whom her whole being attracted her than upon the worthy folk here, for whom she cared nothing. She, ay, she, was to free his troubled spirit from every care, and if she succeeded, and he confessed to her that he, too, found in her something unusual, something great in its way, then the earnest diligence which Master Feys had often praised in her would be richly rewarded; then she would be justified in the pride which, notwithstanding her poverty, was a part of her, like her eyes and her lips, and for which she had so often been blamed.

She had always rejected coldly and unfeelingly the young men who sought her favour, but with what passionate yearning her heart throbbed for the first person whom she deemed worthy of it, yet from whom she expected nothing save warm sympathy for the musical talents which she held in readiness for him, earnest appreciation which raised her courage, and also, perhaps, the blissful gift of admiration!

Never had she rejoiced so gleefully, so proudly, and so hopefully in the magic of her voice, and she also felt it as a piece of good fortune that she was beautiful and pure as the art with which she expected to elevate and cheer his soul.

Transported out of herself, she did not heed the starry heavens above her head, at which she usually gazed with so much pleasure--Wolf had taught her to recognise the most beautiful planets and fixed stars--nor at the night birds which, attracted by the torches of the horsemen riding in advance, often darted close by her, nor the flattering words to which she was wont to listen willingly, and which few understood how to choose better than the well-trained breaker of hearts at her side.

The envoys had taken care that the city gate should be kept open for them. Not until the hoofs of her gray horse rang upon the pavement did Barbara awake from the dream of longing which had held her captive. She started in alarm, raised her little plumed cap, and drew a long breath. The ancient, well-known houses along the sides of the streets brought her back to reality and its demands.

She could not appear before the Emperor just as she was, in her riding habit, with disordered hair. Besides, her head was burning after the dancing and the wine which she had drunk. She must calm herself ere entering the presence of the royal connoisseur whose approval could render her so happy, whose dissatisfaction or indifference would make her wretched.

Quickly forming her resolution, she turned to Malfalconnet and explained that she could not appear before his Majesty until after she had allowed herself a short period of rest; but the baron, who probably feared that some feminine caprice would spoil, even at the twelfth hour, the successful issue of his mission, thought that he must deny this wish, though in the most courteous manner and with the assurance that he would procure her an opportunity to collect her thoughts quietly in the Golden Cross.

Barbara unexpectedly wheeled her horse, struck him a blow with the whip, and called to the astonished gentlemen, "In front of the Golden Cross in a quarter of an hour. You, Wolf, can wait for me at the Grieb."

The last words were already dying away as she clashed swiftly up the street and across the Haidplatz. Bright sparks flashed from the paving stones struck by her horse's hoofs.

"Confounded witch!" cried Malfalconnet. "And how the unruly girl wheels her horse and sits erect in her wild career over the flagstones! If the gray falls, it will do her no harm. Such rising stars may drop from the skies, but they will leap up again like the cats which I threw from the roof when a boy. His Majesty will get something to trouble him if he continues his admiration. Sacre Dieu! What a temperament!--and a German!"

Hitherto both had ridden on at a walk, gazing after Barbara, although she had already vanished in the darkness, which was illumined only by the stars in the cloudless sky. Now the clock struck half-past ten, and Malfalconnet exclaimed, half to the young knight, half to himself, "If only the wild bird does not yet escape our snare!"

"Have no fear," replied Wolf. "She will keep her promise, for she is truthfulness itself. But you would oblige me, Herr Baron, if in future you use a tone less light in speaking of this young lady, who is worthy of every honour. Her reputation is as faultless as the purity of her voice, and, obstinate as she may be----"

"So this masterpiece of the Creator finds much favour in your eyes and your keen ears, Sir Knight," Malfalconnet gaily interrupted. "From any one else, my young friend, I should not suffer such a warning to pass; but we are now riding in the Emperor's precincts, so it would cause me sore embarrassment if my steel pierced you, for my neck, which is very precious to me, would then probably fall under the rude axe of the executioner. Besides, I wish you well, as you know, and I understand you German pedants. Henceforward--I swear it by all the saints!--I will utter no disrespectful word of your lovely countrywoman until you yourself release my tongue."

"That will never be done!" Wolf eagerly protested, "and the mere supposition would force me to bare my sword, if it were not you----"

"If it were not sheer madness for your thumb-long parade dagger to cross blades with my good sword," laughed Malfalconnet. "Ere you drew your rapier, I think your lust for murder would have fled. So let us leave our blades in their sheaths and permit my curiosity, to ask just one more question: What consideration induces you, Sir Knight, to constrain yourself to discreet peaceableness toward me, who, Heaven knows, excited your ire with no evil intent?"

"The same which restrains you from the duel with me," replied Wolf quietly; and then, in a warmer tone, continued: "You are dear to me because you have shown me kindness ever since I came to the court. But you are the last person who would admit that gratitude should fetter the hand which desires to defend itself. In comparison with you, Baron, I am but an insignificant man, but noble blood flows in my veins as well as in yours, and I, too, am no coward. Perhaps you suspect it because I have accepted many things from you which I would overlook from no one else. But I know that, however your jesting tongue sins against me, it has nothing to do with your disposition, whose kindness has ever been proved when the occasion offered. But you are now denying respect to a lady--"

"From that, too, my heart is as far removed as the starry sky above our heads from the wretched pavement of this square," Malfalconnet interrupted.

"Yes, Sir Knight, you judged me aright, and God save me from thinking or speaking evil of a lady who is so dear to the heart of a friend!"

As he spoke he held out his right hand to his companion with gay yet stately cordiality.

Wolf eagerly clasped it, and directly after both swung themselves from their horses in the courtyard of the Golden Cross, Malfalconnet to inform the Emperor of the successful result of his ride, the Ratisbon knight to arrange for the proper stationing of the boy choir, and then, obedient to Barbara's injunction, to go to the Grieb.

He knew the baron, and was aware that any one whom this chivalrous gentleman assured of his friendship might rely upon it, but that he did not spare even the most sacred things if he might hope thereby to win the approval and arouse the mirth of his imperial master.

In the glad conviction that he had done his best for the woman he loved, and yet had not forfeited the favour of the influential man to whom he owed a debt of gratitude, whose active mind he admired, and who had, moreover, won his affection, he went to the neighbouring Grieb.

The favour which the Emperor showed Barbara seemed to him not only a piece of great good fortune for her, but also for himself. He knew Charles's delicate appreciation of music, and could confidently anticipate that her voice would satisfy him and win his interest. But if this occurred, and the sovereign learned that Wolf wished to marry the singer to whom their Majesties owed such great pleasure, it would be an easy matter for the Emperor to place him in a position which could not fail to content the just desire of the girl whom he loved for an existence free from want. The interview with the monarch, to which he was to lead Barbara at once, therefore seemed to him like a bridge to her consent, and when he met at the Ark the court musician, Massi, followed by a servant carrying his violin case, he called to him: "Just look at the shining stars up above us, Massi! They are friendly to me, and, if they keep their promise, the journey here will be blessed."

"Amen!" replied the other as he pressed his hand cordially and asked for further particulars; but Wolf put him off until the next day, exclaim ing: "Jungfrau Blomberg, whose voice and execution bewitched you also, is now to sing before his Majesty. Wish her the best luck, for on her success depend many things for her, and perhaps for your friend also. Once more, uphold us!"

He turned toward the Grieb as he spoke, and the longing for Barbara quickened his pace.

The fear that the gouty monarch could cherish any other wishes concerning the young girl than to enjoy her singing was farthest from his thoughts.

Who would ever have seen an aspirant for woman's favour in the suffering Emperor, bowed during the last few years by the heaviest political cares, and whose comparative youthfulness was easily overlooked?

At the main entrance of the Grieb Wolf was accosted by the master of the house.

The wife of this obedient husband, Frau Lerch, known throughout all Ratisbon as "Lerch, the mantuamaker," had told him to keep watch, and impressed it upon him to let no one, no matter who it might be, enter her rooms on the ground floor except the cantor knight, as she called Wolf.

Barbara had had little time for reflection as she fled from the Emperor's envoys, but a clever woman's brain thinks quickly when an important decision is to be made, and while turning the gray she had decided that it would be better for her purpose, and the haste connected with it, to go to Frau Lerch than to her own home.

In the Grieb she was sure of finding admittance at once if she knocked at Frau Lerch's window, while the cantor house was closed early, and a long time might pass before the door opened to her. Besides, she did not know how her father, who could never be depended upon in such matters, would regard the honour that awaited her; thirdly--and this alone was decisive--the white dress, which she meant to wear instead of the riding habit, was at Frau Lerch's, and what good service the skilful, nimble fingers of her mother's ex-maid could render in this hurried change of garb.

Besides, it had also darted into her mind that the baron might accompany her to her shabby abode, and that would have seemed like a humiliation. Why should the court know what indigent circumstances had been the portion of the artist to whom the Emperor, through no less a personage than Baron Malfalconnet, sent an "entreaty" for her appearance?

All this had been clear to her in the course of a few seconds, and her choice had proved fortunate, for the gate of the Grieb was still unlocked, and the old hostler Kunz, who had been in the service of the Gravenreuths, the former owners of the Grieb, and had known "Wawerl" from childhood, was just coming out of the tavern, and willingly agreed to take the gray back to Peter Schlumperger's stable.

When Barbara entered the huge building a ray of light shone from the private chapel at the left, dedicated to Saint Dorothea.

This seemed to her like a sign from heaven, and, before knocking at Frau Lerch's door, she glided into the sanctuary, threw herself upon her knees before the image of the saint, and besought her to bestow the most melting sweetness and the deepest influence upon her voice while singing before his Majesty.

Then it seemed as though the face of the kindly saint smiled assent, and in hurried words Barbara added that the great monarch was also the most thorough connoisseur, and the altar here should lack neither candles nor flowers if she would bestow upon her the power to win his approval. While speaking, she raised her clasped hands toward the Virgin's image, and concluded her fervent prayer with the passionate exclamation: "Oh, hear me, hear me, thou inexhaustible fountain of mercy, for if I do not fulfil what he expected when he entreated me to sing before him, and I see that he lets me go disappointed, the peace of this heart will be destroyed! Hear, oh, hear me, august Queen of Heaven!"

Relieved and strengthened, she at last sprang up, and a few minutes after Frau Lerch, with loud exclamations of admiration, was combing her long, thick, waving locks of fair hair.

Overflowing with delight at such beauty, the thin little woman then helped her "darling Wawerl," her "wonderfully sweet nightingale," to change her dress.

Wolf's gift, the velvet robe with the marten border, would have been too heavy and oppressive for singing, and, besides, was not yet finished. Barbara, she declared, had done right to choose the white one, which was intended for the next dance at the New Scales. Nothing could be more becoming to her enchanting little princess, and Barbara yielded herself entirely to the experienced assistant, who had all the laces and ribbons she needed close at hand. She could even supply her with new and dainty satin shoes.

While Frau Lerch was working with wonderful dexterity, she also permitted her nimble tongue no rest. In the tenderest accents of faithful maternal solicitude she counselled her how to conduct herself in his Majesty's presence. Hurriedly showing Barbara how the stiff Spanish ladies of the court curtsied, she exclaimed: "And another thing, my darling pet: It is important for all ladies, even those of royal blood, to try to win the favour of so great a monarch when they meet him for the first time. You can use your eyes, too, and how effectually! I saw you a short time ago, and, if I had been a young gentleman, how gladly I would have changed places with the handsome recruiting officer Pyramus at the New Scales! That was a flaming fire! Now, isn't it true, darling--now we no longer have even a single glance for such insignificant fellows! Consider that settled! But things of that sort have no effect upon his august Majesty. You must cast down your sparkling blue eyes in modest embarrassment, as if you still wore the confirmation wreath. All the fashionable sons of the burghers complain of your repellent coldness. Let his Majesty feel it too. That will pour oil on the flames, and they must blaze up high; I'd stake both my hands on it, much as I need them. But if it results as I expect, my darling, don't forget old Lerch, who loves you even more than your own mother did. How beautiful and stately she was! But she forgot her little Wawerl only too often. I have a faithful nature, child, and understand life. If, sooner or later, you need the advice of a true, helpful friend, you know where to find little old Lerch."

These warnings had sounded impressive enough, but Barbara had by no means listened attentively. Instead, she had been anticipating, with torturing impatience, her appearance before the great man for whom she was adorned and the songs which she would have to sing. If she was permitted to choose herself, he would also hear the bird-song, with the "Car la saison est bonne," which had extorted such enthusiastic applause from the Netherland maestro.

But no!

She must choose something grander, more solemn, for she wished to make a deeper, stronger, more lasting impression upon the man who was now to listen to her voice.

Mere lukewarm satisfaction would not content her in the case of the Emperor Charles; she wished to arouse his enthusiasm, his rapture. What bliss it would be if she was permitted to penetrate deeply into his soul, if it were allotted to her to make the ruler's grave eyes sparkle with radiant delight!

In increasing excitement, she saw herself, in imagination, lowering the sheet of music, and the sovereign, deeply moved, holding out both hands to her.

But that would have been too much happiness! What if the violent throbbing of her heart should silence her voice? What if the oppressive timidity, which conquers every one who for the first time is permitted to stand in the presence of majesty, should cause her to lose her memory and be unable to find the mood which she required in order to execute her task with the perfection that hovered before her mind?

Yes, that would happen! With cruel self-torture she dwelt upon the terrible dread, for she thought she had noticed that the best success often followed when she had expected the worst result. Fran Lerch perceived what was passing in her mind, and instilled courage until she had finished her work and held up the mirror before Barbara.

The girl, whether she desired to do so or not, could not help looking in. She did it reluctantly, and, after hastily assuring herself that she was presentable, she turned the glittering disk away and would not glance at it again.

She feared that the contemplation of her own image might disturb her; she wished to think only of the worthy execution of her task, and the shorter time she kept the Emperor waiting the less she need fear having an ill-humoured listener.

So she hurriedly ejaculated a few words of gratitude to the old attendant and seized the kerchief for her head, which she had taken to Prufening with her; but the dressmaker wound around her hair a costly lace veil which she had ready for a customer.

"The valuable article may be lost," she thought. "But if, sooner or later, something happens which my lambkin, who thinks only of her sweet babble, does not dream, it will return to me with interest. Besides, she must see what maternal affection I feel for her." Then, with tender caution, she kissed the girl's glowing cheeks, and the blessing with which she at last dismissed her sounded devout and loving enough.

Wolf had not waited long; it was just striking eleven when Barbara met him at the door talking with Herr Lerch, the owner of the house.

Before leaving the Grieb, she again glanced into the chapel in the courtyard dedicated to Saint Dorothea, and uttered a swift though silent prayer for good success, and that her singing might have a deep influence upon the august hearer.

Meanwhile she scarcely heeded what her friend was saying, and, while walking at his side the short distance through a part of Red Cock Street and across the Haidplatz, he had no words from her lips except the request that he would tell her father of the great honour awaiting her.

Wolf, too, had imposed silence upon himself; it was necessary for the singer, on the eve of this important performance, to refrain from talking in the night air.