Volume 3.
Chapter XV.
 

Baron Malfalconnet possessed the gift of lending Time wings and using the simplest incident as the foundation for an entertaining story.

He knew that his Majesty did not like waiting, and the quarter of an hour which Barbara had mentioned might easily become a longer period. So he adorned the description of his ride as an envoy most generously with many partially invented details. Wolf, Herr Peter Schlumperger, Frau Kastenmayr, his estimable sister, and the party of Ratisbon excursionists, upon whom he had scarcely bestowed a passing glance, all played a large and by no means enviable part.

But he gained his object, for the impatient monarch listened gladly, and all the more willingly in proportion to the more brilliant eloquence with which the clever connoisseur of mankind placed Barbara in contrast to all the obscure, insignificant, and ridiculous personages whom he pretended to have met. The peculiar charm which her individuality thus obtained corresponded with the idea which the monarch himself had formed of the expected guest, and it flattered him to hear his conjecture so remarkably confirmed.

A few questions from the monarch followed the baron's report. While the latter was still answering the last one, Chamberlain de Praet announced the singer's arrival, and Count Bueren escorted the aged Marquise de Leria to the monarch.

The Emperor went at once to the table, and as he descended the stairs, leaning lightly on Malfalconnet's arm, it was scarcely perceptible that he used the left foot less firmly than the other.

According to his command, only the small table at which he was to sit with the marquise had been laid in the dining-room. The boy choir had taken a position opposite to it.

At his entrance Barbara rose quickly from the chair, into which she had sunk by no means from weariness.

With a throbbing heart, and still heavily oppressed by anxiety, she awaited the next moments and what they would bring.

The Benedictio Mensae was again to open the concert. She needed no notes for this familiar music. Yet she looked toward Appenzelder, who had thanked her for her appearance as if she had done him a great favour.

Now the orchestra behind her was silent. Now she saw the lackeys and attendants bow profoundly. Now Appenzelder raised his arm.

She saw it, but he had not yet touched the desk with the little ebony staff, and she availed herself of the pause to glance toward the anxiously expected sovereign, whose presence she felt.

There he stood.

Barbara scarcely noticed the old lady at his left; he, he alone captivated her eyes, her heart, her senses, her whole being.

What a happy surprise!

How Wolf, Maestro Gombert, and others had described the Emperor, and how he stood before her!

This chivalrous, superb, almost youthful gentleman and hero, whose haughty, self-assured bearing so admirably suited the magnificence of his rich-hued garments, was said to be a gouty old man, bowed by the weight of care! Had it not been so abominable, it would have tempted her to laugh.

How petty men were, how cruel was the fate of the great, to whom envy clings like their own shadow, and whose image was basely distorted even by those who knew the grandeur of their intellect and their deeds, and who owed to them their best success in life!

Her heart beat for this man, not only with the artist's desire to satisfy the connoisseur, no, but with stormy passion--she felt it now; yet, though the god of love was called a blind boy, she had retained the full, clear strength of vision and the absolute power of discernment.

No one, not even the handsomest young knight, could compare in her eyes with the mature, powerful guide of the destiny of many millions, whose lofty brow was illumined by the grandeur of his intellect, and with whose name the memory of glorious victories was associated. The pride justified by his birth had led him from one lofty deed to another, and he could not help carrying his head so high, for how far all the rest of mankind lay beneath him! There was no living mortal to whom the Emperor Charles would have been obliged to look up, or before whom he need bow his head at all.

She would fain have been able to stamp his image deeply, ineffaceably upon her soul. But, alas!

Just at that moment a short, imperious sound reached her ear. Appenzelder had struck the desk with his baton. The Benedictio must begin at once, and now her breath was really coming so quickly that it seemed impossible for her to sing in this condition.

Deeply troubled, she pressed her hand upon her bosom.

Then the cruel, tyrannical baton struck the wood a second time, and----

But what did this mean?

The Emperor had left his elderly companion after she was seated at the table, and was advancing--her eyes, clouded by anxious expectation, did not deceive her--and was walking with stately dignity toward the boy choir; no, not to it, but directly toward herself.--Now it seemed as though her heart stood still.

At no price could she have produced even a single note.

But it was not required, for the wave of the imperial hand which she saw was to Appenzelder, and commanded him to silence his choir.

The unexpected movement concerned her alone, and ere Barbara found time to ask herself what brought him to her, he already stood before her.

How friendly and yet how chivalrously stately as the slight bow which the monarch bestowed upon her; and he had scarcely done so when, in peculiar German, whose strange accent seemed to her extremely charming and musical, he exclaimed: "we welcome you to the Golden Cross, fairest of maidens. You now behold what man can accomplish when he strives for anything with genuine zeal. The wisest among the wise declare that even gods fail in the conflict against the obstinacy of beautiful women, and yet our longing desire succeeded in capturing you, lovely fugitive."

Barbara alternately flushed and paled as she listened to these words.

She had not heard Frau Lerch's counsel, and yet, obedient to a secret impulse, she timidly lowered her blue eyes. But not a word of the sovereign had escaped her, and, though she still lacked the power of speech, she found courage to smile and shake her head in denial.

The Emperor did not miss a single change of feature, and, swiftly understanding her mute contradiction, went on gaily: "Look! look! So, fairest of the fair, you refuse to acknowledge our glorious victory? That bears witness to a specially independent comprehension of things. But we, how are we to explain such a denial of an accomplished fact?"

Then Barbara summoned up courage and answered, still with downcast eyes, "But, your Majesty, how can I regard myself as conquered and captured when I voluntarily yielded to your Majesty's wish?"

"And may I perhaps also hope that it gives you pleasure to grant my entreaty?" asked the sovereign in a subdued tone, gazing as he spoke deep into the eyes which the young girl had just raised to his.

Barbara did not instantly find the reply she sought, and only bent her head in assent, but the Emperor was not satisfied with this mute answer, and eagerly desired to learn whether it was so difficult for her to admit what he so ardently wished to hear.

Meanwhile her quick intellect had found the fitting response, and, with a look which told the questioner more than she intended to betray, she answered softly: "Why should I not have fulfilled your Majesty's request gladly and proudly? But what followed the walk here, what befell me here, is so much more beautiful and greater--"

"And may we know," interrupted the Emperor urgently, "what you find here that affords your heart so much pleasure?

"You and your favour," she answered quickly, and the flush which suddenly crimsoned her cheeks showed him how deeply she was moved.

Then Charles went close to her and whispered: "And do you wish to know, most bewitching woman, how he, in whose presence you confess that you are glad to remain, looked forward to your coming? As he would greet happiness, spring. And note that I look you in the face, it seems as though Easter bells were pealing the resurrection of a love long buried in this breast. And you, maiden, you will not belie this hope?"

Barbara clung to the back of the chair for support, while from her deeply agitated soul struggled the exclamation: "This poor heart, my lord, belongs to you--to you alone! How it mastered me, who can describe? But here, my lord, now----"

Then the monarch whispered warmly: "You are right. What we have to say to each other requires a more fitting time and a different place, and we will find them."

Then he stepped back, drew himself up to his full height, waved his hand to her with gracious condescension, and in a loud, imperious tone commanded Appenzelder to begin the Benedictio.

"It rests with the lovely artist yonder," he added, glancing kindly at Barbara, "whether she will now ennoble with her wonderful voice the singing of the boy choir. Later she will probably allow us to hear the closing melody of the 'Ecce tu pulchra es', which, with such good reason, delighted the Queen of Hungary, and myself no less."

He seated himself at the table as he spoke, and devoted himself to the dishes offered him so eagerly that it was difficult to believe in the deep, yearning emotion that ruled him. Only the marquise at his side and Malfalconnet, who had joined the attendant nobles, perceived that he ate more rapidly than usual, and paid no attention to the preparation of the viands.

The aged eyes, of the Emperor's watchful companion, to whom up to the close of the repast he addressed only a few scattered words, also detected something else. Rarely, but nevertheless several times, the Emperor glanced at the boy choir, and when, in doing so, his Majesty's eyes met the singer's, it was done in a way which proved to the marquise, who had acquired profound experience at the French court, that an understanding existed between the sovereign and the artist which could scarcely date from that day. This circumstance must be considered, and behind the narrow, wrinkled brow of the old woman, whose cradle had stood in a ducal palace, thronged a succession of thoughts and plans precisely similar to those which had filled the mind of the dressmaker and ex-maid ere she gave Barbara her farewell kiss.

What the marquise at first had merely conjectured and put together from various signs, became, by constant assiduous observation, complete certainty when the singer, after a tolerably long pause, joined in Josquin's hymn to the Virgin.

In the Benedictio Mensae she remained silent, but at the first effective passage joined in the singing of the boys.

Not until the 'Tu pulchra es' did she display the full power of her art.

From the commencement she took part in the execution of this magnificent composition eagerly and with deep feeling, and when the closing bars began and the magic of her singing developed all its heart-thrilling power, the watchful lady in waiting perceived that his Majesty forgot the food and hung on Barbara's lips as though spellbound.

This was something unprecedented. But when the monarch continued for some time to display an abstemiousness so unlike him, the marquise cast a hasty glance of inquiry at Malfalconnet. But the affirmative answer which she expected did not come. Had the baron's keen eye failed to notice so important a matter, or had his Majesty taken him into his confidence and commanded him to keep the secret?

That Malfalconnet was merely avoiding making common cause with the old intriguer, was a suspicion which vanity led her to reject the more positively the more frequently her countryman sought her to learn what he desired to know.

Besides, she soon required no further confirmation, for what now happened put an end to every doubt.

Barbara had to sing the "Quia amore langueo" again, and how it sounded this time to the listening hearer!

No voice which the Emperor Charles had ever heard had put such pure, bewitching melody into this expression of the deepest yearning. It seemed as though the longing of the whole world was flowing to him from those fresh, young, beautifully formed red lips.

A heart which was not itself languishing for love could not pour forth to another with such convincing truth, overwhelming power, and glowing fervour the ardent longing of a soul seized by the omnipotence of love.

The mighty pressure of rising surges of yearning dashed against the monarch's heart, and with tremendous impetuosity roused on all sides the tender desires which for a long time had been gathering in his soul. It seemed as though this "Because I long for love" was blending with the long-repressed and now uncontrollable yearning that filled his own breast, and he was obliged to restrain himself in order not to rush toward this gifted singer, this marvellously lovely woman, whose heart was his, and, before the eyes of all, clasp her in his embrace.

The master of dissimulation forgot himself, and--what a delight to the eyes of the marquise!--the Emperor Charles, the great epicure and thirsty drinker, left the pasty and the wine, to listen standing, with hands resting on the table and outstretched head, to Barbara's voice.

It seemed as though he feared his ear might miss a note of this song, his eye a movement of this source of melody.

But when the song ceased, and Barbara, panting for breath, returned the ardent look of gratitude and delight which beamed upon her from his eyes, the Emperor left the table, and, without noticing Count Krockow, who was just lifting the silver cover from the roast capon, the last of the five dishes ordered, went up to Barbara.

Would he really end the meal now? The old marquise thought it impossible, but if the incredible event occurred, then things were to be expected, things----

But ere she had imagined how this unprecedented event could take place, the Emperor himself informed her, for, half addressing Barbara, half the lady in waiting, he exclaimed in a slightly muffled tone: "Thanks, cordial thanks for this great pleasure, my dear Jungfrau! But we wish to add to words another token of appreciation, a token of more lasting duration.--Do us the favour, Marquise de Leria, to conduct this noble artist to the upper rooms, that she may receive what we intended for her."

He left the hall as he spoke; but the marquise beckoned to Barbara, detained her with words of sweet flattery a short time and then, with the young girl, ascended the stairs up which the Emperor had preceded them.

Meanwhile the old noblewoman continued to talk with her; but Barbara did not listen. While following her guide, it seemed as though the steps her light foot trod were a heavenly ladder, and at their end the gates of Paradise would open.

She felt with inexpressible delight that she had never before succeeded so well in expressing a strong feeling in music, and what her song endeavoured to tell the Emperor--no, the man whom she loved--had been understood, and found an echo in his soul.

Could there be a greater happiness?

And yet, while she was approaching him, he must be awaiting her.

She had wished to arouse his attention, his approval, his delight in her singing. All three had become hers, and now new wishes had mastered her, and probably him also. She desired his love, he hers, and, fearing herself, she felt the great peril into which her aged companion was conducting her.

The Emperor was indeed the greatest and noblest of men! The mere consciousness that he desired not only her singing, but her heart, inspired the deepest bliss. Yet it seemed as if she ought not to cross the threshold of the room which opened before her; as if she ought to rush down the stairs and fly from him, as she had dashed away when his messengers wished to lead her to his presence.

But he was already advancing from the end of the large apartment, and the mere sight of him put an end to every further consideration and crushed her will.

Obedient to a glance from the Emperor's eyes, the marquise, bowing reverently, retreated into the corridor whence they had come and closed the door.

The clang against the jambs told Barbara that she was alone with the ruler of half the world, whom she dared to love.

But she was not granted a moment to collect her thoughts; the Emperor Charles already stood before her, and with the exclamation, "Quia amore langueo!" opened his arms.

She, too, was longing for love, and, as if intoxicated by the lofty feeling of being deemed worthy of the heart of this mighty sovereign, she yielded to his kisses; and as she herself threw her arm around his neck and felt--that she had a right to do so, it seemed as though an invisible hand was placing a royal crown upon her brow.

The joy which filled her little heart appeared too rich and great for it when, repeating the "Amore langueo" with her head upon his breast, he whispered sweet love phrases and confessed that those words, since she had sung them for the first time, had echoed through his hours of reflection, through the cares of business, through the brief hours of repose which he allowed himself, and so it must continue, and her love, her voice, and her beauty render the downward path of life the fairest portion which he had traversed.

Then Barbara, with the low exclamation, "Because I, too, long for love," again offered him her lips, and he accepted the sweet invitation with impetuous passion.

Already, for the second time since her entrance, the clock on Charles's writing-table struck the quarter of an hour, and, as if startled from a deep slumber, she withdrew from his embrace and gazed, as if bewildered, toward the door. Directly after it opened, and Don Luis Quijada with firm step entered the room.

The trusted favourite of the Emperor was always free to seek his presence. He had returned to Ratisbon in advance of the Queen of Hungary, who would not arrive until the following morning, and, after a brief conversation with Malfalconnet and Master Adrian, the loyal nobleman had gone without delay, and at the risk of angering him, to his imperial master. Without even rising from the divan, and still clasping the hand which Barbara attempted to withdraw as Don Luis advanced, Charles asked with stern rebuke what had caused his entrance at so late an hour. Quijada requested a brief audience, but Charles replied that he had nothing to conceal from this companion.

A low bow followed this remark; then, with quiet dignity, the major-domo reported that the leaders of the orchestra and the boy choir had been waiting below--and with them Sir Wolf Hartschwert and an old gentleman, the father of this lady--a considerable time for her return. So it seemed to him advisable, unless his majesty wished to reveal this sweet secret to the world, to part from his beautiful friend, at least for a short space.

The Emperor Charles did not permit such suggestions even from those who were nearest and dearest to him, and he was already starting up indignantly to thrust Don Luis back behind the barriers through which he had broken, when Barbara with tender persuasion entreated her lover, for her sake, to exercise caution. Charles at last consented to part from her for a time. He was sure of her; for he read in the dewy brightness of her eyes how hard it was for her also to release herself from his embrace.

Then, removing the diamond and ruby star from the lace at his neck, he pinned it on Barbara's bosom, with the exclamation, "In memory of this hour!"

He afterward added, as if in explanation, that the star might show to those below what had detained her here, and asked earnestly whether he might hope to see her again in an hour, if a faithful man--here he motioned to Quijada--accompanied her hither, and later escorted her home again?

A silent nod promised the fulfilment of this request.

The Emperor then carried on a short conversation with Quijada, which was unintelligible to Barbara; and after he had retired to summon the marquise, Charles profited, like an impetuous youth, by the brief period in which he was again alone with his love, and entreated her to consider that, if she remained absent long, the "amore langueo" would rob him of his reason.

"Your great intellect," she replied, with a faint sigh. "My small wits--Holy Virgin!--flew far away at the first word of love from the lips of my royal master."

Then, drawing herself up to her full height, she passed her hand across her brow and defiantly exclaimed: "And why should I think and ponder? I will be happy, and make you happy also, my only love!"

As she spoke she again threw herself upon his breast, but only for a few brief moments. Don Luis Quijada reappeared with the marquise, and conducted both ladies out of the imperial apartment.

Outside the door the major-domo detained Barbara, and had a tolerably long conversation with her, of which the marquise vainly endeavoured to catch even a few words.

At last he committed the girl to the old nobleman's charge and returned to the Emperor.

The marquise received Barbara with the assurance that she had found in her a warm, nay, a maternal friend.

If this beautiful creature was not alreadv the object of the Emperor's love, the experienced old woman told herself, she must very soon become so.

Yet there had never been a favourite at this monarch's court, and she was curious to learn what position would be assigned to her.

After accompanying the girl intrusted to her care down the stairs with flattering kindness, she committed her to the musicians and Wolf, who, with old Blomberg, were awaiting her in the chapel with increasing impatience. The captain had obtained admittance through Wolf.

At her first glance at Barbara the eyes of the old marquise had rested on the glittering star which the Emperor had fastened on the lady of his love.

The men did not notice it until after they had congratulated the singer upon her exquisite performance and the effect which it had produced upon his Majesty.

Maestro Gombert perceived it before the others, and Captain Blomberg and Wolf rejoiced with him and Appenzelder over this tangible proof of the imperial favour.

A conversation about the Emperor's judgment and the rarity with which he bestowed such costly tokens of his regard was commencing in the chapel, but Barbara speedily brought it to a close by the assurance that she was utterly exhausted and needed rest.

On the way home she said very little, but when Wolf, in the second story of the house, held out his hand in farewell, she pressed it warmly, and thanked him with such evident emotion that the young man entered his rooms full of hope and deep secret satisfaction.

After Barbara had crossed the threshold of hers, she said good-night to her father, who wished to learn all sorts of details, alleging that she could scarcely speak from weariness.

The old gentleman went to rest grumbling over the weakness of women in these days, to which even his sturdy lass now succumbed; but Barbara threw herself on her knees beside the bed in her room, buried her face in the pillows, and sobbed aloud. Another feeling, however, soon silenced her desire to weep. Her lover's image and the memory of the happy moments which she had just experienced returned to her mind. Besides, she must hasten to arrange her hair again, and--this time with her own hands--change her clothing.

While she was loosening her golden tresses and gazing into the mirror, her eyes again sparkled with joy. The greatest, the loftiest of mortals loved her. She belonged to him, body and soul, and she had been permitted to call him "her own."

At this thought she drew herself up still more haughtily in proud self-consciousness, but, as her glance fell upon the image of the Virgin above the priedieu, she again bowed her head.

Doubtless she desired to pray, but she could not.

She need confess nothing to the august Queen of Heaven. She knew that she had neither sought nor desired what now burdened her heart so heavily, and yet rendered her so infinitely happy. She had obeyed the Emperor's summons in order to win approval and applause for her art, and to afford the monarch a little pleasure and cheer, and, instead, the love of the greatest of all men had flamed ardently from the earth, she had left her whole heart with him, and given herself and all that was in her into his power. Now he summoned her--the Holy Virgin knew this, too--and she must obey, though the pure face yonder looked so grave and threatening.

And for what boon could she beseech the Queen of Heaven?

What more had the woman, to whom the Emperor's heart belonged, to desire?

The calmness of her soul was at an end, and not for all the kingdoms Charles possessed would she have exchanged the tumult and turmoil in her breast for the peace which she had enjoyed yesterday.

Obeying a defiant impulse, she turned from the benign face, and her hands fairly flew as, still more violently agitated, she completed the changes in her dress.

In unfastening the star, her lover's gift, she saw upon the gold at the back Charles's motto, "Plus ultra!"

Barbara had known it before, but had not thought of it for a long time, and a slight tremor ran through her frame as she said to herself that, from early childhood, though unconsciously, it had been hers also. Heaven--she knew it now--Fate destined them for each other.

Sighing heavily, she went at last, in a street dress, to open the bow-window which looked upon Red Cock Street.

Barbara felt as if she had outgrown herself. The pathos which she had often expressed in singing solemn church music took possession of her, and left no room in her soul for any frivolous emotion. Proud of the lofty passion which drew her with such mighty power to her lover's arms, she cast aside the remorse, the anxiety, the deep sense of wrong which had overpowered her on her return home.

What was greater than the certainty of being beloved by the greatest of men? It raised her far above all other women, and, since she loved him in return, this certainty could not fail to make her happy also, when she had once fully recovered her composure and ventured to look the wonderful event which had happened freely in the face.

The stars themselves, following their appointed course in yonder blue firmament--his device taught that--made her belong to him. If she could have forced herself to silence the desire of her heart, it would have been futile. Whoever divides two trees which have grown from a single root, she said to herself, destroys at least one; but she would live, would be happy on the highest summit of existence. She could not help obeying his summons, for as soon as she listened to the warning voice within, the "Because I long for love" with which he had clasped her in his arms, urged her with irresistible power toward the lover who awaited her coming.

The clock now struck two, and a tall figure in a Spanish cloak stood outside the door of the house. It was Don Luis Quijada, the Emperor's majordomo.

It would not do to keep him waiting, and, as she turned back into the room to take the little lamp, her glance again fell upon the Virgin's image above the priedieu and rested upon her head.

Then the figure of her imperial lover stood in tangible distinctness before her mind, and she imagined that she again heard the first cry of longing with which he clasped her in his arms, and without further thought or consideration she kissed her hand to the image, extinguished the little lamp, and hurried as fast as the darkness permitted into the entry and down the stairs.

Outside the house Wolf returned to her memory a moment.

How faithfully he loved her!

Yet was it not difficult to understand how she could even think of the poor fellow at all while hastening to the illustrious sovereign whose heart was hers, and who had taught her with what impetuous power true love seizes upon the soul. Barbara threw her head back proudly, and, drawing a long breath, opened the door of the house. Outside she was received by Quijada with a silent bend of the head; but she remembered the far more profound bows with which he greeted the monarch, and, to show him of how lofty a nature was also the woman whom the Emperor Charles deemed worthy of his love, she walked with queenly dignity through the darkness at her aristocratic companion's side without vouchsafing him a single glance.

Two hours later old Ursula was sitting sleepless in her bed in the second story of the cantor house. A slight noise was heard on the stairs, and the one-eyed maid-servant who was watching beside her exclaimed: "There it is again! just as it was striking two I said that the rats were coming up from the cellar into the house."

"The rats," repeated the old woman incredulously; and then, without moving her lips, thought: "Rats that shut the door behind them? My poor Wolf!"