Volume 7.
Chapter I.
 

Through the storm, which lashed her face with whirling clouds of dust and drops of rain, Barbara reached the little Prebrunn castle.

The marquise had not yet left her litter. The wind had extinguished two of the torches. One bearer walked in front of Barbara with his, and the gale blew the smoking flame aside. But, ere she had reached the gate, a man who had been concealed behind the old elm by the path stepped forward to meet her. She started back and, as he called her by name, she recognised the young Wittenberg theologian, Erasmus Eckhart. Sincerely indignant, she ordered him to go away at once, but her first words were interrupted by the shrill voice of the marquise, who had now left her litter, and with loud shrieks ordered the steward to seize the burglar.

Erasmus, however, trusted to his strength and nimbleness and, instead of promptly taking flight, entreated Barbara to listen to him a moment. Not until, far from allowing herself to be softened, she, too, threatened him, did he attempt to escape, but both litters were in his way, and when he had successfully passed around them the gardener, suddenly emerging from the darkness, seized him. But the sturdy young fellow knew how to defend his liberty, and had already released himself from his assailant when other servants grasped him.

Above the roar of the storm now rose the shrieks of the marquise, the shouts of "Stop thief!" from the men, and Erasmus's protestations that he was no robber, coupled with an appeal to Jungfrau Blomberg, who knew him.

Barbara now stated that he was the son of a respectable family, and had by no means come here to steal the property of others; but the marquise, though she probably correctly interpreted the handsome young fellow's late visit, vehemently insisted upon his arrest. She treated Barbara's remonstrance with bitter contempt; and when Cassian, the almoner's servant, appeared and declared that he had already caught this rascal more than once strolling in a suspicious manner near the castle, and that he himself was here so late only because his beloved bride, in her mistress's absence, was afraid of the robber and his companions, Barbara's entreaties and commands were disregarded, and Erasmus's hands were bound.

By degrees the noise drew most of the inmates of the castle out of doors, and among them Frau Lerch. Lastly, several halberdiers, who were coming from the Lindenplatz and had heard the screams in the garden, appeared, chained the prisoner, and took him to the Prebrunn jail.

But scarcely had Erasmus been led away when the priests of the household also came out and asked what had happened. In doing this Barbara's caution in not calling Erasmus by name proved to have been futile, for Cassian had recognised him, and told the ecclesiastics what he knew. The chaplain then asserted that, as the property of the Prince Abbot of Berchtesgaden, the house and garden were under ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and committed the further disposal of the burglar's fate to the Dominican whom the almoner had placed there. For the present he might remain in secular custody. Early the following morning he must be brought before the Spanish Dominicans who had come with the Emperor, and from whom greater severity might be expected than from the Ratisbon brotherhood, by whom monastic discipline had been greatly relaxed.

Meanwhile the wind had subsided, and the storm had burst with thunder, lightning, and torrents of rain. Priests and laymen retreated into the house, and so did Barbara and the marquise. The latter had exposed herself to the tempest only long enough to emphasize the necessity of delivering the heretical night-bird to the Spanish Dominicans very early the next morning, and to show Barbara that she did not overlook the significance of the incidents under the lindens. With a disagreeable blending of tenderness and malice, she congratulated the young girl on the applause she had received as a dancer, the special favour which she had enjoyed from the Duke of Saxony, and the arrest of the dangerous burglar, which would also be a gratification to his Majesty.

With these words the old aristocrat, coughing slightly, tripped up the stairs; but Barbara, without vouchsafing an answer to this speech, whose purpose she clearly understood, turned her back upon her and went to her own room.

She had desired no gift in return when, to save this contemptible woman's son and his child, she sacrificed her lover's precious memento; but the base reward for the kind deed added a burning sense of pain to the other sorrows which the day had brought. What a shameful crime was ingratitude! None could be equally hateful to eternal justice, for--she now learned it by her own experience--ingratitude repaid kindness with evil instead of with good, and paralyzed the disappointed benefactor's will to perform another generous deed.

When she entered her sleeping-room the courage which she had summoned during the walk, and the hope to which she had yielded, appeared to be scattered and blown away as if by a gust of wind. Besides, she could not conceal from herself that she had drawn the nails from the planks of her wrecked ship of life with her own hand.

Did it not seem as if she had intentionally done precisely what she ought most studiously to have left undone? Her sale of the star had been only an unfortunate act of weakness, but the dance, the luckless dance! Not once only, several times Charles had stated plainly enough how unpleasant it was to him even to hear the amusement mentioned. She had behaved as if she desired to forfeit his favour.

And why, in Heaven's name, why? To arouse his jealousy?

Fool that she was! This plant took root only in a heart filled with love

And his?

Because she perceived that his love was dying, she had awakened this fatal passion. Was it not as if she had expected to make a water-lily blossom in the sands of the desert?

True, still another motive had urged her to this mad act. She knew not what name to give it, yet it was only too possible that, in spite of her recent experiences, it might overpower her again on the morrow.

Surprised at herself, she struck her brow with her hand, and when Frau Lerch, who was just combing her wet hair, perceived it, she sobbed aloud, exclaiming: "Poor, poor young gentleman, and the Hiltners, who love him as if he were their own son! Such a terrible misfortune! Old fool that I am! The first time he asked admittance to show you the tablature, and you did not want to receive him, I persuaded you to do so. Then he fared like all the others whose heads you have turned with your singing. Holy Virgin! If the Hiltners learn that you and I let him be bound without making any real protest. It will fall heaviest upon me; you can believe that, for Fran Hiltner and Jungfrau Martina, since the young girl has gone to dances, have been among my best customers. Now they will say: Frau Lerch, who used to be a good little woman, left the young fellow in the lurch when his life was at stake, for they will take him to the Spanish Dominicans. They belong, to the Holy Inquisition, and think no more of burning people at the stake than we do of a few days in prison."

Here Barbara interrupted her with the remark that Erasmus could be convicted of no crime, and the Holy Inquisition had no authority in Ratisbon.

But Frau Lerch knew better. That was all very well during the Emperor's absence, but now that his Majesty resided in the city the case was different. Erasmus had been arrested on ecclesiastical ground, the chaplain had ordered him to be delivered to the Spaniards early the next morning and, ere the syndic could interpose, the rope would already be twisted for him, for with these gentlemen the executioner stood close beside the judge. Besides, she had heard of a pamphlet against the Pope, which the young theologian had had published, that had aroused great indignation among the priesthood. If he fell into the hands of the Dominicans, he would be lost, as surely as she hoped to be saved. If he were only in the custody of the city, of course a better result might be hoped.

Here she stopped with a shriek, dropping the comb, for the thundercloud was now directly over the city, and a loud peal, following close upon the flash of lightning, shook the house; but Barbara scarcely heeded the dazzling glare and the rattling panes.

She had risen with a face as white as death. She knew what severe sentences could be pronounced by the Council of the Inquisition, and the thought that the keenest suffering should be inflicted upon the Hiltners through her, to whom they had showed so much kindness, seemed unendurable. Besides, what she had just said to herself concerning ingratitude returned to her mind.

And then, Inquisition and the rack were two ideas which could scarcely be separated from one another. What might not be extorted from the accused by the torture! In any case, the almoner's suspicion would obtain fresh nourishment, and her lover had told her more than once--what a special dislike he felt for women who, with their slender intelligence, undertook to set themselves above the eternal truths of the Holy Church. And the jealousy which, fool that she was, she had desired to arouse in her lover, what abundant nourishment it would derive from the events which had occurred on her return from the festival!

But even these grave fears were overshadowed by the thought of Dr. Hiltner's wife and daughter. With what fair-mindedness the former in the Convivium had made her cause her own, how touching had been Martina's effort to approach her, and how ill that very day she had requited their loyal affection! Erasmus was as dear as a beloved son to these good women, and Frau Lerch's reproach that her intercession for him was but lukewarm had not been wholly groundless. The next day these friends who, notwithstanding the difference in their religious belief, had treated her more kindly than any one in Ratisbon, would hear this and condemn her. That should not be! She would not suffer them to think of her as she did of the shameless old woman whose footsteps she still heard over her head.

She must not remain idly here, and what her impetuous nature so passionately demanded must be carried into execution, though reason and the loud uproar of the raging storm opposed it.

Fran Lerch had just finished arranging her hair and handed her her night-coif, when she started up and, with the obstinate positiveness characteristic of her, declared that she was going at once to the Hiltners to inform the syndic of what had happened here. Erasmus was still in the hands of the town guards, and perhaps it would be possible for the former to withdraw the prisoner from ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Frau Lerch clasped her hands in horror, exclaiming: "Holy Virgin, child! Have you gone crazy? Go out in this weather? Whoever is not killed by lightning will drown in the puddles."

But with that violent peal of thunder the storm had reached its height, and when the next flash of lightning came the thunder did not follow until some time after, though the rain continued to beat as heavily against the panes. Yet even had the tempest continued to rage with full fury, Barbara would not have been dissuaded from the resolution which she had once formed.

True, her attempt to persuade Frau Lerch to accompany her remained futile. Her frail body, the dressmaker protested, was not able to undertake such a walk through the storm. If she yielded, it would be her death. It would kill Barbara, also, and this crazy venture would be too dearly paid for at the cost of two human lives.

Barbara's angry remark that if she would not run the risk of getting wet for the sake of compassion, she might on account of the Hiltners' good custom, finally made the excited woman burst into piteous crying; yet in the midst of it she brought Barbara's dress and old thick cloak and, as she put them on the girl, exclaimed, "But I tell you, child, you'll turn back again when you get halfway there, and all you bring home will be a bad illness."

"Whoever can execute the gagliarde to dance herself into misery," replied Barbara impatiently, "will not find it difficult to take a walk through the rain to save some one else from misfortune. The cloak!"

"She will go," sobbed Frau Lerch. "The servants must still obey you. At least order the litter. This crazy night pilgrimage can not remain concealed."

"Then let people talk about it," replied Barbara firmly and, after having the cloak clasped and the hood drawn over her head, she went out. Frau Lerch, who had the key, opened the door for her amid loud lamentations and muttered curses; but when the girl had vanished in the darkness, she turned back, saying fiercely through her set teeth: "Rush on to ruin, you headstrong creature! If I see aright, the magnificence here is already tottering. Go and get wet! I've made my profit, and the two unfinished gowns can be added to the account. The Lord is my witness that I meant well. But will she ever do what sensible people advise? Always running her head against the wall. Whoever will not hear, must feel."

She hastened back into the house as she spoke to escape the pouring rain, but Barbara paid little heed to the wet, and waded on through the mire of the road.

The force of the storm was broken, the wind had subsided, distant flashes of lightning still illumined the northern horizon, and the night air was stiflingly sultry. No one appeared in the road, and yet some belated pedestrian might run against her at any moment, for the dense darkness shrouded even the nearest objects. But she knew the way, and had determined to follow the Danube and go along the woodlands to the tanner's pit, whence the Hiltner house was easily reached. In this way she could pass around the gate, which otherwise she would have been obliged to have opened.

But ere gaining the river she was to learn that she had undertaken a more difficult task than she expected. Her father had never allowed her to go out after dark, unaccompanied, even in the neighbourhood, and the terrors of night show their most hideous faces to those who are burdened by anxious cares. Several times she sank so deep into the mud that her shoe stuck fast in it, and she was obliged to force it on again with much difficulty. As she walked on and a strange, noise reached her from the woodyard on her left, when she constantly imagined that she heard another step following hers like an audible shadow, when drunken raftsmen came toward her, hoarsely singing an obscene song, she pressed against a fence in order not to be seen by the dissolute fellows. But now a light came wavering toward her, looking like a shining bird flying slowly, or a hell-hound, with glowing eyes, and at the sight it seemed to her impossible to wander on all alone. But the mysterious light proved to be only a lantern in the hand of an old woman who had been to fetch a doctor, so she summoned up fresh courage, though she told herself that here near the lumber yards she might easily encounter raftsmen and guards watching the logs and planks piled on the banks of the river, fishermen, and sailors. Already she heard the rushing of the swollen Danube, and horrible tales returned to her memory of hapless girls who had flung themselves into the waves here to put an end to lives clouded by disgrace and fear.

Then a shiver ran through her, and she asked herself what her father would say if he could see her wading alone through the water. Perhaps the fatigues of the long journey had thrown him upon a sick-bed; perhaps he had even--at the fear she felt as though her heart would stop beating--succumbed to them. Then he knew how matters stood with her, the sin she had committed, and the shame she had brought upon him that she might enjoy undisturbed a happiness which was already changing into bitter sorrow. Meanwhile it seemed as if she was gazing into his rugged, soldierly face, reddish-brown, with rolling eyes, as it looked when disfigured by anger, and she raised her hands as if to hold him back; but only for a few minutes, for she perceived that her excited imagination was terrifying her with a delusion.

Drawing a long breath, she pushed her dank hair back into her hood and pressed her hand upon her heart. Then she was calm a while, but a new terror set it throbbing again. Close beside her--this time at her right--the loud laughter of men's harsh voices echoed through the darkness.

Barbara involuntarily stopped, and when she collected her thoughts and looked around her, her features, distorted by anxiety and terror, smoothed again, and she instantly knocked with her little clinched hand upon the door of the hut from whose open windows the laughter had issued.

It stood close to the river bank, and the tiny dwelling belonged to the Prior of Berchtesgaden's fisherman and boatman, who kept the distinguished prelate's gondolas and boats in order, and acted as rower to the occupants of the little Prebrunn castle. She had often met this man when he brought fish for the kitchen, and he had gone with the boats in the water excursions which she had sometimes taken with Gombert and Appenzelder or with Malfalconnet and several pages. She had treated him kindly, and made him generous gifts.

All was still in the house after her knock, but almost instantly the deep voice of the fisherman Valentin, who had thrust his bearded face and red head out of the window, asked who was there.

The answer received an astonished "Can it be!" But as soon as she informed him that she needed a companion, he shouted something to the others, put on his fisherman's cap, stepped to Barbara's side, and led the way with a lantern which stood lighted on the table.

The road was so softened that, in spite of the light which fell on the ground, it was impossible to avoid the pools and muddy places. But the girl had become accustomed to the wet and the wading. Besides, the presence of her companion relieved her from the terrors with which the darkness and the solitude had tortured her. Instead of watching for new dangers, she listened while Valentin explained how it happened that she found him still awake. He had helped hang the banners and lamps tinder the lindens, and when the storm arose he assisted in removing the best pieces. In return a jug of wine, with some bread and sausages, had been given to him, and he had just begun to enjoy them with two comrades.

The Hiltner house was soon reached. Nothing had troubled Barbara during the nocturnal walk since the fisherman had accompanied her.

Her heart was lighter as she rapped with the knocker on the syndic's door; but, although she repeated the summons several times, not a sound was heard in the silent house.

Valentin had seen the Hiltners' two men-servants with the litters under the lindens, and Barbara thought that perhaps the maids might have gone to the scene of the festival to carry headkerchiefs and cloaks to the ladies before the outbreak of the storm. That the deaf old grandmother did not hear her was easily understood.

The Hiltners could not have returned, so she must wait.

First she paced impatiently to and fro in the rain, then sat upon a curbstone which seemed to be protected from the shower by the roof. But ever and anon a larger stream of water poured down upon her from the jaws of a hideous monster in which the gutter ended than from the black clouds, and, dripping wet, she at last leaned against the door, which was better shielded by the projecting lintel, while the fisherman inquired about the absent occupants of the house.

Thus minute after minute passed until the first and then the second quarter of an hour ended. When the third commenced, Barbara thought she had waited there half the night. The rain began to lessen, it is true, but the sultry night grew cooler, and a slight chill increased her discomfort.

Yet she did not move from the spot. Here, in front of the house in which estimable women had taken her to their hearts with such maternal and sisterly affection, Barbara had plainly perceived that she, who had never ceased to respect herself, would forever rob herself of this right if she did not make every effort in her power to save Erasmus from the grave peril in which he had become involved on her account. During this self-inspection she did not conceal from herself that, while singing his own compositions to him, she had yielded to the unfortunate habit of promising more with her eyes than she intended to perform. How could this vain, foolish sport have pleased her after she had yielded herself, soul and body, to the highest and greatest of men!

Anne Mirl Woller had often been reproved by her mother, in her presence, for her freedom of manner. But who had ever addressed such a warning to her? Now she must atone for her heedlessness, like many other things which her impetuous will demanded and proved stronger than the reason which forbade it. It was a wonder that Baron Malfalconnet and Maestro Gombert had not sued more urgently for her favour. If she was honest, she could not help admitting that her lover--and such a lover!--was justified in wishing many things in her totally different. But she was warned now, and henceforth these follies should be over--wholly and entirely over!

If only he would refrain from wounding her with that irritating sharpness, which made her rebellious blood boil and clouded her clear brain! He was indeed the Emperor, to whom reverence was due; but during the happy hours which tenderly united them he himself desired to be nothing but the man to whom the heart of the woman he loved belonged. She must keep herself worthy of him, nothing more, and this toilsome errand would prevent her from sullying herself with an ugly sin.

During these reflections the chill had become more and more unendurable, yet she thought far less of the discomfort which it caused her than of increased danger to Erasmus from the Hiltners' long absence.

The third quarter of an hour was already drawing to an end when Valentin came hurrying up and told Barbara that they were on the way. He had managed to speak to the syndic, and told him who was waiting for him.

A young maid-servant, running rapidly, came first to open the house and light the lamps. She was followed, quite a distance in advance of the others, by Dr. Hiltner.

The fisherman's communication had made him anxious. He, too, had heard that Barbara was the Emperor's favourite. Besides, more than one complaint of her offensive arrogance had reached him. But, for that very reason, the wise man said to himself, it must be something of importance that led her to him at this hour and in such weather.

At first he answered her greeting with cool reserve, but when she explained that she had come, in spite of the storm, because the matter concerned the weal or woe of a person dear to him, and he saw that she was dripping wet, he honestly regretted his long delay, and in his manly, resolute manner requested her to follow him into the house; but Barbara could not be persuaded to do so.

To give the thunderstorm time to pass and take his wife and daughter home dry, he had entered a tavern near the lindens and there engaged in conversation with several friends over some wine. Whenever he urged returning, the young people--she knew why--objected. But at last they had started, and Bernhard Trainer had accompanied the Hiltners, in order to woo Martina on the way. Her parents had seen this coming, and willingly confided their child's happiness to him.

The betrothed couple now came up also, and saw with surprise the earnest zeal with which Martina's father was discussing something, they knew not what, with the singer on whose account they had had their first quarrel. The lover had condemned Barbara's unprecedented arrogance during the dance so severely that Martina found it unendurable to listen longer.

Frau Sabina, too, did not know how to interpret Barbara's presence; but one thing was certain in her kindly heart--this was no place for such conversation. How wet the poor girl must be! The wrong which Barbara had done her child was not taken into consideration under these circumstances and, with maternal solicitude, she followed her husband's example, and earnestly entreated Barbara to change her clothes in her house and warm herself with a glass of hot black currant wine. But Barbara could not be induced to do so, and hurriedly explained to the syndic what he lacked the clew to understand.

In a few minutes she had made him acquainted with everything that it was necessary for him to know. Dr. Hiltner, turning to his wife, and mean while looking his future son-in-law steadily in the eye, exclaimed, "We are all, let me tell you, greatly indebted to this brave girl."

Frau Sabina's heart swelled with joy, and to Martina, too, the praise which her father bestowed on Barbara was a precious gift. The mother and daughter had always espoused her cause, and now it again proved that they had done well.

"So I was right, after all," whispered the young girl to her lover.

"And will prove so often," he answered gaily. But when, a short time after, he proposed to Barbara's warm advocate to accompany the singer home, Martina preferred to detain him, and invited him to stay in the house with her a little while longer.

These incidents had occupied only a brief period, and Dr. Hiltner undertook to escort the young girl himself. To save time, he questioned her about everything which he still desired to know, but left her before she turned into the lane leading to the little castle, because he was aware that she, who belonged to the Emperor's household, might he misjudged if she were seen in his company.

Shortly after, he had freed Erasmus from imprisonment and sent him, in charge of one of the Council's halberdiers, beyond the gate. He was to remain concealed outside the city until the syndic recalled him.

The young theologian willingly submitted, after confessing to his foster-father how strongly love for Barbara had taken possession of him.

This act might arouse strong hostility to the syndic, but he did not fear it. Moreover, the Emperor had showed at the festival plainly enough his withdrawal of the good opinion which he had formerly testified upon many an occasion. This was on account of his religion, and where that was concerned there was no yielding or dissimulation on either side.

Barbara returned home soothed.

Frau Lerch was waiting for her, and with many tokens of disapproval undressed her. Yet she carefully dried her feet and rubbed them with her hands, that she might escape the fever which she saw approaching.

Barbara accepted with quiet gratitude the attention bestowed upon her, but, though she closed her eyes, the night brought no sleep, for sometimes she shivered in a chill, sometimes a violent headache tortured her.