Barbara Blomberg by Georg Ebers
Wolf Hartschwert had come to Brussels and sought Barbara.
Her husband was attending to the duties of his office in the Rhine country when she received her former lover. Had Pyramus been present, he might perhaps have considered the knight a less dangerous opponent than seven years before, for a great change had taken place in his outer man. The boyish appearance which at that time still clung to him had vanished and, by constant intercourse with the Castilian nobility, he had acquired a manly, self-assured bearing perfectly in harmony with his age and birth.
As he sat opposite to Barbara for the first time, she could not avert her eyes from him and, with both his hands clasped in hers, she let him tell her of his journey to Brussels and his efforts to find her in the great city. Meanwhile she scarcely heeded the purport of his words; it was enough to feel the influence exerted by the tone of his voice, and to be reminded by his features and his every gesture of something once dear to her.
He appeared like the living embodiment of the first beautiful days of her youth, and her whole soul was full of gratitude that he had sought her; while he, too, had the same experience, though his former passion had long since changed into a totally different feeling. He thought her beautiful, but her permitting their hands to remain clasped so long now agitated him no more than if she had been a dear, long-absent sister.
When Barbara was told who awaited her in the sitting roam and, with flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes, clad in a light morning gown which was very becoming to her, had hastened to greet him, his heart had indeed throbbed faster, and it seemed as though an unexpected Easter morning awaited the old buried love; but she had scarcely uttered his name and exchanged a few words of greeting in a voice which, though no longer hoarse, still lacked melody, than the flood of newly awakened emotions swiftly ebbed again.
She was still only half the Wawerl of former days, whose musical voice had helped to make her the queen of his heart. So he had soon regained the calmness which, in Spain and on the journey here, he had expected to test at their meeting. Even the last trace of a deeper emotion passed away when she told him of her husband, her children, and her gray-haired father in Ratisbon, for the hasty, almost reluctant manner with which this was done perplexed and displeased him. True, he could not know that from the first moment of their meeting her one desire had been to obtain news of her stolen son. Everything else appeared trivial in comparison. And what constraint she was forced to impose upon herself when, not hearing her cautious introductory question, he told her about Villagarcia, his peerless mistress, Doha Magdalena de Ulloa, and his musical success! Not until he said that during the winter he would be occupied in training the boy choir at Valladolid did she approach her goal by inquiring about the welfare of the violinist Massi.
Both he and his family were in excellent health, Wolf replied. Rest in his little house at Leganes seemed to have fairly rejuvenated him.
Now Barbara herself mentioned the boy whom Massi had taken to Spain in the train of the Infant Don Philip.
How this affected Wolf!
He started, not only in surprise, but in actual alarm, and eagerly demanded to know who had spoken to her about this child in connection with the violinist.
Barbara now said truthfully that she had seen Massi with her own eyes in the Infant's train. So beautiful a boy is not easily forgotten, and she would be glad to hear news of him.
Wolf, however, seemed reluctant to talk of this child. True, he hastily remarked, he sometimes visited him at the request of his gracious mistress, but he had no more knowledge of his real origin than she or Dona Magdalena de Ulloa. The latter supposed the boy to be her husband's child, and in her generosity therefore interested herself doubly in the forsaken boy, though only at a distance and through his mediation; for his own part, he could never believe the fair-haired, pink-and-white Geronimo to be a son of the dark-skinned, black-eyed Don Luis. True, the stony silence which the major-domo maintained toward all questions concerning the lad would neither permit him to soothe his wife nor confirm her fear. At any rate, Geronimo must be the son of some great noble. This was perfectly apparent from his bearing, the symmetry of his limbs, his frank, imperious nature--nay, from every movement of this remarkable child.
At this assurance Barbara's soul glowed with proud maternal joy. Her blue eyes sparkled with a brighter light, and the sunny, radiant glance with which she thanked Wolf for his information exerted an unexpected influence upon him, for he shrank back as though the curtain which concealed a rare marvel had been lifted and, drawing a long breath, gazed into her beautiful, joyous face.
It seemed as if the luminous reflection of the proud, noble, and pure delight which shone upon him from her eyes had beamed in little Geronimo's a few weeks before when he rushed up to him to show his hunting spoils, a fitchet and several birds which he had killed with his pretty little cross-bow, a gift from Dona Magdalena. And Barbara's wavy golden hair, the little dimple in her cheek! Geronimo must be her child; this wonderful resemblance could not deceive.
"Barbara," he cried, pressing his hand to his brow with deep emotion, "Geronimo is--gracious Virgin!--the handsome, proud, deserted boy may be----"
But an imperious gesture from the young wife closed his lips; Frau Lamperi had just led her two boys, beautifully dressed as they always were when any distinguished visitor called upon their mother, into the room. The expression of radiant happiness which had just illumined her features vanished at the sight of the little ones, and she commanded the children to be taken away at once.
She looked so stern and resolute that her faithful maid lacked courage to make any sign of recognising the knight, whom she had known while she was in the regent's service.
When the door had closed behind the group, Barbara again turned to her friend, and in a low tone asked, "And suppose that you saw aright, and Geronimo were really my child?"
"Then--then," Wolf faltered in bewilderment, "then Don Luis would--But surely it can not be! Then, after all, Quijada would be--"
Here a low laugh from Barbara broke the silence, and with dilated eyes he learned who Geronimo's parents were.
Then the knight listened breathlessly to the young mother's account of the robbery of her child, and how, in spite of her own boys and the vow which she had made the Dubois couple not to follow the Emperor's son, she lived only in and through him.
"The Emperor Charles!" cried Wolf, as if he now understood for the first time what he might so easily have guessed if the fair-haired boy had not grown up amid such extremely plain surroundings. The belief that Geronimo owed his life to Quijada had been inspired by Massi himself.
But while the knight was striving to accustom himself to this wholly novel circle of ideas, Barbara, with passionate impetuosity, clasped his right hand and placed it on the crucifix which hung on her rosary.
Then she commanded her astonished friend to swear to guard this secret, which was not hers alone, from every living being.
Wolf yielded without resistance to her passionate entreaties, but scarcely had he lowered the hand uplifted to take the oath than he urged her at least to grant him permission to restore Dona Magdalena's peace of mind; but Barbara waved her hand with resolute denial, hastily exclaiming: "No, no, no! Don Luis was the tool in every blow which Charles, his master, dealt at my happiness and peace. Let the woman who is dear to him, and who is already winning by her gifts the child's love, which belongs to me, and to me alone, now feel how the heart of one who is deceived can ache."
Here, deeply wounded, Wolf burst into a complaint of the harshness and injustice of such vengeance; but Barbara insisted so defiantly upon her will that he urged her no further, and seized his hat to retire.
Deep resentment had taken possession of him. This misguided woman, embittered by misfortune, possessed the power of rendering the greatest benefit to one infinitely her superior in nobility of soul, and with cruel defiance she refused it.
His whole heart was full of gratitude and love for Dona Magdalena, who by her unvarying kindness and elevating example had healed his wounded soul, and no ignoble wish had sullied this great and deep affection. Although for years he had devoted to her all the ability and good will which he possessed, he still felt deeply in her debt and, now that the first opportunity of rendering her a great service presented itself, he was deprived of the possibility of doing it by the woman who had already destroyed the happiness of his youth.
So bitter was the resentment which filled his soul that he could not bring himself to seek her on the following day; but she awaited him with the sorrowful fear that she had saddened the return of her best and truest friend. Besides, she was now beginning to be tortured by the consciousness of having broken or badly fulfilled the vow by which she had won from the Holy Virgin the life of her sick Conrad. Why had she sent her boys away the day before, instead of showing them to the friend of her youth with maternal joy? because her heart had been full of the image of the other, whose rare beauty and patrician bearing Wolf had so enthusiastically described. True, her pair of little boys would not have borne comparison with the Emperor's son, yet they were both good, well-formed children, and clung to her with filial affection. Why could she not even now, when Heaven itself forced her to be content, free herself from the fatal imperial "More, farther," which, both for the monarch and for her, had lost its power to command and to promise?
When, on the evening after Wolf's visit, she bent over the children sleeping in their little bed, she felt as a nurse may who comes from a patient who has succumbed to a contagious disease and now fears communicating it to her new charge. Suppose that the gracious intercessor should punish her broken vow by raising her hand against the children sleeping there? This dread seized the guilty mother with irresistible power, and she wondered that the cheeks of the little sleepers were not already glowing with fever.
She threw herself penitently on her knees before the priedieu, and the first atonement to be made for the broken vow was apparent. She must allow Wolf to restore peace to Dona Magdalena's troubled mind. This was not easy, for she had cherished her resentment against this woman's husband, through whom she had experienced bitter suffering, for many years. His much-lauded wife herself was a stranger to her, yet she could not think of her except with secret dislike; it seemed as if a woman who bore the separation from the man she loved so patiently, and yet won all hearts, must go through life--unless she was a hypocrite--with cold fish blood.
What right had this lady to the boy to whom Barbara gave birth, whose love would now be hers had it not been wrested from her? What was denied to her would be lavished upon this favoured woman, and when she bestowed gifts upon the glorious child for whom every pulse of her being longed, and repaid his love with love, it was regarded as a fresh proof of her noble kindness of heart. To withhold from this woman something which would give her fresh happiness and relieve her of sorrow might have afforded her a certain satisfaction. To bless those who curse and despitefully use us was certainly the hardest command; but on the priedieu she vowed to the Virgin to fulfil it, and in a calmer mood than before she bent over the boys to kiss them.
The next day glided by in painful anxiety, for Wolf did not return. The following morning and afternoon also passed without bringing him. Not until the rays of the setting sun were forcing their way through the pinks and rose bushes with which Pyramus kept her window adorned throughout the year, because she loved flowers, and the vesper bells were chiming, did her friend return.
This time she had dressed her boys with her own hands, and when, through the door which separated her from the entry, she heard Wolf greet them with merry words, her heart grew lighter, and the swift thanksgiving which she uttered blended with the dying notes of the bells.
Leading Conrad by the hand, and carrying the three-year-old youngest boy in his arms, Wolf entered the room.
The child of a former love easily wins its way to the heart of the man who has been obliged to resign her. Wolf's eyes showed that he was pleased with Barbara's merry lads, and she thanked him for it by the warmest reception.
Not until after he had said many a pleasant word to her about the little boys, and jested with them in the manner of one who loves children, did he resume his grave manner and confess that he could not make up his mind to leave Barbara without a farewell. He was glad to find her in the possession of such treasures, but his time was limited, and he must, unfortunately, content himself with this last brief meeting.
While speaking, he rose to leave her; but she stopped him, saying in a low tone: "Surely you know me, Wolf, and are aware that I do not always persist in the resolves to which my hasty temper urges me. It shall not be my fault if the peace of your Dona Magdalena's soul remains clouded longer, and so I release you from your vow so far as she is concerned."
Then, for the first time since their meeting, the familiar, pleasant "Wawerl" greeted her, and with tearful eyes she clasped his outstretched hands.
Wolf had just told her that his time was short; but now he willingly allowed himself to be persuaded to put down his sword and hat, and when Frau Lamperi brought in some refreshments, he recognised her, and asked her several pleasant questions.
It seemed as though Barbara's change of mood had overthrown the barrier which her stern refusal had raised between them. Calm and cheerful as in former days he sat before her, listening while, in obedience to his invitation, she told him, with many a palliation and evasion, about her married life and the children. She made her story short, in order at last to hear some further particulars concerning the welfare of her distant son.
What Wolf related of the outward appearance of her John, to whose new name, Geronimo, she gradually became accustomed, Barbara could complete from her vivid recollection of this rare child. He had remained strong and healthy, and the violinist Massi, his good wife, and their daughter loved the little fellow and cared for him as if he were their own son and brother.
The musician, it is true, lived plainly enough, but there was no want of anything in the modest country house with the gay little flower garden. Nor did the boy lack playmates, though they were only the children of the farmers and townspeople of Leganes. Clad but little better than they, he shared their merry, often rough games. Geronimo called the violinist and his wife father and mother.
Then Barbara desired a more minute description of his dress, and when Wolf, laughing, confessed that he wore a cap only when he went to church, and on hot summer days he had even met him barefoot, she clasped her hands in astonishment and dismay. Not until her friend assured her that among the thin, dark-haired Spaniards, with their close-cropped heads and flashing black eyes, he, with his fluttering golden curls and free, graceful movements, looked like a white swan among dark-plumaged ducks, did she raise her head with a contented expression, and the sunny glance peculiar to her again reminded her friend of the Emperor's son.
His lofty brow, Wolf said, he had inherited from his father, and his mind was certainly bright; but what could be predicted with any certainty concerning the intellectual powers of a boy scarcely seven years old? The pastor Bautista Bela was training him to piety. The sacristan Francisco Fernandez ought to have begun to teach him to read a year ago; but until now Geronimo had always run away, and when he, Wolf, asked the worthy old man, at Dona Magdalena's request, whether he would undertake to instruct him in the rudiments of Latin, as well as in reading and writing, he shook his head doubtfully.
Here a smile hovered around the speaker's lips, and, as if some amusing recollection rose in his mind, he went on gaily: "He's a queer old fellow, and when I repeated my question, he put his finger against his nose, saying: 'Whoever supposes I could teach a young romper like that anything but keeping quiet, is mistaken. Why? Because I know nothing myself.' Then the old man reflected, and added, 'But--I shall not even succeed in keeping this one quiet, because he is so much swifter than I."
"And is the Emperor Charles satisfied with such a teacher for his son?" asked Barbara indignantly.
"Massi had described the sacristan to Don Luis as a learned man," replied Wolf. "But I have now told his Majesty of a better one."
"Then you have talked to the Emperor?" asked Barbara, blushing.
Her friend nodded assent, and said mournfully: "My heart still aches when I recall the meeting. O Wawerl! what a man he was when, like a fool, I persuaded him in Ratisbon to hear you sing, and how he looked yesterday!"
"Tell me," she here interrupted earnestly, raising her hands beseechingly.
"It can scarcely be described," Wolf answered, as if under the spell of a painful memory. "He could hardly hold himself up, even in the arm-chair in which he sat. The lower part of his face seems withered, and the upper-even the beautiful lofty brow--is furrowed by deep wrinkles. At every third word his breath fails. One of his diseases, Dr. Mathys says, would be enough to kill any other man, and he has more than there are fingers on the hand. Besides, even now he will not take advice, but eats and drinks whatever suits his taste."
Barbara shook her head angrily; but Wolf, noticing it, said: "He is the sovereign, and who would venture to withhold anything on which his will is set? But his desires are shrivelling like his face and his body."
"Is the man of the 'More, farther,' also learning to be content?" asked Barbara anxiously. Wolf rose, answering firmly: "No, certainly not! His eyes still sparkle as brightly in his haggard face as if he had by no means given up the old motto. True, Don Luis declares that rest is the one thing for which he longs, and you will see that he knows how to obtain it; but what he means by it only contains fresh conflicts and struggles. His 'Plus ultra' had rendered him the greatest of living men; now he desires to become the least of the least, because the Lord promises to make the last the first. I was received by the regent like a friend. She confided to me that he often repeats the Saviour's words, 'Go, sell all that thou halt, and follow me.' He is determined to cast aside throne, sceptre, and purple, power and splendour, and Don Luis believes that he will know how to gratify this desire, like every other. What a resolution! But there are special motives concealed beneath it. Nothing but death can bring repose to this restless spirit, and if he finds the quiet for which he longs, what tasks he will set himself! Don Philip promises, as an obedient son, to continue to wield the sceptre according to the policy of the father who intrusts it to him."
"And then?" asked Barbara eagerly.
"Then will begin the life in the imitation of Christ, which hovers before him."
"Here in the Brabant palace?" interposed Barbara incredulously. "Here, where his neighbours, the brilliant nobles, enjoy life in noisy magnificence; here, among the ambassadors, the thousand rumours from the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain; here, where the battle against the heretical and liberty-loving yearnings of the citizens never ceases--how can he hope to find peace and composure here?"
"He is far from it," Wolf eagerly interrupted. "'Farewell till we meet again at no distant day upon Spanish soil!' were the parting words of my gracious mistress. Will you promise secrecy?"
Barbara held out her hand with a significant glance; but Wolf, in a lower tone, continued: "He expects to find in Spain the peaceful spot for which he longs. There he will commend himself to the mercy of God, and prepare for the true life which death is to him. There he expects to be free from time-killing business, and to grant his mind that which he has long desired and a thousand duties forced him to withhold. There, in quiet leisure, he hopes to strive for knowledge and to penetrate deeply into all the new things which were discovered, invented, created, and improved during his reign, and of which he was permitted to learn far too little thoroughly. He will endeavour to gain a better understanding of what stirs, fires, angers, and divides the theologians. He desires to pursue in detail the vast new discoveries of the astronomers, which even amid the pressure of duties he had explained to him. His inquisitive mind seeks to know the new discoveries of navigation, the distant countries which it brought to view. He hopes to search into the plans and works of the architects of fortifications and makers of maps and, by no means least, he is anxious to become thoroughly familiar with the inventions of mechanicians, which have so long aroused his interest."
"He liked to talk to me about these things, and the power of the human intellect, which now shows the true course of the sun and stars," Barbara interrupted with eager assent. "He often showed me the ingenious wheelwork of his Nuremberg clocks. Once--I still hear the words--he compared the most delicate with the thousandfold more sublime works of God, the vast, ceaseless machinery of the universe, where there is no misplaced spring, no inaccurately adjusted cog in the wheels. Oh, that glorious intellect! What hours were those when he condescended to point out to a poor girl like me the eternal chronometers above our heads, repeat their names, and show the connection between the planets and the course of earthly events and human lives! O Wolf! how glorious it was! How my modest mind increased in strength! And when I listened breathlessly, and he saw how I bowed in mute admiration before his greatness and called me his dear child, his attentive pupil, and pressed his lips to my burning brow, can I ever forget that?"
She sobbed aloud as she spoke and, overwhelmed by the grief which mastered her, covered her face with her hands.
Wolf said nothing. Another had robbed him of the woman he loved, and the greatest anguish of his life was not yet wholly conquered; but in this hour he felt that he had no right to be angry with Barbara, for it was to the greatest of great men that he had been forced to yield. He need not feel it a disgrace to have succumbed to him.
"Wawerl!" he again exclaimed, "in spite of the pleasant peace which I have found, I could envy you; for once, at least, the sun of love shone with full radiance into your soul. Your experience proves how bright and long is the afterglow if it is only real. This light, I believe, can never be extinguished, no matter how dense is the gloom which shadows life's pathway."
"Yes, indeed, Wolf," she replied dully, with a sorrowful shake of the head. "The gloomy night of which you speak has come, and it will last on and on with unvarying darkness, from year to year, perhaps until the end. What you call light is the remembrance of a single brief month of May. Does it possess the power to render me happy? No, my friend, a thousand times no! It only saves me from despair. But, in spite of everything"--and here her eyes sparkled radiantly--"in spite of all this, I would not change places with any one on earth; for, however dark clouds may conceal the sun, when in quiet hours it once breaks through them, Wolf, how brilliant everything grows around me!"
While speaking, she passed her hand across her brow and, as though seized with shame for her frank confession, exclaimed: "But we will let this subject drop. Only you must know one thing more. I shall never be wholly impoverished. What the past gave me was too rich and great; what I expect from the future is too precious for that. It is growing up in distant Spain and, if Heaven accepted the great sacrifice which I once made for the boy whom you call Geronimo, if he receives what I besought for him at that time and on every returning day, then, Wolf, I shall bear the burden of my woe like a light garland of rose leaves. Nay, more. Charles will regain his youth sooner than--be it in love or hate--he will ever forget me. This child guarantees that. It is and will always remain a bridge between us. He, too, can not forget the son, and if he does----"
"No, Barbara, no," interrupted Wolf, carried away by her passionate warmth. "The Emperor Charles is constantly thinking of his fair-haired boy. No one has told me so; but if he seeks in Spain the rest for which he longs, the thought of Geronimo--I am sure of that--is not the least powerful cause which draws him thither."
"Do you really think so?" asked Barbara with feverish anxiety.
"Yes," he answered firmly. "This very morning he commanded Don Luis to take the child from Leganes to Villagarcia and commit the education of Geronimo to his wife, that he may find him what he expects and desires."
Here he paused, and Barbara inquired uneasily, "And did he say nothing of Geronimo's mother--of me?"
Wolf shook his head with silent compassion, and then reluctantly admitted: "I ventured to mention you, but, with one of those looks which no one can resist--you know them--he ordered me to be silent."
Barbara's cheeks flamed with resentment and shame, but she only said, smiling bitterly: "Grief is grief, and this new sorrow does not change the old one. He knows best that I am something more than the poor officer's wife in the Saint-Gory quarter; but I look down, with just pride, on all the others who believe me to be nothing else. Now and always, even long after I am dead, the world will be obliged to recognise the claim which elevates me far above the throng: I am the mother of an Emperor's son!"
She had uttered these words with uplifted head; but Wolf gazed in wondering admiration into the beautiful face, radiant with proud self-satisfaction.
He wished to leave her with this image before his soul, and therefore hurriedly extended his hand and said farewell, after promising to fulfil her entreaty never to come to Brussels without showing by a visit that he remembered her.