Volume 1.
Chapter V.
 

The captain limped out into the cellar, but Barbara was already standing behind the table again, moving the irons.

"When I am rich," she exclaimed, in reply to Wolf, who asked her to stop her work in this happy hour and share the delicious wine with him and her father, "I shall shun such maid-servant's business. But what else can be done? We have less money than we need to keep up our position, and that must be remedied. Besides, a neatly crimped ruff is necessary if a poor girl like me is to stand beside the others in the singing rehearsal early to-morrow morning. Poor folks are alike everywhere, and, so long as I can do no better--but luck will come to me, too, some day--this right hand must be my maid. Let it alone, or my iron will burn your fingers!"

This threat was very nearly fulfilled, for Wolf had caught her right hand to hold it firmly while he at last compelled her to hear that his future destiny depended upon her decision.

How much easier he had expected to find the wooing! Yet how could it be otherwise? Every young man in Ratisbon was probably courting this peerless creature. No doubt she had already rebuffed many another as sharply as she had just prevented him from seizing her hand. If her manner had grown more independent, she had learned to defend herself cleverly.

He would first try to assail her heart with words, and they were at his disposal in black and white. He had placed in the little box with the breastpin a piece of paper on which he had given expression to his feelings in verse. Hitherto it had remained unnoticed and fluttered to the ground. Picking it up, he introduced his suit, after a brief explanation, by reading aloud the lines which he had composed in Brussels to accompany his gifts to her.

It was an easy task, for he had painted rather than written his poetic homage, with beautiful ornaments on the initial letters, and in the most careful red and black Gothic characters, which looked like print. So, with a vivacity of intonation which harmonized with the extravagance of the poetry, he began:

       "Queen of my heart wert thou in days of old,
        Beloved maid, in childhood's garb so plain;
        I bring thee velvet now, and silk and gold
        Though I am but a poor and simple swain
        That in robes worthy of thee may be seen
        My sovereign, of all thy sex the queen."

Barbara nodded pleasantly to him, saying: "Very pretty. Perhaps you might arrange your little verse in a duo, but how you must have taxed your imagination, you poor fellow, to transform the flighty good-for-nothing whom you left five years ago into a brilliant queen!"

"Because, even at that time," he ardently exclaimed. "I had placed you on the throne of my heart, because the bud already promised--Yet no! In those days I could not suspect that it would unfold into so marvellous a rose. You stand before me now more glorious than I beheld you in the most radiant of all my dreams, and therefore the longing to possess you, which I could never relinquish, will make me appear almost insolently bold. But it must be risked, and if you will fulfil the most ardent desire of a faithful heart--"

"Gently, my little Wolf, gently," she interposed soothingly. "If I am right, you mounted our narrow stairs to seek a wife and, when my father returns, you will ask for my hand."

"That I will," the young knight declared with eager positiveness. "Your 'Yes' or 'No,' Wawerl, is to me the decree of Fate, to which even the gods submit without opposition."

"Indeed?" she answered, uttering the word slowly, with downcast eyes. Then suddenly drawing herself to her full height, she added with a graver manner than he had ever seen her wear: "It is fortunate that I have learned the stories of the gods which are so popular in the Netherlands. If any one else should come to me with such pretences, I would scarcely believe that he had honest intentions. You are in earnest, Wolf, and wish to make me your wife. But 'Yes' and 'No' can not be spoken as quickly as you probably imagine. You were always a good, faithful fellow, and I am sincerely attached to you. But have I even the slightest knowledge of what you obtained abroad or what awaits you here?"

"Wawerl!" he interrupted reproachfully. "Would I as an honest man seek your hand if I had not made money enough to support a wife whose expectations were not too extravagant? You can not reasonably doubt that, and now, when the most sacred of bonds is in question, it ought--"

"It ought, you think, to satisfy me?" she interrupted with confident superiority. "But one of two things must follow this sacred bond-happiness or misery in the earthly life which is entered from the church steps. I am tired of the miserable starving and struggling, my dear Wolf. Marriage must at least rid me of these gloomy spectres. My father will not let you leave soon the good wine he allows himself and you to enjoy--you know that. Tell him how you are situated at the court, and what prospects, you have here in Ratisbon or elsewhere; for instance, I would gladly go to the magnificent Netherlands with my husband. Inform yourself better, too, of the amount of your inheritance. The old man will take me into his confidence early to-morrow morning. But I will confess this to you now: The most welcome husband to me would be a zealous and skilful disciple of music, and I know that wish will be fulfilled with you. If, perhaps, you are already what I call a successful man, we will see. But--I have learned that--no happiness will thrive on bread and water, and even a modest competence, as it is called, won't do for me."

"But Wawerl," he interrupted dejectedly, "what could be better than true, loyal love? Just hear what I was going to tell you, and have not yet reached."

But Barbara would not listen, cutting his explanation short with the words:

"All that is written as distinctly on the tender swain's face as if I had it before me in black letter, but unfortunately it has as little power to move me to reckless haste as the angry visage into which your affectionate one is now transformed. The Scripture teaches us to prove before we retain. Yet if, on this account, you take me for a woman whose heart and hand can be bought for gold, you are mistaken. Worthy Peter Schlumperger is constantly courting me. And I? I have asked him to wait, although he is perhaps the richest man in the city. I might have Bernard Crafft, too, at any time, but he, perhaps, is as much too young as Herr Peter is too old, yet, on the other hand, he owns the Golden Cross, and, besides, has inherited a great deal of money and a flourishing business. I keep both at a distance, and I did the same--only more rigidly--last year when the Count Palatine von Simmern made me proposals which would have rendered me a rich woman, but only aroused my indignation. I dealt more indulgently with the Ratisbon men, but I certainly shall take neither of them, for they care more for the wine in the taproom than the most exquisite pleasures which music offers, and, besides, they are foes of our holy faith, and Herr Schlumperger is even one of those who most zealously favour the heretical innovations."

Here she hesitated and her eyes met his with distrustful keenness as she asked in an altered tone:

"And you? Have not you returned to the false doctrines with which your boyish head was bewildered in the school of poetry?"

"I confided to you then," he exclaimed, deeply hurt, "the solemn vow I made to my poor mother ere she closed her eyes in death."

"Then that obstacle is removed," Barbara answered in a more gentle tone, "but I will not take back even a single word of what I have said about other matters. I am not like the rest of the girls. My father--Holy Virgin!--how much too late he was born! Among the Crusaders this fearless hero, whom the pepper-bags here jeer at as a 'Turkey gobbler,' would have been sure of every honour. How ill-suited he is for any mercantile business, on the other hand, he has unfortunately proved. Wherever he attempted anything, disappointment followed disappointment. To fight in Tunis against the crescent, he let our flourishing lumber trade go to ruin! And my mother! How young I was when her dead body was borne out of the house, yet I can still see the haughty woman--whose image I am said to be--in her trailing velvet robe, with plumes waving amid the curls arranged in a towering mass upon her head. She was dressed in that way when the men came to sell our house in the Kramgasse at auction. She must have been one of the women under whose management, as a matter of course, the household is neglected."

"How can you talk so about your own mother?" Wolf interrupted in a somewhat reproachful tone.

"Because we are not here to flatter the dead or to speak falsely to each other, but to understand how matters are between us," she answered gravely. "How you are constituted is best known to yourself, but it seems to me that while far away you have formed a totally false opinion of me, whom you placed upon the throne of your heart, and I wish to correct it, that you may not plunge into misfortune like a deluded simpleton and drag me with you. Where, as in my case, so many things are different from what the good and humble would desire them to be, it is not very pleasant to open one's whole heart to another, and there is no one else in the world for whom I would do it. Perhaps I shall not succeed at all, for often enough I am incomprehensible to myself. I shall understand myself most speedily if I bring before my mind my father's and my mother's nature, and recall the ancient saying that young birds sing like the old ones. My father--I love him in spite of all his eccentricities and weaknesses. Dear me! he needs me so much, and would be miserable without me. Though he is a head taller than you, he has remained a child."

"But a good, kind-hearted one!" Wolf interrupted with warm affection.

"Of course," Barbara eagerly responded; "and if I have inherited from him anything which is ill-suited to me, it is the fearless courage which does not beseem us women. We progress much farther if we hold back timidly. Therefore, often as it impels me to resistance, I yield unless it is too strong for me. Besides, but for your interruption, I should have said nothing about my father. What concerns us I inherited from my mother, and, as I mean kindly toward you, this very heritage compels me to warn you against marrying me if you are unable to support me so that I can make a good appearance among Ratisbon wives. Moreover, poor church mouse though I am, I sometimes give them one thing and another to guess, and I haven't far to travel to learn what envy is. In my present position, however, compassion is far more difficult to bear than ill-will. But I by no means keep out of the way on that account. I must be seen and heard if I am to be happy, and I shall probably succeed so long as my voice retains the melting tone which is now peculiar to it. Should anything destroy that, there will be a change. Then--I know this in advance--I shall tread in the footsteps of my mother, who had no means of satisfying her longing for admiration except her pretty face, her beautiful figure, and the finery which she stole from the poverty of her husband, and her only child. How you are staring at me again! But I can not forget that now; for, had it not been so, we should still be living in our own house as a distinguished family of knightly rank, and I should have no need to spend my best hours in secretly washing laces for others--yes, for others, Wolf--to gain a wretched sum of which even my father must be ignorant. You do not know how we are obliged to economize, and yet I can only praise the pride of my father, who induced me to return the gifts which the Council sends to the house by the town clerk when I sing in the Convivium musicum. But what a pleasure it is to show the bloated fellow the door when he pulls out the linen purse! True, many things must be sacrificed to do it, and how hard that often is can not be described. I would not bear it long. But, if I were your wife and you had only property enough for a modest competence, you would scarcely fare better, through my fault, than my poor father. That would surely be the result"--she raised her voice in passionate eagerness as she spoke:

"I know myself. As for the immediate future, I feel that the ever-increasing longing for better days and the rank which is my due will kill me if I do not satisfy it speedily. I shall never be content with any half-way position, and I fear you can not offer me more. Talk with my father, and think of it during the night. Were I in your place, I would at once resign the wish to win a person like me, for if you really love me as ardently as it seems, you will receive in exchange only a lukewarm liking for your person and a warm interest in what you can accomplish; but in other respects, far worse than nothing--peril after peril. But if you will be reasonable and give up your suit, I shall not blame you a moment. How bewildered you still stare at me! But there comes father, and I must finish my work before the irons get cold."

Wolf gazed after her speechlessly, while she withdrew behind the table as quietly as if they had been discussing the most commonplace things.