Volume 2.
Chapter IX.
 

The Queen's commission imposed upon Wolf a long series of inspections, inquiries, orders, and preparations, the most important of which detained him a long time at the Golden Cross.

After he had done what was necessary there, he hastily took a lunch, and then went to the house of the Golden Stag. The steward of the Schiltl family, to whom the house belonged, but who were now in the country, had given the boy choir shelter there, and Wolf was obliged to inform the leader of his arrangements. Appenzelder had intended to practise exercises with his young pupils in the chapel belonging to this old house, familiar to all the inhabitants of Ratisbon, but Wolf found it empty. On the other hand, young, clear voices echoed from a room in the lower story.

The door stood half open, and, before he crossed the threshold, he had heard with surprise the members of the boy choir, lads ranging from twelve to fifteen, discussing how they should spend the leisure time awaiting them.

The ringleader, Giacomo Bianchi, from Bologna, was asserting that "the old bear"--he meant Appenzelder--"would never permit the incomplete choir to sing before the Emperor and his royal sister."

"So we shall have the afternoon," he exclaimed. "The grooms will give me a horse, and after dinner I, and whoever cares to go with me, will ride back to the village where we last stopped. What do I want there? I'll get the kiss which the tavernkeeper's charming little daughter owes me. Her sweet mouth and fair braids with the bows of blue ribbon--I saw nothing prettier anywhere!"

"Yes, these blondes!" cried Angelo Negri, a Neapolitan boy of thirteen, rolling his black eyes upward enthusiastically, and kissing, for lack of warm lips, the empty air.

"Sweet, sweet, sweet," sighed Giacoma Bianchi.

"Sweet enough," remarked little thick-set Cornelius Groen from Breda, in broken Italian. "Yet you surely are not thinking of that silly girl, with her flaxen braids, but of the nice honey and the light white pastry she brought us. If we can get that again, I'll ride there with you."

"I won't," protested Wilhelm Haldema, from Leuwarden in Friesland. "I shall go down to the river with my pole. It's swarming with fish."

Wolf had remained concealed until this moment. Now he entered the huge apartment.

The boys rushed toward him with joyous ease, and, as they crowded around him, asking all sorts of questions, it was evident that he possessed their affection and confidence.

He kindly motioned to them to keep silence, and asked what induced them to expect leisure time on that day, when, by the exertion of all their powers, they were to display their skill in the presence of their mistress and the Emperor.

The answer was not delayed--nay, it sprang from many young lips at the same time. Unfortunately, its character was such that Wolf scarcely ventured to hope for the full success of the surprise.

Johann of Cologne and Benevenuto Bosco of Catania, in Sicily, the two leaders and ornaments of the choir, were so very ill that their recovery could scarcely be expected even within the next few days. The native of Cologne had been attacked on the way by a hoarseness which made the fifteenyear-old lad uneasy, because signs of the approaching change of voice had already appeared.

The break meant to the extremely musical youth, who had been distinguished by the bell-like purity of his tones, the loss of his well-paid position in the boy choir, which, for his poor mother's sake, he must retain as long as possible. So, with mingled grief and hope, he dipped deeply into his slender purse when, at Neumarkt, where the travelling musicians spent the night just at the time the annual fair was held, he met a quack who promised to help him.

This extremely talkative old man, who styled himself "Body physician to many distinguished princes and courts," boasted of possessing a secret remedy of the famous Bartliolomaus Anglicus, which, besides other merits, also had the power of bestowing upon a harsh voice the melody of David's harp.

Still, the young native of Cologne delayed some time before using the nostrum. Not until the hoarseness increased alarmingly did he in his need take the leech's prescription, and Benevenuto Bosco, whom he had admitted to his confidence, and who also felt a certain rawness in his throat, since beyond Nuremberg one shower of rain after another had drenched the travellers, asked him to let him use the medicine also.

At first both thought that they felt a beneficial result; but soon their condition changed for the worse, and their illness constantly increased.

On reaching Ratisbon they were obliged to go to bed, and a terrible night was followed by an equally bad morning.

When Appenzelder returned from the audience at the Golden Cross, he found his two best singers in so pitiable a condition that he was obliged to summon the Emperor's leech, Dr. Mathys, to the sufferers.

The famous physician was really under obligations to remain near the sovereign at this time of day. Yet he had gone at once to the Stag, and pronounced the patients there to be the victims of severe poisoning.

A Ratisbon colleague, whom he found with the sufferers, was to superintend the treatment which he prescribed.

He had left the house a short time before. Master Appenzelder, Wolf heard from the choir boys, was now with the invalids, and the knight set off to inquire about them at once.

He had forbidden the idle young singers who wanted to go with him to follow, but one had secretly slipped after, and, in one of the dark corridors of the big house, full of nooks and corners, he suddenly heard a voice call his name. Ere he was aware of it, little Hannibal Melas, a young Maltese in the boy choir, whose silent, reserved nature had obtained for him from the others the nickname Tartaruga, the tortoise, seized his right hand in both his own.

It was done with evident excitement, and his voice sounded eagerly urgent as he exclaimed:

"I fix my last hope on you, Sir Knight, for you see there is scarcely one of the others who would not have an intercessor. But I! Who would trouble himself about me? Yet, if you would only put in a good word, my time would surely come now."

"Your time?" asked Wolf in astonishment; but the little fellow eagerly continued:

"Yes, indeed! What Johann of Cologne or at least what Benevenuto can do, I can trust myself to do too. The master need only try it with me, and, now that both are ill, put me in place of one or the other."

Wolf, who knew what each individual chorister could do, shook his head, and began to tell the boy from Malta for what good reason the master preferred the two sick youths; but little Hannibal interrupted by exclaiming, in tones of passionate lamentation:

"So you are the same? The master having begun it, all misjudge and crush me! Instead of giving me an opportunity to show what I can do in a solo part, I am forced back into the crowd. My best work disappears in the chorus. And yet, Sir Wolf, in spite of all, I heard the master's own lips say in Brussels--I wasn't listening--that he had never heard what lends a woman's voice its greatest charm come so softly and tenderly from the throat of a boy. Those are his own words. He will not deny them, for at least he is honest. What is to become of the singing without Johann and Benevenuto? But if they would try me, and at least trust a part of Bosco's music to me--"

Here he stopped, for Master Appenzelder was just coming from the door of the sick-room into the corridor; but Wolf, with a playful gesture, thrust his fingers through the lad's bushy coal-black hair, turned him in the direction from which he came, and called after him, "Your cause is in good hands, you little fellow with the big name."

Then, laying his hand on the arm of the deeply troubled musician, and pointing to the boy who was trotting, full of hope, down the corridor, he said: "'Hannibal ante portas!' A cry of distress that is full of terror; but the Maltese Hannibal who is vanishing yonder gave me an idea which will put an end to your trouble, my dear Maestro. The sooner the two poisoned lads recover the better, of course; yet the Benedictio Mensae need not remain unsung on account of their heedlessness, for little Hannibal showed me the best substitute."

This promise flowed from Wolf's lips with such joyous confidence that the grave musician's sombre face brightened; but it swiftly darkened again, and he exclaimed, "We don't give such hasty work!" When the knight tried to tell him what he had in mind, the other brusquely interrupted with the request that he would first aid him in a more important matter. Wolf was acquainted with the city, and perhaps would spare him a walk by informing him where the sick lads would find the best shelter. The Stag was overcrowded, and he was reluctant to leave the poor fellows in the little sleeping room which they shared with their companions. The Ratisbon physician had ordered them to be sent to the hospital; but the boy from Cologne opposed it so impetuously that he, Appenzelder, thought it his duty to seek another shelter for the sufferers.

When Wolf with the older man entered the low, close chamber, he found the lad, a handsome, vigorous boy, with his fair, curling hair tossed in disorder around his fevered face, standing erect in his bed. While the doctor was trying to compel him to obey and enter the litter which stood waiting for him, he beat him back with his strong young fists. He would rather jump into the open grave or into the rushing river, he shrieked to the corpulent leech, than be dragged into the hospital, which was the plague, death, hell.

He emphasized his resistance with heavy blows, while his Italian companion in suffering, livid, ashen-gray, with bowed head and closed lids, permitted himself to be placed in the litter without moving.

At Wolf's entrance the German youth, like a drowning man who sees a friend on the shore, shrieked an entreaty to save him from the murderers who wanted to drag him to death. The young knight gazed compassionately at the lad's flushed face, and, after a brief pause of reflection, proposed committing the sufferers to the care of the Knights Hospitallers.

This removed the burden from the young Rhinelander's tortured soul, yet he insisted, with passionate impetuosity, upon having his master and the nobleman accompany him, that the physician whom, in his fevered fancy, he regarded as his mortal foe, should not drag him to the pest-house after all.

Both musicians yielded to his wish. On the way Appenzelder held the lad's burning hand in his own, and never wearied of talking affectionately to him. Not until after he had seen his charges, with the physician's assistance, comfortably lodged, and had left the house of the Hospitallers, did he permit himself to test the almost incredible news which Sir Wolf Hartschwert had brought him.

With what fiery zeal Wolf persuaded him, how convincing was his assurance that a substitute for Johann of Cologne, and a most admirable one, was actually to be found here in Ratisbon!

He had no need to seek for fitting words in the description of Barbara Blomberg, the melody of her voice, and her admirable training. The fact that she was a woman, he protested, need not be considered, nay, it might be kept secret. The Church, it is true, prohibited the assistance of women, but the matter here was simply the execution of songs in a private house.

At first Appenzelder listened grumbling, and shaking his head in dissent, but soon the proposal seemed worth heeding; nay, when he heard that the singer, whose talent and skill the quiet, intelligent German praised so highly, owed her training to his countryman, Damian Feys, whom he knew, he began to ask questions with, increasing interest. But, ere Wolf had answered the first queries, some one else made his appearance on the Haid, and the very person who was best fitted to give information about Barbara--her teacher, Feys, who had sought Gombert, his famous Brussels companion in art, and was just taking him to a rehearsal of the Convivium musicum. At this meeting the leader of the boy choir, in spite of his pleasure at seeing his valued countryman and companion in art, showed far less patience than before, for, after the first greeting, he at once asked Feys what he thought of his pupil Barbara. The answer was so favourable that Appenzelder eagerly accepted the invitation to attend the rehearsal also. So the four fellow-artists crossed the Haidplatz together, and Maestro Gombert was obliged to remind his colleague of the boy choir that people who occupied the conductor's desk forgot to run on a wager.

Wolf's legs were by no means so long as those of the tall, broad musician, yet, in his joyous excitement, it was an easy matter to keep pace with him. In the happy consciousness of meriting the gratitude of the woman whom he loved, he gazed toward the New Scales, the large building beneath whose roof she whose image filled his heart and mind must already have found shelter.

Did she see him coming? Did she suspect who his companions were, and what awaited her through them?

Yet, sharply as he watched for her, he could discover no sign of her fair head behind any of the windows.

Yet Barbara, from the little room where the singers laid aside their cloaks and wraps, had seen Wolf, with her singing master Feys and two other gentlemen, coming toward the New Scales, and correctly guessed the names of the slender, shorter stranger in the sable-trimmed mantle and the big, broad-shouldered, bearded one who accompanied her friend. Wolf had described them both, and a presentiment told her that something great awaited her through them.

Gombert was the composer of the bird-song, and, as she remembered how the refrain of this composition had affected Wolf the day before, she heard the door close behind the group.

Then the desire to please, which had never left her since she earned the first applause, seized upon her more fiercely than ever.

Of what consequence were the listeners before whom she had hitherto sung compared with those whose footsteps were now echoing on the lowest stairs? And, half animated by an overpowering secret impulse, she sang the refrain "Car la saison est bonne" aloud while passing the stairs on her way into the dancing hall, where the rehearsal was to take place.

What an artless delight in the fairest, most pleasing thing in Nature to a sensitive young human soul this simple sentence voiced to the Netherland musicians! It seemed to them as if the song filled the dim, cold corridor with warmth and sunlight. Thus Gombert had heard within his mind the praise of spring when he set it to music, but had never before had it thus understood by any singer, reproduced by any human voice.

The excitable man stood as if spellbound; only a curt "My God! my God!" gave expression to his emotion. The blunter Appenzelder, on the contrary, when the singer suddenly paused and a door closed behind her, exclaimed: "The deuce, that's fine!--If that were your helper in need, Sir Wolf, all would be well!"

"It is," replied Wolf proudly, with sparkling eyes; but the honest old fellow rushed after Barbara, held out both hands to her in his frank, cordial way, and cried:

"Thanks, heartfelt thanks, my dear, beautiful young lady! But if you imagine that this drop of nectar will suffice, you are mistaken. You have awakened thirst! Now see--and Gombert will thank you too--that it is quenched with a fuller gift of this drink of the gods."

The Netherlanders found the table spread, and this rehearsal of the Convivium musicum brought Barbara Blomberg the happiest hours which life had ever bestowed.

She saw with a throbbing heart that her singing not only pleased, but deeply stirred the heart of the greatest composer of his time, whose name had filled her with timid reverence, and that, while listening to her voice, the eyes of the sturdy Appenzelder, who looked as if his broad breast was steeled against every soft emotion, glittered with tears.

This had happened during the execution of Josquin de Pres's "Ecce tu pulchra es'."

Barbara's voice had lent a special charm to this magnificent motet, and, when she concluded the "Quia amore langueo"--"Because I yearn for love"--to which she had long given the preference when she felt impelled to relieve her heart from unsatisfied yearning, she had seen Gombert look at the choir leader, and understood the "inimitable" which was not intended for her, but for his fellow-artist.

Hitherto she had done little without pursuing a fixed purpose, but this time Art, and the lofty desire to serve her well, filled her whole being. In the presence of the most famous judges she imposed the severest demands upon herself. Doubtless she was also glad to show Wolf what she could do, yet his absence would not have diminished an iota of what she gave the Netherlanders. She felt proud and grateful that she belonged to the chosen few who are permitted to express, by means of a noble art, the loftiest and deepest feelings in the human breast. Had not Appenzelder been compelled to interrupt the rehearsal, she would gladly have sung on and on to exhaustion.

She did not yet suspect what awaited her when, in well-chosen yet cordial words, Gombert expressed his appreciation.

She neither saw nor heard the fellow-singers who surrounded her; nay, when Dr. Hiltner, the syndic's, daughter, seventeen years old, who had long looked up to her with girlish enthusiasm, pressed forward to her side, and her charming mother, sincerely pleased, followed more quietly, when others imitated their example and expressed genuine gratification or made pretty speeches, Barbara scarcely distinguished the one from the other, honest good will from bitter envy.

She did not fully recover her composure until Appenzelder came up to her and held out his large hand.

Clasping it with a smile, she permitted the old musician to hold her little right hand, while in a low tone, pointing to Wolf, who had followed him, he said firmly:

"May I believe the knight? Would you be induced to bestow your magnificent art upon an ardent old admirer like myself, though to-day only as leader of the voices in the boy choir--"

Here Wolf, who had noticed an expression of refusal upon Barbara's lips, interrupted him by completing the sentence with the words, addressed to her, "In order to let his Majesty the Emperor enjoy what delights us here?"

The blood receded from Barbara's cheeks, and, as she clung to the window-sill for support, it seemed as though some magic spell had conveyed her to the summit of the highest steeple. Below her yawned the dizzy gulf of space, and the air was filled with a rain of sceptres, crowns, and golden chains of honour falling upon ermine and purple robes on the ground below.

But after a few seconds this illusion vanished, and, ere Wolf could spring to the assistance of the pallid girl, she was already passing her kerchief across her brow.

Then, drawing a long breath, she gave the companion of her childhood a grateful glance, and said to Appenzelder:

"Dispose of my powers as you deem best," adding, after a brief pause, "Of course, with my father's consent."

Appenzelder, as if rescued, shook her hand again, this time with so strong a pressure that it hurt her. Yet her blue eyes sparkled as brightly as if her soul no longer had room for pain or sorrow. After Barbara had made various arrangements with the choir leader, it seemed to her as though the sunny, blissful spring, which her song had just celebrated so exquisitely, had also made its joyous entry into the narrow domain of her life.

On the way home she thanked the friend who accompanied her with the affectionate warmth of the days of her childhood, nay, even more eagerly and tenderly; and when, on reaching the second story of the cantor house, he took leave of her, she kissed his cheek, unasked, calling down the stairs as she ran up:

"There is your reward! But, in return, you will accompany me first to the rehearsal with the singing boys, and then--if you had not arranged it yourself you would never believe it--go to the Golden Cross, to the Emperor Charles."