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- The Dove in the Eagle's Nest - 10/59 -
fly to the head of the stairs; but her brother laid his hand upon her.
"Tush, Trudchen; keep thy tongue still, child! What does it hurt me?"
And he turned on his heels and went down stairs. Christina crept into her turret, weeping bitterly and with many a wild thought. Would they visit her offence on her father? Would they turn them both out together? If so, would not her father hurl her down the rocks rather than return her to Ulm? Could she escape? Climb down the dizzy rocks, it might be, succour the merchant lying half dead on the meadows, protect and be protected, be once more among God-fearing Christians? And as she felt her helplessness, the selfish thoughts passed into a gush of tears for the murdered man, lying suffering there, and for his possible wife and children watching for him. Presently Ermentrude peeped in.
"Stina, Stina, don't cry; I will not tell my mother! Come out, and finish my kerchief! Come out! No one shall beat you."
"That is not what I wept for, lady," said Christina. "I do not think you would bring harm on me. But oh! I would I were at home! I grieve for the bloodshed that I must see and may not hinder, and for that poor merchant."
"Oh," said Ermentrude, "you need not fear for him! I saw his own folk return and lift him up. But what is he to thee or to us?"
"I am a burgher maid, lady," said Christina, recovering herself, and aware that it was of little use to bear testimony to such an auditor as poor little Ermentrude against the deeds of her own father and brother, which had in reality the sort of sanction Sir Eberhard had mentioned, much akin to those coast rights that were the temptation of wreckers.
Still she could not but tremble at the thought of her speech, and went down to supper in greater trepidation than usual, dreading that she should be expected to thank the Freiherr for his gift. But, fortunately, manners were too rare at Adlerstein for any such omission to be remarkable, and the whole establishment was in a state of noisy triumph and merriment over the excellence of the French wine they had captured, so that she slipped into her seat unobserved.
Every available drinking-horn and cup was full. Ermentrude was eagerly presented with draughts by both father and brother, and presently Sir Eberhard exclaimed, turning towards the shrinking Christina with a rough laugh, "Maiden, I trow thou wilt not taste?"
Christina shook her head, and framed a negative with her lips.
"What's this?" asked her father, close to whom she sat. "Is't a fast-day?"
There was a pause. Many were present who regarded a fast-day much more than the lives or goods of their neighbours. Christina again shook her head.
"No matter," said good-natured Sir Eberhard, evidently wishing to avert any ill consequence from her. "'Tis only her loss."
The mirth went on rough and loud, and Christina felt this the worst of all the miserable meals she had partaken of in fear and trembling at this place of her captivity. Ermentrude, too, was soon in such a state of excitement, that not only was Christina's womanhood bitterly ashamed and grieved for her, but there was serious danger that she might at any moment break out with some allusion to her maiden's recusancy in her reply to Sir Eberhard.
Presently however Ermentrude laid down her head and began to cry-- violent headache had come on--and her brother took her in his arms to carry her up the stairs; but his potations had begun before hers, and his step was far from steady; he stumbled more than once on the steps, shook and frightened his sister, and set her down weeping petulantly. And then came a more terrible moment; his awe of Christina had passed away; he swore that she was a lovely maiden, with only too free a tongue, and that a kiss must be the seal of her pardon.
A house full of intoxicated men, no living creature who would care to protect her, scarce even her father! But extremity of terror gave her strength. She spoke resolutely--"Sir Eberhard, your sister is ill--you are in no state to be here. Go down at once, nor insult a free maiden."
Probably the low-toned softness of the voice, so utterly different from the shrill wrangling notes of all the other women he had known, took him by surprise. He was still sober enough to be subdued, almost cowed, by resistance of a description unlike all he had ever seen; his alarm at Christina's superior power returned in full force, he staggered to the stairs, Christina rushed after him, closed the heavy door with all her force, fastened it inside, and would have sunk down to weep but for Ermentrude's peevish wail of distress.
Happily Ermentrude was still a child, and, neglected as she had been, she still had had no one to make her precocious in matters of this kind. She was quite willing to take Christina's view of the case, and not resent the exclusion of her brother; indeed, she was unwell enough to dread the loudness of his voice and rudeness of his revelry.
So the door remained shut, and Christina's resolve was taken that she would so keep it while the wine lasted. And, indeed, Ermentrude had so much fever all that night and the next day that no going down could be thought of. Nobody came near the maidens but Ursel, and she described one continued orgie that made Christina shudder again with fear and disgust. Those below revelled without interval, except for sleep; and they took their sleep just where they happened to sink down, then returned again to the liquor. The old baroness repaired to the kitchen when the revelry went beyond even her bearing; but all the time the wine held out, the swine in the court were, as Ursel averred, better company than the men in the hall. Yet there might have been worse even than this; for old Ursel whispered that at the bottom of the stairs there was a trap-door. Did the maiden know what it covered? It was an oubliette. There was once a Strasburg armourer who had refused ransom, and talked of appealing to the Kaiser. He trod on that door and--Ursel pointed downwards. "But since that time," she said, "my young lord has never brought home a prisoner."
No wonder that all this time Christina cowered at the discordant sounds below, trembled, and prayed while she waited on her poor young charge, who tossed and moaned in fever and suffering. She was still far from recovered when the materials of the debauch failed, and the household began to return to its usual state. She was soon restlessly pining for her brother; and when her father came up to see her, received him with scant welcome, and entreaties for Ebbo. She knew she should be better if she might only sit on his knee, and lay her head on his shoulder. The old Freiherr offered to accommodate her; but she rejected him petulantly, and still called for Ebbo, till he went down, promising that her brother should come.
With a fluttering heart Christina awaited the noble whom she had perhaps insulted, and whose advances had more certainly insulted her. Would he visit her with his anger, or return to that more offensive familiarity? She longed to flee out of sight, when, after a long interval, his heavy tread was heard; but she could not even take refuge in her turret, for Ermentrude was leaning against her. Somehow, the step was less assured than usual; he absolutely knocked at the door; and, when he came in, he acknowledged her by a slight inclination of the head. If she only had known it, this was the first time that head had ever been bent to any being, human or Divine; but all she did perceive was that Sir Eberhard was in neither of the moods she dreaded, only desperately shy and sheepish, and extremely ashamed, not indeed of his excess, which would have been, even to a much tamer German baron, only a happy accident, but of what had passed between himself and her.
He was much grieved to perceive how much ground Ermentrude had lost, and gave himself up to fondling and comforting her; and in a few days more, in their common cares for the sister, Christina lost her newly- acquired horror of the brother, and could not but be grateful for his forbearance; while she was almost entertained by the increased awe of herself shown by this huge robber baron.
CHAPTER IV: SNOW-WREATHS WHEN 'TIS THAW
Ermentrude had by no means recovered the ground she had lost, before the winter set in; and blinding snow came drifting down day and night, rendering the whole view, above and below, one expanse of white, only broken by the peaks of rock which were too steep to sustain the snow. The waterfall lengthened its icicles daily, and the whole court was heaped with snow, up even to the top of the high steps to the hall; and thus, Christina was told, would it continue all the winter. What had previously seemed to her a strangely door- like window above the porch now became the only mode of egress, when the barons went out bear or wolf-hunting, or the younger took his crossbow and hound to provide the wild-fowl, which, under Christina's skilful hands, would tempt the feeble appetite of Ermentrude when she was utterly unable to touch the salted meats and sausages of the household.
In spite of all endeavours to guard the windows and keep up the fire, the cold withered the poor child like a fading leaf, and she needed more and more of tenderness and amusement to distract her attention from her ailments. Christina's resources were unfailing. Out of the softer pine and birch woods provided for the fire, she carved a set of draughtsmen, and made a board by ruling squares on the end of a settle, and painting the alternate ones with a compound of oil and charcoal. Even the old Baron was delighted with this contrivance, and the pleasure it gave his daughter. He remembered playing at draughts in that portion of his youth which had been a shade more polished, and he felt as if the game were making Ermentrude more hike a lady. Christina was encouraged to proceed with a set of chessmen, and the shaping of their characteristic heads under her dexterous fingers was watched by Ermentrude like something magical. Indeed, the young lady entertained the belief that there was no limit to her attendant's knowledge or capacity.
Truly there was a greater brightness and clearness beginning to dawn even upon poor little Ermentrude's own dull mind. She took more interest in everything: songs were not solely lullabies, but she cared to talk them over; tales to which she would once have been incapable of paying attention were eagerly sought after; and, above all, the spiritual vacancy that her mind had hitherto presented was beginning to be filled up. Christina had brought her own books--a
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