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- Barbara Blomberg, Volume 3. - 5/10 -
gladdened him by so friendly a sign of satisfaction!
Were the days to return when, in the Netherlands, Charles had condescended to treat even humble folk with blunt familiarity?
Adrian did not doubt that he should learn speedily enough what had caused this unexpected change; but the discovery of the real reason was now far from his alert mind, because he was still confident that the Emperor's heart had for years been closed against the charms of woman. Nevertheless, the experienced man told himself that some woman must be connected with this amazing rejuvenation. Otherwise it would surely have been one of the wonders which he knew only from legends.
And lo! Chamberlain de Praet was already announcing a lady--the Marquise de Leria.
If Master Adrian had ever permitted himself to laugh in his master's presence, it would certainly have happened this time, for the curtseying old woman in velvet, silk, and plumes, whose visit his Majesty did not refuse, was probably the last person for whose sake Charles endured the satin shoe on his sensitive foot.
How oddly her round, catlike head, with its prominent cheek bones, and the white wig combed high on the top, contrasted with the rouged, sunken cheeks and eyebrows dyed coal black!
Adrian hastily calculated that she was not far from seventy. But how tightly she laced, how erect was her bearing, how sweet the smile on her sunken mouth! And how did her aged limbs, which must have lost their flexibility long ago, accomplish with such faultless grace the low curtseys, in which she almost touched the floor?
But the valet, who had grown gray in Charles's service, had witnessed still more surprising things, and beheld the presence of royalty bestow strength for performances which even now seemed incomprehensible. The lame had leaped before his eyes, and feeble invalids had stood erect long hours when the duties of the court, etiquette, the command of royalty, compelled them to do so.
What a mistress in ruling herself the marquise had become during her long service at the French and Netherland courts! for not a feature betrayed her surprise at the Emperor's altered appearance while she was thanking him fervently for the favour of being permitted to share the meal with the august sovereign, which had bestowed so much happiness upon her.
Charles cut this speech short, and curtly requested her to take under her charge, in his royal sister's place, a young lady of a noble family.
The marquise cast a swift glance of understanding at the Emperor, and then, walking backward with a series of low bows, obeyed the sovereign's signal to leave him.
Without any attempt to conceal from the valet the strong excitement that mastered him, Charles at last impatiently approached the window and looked down into the Haidplatz.
When his master had turned his back upon him, Adrian allowed himself to smile contentedly. Now he knew all, and therefore thought, for the first time, that a genuine miracle had been wrought in the monarch. Yet it gave him pleasure; surely it was a piece of good fortune that this withering trunk was again putting forth such fresh buds.
Wolf Hartschwert had asked the guards who were stationed at the end of Red Cock Street whether any riders had passed them.
Several horses always stood saddled for the service of the court. Malfalconnet mounted his noble stallion, and Count Lanoi, the equerry, gave his companion a good horse and furnished two mounted torch-bearers.
But the Emperor's envoys had not far to ride; halfway between the abbey of Prufening and Ratisbon, just outside the village of Dcchbetten, they met the returning excursionists.
Barbara's voice reached Wolf from a considerable distance.
He knew the playmate of his childhood; her words never sounded so loud and sharp unless she was excited.
She had said little on the way out, and Herr Peter Schlumperger asked what had vexed her. Then she roused herself, and, to conquer the great anxiety which again and again took possession of her, she drank Herr Peter's sweet Malmsey wine more recklessly than usual.
At last, more intoxicated by her own vivacity than by the juice of the grape, she talked so loudly and freely with the other ladies and gentlemen that it became too much even for Frau Kastenmayr, who had glanced several times with sincere anxiety from her golden-haired favourite to her brother, and then back to Barbara.
Such reckless forwardness ill beseemed a chaste Ratisbon maiden and the future wife of a Peter Schlumperger, and she would gladly have urged departure. But some of the city pipers had been sent to the forest, and when they began to play, and Herr Peter himself invited the young people to dance, her good humour wholly disappeared; for Barbara, whom the young gentlemen eagerly sought, had devoted herself to dancing with such passionate zest that at last her luxuriant hair became completely loosened, and for several measures fluttered wildly around her. True, she had instantly hastened deeper into the woods with Nandl Woller, her cousin, to fasten it again, but the incident had most unpleasantly wounded Frau Kastenmayr's strict sense of propriety.
Nothing unusual ought to happen to a girl of Barbara's age, and the careless manner in which she treated what had befallen her before the eyes of so many men angered the austere widow so deeply that she withdrew a large share of her favour. This was the result of the continual singing.
Any other girl would fasten her hair firmly and resist flying in the dance from one man's arm to another's, especially in the presence of a suitor who was in earnest, and who held aloof from these amusements of youth.
Doubtless it was her duty to keep her brother from marriage with a girl who, so long as her feet were moving in time to the violins and clarionets, did not even bestow a single side glance upon her estimable lover.
So her displeasure had caused the early departure.
Torch-bearers rode at the head of the tolerably long train of the residents of Ratisbon, and some of the guests carried cressets. So there was no lack of light, and as the lantern in her neighbour's hand permitted the baron to recognise Barbara, Malfalconnet, according to the agreement, rode up to the singer, while Wolf accosted Herr Peter Schlumperger, and informed him of the invitation which the steward, in the Emperor's name, was bringing his fair guest.
The Ratisbon councillor allowed him to finish his explanation, and then with quiet dignity remarked that his Majesty's summons did not concern him. It rested entirely with jungfrau Blomberg to decide whether she would accept it at so late an hour.
But Barbara had already determined.
The assent was swift and positive, but neither the light of the more distant torches nor of the lantern close at hand was brilliant enough to show the baron how the girl's face blanched at the message that the Emperor Charles did not command, but only humbly entreated her to do him a favour that evening.
She had with difficulty uttered a few words of thanks; but when the adroit baron, with flattering urgency, besought her to crown her kindness and remember the saying that whoever gives quickly gives doubly, she pressed her right hand on her throbbing heart, and rode to Frau Kastenmayr's side to explain briefly what compelled her to leave them, and say to her and her brother a few words of farewell and gratitude.
Herr Peter replied with sincere kindness; his sister with equally well- meant chilling displeasure. Then Barbara rode on with the two envoys, in advance of the procession, at the swiftest trot. Her tongue, just now so voluble, seemed paralyzed. The violent throbbing of her heart fairly stopped her breath. A throng of contradictory thoughts and feelings filled her soul and mind. She was conscious of one thing only. A great, decisive event was imminent, and the most ardent wish her heart had ever cherished was approaching its fulfilment.
It is difficult to talk while riding rapidly; but Malfalconnet was master of the power of speech under any circumstances, and the courtier, with ready presence of mind, meant to avail himself of the opportunity to win the favour of the woman whose good will might become a precious possession.
But he was not to accomplish this, for, when he addressed the first question to Barbara, she curtly replied that she did not like to talk while her horse was trotting.
Wolf thought of the loud voice which had reached him a short time before from the midst of the Ratisbon party, but he said nothing, and the baron henceforward contented himself with occasionally uttering a few words.
The whole ride probably occupied only a quarter of an hour, but what a flood of thoughts and feelings swept in this short time through Barbara's soul!
She had just been enraged with herself for her defiance and the reckless haste which perhaps had forever deprived her of the opportunity to show the Emperor Charles her skill as a singer. The cruel anxiety which tortured her on this account had urged her at Prufening to the loud forwardness which hitherto she had always shunned. She had undoubtedly noticed how deeply this had lowered her in Frau Kastenmayr's esteem, and the discovery had been painful and wounded her vanity; but what did she care now for her, for her brother, for all Ratisbon? She was riding toward the great man who longed to see her, and to whom--she herself scarcely knew whence she gained the courage--she felt that she belonged.
She had looked up to him as to a mountain peak whose jagged summit touched the sky when her father and others had related his knightly deeds, his victories over the most powerful foes, and his peerless statesmanship. Only the day before yesterday she had listened to Wolf with silent amazement when he told her of the countries and nations over which this mightiest of monarchs reigned, and described the magnificence of his palaces in the Netherlands, in Spain, and in Italy. Of the extent of his wealth, and the silver fleets which constantly brought to him from the New World treasures of the noble metal of unprecedented value, Barbara had already heard many incredible things.
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