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- The Burgomaster's Wife, Volume 2. - 1/12 -
[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]
THE BURGOMASTER'S WIFE
By Georg Ebers
A second and third rainy day followed the first one. White mists and grey fog hung over the meadows. The cold, damp north-west wind drove heavy clouds together and darkened the sky. Rivulets dashed into the streets from the gutters on the steep roofs of Leyden; the water in the canals and ditches grew turbid and rose towards the edges of the banks. Dripping, freezing men and women hurried past each other without any form of greeting, while the pair of storks pressed closer to each other in their nest, and thought of the warm south, lamenting their premature return to the cold, damp, Netherland plain.
In thoughtful minds the dread of what must inevitably come was increasing. The rain made anxiety grow as rapidly in the hearts of many citizens, as the young blades of grain in the fields. Conversations, that sounded anything but hopeful, took place in many tap-rooms--in others men were even heard declaring resistance folly, or loudly demanding the desertion of the cause of the Prince of Orange and liberty.
Whoever in these days desired to see a happy face in Leyden might have searched long in vain, and would probably have least expected to find it in the house of Burgomaster Van der Werff.
Three days had now elapsed since Peter's departure, nay the fourth was drawing towards noon, yet the burgomaster had not returned, and no message, no word of explanation, had reached his family.
Maria had put on her light-blue cloth dress with Mechlin lace in the square neck, for her husband particularly liked to see her in this gown and he must surely return to-day.
The spray of yellow wall-flowers on her breast had been cut from the blooming plant in the window of her room, and Barbara had helped arrange her thick hair.
It lacked only an hour of noon, when the young wife's delicate, slender figure, carrying a white duster in her hand, entered the burgomaster's study. Here she stationed herself at the window, from which the pouring rain streamed in numerous crooked serpentine lines, pressed her forehead against the panes, and gazed down into the quiet street.
The water was standing between the smooth red tiles of the pavement. A porter clattered by in heavy wooden shoes, a maid-servant, with a shawl wrapped around her head, hurried swiftly past, a shoemaker's boy, with a pair of boots hanging on his back, jumped from puddle to puddle, carefully avoiding the dry places;--no horseman appeared.
It was almost unnaturally quiet in the house and street; she heard nothing except the plashing of the rain. Maria could not expect her husband until the beat of horses' hoofs was audible; she was not even gazing into the distance--only dreamily watching the street and the ceaseless rain.
The room had been thoughtfully heated for the drenched man, whose return was expected, but Maria felt the cold air through the chinks in the windows. She shivered, and as she turned back into the dusky room, it seemed as if this twilight atmosphere must always remain, as if no more bright days could ever come.
Minutes passed before she remembered for what purpose she had entered the room and began to pass the dusting-cloth over the writing-table, the piles of papers, and the rest of the contents of the apartment. At last she approached the pistols, which Peter had not taken with him on his journey.
The portrait of her husband's first wife hung above the weapons and sadly needed dusting, for until now Maria had always shrunk from touching it.
To-day she summoned up her courage, stood opposite to it, and gazed steadily at the youthful features of the woman, with whom Peter had been happy. She felt spellbound by the brown eyes that gazed at her from the pleasant face.
Yes, the woman up there looked happy, almost insolently happy. How much more had Peter probably given to his first wife than to her?
This thought cut her to the heart, and without moving her lips she addressed a series of questions to the silent portrait, which still gazed steadily and serenely at her from its plain frame.
Once it seemed as if the full lips of the pictured face quivered, once that the eyes moved. A chill ran through her veins, she began to be afraid, yet could not leave the portrait, and stood gazing upward with dilated eyes.
She did not stir, but her breath came quicker and quicker, and her eyes seemed to grow keener.
A shadow rested on the dead Eva's high forehead. Had the artist intended to depict some oppressive anxiety, or was what she saw only dust, that had settled on the colors?
She pushed a chair towards the portrait and put her foot on the seat, pushing her dress away in doing so. Blushing, as if other eyes than the painted ones were gazing down upon her, she drew it over the white stocking, then with a rapid movement mounted the seat. She could now look directly into the eyes of the portrait. The cloth in Maria's trembling hand passed over Eva's brow, and wiped the shadow from the rosy flesh. She now blew the dust from the frame and canvas, and perceived the signature of the artist to whom the picture owed its origin. "Artjen of Leyden," he called himself, and his careful hand had finished even the unimportant parts of the work with minute accuracy. She well knew the silver chain with the blue turquoises, that rested on the plump neck. Peter had given it to her as a wedding present, and she had worn it to the altar; but the little diamond cross suspended from the middle she had never seen. The gold buckle at Eva's belt had belonged to her since her last birthday--it was very badly bent, and the dull points would scarcely pierce the thick ribbon.
"She had everything when it was new," she said to herself. "Jewels? What do I care for them! But the heart, the heart--how much love has she left in Peter's heart?"
She did not wish to do so, but constantly heard these words ringing in her ears, and was obliged to summon up all her self-control, to save herself from weeping.
"If he would only come, if he would only come!" cried a voice in her tortured soul.
The door opened, but she did not notice it.
Barbara crossed the threshold, and called her by her name in a tone of kindly reproach.
Maria started and blushing deeply, said"
"Please give me your hand; I should like to get down. I have finished. The dust was a disgrace." When she again stood on the floor, the widow said, "What red cheeks you have! Listen, my dear sister-in-law, listen to me, child--!"
Barbara was interrupted in the midst of her admonition, for the knocker fell heavily on the door, and Maria hurried to the window.
The widow followed, and after a hasty glance into the street, exclaimed:
"That's Wilhelm Cornieliussohn, the musician. He has been to Delft. I heard it from his mother. Perhaps he brings news of Peter. I'll send him up to you, but he must first tell me below what his tidings are. If you want me, you'll find me with Bessie. She is feverish and her eyes ache; she will have some eruption or a fever."
Barbara left the room. Maria pressed her hands upon her burning cheeks, and paced slowly to and fro till the musician knocked and entered.
After the first greeting, the young wife asked eagerly:
"Did you see my husband in Delft?"
"Yes indeed," replied Wilhelm, "the evening of the day before yesterday."
"Then tell me--"
"At once, at once. I bring you a whole pouch full of messages. First from your mother."
"Is she well?"
"Well and bright. Worthy Doctor Groot too is hale and hearty."
"And my husband?"
"I found him with the doctor. Herr Groot sends the kindest remembrances to you. We had musical entertainments at his home yesterday and the day be fore. He always has the latest novelties from Italy, and when we try this motet here--"
"Afterwards, Herr Wilhelm! You must first tell me what my husband--"
"The burgomaster came to the doctor on a message from the Prince. He was in haste, and could not wait for the singing. It went off admirably. If you, with your magnificent voice, will only--"
"Pray, Meister Wilhelm?"
"No, dear lady, you ought not to refuse. Doctor Groot says, that when a girl in Delft, no one could support the tenor like you, and if you, Frau von Nordwyk, and Herr Van Aken's oldest daughter--"
"But, my dear Meister!" exclaimed the burgomaster's wife with increasing impatience, "I'm not asking about your motets and tabulatures, but my husband."
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