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- The Burgomaster's Wife, Volume 5. - 1/12 -
THE BURGOMASTER'S WIFE
By Georg Ebers
Days and weeks had passed, July was followed by sultry August, and that, too, was drawing to a close. The Spaniards still surrounded Leyden, and the city now completely resembled a prison. The soldiers and armed citizens did their duty wearily and sullenly, there was business enough at the town-hall, but the magistrates' work was sad and disagreeable; for no message of hope came from the Prince or the Estates, and everything to be considered referred to the increasing distress and the terrible follower of war, the plague, which had made its entry into Leyden with the famine. Moreover the number of malcontents weekly increased. The friends of the old order of affairs now raised their voices more and more loudly, and many a friend of liberty, who saw his family sickening, joined the Spanish sympathizers and demanded the surrender of the city. The children went to school and met in the playrounds as before, but there was rarely a flash of the merry pertness of former days, and what had become of the boys' red cheeks and the round arms of the little girls? The poor drew their belts tighter, and the morsel of bread, distributed by the city to each individual, was no longer enough to quiet hunger and support life.
Junker Georg had long been living in Burgomaster Van der Werff's house.
On the morning of August 29th he returned home from an expedition, carrying a cross-bow in his hand, while a pouch hung over his shoulder. This time he did not go up-stairs, but sought Barbara in the kitchen. The widow received him with a friendly nod; her grey eyes sparkled as brightly as ever, but her round face had grown narrower and there was a sorrowful quiver about the sunken mouth.
"What do you bring to-day?" she asked the Junker. Georg thrust his hand into his game-bag and answered, smiling: "A fat snipe and four larks; you know."
"Poor sparrows! But what sort of a creature can this be? Headless, legless, and carefully plucked! Junker, Junker, that's suspicious."
"It will do for the pan, and the name is of no consequence."
"Yet, yet; true, nobody knows on what he fattens, but the Lord didn't create every animal for the human stomach."
"That's just what I said. It's a short-billed snipe, a corvus, a real corvus."
"Corvus! Nonsense, I'm afraid of the thing--the little feathers under the wings. Good heavens! surely it isn't a raven?"
"It's a corvus, as I said. Put the bird in vinegar, roast it with seasoning and it will taste like a real snipe. Wild ducks are not to be found every day, as they were a short time ago, and sparrows are getting as scarce as roses in winter. Every boy is standing about with a cross- bow, and in the court-yards people are trying to catch them under sieves and with lime-twigs. They are going to be exterminated, but one or another is still spared. How is the little elf?"
"Don't call her that!" exclaimed the widow. "Give her her Christian name. She looks like this cloth, and since yesterday has refused to take the milk we daily procure for her at a heavy cost. Heaven knows what the end will be. Look at that cabbage-stalk. Half a stiver! and that miserable piece of bone! Once I should have thought it too poor for the dogs--and now! The whole household must be satisfied with it. For supper I shall boil ham-rind with wine and add a little porridge to it. And this for a giant like Peter! God only knows where he gets his strength; but he looks like his own shadow. Maria doesn't need anything more than a bird, but Adrian, poor fellow, often leaves the table with tears in his eyes, yet I know he has broken many a bit of bread from his thin slice for Bessie. It is pitiable. Yet the proverb says: 'Stretch yourself towards the ceiling, or your feet will freeze--'Necessity knows no law,' and 'Reserve to preserve.' Day before yesterday, like the rest, we again gave of the little we still possessed. To-morrow, everything beyond what is needed for the next fortnight, must be delivered up, and Peter won't allow us to keep even a bag of flour, but what will come then--merciful Heaven!--"
The widow sobbed aloud as she uttered the last words and continued, weeping: "Where do you get your strength? At your age this miserable scrap of meat is a mere drop of water on a red-hot stone."
"Herr Van Aken gives me what he can, in addition to my ration. I shall get through; but I witnessed a terrible sight to-day at the tailor's, who mends my clothes."
"Two of his children have starved to death."
"And the weaver's family opposite," added Barbara, weeping. "Such nice people! The young wife was confined four days ago, and this morning mother and child expired of weakness, expired, I tell you, like a lamp that has consumed its oil and must go out. At the cloth-maker Peterssohn's, the father and all five children have died of the plague. If that isn't pitiful!"
"Stop, stop!" said Georg, shuddering. "I must go to the court-yard to drill."
"What's the use of that! The Spaniards don't attack; they leave the work to the skeleton death. Your fencing gives an appetite, and the poor hollow herrings can scarcely stir their own limbs."
"Wrong, Frau Barbara, wrong," replied the young man. "The exercise and motion sustains them. Herr von Nordwyk knew what he was doing, when he asked me to drill them in the dead fencing-master's place."
"You're thinking of the ploughshare that doesn't rust. Perhaps you are right; but before you go to work, take a sip of this. Our wine is still the best. When people have something to do, at least they don't mutiny, like those poor fellows among the volunteers day before yesterday. Thank God, they are gone!"
While the widow was filling a glass, Wilhelm's mother came into the kitchen and greeted Barbara and the young nobleman. She carried under her shawl a small package clasped tightly to her bosom. Her breadth was still considerable, but the flesh, with which she had moved about so briskly a few months ago, now seemed to have become an oppressive burden.
She took the little bundle in her right hand, saying "I have something for your Bessie. My Wilhelm, good fellow--"
Here she paused and restored her gift to its old place. She had seen the Junker's plucked present, and continued in an altered tone: "So you already have a pigeon--so much the better! The city clerk's little girl is beginning to droop too. I'll see you to-morrow, if God wills."
She was about to go, but Georg stopped her, saying: "You are mistaken, my good lady. I shot that bird to-day, I'll confess now, Frau Barbara; my corvus is a wretched crow."
"I thought so," cried the widow. "Such an abomination!"
Yet she thrust her finger into the bird's breast, saying: "But there's meat on the creature."
"A crow!" cried Wilhelm's mother, clasping her hands. "True, dogs and cats are already hanging on many a spit and have wandered into many a pan. There is the pigeon."
Barbara unwrapped the bird as carefully, as if it might crumble under her fingers, gazing tenderly at it as she weighed it carefully in her hand; but the musician's mother said:
"It's the fourth one Wilhelm has killed, and he said it would have been a good flier. He intended it specially for your Bessie. Stuff it nicely with yellow paste, not too solid and a little sweetened. That is what children like, and it will agree with her, for it is cheerfully given. Put the little thing away. When we have known any creature, we feel sorry to see it dead."
"May God reward you!" cried Barbara, pressing the kind old hand. "Oh! these terrible times!"
"Yet there is still something to be thankful for."
"Of course, for it will be even worse in hell," replied the widow.
"Don't fall into sin," said the aged matron: "You have only one sick person in the house. Can I see Frau Maria?"
"She is in the workshops, taking the people a little meat from our store. Are you too so short of flour? Cows are still to be seen in the pastures, but the grain seems to have been actually swept away; there wasn't a peck in the market. Will you take a sip of wine too? Shall I call my sister-in-law?"
"I will seek her myself. The usury in the market is no longer to be endured. We can do nothing more there, but she is already bringing people to reason."
"The traders in the market?" asked Georg.
"Yes, Herr von Dornburg, yes. One wouldn't believe how much that delicate woman can accomplish. Day before yesterday, when we went about to learn how large a stock of provisions every house contains, people treated me and the others very rudely, many even turned us out of doors. But she went to the roughest, and the cellars and store-rooms opened before her, as the waves of the sea divided before the people of Israel. How she does it, Heaven knows, but the people can't refuse her."
Georg drew a long breath and left the kitchen. In the court-yard he found several city soldiers, volunteers and militia-men, with whom be went through exercises in fencing. Van der Werff placed it at his disposal for this purpose, and there certainly was no man in Leyden more capable than the German of supplying worthy Allertssohn's place.
Barbara was not wrong. His pupils looked emaciated and miserable enough, but many of them had learned, in the dead man's school, to wield the sword well, and were heartily devoted to the profession.
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