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- The Elixir - 4/10 -
nor had he cause to complain of being over worked, for the master seemed as fond of a walk in the open air as the assistant was averse to one, and when May came and the fruit trees were in blossom, when the delicate green leaves of the beeches burst from the bud, and the oaks shed their dry brown foliage in order to deck themselves out in young green, and the dandelions embroidered the fields with gold and then sprinkled them over with silver tissue, when the cowslips and daisies and violets and their spring companions in purple and yellow appeared, and the larches on the banks of the Pleisse turned green, when the nightingale sang and rejoiced in the woods, then Doctor Melchior Ueberhell rarely spent a sunny afternoon at home.
With his beautiful young wife on his arm he wandered through the lovely Laubwald--that precious possession of the city--and though he had often said while in Italy, where it is dryer and the foliage sparser than in Germany, that there was nothing so beautiful as the abounding brooks and the dense greenery of his native forests, it gave him sincere joy, that spring, to have his opinion confirmed and to see that his dearly loved wife cared as much for the German woods as he did.
When in their walks they encountered other burghers, all eyes rested on the handsome pair, for if Melchior were thin, his figure was tall and his features good, and there was a strange charm in his big, dark, eyes that seemed to find more in the woods than was visible to others, moreover the black clothes of his profession sat as well upon him as did his wife's white dresses and kerchiefs of costly stuffs upon her. These she was fond of relieving by a bit of light blue, her favourite colour. The slim young Italian, with her bowed head and beautiful pale face framed in its black hair, seemed like an elf who had gone out in her light dress to dance the May dance in the moonlight and had decked herself with forget- me-not and gentian.
Whoever saw her felt glad, for it seemed to him as if he had met with a piece of good fortune, but no one sought to make her acquaintance, although the doctor had not omitted to take her, soon after their arrival, to call upon his relatives and the dignitaries of the city. People had asked them at first to dine, but as Melchior always refused because of his wife's delicate health, they did not press the matter; for no one could talk with her as she understood no German, while all who heard her light cough felt that the doctor was right to guard his fragile treasure so carefully.
When the few matrons who visited her called upon her, instead of finding her in the kitchen or the cellar, they found her lying upon the sofa with a book or her guitar in her hands, or perhaps playing with her little boy, and the amiable ones among them explained it by her pale face and delicate air, but the severer ones said that such idleness was the Italian custom and they pitied the doctor.
What the feminine relatives of the doctor chiefly resented was the fact that the young couple seemed to get on so perfectly well without them. Happiness indeed shone in their eyes, and the silent doctor seemed to find his tongue when he walked in the woods and fields with his beloved wife. The notary Anselmus Winckler was also loud in his praises of both of them. He was the only person who ever joined them in their walks through the woods, and as he had been for several years Melchior's companion at school in Bologna, and had there learned to speak the sweet Italian tongue, he could talk with Frau Blanca like one of her own countrymen. He was a convivial person, and when he was in the tavern, or dining with a friend, he would expatiate on how learned the doctor was in all the secrets of nature and how well Dr. Vitali, Frau Bianca's father, had known how to cultivate her appreciation of the good and the beautiful. To hear her questions and her husband's tender and wise replies was a pleasure unspeakable.
If the weather were fine the doctor would sometimes go out in the mornings also, and then he liked best to take his young wife to the Ueberhell garden outside the Petersthor, and show her what rare herbs and fruit-trees his father and grandfather had planted, and Frau Bianca amused herself by gathering the flowers, or helping her child to pick the ripe cherries and early pears.
In Bologna she had found it difficult to entice her husband away from his work, indeed her own father, his master, had held him back, and now she rejoiced that in the new home he was willing to give her so many hours of his time, moreover--he had confessed it to her--instead of the elixir, which she had been taught from childhood to regard as the worthiest object of research, he was seeking for a medicine that should cure her.
Autumn came, and the starlings assembled on the Thomaskirche, the storks in the village, and the swallows on the roof of the neighbour's house to prepare for their flight towards the south; heavy storms tore the leaves from the trees, one dull rainy day followed another, and when at last the mountain-ash berries and the barberries were shining in all their brightest scarlet, the rosy flush that had been coaxed into the young wife's cheeks during the long, dry, happy summer changed to a crimson spot, her eyes acquired a strained, longing, mournful expression, and after she had had an attack of coughing she would sink together as if the autumn winds had broken her as they had the stems of the mallow which were hanging from the trellis in the little garden outside.
Then a day came when the Court physician Olearius found his way into "The Three Kings." It was in the middle of December and straw was strewn in the street in front of the Ueberhell house. Those who had held aloof from the young couple in their happy hours now drew near in their misfortune. It seemed as if the young Italian had suddenly become the idol of the inhabitants of Leipsic, so many were the inquiries about her condition, so numerous the friendly offers of service, the kindly gifts of hot-house flowers and rare wines. Just as the Christmas bells rang out along the streets of the city the joyful tidings "Christ is born" a sharp cry rang through the rooms of The Three Holy Kings and Melchior knelt beside his blighted flower that now was whiter even than the lily, for the last shimmer of red had faded forever from her wan cheeks, and he wrung his hands in utter despair.
The funeral train that followed the young Italian, who had appeared among them like a fleeting vision of Paradise, would have done honour to the wife of the Chief Justice.
Every one who was respectable and aristocratic in Leipsic followed her, as well as many humbler folk on whom Bianca's glance had rested but once. People were now so open-hearted, and seemed to wish to give to the dead what they had withheld from the living. Hot tears were shed, for though not one of all the mourners had ever really known Bianca, they felt that they had lost something beautiful.
The only member of the family of Ueberhell who did not make part of the funeral train was the chief mourner, the bereaved Doctor Melchior himself.
Alone and tearless he paced the chamber that Bianca had occupied. He denied himself to all who wished to see him or to comfort him, he even refused to admit the notary Winckler.
That the flower of his life was crushed, and that he carried a death- wound in his heart was all that he felt or thought.
Frau Schimmel began at last to fear that he too would die. If the vision that showed her Frau Bianca on her death-bed had come true, why should not the other one concerning the doctor? He ate and drank less than a Carthusian on a fast-day, he offended all the good people who had shown his wife such honour, he went neither to mass nor to his work in the laboratory, and consequently her husband, too, was idle and threatened to become unbearable once more.
How would it all end?
The burghers exhibited great indulgence towards him. He had received a terrible blow, and one must forgive him for not having followed the coffin, particularly, as nothing else was wanting that was necessary to an imposing and expensive funeral: Frau Schimmel had taken care of that, having arranged it on her own responsibility. When the great healer, Time, had comforted him, then would he draw near to them again, most of his friends thought, yes even nearer than before, now that he had lost his invalid wife who had hindered him from joining their gay circles.
We are so willing to be lenient to the unfortunate, for a Greater than we has visited them with sorrow such as man could not inflict.
But it ended otherwise than his friends anticipated. The Three Kings lay there like a deserted house, and although the tall chimney on the roof began to belch forth streams of smoke by night, as well as by day, hardly four weeks after the death of Bianca, it was commonly supposed that the place was unoccupied. Commonly supposed: for once in a while the knocker was heard when Herr Winckler called, happy childish laughter floated out from the open window, or Frau Schimmel was seen with her basket on her arm going to market.
But no one ever met the doctor, neither at mass nor in the street, and yet he did not always remain at home.
In summer at sunrise he went to the churchyard, and from there into the woods; in winter, when the first stars appeared, he wrapped himself in his black cloak and went to Bianca's grave, and thence to one of the neighbouring villages, but he never entered anywhere, and only the sexton who admitted him to the graveyard, and the gate watchman, who opened the burgher's wicket to him, ever exchanged greetings with him.
At home he wandered around no longer, idle and fasting, but ate his meals regularly, and threw himself into his work with such passionate energy, that even the industrious Schimmel found it too much, and Frau Schimmel grew anxious. The latter, too, knew what the doctor hoped to accomplish by his hard work, for she had spied upon him, but she must not be blamed as it had been with the most praiseworthy intention.
Four weeks after Bianca's death, and after he had shed many hot and heart-felt tears, Melchior turned for the first time to his work again.
It happened late in the evening, and before he went into the laboratory he uttered such strange words over the sleeping child that Frau Schimmel, who was watching beside it, was frightened, especially as Schimmel had not been called to aid the doctor, and what might happen to the distraught man, if he were left to work alone, passed in gloomy visions before the old lady. So she concealed herself behind the bellows that were attached to the furnace, and there she was witness of events that sent cold shivers down her back whenever she thought of them.
In his best holiday costume of black velvet puffed with silk he entered the laboratory, holding himself very erect. The high, arched room was only dimly lighted by a hanging-lamp, but when Frau Schimmel heard his steps she shrank together till, as she fancied, she must have become smaller and less easily discoverable. What she feared was that he might start the furnace and she should be obliged to reveal herself because of the heat.
But to her great relief he walked straight into the middle of the laboratory and stopped directly under the lamp, which was suspended from the point where the ribs of the vaulting intersected. There he waved a fresh laurel branch towards every side of the room and called out the same words and names that he had murmured by the bed-side of his son,
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