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- In The Fire Of The Forge, Volume 4. - 3/11 -
Terror and rage had sealed the old countess's lips, but now they parted in the hoarse cry: "You deserve the wheel and the gallows, not the honourable block!" and her daughter, Rosalinde Eysvogel, repeated in a tone of sorrowful lamentation, "Yes, the wheel and the gallows."
A scornful laugh from Siebenburg greeted the threat, but when Herr Casper, white as death and barely able to control his voice, asked whether this incredible confession was merely intended to frighten the women, and the knight assured him of the contrary, he groaned aloud: "Then the old house must succumb to disgraceful ruin."
Years of life spent together may inspire and increase aversion instead of love, but they undoubtedly produce a certain community of existence. The bitter anguish of his aged household companion, the father of his wife, to whom bonds of love still unsevered united him, touched even Seitz Siebenburg. Besides, nothing moves the heart more quickly than the grief of a proud, stern man. Herr Casper's confession did not make him dearer to the knight, but it induced him to drop the irritating tone which he had assumed, and in an altered voice he begged him not to give up his cause as lost without resistance. For his daughter's sake old Herr Ortlieb must lend his aid. Els, with whom he had just spoken, would cling firmly to Wolff, and try to induce her father to do all that was possible for her lover's house. He would endeavour to settle with his own creditors himself. His sharp sword and strong arm would be welcome everywhere, and the booty he won---- Here he was interrupted by the grandmother's query in a tone of cutting contempt: "Booty? On the highway, do you mean?"
Once more the attack from the hostile old woman rendered the knight's decision easier, for, struggling not to give way to his anger, he answered: "Rather, I think, in the Holy Land, in the war against the infidel Saracens. At any rate, my presence would be more welcome anywhere than in this house, whose roof shelters you, Countess. If, Herr Casper, you intend to share with my wife and the twins what is left after the old wealth has gone, unfortunately, I cannot permit you to do so. I will provide for them also. True, it was your duty; for ever since Isabella became my wife you have taken advantage of my poverty and impaired my right to command her. That must be changed from this very day. I have learned the bitter taste of the bread which you provide. I shall confide them to my uncle, the Knight Heideck. He was my dead mother's only brother, and his wife, as you know, is the children's godmother. They are childless, and would consider it the most precious of gifts to have such boys in the castle. My deserted wife must stay with him, while I--I know not yet in what master's service--provide that the three are not supported only by the charity of strangers---"
"Oh, Seitz, Seitz!" interrupted Isabella, in a tone of urgent entreaty. She had risen from her cushions, and was hurrying towards him. "Do not go! You must not go so!"
Her tall figure nestled closely against him as she spoke, and she threw her arms around his neck; but he kissed her brow and eyes, saying, with a gentleness which surprised even her: "You are very kind, but I cannot, must not remain here."
"The children, the little boys!" she exclaimed again, gazing up at him with love-beaming eyes. Then his tortured heart seemed to shrink, and, pressing his hand on his brow, he paused some time ere he answered gloomily: "It is for them that I go. Words have been spoken which appeal to me, and to you, too, Isabella: 'See that the innocent little creatures are reared to be unlike their unhappy father.' And the person who uttered them----"
"A sage, a great sage," giggled the countess, unable to control her bitter wrath against the man whom she hated; but Siebenburg fiercely retorted:
"Although no sage, at least no monster spitting venom."
"And you permit this insult to be offered to your grandmother?" Frau Rosalinde Eysvogel wailed to her daughter as piteously as if the injury had been inflicted on herself. But Isabella only clung more closely to her husband, heeding neither her mother's appeal nor her father's warning not to be deluded by Siebenburg's empty promises.
While the old countess vainly struggled for words, Rosalinde Eysvogel stood beside the lofty mantelpiece, weeping softly. Before Siebenburg appeared, spite of the early hour and the agitating news which she had just received, she had used her leisure for an elaborate toilette. A long trailing robe of costly brocade, blue on the left side and yellow on the right, now floated around her tall figure. When the knight returned she had looked radiant in her gold and gems, like a princess. Now, crushed and feeble, she presented a pitiable image of powerless yet offensively hollow splendour. It would have required too much exertion to assail her son-in-law with invectives, like her energetic mother; but when she saw her daughter, to whom she had already appealed several times in a tone of anguished entreaty, rest her proud head so tenderly on her husband's broad breast, as she had done during the first weeks of their marriage, but never since, the unhappy woman clearly perceived that the knight's incredible demand was meant seriously. What she had believed an idle boast he actually requested. Yonder hated intruder expected her to part with her only daughter, who was far more to her than her unloved husband, her exacting mother, or the son who restricted her wishes, whom she had never understood, and against whom her heart had long been hardened. But it could not be and, losing all self-control and dignity, she shrieked aloud, tore the blue headband from her hair and, repeating the "never" constantly as if she had gone out of her senses, gasped: "Never, never, never, so long as I live!"
As she spoke she rushed to her startled husband, pointed to her son-in- law, who still held his wife in a close embrace, and in a half-stifled voice commanded Herr Casper to strike down the gambler, robber, spendthrift, and kidnapper of children, or drive him out of the house like some savage, dangerous beast. Then she ordered Isabella to leave the profligate who wanted to drag her down to ruin; and when her daughter refused to obey, she burst into violent weeping, sobbing and moaning till her strength failed and she was really attacked with one of the convulsions she had often feigned, by the advice of her own mother, to extort from her husband the gratification of some extravagant wish.
Indignant, yet full of sincere sympathy, Herr Casper supported his wife, whose queenly beauty had once fired his heart, and in whose embrace he had imagined that he would be vouchsafed here below the joys of the redeemed. As she rested her head, with its long auburn tresses, still so luxuriant, upon his shoulder, exquisite pictures of the past rose before the mental vision of the elderly man; but the spell was quickly broken, for the kerchief with which he wiped her face was dyed red from her rouged cheeks.
A bitter smile hovered around his well-formed, beardless lips, and the man of business remembered the vast sums which he had squandered to gratify the extravagant wishes of the mother and daughter, and show these countesses that he, the burgher, in whose veins ran noble blood, understood as well as any man of their own rank how to increase the charm of life by luxury and splendour.
While he supported his wife, and the old countess was seeking to relieve her, Isabella also prepared to hasten to her mother's assistance, but her husband stopped her with resistless strength, whispering: "You know that these convulsions are not dangerous. Come with me to the children. I want to bid them farewell. Show me in this last hour, at least, that these women are not more to you than I." He released her as he spoke, and the mental struggle which for a short time made her bosom heave violently with her hurried breathing ended with a low exclamation, "I will come."
The nurse, whom Isabella sent out of the room when she entered with her husband, silently obeyed, but stopped at the door to watch. She saw the turbulent knight kneel beside the children's cradle before the wife whom he had so basely neglected, raise his tearful eyes to the majestic woman, whose stature was little less than his own and, lifting his clasped hands, make a confession which she could not hear; saw her draw him towards her, nestle with loving devotion against his broad breast, and place first one and then the other twin boy in his arms.
The young mother's cheeks as well as the father's were wet, but the eyes of both sparkled with grateful joy when Isabella, in taking leave of her husband, thanked him with a last loving kiss for the vow that, wherever he might go, he would treasure her and the children in his heart, and do everything in his power to secure a fate that should be worthy of them.
As Siebenburg went downstairs he met his father-in-law on the second- story landing. Herr Casper, deadly pale, was clinging with his right hand to the baluster, pressing his left on his brow, as he vainly struggled for composure and breath. He had forgotten to strengthen himself with food and drink, and the terrible blows of fate which had fallen upon him during these last hours of trial crushed, though but for a short time, his still vigorous strength. The knight went nearer to help him, but when he offered Herr Casper his arm the old merchant angrily thrust it back and accepted a servant's support.
While the man assisted him upstairs he repented that he had yielded to resentment, and not asked his son-in-law to try to discover Wolff's hiding place, but no sooner had food and fiery wine strengthened him than his act seemed wise. The return of the business partner, without whose knowledge he had incurred great financial obligations, would have placed him in the most painful situation. The old gentleman would have been obliged to account to Wolff for the large sum which he owed to the Jew Pfefferkorn, the most impatient of his creditors, though he need not have told him that he had used it in Venice to gratify his love of gaming. How should he answer his son if he asked why he had rejected his betrothed bride, and soon after condescended to receive her again as his daughter and enter into close relations with her father? Yet this must be done. Ernst Ortlieb was the only person who could help him. It had become impossible to seek aid from Herr Berthold Vorchtel, the man whose oldest son Wolff had slain, and yet he possessed the means to save the sinking ship from destruction.
When the news of the duel reached him the messenger's blanched face had made him believe that Wolff had fallen. In that moment he had perceived that his loss would have rendered him miserable for the rest of his life. This was a source of pleasure, for since Wolff had extorted his consent to the betrothal with Els Ortlieb, and thus estranged him from the Vorchtels, he had seriously feared that he had ceased to love him. Nay, in many an hour when he had cause to feel shame in the presence of his prudent, cautious, and upright partner, it had seemed as if he hated him. Now the fear of the judge whom he saw in Wolff was blended with sincere anxiety concerning his only son, whose breach of the peace menaced him with banishment--nay, if he could not pay the price of blood which the Vorchtels might demand, with death. Doubtless he had done many things to prejudice Wolff against his betrothed bride, yet he who had cast the first stone at her now felt that, in her simple purity, she would be capable of no repudiation of the fidelity she owed her future husband. However strongly he had struggled against this conviction, he knew that she, if any one, could make his son happy--far happier than he had ever been with the tall, slender, snow-white, unapproachable countess, who had helped bring him to ruin.
While consuming the food and drink, he heard his wife, usually a most obedient daughter, disputing with her mother. This was fortunate; for,
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