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- In The Fire Of The Forge, Volume 5. - 1/10 -
IN THE FIRE OF THE FORGE
A ROMANCE OF OLD NUREMBERG
By Georg Ebers
IN THE FIRE OF THE FORGE--PART II.
The vesper bells had already died away, yet Heinz was still listening eagerly to the aged Minorite, who was now relating the story of St. Francis, his breach with everything that he loved, and the sorrowful commencement of his life. The monk could have desired no more attentive auditor. Only the young knight often looked out of the window in search of Biberli, who had not yet returned.
The latter had gone to the Ortlieb mansion with Katterle.
The runaway maid, whose disappearance, at old Martsche's earnest request, had already been "cried" in the city, had no cause to complain of her reception; for the housekeeper and the other servants, who knew nothing of her guilt, greeted her as a favourite companion whom they had greatly missed, and Biberli had taken care that she was provided with answers to the questions of the inquisitive. The story which he had invented began with the false report that a fire had broken out in the fortress. This had startled Katterle, and attracted her to the citadel to aid her countrywoman and her little daughter. Then came the statement that she spent the night there, and lastly the tale that in the morning she was detained in the Swiss warder's quarters by a gentleman of rank--perhaps the Burgrave himself--who, after he had learned who she was, wished to give her some important papers for Herr Ernst Ortlieb. She had waited hours for them and finally, on the way home, chanced to meet Biberli.
At first the maid found it difficult to repeat this patchwork of truth and fiction in proper order, but the ex-schoolmaster impressed it so firmly on his sweetheart's mind that at last it flowed from her lips as fluently as his pupils in Stanstadt had recited the alphabet.
So she became among the other servants the heroine of an innocent adventure whose truth no one doubted, least of all the housekeeper, who felt a maternal affection for her. Some time elapsed ere she could reach the Es; they were still with their mother, who was so ill that the leech Otto left the sick-room shaking his head.
As soon as he had gone Biberli stopped Els, who had accompanied the physician outside the door of the sufferer's chamber, and earnestly entreated her to forgive him and Katterle--who stood at his side with drooping head, holding her apron to her eyes and persuade her father also to let mercy take the place of justice.
But kind-hearted Els proved sterner than the maid had ever seen her.
As her mother had been as well as usual when she woke, they had told her of the events of the previous night. Her father was very considerate, and even kept back many incidents, but the invalid was too weak for so unexpected and startling a communication. She was well aware of her excitable daughter's passionate nature; but she had never expected that her little "saint," the future bride of Heaven, would be so quickly fired with earthly love, especially for a stranger knight. Moreover, the conduct of Eva who, though she entreated her forgiveness, by no means showed herself contritely ready to resign her lover, had given her so much food for thought that she could not find the rest her frail body required.
Soon after these disclosures she was again attacked with convulsions, and Els thought of them and the fact that they were caused by Eva's imprudence, instigated by the maid, when she refused Biberli her intercession with her father in behalf of him and his bride, as he now called Katterle.
The servitor uttered a few touching exclamations of grief, yet meanwhile thrust his hand into the pocket of his long robe and, with a courteous bow and the warmest message of love from her betrothed husband, whom Katterle had seen in perfect health and under the best care in the Zollern castle, delivered to the indignant girl the letter which Wolff had entrusted to the maid. Els hurried with the missive so impatiently expected to the window in the hall, through which the sun, not yet reached by the rising clouds, was shining, and as it contained nothing save tender words of love which proved that her betrothed husband firmly relied upon her fidelity and, come what might, would not give her up, she returned to the pair, and hurriedly, but in a more kindly tone, informed them that her father was greatly incensed against both, but she would try to soften him. At present he was in his office with Herr Casper Eysvogel; Biberli might wait in the kitchen till the latter went away.
Els then entered the sick-chamber, but Biberli put his hand under his sweetheart's chin, bent her head back gently, and said: "Now you see how Biberli and other clever people manage. The best is kept until the last. The result of the first throw matters little, only he who wins the last goes home content. To know how to choose the bait is also an art. The trout bites at the fly, the pike at the worm, and a yearning maiden at her lover's letter. Take notice! To-day, which began with such cruel sorrow, will yet have a tolerable end."
"Nay," cried Katterle, nudging him angrily with her elbow, "we never had a day begin more happily for us. The gold with which we can set up housekeeping--"
"Oh, yes," interrupted Biberli, "the zecchins and gold florins are certainly no trifle. Much can be bought with them. But Schorlin Castle razed to the ground, my master's lady mother and Fraulein Maria held as half captives in the convent, to say nothing of the light-hearted Prince Hartmann and Sir Heinz's piteous grief--if all these things could be undone, child, I should not think the bag of gold, and another into the bargain, too high a price to pay for it. What is the use of a house filled with fine furniture when the heart is so full of sorrow? At home we all eat together out of a cracked clay dish across which a tinker had drawn a wire, with rude wooden spoons made by my father, yet how we all relished it!--what more did we want?"
As he spoke he drew her into the kitchen, where he found a friendly reception.
True, the Ortlieb servants were attached to their employers and sincerely sorry for the ill health of the mistress of the house, but for several years the lamentations and anxiety concerning her had been ceaseless. The young prince's death had startled rather than saddened them. They did not know him, but it was terrible to die so young and so suddenly. They would not have listened to a merry tale which stirred them to laughter, but Biberli's stories of distant lands, of the court, of war, of the tournament, just suited their present mood, and the narrator was well pleased to find ready listeners. He had so many things to forget, and he never succeeded better than when permitted to use his tongue freely. He wagged it valiantly, too, but when the thunderstorm burst he paused and went to the window. His narrow face was blanched, and his agile limbs moved restlessly. Suddenly remarking, "My master will need me," he held out his hand to Katterle in farewell. But as the zigzag flash of lightning had just been followed by the peal of thunder, she clung to him, earnestly beseeching him not to leave her. He yielded, but went out to learn whether Herr Casper was still in the office, and in a short time returned, exclaiming angrily: "The old Eysvogel seems to be building his nest here!"
Then, to the vexation of the clumsy old cook, whom he interrupted by his restless movements in the Paternosters she was repeating on her rosary, he began to stride up and down before the hearth.
His light heart had rarely been so heavy. He could not keep his thoughts from his master, and felt sure that Heinz needed him; that he, Biberli, would have cause to regret not being with him at this moment. Had the storm destroyed the Ortlieb mansion he would have considered it only natural; and as he glanced around the kitchen in search of Katterle, who, like most of the others, was on her knees with her rosary in her hand, old Martsche rushed in, hurried up to the cook, shook her as if to rouse her from sleep, and exclaimed: "Hot water for the blood-letting! Quick! Our mistress--she'll slip through our hands."
As she spoke, the young kitchen maid Metz helped the clumsy woman up, and Biberli also lent his aid.
Just as the jug was filled, Els, too, hastened in, snatched it from the hand of Martsche, whose old feet were too slow for her, and hurried with it into the entry and up the stairs, passing her father, to whom she had called on the way down.
Casper Eysvogel stood at the bottom of the steps, and called after her that it would not be his fault, but her father's, if everything between her and his son was over.
She probably heard the words, but made no answer, and hastened as fast as her feet would carry her to her mother's bed.
The old physician was holding the gasping woman in his arms, and Eva knelt beside the high bedstead sobbing, as she covered the dry, burning hand with kisses.
When Ernst Ortlieb entered the chamber of his beloved wife a cold chill ran down his back, for the odour of musk, which he had already inhaled beside many a deathbed, reached him.
It had come to this! The end which he had so long delayed by tender love and care was approaching. The flower which had adorned his youth and, spite of its broken stem, had grown still dearer and was treasured beyond everything else that bloomed in his garden, would be torn from him.
This time no friendly potion had helped her to sleep through the noise of the thunderstorm. Soon after the attack of convulsions the agitated, feeble sufferer had started up in terror at the first loud peal of thunder. Fright followed fright, and when the leech came voluntarily to enquire for her, he found a dying woman.
The bleeding restored her to consciousness for a short time, and she evidently recognised her husband and her children. To the former she gave a grateful, tender glance of love, to Els an affectionate, confidential gesture, but Eva, her pride and joy, whom the past night had rendered a child of sorrow, claimed her attention most fully.
Her kind, gentle eyes rested a long time upon her: then she looked toward her husband as if beseeching him to cherish this child with special tenderness in his heart; and when he returned the glance with another, in which all the wealth of his great and loyal love shone through his tears,
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