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- In The Fire Of The Forge, Volume 5. - 2/10 -
her fever-flushed features brightened. Memories of the spring of her love seemed to irradiate her last moments and, as her eyes again rested on Eva, her lips once more smiled with the bewitching expression, once her husband's delight, which had long deserted them.
It seemed during this time as if she had forgotten the faithful nurse who for years had willingly sacrificed the pleasures of her days and the sleep of her nights, to lavish upon the child of her anxiety all that her mother-heart still contained, which was naught save love.
Els doubtless noticed it, but with no bitter or sorrowful thoughts. She and the beloved dying woman understood one another. Each knew what she was to the other. Her mother need not doubt, nor did she, that, whatever obstacles life might place in her pathway, Els would pursue the right course even without counsel and guidance. But Eva needed her love and care so much just now, and when the sufferer gave her older daughter also a tender glance and vainly strove to falter a few words of thanks, Els herself replaced in Eva's the hand which her mother had withdrawn.
Fran Maria nodded gently to Els, as if asking her sensible elder daughter to watch over her forsaken sister in her place.
Then her eyes again sought her husband, but the priest, to whom she had just confessed, approached her instead.
After the holy man had performed the duties of his office, she again turned her head toward Eva. It seemed as though she was feasting her eyes on her daughter's charms. Meanwhile she strove to utter what more she desired to say, but the bystanders understood only the words--they were her last: "We thought--should be untouched--But now Heaven----"
Here she paused and, after closing her eyes for a time, went on in a lower but perfectly distinct tone: "You are good--I hope--the forge-fire of life--it is fortunate for you The heart and its demands The hap--pi --ness--which it--gave--me---- It ought--it must--you, too----"
Whilst speaking she had again glanced towards her husband, then at the Abbess Kunigunde, who knelt beside him, and as the abbess met the look she thought, "She is entrusting the child to me, and desires Eva to be happy as one of us and the fairest of the brides of Heaven!" Ernst Ortlieb, wholly overpowered by the deepest grief, was far from enquiring into the meaning of these last words of his beloved dying wife.
Els, on the contrary, who had learned to read the sufferer's features and understood her even without words when speech was difficult, had watched every change in the expression of her features with the utmost attention. Without reflecting or interpreting, she was sure that the movements of her dying mother's lips had predicted to Eva that the "forge fire of life" would exert its purifying and moulding influence on her also, and wished that in the world, not in the convent, she might be as happy as she herself had been rendered by her father's love.
After these farewell words Frau Maria's features became painfully distorted, the lids drooped over her eyes, there was a brief struggle, then a slight gesture from the physician announced to the weeping group that her earthly pilgrimage was over.
No one spoke. All knelt silently, with clasped hands, beside the couch, until Eva, as if roused from a dream, shrieked, "She will never come back again!" and with passionate grief threw herself upon the lifeless form to kiss the still face and beseech her to open her dear eyes once more and not leave her.
How often she had remained away from the invalid in order to let her aunt point out the path for her own higher happiness whilst Els nursed her mother; but now that she had left her, she suddenly felt what she had possessed and lost in her love. It seemed as if hitherto she had walked beneath the shadow of leafy boughs, and her mother's death had stripped them all away as an autumn tempest cruelly tears off the foliage. Henceforth she must walk in the scorching sun without protection or shelter. Meanwhile she beheld in imagination fierce flames blazing brightly from the dark soot--the forge fire of life, to which the dead woman's last words had referred. She knew what her mother had wished to say, but at the present time she lacked both the desire and the strength to realise it.
For a time each remained absorbed by individual grief. Then the father drew both girls to his heart and confessed that, with their mother's death life, already impoverished by the loss of his only son, had been bereft of its last charm. His most ardent desire was to be summoned soon to follow the departed ones.
Els summoned up her courage and asked: "And we--are we nothing to you, father?"
Surprised by this rebuke, he started, removed his wet handkerchief from his eyes, and answered: "Yes, yes--but the old do not reckon Ay, much is left to me. But he who is robbed of his best possession easily forgets the good things remaining, and good you both are."
He kissed his daughter lovingly as he spoke, as if wishing to retract the words which had wounded her; then gazing at the still face of the dead, he said: "Before you dress her, leave her alone with me for a time---- There is a wild turmoil here and here"--he pointed to his breast and brow--"and yet The last hours----There is so much to settle and consider in a future without her With her, with her dear calm features before my eyes----"
Here a fresh outburst of grief stifled his voice; but Els pointed to the image of the Virgin on the wall and beckoned to her sister.
Wholly engrossed by her own sorrow, Eva had scarcely heeded her father's words, and now impetuously refused to leave her mother. Herr Ernst, pleased by this immoderate grief for the one dearest to him, permitted her to remain, and asked Els to attend to the outside affairs which a death always brought with it.
Els accepted the new duty as a matter of course and went to the door; but at the threshold she turned back, rushed to the deathbed, kissed the pure brow and closed eyelids of the sleeper, and then knelt beside her in silent prayer. When she rose she clasped Eva, who had knelt and risen with her, in a close embrace, and whispered: "Whatever happens, you may rely on me."
Then she consulted her father concerning certain arrangements which must be made, and also asked him what she should say to the maid's lover, who had come to beseech his forgiveness.
"Tell him to leave me in peace!" cried Herr Ernst vehemently. Els tried to intercede for the servant, but her father pressed both hands over his ears, exclaiming: "Who can reach a decision when he is out of his senses himself? Let the man come to-morrow, or the day after. Whoever may call, I will see no one, and don't wish to know who is here."
But the peace and solitude for which he longed seemed denied him. A few hours after he left the chamber of death he was obliged to go to the Town Hall on business which could not be deferred; and when, shortly before sunset, he returned home and locked himself into his own room, old Eysvogel again appeared.
He looked pale and agitated, and ordered the manservant--who denied him admittance as he had been directed--to call Jungfrau Els. His voice trembled as he entreated her to persuade her father to see him again. The matter in question was the final decision of the fate of his ancient house, of Wolff, and also her own and her marriage with his son. Perhaps the death of his beloved wife might render her father's mood more gentle. He did not yet know all Now he must learn it. If he again said "No," it would seal the ruin of the Eysvogel firm.
How imploringly he could plead! how humbly the words fell from the old merchant's lips, moving Els to her inmost heart as she remembered the curt inflexibility with which, only yesterday, this arrogant man, in that very spot, had refused any connection with the Ortliebs! How much it must cost him to bow his stiff neck before her, who was so much younger, and approach her father, whose heart he had so pitilessly trampled under foot, in the character of a supplicant for aid, perhaps a beggar!
Besides, Wolff was his son!
Whatever wrong the father had done her she must forget it, and the task was not difficult; for now--she felt it--no matter from what motive, he honestly desired to unite her to his son. If her lover now led her through the door adorned with the huge, showy escutcheon, she would no longer come as a person unwillingly tolerated, but as a welcome helper- perhaps as the saviour of the imperilled house. Of the women of the Eysvogel family she forbade herself to think.
How touching the handsome, aristocratic, grey-haired man seemed to her in his helpless weakness! If her father would only receive him, he would find it no easier than she to deny him the compassion he so greatly needed.
She knocked at the lonely mourner's door and was admitted.
He was sitting, with his head bowed on his hands, opposite to the large portrait of her dead mother in her bridal robes. The dusk of the gathering twilight concealed the picture, but he had doubtless gazed long at the lovely features, and still beheld them with his mental vision.
Els was received with a mournful greeting; but when Herr Ernst heard what had brought her to him, he fiercely commanded her to tell Herr Casper that he would have nothing more to do with him.
Els interceded for the unfortunate man, begging, pleading, and assuring her father that she would never give up Wolff. The happiness of her whole life was centred in him and his love. If he refused the Eysvogels the aid besought by the old merchant who, in his humility, seemed a different man----
Here her father indignantly broke in, ordering her to disturb him no longer. But now the heritage of his own nature asserted itself in Els and, with an outburst of indignation, she pointed to the picture of her mother, whose kind heart certainly could not have endured to see a broken-hearted man, on whose rescue the happiness of her own child depended, turned from her door like an importunate beggar.
At this the man whose locks had long been grey sprang from his chair with the agility of a youth, exclaiming in vehement excitement: "To embitter the hours devoted to the most sacred grief is genuine Eysvogel selfishness. Everything for themselves! What do they care for others? I except your Wolff; let the future decide what concerns him and you. I will stand by you. But to hope for happiness and peace-nay, even a life without bitter sorrow for you from the rest of the kin--is to expect to gather sweet pears from juniper bushes. Ever since your betrothal your mother and I have had no sleep, disturbed whenever we talked to each other about your being condemned to live under the same roof with that old devil, the countess, her pitiable daughter, and that worthless Siebenburg. But within the past few hours all this has been changed. The table-cloth has been cut between the Eysvogels and the Ortliebs. No power in the world can ever join it. I have not told you what has
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