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- In The Fire Of The Forge, Volume 5. - 3/10 -
happened. Now you may learn that you---- But first listen, and then decide on whose side you will stand.
"Early this morning I went to the session of the Council. In the market- place I met first one member of it, then a second, third, and fourth; each asked me what had happened to the beautiful E, my lovely little daughter. Gradually I learned what had reached their ears. Yesterday evening, on his way home from here, the man outside, Casper Eysvogel, sullied your--our--good name, child, in a way I have just learned the particulars. He boasted, in the presence of those estimable old gentlemen, the Brothers Ebner, that he had flung at my feet the ring which bound you to his son. You had been surprised at midnight, he said, in the arms of a Swiss knight, and that base scoundrel Siebenburg, his daughter's husband, dared at the gaming-table, before a number of knights and gentlemen--among them young Hans Gross, Veit Holzschuher, and others- to put your interview with the Swiss in so false a light that No, I cannot bring my lips to utter it----
"You need hear only this one thing more: the wretch said that he thanked his patron saint that they had discovered the jade's tricks in time. And this, child, was the real belief of the whole contemptible crew! But now that the water is up to their necks, and they need my helping hand to save them from drowning-now they will graciously take Ernst Ortlieb's daughter if he will give them his property into the bargain, that they may destroy both fortune and child. No--a thousand times no! It is not seemly, at this hour, to yield to the spirit of hate; but she who is lying in her last sleep above would not have counselled me by a single word to such suicidal folly. I did not learn the worst until I went to the Council, or I would have turned the importunate fellow from the door this morning. Tell the old man so, and add that Ernst Ortlieb will have nothing more to do with him."
Here the deeply incensed father pointed to the door.
Els had listened with eyes dilating in horror. The result surpassed her worst fears.
She had felt so secure in her innocence, and the countess had interceded for her so cleverly that, absorbed by anxieties concerning Eva, Cordula, and her mother, she had already half forgotten the disagreeable incident.
Yet, now that her fair name was dragged through the mire, she could scarcely be angry with those who pointed the finger of scorn at her; for faithlessness to a betrothed lover was an offence as great as infidelity to a husband. Nay, her friends were more ready to condemn a girl who broke her vow than a wife who forgot her duty.
And if Wolff, in his biding-place in the citadel, should learn what was said of his Els, to whom yesterday old and young raised their hats in glad yet respectful greeting, would he not believe those who appealed to his own father?
Yet ere she had fully realised this fear, she told herself that it was her duty and her right to thrust it aside. Wolff would not be Wolff if even for a moment he believed such a thing possible. They ought not, could not, doubt each other. Though all Nuremberg should listen to the base calumny and turn its back upon her, she was sure of her Wolff. Ay, he would cherish her with twofold tenderness when he learned by whom this terrible suffering had been inflicted upon her.
Drawing a long breath, she again fixed her eyes upon her mother's portrait. Had she now rushed out to tell the old man who had so cruelly injured her--oh, it would have lightened her heart!--the wrong he had done and what she thought of him, her mother would certainly have stopped her, saying: "Remember that he is your betrothed husband's father." She would not forget it; she could not even hate the ruined man.
Any effort to change her father's mood now--she saw it plainly--would be futile. Later, when his just anger had cooled, perhaps he might be persuaded to aid the endangered house.
Herr Ernst gazed after her sorrowfully as, with a gesture of farewell, she silently left the room to tell her lover's father that he had come in vain.
The old merchant was waiting in the entry, where the wails of the servants and the women in the neighbourhood who, according to custom, were beating their brows and breasts and rending their garments, could be heard distinctly.
Deadly pale, as if ready to sink, he tottered towards the door.
When Els saw him hesitate at the top of the few steps leading to the entry, she gave him her arm to support him down. As he cautiously put one foot after the other on the stairs, she wondered how it was possible that this man, whose tall figure and handsome face were cast in so noble a mould, could believe her to be so base; and at the same moment she remembered the words which old Berthold Vorchtel had uttered in her presence to his son Ulrich: "If anything obscure comes between you and a friend, obtain a clear understanding and peace by truth."
Had the young man who had irritated his misjudged friend into crossing swords with him followed this counsel, perhaps he would have been alive now. She would take it herself, and frankly ask Wolff's father what justified him in accusing her of so base a deed.
The lamps were already lighted in the hall, and the rays from the central one fell upon Herr Casper's colourless face, which wore an expression of despair. But just as her lips parted to ask the question the odour of musk reached her from the death-chamber, whose door Eva had opened. Her mother's gentle face, still in death, rose before her memory, and she was forced to exert the utmost self-control not to weep aloud. Without further reflection she imposed silence upon herself and--yesterday she would not have ventured to do it--threw her arm around Herr Casper's shoulders, gazed affectionately at him, and whispered: "You must not despair, father. You have a faithful ally in this house in Els."
The old man looked down at her in astonishment, but instead of drawing her closer to him he released himself with courteous coldness, saying bitterly: "There is no longer any bond between us and the Ortliebs, Jungfrau Els. From this day forth I am no more your father than you are the bride of my son. Your will may be good, but how little it can accomplish has unfortunately been proved."
Shrugging his shoulders wearily as he spoke, he nodded a farewell and left the house.
Four bearers were waiting outside with the sedan-chair, three servants with torches, and two stout attendants carrying clubs over their shoulders. All wore costly liveries of the Eysvogel colours, and when their master had taken his seat in the gilded conveyance and the men lifted it, Els heard a weaver's wife, who lived near by, say to her little boy: "That's the rich Herr Eysvogel, Fritzel. He has as much money to spend every hour as we have in a whole year, and he is a very happy man."
Els went back into the house.
The repulse which she had just received caused her bitter sorrow. Her father was right. Herr Casper had treated her kindly from a purely selfish motive. She herself was nothing to him.
But there was so much for her to do that she found little time to grieve over this new trouble.
Eva was praying in the death-chamber for the soul of the beloved dead with some of the nuns from the convent, who had lost in her mother a generous benefactress.
Els was glad to know that she was occupied; it was better that her sister should be spared many of the duties which she was obliged to perform. Whilst arranging with the coffin-maker and the "Hegelein," the sexton and upholsterer, ordering a large number of candles and everything else requisite at the funeral of the mistress of an aristocratic household, she also found time to look after her father and Countess Cordula, who was better. Yet she did not forget her own affairs.
Biberli had returned. He had much to relate; but when forced to admit that nothing was urgent, she requested him to defer it until later, and only commissioned him to go to the castle, greet Wolff in her name, and announce her mother's death; Katterle would accompany him, in order to obtain admittance through her countryman, the Swiss warder.
Els might have sent one of the Ortlieb servants; but, in the first place, the fugitive's refuge must be concealed, and then she told herself that Biberli, who had witnessed the occurrence of the previous evening, could best inform Wolff of the real course of events. But when she gave him permission to tell her betrothed husband all that he had seen and heard the day before at the Ortlieb mansion, Biberli replied that a better person than he had undertaken to do so. As he left his master, Sir Heinz was just going to seek her lover. When she learned all that had befallen the knight, she would understand that he was no longer himself. Els, however, had no time to listen, and promised to hear his story when he returned; but he was too full of the recent experience to leave it untold, and briefly related how wonderfully Heaven had preserved his master's life. Then he also told her hurriedly that the trouble which had come upon her through Sir Heinz's fault burdened his soul. Therefore he would not let the night pass without at least showing her betrothed husband how he should regard the gossip of idle tongues if it penetrated to his hiding-place.
Els uttered a sigh of relief. Surely Wolff must trust her! Yet what viciously coloured reports might reach him from the Eysvogels! Now that he would learn the actual truth from the most credible eye-witnesses she no longer dreaded even the worst calumny.
No one appeared at supper except her father. Eva had begged to be excused. She wished to remain undisturbed; but the world, with rude yet beneficent hand, interrupted even her surrender to her grief for her mother.
The tailor, who protested that, owing to the mourning for young Prince Hartmann, he had fairly "stolen" this hour for the beautiful Ortlieb sisters, came with his assistant, and at the same time a messenger arrived from the cloth-house in the market-place bringing the packages of white stuffs for selection. Then it was necessary to decide upon the pattern and material; the sisters must appear in mourning the next morning at the consecration, and later at the mass for the dead.
Eva had turned to these worldly matters with sincere repugnance, but Els would not release her from giving them due attention.
It was well for her tortured soul and the poor eyes reddened by weeping. But when she again knelt in the chamber of death beside her dear nuns and saw the grey robe, which they all wore, the wish to don one, which she
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