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- In The Fire Of The Forge, Volume 5. - 5/10 -
spirited bay, rode a very young woman whose pliant figure was extremely aristocratic in its bearing.
As soon as the hazel-bushes and pine trees, which had concealed the noble pair, permitted a view of them, Eva recognised in the gentleman the Emperor Rudolph, and in his companion Duchess Agnes of Austria, his young daughter-in-law, whom she had not forgotten since the dance at the Town Hall. Behind them came several mailed knights, with the emblems of the deepest mourning on their garments and helmets, and among those nearest to the Emperor Eva perceived--her heart almost stood still--the person whom she had least expected to meet here--Heinz Schorlin.
Whilst she was gathering the flowers for her mother's coffin his image had almost vanished from her mind. Now he appeared before her in person, and the sight moved her so deeply that Sister Perpetua, who saw her turn pale and cling to the young pine by her side, attributed her altered expression to fear of robber knights, and whispered, "Don't be troubled, child; it is only the Emperor."
Neither the first horsemen-guards whom the magistrate, Berthold Pfinzing, Eva's uncle, had assigned to the sovereign without his knowledge, to protect him from unpleasant encounters during his early morning ride-- nor the Emperor and his companions could have seen Eva whilst they were passing the chapel; but scarcely had they reached it when the dog Wasser, which had escaped from Ortel's grasp, burst through the hazel copse and, barking furiously, dashed towards the duchess's horse.
The spirited animal leaped aside, but a few seconds later Heinz Schorlin had swung himself from the saddle and dealt the dog so vigorous a kick that it retreated howling into the thicket. Meanwhile he had watched every movement of the bay, and at the right instant his strong hand had grasped its nostrils and forced it to stand.
"Always alert and on the spot at the right time!" cried the Emperor, then added mournfully, "So was our Hartmann, too."
The duchess bent her head in assent, but the grieving father pointed to Heinz, and added: "The boy owed his blithe vigour partly to the healthful Swiss blood with which he was born, but yonder knight, during the decisive years of life, set him the example. Will you dismount, child, and let Schorlin quiet the bay?"
"Oh, no," replied the duchess, "I understand the animal. You have not yet broken the wonderful son of the desert of shying, as you promised. It was not the barking cur, but yonder basket that has dropped from the skies, which frightened him."
She pointed, as she spoke, to the grass near the chapel where, beside Eva's flowers, stood the light willow basket which was to receive them.
"Possibly, noble lady," replied Heinz, patting the glossy neck of the Arabian, a gift to the Emperor Rudolph from the Egyptian Mameluke Sultan Kalaun. "But perhaps the clever creature merely wished to force his royal rider to linger here. Graciously look over yonder, Your Highness; does it not seem as if the wood fairy herself had laid by the roadside for your illustrious Majesty the fairest flowers that bloom in field and forest, mere and moss?"
As he spoke he stooped, selected from the mass of blossoms gathered by Eva those which specially pleased his eye, hastily arranged them in a bouquet, and with a respectful bow presented them to the duchess.
She thanked him graciously, put the nosegay in her belt, and gazed at him with so warm a light in her eyes that Eva felt as if her heart was shrinking as she watched the scene.
Even princesses, who were separated from him by so wide a gulf, could not help favouring this man. How could she, the simple maiden whom he had assured of his love, ever have been able to give him up?
But she had no time to think and ponder; the Emperor was already riding on with the Bohemian princess, and Heinz went to his horse, whose bridle was held by one of the troopers who followed the train.
Ere he swung himself into the saddle again, however, he paused to reflect.
The thought that he had robbed some flower or herb-gatherer of a portion of the result of her morning's work had entered his mind and, obeying a hasty impulse, he flung a glittering zecchin into the basket.
Eva saw it, and every fibre of her being urged her to step forward, tell him that the flowers were hers, and thank him in the name of the poor for whom she destined his gift; but maidenly diffidence held her in check, although he gave her sufficient opportunity; for when he perceived the image of the Virgin in the Mendel chapel, he crossed himself, removed his helmet, and bending the knee repeated, whilst the others rode on without him, a silent prayer. His brown locks floated around his head, and his features expressed deep earnestness and glowing ardour.
Oh, how gladly Eva would have thrown herself on her knees beside him, clasped his hands, and--nay, not prayed, her heart was throbbing too stormily for that-rested her head upon his breast and told him that she trusted him, and felt herself one with him in earthly as well as heavenly love!
Whoever prayed thus in solitude had a soul yearning for the loftiest things. Others might say what they chose, she knew him better. This man, from the first hour of their meeting, had loved her with the most ardent but also with the holiest passion; never, never had he sought her merely for wanton amusement. Her mother's last wish would be fulfilled. She need only trust him with her whole soul, and leave the "forge fire of life" to strengthen and purify her.
Now she remembered where the dying woman had heard the phrase.
Her Aunt Christine had used it recently in her mother's presence. Young Kunz Schurstab had fallen into evil ways in Lyons. Every one, even his own father, had given him up for lost; but after several years he returned home and proved himself capable of admirable work, both in his father's business and in the Council. In reply to Frau Ortlieb's enquiry where this transformation in the young man had occurred, her aunt answered:
"In the forge fire of life." Eva told herself that she had intentionally kept aloof from its flames, and in the convent, perhaps, they would never have reached her. Yesterday they had seized upon her for the first time, and henceforward she would not evade them, that she might obey her mother and become worthy of the man praying silently yonder. He owed to his heroic courage and good sword a renowned name; but what had she ever done save selfishly to provide for her own welfare in this world and the next? She had not even been strong enough to hold the head of the mother, to whom she owed everything and who had loved her so tenderly, when the convulsions attacked her.
Even after she closed her eyes in death--she had noticed it--she had been kept from every duty in the household and for the beloved dead, because it was deemed unsuitable for her, and Els and every one avoided putting the serious demands of life between the "little saint" and her aspirations towards the bliss of heaven. Yet Eva knew that she could accomplish whatever she willed to do, and instead of using the strength which she felt stirring with secret power in her fragile body, she had preferred to let it remain idle, in order to dwell in another world from that in which she had been permitted to prove her might. The fire of the forge, by whose means pieces of worthless iron were transformed into swords and ploughshares, should use its influence upon her also. Let it burn and torture her, if it only made her a genuine, noble woman, a woman like her Aunt Christine, from whom her mother had heard the phrase of "the forge fire of life," who aided and pointed out the right path to hundreds, and probably, at her age, had needed neither an Els nor an Abbess Kunigunde to keep her, body and soul, in the right way. She loved both; but some impulse within rebelled vehemently against being treated like a child, and--now that her mother was dead--subjecting her own will to that of any other person than the man to whom she would have gladly looked up as a master.
Whilst Heinz knelt in front of the chapel without noticing Sister Perpetua, who was praying before the altar within, these thoughts darted through Eva's brain like a flash of lightning. Now he rose and went to his horse, but ere he mounted it the dog, barking furiously, again broke from the thicket close at her side.
Heinz must have seen her white mourning robes, for her own name reached her ears in a sudden cry, and soon after--she herself could not have told how--Heinz was standing beside the basket amidst the flowers, with her hand clasped in his, gazing into her eyes so earnestly and sadly that he seemed a different person from the reckless dancer in the Town Hall, though the look was equally warm and tender. Whilst doing so, he spoke of the deep wound inflicted upon her by her mother's death. Fate had dealt him a severe blow also, but grief taught him to turn whither she, too, had directed him.
Just at that moment the blast of the horn summoning the Emperor's train to his side echoed through the forest.
"The Emperor!" cried Heinz; then bending towards the flowers he seized a few forget-me-nots, and, whilst gazing tenderly at them and Eva, murmured in a low tone, as if grief choked his utterance: "I know you will give them to me, for they wear the colour of the Queen of Heaven, which is also yours, and will be mine till my heart and eyes fail me."
Eva granted his request with a whispered "Keep them"; but he pressed his hand to his brow and, as if torn by contending emotions, hastily added: "Yes, it is that of the Holy Virgin. They say that Heaven has summoned me by a miracle to serve only her and the highest, and it often seems to me that they are right. But what will be the result of the conflicting powers which since that flash of lightning have drawn one usually so prompt in decision as I, now here, now there? Your blue, Eva, the hue of these flowers, will remain mine whether I wear it in honour of the Blessed Virgin, or--if the world does not release me--in yours. She or you! You, too, Eva, I know, stand hesitating at the crossing of two paths--which is the right one? We will pray Heaven to show it to you and to me."
As he spoke he swung himself swiftly into the saddle and, obeying the summons, dashed after his imperial master.
Eva gazed silently at the spot where he had vanished behind a group of pine trees; but Ortel, who had gathered a few early strawberries for her, soon roused her from her waking dream by exclaiming, as he clapped his big hands: "I'll be hanged, Jungfrau Eva, if the knight who spoke to you isn't the Swiss to whom the great miracle happened yesterday!"
"The miracle?" she asked eagerly, for Els had intentionally concealed what she heard, and this evidently had something to do with the "wonderful summons" of which Heinz had spoken without being understood.
"Yes, a great, genuine miracle," Ortel went on eagerly. "The lightning-- I heard it from the butcher boy who brings the meat, he learned it from his master's wife herself, and now every child in the city knows it--the
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