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- In The Fire Of The Forge, Volume 7. - 3/13 -
Katterle was not wrong in expecting kindly help from this lady, for a more benevolent face than hers could scarcely be imagined, and, more over, Fran Christine certainly did not lack strength to do what she deemed right. Though not quite so broad as her short, extremely corpulent husband, she surpassed him in height by several inches, and time had transformed the pretty, slender, modest girl into a majestic woman. The slight arch of the nose, the lofty brow, the light down on the upper lip, and the deep voice even gave her a somewhat imperious aspect. Had it not been for the kind, faithful eyes, and an extremely pleasant expression about the mouth, one might have wondered how she could succeed in inspiring everyone at the first glance with confidence in her helpful kindness of heart.
Her grey pug had also been brought with her. How could an animal supply the place of beloved human beings? Yet the pug had become necessary to her since her son, like so many other young men who belonged to patrician Nuremberg families, had fallen in the battle of Marchfield, and her daughter had accompanied her husband to his home in Augsburg. The onerous duties of her husband's office compelled him to leave her alone a great deal, and even in her extremely active life there were lonely hours when she needed a living creature that was faithfully devoted to her.
She was often overburdened with work, for every charitable institution sought her as a "fosterer." True, in many cases their request was vain. Whatever she undertook must be faultlessly executed, and the charge of the orphan children in the city, the Beguines, and the hospital at her summer residence occupied her sufficiently. During the winter she lived with her husband at his official quarters in the castle, but as soon as spring came she longed for her little manor at Schweinau, for she had taken into the institution erected there for the widows of noble crusaders, but in which only the last four of these ladies were now supported, a number of Beguines. These were godly girls and women who did not wish to submit to convent rules, or did not possess the favour or the money required for admission.
Without pledging themselves to celibacy or any of the other restrictions imposed upon the nuns, they desired only, in association with others of the same mind, to lead a life pleasing in the sight of God and devoted to Christian charity. Schweinau afforded abundant opportunity for charitable women to aid suffering fellow-mortals, since it was here that the unfortunates who had been mutilated by the hands of the executioner and his assistants, or wounded on the rack, often nearly unto death, were brought to be bandaged, and as far as possible healed. The Beguines occupied themselves in nursing them, but had many a conflict with the spiritual authorities, who preferred the monks and nuns bound by a monastic vow. The order of St. Francis alone regarded them with favour, interceded for them, and watched over them with kindly interest, taking care that they were kept aloof from everything which would expose them to reproach or blame.
Frau Christine, the Abbess Kunigunde's sister, aided her in this effort, and the Beguines, to whom the magistrate's wife in no way belonged, but who had given them a home on her own estate, silently rendered her obedience when she wished to see undesirable conditions in their common life removed.
Els, as well as Eva, had long since told Frau Christine, who was equally dear to both, everything that afforded ground for the shameful calumnies which had now urged their father to a deed for which he was atoning in prison.
When, a few hours before, a messenger from her husband informed her of what had occurred, she had instantly come to the city to see that the right thing was done, and take the girls thus bereft of their father from the desolate Ortlieb mansion to her own house. Herr Pfinzing had warmly approved this plan, and accompanied her to the "Es," as he, too, was fond of calling his nieces.
When she had been told what motives induced Eva not to confide herself just now to the protection of the convent, Frau Christine struck her broad hips, exclaiming, "There's something in blood! The young creature acts as if her old aunt had thought for her."
Her invitation sounded so loving and cordial, her husband pressed it with such winning, jovial urgency, and the pug Amicus, whose attachment to Eva was especially noticeable, supported his mistress's wish with such ardent zeal, that she called the sisters' attention to his intercession.
Meanwhile the girls had already expressed to each other, with the mute language of the eyes, their inclination to accept the invitation so affectionately extended. Els only made the condition that they were not to go to Schweinau until early the following morning, after their visit to their father; Eva, on the other hand, desired to go as soon as possible, gladly and gratefully confessing to her aunt how much more calmly she would face the future now that she was permitted to be under her protection.
"Just creep under the old hen's wings, my little chicken; she will keep you warm," said the kind-hearted woman, kissing Eva. But, as she began to plan for the removal of the sisters, more visitors were announced-- indeed, several at once; first, Albert Ebner, of the Council, and his wife, then Frau Clara Loffelholz, who came without her husband, and the two daughters of the imperial ranger Waldstromer, Els's most intimate friends. They had come in from the forest-house the day before to attend Frau Maria Ortlieb's burial. Now, with their mother's permission, they came to invite the deserted girls to the forest. The others also begged the sisters to come to them, and so did Councillors Schurstab, Behaim, Gross, Holzschuher, and Pirckheimer, who came, some with their wives and some singly, to look after the daughters of their imprisoned colleague.
The great sitting-room was filled with guests, and the stalwart figures and shrewd, resolute faces of the men, the kind, good, and usually pleasing countenances of the women, whose blue eyes beamed with philanthropic benevolence, though they carried their heads high enough, afforded a delightful spectacle, and one well calculated to inspire respect. There could be no doubt that those whose locks were already grey represented distinguished business houses and were accustomed to manage great enterprises. There was not a single one whom the title "Honour of the Family" could not have well befitted; and what cheerful self-possession echoed in the deep voices of the men, what maternal kindness in those of the elder women, most of whom also spoke in sonorous tones!
Els and Eva often cast stolen glances at each other as they greeted the visitors, thanked them, answered questions, gave explanations, accepted apologies, received and courteously declined invitations. They did not comprehend what had produced this sudden change of feeling in so many of their equals in rank, what had brought them in such numbers at so late an hour, as if the slightest delay was an offence, to their quiet house, which that very day had seemed to Frau Vorkler too evil to permit her children to remain in its service.
The old magistrate and his wife, on the contrary, thought that they knew. They had helped the sisters to receive the first callers; but when Frau Barbara Behaim, a cousin of the late Frau Maria, had appeared, they gave up their post to her, and slipped quietly into the next room to escape the throng.
There they retired to the niche formed by the deep walls of the broad central window of the house, and Herr Berthold Pfinzing whispered to his wife: "There was too much philanthropy and kindness for me in there. A great deal of honey at once cloys me. But you, prophetess, foresaw what is now occurring, and I, too, scarcely expected anything different. So long as one still has a doublet left compassion is in no haste, but when the last shirt is stripped from the body charity--thank the saints!-- moves faster. We are most ready to help those who, we feel very sure, are suffering more than they deserve. There are many motherless children; but young girls who have lost both parents, exposed to every injustice----"
"Are certainly rare birds," his wife interrupted, "and this will undoubtedly be of service to the children. But if they are now invited to the houses of the same worthy folk who, a few hours ago, thought themselves too good to attend the funeral of their admirable mother, and anxiously kept their own little daughters away from them, they probably owe it especially to the right mediators, noble old Vorchtel and another."
"To-day, if ever, certainly furnished evidence how heavily the testimony and example of a really estimable man weighs on the scale. The First Losunger interceded for the children as if they were his own daughters, attacked the slanderers, and of course I didn't leave him in the lurch."
"Peter Holzschuher declared that you defended them like the Roman Cicero," cried Frau Christine merrily. "But don't be vexed, dear husband; no matter how heavily the influence of the two Bertholds-- Vorchtel's and yours--weighed in the balance, nay, had that of a third and a fourth of the best Councillors been added, what is now taking place before our eyes and ears would not have happened, if---"
"Well?" asked the magistrate eagerly.
"If," replied the matron in a tone of the firmest conviction, "they had not all been far from believing, even for a moment, in their inmost souls the shameful calumny which baseness dared to cast upon those two--just look more closely."
"Yet if that was really the case--" her husband began to object, but she eagerly continued: "Many did not utter their better knowledge or faith because the evil heart believes in wickedness rather than virtue, especially if their own house contains something--we will say a young daughter--whose shining purity is thereby brought into a clearer light. Besides, we ourselves have often been vexed by--let us do honour to the truth!--by the defiant manner in which your devout godchild--yonder 'little saint'--held aloof in her spiritual arrogance from the companions of her own age----"
"And then," the corpulent husband added, "two young girls cannot be called 'the beautiful Es' unpunished in houses which contain a less comely T, S, and H. Just think of the Katerpecks. There--thank the saints!--they are taking leave already."
"Don't say anything about them!" said Frau Christine, shaking her finger threateningly. "They are good, well-behaved children. It was pretty Ermengarde Muffel yonder by the fireplace who, after the dance at the Town Hall, assailed your godchild most spitefully with her sharp tongue. My friend Frau Nutzel heard her."
"Ah, that dance!" said the magistrate, sighing faintly. "But the child was certainly distinguished in no common way. The Emperor Rudolph himself looked after her as if an angel had appeared to him. You yourself heard his sister's opinion of her. Her husband, the old Burgrave, and his son, handsome Eitelfritz--But you know all that. Half would have been enough to stir ill-will in many a heart."
"And to turn her pretty little head completely," added his wife.
"That, by our Lady, Christine," protested the magistrate, "that, at least, did not happen. It ran off from her like water from an oil jar.
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