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- In The Fire Of The Forge, Volume 7. - 4/13 -
I noticed it myself, and the abbess--"
"Your sister," interrupted the matron thoughtfully, "she was the very one who led her into the path that is not suited for her."
"No, no," the magistrate eagerly asserted. "God did not create a girl, the mere sight of whom charms so many, to withdraw her from the gaze of the world."
"Husband! husband!" exclaimed Frau Christine, tapping his arm gaily. "But there go the Schurstabs and Ebners. What a noise there is in the street below!"
Her husband looked out of the bow window, pointed down, and asked her to come and stand beside him. When she had risen he passed his arm around the slenderest part of her waist, which, however, he could not quite clasp, and eagerly continued: "Just look! One would think it was a banquet or a dance. The whole street is filled with sedan-chairs, servants, and torch-bearers. A few hours ago the constables had hard work to prevent the deluded people from destroying the house of the profligate Es, and now one half of the distinguished honourable Councillors come to pay their homage. Do you know, dear, what pleases the most in all this?"
"Well?" asked Frau Christine, turning her face towards him with a look of eager enquiry, which showed that she expected to hear something good. But he nodded slightly, and answered:
"We members of patrician families cling to old customs; each wants to keep his individuality, as he would share or exchange his escutcheon with no one. Then, when one surpasses the rest in external things, whatever name they may bear, no one hastens to imitate him. We men are independent, rugged fellows. But if the heart and mind of any one of us are bent upon something really good and which may be said to be pleasing in the sight of God, and he successfully executes it, then, Christine, then--I have noticed it in a hundred instances--then the rest rush after him like sheep after the bellwether."
"And this time you, and the other Berthold, were the leaders," cried Fran Christine, hastily pressing a kiss upon her old husband's cheek behind the curtain.
Then she turned back into the dusky chamber, pointed to the open door of the sitting-room, and said, "just look! If that isn't---- There comes Ursula Vorchtel with her betrothed husband, young Hans Nutzel! What a fine-looking man the slender youth has become! Ursel--her visit is probably the greatest pleasure which Els has had during this blessed hour."
The wise woman was right; for when Ursel held out her hands to her former friend, whom she had studiously avoided so long, the eyes of both girls were moist, and Els's cheeks alternately flushed and paled, like the play of light and shadow on the ground upon a sunny morning in a leafy wood when the wind sways the tree tops.
What did they not have to say to each other! As soon as they were unnoticed a moment Ursel kissed her newly regained friend, and whispered, pointing to her lover, with whom Fran Barbara Behaim was talking: "He first taught me to know what true love is, and since then I have realised that it was wrong and foolish for me to be angry with you, my dear Els, and that Wolff did right to keep his troth, hard as his family made it for him to do so. Had my Hans met me a little sooner, we should not now have to mourn our poor Ulrich. I know--for I have tried often enough to soothe his resentment--how greatly he incensed your lover. Oh, how sad it all is! But your aunt, the abbess, was right when she told us before our confirmation, 'When the cross that is imposed upon us weighs too heavily, an angel often comes, lifts it, and twines it with lovely roses!' That has been my experience, dear Els; and what great injustice I did you when I kept out of your way so meanly! I always felt drawn to you. But when that evil gossip began I turned against them all and bade them be silent in my presence, for it was all false, base lies. I upheld your Eva, too, as well as you, though she had been very ungracious whenever we met."
How joyously Els opened her heart to these confessions! How warmly she interceded for her sister! The girls had passed their arms around each other, as if they had returned to the days of their childhood, and when Ursel's lover glanced at his betrothed bride, who, spite of her well- formed figure and pleasant face, could not be classed amongst the most beautiful of women, he thought she might compare in attractiveness with the loveliest maidens, but no one could equal her in kindness of heart. She saw this in the warm, loving look with which he sought her pleasant grey eyes, as he approached to remind her that it was time to go; but beckoning to him, she begged him to wait just a moment longer, which she employed in whispering to Els: "You should find shelter with us, and no one else, if my father---- Don't think he refused to let me invite you on account of poor Ulrich, or because he was angry with you. It's only because---- After the session to-day they all praised his noble heart, and I don't know what else, so loudly and with such exaggeration that it was too much to believe. If he interceded for the Eysvogel firm and you poor children, it was only because, as a just man, he could not do otherwise."
"Oh, Ursel!" Els here interrupted, wishing to join in her father's praise; but the latter would not listen and eagerly continued:
"No, no, he really felt so. His modesty made him unwilling to awaken the belief that he asked the betrothed bride of the man--you understand and her sister into his house, to set an example of Christian reconciliation. False praise, he says, weighs more heavily than disgrace. He has already heard more of it than he likes, and therefore, for no other reason, he does not open his house to you, but upon his counsel and his aid, he bids me tell you, you can confidently rely."
Then the friends took leave of each other, and Ursula also embraced Eva, who approached her with expressions of warm gratitude, kissed her, and said, as she went away, "When next we meet, Miss Ungracious, I hope we shall no longer turn our backs on each other."
When Ursel had gone with her lover, and most of the others had followed, Els felt so elated by thankfulness that she did not understand how her heart, burdened with such great and heavy anxieties, could be capable of rising to such rapturous delight.
How gladly she would have hastened to Wolff to give him his share of this feeling! But, even had not new claims constantly pressed upon her, she could on no account have sought his hiding-place at this hour.
When the last guest and the abbess also had retired, Aunt Christine asked Els to pack whatever she and her sister needed for the removal to Schweinau, for Eva was to go there with her at once.
Countess Cordula, who, much as she regretted the necessity of being separated from her companions, saw that they were right to abandon the house from which their father had been torn, wanted to help Els, but just as the two girls were leaving the room a new visitor arrived--Casper Teufel, of the Council, a cousin of Casper Eysvogel, who had leaned on his arm for support when he left the session that afternoon.
Els would not have waited for any other guest, but this one, as his first words revealed, came from the family to which she felt that she belonged, and the troubled face of the greyhaired, childless widower, who was usually one of the most jovial of men, as well as the unusually late hour of his call, indicated so serious a reason for his coming that she stopped, and with anxious urgency asked what news he had brought.
It was not unexpected, yet his brief report fell heavily on the heart of Els, which had just ventured to beat gaily and lightly.
Her uncle and aunt, Eva and the countess, also listened to the story.
He had accompanied Casper Eysvogel to his home and remained with him whilst, overflowing with resentment and vehement, unbridled complaints of the injustice and despotism to which--owing specially to the hostility and self-conceit of old Berthold Vorchtel--he had fallen a victim, he informed Fran Rosalinde and her mother what the Council had determined concerning his own future and that of his family.
When he finally reported that he himself and the ladies must leave the house and the city, Countess Rotterbach, with a scornful glance at her deeply humiliated son-in-law, exclaimed, "This is what comes of throwing one's self away!" The unfortunate man, already shaken to the inmost depths of his being, sank on his knees.
Conrad Teufel had instantly placed him in bed and sent for the leech; but even after they had bathed his head with cold water and bled him he did not regain consciousness. His left side seemed completely paralysed, and his tongue could barely lisp a few unintelligible words.
At the leech's desire a Sister of Charity had been sent for. Isabella Siebenburg, the sufferer's daughter, had already gone with her twin sons, in obedience to her husband's wish, to Heideck Castle.
She had departed in anger, because she had vainly endeavoured to induce her mother and grandmother, who opposed her, to speak more kindly of her husband. When they disparaged the absent man with cruel harshness, she felt--she had told her cousin so--as if the infants could understand the insult offered to their father, and, to protect the children even more than herself, from her husband's feminine foes, she left the falling house, in spite of the entreaties and burning tears with which, in the hour of parting, her mother strove to detain her.
Ere her departure she gave her jewels and the silver which her grandfather had bequeathed to her to Conrad Teufel, to satisfy the most urgent demands of her husband's creditors. Her father and she had parted kindly, and he made no attempt to oppose her.
No one except the Sister of Charity was now in attendance upon the old gentleman; for his wife wept and wailed without finding strength to do anything, and even reproached her own mother, whom she accused of having plunged them all into misfortune, and caused the stroke of paralysis from which her husband was suffering.
The grey-haired countess, the cousin went on, had passed from one attack of convulsions into another, and when he approached her had shrieked the words "ingratitude" and "base reward" so shrilly at him, in various tones, that they were still ringing in his ears.
Everything in the luckless household was out of gear, and its noble guest, the Duke von Gulich, would feel the consequences, for the servants had lost their wits too. Spite of the countless men and maids, he had been obliged to go himself to the pump to get a glass of water for the sick man, and the fragments of the vase which the grandmother had flung at him with her own noble hand were still lying on the floor. His name was Teufel--[devil]--but even in his home in Hades things could scarcely be worse.
When Herr Teufel at last paused, the magistrate and his wife exchanged a significant glance, while Eva gazed with deep suspense, and Cordula with earnest pity, at Els, who had listened to the story fairly panting for
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