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- In The Fire Of The Forge, Volume 7. - 6/13 -
noblewoman, she received visit after visit. Members of the patrician families of Nuremberg arrived; monks and nuns on various errands for their cloisters and their poor; gentlemen and ladies from ecclesiastical and secular circles, in both city and country, among them frequently the most aristocratic attendants of the Reichstag; for she numbered the Burgrave and his wife among her friends, and when questioned about the Nuremberg women, the Burgrave Frederick mentioned her as second to none in ability, shrewdness, and kindness of heart.
Both he and his worthy wife sometimes sought her in the sphere of occupation which consumed the lion's share of her time and strength--the superintendence of the Schweinau hospital. True, she often let days elapse without entering it; but if anything went wrong and her assistance was desirable or necessary in serious cases, she remained there until late at night, or even until the following morning.
At such times even the most distinguished visitors were sent home with the message that Frau Christine could not leave the sick.
The Burgrave and his wife were the only persons permitted to follow her into the hospital, and they had probably gained the privilege of speaking to her there because they were among its most liberal supporters, and three of their sons wore the cross of the Knights Hospitaller, and often spent weeks there, as the rule of the order prescribed, in nursing the sufferers.
Women also had the right to enter the hospital to be cured of the wounds inflicted by the scourge or the iron of the executioner.
Each sufferer was to be nursed there only three days, but Frau Christine took care that no one to whom such treatment might be harmful should be put out. The Honourable Council was obliged, willing or unwilling, to defray the necessary expense. The magistrate had many a battle to fight for these encroachments, but he always found a goodly majority on the side of the hospital and his wife. If the number of those who required longer nursing increased too rapidly they did not spare their own fine residence.
The hospital and the hope of being allowed to help within its walls had brought Eva to Schweinau. The experiences of the past few days had swept through the peace of her young soul like a tempest, overthrowing firmly built structures and fanning glimmering sparks to flames. Since her quiet self-examination in the room of the city clerk, she had known what she lacked and what duty required her to become. The bond which united her to her saint and the Saviour still remained, but she knew what was commanded by him from whom St. Clare's mission also came, what Francis of Assisi had enjoined upon his followers whose experiences had been like hers.
They were to strive to restore peace to their perturbed souls by faithful toil for their brothers and sisters; and what toil better suited a feeble girl like herself than the alleviation of her unhappy neighbour's suffering? The harder the duties imposed upon her in the service of love, the better. She would set to work in the hope of making herself the true, resolute woman which her mother, with the eyes of the soul, had seen her fragile child become; but she could imagine nothing more difficult than the tasks to be fulfilled here. This was the real fierce heat of the forge fire to which the dead woman had wished to entrust her purification and transformation. She would not shun, but hasten to it. While her lover was wielding the sword she, too, had a battle to fight. She had heard from Biberli that Heinz wished to undergo the most severe trials. This was noble, and her enthusiastic nature, aspiring to the loftiest goal, was filled with the same desire. Eager to learn how they would bear the test, she scanned her young shoulders and gazed at the burden which she intended to lay upon them.
When, the year before, her aunt took her to the hospital for the first time, she had returned home completely unnerved. She had not even had the slightest suspicion that there was such suffering on earth, such pain amongst those near her, such depravity amongst those of her own sex. What comparison was there between what Els had done for her gentle, patient mother, or what she would do for old Herr Casper, who lay in a soft bed--it had been shown to her as something of rare beauty, of ebony and ivory--and the task of nursing these infamous gallows-birds bleeding from severe wounds, and these depraved sick women? But if God's own Son gave up His life amidst the most cruel suffering for sinful humanity, how dared she, the weak, erring, slandered girl, who had no goodness save her passionate desire to do what was right, shrink from helping the most pitiable of her neighbours? Here in the hospital at Schweinau lay the heavy burden which she wished to take upon herself.
She desired it also in order to maintain the bond which had united her to the Saviour. She would be constantly reminded here of his own words, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." To become a bride of Jesus Christ and, closely united to Him in her inmost soul, await the hour when He would open His divine arms to her, had seemed the fairest lot in life. Now she had pledged herself in the world to another, and yet she did not wish to give up her Saviour. She desired to show Him that though she neither could nor would resign her earthly lover, her heart still throbbed for the divine One as tenderly as of yore. And could He who was Love incarnate condemn her, when He saw how, without even being permitted to hope that her lover would find his way back to her, she clung with inviolable steadfastness to her troth, though no one save He and His heavenly Father had witnessed her silent vow?
She belonged to Heinz, and he--she knew it--to her. Even though later, after all the world had acknowledged her innocence, the walls of convent and monastery divided them, their souls would remain indissolubly united. If there should be no meeting for them here below, in the other world the Saviour would lead them to each other the more surely, the more obediently they strove to fulfil His divine command. As Heinz desired to take up the cross in imitation of Christ she, too, would bear it. It was to be found beside the straw pallets of the wounded criminals. The fulfilment of every hard duty which she voluntarily performed seemed like a step that brought her nearer to the Saviour, and at the same time to the union with her lover, even though in another world.
The first request she made to her aunt on the way to mass, early in the morning of the first day of her stay in Schweinau, was an entreaty for permission to work in the hospital. It was granted, but not until the eyes of the experienced woman, ever prompt in decision, had rested with anxious hesitation upon the beautiful face and exquisite lithe young figure. The thought that it would be a pity for such lovely, pure, stainless girlish charms to be used in the service of these outcasts had almost determined her to utter a resolute "No"; but she did not do it; nay, a flush of shame crimsoned her face as her eyes rested on the image of the crucified Redeemer which stood beside the road leading to the little village church; for whom had He, the Most High, summoned to His service and deemed specially worthy of the kingdom of heaven? The simple-hearted, the children, the adulterers, the sinners and publicans, the despised, and the poor! No, no, it would not degrade the lovely child to help the miserable creatures yonder, any more than it did the rarest plant which she raised in her herb garden when she used it to heal the hurts of some abandoned wretch.
And besides, with what deep loathing she herself had gone to the hospital at first, and how fully conscious of her own infinite superiority she had returned from amongst these depraved beings to the outdoor air.
Yet how this feeling, which had stirred within her heart, gradually changed!
During her closer acquaintance with the poor and the despised, the nature and work of Christ first became perfectly intelligible to her; for how many traits of simple, self-sacrificing readiness to help, what touching contentment and grateful joy in the veriest trifle, what childlike piety and humble resignation even amidst intolerable suffering, these unfortunates had shown! Nay, when she had become familiar with the lives of many of her protegees and learned how they had fallen into the hands of the executioner and reached Schweinau, she had asked herself whether, under similar circumstances, the majority of those who belonged to her own sphere in life would not have found the way there far more speedily, and whether they would have endured the punishment inflicted half so patiently or with so much freedom from bitterness and rebellion against the decrees of the Most High. She had discovered salutary sap in many a human plant that had at first seemed absolutely poisonous; where she had shrunk from touching such impurity, violets and lilies had bloomed amidst the mire. Instead of holding her head haughtily erect, she had often left the hospital with a sense of shame, and it was long since she had ceased to use the proud privilege of her rank to despise people of lower degree. If sometimes tempted to exercise it, the impulse was roused far more frequently by those of her own station, who were base in mind and heart, than by the sufferers in the hospital.
She had become very modest in regard to herself, why should she wake to new life the arrogance now hushed in Eva's breast?
Much secret distress of mind and anguish of soul had been endured by the poor child, who yesterday had opened her whole heart to her, when she went to rest in her chamber. How lowly she felt, how humble was the little saint who recently had elevated herself above others only too quickly and willingly! It would do her good to descend to the lowest ranks and measure her own better fate by their misery. She who felt bereaved could always be the giver in the hospital, and she felt with subtle sympathy what attracted Eva to her sufferers.
The magistrate's wife was a religious matron, devoted to her Church, but in her youth she had been by no means fanatical. The Abbess Kunigunde, her younger sister, however, had fought before her eyes the conflict of the soul, which had finally sent the beautiful, much-admired girl within convent walls. No one except her quiet, silent sister Christine had been permitted to witness the mental struggle, and the latter now saw repeated in her young niece what Kunigunde had experienced so many years before. Difficult as it had then been for her to understand the future abbess, now, after watching many a similar contest in others, it was easy to follow every emotion in Eva's soul.
During a long and happy married life, in which year by year mutual respect had increased, the magistrate and his wife had finally attained the point of holding the same opinions on important questions; but when Herr Berthold returned from the city, and finding Eva already at the hospital, told his wife, at the meal which she shared with him, that from his point of view she ought to have strenuously opposed her niece's desire, and he only hoped that her compliance might entail no disastrous consequences upon the excitable, sensitive child, the remarkable thing happened that Frau Christine, without as usual being influenced by him, insisted upon her own conviction.
So it happened that this time the magistrate was robbed of the little nap which usually followed the meal, and yet, in spite of the best will to yield, he could not do his wife the favour of allowing himself to be convinced. Still, he did not ask her to retract the consent which she had once given, so Eva was permitted to continue to visit the hospital.
The nurse, a woman of estimable character and strong will, would faithfully protect her whatever might happen. Frau Christine had placed the girl under her special charge, and the Beguine Hildegard, a woman of noble birth and the widow of a knight who had yielded his life in Italy for the Emperor Frederick, received her with special warmth because she
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