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Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family By Elizabeth Rundle Charles Characters: 16690

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Elsè's Chronicle.

Eisenach, January, 1510.

We have passed through a terrible time; if, indeed, we are through it!

The plague has been at Eisenach; and, alas! is here still.

Fritz came home to us as usual at Christmas. Just before he left Erfurt the plague had broken out in the University. But he did not know it. When first he came to us he seemed quite well, and was full of spirits; but on the second day he complained of cold and shivering, with pain in the head, which increased towards the evening. His eyes then began to have a fixed, dim look, and he seemed unable to speak or think long connectedly.

I noticed that the mother watched him anxiously that evening; and at its close, feeling his hands feverish, she said very quietly that she should sit up in his room that night. At first he made some resistance, but he seemed too faint to insist on anything; and as he rose to go to bed, he tottered a little, and said he felt giddy, so that my mother drew his arm within hers and supported him to his room.

Still I did not feel anxious; but when Eva and I reached our room, she said, in that quiet, convincing manner which she had even as a child, fixing her large eyes on mine,-

"Cousin Elsè, Fritz is very ill."

"I think not, Eva," I said; "and no one would feel anxious about him as soon as I should. He caught a chill on his way from Erfurt. You know it was late when he arrived, and snowing fast, and he was so pleased to see us, and so eager in conversation that he would not change his things. It is only a slight feverish cold. Besides, our mother's manner was so calm when she wished us good night. I do not think she is anxious. She is only sitting up with him for an hour or two to see that he sleeps."

"Cousin Elsè," replied Eva, "did you not see the mother's lip quiver when she turned to wish us good night?"

"No, Eva," said I; "I was looking at Fritz."

And so we went to bed. But I thought it strange that Eva, a girl of sixteen, should be more anxious than I was, and I his sister. Hope is generally so strong, and fear so weak, before one has seen many fears realized, and many hopes disappointed. Eva, however, had always a way of seeing into the truth of things. I was very tired with the day's work (for I always rise earlier than usual when Fritz is here, to get everything done before he is about), and I must very soon have fallen asleep. It was not midnight when I was roused by the mother's touch upon my arm.

The light of the lamp she held showed me a paleness in her face and an alarm in her eyes which awoke me thoroughly in an instant.

"Elsè," she said, "go into the boys' room and send Christopher for a physician. I cannot leave Fritz. But do not alarm your father!" she added, as she crept again out of the room after lighting our lamp.

I called Christopher, and in five minutes he was dressed and out of the house. When I returned to our room Eva was sitting dressed on the bed. She had not been asleep, I saw. I think she had been praying, for she held the crucifix in her clasped hands, and there were traces of tears on her cheek, although when she raised her eyes to me, they were clear and tearless.

"What is it, Cousin Elsè?" she said. "When I went for a moment to the door of his room he was talking. It was his voice, but with such a strange, wild tone in it. I think he heard my step, although I thought no one would, I stepped so softly, for he called 'Eva, Eva!' but the mother came to the door and silently motioned me away. But you may go, Elsè," she added, with a passionate rapidity very unusual with her. "Go and see him."

I went instantly. He was talking very rapidly and vehemently, and in an incoherent way it was difficult to understand. My mother sat quite still, holding his hand. His eyes were not bright as in fever, but dim and fixed. Yet he was in a raging fever. His hand, when I touched it, burned like fire, and his face was flushed crimson. I stood there quite silently beside my mother until the physician came. At first Fritz's eyes followed me; then they seemed watching the door for some one else; but in a few minutes the dull vacancy came over them again, and he seemed conscious of nothing.

At last the physician came. He paused a moment at the door, and held a bag of myrrh before him; then advancing to the bed, he drew aside the clothes and looked at Fritz's arm.

"Too plain!" he exclaimed, starting back as he perceived a black swelling there. "It is the plague!"

My mother followed him to the door.

"Excuse me, madam," he said; "life is precious, and I might carry the infection into the city."

"Can nothing be done?" she said.

"Not much!" he said bluntly; and then, after a moment's hesitation, touched by the distress in her face, he returned to the bed-side. "I have touched him," he murmured, as if apologizing to himself for incurring the risk; "the mischief is done, doubtless, already." And taking out his lancet he bled my brother's arm.

Then, after binding up the arm, he turned to me and said,-

"Get cypress and juniper wood, and burn them in a brazier in this room, with rosin and myrrh. Keep your brother as warm as possible-do not let in a breath of air!" And, he added, as I followed him to the door, "on no account suffer him to sleep for a moment,[4] and let no one come near him but you and your mother."

When I returned to the bed-side, after obeying these directions, Fritz's mind was wandering; and although we could understand little that he said, he was evidently in great distress. He seemed to have comprehended the physician's words, for he frequently repeated, "The plague! the plague! I have brought a curse upon my house!" and then he would wander, strangely calling on Martin Luther and Eva to intercede and obtain pardon for him, as if he were invoking saints in heaven; and occasionally he would repeat fragments of Latin hymns.

It was dreadful to have to keep him awake; to have to rouse him, whenever he showed the least symptom of slumber, to thoughts which so perplexed and troubled his poor brain. But on the second night the mother fainted away, and I had to carry her to her room. Her dear thin frame was no heavy weight to bear. I laid her on the bed in our room, which was the nearest. Eva appeared at the door as I stood beside our mother. Her face was as pale as death. Before I could prevent it, she came up to me, and taking my hands said,-

"Cousin Elsè, only promise me one thing;-if he is to die, let me see him once more."

"I dare not promise anything, Eva," I said; "consider the infection!"

"What will the infection matter to me if he dies?" she said; "I am not afraid to die."

"Think of the father and the children, Eva," I said; "If our mother and I should be seized next, what would they do?"

"Chriemhild will soon be old enough to take care of them," she said very calmly; "promise me, promise me, Elsè, or I will see him at once."

And I promised her, and she threw her arms around me, and kissed me. Then I went back to Fritz, leaving Eva chafing my mother's hands. It was of no avail, I thought, to try to keep her from contagion, now that she had held my hands in hers.

When I came again to Fritz's bed-side he was asleep! Bitterly I reproached myself; but what could I have done? He was asleep-sleeping quietly, with soft, even breathing. I had not courage to awake him; but I knelt down and implored the blessed Virgin and all the saints to have mercy on me and spare him. And they must have heard me; for, in spite of my failure in keeping the physician's orders, Fritz began to recover from that very sleep.

Our grandmother says it was a miracle; "unless," she added, "the doctor was wrong!"

He awoke from that sleep refreshed and calm, but weak as an infant.

It was delightful to meet his eyes when first he awoke, with the look of quiet recognition in them, instead of that wild, fixed stare, or that restless wandering; to look once more into his heart through his eyes. He looked at me a long time with a quiet content, without speaking, and then he said, holding out his hand to me,-

"Elsè, you have been watching long here. You look tired; go and rest."

"It rests me best to look at you," I said, "and see you better."

He seemed too weak to persist, and after taking some food a

nd cooling drinks, he fell asleep again, and so did I; for the next thing I was conscious of was our mother gently placing a pillow underneath my head, which had sunk on the bed where I had been kneeling, watching Fritz. I was ashamed of being such a bad nurse; but our mother insisted on my going to our room to seek rest and refreshment. And for the next few days we took it in turns to sit beside him, until he began to regain strength. Then we thought he might like to see Eva; but when she came to the door, he eagerly motioned her away, and said,-

"Do not let her venture near me. Think if I were to bring this judgment of God on her!"

Eva turned away, and was out of sight in an instant; but the troubled, perplexed expression came back into my brother's eyes, and the feverish flush into his face, and it was long before he seemed calm again.

I followed Eva. She was sitting with clasped hands in our room.

"Oh, Elsè," she said, "how altered he is! Are you sure he will live, even now?"

I tried to comfort her with the hope which was naturally so much stronger in me, because I had seen him in the depths from which he was now slowly rising again to life. But something in that glimpse of him seemed to weigh on her very life; and as Fritz recovered, Eva seemed to grow paler and weaker, until the same feverish symptoms came over her which he had learned so to dread, and then the terrible tokens, the plague-spots, which could not be doubted, appeared on the fair, soft arms, and Eva was lying with those dim, fixed, pestilence-veiled eyes, and the wandering brain.

For a day we were able to conceal it from Fritz, but no longer.

On the second evening after Eva was stricken, I found him standing by the window of his room, looking into the street. I shall never forget the expression of horror in his eyes as he turned from the window to me.

"Elsè," he said, "how long have those fires been burning in the streets?"

"For a week," I said. "They are fires of cypress-wood and juniper, and myrrh and pine gums. The physicians say they purify the air."

"I know too well what they are," he said. "And, Elsè," he said, "why is Master Bürer's house opposite closed?"

"He has lost two children," I said.

"And why are those other windows closed all down the street?" he rejoined.

"The people have left, brother," I said; "but the doctors hope the worst is over now."

"O just God!" he exclaimed, sinking on a chair and covering his face; "I was flying from thee, and I have brought the curse on my people!"

Then, after a minute's pause, before I could think of any words to comfort him, he looked up, and suddenly demanded,-

"Who are dead in this house, Elsè?"

"None, none," I said.

"Who are stricken?" he asked.

"All the children and the father are well," I said, "and the mother."

"Then Eva is stricken!" he exclaimed-"the innocent for the guilty! She will die and be a saint in heaven, and I, who have murdered her, shall live, and shall see her no more, for ever and for ever."

I could not comfort him. The strength of his agony utterly stunned me. I could only burst into tears, so that he had to try to comfort me. But he did not speak; he only took my hands in his kindly, as of old, without saying another word. At length I said-

"It is not you who brought the plague, dear Fritz; it is God who sent it!"

"I know it is God!" he replied, with such an intense bitterness in his tone that I did not attempt another sentence.

That night Eva wandered much as I watched beside her; but her delirium was quite different from that of Fritz. Her spirit seemed floating away on a quiet stream into some happy land we could not see. She spoke of a palace, of a home, of fields of fragrant lilies, of white-robed saints walking among them with harps and songs, and of One who welcomed her. Occasionally, too, she murmured snatches of the same Latin hymns that Fritz had repeated in his delirium, but in a tone so different, so child-like and happy! If ever she appeared troubled, it was when she seemed to miss some one, and be searching here and there for them; but then she often ended with, "Yes, I know they will come; I must wait till they come." And so at last she fell asleep, as if the thought had quieted her.

I could not hinder her sleeping, whatever the physician said; she looked so placid, and had such a happy smile on her lips. Only once, when she had lain thus an hour quite still, while her chest seemed scarcely to heave with her soft, tranquil breathing, I grew alarmed lest she should glide thus from us into the arms of the holy angels; and I whispered softly, "Eva, dear Eva!"

Her lips parted slightly, and she murmured-

"Not yet; wait till they can come."

And then she turned her head again on the pillow, and slept on.

She awoke quite collected and calm, and then she said quietly-

"Where is the mother?"

"She is resting, darling Eva."

She gave a little contented smile, and then, in broken words at intervals, she said-

"Now, I should like to see Fritz. You promised I should see him again; and now if I die, I think he would like to see me once more."

I went to fetch my brother. He was pacing up and down his room, with the crucifix clasped to his breast. At first, to my surprise, he seemed very reluctant to come; but when I said how much she wished it, he followed me quite meekly into her room. Eva was resuming her old command over us all. She held out her hand, with a look of such peace and rest on her face.

"Cousin Fritz," she said at intervals, as she had strength, "you have taught me so many things; you have done so much for me! Now I wish you to learn my sentence, that if I go, it may make you happy, as it does me." Then very slowly and distinctly she repeated the words-"'God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.' Cousin Fritz," she added, "I do not know the end of the sentence. I have not been able to find it; but you must find it. I am sure it comes from a good book, it makes me love God so much to think of it. Promise me you will find it, if I should die."

He promised, and she was quite satisfied. Her strength seemed exhausted, and in a few moments, with my arms round her as I sat beside her, and with her hand in Fritz's, she fell into a deep, quiet sleep.

I felt from that time she would not die, and I whispered very softly to Fritz-

"She will not die; she will recover, and you will not have killed her; you will have saved her!"

But when I looked into his face, expecting to meet a thankful, happy response, I was appalled by the expression there.

He stood immovable, not venturing to withdraw his hand, but with a rigid, hopeless look in his worn, pale face, which contrasted terribly with the smile of deep repose on the sleeping face on which his eyes were fixed.

And so he remained until she awoke, when his whole countenance changed for an instant to return her smile.

Then he said softly, "God bless you, Eva!" and pressing her hand to his lips, he left the room.

When I saw him again that day, I said-

"Fritz, you have saved Eva's life! She rallied from the time she saw you."

"Yes," he replied, very gently, but with a strange impassiveness in his face; "I think that may be true. I have saved her."

But he did not go in her room again; and the next day, to our surprise and disappointment, he said suddenly that he must leave us.

He said few words of farewell to any of us, and would not see Eva to take leave of her. He said it might disturb her.

But when he kissed me before he went, his hands and his lips were as cold as death. Yet as I watched him go down the street, he did not once turn to wave a last good-bye, as he always used to do; but slowly and steadily he went on till he was out of sight.

I turned back into the house with a very heavy heart; but when I went to tell Eva Fritz was gone, and tried to account for his not coming to take leave of her, because I thought it would give her pain (and it does seem to me rather strange of Fritz), she looked up with her quiet, trustful, contented smile, and said,-

"I am not at all pained, Cousin Elsè. I know Fritz had good reasons for it-some good, kind reasons-because he always has; and we shall see him again as soon as he feels it right to come."

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