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Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family By Elizabeth Rundle Charles Characters: 14787

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Eva's Story.

Cistercian Convent, Nimptschen, 1511.

Life cannot, at the utmost, last very long, although at seventeen we may be tempted to think the way between us and heaven interminable.

For the convent is certainly not heaven; I never expected it would be. It is not nearly so much like heaven, I think, as Aunt Cotta's home; because love seems to me to be the essential joy of heaven, and there is more love in that home than here.

I am not at all disappointed. I did not expect a haven of rest, but only a sphere where I might serve God better, and, at all events, not be a burden on dear Aunt Cotta. For I feel sure Uncle Cotta will become blind; and they have so much difficulty to struggle on, as it is.

And the world is full of dangers for a young orphan girl like me; and I am afraid they might want me to marry some one, which I never could.

I have no doubt God will give me some work to do for him here, and that is all the happiness I look for. Not that I think there are not other kinds of happiness in the world which are not wrong; but they are not for me.

I shall never think it was wrong to love them all at Eisenach as much as I did, and do, whatever the confessor may say. I shall be better all my life, and all the life beyond, I believe, for the love God gave them for me, and me for them, and for having known Cousin Fritz. I wish very much he would write to me; and sometimes I think I will write to him. I feel sure it would do us both good. He always said it did him good to talk and read the dear old Latin hymns with me; and I know they never seemed more real and true than when I sang them to him. But the father confessor says it would be exceedingly perilous for our souls to hold such a correspondence; and he asked me if I did not think more of my cousin than of the hymns when I sang them to him, which, he says, would have been a great sin. I am sure I cannot tell exactly how the thoughts were balanced, or from what source each drop or pleasure flowed. It was all blended together. It was joy to sing the hymns, and it was joy for Fritz to like to hear them; and where one joy overflowed into the other I cannot tell. I believe God gave me both; and I do not see that I need care to divide one from the other. Who cares, when the Elbe is flowing past its willows and oaks at Wittemberg, which part of its waters was dissolved by the sun from the pure snows on the mountains, and which came trickling from some little humble spring on the sandy plains? Both springs and snows came originally from the clouds above; and both, as they flow blended on together, make the grass spring and the leaf-buds swell, and all the world rejoice.

The heart with which we love each other and with which we love God, is it not the same? Only God is all good, and we are all His, therefore we should love Him best. I think I do, or I should be more desolate here than I am, away from all but him.

That is what I understand by my "Theologia Germanica," which Elsè does not like. I begin with my father's legacy-"God so loved the world, that he gave his Son;" and then I think of the crucifix, and of the love of Him who died for us; and, in the light of these, I love to read in my book of Him who is the Supreme Goodness, whose will is our rest, and who is himself the joy of all our joys, and our joy when we have no other joy. The things I do not comprehend in the book, I leave, like so many other things. I am but a poor girl of seventeen, and how can I expect to understand everything? Only I never let the things I do not understand perplex me about those I do.

Therefore, when my confessor told me to examine my heart, and see if there were not wrong and idolatrous thoughts mixed up with my love for them all at Eisenach, I said at once, looking up at him-

"Yes, father, I did not love them half enough, for all their love to me."

I think he must have been satisfied; for although he looked perplexed, he did not ask me any more questions.

I feel very sorry for many of the nuns, especially for the old nuns. They seem to me like children, and yet not child-like. The merest trifles appear to excite or trouble them. They speak of the convent as if it were the world, and of the world as if it were hell. It is a childhood with no hope, no youth and womanhood before it. It reminds me of the stunted oaks we passed on Düben Heath, between Wittemberg and Leipsic, which will never be full-grown, and yet are not saplings.

Then there is one, Sister Beatrice, whom the nuns seem to think very inferior to themselves, because they say she was forced into the convent by her relatives, to prevent her marrying some one they did not like, and could never be induced to take the vows until her lover died,-which, they say, is hardly worthy of the name of a vocation at all.

She does not seem to think so either, but moves about in a subdued, broken-spirited way, as if she felt herself a creature belonging neither to the Church nor to the world.

The other evening she had been on an errand for the prioress through the snow, and returned blue with cold. She had made some mistake in the message, and was ordered at once, with contemptuous words, to her cell, to finish a penance by reciting certain prayers.

I could not help following her. When I found her, she was sitting on a pallet shivering, with the prayer-book before her. I crept into the cell, and, sitting down beside her, began to chafe her poor icy hands.

At first she tried to withdraw them, murmuring that she had a penance to perform; and then her eyes wandered from the book to mine. She gazed wonderingly at me for some moments, and then she burst into tears, and said,-

"Oh, do not do that! It makes me think of the old nursery at home. And my mother is dead; all are dead, and I cannot die."

She let me put my arms round her, however; and, in faint, broken words, the whole history came out.

"I am not here from choice," she said. "I should never have been here if my mother had not died; and I should never have taken the vows if he had not died, whatever they had done to me; for we were betrothed, and we had vowed before God we would be true to each other till death. And why is not one vow as good as another? When they told me he was dead, I took the vows,-or, at least, I let them put the veil on me, and said the words as I was told, after the priest; for I did not care what I did. And so I am a nun. I have no wish now to be anything else. But it will do me no good to be a nun, for I loved Eberhard first, and I loved him best; and now that he is dead, I love no one, and have no hope in heaven or earth. I try, indeed, not to think of him, because they say that is sin; but I cannot think of happiness without him, if I try for ever."

I said, "I do not think it is wrong for you to think of him."

Her face brightened for an instant, and then she shook her head, and said,-

"Ah, you are a child; you are an angel. You do not know." And then she began to weep again, but more quietly. "I wish you had seen him; then you would understand better. It was not wrong for me to love him once; and he was so different from every one else-so true and gentle, and so brave."

I listened while she continued to speak of him, and, at last, looking wistfully at me, she said, in a low, timid voice, "I cannot help trusting you." And

she drew from inside a fold of her robe a little piece of yellow paper, with a few words written on it, in pale, faded ink, and a lock of brown hair.

"Do you think it is very wrong?" she asked. "I have never told the confessor, because I am not quite sure if it is a sin to keep it; and I am quite sure the sisters would take it from me if they knew. Do you think it is wrong?"

The words were very simple-expressions of unchangeable affection, and a prayer that God would bless her and keep them for each other until better times.

I could not speak, I felt so sorry; and she murmured, nervously taking her poor treasures from my hands, "You do not think it right. But you will not tell? Perhaps one day I shall be better, and be able to give them up; but not yet. I have nothing else."

Then I tried to tell her that she had something else;-that God loved her and had pity on her, and that perhaps He was only answering the prayer of her betrothed, and guarding them in His blessed keeping until they should meet in better times. At length she seemed to take comfort; and I knelt down with her, and we said together the prayers she had been commanded to recite.

When I rose, she said thoughtfully, "You seem to pray as if some one in heaven really listened and cared."

"Yes," I said; "God does listen and care."

"Even to me?" she asked; "Even for me? Will he not despise me, like the holy sisterhood?"

"He scorns no one; and they say the lowest are nearest Him, the Highest."

"I can certainly never be anything but the lowest," she said. "It is fit no one here should think much of me, for I have only given the refuse of my life to God. And besides, I had never much power to think; and the little I had seems gone since Eberhard died. I had only a little power to love; and I thought that was dead. But since you came, I begin to think I might yet love a little."

As I left the cell she called me back.

"What shall I do when my thoughts wander, as they always do in the long prayers?" she asked.

"Make shorter prayers, I think, oftener," I said. "I think that would please God as much."

August, 1511.

The months pass on very much the same here; but I do not find them monotonous. I am permitted by the prioress to wait on the sick, and also often to teach the younger novices. This little world grows larger to me every week. It is a world of human hearts,-and what a world there is in every heart!

For instance, Aunt Agnes! I begin now to know her. All the sisterhood look up to her as almost a saint already. But I do not believe she thinks so herself. For many months after I entered the cloister she scarcely seemed to notice me; but last week she brought herself into a low fever by the additional fasts and severities she has been imposing on herself lately.

It was my night to watch in the infirmary when she became ill.

At first she seemed to shrink from receiving anything at my hands.

"Can they not send any one else?" she asked sternly.

"It is appointed to me," I said, "in the order of the sisterhood."

She bowed her head, and made no further opposition to my nursing her. And it was very sweet to me, because in spite of all the settled, grave impassiveness of her countenance, I could not help seeing something there which recalled dear Aunt Cotta.

She spoke to me very little; but I felt her large deep eyes following me as I stirred little concoctions of herbs on the fire, or crept softly about the room. Towards morning she said, "Child, you are tired-come and lie down;" and she pointed to a little bed beside her own.

Peremptory as were the words, there was a tone in them different from the usual metallic firmness in her voice-which froze Elsè's heart-a tremulousness which was almost tender. I could not resist the command, especially as she said she felt much better; and in a few minutes, bad nurse that I was, I fell asleep.

How long I slept I know not, but I was awakened by a slight movement in the room, and looking up, I saw Aunt Agnes's bed empty. In my first moment of bewildered terror I thought of arousing the sisterhood, when I noticed that the door of the infirmary which opened on the gallery of the chapel was slightly ajar. Softly I stole towards it, and there, in the front of the gallery, wrapped in a sheet, knelt Aunt Agnes, looking more than ever like the picture of death which she always recalled to Elsè. Her lips, which were as bloodless as her face, moved with passionate rapidity; her thin hands feebly counted the black beads of her rosary; and her eyes were fixed on a picture of the Mater Dolorosa with the seven swords in her heart, over one of the altars. There was no impassiveness in the poor sharp features and trembling lips then. Her whole soul seemed going forth in an agonized appeal to that pierced heart; and I heard her murmur, "In vain! Holy Virgin, plead for me! it has been all in vain. The flesh is no more dead in me than the first day. That child's face and voice stir my heart more than all thy sorrows. This feeble tie of nature has more power in me than all the relationships of the heavenly city. It has been in vain-all, all in vain. I cannot quench the fires of earth in my heart."

I scarcely ventured to interrupt her, but as she bowed her head on her hands, and fell almost prostrate on the floor of the chapel, while her whole frame heaved with repressed sobs, I went forward and gently lifted her, saying, "Sister Agnes, I am responsible for the sick to-night. You must come back."

She did not resist. A shudder passed through her; then the old stony look came back to her face, more rigid then ever, and she suffered me to wrap her up in the bed, and give her a warm drink.

I do not know whether she suspects that I heard her. She is more reserved with me than ever; but to me those resolute, fixed features, and that hard, firm voice, will never more be what they were before.

No wonder that the admiration of the sisterhood has no power to elate Aunt Agnes, and that their wish to elect her sub-prioress had no seduction for her. She is striving in her inmost soul after an ideal, which, could she reach it, what would she be?

As regards all human feeling and earthly life, dead!

And just as she hoped this was attained, a voice-a poor, friendly child's voice-falls on her ear, and she finds that what she deemed death was only a dream in an undisturbed slumber, and that the whole work has to begin again.

It is a fearful combat, this concentrating all the powers of life on producing death in life.

Can this be what God means?

Thank God, at least, that my vocation is lower. The humbling work in the infirmary, and the trials of temper in the school of the novices, seem to teach me more, and to make me feel that I am nothing and have nothing in myself, more than all my efforts to feel nothing.

My "Theologia" says, indeed, that true self-abnegation is freedom; and freedom cannot be attained until we are above the fear of punishment or the hope of reward. Elsè cannot bear this; and when I spoke of it the other day to poor Sister Beatrice, she said it bewildered her poor brain altogether to think of it. But I do not take it in that sense. I think it must mean that love is its own reward; and grieving Him we love, who has so loved us, our worst punishment. And that seems to me quite true.

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