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Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family By Elizabeth Rundle Charles Characters: 25422

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Fritz's Story.

Augustinian Convent, Mainz, November, 1517.

Seven years have passed since I have written anything in this old chronicle of mine, and as in the quiet of this convent once more I open it, the ink on the first pages is already brown with time; yet a strange familiar fragrance breathes from them, as of early spring flowers. My childhood comes back to me, with all its devout simplicity; my youth, with all its rich prospects and its buoyant, ardent, hopes. My childhood seems like one of those green quiet valleys in my native forests, like the valley of my native Eisenach itself, when that one reach of the forest, and that one quiet town with its spires and church bells, and that one lowly home with its love, its cares, and its twilight talks in the lumber room, were all the world I could see.

Youth rises before me like that first journey through the forest to the University of Erfurt, when the world opened to me like the plains from the breezy heights, a battle-field for glorious achievement, an unbounded ocean for adventure and discovery, a vast field for noble work.

Then came another brief interval, when once again the lowly home at Eisenach became to me dearer and more than all the wide world beside, and all earth and all life seemed to grow sacred and to expand before me in the light of one pure, holy, loving maiden's heart. I have seen nothing so heaven-like since as she was. But then came the great crash which wrenched my life in twain, and made home and the world alike forbidden ground to me.

At first, after that, for years I dared not think of Eva. But since my pilgrimage to Rome, I venture to cherish her memory again. I thank God every day that nothing can erase that image of purity and love from my heart. Had it not been for that, and for the recollection of Dr. Luther's manly, honest piety, there are times when the very existence of truth and holiness on earth would have seemed inconceivable, such a chaos of corruption has the world appeared to me.

How often has the little lowly hearth-fire, glowing from the windows of the old home, saved me from shipwreck, when "for many days neither sun nor stars appeared, and no small tempest lay on me."

For I have lived during these years behind the veil of outward shows, a poor insignificant monk, before whom none thought it worth while to inconvenience themselves with masks or disguises. I have spent hour after hour, moreover, in the confessional. I have been in the sacristy before the mass, and at the convent feast after it. And I have spent months once and again at the heart of Christendom, in Rome itself, where the indulgences which are now stirring up all Germany are manufactured, and where the money gained by the indulgences is spent; not entirely on the building of St. Peter's or in holy wars against the Turks!

Thank God that a voice is raised at last against this crying, monstrous lie, the honest voice of Dr. Luther. It is ringing through all the land. I have just returned from a mission through Germany, and I had opportunities of observing the effect of the theses.

The first time I heard of them was from a sermon in a church of the Dominicans in Bavaria.

The preacher spoke of Dr. Luther by name, and reviled the theses as directly inspired by the devil, declaring that their wretched author would have a place in hell lower than all the heretics, from Simon Magus downward.

The congregation were roused and spoke of it as they dispersed. Some piously wondered who this new heretic could be who was worse even than Huss. Others speculated what this new poisonous doctrine could be; and a great many bought a copy of the theses to see.

In the Augustinian convent that evening they formed the subject of warm debate. Not a few of the monks triumphed in them as an effective blow against Tetzel and the Dominicans. A few rejoiced and said these were the words they had been longing to hear for years. Many expressed wonder that people should make so much stir about them, since they said nothing more than all honest men in the land had always thought.

A few nights afterwards I lodged at the house of Ruprecht Haller, a priest in a Franconian village. A woman of quiet and modest appearance, young in form but worn and old in expression, with a subdued, broken-spirited bearing, was preparing our supper, and whilst she was serving the table I began to speak to the priest about the theses of Dr. Luther.

He motioned to me to keep silence, and hastily turned the conversation.

When we were left alone he explained his reasons. "I gave her the money for an indulgence letter last week, and she purchased one from one of Dr. Tetzel's company," he said; "and when she returned her heart seemed lighter than I have seen it for years, since God smote us for our sins, and little Dietrich died. I would not have had her robbed of that little bit of comfort for the world, be it true or false."

Theirs was a sad story, common enough in every town and village as regarded the sin, and only uncommon as to the longing for better things which yet lingered in the hearts of the guilty.

I suggested her returning to her kindred or entering a convent.

"She has no kindred left that would receive her," he said; "and to send her to be scorned and disciplined by a community of nuns-never!"

"But her soul!" I said, "and yours?"

"The blessed Lord received such," he answered almost fiercely, "before the Pharisees."

"Such received Him!" I said quietly, "but receiving Him they went and sinned no more."

"And when did God ever say it was sin for a priest to marry?" he asked; "not in the Old Testament, for the son of Elkanah the priest and Hannah ministered before the Lord in the temple, as perhaps our little Dietrich," he added in a low tone, "ministers before Him in his temple now. And where in the New Testament do you find it forbidden?"

"The Church forbids it," I said.

"Since when?" he asked. "The subject is too near my heart for me not to have searched to see. And five hundred years ago, I have read, before the days of Hildebrand the pope, many a village pastor had his lawful wife, whom he loved as I love Bertha; for God knows neither she nor I ever loved another."

"Does this satisfy her conscience?" I asked.

"Sometimes," he replied bitterly, "but only sometimes. Oftener she lives as one under a curse, afraid to receive any good thing, and bowing to every sorrow as her bitter desert, and the foretaste of the terrible retribution to come."

"Whatever is not of faith is sin," I murmured.

"But what will be the portion of those who call what God sanctions sin," he said, "and bring trouble and pollution into hearts as pure as hers?"

The woman entered the room as he was speaking, and must have caught his words, for a deep crimson flushed her pale face. As she turned away, her whole frame quivered with a suppressed sob. But afterwards, when the priest left the room, she came up to me and said, looking with her sad, dark, lustreless eyes at me, "You were saying that some doubt the efficacy of these indulgences? But do you? I cannot trust him," she added softly, "he would be afraid to tell me if he thought so."

I hesitated what to say. I could not tell an untruth; and before those searching, earnest eyes, any attempt at evasion would have been vain.

"You do not believe this letter can do anything for me," she said; "nor do I." And moving quietly to the hearth, she tore the indulgence into shreds, and threw it on the flames.

"Do not tell him this," she said; "he thinks it comforts me."

I tried to say some words about repentance and forgiveness being free to all.

"Repentance for me," she said, "would be to leave him, would it not?"

I could not deny it.

"I will never leave him," she replied, with a calmness which was more like principle than passion. "He has sacrificed life for me; but for me he might have been a great and honoured man. And do you think I would leave him to bear his blighted life alone?"

Ah! it was no dread of scorn or discipline which kept her from the convent.

For some time I was silenced. I dared neither to reproach nor to comfort. At length I said, "Life, whether joyful or sorrowful, is very short. Holiness is infinitely better than happiness here, and holiness makes happiness in the life beyond. If you felt it would be for his good, you would do anything, at any cost to yourself, would you not?"

Her eyes filled with tears. "You believe, then, that there is some good left, even in me!" she said. "For this may God bless you!" and silently she left the room.

Five hundred years ago these two lives might have been holy, honourable, and happy; and now!-

I left that house with a heavy heart, and a mind more bewildered than before.

But that pale, worn face; those deep, sad, truthful eyes; and that brow, that might have been as pure as the brow of a St. Agnes, have haunted me often since. And whenever I think of it, I say,-

"God be merciful to them and to me, sinners!"

For had not my own good, pure, pious mother doubts and scruples almost as bitter? Did not she also live too often as if under a curse? Who or what has thrown this shadow on so many homes? Who that knows the interior of many convents dares to say they are holier than homes? Who that has lived with, or confessed many monks or nuns, can dare to say their hearts are more heavenly than those of husband or wife, father or mother? Alas! the questions of that priest are nothing new to me. But I dare not entertain them. For if monastic life is a delusion, to what have I sacrificed hopes which were so absorbing, and might have been so pure?

Regrets are burdens a brave man must cast off. For my little life what does it matter? But to see vice shamefully reigning in the most sacred places, and scruples, perhaps false, staining the purest hearts, who can behold these things and not mourn? Crimes a pagan would have abhorred atoned for by a few florins; sins which the Holy Scriptures scarcely seem to condemn, weighing on tender consciences like crimes! What will be the end of this chaos?

* * *

The next night I spent in the castle of an old knight in the Thuringian Forest, Otto von Gersdorf. He welcomed me very hospitably to his table, at which a stately old lady presided, his widowed sister.

"What is all this talk about Dr. Luther and his theses?" he asked; "only, I suppose, some petty quarrel between the monks! And yet my nephew Ulrich thinks there is no one on earth like this little Brother Martin. You good Augustinians do not like the Black Friars to have all the profit; is that it?" he asked laughing.

"That is not Dr. Luther's motive, at all events," I said; "I do not believe money is more to him than it is to the birds of the air."

"No, brother," said the lady; "think of the beautiful words our Chriemhild read us from his book on the Lord's Prayer."

"Yes; you, and Ulrich, and Chriemhild, and Atlantis," rejoined the old knight, "you are all alike; the little friar has bewitched you all."

The names of my sisters made my heart beat.

"Does the lady know Chriemhild and Atlantis Cotta?" I asked.

"Come, nephew Ulrich," said the knight to a young man who just then entered the hall from the chase; "tell this good brother all you know of Fraülein Chriemhild Cotta."

We were soon the best friends and long after the old knight and his sister had retired, Ulrich von Gersdorf and I sat up discoursing about Dr. Luther and his noble words and deeds, and of names dearer to us both even than his.

"Then you are Fritz!" he said musingly after a a pause; "the Fritz they all delight to talk of, and think no one can ever be equal to. You are the Fritz that Chriemhild says her mother always hoped would have wedded that angel maiden Eva von Sch?nberg, who is now a nun at Nimptschen; whose hymn-book "Theologia Teutsch" she carried with her to the convent. I wonder you could have left her to become a monk," he continued; "your vocation must have been very strong."

At that moment it certainly felt very weak. But I would not for the world have let him see this, and I said, with as steady a voice as I could command, "I believe it was God's will."

"Well," he continued, "it is good for any one to have seen her, and to carry that image of purity and piety with him into cloister or home. It is better than any painting of the saints, to have that angelic, child-like countenance, and that voice sweet as church music, in one's heart."

"It is," I said, and I could not have said a word more. Happily for me, he turned to another subject and expatiated for a long time on the

beauty and goodness of his little Chriemhild, who was to be his wife, he said, next year; whilst through my heart only two thoughts remained distinct, namely, what my mother had wished about Eva and me, and that Eva had taken my "Theologia Teutsch" into the convent with her.

It took some days before I could remove that sweet, guileless, familiar face, to the saintly, unearthly height in my heart, where only it is safe for me to gaze on it.

But I believe Ulrich thought me a very sympathizing listener, for in about an hour he said,-

"You are a patient and good-natured monk, to listen thus to my romances. However, she is your sister, and I wish you would be at our wedding. But, at all events, it will be delightful to have news for Chriemhild and all of them about Fritz."

I had intended to go on to Wittemberg for a few days, but after that conversation I did not dare to do so at once. I returned to the university of Tübingen, to quiet my mind a little with Greek and Hebrew, under the direction of the excellent Reuchlin, it being the will of our Vicar-General that I should study the languages.

At Tübingen I found Dr. Luther's theses the great topic of debate. Men of learning rejoiced in the theses as an assault on barbarism and ignorance; men of straightforward integrity hailed them as a protest against a system of lies and imposture; men of piety gave thanks for them as a defence of holiness and truth. The students enthusiastically greeted Dr. Luther as the prince of the new age; the aged Reuchlin and many of the professors recognized him as an assailant of old foes from a new point of attack.

Here I attended for some weeks the lectures of the young doctor, Philip Melancthon (then only twenty one, yet already a doctor for four years), until he was summoned to Wittemberg, which he reached on the 25th of August, 1518.

On business of the order, I was deputed about the same time on a mission to the Augustinian convent at Wittemberg, so that I saw him arrive. The disappointment at his first appearance was great. Could this little unpretending-looking youth be the great scholar Reuchlin had recommended so warmly, and from whose abilities the Elector Frederick expected such great results for his new university?

Dr. Luther was among the first to discover the treasure hidden in this insignificant frame. But his first Latin harangue, four days after his arrival, won the admiration of all; and very soon his lecture-room was crowded.

This was the event which absorbed Wittemberg when first I saw it.

The return to my old home was very strange to me. Such a broad barrier of time and circumstance had grown up between me and those most familiar to me!

Elsè, matronly as she was, with her keys, her stores, her large household, and her two children, the baby Fritz and Gretchen, was in heart the very same to me as when we parted for my first term at Erfurt, her honest, kind blue eyes, had the very same look. But around her was a whole new world of strangers, strange to me as her own new life, with whom I had no links whatever.

With Chriemhild and the younger children, the recollection of me as the elder brother seemed struggling with their reverence for the priest. Christopher appeared to look on me with a mixture of pity, and respect, and perplexity, which prevented my having any intimate intercourse with him at all.

Only my mother seemed unchanged with regard to me, although much more aged and feeble. But in her affection there was a clinging tenderness which pierced my heart more than the bitterest reproaches. I felt by the silent watching of her eyes how she had missed me.

My father was little altered, except that his schemes appeared to give him a new and placid satisfaction, in the very impossibility of their fulfilment, and that the relations between him and my grandmother were much more friendly.

There was at first a little severity in our grandmother's manner to me, which wore off when we understood how much Dr. Luther's teaching had done for us both; and she never wearied of hearing what he had said and done at Rome.

The one who, I felt, would have been entirely the same, was gone for ever; and I could scarcely regret the absence which left that one image undimmed by the touch of time, and surrounded by no barriers of change.

But of Eva no one spoke to me, except little Thekla, who sang to me over and over the Latin hymns Eva had taught her, and asked if she sang them at all in the same way.

I told her yes. They were the same words, the same melodies, much of the same soft, reverent, innocent manner. But little Thekla's voice was deep and powerful, and clear like a thrush's; and Eva's used to be like the soft murmuring of a dove in the depth of some quiet wood-hardly a voice at all-an embodied prayer, as if you stood at the threshold of her heart, and heard the music of her happy, holy, child-like thoughts within.

No, nothing could ever break the echo of that voice to me.

But Thekla and I became great friends. She had scarcely known me of old. We became friends as we were. There was nothing to recall, nothing to efface. And Cousin Eva had been to her as a star or angel in heaven, or as if she had been another child sent by God out of some beautiful old legend to be her friend.

Altogether, there was some pain in this visit to my old home. I had prayed so earnestly that the blank my departure had made might be filled up; yet now that I saw it filled, and the life of my beloved running its busy course, with no place in it for me, it left a dreary feeling of exile on my heart. If the dead could thus return, would they feel anything of this? Not the holy dead, surely. They would rejoice that the sorrow, having wrought its work, should cease to be so bitter-that the blank should, not, indeed, be filled (no true love can replace another), but veiled and made fruitful, as time and nature veil all ruins.

But the holy dead would revisit earth from a home, a father's house; and that the cloister is not, nor can ever be.

Yet I would gladly have remained at Wittemberg. Compared with Wittemberg, all the world seemed asleep. There it was morning, and an atmosphere of hope and activity was around my heart. Dr. Luther was there; and, whether consciously or not, all who look for better days seem to fix their eyes on him.

But I was sent to Mainz. On my journey thither I went out of my way to take a new book of Dr. Luther's to my poor priest Ruprecht in Franconia. His village lay in the depths of a pine forest. The book was the Exposition of the Lord's Prayer in German, for lay and unlearned people. The priest's house was empty; but I laid the book on a wooden seat in the porch, with my name written in it, and a few words of gratitude for his hospitality. And as I wound my way through the forest, I saw from a height on the opposite side of the valley a woman enter the porch, and stoop to pick up the book, and then stand reading it in the door-way. As I turned away, her figure still stood motionless in the arch of the porch, with the white leaves of the open book relieved against the shadow of the interior.

I prayed that the words might be written on her heart. Wonderful words of holy love and grace I knew were there, which would restore hope and purity to any heart on which they were written.

And now I am placed in this Augustinian monastery at Mainz in the Rhineland.

This convent has its own peculiar traditions. Here is a dungeon in which, not forty years ago (in 1481), died John of Wesel-the old man who had dared to protest against indulgences, and to utter such truths as Dr. Luther is upholding now.

An aged monk of this monastery, who was young when John of Wesel died, remembers him, and has often spoken to me about him. The inquisitors instituted a process against him, which was earned on, like so many others, in the secret of the cloister.

It was said that he made a general recantation, but that two accusations which were brought against him he did not attempt in his defence to deny. They were these: "That it is not his monastic life which saves any monk, but the grace of God;" and "That the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Holy Scriptures alone can interpret them with power to the heart."

The inquisitors burned his books; at which, my informant said, the old man wept.

"Why," he said, "should men be so inflamed against him? There was so much in his books that was good, and must they be all burned for the little evil that was mixed with the good? Surely this was man's judgment, not God's-not His who would have spared Sodom at Abraham's prayer, for but ten righteous, had they been found there. O God," he sighed, "must the good perish with the evil?"

But the inquisitors were not to be moved. The books were condemned and ignominiously burned in public; the old man's name was branded with heresy; and he himself was silenced, and left in the convent prison to die.

I asked the monk who told me of this, what were the especial heresies for which John of Wesel was condemned.

"Heresies against the Church, I believe," he replied. "I have heard him in his sermons declare that the Church was becoming like what the Jewish nation was in the days of our Lord. He protested against the secular splendours of the priests and prelates-against the cold ceremonial into which he said the services had sunk, and the empty superstitions which were substituted for true piety of heart and life. He said that the salt had lost its savour; that many of the priests were thieves and robbers, and not shepherds; that the religion in fashion was little better than that of the Pharisees who put our Lord to death-a cloak for spiritual pride, and narrow, selfish bitterness. He declared that divine and ecclesiastical authority were of very different weight; that the outward professing Church was to be distinguished from the true living Church of Christ; that the power of absolution given to the priest was sacramental, and not judicial. In a sermon at Worms, I once heard him say he thought little of the Pope, the Church, or the Councils, as a foundation to build our faith upon. 'Christ alone,' he declared, 'I praise. May the word of Christ dwell in us richly!'"

"They were bold words," I remarked.

"More than that," replied the aged monk; "John of Wesel protested that what the Bible did not hold as sin, neither could he; and he is even reported to have said, 'Eat on fast days, if thou art hungry.'"

"That is a concession many of the monks scarcely need," I observed. "His life, then, was not condemned, but only his doctrine."

"I was sorry," the old monk resumed, "that it was necessary to condemn him; for from that time to this, I never have heard preaching that stirred the heart like his. When he ascended the pulpit, the church was thronged. The laity understood and listened to him as eagerly as the religious. It was a pity he was a heretic, for I do not ever expect to hear his like again."

"You have never heard Dr. Luther preach?" I said.

"Doctor Luther who wrote those theses they are talking so much of?" he asked. "Do the people throng to hear his sermons, and hang on his words as if they were words of life?"

"They do," I replied.

"Then," rejoined the old monk softly, "let Dr. Luther take care. That was the way with so many of the heretical preachers. With John of Goch at Mechlin, and John Wesel whom they expelled from Paris, I have heard it was just the same. But," he continued, "if Dr. Luther comes to Mainz, I will certainly try to hear him. I should like to have my cold, dry, old heart moved like that again. Often when I read the holy Gospels John of Wesel's words come back. Brother, it was like the breath of life."

The last man that ventured to say in the face of Germany that man's word is not to be placed on an equality with God's, and that the Bible is the only standard of truth, and the one rule of right and wrong-this is how he died!

How will it be with the next-with the man that is proclaiming this in the face of the world now?

The old monk turned back to me, after we had separated, and said, in a low voice-

"Tell Dr. Luther to take warning by John of Wesel. Holy men and great preachers may so easily become heretics without knowing it. And yet," he added, "to preach such sermons as John of Wesel, I am not sure it is not worth while to die in prison. I think I could be content to die, if I could hear one such again! Tell Dr. Luther to take care; but nevertheless, if he comes to Mainz I will hear him."

The good, then, in John of Wesel's words, has not perished, in spite of the flames.

* * *

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