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Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family By Elizabeth Rundle Charles Characters: 19187

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Elsè's Story.

Wittemberg, July 13, 1520.

Many events have happened since last I wrote, both in this little world and in the large world outside.

Our Gretchen has two little brothers, who are as ingenious in destruction, and seem to have as many designs against their own welfare, as their uncles had at their age, and seem likely to perplex Gretchen, dearly as she loves them, much as Christopher and Pollux did me. Chriemhild is married, and has gone to her home in the Thuringian Forest. Atlantis is betrothed to Conrad Winkelried, a Swiss student. Pollux is gone to Spain, on some mercantile affairs of the Eisenach house of Cotta, in which he is a partner; and Fritz has been among us once more. That is now about two years since. He was certainly much graver than of old. Indeed he often looked more than grave, as if some weight of sorrow rested on him. But with our mother and the children he was always cheerful.

Gretchen and Uncle Fritz formed the strongest mutual attachment, and to this day she often asks me when he will come back; and nothing delights her more than to sit on my knee before his picture, and hear me tell over and over again the stories of our old talks in the lumber-room at Eisenach, or of the long days we used to spend in the pine forests, gathering wood for the winter fires. She thinks no festival could be so delightful as that; and her favourite amusement is to gather little bundles of willow or oak twigs, by the river Elbe, or on the Düben Heath, and bring them home for household use. All the splendid puppets and toys her father brings her from Nüremberg, or has sent from Venice, do not give her half the pleasure that she finds in the heath, when he takes her there, and she returns with her little apron full of dry sticks, and her hands as brown and dirty as a little wood-cutter's, fancying she is doing what Uncle Fritz and I did when we were children, and being useful.

Last summer she was endowed with a special apple and pear tree of her own, and the fruit of these she stores with her little fagots to give at Christmas to a poor old woman we know.

Gottfried and I want the children to learn early that pure joy of giving, and of doing kindnesses, which transmutes wealth from dust into true gold, and prevents these possessions which are such good servants from becoming our masters, and reducing us, as they seem to do so many wealthy people, into the mere slaves and hired guardians of things.

I pray God often that the experience of poverty which I had for so many years may never be lost. It seems to me a gift God has given me, just as a course at the university is a gift. I have graduated in the school of poverty, and God grant I may never forget the secrets poverty taught me about the struggles and wants of the poor.

The room in which I write now, with its carpets, pictures, and carved furniture, is very different from the dear bare old lumber-room where I began my Chronicle; and the inlaid ebony and ivory cabinet on which my paper lies is a different desk from the piles of old books where I used to trace the first pages slowly in a childish hand. But the poor man's luxuries will always be the most precious to me. The warm sunbeams, shining through the translucent vine-leaves at the open window, are fairer than all the jewel-like Venetian glass of the closed casements which are now dying crimson the pages of Dr. Luther's Commentary, left open on the window-seat an hour since by Gottfried.

But how can I be writing so much about my own tiny world, when all the world around me is agitated by such great fears and hopes?

At this moment, through the open window, I see Dr. Luther and Dr. Philip Melancthon walking slowly up the street in close conversation. The hum of their voices reaches me here, although they are talking low. How different they look, and are; and yet what friends they have become! Probably, in a great degree, because of the difference. The one looks like a veteran soldier, with his rock-like brow, his dark eyes, his vigorous form, and his firm step; the other, with his high, expanded forehead, his thin worn face, and his slight youthful frame, like a combination of a young student and an old philosopher.

Gottfried says God has given them to each other and to Germany, blessing the Church as he does the world by the union of opposites, rain and sunshine, heat and cold, sea and land, husband and wife.

How those two great men (for Gottfried says Dr. Melancthon is great, and I know that Dr. Luther is) love and reverence each other! Dr. Luther says he is but the forerunner, and Melancthon the true prophet; that he is but the wood-cutter clearing the forest with rough blows, that Dr. Philip may sow the precious seed; and when he went to encounter the legate at Augsburg, he wrote, that if Philip lived it mattered little what became of him.

But we do not think so, nor does Dr. Melancthon. "No one," he says, "comes near Dr. Luther, and indeed the heart of the whole nation hangs on him. Who stirs the heart of Germany-of nobles, peasants, princes, women, children-as he does with his noble, faithful words?"

Twice during these last years we have been in the greatest anxiety about his safety,-once when he was summoned before the legate at Augsburg, and once when he went to the great disputation with Dr. Eck at Leipsic.

But how great the difference between his purpose when he went to Augsburg, and when he returned from Leipsic!

At Augsburg he would have conceded anything, but the truth about the free justification of every sinner who believes in Christ. He reverenced the Pope; he would not for the world become a heretic! No name of opprobrium was so terrible to him as that.

At Leipsic he had learned to disbelieve that the Pope had any authority to determine doctrine, and he boldly confessed that the Hussites (men till now abhorred in Saxony as natural enemies as well as deadly heretics) ought to be honoured for confessing sound truth. And from that time both Dr. Luther and Melancthon have stood forth openly as the champions of the Word of God against the Papacy.

Now, however, a worse danger threatens him, even the bull of excommunication which they say is now being forged at Rome, and which has never yet failed to crush where it has fallen. Dr. Luther has, indeed, taught us not to dread it as a spiritual weapon, but we fear its temporal effects, especially if followed by the ban of the empire.

Often, indeed, he talks of taking refuge in some other land; the good Elector, even himself, has at times advised it, fearing no longer to be able to protect him. But God preserve him to Germany!

June 23, 1520.

This evening, as we were sitting in my father's house, Christopher brought us, damp from the press, a copy of Dr. Luther's Appeal to His Imperial Majesty, and to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, on the Reformation of Christendom. Presenting it to our grandmother, he said,-

"Here, madam, is a weapon worthy of the bravest days of the Sch?nbergs, mighty to the pulling down of strongholds."

"Ah," sighed our mother, "always wars and fightings! It is a pity the good work cannot be done more quietly."

"Ah, grandmother," said my father, "only see how her burgher life has destroyed the heroic spirit of her crusading ancestors. She thinks that the Holy Places are to be won back from the infidels without a blow, only by begging their pardon and kissing the hem of their garments."

"You should hear Catherine Krapp, Dr. Melancthon's wife!" rejoined our mother; "she agrees with me that these are terrible times. She says she never sees the doctor go away without thinking he may be immured in some dreadful dungeon before they meet again."

"But remember, dear mother," I said, "your fears when first Dr. Luther assailed Tetzel and his indulgences three years ago! And who has gained the victory there? Dr. Martin is the admiration of all good men throughout Germany; and poor Tetzel, despised by his own party, rebuked by the legate, died, they say, of a broken heart just after the great Leipsic disputation."

"Poor Tetzel!" said my father, "his indulgences could not bind up a broken heart. I shall always love Dr. Luther for writing him a letter of comfort when he was dying, despised and forsaken even by his own party. I trust that He who can pardon has had mercy on his soul."

"Read to us, Christopher," said our grandmother; "your mother would not shrink from any battle-field if there were wounds there which her hands could bind."

"No," said Gottfried, "the end of war is peace,-God's peace, based on His truth. Blessed are those who in the struggle never lose sight of the end."

Christopher read, not without interruption. Many things in the book were new and startling to most of us:-

"It is not rashly," Dr. Luther began, "that I, a man of the people, undertake to address your lord-ships. The wretchedness and oppression that now overwhelm all the states of Christendom, and Germany in particular, force from me a cry of distress. I am constrained to call for help; I must see whether God will not bestow his Spirit on some man belonging to our country, and stretch forth his hand to our unhappy nation."

Dr. Luther never seems to think he is to do the great work. He speaks as if he were only fulfilling some plain humble duty, and calling other men to undertake the great achievement; and all the while that humble duty is the great achievement, and he is doing it.

Dr. Luther spoke of the wretchedness of Italy, the unhappy land where

the Pope's throne is set, her ruined monasteries, her decayed cities, her corrupted people; and then he showed how Roman avarice and pride were seeking to reduce Germany to a state as enslaved. He appealed to the young emperor, Charles, soon about to be crowned. He reminded all the rulers of their responsibilities. He declared that the papal territory, called the patrimony of St. Peter, was the fruit of robbery. Generously holding out his hand to the very outcasts his enemies had sought to insult him most grievously by comparing him with, he said,-

"It is time that we were considering the cause of the Bohemians, and re-uniting ourselves to them."

At these words my grandmother dropped her work, and fervently clasping her hands, leant forward, and fixing her eyes on Christopher, drank in every word with intense eagerness.

When he came to the denunciation of the begging friars, and the recommendation that the parish priests should marry, Christopher interrupted himself by an enthusiastic "vivat."

When, however, after a vivid picture of the oppressions and avarice of the legates, came the solemn abjuration:-

"Hearest thou this, O Pope, not most holy, but most sinful? May God from the heights of his heaven soon hurl thy throne into the abyss!" my mother turned pale, and crossed herself.

What impressed me most was the plain declaration:-

"It has been alleged that the Pope, the bishops, the priests, and the monks and nuns form the estate spiritual or ecclesiastical; while the princes, nobles, burgesses, and peasantry form the secular estate or laity. Let no man, however, be alarmed at this. All Christians constitute the spiritual estate: and the only difference among them is that of the functions which they discharge. We have all one baptism, one faith, and it is this which constitutes the spiritual man."

If this is indeed true, how many of my old difficulties it removes with a stroke! All callings, then, may be religious callings; all men and women of a religious order. Then my mother is truly and undoubtedly as much treading the way appointed her as Aunt Agnes; and the monastic life is only one among callings equally sacred.

When I said this to my mother, she said, "I as religious a woman as Aunt Agnes! No, Elsè! whatever Dr. Luther ventures to declare, he would not say that. I do sometimes have a hope that for His dear Son's sake God hears even my poor feeble prayers; but to pray night and day, and abandon all for God, like my sister Agnes, that is another thing altogether."

But when, as we crossed the street to our home, I told Gottfried how much those words of Dr. Luther had touched me, and asked if he really thought we in our secular calling were not only doing our work by a kind of indirect permission, but by a direct vocation from God, he replied,-

"My doubt, Elsè, is whether the vocation which leads men to abandon home is from God at all; whether it has either his command or even his permission."

But if Gottfried is right, Fritz has sacrificed his life to a delusion. How can I believe that? And yet if he could perceive it, how life might change for him! Might he not even yet be restored to us? But I am dreaming.

October 25, 1520.

More and more burning words from Dr. Luther. To-day we have been reading his new book on the Babylonish Captivity. "God has said," he writes in this, "'Whosoever shall believe and be baptized shall be saved.' On this promise, if we receive it with faith, hangs our whole salvation. If we believe, our heart is fortified by the divine promise; and although all should forsake the believer, this promise which he believes will never forsake him. With it he will resist the adversary who rushes upon his soul, and will have wherewithal to answer pitiless death, and even the judgment of God." And he says in another place, "The vow made at our baptism is sufficient of itself, and comprehends more than we can ever accomplish. Hence all other vows may be abolished. Whoever enters the priesthood or any religious order, let him well understand that the works of a monk or of a priest, however difficult they may be, differ in no respect in the sight of God from those of a countryman who tills the ground, or of a woman who conducts a household. God values all things by the standard of faith. And it often happens that the simple labour of a male or female servant is more agreeable to God than the fasts and the works of a monk, because in these faith is wanting."

What a consecration this thought gives to my commonest duties! Yes, when I am directing the maids in their work, or sharing Gottfried's cares, or simply trying to brighten his home at the end of the busy day, or lulling my children to sleep, can I indeed be serving God as much as Dr. Luther at the altar or in his lecture-room? I also, then, have indeed my vocation direct from God.

How could I ever have thought the mere publication of a book would have been an event to stir our hearts like the arrival of a friend! Yet it is even thus with every one of those pamphlets of Dr. Luther's. They move the whole of our two households, from our grandmother to Thekla, and even the little maid, to whom I read portions. She says, with tears, "If the mother and father could hear this in the forest!" Students and burghers have not patience to wait till they reach home, but read the heart-stirring pages as they walk through the streets. And often an audience collects around some communicative reader, who cannot be content with keeping the free, liberating truths to himself.

Already, Christopher says, four thousand copies of the "Appeal to the Nobility" are circulating through Germany.

I always thought before of books as the peculiar property of the learned. But Dr. Luther's books are a living voice,-a heart God has awakened and taught, speaking to countless hearts as a man talketh with his friend. I can indeed see now, with my father and Christopher, that the printing press is a nobler weapon than even the spears and broadswords of our knightly Bohemian ancestors.

Wittemberg, December 10, 1520.

Dr. Luther has taken a great step to-day. He has publicly burned the Decretals, with other ancient writings, on which the claims of the court of Rome are founded, but which are now declared to be forgeries; and more than this, he has burnt the Pope's bull of excommunication against himself.

Gottfried says that for centuries such a bonfire as this has not been seen. He thinks it means nothing less than an open and deliberate renunciation of the papal tyranny which for so many hundred years has held the whole of western Christendom in bondage. He took our two boys to see it, that we may remind them of it in after years as the first great public act of freedom.

Early in the morning the town was astir. Many of the burghers, professors, and students knew what was about to be done; for this was no deed of impetuous haste or angry vehemence.

I dressed the children early, and we went to my father's house.

Wittemberg is as full now of people of various languages as the tower of Babel must have been after the confusion of tongues. But never was this more manifest than to-day.

Flemish monks from the Augustine cloisters at Antwerp; Dutch students from Finland; Swiss youths, with their erect forms and free mountain gait; knights from Prussia and Lithuania; strangers even from quite foreign lands,-all attracted hither by Dr. Luther's living words of truth, passed under our windows about nine o'clock this morning, in the direction of the Elster gate, eagerly gesticulating and talking as they went. Then Thekla, Atlantis, and I mounted to an upper room, and watched the smoke rising from the pile, until the glare of the conflagration burst through it, and stained with a faint red the pure daylight.

Soon afterwards the crowds began to return: but there seemed to me to be a gravity and solemnity in the manner of most, different from the eager haste with which they had gone forth.

"They seem like men returning from some great Church festival," I said.

"Or from lighting a signal-fire on the mountains, which shall awaken the whole land to freedom," said Christopher, as they rejoined us.

"Or from binding themselves with a solemn oath to liberate their homes, like the Three Men at Grütly," said Conrad Winkelried, the young Swiss to whom Atlantis is betrothed.

"Yes," said Gottfried, "fires which may be the beacons of a world's deliverance, and may kindle the death-piles of those who dared to light them, are no mere students' bravado."

"Who did the deed, and what was burned?" I asked.

"One of the masters of arts lighted the pile," my husband replied, "and then threw on it the Decretals, the false Epistles of St. Clement, and other forgeries, which have propped up the edifice of lies for centuries. And when the flames which consumed them had done their work and died away, Dr. Luther himself, stepping forward, solemnly laid the Pope's bull of excommunication on the fire, saying amidst the breathless silence, 'As thou hast troubled the Lord's saints, may the eternal fire destroy thee.' Not a word broke the silence until the last crackle and gleam of those symbolical flames had ceased, and then gravely but joyfully we all returned to our homes."

"Children," said our grandmother, "you have done well; yet you are not the first that have defied Rome."

"Nor perhaps the last she will silence," said my husband. "But the last enemy will be destroyed at last; and meantime every martyr is a victor."

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