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Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family By Elizabeth Rundle Charles Characters: 20171

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Thekla's Story.

Tunnenberg, May, 1521

Is the world really the same? Was there really ever a spring like this, when the tide of life seems overflowing and bubbling up in leaf-buds, flowers, and song, and streams?

It cannot be only that God has given me the great blessing of Bertrand de Crèqui's love, and that life opens in such bright fields of hope and work before us two; or that this is the first spring I ever spent in the country. It seems to me that God is really pouring a tide of fresh life throughout the world.

Fritz has escaped from the prison at Maintz, and he writes as if he felt this an Easter-tide for all men. In all places, he says, the hearts of men are opening to the glad tidings of the redeeming love of God.

Can it be, however, that every May is such a festival among the woods, and that this solemn old forest holds such fairy holiday every year, garlanding its bare branches and strewing every brown nook which a sunbeam can reach, with showers of flowers, such as we strew on a bride's path? And then, who could have imagined that those grave old firs and stately birches could become the cradles of all these delicate-tufted blossoms and tenderly-folded leaflets, bursting on all sides from their gummy casings? And-joy of all joys!-it is not unconscious vegetable life only which thus expands around us. It is God touching every branch and hidden root, and waking them to beauty! It is not sunshine merely, and soft breezes; it is our Father smiling on his works, and making the world fresh and fair for his children,-it is the healing touch and the gracious Voice we have learned to know. "We are in the world, and the world was made by Thee;" "Te Deum laudamus: we acknowledge thee, O Saviour, to be the Lord."

Our Chriemhild certainly has a beautiful home. Bertrand's home, also, is a castle in the country, in Flanders. But he says their country is not like this forest-land. It has long been cleared by industrious hands. There are long stately avenues leading to his father's chateau; but all around, the land is level, and waving with grass and green or golden corn-fields. That, also, must be beautiful. But probably the home he has gone to prepare for me may not be there. Some of his family are very bitter against what they call his Lutheran heresy, and although he is the heir, it is very possible that the branch of the family which adheres to the old religion may wrest the inheritance from him. That, we think, matters little. God will find the right place for us, and lead us to it, if we ask him. And if it be in the town, after all, the tide of life in human hearts is nobler than that in trees and flowers. In a few months we shall know. Perhaps he may return here, and become a professor at Wittemberg, whither Dr. Luther's name brought him a year since to study.

June, 1521.

A rumour has reached us, that Dr. Luther has disappeared on his way back from Worms.

This spring, in the world as well as in the forest, will doubtless have its storms. Last night, the thunder echoed from hill to hill, and the wind wailed wildly among the pines. Looking out of my narrow window in the tower on the edge of the rock, where I sleep, it was awful to see the foaming torrent below gleaming in the lightning-flashes, which opened out sudden glimpses into the depths of the forest, leaving it doubly mysterious.

I thought of Fritz's lonely night, when he lost himself in the forest; and thanked God that I had learned to know the thunder as His voice, and His voice as speaking peace and pardon. Only, at such times I should like to gather all dear to me around me; and those dearest to me are scattered far and wide.

The old knight Ulrich is rather impetuous and hot-tempered; and his sister, Ulrich's aunt, Dame Hermentrud, is grave and stately. Fortunately, they both look on Chriemhild as a wonder of beauty and goodness; but I have to be rather careful. Dame Hermentrud is apt to attribute any over-vehemence of mine in debate to the burgher Cotta-blood; and although they both listen with interest to Ulrich or Chriemhild's version of Dr. Luther's doctrines, Dame Hermentrud frequently warns me against unfeminine exaggeration or eagerness in these matters, and reminds me that the ancestors of the Gersdorf family were devout and excellent people long before a son was born to Hans Luther the miner.

The state of the peasants distresses Chriemhild and me extremely. She and Ulrich were full of plans for their good when they came here to live; but she is at present almost exclusively occupied with the education of a little knightly creature, who came into the world two months since, and is believed to concentrate in his single little person all the ancestral virtues of all the Gersdorfs, to say nothing of the Sch?nbergs. He has not, Dame Hermantrud asserts, the slightest feature of resemblance to the Cottas. I cannot, certainly, deny that he bears unmistakable traces of that aristocratic temper and that lofty taste for ruling which at times distinguished my grandmother, and, doubtless, all the Gersdorfs from the days of Adam downward, or at least from the time of Babel. Beyond that, I believe, few pedigrees are traced, except in a general way to the sons of Noah. But it is a great honour for me to be connected, even in the humblest manner, with such a distinguished little being. In time, I am not without hopes that it will introduce a little reflex nobility even into my burgher nature: and meantime Chriemhild and I secretly trace remarkable resemblances in the dear baby features to our grandmother, and even to our beloved, sanguine, blind father. It is certainly a great consolation that our father chose our names from the poems and the stars and the calendar of aristocratic saints, instead of from the lowly Cotta pedigree.

Ulrich has not indeed by any means abandoned his scheme of usefulness among the peasantry who live on his uncle's estates. But he finds more opposition than he expected. The old knight, although ready enough to listen to any denunciations of the self-indulgent priests and lazy monks (especially those of the abbey whose hunting-grounds adjoin his own), is very averse to making the smallest change in anything. He says the boors are difficult enough to keep in order as it is; that if they are taught to think for themselves, there will be no safety for the game, or for anything else. They will be quoting the Bible in all kinds of wrong senses against their rightful lords, and will perhaps even take to debating the justice of the hereditary feuds, and refuse to follow their knight's banner to the field.

As to religion, he is quite sure that the Ave and the Pater are as much as will be expected of them; whilst Dame Hermentrud has most serious doubts of this new plan of writing books and reading prayers in the language of the common people. They will be thinking themselves as wise as the priests, and perhaps wiser than their masters.

But Ulrich's chief disappointment is with the peasants themselves. They seem as little anxious for improvement as the lords are for them, and are certainly suspicious to a most irritating degree of any schemes for their welfare issuing from the castle. As to their children being taught to read, they consider it an invasion of their rights, and murmur that if they follow the nobles in hunt and foray, and till their fields, and go to mass on Sunday, the rest of their time is their own, and it is an usurpation in priest or knight to demand more.

It will, I fear, be long before the dry, barren crust of their dull hard life is broken; and yet the words of life are for them as much as for us! And one great difficulty seems to me, that if they were taught to read, there are so few German religious books. Except a few tracts of Dr. Luther's, what is there that they could understand? If some one would only translate the record of the words and acts of our Lord and his apostles, it would be worth while then teaching every one to read.

And if we could only get them to confide in us! There must be thought, and we know there is affection underneath all this reserve. It is a heavy heritage for the long ancestry of the Gersdorfs to have bequeathed to this generation, these recollections of tyranny and this mutual distrust. Yet Ulrich says it is too common throughout the land. Many of the old privileges of the nobles were so terribly oppressive in hard or careless hands.

The most promising field at present seems to be among the household retainers. Among these there is strong personal attachment; and the memory of Ulrich's pious mother seems to have left behind it that faith in goodness which is one of the most precious legacies of holy lives.

Even the peasants in the village speak lovingly of her; of the medicine she used to distil from the forest-herbs, and distribute with her own hands to the sick. There is a tradition also in the castle of a bright maiden called Beatrice who used to visit the cottage homes, and bring sunshine whenever she came. But she disappeared years ago, they say; and the old family nurse shakes her head as she tells me how the Lady Beatrice's heart was broken, when she was separated by family feuds from her betrothed, and after that she went to the convent at Nimptschen, and has been dead to the world ever since.

Nimptschen! that is the living grave where our precious Eva is buried. And yet where she is I am sure it can be no grave of death. She will bring life and blessings with her. I will write to her, especially about this poor blighted Beatrice.

Altogether the peasants seem much less suspicious of the women of the Gersdorf family than of the men. They will often listen attentively even to me. And when Chriemhild can go among them a little more, I hope better days will dawn.

August, 1521.

This morning we had a strange encounter. Some days since we received a mysterious intimation from Wittemberg, that Dr. Luther is alive and in friendly keeping, not far from us. To-day Ulrich and I were riding through the fores

t to visit an outlying farm of the Gersdorfs in the direction of Eisenach, when we heard across a valley the huntsman's horn, with the cry of the dogs in full chase. In a few moments an opening among the trees brought us in sight of the hunt sweeping towards us up the opposite slopes of the valley. Apart from the hunt, and nearer us, at a narrow part of the valley, we observed a figure in the cap and plumes of a knight, apparently watching the chase as we were. As we were looking at him, a poor bewildered leveret flew towards him, and cowered close to his feet. He stooped, and gently taking it up, folded it in the long sleeve of his tunic, and stepped quickly aside. In another minute, however, the hunt swept up towards him, and the dogs scenting the leveret, seized on it in its refuge, dragged it down, and killed it.

This unusual little incident, this human being putting himself on the side of the pursued, instead of among the pursuers, excited our attention. There was also something is the firm figure and sturdy gait that perplexingly reminded us of some one we knew. Our road lay across the valley, and Ulrich rode aside to greet the strange knight. In a moment he returned to me, and whispered,-

"It is Martin Luther!"

We could not resist the impulse to look once more on the kind honest face, and riding close to him we bowed to him.

He gave us a smile of recognition, and laying his hand on Ulrich's saddle said, softly, "The chase is a mystery of higher things. See how, as these ferocious dogs seized my poor leveret from its refuge, Satan rages against souls, and seeks to tear from their hiding-place even those already saved. But the Arm which holds them is stronger than mine. I have had enough of this kind of chase," he added; "sweeter to me the chase of the bears, wolves, boars, and foxes which lay waste the Church, than that of these harmless creatures. And of such rapacious beasts there are enough in the world."

My heart was full of the poor peasants I had been seeing lately. I never could feel afraid of Dr. Luther, and this opportunity was too precious to be thrown away. It always seemed the most natural thing in the world to open one's heart to him. He understood so quickly and so fully. As he was wishing us good-bye, therefore, I said (I am afraid, in that abrupt blundering way of mine),-

"Dear Dr. Luther, the poor peasants here are so ignorant! and I have scarcely anything to read to them which they can understand. Tell some one, I entreat you, to translate the Gospels into German for them; such German as your 'Discourse on the Magnificat,' or 'The Lord's Prayer,' for they all understand that."

He smiled, and said, kindly,-

"It is being done, my child. I am trying in my Patmos tower once more to unveil the Revelation to the common people; and, doubtless, they will hear it gladly. That book alone is the sun from which all true teachers draw their light. Would that it were in the language of every man, held in every hand, read by every eye, listened to by every ear, treasured up in every heart. And it will be yet, I trust."

He began to move away, but as we looked reverently after him he turned to us again, and said, "Remember the wilderness was the scene of the temptation. Pray for me, that in the solitude of my wilderness I may be delivered from the tempter." And waving his hand, in a few minutes he was out of sight.

We thought it would be an intrusion to follow him, or to inquire where he was concealed. But as the hunt passed away, Ulrich recognized one of the huntsmen as a retainer of the Elector Frederick at his castle of the Wartburg.

And now when every night and morning in my prayers I add, as usual, the name of Dr. Luther to those of my mother and father and all dear to me, I think of him passing long days and nights alone in that grim castle, looking down on the dear old Eisenach valley, and I say, "Lord, make the wilderness to him the school for his ministry to all our land."

For was not our Saviour himself led first into the wilderness, to overcome the tempter in solitude, before he came forth to teach, and heal, and cast out devils?

October.

Ulrich has seen Dr. Luther again. He was walking in the forest near the Wartburg, and looked very ill and sad. His heart was heavy on account of the disorders in the Church, the falsehood and bitterness of the enemies of the gospel, and the impetuosity or lukewarmness of too many of its friends. He said it would almost have been better if they had left him to die by the hands of his enemies. His blood might have cried to God for deliverance. He was ready to yield himself to them as an ox to the yoke. He would rather be burned on live coals, than sleep away the precious years thus, half alive, in sloth and ease. And yet, from what Ulrich gathered further from him of his daily life, his "sloth and ease" would seem arduous toil to most men. He saw the room where Dr. Luther lives and labours day and night, writing letters of consolation to his friends, and masterly replies, they say, to the assailants of the truth, and (better than all) translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into German.

The room has a large window commanding many reaches of the forest; and he showed Ulrich the rookery in the tops of the trees below, whence he learned lessons in politics from the grave consultations of the rooks who hold their Diet there; he also spoke to him of the various creatures in rock and forest which soothed his solitude, the birds singing among the branches, the berries, wild flowers, and the clouds and stars. But he alluded also to fearful conflicts, visible and audible appearances of the Evil One; and his health seemed much shattered.

We fear that noble loving heart is wearing itself out in the lonely fortress. He seems chafing like a war-horse at the echo of the distant battle; or a hunter at the sound of the chase; or, rather, as a captive general who sees his troops, assailed by force and stratagem, broken and scattered, and cannot break his chains to rally and to lead them on.

Yet he spoke most gratefully of his hospitable treatment in the castle; said he was living like a prince or a cardinal; and deprecated the thought that the good cause would not prosper without his presence.

"I cannot be with them in death," he said, "nor they with me! Each must fight that last fight, go through that passion alone. And only those will overcome who have learned how to win the victory before, and grounded deep in the heart that word, which is the great power against sin and the devil, that Christ has died for each one of us, and has overcome Satan for ever."

He said also that if Melancthon lived it mattered little to the Church what happened to him. The Spirit of Elijah came in double power on Elisha.

And he gave Ulrich two or three precious fragments of his translation of the Gospels, for me to read to the peasants.

November.

I have gone with my precious bits of the German Bible that is to be into many a cottage during this month,-simple narratives of poor, leprous, and palsied people, who came to the Lord, and he touched them and healed their diseases; and of sinners whom he forgave.

It is wonderful how the simple people seem to drink them in; that is, those who care at all for such things. "Is this indeed what the Lord Christ is like?" they say; "then, surely, we may speak to him in our own words, and ask just what we want, as those poor men and women did of old. Is it true, indeed, that peasants, women, and sick people could come straight to the Lord himself? Was he not always kept off from common people by a band of priests and saints? Was he indeed to be spoken to by all, and He such a great Lord?"

I said that I thought it was the necessity of human princes, and not their glory, to be obliged to employ deputies, and not let each one plead his own case. They look greatest afar off, surrounded by the pomp of a throne, because in themselves they are weak and sinful, like other men. But he needed no pomp, nor the dignity of distance, because he is not like other men, but sinless and divine, and the glory is in Himself, not in the things around him.

Then I had a narrative of the crucifixion to read; and many a tear have I seen stream over rough cheeks, and many a smile beam in dim aged eyes as I read this.

"We seem to understand it all at once," an old woman said; "and yet there always seems something more in it each time."

December.

This morning I had a letter from Bertrand,-the first for many weeks. He is full of hope; not, indeed, of recovering his inheritance, but of being at Wittemberg again in a few weeks.

I suppose my face looked very bright when I received it and ran with the precious letter to my own room; for Dame Hermentrud said much this evening about receiving everything with moderation, and about the propriety of young maidens having a very still and collected demeanour, and about the uncertainty of all things below. My heavenly Father knows I do not forget that all things are uncertain; although, often, I dare not dwell on it. But He has given me this good gift-He himself-and I will thank him with an overflowing heart for it!

I cannot understand Dame Hermentrud's religion. She seems to think it prudent, and a duty, to take everything God gives coolly, as if we did not care very much about it, lest He should think he had given us something too good for us, and grudge it to us, and take it away again.

No; if God does take away, He takes away as He gave, in infinite love; and I would not for the world add darkness to the dark days, if they must come, by the bitter regret that I did not enjoy the sunshine whilst He gave it. For, indeed, I cannot help fearing sometimes, when I think of the martyrs of old, and the bitterness of the enemies of the good tidings now. But then I try to look up, and try to say, "Safer, O Father, in thy hands than in mine." And all the comfort of the prayer depends on how I can comprehend and feel that name, "Father!"

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