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Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family By Elizabeth Rundle Charles Characters: 17843

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Eva's Story.

Thuringian Forest, July, 1523.

It is certainly very much happier for Fritz and me to live in the pastor's house than in the castle; down among the homes of men, and the beautiful mysteries of this wonderful forest land, instead of towering high above all on a fortified height. Not of course that I mean the heart may not be as lowly in the castle as in the cottage; but it seems to me a richer and more fruitful life to dwell among the people than to be raised above them. The character of the dwelling seems to symbolize the nature of the life. And what lot can be so blessed as ours?

Linked to all classes that we may serve our Master who came to minister among all. In education equal to the nobles, or rather to the patrician families of the great cities, who so far surpass the country proprietors in culture,-in circumstances the pastor is nearer the peasant, knowing by experience what are the homely trials of straitened means. Little offices of kindness can be interchanged between us. Muhme Trüdchen finds a pure pleasure in bringing me a basket of her new-laid eggs as an acknowledgment of Fritz's visits to her sick boy; and it makes it all the sweeter to carry food to the family of the old charcoal-burner in the forest-clearing that our meals for a day or two have to be a little plainer in consequence. I think gifts which come from loving contrivance and a little self-denial, must be more wholesome to receive than the mere overflowings of a full store. And I am sure they are far sweeter to give. Our lowly home seems in some sense the father's house of the village; and it is such homes, such hallowed centres of love and ministry, which God through our Luther is giving back to village after village in our land.

But, as Fritz says, I must be careful not to build our parsonage into a pinnacle higher than any castle, just to make a pedestal for him, which I certainly sometimes detect myself doing. His gifts seem to me so rich, and his character is, I am sure, so noble, that it is natural I should picture to myself his vocation as the highest in the world. That it is the highest, however, I am secretly convinced; the highest as long as it is the lowliest.

The people begin to be quite at home with us now. There are no great gates, no moat, no heavy draw-bridge between us and the peasants. Our doors stand open; and timid hands which could never knock to demand admittance at castle or convent gate can venture gently to lift our latch. Mothers creep to the kitchen with their sick children to ask for herbs, lotions, or drinks, which I learned to distil in the convent. And then I can ask them to sit down, and we often naturally begin to speak of Him who healed the sick people with a word, and took the little children from the mothers' arms to His to bless them. Sometimes, too, stories of wrong and sorrow come out to me which no earthly balm can cure, and I can point to Him who only can heal because He only can forgive.

Then Fritz says he can preach so differently from knowing the heart-cares and burdens of his flock; and the people seem to so feel differently when they meet again from the pulpit with sacred words and histories which they have grown familiar with in the home.

A few of the girls come to me also to learn sewing or knitting, and to listen or learn to read Bible stories. Fritz meanwhile instructs the boys in the Scriptures and in sacred music, because the schoolmaster is growing old and can teach the children little but a few Latin prayers by rote, and to spell out the German alphabet.

I could not have imagined such ignorance as we have found here. It seems, Fritz says, as if the first preachers of Christianity to the Germans had done very much for the heart of the nation what the first settlers did for its forests, made a clearing here and there, built a church, and left the rest to its original state.

The bears and wolves which prowl about the forest, and sometimes in winter venture close to the thresholds of our houses, are no wilder than the wild legends which haunt the hearts of the peasants. On Sundays they attire themselves in their holiday clothes, come to hear mass, bow before the sacred host, and the crucifix, and image of the Virgin, and return to continue during the week their every-day terror-worship of the spirits of the forest. They seem practically to think our Lord is the God of the church and the village, while the old pagan sprites retain possession of the forest. They appear scarcely even quite to have decided St. Christopher's question, "Which is the strongest, that I may worship him?"

But, alas, whether at church or in the forest, the worship they have been taught seems to have been chiefly one of fear. The Cobolds and various sprites they believe will bewitch their cows, set fire to their hay-stacks, lead them astray through the forest, steal their infants from the cradle to replace them by fairy changelings. Their malignity and wrath they deprecate, therefore, by leaving them gleanings of corn or nuts, by speaking of them with feigned respect, or by Christian words and prayer, which they use as spells.

From the Almighty God they fear severer evil. He, they think, is to sit on the dreadful day of wrath on the judgment throne to demand strict account of all their misdeeds. Against His wrath also they have been taught to use various remedies which seem to us little better than a kind of spiritual spells; paters, aves, penances, confessions, indulgences.

To protect them against the forest sprites they have secret recourse to certain gifted persons, mostly shrivelled, solitary, weird old women (successors, Fritz says, of the old pagan prophetesses), who for money perform certain rites of white magic for them; or give them written charms to wear, or teach them magic rhymes to say.

To protect them against God, they used to have recourse to the priest, who performed masses for them, laid ghosts, absolved sins, promised to turn aside the vengeance of offended heaven.

But in both cases they seem to have the melancholy persuasion that the ruling power is hostile to them. In both cases, religion is not so much a worship as a spell; not an approach to God, but an interposing of something to keep off the weight of his dreaded presence.

When first we began to understand this, it used to cost me many tears.

"How can it be," I said one day to Fritz, "that all the world seems so utterly to misunderstand God?"

"There is an enemy in the world," he said, solemnly, "sowing lies about God in every heart."

"Yet God is mightier than Satan," I said; "how is it then that no ray penetrates through the darkness from fruitful seasons, from the beauty of the spring-time, from the abundance of the harvest, from the joys of home, to show the people that God is love?"

"Ah, Eva," he said sadly, "have you forgotten that not only is the devil in the world, but sin in the heart? He lies, indeed, about God, when he persuades us that God grudges us blessings; but he tells the truth about ourselves when he reminds us that we are sinners, under the curse of the good and loving law. The lie would not stand for an instant if it were not founded on the truth. It is only by confessing the truth, on which his falsehood is based, that we can destroy it. We must say to the peasants, 'Your fear is well founded. See on that cross what your sin cost!'"

"But the old religion displayed the crucifix," I said.

"Thank God, it did-it does!" he said. "But instead of the crucifix, we have to tell of a cross from which the Crucified is gone; of an empty tomb and a risen Saviour; of the curse removed; of God, who gave the Sacrifice, welcoming back the Sufferer to the throne."

We have not made much change in the outward ceremonies. Only, instead of the sacrifice of the mass, we have the Feast of the Holy Supper; no elevation of the host, no saying of private masses for the dead; and all the prayers, thanksgivings, and hymns, in German.

Dr. Luther still retains the Latin in some of the services of Wittemberg, on account of its being an university town, that the youth may be trained in the ancient languages. He said he would gladly have some of the services in Greek and Hebrew, in order thereby to make the study of those languages as common as that of Latin. But here in the forest, among the ignorant peasants, and the knights, who, for the most part, forget before old age what little learning they acquired in boyhood, Fritz sees no reason whatever for retaining the ancient language; and delightful it is to watch the faces of the people when he reads the Bible or Luther's hymns, now that some of them begin to understand that the divine service is something in which their hearts and minds are to join, instead of a kind of magic external rite to be performed for them.

It is a great delight also to us to visit Chriem

hild and Ulrich von Gersdorf at the castle. The old knight and Dame Hermentrud were very reserved with us at first; but the knight has always been most courteous to me, and Dame Hermentrud, now that she is convinced that we have no intention of trenching on her state, receives us very kindly.

Between us, moreover, there is another tender bond since she has allowed herself to speak of her sister Beatrice, to me known only as the subdued and faded aged nun; to Dame Hermentrud, and the aged retainers and villagers, remembered in her bright, but early blighted, girlhood.

Again and again I have to tell her sister the story of her gradual awakening from uncomplaining hopelessness to a lowly and heavenly rest in Christ; and of her meek and peaceful death.

"Great sacrifices," she said once, "have to be made to the honour of a noble lineage, Frau Pastorin. I also have had my sorrows;" and she opened a drawer of a cabinet, and showed me the miniature portraits of a nobleman and his young boy, her husband and son, both in armour. "These both were slain in a feud with the family to which Beatrice's betrothed belonged," she said bitterly. "And should our lines ever be mingled in one?"

"But are these feuds never to die out?" I said.

"Yes," she replied sternly, leading me to a window, from which we looked on a ruined castle in the distance. "That feud has died out. The family is extinct!"

"The Lord Christ tells us to forgive our enemies," I said quietly.

"Undoubtedly," she replied; "but the von Bernsteins were usurpers of our rights, robbers and murderers. Such wrongs must be avenged, or society would fall to pieces."

Towards the peasants Dame Hermentrud has very condescending and kindly feelings, and frequently gives us food and clothing for them, although she still doubts the wisdom of teaching them to read.

"Every one should be kept in his place," she says.

And as yet I do not think she can form any idea of heaven, except as of a well organized community, in which the spirits of the nobles preside loftily on the heights, while the spirits of the peasants keep meekly to the valleys; the primary distinction between earth and heaven being, that in heaven all will know how to keep in their places.

And no doubt in one sense she is right. But how would she like the order in which places in heaven are assigned?

"The first shall be last, and the last first."

"He that is chief among you, let him be as he that doth serve."

Among the peasants sometimes, on the other hand, Fritz is startled by the bitterness of feeling which betrays itself against the lords; how the wrongs of generations are treasured up, and the name of Luther is chiefly revered from a vague idea that he, the peasant's son, will set the peasants free.

Ah, when will God's order be established in the world, when each, instead of struggling upwards in selfish ambition, and pressing others down in mean pride-looking up to envy, and looking down to scorn-shall look up to honour and look down to help! when all shall "by love serve one another?"

September, 1523.

We have now a guest of whom I do not dare to speak to Dame Hermentrud. Indeed, the whole history Fritz and I will never tell to any here.

A few days since a worn, grey-haired old man came to our house, whom Fritz welcomed as an old friend. It was Priest Ruprecht Haller, from Franconia. Fritz had told me something of his history, so that I knew what he meant, when in a quivering voice he said, abruptly, taking Fritz aside,-

"Bertha is very ill-perhaps dying. I must never see her any more. She will not suffer it, I know. Can you go and speak a few words of comfort to her?"

Fritz expressed his readiness to do anything in his power, and it was agreed that Priest Ruprecht was to stay with us that night, and that they were to start together on the morrow for the farm where Bertha was at service, which lay not many miles off through the forest.

But in the night I had a plan, which I determined to set going before I mentioned it to Fritz, because he will often consent to a thing which is once begun, which he would think quite impracticable if it is only proposed; that is, especially as regards anything in which I am involved. Accordingly, the next morning I rose very early and went to our neighbour, Farmer Herder, to ask him to lend us his old grey pony for the day, to bring home an invalid. He consented, and before we had finished breakfast the pony was at the door.

"What is this?" said Fritz.

"It is Farmer Herder's pony to take me to the farm where Bertha lives, and to bring her back," I said.

"Impossible, my love!" said Fritz.

"But you see it is already all arranged, and begun to be done," I said; "I am dressed, and the room is all ready to receive her."

Priest Ruprecht rose from the table, and moved towards me, exclaiming fervently,-

"God bless you!" Then seeming to fear that he had said what he had no right to say, he added, "God bless you for the thought. But it is too much!" and he left the room.

"What would you do, Eva?" Fritz said, looking in much perplexity at me.

"Welcome Bertha as a sister," I said, "and nurse her until she is well."

"But how can I suffer you to be under one roof?" he said.

I could not help my eyes filling with tears.

"The Lord Jesus suffered such to anoint his feet," I said, "and she, you told me, loves Him, has given up all dearest to her to keep his words. Let us blot out the past as he does, and let her begin life again from our home, if God wills it so."

Fritz made no further objection. And through the dewy forest paths we went, we three; and with us, I think we all felt, went Another, invisible, the Good Shepherd of the wandering sheep.

Never did the green glades and forest flowers and solemn pines seem to me more fresh and beautiful, and more like a holy cathedral than that morning.

After a little meek resistance Bertha came back with Fritz and me. Her sickness seemed to me to be more the decline of one for whom life's hopes and work are over, than any positive disease. And with care, the grey pony brought her safely home.

Never did our dear home seem to welcome us so brightly as when we led her back to it, for whom it was to be a sanctuary of rest, and refuge from bitter tongues.

There was a little room over the porch which we had set apart as the guest-chamber; and very sweet it was to me that Bertha should be its first inmate; very sweet to Fritz and me that our home should be what our Lord's heart is, a refuge for the outcast, the penitent, the solitary, and the sorrowful.

Such a look of rest came over her poor, worn face, when at last she was laid on her little bed!

"I think I shall get well soon," she said the next morning, "and then you will let me stay and be your servant; when I am strong I can work really hard and there is something in you both which makes me feel this like home."

"We will try," I said, "to find out what God would have us do."

She does improve daily. Yesterday she asked for some spinning, or other work to do, and it seems to cheer her wonderfully. To-day she has been sitting in our dwelling-room with her spinning-wheel. I introduced her to the villagers who come in as a friend who has been ill. They do not know her history.

January, 1524.

It is all accomplished now. The little guest-chamber over the porch is empty again, and Bertha is gone.

As she was recovering Fritz received a letter from Priest Ruprecht, which he read in silence, and then laid aside until we were alone on one of our expeditions to the old charcoal-burner's in the forest.

"Haller wants to see Bertha once more," he said, dubiously.

"And why not Fritz?" I said; "why should not the old wrong as far as possible be repaired, and those who have given each other up at God's commandment, be given back to each other by his commandment?"

"I have thought so often, my love," he said, "but I did not know what you would think."

So after some little difficulty and delay, Bertha and

Priest Ruprecht Haller were married very quietly in our village church, and went forth to a distant village in Pomerania, by the Baltic Sea, from which Dr. Luther had received a request to send them a minister of the gospel.

It went to my heart to see the two go forth together down the village street, those two whose youth inhuman laws and human weakness had so blighted. There was a reverence about his tenderness to her, and a wistful lowliness in hers for him, which said, "All that thou hast lost for me, as far as may be I will make up to thee in the years that remain!"

But as we watched her pale face and feeble steps, and his bent, though still vigorous form, Fritz took my hands as we turned back into the house, and said,-

"It is well. But it can hardly be for long!"

And I could not answer him for tears.

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