Maria Felicia/Chapter 6
ANDREW, as was his custom, sat alone in his little room in the tower, meditating in gloomy silence, and learned at last that what he heard was not only the gale beating the night rain against the Castle gate, but also an impatient hand. Seized with pity, he hastened to open it for the benighted traveler, thinking of the night when a messenger that brought news to Hlohov about Felsenburk’s death had knockd on the gate about the same hour.
After a severe struggle with the wind, in which his lantern went out, he opened a little door in the gate, and saw before him in the dark the uncertain outlines of the man who so urgently demanded admittance. The roar of the wind and the dash of the rain drowned every word of greeting and welcome, question and answer. There was nothing left for Andrew but to grasp the stranger’s hand and take him into his room. He was not a little surprised to find the hand, which trembled with cold, very soft and delicate. Pushing a chair to the warmest place for his belated guest, that he might warm and recover as soon as possible, he tried at the same time to take off his shoulders the cape from whose heavy folds the water was pouring in streams; but when he looked into the stranger’s face his hands dropped in amazement and the mantle fell to the floor.
“It is I,” the harper said in a faint voice, shyly fixing his eyes on Andrew, and breathlessly sinking into the chair. “If I had not at last seen your light in the tower I should have perished, for my strength was almost gone. It was a lighthouse for me in two ways—I turned to it with my soul as well as with my eyes. I am coming back to Hlohov, coming back, for I have found that the light of truth burns here alone and that you are its keeper. Everything down there is false and deceitful. It is as you have said; the great of this country are trying to destroy the Bohemian nation; even Joseph II. wants to erase its name from the list of living nations. Since I have learned that there is no justice among the nobility for us, and never will be, it is impossible for me to live among them. I have canceled all my obligations; broken all bonds of friendship; given up all, even Maria Felicia. To me she is dead, the whole world is dead. The path of duty lies here, and in it you shall become my leader. Do not be frightened, I shall not trouble you; with my own strength I want to proceed as your pupil, and never cease blessing you that I have been born anew in the light of your truth. I ask no more of you than to lead me on the way to salvation, to be a support in my first, inexperienced steps.”
Andrew’s face became radiant with joy. He was not able to answer immediately; he only grasped the harper’s cold hands and began to warm them, got his own coat and wrapped him from head to foot, started a brighter fire on the hearth, and looked around for something to eat, acting like a father whose lost son had just returned. But suddenly leaving all that he had attempted for the comfort of the harper, he came back to him and again pressed his hands, and finally embraced him. It seemed that he was trying to convince himself that it was not a vision deceiving him.
Oh, no, no! it was no illusion. It was really the harper that had revealed himself to him in the moonlight like a messenger from the other world. It was really the harper who had had so many longing questions on his lips, whose painful doubt had changed into enthusiasm when he explained to him the loftiness of human life and dived with him into the secrets of the universe.
“I did not think,” he finally said, “that there was strength enough in your young heart to rid itself so quickly of the sweet bonds of love, and resist the tempting voice of earthly luxury. Your coming back to me has dispersed all my former suspicions of you and enriched my life with its first real joy. My opinion of you was wrong; how fortunate! It is no longer necessary to conceal from you that no human being had ever impressed me as deeply as you did, that I never was so anxious for human friendship as I was for yours, and that nothing pained me more than to think ill of you. But see how pale you have turned. Be calm; do not talk any more, or you will hurt yourself and my joy will soon turn to grief.”
“I am not trembling with weakness or cold, but with joy over your warm reception, which Ino more expected than you did my return. Let me continue. I shall have no rest until I have told you everything,” the harper said, trying to overcome his exhaustion. “Give me proof of your confidence and friendship. Do you not belong to the United Brethren? Tell me if I have guessed correctly. Know that I also want to become a member, and if you consider me worthy of your mediation with the Brethren take this ring and give it to the older members as a contribution to the common treasury. Tell them at the same time that I ask them to admit me as soon as possible to a share of all their privileges and duties; that having broken off all communication with the world, I have no place to lay my head, and having parted with the Felsenburks, I have no right to remain another hour in this Castle. I left everything behind me; I took only this jewel, for it is a memento from my mother, and the only thing that I can safely call my own.”
Andrew once more pressed the harper’s hands to his heart, but the ring he threw into the fire.
“You will not become a Brother on the basis of a piece of gold, but for the gold of your heart, the purity of which I will guarantee with my life. We shall make room for you among us without a gift, and give you shelter and bread, which you will repay with work. You have come to the Castle at a suitable time. We shall have a very important meetning to-night, perhaps the most important in the last few centuries. I will speak to the members about you. Perhaps a long trip through the country will be assigned for me to-day, but I shall not leave until I have found a refuge for you.”
The harper, frightened, looked up. “You say that I have come at a suitable time, and yet you announce your departure on a long journey? How I hoped to gain your friendship, to see you at least occasionally, to live for one ideal with you; and are we to part already? Not to see you for a long time is the same to me now as never to see you again. I will not let you go unless—you promise not to go without me.”
“My journey is dangerous.”
“By your side I shall not fear gorges, torrents, thieves or wolves.”
“Another kind of danger awaits me.”
“I tell you again that I fear nothing. Why do you hesitate to confide the danger to me? You say that you believe me, but do you not know that I would rather have my heart torn out than the secret you intrust to it?”
Andrew hesitated no longer. Leaning to the harper he quietly said:
“I know that, and because I know it I shall tell you. The condition of the Brethren, and of the whole Bohemian nation, is unendurable, and no change for the better can we expect from any source. For that reason our ranks are growing thinner; many of the weaker Brethren and others who favor earthly comforts are giving up their faith, and with it also their nationality. They claim to be Germans rather than to endure and suffer any longer as Bohemians. The faithful flock is dispersing; it is high time to do something decisive. We all know what Joseph II. intends to do with us after his mother’s death. If we are to try to save ourselves we must take measures for our defense, although it is almost hopeless. The older members of our Union have decided to go for help and protection elsewhere; encouraged by many indications and secret messages, they hope to get it. They intend to send a delegate to Frederick II. of Prussia, on whom they will place the duty of describing to the Emperor our circumstances, and asking him, on certain conditions, to assume the sovereignty and defend us. If he will promise to save our religion and language and further in every way their progress, then we shall bind ourselves to help him faithfully when, in the near future, at the death of the Bavarian Elector, war shall be waged over his possessions.”
The harper sprang up as if he had not learned that evening what exertion and weakness were.
“The proposition will be made known this evening to all the members,” Andrew added, “and it will be voted upon. I think it will be passed unanimously.”
“You are seeking salvation, and instead of that you will throw both your religion and your language to destruction,” the harper exclaimed. “What you are planning must not happen. This evening, did you say, the meeting was to be held? It is night now—midnight, perhaps. It has begun already; you are delaying here on my account, otherwise you would have been among the Brethren long ago; by this time they have probably agreed upon the worst. Oh, quickly, quickly, then, let us hasten there! It would take too long for me to explain to you all the objections I hold to your plan. I will explain them before the whole Union.”
Overcome by the harper’s earnestness and infected by his fears lest the Brethren might really decide on some fatal measure, Andrew delayed no longer. He arose as quickly as his friend, poured water over the fire, that any one who might choose to spy upon him could not see that the room was empty, quietly opened the door, and then they stole like two shadows down the steps, out of the tower. They kept close to the walls, stopping every few moments as if in fear of meeting some one or being followed. The fear, at least that evening, was unnecessary, for the darkness still reigned, the wind roared, and the rain poured in torrents. Both were wet to the skin when they reached the main building, but neither was aware of it, and the harper’s hand in Andrew’s no longer trembled, but with a passionate pressure at every lengthy pause urged him onward.
Moving cautiously into the vestibule, whose height the harper at his first visit had surveyed with so much pleasure, they stopped at one of the pillars. Andrew, who moved about in the darkness with as much certainty as if the sun were shining, pushed aside a heavy stone. He then opened a door that led to a narrow space, from which a colder breeze than that outside swept over them. The cold current came from the ground, as the harper learned when Andrew carefully barred the entrance behind him and lighted a lantern, which doubtless had served many generations of his race on such expeditions. He saw before him a flight of stairs, as steep as a ladder, leading into a dark abyss.
Boldly Andrew started into the narrow shaft, and the harper followed him. Dead air as well as dead silence met them there; the echo of the mad elements outside did not penetrate those dizzy depths.
But the cave into which the youths with impatiently beating hearts were descending was not a vault concealing the dead; it was a secret hearth on which was glimmering the feeble flame of the life of a whole nation, the only refuge where the spirit of the nation dared to feel, think, weep and hope.
They soon heard hollow sounds, which, as the harper learned, were earnest words echoing through the large cave in the deepest interior of the rocky cliff on which the old residence of Andrew's ancestors was built. The cave, which was occupied by men, was dimly lighted with a pine torch that was carefully guarded, lest a faint glimmer might stray through some unsuspected crevice in the rock, and being reflected on the waves of the river, might betray their meeting-place. The number of the men was constantly increasing; they were coming in by twos, through as narrow a passage from below as the one through which the young men had come from above. A long underground passage stretched from the cave under the bed of the river to the forest on the opposite side and ended at the foot of a cliff seemingly inaccessible. It was a secret exit from the Castle, which the Brethren ages ago had themselves made, when their persecution began and the masters of Hlohov became their protectors. Here they held their meetings; and more than once the cave was their refuge when the fires prepared for them were flaming. The cave was the meeting-place of the Union after the Brethren had been publicly suppressed; and the echoes of their psalms, too loudly poured forth in religious enthusiasm, often found their way out of the cave, and were thought by the superstitious servants to be the song of the Hlohov lutanist; and whoever heard it fled in affright, thinking it was his death song.
It was a long while before the eyes of the harper could endure the smoky flame of the pine, before he could see that he was surrounded by sturdy men with grave, expressive faces, marked by the same mournful lines as those on Andrew’s countenance, and that they also were clothed in the same coarse garb of slavery. It was a long while before he could distinguish on an elevated place, under the torch, the same old man that he had seen under the larch tree, reading an old book, when with his harp he made his first pilgrimage to Hlohov. The old man evidently was presiding over the meeting, and had just finished speaking when the young men entered, for they overheard the assemblage discussing his words. Suddenly the discussion was stopped, and they all turned their attention to the harper, for Andrew had stepped to the old man and, turning to the meeting, said:
“I am bringing you a new son, father, and to the rest of you a Brother. For his faithfulness I pledge my life.”
“Andrew’s pledge is your most brilliant praise, young man,” the president said to the harper. “He, although one of the youngest of the members, surpasses the oldest among us in enthusiastic devotion to his duties as a member of the Brotherhood. May he be a model to you in everything. But what attracts you to us in this hopeless moment? Did not Andrew tell you that our life was full of fear, adversity and trouble; that we are continually persecuted and that the sword hangs over our heads? If a Brother, through his carelessness, gets into official hands, he is either severely and disgracefully chastised, or beheaded as one dangerous to the welfare of human society. Dangerous and difficult is the work of building our new Jerusalem. Have you tried your strength, young man? Will it not fail in the first trial?”
The harper bowed reverently before the old man, and said:
“Believe me, father, I have been led to your Union by a desire for the truth. Since childhood I have longed for it; in different ways and on various roads sought it, but in vain. With a healing hand Andrew has removed the poisonous arrow of discouragement, and dropped into the festering wound the balm of your sublime religion. Finding at last the jewel so long sought, I gave up everything for it, wishing only to be enlightened by its heavenly luster. What a sweetheart is to a lover, the truth is to me. For it I am willing to live in poverty, and humility with you; for it I will gladly endure adversity and persecution; for it I will face every danger, and it will fill me with pride not only to consecrate but to sacrifice my life for the truth. Oh, happy are those who were chosen to lay the foundation for a new Jerusalem! I see the city before me in the golden luster of a new era, and I bless her in my name and yours. Love will make her laws; justice shall fulfill them; the snow-white banner of peace and brotherhood shall wave from her battlements; on her gates shall be written ‘progress’; her churches shall be consecrated with spiritual perfection, and whoever will enter her walls shall enter eternal life.”
All looked at the harper with admiration, and the old man, stretching out his hand, drew him closer and kissed him on the forehead. “You are ours!” exclaimed the rest, and each in turn pressed his hand.
“Do not forget that it is high time for us to decide on something definite,” the old man began. “Once more I tell you to consider well our condition, that we are without protection, without hope. The committee of the older members decided in a preliminary council that there was nothing left but to accept the secretly offered friendship of Frederick of Prussia; to send a delegate and let him know, that, under certain conditions, we are ready to become his allies.”
The harper, who had modestly stepped back among the youngest members, now quickly returned to his former place before the old man.
“You have accepted me as a Brother; oh, prove your brotherhood to me; patiently allow me to say a few words.”
“You are at liberty to speak,” the old man replied.
“I hear that you want to go to a king. How can it be that so many wise men forget that kings have always been the greatest enemies of the Bohemian people? Who of the long list of kings called to the Bohemian throne has been our father, our providence, as he should have been? If you will find one among them, I shall not say another word.”
Such deep silence followed the young man’s words that the underground moisture was heard trickling down the walls. All were pondering the truth of the sad statement, but no one arose to reproach him for his words.
“You are all silent, and I see that with me you are recalling how the Přemysls called the Germans into our country, and gave them privileges which they did not give their own children; how they were always more desirous of the German crown than for the prosperity of their own nation. Are you recalling how the Luxemburgs lavishly squandered our national property? Both John and Sigmund attempted to divide and barter away the Bohemian country. Charles IV., whom we call the father of our country, gave three times as many privileges to the foreigners in Prague as he did to the Bohemians. Are you recalling how King George, a pure-blooded Bohemian, persecuted the Brethren? You are perhaps thinking about the Ferdinands of Austria, who never felt in duty bound to fulfill their oaths, but secretly got rid of them through their confessors. Do you think that Frederick of Prussia would deal with you otherwise, even though he were bound by the most sacred promises to help you, and even though he acknowledged your faith to be his? Oh, take warning from the examples of the past, and be cautious before a deceitful stranger! So long as you were useful to him, he would make promises and hold communications with you; he would use as well as abuse you; and after attaining his object with your assistance, he would betray you, simply saying that traitors deserve no better treatment.”
The harper did not pause to take breath.
“Oh, take warning, Brethren, once more I beg of you. The king would rob you of your last, most precious treasure. And, besides, you would stain the honor of your nation by becoming allies with the greatest enemy of your country—the man who trampled your fields so many times, destroyed your homes, captured your sons and dragged them into his country and made of them his soldiers, the man who wanted to turn our kingly Prague into ashes. Consider once more that if he were to gain the Bohemian country, he would not deal with it as with a treasure entrusted to his care, but that it would be no more to him than a prey. Is there really no other hope but to invite an enemy into our country for the sake of saving ourselves?”
The harper, expecting the decision of the Union, was not the only one that wept; the whole community wept with him.
The old man was the only one who quietly reflected. Arising at last, and taking the harper by the hand, he led him to his seat.
“To you belongs this place,” he said. “You are better fitted for it than I; you have spoken more wisely to the Brethren.”
But the harper did not accept the position offered him. He begged not to be shamed by being awarded honor that did not belong to him, and urged that he had said no more than what others would have thought of in the course of the conference.
“For the last time Frederick’s name has been spoken among us. But where shall we turn and what shall we do in this hopeless moment?” the old man asked.
“Let us try depending upon our own strength,” the harper advised.
“We do not know how to use arms,” said the old man, shrugging his shoulders.
“You are mistaken, father, if you think that I would advise the Brethren to shed the blood of their fellow-creatures. I do not mean that we should take the sword to defend our rights, but that our rights should become our sword. I have heard from the most trustworthy lips that the Emperor is preparing a decree which will lighten the tenure service, and that this law is to be followed by other reforms, especially by religious toleration. As we have waited and suffered so long, let us wait a few months longer, and let him begin the work of the promised emancipation. We shall soon see whether he intends to offer us a royal gift or a mere pittance. If he do not fulfill our hopes, it will then be time to speak determinedly for justice. But we shall begin openly, we shall speak to him like honest men, and not like sly, revengeful slaves. All of us who have at heart the prosperity and the freedom of the nation will meet and march to Prague to speak personally to the authorities and help to achieve the amelioration of our laws. From there we shall go to the Emperor that he may hear from the lips of the people what they need and desire. In Prague we will say to the masters: ‘Lords, keep your palaces, your estates; we do not covet earthly luxuries and wealth; we ask no more of you than to let us follow our way to God, speak to Him and to our fellow-men in our own tongue, and spend our lives in peace and industry. In return for our willingness to take all your work upon our shoulders and leave you to your pleasures, allow us to live in mental freedom, to enjoy justice and our rights as men, and in that way to become the strongest pillars of our country.’”
Andrew embraced the harper, and the rest warmly pressed his hand. Said the old man:
“It is not necessary for me to tell you that your advice is accepted; you see it in our pleased faces. When the time comes for action you will notify and advise us further. Andrew has said that you want to live among us and support yourself with work. Our Union shall be your home, and to ennoble its spirit, your work. I name you Brother-Assistant; you have the gift of speech; hearts will easily and gladly yield to your words. Your task will be to travel from one settlement to another, to strengthen the hopeless, to soothe the impatient, and to spread your ideas; in that way you will prepare our people for the task awaiting them, to demand justice for themselves. I believe I met you in the woods a short time ago, with a harp on your shoulder. Make it again your companion. Hearts not susceptible to earnest words will unconsciously open before the sweet sounds of music. Let the harp be not only your companion, but make it also your shield. If any meddlesome person inquire about the aim of your journeys, say that you are a traveling musician. If you like my offer, which undoubtedly expresses the sentiment of the whole community, follow me to my dwelling this evening, and accept it always as your home. I have no son, and if you will bea son to me, gladly as a father I shall bless you, and to-morrow, at the dawn of day, will prepare you for your pilgrimage.”