Matthias Ehrenhardt stared in shock at the smoldering embers, the soot-blackened stone half-wall, and the emptiness. The villagers had stopped the fire from spreading to any of the other houses, but his own, and his parents, and everything they owned but the clothes he stood in and the schoolbook in his hand were gone.
Old Jonas Metzel laid his hand on Matthias' shoulder, trying to offer what comfort he could. "I'm so sorry, boy. Why these things happen . . . but even if you had been here, there was nothing you could have done. Before any of us even knew there was a fire, the whole inside was filled with flame. I think they must have both died before we even knew."
Matthias could find no words. Herr Metzel went on, "Perhaps Pastor Kleinke will know better what to say. But now you have your life to live. You can stay with my Barbara and me for a few days, while we think what is to be done. We can at least offer you a place to sleep, as Christ teaches us to show compassion to those in their time of need."
HenschlebenTwo weeks later
With so little to carry, the one-mile walk from Vehra had been easy enough, even for a skinny fifteen-year-old. But for all the times Matthias had come here for lessons or church services, today was anything but ordinary. Today he wasn't going back. He was leaving aboard a freight wagon.
His eyes kept straying to the church, where they'd held the funeral. Herr Metzel squeezed his shoulder again. "I know it's hard, but it's the right decision, Matthias. If you stayed, what kind of an apprenticeship could you find, with no money to hand but the few coins dug out of the ashes? Yes, go to your aunt in Eisenach, and you can finish your schooling, and have time to turn your inheritance rights to something you can use. Remember us, and remember what Pastor Kleinke teaches us about good works, but go." His voice lowered. "I could only wish the rest of the world was like our Heimat."
Matthias looked reflexively back over his shoulder toward Vehra. It felt like his heart shrank in his chest at the thought—the Heimat, the place he'd grown up, the one place he was truly at home. "Could there be any place like it?"
Herr Metzel must have seen his face. "Perhaps not. But remember that your Aunt Grete is at least one of us. Where she is, there is a bit of our Heimat."
Some of his schoolmates had gathered in the street to see him off, shaking his hand, or wishing him good fortune. Dora Hammelin, the village smith's daughter, edged in through the press with a sheathed knife in her hand. "Here, I made this for you, Matthias. A man needs a good knife." She slid it halfway out, to show a gracefully shaped blade and a through-riveted hardwood handle with a checkered grip.
"You did? Thank you, Dora, it's beautiful. I wouldn't have expected such a gift."
"After all our times together? You've always been good to me, helping me with my lessons. Nobody else would have given me any Latin at all." She held his hands in hers for a few moments. "Will we see you again?"
"Yes, Uncle Berthold writes that we'll need to return several times, before my inheritance is all settled." He squeezed her hands. "I would like very much to see you again."
Plodding hooves sounded in the distance.
HenschlebenLate summer, 1634
Once again Sunday had come, and once again Dora's father was waylaid on business as they left church. Dora smiled to herself. Isn't it always that way? But that's all right. A little time for one or two extra touches, before I pop the cake into the oven. Maybe if I slice one of the pears this way, and arrange the pieces around the edge . . . She really wanted something at least a little special for Matthias' visit; it was so seldom they saw him the last few years. It was too bad Mama wasn't back from visiting with her older sister Mathilde in Straussfurt yet, but with any luck she'd be home in time. Dora hummed happily to herself, with half an ear for the birds twittering outside the open window.
That came to a sudden stop in a burst of raised voices. It was the last thing she expected to hear. She put down the pear she'd been peeling and hurried to the doorway, with the knife still in her hand.
"You astonish me, Matthias Ehrenhardt! I thought you had better sense. I would never have expected this from you!"
She put one hand on the door frame, as she turned to look at the two of them wide-eyed. "Papa, what is it?"
Her father glared at Matthias, petrifying him into silence for the moment. "Matthias has just delivered the news that he proposes to forget all about finishing at the university and going on to study law, and instead devote himself to alchemy at this new school nobody's ever heard of!"
Matthias got his tongue back. "For heaven's sake, Herr Hammel, chemical engineering, not alchemy! I've enrolled at the Imperial College of Science, Engineering, and Technology. Uncle Berthold himself agrees that it's the opportunity of a lifetime. The possibilities are breathtaking!"
Dora started down the stairs. "Matthias”•" Her apron snagged on the door handle and threw her off balance. With four uneven steps down to the kitchen garden, no hand rail, and nothing for her foot to come down on, she pitched forward.
Matthias moved like lightning to get under her. He got there, but there was no time left to get his feet placed properly. Down he went in the wet dirt, with Dora on top of him. She remembered the knife at the last moment and tried to throw it aside.
Papa rushed in to pull her off Matthias and onto her feet. While she was still straightening up, he swung back to Matthias and seized him by the left arm, rolling him forward. "Careful, there! You don't want dirt to get into that cut. Dora, is there boiling water?"
"B . . . ?" She caught sight of the blood on Matthias' arm. "Oh! You're hurt! I- I'll build up the fire right away. We'll need some clean rags. I know we have some." She started back up the stairs, with one hand clutching her bruised shin.
"Good. This young paladin”•" Papa gestured with his thumb. "”•has been wounded in your service, and it's our Christian duty to tend to him. Come inside, Matthias." He gave him a thin smile. "These other matters can wait, but we must speak of them afterward."
"I'm sorry, Matthias, but this is likely to sting." By now Thomas Hammel's hands and Matthias' arm were well washed with boiled water and soap. Thomas took the steaming linen rag his daughter was holding on the end of a fork, dripped a little red wine on it, and wiped the skin around the cut, and the cut itself, as gently as he could. Matthias hissed; Thomas frowned in sympathy. There were better disinfectants, but this was what they had in the house, and the first aid pamphlet said the most important thing in cleaning a wound was promptness. Fortunately, this one wasn't deep or long, and if they could keep it from becoming infected, there should be nothing but a small scar.
"Good, the bandage now." Dora fished another small linen rag out of the bubbling pot. Thomas took it, waved it in the air for a few seconds to cool it, folded it into a pad, and started to place it over the cut.
"Papa, the honey. Here!" Dora was holding out the little blue crock to him.
Thomas blinked, then he remembered. The pamphlet had said honey was a good aid to healing. Again, there were better things nowadays, but at least they had this. He spread a few drops on the bandage and set it in place. "Here, Matthias, hold this."
Dora pulled out a long strip from the pot. Thomas cooled it in the air, carefully wound it around Matthias' arm and the linen pad, and tied it off. He went to rummage through his chest for something the young man could wear for the moment. Meanwhile, he considered his words.
Dora got the blood out of the shirt easily enough with cold water, and left it to soak along with her own soiled clothing so the dirt wouldn't set while she finished getting the cake ready to bake. Washing and mending could wait for a little while.
Papa wasn't shouting any more, but he was looking across the table at Matthias with a serious air. It made her nervous. What was this all about? Finally he spoke. "Matthias, the time has come for some very plain speaking. Your virtues are undeniable, as you've proven once again. But. This is no fairy tale, Dora isn't some magical princess, and for certain I'm no kinglet with honors and positions to give out to whoever I favor.
"We've always thought that one day you and Dora would wish to marry, yes? It's never been said in so many words, but this has been in the air?"
"Yes, Herr Hammel, now that you say so. I've never put it into words, but yes, I would wish that very much."
"Yes, Papa! That would be . . . Yes."
Papa nodded, twice, slowly. "As I thought. And I have always thought that with an education in the law there would never be any doubt that you could carry a man's duty to earn a living and provide for a family. At least, with as much certainty as God ever grants us in this world. But now? The last thing I heard you say was that you are not just proposing to leave the university and enter this new and untried school, chartered by a new and untried emperor, you have already done it?
"Look at me, Matthias. Here I am fifty-three years old, as skilled a smith as there is, and still not a master with my own shop in a good town, because no town had a place open that they didn't fill up with one of their own. Well, finally, by good fortune Count August has need of a smith at this new flax mill of his in Sömmerda, so at least I am to be an Adelmeister as soon as we can pack up and move there, and not live on the dregs of little jobs in the villages any more.
"But I want something better for Dora. When she marries, it must be to a man of proven ability to make a good living. I never doubted that you would, until now."
"You doubt me now? You know me. We've known each other always."
"We knew you until the bad times came, and you had to go live with your aunt's family off in Eisenach. But you were younger then. Do we know you now? How well? And this thing you now intend to study . . ."
"Chemical engineering, Herr Hammel . . ."
"We do not know at all. Perhaps it will bring you success. Perhaps. We may pray that it does." His fingers tapped a few times on the table. "I do know that you're intelligent, honorable, and kind. That, at least, has never changed." He paused again. Dora's eyes were flicking back and forth between them. "That is worth a great deal. My daughter would accept no less, and neither would I." He took a deep breath and let it out. "But I am a father, and I have my responsibilities. If you are determined to follow this uncertain course of action to an unknowable outcome, I must not consent to a betrothal until you prove yourself in the world. You understand me?"
"Yes, Herr Hammel. Of course. My love for Dora is the greatest part of why I do this! I can finish this curriculum and begin earning a living years sooner. I promise you”•"
"Stop right there. You are in no position to promise anything, except that you will try your hardest."
Dora looked into Matthias' eyes, and reached across to touch his arm with her fingertips for just a moment. "I don't know what to say, Matthias. Explain all this to us, will you? Can you? I need to understand what this trade is, what it means. But I will pray for your success, until we can be together."
A hint of iron crept into her father's voice. "No promises from you either, daughter. I, too, wish for this young man's success. How could I not? But not all wishes come true, and some of life's lessons come the hard way. Remember that, both of you." His expression softened. "But nothing has to be decided now, nothing can be. It will be years yet before either of you can afford to marry. And now, maybe, we can talk of lighter things. You've grown up well, you look straight and strong for a scholar. How have your aunt and uncle been?"
"All right, Herr Ehrenhardt?"
Matthias finished manhandling his trunk up the river bank. "Yes, thank you, I've got it now."
"Good journey, then. Maybe we'll meet again some time." The boatman waved and pushed off.
Matthias knelt to get his arms through the straps, and carefully stood up under the load. The sun was halfway down the sky as he started the short walk into Schallenburg, still turning over in his mind everything that had happened the day before. It had been such a pleasure to come home for a few days and see all his relations around Vehra again, but the things Dora's father had said”•
One last visit tonight, before he began the long trip down-river in the morning, all the way to Magdeburg”•just time enough to catch up with his old friend Benno Balsch and his parents.
It was too bad Benno's brothers couldn't be there too, but they were apprenticed too far away to make it home very often. But Benno himself was to stay and work the family's land; that was the plan. Well, they'd have the whole evening to tell stories.
Something wasn't right, though. It was too quiet. Nobody was in sight. Nothing was moving in the street but a couple of cats. Then the church bell rang, and people started to come out. One look at the way they walked, and Matthias knew. He hurried toward them.
He and Benno saw each other at almost the same moment. "Who is it, Benno?"
"Sibylla Rudigerin. And her baby."
Matthias' face must have gone blank, while he tried to think who that might be.
"You never met her. Reimar's wife. It was terrible. The midwife tried everything she could think of, and couldn't get the baby out. It's good to see you, but this is a sad time you've walked into."
"Yes, yes, I'd better go see him and offer my condolences."
"Tomorrow would be better, I think. It's too much for him right now. Look, here come Papa and Mama. No, they're stopping to talk with some neighbors. Come on, we'll find you something to put in your stomach and then we can sit outside and talk. Have you made any more new songs?"