Black Magic, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 11

The Witch

In a back street of the city of Frankfort stood an old one-storied house, placed a little apart from the others, and surrounded by a beautiful garden.

Here lived Nathalie, a woman more than suspected of being a witch, but of such outward quiet and secretive ways that there never had been the slightest excuse for even those most convinced of her real character to interfere with her.

She was from the East — Syria, Egypt or Persia; no one could remember her first coming to Frankfort, nor how she had become possessed of the house where she dwelt; her means of livelihood were also a mystery. It was guessed that she made complexion washes and dyes supplied secretly to the great court ladies; it was believed that she sold love potions, perhaps worse; it was known that in some way she made money, for though generally clothed in rags, she had been seen wearing very splendid garments and rich jewels.

Also, it was rumoured by those living near that strange sounds of revelry had on occasion arisen from her high-walled garden, as if a great banquet were given, and dark-robed guests had been seen to enter her narrow door.

That garden was empty now and a great stillness lay over the witch’s house; the hot midsummer sun glowed in the rose bushes that surrounded it; red roses all of them, and large and beautiful.

The windows of the great room at the back of the house had their shutters closed so that only a few squares of light fell through the lattice-work, and the room was in shadow.

It was a barely furnished chamber, with an open tiled hearth on which stood a number of bronze and copper bowls and drinking vessels. In the low window-seat were cushions of rich Eastern embroidery, hanging on the walls, hideous distorted masks made of wood and painted fantastically, some short curved swords, and a parchment calendar.

Before this stood Dirk, marking with a red pencil a day in the row of dates.

This done he stepped back, stared at the calendar and frowned, sucking the red pencil.

He was attired in a grave suit of black, and wearing a sober cap that almost concealed his hair; he held himself very erect, and the firm set of his mouth emphasised the prominent jaw and chin.

As he stood there, deep in thought, Theirry entered, nodded at him and crossed to the window; he also was dressed in dull straight garments, but they could not obscure the glowing brown beauty of his face.

Dirk looked at him with eyes that sparkled affection.

“I am making a name in Frankfort,” he said.

“Ay,” answered Theirry, not returning his glance. “I have heard you spoken of by those who have attended your lectures — they said your doctrines touched infidelity.”

“Nevertheless they come,” smiled Dirk. “I do not play for a safe reputation . . . otherwise should I be here? — living in a place of evil name?”

“I do not think,” replied Theirry, “that any go so far as to guess the real nature of your studies, nor what it is you pursue.” And he also smiled, but grimly.

“Every man in Frankfort is not priest-beridden,” said Dirk quickly. “They would not meddle with me just because I do not preach the laws of the Church. I teach my scholars rhetoric, logic and philosophy . . . they are well pleased.”

“I have heard it,” answered Theirry, looking out of the window at the red roses dazzling in the sunshine; Dirk could not guess how it rankled with his friend that he obtained no pupils, that no one cared to listen to his teaching; that while Dirk was becoming famous as the professor of rhetoric at Frankfort college, he remained utterly unknown.

“To-day I disclosed to them Procopius,” said Dirk, “and propounded a hundred proposition out of Priscianus — should improve their Latin — there were some nobles from the Court. One submitted that my teaching was heretical — asked if I was a Gnostic or an Arian — aaid I should be condemned by the Council of Saragossa — as Avila was, and for as good reasons . . . ”

“Meanwhile . . . ”

Dirk interrupted.

“Meanwhile — we know almost all the wise woman can teach us, and are on the eve of great power . . . ”

Theirry pushed wider the shutters so that the strong sunlight fell over the knee of his dark gown.

“You perhaps,” he said heavily. “Not I— the spirits will not listen to me . . . only with great difficulty can I compel them . . . well I wot that I am bound to evil, but I wot also that it doth little for me.”

At this complaint a look of apprehension came into Dirk’s eyes.

“My fortune is your fortune,” he said.

“Nay,” answered Theirry, half fiercely, “it is not . . . you have been successful . . . so have not I . . . old Nathalie loves you — she cares nothing for me — you have already a name in Frankfort — I have none, nor money either . . . Saint Ambrose’s gold is gone, and I live on your charity.”

While he was speaking Dirk gazed at him with a strengthening expression of trouble and dismay; with large distracted eyes full of tenderness, while his cheeks paled and his mouth quivered.

“No — no.” He spoke in protest, but his distress was too deep and too genuine to allow of much speech.

“I am going away from here,” said Theirry firmly.

Dirk gasped as if he had been wounded.

“From Frankfort?” he ejaculated.

“Nay . . . from this place.”

There was a little silence while the last traces of light and colour seemed to be drained from Dirk’s face.

“You do not mean that,” he said at length. “After we have been . . . Oh, after all of it — you cannot mean . . . ”

Theirry turned and faced the room.

“You need not fear that I shall break the bond that unites us,” he cried. “I have gone too far yea, and still I hope to attain by the Devil’s aid my desires. But I will not stay here.” “Where will you go?”

Theirry’s hazel eyes again sought the crimson roses in the witch’s garden.

“To-day as I wandered outside the walls I met a hawking party. Jacobea of Martzburg was among them.”

“They had been in Frankfort many weeks, and so had she, yet this was the first time that he had mentioned her name.”

“Oh!” cried Dirk.

“She knew me,” continued Theirry; “and spoke to me. She asked, out of her graciousness, if I had aught to do in Frankfort . . . thinking, I wot, I looked not like it.” He blushed and smiled. “Then she offered me a post at Court. Her cousin is Chamberlain to the Queen — nay, Empress, I should say — and he will take me as his secretary. I shall accept.”

Dirk was miserably, hopelessly silent; all the radiance, the triumph that had adorned him when Theirry eutered were utterly quenched; he stood like one under the lash, with agonised eyes. “Are you not glad?” asked Theirry, with a swell in his voice. “I shall be near her . . . ” “Is that a vast consideration?” said Dirk faintly. “That you should be near her?”

“Did you think that I had forgotten her because I spoke not?” answered Theirry. “Also there are chances that by your arts I may strengthen —”

Through the heavy golden shadows of the room Dirk moved slowly towards the window where Theirry stood.

“I shall lose you,” he said.

Theirry was half startled by the note in his voice.

“Nay . . . shall I not come here . . . often? Are you not my comrade?”

“So you speak,” answered Dirk, his brow drawn, his lips pale even for one of his pallor. “But you leave me . . . You choose another path from mine.” He wrung his frail hands together. “I had not thought of this.”

“It need not grieve you that I go,” answered Theirry, half sullen, half wondering. “I wot I am pledged deeply enough to thy Master.” His eyes flashed wildly. “Is there not sin on my soul? —— Have I not awakened in the night to see Saint Ambrose smile at me? Am I not outside the Church and in league with Hell?”

“Hush! hush!” warned Dirk.

Theirry flung himself into the window-seat, his elbows on his knees, his palms pressed into his cheeks; the sunlight fell through the open window behind him and shone richly in his dark brown hair.

Dirk leant against the wall and stared down at him; in his poor pale face were yearning and tenderness beyond expression.

At last Theirry rose and turned to the door.

“Are you going?” questioned Dirk fearfully.

“Yea.”

Dirk braced himself.

“Do not go,” he said. “There is everything before us if we stay together . . . if you . . . ” His words choked him, and he was silent.

“All your reasoning cannot stay me,” answered Theirry, his hand on the door. “She smiled at me and I saw her yellow hair . . . and I am stifled here and useless.”

He opened the door and went out.

Dirk sank on the brilliant gold cushions and twisted his fingers together; through the half-closed shutters he could see that marvellous blaze of red roses and their sharp green leaves, the garden wall and the blue August sky; he could hear a bird singing, far away and pleasantly, and after a while he heard Theirry sing, too, as he moved about in an upper chamber. Dirk had not known him sing before, and now, as the little wordless song fell on his cars, he winced and writhed.

“He sings because he is going away.”

He sprang up and crossed to the calendar; a year ago today he and Theirry had first met; he had marked the day with red — and now —

Presently Theirry entered again; he was no longer singing, and he had his things in a bundle on his back.

“I will come tomorrow and take leave of Nathalie,” he said; “or perhaps this evening. But I must see the Chamberlain now.”

Dirk nodded; he was still standing by the calendar, and for the second time Theirry passed out. “Oh! oh!” whispered Dirk. “He is gone — gone —— gone — gone.”

He remained motionless, picturing the Court Theirry would join, picturing Jacobea of Martzburg; the other influences that would be brought to bear on his companion —

Then he crept to the window and pushed the shutter wide, so that half the dark room was flooded with gold.

The great burning roses nodded in unison, heavy bees humming among them. Dirk leant from the window and flung out his arms with sudden passion.

“Satan! Satan!” he shrieked. “Give him back to me! Everything else you have promised me for that! Do you hear me! Satan! Satan!”

His voice died away in a great sob; he rested his throbbing head against the hot mullions and put his hand over his eyes; red of the roses and gold of the sunshine of the Eastern cushions blended in one before him; he sank back into the window-seat, and beard some one speak his name.

Lifting his sick gaze, he saw the witch standing in the centre of the floor, looking at him.

Dirk gave a great sigh, hunched up his shoulders, and smoothed his cuffs; then he said, very quietly, looking sideways at the witch —

“Theirry has gone.”

Nathalie, the witch, seated herself on a little stool that was all inlaid with mother-o’-pearl, folded her hands in her lap and smiled.

She was not an old nor an ugly woman, but of a pale, insignificant appearance, with shining, blank-looking eyes set in wrinkles, a narrow face and dull black hair, threaded now with flat gold coins; she stooped a little, and had marvellously delicate hands.

“I knew he would go,” she answered in a small voice.

“With scant farewell, with little excuse, with small preparation, with no regret, he has gone,” said Dirk. “To the Court — at the bidding of a lady. You know her, for I have spoken of our meeting with her when we were driven forth from Basle.” He closed his eyes, as if he made a great effort at control. “I think he is on the verge of loving her.” He unclosed his eyes, full, blazing. “This must be prevented.”

The witch shook her head.

“If you are wise, let him go.” She fixed her glimmering glance on Dirk’s smooth pale face. “He is neither good nor evil; his heart sayeth one thing, his passions another — let him go. His courage is not equal to his desires. He would be great — by any means — yet he is afraid — let him go. He thinks to serve the Devil while it lurks still in his heart: ‘At last I will repent — in time I will repent!’— let him go. He will never be great, or even successful, for he is confused in his aims, hesitating, passionate and changeable; therefore, you who can have the world —— let him go.”

“All this I know,” answered Dirk, his fingers clutching the gold cushions. “But I want him back.”

“He will come. He has gone too far to stay away.”

“I want him to return for ever,” cried Dirk. “He is my comrade — he must be with me always —— he must have none in his thoughts save me.”

Nathalie frowned.

“This is folly. The day you came here to me with words of Master Lukas, I saw that you were to be everything — he nothing; I saw that the world would ring with your name, and that he would die unknown.” She rose vehemently. “I say, let him go! He will be but a clog, a drag on your progress. He is jealous of you; he is not over skilful . . . what can you say for him save that he is pleasant to gaze upon?”

Dirk slipped from the cushions and walked slowly up and down the room; a slow, beautiful smile rested on his lips, and his eyes were gentle.

“What can I say for him? ’Tis said in three words — I love him.”

He folded his arms on his breast, and lifted his head.

“How little you know of me, Nathalie! Though you have taught me all your wisdom, what do you know of me save that I was Master Lukas’s apprentice boy?”

“Ye came from mystery — as you should come,” smiled the witch.

And now Dirk seemed to smile through agony.

“It is a mystery — methinks to tell it would be to be blasted as I stand; it seems so long ago — so strange — so horrible . . . well, well!”— he put his hand to his forehead and took a turn about the room —“as I sat in Master Lukas’s empty house, painting, carving, reading forbidden books, I was not afraid; it seemed to me I had no soul . . . so why fear for that which was lost before I was born? ‘The Devil has put me here,’ said I, ‘and I will serve him . . . he shall make me his archetype on earth . . . and I waited for his signal to bid me forth. Men talked of Antichrist! What if I am he?’ . . . so I thought.”

“And so you shall be,” breathed the witch.

Dirk’s great eyes glowed above his smiling lips.

“Could any but a demon have such thoughts? . . . then Theirry came, and I saw in his face that he did what I did — knew what I knew; and — and”— his voice faltered —“I mind me how I went and watched him as he slept — and then I thought after all I was no demon, for I was aware that I loved him. I had terrible thoughts — if I love, I have a soul, and if I have a soul it is damned — but he shall go with me —— if I came from hell I shall return to hell, and he shall go with me — if I am damned, he shall be damned and go hand in hand with me into the pit!”

The smile faded from his face, and an intense, ardent expression took its place; he seemed almost in an ecstasy.

“She may make fight with me for his soul — if he love her she might draw him to heaven — with her yellow hair! Did I not long for yellow locks when I saw my bridal? . . . I have forgotten what I spoke of — I would say that she does not love him . . . ”

“Yet she may,” said the witch; “for he is gay and beautiful.”

Dirk slowly turned his darkening eyes on Nathalie.

“She must not.”

The witch fondled her fingers.

“We can control many things — not love nor hate.”

Dirk pressed a swelling bosom.

“Her heart is in the hand of another man — and that man is her steward, ambitious, poor and married.”

He came up to the witch, and, slight as he was, beside the withered Eastern woman, he appeared marvellously fresh, glowing, and even splendid.

“Do you understand me?” he said.

The witch blinked her shining eyes. “I understand that there is little need of witchcraft or of black magic here.”

“No,” said Dirk. “Her own love shall be her poison . . . she herself shall give him back to me.”

Nathalie moved, the little coins shaking in her hair. “Dirk, Dirk, why do you make such a point of this man’s return?” she said, between reproach and yearning. She fondled the cold, passive and smiling youth with her tiny hands. “You are going to be great;” she mouthed the words greedily. “I may never have done much, but you have the key to many things. You will have the world for your footstool yet — let him go.”

Dirk still smiled.

“No,” he answered quietly.

The witch shrugged her shoulders and turned away.

“After all,” she said in a half whine, “I am only the servant now. You know words that can compel me and all my kind to obey you. So let it be; bring your Theirry back.”

Dirk’s smile deepened.

“I shall not ask your aid. Alone I can manage this matter. Ay, even if it jeopardise my chance of greatness, I will have my comrade back.”

“It will not be difficult,” nodded the witch. “A silly maid’s influence against thine!” she laughed.

“There is another will seek to detain him at the Court,” said Dirk reflectively. “His old-time friend, the Margrave’s son, Balthasar of Courtrai, who shines about the Emperor. I saw him not long ago — he also is my enemy.”

“Well, the Devil will play them all into thy hands,” smiled the witch.

Dirk turned an absent look on her and she crept away.

It grew to the hour of sunset; the red light of it trembled marvellously in the red roses and filled the low, dark chamber with a sombre crimson glow.

Dirk stood by the window biting his forefinger, revolving schemes in which Jacobea, her steward, Sybilla and Theirry were to be entangled as flies in a web; desperate devilry and despairing human love mingled grotesquely, giving rise to thoughts dark and hideous.

The clear peal of a bell roused him, and he started with remembrances of when last this sound through an empty house had broken on his thoughts — of how he had gone and found Theirry without his door.

Then he left the room and sought the witch; she had disappeared; he did not doubt that the summons was for her; not infrequently did she have hasty and secret visitors, but as she came not he crossed the dark passage and himself opened the door on to the slip of garden that divided the house from the cobbled street — opened it on a woman in a green hood and mantle, who stood well within the shadow of the porch.

“Whom would you see?” he asked cautiously.

The stranger answered in a low voice.

“You. Are you not the young doctor who lectures publicly on — many things? Constantine they call you.

“Yea,” said Dirk; “I am he.”

“I heard you today. I would speak to you.”

She wore a mask that as completely concealed her face as her cloak concealed her figure. Dirk’s keen eyes could discover nothing of her person.

“Let me in,” she said in an insistent, yet anxious voice.

Dirk held the door wide, and she stepped into the passage, breathing quickly.

“Follow after me,” smiled Dirk; he decided that the lady was Jacobea of Martzburg.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32