Black Magic, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 17

The Murder

“Balthasar,” said the Emperor, in pity of his friend’s sullen face, “I will send ye to Rome to make treaty with the Pope since it goes so heavily with you to stay in Frankfort.”

The Margrave bit the ends of his yellow hair and made no answer.

The Empress half hay along the seat against the wall. She wore a white and silver gown; on the cushion, where her elbow rested to support her head, lay a great cluster of crimson roses.

On low stools near her sat her maidens sewing, three of them embroidering between them a strip of scarlet silk.

It was the dining hall, the table laid already with rudely magnificent covers; through the low windows, from which the tapestry was looped back, was to be seen a red sunset sky flaming over Frankfort.

“Nay, be pleasant with me,” smiled the Emperor; he laid his arm affectionately round the Margrave’s huge shoulders. “Certes, since I took this resolution not to go to Rome, I have nought but sour looks from all, save Hugh.”

Balthasar’s good-humoured face cleared.

“Ye are wrong, my Prince; but God wot, I am not angered — we can manage without Rome”—— he heroically stifled his sigh —“and who knows that ye may not change yet?” he added cheerfully. Ysabeau looked at them as they paced up and down, their arms about each other, the golden locks and the black almost touching, the gorgeous purple and red habit of the Margrave against the quiet black garments of the Emperor.

She yawned as she looked, but her eyes were very bright; slowly she rose and stretched her slender body while the red roses fell softly to the ground, but she took no heed of them, fixing her gaze on the two men; her husband seemed not to know of her presence, but the Margrave was hotly conscious of her eyes upon him, and though he would not turn his upon her, nevertheless, she marked it and, in a half-smiling way, came and leant on the table that divided them.

The sunset flashed final beams that fell in flushing rosy lines on the gold and silver goblets and dishes, struck the Empress’s embroideries into points of vivid light, and shone marvellously through Balthasar’s brilliant locks.

“Surely we are late to-night,” said the Emperor.

“Yea,” answered Balthasar; “I do not love to wait.”

He stopped to pour himself a tankard of amber wine and drank it at a draught.

Ysabeau watched him, then snatched up the fallen roses and laid them on the cloth.

“Will not my lord also drink?” she asked; the fingers of her right hand were hidden in the red flowers, with her left she raised a chased flagon in which the sunlight burnt and sparkled. “As you please, Princess,” answered Melchoir, and gazed towards the light indifferently. “Ye might have poured for me,” murmured the Margrave in a half voice.

Her hand came from the roses and touched a horn glass bound with silver, it lingered there a moment, then rose to her bosom; Balthasar, absorbing her face, did not notice the gesture.

“Another time,” she answered, “I will serve you, Balthasar of Courtrai.” She filled the glass until the wine bubbled at the brim. “Give it to my lord,” she said.

Balthasar laughed uneasily; their fingers touched upon the glass, and a few drops were spilled. “Take care!” cried the Empress.

Melchoir turned and took the goblet.

“Why did you say — take care?” he asked.

“Between us we upset the wine,” said Ysabeau.

Melchoir drank.

“It has an ugly taste,” he said.

She laughed.

“Is it the cupbearer, perchance?”

“The wine is good enough,” put in Balthasar.

The Emperor drank again, then set it down.

“I say it is strange — taste it, Balthasar.”

In an instant the Empress intervened.

“Nay”— she caught up the glass with a movement swifter than the Margrave’s —“since I poured, the fault — if fault there be-is mine.”

“Give it to me!” cried Balthasar.

But she made a quick motion aside, the glass slipped from her fingers and the wine was lost on the floor.

As Balthasar stooped to pick up the goblet, the Emperor smiled.

“I warn you of that flagon, Margrave.”

The pages and varlets entered with the meats and set them on the table; they who sat at the Emperor’s board came to take their places; Theirry followed his master and fixed quick eyes on the Emperor.

He knew that Melchoir had been abroad all day at the hunt and could not have long returned, hardly could their designs upon him be put in practice tonight; after the supper he meant to speak to Hugh of Rooselaare, this as an earnest of his final severance with Dirk.

As the beautiful shining crowd settled to their seats, the young secretary, whose place was behind his master’s chair, took occasion to note carefully the lord who was to receive his warning.

The candles, hanging in their copper circlets, were lit, and the ruddy light shone over the company, while bright pages drew the curtains over the last sunset glow.

Theirry marked the Empress, sitting languorously and stripping a red rose of its petals; Melchoir, austere, composed, as always; Balthasar, gay and noisy; then he turned his gaze on Hugh of Rooselaare.

That noble sat close to the Emperor. Theirry had not, so far, studied his personal appearance though acquainted with his reputation; observing him intently he saw a tall, well-made man dressed with sombre elegance, a man with a strong, rather curious face framed in straight, dull brown hair.

There was something in the turn of the features, the prominent chin, dark, clear eyes, pale complexion and resolute set of the mouth that gradually teased Theirry as he gazed; the whole expression reminded him of another face, seen under different circumstances, whose he could not determine.

Suddenly the Lord of Rooselaare, becoming aware of this scrutiny, turned his singularly intent eyes in the direction of the young scholar.

At once Theirry had it, he placed the likeness. In this manner had Dirk Renswoude often looked at him.

The resemblance was unmistakable if elusive; this man’s face was of necessity sterner, darker, older and more set; he was of larger make, moreover, than Dirk could ever be, his nose was heavier, his jaw more square, yet the likeness, once noticed, could not be again overlooked.

It strangely discomposed Theirry, he felt he could not take his warning to one who had Dirk’s trick of the intense gaze and inscrutable set of the lips; he considered if there were not some one else — let him go straightway, he thought, to the Emperor himself.

His reflections were interrupted by a little movement near the table, a pause in the converse. All eyes were turned to Melchoir of Brabant.

He leant back in his seat and stared before him as if he saw a sight of horror at the other end of the table; he was quite pale, his mouth open, his lips strained and purplish.

The Empress sprang up from beside him and caught his arm.

“Melchoir!” she shrieked. “Jesu, he does not bear me!”

Bahthasar rose in his place.

“My lord,” he said hoarsely, “Melchoir.”

The Emperor moved faintly like one struggling hopelessly under water.

“Melchoir!”— the Margrave pushed back his chair and seized his friend’s cold hand —“do you not hear us . . . will you not speak?”

“Balthasar”— the Emperor’s voice came as if from depths of distance — “I am bewitched!” Ysabeau shrieked and beat her hands together.

Melchoir sank forward, while his face glistened with drops of agony; he gave a low crying sound and fell across the table.

With an instantaneous movement of fright and horror, the company rose from their seats and pressed towards the Emperor.

But the Margrave shouted at them —

“Stand back — would you stifle him? — he is not dead, nor, God be thanked, dying.”

He lifted up the unconscious man and gazed eagerly into his face, as he did so his own blanched despite his brave words; Melchoir’s eyes and cheeks had fallen hollow, a ghastly hue overspread his features, his jaw dropped and his lips were cracked, as if his breath burnt the blood.

The Empress shrieked again and again and wrung her hands; no one took any heed of her, she was that manner of woman.

Attendants, with torches and snatched-up candles, white, breathless ladies and eager men, pressed close about the Emperor’s seat.

“We must take him hence,” said Hugh of Rooselaare, with authority. “Help me, Margrave.” He forced his way to Balthasar’s side.

The Empress had fallen to her husband’s feet, a gleam of white and silver against the dark trappings of the throne.

“What shall I do!” she moaned. “What shall I do!”

The Lord of Rooselaare glanced at her fiercely.

“Cease to whine and bring hither a physician and a priest,” he commanded.

Ysabeau crouched away from him and her purple eyes blazed.

The Margrave and Hugh lifted the Emperor between them; there was a swaying confusion as chair and seats were pulled out, lights swung higher, and a passage forced through the bewildered crowd for the two nobles and their burden.

Some flung open the door of the winding stairway that ascended to the Emperor’s bedchamber, and slowly, with difficulty, Melchoir of Brabant was borne up the narrow steps.

Ysabeau rose to her feet and watched it; Balthasar’s gorgeous attire flashing in the torchlight, Hugh of Rooselaare’s stern pale face, her husband’s slack body and trailing white hands, the eager group that pressed about the foot of the stairs.

She put her hands on her bosom and considered a moment, then ran across the room and followed swiftly after the cumbrous procession.

It was now a quarter of an hour since the Emperor had fainted, and the hall was left — empty. Only Theirry remained, staring about him with sick eyes.

A flaring flambeau stuck against the wall cast a strong light over the disarranged table, the disordered seats, scattered cushions and the rich array of gold vessels; from without came sounds of hurrying to and fro, shouted commands, voices rising and falling, the clink of arms, the closing of doors.

Theirry crossed to the Emperor’s seat where the gorgeous cushions were thrown to right and left; in Ysabeau’s place lay a single red rose, half stripped of its leaves, a great cluster of red roses on the floor beside it.

This was confirmation; he did not think there was any other place in Frankfort where grew such blooms; so he was too late, Dirk might well defy him, knowing that he would be too late.

His resolution was very quickly taken: he would be utterly silent, not by a word or a look would he betray what he knew, since it would be useless. What could save the Emperor now? It was one thing to give warning of evil projected, another to reveal evil performed; besides, he told himself, the Empress and her faction would be at once in power — Dirk a high favourite.

He backed fearfully from the red roses, glowing sombrely by the empty throne.

He would be very silent, because he was afraid; softly he crept to the window-seat and stood there, motionless, his beautiful face overclouded; in an agitated manner he bit his lip and reflected eagerly on his own hopes and dangers . . . on how this affected him — and Jacobea of Martzburg.

To the man, dying miserably above, he gave no thought at all; the woman, who waited impatiently for her husband’s death to put his friend in his place, he did not consider, nor did the fate of the kingship trouble him; he pictured Dirk as triumphant, potent, the close ally of the wicked Empress, and he shivered for his own treasured soul that he had just snatched from perdition; he knew he could not fight nor face Dirk triumphant, armed with success, and his outlook narrowed to the one idea —“let me get away.”

“But where? Martzburg!”— would the chatelaine let him follow her? It was too near Basle; he clasped his hands over his hot brow, calling on Jacobea.

As he dallied and trembled with his fears and terrors, one entered the hall from the little door leading to the Emperor’s chamber.

Hugh of Rooselaare holding a lamp.

A feverish feeling of guilt made Theirry draw back, as if what he knew might be written on his face for this man to read, this man whom he had meant to warn of a disaster already befallen.

The Lord of Rooselaare advanced to the table; he was frowning fiercely, about his mouth a dreadful look of Dirk that fascinated Theirry’s gaze.

Hugh held up the lamp, glanced down and along the empty seats, then noticed the crimson flowers by Ysabeau’s chair and picked them up.

As he raised his head his grey eyes caught Theirry’s glance.

“Ah! the Queen’s Chamberlain’s scrivener,” he said. “Do you chance to know how these roses came here?”

“Nay,” answered Theirry hastily. “I could not know.”

“They do not grow in the palace garden,” remarked Hugh; he laid them on the throne and walked the length of the table, scrutinising the dishes and goblets.

In the flare of flambeaux and candles there was no need for his lamp, but he continued to hold it aloft as if he hoped it held some special power.

Suddenly he stopped, and called to Theirry in his quiet, commanding way.

The young man obeyed, unwillingly.

“Look at that,” said Hugh of Rooselaare grimly.

He pointed to two small marks in the table, black holes in the wood.

“Burns,” said Theirry, with pale lips, “from the candles, lord.”

“Candles do not burn in such fashion.” As he spoke Hugh came round the table and cast the lamp-light over the shadowed floor.

“What is that?” He bent down before the window.

Theirry saw that he motioned to a great scar in the board, as if fire had been flung and had bitten into the wood before extinguished.

The Lord of Rooselaare lifted a grim face.

“I tell you the flames that made that mark are now burning the heart and blood out of Melchoir of Brabant.”

“Do not say that — do not speak so loud!” cried Theirry desperately, “it cannot be true.” Hugh set his lamp upon the table.

“I am not afraid of the Eastern witch,” he said sternly; “the man was my friend and she has bewitched and poisoned him; now, God hear me, and you, scrivener, mark my vow, if I do not publish this before the land.”

A new hope rose in Theirry’s heart; if this lord would denounce the Empress before power was hers, if her guilt could be brought home before all men — yet through no means of his own — why, she and Dirk might be defeated yet!

“Well,” he said hoarsely, “make haste, lord, for when the breath is out of the Emperor it is too late . . . she will have means to silence you, and even now be careful . . . she has many champions.”

Hugh of Rooselaare smiled slowly.

“You speak wisely, scrivener, and know, I think, something, hereafter I shall question you.” Theirry made a gesture for silence; a heavy step sounded on the stair, and Balthasar, pallid but still magnificent, swept into the room.

A great war-sword clattered after him, he wore a gorget and carried his helmet; his blue eyes were wild in his colourless face; he gave Hugh a look of some defiance.

“Melchoir is dying,” he said, his tone rough with emotion, “and I must go look after the soldiery or some adventurer will seize the town.”

“Dying!” repeated Hugh. “Who is with him?”

“The Empress; they have sent for the bishop until he come none is to enter the chamber.” “By whose command?”

“By order of the Empress.”

“Yet I will go.”

The soldier paused at the doorway.

“Well, ye were his friend, belike she will let you in.”

He swung away with a chink of steel.

“Belike she will not,” said Hugh. “But I can make the endeavour.”

With no further glance at the shuddering young man, who held himself rigid against the wall, Hugh of Rooselaare ascended to the Emperor’s chamber.

He found the ante-room crowded with courtiers and monks; the Emperor’s door was closed, and before it stood two black mutes brought by the Empress from Greece.

Hugh touched a black-robed brother on the arm. “By what authority are we excluded from the Emperor’s death-bed?”

Several answered him —

“The Queen! she claims to know as much of medicine as any of the physicians.”

“She is in possession.”

Hugh shouldered his way through them.

“Certes, I must see him — and her.”

But not one stepped forward to aid or encourage; Melchoir was beyond protecting his adherents, he was no longer Emperor, but a man who might be reckoned with the dead, the Empress and Balthasar of Courtrai had already seized the governance, and who dared interfere; the great nobles even held themselves in reserve and were silent.

But Hugh of Rooselaare’s blood was up, he had always held Ysabeau vile, nor had he any love for the Margrave, whose masterful hand he saw in this.

“Since none of you will stand by me,” he cried, speaking aloud to the throng, “I will by myself enter, and by myself take the consequences!”

Some one answered —

“II think it is but folly, lord.”

“Shall a woman hold us all at bay?” he cried. “What title has she to rule in Frankfort?”

He advanced to the door with his sword drawn and ready, and the crowd drew back neither supporting nor preventing; the slaves closed together, and made a gesture warning him to retire. He seized one by his gilt collar and swung him violently against the wall, then, while the other crouched in fear, he opened the door and strode into the Emperor’s bed-chamber.

It was a low room, hung with gold and brown tapestry; the windows were shut and the air faint; the bed stood against the wall, and the heavy, dark curtains, looped back, revealed Melchoir of Brabant, lying in his clothes on the coverlet with his throat bare and his eyes staring across the room.

A silver lamp stood on a table by the window, and its faint radiance was the only light.

On the steps of the bed stood Ysabeau; over her white dress she had flung a long scarlet cloak, and her pale, bright hair had fallen on to her shoulders.

At the sight of Hugh she caught hold of the bed-hangings and gazed at him fiercely. He sheathed his sword as he came across the room.

“Princess, I must see the Emperor,” he said sternly.

“He will see no man — he knows none nor can he speak,” she answered, her bearing prouder and more assured than he had ever known it. “Get you gone, sir; I know not how ye forced an entry.”

“You have no power to keep the nobles from their lord,” he replied. “Nor will I take your bidding.”

She held herself in front of her husband so that her shadow obscured his face.

“I will have you put without the doors if you so disturb the dying.”

But Hugh of Rooselaare advanced to the bed. “Let me see him,” he demanded, “he speaks to me!”

Indeed, he thought that he heard from the depths of the great bed a voice saying faintly ——“Hugh, Hugh!”

The Empress drew the curtain, further concealing the dying man.

“He speaks to none. Begone!”

The Lord of Rooselaare came still nearer.

“Why is there no priest here?”

“Insolent! the bishop comes.”

“Meanwhile he dies, and there are monks enow without.”

As he spoke Hugh sprang lightly and suddenly on to the steps, pushed aside the slight figure of the Empress and caught back the curtains.

“Melchoir!” he cried, and snatched up the Emperor by the shoulders.

“He is dead,” breathed the Empress.

But Hugh continued to gaze into the distorted, hollow face, while with eager fingers he pushed back the long, damp hair.

“He is dead,” repeated Ysabeau, fearing nothing now.

With a slow step she went to the table and seated herself before the silver lamp, while she uttered sigh on sigh and clasped her hands over her eyes.

Then the hot stillness began to quiver with the distant sound of numerous bells; they were holding services for the dying in every church in Frankfort.

The Emperor stirred in Hugh’s arms; without opening his eyes he spoke —

“Pray for me . . . Balthasar. They did not slay me honourably —”

He raised his hands to his heart, to his lips, moaned and sank from Hugh’s arm on to the pillow.

“Quia apud Dominum misericordia, et copiosa apud eum,” he murmured.

“Eum redemptio,” finished Hugh.

“Amen,” moaned Melchoir of Brabant, and so died. For a moment the chamber was silent save for the insistent bells, then Hugh turned his white face from the dead, and Ysabeau shivered to her feet.

“Call in the others,” murmured the Empress, “since he is dead.”

The Lord of Rooselaare descended from the bed. “Ay, I will call in the others, thou Eastern witch, and show them the man thou hast murdered.”

She stared at him a moment, her face like a mask of ivory set in the glittering hair. “Murdered?” she said at last.

“Murdered!” He fingered his sword fiercely. “And it shall be my duty to see you brought to the stake for this night’s work.”

She gave a shriek and ran towards the door. Before she reached it, it was flung open, and Balthasar of Courtrai sprang into the room.

“You called?” he panted, his eyes blazing on Hugh of Rooselaare.

“Yes; he is dead — Melchoir is dead, and this lord says I slew him — Balthasar, answer for me!” “Certes!” cried Hugh. “A fitting one to speak for you — your accomplice!”

With a short sound of rage the Margrave dragged out his sword and struck the speaker a blow across the breast with the flat of it.

“So ho!” he shouted, “it pleases you to lie!” He yelled to his men without, and the death-chamber was filled with a clatter of arms that drowned the mournful pealing of the bells. “Take away this lord, on my authority.”

Hugh drew his sword, only to have it wrenched away. The soldiers closed round him and swept their prisoner from the chamber, while Balthasar, flushed and furious, watched him dragged off. “I always hated him,” he said.

Ysabeau fell on her knees and kissed his mailed feet.

“Melchoir is dead, and I have no champion save you.”

The Margrave stooped and raised her, his face burning with blushes till it was like a great rose. “Ysabeau, Ysabeau!” he stammered.

She struggled out of his arms.

“Nay, not now,” she whispered in a stifled voice, “not now can I speak to you, but afterwards — my lord! my lord!”

She went to the bed and flung herself across the steps, her face hidden in her hands. Balthasar took off his helmet, crossed himself and humbly bent his great head.

Melchoir IV lay stiffly on the lily-sewn coverlet, and without the great bells tolled and the monks’ chant rose.

“De Profundis . . . ”

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